Pith & Vinegar: William James

I’m currently re-reading a book called Readings by Michael Dirda. It was published in 2000, and I’m not sure but this is probably my 4th or maybe 5th time through it. It’s one of my all time favorites. It’s a superb book of “essays and literary entertainments.” There is an essay in the book called Maxims, Etc. In this piece Dirda tells us that his favorite type of book has been the journal, or collection of letters, books of maxims and observations—which, I’m happy to say, is a taste both Dirda and I share.

After an opening discussion in his essay, Dirda lists some of his favorite books of this type along with some of his favorite maxims from them under the subtitle Pith and Vinegar. I, too, have a large cash of maxims (quotes) from my readings in my ever growing digital commonplace book. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided I’m borrowing Dirda’s subtitle for all maxims (quotes) I post on this diary going forward. And so here is the first from one of my all time favorite writers and thinkers.

William James

“So you see that the process of education, taken in a large way, may be described as nothing but the process of acquiring ideas or conceptions, the best educated mind being the mind which has the largest stock of them, ready to meet the largest possible variety of the emergencies of life. The lack of education means only the failure to have acquired them, and the consequent liability to be ‘floored’ and ‘rattled’ in the vicissitudes of experience.” ― William James

A Bookstore Education

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Riverby Books on Capitol Hill
John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once wrote: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” And that about captures it. It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it seems to get confirmed almost every day. Of course I’ve learned (and re-learned) a lot of other lessons along the way. And so while humility is one of the core lessons of life, I recently I got to thinking about where (by what means) I learned all the other stuff that’s served to confirm just how important humility plays in the scheme of one’s life.

If I had to list the main sources of my education, I would put them as follows: 1) bookstores, 2) periodicals, & 3) schools. (Note: Libraries are the archives of civilization and very important, but for me, my primary experience with them was at school.)

Starting from the end of the list, let me be candid and say I was a lousy student growing up. After getting the basics in reading, writing, and math in primary school (God has a special place for Elementary school teachers), I pretty much checked out mentally during my secondary school years. Socialization is an important part of any education, and I feel confident my scores were rather high in that area, but unfortunately that proficiency wasn’t part of my grade point average. So, after a less than stellar showing, pathetic really, in High School, I decided my best option was to enlist move on to college. Even if I wasn’t exactly college material at the time, it just seemed the best alternative over getting a full time job.

It was a community college luckily, so they pretty much had to take me. I can’t say I made the honor roll, but I was in the running—a close, razor thin 50 point margin—so at least I was improving. Sloooowly but surely, however, I was discovering what truly interested me (Now, if only I could making a living with it!). The history, literature, and philosophy classes confirmed my intrinsic interest in the humanities (Okay, Great. So poverty would be my lot!). I actually did fairly well in those classes. In others words, I liked the subjects that caused the typical tuition paying parent to say, “And what are you going to do with a degree in…”.

More importantly at community college I adopted strategic patience, which entailed taking my sweet ass time getting through community college…i.e. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and was drifting between an extension of my teenage years, rotating between part-time and full-time school attendance, and searching for a career while working on-and-off at my dad’s company. It goes almost without saying, but I will, my community college years went well beyond the typical 2 year period. It was truly a time of drifting, hoping for something to come along.

But there was a bright ray of sunshine that pierced those cloudy, horizonless, years. My professional community college years would lead to the chance meeting of my future wife, Melissa, in Doctor Jones’s history class. Of course I ended up doing lousy in that class—odd for a guy who loves history I realize—because I spent most of the class time passing notes (we didn’t have cellphones) with Melissa. For this reason alone, I wouldn’t change anything from my community college years. Nothing. I’ve failed at many things in life, but meeting my future wife as a result of my foolishness turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Well eventually I took a job (before completing college) and got married to my soulmate. Of course, like so many people who don’t complete their degree and enter the work force, I told myself I would like to finish what I’d started and so I spent years looking into various programs hoping to complete my BS degree. No one in my immediate family had gotten their college degree, so there was the added desire of being the first—it was also about pleasing my wonderful parents who’d done so much for me. Eventually, about 9 years (yeah, it took me awhile) into my career, I went back to college. It’s amazing how much more focused you are when you’re married and already have a career—I think it’s called the maturing process actually. I completed my BS degree (with honors) and ultimately went on to get a graduate degree (MS) from Johns Hopkins University. Considering how my college career had begun, it was a real high point in my life to walk in a commencement for my graduate degree from such a prestigious institution.

