Sunday, August 19, 2018

An Average Essay

Ah, the inevitable Back to School essay in today's Sunday New York Times with all its earnest and undesigning intendments. It cites the renowned physicist making the point that if you are an average person who applies themselves diligently you'll get very good at something and that that's a real something. Thank goodness most of us are average, I say. I'm sure _he_ wasn't and I am sure I am. So I take his point.

Bruni does make a point you rarely hear from these sorts of Dean-like inducements. (N.B., when I went to college we didn't have a Dean of Inducements or Wellness or Something. I'da'done better? Not sure.) Bruni writes, "Another of those skills, frequently overlooked, is storytelling. It’s different from communication: a next step. Every successful pitch for a new policy, new product or new company is essentially a story, with a shape and logic intended to stir its audience. So is every successful job interview. The best moment in a workplace meeting belongs to the colleague who tells the best story." There's a romance to this I cannot resist. And there's a better chance that Trump can spell White House "Councel" [sic]. Yes, the President of the United States can't spell "Counsel"---see his latest tweet---or doesn't know the difference. But that's yet another story because he tells only the best stories. Hard is an America than can elect _this_ guy.

Much of the Bruni article nails it, of course, because it's not hard to get it right. Build human relationships, study outside your comfort zones, explore and work with less purpose and more play, sleep and exercise, don't drink too much---it's not hard, so what's hard?

Hard is doing all of these things well and _then_ entering a society that largely does not value them. Worse is going through college as vocational school and then entering a workplace that is so fraught with pressures that all you really do is work and work. Worse is a society intent on making sure that you can't afford healthcare, childcare, your elderly parents, or your own retirement that you are working every single day on the very edge of your sanity. Worse is a world where doing something valuable barely pays you a living wage and what pays is just making money, which then becomes something you have to resent.

What's wrong with college isn't in its privileged respite from the world because without that respite you will never learn to read, write, or think. Those skills take time and time _is_ privilege in a world that gives you almost no time to do much but survive and take the occasional vacation. How many of you can come home from work and do something _more_ for yourself than bare necessities, even if that's a yoga class, something you like?

What would make for a better life isn't just getting college right because, like I said, almost anyone could write _this_ essay. What would make all the difference is coming into a world that placed more value on those things you actually could learn. The rest is a job and a race that is better suited to rats than human beings (apologies to real rats).

Friday, August 10, 2018

More About Complexity and Learning

School is on the horizon and I mourn more than the loss of a summer largely lost, but that's all too personal a matter to matter much. I don't lament my shrinking university enrollments, they mean I can pay closer attention to students in the classes and that I will have fewer papers to grade and _every_ college professor would prefer that, especially those few of us who must grade our own papers.

My purpose here is to raise a few issues other than the failing state of liberal education. What's "failing" isn't the subjects or the merely the pressures of capitalism on learning but a great politics of learning. What's failing in education is failing everywhere else too. We are feeling overtaken, overwhelmed, overdone by complexities we don't control, by lives that we struggle to manage in everyday ways. Why?

What's "failing" aren't the subjects nor is it merely the pressures of capitalism on learning. We fail because there is more world than we can comprehend, far more than we address or change---learning means there is always more, and I can assure you that if you are serious about learning, there is more than ever to consider. As anti-intellectual as Americans are, the state of our learning has never been even remotely this advanced. We know _so much_ that we are overwhelmed by the horizons of our ignorance. We even know sometimes that we don't know. Because there is more to learn than ever before; because there is more real world than ever around us. And it _is_ complex.

We're inclined then to tell ourselves how we long for simple things, like family and friends, the pup's constant love, the things we like. None of this will make the world a less complex place. We want reprieve but there is never going to be less complication or confusion because they too come with complexity. Ritual often points out the disparity between what's "really" happening and what we wish were true, but that is a matter not only for communion or graduation, that incongruity is happening all the time.  It doesn't often feel good and so we avoid talking about it but nonetheless find ways to address it, because we must.

To escape complexities and the serious effort it takes to learn about the real world, we use allegiances to sports teams, hobbies, we take yoga classes about feeling good, and who doesn't want to feel good? Life is precarious, short, and what's the point of more hurt? Who can object even as we acknowledge the privilege not to contend is a privilege? We daily need instant-vacations, anything from 30 seconds to hours of relief in which we vacate from the complexity. But it is complexity that really scares us as much as the world that seemingly could stand a little more nirodha and little less vritti-esque tumult.

