Oct 26, 2014

September 22, 2014: I Am a Log, Serious Stuff, Platitudes Bromides and Certainties.

As I recall it, well now over 40 years after the fact, I was sitting in the classroom studying psychology when Professor Morgan asked the assembled to draw pictures of who we thought we were, with a few notes of explanation.  Shortly we began to go around the room and each student duly presented his or her artwork and accompanied by a brief oral discription of who they were.  When he got to me I produced a picture of a log, explaining that I was just sitting there like an old log observing the world as it passed by.  Professor Morgan, a bit taken aback asked incredulously, “What’s a log, man?”  “I don’t know, but whatever it is its more natural than being an electrical engineer or administrator” was my reply.  A hush settled about the room generated by a certain uneasiness as the assembled moved about a bit in their chairs.  “Explain, if you will”, intoned the professor.   “I am not my occupation”, I said, “I am more than that.  I exist, I occupy space in this time on this planet, while I’m here I am many things, most of all a social animal embedded in a web of social relationships all of which define who I am.  It’s more than a question of vocation, or economics, we are all larger than the pidgeonholes in which we sometimes all too willingly allow ourselves to be contained and defined”.   “That’s serious stuff” remarked the professor. 

 My contributions to the class consisted of scoring two principle points.  First the infamous “I am a Log” statement in which I tried to drive home the point that the essence of personhood is not and should not be narrowly defined by one’s occupation.  The second point came at the end of the class.  The students were asked to tell the class what their grade should be and defend it.  There were two, what seemed to me at the time, ‘old’ ladies who commuted together each day down from Whitehall to take classes.  The ladies in question were, I suppose, in their 40’s at the time working on their degrees in hopes of becoming elementary school teachers.  Now it transpires that it just so happened that this class, all about child development and pedagogy, was at the vangard of a new approach to teaching little Jane and Johnny.  In the hopes of stirring latent ‘creativity’ it was thought, the old school approach of sitting at desks and being confronted with a structured program was hopelessly outdated to be replaced by an ‘open’ classroom where the young charges would be allowed to wander about and, when he or she became ready, the student would naturally, following some inherent curiousity, sit down and master the task at hand.  I saw the movement as a passing fad, like modern Rap, but just like the modern musical abortion this proved to be one of those institutional movements that would endure.  In any case when the ladies presented their case for their grades to the class, a rather condescending classmate opined that it was refreshing indeed that the old foggies should, at such a late date, still have the mental abilities, as well as the extraordinary courage to adopt new ideas.  The exchange, after a time, went beyond unsettling and began to resemble harrange bordering on harrassment.  I moved to step in.

 I raised my hand and had no trouble at all getting the attention of Professor Morgan who by this time was becoming visibly uneasy.  Gaining recognition and the floor I began my observation.  “You know I’ve been at this institution for four years now and have read many books. I have labored long and hard over this time and at quite an expense.  It is at once gratifying and depressing that I find myself here today.  Gratifying that I have at last found, between the covers of this textbook the TRUTH.  I need look no further, for alas, we have indeed reached the pinnacle if not the end of the quest for knowledge.  I can, therefore rest from my labors and enjoy a lifetime in quiet repose.  I am depressed though because the TRUTH, it transpires, has been right beneath my nose all the time and it has taken so long for me to find it and for this institution to lead me to it.  I suspect, though, that in 40 time some enterprising ‘expert’ in the field of education will make his or her reputation by proposing a program of matriculation that is wholly at odds with what we have learned here and this program will likewise be received with all the enthusiasm and certainty that we currently are showering on the authors of this text.”  The dear Doctor simply nodded with a wry smile, acknowleging the point and relieved that the tension had left the room. One must be careful with platitudes, bromides and certainties.  One must not be about the business of erecting monuments lest one be slain by a falling statue.  A healthy skepticism is in order for without it one loses one’s peripheral vision and what is presented to us as certainty all to often is simple illusion. 

 Alas, Professor Morgan, one of those cherished few souls with courage to wander outside the ‘box’, was soon pressured to leave my alma mater, soon to be replaced with god know’s what since the Governor had placed the likes of Richard DeVos, he of the Scamway company, on the Board of Control.  But before he left, I was priveleged to be among those who benefitted by his insights and willingess to have his students confront life and the meaning of life. 

Oct 24, 2014

September 21, 2014: Radio Daze, Canned Platitudes, He Hasn't Read His Marx

Back in the 1970’s an old college buddy was deeply involved with a local community radio station in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Among his storied duties included hosting an hour long talk program dealing with current affairs and observations.  To this end, he would occasionally invite me to observe or participate.  One Sunday evening I was at the station awaiting our turn in the studio when I overheard the guest on the radio defend the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  It transpired that the person in question was one of those faux radicals present on campus in the late 60’s and early 70’s reincarnated here as a hopeless apologlist for anything the Commissars in the Kremlin were engaged in.  When the program was over, I confronted old Jim.

