Thursday, April 28, 2011

Closing of the American Mind: Cultural Relativism

Closing of the American Mind, Part 2: Cultural Relatvisim

Openness. Or as our current professors call it, "Diversity." The supposition is that, from the early 20th century, after the onset of WWI, it was clear that the belief in Western philosophy and religion was illogical. People with the vehement belief in nationalism and Christianity had caused the deaths of millions of people. Further, and you see this in US History books quite often now, that since Christians' desire to spread their religion was more often an excuse to find riches, power, and the conquering of other cultures and enslavement of them, it is much easier to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Thus, a denial of Christianity as a whole is a break from the actions of our ancestors. The climax of this movement was Nietzsche's quote that "God is dead." He did this not out of a prideful acceptance of atheism, but out of a logical use of reasoning that, if the beliefs of a benign God were to result in enslavement and war, then those beliefs were better off to be rejected. But leaving the belief system of mankind in a bottomless void, something had to fill in the hole. That, as liberal arts colleges have found, is a round education in "diversity." In other words, a teaching of students about other cultures, their beliefs, their virtues and their gods. While this is not wrong in itself, a lecture which brings up the comparative beliefs of another culture cannot be analyzed without something to believe in originally. Thus when, for instance, we look at the actions of the Aztec chiefs, or of Nazi Germany, we have to look at it through the idea that what they did was neither right nor wrong. Of course, I have used the extremes in this sense, as Bloom talked about with his students. Whenever he asked, "Give me an example of someone who is evil," almost without fail, the class brought up Hitler almost immediately. But the same cannot be said of asking who is a hero, or good. It is much harder to come up with someone who fits the virtues of a society who believes in none. Cultural Relativism is now the lion who slouches toward Bethlehem, ready to devour.

When we look at Cultural Relativism, we see a world where the impetus behind "good" and "evil," "right" and "wrong" is erased. There is no meaning in these words, especially in today's world of 24 hour news, constant analysis of the motives behind any crime, investigations into past histories, acceptance of other cultures, no matter how they reflect on the moral beliefs of the person doing the reflection. To look at the phenomenon of relativism, we have to examine the word cultural. When we think of modern culture, we need look no further than the commercials following every round on The Price is Right. Constant messages from lawyers, determined to get the maximum settlement from insurance companies, or free medical care for those countless people who are on Medicare. Then we switch to Let's Make a Deal or American Idol, and find that for the most part, it's not the winners that entertain us, but the losers. The ones that are voted out, or Zonked. We have resorted to being a society of victims, rather than a society where heroes are revered. Even those who are considered heroes, like Scully, become side show oddities who are put on a pedestal and soon forgotten, with their books going to the bargain rack and the made-for-TV movies lost in the annals of film storage buildings. But the losers, they grace the images plastered on our walls, fill our airwaves and waste hours of our lives on gossip and triviality. People flock to hear the filth that spews from Charlie Sheen, who at the end, blames his troubles on his childhood, on his father, on anything else possible except his own failures. Such a time is this, that we live and work to fill our spare time with uselessness. I would much rather live in the 1800's, where people went rather to lectures by Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or prior years where the preachers filled the auditoriums with passionate speeches, with fire and brimstone and emotion.

Now, there is no God to worship, no heroes to admire, no philosophers to debate and no questions to ponder. Now, you are okay, and I am okay. That's all that matters. Why attain the status of true happiness, of contentment and self-actualization when it's perfectly acceptable just to be "okay?" The university trains everyone with an "equal" education, and are satisfied if those giving them money acquire a degree in business or nursing or, ironically, education, without having a sound foundation in the questions of life. The churches accept everyone, and the chambers are filled with preachers that say, "It's okay if you do this or that sin, God loves you anyway." And while that's true, there is no fervor in trying to be closer to God, to being closer to the good that Aristotle talked about in his writings. And the government has embraced the idea that everyone is "created equal," and that everyone has the "right" to "happiness." Of course, this is the happiness attained by letting the government take care of everything for you, for achieving entitlements that bring only mediocrity to the citizens, without any hard work or satisfaction in becoming a productive member of society. It is a shame that no one can rise up from their cave wall and stride confidently into the sunlight. I talked before about a statue made in the country of Senegal, see here, and about the gloriousness of the statue looking out over the Atlantic. I hope that one day a man may attain the same stature that the figures have standing over the capital city. I see no one now that can do it.