Identity politics is a way of reducing problems to a list of grievances or factors that make them manageable. Laura Ingraham is making white anxiety about change her focal point on the far right---and mainstreaming it on Fox to that self-selecting audience. Those on the farther end of the left have complex arguments about structural historical problems but being a bottom-line, get to the point, keep it simple culture that avers complication at all cost, issues are similarly reduced as far as possible. Racism, misogyny, however these are reasons for things that we long to change, no _one_ variable is _the_ reason. It's just more complex than that. We prefer to look for one reason, _the_ reason why this or that is the core and then the source of our particular concern. Not a chance that's true.

The pursuit of simplicity is anything but failure, as Occam so helpfully demonstrates. But it is Occam's razor that reminds us that "simple" means the _fewest_ number of variables and our world shows us how rare "few" is and how ordinary complex needs to be. That is, if we have any desire to take matters seriously. Like I said, we'd prefer to reduce or vacate whenever possible. That's going to make the world a worse place, as I see it. Why? Because knowledge continues to grow, because humans live in a global community no matter who tribal or parochial we are. So what can we do?

First, we have to admit that our subjects, our understandings, our efforts are more complex and need to be, that this process is more unfinished and in progress than ever, that no _one_ of can keep up with what we _need_ to know. We're going to have to delegate, specialize, and trust that those we rely on are acting in good faith, on the basis of the evidence and something like facts, that they can be wrong as much as we want them to be right. aComplexity means simple trust is always at risk because the world won't relent from complexity even for a moment. Information is global instantaneously and all good argument (let's use that phrase to mean "truth") means is an informed opinion. The more that we _really_ know, the more doubts we will have. This isn't the same as uncertainty, it's more complex than that. Not everything is worth doubting.

Second, we have to become more agile, more resilient, more capable _with_ the deeply discomforting features of complexity. We're likely ill-equipped for this in evolutionary terms much less emotionally. We're going to need some character evolution, more willingness to use the imagination to try to get further than our own immediate perspective. Just how to do that when time conspires to overwhelm us with the daily anodyne necessities, like making a living, raising children, dealing with our health? Time may be all we have so we have to ask how willing we are to make time for things that are important to us. Deciding what's important or what to prioritize is no simple matter. Once again complexity rules us no matter how simple we make our lives.

Last (for now, 'cause complexity tells us there is always more), we need to embrace complexity rather than run away, merely vacate, or use reduction as our preferred learning. Students often ask me how long a paper needs to be. I say they should write every word they need and fewer that they don't. This never helps. Then I say something like not fewer than X pages, not more than Y. They would prefer questions with answers, at worst multiple choice, and a world that doesn't ask so much of them. But that's the point: the world is never going to ask less of you unless you give up on caring about how the world really is. How's that world? It's mixed up, muddled up, and shook up. It's not going to get less complex until you will depend on it to take care of you. Take care, as much as you can. Complexity won't give up, so don't give in to less.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Towards a Humanist World

Ross Douthat in the NYTimes writes today about how the humanities are on life-support, at best, in colleges and universities. I am here not merely to confirm anecdotally those enrollment facts---my classes for the first time in 30+ years are under enrolled when once they bursted at seams.
The crisis in teaching the humanities is real because we have not learned their value or understood their necessity. Douthat claims their value but utterly fails to appreciate the origins of the problem and its plausible remedies.

I'm not less now than I was when my classes were seam bursting and there are reasons that Douthat does not address. A significant number of our students do not have the language skills required to do essential humanities work given the serious pressures of science learning. I assign the work and it rarely gets done because they can't do it and don't have the time. But these same students do have the science skills and they are admitted to the college. The courses we compel them to take are wholly inadequate and urging them by building a "Humanities Center" into the university structure is nothing more self-rationalization and another way to subvent poor salaries for underpaid professors. This is another story entirely. But Douthat is right that the children of Hermes have lost the war to Apollo's claims to usefulness. He is wrong about why this happened and has worse still ideas about any remedy.

His critique of contemporary humanist academia, I am sorry to say, is largely correct: they have made their work insular, self-important, inaccessible, and uncommitted to humanizing and developing the values of character that make the humanities more than political platforms. I don't share Douthat's rightwing peevishness about how the critical theorists now have little more than political identity agendas. I think those theorists do indeed raise the important issues about power, privilege, sexism, and exploitation. But I do agree that we have largely given up on thinking in the kinds of perennialist and humanist terms that would allow us to take seriously what makes us _human_ not merely human under this or that cultural and historical umbrella.

Humanists have _narrowed_ humanism because they run the risk of claiming universalities that are yet further expressions of domination and political determinism. To become real humanists again we will need to take more seriously how we can talk about shared values, ideas, and common human needs. For my part, I read comparatively with students, placing something like Aurelius's Meditations nexts to the Bhagavad-Gita, and Dickenson's poems beside Mirabai. What can two very different things tell us about the third thing: our shared humanity? But I am ahead of myself here.