With all this said, while I enjoyed my later college years, and enjoyed learning “how to think,” and loved the colleges I attended, if I’d had to rely on just my formal schooling I’d be in poor shape educationally speaking. In large part, my education has come from the writers of essays, quality magazines, and books. My love for reading is mostly responsible for the expansion of my mental world—and continues to be.

This brings me to the importance of periodicals (newspapers & magazines) in my educational ramble. It’s in periodicals that one learns about the important issues and concerns of the day, and also finds some of the best writing and thinking. After leaving college and settling down in the Washington D.C. area for my new job, I got subscriptions to The Economist, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Weekly Standard, just to name some, and I had access to about a dozen major national newspapers at my work—which I read only at lunchtime of course.

So I had more print than I had time. Periodicals, unlike books that required a lot more time, gave the added satisfaction of making you feel like you’d completed something. I could finish an article or essay after, say, 5 to 10 minutes, not days or weeks (or months sometimes in my case) like a book. The writer has to keep their prose succinct and move along quickly. The good journalists or essayist had to be more economical, while at the same time being graceful in the telling to keep you engaged. All this consumption of prose confirmed my standing as an autodidact, the ancient Greek word for someone who’s self-taught. Yes, I ended up with a great formal education, but being truly educated is a lifetime commitment, not something awarded to you and then you’re done. No one can actually give you an education, you have to dig for it. Colleges just teach us where we might want to look and how best to use the shovel (our mind). They provide a learning environment. Unless you’re studying something highly specialized—engineering, medicine, law, physics, chemistry, etc, etc,—most of us are really autodidacts. We’re all, for the most part, self-taught. We read and we know things.

And where does this self-teaching mostly come from?…well, for me, it was at the bookstore. George Orwell’s bookshop memories weren’t the most inspiring, but mine have been some of the great pleasures of my life. I don’t recall exactly when, but after moving into the Washington D.C. area, I started visiting bookstores on my days off. How many people can remember the first time they visited, say, a Borders Bookstore? Well, I can. It was the one in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, in the early 1990s. My wife and I were shopping and happened to see the Borders Bookstore in a shopping center. At the time, I’d never heard of Borders. I was use to the small bookstores I’d visited in Virginia Beach, Virginia, like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Border’s, however, was a large bookstore where you could find just about anything and browse (for hours if you wanted) through the new books and even thumb through them while sipping a drink at their in-store coffee shop. It was a book lovers paradise! The large bookstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, didn’t just offer books, but a bookish cultural atmosphere. One goes to a bookstore not only to look at books, but to be reverenced by being among the works of so many great minds. “Everyone worships” as David Foster Wallace said, and for the book lover bookstores are the temple biblos. Yes, rather pathetic I realize. But for me and many others there’s a tinge of emotional truth in this. I guess I also keep going back to bookstores partially hoping some of the genius and masterly craftsmanship, wrapped in those bindings, will rub off on me. But alas, decades into the therapy, no such luck. But oh well, one must have faith—some free time and money too—so I’ll just keep trying until the gig is up. I can (as my wife happily agrees) think of a far more costlier passion.

