Posts Tagged ‘liberal arts’

3 goats

It helps to have a couple friends who are PhDs in Philosophy. I really meant the last post to incite a good discussion, and knowing no one would go to the trouble of logging into WordPress to leave a message, I’m posting some of their comments anonymously here (in the spirit of Andrew Sullivan’s blog):

One friend takes the consensus view:

I think all of the reasons other than the environmental reasons are matters of preference. I’ll leave those to you. On a planet with greater than exponential population growth, however, I think that anything beyond replacement (2 kids to 2 parents) is (quite deeply) unethical….

As for the worries about uncertain knowledge and possible technological fixes to climate change, I only note that such knowledge is probabilistic. There is strong scientific consensus around climate change and its causes. The thought that the world is (probably) beyond repair or (probably) technology will save us seems far less warranted than the more conservative view that more human beings living a North American standard of living will probably lead to ecological collapse. Remember, greater than exponential population growth on a finite planet.

So, my vote is to love the kids you have or adopt a kid who already exists and is unwanted. Making less babies, IMHO, is probably the single most ethical act any of us have readily available to us. The upshot is that you get all of the other benefits you note for free.

This is generally very unsettling to me, and has various consequences if applied consistently. Such as: when you use resources for your own survival, are you stealing from someone else? This logic seems to imply that none of us deserve to live a NA lifestyle. Maybe we shouldn’t, but I don’t think it’s a tu quoque fallacy to insist on consistency with this point.

One writer, whose ideal is the liberal arts hobby farm, writes:

I will prove myself naïve, to be sure, but I have this notion that in many ways, more children eventually lead to (1) less work for the parents, (2) more educational opportunities for the children, and (3) more love.

How can I possibly say that more kids is less work? At this point all mothers of the world just stop reading, thinking that I am speaking absurdity. More children require us to have increased discipline and routine at home and require older children to be helpful of necessity. More hands, at least once the older siblings are old enough, mean less work. This is particularly true if home schooling can be combined with hobby farming. Thus, children learn to work hard, and study hard, and have one another to play with, while feeding the family by growing our own food and then every fall preserving it by freezing, pressure canning, drying, and fermenting. Intensive gardening, poultry, goats, requires only a couple of acres. So, my idea is that in the context of a hobby farm managed by a stay-at-home Mom, more children would potentially mean food excess to sell, offsetting the cost of production, or at the very least, a cheap way to feed our own family with what would otherwise take a large double income to provide. So, it is like both parents are working, but the Mom works at home with the children being a part of the work. Everyone gets lots of fresh air, other kids think hobby farms are cool and want to come over to help. This is not an easy life, and requires hard work on the farm from Dad too (free gym and fresh air), but in this context, more children can lead to less work. But the tension, as my experience shows, is that there is slim leisure left for study, reading, potlucks, study groups, community involvement, and many of these aspects of community and life of the mind that make a liberal arts life so much richer. But with imagination and closer proximity to the right community of people, I think there are ways of having it all. If you don’t want to hobby farm, there are ways of employing children to help economically in cities too and there are many strategies to save money….

After a couple more reasons why a bigger family means more love and more fun, he concludes:

To manage a large family well requires imagination, ingenuity, and integrity in the face of jealous peers. Food consumption is more, but buying a cow and freezing is 2-3x cheaper than buying one steak at a time. thus feeding 6 kids can be as cheap as the conventional family spends on 1 or 2 kids. Organic wheat is (at most) $20/50lb bag from a farmer and makes 100 loaves of bread, etc etc. Clothes, books, baby stuff, for the most part is bought once and used over and over. Sports can be arranged in a neighbourhood, it just takes some organization. music can be had by having all kids in a single choir at the church down the street.  So, driving kids everywhere for hockey, soccer, music, play dates, etc, is not necessary. The internet provides so many free resources for anyone seeking an education, that for the ambitious, almost anything can be learned at home. Get together with other families who also home school. The kids can play as the parents visit and ready great books. Barter in a home school associations, can someone teach music in trade for bread and math lessons?

