Thursday, January 22, 2009

Do Your Job

Gilbert Meilander at First Things discusses a book by noted academic Stanley Fish titled Save the World on Your Own Time. In the book Fish argues that the attempts by teachers and college professors to make students into "good people" is misguided and in any event impossible:

...the book's entire polemical edge (and the point of its central second chapter, titled "Do Your Job") depends on the assumption that many college and university teachers are all too eager to use their classrooms for "partisan purposes." Rather than taking up ideas and arguments as objects for analysis, they offer them as "candidates for allegiance." Rather than doing what academics are trained to do-"passing on knowledge and conferring skills"-they commit themselves (with the full support of broad claims in the mission statements of their institutions) to turning students into people who are sensitive, tolerant, creative, and good (though, of course, globally minded) citizens.

In short, they seem to be in the business of offering a "character transplant" to students who thought they had "signed on for something more modest, to wit, a course of instruction."

What we can do in the classroom is, roughly, what Fish says we can (and should) attempt: impart knowledge and develop skills needed to analyze ideas. We can give training in critical reflection about how different individuals and traditions have proposed that we should live. We can, on our good days or good semesters, produce students who think more clearly, critically, and reflectively about such questions. And, if we've really done well, we may even produce students who realize that critical thought is by no means the whole of the moral life. It is what can be done in the classroom, what a college professor might be trained to do if he attempts not to save the world but to do his job.

If you're a teacher, or hoping to be a teacher, or have a child who is a student, this would be a good essay to read in its entirety.


What Will They Think of Next

The movie The Matrix popularized philosopher George Berkeley's idea that the world is simply a projection of our minds. The universe is fundamentally mental, according to people like Berkeley, it's not material at all. All that we experience when we observe an object are our ideas and ideas are in minds, they're not objectively real, so there actually is no world of solid matter.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a lot of physicists agree with the notion that the world is in large part the creation of our minds. Now, however, evidence is starting to point to the possibility that the world is really a hologram projected by some two-dimensional surface somewhere far away. A hologram, of course, is an image that gives the illusion of being substantial but which is really formed by light waves interacting with each other as they pass through, or reflect off, an image on a film. One of the bizarre properties of holograms is that every piece of the image contains the entire image. It's like a mosaic that's made of pieces every one of which contains the image of the entire mosaic.

If the universe is a hologram then it must be a reflection off a surface outside the universe which means that we must exist not only here, but also there. Moreover, our existence here is just an image, an illusion. Our real existence is there.

That the world is not really as it appears to us is something I'm quite convinced of. For me to accept that it's a hologram, however, is going to require a little more evidence, or maybe another good movie like the first Matrix.


Why Arabs Lose

Strategy Page points out that there's a reason why Arabs almost always lose in combat against Western militaries:

[T]here have been about 4,000 casualties from the fighting that began on December 27th. As with past battles between Israel and Arabs, most of the losses (in this case 98 percent) are Arab. This is worse than previous wars because Hamas has deliberately tried to get Palestinians killed, mainly for the propaganda value. The Israelis have developed new tactics that minimize their casualties and those of Palestinian civilians. The mass media is in the midst of their usual anti-Israel/pro-Hamas hysteria. But, as in the past, when the dust settles, it will be revealed (if not universally admitted) that Hamas was trying to get Palestinian civilians killed, and Israelis weren't. Israeli tactics have denied Hamas the bloodbath they hoped to achieve. The Hamas gunmen die quickly, and the Israeli troops are very difficult to hit ....

Arabs are dismayed by this disparity in [combatant] casualties, which has occurred whenever Arab and Westerners have fought in the last century or so. The reason for it is the corruption and inefficiency of Arab society. The Arabs have proved to be unable to rule themselves effectively, and a long list of bad habits makes it difficult for Arabs to create effective armed forces. Thus we end up with Hamas cynically using tactics that try to get more Palestinians killed, so the "victimhood" of Hamas will be enhanced by a world that averts their eyes when it comes to seeing Arab faults and the tragic results.

There is something sick about a government, in this case Hamas, which tries to win a war by getting as many of its own civilians killed as possible.