Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dr. Dewey, Metaphysical healer...

A few days back, I stumbled upon a review on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews of Larry Hickman's Pragmatism as Post-postmodernism: Lessons from John Dewey. I was prompted to pick up the book (via friendly interlibrary loan) and have started reading it. There are things that I would like to say, and hope to say, on the relationship between pragmatism and postmodernism, first brought to attention by Rorty and addressed here by Hickman. However, in light of recent discussion, as well as the overall theme of this blog, I appreciated the following passage:

...Dewey wrote to Alice [his wife] that he had been approached by a speculator at the Chicago Board of Trade, a certain Mr. Van Ostrand, who had been working on a philosophical "scheme." Van Ostrand had offered Dewey $100 to serve as a kind of philosophical consultant. (This was, by the way, no mean sum. We know that just eighteen months earlier Dewey's annual salary was $2,200.) "For the first time on record," he told Alice, "in our experience at least, metaphysics made the connexion with the objective world--...if there are many men like him in Chicago, I'll resign & go out there & hang up a sign 'Dr. Dewey, Metaphysical healer.'" (Hickman, 2007, 17-18)
In droll fashion, it seems that Dewey is saying that we can try too hard in our efforts to make our philosophical reflections popular, accessible, and responsive to the immediately felt "problems of men".

Do we actually need a little more distance than we think we need, between our reflections and their immediate applications, and between our expression of them and communication to a non-philosophical public--lest we become "metaphysical healers"?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gathering Audience for a Blog

All of us bloggers start out by blogging to ourselves. Audiences do not show up uninvited. This is no "field of dreams." We can "build it" but they still may not come.

Today's Blogging Tips blog has some very useful guidance for how educational bloggers, including the authors and readers of SOCIAL ISSUES can attract audiences and fellow participants. This is helpful for those of us seeking to contribute to progressive, engaged, public thought on emerging social issues.

Here are just a few of the tips:

1.) Use suggestive titles
Use titles that are different from the norm! Words that work well evoke a mental picture that magnetically pulls you in to read more. Titles like 7 sexy ways to sharpen your pencil are good. Boring titles are bad. Andrea English's recent "Honey . . ." post drew readers and a follow-up post from Susan Laird.

2.) Use link bait
Linking to draw attention us a great way to get some action happening on your blog. Anytime somebody blogs about stumble upon, digg, facebook, etc. readers usually relate and therefore feel they have something to say. Controversies also work well with link bait posts.

3.) Do regular link love posts
Many of us do a weekly link post while others do them more sporadically. Linking to other bloggers creates a sense of community and trust. People will visit you and say thank you and before you know it, you might even have a new reader.

4.) Accept guest bloggers
If you open up your blog for guest bloggers it might just give you that extra boost in traffic. Granted, the topic of your blog should be one that speaks to a wide audience.

5.) Give away a free ebook
Here Social Issues will soon start soliciting "white papers" in which scholars re-purpose their research for public or policy maker consumption. White paper give-aways are very powerful tools for attracting readers and subscribers.

We are learning to build our blog and it is time to think about how best to make it inviting so that we are talking to our intended audiences and not just ourselves.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Honey, who’s watching the kids? Take two!

Barbara Stengel’s “theory-practice puppy” is commanding attention this summer in Oklahoma too, precisely over Andrea English’s question—but in its non-satirical ordinary sense associated with necessary adult efforts at child-minding, as distinct from institutional surveillance. Andrea is right that the latter is a serious social issue worthy of much critical discussion, and I don’t want to detract from the importance of her concern about institutional surveillance. But I have little to add to it, and at the same time I know that this question’s non-satirical sense has a different kind of urgency for students who are parents. For their sake I do want to suggest that this question’s ordinary sense presents a social issue as well, about which “post-feminist” complacency on a Social Issues blog like this would be decidedly premature.

