Thursday, December 11, 2014

When The Court Will Not Give Justice

“They suppressed their consciences and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering their duty to administer justice.” 
-- The Book of Susanna, v. 9. (New Revised Standard Version) 

“Just as she was being led off to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel, and he shouted with a loud voice, ‘I want no part in shedding this woman’s blood!’ All the people turned to him and asked, ‘What is this you are saying?’ Taking his stand among hem he said, ‘Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts? Return to court, for these men have given false evidence against her.’” 
-- The Book of Susanna, vv. 45-49. (New Revised Standard Version)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Of Men and of Angels

"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but I have not love, then I have become a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."

That's from one of St. Paul's letters to the church in Corinth.  It's a passage often read at weddings, probably because it speaks eloquently about agapic love.

I like it for another reason: it has a nice onomatopoeic pun in the Greek text.  Paul's "If I speak..." is lalo; his "clanging" is alaladzon, which sounds like the noise a gong makes and sounds like it could mean "un-speaking."  (In Greek, words that begin with "a-" are often like English words beginning with "un-".)

This week, as we approach the third Sunday in Advent, I was looking again at a poem I wrote during this week a few years ago, after the school shooting in Newtown.  In it I compared first responders and teachers and others who give up so much for the sake of the common good to angels.  That is my second-most read post ever.

The most-read post is one I wrote after Ferguson, about the militarization of our first responders, and the way the tools we equip ourselves with change the way we interact with the world - and with other people.

Both of these posts are about public servants.  Taken together they remind me that what is done in love can be heroic and life-giving, and what is done in fear can become tyrannical.  They remind me that we have a tendency to revere the outward signs of badges and uniforms, when we should judge characters by the habits they embody and by the actions that show the habits.

And they remind me that we have a long, long way to go before we can say we have learned to love one another.


I should add that even the title to this post is misleading.  The word Paul uses is not "men" but "humans." I like the cadence of the old translation "men" but the word is anthropon, not andron.  Normally I prefer the more inclusive (and more accurate) "humans" but I first learned this verse in an older, poetic translation and the rhythm of it has stuck with me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Desmond Tutu On Descartes' Radical Individualism

"Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language.  It speaks of the very essence of being human....[If you have Ubuntu] then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate.  You share what you have.  It is to say, 'My humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in yours.'  We belong in a bundle of life.  We say 'A person is a person through other persons.'  It is not, 'I think, therefore I am.'  It says rather: 'I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.'"
Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 31. (New York: Random House, 2000)

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Trivium And The Quadrivium

The Seven Liberal Arts (and their aims)

At some point in the Middle Ages, through a slow process of growth and refinement, educators came to identify seven arts that were considered liberal.  The seven liberal arts were the arts practiced by people who were, or who would be, free.  (The Latin word liber can mean "a free man.")

The liberal arts were divided into two groups: the trivium and the quadrivium.  As the names suggest, the trivium included three arts, and the quadrivium included four.

The trivial arts sought to teach eloquentia, or eloquence, the proper use of words.  The quadrivial arts aimed at sapientia, or sapience, the proper use of numbers.

In each case there is a natural progression, beginning with the rudiments and building on those foundations to help the student master eloquence and sapience.

The Trivium and the Quadrivium (and how they are built)

The trivium proceeds like this:
  1. Grammar.  This is the study of words, and especially:
    • how definitions work, so that we can "come to terms" with one another; and
    • how words are assembled into meaningful sentences or propositions.
  2. Logic.  This is the study of the structure of arguments:
    • how to assemble propositions into arguments; and
    • how to draw proper conclusions from those propositions without error.
  3. Rhetoric.  This is the study of the proper use of arguments:
    • how to use arguments to persuade others; and
    • how and when to persuade without misleading people.
It begins with the basics of technique and ends with what we could consider the ethics of words.  Words are, after all, powerful things.  The old saw about "sticks and stones" is wrong.  Words can  hurt us, and they can do lasting damage.  They can also do lasting good in the mouth of a good leader,  in poems and songs, in well-crafted contracts, laws and policies.

The quadrivium proceeds like this:
  1. Arithmetic.  This is the study of number.
  2. Geometry.  This is the study of number in space.
  3. Music.  This is the study of number in time.
  4. Astronomy.  This is the study of number in space and time.
Once you've mastered the trivium, you have a proper understanding of eloquentia, and once you've mastered the quadrivium, you have sapientia.

But Is Any Of This Relevant?

