December 27, 2015

Education and Liberation

Education and Liberation

Two Things to Change
It's difficult for me to identify the root of the problem but whatever it is I see it manifest most strongly in two ways: control and ignorance.

I know how natural it is to want to stop people from doing what we don't like, just watch some three-year-olds for five minutes. We like to think that growing up means outgrowing our juvenility, but more often then not age fails to make us masters of our immaturity, it only makes us masters of obfuscation. Politics is a complex system of childhood rivalry, and adding rules and mores doesn't make it any more acceptable to take your neighbor's ball or make that loud kid shut his mouth. It's the need to be the boss of others, to control how others live, or to ban the lifestyles, associations, and ideas of others merely because they differ from our own. Simply put: politics is a means to control other people, I don't care how democratic or non-governmental the politicking is. I'm speaking abstractly right now but I believe that this need to control others is the origin of all violence and the primary cause of poverty.

I mentioned ignorance because it's closely related. Our impulse to control is born from our inability to empathize. We don't understand someone's perspective so we consider it illegitimate and in its stead our point-of-view or desire takes precedence. I would argue that ignorance is simultaneously a symptom and a cause of the impulse to control, bind, and silence others—in other words, control and ignorance are the two forces of a vicious circle. In contrast, empathy and understanding are mutualistic qualities, each contributes to the development of the other (I would even say they're two sides of a coin). The natural solution is that we combat the viciousness of ignorance and control through learning and education.

How We'll Change the World
Education is liberating—I've said it before—but to be effective education itself has to be liberated. For this reason, I'm passionate about relinquishing control from education and from cultural exchange in general and becoming a part of a community that promotes the free exchange of meaning. I want to be in the business of providing opportunity rather than dictating a predefined course. We need to free education from the value laden demands of public interest groups, from the ideological constraints of partisans, from the mafia system of licensure and accreditation (institutional education is a pay-for-protection mob-economy writ large).

But the answer isn't to legislate a neutral educational system because none could ever exist. The answer isn't to remove interest groups, ideological partisans, or oversight from the system. Any such attempt fails to achieve neutrality and results in the ideological monopoly of the gatekeepers. Instead, the answer is to open up the system, to diversify and pluralize, thus allowing every interest group, every partisan, and indeed every peer to oversee and contribute to what's taught.

I would love to see everyone who wants to take part in educating the world to be free to do so. I don't care if someone lacks a degree or if the peculiarity of their experience disallows them from being "officially qualified." I care about what they have to contribute to a growing, open, and democratic body of knowledge and understanding. If their approach is beyond the pale, and hence not remotely acceptable to the administrators of institutional education, then all the better. Diversity is more then a spice, it's the breath of life.

One practical matter I've already brought up concerns oversight. Of course, the problem's been solved already. I advocate peer review but with a radical understanding of 'peer.' Not, as the old guard academic model would have it, a group of ideological "good ol' boys" telling us which ideas are worth being taught and which are not. Now we have the 'share' model of social media, the review model of the online economy, and the collaborative model of new libraries like Wikipedia. Between them we have a whole new system of peer review and much more dependable way of discovering the value that some bit of knowledge or some critical insight has to our shared education.

My point here is that I'm passionate about jumping a train that's already steaming ahead at full speed. In part because its momentum doesn't guarantee its success in the long run. There's no certainty to the liberation of education because there's the momentum of centuries telling us that we can legitimately use education as a form of propaganda. This is why I teach, this is why I write: to add a voice to the democracy of thought and learning, because that's all anyone can do and because it's enough to change the world.

December 22, 2015

Why I Write: A Prospective

Why I Write: A Prospective

Here's what I'm working toward.
My website has three elements. The first is a record of my adventures, the second is a literary journal, and the third is a blog. I mostly write although I also have some photography and soon some videography will add some breadth to what I produce.

As it stands the adventure site is primarily documentary. But it already helps to characterize me, the writer of the other two elements. This is how I should come to view the adventure site, although it needn't be restricted to adventure. I document for a reason, to help characterize myself, to add some detail to an otherwise faceless name.