As professional educators, we have dedicated our lives to the improvement of children’s schooling and of colleges and universities. Yet how many of us have taken those broad aims seriously enough to pause and ask our students—not in the interest of surveillance, but in the interest of empathetic understanding of what they and their children are going through: Who’s watching their “kids” while they’re in class? How hard was it to find someone or someplace to help them fulfill that responsibility? How long did they have to spend on a waiting list in order to get such help? How much is such child-minding costing them, and how can they possibly afford it as graduate students? What are their children doing and learning while they’re in class? Where, when, and how can they find the time to get their own academic work done? What do they have to do when their daughters or sons or their parental partners or hired child-minders get sick? What effects might their parenthood have on their anticipated speed of degree completion? And, last but certainly not least in any educational studies program worth the name, what educational wisdom might they be learning through their abundant parental labors? (Such questions can be posed intrusively to individuals, of course, but I am not suggesting that; as discussion questions, they need not and should not be posed intrusively.) Doubtless some of you have felt little need to ask such questions because you have worked through such challenges yourselves and know how difficult they can get, but I have not confronted them myself, because (much to my regret) I have never been a mother. As a doctoral student, I conducted philosophical and literary case studies of mothering as educating, partly with a view toward my own future motherhood. But watching my female peers in such circumstances, I could never see my way past such hard questions to envision myself even capable of working through them adequately while a doctoral student, while an assistant or associate professor. Therefore, I confess a personal disposition to admire the chutzpah and ingenuity of graduate-student mothers.

After witnessing my step-daughter’s childbearing and childrearing through nearly a decade of scientific doctoral work at a major research university, a mighty and sometimes desperate but ever resourceful struggle even with my son-in-law’s 100% collaboration and remarkable parental talents raising my grand-daughter, now aged six, I resolved to open Pandora’s Box by asking what our student-parents in educational studies are going through here in Oklahoma. Graduate students specializing in educational women’s and gender studies have gathered together over all the above loaded questions this summer around a table at our local free public library’s children’s section. Their children, of both sexes, range from the age of five months to the age of military deployment in Iraq, and some students are not yet parents, but hope someday to bear and raise children of their own without sacrificing their intellectual and professional development in order to do so. They are themselves diverse in age, race, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, and economic circumstances, and (because they do need to feed and shelter their children) most are employed full-time as educators of various sorts while attending graduate school and raising their children.

In response to my questions, I got an earful that I cannot divulge without IRB approval for such communication; that is why I enjoin you to find a way to ask these same sorts questions of your students, so that you can compare what you find out with what scholar-mothers are writing on Inside Higher Ed’s MAMA PhD blog by, about, and for “Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics." Lest you wonder at the practical or theoretical significance of such informal and internet inquiries with your students, one graduate student-mother of two, Robin Stroud, has referred me to an interesting University of Victoria dissertation (1997--old but probably not yet outdated) in Communication and Social Foundations, Breaking the Silence: Toward a Theory of Women’s Doctoral Persistence, by Roberta-Ann Kerlin, a qualitative study of electronic mail transcripts and face-to-face interviews, whose fifth chapter reports of her research subjects that “To be seen and accepted as serious scholars in the academic milieu, where motherhood has a negative status, required them to make a cognitive shift in which one’s primary identity as a woman was displaced with a newly emerging identity as a scholar. This identity shift gave rise to internal conflict and was manifested in the strained and sometimes estranged relations the women experienced with their families. . . . This reshaping of their identities in a way that devalued this fundamental aspect of who they were contributed significantly to the ambivalence the women felt toward academe as an institution.” Yes, I know! There is essentialism here, but so what? The alienating conflicts reported are deeply felt nonetheless, with consequences for women’s doctoral persistence.

