I spent an afternoon with friends at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, perusing the varied collections of ephemera of a computing nature.
We had intended to visit for two hours then retire to a local Mexican restaurant for vittles and cerveza. However, we poked about for over 3-1/2 hours and left with an interest in making a second visit.
Nostalgia played a part, as with this TRS-80 microcomputer. My father, a math teacher, had brought one home over Christmas break in 1977 as it was too valuable to leave in the classroom during the holiday hiatus, and I spent two weeks glued to the console.
Likewise, I was fascinated with this device – it brought back memories of watching reruns of the cheesy 1950’s tv show ‘Space Cadet’. It’s a SAGE weapons director console (dating from – yep! – the 1950’s), and the attached handheld is a light gun operators used to label the radar-identified aircraft.
Over the past few days I have read two blog posts which have led me to think about contemporary Western culture, and those thoughts have not been particularly pleasing. The first related to the shameful lack of true investigative journalism by the American press, and the second to Ann Coulter’s childish diatribe over the American president-elect’s middle name.
At first, I was a bit embarrassed to be an American. After all, despite my usually positive outlook on the world I do remove those rose-tinted shades periodically and look around me. I don’t have to look far; there are manipulative, crude and inconsiderate people all around me.
But then I recalled the Italian reality television show, Perfect Bride, where a mother picks a wife for her son. I remember my trip in Europe last summer, where we encountered the requisite number of vapid, shallow people. No, it’s not America. It’s Western culture. Or worse, perhaps it is human nature.
Throughout history, we have been thrilled by bloody victories over our adversaries. We have been fascinated and enthralled by the failings of others; we have been the ambulance chasers, seeking the satisfaction of knowing the gory details of someone else’s misery. We toss people from islands, and we laugh when someone cries in pain. We engage in torture, and we feel a sense of injustice when we see another succeed.
Education is not respected, and hard work is not admired. If I use a big word I am branded as a snob rather than a person who is attempting to describe something succinctly. Those who put in good hours at work and accomplish a lot are branded as brown nosers or suck-ups who believe they are superior.
Throughout my life I have tried to avoid seeing the world in this way. I have read books, been involved in music, written poetry, and tried to build a perfect and serene life. This is not a simple task for many reasons, and inevitably, reality intrudes. It disrupts my balance; I trip and fall. And so the world is black and ruthless, and I’m tossed about like all the rest of the world’s restless souls.
This reality disturbs me greatly, simply because I know we are capable of better.
When I look at the UN, for example, I see great potential. The Food and Agriculture Organization in particular has a fantastic opportunity to influence the world in wonderful ways, by introducing sustainable techniques and site-appropriate crops and technologies. Sadly we see predators like Monsanto descend on developing countries promising riches and sustainable agriculture, while in reality killing the soil and devastating the genetic diversity of food crops nearly beyond repair.
The answers seem so simple, really: we take care of ourselves first, and when we create a system of plenty we are then in a position to help others.
We all have skeletons of one sort or another. Most are rather dull, some are mildly interesting, and a few are downright scandalous. Most of us sweep them into a closet and almost forget about them.
In the UK, they do something a little bit different: they frame them.
The Republic is slowly unfolding.
I have apparently read the definition of justice. I had to backtrack and read the section again; it was rather anticlimactic. The suspense built up over the dozens of previous pages, so that when during a very short dialogue Socrates reveals his definition of justice I almost missed it.
Still, there was some poetry to its simplicity.
Justice, he says, is symmetry of talent and vocation, a harmony between one’s strengths and one’s work. Justice is finding and possessing one’s place as a part of society, contributing and taking responsibility for something meaningful to that society.
Can this be so? And if yes, why is it that in Western culture we deviate so greatly from the Athenian ideal?
First, to back up a bit, the Athenian ideal found expression in a single word, arete, which finds its closest English partner in the word excellence.
Second, Socrates and (in his early work) Plato advocated the ideal, but never saw this ideal realized. They were rational dreamers; they wished and taught, but ultimately the animal nature of human society made its appearance.
