Archive for April, 2011

Work as Gift

I want to do work, I want to do good to a human being; and it is ninety to one that that human being whom I have helped will prove ungrateful, and go against me; and the result to me is pain. Such things deter mankind from working; and it spoils a good portion of the work and energy of mankind, this fear of pain and misery. Karma-Yoga teaches how to work for work’s sake, unattached, without caring who is helped, and what for. The Karma-Yogi works because it is his nature, because he feels that it is good for him to do so, and he has no object beyond that. His position in this world is that of a giver, and he never cares to receive anything. He knows that he is giving, and does not ask for anything in return and therefore he eludes the grasp of misery.

–from the Teachings of Swami Vivekananda (pp,179-180)


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The Big Bang Theory of the Gift (and Economy)

Jacques Derrida would be proud:

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On the First Day

If any be devout and love God,
let them enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.

If any be a wise servant,
let them enter rejoicing into the joy of their Lord.

If any have labored long in fasting,
let them now receive their recompense.

If any have wrought from the first hour,
let them today receive their just reward.

If any have come at the third hour,
let them with thankfulness keep the feast.

If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
let them have no misgivings, because they shall in no wise be deprived.

If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
let them draw near, fearing nothing.

If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
let them also be not alarmed at their tardiness;
for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor,
will accept the last even as the first;
he gives rest unto them who comes at the eleventh hour,
even as unto them who has worked from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last,
and cares for the first;
and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts.
And he both accepts the deeds,
and welcomes the intention,
and honors the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord,
and receive your reward,
both the first and likewise the second.

You rich and poor together,
hold high festival.

You sober and you heedless,
honor the day.

Rejoice today,
both you who have fasted
and you who have disregarded the fast.

The table is fully laden;
feast sumptuously.

The calf is fatted;
let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy the feast of faith;
receive all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail their poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one weep for their iniquities,
for pardon has shone forth from the grave.

Let no one fear death,
for the Savior’s death has set us free:
he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into hell, he made hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried:
“Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.

It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

–Paschal Sermon, St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

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Quiet. All is quiet….

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

link: oremus Bible Browser : Ezekiel 37:1-14

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Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

link: oremus Bible Browser : Isaiah 52:1 – 53:12

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Thought for the Day

Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. Just as the employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labor as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were observable in the workers’ organizations, so governments also are always inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like have long existed, governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or to reinterpret them by juridical hair-splitting. Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace . Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution.

Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory & Practice, 1947

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Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking

I spent Friday at the Eastern PA Regional College Assessment Consortium’s Third Annual Assessment Summit: “Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking,” held at the Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA. Attendees were treated to two panel discussions, one concerning the struggles in teaching critical thinking, the other on issues surrounding assessing the effectiveness of that teaching. Both are very thorny problems, and both the presenters and my colleagues in the audience were sensitive to ambiguities and nuance, let us say, of the endeavor. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers, but with a couple of observations about ourselves.

First, the observations. We exhibit, I would say, a “genial arrogance” with regard to our students. “Genial,” in the sense that it is obvious – perhaps especially among community college faculty – that there is a deep and genuine concern for the well being of our students and a commitment to do what is necessary to help them learn and succeed. But “arrogance,” in the sense that I only heard us saying what we think their concerns are, what we think their problems are, what we think the sources and causes of their obstacles to learning are. I am not sure I heard anyone report directly what students told them about how they viewed their struggles. We just “know,” uncritically, about their situation and their needs. We just assume we know what education is supposed to be, what teaching is supposed to be, and what our students are supposed to be (and are they supposed to be “what’s” or “who’s” anyway?).

Perhaps students cannot articulate their own situation – but have we tried to find out? Instead, we blame elementary and secondary schools, parents, pedagogical practices (the dreaded rote memorization), etc., as if we knew those were the sources of our students’ inability to think critically. I also happen to teach at an institution that takes Cura Personalis – “care for the entire person” – as the cornerstone for a genuine education. Perhaps we ought to try to practice this more widely as a foundation to our critical thinking about our students and about critical thinking itself.

Further, we tend to talk as if critical thinking was a “skill set.” We view critical thinking as co-extensive with problem solving, which leads to thinking life is a problem (or just a set of problems) to be solved. What about the enigma, paradox, the sweet mystery of life? But, as they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If education is only about problem solving, a sense of wonder and awe is relegated to the romantic, and thus, in our pragmatic and utilitarian culture, devalued.

