Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading books that I don't feel like blogging.

Word cloud

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

I want to read some cancelled books. The scolds? They scare me more than crooks!

The estate of Dr. Seuss has decided to cease publication of 6 books because they carry images that offend modern sensibilities, and perhaps for good reason. It's an easy decision to criticize, but also an easy one to defend. After all, the book was not censored by a government, and there are no penalties to anyone who already owns a copy. Besides, some books really aren't appropriate for kids. And books go out of print all the time if nobody buys enough copies to justify continued printing.

All of these things are true, and yet. And yet.

And yet there's a difference between choosing some other book and condemning a particular book as dangerous. In a culture that values books, people laud the ones that they choose to read rather than condemning the ones they choose not to read. Every time that I go into a library or bookstore and walk out with a book, I have decided that all of the other books in there are, in one way or another, not as suitable for my current needs. But I do not tell people that there's something wrong with the other books. Every time I decide which book to assign for a class, I have implicitly decided that other books are, in some way, not as good, but I do not spend (much) class time critiquing the other books.

Some of Seuss's books probably are not the best choices for young children. They probably should not be emphasized over other Seuss books, or children's books by other authors. There's nothing illiberal about drawing up a list that happens to include some wonderful children's books but doesn't include And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. And if this means too few buyers to justify further printing costs, well, then some of Seuss's books will go out of print, like so many books before.

And yet. 

Libraries with finite shelf space, publishers with finite budgets, and schools with finite time for reading instruction should all be in the business of exploring and celebrating that which is valuable in the books on their rosters. That is different from announcing and critiquing the harm of other books. The world has more than enough puritans and preachers telling us why books are harmful. Why would a book lover join their ranks when quiet omission is an option?

More importantly, I do not believe that there is such a thing as a truly dangerous book. There are certainly books that one could misread (e.g. all of them), books that small children are not yet ready to examine (e.g. most of them), and books that might challenge our values (e.g. the best ones), but there is no such a thing as an inherently poisonous page. A book that blends a joyous children's tale with the less savory norms of an earlier era is a cultural artifact well worthy of examination. It might not belong in the typical kindergarten syllabus, but I would hope it continues to attract enough attention to stay on the market. If not, I hope we could wave goodbye to it with sorrow rather than smugness. Maybe the best parts of it will move a future author to write an inspired work.

It would be easy to tar my stance as reactionary, defending dead white males whose works offend a more diverse society. However, I still remember the 80's and 90's. I remember when the people trying to get art and literature pulled from the market were conservatives. It used to be the fundamentalist preachers who wanted to banish art from the public eye if they thought it might corrupt the youth. Indeed, in many places it still is the religious conservatives who occupy that role, and not just in foreign countries. America has no shortage of conservative religious types who would gladly censor art if given the chance. Every argument that I make now about the complexity of art and literature, the value of examining morally complex characters and ambiguous themes, applied at least as well to the conservative censors of previous decades. Dee Snyder's arguments are timeless.

I want a society that finds joy in books. I want a society where the books that discomfit us are examined for lessons when possible and treated with benign neglect otherwise. I want a society where we respond to apparently offensive literature with a simple "That's nice, but here's another book that might be more useful in this lesson plan" rather than "No! That book is dangerous! It will pollute minds!"

Monday, March 1, 2021

New Medium post

 I decided that my thoughts on less-academic matters should go to Medium.com, so here's a post on my frustration with COVID pessimists and vaccine discourse.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

An article on ass-essment

 I don't have time for an in-depth review of this article on assessment, but I do enjoy it. I never thought I'd read an article that approvingly quotes both Dewey and Hofstadter. 

I want to quote two things. First:

As Michael Bennett and Jacqueline Brady point out in their 2014 article “A Radical Critique of the Learning Outcomes Assessment Movement,” learning outcomes is only a different term for lesson plans or course content. 

Yep. It's about asking us to restate something we already know (we'd better show up to class with an idea of what we're doing) with a word that they control, because they can always accuse us of not understanding their buzzword well enough.

Second, there are many great points about the pointlessness of "learning goals" but I will quote this one:

Trevor Hussey and Patrick Smith, in their 2008 article “Learning Outcomes,” distinguish between and among learning goals written for a lesson, for a course, and for a program, and the authors point out that the more remote the learning goals are from the classroom itself, the more irrelevant learning outcomes become. Robert Shireman, in his 2016 op-ed “SLO Madness,” amusingly labels student learning outcomes as “gibberish,” capturing Dewey’s point that for a learning goal to be an intellectual one it has to arise from the intelligence and experience of the teacher; otherwise it is meaningless. Similarly, one cannot function as a true scholar or an intellectual while being told what to do. Moreover, the sheer number of classes that need to be certified necessitates that learning goals be written in categories that may or may not be relevant to the material taught. For example, in the general education category at San José State University (SJSU), where I teach, a single learning goal can apply to ten to twenty different disciplines.