Another, more cosmopolitan PhD philosopher notes all the flaws in my arguments, especially the children as “projects” critique:

about A) children and society/environment. “We could think of children … as they add or detract from society as a whole” — and so of adults, economic policies, and much else. As individuals, we don’t have to, but at least politicians and social planners are required to think at least sometimes in these terms. If we think of children merely in these terms, then we are forgetting their humanity, but when Kant talked about ends in themselves, he said “always also as,” because he knew that or course we have to think of other people instrumentally at times, only within limits. More importantly, there’s an obvious difference between not having a child for environmental reasons, and killing a child (or adult) for environmental reasons. In the second case I’m treating someone in the most abusively instrumental way imaginable, in the first case, I’m not treating anyone in any way at all.
Second, if one accepted a utilitarian argument about limited population, that doesn’t compel one to accept China’s one-child policy. Peter Singer believes that we should all be donating 20% or more of or income to the poor, but he doesn’t advocate government enforcement of his recommendation. One could decide to have only one child to set an example that others might follow (as a middle school teacher of mine did), but you’re right, you’re private choices have no measurable effect on the social scale, so an honest utilitarian can’t really say anything against you (though they might decide some less extreme form of China’s policy was in order, for instance, you might put economic incentives for childlessness … except the economic incentives are already there, as you say). What economists have realized is that if wealth and education increase, birthrates will sort themselves out all by themselves. Last, China’s hardly a communist state anymore, so “comrades” is a little bit much. But imagine a situation of extreme scarcity, where food is truly short and perhaps feeding the other children is already barely possible: would it not then by the only option to think in “economic” terms when it came to deciding to have another? Such situations could also obtain for a community as a whole. Obviously not ideal circumstances, but we can’t always assume ideal conditions.
B) “children as projects” — it’s not clear to me what you’re attacking here. If I think of my children as part of my projects, that I will groom my sons to become philosophers and refute eliminative materialism once and for all, then I am thinking of them, perhaps, as “abstract instruments”, but I don’t see how that’s the same as thinking in evolutionary terms. (It’s probably people who tend to think in evolutionary terms who also tend to have fewer children, I’d wager). The socio-biologists have spilt much ink explaining precisely why evolutionary motives might lead some people to forsake reproduction, or engage in other “non-survival” behavior. More importantly, fitness and reproduction are not moral imperatives for the socio-biologists. The theory is meant to explain what we already do, not what we ought to do. But back to the “liberal arts”  or “optimization” version of the project. If I view my children as themselves the project (not the instruments for my own project), then I don’t see how your objections necessarily obtain. It could be precisely my project to raise intelligent, autonomous children, that would seem to match pretty well with C and with thinking of children as people, as ends in themselves. And, yes, if my children grew up to be eliminative materialists, I would be disappointed. I would have failed, but hopefully they’d have other redeeming qualities. I also don’t see what children as projects has to do with children as “investment in the future”, unless again it’s my project of raising profitable MBAs who will be loyal and pay for my retirement when I’m old.
C) Children need to be loved, certainly, but it does not follow that I need to make more children so that I have something to love. You want a life where love is the concern, not abstract thinking. But thinking of children as a gift seems just as abstract as any other way of thinking about them. What you’re expressing here is your own preference for a kind of life, where having children is more important than iphones, vacations, and so forth. With is a perfectly legitimate preference to have. But certainly any couple who’s decided that two children is enough still love their actual children and know they’re more important than smartphones. But again, the duty to love your children is not the same as the duty to have more. Now you might say that a life devoted to having more children (or at least always open to it) is simply better than the life of vacations and material prosperity, and that’s quite possible since people who think gadgets are the meaning of life are contemptible, but that makes the question a little too easy. Are there no other kinds of life whose demands might outweigh the preference for children? A devotion to politics, art, or scientific research might do so (admittedly, these considerations hardly apply to the vast majority of the childless or child-limited, but Nietzsche certainly didn’t have kids).
I’m skeptical that peer pressure or recognition play much of a role (at least consciously) in falling birthrates. The other economic and social reasons you mention seem more than enough to account for it. And you don’t mention that for many people, the pressure still pulls the other way (to having at least one child, etc.).
Points well taken. I really agree that what you’re doing when deciding to have a bigger family is making a decision about what the kind of life you want to live. You’re right to point out the flaw of desire to love = need to have more children. Making this leap seems to require some kind of religious duty in addition.
What economists have realized is that if wealth and education increase, birthrates will sort themselves out all by themselves.
While I’m skeptical about what “sorting out” means (replacement numbers?), one Chinese woman I know who recently moved to Canada said she wants to have a large family. Her parents are wealthy, and she wants to make up for her family experience as the only child.
 Keep the thoughts coming. Why would you have a bigger family in this day and age?