Critical thinking, as it was tacitly presented, exhibits a Cartesian obsession with certainty at the same time it attempts to instill in students a sense that “there are no right answers,” to make them comfortable with difference and diversity of viewpoints. Still, the drive to certainty manifests itself in the sense that it is the lack of certainty that demands (what turns out to be) the insipid tolerance of “whatever.” In effect – despite paying lip service to it – judgment is made radically problematic. But as the very root of the word “critical” – krinein (Gr.): to discern, to judge – implies, thou in fact shalt judge. Judgment is the ignition switch of action. The dismissive “whatever” means the spark plugs of judgment are dead. Even the command, “Thou shalt not judge,” is itself a judgment on those who are being judgmental (which is not the same as judging), those being hypocritical (under-discerning, not discerning enough, especially about themselves). Because, while there is no “one right answer,” there are certainly wrong answers, and being hypocritical and judgmental is a good way to come up with them. To judge is not to be judgmental; to be judgmental is not to judge at all. Our efforts to teach critical thinking aim at getting students to see this. But if those same efforts cut off judgment entirely, we’ve simply come to the opposite side of the same coin, a bad penny indeed. This is our struggle.

Perhaps this means that critical thinking advocates (and who of us is not among them?) need to reflect on whether CT needs to be tied so tightly to the notion of problem solving. Perhaps it is uncritical to think that CT is all and only about problem solving. Perhaps a critical thinker is one who recognizes that not all of human reality and experience submits to instrumental or utilitarian reasoning, important as those are in their relevant spheres.

This all leads to the issue of assessment, which has clearly come down to quantitative analysis. Does thinking in its fullness admit of such measure? We have, I believe, uncritically come to think so…or at least act as if it did. All of us in teaching want to believe that students get something of value as a result of our efforts. We’d like very much to be sure we’ve succeeded in attaining that goal. So our natural tendency is to devise ways to check whether students have learned what we want them to learn (setting aside for the moment the question of whether it is possible that students might learn something of value as a result of our teaching that we do not consciously want them to learn, that we’ve never learned ourselves). Now these ways cannot be of the type, as one person at the conference put it, of “looking for that gleam in their eye.” Why not? Because not only do I need to know whether students “get it,” but others need to know. My colleagues, my chair, my dean, the provost, the president, the state, the funders, the prospective employers all need to know whether the students get it. Not to mention the students themselves (we are, it seems, frequently not mentioning the students themselves…).

But is what I need to know the same as what, for instance, the state needs to know, or the prospective employer needs to know? And is what the math professor needs to know the same as what the philosophy professor needs to know? And is any of this what the student, as a human person, needs to know? And can that which each needs to know be measured in the same way? And is that way always one of quantification?

To put it another way, have we been sufficiently critical – self-critical – about the very meaning of education, specifically higher education? If we have been less than adequately critical, dare I say, hypocritical, about this, then all our progressively intensifying efforts to satisfy our assessment obsession will only result in measuring – if it truly can be measured at all – what we are doing now. It will not ever ask, is what we are doing now what we ought to be doing? In the business world we used to say, “What you measure is what you will get.” If there are multiple intelligences, multiple modes of knowing, but we measure only one, then one is what we will end up with – if in fact we end up with anything at all once we abstract a piece out of human experience and make it the be all and end all.

When our students “just assume,” we judge they are not being good critical thinkers. We judge that they are “just checking their memory banks” for received opinions, accepted without reflection, indeed, held dogmatically. We judge that they are participants in “group think,” and are not themselves thinking autonomously or authentically.

But might we not be guilty of the same charges? Are we not assuming a lot about the nature of education and its aims when we launch into obsessive assessment mode? I think we are. At least I am willing to think about it…critically. And so were my colleagues at the conference on Friday.

Some additional questions:

1. What is more important as an outcome in education, right answers or good questions? In other words, should students leave school with more answers or with more questions than when they started?

2. Are all disciplines the same when it comes to their aims? Do we measure progress and maturity the same way across disciplines? And so can assessment be “one size fits all”?

3. Is everything that goes on in a college or university disciplinary? For what is the purpose of a discipline than to form disciples. Can a disciple be a critical thinker? How?

4. What role does eros or philia have in education? Or is it all about discipline?

5. Regarding learning styles, about which there is ever-increasing awareness: should we “type” all our students? Left-brain/right-brain? Auditory/visual/kinesthetic learners? Mulitple intelligences? Jungian? Myers-Briggs? Enneagram? Astrological sign? Kabbalah? Is this a form of packaging our students? And for whose convenience, theirs or ours?

6. Is teaching a technology? Are we laboring under an illusion of technique when we say we “teach critical thinking”?

7. Is life nothing but solving problems? Is even math really nothing but solving problems?

8. Is all learning ultimately about everything? Are the silos we create, the academic division of labor, the most appropriated structure for higher education? At least, do these silos need to be maximally hardened? Should all learning aim at transdisciplinarity (trans- = through, between, and beyond)? How would that work? For instance, as a teacher of philosophy, how much time should I spend on grammar, economics, and history, all of which are vitally important for a deep understanding of my subject?

