The Compass Rose: Explorations in Thought

Category: 2016 Issue

“A Lonely Indian Boy”

“A Lonely Indian Boy”: Censorship and Isolation Surrounding Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

By Zoe McKenna

In a world full of people driven by social interaction, it is difficult to ignore how heavily one can be influenced by the media that surrounds them. This essay examines Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and its use in teaching—or rather the lack thereof, as this essay will address the occurrences of the book being banned in schools. The paper focuses on the banning of The Absolutely True Diary, the outcome for the audience, and how that could affect certain subgroups, including the children of alcoholics and Native American youth. It also notes the reactions to book banning, both from the youth audience and from Alexie himself. Examining these reactions can lead to the conclusion that the banning of literature to young audiences creates a disconnect between some youths and the people they see represented in the media they are permitted to consume. The allowed selection of reading leaves some young readers with no sense of identification with characters they are allowed to read, as the characters are only those that our culture deems to be fit for mass media. This concept is important as the lack of a sense of belonging has been linked by major sociological theorists, such as Émile Durkheim, to higher suicide rates. This essay suggests that by identifying ties between media, isolation, and suicide, our culture can cease to narrow that which our children are permitted to read and identify with, in the hopes of broadening their sense of belonging.


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The Absolutely True Diary has faced censorship in the school districts of several states, such as Missouri, Wyoming, Washington, and Idaho. The book was banned for its mention of mature thematic elements, such as masturbation, and its use of racist slurs and coarse language (Stillman, par. 4). These topics were deemed inappropriate for the youth audience to which the book was aimed. However, this concept of what it means to be “appropriate” is a subjective quality that is different to each culture, as well as to each individual.

The decision to censor a book is determined by teachers and parents, people who will be affected in minor ways or not at all by the book’s reading. The two parties who are directly tied to the book’s circulation, students and the author, are rarely, if at all, consulted on their views in the decision. When they are considered, however, they tend to disagree with the choice to ban the novel. In an interview held with six children, ages ranging from six to twelve, when asked their opinions towards book banning in general, it became clear that their ideas did not always reflect those of their parents or instructors. The study concluded that:

these children, unlike many adults, were not concerned about homosexuality, [and] sex, … in children’s books. They also showed sensitivity to the idea that the perception of inappropriate content is subjective, understanding that what one person finds controversial or offensive can be enjoyed by many others. (Isajlovic-Terry 41)

This, paired with several statements from the students that a banned book was more desirable (41), meant that a ban was almost counterproductive. The children “ultimately felt that they could decide for themselves and act to get those materials” (41), and that a banning could not stop them from exploring what it was that they wished to read.

An interview was also conducted with Sherman Alexie, investigating his reaction to the controversy his work seemed to spur. Alexie stated that, when writing, he “didn’t think about the reaction[s] people would have to it” (Fraser 60). The bans were not in any way positive to Alexie, as it limited the audience to which he could reach. Alexie said:

There is a whole other population out there I want to reach. And so for me, what kind of art can I create that gets to them? I don’t want to have an elitist career. I’ve won awards, I’ve gotten a lot of attention, I’ve been in The New Yorker, and I’m very happy with all of that. I’m very proud. But I would consider myself a failure if more people didn’t read me. I’d rather be accessible than win a MacArthur. (qtd. in Berglund xvi)

This demonstrated that to Alexie the ability to reach more of the population is the ultimate goal, something that is severely hindered when his work is banned from large groups of youth.