Even without IRB approval, I think I can safely tell you that graduate-student mothers in the University of Oklahoma’s College of Education are no strangers to Barb’s theory-practice puppy. At the Society for Educating Women’s inaugural conference in the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in May 2008, one student leader within the Oklahoma group, Kara Morgan, a toddler's mother, had presented a carefully conceptualized survey of theoretical literature on mothers’ learning; a new mother, Maria Laubach, had presented her study of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s theory of pedagogical mothering in German; and yet another mother of three, Julie Davis, had presented her study of Black lesbian-feminist Audre Lorde’s theorizing about maternal teaching, specifically with regard to her thought on educative vs. miseducative anger. A couple of them had read Jane Roland Martin’s Coming of Age in Academe (2000) and recognized this informal summer gathering at the public library as what Martin, following the Swedes, had named a “fika,” a gathering for both mutual support and problem-solving. Meanwhile one schoolteacher-mother of two teenagers, Kristen Holzer, had presented her formulation of lesbian-feminist mother-poet Adrienne Rich’s thought on coeducation, and therefore urged the group to study together Rich’s classic 1975 essay in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979)—“Toward a Woman-Centered University”—because it lays out an agenda for what this group calls “family-friendly” campus development.

Now in legal process of non-profit incorporation as the Oklahoma Mothers and Educators Collaborative (with guidance from a graduate student who presented her feminist-ethical critique of legal education at the Hull-House conference, Virginia Henson), this group has articulated its mission, begun designing a website, embarked upon research on other universities’ family-friendly features (which have turned out mostly to target faculty, not students) and upon possible partnerships with various Student Life administrators including one non-mother student in the group, Johnnie-Margaret McConnell, and the university’s Women’s Outreach Center. They are planning what they hope will be a schedule of children’s meals, homework help, and artistic, aesthetic, and athletic activities during their evening class times, over which student interns and retired persons may preside; this means they are wrestling with hard questions about safety, insurance, and the like in order to realize their vision of what they want for their children. But they believe that an educational studies program’s student parents can make the college of education a vital locus of cultural creativity, initiative, and leadership for educational programming that can benefit graduate students’ children across the university as well as women’s persistence to graduate-degree completion and education students’ professional learning. Realistically and collaboratively, they are starting small, doing only what they can, one step at a time.

How do busy student-parents find time for such activity? They find time for it because it offers them a supportive community of friends who are going through similar parental and academic struggles as well as opportunities to transform practical obstacles to their graduate studies into subject matter for their scholarly study. This activity is part of their apprenticeship for the educational studies professoriate, through which they are learning how to theorize, initiate, organize, and lead transformative professional service for social justice—for policy changes and new programs of educational value. Indeed one member of the group, Pam Harjo, a mother whose graduate assistantship concerns service to a department committee for graduate recruitment, is showing the group how their work may serve that interest no less than their own needs as student-parents. Meanwhile, the problems to which this group’s members are giving their attention pose many questions worthy of philosophical, historical, and sociological research on childrearing, higher education, and women’s & gender studies. Moreover, they could learn much from those of you who have learned how to survive the juggling act that they are now attempting—and from your students who are also parents. Contact:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Honey, who's watching the kids?

If you search "surveillance in schools" in Google News you'll find that more and more districts across the country are turning to video surveillance to monitor student and teacher activity in schools, including in some cases in elementary schools. And it seems that it is not just security experts who can watch the live and recorded footage, but also administrators and authorized staff. ( e.g. "Thompson District School Board Oks video cameras and High Schools upgrade security camera access )

As NPR reported today, many cities are now using planned wireless networks to link hundreds of surveillance cameras that create greater opportunities for monitoring in areas all over the city, including in public schools as is the case in Chicago. However, as the article also states there is high potential for abuse of surveillance material. The ACLU reported that “video surveillance systems lack an adequate system of checks and balances” and in Privacy International’s 2007 report “the U.S. ranked worst country in the democratic world when it comes to putting laws on the books to protect privacy and enforcing them.” See full article: Cities gone Wireless: Safety or Surveillance? 