It's not hard to see that a lot of this is outdated, especially in the quadrivium, which was like the STEM of the Middle Ages, focusing on mathematics, engineering, and natural sciences.  We no longer believe in the "music of the spheres" or that the motion of astronomical bodies is governed by harmony akin to music.  And our sciences and humanities have grown to include many other disciplines that (at least at first) don't seem to be included here.

It's also not hard to see that some of the way we educate today still has echoes of this structure.  For instance, until recently, we called children's schools "grammar schools," and this is why.We still consider it important to begin important enterprises with teaching the relevant vocabulary, grammar and logic: we often begin classes by introducing new vocabulary, and we begin contracts by defining terms.

And while we don't think of outer space as being a set of nested, harmonious spheres governed by intelligences who receive their direction from the Empyrean, we do think number is extremely important as a tool for discovering how nature works.  This may seem like the most obvious of points, but that is because the idea has pervaded our thinking.  It's a good idea, and it stuck.  Similarly, we have the hunch that inquiry into the nature of things will in fact be met with answers.  Again, this seems obvious, but not every culture has thought so.  The idea has stuck, and it has paid off.

Yes, But Only If You Care About Science And Freedom.

In my view, the trivial arts and their organization remain as relevant as they once were, for three reasons.

First, every free person needs to know how words are used.  If you don't learn to use them, and then practice with them, you will be easily misled. If you don't study persuasion, you are far less likely to know that you are being persuaded.

Second, and related to the first point, the sciences depend upon the trivial arts.  Students who cannot read and write cannot learn effectively.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, long study in the humanities leads one to consider both the way words are used for persuasion and the ethics of persuasion.  People who are trained in the conclusions of the sciences are not scientists, they are databanks.  People who are trained in some of the methods of the sciences are technicians.  Databanks and technicians are useful to other people.  But what we need are people trained in the scientific method, which, by the way, is not something we get from the sciences.  It is tested and approved by the sciences, but the natural sciences do not give it to us.  Which of the natural sciences could discover a scientific method, after all?  Scientific method is about the proper handling of data, the examination of claims and propositions, and the distribution of relevant conclusions.  Look back at the description of the trivium and the quadrivium and you'll see that this is the work of the former, not of the latter.

The Real Crisis In The Humanities

There is a lot of talk these days about the crisis in the humanities.  The money is all in the sciences, and smart students should go there to study, we are told.  College administrations look to humanities departments as service departments to bolster the offerings of the science departments, who do the real work of the university.

I actually don't dispute this view, even though I'm in the humanities.  It's quite obvious that much of the money is in the sciences, and I think that smart students should study the sciences.  That's because I think every student should study the sciences.

But I also think that smart students should engage in long study of the humanities.  The sciences depend upon the humanities, just as the quadrivium was legless without the trivium.  More importantly, people who want to be free -- that is, people who do not wish to be persuaded without their consent, people who wish to think for themselves, people who wish to wield tools and not just to be the tools of others -- these people need to study the humanities.

The crisis in the humanities is that even in the humanities we've allowed ourselves to forget how interrelated all the disciplines are. It's time to brush up our eloquence, for the sake of our students, and take this message to our schools.


Addendum: A friend wrote to me and pointed out that I called the second part of the Trivium "logic" when I should have named it "dialectic," which includes both logic and disputation.  I don't dispute his correction.

I've also since discovered  Dorothy Sayers' "The Lost Tools of Learning," an illuminating essay on the medieval liberal arts. I wrote this post hastily, after a meeting at my college where the question of what an education ought to do was under consideration.  I wanted to make a thumbnail sketch of the Trivium and Quadrivium for my colleagues, and this was the result of some quick typing in the last few minutes of the workday.  A fuller picture would have included C.S. Lewis' essay "Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages," and at least some mention of Martianus Capella. Maybe another time I'll return to this topic and write that fuller essay.  For now, these references will have to suffice.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Entertaining Angels

Here's my latest contribution to the Sojourners blog, a reflection on a beggar I met in Paris 25 years ago, and on what that might mean for me today.

Here's an excerpt:
You just never know. There’s no way to know, just from looking at the sign. Maybe he was a con man, or maybe he was just my brother, genuinely in need of human contact to maintain his dignity. Or maybe he was even more than that. How does that passage go? “Some of you have entertained angels unawares.” 
You can read the rest of it here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Camping With My Students: Stargazing in the Badlands

Around two in the morning I awoke to the song of coyotes.  I opened my eyes and looked up just in time to see a green meteor arc across the sky.  I was camping outdoors, with my students, in a remote corner of South Dakota.  Welcome to one of my favorite classrooms.

