Tag Archives: Persuasion

What—Me Worry?

CL50915When the person likely to be the next U.S. Senate Environmental Committee chair wrote a book called The Great Hoax denying global climate change, maybe it’s time to address a new strain of anti-intellectualism… delusion.

American ambivalence about intellect isn’t new. From the beginning Americans have favored plain-speech and uncomplicated thinking. They’ve always believed in simple answers to every complex problem. Trusting in fresh perspectives, putting aside received truths to encounter issues anew, that produces answers. The utopian “City on the Hill” faith in the possibility of starting over created the constitution.

However, the founding fathers, for all their flaws, were no dummies. They were subtle men whose elegant (and inelegant) solutions arose from rumination, deliberation, persuasion, and resourcefulness. They embraced complexity and kept up with the political science and regular science of their day.

They did not, as some do now, solve problems by denying they exist and vilifying any “overthinker” or “alarmist” who looks too closely.

Social scientists can offer decades of research on interdependent causes of poverty, and still some Americans cut through “all the crap” with the real truth—that some people don’t take advantage of opportunity. Graphs depicting the imbalanced distribution of wealth inspire yet another rags-to-riches tale, and, if social scientists unfavorably compare economic mobility in America to almost everywhere else, someone will assert the possibility, no matter how remote, is all that’s important. And, because if you work hard you should get ahead, those left behind must not have worked hard enough. They ought to blame themselves, the thinking goes, so helping them, giving them “handouts,” only saps their will to try harder. Cite economists who explain the mechanisms of inherited wealth and the game of musical chairs everyone else plays, and you’ll be accused of fomenting class warfare, plotting to rob the deserving, being a socialist. The deserving believe in “the market,” as a counterbalance to (and not a manifestation of) human greed—no regulation or redress is necessary.

Americans untroubled by economic inequality are equally prepared to discount social inequality as a vestige of bad old days now gone. The mountain of statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating white privilege, they judge, only rationalizes indolence. Some go as far as to say the problem of race in America is solved, and any talk about persistent intolerance—surrounding class, creed, and sexual orientation—only reignites dead flames. It seems as long as you believe you are not personally (or at least not obviously) racist, sexist, and bigoted, these issues don’t exist. And expressing desire for equity elicits petulance. Pundits cry they’re not only blameless but also oppressed.

Though in scientific circles, human causes for climate change are rarely debated, some Americans choose to believe we know nothing and can know nothing about greenhouse gasses and the melting ice caps. They treat scientists with disdain, either correcting them (very slowly, as they would a child) with fundamentally flawed conceptions of the physical world or, alternately, declare, “I’m not a scientist” to turn ignorance to their advantage. Both responses share a view of science as evil and/or unintelligible—sorcery, not one of humanity’s best methods of seeking truth.

The catalog could go on: Gun control, environmental regulations, banking abuses, corporate tax loopholes, and healthcare divide along similar lines with some seeking to study problems and devise solutions and others carping there IS no problem. If anything needs to be done, the carpers say, it’s rolling back the meager amelioration managed so far.

To be fair, sanctimony exists on both ends of the political spectrum. The left dismisses opposition as much as the right. Neither listens to the other. Most Americans, left or right, read and watch only what echoes their viewpoint, facts be damned. Worse, Americans’ healthy appetite for drama has inspired the creation of loud and insistent megaphones to shout half-truths and whole lies. Subtlety and intellectual rigor aren’t, everyone knows, very sexy.

The conservatives’ position seems more dangerous, however. It’s much too easy for them to get away without persuasion or policy. In making ignorance and denial viable political stances, they’ve institutionalized distrust of scientists, economists, environmental experts, social scientists, and intellectuals devoted to study, discovery, and—let’s be direct—reality.

And, in the process, their delusion has infected the general electorate with a nearly nihilist sense of hopelessness. How do you argue with someone who believes there’s nothing to argue, who vows nothing is known conclusively, who says nothing can be done, and, moreover, should be done?