Douthat has three explanations, all of which reflect his decidedly Catholic and rightwinger worldviews. I think he understands his own argument when he writes, "Communism is dead (I think), the religious landscape of the 1950s is even deader, and the humanistic history of midcentury was Eurocentric in a way that a more globalized and multiracial society could neither embrace nor sustain." (To follow this line of thinking may require a close reading of the piece, but it's short and typically easy to follow.) But he's dead wrong as to what it would take to revive the humanities. He makes his proposal clearly enough: "First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed." This is neither wise nor possible. There is a better solution.

No humanist can talk about "religious truths" with a straight face because we know better: religions were once what we demanded to be true because we asserted facts without the critical apparatus, largely denied by the religious. Once we found out that their literal assertions were little more than superstition that game was supposed to be over. That it's not over, that we still have to contend with Douthat's idea that religious truths are "serious" is part of problem. What's dead serious about them is that people take them seriously. This is why we need to study religions: not because they are true or because they humanize us but rather because people endeavor religiously and so act upon worlds of their invention.

First, for humanists to have a role in a 21st century learning process we must begin with _humanist_ rather than any religious notions of truth. That is, we need to have the temerity and seriousness to claim that we are pursuing matters that reach into our common humanity _through_ the windows of history, culture, and unveil the structures of power, prejudice, and abuse that have shaped civilizations. This dispenses with Douthat's call to religious truth and invites us to think about being human without the fictions of any literal gods and their big hat standard bearers. Since I study religion for a living I can assure you that we must study how religion---sometimes for good, mostly for worse---continues to shape culture and individual lives.

That religion brings with it art, music, mythology, ritual, and other cultural achievements that invite us to invest in our soulfulness, character, and moral well-being demands that we divest from literalism even as we study its continued demands and effects. Critical thinking demands we ask every question, follow the evidence, and look for reasons to revise our deepest convictions in light of the process of knowledge: all of this is anathema to religious "truth." Our pursuit demands that we use the method to ask about what it means to be human: unfinished, incomplete, and in pursuit of ourselves. The humanities go to the core of our deep need to feel _human_, not to believe supernatural claims. We need those instruments and forms to take us to those core and elemental feelings and ideas about how we live and how we might want to live.

Second, history is indeed a litany of crimes and wrongthink, Mr Douthat, and claiming otherwise is worse than denial, it is part of the problem, certainly another good reason _for_ the humanities. But our studies need not focus on the justifiable grievances nor merely focus on political corrections and remedies. Rather, to reveal a greater humanity we must study light and darkness, goodness and shadow, the strange paradox of humanity's possibilities for altruism and our equally limitless potential for mendacity.

This human possibility for goodness matched by evil is a bug in the system, it is a _human_ feature. As we learn and unveil the honest history of human cultures we can take more seriously how each offers insights and proffers values that _might_ reach to the edge of a common humanity. The goal of all knowledge is to reach generalization---true for all, true in every case---and yet that same aspiration is as much a sort of tyranny and oppression as it is case for collective moral advancement. We need to teach the varieties of human achievement and the many formations of human character that will allows us to embrace a more complex and diverse human _nature_. We are one species but many, many kinds of humans.

Last, we need not attempt to stem any tyranny of machines even if we justly fear what we humans can create. The real totalitarian threat doesn't lie with machines but with those who reject evidence, reason, and open, honest enquiry. The real threat from the machines is that they will be, and are being used, by people who would do what they have always done: sought power and profit at any cost. We have a planet that we are ruining for humans, cultures that fear the future not for technology but for a new global politics, and individuals without the intellectual humanism they need to explore their own character, feelings, values, and ideas.

We need to _take the time_, not away from the machines but into the questions and works of history that empower us to think more clearly, read more critically, understand more deeply, appreciate more affectively the world we live in. We need to invite young people to study and do the work of becoming more fully human. The machines are not in the way. Rather it is the cultural will required to value these endeavors.

Here's the link to Douthat:

Sunday, August 5, 2018

It's Not the Economy: Structures and the Deeper State

We live in structures and, rightwing conspiracies notwithstanding, the deeper formations of the state as culture and ethos will determine who we are. Who do we want to be is a difficult question because it takes time and thought and effort to think about what that means. So first a few facts.

Wages are not going up appreciably and there are jobs, lots of them unfilled in sectors from crops to pick to engineering and medicine. From 2012 through 2016, the Obama presidency presided over steady growth in jobs---about 214,000 per month. Trump inherited this "tortoise process" that he of course claims now is his miracle, but it's all partisan babble. The rate of job growth has not really let up much since he took office---about 189,000 jobs---and it's taken a long time since the Republicans last crashed us with their brilliant ideas to come _back_ to growth (that is, from 2008-2012). Thank you again, Obama. These are just the facts and I think we have almost as much luck using astrology as we do the numbers to predict what will happen next. No one here doubts how I feel about astrology. So?