In order to connect the elements of my work I need my blog to be more then just a critique of ideas, it needs to always be personal. It bridges the gap between explicit characterization (the personal pages) and creation (the literary journal). The reason is simple: it has to have a different kind of content than the journal. The journal is more anonymous because it includes essays and stories by and for anyone. So the blog should never present itself as objective analysis or anonymous writing in the style of a journal. I always have to include "I" and it always needs to address my own story. This is why I shouldn't analyze politics or literary theory unless it has direct personal significance. I'll reserve that for my journal.

The blog is more like a diary the journal like a magazine. The rest of the site, what I've previously called the adventure site, will add some character to me as the author. This will help me produce three different forms of content each of which helps to reinforce the others.

But why am I writing in the first place? My motive is two-fold: creative and educational.

First, I want to create something moving. I first realized this while reading Middlemarch by George Eliot. I was nearing the end of the novel when I realized that it was as close to perfect as anything I'd ever read. I'd so seldom thought this highly of a novel. I decided at that moment, lying on the bottom of my tent near Hay-On-Wye, England, that I want to add something to the pantheon of great literature.

My educational motivation to write isn't unrelated even thought my interest in education is about more then just writing but audio-visual media as well. Regardless, both are about creation which is the core issue here.

I believe deeply that education is the answer to most of the world's problems. I'm not overstating, I really believe that. Education is about self-improvement within a community. As opposed to war and politics which is about improving other people according to the dictates of my own will to power. (It's impossible for me to write that without wondering about the power elements inherent in education and community. Nonetheless...)

Educationtrue education, rather than propagandais liberating. True education isn't concerned with finding (certainly not with dictating!) a definitive answer, instead it's always about seeking. It embodies the proverb, "it's the journey not the destination." Answers come along the way but in education answers are always tentative. If your answer is absolute then you've retired from education and adopted dogma. It's easy to slip from one into the other but they're radically opposed. We're told to be content with dogma, and then it comes naturally with age (when the impulse to stop developing stagnates our minds into a state of complacency). However, neither authority nor age need defeat us. My passion for education comes from my desire to learn and to assist others with the same dream, no matter who or where. This is my best hope for the liberation of the oppressedto offer ideas to others in order to aid their own pursuit of self-improvement.

My plan for education is apparent in my life motto: explore, study, create, share, & inspire. I call this the circle of discovery. The first step encourages breadth of experience, the second cultivates depth of understanding, the third synthesizes what we've discovered in the world within the context of who we already are, the fourth step delivers something new to the world for others to explore and study, and the fifth, an inevitable consequence of the first four steps, calls others and ourselves to repeat the process of discovery, creation, and expression.

These is my brief answer to the question, "why do I want to write." It's worth asking yourself the same question about whatever drives your own life.

December 21, 2015

Thoughts on the Philosophical Novel

Thoughts on the Philosophical Novel
Tolstoy and Dostoevsky
I love philosophical fiction. Every author has his own way of integrating philosophical thinking with a story but it almost always includes some amount of digression. Two of my favorite philosophical novelists are Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Tolstoy loved to editorialize while Dostoevsky tried to naturalize his ideas into the story. These are two basic strategies to storytelling and there are technical term to describe these different techniques. The first is call non-diegetic, the second diegetic. It's an easy concept to grasp: diegetic music, for example, is music that happens in the story. When a character picks up a guitar and plays then the music is diegetic. Soundtracks are usually non-diegetic because the music is heard by the audience but we imagine that the characters don't hear the music. Basically it's inside the fictional universe (diegetic) and outside the fictional universe (non-diegetic).

Most of Tolstoy's philosophical musings in War and Peace take place outside the character's world in the guise of editorial intrusions, for example, his entire epilogue is essentially an essay on the philosophy of history. Dostoevsky's philosophical musings mostly occur within the characters' universein most cases they're spoken by his characters. So it would seem at first glace that we could take out Tolstoy's essays without taking away from the story, while on the other hand if we took out Dostoevsky's philosophical monologues we'd lose an extensive amount of the character's speech; with their speech we'd lose a sense of their motivations, character psychology, and the relationships between them. The relationship between Alyosha and Ivan would be entirely different without the parable of the Grand Inquisitor; Roskolnikov's crime would be so much less compelling and significant without his excursuses on freedom and moral nihilism.