Putting this together, understanding and using one’s individual excellence within society serves the individual and the society. Social awareness is in this context serving in the capacity for which one is best suited by nature, not by birth.
Read this interesting Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub post about censorship; it seems a gentleman was on a work break and was seen reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan (a book critical of the group, I might add), and several coworkers complained that this was racist. The fellow was asked by his employer to not bring this book to work. Ed continues in his post to ask some questions about censorship and the need to instruct as a means of preventing the same mistakes and wicked deeds being repeated in the future.
A schoolteacher commented on this post, stating that in her experience children’s minds are not fully developed and they are then incapable of processing such subtleties as irony. She specifically stated that ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is an adult book, not something that children would understand – not even appropriate for children – and that satire can very easily be misconstrued.
My husband is an educator. He works with grammar school children, many of whom have special needs. I asked him whether he believes that Huckleberry Finn is a book that is meant for adult consumption; his reply was an emphatic ‘No.’ He said that he in fact often encourages children to read this book as a means of adding depth to their understanding of the world around them. It is a way, he believes, that their little brains can grow and become aware that they are not the center of the universe.
While I agree that children’s minds may not understand subtlety, is it not the mission of education to explain and instruct? In other words, we do not wake up one day suddenly knowing that Jonathon Swift wrote satire; someone teaches us, explains it, we (I hope) learn, and our minds grow as the brain rapidly forms new neuropathways enabling us to think in a different way, on a different level. Without that instruction, we become a people incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction, irony from hatred.
When I was in school, I had access to a marvelous group of literature instructors. I petitioned for, and was granted, British Literature two years earlier than most kids, as I was eager to learn from the well-respected teacher. We learned wonderful background materials such as Beowulf, moved on to the confounding Canterbury Tales, traipsed through poetry (I still recall To the virgins, to make the most of time!), dipped into Swift and on and on … until we landed in the wondrous adventure of Theatre of the Absurd. Harold Pinter was quite a favorite for several years thereafter.
I started the course at fourteen, when my brain was certainly muddled by hormones. I am sure I was no more capable of discerning subtlety than most others of that age. But that year I learned more about history than I had learned the previous nine years. I also learned sociology, psychology, religion, philosophy – the gamut! The teacher was well-respected and effective because he provided context for the materials he taught. Because of these efforts – which I maintain are the expectation we ought to have for a teacher – our little brains began to expand and we suddenly found ourselves alive for that hour, competing to provide our opinion, anxious to participate in the discussion, and disappointed when the hour ended.
We read Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Did I then wish to go out and kill my peers? Hell no! We also read The Dumbwaiter. Did this make me disdainful of persons with learning disabilities? Absolutely not! Was I offended when we read Swift’s recommendations about disposing of children? No way!
There are many burdens placed on the schools that properly belong to parents and the community. Schools are expected to feed children, report suspected child abuse, provide psychological counseling services, and handle disputes between children. BUT, the one thing that teachers should absolutely do without question is to instruct and encourage intelligent discourse. I was so troubled to find that an educator implies that this is not a part of her job.
This type of laissez-faire attitude, in fact, serves only to perpetuate the deficient state of intellectual discourse in the US. If we throw up our hands and concede whenever a teenager challenges us, we have no place in the classroom – might as well pack it in and get a desk job for a corporation at that point. The mission of education is to instill knowledge, and the means is to meet the challenges that as-yet unformed minds bring to the classroom.
I agree with Ed’s post, that his approach with the child who repeatedly insisted that the work he was teaching was racist involved bringing the parents in for a meaningful discussion. The most intransigent individuals require additional instruction, and involvement of the parents. If the parents are not willing to, or capable of, engaging in a reasonably scholarly conversation, that is another story – a very sad one indeed.
By the way, I have a clear understanding that teachers are shockingly underpaid, and that parents are often absent, hostile and ill-educated. My father was, in fact, a math teacher for 35 years, over 30 of which were spent with middle school children. This was his life’s work, and though he felt underpaid and periodically persecuted unfairly by some quite bizarre parents, as a man of integrity he did not allow these facts to affect his work performance.