New bookstores give one a chance to see (or order) all that’s in print, but used bookstores bring the added thrill of discovery. It’s there that I’ve found some real treasures that have been out of print for decades. I think of finding such minor but personally gratifying treasures like a first edition of John Buchan’s Memory Hold the Door, or an 1865 four volume set edition of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or entire collection of Aldous Huxley’s essays, or a special edition of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And then there’s just the large number of deals I’ve gotten on good contemporary books I have on my to-buy list. I wander amongst the rows of shelves, either seeing books I recognize or picking out books on various topics I find interesting (I mostly read non-fiction now), and quietly thumbing through them, reading a few sentences or paragraphs, sampling, dipping into, the author’s prose to see if their writing pulls me in. I know, it seems facile…and it is. But that’s just what I do. That’s the intuitive process that works for me. There are usually so many other bookshelves to scan. I don’t usually have time to read half a chapter to see if I like what I’m reading. Most of the people I’ve seen browsing in bookstores seem to do the same thing while standing in the bookstore isles. It’s a reminder to professional writers just how important each sentence and paragraph can be.

We all remember towns for various reasons: the architecture, the restaurants, the bars, the people, etc, etc, but I remember towns mostly for their bookstores. Take Hagerstown, Maryland, a nice midsize northern Maryland town about an hour and a half from my home. I use to take my family there to a nearby campground. The camping was fun, but one of the best parts of the trip was visiting Wonder Book. Some others that stand out are McKay Used Books in Manassas, Virginia. There is Second Looks Books in Prince Frederick, Maryland. There’s AFK Books & Records in Virginia, Beach, Virginia. There’s Riverby Books on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., which is absolutely charming. There’s the famous Capitol Hill Books, which you will enjoy if you don’t get buried in falling books (It almost happen to me on a visit). On trips to Manhattan, in New York City, my wife and I have a tradition of visiting the Strand Bookstore—definitely a must see if you’re in the Big Apple. The Strand brags of having 18 miles of books! It’s one of the great shrines of the book aficionado.

The question I get pretty regularly is: Where do you find time to read all these books? Well, being a slow reader I’ll admit it’s a challenge. First, I can’t say I’ve read every book I’ve bought or have in my personal library. I haven’t. Most collectors haven’t. I might be lucky if I’ve read (in entirety) maybe 30 percent of my books (Realize, I do have a lot of books though). Second, I read every chance I get and, this is important, I take a book with me almost everywhere I go. A lot of us have down time that goes to waste: like waiting in line somewhere—for an oil change, or for someone to meet you at a restaurant, etc, etc. Instead of watching cable news—which only elevates the blood pressure—during my lunch time at work I prefer to read. And instead of watching TV at home, I prefer to read, and when I have time, to write. I also listen to audio books in my car, which is a nice way to get through a book while commuting back and forth to work. There are a lot of free audio books out there by the way. So for me it’s about grabbing all available time to fill the mind with prose. It’s just a part of who I am now and I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy a book or a fine essay. As for the value of all this reading, well, I cannot say that my readings have made me a better person, though I hope it has, but I can say it’s certainly helped provide me with a standard of excellence to aspire to even if I never seem to get there. If anything, the more I read, the more I learn, the more I realize just how little I really know. Life truly is one long lesson in humility. Live and learn as the saying goes. That’s the great game…and I plan on staying in the game until it’s over.

The “Bourgeois Culture” Controversy

Recently Professor’s Amy Wax and Larry Alexander wrote an op-ed about Bourgeois culture and how, in their view, the measure of American social decline mirrors our societies falling away from Bourgeois cultural norms. Their piece has generated a small controversy that has highlighted some the problems within some of our universities.

Now if you’re asking what is “Bourgeois” (pronouced: boo r-zhwah), it’s a French word, which means, being French, it has no validity, is weak, and will flee at the first sign of a fight—which is your belief if you’re an American right winger. If you’re a left winger you pronounce the word correctly with your best French ascent and then apt your best attitude of distain for everything it stands for.

But putting humor aside, Bourgeois is the French word for middle-class culture, its norms and its values. Whatever you may feel about it, the striving to join the ranks of the Bourgeois has been in a large part of what the American dream has been all about. So along with French toast, French fries, and dear God thank you, French wine, most Americans have enjoyed tasting it!