Will surveillance and privacy be an issue in the upcoming election? Who is protecting the right to privacy of those young people who can’t yet vote?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Obama on education...

In response to Len's question, here's what I think is Obama's most extended statement on education. (It would have been more appropriate to respond in comments, but I couldn't have embedded the video that way...)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Theory-practice and moral education

(Cross-posted at "Smart and Good")

The theory-practice puppy is nipping at my heels today as I begin teaching -- for the second week in a row -- “Children’s and Adolescents’ Moral Development.” That’s the title of a workshop for P-12 educators in my region of Pennsylvania. I’m co-teaching this week with my friend and colleague developmentalist Mary Casey.

The participants in this workshop want “practice,” and eschew theory. But practice is not a how-to manual, and theory is not useless. Pedagogical practice involves socially-framed and contextually-determined, sometimes habituated, sometimes thoughtful, but always particular responses to particular sets of educational circumstances.

Particularity matters when it comes to practice and so does the community of agents within which any practice gets its meaning. And that’s why I can’t simply “deliver” specific actions, or even typical strategies, that teachers can put on the shelf and take down and use when they want to put on a “moral educator” hat. What I can do is coach teachers to richly interpret the circumstances and challenges facing them so that their responses fit – intellectually, emotionally, psychically, relationally, i.e. morally. This is a pragmatist view of moral decision-making and action that relies on the work of Christian theological H. Richard Niebuhr in The Responsible Self, one that is clearly congruent with John Dewey’s understanding of valuation and responsibility.

Interpretation is a complicated process integrating attention, cognition, imagination, anticipation, empathy, and self-understanding. Humans interpret all the time in all sorts of settings, sometimes well, often poorly. Limited or inaccurate or avoidably biased interpretation leads to ill-suited, potentially immoral response. Thorough, grounded interpretation enables fruitful, moral action.

The capacity to interpret well is grounded in experience and knowledge. What practitioners refer to as “theory” is part of that grounding. Aristotle’s emphasis on the role of habit in doing the good reinforces most educators’ intuition that modeling matters and reinforcement of constructive behavior results in “good kids,” focusing them on their own behavior and the internal and external reward for apparently good behavior. Kant’s claim that reason yields a universalizable categorical imperative to be obeyed by the well-oriented will pushes us to look for the principles at work in any circumstance. Piaget’s formulation of stages of cognitive development is really a framework for interpreting student learning, just as Erickson’s socio- crises offer a lens for recognizing some social and emotional forces shaping a youngster’s actions. Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning enable an educator to know how to talk constructively with kids about moral dilemmas. Gilligan’s emphasis on relationships in theorizing moral development introduces gender as a potentially important interpretive element. Noddings’ phenomenological analysis of caring as a relationship rather than an individual feeling calls us to scrutinize relationships as interactive.

It matters not for action that someone can accurately recite the stages or categories or principles and connect them with the correct author – but it does matter which stages and categories and principles frame one’s interpreting, even implicitly. It does matter that educators have a richly-developed theoretical sensibility; it matters that they internalize the habits of interpretation that these theories underwrite. It is here that theory is married to practice and cannot profitably be put asunder.
So I have to do more than tell them what Aristotle or Kohlberg or Noddings say. My own practice as the co-instructor of this workshop must model the ways of seeing and understanding that I deem important for their practice as moral educators – and then I have to catch them trying it out and help them recognize the payoff in understanding that will reinforce their new interpretive framework.

“Theory” and “practice” are analytic constructs, pragmatic products of emphasis and point of view. If I am laboring in the field, practice is my lens. If I am laboring in the laboratory or the library, theory is my lens. But either way, both theory and practice are present in my thinking. Dewey of course knew this and said so on numerous occasions. I have to do more than say so in my workshop this week; I have to find a way to help the teachers who are my students internalize this insight so that it shapes what they see and how they interpret the value of our work together.

