Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Music of the Spheres: The Sun Is A Morning Star

Students in my Ancient and Medieval Philosophy class are required to spend at least four hours outdoors, gazing at the skies.   
The Morning Star, Good Earth State Park (SD), December 2013

That may sound odd, but it arises from my conviction that philosophy needs labs.  I call it my "Music of the Spheres" project, in which I invite them to consider what it would have been like to be Thales (who was one of the first to predict a solar eclipse), gazing at the night sky and thinking about the laws that seem to guide the motions of the celestial bodies. 

The students are given specific instructions and they must come up with a clear research project that can be accomplished using only the tools available to ancient astronomers. 

For me, the best part of the class comes at the end when I read their work, and I get to see their offhand comments, like this: 
"I saw the Milky Way and its Great Rift for the first time."
My heart leapt when I read that one.  This next one didn't make my heart leap, but it did make my heart glad, because it too is an important discovery:
"Stargazing is much more fun with a friend."
We live beneath these skies but so rarely do we lie on our backs beneath them and gaze upwards.  Rarely do we lift our eyes to the heavens to see what is there, and when we do, we are quick to turn away in boredom, as though it were a small thing to gaze into the greatest distances.

If you don't know what planets are visible right now; if you can't quickly identify a few constellations; or if you aren't sure what phase the moon is in, why not go outside and have a look?  And why not share the moment with a friend?

The heavens are not yet done revealing themselves to us, and "the sun is but a morning star."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Searching For Winter Strawberries

A late October strawberry in my garden
I spent my twentieth year of life in Madrid, Spain, studying Spanish philology.  Studying abroad is like laboratory work in a science class: the experience often teaches much more than lectures or readings could ever do.  Many of the lessons are unanticipated, and depend on the interaction of student and environment.

One day in February, for no particular reason, I wanted to eat strawberries.  A few blocks from my flat there was a market, so I walked there and searched for fruit stands.  Finding one but seeing that they had no strawberries, I asked the proprietor, "Do you know where I can find strawberries?"

"Of course," he replied. "Right here."

"But you don't have any," I observed.

"Of course I don't," he said.

I was confused.  "But you said I could find strawberries right here."

"You can," he replied.  "But not until June."

This took a little while to sink in.  I was accustomed to going to a supermarket at home in New York and buying any fruit I wanted at any time of year.  Now I was being told what should have been perfectly clear: fruit is seasonal.

At first I was disappointed, but it took only a few minutes before I realized that this wasn't such a bad thing.  It meant that the strawberries, when they arrived, would taste that much sweeter.  The disappointment of having to wait would be repaid by the delight when they did arrive.

The experience didn't reform me, of course.  I love eating my favorite foods year-round, despite not having harvested them and usually without knowing where they came from.

But it did make me appreciate some of the rhythms of life around me.  The first part of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, and most of Thoreau's Walden - two of my favorite books - follow the cycle of the seasons in the northern part of the United States.  Their understanding of nature is one that allows nature to undergo its habitual changes.  They might even say that what they know about nature arises from attention to just those changes.  Phenology, the attention to when and how things appear and disappear throughout seasons, is one of the most important parts of learning to see the world.  If I may speak an Emersonian word, phenology attunes us to the music nature wants us to hear.  To speak less mystically, it accustoms us to natural patterns, and much of what the naturalist wants is to learn those patterns so well that we can then see when nature departs from them.

What are the calendars in your life?  Technology has made many of them seem unnecessary, but I suspect that they give us much more than we know, just as my experience in Spain gave me unlooked-for lessons.  We should be careful not to insist that others delight in the absences or disciplines we delight in; what may be a delightful, self-imposed fast to us may be devastating to someone who is genuinely hungry. When we choose them for ourselves, school calendars, planning one's garden, the liturgical calendars and holidays of the world's religions - each of them can offer us rhythms of both discipline and delight as we make ourselves wait for the strawberries to ripen, the hummingbirds to return, the exams to end, the candles to be lit.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Walking In Nature - In Sioux Falls

Photo by David L. O'Hara, copyright 2013
Cardinal in Tuthill Park, Sioux Falls
Thoreau writes that not many people know the art of Walking.  I am trying to learn it, and I think part of it involves learning to see what is there.  My friend Scott Parsons has helped me to see better by teaching me to draw, since the pencil forces me to pay attention to what I actually see rather than just what I think I see.

Lately I have been trying to walk more - that is, to Walk more - in and around my city, Sioux Falls.  I find, as I step off the sidewalks and walk a little more transgressively, the city is transformed.  The habits of sidewalks and cars speed up the world around us until much of it vanishes in a blur.
Photo by David L. O'Hara, copyright 2013
Whitetail deer, east Sioux Falls

Thoreau recommends trans-gressing, that is, stepping across paths and fences rather than letting them herd us to the destinations that habit and tradition and fetishized commerce want to lead us.  Once he wrote that we should sometimes bend over and look at the world upside down.  Sometimes this is all the "transgression" that is needed to overcome the aggressive habits that constrain us in daily life.

Photo by David L. O'Hara, copyright 2013
Ice on a single blade of grass on the Augustana College campus
Another tool I have used lately is the camera, peering down its glassy pipe at single, simple things, trying to break up the landscape by gazing intently at just one point.  Or, at times, using the lens to draw the world together, to see how much I can gather into its frame.

When I first moved to Sioux Falls almost ten years ago I thought it was a homely place, a city that did not care for design or good planning or beautiful architecture.  Slowly, one frame at a time, I am changing my own mind.  As I Walk through and around it, I am coming to see that it is, at times and in places, quite a lovely place to live.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Backyard Ark

Augustine once said that a key to his conversion was when he met St Ambrose.  Augustine had regarded the Bible as full of flawed and problematic texts.  As Augustine put it, "by taking them literally, I had found them to kill."(1)  Ambrose taught Augustine that the texts of the Bible may have more than one sense.  The scriptures might speak to him in more than one way.  When he heard this, and heard it from a man who thought it important to study science and the liberal arts, Augustine found his spiritual home in Christianity.

In recent years authors like Norman Wirzba, Bill McKibben, and Scott Russell Sanders have written about the relevance of Biblical texts for thinking about ecology.  To me, they have been a little like St Ambrose.  I've found one passage in Sanders to be quite helpful personally as I think about the management of my little suburban fifth-acre plot.

