Science & philosophy

The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.

Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.

SocratesWhile I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.

Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.

Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.

The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ.

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gif Descartes

Descartes, 1640s

A wonderful book on the way philosophy developed into biology (to take just one of the scientific disciplines) is Marjorie Grene and David Depew’s The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.

The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.

finch beaks

Darwin’s finches, 1840s

Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.

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Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913

Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.

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I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.

Snowy Egret (by Mary Oliver)

A late summer night and the snowy egret
has come again to the shallows in front of my house

as he has for forty years.
Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,

that white stroke in the dark.

==

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

 

What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.

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I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.

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§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”

What does a woman want?

In the medieval poem “The Marriage of Sir Gawain,” the knight gallantly agrees to marry a hag-like witch who has helped King Arthur by giving him the answer to his enemy’s riddle, which is “What does a woman want?” One of several ballad-like story poems of the Arthurian legend, this one appears in Eleven Romances of Sir Gawain (an online scholarly edition is here).

For contemporary intellectual types, however, the person who famously posed that question is Sigmund Freud. He spent many years refining the theory we now refer to as “penis envy” and arguing the displacement theory was at work subconsciously. Far too many casual references to Freud have simplified this idea as suggesting that women want to be anatomically arranged like men.

Um, not exactly…nope.

But back to Sir Gawain, agreeing to marry the hag in order to free his king from the evil baron’s grip. According to the poem, Arthur gives Gawain the secret he has learned from the witch herself. Depending upon the version or translation, the answer is: what a woman wants is her way (or her will, or to have her own way). She wants to be free to decide things that affect her and to make her own choices. Because Gawain is not only gallant and loyal and noble but also no dummy, he remembers Arthur’s secret. When the witch reveals herself as a gorgeous woman and asks him whether he’d prefer to see her lovely by day (when others can see her) or lovely by night (when her husband is abed with her), he defers to her. He says she should choose.

Delighted, she chooses to be lovely all the time (she now knows he will never forget that she has a will of her own).

So, if the medieval hag is correct, Freud was right, at least symbolically. Freud dwelt in a culture where men had authority, power, and self-agency, probably also true of medieval European culture, though I’d argue the Victorians were even more constrained. Anyway, women want those things, too–if possessing a penis as part of one’s anatomy could get you those things, one can understand envying the man, if not the organ itself. Indeed, Freud uses a bunch of lengthy theorizing to offer intellectual ballast to what he initially mentioned was an issue of power. Penis=power, in a male-dominated culture. It is almost too simple an idea, and almost too obvious, so he probably felt he had to pack it with a lot of other ideas. Transference and displacement theory have proven useful in other ways, but penis envy just suggests that females too often lack power to make personal choices within a social milieu.

As a feminist who yearns for balance and equality among human beings, I think it is crucial to point out that, despite the stories with which I’ve framed this post, wanting one’s way is not just what women want. It is also what men want.

People, no matter the gender, want to be able to say “No” and to be listened to and heeded. People want to direct their own lives, make their own decisions–and their own mistakes. I work with college students who are 17-22 years old, and I can assure you that they desperately want to make their own choices. Though they often also desperately want to blame someone else for the unfortunate consequences of certain ill-considered choices, they mature once they realize that sort of behavior limits them to the role of the naughty child–a dependent–not a responsible, independent person. If you want to be respected as an adult, I tell my students, you have to be willing to own up to your own poor decisions. And that’s just for starters.

Each young person I teach, tutor, or counsel wants some control over his or her life. Some try to get it by seeking to control other people, others by trying to control their environment, others by endeavoring to control the social situation they find themselves in…the list goes on. Human beings cannot really control as much as we think we can. But we can exert our will and speak up for our way. We can offer respect and seek respect. We ought to be able to make our own decisions as long as we are mature enough to deal with the results for good or ill. That goes for people of any sex.

Yet when a woman asserts that she wants her way, our society tends to judge her as a whiner or a bitch, a ball-breaker or a manipulator. Even now, many years into politically-correct language and Title IX and women as Supreme Court justices, I hear this sort of language bandied about, often “in jest.” Sure, it can be jesting; but it’s also pretty close to jousting–with words. Be a little more careful, my friends. Or as the terminology goes these days, more mindful. Perhaps, given the freedom to exercise our will, more of us will choose to be lovely all the time.

End of semester crunch

The university year here in the USA is almost over; at my college, today is the last day of classes, and next week is final exam week. As a result, I have little space in my mind for speculative musings and little time for reading–other than reading student papers.

This is also the time of year when my colleagues in academia, feeling stressed and slightly burned out, share stories from the trenches and sigh over perceived inadequacies of students in general, higher education in general, academic administrations in general, and life in general. I admit to occasionally joining the chorus, but this year I am making a concerted effort to refrain from generalities in order to cultivate a bit more mindfulness and compassion.