Christian theologian Paul Tillich asserted that “Morality is not a subject; it is life put to the test in dozens of moments.” His claim fits neatly with Dewey’s distinction (in Moral Principles in Education) between “ideas about morality” and “moral ideas.” Moral ideas are ideas that move us to action. Moral ideas are our answers to life’s tests. Ideas about morality are the medium through which we talk about and reflect on our frames for interpretation. Those frames are central to moral action, but not, in themselves, enough.

So the theory-practice puppy deserves – and will get – my/our attention this week. But along the way, I’ll be trying to shape a concept of practice that will render the theory-practice puppy toothless.

Obama and McCain on Education

A blog at the Chicago Sun Times offers a comparison of the two candidates on educational policy issues.

Neither candidate has made education a central issue in the campaign.Beyond endorsing NCLB McCain has had little to say. Obama promises to "fix" NCLB by providing full funding and reducing the emphasis on standardized testing. He wants struggling schools to receive support rather than chastisement and threats of closure.

McCain supports vouchers while Obama does not; he favors strengthening the public school system by increasing public school choice.

Following Kathleen Kesson's post last week, SI invites comment on the evolving positions of the candidates on educational issues, as well as position statements that might inform the campaigns and the public on educational issues.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

C.E. Ayres--maverick intellectual

C.E. Ayres, a wide-ranging public intellectual, was a man who seldom shied away from controversy. Perhaps as a result of this tendency, in 1951, the Texas house voted 130-1 to fire him from his post at the University of Texas for questioning the capitalist system. (During the vote, the atmosphere became so hostile that one young left-leaning legislator hid in the bathroom in order to avoid having to support Ayres publicly.) The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and Ayres kept his job.

Ayres was an avowed disciple of Dewey, and he consulted with Dewey when he was writing his first book, Science: the False Messiah (1927). The main point of the book is to question the public’s faith in science, and Ayres’ aggressive, punchy style makes for a captivating read. He makes a number of points that still ring true today--for example, in a chapter entitled “Science Will Provide,” Ayres points out that scientific discoveries don’t occur simply because we want them to happen:

It is very doubtful if any major discovery of science was ever made as the result of a generally expressed need for that discovery, or invention in answer to universal demand. Inventions come because they are possible, not because they are wanted, and scientific inventions come in precisely the same fashion, and in the case of every invention its ulterior effects are what nobody has wanted and most people would acutely dread. Science as a whole will surely go on to the discovery of things we little dream of…to bring about one of these inventions in answer to our prayers is only just short of impossible. (Science, the False Messiah, 262-263)

In another part of the chapter, Ayres cites some specific examples, most notably that of cancer. He notes that although we have wanted to cure cancer for a long time, it has largely resisted our wishes.

In the quote above, Ayres overstates the case to some extent. If more research dollars are allocated to an area, discoveries are arguably more likely. Still, Ayres is pointing to a kind of thinking that is still prevalent. Frequently, we expect science to provide the results we want, and to provide these results quickly. John McCain has recently proposed a $300 million prize for a more efficient battery, which may be an example of the kind of thinking that Ayres was criticizing. We may want and need a more efficient car battery or a cure for cancer, but we should not assume that “science will provide” if only we demand these things strongly enough.

Some links to learn more about C.E. Ayres:

Handbook of Texas Online

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wish List for the New Administration