In his A Conservationist Manifesto, Sanders writes about the story of Noah and the Ark.  He remembers that Noah was given the task of saving not just himself but every other species as well.  And once they were on the ark, it was his job to care for the animals and to keep them alive.  Sanders talks about books, and communities, and practices that can be like small arks in our time.  One such "ark" may be the little plots of land we maintain around our homes:
"Every unsprayed garden and unkempt yard, every meadow, marsh, and woods may become a reservoir for biological possibilities, keeping alive creatures who bear in their genes millions of years; worth of evolutionary discoveries.  Every such refuge may also become a reservoir for spiritual possibilities, keeping alive our connection with the land, reminding us of our origins in the green world."(2)
Lately I've been surveying my yard more closely, looking to see whom I'm sharing it with, and how.  I've been trying to do some phenology, like Thoreau didI also wander my garden with lenses: a hand lens for close inspection; my phone camera and my SLR for keeping records of what lives and grows there; and I've recently set up an infrared game camera to see who passes through at night.  For the curious, I've posted some photos below of what I've seen there.

(1) Augustine, Confessions.  Henry Chadwick's translation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 88.
(2) Scott Russell Sanders, A Conservationist Manifesto. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009) p. 16.


All of these images were taken by David O'Hara in the fall of 2013.  You may use them elsewhere but please mention where you found them and give credit where it is due. Thanks.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What Are Philosophy's Flaws?

Last week I suggested to one of my students that she would make a good philosophy major.  A few days later she came to my office and asked me, "What are philosophy's flaws?"

She wanted to know, she said, because she was thinking seriously about studying more philosophy, and for her, thinking seriously about something means considering something from all angles.  She knows that ideas give birth to other ideas, and to practical consequences.

I don't think I gave her a very good answer at the time, but I've continued to think about it because it strikes me as a good question asked for a good reason.

Not long ago I was re-reading the Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus.  Of the four major Roman Stoics, he's probably the least well-known.  Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius all left substantial writings, but Musonius did not.

Rather, Musonius is known chiefly through the notes his students left behind.  In fact, this is one of the reasons I like him so well: whatever became of his writings, his life made a difference for his students.  His teaching mattered so much that they refused to let his life vanish from history.

There's another reason I like Musonius: he insisted that philosophy is for women, not just for men. Since the student whom I invited to study philosophy is also a woman, I want to try to give a better answer to her question by turning to Musonius now.

Once, when Musonius made the bold invitation for women to join the Stoic philosophers, someone asked him: won't studying philosophy make the women obstinate, independent, and opinionated?

He replied that in fact, it might do just that.  Musonius recognized that the question was a question about the same thing my student was asking about: philosophy's flaws.  Philosophy often makes us better thinkers, but it can also make us obnoxious to our neighbors when we care more about the ideas than about the people whose lives are connected to the ideas.

Musonius then quickly pointed out that the question is irrelevant, however, because what is true of women is also true of men in this regard.  Like Augustine several centuries later, Musonius argued that women and men have equal intellectual powers. If philosophy entails the development and strengthening of our native intellect, then surely women will benefit from it just as much as men.

It would appear that the questioner wasn't concerned about people becoming opinionated, independent thinkers, but about women becoming opinionated, independent thinkers.  What began as a question about the vices of philosophy quickly exposes itself as a question that reveals the bias of the questioner -- a bias that philosophy would be more than happy to correct.

This brings me to my student's question: Yes, philosophy has flaws, and one of its chief flaws is that when it is combined with a lack of kindness, it can amplify that unkindness.

But it also has the power to expose that unkindness in a pretty keen way.  And when it is combined with kindness and positive regard for our neighbors --  with what we sometimes call agapé, or love -- it can be something that causes kindness to grow.

I don't mean that philosophy is a panacaea, or that it will do all good things for us, all on its unattended own.

But I do mean that you, my student, have very real native intelligence, and it pleases me to see it in you.  And I would love to see it grow.  To point to Augustine once more: Augustine found philosophy to be helpful for his own self-understanding, for his seeking after God, and for keeping his church from descending into irrationality.  He regarded it as a way to "love God with his mind."

I wouldn't ask you, my student, to give up your nursing major.  Quite the opposite!  Just as surely as women need philosophy, I think nurses and business majors and scientists and poets need philosophy, too.  I think that studying philosophy will make you a better nurse, one more able to improve the nursing profession and to improve your workplace.

And let me add one more thing.  When you came into my office the other day to ask me that brilliant question, one thing was quite clear to me: whether or not you choose to make philosophy your formal major, you are already becoming a philosopher.  And that makes me very happy indeed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

20,000: Two Stories Of Water Pollution In The Dakotas

Two stories in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in the past week have caught my attention.  Coincidentally, both have to do with pollution of groundwater and with 20,000 units lost.

The first was a story about an oil pipeline leak in which 20,000 barrels of crude oil contaminated over seven acres of farmland.  The Argus reports that in major oil-producing states like North Dakota oil spills must be reported to the state, but state law does not mandate the release of this information to the public.  In other words, the state is free to keep this news quiet.  One has to assume that the state legislators who wrote that law thought it was in the public interest to keep news of toxic spills quiet.  It's better for us not to know about such things, I guess.

Anyway, the Argus lets us know that some state officials think there's no cause for concern: "state regulators say no water sources were contaminated, no wildlife was hurt and no one was injured." Oh, good.

The second story is about the disposal of some 20,000 cattle that died in a surprisingly early and heavy snowstorm earlier this month.  This is a devastating loss for ranchers across western South Dakota.  It represents an enormous financial loss, and it also creates a very difficult cleanup problem.  The best solution for disposal of all the carcasses so far has been to dig two large pits.  The Argus reports that there are strict regulations concerning the depth and soil of the pits.

According to the Argus, the reason for the pits is to make sure the dead cattle don't contaminate streams.

Which makes me wonder why there is so little concern for the oil spill in North Dakota.  Obviously there is an important difference between bacterial and viral infections entering streams, on the one hand, and oil entering streams on the other hand.  But surely both represent serious health hazards?

We are left with a peculiar contrast: a few cattle on the ground - something that happens in nature all the time - are a serious threat to the water, while a million gallons of crude oil spread across seven acres of farmland (presumably some rain falls there and washes into streams?) is barely worth telling the public about.


