Friday, August 23, 2013

Thoreau: We Still Have Choices

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation….When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the true end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden. (New York: Modern Library, 2000) p. 8. (Boldface is my addition)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Leopold On Sport And Ethics

“Voluntary adherence to an ethical code elevates the self-respect of the sportsman, but it should not be forgotten that voluntary disregard for the code degenerates and depraves him.”
 - Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Telling The Story Of Our Common Wealth

In his essay "Common Wealth," Scott Russell Sanders quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying 'this is mine' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the first founder of civil society."  (A Conservationist Manifesto. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. p. 26)
Sanders knows that's too simple a story to tell of all civil society, but he also knows that there's a grain of truth in it: even if it isn't what happened in some imagined historical past, we see something like it played out in front of us all the time when individuals and corporations land sweet deals to purchase rights to something that until then was held as common property.  It happens everywhere.

And it is, for many of us, the story of our childhood Manifest Destiny dreams, stories we read and watched with delight, of finding long-forgotten buried treasure, unclaimed land, undiscovered islands and continents and planets.  It is the story of crude Texas tea (oil, that is) that comes bubblin' up through the ground, of gold nuggets sitting unclaimed on riverbeds. 

One of my favorite stories - one that I read as a boy and have written about as an adult - is Tolkien's The Hobbit. It's a classic treasure-hunt, a story of a far-off mountain of gold and gems held by a dragon that has no right to sleep on its bejeweled bed.  Bilbo Baggins is drawn into an adventure that chooses him, along with dwarves whose desire to regain their treasure overshadows any willingness to share it with others, even in a blasted and impoverished land.  My friends and I dreamed of such adventures when we were young; and the childhood dreams do not vanish so much as they grow.  Which of us does not from time to time dream of suddenly striking it rich?


I often wonder why it is that "striking it rich" holds such appeal for us.  We are unreflective people, all of us.  We know what happens to the rich.  We have read the story of King Midas, and of Lazarus and Dives, and of Lindsay Lohan.  We know what becomes of those who do not have work, or who do not need work.  We know what comes of those for whom money matters more than people, because they have become infected with the fact that money can be used to get people to do many things, even if it cannot make them do the best things.

So we settle for second best, as long as we can have second best as often as we want it.


Once this place was open grassland for hundreds of miles.  Fencelines crisscross the prairie now, etching lines across fields and defining them.  In late October, as I walk the prairie miles, I step over barbed wire as I have been taught, laying down my shotgun on the other side then crossing over before picking it up again.  Sometimes I don't see the wire until it strikes my thigh in tall grass. Sometimes it is the barb that strikes me, piercing even my heavy chaps, if I walk too fast.

It's not all bad, this barbed wire.  Where farmers put wire, they don't plow or mow.  The grass grows unchecked, and falls, and grows again.  While the soil of the fields washes away, the fenceline grows taller, a guard against erosion, a tiny ark in which small animals find refuge from machines. It marks private land, or private use of land, but the boundary becomes a place of common life.  It is, I suppose, a metaphor: without the hedge of common concern, private property vanishes. 


Thoreau once said that you may own the land, but the landscape belongs to all of us.  The view is, in Sanders' words, common wealth.

As it turns out, we hold quite a lot in common, in our common wealth:  Air, water, sunlight, the view, literature, history, languages, rivers, parks, tradition, culture and custom, a past and a future, the very ideas that shape us.  Laws, constitutions, rights.  The story we tell of our nation.  Education.  Genetics.  Health.  Knowledge.

Obviously some of the things we own are our possession.  Some are ours to steward.  Some represent our unique responsibility.

Sanders' point is one that I've made a few times on this blog: we need good laws, but we also need to become good people; and one important part of becoming a people is telling the story of what it means to be that people.  

The story of our people is no longer told by poets and prophets.  We have no Moses, no Homer, at least not yet.  Our story is told piecemeal, in increments.  We tell it by the habits we form as a culture.  You become the person you act like every day.  The story that will be told of your life will include some exceptional events, perhaps, but in all likelihood your "exceptional" behavior will emerge not as an exception but as the culmination of other smaller but similar decisions.  This is why athletes and firefighters and musicians all train themselves, so that their bodies will know what to do in the decisive moment.

So it is with a nation, with a people, and with our species.  The story that will be told of us is one we are writing right now, one political decision at a time, one television advertisement at a time, one credit-card purchase at a time.

"It is not your job to finish the work, but you are not free to walk away from it."  (Talmud, Pirke Avot, 2.21)

It's not easy to see what our decisions will lead to, and no doubt the results will be mixed: barbed wire stops the bison from migrating, but it also stops the combine harvester and the plow.  But our inability to see the end does not free us from taking the next step on the journey.

Wherever we erect fences, or pull them down, let it be said of us that we did so because we intended the best for our common wealth, and not just because we longed to turn all things we touched to gold for our private gain.  Love, and virtue, do not hope for second best.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Teaching Outdoors

Photo by David L. O'Hara, 2013

As September approaches, people keep asking me, "Are you ready to get back in the classroom?" 