Here’s how Wax and Alexander describe Bourgeois cultural norms in their op-ed:

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

On it’s face, I find it very hard to disagree with them. This seems valid in a straightforward and obvious way and I think it’s confirmed by the experience of most adults. Now there is more to Bourgeois culture than this, but the above is the basic social script as Wax and Alexander see it. As academics, Wax and Alexander did some research, made some observations, developed some ideas, and then presented their opinion. The main point of Wax’s and Alexander’s piece is that not all cultural orientations (unlike Bourgeois) are as good at building the solidarity and the economic dynamism that viable democracies need to thrive.

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

The above quote was quoted by critics as insensitive and somehow proof of Wax’s and Alexander’s violation of saying and thinking something you’re not allowed (by their standard) of saying or thinking. I am perplexed at their reasoning, but so be it. Whether you agree or disagree with everything they said (above) or the way they said it, Wax and Alexander diagnosed the problem and concluded that a re-embrace of Bourgeois norms would significantly reduce our societies pathologies. That’s their opinion! And so they conclude:

But restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood — to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.

As I said, Wax and Alexander are academics. So doing research and presenting their findings, analysis, and opinions are part of what they do and it’s exactly what college professors should do. This generates debate and discussion; the forge of free societies. It challenges ways of thinking, and sometimes challenges our belief that new ways of thinking and acting are somehow better than old. Simply put, sometimes they’re not.

Again, while I may take issue with some minor points Wax and Alexander made, I find it hard to disagree with much of what they said. I’m open, however, to counter arguments and fair criticisms and would enjoy hearing them respectfully argued. Wax and Alexander have taken a lot of heat from some quarters on the left over their piece. Some of the criticisms have been downright hostile, and plenty from fellow academics and university student groups. If you believe Wax and Alexander are wrong, that’s fine. Make a reasoned and respectful argument as to why you think their wrong. But don’t assume bad faith or resort to character assassination and make demands from institutions.

Sadly what we’re seeing is a culture or university subculture where it’s not just about parrying the argument and having a rational debate, but about destroying the writer(s) or professors personally. Some of this, no doubt, can be blamed on the promotion of identity politics within the universities. This has aided in the rise of a grievance centered culture on campus. We have many on both sides of the political spectrum, to be sure, who have no problem engaging in some form of intimidation when confronted with ideas they find offensive. But right now we have a real problem with this at some of our universities in this country, the very places we shouldn’t be having a problem with debating ideas…even one’s we strongly disagree with.

For the sake of academic freedom and the flourishing of our democratic culture, I hope universities will strongly push back against this strain of intellectual and social intolerance and affirm their place as institutions of free thinking, debate, learning, and tolerance.

School and the Development of Moral Identities

I ran across an interesting piece in the Atlantic. Paul Barnwell, an English teacher in Kentucky, argues that too much time in school (primary and secondary) is spent on pure academics and not much is given to allowing students to develop a moral identity.

Barnwell’s concern was peaked after he initiated a discussion involving a moral dilemma:

A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?

The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.

Hmmm. If we assume that “other people were badly harmed” means others were physically harmed, I’m shocked Barnwell’s entire class was “unequivocally unconcerned” and wouldn’t say anything to the police. Yeah, that might have been hypothetical but sheesh. I mean where is Barnwell teaching? Tough crowd! That’s definitely a moment of clarity for a teacher.

Anyway, the bigger point that Barnwell took from this was how the students seemed more drawn to these moral discussions:

We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters…

(Italics added)

Well first I’d say I don’t think it’s just high school kids who’re “more engaged” by moral questions, just watch a group of adults at election time! Let’s just say you don’t know people as well as you think you do.