This is my first blog post; thanks, Leonard for getting this initiative off the ground and for inviting me to participate. I haven’t quite “decompressed” from the spring semester, as I went right into the summer semester, so I’m going to take your invitation literally (you promised “a paragraph”) and try not to be overwhelmed by some of the latest detailed, lengthy and philosophically thoughtful posts. What I’d like to initiate is a blog strand that discusses what the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have to offer in the way of new and fresh ideas about education. Are we in for more of the same no matter which party attains presidential power? Will the dance to the right, left, and center towards desired constituents neutralize any potentially powerful ideas for change? Each of them - McCain and Obama - have “issues” that they have offered some commentary on: perspectives on national standards, educational choice and competition, character education, merit pay, etc. I’d like to suggest that we take one issue at a time, and try to generate as much “complicated conversation” (thanks to Bill Pinar for that phrase) about it as we can. I would like to see what collective, pragmatic inquiry looks like when we take on issues that have the potential to go beyond traditional right/left ideologies. How might we, as Kathleen Knight-Abowitz suggests in her blog post of July 2, “remain committed to the questions rather than one fixed set of answers,” and maybe, just maybe, influence the course of events? If progressive educators could prioritize our policy wishes, how might that list read? What role would we want a new president to play in the formulation of federal education policy? I suspect we are all very hopeful about opportunities for real change, but where should Dewey-inspired educators put their focus, in terms of influencing policy?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Dissolving some new dichotomies

I’ve been catching up on several issues of Education Week that piled up as I spent some time decompressing from the stresses of the spring semester and the joys of my younger child’s college graduation.  Several commentaries caught my eye and brought John Dewey’s habit of dissolving apparent dichotomies to mind.  I’ll mention just two here:

1)   In the May 21st issue, NYU Dean Mary Brabeck highlights the importance of what she calls (following researchers in the medical field) “translational” research.  Brabeck argues that the soon-to-be-post-Whitehurst Institute of Education Sciences ought to be thinking about supporting research that brings neuro-, cognitive-, and medical sciences investigators into direct collaboration with those studying the practice of pedagogy and the education of teachers.  Brabeck acknowledges that this range of researchers may be “epistemologically at odds” with one another, but she offers significant NIH funding for centers that bring basic scientists together with medical practitioners and the development of two new journals with “translational medicine” in their titles as evidence that educational research agendas can be shaped so that conflicting ways of knowing are bridged by carefully designed collaboration.

In the practice of medicine and teaching, one’s knowledge of the “basic science” that informs each profession serves as a kind of reflective platform on which one stands when determining possible interpretations and plausible responses to this particular case.   The findings of the neuroscientist don’t tell me what to do, but those findings do tell me where to look, what questions to ask, what possibilities to consider.   The epistemic divide apparent between basic researchers and researchers of practice is a post hoc analytic distinction, not a distinction present in the moment of decision, in the process of interpretation and response.   If that is so, then there is no bar in principal to the kind of research Brabeck supports. 

2)   In the June 4th issue, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson argue that “disruptive innovation” will change the way we learn.   They bemoan, as many commentators have, the standardization in contemporary schooling and they call for customization of instruction.

Unfortunately, they begin their commentary with the claim that “all students learn differently,” insisting “most of us know this intuitively.  We learn best through different methods, with different styles, and at different paces.”    They suggest that differences are in learning styles, multiple intelligences, and/or aptitudes.  Dewey would challenge this claim, I think, or at least require a more precise linguistic formulation of the fact of our learning.    Dewey’s view is that we all learn in the same way no matter what the lesson – through a process of inquiry, employing the “method of intelligence”  -- but that every learning experience is different because every particular set of learning circumstances is unique.  

Despite their reliance on a misleading clichĂ©, Christensen and friends are right about the need to recognize the unique quality of particular learning experiences and to call for school restructuring that supports customization by enabling “disruptive innovation.”  The latter concept fits neatly with the Deweyan reliance on doubt and discomfort as the prompts for learning.