Thus we return to "Openness," the center belief of universities in the modern era. By treating everyone equally, all cultures, beliefs, religions, we have created parity in the world of human thought. It's easy to see how this effects football, for instance. You wind up with too many teams that are 8-8, and are, truthfully, very boring. And if everyone is equal, there is no way to compare one culture with another, no beliefs to hold as superior to another, to ideas to ascend to. Thus the modern thought process have done in under a century what past inquisitions, tyrants, political movements, and kings have tried to do for eons. They have weakened the idea of Christianity and other western thoughts, not by extinguishing them, but by accepting all beliefs throughout the world. If everyone is okay, then there's no need to believe in anything. So believe in something. Worship a God, strive for the goals that will make you better than everyone else. Leave that cave and stand in the sunlight. The real world is so much brighter than the dim bulbs reflecting off the screens.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Closing of the American Mind: Teachers and the Cave

Closing of the American Mind, Part 1.

It's like seeing strands of thought, floating up from the pages like a cobra being enticed from his basket with a tune.  These strands weave and spin themselves together, along with ones already present, to create new webs.  Yes, that's a good metaphor, webs, just as the spider that spins them together to glisten in the sunlit dew.  Spin one thread, and tie it to the center, and tie it to the circumference of the web with like strands, until the web is complete, except for this, it never is.

I wish to record the strands coming from this book, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, because so many lines in the book come out as strands of thought and connect to other ones in my head.  Ones that must be tied together in words.  And this is, after all, what this blog is all about.  The number at the start of each section corresponds with the number I have in the book (makes it easier for me to reference it), along with the quote, and then my thoughts. It'll make it less rambly.  Hope this works. 
1. Teaching can be a threat to philosophy because philosophizing is a solitary quest, and he who pursues it must never look to an audience. (20)
Let's go back into Plato's cave for a second.  Say the philosopher, the man with new knowledge, a new outlook on life because he's gone outside and seen the world, goes back in and realizes that his peers don't want to listen to him.  They don't want to learn. They're too busy watching Jersey Shore on the cave wall.  Should you even want to try and reach those students who simply don't care about knowledge or forwarding the human race, but rather would be entertained by those who would create those images? I learned long ago that, even in the 8th grade classes I taught, there are only a handful, probably 5%, that would be interested in leaving the cave.

But enough cynicism. I thought that teaching would be about me imparting the knowledge which I had accumulated to the minds of the students I had in front of me.  Turns out, it's the accumulation of knowledge that I am interested in, not the teaching of it.  I am, as Jung would say, an Introvert. My locus is inside myself. I draw energy from the connection my brain makes from within. I've always told my fellow workers, after I've told a particularly bad joke, that as long as it makes me laugh, I don't care. Because while I entertain the  people that I am around, I do it because it make me feel good.  I learn and process information, I write these blogs, because I want to learn and to amass knowledge.  I want to be, in some respects, much like Faust, although without the whole making a deal with the devil thing.  And the more I learn, the more connections I make between thinkers and writers and life, the further I will be along the road to understanding how the world works.  And I write those things in this blog for those who would like to see what conclusions I've drawn. I've said from the beginning that I really don't care who reads them.  It is your choice. It sounds so selfish, to hold knowledge inside, and you'd be right. But it is man's desire to re-enter the cave and plead and beg his peers to come outside, no matter how much they will ignore him. Teaching, as Allan Bloom talks about later, is something that a philosopher must do in order to achieve the satisfaction in reaching those conclusions. It is the climax of the process.

