"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Read before the Election

If you read only one thing between now and the election on November 2, let it be Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell.

Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a professor of economics, a student of history, culture, and society, and one who speaks and writes not merely with opinions but with clear and powerful reasoning and the facts to back it up. I look forward to other works of his.

Intellectuals and Society offers a hugely important and enlightening series of arguments about the ways in which intelligent but unwise intellectuals influence the general climate of opinion, profoundly affecting our lives through the spread of their often unsubstantiated ideas on economics, social policy, the media, academia, the law, government, foreign policy, and war, even as they escape responsibility for the destructive consequences of those ideas.

Note that by “intellectuals” Sowell does not mean people who use their minds to do difficult and challenging things, like “brain surgeons or engineers” or “financial wizards.” He uses the term to refer “to an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like,” “dealer[s] in ideas, as such.”

As Sowell notes in Chapter 1, “George Orwell said that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool.” After defining what he means by intellectuals, Sowell goes on to apply sweet reason to a host of such ideas, many of which I in the past have taken, and most of the people I know still take, to be self-evident truth. It is a powerful wake-up book.

Though as a teacher of grammar and composition I am subject to some practical measuring of the quality of my work, as a teacher of literature and a writer I fall into the category of “intellectuals” as Sowell defines them, those for whom the only measure of the validity of their ideas is the opinions of other intellectuals. I take some solace from having left behind many of the false ideas Sowell refutes. Nonetheless, I have found the book not only enlightening but challenging and sobering.

The book is not exactly optimistic. Sowell contrasts the vision of intellectuals with a truer vision. About the former, he writes, “At the heart of the social vision prevalent among contemporary intellectuals is the belief that there are ‘problems’ created by existing institutions and that ‘solutions’ to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals, [who] have seen themselves not simply as an elite . . . but as an anointed elite . . . with a mission to lead others in one way or another to better lives.” The contrasting vision, rooted in traditional wisdom and in reason corrected by facts and experience, he calls “tragic.”

Yet the “tragic” vision involves not despair but honesty about the limits of human perfectibility. No one in despair could write such an illuminating work. In fact it is uplifting to find that a thinker like Sowell exists and is writing, trying to wake us out of our dreams of perfecting the world through wishful thinking that in fact have led to increase of suffering, which might have been prevented had wiser heads, like Sowell’s, prevailed.

Please read this book. If you have cause to refute any of its arguments with valid reasoning and facts, rather than merely unexamined assumptions, I will welcome your comments and try to address them. But I hope you will find, as I did, that Intellectuals and Society offers a powerful cleansing of some of the mental mess left behind by the typical late-twentieth-century education.

Read more about Thomas Sowell (and see some of his remarkable photographs) at http://www.tsowell.com.

P.S. This just in. Here's an interview with Thomas Sowell on the very book.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Terminal Conversation

School began today. Last week was devoted to faculty meetings. At the end of the last meeting of the week, we were asked to engage in a little exercise to illustrate a new bit of online technology.

Each of us who had a cell phone was asked to write a goal for the coming year and send it—the phrase was “text it”—to a certain number. I myself have a cell phone perforce, but I don’t “text.” Others did, however, and the website to which they texted—to succumb to the use of that hideous verb—anonymized—another techie word—the messages and sent them back to a logged-on computer. From there they were put up onto a big screen where we could all see, graphically enlarged, each disembodied goal as it appeared. Supplanted by the next goal, it was then graphically reduced and moved into a less prominent position on the screen. As many goals as were received then were periodically rearranged in a shifting dance of shallow bits of attention, each goal, in no discernible order, moving temporarily into prominence and then back into the swirl of phrases. End of demonstration.

There was no discussion among us about the goals themselves. There was no time or intent to absorb, think about, or measure their relative merits. There was no expectation that anything would ever happen with or about them. But there they were, bouncing into and out of our attention (whose deficit increased by the moment) in a regular but senseless rotation. It reminded me of the the hippos’ “Dance of the Hours” in Disney’s Fantasia: equally incongruous and unreal, but without a shred of irony.

During this exhibition of technological “advance,” my chairwoman whispered a reminder of Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “The medium is the message.” I didn’t blame anyone for this experience. We were all guilty by association. But when I returned to my room, I wrote a version of the following:

Our little texting-cum-video exercise illustrated the numbing of the mind toward which we tend when technology is joined to undirected discussion in a combination that may be called “terminal conversation.”

Start with the penchant of our faculty and administration for meetings, often involving long and energetic conversations on topics of every degree of importance, that, with no specific motion on the floor, end without result except the agreement to “talk more about this.” Add to that penchant the technologies exhibited last week: texting, an anonymizing website, computer graphics, and video projection. Then add the educational culture’s unquestioned assumption that, general technological progress being good and exciting, the importing of new technologies into the classroom is good and exciting.

The result is a medium in which the briefest bits of thought appear without background, context, or practical implication, bounce around on a screen together, and are instantly forgotten as inevitable boredom sets in (“oh, that old technique—it’s so last week”) and everyone departs to achieve goals that have nothing to do with those we left fruitlessly hanging in cyber space.

Here is what last week’s demonstration of this technology did not do: It did not foster—could not even invite—investigation, comprehension, validation, or judgment if the goal-bits. It did not permit mental space in which the goals might be assessed for desirability, achievability, or validity and then accepted or rejected. It did not so much as adumbrate, let alone enjoin, anything resembling an action plan. Nor did it make any of the goals—except perhaps the jesting one of getting a particular faculty member to learn to text—in the least memorable. Nothing in the exercise confirmed the value of human rational discourse.

On the contrary, the experience reinforced the social predominance of technological titillation and chipped away a little more at the educational institution’s hypothetical commitment to grammar, logic, and rhetoric in the teaching of goodness, truth, and beauty.

The only action plan to come out of the meeting was the (unstated) implication that we might want, each in his or her own way, to use this technology in our individual classrooms.

Here was a specific goal all right, but one that I hope will come to nothing, as (thank goodness) so many unexamined goals do. For to do such an exercise with students in a classroom would be to place one more heavy straw on the back of a dangerously overburdened camel—distracting students from substance with yet another new technique and turning what ought to be a bastion of rational discourse, namely a classroom presided over by a knowledgeable, virtuous, rational educator, into an opium den presided over by a newly addicted pusher. “Wow—look what this site can do!” In other words: “Wow—before my eyes this site can make my disembodied phrase become visually erratic and utterly meaningless while effectively preventing me from ever thinking about its context, intent, value, or likely fruit!” In still other words, the medium was the only message, dissolving into mere sensation any hope for the reasonable consideration of professional goals.

One of my professional goals this year is to resist and counteract the corrupting by technological fads of my students’ already impaired reading ability and attention spans. Does anyone want to talk about how to achieve that goal? If so, let’s meet—but not unless the screens are still and the only motion is on the floor.

Friday, August 06, 2010

To Stop Iran Support Israel

I earnestly request everyone to download the speech of Caroline Glick in San Diego last month and listen to it all the way through. It is on the subject of the existential danger to all of us from a nuclear Iran and what we must do to prevent it.

Please download the file and listen. The second link is of better quality if you have the software.



Another recording, . . . a little better quality but
depends on having compatible software, can be found at