This machine-like nature stands in stark contrast to the ass-essment movement's commitment to "innovation." If I'm constantly doing new things then the goals will inevitably be shifting, at least in part. Yes, at the end of the day I still want them to learn optics or mechanics or whatever, but if I try new assignments then the details change, and the details of the assignment matter! The details of the project matter! Two classes can cover the same basic idea in such different ways that all you can really say is "Well, both classes talked about lenses."

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Posting elsewhere

 I'm occasionally putting some of my more polished writing at Medium.com. Here's an essay on why I don't like using education jargon.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Stillborn God: Rest of chapter 5

 He spends some time discussing various liberal theologians, particularly in 19th century Germany. They were so sure that they'd come up with rational ways to reconcile modern society and religion and steer Europe away from the passions of the religious wars.

And then World War 1 happened. Oops. Even if WW2 had never happened, the first World War is more than enough to show that Christian Europe had not really sorted out its problems.

Near the end (page 248) Lilla gets at something that had been hinted at since the start of the book: Once you have a modern system of ideas that doesn't really require God, why have God?

Once the liberal theologians had succeeded, as they did, in portraying biblical faith as the highest expression of moral consciousness and the precondition of modern life, they were unable to explain why modern men and women should still consider themselves to be Christians and Jews rather than simply modern men and women.

Indeed. Religion was measured against its ability to help people express and live by modern values, not by its access to truth that would otherwise be unavailable.

I'm coming more and more to believe that everyone needs religion. Or, at least, they need religion when locked inside and fearing death, which has been the condition of our world since March 2020. From the confessional rites of penitent white liberals during the summer of 2020 to the idiots screaming about freedom while rampaging inside the US Capitol (and nearly rampaging inside the Michigan state capitol last year) everyone is invoking the sacred. Yes, many of the right-wingers are Christians, but I think the Christian faith of the hard right is over-estimated. Whether talking about the more libertarian-leaning elements of the right, or the definitely-not-religious Steve Bannon faction, not everyone on the right is high on Christianity. But that doesn't mean they aren't religious. I mean, they brought a shaman in furs to the Senate chamber with them.

Stillborn God, Chp. 4 and start of Chp. 5

 Chp. 4 spends a lot of time on Hegel. I don't feel like I can summarize his entire summary, I'll just quote one point (regarding Hegelian thought, not necessarily Lilla's own preferences) from near the end of the chapter (pages 206-207):

Now we know what it is to live in freedom: It is to live in modern bourgeois societies where we exercise control over the machinery of political life, hardly noticing its gentle hum. These societies will be complex, comprised [sic] of organically connected social spheres, in which we play different roles: citizen, producer, consumer, newspaper reader, club member, parent, friend. Those who are educated and cultured will have no trouble reconciling themselves to such a system, since they will understand its rationality and appreciate its freedom. Those less gifted may still need religion and patriotic symbols to win their loyalty and sacrifice, but these, too, can be provide within the ambit of the bourgeois state.

One could argue that Trumpism and the sacking of the Capitol show what happens when the less cultured (at least by the measures favored by people like Hegel, and me, apparently) feel like the system is run by people who don't actually share their beliefs in religion and patriotic symbols. That's hardly a complete diagnosis of what led to the current troubles, but it's a factor, and a way of pointing to a bigger cultural divide that fuels a lot of things. Lilla has summarized so many political philosophers as conceding a need for some sort of religion to control the worst in people and/or channel the best. If religion is not heartfelt worship then it is a noble lie, and noble lies only work when delivered convincingly. If they aren't even delivered then there's no solidarity. 

Not everyone on the right (even the hard right) is as religious as people think, but if they reject revealed religion they still adhere to a "civic religion" that reveres a particular vision of the Founders and the Constitution. It isn't theology in the sense that most of the political philosophers discussed by Lilla probably thought of it, but it is religion. It is a narrative that tries to explain the origins of the setting in which people live, and offer morality tales. It's mostly BS, if for no other reason than that the Founders disagreed with each other on so many things, so one can't ascribe a consistent belief system to them.

And it's disrespected. I just called it BS. I'm part of the disrespect. And they know it. They also know that the federal government rejects this originalist religion, as it does far more than the Constitutional Convention ever contemplated. We have a priestly caste of Supreme Court Justices who interpret the original texts and proclaim that the federal government's actions are consistent with their reading of the Constitution, but it is, on some level BS. I don't offer that as a revolutionary statement or a call to an uprising. It's just a fact that basically every modern society on earth has a government that does far more than our Constitutional Convention contemplated. It's how the modern world works. Which is arguably fine, but to have a priestly caste say that the sacred text authorizes this requires mental gymnastics.

