A Story for Today…

from John Taylor Gatto (about 3/4 of the way down the page):

The greatest intellectual event of my life occurred early in third grade before I was yanked out of Xavier and deposited back in Monongahela. From time to time a Jesuit brother from St. Vincent’s College would cross the road to give a class at Xavier. The coming of a Jesuit to Xavier was always considered a big-time event even though there was constant tension between the Ursuline ladies and the Jesuit men. One lesson I received at the visiting brother’s hands2 altered my consciousness forever. By contemporary standards, the class might seem impossibly advanced in concept for third grade, but if you keep in mind the global war that claimed major attention at that moment, then the fact that Brother Michael came to discuss causes of WWI as a prelude to its continuation in WWII is not so far-fetched.3 After a brief lecture on each combatant and its cultural and historical characteristics, an outline of incitements to conflict was chalked on the board.

“Who will volunteer to face the back of the room and tell us the causes of World War One?”

“I will, Brother Michael,” I said. And I did.

“Why did you say what you did?”

“Because that’s what you wrote.”

“Do you accept my explanation as correct?”

“Yes, sir.” I expected a compliment would soon follow, as it did with our regular teacher.

“Then you must be a fool, Mr. Gatto. I lied to you. Those are not the causes at all.” It was like being flattened by a steamroller. I had the sensation of being struck and losing the power of speech. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me.

“Listen carefully, Mr. Gatto, and I shall show you the true causes of the war which men of bad character try to hide,” and so saying he rapidly erased the board and in swift fashion another list of reasons appeared. As each was written, a short, clear explanation followed in a scholarly tone of voice.

“Now do you see, Mr. Gatto, why you must be careful when you accept the explanation of another? Don’t these new reasons make much more sense?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And could you now face the back of the room and repeat what you just learned?”

“I could, sir.” And I knew I could because I had a strong memory, but he never gave me that chance.

“Why are you so gullible? Why do you believe my lies? Is it because I wear clothing you associate with men of God? I despair you are so easy to fool. What will happen to you if you let others do your thinking for you?”

You see, like a great magician he had shifted that commonplace school lesson we would have forgotten by the next morning into a formidable challenge to the entire contents of our private minds, raising the important question, Who can we believe? At the age of eight, while public school children were reading stories about talking animals, we had been escorted to the eggshell-thin foundation upon which authoritarian vanity rests and asked to inspect it.

There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool human intelligence.

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Deficit Spending and Abortion

… are both expressions of contempt and hatred for our natural offspring. Just as Dante puts those who willfully dissipate their wealth in the circle of Suicides, we can either kill our children outright, or take their lives by enslaving them with debt and poverty.

Saving the Planet: The Basics

Channeling my Inner Pedant yet again.

Want to Save the Planet (whatever that means, but I’ll go with the general & vague notions of: not recklessly eliminating species or the environments they live in, keeping the place tidy, and not doing anything that would keep our kids from enjoying the same lovely planet we’ve got now)?  Here’s a few things to get straight:

– Buying a new hybrid car doesn’t help. Every hybrid car needs to be manufactured, meaning resources such as iron and aluminum ore, lead for the batteries, lots of energy and so on get consumed. You might argue that buying a new hybrid car is better than buying a Hummer – that might be true, but only if it’s a new Hummer, because if you bought a used Hummer and thereby reduced demand for new hybrid cars by one, you’ve Saved the Planet from having to cough up all the resources needed to manufacture that new car (not to mention disposal of those nasty batteries), while only costing the planet the difference in net fuel consumption – not even close, buy the used Hummer.

– Recycling ain’t it. Don’t get me wrong, recycling is a good thing, mostly, but hardly addresses the parenthetically mentioned goals above. First off, it’s not like most things other than compost recycle themselves – you’ve got to collect and process them. That means trucks, fuel, processing plants, energy – is short, recycling become yet another consumer of energy and resources.  Recycling may net out to a lower total consumption level than using new stuff (key word: may. It’s not a given), but it’s a relatively tiny reduction, assuming consumption level continue to increase.