This idea of a narrowed audience leads into the problem of who makes up this refined audience. Alexie is very driven in his intent to reach audiences that include the stereotypes he fit into as a child: the child of an alcoholic, as well as a young Native American (Berglund). Alexie’s goal is to provide media to which these children can relate, written by someone who experienced the situations first hand and can both empathize with the reader as well as explain the world they are involved in. There must be these elements of relativity between the author and his readers, especially those who make up minority groups that do not generally feature in mass media. Alexie argues that “if Indian literature can’t be read by the average 12-year-old kid living on the reservation, what the hell good is it? You couldn’t take any of [Vizenor’s] books to the rez and teach them, without extreme protestation. What is an Indian kid going to do with the first paragraph of any of those books?” (Berglund xvi), explaining why Native youth were his target audience. Within this quote, one could extract Alexie’s underlying message of how youth that cannot find books that hold characters to which they can relate will feel the same form of isolation that he felt as a youth. The Absolutely True Diary provides a source of identity with characters by the two major subcultures that Alexie belonged to in his youth, a young Native American and a child of alcoholics.

The Absolutely True Diary tells the story of a young Native American boy named Junior  who struggles with his sense of self both as an individual and as a Native person. In an interview with Joshua B. Nelson, Alexie describes the situations of these Native American youth as “social pressures, the social rules inside the Indian world … [are] something that outsiders rarely understand” (42). This lack of worldly understanding can leave a young Native American teen to feel isolated in a world of whitewashed media. The Absolutely True Diary explicitly states moments in which Junior feels alone in his world, like a cultural phenomenon that does not fit completely into life on the rez or into life in the neighbouring town. This can be seen when Junior says “[he feels] like two different people inside of one body … like a magician slicing [him]self in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River and Arnold living on the south” (Alexie).

There are times in The Absolutely True Diary when Junior is more than just emotionally alone; he is also physically an abnormality in the environment. An example of this is his arrival to Reardan school “whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making [him] the only other Indian in town” (56). However, as Junior grows and develops through the course of the book he finds that there are others around him with whom he can relate and bond. This leads later in the book to a realization, where Junior says that “I might be a lonely Indian boy. But I was not alone in my loneliness” (217). This sense of camaraderie with those around him gave Junior strength. Though Junior may just be a character, he is also a representative of very real children who may have no one to relate to and so feel lonely in the world. Through novels such as Alexie’s, these children may be able to find characters to identify with that also give them the same feeling of not being secluded.

Alexie has also stated that “as a child [he was] reared in the midst of alcoholism in the harsh economic realities of rural reservation life” (Berglund xi); so when Alexie is writing the novel that his twelve-year old self lacked, he is writing to children in this same situation. The novel itself provides several examples of alcoholism in a variety of its forms, which can be displayed in the comparison of two major alcoholic characters in the novel: Junior’s father, and Rowdy’s father. Junior’s father, while an alcoholic, is a good man who cares for and loves his family in the best ways he can, and Junior describes him as “an undependable drunk … He may not have loved me perfectly, but he loved me as well as he could” (189). This is a stark contrast to descriptions of Rowdy’s father, who is also an alcoholic but is an abusive drunk who beats his son and his wife, described as always “drinking hard and throwing hard punches” (16).

This inclusion of more than just the stereotyped abusive alcoholic gave rise to Alexie’s inclusion of the line, “[t]here are all kinds of addicts, I guess” (107). In the novel there are several situations that arise due to the effects of alcohol. Alexie is opening his audience up once again, so children who are living under the influence of alcoholism are not limited to the one stereotype to which they are expected to relate. Situations are as individual as the people who experience them, and Alexie is making efforts to ensure that the situations in his work allow for as many people as possible to find some sense of identification in the material that they read.

Through the examination of the subgroups addressed above, it can be noted that the overall result of a lack of representation in the media and a lack of characters or icons to relate to creates a sense of isolation in the young readers who cannot find themselves in the work they read. This sense of loneliness has been linked to suicide rates by historical sociological theorist, Émile Durkheim. Durkheim concludes that suicide could be linked to “the degree to which individuals [are] connected or committed to society,” and that “too weak a connection to society could produce suicide as well” (Steckley 14). As this essay has described, lack of representation in the media can leave youth who are not members of the dominant culture feeling isolated, without that “connection to society.” The theory that this isolation would result in high youth suicide within the Native American community is, sadly, supported with research. A 2012 study has shown that “the rate of suicide for American Indian and Alaska Natives is far higher than that of any other ethnic group in the United States—70% higher than the rate for the general population of the United States” (Dorgan 213). In this case Durkheim’s theory is proven true; cultures who can find no sense of solidarity within the world tend to display greater risks of suicide. The censorship breeds loneliness, and this loneliness can have fatal consequences.