On the other side of the culture war, inclusivity is the new religion. I've said plenty about that and don't need to rehash it.

So back to Lilla. He says that the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe led to a desire to separate church from state, or at least remove church authority from any possible meddling in the state, and leave at best an "opiate of the masses" that could be used to suppress the worst and/or bring out the best in people, in accordance with some plan. He's focusing on the debate between those two sides, but I'm left wondering how you get people to buy into either form of religion if they can tell that the elite classes supervising the delivery of this religion, like shadows on the wall of Plato's cave, very obviously don't believe it.

Anyway, he is focusing a lot on Germany part-way through chapter 5, noting that many Germans believed Protestantism should be an integral part of a modern state, while England and the US believed that religion would benefit from religious freedom. (I gather that by that time the UK had largely stopped persecuting Christians who eschewed the Church of England.) He even notes that many Jews in Germany thought that their values were sufficiently similar to those of Protestantism that they could be assimilated into this new Germany. (Lilla adds that we know how that worked out, in a moment of dry understatement.)

One other thing I notice at this point is that he focuses so much on Catholic-Protestant tensions and doesn't mention the Eastern Orthodox churches. I gather it's because he's talking about debates in Christian Europe, and most Eastern Orthodox Christians either lived under Ottoman rule or Russian rule.  Russia was/is, of course, Christian, but it's also on the geopolitical edge of Europe and poorer than most European Christian countries. And Christians under Ottoman rule couldn't really have religious politics.

One other thing about chapter 4: On page 189 he notes that Hegel found Greek religion interesting because their gods were so human. While it meant it would be hard for Greek gods to have final moral authority, he saw it as a window into Greek cultural appreciation of humanity as humanity. Christianity, at least in many forms, tells us to look to the next life, not to lust for this world, while the Greeks could appreciate human life as embodied life in this world that even the gods had gusto for. Lilla notes later that, for all of Catholicism's otherworldly pretensions, it became a very worldly power. The reaction was a Reformation that focused on individual faith rather than adherence to an institution, and somehow wound up producing a Protestant work ethic that led to great worldly prosperity while focusing minds on salvation.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Stillborn God, Chapters 1 and 2

 My previous post was about the short introduction to The Stillborn God. I've since read the first two chapters.

Chapter 1, "The Crisis" is largely about Christian political theology and its origins. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the history, but the insights provide some food for thought. He gets at the core issue pretty early, noting two things I've remarked on before. Page 22:

God's intentions themselves need no justification, since he is the last court of appeal. If we could justify him, we would not need him; we would only need the arguments validating his actions.

I'm not sure I completely agree with that, but I get the argument. I think there would be ways to say something about the importance of the final authority while hiding his rationales behind a veil of mystery. But maybe that argument just reduces to what I've said before about the need for a final authority so you don't have agonize over your postulates.

On pages 22-23, he makes an interesting comment about Greek political philosophy:

In ancient Greece, some imagined a first cause or "unmoved mover" without personality who embodied divine law, which philosophers could contemplate to understand the cosmic order and man's place within it. Other Greeks entertained thoughts about a panoply of deities with conflicting personalities but whose natures were still intelligible to human reason. Such gods were never thought by the Greeks to exercise revealed political authority because they created man and the cosmos--and perhaps that is why political philosophy was first able to develop in ancient Greece.

I've made the point before that pagan pantheons provide no moral authority because there is no power monopoly and no consistent behavior between the deities. There is instead strife, and most of the point of morality in society is to avoid or resolve strife.

He goes on to talk about the challenges facing Christianity, which has a 3-fold deity with very different roles in the world, and a history that started as a minority faith and then accidentally acquired an Empire. Christ was a hippie figure but his followers were running the Roman Empire. He over-simplifies when he occasionally contrasts with Judaism and Islam, but he isn't really writing about them. He's making the point that Christianity had a dilemma in constructing a political theology, but at least had a divinity with a monopoly on moral authority that could, in principle, provide the final axiom. I'm not sure that Christianity is as unique as he claims in having dilemmas around political theology, but he never pushes hard on the claim of uniqueness, so I guess I can let it slide. I'm sure that there are differences between Christianity's problems and other religions' problems. 

Chapter 2 dissects the history and struggles around that. I like the point on page 59 about how Christian cosmology is a rather strange thing:

The Christian conception of the cosmos was always a patchwork affair. It had been cobbled together in the Middle Ages from biblical sources, the speculations in Plato's dialogue Timaeus, the systematic scientific treatises of Aristotle (filtered through Muslim commentators), and the ancient astronomical works of Ptolemy. Why it was fashioned at all is something of a puzzle. The Hebrew Bible does not engage in systematic speculation about the structure of the cosmos; it assumes that nature was created good but has nothing fundamental to teach us about how to live. The Torah is complete. The Christian New Testament takes a similar approach to nature: it is there, it is good, but it is not grace.