But is it fair to be draw such a distinction between philosophy and story in Tolstoy's War and Peace? Would the novel in fact be the same without his editorial digressions on the question "what moves people"? It's true that the characters wouldn't lose any speech and no action would need to be removed: the story would be the same, or would it? You see the story is changed by the editorial intrusions because the significance of the events are colored by the narrator's philosophical interests. They're not merely events but events that represent (or fail to represent) the ideas the editor advances. The digressions are voiced by the narrator, and even if the narrator's voice isn't as empathetic as the characters' its nonetheless a voice within the novel and as integral as the rest.

Three Scenarios
So let's imagine three scenarios in which a text is published. 1) It's published as a single, cohesive philosophical novel. It doesn't matter if the philosophical reflections are internal (as in Dostoevsky) or external to the story (like Tolstoy). 2) It's published as two separate texts, a set of philosophical essays and a novel. The novel would be less overtly philosophical but it wouldn't be a pulp novel either. If Tolstoy did this with War and Peace the novel would still be philosophical and the essays would be something like an author's commentary. The novel would be whole, the essays would be supplementary. It would be harder to accomplish this with Dostoevsky which is why I'd like to entertain a third scenario. 3) The text is published as a philosophical novel and as two separate texts, the essays and the shorter, alternative novel.

My question is, which is the definitive text? Does it depend on how it's written? What if Tolstoy wrote the narrative to War and Peace separately from his essays and only afterwards integrated the two? Are the separate texts more definitive or the incorporated whole? What if an author writes a single, coherent philosophical novel and before publishing it dis-integrates the philosophical reflections and the story, then publishes them as a novel and a separate set of essays? Is the single philosophical novel more definitive then the published novel and essays because that's how it was first written? And finally, what if an author writes a text with the intention of publishing the entire text as a philosophical novel and a shorter novel and selection of essays both of which are found in an integrated version in the philosophical novel. Or perhaps it doesn't matter how it was written but rather how it was published. In that case, what if the philosophical novel, the shorter novel, and the essays are all published simultaneously?

Different Versions, All Are Originals
These questions might seem moot but I care about the issue because I care about the audience. It's a personal concern because I'd like to write a philosophical novel but I realize that some people might want to read a more simple, less overtly thematic story, and I also realize that some philosophers might be interested in the ideas but be put off by the narrative medium. Because of this I'd like to refuse to answer my own question: which version is definitive? There is, in fact, no definitive version, we only select a version based on what we, as the audience are looking for. The short novel is not an "abridged" version of the original, it's original in its own right. I've avoided the term "abridged" throughout for that very reasonit means that it's partial.

I doubt that I'll be accommodating to the purist, scholarly academic philosophers; I doubt I'll give them a dis-integrated set of essays (it would be contrary to my own philosophical project). But I'd like my novel to be approachable to a wide audience. Admittedly, as a philosophical reader I prefer the more philosophical version of the novel. Even so I'll gladly write an alternative version for the reader who has less interest in the overt philosophical dealings of a metaphysically addicted, prolix author who too often fails to recognize when enough is far too much.

November 20, 2015

On Libraries

The Place of a Library
If you think that a library is merely a place to store and share books then you've settled on the wrong word. The word you're looking for is "book warehouse." A library is a space to use and a place to be, in short, a reader. It takes more than a stack of books to accomplish this. It takes a special kind of place designed and maintained with purpose. It takes a library in the fullest sense of the word.

One thing I need in a library is ambiance. Living in Belgium has made me appreciate the style of American libraries. Here in Belgium, libraries tend to be massive closets filled with thousands of books. There are large tables for groups of people to sit around. Reading at a library table here makes me feel like a cow feeding at a trough with hundreds of other cattle jostling for a place to feed. Then there's the decoration and lighting: if it had a little more warmth it would have the charm of an operating room.

In contrast, the kind of library I love is an idyllic example of easy, quiet ambiance. Warm lighting, comfortable reading chairs, and personal desks secreted away into cornersa labyrinthine design goes a long way. The decorative style of a library should cultivate a relaxed, intellectual mood through tacit cues and subtly impressed symbols. Personally I like maps and classic physical models, small geological or biological exhibitshints of a museum. What is perhaps most important to me is that I can easily find a nook to myself.