2 Comments

Filed under Ambition, America, Anger, Anxiety, Arguments, Brave New World, Criticism, Dissent, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Misanthropy, Modern Life, Numbers, Opinion, Persuasion, Rationalizations, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Fiction in Truth: serialpodcast.org

SONY DSCIn analyzing stories, “verisimilitude” refers to likelihood. But what of reality and “the facts”—does verisimilitude still apply?

I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Serial” and mulling over that question.

If you haven’t tuned in, host Sarah Koenig is investigating the 1999 trial of Adnan Syed, in prison for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school classmate and former girlfriend. Each week, Koenig reveals what she’s discovered and examines holes in the case and pursues leads. More, we learn her process, how her thinking evolves toward knowing Syed’s guilt or innocence.

That is, we’re led to believe we may ultimately know. Koenig says we encounter the story as she does, that her search is ongoing, not packaging conclusions she’s reached and won’t share. The website posted a photo of her producing the next episode to assure us she’s in middle of it, not finished.

Withholding information is key to suspense. Being coy appeals to readers (and listeners) because unsatisfied needs are enticing. This podcast owes much to the serialization of novels by Dickens and others. Americans stood at the docks for the next installment of Dickens’ latest opus. They couldn’t wait to discover what was next. Each episode of Serial includes a “cliffhanger” of sorts too. I’m always anxious to learn more.

If I’m honest, however, the cliffhangers irk me a little. Being an able storyteller and effective guide, Dickens knew where he was going. What Dickens’ eager readers called “discoveries” were really “inventions,” integral and vital to his narrative. His suspense was designed, and his readers trusted he’d manage information to enhance enjoyment. The answer would out, delightfully.

I’m enjoying Serial (very much), yet I’m also bothered. Verisimilitude explains why. My misgivings aren’t simply Syed being actually wrongly or rightly accused. I’m well past squeamishness over using fictional technique to present fact. Every history selects and emphasizes information to create coherence, perspective, and drama. Yes, Syed is fodder, and maybe it’s not nice to say so, but I know I’m being entertained and accept it.

My misgivings arise from Koenig, whom I like (very much) but—I’m sorry—distrust as I don’t Dickens. The subtlest form of verisimilitude resides in a narrative’s construction. Obvious technique announces, “Hey, this is artifice” and ruins the story. The difference between artfulness and manipulation is intention. Once a tale becomes purely a tale, the teller’s sincerity appears unlikely, and the narrative’s style supplants its substance.

At times, I feel there’s something exploitive about presenting Koenig’s story as it goes along. Suddenly I focus on her rumination about Syed’s guilt rather than facts. If she were Dickens, Koenig would finish her investigation then masterfully cut it into digestible and suspenseful parts. Instead, she deliberately and repeatedly says, “I just don’t know if he did it or not” even as doubt amasses. She re-stirs and re-stirs troublesome evidence that, if not settled entirely, has been addressed exhaustively. When a team of expert retrial lawyers unanimously question Syed’s guilt, Koenig persists, “I don’t know.”

I guess she must. Her “big fat problems” can’t go away. She relies on them to create theater and emphasize her role as director. Regretfully (because I love the idea of this podcast) her indecision causes me to question what’s foremost, a satisfying conclusion—in this case, Truth—or engineering pathos.

I doubt her more than Syed.

At the end of the sixth episode, she recalls Syed asking why she was interested in “Doing all this.” Her answer, that she thinks he’s a really nice guy convicted of murder, produces an odd moment perfect for radio. We hear Syed pause and say, “Yeah. Oh, but you don’t really know me.” To Koenig, it’s confusing and chilling, as if he’s confessing something. To me, it reveals skepticism matching my own. He explains he’d prefer someone open to disputing the facts, and I guess that’s what I want too—more faith she’s truly on the case.

