Why they are called the humanities

Well, the study of humans seems fairly hopeless. Doesn’t it? I mean first of all, knowing what humans are is the domain of physiology. Isn’t it? Humans are giant amoebas. Vast colonies of smaller organisms and microbes collaborating to achieve one thing—to continue. You know—to survive, to beat off competitors and to reproduce, hence to survive, etc. The current collective is only of value if it procreates; it’s the simplest of evolutionary principles. This iteration is insignificant; only replication counts.

So, what’s to study? If all we are, are self-replicating biomechanical devices, engendered by the quadrillionth roll of the carbon-based slime dice, the only thing to pin down are the genomic odds of any one of us happening. Of course we might want to study ways to make humans better at surviving the odds, sacrificing ourselves in the interest of assuring that there are children and children’s children. Logically, we should have as many children as we can produce, preferably of superior quality. Our off-spring will have to compete against all competitors for our available resources after all. Then we should bury our own future in the economic compost to contribute to the resources for our children, who must be competitive in an arena with neighbor children, so they can do the same for their more competitive children. – Oh, wait…we do that now!

Anyone who sees this existence as other than a seriously grim reality would, I believe, be someone who would neatly fit this definition, which is not humanity at all. This reality would be ours with all of our humanity stripped away, and that is not who we are. But it is all too much who we are becoming.

The study of the humanities is the study of who we have been able to become, well beyond the biomechanics of evolution. Yet, there is a close tie in the humanities to the physical human as well. The humanities appeal through our senses beyond food, fighting and sex. Free-marketeers, however, have certainly seen the economic advantage of mimicking the humanities to tap into these basic impulses, and this has not been lost on the purveyors of the humanities themselves. The arts use the visual and auditory to catch our attention and stimulate responses unnecessary for and not contributing to our continued existence, yet we come back to them over and over—Mona Lisa—Beethoven’s 5th—Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. Literature pulls us out of our reproductive cycling by using our sensory imaginations not just as a preparation for the hunt, but being transported into an alternative existence—Morrison’s Beloved—Homer’s Ulysses. And for what? None of these assure our great-grandchildren’s fecund existence.

The humanities help us build a context for who we are, as a species, as a people, as an individual. Among the humanities, history seems to hold a unique place. All that we have been is who we have become, and this story is what history tells us. Even how our history is presented—Euripides or Doris Kearns Goodwin—informs our minds eye, human voices sounding human voices from the past.

With a foot in two boats, philosophy has, for millennia, achieved something that the sciences have not yet satisfactorily achieved—seeing outside the solidity of the mundane. It is in this contested frontera between the lands of theoretical physics (a form of math) and religious exegesis, in this transcendent reality that philosophy carries us into an existence beyond all else, genuinely room into which to move as only humans can.

The arts, literature, history and philosophy are only unimportant if our world has not humanity, if humans are competitive rather than compassionate animals, if we are self-serving rather than self-aware beings. Who we are as humans cannot be gleaned from gathering food, fighting off raiders and producing children. An amoeba does that. We must see a much broader horizon, glimpse distant, misty peaks, be stirred by the striving songs of others, and to care and wonder why. The sciences may seek the answers, while the humanities will ask the questions for which there may be no answers.

If the humanities are allowed to dim into obscurity, how will we even know what we have lost? If that which lets us be human is gone, what will it mean to be human? Yet the sad truth is that we are not choosing to shed our humanity; we are offered new clothes which will let us appear as emperors of our domains, and we are allowing that, even inviting it. In whose interest is it that we discredit the humanities and embrace the sciences? Who benefits if we don’t ask why? How will we be served by diluting the uniqueness of ourselves in the engineered seas of progress? How will we know how best to move forward? And what is the price of our wealth, after all?

Little Red Riding Hood, 2014

Little Red may seem pretty small.
She’s better off red than just dead.
Poor Red isn’t riding at all.
And her hood fully covers the head.

Along comes a wolf in the story.
He’s hungry, and vicious and grey.
He develops a plan very gory.
He’s devoured some kids in his day.

Disguised as a granny he’ll wait.
Ol’ granny’s are cozy and snug.
So Red should consider her fate,
And look closely at Granny’s old mug.

False comfort is comfort enough.
The truth is hard, sharp and a pain.
Little Red really isn’t too tough.
And that’s why she’s gonna’ get slain.

A wolf in disguise is a lie.
But the lie isn’t quite the real crime.
A wolf in sleep clothing is real.
Little Red will get eaten this time.