2. There is no real teacher who in practice does not believe in the existence of the soul, or in a magic that acts on it through speech. The soul, so the teacher must think, may at the onset of education require extrinsic rewards and punishments to motivate its activity; but in the end that activity is its own reward and is self-sufficient. (20)

The problem is that education has become less about the speaking to the soul of students and more about teaching to the CRCT test so that the school can receive increased funding. Or, if you talk about college, and Bloom mentions this later, that the training of students into fields that are monetarily successful far outshines any need to enhance the human mind or reach into the soul and turn on that spark that ignites the desire for learning.  It is done by the direct need for rewards, money, fame, power, and less by a need to further their own knowledge. As I said before, only about 5% get to that stage. And those of us who reach that point are destined to stay at college forever (either as student or professor) or stuck in menial jobs, scanning groceries and making subs at Subway. The absolute rarity is that philosopher that can apply his learning, mold the world into something wonderful, become the producers, the makers of mankind.

(I thought of this song as I was writing the last paragraph.)

So this is how this'll go, and I'll post some along, so that eventually I'll have done the whole book.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dylan in December, W00T?

Let's take a ride on the magical tour that is Earth, on the giant database that is collecting up information to tell someone far in the future that the answer to the universe is "42." There's nothing on this planet that is not just now being viewed on Youtube (well, except for all the stuff you can't watch on Youtube, but there'll be other sites for that.) Do a search for Bob Dylan's Dream (just click on the link), and find any of the amateur covers of this great Dylan song (which was best sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary on the Album 1700 release). Yes, lots of bad singers putting their voices on Youtube. Same reason you have scores of people on American Idol singing horribly. Because they don't know they sing horribly. It's amazing how the mind can only interpret an action as being superb, but when it's actually horrid to anyone else.

Specifically, I find it amusing how most of the covers are people trying to sound like Bob Dylan. It's accepted that Dylan doesn't have a great singing voice, and yet there are people that want to imitate him. When I sing Bob Dylan's songs in the car, of course I sound like him. You open the throat, the nose, and growl it out through the nasal cavities. But I'm not going to let the rest of the world hear it. It's the same when I sing, for instance, Miley Cyrus' "The Climb." Sure, I sound like a girl, but I'm not going to let anyone else hear it. It's an emulation of the words, the emotion, that the song portrays and evokes. It has nothing to do with me performing it for anyone. That serves no purpose. Like I've said before, see here, I'm selfish.  I sing for me, and not for money or popularity or to look stupid or whatever.  I sing in my voice only in my car, or in empty staircases, or in my room.  Sure I can sing like Dylan, or Miley Cyrus, or Frank Sinatra, etc... but it's just an imitation.  And sometimes an imitation is what is best, as they can evoke the best images and emotions with their style.  That's what Bob Dylan does with his poetry and his style of singing.  And if others take his songs and do just as good a job, then that's wonderful, too.  But don't expect me to add my renditions to Youtube like so many other lemmings.  I don't want to.

I bring up Dylan because we've been listening to an excellent CD over the speakers at work. The Decemberists (a group I've never heard of prior to now), and their album The King is Dead.  Think of it as Alternative Dylan, or what he would have sounded like had he been thrown into R.E.M. (which, not surprisingly, one of the REM guitarists plays on several of the tracks).  Their older works are darker, with more of an electronic edge, but this one, they take on folk and bluegrass and add their own twist to it.  Bold lyrics, ones to be painted in the bold color markers they discontinued from Crayola.  The strongest tracks are the Hymns, one to January, one to June, with battling wrens, creeping jasmine vines, and words like "panoply" and "ambling" which are such treasures to roll off the tongue.  I'll add the Youtube video of them singing the latter on NPR.  A note, the lead singer, Colin Maloy, looks exactly like my dad did, except my dad couldn't sing a note.