In The Meaning of Creation, Conrad Hyers argued that Genesis sought to demystify the world, treating it not as the playground of disparate pagan deities but a place that one God made with one purpose, and it is good. And the explanation of God's creation involves a work week ending in rest, just as a righteous adherent of the faith would work all week and devote the 7th day to worship and rest. Trying to tie this to some sort of natural science was never the goal, and if the Church had grasped that point the Galileo Affair might not have been an issue.

Much of the chapter concerns Hobbes. I am taking a big risk by offering summary of a summary of Lilla's Hobbes and his work Leviathan, but how else will I recall anything if I don't write about what I read? Hobbes argued that human existence is at perpetual risk of a state of war, and for fear of death and loss they hand power to a sovereign who can guarantee peace. This is the basic argument that an effective government basically has a monopoly on the use of force within its territory. Worse, people who look into the depths of their own souls will see dark desires, project their desires onto others, and see a need for violence because whoever moves first has the advantage. In Lilla's read, Hobbes reduces the problem of evil to game theory: Conflict is a natural state and you have to be aggressive. Forget demons and original sin and all of that, there's a much simpler explanation of the darkness of human existence.

Lilla also argues that while the task of a king is to keep peace in his territory, churchmen cheat by speaking directly to the people and offering messages that don't necessarily fit into the sovereign's plan.

Lilla summarizes Hobbes' proposal as being not to abolish the fears that drive humans, but rather:

...focus it on one figure alone, the sovereign. If an absolute sovereign could ensure that his subjects feared no other sovereigns before him, human or divine, then peace might be possible.

At the root of all power is fear and force, and the hope is that absolute power will bring absolute peace. Well, um, yeah, we know how well that works. But then again, no state has ever been truly effective, especially back then, so I guess I see the temptation.

But to Lilla, the most important thing in Hobbes is not his case for an absolute sovereign but that he turns political questions into questions about human nature and how people see the world. Everything is driven by human fears and how they project their own flaws onto others, so perception is ultimately everything.

Interestingly, Lilla claims that while Hobbes was OK with a state religion to help ensure compliance, he was not too concerned with whether people honestly believed, only with whether they demonstrated obedience. He reads Hobbes as being interested in vanquishing the interplay of church and state because it led to churchmen bypassing kings, and in this way Lilla sees some continuity between Hobbes and much more liberal thinkers that came after. If they were interested in taking away the power of churchmen and finding a better way to enforce harmony then Lilla sees them as being in some sort of continuity with Hobbes.

What I find interesting in all of this is how the problem of perception is tied in with the problem of power. It ultimately comes down to who the armed men will listen to. What they perceive and fear determines what they respond to and how they respond. In this regard there's some overlap with Plato, whose book The Republic is concerned with governance but goes deep into the allegory of the cave: How can we know if what we see is reality or something put there to fool us? We only know what we perceive, and that will affect our conduct, including the conduct of those entrusted with power. Just 9 days ago we saw how this plays out: A mob stormed the Capitol because they perceive an election as rigged, and armed men defended it because, whatever they might personally think about the particulars of whatever allegations, they were loyal to the system that certified Biden. Mind you, I have every reason to believe that Biden's win was legitimate, but the facts of legitimacy are less important than the perceived facts. How do I honestly know that it was legit? How do they honestly know it wasn't? We have our preferences that determine whom we trust, and a critical mass of people in the right places put their trust in the system and hence fought back against the mob, while a disturbing number of people put their trust elsewhere and stormed the building.

The roots of power are dark and fundamental stuff, and what I'm hoping to learn is what Lilla sees as the fallout from removing God from that equation. He says that a lot of political philosophy in Europe arose from religious wars, bloody battles between people who all believed in the God of Abraham, the Bible, and Jesus, but were loyal to different clergy. Before reading this I assumed that the problem of mixing religion and state was solely about the passions for control that come from religion, and the excesses that those passions can lead to. Most kings wind up being practical, hoping that they can get some tax revenue, keep the place running, and keep themselves running it. How a peasant prays is rarely their biggest headache. But neighbors and local clergy can be terrible. The take I'm getting here is that it's not just about them, it's about the fact that they are a separate center of power. That's interesting to me, because my liberalism leads me to believe that a society needs many centers of power. I've said much about how bad it is for economies and "the good jobs" to be monocultures. I still think that's true, but there are obviously more angles here. Take away religion and you take away its problems, but you don't take away the needs it fulfilled, and yet you do take away a center of power, with all of its advantages and drawbacks.

Food for thought.