I want to make two points. First, it wasn't economics that elected Trump. Second, it's structures of culture that will determine our future. That is, if we have a future be that a planet fit for humans orif the democracy can withstand an authoritarian pathological liar and his toadies. That remains to be seen. The deep state of the State needs to change if we want something other than our current irreconcilable differences and partisanship. For now, I say, live with that conflict as the issue at hand. Structures involve deeper matters.

There was enough misunderstanding, false blame, memory loss, and the rest to move people to vote Trump but what moved people wasn't economic catastrophe, like what W produced. What moved them was the feeling that their structure is failing---because it is---and that this imbecile is their savior. They got this wrong on all counts but that's due to structural facts too. Most of the people who voted Trump had a job and however they are squeezed by wages and costs (insurance, no retirement, etc.) they weren't on soup lines.

What moved people was structural facts and cultural values---do remember that racism and sexism are facts and values as much as fighting against them. The keys to the election were to match these facts and values to deeper underlying motivations and to season them with fear, anger, resentment, and grievance. The key to current Trump rallies is still anger because it's the conduit between success and failure. When you are really just failing, anger doesn't work as well. Anger is key when you already _have_ a job because when things get _really_ bad people are more desperate and sad and fearful and less likely to rally. It's easy to rally when you're mad; harder when you're just trying to survive. Think of what happens after a hurricane and think of how people forget to vote. Anger comes later, after you think about survival, then much later what you really want, not just how to deal with the loss. You don't have to be Kubler-Ross to see this unfold.

Structural facts make for structural problems. But structural problems are deep and difficult to solve because the structural facts are not easily changed and are sometimes foundational to culture.

America the land of the "free" was founded on the structures of racism and sexism as much as it was on any other ideal or set of values like opportunity and liberty. Our ideals aren't rotten. But they are corrupted when we don't know how to incorporate shadows. That conversation has never really begun in America and there are no signs it will anytime soon.  So when we have structural racism and sexism this manifests in different kinds of injustice, inequality, health care access and costs, etc. These are the _problems_ and the questions we ask involve us in deciding what we are willing to do about those problems. No one like sacrifice. No one likes to feel they are not getting their share.

White people tolerate key elements of these founding structures when they are useful to them, when they don't impact them more than the problems they create. White people would prefer to deny their historical place in the structures that gave them their privileges; Republicans simply deny these structures are keys to their white privilege. Go to a Trump rally, ask around. Or ask someone in the 'burbs who believes everything they have they earned without privilege. Structures create and support us, or they fail in various degrees until you are one of those structurally disadvantaged. Some people are born with structural disadvantages that they inherit from the culture: that's why it's structure, not individuality alone that matters. Individuals can make their way through, like Neo gets out of The Matrix but not by themselves, nor Neo. Making people care about those structurally disadvantaged is no small matter, even if you are one of them.

To see this play out loo at the demographics of rural/urban as today's basic keys. More education, lots more diversity, better economic opportunities, less religion, all of these add up to blue dots. The exception to this ^^^ m.o. is in richer white exurbs where we find urban resentment and tax resentment, the get off my lawn resentment peeps who vote R. And it is here that the gender divide is finally going to cost Republicans. Why? Because cultural divisions, which include _structural_ misogyny, are finally making a real mark---white women who are not all voting R with their R husbands. The assault on women, which has always been a matter of men controlling women's lives in rural worlds by religion and cultural values, has an embodiment in Trump and his toxic toady Pence. Two incomes may be required to pay the mortgage now but that freedom to work has brought structural family stresses too.

I think in the _short term_ America's hope is with women, even rural women who will see at last that they are being manipulated to severe disadvantage within structures that they've supported in the past. New voters? 108 million who didn't vote? Republicans will do everything they can to make sure that these people never vote. A change in demographics does little to change the map. Will Texas, AZ, FL, GA go blue enough to turn them around? I remind you that NC was going blue until rural whites decided that wouldn't do and elected a gerrymandering posse. We are headed to a non-majoritarian Senate as far as the eye can see unless those "purple" States give us blue senators---and what sort? Manchin? Heitkamp? If they vote for Kavanaugh, they merely support the structures that represent the old order. That old order is white and uses religion and money to keep women and minorities just where they want them.

What's at stake are changes in values. Only that can alter the shape of a structure over the longer term. What happens now and next will decide where we go. As Lyndon Johnson said, you can't have a great war and a great society at the same time---something has to give.