9 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Charles Dickens, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Fiction writing, Meditations, Modern Life, Persuasion, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

4 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, America, Anger, Criticism, Dissent, Doubt, Ego, Essays, H.L. Mencken, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Opinion, Persuasion, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Television, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Finnish Envy

a_wteachers_hammond_0225Reading about reforms in US education, you’re bound to run into the term “Finnish Envy.” Until recently, Finland led the world in nearly all the categories of the PISA test designed to measure educational success, and—by any measure and despite any drop—their 30 year program to reform schooling has been remarkably successful.

In contrast, Americans, who dislike being second at anything, rank seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in mathematics among the thirty-four participating countries, a drop from 2009, when the US placed fourteenth in reading, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in mathematics.

Particularly galling about these results is that Finland does everything the US does not. They reject tracking and elite, charter-style schooling and put their euros into failing schools instead of successful ones. Rather than financially rewarding successful schools as we do in the US, the Finnish system grows alarmed when one school attracts more students than another and seeks to make every school desirable.

What’s more—and perhaps more significant—they create a culture of reverence for teachers. Finland believes not everyone has the talent to be a teacher, so few people get to be teachers in Finland, only the best. On a relative scale, teachers in Finland are paid—on average—less than US teachers, but they’re expected to engage in continual professional development. With no merit pay, they seek long careers in hopes of experiencing the steady and dramatic raises their system promises. In short, teachers are elite, just as lawyers and doctors are in other nations and, as such, receive accolades denied American teachers who—let’s face it—often garner more contempt than admiration. From the average American’s perspective, who couldn’t teach? We know better what good teaching is because we all went to school, and, besides, those who can, do… those who cannot… well, you know the rest.

The US spends a third more than Finland on a child’s K-12 education, but a larger percentage of American funding goes into “administrative costs.”

For Americans, the most baffling aspect of Finnish education is that teacher unions are particularly influential. With 96% of in the union, teachers have much more to say about what schools should do, whereas documentaries like Waiting for Superman villainize unions as the chief cause for American education’s failures. In Finland, administrations regard teachers’ advice as knowing and central, and many of the reforms suggested by teachers—less homework and more play during the day, more cooperative learning and less competition and assessment—contribute significantly to students’ progress. Those who administer and those who teach cooperate through a common purpose without becoming defensive or adversarial.

And the Finnish are uninterested in testing. They give one test, when a student graduates, just to see what’s happened. Americans’ mania for testing seeks constant feedback, constant evidence of progress, but Finnish teachers and administrators regard scores as data to consider, one numerical version of accomplishment.

To Americans, Finnish education seems too relaxed. No one really starts schooling until seven, and high school students take vocational classes and sometimes eschew calculus in favor or cooking, bookkeeping in favor of AP Microeconomics or reading over literature. Of course, you can take those classes if you desire but only if you desire. Desire is paramount, not extrinsic necessity or guessing about future demands on students or craven computation of what stamp will credential graduates.

Critics of Finnish Envy say Finland’s solutions are unsuited to American culture, where the premium is on ambition, getting ahead, not settling into vocational training but seeking excellence over the bottom line. Americans like to believe there’s more room at the top in American education for those who have the desire and drive and aggression to take advantage. Yet, among developing nations, Finland ranks in the top three for the greatest intra-generational boost in income between birth and adult life , despite their extraordinary number of immigrants and refugees.

The US leads the world in perception of individual progress but, in fact, ranks last in actual social mobility.

Still, for a system so lauded for success, Finland seems nonplussed. “Whatever it takes” is their motto. They only desire learning and put the political and ephemeral and ostentatious aside in favor of one end, giving everyone access to an equal education.

Inspiring envy isn’t their aim but effectiveness. Trying smarter beats trying harder.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ambition, America, Education, Essays, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Laments, Opinion, Persuasion, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

More, More, More

doodle-1016-money-bagsI guess I have to accept society deems some people more valuable than others.

