Saturday, May 14, 2016

Good Education Should Lead To Good Questions

"If we treat the contemplation of the best life as a luxury we cannot afford, seemingly urgent matters will crowd out the truly important ones."

[....]

"If the aim of education is to gain money and power, where can we turn for help in knowing what to do with that money and power? Only a disordered mind thinks that these are ends in themselves. Socrates offers us the cautionary tale of the athlete-physician Herodicus, who wins fame and money through his athletic prowess and medicine, then proceeds to spend all his wealth trying to preserve his youth. This is what we mean by a disordered mind. He has been trained in the STEM fields of his time, and his training gains him great wealth, but it leaves him foolish enough to spend it all on something he can never buy."

From my latest article, co-authored with John Kaag, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read it all here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Martin Luther on Liberal Education

"Therefore, I pray you all, my dear sirs and friends, for God’s sake and the poor youths’, not to treat this subject as lightly as some do, who are not aware of what the prince of this world intends. For it is a serious and important matter that we help and assist our youth, and one in which Christ and all the world are mightily concerned. By helping them we shall be helping ourselves and all men. And reflect that these secret, subtle and crafty attacks of the devil must needs be met with deep Christian seriousness. If it is necessary, dear sirs, to expend annually such great sums for firearms, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items, in order that a city may enjoy temporal peace and prosperity, why should not at least as much be devoted to the poor, needy youth, so that we might engage one or two competent men to teach school?"
-- Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” in AE 45:357 (1524) (emphasis added) A full translation of the letter is available here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Thoreau on Liberal Education, Wealth, and Freedom

“We seem to have forgotten that the expression "a liberal education" originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only. But taking a hint from the word, I would go a step further and say, that it is not the man of wealth and leisure simply, though devoted to art, or science, or literature, who, in a true sense, is liberally educated, but only the earnest and free man.”
 -- Henry David Thoreau, "The Last Days of John Brown"

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Giving Thanks In The "Damned Country": Stegner on "Antibiotic"

“’What a damned country,’ he said. Watching the river, he had not noticed the movement at the far corner of the garden below him, but now as he swung the glasses down he saw there one of the ragged, black-robed boys who raked and sprinkled the paths every day….He stood up, and Chapman stepped back, not to be caught watching, but the boy only pulled on his robe again. Then he knelt once more on the rug of his turban and bowed himself in prayer towards the east…..The praying boy was not pathetic or repulsive or ridiculous. His every move was assured, completely natural. His touching of the earth with his forehead made Chapman want somehow to lay a hand on his bent back. They have more death than we do, Chapman thought. Whatever he is praying to has more death in it than anything we know. Maybe it had more life too. Suppose he had sent up a prayer of thanksgiving a little while ago when he found his son out of danger? He had been doing something like praying all night, praying to modern medicine, propitiating science, purifying himself with germicides, placating the germ theory of disease. But suppose he had prayed in thanksgiving, where would he have directed his prayer? Not to God, not to Allah, not to the Nile or any of its creature-gods or the deities of light. To some laboratory technician in a white coat. To the Antibiotic God. For the first time it occurred to him what the word ‘antibiotic’ really meant.” 

--Wallace Stegner, “The City Of The Living,” in Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) 524-5. (Boldface emphasis is mine.)
******

"We live in the Antibiotic Age, and Antibiotic means literally 'against life'. We had better not be against life. That is the way to become as extinct as the dinosaurs. And if, as the population experts were guessing in November 1954, the human race will (other things being equal) have increased so much in the next three hundred years that we will only have a square yard of ground apiece to stand on, then we may want to take turns running to some preserved place such as Dinosaur….That means we need as much wilderness as can still be saved. There isn’t much left, and there is no more where the old open spaces came from."

-- Wallace Stegner, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country And Its Magic Rivers. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) 14.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

National Park Law - Knopf and Stegner

Those who would protect the Parks and Monuments must rest their case always on the organic law that created the National Park Service. Any attempt to change that law would certainly bring on an instant and nation-wide and wholly bi-partisan explosion of protest. The danger is not that the law will be repealed or changed but that it will be whittled away through special concessions and permits. It is necessary to bear in mind Stephen Mather’s wise warnings when an advocate of whittling insists that he intends to create no precedents. With the best intentions in the world, he could not help creating a precedent. His successors in office might not agree with him about precedents, and they would have to use his own precedent against him.

