Category Archives: Anti-intellectualism

Nobody Knows It But Me

classroomLong ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.

Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.

I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.

I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.

I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.

We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.

Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.

For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.

In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.

Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.

But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.

Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:

In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.

In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.

Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.

So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.

Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.

Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.

“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” 
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

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Happiness is a Warm Gun

She was my first real girlfriend and she terrified me. More precisely, the possibility of her getting bored with me terrified me. And she was always at great pains to remind me that boredom would have dire consequences. Boredom was the end.

I had no idea who she really was and neither did she; though, I had developed some ideas over the months we’d been dating. I’d projected and imagined. Meanwhile, she thought I was Ross from Friends. She’d say it all the time: “You’re just like Ross. Oh my god.” Sometimes, she’d say, “You’re just like my brother,” but, mostly, it was Ross.

Between her brother and his collection of hot mustards and Ross, there was a very narrow margin for keeping Christina entertained. Still, I tried like a motherfucker. I was 18 years old and fully believed she was The One.

She broke up with me while we were sitting in a theater before a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I do recall that it was a Sunday afternoon and it was extremely hot outside. She told me she needed to feel safe and protected. And she didn’t think I could do that. She needed someone who would fight for her. We stared at the blank screen and listened to the Muzak. Then she said she hoped we could stay friends.

For the next two hours, Christina rested her head on my shoulder while I contemplated the infinite tunnel of grief and abandonment I had just entered. I suspected the real reason she was breaking up with me was that she’d gotten bored. And I hated myself for letting it happen when I’d known ahead of time THAT WAS THE ONE THING THAT COULD NOT BE TOLERATED. 25 years later, I still remember her saying, “You don’t even own a gun.”

To my credit, I did not run to the corner gun shop and buy a nine. I’ve always felt that having a gun around would make it too easy for me to permanently check out. But I thought about what she said for a long time and eventually the reality of who Christina was blossomed in my mind. She was, for all intents and purposes, an idiot. But then, as the wise man once said, stupid is as stupid does. Her point about me not owning a gun would prove to be the set-up for a 25-year-long joke, the punchline of which was delivered only last week . . .

 

My 9x19mm Parabellum Romance

At the end of Games People Play, transactional psychiatrist Eric Berne suggests, not unlike Orwell in 1984, that most people are concerned primarily with reproducing and distracting themselves while they wait for death. However, Berne notes that exceptional individuals can transcend the default monotony of an unexamined life:

THE somber picture presented in Parts I and II of this book, in which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death, or Santa Claus, with very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait, is a commonplace but not the final answer. For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy. But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as “togetherness.” This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it. (81)

I’ve entertained this idea for a long time. In fact, it has bothered me enough over the years that I’ve structured a large part of my life trying to be an individual who isn’t caught up in mindless self-distraction and reactivity. But sometimes I feel incredibly afraid of this binary. I’m never sure if I’ve succeeded in avoiding groupthink or if success is even possible.

It’s not Berne’s “fright of the unprepared”; rather, I think I get afraid because I worry that the binary itself is oversimple and therefore misleading and impossible. Can I honestly believe that individuality is directly and cleanly opposed to conformity and that these are the available options in my life? I sometimes wonder whether I’ve fallen prey to false assumptions in this respect. Frankly, the thought leaves me cold.

For example, I think, I’m going to avoid going to that melodramatic tear-jerking romance. How boring. Looks like Titanic in space. Having seen over a hundred similar formula-bound period pieces, I feel on some level that I must be right. But then I have to wonder how many people out there are thinking the exact same thing. How many people, by selecting out of the Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic, have opted into the anti-Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic? How many of these “non-conformists” are straight men within a certain age group? How many of their life choices could be predicted based on the Facebook groups they follow and don’t follow? Should I then run out to buy a TEC-9 to impress my empty-headed girlfriend? What sort of man would make her feel safe and protected? Who decides for me if I don’t? Who decided for her?