  • CEOs in the US make over 350 times as much as the average employee, meaning an employee has to work a month to equal a top executive’s hourly wage.
  • Though the average college graduate leaves school owing $35,200, presidents of some of the most expensive universities could erase a student’s debt every week.
  • Compensation for health care executives rise almost twice as fast as health care costs, with some executives making 15 times as much as doctors caring for the sick.
  • A professional athlete in a major sport—baseball, football, hockey, basketball— makes as much in a year as, at my present salary, I would make in 64 years.

Their incomes, I suppose, could be explained away by citing the monetary contributions these people make. They are only, they might say, taking their share of the pie. And yet their share is eight slices… before anyone else takes one.

Who can eat so much, want so much?

They counter that their expertise brings in so much more than they’re paid, and, as the elite of the elite and special in every way, they do what few can. Expressed as a percentage of their impact, they shout, “We’re bargains!”

To be fair, some of them might accept they work no harder than a single mother with two jobs or a middle manager logging 70 hours a week, but, really, it’s the ideas, the ideas!

No single mother has energy or time for ideas.

A few shrug shoulders at how crazy their compensation is. Yet, human nature being what it is, not many are ready to take less or give their money back. Money is abstract, no longer the same stuff some folks fret over. It’s easy to lose proportion, equity. It’s society—and not them—at fault.

They want what others like them earn. The scale stretches, higher and higher. Away from the rest of us.

I might not blame them if I made as much, but I don’t, so I do. I have no desires for myself—I make enough, more than many. I want no more.

Is it terrible that what I want is less for them? It’s an ugly wish, I’ve been led to believe. Everyone wants the possibility of earning so much. However unlikely wealth might be, the goal is a world where such riches are possible.

“As long as our civilization is essentially one of property,” Emerson said, “of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth.

The rest of society may say possibility must exist. Without the unfettered freedom to excel, they may say, no one will. I wonder if that can be so. Do we have no desires besides those that eliminate others’ desires? Do we have no aspirations greater than personal aspirations?

Perhaps if I made more, I might accept inequity. But I’m one of the undervalued and can’t help feeling differently.

3 Comments

Filed under Ambition, America, Arguments, Desire, Dissent, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Persuasion, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

E-Reading (and Just Plain Reading)

tablet-maniaHumans didn’t evolve to read, so the process repurposes various circuits in the brain. Eyes hunt and gather. The mind interprets shapes and situations the way it would find prey hiding in shadow or edible plants suited to certain settings. The cortex registers meaning in patterns and trends, determining what grander lessons lie in individual observations.

Readers looking to recover detail often say, “I think that’s on a right hand page at the top” the same way a gatherer might say, “In the shadows of a rock beside the eastern branch of that stream is a bed of plump mushrooms.”

A recent Scientific American article suggests the brain undergoes a different sort of repurposing for electronic media, rendering finding information more troublesome.

Knowing has at least two dimensions—what it is and where it is—and, correspondingly, each dimension is subject to two types of memory. Some details humans remember exclusively in context, like knowing where to turn next when traveling to a location visited infrequently or singing the next line of song without being able to quote that line at other times. Babies are masters at this type of memory. When a parent sits them in a high chair, they know what’s next.

The other type of memory is deliberate and arises from a conscious effort to recall. Babies haven’t memorized their daily schedule or created a to-do list to assure they will eat, nap, and cuddle in appropriate sequence. They may not like the next activity when a parent proposes it. They know what’s coming only when it begins.

Another way to think about this distinction is to consider two questions from English class: “What does Holden say when the nuns ask him where he goes to school?” and “Which characters ask Holden about school and what’s consistent in his responses?” The former relies on knowing what’s next, the latter on locating, gathering, and retaining useful detail.