But a library is not just a solitary place, any more then reading is a solitary activity. Libraries are first and foremost interpersonal and communitarian. I can construct a study at home, but I need other people to make a library. Even the atmosphere is improved with other people around. A library connects people with each other, but it also connects a local community with the world at large. It brings the knowledge of the world to a single place, but it can also exhibit the relationship that a place has to the rest of the world. Still more, it provides a place to exhibit local knowledge including the history, ecology, and artistic culture of a community. True learning begins at home, or as we've said since Classical Greece: know thyself. Everything about a library from it's architecture, decoration, and design can explore a local place and its relationship to the entire world of knowledge.

Doubtless it's been the growth of the internetebooks and Wikipediathat's diminished the storage and lending function of a library. But with the waning of one function comes the waxing of another: more then ever a library is a community's place of study, and that function needs to be written into its design.

November 13, 2015

Writer's Block

An Ongoing Series on Productivity:
Writer's Block
I'm something of a productivity geek, mostly because it's such an edifying way of procrastinating. It might also be because I'm an optimistno matter how much I procrastinate I always think I'll discover some way to overcome my bad habits and accomplish something worthwhile. So I like to find tools, tips, and tricks to help myself become more productive. This is the first post in a series on this topic.
I'll start with a tool I'm using to write this post called Writer's Block. It's a free writing app I recently downloaded. Yes, I'm publicizing an app but that's because it's revolutionizing my productivity. It's simple: 1) start the app, 2) enter in the number of words I want to write (I usually go for 100-500) or the time I want to work (I've never done this because it doesn't work for me), 3) start the writing session. Everything else on my computer remains locked until I complete my task. I can't exit the program until I've reached my goal.

Since starting a task is usually the hardest part for me I like to start a simple writing task of 100-200 words which is easy enough even for a master procrastinator like me to start "Psh, I'll burn that out in 2 minutes and be on my merry, time-wasting way. " Once I get going I often exceed my minimum because I want to get a few more thoughts down. It's called inertia and for me it's just as powerful in productive mode as it is while procrastinating. All I need is a slight impetus to reverse the trajectory of my inertia and I'm off and working.

I have two tricks that help me actually start a task. Procrastinators are oh-so optimistic about tomorrow or some other time. All I need to do is harness that optimism. So I start the program right before putting my computer to sleep. When I go to the gym or run errands, even when I go to bed, I start a small task and then press the sleep button. I feel good about it because I don't have to do any work right now, "I'll do it later." Later comes and when I open my computer in order to procrastinatebecause with few exceptions that's the reason I start my computer, pathetic I knowthen I burn out some text first. I'll free-write, jot down ideas, make a to-do lists, write emails, or tackle something specific. I wrote this entire blog post just to shut down this stupid (read: effective) program so I can watch Sherlock online. And the required task was only 200 words which I easily exceeded!

Fortunately, now that my computer's unlocked I can head over to my favorite streaming site and discover that it's blocked for the next few hours with another free app called Cold Turkey or a browser add-on called StayFocused. Well, now that there's nothing to do I guess I'll do some reading for my thesis.

November 8, 2015

Can you read with your ears?
If someone asks me if I've read The Great Gatsby or Frankenstein, what do I tell them? One the one hand I've never seen the words written by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mary Shelley, on the other hand I'm closely acquainted with the characters and plot, the themes and narrative style, even the authors' syntax and word choice, just as if I've read these novels. So maybe I have. You see, I've listen to them in audiobook format. My instinct is to tell someone that they were read to me, not by mebut I need to stop making that distinction. I need to admit that I can read with my ears.

This is more than a question of whether or not the blind can read, although that question helps illuminate the problem. Surely we can read through touch as long as we can read braille, so why can't we read with our ears? This is also more than a semantic question regarding the meaning of the verb "to read." The bigger question here is why we give priority to visual learning over auditory learning. If in answer to the question, "Have you read..." I answer, "I listened to it" it implies that my reception of the work was of less value than someone who looked at every word. But hearing is a perfectly legitimate way of taking in information; in fact, for some people it's more natural. For some, listening to an audiobook will result in higher comprehension and retention then looking at a printed book.