 

Your Brain in its Vat will be Tangy and Scrumptious

There appears to be a marketing angle for everyone as soon as we learn that someone has written a mass-market manual, entitled The Art of Non-Conformity. But isn’t this about more than just marketing and consumerism? Isn’t it really about whether we’re sleepwalking through our lives? How does one lead, in Berne’s terms, an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life? Do any of us know what these things mean such that we could define this sort of life in a sentence? Or is such an existence necessarily so idiosyncratic that it resists generalization?

Orwell wrote that the proles “went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.” That sounds a lot like most people. But it’s certainly not the picture of an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life—is it? How can we tell?

If, like Orwell, we assume that there is a persistent objective universe that could be mediated at all times by the political ideology of a state apparatus (or a Cartesian brain-in-a-vat AI), then we can’t be individuals unless we assure ourselves that we know and can act meaningfully on what is objective. We can’t lead authentic lives unless we have both knowledge and agency grounded in an objectively persistent material world.

Moreover, as philosophically complex as this becomes, I have to wonder whether it is even possible to determine whether an objectively persistent material world even exists—back to Descartes and the problem of the Cogito. In the end, there are no definitive answers and it would be naive to expect them. There is only the eternal interplay between narratives and questions. What do we prefer to believe?

 

My Killing Joke

The punchline came when a mutual friend of ours tagged her on Facebook and the hand of the past reached out to tweak my nose. There she was in the same town, SUV, kids, cop husband. Over the last 25 years, she got exactly what she wanted. I avoided all that, which is exactly what I wanted and I still don’t own a gun. Have either of us changed? Or are we both still playing the hands we’ve been dealt, telling ourselves we’re special and authentic and clever? There’s no way to know. We can believe what we like.

In the end, it seems, the joke is on us. No matter who we decide we are—no matter if I’m actually Ross or Christina’s actually a rocket scientist—there’s no central authority to tell us what’s objectively real and what isn’t. This is not Oceania and there’s no dominant newspeak (yet). Instead, we’re forced to carry the burden of meaning as individuals: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Frankl 131).

The most responsible thing might be to keep spinning narratives and keep asking questions. If nothing else, we can be consistent in that.

 

 

Works Referenced:

Berne, Eric. The Games People Play: the Psychology of Human Relationships. Ballentine, 1996.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon P, 2006.

Guillebeau, Chris. The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World. TarcherPedigree, 2010.

Hickey, Lance. “The Brain in a Vat Argument.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/brainvat/. Accessed 26 September 2016.

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide, Feb. 2016, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79n/index.html. Accessed 26 September 2016.

Skirry, Justin. “René Descartes (1596—1650).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/#SH4a. Accessed 26 September 2016.


US anti-intellectualism through a glass darkly: the end of our national self-inquiry.

Today, Rebecca Schuman wrote a worthwhile piece in Slate, “The End of Research in Wisconsin,” covering the academic outcry against Gov. Walker’s $250-million budget cuts and subsequent demolition of tenure at state universities.  It’s mildly sensational Slate fare, which is to say, it’s well-written, informative, and disturbing.  I think one of the main reasons we’re seeing upsetting stories like this about the “worth” of a college education relative to the poisonous fallout that attends it is because anti-intellectualism is a theme in American culture that has never gone away; though it’s never seemed this poisonous.

Consider: higher education has always been a battleground in WI (and just about everywhere else). We know that the collision of opposing values (and the economic landscapes created by those values) that emerges when government and academia vie for power is as old as the United States. Or we would know that if history was actually considered as valuable as STEM.  The current STEM-fetish in the States is likely the invisible elephant in the room.  But Shuman’s piece doesn’t get into that.  Instead, she talks about how angry the University of Wisconsin faculty are at Gov. Walker’s maneuvering, citing the exploits of sociology professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who tried to strike back by warning incoming freshmen about the situation.  Well, that’s interesting and dramatic, isn’t it?

Gov. Walker is probably interested in (1) consolidating power; (2) controlling high-profile programs (STEM–ever see an English department with a research budget in the millions?) that will be directly and indirectly lucrative; and (3) silencing all opposition. What else is new? He’s a politician.  Do we expect him to have humanistic values?  His entire worldview is based around trying to eat the appendages of his opponents without letting his opponents eat his.  He is not interested in φιλόσοφος.