The research on electronic reading is preliminary and not entirely clear, but it appears that, when contextual memory doesn’t imprint strongly enough, conscious memory weakens accordingly. Reading comprehension quizzes demonstrate that electronic and physical readers do just as well immediately, but, when tested later, physical readers retain more detail and retain it longer. Some researchers say the results are transitional. Students still take paper more seriously, and those trained on physical texts are adjusting to a world where electronic ink predominates. Future generations will adapt to scrolled rather than paginated texts and results will even out.

Other researchers, however, believe these findings suggest electronic reading is inherently ephemeral. They theorize virtual location makes less of an impression on the brain than actual location. They place a great deal of importance on readers’ being able to hold the text and handle it physically, to regard the text as an object rather than as content in one of many undifferentiated receptacles. This “haptic” element of a tangible, sensory object, they say, is crucial to the hunter-gatherer in humans. Thus application writers are smart to adhere to page layouts that nod not only to familiarity but also to the way the brain works.

To complicate matters, however, some thinkers claim the sort of reading a person does electronically and physically are not the same. They make a distinction between focused reading and connected reading (which, elsewhere on this blog, go by “immersive” and “extractive.”) Focused reading requires a close examination of a single text, whereas connected reading assumes a nexus of meaning. Connected readers look for what’s relevant or interesting or important, rifling through containers to complete a larger task.

Connected readers also show an amazing ability to link disparate ideas and information, but their aims demand moving on. They may have lower expectations—one or two nuggets among all the ore—and less patience. They may skim more and be less likely to remember where they found a particular piece of information. When a reader gathers detail without context, to fulfill an overall conception, the information isn’t always discerning or accurate.

Some researchers even believe light fired into the face of the reader and flashing screens (though not perceived consciously) may prod readers to move on. Physical books exude permanence. While people skim them too, they aren’t as well-built for rapid ingestion and don’t accommodate extractive reading as easily. Nor do readers regard conventional books as readily searchable.

Overall, this early experimentation brings to mind Thoreau’s injunction against inventions that are “improved means to unimproved ends.” The most successful reading devices are those with low light, standard pagination, and signals like double screens or graphic book edges to indicate location and progress. In other words, they are costly and complex books. While these devices store more and save students everywhere backaches—an advantage not to be taken lightly—many of their touted improvements remain unverified.

More troublesome are findings indicating electronic ink improves neither means nor ends. If it’s true few landmarks mark a reader’s way through the undifferentiated topography of electric media, many readers could be lost… without really knowing it.

7 Comments

Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Memory, Modern Life, Persuasion, Reading, Recollection, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

A Defense of Studying Literature

fume-hoodWhen people call physics and chemistry “hard sciences” they refer to those subjects’ basis in mathematics and quantitative reasoning. In the lengthy definition of “hard,” such subjects fit best with 7a,“1. firm, definite; 2. not speculative or conjectural: factual; 3. important rather than sensational or entertaining.”

By that definition, my own specialty—reading, thinking over, and writing about literature—is decidedly soft. Many people probably assume the earlier definitions of “hard” don’t fit English either. Because literature classes don’t require mastering complex and rigorous physical laws, they aren’t seen as being as difficult as classes involving equations, graphs, and experimental data. Literature is fuzzy, subject to slippery interpretations and airy whims. You can say anything about a story, novel, or poem, the reasoning goes, so what you say is insubstantial, variable, and, on some level, false. Some people think English teachers should grade easier because there’s nothing really to grade. If you can’t do numbers or master analyzing figures, it appears you’re better at bullshit than anything else.

As might be expected, this sort of thinking makes me defensive. Anyone who has read Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dickinson, Woolf, Joyce, Pynchon, Wallace, and countless others knows literature aspires to considerable complexity. Some works offer challenges equal—in their own way—to calculus, advanced economics, or quantum physics. The absence of hard information creates distinctive burdens. Nuanced interpretations rely on sophisticated understanding of language, fine differentiation, scrupulous decoding, and resourceful observation. Saying something new about texts pored over for hundreds of years isn’t easy.