– Green energy ain’t it. It’s a lovely idea: get all of our energy from totally clean and renewable sources – sun, wind, hydro (sort of – damming huge rivers and drowning square miles of former valley lands is iffy)  and get rid of dirty stuff like coal, oil and even natural gas burning plants. Over time – a pretty long time, like 50 or 100 years – it might even be possible to supply an appreciable amount of energy by these sources, provided that, contrary to all historical trends, energy demand doesn’t keep growing really fast. But current green technology involves two big problem: first, what happens on windless nights in a dry year? In other words, unlike a coal, gas or oil based generating plant, you can’t turn green energy off and on at will, and storage technology (batteries) is decades away from having an answer, if there even is an answer. Second, like the new car issue above, it’s not like green energy generation itself doesn’t cost vast investments in resources. One painful example pointed out by the inestimable Mike Flynn: a 6 mile wide lake of toxic chemicals created by demand for wind turbines. Nuclear would work – but there’s issues, there.

– Population control ain’t it, either. The dirty little secret lurking behind all of the above points is that efforts to control the bad effects of consumption (cars, energy, stuff in general) doesn’t mean diddly if consumption itself continues to spiral out of control. Thought Experiment Case Study: How many people can the Planet support? Answer: it depends on consumption. Let’s compare two ‘consumers’.

The first is a third-world farmer, comfortably prosperous by local standards – he works his own land and feeds his own family, trades a little for necessities he can’t easily make, and is loved and respected by his family and neighbors. He doesn’t waste any time wishing he had gobs more stuff, as is considered and considers himself a happy man. Let’s call him Jose.

Next we have an upper class American, with 15,000 square feet of personal living space spread across three homes he shares with no one, a fleet of cars and a squad of servants, and a habit of jetting all over the world many times a year, often in nearly empty personal or charter jets.  As he is loved by pretty much no one, he longs for many goods, but especially for the power to manage the world. Let’s call him Al Gore.

So, how many of Jose can the Planet support? 10 billion? 20 billion? How many Al Gores? 100,000? 200,000?

Sure, there’s a theoretical Malthusian limit to the total number of people the Planet can support, but we’re nowhere near that number – as long a we all consume like Jose. If we consume like Al Gore, we’re doomed – the existing numbers of Al Gores on the planet now are far more than the Planet can sustain.

It’s fascinating that the Al Gores of the world, people who consume 1,000 times or more what Jose consumes, never talk about consumption, but can’t shut up about population.

Bottom line: to Save the Planet, high consumers – that’s you and me – must reduce their consumption drastically.

Reduced consumption is not without its consequences.

Reading About versus Reading – Problems

The following is all snobby sounding – sorry about that. If I had more time, maybe I’d rewrite it.

It should go without saying that reading what an author wrote is to be preferred to reading about what an author wrote, but it has its problems. Humans are fundamentally limited – few of us can master more than a handful of languages, and so are, in effect, reading about what an author wrote from the translators’ point of view. Further, there is so much out there worth reading that few of us have the time or energy to make more than a dent in the original sources. To a lesser and less excusable extent, many authors are simply difficult, and it’s tempting to read about that thinker’s ideas in order to have them pre-digested for us.

Nonetheless, the thinking behind survey classes and books that provide summaries of whole fields is dangerous – at best, the reader misses ideas filtered out by the summarizers’ blind spots or biases, and worst, the reader receives simultaneously a dose of the subject’s content hammered into the summarizers’ agenda, and inoculation against every having to think about the subject again. Hearing many college grads talk is like watching the news reports of an event of which you have first hand knowledge – one is often left scratching one’s head, wondering how what actually happened got transmogrified into the story being told.

The Great Books approach, in one form or another, is the only real way to deal with these issues. It’s important to not only read books of enduring value, but to read them generally chronologically. Coupled with the study of at least one foreign language, this experience creates not only a good, independent understanding of the authors read, but  also a frame of reference within which to understand successive writers and ideas. No one can understand Kant or Hegel without at least a good dose of Aristotle, for example.