Thank you Rick Perry and

Thank you Rick Perry

Art in the Age of Narcissism

   She had flown to Paris in the high season with three friends. They were staying in a typical European economy hotel; a double room meant a double bed and a small sink in the room, shared showers and toilets, a three-story walk up. The four women’s two rooms up different staircases. The rooms not big enough for the four to visit and talk about the creepy people on the plane, in the airports and those French customs people. And drink a little wine. This was France after all. The shot: two twenty-something faces mugging, backed by a bit of dormered window on the left and a quarter of a pillow, some of a metal headboard and a dingy wall on the right.

   Getting to the Louvre had been a nightmare. A taxi driver they approached just stared blankly at them. Using a smart phone they mapped themselves and the Louvre, started off in the wrong direction for a couple of  blocks before checking again, not finding streets names on sign posts, corrected direction and trudged on anew. Then it took twenty more minutes to get there – walking! “My God, we’re only here for a couple of days.” And once, at the Champs they found lines a block long. The shot: four grimacing faces squeezed together against a backdrop of one of humanities favorite activities: waiting in lines and crowds.

   Once inside, the density and intensity of crowds increased. Some of Europe’s masterworks in linseed oil and pulverized stone framing a shuffling mass of pained expectation. The goal is the Mona Lisa, undoubtedly the most famous and certainly the most viewed, albeit in reproduced forms and photos, painting in the West. A remarkable accomplishment for an industrial and military engineer, and meticulous researcher and draftsman, especially appreciable in this time when engineering is the great hope of the middle classes, much as prize fighting was held to be the great hope of the poor Irish a century ago.

   Finally our traveler manages to reach the cordon, forcibly held in place by a substantial matron in a grey guard’s uniform. Pushed and jostled, our traveler turns to face the murmuring crowds, her back to Leonardo’s enigmatic smile. The shot: a young American woman, carefully made up, hair long and flowing, perfectly crafted smile looking directly into the lens, over her left shoulder, an eye, forehead and hair, slightly out of focus, possibly the Mona Lisa.

   On the streets of Paris again, they search out a sidewalk café, where they will sit and noticeably watch people passing, as they nurse their coffees and discuss their plans for conquering Amsterdam. But what now? Window shopping, maybe? “How much money do we have left?”

 

There is no yesterday and no tomorrow.

There’s only now, and that’s the sorrow.

Cold Comes in January

Crows on our snow pile,

Crows in the back yard,

Our frozen crows in January

Put us on our guard. Sleek and black,

Blacker than the snow filled night,

Like the squirrels, they point north.

 

The rooster on the garage roof points north too.

You’d think there was something good coming that way.

There’s snow and wind and cold,

And it’s been coming that way all night and day.

 

It’s a January day.

The bird feeder swings back and forth

And round and round.

Sparrows jump on and off, up and down

Like children on and off

A playground merry-go-round,

Laughing, arguing, screaming with delight.

 

The wind whips and whistles,

Blowing and bending as it goes.

The temperature is sinking, and it’s early still,

But it’s not still. It’s biting.

 

The wind fills its breath with snow,

Greying the air, filling the lately shoveled walk,

Clouding the car windows,

Merging the leaf pile with the piled snow.

 

And now they’re gone,

The crows on our snow pile,

The crows in the back yard.

They soared into the tall trees,

Waiting, watching, cawing,

Waiting for January to take its toll.

January 2014

A Lamp Is Lit

Chilling ghosts drift across the heavens.

Fragile fingers spread into a stream,

A suffocating, wan December sky,

Blankets coldly, easing downward,

And, humbly, we succumb.

Thus nullified, we rest,

And try to recover and rebuild.

We breathe slowly, and invest in solemnity.

We design aimlessly and conspire with phantoms.

We plan and plot and prepare. And for what?

We wait. For waiting is the last resort,

The final function, the night watch

When all the leaves have been stripped away,

When the brown ground lies fallow

And the lifeless sky presses down.

We are left on our own, alone at last.

Our winter’s wood has all been cut and stacked.

A kettle’s on the stove. Bread is in the oven.

The door is shut and barred. A lamp is lit.

It’s quiet now, and in the evening,

Dreams, unfulfilled, drift blindly to the ground.

They calm our solitude and sanctify our peace.

And in the spring, there won’t be any tracks.

December 2013

November 2012 (revised)

When the water in the dogs’ dish
by the coffee shop door
is a broken chunk of ice,
encasing a single yellow leaf,
When the windshield grows
an inner film of mist as
the defroster tries to thaw
the rime of brittle crystals
that map an early winter vista,
When the last rich aroma of leaf mold,
the warm colors of maples and oaks,
the royal purples and peasant blues
of the asters succumb
to the first hard frost,
That’s when my mortality
stares me in the eye.
January 2014

Philosophy tells us who we are

While I have not read widely on the subject of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation, I have read enough to see what appears to be a common core of arguments.

  1. We need national standards to be competitive in the global economy; vs. we need local control to assure our national character and integrity.