Read Full Post »

massimo pigliucci

For years now the humanities and any non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields have been in retreat in colleges throughout the world, especially in the US. This retreat is the result of a number of factors, perhaps foremost among them the increasing importation of business-style models into academia and the resulting conviction that if studying a given discipline doesn’t have an immediate payoff in terms of employment then it is not worth studying. This is a false and perniciously instrumental view of higher (and lower, really) education, which has the potential to undermine people’s ability to develop into cultured human beings capable of reflecting on what they do, how they do it , of appreciating all aspects of life (not just jobs and livelihood), and of making informed decisions as members of a democratic polity.

The aggressiveness of radical empiricists and their dismissal of non-scientific fields exacerbates this problem, and in my mind, therefore contributes to undermining the very fabric of our democracy and to decreasing the quality of our life.

Biologist and Philosopher of Science Massimo Pigliucci, writing at his blog, Scientia Salon.

Read Full Post »

Every teacher has experienced their own Fathers and Sons moment, where the outdated grump resists change (the cranks seem to specialize in literature, history, or physics) and is challenged by the avante-garde and often shallow upstart. The History Boys is a witty and raucous parody of these stereotypes, written by playwright Allan Bennett and made into a film in 2006.

But it is more than a parody – it is an allegory for our times, where the goals of education hang in the balance between the needs of the soul, and a definition of worldly success that is both hollow and well-trod by the impressionable masses. I’m probably making more of the analogies in the play than I should. But the ironies related to current academic practice are too juicy and mordant.

Eight young men in a British grammar school compete for acceptance into Oxford University. The plot revolves around their relationship to their unorthodox but inspirational General studies teacher, Hector, who insists that the purpose of education in the arts is to produce “well rounded people.” Hector’s lessons consist of singing, poetry recitation, and acting. The boys love Hector, but also ridicule his portly and silly Falstaff nature, as students often do when teachers reveal too much about themselves.

The headmaster, whose stilted manner is the very image of soul-sucking bureaucracy (he remains nameless throughout the film), finds this liberal arts approach  “unpredictable and unquantifiable.” It’s a poignant message for today’s educators, who are enthralled by Google’s bid to define human nature and the educational process by relying on “metrics.” To make sure the boys become a feather in his cap, he hires a young Oxford graduate, Irwin, to give the boys an “edge” to their applications. Irwin seduces the boys with “gobbets” of rhetoric, embellishing their learning with novelty and a smattering of Nietzschean rebellion, laughing at Hector’s advice to be true to themselves.

Irwin is the spitting image of the cock-sure academic, supported by reams of pointless footnotes. He represents the crisis in the arts today – where armies of young scholars scramble for tenure by publishing critiques of critiques, based on heady appeals to authority no one has the time to examine. Still, Irwin is more respectable and seductive than Hector, to both the headmaster and naïve schoolboys.

The twist (spoiler alert) is that Irwin succeeds in his mission to impress the Oxford application boards. All eight boys make it into the weightiest liberal arts institution in the world. What does this say about academia? It certainly doesn’t help that Irwin is exposed as a fraud. He never actually graduated from Oxford, he only has a teacher’s certificate. Ostensibly a history boy himself at one point, Allan Bennett is a harsh critic of standards in Academia today.

Critics have noted the unrealistic dialogue, full of poetic lines and historical references. But the most unconventional aspect of Bennett’s play is the underlying theme of the boys’ “erotic” relationship with Hector. The film is replete with the sexual innuendo of a highly charged boy’s school, and all the old homosexual stereotypes of English boarding schools are out in the open.

Bennett’s fearless portrayal of sexual energy may be shocking, but is connected to a larger purpose. By referring to eros, Hector points to the classical Socratic form of education in which the pursuit of knowledge was always consciously related to desire, and thus the whole human psyche. As he says to Irwin, “I didn’t want them to say in middle age that they loved literature or words.” Instead, Hector sees poetry and history as a very personal endeavor, which draws not only the cold analysis of reason, but demands an account of the relationship between reason and desire, and thus the whole of one’s life.

The virtue, and ultimately the fatal flaw of Hector’s erotic education, is the desire to form lasting relationships with some of his students rather than produce star pupils. The boys have such affection for Hector that they even play along with his eccentricity and keep it a secret. Based on a common love of beauty or not, his advances (represented by a ride on his motorcycle) land him in the headmaster’s office. Hector flouted other administrative conventions, such as swatting the boys on the head with a book when they give silly answers. He insists he’s innocent, stubbornly holding to his own peculiar moral code.

Hector’s disdain for convention rivals the headmaster’s disdain for the liberal arts (“Fuck Rembrandt and Plato, this is a school!…”). He insists Hector retire early. Even though he has formed a very close-knit cadre of students with a strong desire for learning, Hector remains a lonely and ultimately rejected soul, who has devoted his entire energy to ungrateful students. Dejected, he breaks down crying in front of his class and exclaims, “I’ve pissed my life away in this place….there is nothing of me left.”