But the main thing a Great Books education does for you is removing, once and for all, the weird modern bias that people today are just generally smarter than those old guys. I’ve heard people denigrate Aristotle because he made a few easy-to-mock mistakes about science, which not coincidentally is also ALL they know about Aristotle.  Doesn’t occur to them to compare batting averages and the rest of the batting order – Aristotle was creating all new fields of study out of almost nothing in many cases, applying logic to a world filled with illogic and superstition, without benefit of university systems or hundreds of similarly well-trained colleagues or centuries of precedent.  Unlike, say Galileo, who had all of those things.  Comparing the two, Aristotle had every reason to accept that heavier things fell faster than light things and no reason to imagine a contrary. But he got, for example, that dolphins were mammals and that the earth was round and that life showed evidence of evolution – even though these things were of relatively minor concern to him, and nobody had ever wondered about them much before. Galileo, on the other hand, was the product of centuries of education and logical thought (which he owed to Aristotle) spread across a university system encompassing Europe, and he had Copernicus and many other learned men to lean on, and he had the telescope invented by another guy – and he STILL screwed up, pouring calumny on people who believed – correctly – that the tides were caused at least somewhat by the moon. Among other things.

The point here is that, having read quite a bit of both Aristotle and Galileo, I can humbly compare the two – based on what they actually said. If I were to rely on survey course summaries, it’s vanishingly unlikely I’d find anything that captures some of what are fairly obvious truths: that Galileo was a very smart man, almost worthy of his place in history – but not even remotely in Aristotle’s league. Once you get that, then the hesitancy of the Aristotelians of his time to accept what he proposed becomes more understandable. Further, an acquaintance with how Aristotle (and Euclid, and Ptolemy) thought  makes it pretty clear that Galileo was acting like a baby. It’s not so much that he was proposing to overturn centuries of practice and theory, it’s HOW he was proposing to do it. Just because future generations proved that he was right about a couple things doesn’t mean that his method and arguments were therefore right, or that his opponents were therefore wrong in insisting on stronger evidence and better reasoning than he was able to supply.

I choose this example because it is well known, but other examples abound, and not just in science. Suffice it to say: survey classes are like intellectual one-night stands. It may slake your lust for knowledge, but he probably doesn’t really love you and won’t call. They are not like one night stands in that a much higher percentage of people in survey courses  never get that they were used.

Education Creates Jobs?

Just ask any English major – just getting that English degree created a job for them, right?

When I travel for business, I try to strike up conversations with cabbies, because, first, I find it rude to ride in a car with somebody and pretend they’re not there, and second, cabbies are  often fascinating. On two occasions I remember clearly, my cabby turned out to be a very well educated recent immigrant.  In each case, they had graduate degrees that wold qualify them for fairly lucrative professional careers. They came to America and drove cabs because there were no jobs for them back in the old country, and their degrees didn’t map exactly to American requirements. So they drove cabs while they considered the work needed to punch their ticket here for the careers they’d originally studied for.

As is so often the case, the conventional wisdom surrounding education is exactly the opposite of reality: In the real world, jobs create education. If there’s money in it, people will train for it. If there’s not money in it, few, baring government intervention, will (the free market would almost never pay what the schools pay for a typical education degree, for one example – otherwise, teacher turnover would be even higher than it is).

And again, as is so often the case, education does not equal schooling. The biggest real life example from recent history is computer science. Most great programmers do not get that way by getting a computer science degree from a prestigious university. Most great programmers get that way by hacking – just coding away, rubbing elbows with other coders, trying stuff. Big companies like the certified programmers – excuse me, Software Engineers – not because they are better at writing programs than the cowboys and hackers, but because they’ve been housebroken to corporate culture by having to connect all the dots, deal with all the red tape and kiss all the behinds needed to get that degree – a process that well prepares them for life in a big company, and, moreover, weeds out the troublemakers who want the creative freedom to do the right thing. Another way to put it: Rolling out a global business process management system that’s going to be used by in-house employees for the next decade whether they like it or not? Then well-schooled developers are your ticket. Trying to crack a consumer market with way-cool creative software? Then you’d better be prepared to saddle up with the cowboys.