A quick shout out to a company that has solved one of my problems in buying t-shirts. Namely, that I never can find ones I like. They're all the same at the stores, and while the ones at Hot Topic are really cool, they're expensive. So Martin posted this link to his Facebook page, W00T Shirts sells one shirt a day at $10, a different one each day, picked out from professional graphic designers or amateurs picked by those that have bought shirts from them (the "community"), and then the ones that sell the best go into rotation at $15 a piece. Very unique ideas, and an awesome way for graphic designers to get their work out to the public and earn money at the same time. And the way they use Facebook and other social media is a prime example of the new successful businesses that use the media correctly. I guess it's annoying that they were bought out and are now a subsidiary of now, but that's how the Internet (and most business) works. So go look at their t-shirts... great stuff, and a great marketing scheme.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Blockbuster Eulogy

So I'm walking out of Ingles, groceries in hand, and I look up and see a dimly lit sign on the store across the street.  Store Closing, it says.  Right over the last Blockbuster in Conyers.  So as far as I know, there will be no more movie rental businesses of any kind in my home town.  It was like a sample, a taste of that really expensive imported cheese at Publix.  When you're a kid and you don't have any money (at least not $50 for a video game) but the local Blockbuster finally has a copy of Zelda II in stock and so you rent it for like a week at Christmas, but you can never get past the boulder because you can't find the magical hammer... Or your dad renting The Hobbit at the Kroger so you can watch it, even though you sleep through half of it because it was so boring (only to later read the book and it change your life...).  There's something to be said about going out, physically traveling to a place and renting a movie, as it's nothing you can keep, so you have to watch it in the days you have it.  That'll get rid of ADD procrastination.

Of course Blockbuster closing is a sign of the times... it's the digitalization of the world.  Videos, Music, Books, everything being electronically transferred into 1's and 0's.  Binary code.  All so that we can sit at home (or, now, at the local Starbucks) and download our heart's wishes.  There is no eagerly waiting for the latest Playstation 3 game, as once it is released, it can be downloaded ad nauseum to the console.  There's no opening of the box, leafing through the instruction booklet on the way home, or flipping through the latest Nintendo Power hoping for a clue.  It can all be downloaded or looked up.  As I said before, it amazed me when, at 10am on Christmas morning, the most looked up thing on Yahoo! was "Video Game Cheats."  It didn't even take them but a few hours and they wanted to cheat on their games.  But I digress.

It's part of a greater change, maybe brought on by gas prices, but more likely by just the convenience of getting everything ordered online through Amazon, or any of the other online stores.  There's no need to go to Best Buy to look at Large Screen TV's.... just go buy one with flexpays on  You have to get groceries, your drugs, and going out to eat for food...and that's it.  The only reason Malls exist now is to have someplace to send the kids so that parents might have an hour or two of peace and quiet.  And I should know, as I work in one.

How I felt when I looked at the closing sign at Blockbuster... a little sad, but with more indifference... when the FYI, Turtles music store closed in Conyers, they offered all their used and new CD's at half price.  I didn't buy any of them...why bother when you can get them downloaded as MP3s from the Internet?  So I went home and took out my Blockbuster Card that I still had in my wallet (next to my Library Card which had seen even less usage), and I put it in my junk drawer, where all expired cards go to die.  And it's not like I even watch movies anyway... my ADD is too bad for that, unless I'm in a theatre.  You know Where the Wild Things Are, which I still rave about... I have the DVD and the Blu Ray, but I've never watched either.  I bought quite a few DVD's from Blockbuster when they had their sales, but 90% have never even been looked at.  But I suppose when we all lose our jobs and have to be put on the waiting list for working at Walmart (which will be the only thing left open), at least I'll have something to distract me.  Or books, or video games.  All of which I can easily download from my computer and store, like a squirrel storing his nuts for the winter.