“The people, to whom the Parks belong, should be given the full facts on which to base a judgment, whenever the question of intrusion on Park lands arises. The people, as taxpayers who foot the bill, should also know, with fair exactness, and from a responsible reviewing body, how much a reclamation project is going to cost them, whether in a Park or not. [....]

“The attitude of Americans toward nature has been changing—slowly, perhaps, but inexorably. Fifty thousand persons camped out in one Park, the Great Smokies, in a single summer month of 1954. That same summer I spent a night at Manitou Experimental Forest, in which a near-by campground, run by the Forest Service and at that moment without a water supply, was expected to be used by fifty thousand people before winter. In 1951 Glacier National Park had a half-million visitors; in 1953 it had more than 630,000. In that same year, the last for which total figures are available, Grand Canyon had 830,000 odd, Yellowstone 1,300,000, and Yosemite just short of a million. Those figures are impressive no matter how you take them. They mean that what the Parks and Monuments provide and preserve without impairment is increasingly appreciated and increasingly needed by more and more millions of American families.”

Alfred A. Knopf, “The National Park Idea,” in This is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, Wallace Stegner, ed. 91-91. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) (Emphasis in boldface mine)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Slow, Important Work Of Poetry

At the time it seemed like chance that brought me to minor in comparative poetry in college.

Without having a master plan, over four years I wound up taking a number of poetry classes in four languages. Eventually I asked my college to consider them a new minor area of study. They agreed, and I graduated.

And then, slowly, over a quarter century, I began reading more poetry in more languages. It's always slow; I can't pick up a book of poems and read it like a novel. If the poetry is any good at all, I can read one or two poems, and then I've got to put the book down and let the words sit with me.

Often, I go back and read the same poem again, and again.

The very best poems I try to memorize, even though my memory for verse has never been good. I imagine most people would consider that a useless exercise, a waste of storage space in an already cluttered brain.



But in each season of my life I've found that it is some form of poetry that acts as salve to my soul's wounds or food that sustains its long journey forward.  Homer's long story-poems; old epics and sagas from Ireland and Wales and Iceland; Vedic verses and Greek scriptures; Gregorian chants that have echoed in stone chambers for centuries; Shakespeare's or Petrarch's sonnets; the Psalms and proverbs of Hebrew priests and kings; a few words put together well by Dylan Thomas, Gary Snyder, Tomas Tranströmer, or C.S. Lewis; or the timely phrases of some of my favorite contemporaries like Patrick Hicks, Abigail Carroll, Mary Karr, Wendell Berry, Melissa Kwasny, John Lane, or Brian Turner.  Each of them has, at some point, given me the daily bread I craved.

I can't seem to predict when the need will arise, but suddenly, there it is, and I find myself quoting Joachim du Bellay's sonnet about travel, and home:
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison
Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge
His simple words save me from forming new ones and free me to think and feel as the occasion demands; his words give utterance to what I find welling up inside me. His words change my homesickness into a stage in a worthwhile journey.  Here is a very loose translation of those lines: "Happy is he who, like Ulysses, made a beautiful journey, or like that man who seized the Golden Fleece, and then traveled home again, full of wisdom, to live the rest of his life with his family." We are pulled in both directions at once: towards the Golden Fleece and adventures in Troy, and towards the home we left behind when we departed on our quest.

That sonnet often reminds me, in turn, of verses about Abraham.
Consider Abraham, who dwelled in tents,
because he was looking forward to a city with foundations.
This longing for home that I sometimes have when I travel is itself no alien in any land.  We all may feel it in any place.  Everyone feels lost sometimes. Knowing that others have found words to express their feeling of being lost is itself a reminder that we are not alone. Hölderlin's opening words in his poem about St. John's exile on Patmos say this well:
Nah ist, und schwer zu fassen, der Gott
It does seem that God - like home and family and love and neighbors - is close enough to grasp, so close that we could meaningfully touch them all right now. And yet so far that nothing but our words can draw near.