Update: Since a number of people have asked me just what happened to the cattle in South Dakota, I am posting this link that I found to be a helpful reply to some questions about the storm and the loss of the cattle.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

In Defense of Insects

Cloudless Sulphur in my asters.
I'm reviewing David Clough's On Animals and I just came across a gem in its pages.  The "gem" is from Edward Payson Evans’ book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.  I had no idea Evans' book existed, so part of the fun was simply learning that there have been hundreds of criminal cases in human history where animals have been placed on trial and given court-appointed lawyers.  Another part of the fun was learning that someone took the time to compile them in a book.

The first paragraph below is from Clough, the second from Evans.  This is one for the office door, I think, since it details a court case in 1545 in which weevils were put on trial, and had a court-appointed lawyer.  I like the way the judge decides that the earth is not for us only, but also for the weevils:
“One example will serve to indicate the seriousness with which the court proceedings against animals were taken.  Evans records the case of the wine-growers of St Julien in 1545, who complained that weevils were ravaging their vineyards.  The official, François Bonnivard, heard the arguments of Pierre Falcon for the plaintiffs and Claude Morel in defence of the weevils, before deciding to issue a proclamation rather than passing sentence.  The proclamation was as follows:
“Inasmuch as God, the supreme author of all that exists, hath ordained that the earth should bring forth fruits and herbs not solely for the sustenance of rational human beings, but likewise for the preservation and support of insects, which fly about on the surface of the soil, therefore it would be unbecoming to proceed with rashness and precipitance against the animals now actually accused and indicted; on the contrary, it would be more fitting for us to have recourse to the mercy of heaven and to implore pardon for our sins.”  (Clough, p. 110; citation from Evans, 38-39; boldface emphasis is mine.)
This is a reminder that while theology can have terrible consequences, theologies and other stories we tell about ourselves can have fascinating, helpful, and thought-broadening consequences as well.  Here the story of creation is deployed to remind us that we are not sole masters of the world.  God is invoked as creator of everything to insist that the world is there for God - and so for everything God made - and not just for us.  The world is, apparently, even there for the insects.  Haldane's famous quip about God's "inordinate fondness for beetles" finds serious support here.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Demosthenes' "Against Meidias"

Tonight I am reading Demosthenes' Against Meidias.  Why? Because nothing prevents me from doing so, and books like this repay the reader many times over for the little effort it takes to read them.

The text is full of citations of Athenian law, and both its structure and content tell us a great deal about ancient jurisprudence.

Demosthenes also gives us some gems of ancient legal reasoning, reminding us that there is very little new under the sun.  For instance: Meidias, a wealthy and brutish man, assaulted Demosthenes while Demosthenes was performing a sacred state function.  Meidias then claimed that such assaults happen all the time, and therefore his was unimportant.  Demosthenes replied that the decision of the court will affect not only this single case but that it will have the effect of deterring future assaults as well.

But on this reading I am especially enjoying Demosthenes as a handbook of erudite Attic insults.  His repeated epithet against Euctemon, Ευκτημων ο κονιορτος, "dust-raising Euctemon" or "Dirty old Euctemon" is a minor example.

A far better one is this one, aimed at Meidias:
“If, men of Athens, public service consists in saying to you at all the meetings of the Assembly and on every possible occasion, ‘We are the men who perform the public services; we are those who advance your tax-money; we are the capitalists” – if that is all it means, then I confess that Meidias has shown himself the most distinguished citizen of Athens.” (Section 153; Taken from the Loeb edition. J.H. Vince, Trans. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1956) p.107)
He hardly needs to say what follows: of course, public service consists in much more than that, and by offering these public rebukes against a man like this I am fulfilling one of my highest duties.  Powerful people who use their power to abuse their fellow citizens deserve no less.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Best Watchmen Of Our Thoughts

"And, finally, I suppose they took the acropolis of the young man's soul, perceiving that it was empty of fair studies and practices and true speeches, and it's these that are the best watchmen and guardians in the thought of men whom the gods love."
Plato, Republic 560b. Allan Bloom's translation. (Basic Books, 1991)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Pragmatic Stoic Theology

In preparing a class on later Stoicism, I came across a passage from Cicero's De Natura Deorum, or On The Nature Of The Gods.  Cicero himself is not one to take sides, but he attempts to practice that virtue of presenting the views of others as fairly as he can.  As part of this practice, Cicero attributes a god-argument to the Stoic Chrysippus in Book 2, section 16 (Latin text here) of his De Natura Deorum.

Chrysippus' god-argument is not, strictly speaking, a proof of the existence of a god.  It is rather an appeal to what he thinks is common sense, and to the consequences of not believing.

The first part, the appeal to common sense, goes something like this:
1) If there is anything in nature that we can't have made then something greater than us made it;
2) That something is what we call a god.
Of course, he is assuming that everything that exists must exist because it was made, and that it was made designedly by a single cause.  We could object that natural arrangements might have more than one lesser natural cause; or we could contest the whole notion of greater and lesser and dismiss this part of his argument fairly easily.

The second part makes a case that at least invites us to be cautious about dismissing it too readily.  It goes like this:

3) Unless there is divine power, human reason is the greatest thing we know of and can possess;
4) So if there are no gods, then we are the greatest beings in the cosmos.  In which case, we are the gods.
Of course there might be other things we don't know of that are more powerful than we are; or we might (wisely) regard nature as more powerful than we are.

But the most helpful part, I think, is (4), which stands as an invitation to consider who we are as we face the cosmos.  We think of ourselves as natural, but we also think of ourselves as standing somehow apart from nature.

So it may be that there is nothing in the cosmos wiser or more clever than we are.  We should be honest about this and acknowledge the real possibility that this is the case.

But Chrysippus invites us also to consider the consequences of that belief, since it could be taken as license to act as we will. The danger, as he sees it, is that we might become the sort of people who worship ourselves.  This is dangerous in part because it impedes growth; we become like what we worship, and if we worship only ourselves, then we become our own best ideal.  I will speak for myself when I say that I, at least, am a cramped and stingy ideal. 

Many of the Stoics are content to name nature as god; what matters is that there always be something worth our attention and admiration.  I'm reminded of the wise words of David Foster Wallace, who said that
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
You can read the rest of his brief, insightful talk here (or by searching for "This Is Water.")