Christensen et al. suggest that standardization and customization are mutually exclusive.  On the surface (and as exemplified by their example of Microsoft’s Windows closed operating system versus Linux open source and modular system), their dichotomy makes some sense.   But Dewey warns us to be wary of such hard and fast distinctions when recognition of a certain kind of “standardization” (the common process of human learning) is what enables us to explain the variance and customization in actual learning experiences.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Soft Cosmopolitanism

In "The Ambivalance of Ordinary Cosmopolitanism," (Sociological Review 55, 4, November 2007) authors Zlato Skribis and Ian Woodward studied the cosmopolitan ideas and practices of first world adults. Asked to reflect on their own cosmopolitan attitudes, respondents expressed positive sentiments by referring to "easily accepted opportunities" for travel, cuisine, and aesthetic pleasures (e.g., world music) associated with globalization. They did not, however, refer to the "more difficult aspects of cosmopolitan openness," such as showing hospitality to strangers or accepting the interests of humanity ahead of their own national and personal interests. Furthermore, the positive aspects of the cosmopolitan situation were counter-balanced by their fears of "culture loss" or "dilution of national culture".

The authors theorize that "cosmopolitanism is a set of structurally grounded discursive resources available to social actors, which is variably employed to deal with issues like cultural diversity, the global, and otherness." To put this in simple English, people in advantageous positions flip flop about cosmopolitan openness when the going gets rough.

Spiritual retreats, wth their glowing menues of trans-national philosophies and gurus, appear to be a prime site for soft cosmopolitanism.

The New York Times, in an article on Kripalu Institute in Massachusetts, "It’s Not Easy Picking a Path to Enlightenment," notes that the latest yoga super-stars invariably draw large (and well-paying) crowds, who tend to flock around them like groupies.

Even their relatives can rake it in. "If you’re not a celebrity, it helps to be related to one. Denise Barack, Kripalu's programming director, noted that the man leading the “Working With Your Angels” seminar was “the son of someone who’s well known for angel work."

Meanwhile, socially conscious programs such as “Conscious Kitchens” featuring the cookbook author and food activist Francis Moore LappĂ©, have been poorly attended. “Some of our more socially conscious programs tend not to draw as well,” Ila Sarley, Kripalu’s president, said. Other dud categories include aging (“People want to feel like they’ll be eternally youthful,” and organic gardening.

They want to feel youthful without working very hard.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ayn Rand - a public philosopher?

Yesterday a grad student sent me a link to Ayn Rand's 1974 commencement address to West Point entitled, "What is Philosophy?"  This student, who I had suspected was a lot more conservative in his politics than he was willing to admit in class, wanted to know what I thought about Rand's take on philosophy.  As I read the piece, I was struck by a few observations regarding public philosophy and work of publicly-engaged scholars.

It was interesting to think about Rand delivering this as a commencement address in 1974 to West Point cadets.  When I think of how much fluff passes today for these kind of speeches, I was pretty impressed with the depth and raw ambition of the address.  To take on the question, "What is Philosophy" with a bunch of restless college grads and their families today would require real courage, which I surmise Rand did not lack.  In today's sound-byte age, Rand's delivery of a substantive and challenging talk at a graduation ceremony evoked some nostalgia in me.  

For those of you who are on the edge of your seats regarding the title question, "What is Philosophy?" let me put you at ease:  it's the Queen of the Sciences, the foundation of everything.  As Rand states, "Philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man's relationship to existence."  She tutors the cadets on the branches of philosophy, starting with epistemology, moving to ethics, politics, and aesthetics.  She makes a great case, I think, for why people should be interested in the abstract ideas of philosophy -- why abstractions are the stuff of thinking itself.  It's a passage I may quote to my philosophy of education classes in the future.

Her argument, in the talk, is that these cadets need not just philosophy but "a philosophic system" so that their principles and actions in life can be integrated, coherent, conscious, rational, and disciplined.  And guess which philosophic system she proceeds to sell?  Rand's Objectivism has been at the center of her novels for many years; I remember twenty-two years ago when I read Atlas Shrugged between my junior and senior years of college, and I still see her titles in the hands of many students.