Anyway, our moral identities are a large part of who we are. And of course ethics is politics writ large. So a challenge to our moral world view (or our politics) is a challenge to our personal identity, and that can be very personal to some people. And that’s largely why schools tend to avoid ethical discussions, because it can offend some students which can lead to parents showing up at the school complaining “My kid doesn’t go to school for that!”

However, while these moral discussions may offend some parents, they’re usually very interesting to the students. Whether you’re a student or an adult you get passionate about what we believe, and being passionate is good. It reminds us we’re alive. It stirs our sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. I think most people crave that. Educators should capitalize on that and guide their students to explore their value systems and the connections they have with others. It’s not about imposing a view, it’s about exposing the student to the views of others. Empathy is how we expand our moral imagination.

One of the central reasons for an education is to free the mind. By doing so we free the individual from the tyranny of manipulation. The motto for the Enlightenment, coined by Immanuel Kant, was Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!” That, at least, is how I see the goal of education. Provide students with the tools and then let them decide how to use that knowledge in their own life.

There is nothing wrong with teaching moral courage, honesty, and the acceptance of others. The vast majority of parents agree with this. The trick is how you go about it. Barnewell’s thoughts are you “expose students to tough (moral) issues in the context of academic work—not imposing values, but simply exploring them.”

The idea is to draw students into various perspectives and let them explore them. This can be done with various disciplines. For example, Barnwell uses his HS biology teacher who challenged his class to think about their consumer choices and how these affect the ecosystem and the environment. The question doesn’t impose a value or ask students to adopt one, but challenges students to think through the various connections and consequences of their individual decisions. The student can decide what this means to them. As they think, as they see, so they feel.

Of course HS English and History teachers have the advantage in this task. There’s nothing like literature and the stories of human beings to frame moral questions and stir our moral imagination. Those of us who love the humanities have always known this was why a liberal arts education is so important for the maintenance of a just and free society.

The Dictionary Project

I picked up my youngest son at school the other day. After getting in the car, instead of immediately buckling up, he started searching his book bag for something. I sat patiently and waited util he was ready to go. He found what he was looking for and got buckled up. I started driving toward his favorite restaurant, where I’d promised to take him the day before. As we were driving, I noticed in the rear view mirror he was reading through a book. Great, I thought. We stopped at a traffic light and he asked me to turn and look at a map and a sign language chart in the book. He had the air of a kid who knew his dad liked books and so he wanted to show this one off. I was happily obliged to let him.

After parking the car, my son quickly unbuckled and started showing me sections of the book. At first, because he showed me a section with short bios of U.S. Presidents and a section of U.S. state maps, I thought it might have been some type of encyclopedia but I still wasn’t sure yet. After about my third question, my son finally handed me the book. The cover of the book had me immediately.

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There in vivid color were the starry heavens, mother earth, an a profound quote by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. I have to say the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein really sealed the deal. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and for a dictionary meant for 3rd graders this philosophically enlightening statement on the cover was just the type of display in intellectual presumptiveness I find very encouraging. A quote like that ignites reflection before you even open the book.

Books should, at a minimum, be a value added experience, an in some cases, like this little dictionary, a potentially mind stretching (“world” expanding) one also.

This Dictionary was given to my son as part of The Dictionary Project (DP). The DP’s goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” There are many great causes in life to dedicate yourself to, but this has to rank as one of the most important. So much of the personal and professional success that young people ultimately have in life stems directly from the quality of their education at the primary school level.

In the opening pages of this dictionary there’s a short, concise essay that cuts to the central reason why students (at school and throughout life) need to use and refer to a dictionary regularly:

To succeed in school and in life, you must be able to use the English language effectively. You simply cannot learn all that you need to know without being able to understand the words you hear and read, and without knowing how to use the right words to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly.

For someone who admires intelligence, creativity, and the artful use of language and the power that words can carry (as I’m sure you all do), it was a nice little reminder that there are so many people and groups—teachers, parents, and private Foundations—constantly striving, in big and little ways, to improve the lives of our most precious resource, our children.