On the New Duty of Scholars and Educators

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening lecture of a series on education and the duty of educators in America. The event was put on by the new educational society Dialektik, and it was well-attended by both members of the society and the general public at a local bookstore of some reputation, Adams Avenue Books. The main-thrust of the opening lecture was that there used to be a shared culture among Americans in the 17th-19th centuries, largely based on Christianity of some sort, but now that shared religion among the people is fading, no other cultural magneton has been found or created to replace it.

The talk and questions after it then focused on the role of education and particularly on educators, and what exactly can be done to restore some semblance of culture. Initial thoughts centered around legislative change at state and federal levels, but rather than being particularly productive, such lines of thought tended towards personal griping rather than objective change. A fruitful thought, however, did appear when discussion started to center on where true education actually occurs. Rather than again and again attempting the Sisyphean task of “reforming public education”, the thought arose that perhaps a more beneficial, though of course small-scale solution, would be to increase opportunities to educate others informally. With educators receiving less and less respect and feeling more and more estranged, clearly a new method for creating an educated public, or a culture, must be sought. But how do we do this?

The first goal, is effectively to limit the scope and measure of change. The change need not occur on a national, state-wide, or large basis at all at first. Much different from attempting to create cultural change through a grandly political maneuver, this change would be what is so tritely called “grass-roots” at these times. Believing, as Plato did, that a community and society is a reflection of its people, so does the solution to creating a shared culture seem to lie in humble and small beginnings and seeing if it takes off. Who, though, would be the intrepid captains to brave such ignominious and inglorious waters? Well, precisely those people who are being disenfranchised, disenchanted, and disillusioned: our scholars, intellectuals, and educators. The people here mentioned by Russell Kirk below:

“The disquietude of reflective persons in a country apparently given over to getting and spending, the condition of the underpaid professor or teacher in an acquisitive environment, the decay of the old American respect for learning-a decay which seemed actually to grow more alarming in direct proportion to the ease with which high-school diplomas and college degrees were obtained, on the principle that whatever is cheap has little value-all these influences tended to produce alienation of scholar and writer from established American society. “Intellectuals” appeared in America when the works of the mind began to lose ground in public influence.” (Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Mind” loc. 5969/6718)**

These people could come from several walks of life, a Kirk will continue to say, any person of some learned or creative degree who has a love for the creation and preservation of values, and who believes in the value of culture and that which unites people together. Any such person can lead this front.

“I understand by the scholar no mere pedant, dilettante, literary epicure or dandy; but a serious, robust, full-grown man; who feels that life is a serious affair, and that he has a serious part to act in its eventful drama; and must therefore do his best to act well his part, so as to leave behind him, in the good he has done, a grateful remembrance of his having been. He may be a theologian, a politician, a naturalist, a poet, a moralist, or a metaphysician; but whichever or whatever he is, he is it with all his heart and soul, with high, noble–in one word, religious aims and aspirations.” (Ibid. loc. 5973/6718)–quoted by Kirk from Orestes Brownson’s “The Scholar’s Mission”, an address given in 1843 at Dartmouth College.

The value of such a person, however, does not simply lie in his or her ability to lead, but precisely in the fact that he or she is one of the people today so strongly feeling the pull to nihilism which conventional educational reform is leading so many promising educators towards. Socrates once said that the value of knowledge is to keep one from becoming faint-hearted and weak in Plato’s Meno, and preventing our promising minds and souls from becoming so is of paramount importance.

“The scholar is not one who stands above the people,” Brownson had said, “and looks down on the people with contempt. He has no contempt for the people; but a deep and all-enduring love for them, which commands him to live and labor, and, if need be, to suffer and die, for their redemption; but he never forgets that he is their instructor, their guide, their chief, not their echo, their slave, their tool.” (Ibid. loc. 5979/6718)

So, now that we have identified the persons necessary to carry out this “grass-roots” change, but what exactly does informal education look like? Though there are many forms: distance-learning, PBS, open-source educational centers and the like, none of these offer the experience of a real moment of “teaching” shared between teacher and student. No doubt these methods are effective in conveying facts and potentially skills, but in our sense of education, the shared experience between teacher and student is of the highest value. Just as Aristotle says that one can have affection for one whom one has never met, nevertheless that person is not a friend due to lack of a shared feeling between you and him or her, so can there be no true education without shared feeling between teacher and student or scholar and public. Kirk offers an interesting portrayal here of what we have already begun to implement.

