Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):

Peanuts

And a little destructive criticism from 1959….

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Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.

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A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…

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Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.

GFS2

 

 

 

Preparation

As I prepare for the upcoming semester, my thoughts turn from weather, the garden, and philosophical readings to the gnarly process of educating the young adult. In fact, I just spent four days with a group of 46 incoming freshmen who were involved with an intensive college preparatory orientation. So much potential there. So many high hopes.

What tends to be lacking is “grit.” Most young adults have not yet developed the mindset that accepts the unavoidable need for hard work, for mastering skills that are tedious, for thoroughly and correctly finishing assignments that bore them–all in order to attain the seemingly far-off goals they have set for themselves. I don’t blame them for this attitude, since I shared it when I was their age.

And growth is as hard as it is rewarding. I like what blogger Danny Anderson says:

“Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.”

Acknowledgment of this kind takes reflection, and effective reflection takes analysis; and few 18-year-olds in the USA are spectacularly skilled at analysis (of self or of any other kind). They know precious little about themselves, the job market, adult society’s expectations, college expectations, debt load, and back-breaking personal responsibility.

And that’s ok, as long as they learn these things in good time, which most of them will.

I agree with Professor Anderson’s assessment that many students arrive at college thinking that four years of grind and partying will get them a diploma and a magical job offer, and that such assumptions are woefully in error. He writes, “Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you. On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.”

That’s one thing I always understood about education, even when I was as irresponsible and callow and un-grounded and enthusiastic as the students I’ll be teaching later this month. Even now, I am preparing for my Education (continuing, always) to consume me.

If you’d like to read the rest of Anderson’s post, it is here.

Here’s something lovely

Ann E. Michael:

Last year at this time, a hiatus; and again this year–for the same reasons! I am about to retreat to the 19th century for two days, and then to re-establish myself among incoming freshman students. If you follow my blog, I suggest you check out my pages tabs or some of the links on the right side of this theme page. Lots of cool stuff. :)

Originally posted on annemichael:

…from Maria Popova at the Brainpickings site: book loving and writing and art and literacy and library connect to produce this event/display at the New York Public Library. I was in the city just last week–rats, I missed this. (But I did see Ken Price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent part of a lovely afternoon at Untermyer Park again).

~ Please click on the links! (I know they’re kind of hard to see on this theme)~

MEANWHILE…

I’m on blogging hiatus again while I get accustomed to my work week and while we prepare for the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival (or on Facebook here) this coming Friday and Saturday. Not a time to get much writing done, nor much reading.

A festival participant prepares apples for drying

A festival participant (19th c) prepares apples for drying

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

View original

Hymns & yearning

Around 1996, my friend and colleague Alla Borzova, a contemporary classical composer of considerable talent, asked me to help her “trans-literate” the libretto of her cantata Majnun Songs from Russian into English. She had composed the piece in Russian, so the English version had to fit the existing music. The cantata is based on the story, made famous in the Arabic world through the works of the poet Nizami, of Majnun and Layla…a story of abiding, and forbidden, love. Majnun, “Madman,” finds his purest self through this unrequited love for Layla as he wanders the desert creating poems praising his beloved.

One selection of Borzova’s cantata that I particularly love is called, simply, “Hymn.”

A hymn is a song, either of praise or worship, usually both. We may worship a god or many gods; or a beloved, human or non-human; or a value or other abstract concept (generally personified) such as nationhood. In this case, the poet worships his Layla.

Wiktionary says–and I have checked several other sources–that the word “hymn” derives from Middle English ymne, borrowed from Old French ymne, from Latin hymnus, borrowed from Ancient Greek ὕμνος (húmnos). Links courtesy of Wiktionary. The húmnos was part of ritual and sung to praise gods or heroes, but the ode genre easily lent itself to songs praising a loved one or merging the idea of human passion with a “higher” passion. Which is one way to read The Song of Songs attributed to Solomon, and which is one way some readers have interpreted the Majnun cycles as well: relating the sexual-passion-into-spiritual-purity to religious fervor, by analogy.

This seems a particularly human level of the consciousness continuum: the ability to blend several similar relationship ideas, as is so obvious in our uses of symbols, metaphors, analogies and similes. The resulting hymns can be wildly transcendent, alloys of passion, lyric poetry, imagery, rhythm, and tones when the music melds with the rest. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as presented by Beethoven, for example. Few hymns attain such a pinnacle, but the effective ones–religious and secular–reach listeners in a way similar to the best poetry and create the same kind of surprising prickle in the mind and body. It may be a sense of glory or a sense of awe, or a sudden shiver of beauty, unity, or wholeness, or an indescribable feeling of love greater than oneself, or the awareness of a keen yearning.