 The question quickly boiled down to basic, as he understood it, Communist Ideology, with me questioning the legitimacy of the actions taken by the state.  It was a reiteration of the old Orthodoxy, at least as it is past on in American schools, and I quickly pounced.

  “What’s the difference between the state expropriating the fruits of labor and the Capitalist doing so.  Is not the state simply the Capitalist writ large?”,  I inquired.  He was taken aback by the question, clearly not anticipating it.  As I remember he responded with the usual canned platitudes. 

  “So I take it you’ve never read the ‘Paris Manuscripts of 1844’ (1) have you?” I asked.

  “What’s that?” was his befuddled response.

 I went about trying to explain to him that this is the work that preceeded all others.  It was here that Marx began to hone his famous Theory of Alienation and lay the groundwork for his critique of Capital.  It is the underpinning of all that will follow, including his ‘withering away of the state’.  Marx, I contended would have been appalled at the spectre of the Soviet Union.  If you want to see Communism in action, he would later write, look to the Paris Commune.  This was an elected government briefly formed in Paris when the regime was toppled by the German invasion in the Franco-German war of 1871.  It was, in fact, light years from the heavy handed Stalinist regime the remnants of which were still in place.   Later, one of our mutual friends, taken aback by the exchange, said “he wasn’t ready for that was he’?  “No,” said I, “He has not read his Marx”. 


 (1)   Published under the title “Economic and Philosophic          Manuscripts of 1844”       
              The work is commonly referred to simply as the  
               "Paris Manuscripts"                                      

Oct 19, 2014

September 20, 2014: Most Assuredly Wrong, See For Myself, One Chapter Ahead

“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
 It’s a wonder I can think at all”        
                             ----Paul Simon “Kodachrome”

“I’ve discovered later in life that, with the possible exception of basic reading and mathematics, most of what I was taught was most assuredly wrong."
                           ----from "The Quotations of Chairman Joe".                                              

Nineteen years ago I found myself substitute teaching in what is now called a “middle school” (formerly a Junior High) a class in sociology, which had become the format for teaching a combination of sociology, history and government.  In the course of the conversation a rather perceptive student opined that he thought that schools were nothing but indoctrination centers.  I was a bit taken aback by the observation, but I recalled reading in my history that the French Minister of Education proclaimed at the end of the 19th century, as the state had wrested nearly complete control of education from the church, that “now we will make good nationalists of them”.   I found myself unable to mount an effective reply and simply nodded in agreement.  It is hard to see it in any other way.

 From making ‘good christians’ to making ‘good nationalists’ the educational system is designed to meet the demands of a certain agenda, whatever that agenda may be.  It may be parochial, or it may be public, but whatever it’s agenda it is certain to entail the adoption of some belief system leading to the veneration of certain established institutions otherwise known as the “Box”.  To think outside the “Box” is to risk heresy, ending in certain chastisement, marginalization or outright banishment.  To that end, certain forces are at work to see that the material is presented in an ‘acceptable’ if not official manner.  In the United States, agencies like the Texas authorities comb every textbook to see that they meet their preconcieved ideas of what the true history and governance of this country is, reflecting true ‘American’ values.  It is like that in every country. And so atrocities, betrayals, chicanery, and outright mendacity are expunged from every textbook leading the young to believe that theirs is a ‘chosen’ lot in life be it Divine Providence or the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the nation into which one is born.

 I first became aware that something may be amiss when I visited the “Farm” in my youth.  In previous posts (see “Northwest of Custer” and “Return to Custer”) I have mentioned that visits to my grandparents were seen by the ‘folks’ as much as an opportunity to teach as it was a time of reaquaintence.  During one such visit my great Uncle Lionel closely questioned me concerning what they were teaching at my parochial school.  I could tell by his body language and the nature of the questioning that he was dismayed if not appalled.  It was the complete rejection of Natural History, I would later come to appreciate, as well as the implied war on science that he could not sanction. I returned to school with, I think, a greater peripheral vision but when I answered a ‘science’ question stating that the world was 4 billion years old, I was not only marked down but singled out for reprimand.

 And so began my long questioning of what were presented to me as established ‘truth’.  I remember the tirades against the forces of ‘evil’ prominent among them were the works of Marx and Nietszche.  I began to suspect the interpretation and, when I emerged from my ‘studies’ later in life, the first thing I did was purchase a copy of every work still in print by these two writers  I just had to see for myself.

 As I suspected, what was presented to me so authoritatively turned out to be a mere characterization of their works, betraying a blinding ignorace of what these people were trying to say. I suspected, even as a boy, that perhaps the truth was more encompassing, now I found myself face to face with the genuine article and it was revealing.

 Nietszche in his work “Thus Spake Zarathustra” has the protagonist coming from the mountaintop and dispensing his newly formed observations concerning the human predicament to anyone who will listen.  Soon he gathers a group of followers who take his every utterance as nearly Divine Revelation.  Zarathustra becomes uneasy, continually protesting that “I have not been understood”.  Finally, in exasperation he warns his followers that one should not be about the business of erecting monuments lest one be slain by a falling statue.  And so it is.  Every writer, every thinker, must be painfully self conscious.  Every philosopher or theologian must be continually vigilant lest he be laid waste not only by his opponents but by his very adherents. 