“It would be well for scholars in the human sciences, they declared, to address themselves to the concerns of genuine community, local and voluntary, rather than clearing the way for an egalitarian collectivism.” (ibid. loc. 5993/6718)

“It would be well to direct their energies to the examination of voluntary and private associations, rather than to planning new activities for the unitary state.” (Ibid, loc. 5993/6718)

Just as Kirk here asserts that scholars ought to create genuine community and do so voluntarily, so have I and my group begun conducting open-to-the-public seminars on shared works of the Western Mind. We meet in circles, every two weeks, and we discuss the Great Books. There are no tests, no fees, no papers, and no obligations. People come because they desire to convene, to learn, and to create what is valuable. As a scholar, I have re-envisioned my role: rather than becoming as expert as possible on an issue of importance to fewer and fewer people, I am using my expertise to broaden access to those texts, ideas, and feelings which I consider most valuable and universal to all men and women–those texts, ideas, and feelings so necessary to creating a common culture.

As a teacher, I teach in such a seminar-style, and I have developed a “Great Books” curriculum at the Charter high school at which I currently advise and teach. The model is effective and can be applied in a more wide-spread way. As a community-creator and organizer, I have three ongoing seminars (one on Dante’s Inferno, one on Homer’s Odyssey, and one on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov), and there is one more in the works on The Epic of Gilgamesh. Through re-envisioning my role as a scholar, and the role of a scholar itself, I am working towards the goal of creating a shared culture and public, and the educational group Dialektik is helping me.

The general belief is thus: educating without a concern for values is no education at all.* We reject the notion of a public with shared culture that does not also posit and exemplify noble, just, fair, and ethical maxims. Of course there will be endless debate on how exactly this should be done best, but in the interim, this scholar will be doing his best, while also considering what is best in his moments of private leisure.

This is but the beginning of this new series considering the best ways to promote and create a shared culture through education. Please continue to join us, and like our page!

*”…to abandon the sterile and sometimes disingenuous notion of a “value-free science,” and to reaffirm the existence of a moral order.” (Ibid. 5997/6718)

**All sources from Kirk’s The Conservative Mind are from the Kindle digital edition and thus are cited by their “location number” rather than “page number”, annoyingly enough.


Conversations with Students X: The Sacking of Troy and Beginning of an Odyssey

In transitioning from Homer’s Iliad, his story of war, high emotion, and the toll that such emotion takes on mortal lives, to the far-blown fame and person of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, we first took a moment to look at the summaries that still remain of “The Epic Cycle”, and then we moved forward through the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (Lattimore’s translation). Thus begins our second seminar series.

We discussed all that happened between the Iliad and Odyssey, with the sage help of Proclus who preserved summaries of the six lost epics of the Epic Cycle (found here or here) These lost epics: The Cypria by Stasinus of Cyprus (staged as immediately preceding Homer’s Iliad), The Aethiopis of Artinus of Miletus immediately afterward, The Little Iliad of Lesches of Mitylene, The Sacking of Troy also by Arctinus of Miletus, The Returns of Agias of Trozen, and eventually, after Homer’s OdysseyThe Telegony comprise the story called “The Epic Cycle”. Together they form the events which lead up to the Trojan War, the Trojan War, and the after-math of the war for the Achaians. Traditionally, they would have filled in many, many gaps left by the Iliad and Odyssey as a pair, but sadly, over time, and lack of reproduction, each of the other six epics was lost to time. This was not, however, the deepest tragedy, says Aristotle in his praise of Homer’s unity of plot and criticism of The Cypria and The Little Iliad in his Poetics (1459a-b)

“So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavor to dramatize it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with a great many parts, the authors, [1459b] [1] for example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the Little Iliad more than eight, e.g. The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging, The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan Women.”