Anyway, it’s an illusion that getting a degree somehow creates a better job for you – the better jobs are created by people trying to make money, or the government trying to fund its base. (Aside: one way governments fund their bases is by creating certification hurdles for government jobs – not only do they fund the base by hiring the person with the right degrees, they also supply demand for the services of the schools that provide those degrees.) People are wise to this, which is why the percentage of Americans with4-year college degrees has held steady at about 30% for the last 40 years.

Note that this steady state was an effect, not a cause – the people getting college degrees in the 70’s found out that it wasn’t a ticket to a better life than their typically less educated parents had (I certainly fall into this class). They found out that their stupider classmates (based on class position) took jobs with the government, as teachers and bureaucrats, and that the smart people couldn’t get jobs as university teachers very often, and that the drop-outs (Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, etc.) often did better than they did, and that they themselves weren’t a lot better off than their high school classmates that went vo-tech or directly into the job market. Most galling, the socially connected did, as a group, the best of all. In other words, what was supposed to be the point of all that money, time and effort devoted to college for the average guy?

Now, I love the undergrad education I got. My graduate degree is high-end vo-tech – I did it for the money. If nobody were hiring MBAs I wouldn’t have done it – the job created the education.  I’m one of the winners (until the next whim of Goldman Sachs indirectly puts my behind on the street). But people in general sniffed out the problem way before it became a topic of public discussion – college is an expensive gamble. Having a degree is no guarantee of anything, let alone a better job than you’d get otherwise.

Aristotle, Plato & Thomas, and the Question of Radical Doubt

A conundrum: my favorite philosophers – Aristotle, Thomas and Plato – don’t spend much ink on trying to answer the questions raised by radical doubt, although they were clearly aware of them. Instead, they just stick to the obvious: that, IF you are standing here having this discussion/reading this book, THEN you’ve already answered your radical doubt questions in a certain way – and let’s look at what we can figure out from your answer.

This is certainly wise, and in fact an approach I have used myself (eschewing, with reluctance, the equally valid approach of sneaking up behind people who claim to be uncertain about everything and whacking them in the back of the head, and then assuming a posture of total innocence when they turn around – you know, inviting them to consider deeply their new-found certainty about the external world).  But I, being neither as smart nor wise, cannot seem to stay away from it – every time I hear somebody claim to rely on pure, unadulterated Reason, I start to gag and want to drag them down the path to radical doubt, just to show them how STUPID claims of radical reasonableness are. Choosing to use reason as your evaluation tool is delusional on two fronts: There’s no purely reasonable basis upon which to choose reason over unreason, and what people typically call ‘reasonable’ is polluted through and through with unspoken, unacknowledged whims – assumptions and assertions that are not remotely reasonable except in a completely circular way: what I choose is reasonable because I only choose reasonable things.

Oops, there I go again.

The challenge, it seems, is to embrace the wisdom of my Big Three and avoid the folly of vastly lesser minds (Descartes, I’m talkin’ to you!) and proceed, as Aristotle advises, from what is most easily known to us to what is most perfectly known in itself.

Christian Iconography: Color

Consider these icons, with special attention to the color of Mary’s clothing:

Our Mother of Perpetual Help – Cretan, 13th or 14th century. Today, his particular image is found pretty much anywhere there are Catholics.

Madonna & Child, Filippo Lippi, 15th century

Madonna & Child, Lorenzo Monaco, early 15th century.

Modern icon, probably a copy of a copy of the 12th century Virgin of Vladimir.

Five colors are prominent here: red,  blue, black, white and gold.  The first image, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, is one of the most copied works of art in history. The virgin is shown wearing a red gown and a dark blue to black cloak. Centuries later, Filippo Lippi paints Mary in a contemporary red dress, again cloaked in blue running to black. Lorenzo Monaco painted a little earlier than Lippi – he introduces a white gown with gold trim, and uses a much lighter, more vibrant blue for the cloak, lined with gold. Finally, the contemporary icon shows the Virgin in a red cloak lined in dark blue. The presumed original had Mary wearing a black cloak with gold trim. Continue reading “Christian Iconography: Color”