There is much to disagree with, for me, in Rand's philosophical system, but that is not really the point of this post.  Rather, I'm more interested in the question:  what kind of public philosopher was Rand?  While Rand was not a philosopher but a novelist by profession, her books, speeches and letters seek to promote one philosophical system; the non-profit Ayn Rand Institute carries the mission on from Irvine, California.  Rand did not practice philosophy, but sold a philosophy through her books, speeches, and influence.  She was enormously successful in this endeavor, but it's important to distinguish between practicing philosophy in an engaged, public way,  and selling a philosophy to the public.

Practicing philosophy certainly includes much of the stuff that we find in Rand's talk -- the reading, writing, and argumentation in the traditions of epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics, among others.  Yet I believe that philosophy that is engaged with public problems and contexts requires that we remain committed to the questions rather than one fixed set of answers.  It also requires that we stay engaged with the communities and multiple publics of our material contexts, bringing the practices of philosophy to these different arenas in the service of shared interests and common problems.

In 1974, when Rand was delivering this address, the U.S. military was in the midst of pulling out of Vietnam, facing one of its first and worst military defeats in modern history.  To the cadets of West Point, Rand sought to uplift those soldiers that were facing sharp criticism in American political life.  "You are attacked, not for any errors or flaws, but for your virtues.  You are denounced, not for any weaknesses, but for your strength and your competence.  You are penalized for being protectors of the United States."  She continues:
Today's mawkish concern with and compassion for the feeble, the flawed, the suffering, the guilty, is a cover for the profoundly Kantian hatred of the innocent, the strong, the able, the successful, the virtuous, the confident, the happy.  A philosophy out to destroy man's mind is necessarily a philosophy of hatred for man, for man's life, and for every human value.  Hatred of the good for being the good, is the hallmark of the twentieth century.  This is the enemy you are facing.
Rand offers the West Point cadets the same larger-than-life heroism that characterized all of her protagonists.  As a person whose entire existence was defined by the 1917 Russian Revolution, Rand's hatred of communism was palpable and defined her life's philosophy and work.  But to offer West Point graduates, the U.S. military leaders of our present generation, leaders of the most powerful military machine on earth, a greater sense of their own righteousness, virtue, and power seems terribly foolish.  

A military machine like the one that stumbled and fell in Vietnam certainly did not need the smug certainty and heroism of Rand's individualist heroes, but the reflective inquiry practices of the philosophical tradition.  "What is Philosophy?" mistakes a philosophical system for the practice of philosophy, called a practice because of how we must keep engaging its questions, problems, and contexts as new circumstances and problems require.  Rand is a fascinating public intellectual and novelist, and an ambitious commencement speaker, but in the end, her answer to "What is Philosophy" mischaracterizes what philosophy's true gifts can be.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Productive Writer

Over at the blog Zen Habits Brett McKay has posted a wonderful short note on Emerson's thoughts on the productive writer-scholar.

Here are Emerson's Three Rules:

1. Write everything down

Men are born to write… Whatever he beholds or experiences, comes to him as a model and sits for its picture. He counts it all nonsense that they say, that some things are undescribable. He believes that all that can be thought can be written, first or last; and he would report the Holy Ghost, or attempt it. Nothing so broad, so subtle, or so dear, but comes therefore commended to his pen, and he will write. In his eyes, a man is the faculty of reporting, and the universe is the possibility of being reported.

2. Eliminate Distractions

The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation: and it makes no difference whether our dissipations are coarse or fine; property and its cares, friends, and a social habit, or politics, or music, or feasting. . . Friends, books, pictures, lower duties, talents, flatteries, hopes, - all are distractions which cause oscillations in our giddy balloon, and make a good poise and a straight course impossible. You must elect your work; you shall take what your brain can, and drop all the rest. Only so, can that amount of vital force accumulate, which can make the step from knowing to doing.

3. Keep moving

“Ah!” said a brave painter to me, thinking on these things, “if a man has failed, you will find he has dreamed instead of working. There is no way to success in our art, but to take off your coat, grind paint, and work like a digger on the railroad, all day and every day.”

Great guidance from one of the greatest of engaged scholars.