This is the same struggle going on in most state-funded universities throughout the country.  This is the same collision of values we’re seeing (in a far more complex and apocalyptic sense) in the current presidential campaign.  Sure, we should care about it; we should debate and discuss.  Our policies should reflect our deepest beliefs.  But college is not going away and neither are state governors.

The usual doomsaying is well represented in the media; though, many Americans still believe and will still believe in going to college, in tenure, and even in the humanities–despite the fact that self-help celebrity James Altuscher makes a pretty good argument to the contrary: don’t go to college because it costs too much.  If all we cared about was ROI, yeah, I could agree.  I guess that’s all many, if not most, people care about in the West: job skills, earning potential, stability.  And who could blame them?  They’re nervous wrecks, mostly because they’re in debt and jobs are scarce.

Still, I don’t buy the entire argument. You can’t commodify learning; you can only try to commodify what a particular degree is “worth” according to what the economy seems to be doing.   For example, student loan debt in the States is ridiculously exploitative. Few disagree with this.  And so when Altuscher says college is a horrible investment, he is more or less right. But sometimes an investment is horrible on one level and profitable on another.

How much would you pay to stay out of the rat race for 4 years, talking about ideas while learning how to communicate, lead others, and discover what really makes you tick?  Sounds priceless to me.  But maybe “priceless” doesn’t mean you want to go into debt for the rest of your life.  When the anti-intellectuals use ROI as an argument against the Academy, what they’re really talking about is student debt vs. the state of the economy.  And they’re conflating these things in an argument against all “useless college degrees” because humanistic inquiry runs contrary to the business values congruent with STEM.

But then, of course, there’s Penelope Trunk, a writer who often seems as damaged as she is imbalanced.  She comes across mostly as an internet troll masquerading as a career advice guru.  I’d like to present an impartial façade when I talk about her, but she’s good at what she does.  Ten minutes on her blog and I feel horrible about the world because she does; she’s making a living off of it; and she is a strong writer.  Sadly, all that learning she did in college has been aimed at destroying what made her.  She is the vanilla Ann Coulter.  And her perspective is where the University of Wisconsin controversy is destined to end.

Trunk has argued vociferously that graduate school, especially in the humanities, is now a frivolous pastime for the idle rich. She intensifies and extends Altuscher’s argument by saying that “non-science degrees are not necessary for a job” (the STEM fetish raises its head once again) and adds that “If you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy? It’s a more honest way of self-examination—no papers and tests. And it’s cheaper.”  This, my friends, is the fine art of trolling.

She loves it: “I do tons of radio call-in shows where I say that graduate degrees in the humanities are so useless that they actually set you back in your career in many cases. And then 400 callers dial-in and start screaming at me about how great a graduate degree is.”  And so I bring her up because this is the answer to what my friend, Al Cabal, has called “the end of America.”  It’s not the end of higher education.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s the final termination point of our self-inquiry.  As a country, at least in the media, we cannot bring ourselves to think past the trolling.  Cabal puts it like this:

New York City just shut down the subways because of snow for the first time in the 101 years that system has existed. Twitter trolls are grounding aircraft. A drunken federal employee landed a drone on the White House lawn. The entire American police state has been built on panic driven by bullshit with low production values. Never underestimate the taste of the American public. If you doubt that, just turn on a radio to any contemporary music station. Watch the most popular TV shows. Tell me who the Kardashians are and why I should care. Google “Operation Mockingbird.”

Bullshit, indeed.  In “The Great American Delusion,” Cabal writes, “When I think of the incredible hubris of this country and its anencephalic and heartless citizenry, I think of the Greek goddess Nemesis, and an old Elvis Costello lyric: ‘She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.’”  

Today, in Wisconsin, academics are screaming because their privileges are being abrogated by a power-hungry state government.  Today, in the United States, this dynamic is in flux on every level and all we hear are the trolls arguing an anti-intellectual bottom line so utilitarian that it would make George F. Babbitt blush.