A sense of oneself and who we are in regards to the rest of the world is an integral part of youth development and growth. However, more and more in our culture superior parties such as parents and teachers step in to limit the tools that a child has to learn about the world, about who they are, and about who they are not. In cases such as those with Native American youth, where the isolation is already so intense that the suicide rates have skyrocketed to an unthinkable level, perhaps we must take note of how this sweeping eradication of minority cultures in the media is affecting the people who make up these cultures. Maybe through this connection we can begin to take steps away from book censorship. If a teen is to grow up with an awareness of the world and who they are capable of being, we as the generation in control of the material they have access to must do everything in our power to expand their access in order for them to be able to reach their wildest dreams.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2007. Print.

Berglund, Jeff. “Introduction.” Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays. Eds. Jeff Berglund and Jan Roush. Salt Lake City, UT, USA: University of Utah Press, 2010. xi-xxxix. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 2 December 2015.

Dorgan, Byron L. “The Tragedy of Native American Youth Suicide.” Psychological Services 7.3 (2010): 213-8. Web.

Fraser, Joelle. “An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Iowa Review (Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City) 30.3 (2000): 59. Web.

Grassian, Daniel. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. Web.

Isajlovic-Terry, Natasha, and Lynne (E.F.) McKechnie. “An Exploratory Study Of Children’s Views Of Censorship.” Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children 10.1 (2012): 38-43. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Nelson, Joshua B. “‘Humor Is My Green Card’: A Conversation With Sherman Alexie.” World Literature Today 84.4 (2010): 39-43. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Steckley, J., and G. Kirby Letts. (2013). Elements of Sociology. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.

Stillman, Adam. “The Absolutely True Diary … Absolutely Banned.” CedarRepublican.com. September 15, 2010. Accessed December 3, 2015.

Ann Radcliffe’s Sublime and Eastern Modes of Transcendence

Ann Radcliffe’s Sublime: How Clarity-of-Mind Equates Eastern Modes of Transcendence in A Sicilian Romance

By Laura-Lee Bowers

Marguerite Agniel in a Buddha position, J. de Mirjian, c.1929

Ann Radcliffe was canonized at her passing in 1823. Her genius was recognized in her lifetime; she was made a legacy by her death. In Ann Radcliffe: Romanticism and the Gothic Townshend and Wright assert she was “one of the British nation’s most creative voices” (3). Her blend of Gothic and Romanticism made her the “originator of a literary school” that continues today (3). The unifying theme Radcliffe identified in Gothic and Romantic fiction is embedded in the sublime experience. Alison Milbank explains that argument continues about whether Radcliffe was simply skillfully employing the existing tropes of the sublime, or whether she was originating something with her use of it. The most original factor concerning the sublime experience in A Sicilian Romance is its developmental faculty; the most spiritually accomplished, angelic characters undergo extraordinarily high and prolonged degrees of sublimity. This portrays a subsequent addition to the existing tropes of the sublime. This effect can be explained by Eastern modes of transcendence—namely meditation—explaining how clarity of mind, or the effect of the sublime experience, promotes acuity and wellbeing through cognitive development.


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Milbank explains two contradictory interpretations of Radcliffe’s work: one understands her creations having “originating power” and maintains she is “as uncanny as her own literary productions”; the other understands Radcliffe as simply employing a list of tropes associated with existing theories of the sublime (ix). The first class describes her as nothing less than an “inspired prophetess” (ix). The second class, according to Milbank, would have to ignore Radcliffe’s “response to the nexus of ideas on psychology” to defend their position (x, my emphasis). The psychological response to the sublime will be the focus of this paper.