  2. We need the content and levels, specified in the CCSS, to assure quality in education across the whole country; vs. we need to honor choice, and regional and local values that are nurtured through our education system.

And my favorite:

  1. We need to be able to compare schools on a consistent scale; vs. we need to support every child in every school to maximize every individual’s innate potential.

Put another way, these might line up as:

  1. Globalism v. parochialism

  2. Uniformity v. individuality

  3. Free-market competition v. Marxist socialism

This analysis is based on a cursory examination of the commentary, to be sure. I would say “the literature,” but that would suggest a higher level of academic study on the part of the commenters. After all, implementing a nation-wide formula for education based on presumed outcomes is implementing a strictly probability-based inductive rationale. It’s a bit unrealistic for anyone to speak with grounded authority on the outcomes, though many might assume such a posture.

Something that I see in my analysis is a similarity to other arguments afoot across the world. All these argued positions are similar to positions taken in economics and corresponding social structures. And while this might be a loose relationship, it bears some consideration, because it invites the question, “What underlies the discourse on the Common Core State Standards?” In other words, why are we having these debates in education, economics, ethnic identities, and religious beliefs? Isn’t what’s best for the most over the longest time the goal? Apparently not.

I would say we spend far too much energy arguing the road to take and far too little energy trying to discover a goal upon which we can share consensus. In the CCSS debate, little seems to be said about what we agree on as the goal of a public education system: assimilation of diverse peoples into a single national identity? (1890-1910) The development of the human psyche as a spiritual being? (1920’s) The creation of a core of technical elite to direct and manage cadres of practical crafts and labor? (1920-1940) To establish an informed electorate to form a true democracy? (1940-1960) All right, these are rough, broad strokes, but they certainly represent raison d’État in public and, concordantly, private education in the U.S. in the last 150 years or so. And how unlike the gymnasia of Athens 2,500 years ago.

Thirty years ago, I puzzled over what was really expected of me in the classroom. Think for a moment about all the voices, many quite demanding and even threatening, If education is anything, I think, it is the institutionalized effort to acculturate and socialize emerging generations—to bring the rising population into the culture and society of a people. If that’s the case, then the problem seems pretty clear; The United States, by its design and history, is not a single people. At least not in the 21st century. We don’t have a common culture or a common society.

The debate, it seems to me, that we need to resolve is where we want to be on several spectrums. Where do we want to be, for instance, between absolute conformity – very efficacious, e.g. the Nazi war machine – or total individuality – apocalyptic anarchy where feudal war lords rise and fall trampling the masses. Please don’t be naïve; there are a few who would happily embrace the extremes. But there are deeper questions that we avoid even mentioning in practical arenas such as education. What is success? What is the balance between reality and fairness? What should determine what is right and what is wrong? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean that we can even ask such questions?

Philosophical (and religious) questions have plagued, entertained and elevated human beings throughout recorded history. Only physical conflict can compete for longevity, but cannot be said to elevate humanity; although it has elevated science and engineering. While STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) might suggest preparation in the field of conflict, though certainly very many other more humane fields as well, there seems to be little in the CCSS to promote the idea of questioning—the mean by which we clarify and understand—the philosophical puzzles. The world of science tells us what we are, but the world of philosophy tells us who we are. It is the philosophical that raises humans above the rest of the physical world, and leads us to ask “Why?” – the little child’s question that seems hardwired into humans.

So here’s what’s going to happen with the CCSS. It will be implemented poorly and unevenly and even incompletely across the states over the next five or six years, and will be overtaken by the next reform effort. During that time, it will spawn a sea of books, articles, research efforts and college programs—in their own reformed shapes—that will become an exhausted source of profit in the end. The new reform debate will generate a new wave of the same sorts of profitable sources in its turn. Cycles happen. The linden tree has a heart shaped leaf and, when viewed from a little distance, has a heart shaped profile as well. Patterns result from underlying, often mysterious, causes. Education reform cycles, and repetitions, I imagine, are in the underlying gene structure of society.

I gave up listening to all the voices (not in my head as it happens) telling me what education should be doing. Now that my career in the classroom is over, I feel satisfied that as the years passed, I was more and more able to get my students to ask why, in effect,  returning one starfish at a time to its home in the sea. I put my energy into starfish these days. I don’t see much point in trying to STEM the tide.

Complexity Theory

I’ve heard about Complexity Theory. It sounds like reductionism to me, though I’m told I’m wrong there. Dwelling somewhere between chaos and determinism, complexity theory seems, perhaps nobly, to be trying to understand the structure or natural laws governing the existential balance between chance and order. It seems a bit like divining the principles of an engineered universe. And certainly there are things that seem very highly engineered, in physics for example, positively deterministic systems, until we encounter quantum mechanics. Then our understanding is pushed perilously close to chaos. The weakness in seeking an understanding to predictable outcomes for highly complex events is the somewhat quantum nature of the causal agents, you and me. We defy reductive reasoning.