For though we have lost the other six epics, apparently they were not of the same caliber as are the two epics we have remaining to us. So, confident that two masterpieces will do and summaries filling in our knowledge where it is lacking will suffice, let us move forward to consider the fates of several heroes we knew well during the interim between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The students were shocked by the men who died during and after the war, and some felt emotion even for the basest Achaians. Achilleus, Paris, both the Aiantes, Antilochos, Priam, Astyanax, Deiphobos (many Trojans during the sacking, of course), Phoinix, Thersites, and even Agamemnon, but the deaths which are most shocking are each of the Aiantes, Agamemnon, and some students even showed sadness for poor hunched-backed Thersites. So we know, Achilleus died either by the hand of Paris and Apollo or Apollo alone. Not a surprise to the students given the several prophecies of Achilleus’ death the Iliad. That Paris should get the winning shot was a true moment of humility for all students, though the fact that Apollo helped him along helped to alleviate the sort of “Evil David vs. Good Goliath” effect.

Aias the Greater’s death was more of a disappointment to the students. During the Iliad, he was a brave and supreme hero. He went on the Embassy to Achilleus, was clear in his purpose, and twice almost killed Hektor. He, unlike Achilleus, Menelaos, Eurypylos, Machaon, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, was one of the few major champions who remained uninjured throughout the fighting. He was glorious and bold, and the fact that through his pride and folly that he took his own life in suicide was a bitter disappointment to the students. Naturally, they learned that it was because according to his code, he was disgraced, and by his code he died: he lost the speech-contest to Odysseus for the “arms of Achilleus” and proceeded to attempt to kill Odysseus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon, but he was thwarted by Athene “mazing” his vision so that he only killed cattle. Feeling disgraced and abandoned by the gods, Aias felt that his final dignity would be to deny his former friends the glory of ending his life, and thus was the fate of Aias the Greater.*

Aias the Lesser met with considerably less pity. In an attempt at raping the cursed prophetess daughter of Kassandra in the temple of Athene, Lokrian Aias defamed and damaged an image of Athene therefore earning her ire for himself and the rest of the Achaians. The students did not care for how quickly Athene turned on the Achaians, but in matters of sacrifice and honor to the gods, the students have learned that the gods come first to the gods. Aias, then, when accosted by a great storm sent by Athene is nearly drowned with his ship and men, but after Poseidon saved him, Aias lost his mind, and recklessly declared his supremacy to the gods. Poseidon then used his trident to break the rock onto which Aias was clinging and send him to a watery doom. The students almost universally said, “that was so stupid.”

Agamemnon will later receive an article essentially all his own, but for now it is enough to mention that the students remembered his betraying of Klytaimnestra by deceiving her into sending Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at Aulis under the pretence of marriage to Achilleus. Many students said that this was justice, but further conversation will be reserved until later.

Moving from the time between and the many, many questions which we will return to (like do the students feel OK with the fact that Troy was taken by cunning, not strength), we then considered the importance and difference between the proems (first few lines) of each of the poems and how their themes, tones, and manners of presentation may be different.

Homer’s Iliad (1.1-1.7)

SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Homer’s Odyssey (1.1-1.10)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

We immediately notice some distinct differences between the two proems. The Iliad sings of the emotion of a semi-divine man and his feud with a “leader of men” and the many men on their side of battle who will die because of this. The Iliad is also sung (aeide). The Odyssey is the telling (ennepe) of the many struggles of a suffering man who fails to save his companions due to their own recklessness. The distinction between the Iliad being sung and the Odyssey told (though of course both would be sung in dactylic hexameter by rhapsodes) is one the students made a strong attempt at. Emotion, they say, is a higher theme, or at the least, song is more appropriate to conveying of emotion–it is more emotional the students say, and “gut-wrenching” does seem a word more aptly ascribed to painful dirges. (Viz. (or rather Aud.) Adele’s Hello).