I have been thinking a great deal lately about stereotyping and how the short-cut of pigeonholing people by general traits, which demographics tends to bolster as sociologically “true,” can hinder the ways human beings interact and value one another. Most of us shy from outright stereotyping by race; and many of us are aware that there are ingrained stereotypes concerning sexual preferences, disabilities, and nationalities about which we ought to try to be sensitive. So I would like to remind my colleagues–who do have every reason to be exasperated as the academic year closes–that much as we want to generalize people by their generation or their status as students, each one of them is a human being, individual, unique, with his or her own burdens and inconsistencies, worthy of compassion.

Not necessarily worthy of a higher grade than they’ve earned…that would not be compassion so much as rescuing or caving to some sort of pressure. But when we must place an ‘F’ on the transcript, I hope we remember to do so with compassion rather than irritation, resentment, or triumph.

photo by Patrick Target

The “Black Madonna” –A view from the heights of the DeSales University Campus; photo by Patrick Target

 

There are other stereotypes we employ regularly, partly because language was invented to get information across to others rapidly, and generalities offer the expediency of compressed information. The culturally and perhaps evolutionarily ingrained “us vs. them” attitude of included, excluded, and outliers of community also lends itself to forgetting the individual. As a person who often takes such language- and thinking-related shortcuts in conversation (and in little angry rants), I am in no position to chide my fellow human beings about their shortcomings. I do, however, want to remind myself that it would be a good idea to recognize, in my heart, that general judgments of others occur all too easily–unconsciously–unmindfully.

Now, back to the pile of student papers. {crunch, crunch, crunch}

 

Entitlement, humility, & self-esteem

Among my academic colleagues in the USA, I hear a refrain of grousing about so-called millennial students who, it is averred, perceive themselves as entitled to good grades, exceptions to rules such as number of absences, timeliness, and response to communication, and other “special treatment.” The general criticism goes along the lines of Kenrick Thompson’s letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

… I grew increasingly weary of all the whining, crying, excuse-making, and general lack of attention to responsibility that appear to characterize most of today’s college and university students. I began to sense a growing atmosphere of entitlement among a majority of my students, who apparently believe that society owes them an education. I even endured several instances of students’ insisting they should pass my course simply because they had paid their fees and purchased the required textual materials.

Thompson lays some of the blame for such behavior at the door of college administrators who care more about admission and retention numbers than about the whole package of education, which includes less-measurable outcomes such as personal responsibility and mature problem-solving. The Chronicle has published other essays on related topics, among them these by Elayne Clift and Frank Donohue.

Other critics have blamed Baby Boomer parents for overdoing positive reinforcement so that their offspring do not have to suffer from low self-esteem. These critics suggest the everybody-gets-a-prize approach has watered down the go-get-’em competitiveness formerly considered a hallmark of the individualist American.

The word “entitlement” pops up in a blog post by Toby Woodlief back in 2007, and certainly appeared in conversations I had with colleagues long before that; but there has been much general buzzing that this sense of entitlement is “a Millennial thing.”

What does entitlement really mean? Webster’s has three main entries, the third of which is: “belief that one is deserving of … certain privileges.”

I can therefore say that I believe I am entitled to something, and I can accuse others of feeling that way; but because the word is based upon the subjective sense (“feeling or believing” that one is “deserving of”), can I say for certain that other persons “believe that society owes them an education”? [Note, Thompson does qualify with “apparently”.] No one can independently ascertain what another person believes or feels. My students do not tell me they feel entitled to things.

Could this be just a problem of perception or point of view, as so much inter-generational sniping is? Certainly my generation received criticism for its youthful irresponsibility, though it was of a slightly different kind (drop out of the rat race, turn on, be free). Did we feel entitled to ignore the paths our parents took?

I wonder if the real reason older people feel so annoyed with Millenials is the perception that there’s so little humility among the young. Many people my age were raised with the Protestant ethic formula that one should be humble, and humility has long been valued by the Catholic church, as well. Humility is closely allied with shame, however–and even guilt, to some degree (original sin and all that)–giving us neuroses along with our humility. It depends, once again, on your sociological and personal outlook; I am not suggesting that humility is bad or good, nor that entitlement is bad or good. These are just extensions of feelings people have, of personal and subjective perceptions.

Blaming the young people, or blaming their parents, or blaming the culture, for that matter…none of it helps us to understand or to respect one another. And as fellow travelers on the planet, are we not entitled to at least an initial moment of respect?

A balance might be nice.

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I work with 18-year-olds every day, and I enjoy them. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally wish to wring their necks or boot them out of their warm beds in the morning or remind them that I am not here to make them feel good about themselves for no reason other than their uniqueness. It does not dissuade me from doling out Fs when Fs are deserved (or, shall we say, earned) or reminding them, now and again, that most of their annoyances qualify as first-world inconveniences undeserving of hysterical rants.

I try to keep in mind that they are still learning about the world of other human beings.

In time, if they are mindful and observant and lucky, they should discover that the participation trophy for life is life itself–

IMHO   😉

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