 Nietsche warned his readers that he was not the answer, but possibly only a steppingstone in the long quest for truth.  “To disagree with him and to know why”, as Kaufman his translater would so succinctly and aptly put it, is the real challenge facing every reader.  It is the real challenge and the real pleasure in reading any great work. To critique it instead of blindly and submissively accepting or rejecting is the great treasure. By reading such works with such an approach one can engage in a kind of dialogue with the greatest minds of humankind.  But alas, that is not how one is taught to read in any school I’m familiar with.

Indeed it gets worse.  I am currently near the end of reading Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” I found a complete set of this work at a bookstore in Winder Georgia and had to lay my hands on it.  This was another work held up as testament for the need to follow the ‘straight and narrow’.  Gibbon, we were told, was one of the truly great historians. He wrote, we were assured, that the reason the Roman Empire fell was that the people no longer followed the true religion and that decadence had finally been the undoing of the great historical experiment.  If only the Romans had been faithful to the Church….. I discovered reading this work that my suspicions were well founded for Gibbon wrote no such thing.  True enough, the empire fell from within as the people no longer felt it was worth defending against the barbarian hordes and in fact hired the barbarians as mercenaries to defend the empire for them.  So it was, to a great degree, a loss of faith but it was a loss of faith in the efficacy of the state, not a religious question.  To cast the fall of the Roman Empire as a theological question, stemming from a growing ‘degeneracy’ and loss of a moral compass, is to greatly strain the historical record.

 In fact, I was to discover later, that was precisely the theological cunundrum confronting St. Augustine.  How could it be that the Empire began to unravel soon after the adoption by the state of Christianity as the state religion.  For Christians everywhere this was the great paradox.  Augustine did his best to explain it away but Gibbon, I was later to learn, never made the attempt. 

 So began my introduction with historical criticism creating as it did a lifelong passion for the subject.  Entering the public schools I was likewise harranged by my instructors concerning the shortcomings of so-called ‘heresies’.  Nietzche never got much attention in the public schools largely because they aren’t fixated with his “god is dead” proclamation, but Marx—considering the “Cold War” at the time—got more extensive, if not less biased treatment.  There were classes in Marxist “Dialectical Materialism” and “Historical Determinism” and, of course, his wild prognostications were always fodder for ridicule. We even held a “Communist Classroom” in our “American Problems” class in High School as a way of demonstrating what school may have been like behind the Iron Curtain.  We each had to choose a ‘Russian’ name, and sit ramrod staight and salute when called upon.  I took the name of Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov a point lost on my peers as well as my instructor.  

 By reading Marx I discovered many more dimensions.  First his historical analysis as to the orgin of modern Capital and his statistical discription of Capitalism in Dickensonian England are worth reading simply because they are so accurate, a point the ‘folks’ back at the farm impressed upon me all those years ago.    Of all the criticisms leveled at Marx no one takes umbrage with his economic analysis.  Engles has been widely criticised for his methodology, not so Marx who was the better historian and economist.  Secondly, there is the Marxist Theory of Alienation, a part of his thinking so far reaching and so penetrating so as to be at the very foundation of his philosphy.  The alienation of man, town from country, rich from poor, even from himself lies at the very foundation of the moral—yes moral—outrage that permeates his work.  In the eyes of Marx the Capitalist, by appropriating a portion of the fruits of a man’s labor, steals not only his wealth but his personhood.  He is expropriating part of the very ‘selfhood’ of the laborer. This is a deeply penetrating part of Communist ideology, as formulated by Marx, but wholly ignored in the treatment of it—if the subject gets any serious attention at all—by our schoolmasters and schoolmarms. 

 Back in college we were tasked with reading the ‘historical novel’ “The Sotweed Factor” by John Barth.  It is an 800 page tome cast in Colonial America (Maryland as I recall) which we had to read for one of our weekly book quizzes.  In it the Protagonist teaches school for a short period of time observing that the mark of a good instructor is to always be one chapter ahead of his students. I soon began to suspect that my instructors were running the race only a mere chapter ahead of me.

 And so it is. It’s not simply that my instructors in a parochial primary school were passing along theologically driven characterizations, its that none of them, be they private or public, primary or secondary, or even university level had ever read their material in the original (or translations of same).  In high school history and government tend to be taught by the coaches of the sports teams, meaning that they majored in physical education in college and minored in the subject at hand.  This means that they rarely got much past the required ‘survey’ classes in college, putting them precisely one chapter, more or less, ahead of the class.  That’s why Americans have no idea what a Communist is, let alone a Socialist, or Fascist.  They have no idea the difference between an authoritarian regime and a dictatorship, let alone between a democracy and a republic.  This is why the Teabaggers can characterize our President as a socialist, a communist and a fascist, all in the same sentence.  And this is why most Americans don’t know that the words “Capital” or “Free Market” never appear in the founding documents but the word “Regulate” or varients of it, do.