Wallace comes pretty close to Chrysippus.  Neither is trying to convert you to a religion, neither is trying to set the rules for your life, but both are reporting on what they have seen when they have ventured in the direction of denying all the gods: off in that direction, they found they could escape all the gods except the god they then found that they forced themselves to become.

Which, to paraphrase Wallace, is a good reason for choosing to posit some god which, if it existed, would be worth your worship.  And then, maybe, to test it by trying to worship it as though it were really there. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Trained By Trains - Thoreau on Technology

I'm teaching Thoreau's Walden this semester, and tomorrow my class will discuss the chapter entitled "Sounds."  While re-reading it tonight I was struck by two passages about trains and the way this new technology was changing the people who lived near it.

Here's the first passage:
"Far through unfrequented woods on the confines of towns, where once only the hunter penetrated by day, in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the knowledge of their inhabitants….They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country.  Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?  Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?  There is something electrifying in the former place."
The Fitchburg Railroad had been very recently built in his time.  Despite the short time it had been in existence, already it had begun to change the way people who lived near it regarded time.

It may sound like Thoreau admires this change, but he does not.  Just a little earlier he wrote that when he was at Walden his "days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock."  His Walden-time is not "minced into hours."  That is, it is not governed by any clock but Thoreau himself. 

The other passage is one where he imagines the trains as "bolts" or arrows:
"We live the steadier for it.  We are all educated thus to be sons of Tell. The air is full of invisible bolts."
To be a son of William Tell is no pleasant thing. To be a son of Tell is to be constantly in mortal peril.  One's schoolmaster is the permanent risk of sudden death.

A hundred and seventy years ago Thoreau was already seeing the ways that a single technology - one heralded as beneficent and neutral - was remaking us in its image, changing our sense of time, speeding us up, educating us to stay out of its way and so confining us to the spaces between the spaces it occupies.

And it's not just those who ride the railroad who are conditioned by it; everyone is conditioned by it.  The technology is not neutral, not a mere thing we can wield with no effect upon the wielder.  We may devise tools, but we are ignorant if we think that the tools do not also come to change us.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Not The Weapons But What They Defend

My latest post at Sojourners' "God's Politics" blog:

"My grandfather was a career military officer, and I admired him deeply for it. As a child, I would try to imagine the battles he was in, and I thought of him as a hero. As I grew older, I became more aware of what he had given up for us, and what that might have cost him...."
Read it all here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"What We Need Right Now"

From my latest contribution to the "God's Politics" blog at Sojourners:
"Any right-thinking stranger on our shores must read our daily news and think our nation has gone mad. We have cultivated the ability to end lives quickly; and yet we are continually surprised when our fellow citizens use the tools we have devised for exactly the purpose for which we invented them. Come to think of it, I think we’ve gone mad, too."
 You can read it all here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Advice To My Son: Play, Rest, and Sing

I had nineteen years to say what I wanted to say to my kids, but before the first two left for college, I wrote them letters in which I tried to say a few things in words that I had previously said perhaps only indirectly.

My son just left for college a few weeks ago, and I mailed him a letter so he'd have something waiting for him in his mailbox when he got there.  I won't print the whole letter here; most of it was just between the two of us, though if you need to know what I said, here's a summary: I already miss you, but because I love you, I'm glad to see you leaving home and becoming your own man.  You make me proud.

These two paragraphs from the end of my letter to him are things I often say to my students, too, so I'm reproducing them here not only for my son, but for all my students, and for anyone else who might benefit from them:

Take time off every week.  I mean that.  It’s my favorite commandment: get some rest.  College can be high-pressure and high-speed.  Take a few hours every week, even a whole day, to decompress and not to try to get ahead.  It’s like taking time to sharpen your tools; sharper tools cut better, and a rested mind will think better.  To put it differently: take time to play every week.  I think that John Dewey, Bronson Alcott, and Maria Montessori are all right when they affirm that some of the most important parts of our education are the parts in which we play.  I’m not saying you should neglect your classes, of course!  Do well in them, and give them serious attention.  But then be sure to take time off so that you have time to enjoy life, to reflect on the bigger picture, and to be fully human. 
Speaking of rest and restoration, I have to say something about music.   You used to wake up singing, and still one of my favorite sounds in the world is the sound of your singing voice.  My advice here is simple: make music.  Make whatever music gives you joy, just keep making it.  Sing or play or whatever, but I think a good life has got to have some songs in it.  And dancing.  Dancing is good.  Rest, and joy, and music, and dancing.  These are really good things, things worth having for their own sake.  As I write these words I am praying something I have often prayed for you: that your life will be filled with these things.
So there it is: Take time to rest each week.  Some of our best learning happens when we play.  Keep singing.  And dance a little, too.  Not much matters more than that. 

I have no doubt he knows these things already.  He's one of the most playful people I know, and his life is a musical one.  I wrote these things as a reminder of what's already so good about his life.

It was so good, so very good to have him under my roof for nineteen years.  And it's so good, so very, very good to see him going off to live under a roof of his own making.  May that roof always be a shelter for rest, for play, and for many joyful songs. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Can I Ask Questions In Church?

Today I heard a thoughtful, thought-provoking sermon about St Paul's Epistle to Philemon.  The heart of it was this: Paul urged Philemon not to claim his legal right, but to lay aside his rights for the sake of the big love that wants to remodel his whole life.

Nobody in their right mind wants that.

Which is why Paul describes that big love elsewhere as foolishness to Greeks - and, he might have added, to anyone else who takes reason seriously. 

After all, it's a little bit crazy to lay aside your legal rights for the sake of others.  In Philemon's case, Paul was asking him to:
  • Forgive Onesimus, the indentured servant who ran away, breaking his contract with Philemon;
  • Forgive Onesimus for stealing from Philemon as he fled;
  • Welcome Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a family member.  
That epistle is often taken as a justification of slavery, since Paul doesn't simply condemn Philemon for owning slaves.  I think it is anachronistic to insist that an ancient text share our values; it is the product of another age.  But if we are willing to read the text, not as slaves to the text but as people open to learning from authors who are not wholly like us, we can learn a lot from its trajectory.  It may not attempt to overthrow the economic system of its age, but it does ask an individual to consider undermining his own economic rights for the sake of another.  That's a start, and a pretty powerful start if we then take up that invitation for ourselves. 

