Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Thoughtless and Unsuspecting

 The second in a series of three responses to The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.

It’s not that history needs to be made relevant, it is relevant. Or at least that is the argument I have been trying to make to people since they started inquiring about my choice of major. Inevitably, it is always followed up by the (usually concerned) question about what my plans are for after graduation. While I might not have an answer to that particular question yet, this book has provided me with the answer to the standard third question. Why is history relevant, you might ask? Because “he [Joseph] did not participate in its life thoughtlessly and unsuspectingly…for he knew its origins and history, was conscious of it as a historical entity…” and for my part I do not want to live life thoughtlessly and unsuspectingly. For me history is not merely a self-indulgent enjoyment of the past. It is also a sincere attempt to understand other people, how they lived, how they thought, and perhaps most importantly how what they did yesterday influences me today. That understanding in turn provides context for my life and for the world around me. It keeps at bay the urge to see things in a vacuum or as the result of a single action or moment. History allows me to reflect coherently and removes much of the unwelcome shock from reading the news in the morning. We are part of the historical process. It moves on whether we give it permission to or not. In choosing to be an active participant, one who is knowledgeable of what has come before, we take one of the most crucial steps towards become a fully realized person.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Specialized Fluency
When I got to college, one of the most exciting prospects was never again being oppressed by a trite summer reading book. Or any summer reading at all. I naively imagined myself sitting on a beach, sipping a drink with an umbrella, reading a text of my own choosing. Luckily for me, I was completely wrong. I never really was a fan of umbrellas anyway. And while I have enjoyed a number of good books (of my own choosing) this summer, I have also thoroughly enjoyed The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, assigned as summer reading for a class in the fall. The major difference between summer reading for high school and college might be the craftiness of the instructor. In order to ensure we have been keeping up with our reading our professor required us to prepare three reflections on the book over the course of the summer. Here is the first:

“But each of us should be on the way toward perfection, should be striving to reach the center, not the periphery.” And thus the Music Master advises Joseph when they are discussing Joseph’s further education. My friend once sent me a cartoon of a circle with a very small bulge along the periphery. The caption helpfully informed me that this bulge was the amount I could increase human knowledge if I chose to get a PhD. That image has stayed with me and the Music Master’s advice reminded me of it once again. The world is pushing us constantly to every increasing specialization and sub-division. And when the age of the liberal arts education, of the person fluent in mathematics and philosophy and history, is recalled wistfully it is so often discounted as obsolete. Reading The Glass Bead Game has helped me solidify my own support for the liberal arts tradition. The Game requires an understanding of a large number of subjects and the ability to translate a concept in one discipline to another. The real goal of a liberal arts education should be have the knowledge and skills to approach problems from a large range of perspectives. Not to seek the peripheries of subdivided knowledge, but to seek of synthesis of inner passions in a center that combines all disciplines. In this, one is not straining one’s capacities by studying disparate areas, but is strengthening a central focus. Knowledge is not necessarily precious for its own sake, but its direct application doesn’t need to be immediately apparent for it to have value.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Use and Abuse of History

“Yeah, but what are you going to do with it?” Perhaps the greatest challenge facing a history major, or any humanities student for that matter, is explaining to people why what you do is useful. My first response is usually casual self-deprecation. More often than not I get off there and am not required to muster more of a defense than “I enjoy it.” I do truly enjoy it, but I often wonder whether I’m actually pursuing something worthwhile. And perhaps it’s a wistful desire to make myself more useful than I actually am, but I think a stronger grounding in history could do everyone a bit of good.
It’s not that people don’t know history. I’m sure you can find enough bright-eyed youngsters to tell you who was the first President of the United States and what year we landed on the moon. But what troubles me is that people are able to capitalize on a lack of historical knowledge in order to advance their agendas. I don’t really mean to point fingers (I really want to, but that’s not really the point now, is it?), but there are certain groups who use what can charitably be called misinterpretations and uncharitably be called lies about history to garner support for whatever they happen to be pushing this week. They can do this because people don’t know the history that really matters.

Unfortunately, the history that really matters isn’t easy to teach and it isn’t particularly sexy. Dates and names are easy and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would call history sexy (although it can be pretty sexy if you know where to look and some of it is actually pretty relevant to a whole host of discussions in modern society). History that truly demands to be learned falls generally into what is termed social history. How people lived; what they believed and valued and decided in their daily lives; how social conventions changed over time. In this somewhat nebulous category lies the direct and indirect causes and seeds for the world we live in today. The grand narratives of statesmen and hallowed laws of ages past are arguably important, but it is how they played out in bedrooms and classrooms and restaurants that truly shaped us.

I am an unrepentant believer in the power of education and knowledge to shape society. In knowing more we become better equipped to improve the lives of our fellow human beings. That is a bit grandiose and possibly too abstract to act as the foundation of an educational system, but if you take an honest look at the educational enterprise today that’s what most of it is about. The hard part comes in realizing that every avenue of study can contribute to the service of humanity. It’s not that history needs to be made relevant, it is relevant. We just need to take a moment to stop societally devaluing it and recognize that we are all a product of our history. If we are ignorant of where we’ve come from, if we don’t know our starting points, how can we know if we’re going in a direction we’d be proud of.

Friday, July 12, 2013

On Fear

The unspoken truth about fear is that it doesn’t belong in the realm of truth. If you get down to it not a whole lot really does, but fear is especially distant. If you’re standing in the uppermost room of the uppermost tower in the castle on the uppermost hill of the capital of the Realm of Truth (Population: Six), you can’t quite make it out. It’s past the River of Metaphor, tucked into the woods behind an abandon garage off I-95. Ironically enough, it is located centrally for the rest of us who aren’t graced with the necessary connections to reside in the Realm. Most of us pass it on our morning commute and those who don’t have it waiting at home. It’s never a big deal. Usually just a passing acknowledgement. Like that coworker who you see at the grocery store, but don’t know well enough to stop and chat with, so you wave or nod as you pass by. But you make sure not to slow down so you don’t invite further conversation.

Fear resides there not because it got a sweet deal on the lease (although with it’s credit, I’m sure it can swing a pretty solid rate), but because it needs the space. The woods are cavernous, shadowed from the world in their immensity and without meaningful boundaries. But it may not be what you think. Fear didn’t choose this place because it is dark and reminds us of the nightmares that haunted our young imaginations. In fact, the woods are about as bland a place as you can find in nature. Trees and small animals and the occasional deer, but nothing picturesque. No waterfall or hidden cliff to elicit the feeling of sublime. Just a leaf-filled creek meandering past a quaint house in need of a little repair. No, the woods are its home because fear is a panda. It needs vast swaths of forest to live in and likes to remain largely unseen. You know it there not because you’ve laid eyes upon it yourself. Only a sign and the occasional splash a fur reminds you of its presence. It would have chosen some tundra or even a big chunk of grassland, but it’s hard to find those with DSL-hookup and a convenient interstate nearby.

The unspoken truth about fear is that it is more human than we give it credit for. Ignoring the fact that fear exists only because we allow it to exist, which is honestly an insightful enough comment in itself to provide hours of reflective material, fear is normal. It is not some brooding dragon lurking in a cave with sinister intentions, surrounded by the smoking bones of the weak-willed mortals who saw fit to challenge it. It works a nine to five job, with some odd hours thrown in on the weekends. It shows up to parties and interviews and goes on vacation just like the rest of us. It has learned to live with the world as it changes. Repurposing itself with every new advance, just as we must do from time to time. It has a home and we have learned to live with it, just as we have our noisy neighbor’s dog and the kids who spend all day shouting in the streets.