I am no good at praying, but I often wish I were. I think the fact that we make light of prayer - both by mocking those who pray and by being those who speak piously of prayer but who do not allow ourselves to confess the weakness prayer implies - says something of another shared longing, not unlike the longing for home.  We long to comfort those far away when tragic events fall on them.  They may be total strangers, but we know how horrible we would feel in their place, and we know that right now there is nothing we can do to staunch the flow of pain for them.  But we can hold them in the center of our consciousness and, for a little while, not let any lesser thoughts crowd them out of our hearts and minds.  We can, for a little while, consider our lives to be connected to theirs.  We can, for a little while, ask ourselves what we might do to change the world so that this pain will not be inflicted on others.

Since I am not adept at praying, In those times I find the prayers of others buoy me up above the waves of emotional tempest.  The prayer books of my tradition - the various versions of The Book of Common Prayer - often transform my anguish into something articulate. Of course, we turn to that same book when a baby is born, when a couple is wed, and when our beloved are interred.  These events? We know they are coming, and yet it is not easy to prepare oneself, to be always ready for those days.  I live in a tent; poetry often gives me a foundation to build on, and the better I've memorized it, the stronger that foundation becomes.

Those words, buried like seeds, slowly come to bear fruit in my life.  Sometimes I wonder: was it really chance that brought me to the poems?

In the hardest of times, and also in the most joyful times, the words of poets are like a cup of water in a dry place. They refresh me, and they clear my throat so that I can take in that which sustains my own life, and speak other words, both old and new, that may sustain the lives of others.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Gifts From My Father

My father spent his career as an engineer working for IBM and NASA.  Growing up with an engineer is an education in itself.  As a boy, I felt like whenever I was with my father, I was learning new things.  We'd go out for pizza and he'd write chemical equations on napkins.  We'd go to the Ashokan Reservoir and he'd tell me the history of the valley that was flooded so that New York could get water, and then he'd tell me how they engineered the pipeline that carried the water to the city.  

Often he was at his desk or his workbench, and I didn't want to interrupt him when he was working on problem-solving, but I'd try to spend time in his office or workroom until I made too much noise and was asked to move on to other exploits.  I'd stare at his shelves, heavy with books and tools, and full of things he had picked up in his travels.  He had a small, round stone that he had found somewhere, that had been shaped as a toy by our Algonquin ancestors. He had musical instruments and geometric shapes made of plastic and wire, and books on how to learn Russian or how to understand religion.  On his workbench there was an oscilloscope that he'd sometimes use, and I loved that machine's interpretation of the data it received. My father's mind is a small liberal arts college unto itself, and his curiosity about the world seems to know no limits.  

Recently I was going through some boxes of things that have moved across the country with me many times.  I am an anti-hoarder, someone who prefers to give things away rather than store them forever.  But some things are hard to part with, especially when the memories associated with them are so strong.



Here's a snapshot of a few of the things I hang onto precisely because they remind me of Dad.  The gyroscope and wooden puzzle were gifts he brought me when I was a small boy.  I think he got them on business trips.  I've kept them both because they bring me wonder and delight, and because I like to use them to teach children.  The weather radio is probably silly, and I don't use it any more, but it reminds me both of Dad's constant interest in solving problems before they are crises, and of his lifelong interest in electrical engineering.  He built a computer in his fraternity house back before most people knew what computers were.  He would take apart radios so he could put them back together and understand how they worked.  

I never picked up his gift for electrical engineering, but I've got his curiosity about how things work, which I tend to apply more towards ecology than technology.  For me, technology and ecology come together in some important ways, nonetheless.  This pocket microscope he gave me has been with me for thirty years or more, and I like to think of it as a seed.  I've often been tempted to give it away, but instead I have held onto it, and every time I think of giving it away I buy more of them and give them to teachers.  Each year I teach for a month in Guatemala, and while I am there I look for teachers in local schools and give them boxes of microscopes and other hand lenses.  

I am reminded that much of the history of science (Dad's field ) and of philosophy (my field) have grown with advances in optics.  When scientists get better lenses and lasers and satellites, knowledge tends to grow rapidly.

The same is true for children: give them a hand lens, or an insect viewer, or a microscope with some prepared slides, and the world will suddenly become new to them.  Dad planted that seed in me long ago.  Now I carry a hand lens with me almost everywhere I go. I suppose the whole of my career is a reflection of the things that delight Dad and provoke his curiosity; most of them delight me and make me curious, too.  And just as Dad passed on his curiosity to me, now it is my turn to pass it on to others.