Nonetheless, some might say less is at stake. People see literary analysis as arcane. No one calls an English teacher for an emergency opinion on Jane Austen, so we’re all diddling, expending valuable mental energy on silly pursuits. Nothing we talk about or write about is real because none of it is practical, none required. If I say understanding the human condition is real and necessary, a boon to living if not absolutely essential, some may say, “Yes, but it’s fiction, right? It’s invented, not the granite foundation of existence.”

I wish people understood hard sciences the way I understand literature, as a way of seeing, produced by a distinct sort of curiosity providing one valuable angle on reality. How did the quantifiable become so privileged? How did it become the preferred means to truth—and sometimes regarded as truth itself? When did we begin believing exclusively in the explainable, the graph-able, and the hitherto undiscovered minutiae of physical processes? How can the definitive be all we should notice? When did we decide only knowing certainly matters?

Sometimes I think everything we call “hard” in those terms—the factual and verifiable—is actually the lowest lying fruit, subject to mechanical processes of discovery requiring more discipline than invention, more scrutiny than inspiration, more brute data-picking than art. I know that’s not so. Experimenters rely on insight as well. They follow hunches about where and how to look. Scientists and mathematicians require creativity also. I see that.

These hard subjects are clever and rigorous, but I want to beg respect for my own specialty and request acknowledgement of literature’s effort to seek truth. If humans only find answers to the questions we think to ask, shouldn’t we ask all sorts of questions and address reality from every angle of inquiry, hard and soft?

The other day, a senior at my school said, “I’d like to go into medicine, but I’ll probably end up studying English instead.” Her assumptions were ready to be read. She knows she may have to settle. Medicine may be too hard, and English is simpler. Maybe, but even if that were so—and it shouldn’t be—the value of any study can’t rest on how easy or difficult it is. Academic disciplines arise from what they add to understanding, how they train minds, educate, and humanize.

I’d argue this country produces as many bad scientists as bad English majors. And our educational system as a whole fails when it ranks pursuits as fruitful and less so, as real and unreal. Of course the world needs scientists and mathematicians, and, because rigor probably has scared people away, it’s important to urge others to fill those roles. But we also need brilliant people who can accommodate soft thinking and appreciate elusiveness and uncertainty and—dare I say it?—beauty. Education will be healthier if it can recognize the value of complexity without groping for definitive, hard answers.

148 Comments

Filed under Ambition, America, Arguments, Art, Education, Essays, Genius, Identity, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Persuasion, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

No Explanation Necessary

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life waiting for us. — Joseph Campbell

Some people have great expectations of good fortune—luck will tip chance in their favor, new developments will save them from current circumstances, destiny will lift their lives to unanticipated heights. The future will be better because optimism is a magic that realigns events along favorable paths. Hope makes things so.

I’m not one of these people, but they tell me I could be.  They say pessimism is habitual, not innate.  If I can break the pattern of believing misfortune is permanent, pervasive, and personal, joy awaits me. When I say “Easy for you to say—it never seems so simple to me,” they smile and nod.  Once again, I’ve stumbled into proving them right.

My usual argument for pessimism—lowered expectations are easier to meet—goes nowhere because, to them, every expectation held firmly enough is met. While I’m busy expecting less, they say, others are busy trying to meet their loftiest aspirations.  While I’m busy celebrating my little victories, they say, others move on to the next big dream.

When I protest that bad things do happen even to good people, they say every setback is a prologue to greater glory.  Everyone else knows the exception proves the rule, and, besides, misfortune puts future fortune into greater relief.  If I could put my doubt to rest and stop thinking so much, these little bumps would go unnoted or add to the pleasure of my success later.

If I say I’m not against hope but want to live in this world, not Candyland, they ask what I have against Candyland. They ask why I’m afraid of happiness and what I might lose by trying it.  If I say happiness is overrated, that those who recognize the range, depth, and variation of existence lead richer lives, they tell me how highly they rate happiness, how much better life feels when you are happy.  If I assert this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, they say maybe it could be if people focused on the positive.