We set up tents, but we rarely use them.  Much nicer to sleep under the stars.

Each fall I look for an ideal weekend to take my Ancient and Medieval Philosophy students stargazing.  An ideal weekend counts as one where we will have clear skies, a new moon, and reasonably warm weather so we can spend a lot of time outside.

Several times over the last ten years, the weather's been so good that we've been able to go out to a primitive campground (i.e. one where there is no electricity and almost no urban glow) in the Badlands National Park

On such nights, in such places, the sky glistens with stars.  The Milky Way is a bright band across the night, and meteors punctuate our views each hour.

I tell my students that this is an optional trip.  They don't get credit for coming, and they don't lose any credit for staying home.  It's a four-hour drive from our campus, so it's a real commitment of time on their part.  Their only rewards are these: an experience of what the Norwegians call friluftsliv, a beautiful night under the stars in a remote and lovely place, and free pancakes at sunrise, cooked by me.

And yet every time I offer this trip, half a dozen or more students - and sometimes other professors - tag along. 

The stop sign is just a scratching post to this bison.

I've written before about the importance of teaching outdoors and of doing labs in philosophy.  Experientia docet, experience teaches us.  What we learn through lived, full-bodied experience tends to stick with us far better than what we simply hear spoken from a lectern or see on a PowerPoint slide.

We go out there, ostensibly, to see the stars.  This is because I want my students to watch the skies and to imagine what it would have been like for ancient and medieval philosophers like Thales, Plutarch, Ptolemy, Eratosthenes and, even Galileo (on the cusp of the Middle Ages) to gaze at the skies and learn from their movements.

But we are really there for other reasons that are easier to show than to tell. I want them to see that ideas do not grow up in a vacuum, and that the artificial divisions between academic disciplines are really artificial and convenient.  Educated people should care about all the disciplines.  We should not allow them to be compartmentalized, as though philosophy and sociology had nothing to do with accounting, or physics, or poetry.

Aristotle tells us that the love of wisdom begins in wonder.  I will add that experience of new things can be the beginning of wonder.

Many of my students have never heard coyotes sing.  In the Badlands, they trot past our cots and tents and sing to us all night long.  When we wake in the morning, we are often surrounded by small groups of bison, slowly grazing their way along the hillsides.  After breakfast we climb the steep slopes and find ancient fossils. 

I don't know if any of this is a desirable or assessable outcome for a philosophy class.  Also, I don't care.  Because all of these things are, I think, desirable outcomes for life. 

Because I believe that "it is beautiful to do so" is reason enough to sleep under the stars.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How To Write Term Papers

Some thoughts while grading essays:

1) Write simply.

2) Delete any unnecessary words that you don't need.

3) Use short words. This isn't the SAT or ACT vocabulary quiz, it's an essay.  Make it readable.  Don't try to wow anyone with big words.  Big words are a distraction in ordinary writing.  Save them for when you need them.

4) Write short sentences.  As your sentences increase in length, the number of things that can go wrong in the sentences increases.

5) Bad writing is like a food stain on your shirt. No matter how good your ideas, the stain and the errors will make the strongest impression.

6) Know your point, and make your case. If you don't have a point, you're not writing a paper; you're just writing words.  When you've got a point to make, state it plainly.  Then help others see why they might agree with you.

7) Avoid sweeping generalizations. Go ahead and be bold in your essays, by all means.  Try out strong ideas.  But be clear about exactly which ideas you are presenting, and why.  Avoid saying things like "since the beginning of time, this has been the case."  Rather, say "this has been the case at least since 1641 when Descartes published his Meditations." 

8) Edit. Then edit again. Don't think of proofreading as giving your writing a once-over before handing it in.  Read what you've written, then read it again and again.  Does each sentence lead into the next?  Does each paragraph follow smoothly from what came before it?  Is your opening line clear and compelling?

9) Love your reader.  Try to put yourself in your readers' shoes.   One helpful way to do this is to ask a friend to read your writing aloud to you.  Listen for where they stumble or hesitate.  Those are probably times where your writing is not clear.

10) Make writing a habit, not something you only do when you must.  Like any other skill, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.


P.S. I've edited this post.  Even after you write something, go back and read it again and keep editing.  It's good exercise.