Yearning seems to me to be the over-arching tone in Borzova’s “Hymn.” In this two-minute piece, what comes through is a yearning for the beloved so deeply and for so long that what finally matters is not the being-together but love itself–eternal.

You can listen to it here:

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In what ways, and through what means, do we relate our lives, our selves, and our world to love? There’s a question I have lately been meditating upon.

Redbud leaf in fall

Circle Game

Mandala: मण्डल

ann e michael

Sanskrit for circle. Symbolic of completeness, unifying principles. The container that holds the center. The cosmic center and the spiritual center, including the void (being able to recognize that the “self” is also a void, a construct).

This deep practice–the emptying of self and the entering into completeness and unity with everything (becoming One)–intrigues me but seems very far beyond my grasp. If consciousness can be envisioned as a set of experiential layerings that the mind braids into a narrating self, illusory but convincing, I can imagine feeling One with them. But that’s theory, not genuine practice.

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” ~Alan Watts

I am a physical being in the universe; this, too, I understand. Somehow, that doesn’t make meditation easier for me–even though I have always been a highly reflective person.

Trying too hard to empty the mind defeats the purpose, of course. The practice of compassion as meditation (see Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön)  seems a more effective way for me to enter into a sense of oneness and completeness. I am definitely experiencing beginner’s mind, perhaps complicated by my interests in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and art.

So I turn, constantly, to nature for an immersion in something other than the human self: completion of the cycle evident in every plant and creature. See the mandala of the sunflower above. Contemplate the circle–what it contains, in this case, pollen, seeds, a tiny bee; what encircles the circle: the petals that fade so rapidly, the sun, the air.

And then I turn to my reading again. Hungry mind (appetite). But I found this wonderful column by Kate Murphy in the recent New York Times:No Time to Think.” Quite fitting, given these recent ruminations!

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And thank you, Joni Mitchell, for the title and this song:

Difficult writing?

Here’s Will Buckingham on writing and difficulty. Worth a read! I don’t know how to embed the blog into my post, so here’s the link.

http://willbuckingham.com/the-pleasure-and-difficulty-of-writing/

Writing can indeed be a pleasure–most of the time! There are periods of difficulty when I feel frustrated, but those periods make for puzzles and challenges; and I enjoy puzzles and challenges. They push me, force me to stretch a bit, engage with what’s not so simple or superficial, change my perspective, alter my expectations and assumptions, discover something new. I learn from these experiences. I would not want life to be easy all the time, nor would I want creative writing to be easy all the time. Although it’s pleasing to lie in a hammock on a mid day and sip a cold drink and listen to the birds and read a book…pleasure also encompasses inventive challenges. Motivation. Inspiration. Different forms of joy.

Buckingham mentions a biography of the writer and artist Tove Jansson, best known in the USA for her Moomintroll series but clearly a creative artist of the first rank. I’d put this book on my reading list, but it is at present only available in Finnish! Marina Popova at Brainpickings has posted some of Jansson’s vivid illustrations of Alice in Wonderland here.

On the pleasures of difficult reading, please see my past posts here, here, and here.

Mixed/media

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From J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: “Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”

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From W. H. Auden: “…poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” For Auden, this communication of mixed feelings didn’t mean ambiguity; it referred to double focus–seeing or feeling or otherwise knowing two conflicting feelings simultaneously. Something that, according to Barrie, fairies could not do.

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The mixed-ness of life presents many of its irritants, but also many of its joys. Think about the amazing complexity of a human being, a consciousness, a sentience: the mish-mash of experiences filtered through a mish-mash of other experiences and through unique neurological channels. I relish the fringes and edges of things such as meadows, rivers, horizons, roads, neighborhoods, and cultures. Combinations are more interesting than homogeneity. Paradoxes are more exciting than indelible rules.

I appreciate the design of formal gardens, or swaths of tulips; but a cottage garden interests me for longer, as do bogs and wetlands and the borders of woodlands. Most of the poems I love best, those that resonate the deepest and longest, express multiple and mixed possibilities. I enjoy poetry that can be interpreted several ways, or that twists back on itself and points out a paradox or a different focus, poetry that opens up perspectives and challenges expectations and perceptions. Mixed media, mixed expression, mixed feelings, mixed perennial borders, mixed forests, mixed neighborhoods…these juicy collages of experience keep the brain lively and interested.

They also pose good challenges for meditation. One can concentrate or focus on the unity of the disparities, for example. Lose yourself in a meadow.