Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.


Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.


Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).


And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.


Read the article here.

Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.


I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

alice-heart1 copy


Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections revolves in part around a family’s interconnected–and expanding–circles of influence (of harm, mostly, but also of steps toward healing) as the “patriarch” begins to lose his health and independence. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario for many of us who have aged parents. I often hear anecdotes from friends and colleagues about how an elderly parent’s decline tears apart family connections and lately have been living the problem a bit more close at hand.

So I am mulling about how we are interconnected, and also about how we decide to narrate our connections: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. That’s the poet/observer in me mulling; but I also want to find out more about the psychological side of the equation, so I recently read Christakis’ and Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which takes a social-science and statistical look at what connects human beings to other human beings. 330px-Broad_chain_closeup

Writers are often our keenest social observers, and as it happens, Hungarian poet and writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story (“Chains”) that more or less posited the six degrees of separation theory back in 1929. Franzen’s novels tend to explore how even seemingly-minor disruptive or dysfunctional human relationships create butterfly-effect chaos among those connected to it–even among people not closely connected to the ‘disrupter.’

Christakis and Fowler examine much more than the six-degrees theory, such as how those human connections build themselves into social cascades, cultural norms, support systems, clans, families, political parties, and economic outcomes. On the one hand, these claims seem obvious: of course our relationships are based upon shared connections, and of course those relationships have impacts upon our lives. We know this intuitively, but now scientists want to give us proof.

Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections.

Hence: life. Or life as we experience it. In which small differences in initial conditions can be amplified into transformational events that do not affect anyone in exactly the same way.

That’s more or less the butterfly effect, but it could not happen in social situations among human beings if we were not so interconnected or interdependent. Social beings require other social beings as support systems: that’s how humans work (with, naturally, the occasional outlier).

butterflyOur poets, playwrights, and our fiction writers–the narrators of human existence–understand isolation and community in non-scientific but no less valuable and authentic ways. They have been telling us for thousands of years the many ways we are connected.

Maybe what the scientists should do next is read hundreds of years of great literature as evidence of how social networks shape our lives. Science can learn as much from the humanities as the humanities have learned from scientists…

What we, as observant human beings in a chaotic world, intuitively understand.


Humanities high horse

runninghorse2It is the Year of the Horse, and I’m on my high horse again about the value of the humanities and the liberal arts education.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on studies concerning what preparation a liberal arts degree offers to students once they enter the workforce and suggests that the long-term outcomes (in terms of career and steady employment) bode very well. As I embark on another semester of trying to persuade sophomores that the study of poetry can offer some value to their lives, it helps me to know there is at least some evidence that I’m not just making this up!


Artwork source: Steve Lohman of LineArt Gallery;

Gopnik enters the English major fray

The New Yorker‘s columnist Adam Gopnik contributes his views about why the English major does or doesn’t matter in the blog accompanying a recent issue. He says, in response to apologists (like me) who contend that English, literature, and the humanities generally contribute to a person’s life experience in subtle, long-term ways:

Well, a humanities major may make an obvious contribution to everyone’s welfare. But the truth is that for every broadly humane, technological-minded guy who contributed one new gadget to our prosperity there are six narrow, on-the-spectrum techno-obsessives who contributed twenty.

Then he points out:

Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)

Okay, he’s a bit broad and snarky there–but that’s his style. And nonetheless, Gopnik argues for space in society–if not necessarily in the academy–for the study and discussion and obsession with books and literature. He claims that “the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic” who said the reason he was a literature professor was because he had “an obsessive relationship with texts.”

I would agree with that reasoning, though I am not a post-structuralist, so far as I know.

I believe that education ought to allow us to follow our passions to whatever logical or surprising ends appear. In light of the huge expense of a university education in the USA, however, perhaps the best question to ask is how to motivate citizens to pursue education individually (see my post on autodidacts). Gopnik calls the estimable Dr. Johnson “the greatest English professor who ever lived,” though he never taught in a university and though his title of “doctor” was honorary, and reminds us that other antecedent writers-on-literature, such as Hazlitt and Sydney Smith, “had to make their living doing something else narrowly related.” Colleges at least offer some employment and a modicum of respect to the humanist interpreters and researchers among us, but we need not be employed by the academy to exercise our obsession with books. That can be done on our own.

Dr. Johnson

Gopnik adds this lovely, wise sentence near the close of his column, and I wish I could convey the value of his idea to every college student I advise: “You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.”

Poems, stories, paintings, sculpture, dance, philosophy, books, books, books…I don’t know my life’s purpose, but I know the “objects” that entrance me.