“Positive” is an oversimplification, I say.  Perspective and unforeseen consequences complicate every act, and what seems positive today often isn’t.  They say, “There you go again, twisting something good into something bad.”

How can I argue when their only argument is the absence of a counterargument, when there’s only one right way of seeing things?  What can you say if every question signals denial?

“Nothing,” they say.

Leave a comment

Filed under Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Hope, Laments, life, Modern Life, Persuasion, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Changing Minds

An essay in ten parts:

1.

“Would you?”

“Would I what?’

“Anything.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Could somebody make you answer ‘Yes’  to ‘Would you?’ no matter what?”

“Always and without question?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

2.

Mrs. Mitchell was a boxy woman.  To a fourth grader, she was a big box, but she had rounded edges and used her soft, smiling side with me.  She was not, however, immune to policy.  She had to insist I eat the square of boiled cabbage on my tray.  It smelled of eggs gone wrong or the local refinery’s worst day.

Generally, I’d drink my milk quickly, and when Mrs. Mitchell wasn’t looking, I’d hide a couple of forkfuls in the carton.  That would be enough for Mrs. Mitchell to move on in her smiling patrol, but one day she caught me stowing some cabbage and told me to eat the rest.  I could see she wanted to be nice, and I told her it would make me sick.  She asked if I’d ever tasted boiled cabbage.  When I said no, she asked how a fourth grader could find out what he enjoyed if he never tried new food?

I started to gag on the first bite, my stomach lurching as if it meant to start a race without me.  The smell—a cloud of sulfurous purgative—set me off, and the texture—I imagined the inside of bugs—finished me off.  I survived the second bite, but nothing could hold my gut back.

Mrs. Mitchell stayed out of my lunch after that.

3.

My workplace isn’t extraordinary.  Meetings with colleagues slide through patches of absolute and smooth solidarity, but when we disagree, the brakes lock and everything pitches to a washboard stop.

We have convictions.  Each of us is married to his or her own way, and opposition turns us to the task of persuading others.  We have reasons, we assert, and as they reel out, listeners busy themselves with refutation.  We normally conclude to use our own best judgment, but when we don’t, our discussions depart from the matter at hand.  We initiate a quest for dominance no one can admit.  We discover whose point of view will subsume or overpower the others, which of us will receive concessions and which of us will not.

Don’t get the idea I’m innocent in this.  In fact, I may be the worst.

4.

Scientists who study wolves have soured on “alpha wolf.”  They use the term to describe breeders, those who contribute genetic material to the perpetuation of the pack.  No one wolf holds that post, and, though in larger packs one breeder might defer to another in a recognizable hierarchy, survival in the wild often relies on diversity, redundancy.

Behaviorally, however, dominance and submission appear often.  One wolf raises his ears and tail, another flattens his ears and lowers his tail, takes a lower stance, crouches, rolls over to expose his belly, looks away slightly, and, in some cases, dribbles some urine.

5.

Children learn early on that friends acquiesce.  When I was eight, Harley Ross always wanted to play baseball.  My hand-eye coordination was poor, the game was complicated and strange with just two players, and usually involved much too much exertion for a hot Texas summer.  Still, I played, pitching to Harley over and over as he filled and emptied the bases with ghost runners.

By the time I came up to bat, Harley had bored of the game.  He’d ask if I wanted to come inside, drink some lemonade, and watch T.V.  I had no trouble acquiescing there.

6.

Can anyone convince anyone else how to feel?  What if people are only susceptible to persuasion when they are indifferent or confused?

7.