Irwin, the young emotionally restrained and pragmatic tutor, undermines what Hector has built up in his students by encouraging them to flatter, embellish with “gobbets” (quotes), and disdain common sense.  He holds impossible standards of the authoritarian. It is only when faced with his own uneasy erotic desires for Dakin that he is unmasked as a fraud. While Irwin says he is “not clever enough” to get in to Oxford, he represents the new wave of disinterested cynical scholarship – the antithesis of Hector’s erotic education. Hector refers to Irwin’s method accurately as “journalistic.” In the end, Irwin uses his rhetorical shock tactics to become a reporter.

So why is the film called The History Boys? The history teacher, Mrs. Lintott, figures slightly. As a realist and a feminist she brings balance to the teacher triumvirate – she disdains Hector’s unrealistic eroticism while scoffing at the idea that Irwin might replace him. Each appearance adds a voice of prudence, though they are few and far between. We only discover the meaning of her character toward the end of the film.

Though the eight boys achieve something extraordinary, their life trajectories are commonplace and are well represented in the history of education. Everyone benefits from Hector’s method of education, but the passion for the liberal arts is passed on to only one boy. They have used the methods of conceit to tweak “mere competence.”

Dakin, the attractive centre of attention, becomes a highly paid tax lawyer, while another opens a chain of laundromats. Only Posner, the lonely Jewish homosexual, becomes a Hector protégé by choosing the path of teacher. And it is only Posner who is shown in a private meeting with Hector truly identifying with his suffering eros. Posner’s desire for closeness did not make an impression on Hector, leaving the boy roiling with desire, ultimately sublimated toward an understanding of erotic education.

Characteristic of so many educators, the headmaster marrs Hector’s legacy when defining the liberal arts for the masses.  In a eulogy upon Hector’s death, the headmaster says his legacy was to instill a “love of literature and words” – exactly what Hector sought to avoid.

This pretty much sums up how the liberal arts are seen by most educators today. Education is not about the soul. Literature is a subject or an interest. Its value lies in the fact that teachers have accomplished the task of instilling a desire for something, not for its intrinsic qualities of refining thought or “educating the imagination.” We are told that life-long learning is what counts, and that it will lead to success and fulfillment. Active minds is the educator’s goal, but the method and content of the mind’s activity is left unarticulated. People with active minds who cannot distinguish well-formed arguments from bad are just as susceptible to rhetoric, deceit, and manipulation in modern democracy. In his address to the Ontario Council of Teachers of English in 1980, Northrop Frye pegs the current low definition of literacy: “society aims at a literacy that is merely passive, a training in the ability to make conforming acts.”

What does all of this mean for the arts teacher in public schools today? If we take the film as an allegory, the extreme characterizations attain a new applicability. The underlying current of homosexuality, for example, can represent the tension within any student between what they know, and what they desire. Every stakeholder in the school system experiences this tension, which is why professional codes of conduct are there to limit the extremes described above.

However, the film seems to argue that “professionalism” as an end in itself may lead to the detachment of reason and desire. Teachers are to be in loco parentis, but are not allowed to love in the same way as parents or friends. The extreme effect of this detachment is exemplified by the headmaster, who is shown to be a bit of a boor divorced from a conscious appreciation of his own desire. He remains unnamed throughout the film, suggesting that he is not fully human. He is a hypocrite, denouncing Hector’s behaviour while he fondles the secretary out of pure lust rather than in the context of a shared desire for beauty and wisdom. If we judge both Hector and the headmaster not just on a scale of infringement of rights, but on the effort to address the whole human person, then Hector seems better balanced than the headmaster. The moral of this observation should not be taken literally, of course, but should emphasize the dangers of being too distanced from the student’s whole learning experience. It speaks to the experience of every teacher – that extreme pragmatism kills the love of learning in every subject, just like the desire for efficiency kills the study of history and makes it into “one damn thing after another.”

In the end, the hardnosed realism of Mrs. Lintott, the history teacher, is the prudent compromise required in today’s public schools. Teaching, like politics, is the art of the possible and we should avoid the flaws of any extreme. By pitting the extremes of Hector’s erotic education against the administrative desire for “success,” playwright Allan Bennett has taught us more about ourselves. The History Boys is certainly successful in raising the question about the purpose of education in the modern era.

Read Full Post »