One thing that made the sermon especially strong was its open-endedness: our priest didn't try to apply the sermon to any one social problem, as he could have.  Instead, he invited all his listeners to consider whether we'd be willing to have big love remake our lives.  In other words, rather than making this into a doctrinal roll-call or a chance to affirm that we all believe the same thing and then move on, unchanged, we were invited to consider, in quiet self-examination, whether we were willing to let love rule in our lives.

This is like Mary's approach in John's Gospel, when she tells Jesus "They have no more wine," then tells the servants, "Do whatever he says."  She knows enough to know that she doesn't know all the answers.  I think our priest was saying something similar today: he doesn't know all the answers, but he's committed to big love, and was inviting us to consider whether we also share that confidence.

To put it differently, he left us with a question to mull over for the week.

Which is often far more helpful than being left with an answer.


Part of me really doesn't like church.  There's so much about it that bores me, and I usually like sermons least of all.  And when I'm not bored, I'm often surrounded by people I don't know very well, shaking my hand and passing a sign of peace.  It's an introvert-germophobe's introduction to the doctrine of hell, I guess, so it does serve that theological purpose.  I'd prefer a quick nod, some formal bowing, a lot of incense and some well-tuned bells, but you can't always get what you want. 

But you do often get what you need, and I think of church the way I think of prayer, or aerobic exercise, or dietary fiber: I need them.  Even, and perhaps especially, when I don't want them. And when they are a part of my life, my life feels more whole.

This can be hard to explain to others, so I understand if you think I go to church because it makes me feel good, or because my culture has made it hard for me to think of doing otherwise, or because I feel guilty when I don't go. 

I actually feel pretty good when I don't go to church, just like I feel pretty good when I decide to write a blog post instead of going on that four-mile run I had planned. 

And so often, when I attend churches, I hear or see things I wish I hadn't heard or seen.  These congregations founded on the worship of big love can become gardens overrun by the weeds of uncharitable hearts; some "hymns" I hear are schmaltzy or foolish, or unintentionally (I hope!) promote slavish and unkind ideas about race or gender.  At times like that, I'm tempted to give up on "organized" religion altogether.


This morning was a pretty good morning.  Not only did I hear that excellent sermon that will provide food for thought all week, we also sang a hymn that was translated from a Medieval Hebrew liturgy.  Good hymnals and prayerbooks can be bouquets of the choicest flowers of religious poetry.  The Book of Common Prayer has often rescued my anguished mind when it cannot find words.  Often, when I sing hymns to the room-filling sound of a well-played pipe organ, I find myself wondering how people who do not have a congregation to sing with find opportunities to sing with others.  That probably sounds judgmental, but I don't mean it to.  I just wish there were more songs sung by people in our daily lives.  I suspect the near-universal ownership of iPods is a result of the vanishing tradition of singing together.

When I came home I saw that a friend had tagged me in a post on Facebook, where she shared this article about the importance of continuing to ask big questions.  To which I say "amen."

The article raises just this question of whether a decline in attendance at religious services decreases the places in which can we ask big questions:

"“For anyone who goes to church, these are the questions they are essentially grappling with via their faith,” said Brooks. Indeed, a measurable drop in religious affiliation and attendance at houses of worship may be a factor in the decline of a culture of inquiry and conversation." 
I don't know if that's true, and I don't want to claim that the sky is falling because the pews aren't full.  But I do find that sitting in the pew helps me, and I think it could be more helpful to more people if there were more sermons like the one I heard today.  It's good to ask questions together, and to let the questions do their work.

So I hope that more of us who think that meeting together to pray and sing and reflect on what we believe is a worthwhile practice will do as our priest did this morning, inviting others to turn with him to reflect on the big questions, and the big ideas, and the big love, that - in my case, at least - can keep us from living unexamined lives.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Importance of Struggling to Understand

In his speech when he was awarded the Emerson-Thoreau Medal, Robert Frost made this poignant aside about his years of struggling with one of Emerson's poems:

"I don't like obscurity and obfuscation, but I do like dark sayings I must leave the clearing of to time. And I don't want to be robbed of the pleasure of fathoming depths for myself."
Robert Frost, "On Emerson." In Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem, eds.(New York: Collier, 1968) p.114. (Originally delivered as an address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the occasion of Frost's being awarded the Emerson-Thoreau Medal. Later published in Daedalus, Fall 1959.)
I like Frost's use of "clearing" which still echoes the older meaning of "clear," that is "brighten."  Frost's point is also excellent: simply explaining poetry, or great texts, to students is not enough.  It is often helpful to guide them and to show them hermeneutical tools, or to speak with them about how we ourselves have grappled with texts, but we should be careful about the temptation to explain, since explanations can rob students of the pleasure of discovery.  Poetry has immense value for us, and one -- just one -- of its benefits is the way that it can become the means by which we learn to solve problems that we have never encountered before.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Animal Sacrifice And Factory Farming

I'm reading David Clough's On Animals, and this line reminds me that I was once taught that animal sacrifice is barbaric.  It may be so, but I don't think that makes it worse than what we do today.  If anything, sacrificing an animal might be much better, since it regards the animal as a fit gift for the divine rather than as a raw material to be fed into the machinery of slaughterhouses:

“In the period of the history of the Christian Church, we have traveled from a time in which the killing of animals was only permitted within religious rituals to a time in which 60 billion animals per year are killed for human consumption, the majority of which are raised, slaughtered and processed in factory conditions far removed from the sight or concern of their consumers.”
David L. Clough, On Animals: Volume I, Systematic Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2012) (xiii)

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.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Back To Work

Restful Work
I've been on sabbatical for the last academic year, and it has been a gift.

I've done a lot of writing (I think I've averaged about 750 words a day, which may not sound like much, but it is) and a lot of reading (roughly a half a book a day for fifteen months) and a lot of traveling (visited five countries; had one writing fellowship on the west coast and one NEH study fellowship on the east coast; read and wrote at a writer's conference in Vermont; attended a handful of other conferences; and a whole lot more.  I lived out of my suitcase for the first two months of this summer.)

In other words, my sabbatical hasn't been idle time.  Quite the opposite.

But now I'm ready to get back to work.  To the work I feel called to do, that is.  All the work I've done for the last year has been aimed at a particular purpose: to make me a better teacher.