As early as middle school I knew I wanted to become a college professor, and I love my job.  It is a delight to spend time with young people who are curious, after all.

Years ago, my friend Matt Dickerson pointed out to me that it's also my job to help those who are not curious to see why they should be.  As it turns out, that work is usually delightful, too, a rewarding challenge.

So on the whole, I love my work.

But I admit I don't love classrooms, for several reasons:

First, no matter what decade, every classroom I've been in has exhibited an unhealthy tendency towards becoming cluttered with the latest technology, and most of that tech seems to take up a lot of space and to become the center of attention.  I'm not opposed to technology in the classroom, not at all.  But I'm opposed to letting it get in the way, as it does when the "Smart Cart" leaves me no room for my lecture notes, or when I can't seem to turn the ceiling-mounted projector on or off.  I'm a fan of chalk, because chalk allows spontaneity, and it allows for much more than alphanumeric writing in neat rows.  Sadly, concerns about chalk dust getting into computers is threatening to make chalkboards disappear from my classrooms.  Alas.  Chalk is an excellent technology, and if it vanishes, I will mourn its loss.

Second, classroom architecture is not some value-free, neutral design.  Classroom architecture makes a big difference in how people teach, and how they learn:
  • This too is related to technology, of course.  If the class is focused on video screens, then all the chairs will face the screens, and the classroom might even be structured like a theater.  Etymologically, "theater" means something like "a place of gazing," and theaters tend to encourage people to gaze.  Sometimes this can work against other activities, like colloquy, small-group interaction, and really anything that involves students moving from one place to another.  
  • If that last sentence made you ask,"But why do you want your students to move from one place to another?" then you see that we have some pretty strong presuppositions about how education should happen: students should sit and listen, teachers should stand and lecture.  This communicates something about authority, and at times that's helpful.  But it can also invite students to lean back into passivity, and to assume they have no role in their own education.
  • The furniture in classrooms tells us how people are to behave, because it has been made and purchased by people who had in mind some idea of how students should behave.  Most wrap-around desks are made for right-handed people, for instance.  And most classroom desks I've seen expect students to sit upright, at attention, with a book open in front of them.  I really don't like those desks, and I feel trapped when I sit in them.  I wonder sometimes how they make my students feel. I wish we had fewer chairs and more sofas.  Maybe a fireplace, or some tables with glasses of water, and ashtrays on them.  I suppose I wish I could teach in pubs or ratskellers, which are, after all, places consciously designed for people to meet and discuss what most matters to them, informally, passionately, amicably.
  • Classrooms that privilege video screens tend to undervalue natural light and windows.  I am reminded of Emerson's reflection on a boring sermon he once heard.  Emerson wrote, in his Divinity School Address, that while the minister droned on, Emerson looked out the window at the falling snow, which, he proclaimed, preached a better sermon than the minister.  I have no doubt that nature can often give a better lecture than I can.  
Photo by David L. O'Hara, 2013
Step off the trails! Explore! An ironic sign at Walden Pond.
Which is why, as often as I can, I get my students out of the classroom.  When we are reading Thoreau's Walking, we go for a walk.  When I teach environmental philosophy, we often meet under the great tree in our campus quad, where I encourage students to daydream and to play with the grass, to look for worm-castings and owl pellets, feathers and seed-pods, invertebrates and fallen bits of bark.  What good is it to gain the world of theoretical knowledge at the expense of knowledge gained through vital, haptic, bodily experience?

And this is why I am a preacher of the importance of study abroad.  Not just travel, but serious, engaged, rigorous study in the classroom of life in another place.  This is why I teach Classics in Greece every year, and why year after year I take students to Central America to study environmental philosophy and ecology.

More and more I've been trying to shift the learning focus in my classes from the classroom to the laboratory - where by "laboratory" I mean anywhere that allows students to learn with their whole person.  I make my ancient philosophy students devote hours each semester to star-gazing, in part because this is what the ancients did, and in part because I don't want them to miss the stars.  I want them to gaze in wonder at the firmament so that when they read Aristotle and Galileo they know that they've looked at what those great minds saw as well.  We even occasionally take field trips to really dark places like the South Dakota Badlands so we can see the skies even better.

My environmental philosophy students must observe a square meter of earth for a semester, spending an hour at a time without a camera, drawing and writing about what they see, because it does not make sense to me to talk about the earth when you have not taken the time to sit upon it, to listen to it, to smell and taste it, and to see what other lives creep, and walk, and fly across it.

My friend Aage Jensen advocates the Norwegian philosophy of Friluftsliv, life and education outdoors.  And when he organizes a conference on it, he eschews conference centers and holds the conference while walking through the mountains, or paddling a river.  Because he believes that one should practice what one preaches, and that nature is always ready to teach.

To paraphrase the Stoic Musonius, teachers would do well to talk less and to take their students with them into the fields, because there they will learn far better and far more than in the lecture hall.

Photo by David L. O'Hara, 2013
Nature is full of things worth seeing.