Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

Was Plato an executive producer on Deep Space 9?

The Borg are probably the most enduring contribution of Next Generation-era Star Trek to the public consciousness, but after finishing Deep Space 9, I think the Dominion deserves further consideration. While the Borg were a simplistic version of “full communism,” the Dominion is much more philosophically robust — in fact, it’s basically a more extreme vision of Plato’s Republic.

The Dominion is ruled over by the Founders, a race of shape-shifters that is not bound by mere physical forms and is able to commune purely in thought through the “Great Link.” While they regard themselves as superior to the “solids,” they nonetheless feel compelled to rule over them — and here the reason that may be implicit in Plato is explicitly stated: they must control the “solids” or else face persecution and even destruction.

They control the subject populations by making use of two classes of genetically engineered functionaries. Read the rest of this entry »

Our broken market in parenting

Meritocracy has long been one of America’s most cherished principles. It informs the structure of our educational system, which at its best tries to ensure that the most talented students get access to the resources they need to succeed. Yet doesn’t the social mobility provided by education come “too late,” as it were? Before arriving at school, children are exposed to more or less random differences in the distribution of resources, simply by virtue of who their parents are. Talented students may be mired in a stimulus-poor environment, while the mediocre children of the rich receive, by virtue of a kind of genetic affirmative action, a wide range of educational opportunities that will ultimately be wasted on them. This so-called “system” of parenting prevents pure meritocracy from being achieved, meaning that there can appear to be a moral imperative toward market-distorting redistribution of wealth.

To remedy this standing offense against human freedom, I propose that we apply market principles to parenting. While there is currently no getting around the need to be physically born to a particular person, we can minimize the element of randomness by providing infants with parenting vouchers in proportion to their innate talents (as indicated by an appropriate standardized testing regime). Better parents would naturally be able to command higher prices on the parenting market. Thus the more talented children could then be matched up with wealthier and more socially prestigious parents, promoting the deserving child’s life chances and also making sure that the social and economic resources of their parents are not squandered. Children who were never going to contribute significantly to society could be given to less capable parents. If some kind of error occurred in the placement process, the educational system, as the engine of social mobility, would be able to correct for the problem — though presumably the system would improve over time, so that eventually even that correction would no longer be necessary.

Plato already recognized that something like this type of system would be necessary for a truly just society to emerge, namely, one in which each is rewarded for his or her own merits. While there is a considerable sentimental attachment to our current system, I think we all need to recognize that until our broken market for parenting is repaired, we can never be completely sure that those who are rich or poor truly deserve to be in their respective conditions.

What is education actually for?

Among readers of this blog, I’m confident that there is a consensus on what education is not for: namely, it is not exclusively for job preparation. While working is part of life and education has to contribute to that, I doubt that anyone here is willing to say that education should be geared solely toward work.

That said, then, what is it actually for? Read the rest of this entry »

Plato or Aristotle: Who’s better?

Since the New Year, I’ve been reading some hardcore Plato and Aristotle, working my way through the Republic, the Nicomachean Ethics (in progress), and the Politics (still to come) as part of my class prep. In general, Shimer has led to a major uptick in my consumption of both authors, and in the case of Aristotle it has amounted to a massive crash-course in things that I “should’ve read” long ago.

It seems to me that Aristotle is more authentically dialogical in his approach than Plato, despite the format of their extant works. Perhaps it’s the difference between exposing ignorance (Plato) and looking for the “grain of truth” in all the received opinions (Aristotle). The result is a different kind of tedium characteristic of both authors — it can be hard to summon up the will power to follow yet another thorough consideration of various fine distinctions (Aristotle), but my eyes just glaze over through the repeated “Of course, Socrates!” sections in Plato.

At the same time, experience shows me that Plato’s dialogues are much better for generating in-class discussion than Aristotle’s texts, so what do I know?

A question on the Phaedrus

Today in class, we are finishing up Plato’s Phaedrus, and the students in my first section seemed to be mildly disturbed by the famous critique of writing therein. It was clear that they “wanted” Plato’s own writing to somehow be written in such a way as to escape his own critique. The best we were able to come up with is the way that his dialogues seem to be almost uniquely fruitful for discussion — and I would add that the multiple points of view (even though those other than Socrates are sometimes a little weak) as well as the complications that come from the situations of the dialogues and other literary features may make Plato’s dialogues nearly impossible to take “literally.”

What do you think?!

Posted in Plato. 5 Comments »

The faith of Socrates

I taught the Phaedo this semester, and needing to divide it over two class sessions, I found a convenient stopping point — Cebes claims that Socrates has only demonstrated that the soul lasts longer than the body, but not that it’s immortal, a claim that throws Socrates’s companions into a depressed and confused state of mind and even prompts a return to the framing device. Focusing on this first half in relative isolation from the rest of the dialogue was helpful in that it forced me to grapple with the question of why the arguments of the first half run aground. It has to be more than the simple fact that Socrates usually analyzes and discards several arguments in the course of a dialogue, since the break here is so dramatic and pronounced.

Dealing with this question has led me to some observations that are doubtless unoriginal, but hopefully at least a little interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

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