Those Who Can, Teach
No doubt you've heard it said that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach."  Anyone who has tried to teach well knows exactly why that saying is false.

In one small way, it can sometimes be true: it may be that the teacher lacks the physical capability to perform the tasks she teaches.  But if she teaches them, she must understand them at least as well as those who perform them.  Good athletic coaches illustrate this idea well: a man may be a brilliant football coach well after he's too old to survive being tackled; a woman may understand her sport far better after her body will no longer allow her to participate in it.

But in each case it is obvious that the teacher has some mastery that is greater than the bodily capacity to do the activity.

To paraphrase Aristotle: the craftsman knows something, but the one who teaches the craftsman must know even more.  My sabbatical has been a chance to deepen precisely the kind of knowledge I need to be a good teacher.

Be The Change You Want To See In Your Students
I can't speak for all teachers, but I find that it is not enough to know only as much as I plan to teach.  When I teach a course in philosophy, philology, theology, ecology, or history I must become a student of that discipline myself. 

This is one of the reasons why humanities professors are always reading and writing.  It is not enough to tell the students what we know.  As Plutarch put it, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."  My job is not to impart information; my job is to make students.  My job is the work of conversion, of helping people become what they were not, of facilitating the habit of learning throughout one's whole life. 

To put it negatively, my job is to avoid being a hypocrite.  More positively, my job is to be an example of the kind of change I wish to see in my students.  And this is why sabbaticals are so important.  They are not a reward for service, a respite from the work of teaching.  They are a chance to immerse oneself in the life of the student again, to strengthen the scholarly habits.  Sabbaticals make better teachers.

Looking Forward To My Real Work
Recently I was having a drink with some other professors in my field as we sat on a hotel rooftop in Athens.  Several of them described the tricks they've come up with to minimize grading and teaching, so that they can spend more time on their "real work."  This "real work" turned out to be their research.

Kvetching in bars is a popular pastime for many professions, so I won't hold those words against them.  And I can't claim to know what the difficulties of their lives are like, nor how hard it is for them to manage the stresses of the job market (neither of them has a stable position).  And both of them may in fact be excellent researchers who are producing books and articles the world needs.

But it made me sad to hear that things have so fallen out for them that they have come to regard teaching as an impediment to their real work.  I love teaching, and I'm grateful for the privilege of spending time with books and pens and bright young minds.  I love the way the books and pens become tools for working out our life together.

Some of my friends have been ribbing me about having to go back to work after a yearlong sabbatical.  I'm sure it will present some challenges, and I'll have less control of my schedule.  But honestly, I've missed the classroom.  This year has been like time in the shop, taking apart the engine and replacing worn parts, topping off the fluids, recharging the battery.  As the sabbatical comes to a end, I find I'm eager to rev the engine and step on the pedal. I'm looking forward to seeing my older students, and to meeting the new ones.  I'm looking forward to engaging in the lofty work I've been called to, of helping young people think in ways they had not yet imagined.  I'm looking forward to seeing their eyes light up as they read Plato and Kant and Emerson, to hearing their challenges, to seeing what happens when they, too, step on the pedal and squeal the tires.  I can't wait to get back to work.


If you're curious: The Plutarch quote, above, comes from near the end of his "On Listening To Lectures."  This is my rough translation, which I think comes pretty close to what he says.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Day Picasso Made Me Fall Down

My latest at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review.  The main content is behind a subscribers-only paywall for now, but here's the beginning and a link to the article:
"Twenty-three years ago, I spent my junior year abroad in Madrid. For half the year, I lived in a small apartment just off El Paseo de Recoletos, a short and pleasant walk to the Museo del Prado, one of the world's great art museums.
"At the time, I knew very little about art—a fact that really hasn't changed much since then—but in just one day, the Prado changed my mind about the importance of art, museums, and a certain kind of education."
Read it all here.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Against Grading

One of the best things to happen in my education was when I attended a school - a graduate school - that refused to give grades. "How is that possible?" you may ask.  "What kind of fluffy, feel-good, no-good education did you get there?"  To which I reply: a damn good one; one of the best.  Curious?  Read on:


We are sick with love of enumeration.  We've discovered that counting things over time is a powerful way to predict what will happen next.  And now we are mantic-obsessives, (that's not a typo) that is, people obsessed with prediction, with foresight that will rule the uncertainty of our lives.

Look: that's not such a bad thing, in a way.  What I'm describing is the root and trunk of science: quantification and statistical analysis is the beating heart of our understanding of scientific laws, which are about predictive inference.  Understanding of the laws of nature can save lives, and make water clean, and heal some deep wounds. Science is wonderful, and no liberal education should stint in its science offerings.

But if we're not careful - if we divorce science and enumeration from other ways of regarding value - that can make some pretty big holes in the world, too.  (Whenever I hear someone say that religion is the cause of human suffering, I think "What about chemistry?"  Both religion and chemistry can be deployed to change lives, and to change them dramatically.  Or to end them suddenly.)

Likewise enumeration.  The counting of things can give us great power to rule our own futures.  It can also give us great power to rule the futures of others, and not always in kind ways.  One real danger of learning to count things is that we find it too easy to shift from saying "It's hard to count X" to saying "X doesn't count."

Our quantifimania, for instance, has half of us (no, I didn't count, I'm speaking figuratively) believing that good teaching can be measured by test scores.  Or that someone's intelligence can be reduced to a simple number.  Or that a kid's giftedness, or ability to learn, or likelihood of living a creative and thoughtful life can be simply reduced to a GPA or a standardized test score.

Years ago, when I was thinking about beginning my graduate studies in Philosophy, a professor I knew suggested I prepare for my Ph.D. by attending St John's College's "Great Books" program.  I looked over the reading list and realized that even if it didn't get me into a Ph.D. program, it would be worth it for its own sake.

As an undergraduate at an elite liberal arts college in the northeast, I was continually reminded that little mattered more than my grades.  I was the sort of student who earned good grades with little effort, so it was natural to begin to believe that what mattered most came without struggle.  As a result - I realize this now, in hindsight - I bypassed much of the opportunity my college offered me by studying only what my classes required of me.