9. Are we in danger of getting stuck at the meta-educational level in our drive for (quantitative) assessment? In other words, are we going to spend more time talking about education or are we going to focus on educating? (For instance, focusing more on explaining the rubrics than on the subject matter the teaching of which the rubrics are meant to serve.) Are these separable, though?

10. Is social justice an integral part of all higher education? Or is it one matter among others that can be used as a project theme in a course in an effort to teach critical thinking?

11. Even though surveys show that critical thinking is among the highest priorities – if not the highest – of faculty concerns, have we considered that there may, in fact, be an even more profound concern: the quest for wisdom? Or is critical thinking just what we mean by wisdom?

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Philosophy – No or Yes?

The following two stories came to me on the same day.

The first begins:

I was in the middle of teaching the difference between knowledge and belief when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a call from the dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas College of Liberal Arts. The dean informed me that he was very sorry but, barring an unlikely immediate solution to the state’s financial crisis, the university had decided to eliminate the Philosophy Department, which I chair. In July, I would be given a one-year terminal contract. After that, the university would fire me, along with all of my departmental colleagues, after twenty years of service.

The author, Todd Edwin Jones, continues:

Puzzlement over why people study philosophy has only grown since Socrates’ era. It is not surprising that in hard economic times, when young people are figuring out how best to prepare themselves for the world, many state college administrators and the taxpayers they serve believe that offering classes in philosophy is a luxury they can’t afford.

Suprising? Maybe not. Unwise? Definitely. The reason, of course, is the subject of my previous post.

The second article, by Stanley Aronowitz, begins with this observation:

The reasons why public education is suddenly an issue despite years of neglect by politicians and the media are straightforward. In this depressed economy credentials seem to have lost their advantage. Many parents and politicians claim schools have failed to deliver what students need.

Notice both the similarity and significant difference from the first article. The first article shows that some people (including, preposterously, college and university administrators) think that in difficult economic times, people don’t have the time or money for “luxuries” like philosophy. The second articles takes note that in difficult economic times, people start to notice that “credentials” may not be worth the money – again, see Matthew Stewart’s essay in the Atlantic called “Management Myth.”

Aronowitz claims our obsession has been with the credentials and not with the appropriate education (and all that means), and we’re finding that some of our academic “emperors” are wearing no clothes.

At the core of our trouble is that we “don’t know much philosophy.” He writes:

In France, high schools have required the study of philosophy, though less so in recent years. High school graduates had knowledge of the main traditions of European philosophy in its classical form: the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, medieval thinkers, Descartes and Kant, Bergson and some 20th-century philosophy.

Philosophy has been excluded from the U.S. secondary schools, with the exception of elite, mostly private schools. This is a telltale sign that we don’t take critical thinking seriously as an educational goal. If philosophy has pedagogic value, it is to teach students the value of doubt, without which it is impossible to penetrate propaganda and discern the presence of particular interests within knowledge.

If I may paraphrase J.S. Mill in order to gain some clarity on this issue:

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of *understanding* are low has the greatest chance of having the sense of *being* fully satisfied, *i.e., to believe he knows*; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any understanding which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

So, is this the time to rid our curricula of philosophy? Is there ever such a time? I suppose that depends on who you ask. If you ask the same swine who blame teachers and union labor for the collapse of our economy (!), I suppose they’ll think the single most important initiative to preserve their vision of the world is the extinguishing of all critical thinking. If you ask foolish administrators, who evidently haven’t a clue about what philosophy is, who mistake it for useless fancy, then the answer will be dictated by this ignorance.

But if you ask one who is neither a swine nor a fool, someone who knows both sides, both philosophy and commerce, then the answer will be “Never!”

If you value a free society, if you value economic innovation, creativity, and genuine prosperity, if you value living a supremely human life, philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury.

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The Business of Philosophy

Have a look this article by Matthew Stewart in the Atlantic on his observations as a philosopher in the “business world”:

His essay “Management Myth” begins like this:

During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.

The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.

After I left the consulting business, in a reversal of the usual order of things, I decided to check out the management literature. Partly, I wanted to “process” my own experience and find out what I had missed in skipping business school. Partly, I had a lot of time on my hands. As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger! It was a disturbing experience. It thickened the mystery around the question that had nagged me from the start of my business career: Why does management education exist?

Read the rest here.

Anybody who knows my “philosopher in the closet” story about my time with US Steel knows I see it pretty much the same way. As I have been telling students ever since I “got out,” the very best training for a life in the business world is philosophy. I will let you figure out which type of training might be the very worst. (And you’ll also imagine the analogy with the teaching profession….)

P.S. As the author points out, management types engage in “obfuscatory jargon – otherwise known as bullshit.” But there are other types of bullshit (pardon me…): Stewart’s opinions about Descartes vs. the medievals definitely qualifies.

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Pat Metheny’s Band of Robots

See the story here. Cool!

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