John Dewey, the champion of progressive education and philosopher, wrote a letter to his wife Alice on October 10, 1894 about an encounter with Jane Addams, the Chicago reformer and pioneer of social work.  Addams was “blue” Dewey said, because she’d lost the financial support of an important local businessman over her remarks about the Pullman strike.  The supporter told Addams she shouldn’t have mixed herself in something that was none of her business.  In a clumsy attempt at consolation, Dewey suggested the antagonism of institutions like labor and capital were not only inevitable but also necessary to arriving at the truth.  Dissent, he suggested, is the engine of change.

Addams’ response, Dewey told his wife, was startlingly calm and composed.  She said that antagonism wasn’t inevitable at all and, in fact, was always pointless and detrimental.  Antagonism, she asserted, never arises entirely from “objective differences” because those could be resolved simply or, if left alone, blend over time. Addams believed antagonism arose instead from “A person’s mixing in his own personal reactions—the extra emphasis he gave the truth, the enjoyment he took in doing a thing because it was unpalatable to others, or the feeling that one must show his own colors and not be a moral coward.”  Every argument, in others words, invariably reverts to emotion and ego.

On whether antagonism was necessary to the growth of ideas, Addams told Dewey conflict was, “Always unreal and instead of adding to the recognition of meaning, it delayed and distorted it.”

Dewey tells his wife, “She converted me internally… I never had anything take hold of me so, and at the time it didn’t impress me as anything wonderful; it was only the next day it began to dawn on me.”  Two days later he writes Jane Addams to apologize and says, “Not only is actual antagonism bad, but the assumption that there is or may be antagonism is bad.”

I wish I had been there.  One great brain moving another with barely a nudge.

8.

Sasha Denninger hated the way I talked, so she decided that we shouldn’t see one another anymore.  I was always so oblique, always speaking through analogy or metaphor so she didn’t ever really know what I was thinking or feeling.  She thought I was funny and could be charming and affectionate, but none of that was going to overcome her feeling that I was too intellectual and abstract.  She liked smart people, she insisted, but she wanted someone who was more than smart.

I hadn’t seen the moment coming.  While we’d had arguments, they’d always ended well with one of us apologizing and the other taking part of the blame him or herself.  I thought maybe this time, the same would happen, and then we’d go on trying to be a couple.

But, as Sasha spoke, I played with the frayed edge of a throw blanket on her couch.  I looked around the apartment and searched for titles I knew on the bookcase.  I glanced at her to see if she was crying or had cried.  Her mascara clumped slightly in her lower eyelash, but no tears.

“I hoped I might rub off on you somehow,” she was saying.

“I think you have—maybe I don’t show it as much as I should, but you have.  Don’t you think we’ll both rub off on each other?”

“God, I hope not,” she said.

9.

A moment comes in racing when, if you’re side by side and stride for stride with another runner, you feel yourself inching ahead or giving way.  My coaches always prepared me for those moments with inspirational speeches about “the will to win” and “courage in the face of adversity” and “intestinal fortitude,” but none of those speeches ever meant much when the moment arrived.  I was in a different world.  After the fact, I could lament or celebrate the outcome of those contests with stories as carefully constructed as my coaches’ speeches, but, at the time, in my heart of hearts, I felt they turned out as they were meant to.

10.

I picture cavemen a lot.  They are lounging at the opening of their home and staring at a sky pinked by the sun dipping below the rocks.  The air is starting to cool, and they begin to think about fire, the magic and color of its fluid shapes, the smoke that scents their hair, the heat with a face that has to be turned to, the feel of fur and flesh as they gather around it, the sound of laughter and then sleep.

Probably it wasn’t like that, or not like that often.  They must have struggled, not just for enough to eat or for shelter from heat, cold, and violent weather, but also for peace among themselves. Assent.

But, in my fantasy, one hand gathering wood turns into many, and one smile ignites many more.  They fall in, agreeing without words to what is best done and therefore needs to be done.  They accept the battles they will create unawares, but each hopes to win at least enough to survive.

We just want to win.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anxiety, Arguments, Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Hope, Jane Addams, John Dewey, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Persuasion, Recollection, Thoughts, Work