This all changed in my first term at St John's, when I wrote a seminar paper on Aristotle.  My tutor Matt Davis returned it to me without a grade on it.  Instead, it was covered with marginal comments, underlining, and a paragraph of reflection and response at the end.  But again, no grade.  "How did I do?" I asked him.  "Have a look at what I wrote," he replied.  Sure enough, he told me how I did: here were the things that were strong; here were the gaps in my argument.  No quantification, just explanation.

I wanted a grade because I'd been habituated to thinking of the grade as the way of judging the merit of my work.  St John's decision to refuse to give grades is an intentional and hard-fought resistance to that way of thinking.

At the end of the term, each of my tutors gave me one, two, or even three pages of handwritten comments on my strengths and weaknesses as a student.  But once again, no grades.  Nothing to distract me from reading their comments, nothing that would allow me to measure the worth of their comments other than the comments themselves.  And nothing to make me think: "Well, that's done."

As a result, I stopped thinking about grades and started thinking about ideas, and texts, and writing.  I started caring more about correcting my ignorance than about concealing it from my peers and teachers.  And I stopped thinking about learning as something that happens in fifteen-week segments.  Learning was no longer something that begins here and ends there.  Learning was now a river I step into, and in which I may swim, and bathe, and drink for as long as I am able.  And if I step out, it remains there, ever flowing, for me to return to.

It was only then that I realized just how bored I had been in school.  I had been bored since my childhood, because I had to show up, had to perform tasks, in order to get these lofty numbers that weighed so heavily and meant so little to me personally.

I've known many students who are bright but who don't do well on standardized tests.  I've known many others who don't do well on any test at all, and I've no doubt that much of it has to do with anxiety over the way their work will be reduced to a number, one they feel is so disconnected from what they know.  As a teacher I feel I'm constantly fighting to get my students to stop worrying about their grades, even while I'm required to assign grades to their work.  Grades are, in my opinion, one of the worst things to happen to education.  This is not to say I'm against evaluation or helpful feedback.  I'm all for them, in fact.  Which is why I'm so opposed to the damnable, lazy practice of reducing that evaluation to what can be easily counted.

The ancients tell us that King David sinned against God by counting his fighting men.   (Here, too.)  I think the sin was not the counting, but the way his counting became a basis for policy, and so for value.  When we weigh our forces before going to war, the question shifts from "Is this a war worth fighting?" to "Can I win?"  Both of those are important questions, but God save us from ever making the latter so important that we think of the former as a question that doesn't countThat kind of thinking turns people into instruments of war rather than free individuals; people become pawns, tools of policy, and they become as expendable as they are enumerable.  When we dare to quantify our gains and losses in terms of numbers of human lives expended, we have already lost something important that may be very hard to regain.

And God save us, likewise, from thinking of our lives as things to be measured, and measured against others' lives.  God save us from thinking of meaningful work as something to be done against a time clock, from thinking of wealth as something to be measured in numbers rather than in a richness of life.  And God save us teachers and citizens from thinking that the worth of a woman or a man can easily be measured by the grades they have earned, or that the predictions we may make on the basis of those grades should have the power of prophecy. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Because "Liberal" in "Liberal Arts" Means "Free"

“The student’s freedom of mind is dangerous if what is wanted is a group of technically trained obedient workers to carry out the plans of elites who are aiming at foreign investment and technological development. Critical thinking will, then, be discouraged…”
Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) p. 21.

Rebel Without A Camera: Museums, Images, and Memory

No Flash!
My old Brownie.  No flash!
My job as a college professor brings me to a lot of museums and archives, and this summer has been especially full of visits to museums, historical sites, and archives in Greece, Norway, the U.K., and the U.S. 

As a kid I found most museums boring, but now I really appreciate and enjoy them. I've spent many days of my life in the British Museum and in several museums in Athens, and each time I'm there I feel that time is rewarded with fresh discoveries and with reacquaintance with familiar objects.

Some museums have a reasonable policy of not permitting flash photography, since the bright light of camera flashes can degrade the colors of paint and dyes.  Others must insist on no photography when the objects on display are on loan from owners who will not permit reproductions of their images.

But in general, I object when museums and archives prohibit photography, especially when the aim is to force more visitors to come to the physical site.  Most people the world over will never be able to visit the world's great museums.  And many scholars could benefit from digital images of archival materials.  During a recent visit to an archive that hosts many of Henry David Thoreau's papers, I was disappointed to learn that I would not be permitted to take photos of some of the papers I wanted to read later.  This forces scholars to spend more time in the archive, which means spending more money - simply prohibitive for many of us.  So I type, or scribble, as quickly as I can to transcribe texts in some archives, and hope that I can somehow find what I need in the time I have.

The Ballpoint As A Tool For Seeing
But what if what you want to remember is not a text but an image?  Scott Parsons, a gifted artist and a friend of mine, has taught me that one need not be very talented with a pen to begin to capture images.  As Dr. Cornelius said in one of Lewis's stories, "A scholar is never without [pen and paper]," and I've tried to make that my rule, too, carrying pen and paper with me everywhere.  Scott tells me that a cheap ballpoint pen is, after all, one of the best tools for seeing.

It turns out, he's right: the pen is often mightier than the camera.  I think this is because the camera captures all available light, while the pen only captures what my eye and hand tell it to.  The chief obstacle to overcome is the disconnect between what my eye sees and what my hand draws.  Scott has pointed out to me that this is not the fault of my hand so much as a problem of mistaking what I think I see for what I actually see.  In other words, it is a problem of misdirected attention, when I pay attention to what I think is there rather than to what the light is actually doing.

Thoreau Farm
So far, no one in any museum has objected to my drawing what I see.  In most cases, when I draw pictures, people seem honored that I should take the time.  I drew this picture of the Thoreau homestead in Concord this summer, and a curator there happened to see it as I journaled.  She seemed pleased that I took the time to try to draw it.  I find that taking the time to draw helps me to notice details I'd have otherwise missed.  You can see I'm not a great artist, little improved from my youth.  But I'm not ashamed, because even if it's not a brilliant representation, it doesn't need to be; it is a record, in blue lines, of ten minutes of attention.  The image is not a photograph; it is a symbol of memory, like a call number for a book in a library that helps me to recall quickly the time I spent sitting on the grass in Concord considering the place where Henry David grew up.