Another important difference is that the focus of the book will shift from the interplay between the will of the gods and man to how man inevitably adds to his own suffering and destruction. In fact, this theme of wild “recklessness” (atasthalia) is repeated in the words of no smaller a figure than Zeus, king of the gods, not twenty lines later:

“Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness (atasthalia) win sorrow beyond what is given…” (1.32-35)

So, though the students gave a detailed list of times when the gods seemed to add to the suffering of mortals, the most provocative of which is likely during Book III of the Iliad when Hera and Zeus agree to let Ilion be destroyed and Athene convinces Pandaros to break the truce between the Trojans and the Achaians, we will remain sensitive to the statement that mortals create their own suffering and that their own lack of resiliency, perseverance, discernment, or fidelity lead to their destruction during the Odyssey.

In conclusion, as an extra treat, I will include here major themes we will consider, and which will be present all through Homer’s Odyssey and our seminars on it:

(1) Father and son relationships and their complexity;

(2) Concealed (kalupto) or veiled truths and the art of misdirection;

(3) Perseverance and the “hero’s” journey;

(4) Homecoming (nostos) and what makes a home (so important);

(5) The Xenia or guest/host relationship and its importance;

(6) Detainment, both mental and physical, and its hateful nature.

And bonus number two is a list of Relevant Quotes to the first Seminar which may well earn their own post soon:

1.347-349 Telemachos blames Zeus for all mortals’ troubles.

“They [the suitors] all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter.” (1.266)

“You should not go on clinging to childhood. You are no longer an age to do that.” (1.296-297)

“The gods have not made yours a birth that will go nameless…” (1.222)

Nobody really knows his own father.” (my bold; 1.216)

“Your words to me are kind…what any father would say to his son.” (1.307-308)

“Do not detain me any longer, eager as I am for my journey.” (1.315)

“The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope, heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber, and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace, not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her. When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.” (1.328-335)

“But if she continues to torment the sons of the Achaians, since she is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, Tyro and Alkmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands; for none of these knew thoughts so wise as Penelope knew;” (2.115-122)

*Greater detail will be given to Telamonian Aias during our seminar on The Ajax of Sophocles.

Is the Point of a Conversation to Appear Intelligent?

While reading an article in the Daily Nous today, I came upon a “dirty list” of tricks to improve one’s appearance of intelligence in a seminar setting. These techniques are on the one hand useful to the academic scholar of philosophy, but more than that they shine quite the light into the “academic conference room”. Rather than, say, pursuing mutual understanding in some dialectical or discursive manner, one is taught, essentially, to go “on the attack” and to assert one’s intellectual will and keenness against another. In practice, this is useful for sharpening one’s mind, tightening one’s reasoning, and testing one’s courage. This is also a rather thin use of what a seminar can be, and today we will consider whether such sharp practice loese more than it gains by means of its tricks, dirty and otherwise.

Depending on the constituents, subject, and venue of a seminar differing values and outcomes are illustrates and sought after. Clearly, the custom and measure of judgment in an impressive academic setting is set, but at least in the younger years of a student’s life, one might think that collaborative discussion can be achieved with less of the posturing and vying that he or she will undoubtedly have to learn later in life. It seems a fairly considerable waste of talent to see and hear that such powerful and disciplined minds spend their time and energy tearing each other down rather than working with each other for more collaborative and masterful thinking. This thought, however, is likely over idealistic and does not take into account the necessity that an academic has of differentiating himself or herself from others in an increasingly competitive job market.

In seminars, however, with younger students, not yet necessarily needing to use “fault finding” or error-seeking behavior, can something more be achieved by seminar? Let us first look at a few of the techniques that our Oxford Professor suggests to his professional colleagues, and from there, we will see whether younger, less professionally inclined, students can improve on these techniques.*

The first technique actually is very helpful to a genuine seminar. He calls it “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card.” In part, here is how he suggests it be implemented by an academic philosophy scholar:

“In philosophy, the get-out-of-jail-free card usually sounds like this: “Hmm… yes… that is a difficult problem, and I will have to think about it. Let’s talk some more later.” This is good because it’s almost always true — your seminar interlocutors are clever people who’ve chosen to come and see your paper, had an hour to think about it, and so if they give you an objection, it almost certainly does deserve your consideration outside the stressful environment of a seminar.”