But there's more than the practical argument for audiobooks, I also have history behind me. Writing was born from oral tradition. Wouldn't it be ridiculous to disallow or diminish the value of a form of reading that recalls that tradition? At one time stories, news, and philosophy were only told and heard. Even with the advent of writing many texts were written by dictation. So who was the author of Aristotle's Metaphysics, the Gospel of John, or Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae? Scholars believe that all of these texts are transcripts of the authors' voices. It's conceivable that they never saw some of the words they wrote, never traced a single word with pen and ink, and yet they are the authors. John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost but he wrote it nonethelesshe wrote it through dictation, shouldn't I be able to read it through recitation? It seems like a natural corollary.

So yes, I've read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I've read it so closely that I can recite lines. Ordinarily I wouldn't qualify that statement because I no longer see any significant different between visual and auditory reading but just this once I'll admit that I read it with my ears.

May 26, 2015

On the Business of Potatoes and Poetry
I’m an idealist. You needn’t have known me long to discover this, just long enough to figure out that my frequent criticism comes from a deep longing for perfection and an acute sense of it’s present absence. The trouble with being an idealist is that the disparity between my expectations and what I realize can become burdensome and destructive. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a certain word to become tainted in my vocabulary through a failure of expectations. 'Business' is one of those words, and it has a history of negative meaning.

In my defense when I was in college I learned that business was the field of football players and layabouts who didn’t want to use their brain. Well, I thought I learned that about business, but that’s what we call delusion. What I’ve learned since then is that the football players and layabouts are the sort of people who threaten my identity and challenge the justification I put forward for indulgently pursuing the humanities. I say  or said  that the humanities raises our minds toward an ideal while business makes us slaves to acquisition. But it may be that this need for justification, the impulse to dismiss business, is an expression of my fear: fear of financial failure, of being bested by cultural troglodytes, of failing to take my place in the demagoguery of historical greats. But these fears are all about ego, and I would do better to get over myself and get down to business.

I confess that business as an end unto it self remains to my mind one of the most vacuous pursuits possible, but it’s something altogether different when it acts as a means toward another end. If financial dependence is a hindrance to other goals then the penny-sense of sound business practices  in the words of George Bailey, "this business of nickles and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe"  well that's a reasonable, even noble objective. Becoming a sensible business person doesn’t mean giving up on the other things in life I value, it means freeing myself up to pursue those values more rigorously. I would go even further and say that good business sense is an integral part of any "higher pursuit" that motivates us idealists. Business is simply a method of practical discipline. It’s a way of organizing, scheduling, planning, and executing a concrete objective.

My field is education. Students, teachers, and writers would all do well to consider their work a business. It doesn’t matter if there's no cash equivalent to what we produce, what matters is that we produce something of value. Applied more generally, good business practices are about the production of value even if what we produce and the value system we apply aren’t validated by the market. I never wanted to view writing and education in the same light as manufacturing because I recoiled at the idea that a page of text or a lesson has as much value as a cheap plastic toy. To an idealist, ideas have the highest value; but too often for us ideas are the only things that have value. The difference is not between the value of manufacturing and thinking, it’s a difference in the value of the results of our work, the good or bad products of our labor. Bad writing or poor teaching is as trashy, even deluding, as a piece of materialist junk. Writing and education are more subtle but they pose as much danger to the world as the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium and as much potential for good as the production of a vaccine.

Forget manufacturing, I prefer the business of a farmer. Maybe because I come from a line of farmers, maybe because 21st century yuppie romanticism has had more influence on me than I would like to admit. To cultivate potatoes takes good business sense, just as much as it does to cultivate ideas. Both are noble pursuits, and both have the potential to poison or nourish the world. The difference between mediocre nutrition and excellence is not, as I once thought, a difference in the nobility of farming and writing, it’s a difference in the quality of what each produces. Produce something of quality: that’s the essence of good business. We maximize our ability to cultivate something delicious and strengthening when our soaring idealism doesn’t hinder our practice of good business sense. And yes, I’m still talking about both potatoes and poetry.