Norwegian waffle: a bouquet of hearts
Norwegian fireplace
Memories Of Delight
I've also begun drawing inside people's homes when I'm a guest there - always with permission, of course.  This summer several kind Norwegian friends took me in for a week, giving me space to write while overlooking a fjord, and cooking me delicious Norwegian food.  In the evening we built fires in the hearth and talked quietly or played cards.  These are fond memories with friends, but they're also memories of delight in seeing new shapes of things.  Norwegians build fires and eat waffles as we Americans do, but the fireplaces and the waffle irons are different from the ones I know from my home.  The waffles I saw were all shaped like heart-flowers, giving visual delight in addition to the delightful taste (though I'm not yet sold on brown cheese as a topping.)  The fireplaces I saw were all open on not just one side, but two.  They looked different, but it was only when I began to draw them that I noticed what I was seeing.  This is a small thing, perhaps, but it is a reminder that what I take to be the natural shape of things often has as much to do with the traditions I grew up with as with nature.  As an aside, when I take the time to draw pictures, it often seems to be taken as a sign of respect, which is just how I intend it: this place you live in, this object in your home, is so wonderful to me that I wish to give it my attention and make it a permanent resident in my journal, the log-book of my heart.  May I?  Thank you, and thank you for the hospitality that allowed me to witness this.

Pics Or It Didn't Happen
Sometimes I choose not to take photos simply because the camera is itself a sign.  When we hold it in front of our face, it becomes not just a lens through which we see, but a symbol of distance: this moment, this image, matters because it will matter somewhere else, somewhen else.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to preserve the moment, but when the apparatus becomes the medium through which we perceive everything - when we feel we must record a photonic image of everything to make the moment real, reality itself somehow becomes less to us.

Ecce: the heart of Christ, a luminous doorway
Icons As Luminous Doorways
This summer I had the privilege of visiting the Monastery of Hosios (Saint) Loukas near Delphi in Greece.  I'm not Orthodox, but I have real appreciation for what I learn from the Orthodox traditions.  An Orthodox priest in my town has told me that icons are not objects of worship, but means of worship, images that help us to pray, just as windows help us to see.  The pray-er who regards the icon isn't supposed to see the icon, but, as with windows, to see through the icon.  In some sense the artistic image is intended to vanish when it is doing what it was intended to do.  This language has been a little bit mysterious to me at times, but at the monastery this summer I had an illustrative experience: I stood in a doorway with bright sunlight shining behind me.  Ahead, I could see through another doorway into the narthex of a chapel, and then through another doorway, to the altar at the far end.  Beside every Orthodox altar there is an icon of Christ.  This one was covered with glass, as icons often are.  The glass reflected back to me the image of the doorway behind me, as though in the center of the image of Christ there were a luminous doorway.  I tried to take a photo of this, but the contrasts were too great.  So I took out my paper and pen and sketched what I saw.  It's not a superb image, but it turned out far better than my photographic attempts did.  And, as in other cases, I found myself feeling considerably more present and more respectful of the place.
First Parish, Concord, Mass.

African Meeting House, Boston, Mass.
The View From The Pew

This was the case with several other holy sites I visited this summer as well.  I had the privilege of hearing Robert Richardson lecture on Emerson in the Unitarian church in Concord, MA this summer, and then to visit the "African Meeting House" in Boston, a site of worship and of community activism for African Americans in the 19th century.  It somehow didn't feel right to let the camera intrude into these places.  The pen, by contrast, felt like an instrument properly reverent.  Each stroke of the pen strengthening lines became like a prayer or an act of gratitude and reverence for the places I was in. In each case I sketched a "view from my pew," the view I had while sitting as worshipers have sat there in times past - and present.

No Photos!
But to return to the complaint with which I began this piece, too many places insist that no photography be allowed inside.  While participating in a Summer Institute on Transcendentalism sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities this summer, I was able to visit some wonderful places, like the Thoreau Homestead, several of the homes of Louisa May Alcott, and Emerson's home.  Visiting these places makes me a better teacher: they help me to tell a better story about the texts and ideas that emerged from them.  Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father, may have been odd, but his oddity is fascinating and delightful.  He built this outbuilding to house his Concord School of Philosophy, for instance:

Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, Orchard House
Architecture As The Embodiment Of Ideas
And he had some beautiful ideas about education: like the belief that children should be allowed to learn what they love to learn, that they should become bodily and sensorily engaged in their learning, that they should run and play and have recess, that art and literature should be significant in their learning, and so on.  I knew these ideas before visiting his Concord home and Fruitlands, but seeing the buildings he built to house his ideas helps me to see how he envisioned those ideas at work.

Chair in the Orchard House
Unfortunately, I can only show you the outside of the buildings at the Alcott house, because there's no photography allowed inside, nor at the Emerson home either.  So if you live far away, tant pis.  I guess you'll have to just travel and visit it.  Or, if you like, I can share the sketches I was able to make in our hurried tour.  Yes, let's do that.  I loved this chair, which is so oddly shaped.  In a time when so many chairs seemed intended to make you sit ramrod straight, this one seems to invite you to slouch in different directions, to be at ease in your own body, to delight in sitting in the company of others:

Louisa May Alcott's writing desk
The Alcotts weren't wealthy, but Bronson and his wife managed to provide each of their children with a room of their own, and each of those rooms is suited to the disposition and arts of the child.  Louisa May's room has a beautiful little half-moon shelf-desk jutting out between two large windows, perfect for writing stories and books, with excellent light.  When I visited, the room was full of tourists, so a photo wouldn't have captured it anyway, and my drawing is very hasty and a little cramped itself, but here's a rough idea of what it looks like while standing beside her bed, plus an attempt to give the bird's-eye view:

The Alcotts' sleigh-bed
Bronson and his wife Abby had some lovely furniture, and I was especially captivated by their sleigh-bed.  Its curved ends and gentle woodwork make the bed seem a place worth being, a place of rest and delight:

What I wish is that the owners and curators of these places would recognize that allowing visitors to take photos can help us to preserve the very places we are visiting, and to teach others about them.  I understand the desire to make those places special, just as I understand the fear that if you allow images to be taken maybe fewer visitors will come.  But for us teachers, taking pictures can be a way to allow our students to visit a place they might otherwise never go.

Thankfully, no one has yet prohibited my pen and paper.  Or yours.  I'm not up to Urban Sketchers quality, and may never be, but I'm not ashamed to use my pen as a visual instrument, nor to share with you what I've seen through it.  And I hope you'll do the same.