The basic method of this technique is to admit that one is wrong, and in a student-seminar, this is an excellent trait. Nothing is more harmful to a basic conversation which seeks after mutual understanding than posturing, nit-picking, or refusing to accept that one may have been wrong over one issue in order to move on to deeper and more difficult issues. As a student is not a professional, one’s reputation will not be ruined and not even tarnished by admitting one was wrong. One might even “earn points” improving one’s reputation for being so broad-minded.

That said, one difficulty with the academic seminar which a student seminar does not share is the necessity for one-on-one interaction after the seminar in order actually to connect and move forward in a discussion. Clearly, a discussion conducted one on one after has several mutual benefits, but the fact that the discussion cannot be continued en groupe is an impediment to the nature and purpose of a seminar. Thus, in the student-run and teacher facilitated seminar, the point is not to raise objections per se, but rather, as said above, to seek mutual understanding and a deeper depth of learning on a question, generally related to human nature.

The next techniques that Parsons lists are “trapping” and “reverse trapping” where one essentially leaves objections and potential responses to those objections out of one’s paper. One does this to address an audience member inevitably bringing up one or more of these objections (generally, the more obvious ones) and for the speaker to feign thinking about the issue while already having a canned response ready to go. This leaves both the audience member happy for having brought up an objection and the speaker for having answered it. This, truly, does seem valuable and helpful given the circumstance of the academic seminar, but does it lead to increased mutual understanding? Is it intellectually courageous? To some extent, these techniques admit of prudence, so the objection raised here is not against the practicality of the technique but of the culture that has bred it. As a scholar, is one’s function in a seminar-setting to defend one’s reputation or seek after truth and understanding? Clearly, according to Parson’s, the time for understanding is in private while publicly one behaves something like a politician, but is this in keeping with the idea that a scholar has academic freedom? Is such a notion just idealistic and again not cognizant of the realities of the profession? At what point, should the “realities” of the profession be addressed and altered to be more in accordance with their ideals? These questions are not meant as indictments so much as questions of the nature and function of seminars.  Are they being used in the ways they are meant, and if not, can they be improved?

In a seminar for students, however, this technique is rarely encountered, though there is the occasional moment where a student does attempt to take another student through a necessarily confining Socratic syllogism. If it were a student’s intention to make some grand statement with preparation for a response in mind, this would be useful if for instance, the student expected simply to get past this objection to further consideration of the point, but it would be harmful if the student simply wished “to score points” by both sharing an idea and showing verbal and mental acuity by responding to an objection. Why, though, is the former intention superior to the latter? Precisely because the intention in the first place is to consider an issue more deeply, which brings value to the conversation and all those present, whereas in the second instance, only the speaker is glorified. Though the second intention seems more descriptively American, it is the first which is more truly democratic.

Parsons goes on to describe several other techniques for segueing, vying, and winning over potential and eventual disputants in a crowd of scholars. Each one (Matadoring, Reverse Point-scoring, and Tour-guiding) is effective rhetorically for accomplishing one’s goal of “getting through” a seminar unscathed. But instead of feeling empowered and ready to speak to a group of like-minded persons, such tips and tricks (dirty tricks) leave one (me) feeling somewhat, well, dirty and “faint-hearted”. If this is the measure of a discussion at the highest levels of academic freedom and ability, where are the actual good conversations taking place, and why are they not taking place amongst these elites? Are they simply placed differently, not publicly? Privacy does seem, in general, to make for better conversations, but how does this affect the measure and goal of seminars amongst younger students? Ought they be more professionally driven and cognizant of the techniques they will undoubtedly have to develop to be professional thinkers, or should they remain broadly speculative and focused on, again, sharing a mutual and deeper understanding of texts and the issues within them? In a day where more and more people are focusing on the practical value of education, this question is very real. If the highest and best thinkers indulge in such practical concerns, and such concerns are very real aspects of their work, do students receive more value from idealistic and cooperative discussions or from learning the tinkering and maneuvering aspects of even the most liberated and reflective fields of study?

*It should be admitted that our writer Josh Parsons is not in favor of using these techniques simply for personal gain, and he does not think that “point-scoring” is actually useful in seminars. The focus of the essay, therefore, is directed at the very behavior that he is addressing, and not a personal indictment of his attitude, which appears to be similar to ours.