If reductive reasoning presumes that the complexity of a thing can be defined or reduced to a single cause or formula, its logic hangs on causal networks that are patterned or replicable in some way. If the exact same state exists in all aspects, then the exact same effects will descend from a single causal event. Expanding the cause to a set of causal states, changes little. There are two possible shortcomings in this theory, which do not falsify it, but may certainly dilute if not neutralize it.

The first is an easy shortcoming to predict: the exact same state existing in all aspects. This is an extremely improbable, if even vaguely possible occurrence. If the universe began with a big bang or has always exist, with our understanding of it deriving from passing through time and space, then, whether or not it is progressing, it is always changing as we see it. Therefore, we have already passed through the time and place where things were as they were, and can never pass through that time and place again, we assume. Even if we were there again—and there’s no reason to doubt that that ‘there and then’ with us in it hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t always exist—it would still be the only time and place where “the exact same state [is] existing in all aspects.” So much for exactness; what about similarity?

There is promise of usefulness in this notion of reductionism at a less exacting level. The weather forecast is based on gathering aspects of climatology patterns, on which meteorologists’ computers, applying algorithms based on past results of similar states, can predict the probability of a range of outcomes. The forces of the irrational deterministic world seem pretty well subject to the reductionist theory. But what about the rational world?

The second shortcoming is degree of predictability on non-deterministic events. First of all, in human interactions, past data of the specificity needed to formulate reasonably reliable algorithms may not very well exist. Take for example the cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria. How much critical data can be collected from the first two situations from which to predict a reliable pattern for events as outcomes of the third? In the first place, there was only the slightest number of aspects in Iraq and Libya to call them so much as similar, and Syria shares an even smaller number with both. And it hardly matters how many conflicts we examine, in comparison with the more than 30,000 days of weather data from which to draw positive probabilities. We get what amounts to a weak guess of the final outcome. What’s more, weather is highly regular in its patterns due to our solar cycles compared with human events that have a slight daily and annual pattern and a life cycle. None of these cycles are very regular, especially in a world of global, continuous communications.

The second shortcoming is also subject to rational disruption. Reductive reasoning can easily be applied to poker; there are a known number of cards of each value in the deck and in play. The game is pure chance, except that players fold and bluff, rationally disrupting the course of chance. Even if we come up with reasonably reliable predictors of probability for massively complex human events, or even for our own life events, we will always have to deal with the folding and bluffing of other players in the guessing games of life.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Maybe people are changing. I have always found one pattern of complex human behavior to be consistent: the more we learn of history, the more we know how little we’ve learned from history—the  more we see that history simply repeats itself. The meteorologists don’t change the weather either. Makes ya’ wonder, doesn’t it

What is it to be old?

What is it really to be older? What is it to be old? When we look back fondly and say such things as “when we used to care about things,” are we not really trying to return to the past, to recapture it? Or are we trying not to face now? Why wouldn’t we want to face now? Is now so much harder than then? I wonder if then was really so much easier then than it seems to be now? Is now really so much harder than then?

Remembering is selective, of course. Remembering what made us feel good then generally makes us feel good now. Remembering what made us feel bad then would probably make us feel bad now. But either way we tend to regret (a really bad feeling) that it’s not then any more: bad things were losses then and good things are lost now. We’d probably be better off not remembering.

But to reminisce, to indulge in sweet nostalgia—are we not compounding a folly by filling the gaps in fragmented memories with syrupy creations akin to dreams in reverse? When we get old, really old and stop telling people we’re not old, just older—when we reach that stage, we could well have abandoned not only dreams for the future but even an awareness of now and exist live afloat in this sea of dreamed history dotted with islets of factual memories.

Is memory, no matter how sweet and soothing, enough to be a life? At best, memory is an inaccurate recreation of past sensations, a programmatically flawed raster rendition of past inputs. Yet this is the past we are drawn to, eventually becoming a reality generated from a dementia-jumbled conglomeration of memories swimming in a jelly of backward directed hope. Over statement perhaps, but not ill-conceived. What is it to be old and to try to live our not-old lives over?

What about the everyday old, when there simply isn’t much coming in? when memories begin to rub against the ankles of our thoughts, purring their need for attention? Do we slip into the warm waters of sweet memory and quit the dry world of the living? Are we zombyized—not quite dead, yet not part of the living, sweating, noisy world?

When we dream in our sleep, we are who we are. I am 25 or so, active and passionate—outside of age, but inside of life. But these are dreams. Perhaps dreams, like memories, are pulling us back to when we believe life was good, denying the goodness of our lives now, offering us a chance to start over, do that last bit again so we can get it right.

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