More on the English major

The New York Times commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote about the “decline of the English major” in an opinion piece titled “Why the Humanities Still Matter.” I am offering a link to the letters to the editor concerning that essay [which includes a link to the opinion piece as well]:

Another article, this time in the Chronicle of Higher Education, makes the point that employers often want qualities in their employees that the English major supplies…but that employers may not realize that! (One commenter suggests students major in business or biology or whatever and minor in English).

Those of you new to my blog may wish to look at the archives here on this topic, which include:

“Reasonable, Calming”


“Defending the Poetry major”

“Learning the literary analysis”

“Philosophy & English are friends”

I’m a philosophy and literature major who is also a poet; and I’m not starving to death, and I like my job. Can the cynics please stand down? Learning matters. True education makes us into better thinkers. Society benefits.

End of story. Now, go read a book!

Defending the poetry major

Photo by Annie Abdalla


Pity the poor poetry major, long treated with snotty sarcasm as a head-in-the-clouds idealist. “What will you do with that degree?” people ask, shaking their heads at the scholar’s naivete.

Okay, few people dispute that the economy is tough right now. Tough for experienced employees, tough for many small business owners, tough for newly-minted college graduates. I know this first-hand, and I deal most often with the youngest age group I’ve mentioned—undergraduates.

There are hundreds of articles, blogs, and opinion pieces offering tips to students or bemoaning the price of a college degree (and I grant you, the cost is appalling) or telling undergraduates that they need to specialize in certain career areas. The New York Times, for example, ran this article, which warns students away from majoring in such coursework as history, philosophy, and poetry.

Another pop-journalism site suggests that graduates learn “to put your useless degree to use.” Although there are some reasonable, general ideas here, these brief tip-sheets operate under the unlikely premise that we can tell today’s 18-year-old what he or she will need to know in order to be securely employed in, say, 2045.

Mild contrarian that I am, I defend the poetry major. Students have to be diligent to achieve good grades in the poetry track, diligence being just as necessary there as in the so-called hard sciences, which also require analysis (they use more math but require similarly solid logic chops). Poetry is difficult to study; the subject requires keen reading comprehension skills, a good foundation in rhetoric, the ability to analyze, to communicate, and to connect diverse disciplines, cultures, and texts. The same goes for history and philosophy: these are truly challenging areas of study, not good choices for the slacker or the faint of heart.

The people who choose the humanities majors are often accused of living in ivory towers, but that’s a stereotype. Most of them don’t end up in academia. Some of them are entrepreneurs, some are lawyers, some are doctors. Poetry major Ross Martin became a Viacom executive; though that is probably not a terribly common career outcome for poetry folk, humanities majors in general end up in some form of management position 20% of the time, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

For a look at the career outcomes, percent employed full-time or part-time, and job earnings for humanities majors, see:

(Link to GU’s CEW on Humanities degree earners)

Yes, it is true that in terms of earnings, the poetry major or history major is unlikely to outperform the person who has a Petroleum Engineering degree. I have to ask, however, given the limited supply of petroleum we’re told exists on earth, where those petroleum engineers will find work in 2045. And job satisfaction—earning enough to get by and feeling satisfied with one’s work and contributions to society—is, while less easily measurable, a byproduct of an excellent education that keeps minds sharp, hearts engaged, and communities intact over the long haul—including during tough times.

The world and technology move rapidly. I typed my undergraduate papers on a manual typewriter and, graduating during the hideous recession of 1979, got jobs that paid like menial labor but allowed me to sit at desks and utilize my spelling, vocabulary, and arts analysis skills, which led to jobs in typesetting that taught me computer skills back in…well, let’s just say “8-inch floppy disk” and leave it at that. Did I have any idea I would be blogging on the cloud using a PC in 2012? No. Have I been able to learn new things by using logic, persistence, research, and creative thinking? Why, yes. Thank you, humanities coursework.

Critics of many stripes claim colleges need to focus more on career development through the creation of specialist tracks. Careerism is a fine concept for a capitalist society, and I have no problem with offering better certification programs for specialists of all kinds; but careerism per se is not what a college education is “for.” A college education serves, when it is effective, to broaden a person’s experiences, deepen a person’s thoughts, and to develop in that person a versatile range of essential critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Those skills are applicable to many jobs. An excellent gaming programmer I’m acquainted with says his two years of intensive philosophy and literature study helped him enormously when he switched to the technology track: it’s all logic and analysis, and creative thinking is what allows a programmer to excel beyond data-managing. Here’s an article that explains a bit more about the usefulness of the liberal arts education as it pertains to business.

When the job market is tight, we need problem solvers and creative, critical thinkers. It will not matter what these people majored in as undergraduates; what will matter is how flexible they are at responding to the changes around them…or at instituting changes themselves.

Poetry majors can do that for us.