Robert Doran’s Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant sharply engages a comprehensive theoretical history of the sublime (2015). His work presents the concept of sublimity as “the most enduring and consequential aesthetics of modern thought” (27). He focuses on “defining a secular concept of transcendence” by turning to Longinus, Burke, Kant and others—exploring the development of theoretical sublimity (27). Doran likens Longinus’ “transcendence” to a “mystical religious experience” (41). Whereas Burke grounds his sublimity in human terror, Longinus affirms the sublime involves “being at once overwhelmed and elevated” (41). Burke agrees wholeheartedly that the effect overwhelms the mind. Being “overwhelmed” involves being “overpowered” by the source (OED). This is a key element to my argument. One facet which all the theories of sublimity agree upon is that sublime experience suspends mental faculties; one aspect where all meditation practices meet is the suspension of thought.

In Critique of Judgement Kant calls the sublime a negative experience, explaining that lack of experience is what makes the state freeing. This is a state of ultimate receptivity, explained in Eastern traditions, is being in touch with the infinite and eternal. Kant’s definition proposes that as long as reason is not satisfied, it is sublime. This is where the parallel to meditation is found. Meditation, throughout its many methods and uses, primarily transcends thought. Radcliffe herself discusses this state, and uses the word “confounding” to describe the sublime affective force “in which the mind can find nothing” (Supernatural 67). Kant explains, “the imagination” enjoying a sublime state “feels itself to be unbounded precisely because of [the] elimination of the limits of sensibility” as it perceives a “presentation of the infinite” which “expands the soul” (5:274). Expansion may suggest development, but no graduating effect is considered by Kant or the classic theorists.

The Marquis’ daughters are said to be “thus lovely and thus veiled in obscurity” at the onset of the narrative. They are “happy for they knew not enough of the world to seriously regret it.” Although the girls are naturally inclined towards good character, we are told that “an expansion of mind and refinement of thought” was required of them “which is the result of high cultivation” (7, my emphases). The young nobles have the very best education. What could Radcliffe want cultivated beyond this? The count Vereza, the veritable knight in shining armour, is more developed than Julia and her sister at the onset. He is described as “graceful yet manly,” and “his countenance” is said to “[express] a happy union of spirit, dignity, and benevolence” accountable to his possessing a “sublimity of thought” (11, my emphasis). He has a quality of sublimity, or clarity, of thought; a union of spirit, which is to say a free-flowing, intuitive, and open state.

All of the characters in A Sicilian Romance who endure the sublime and grow heightened from it share one common trait: they remain in control of themselves, receptive, whilst enduring. There is a complex irony at play within the response to the sublime. Although submission is required to attain the elevation of mind-spirit that the sublime offers, so is maintaining control. The sublime is differentiated from obscurity. Meditation is controlled improvement. This is the cultivation—the sublimity of mind, unity of spirit—which Radcliffe prescribes for her characters. Radcliffe’s sublime differs from that of the traditional theorists in that there is a permanence of virtues attained by embracing this state; it harkens to Eastern traditions. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, through the example of Zen Buddhism, explains Eastern transcendence as “a perfection of personhood” attained through transcending thought—methodically by meditation or a shocking, sublime, instant enlightenment (i).

Doran explains that when one is mentally overpowered one gains the sense of divinity, “ekstasis” (41). To the Dalai Lama, this state of divinity is “Buddah Nature,” (n.p.). The eventual outcome of the sublime experience to Longinus is “kairos” or the climactic moment of peak experience. Doran explicitly states that to interpret “kairos” as a kind of fulfillment, would clearly contradict “the momentary meaning of the word” (44). The difference between Longinus’ transcendence and the Eastern outlook is the possibility of cognitive evolution.

The Dalai Lama explains that “through practice, a human being” can perfect oneself through a “purification of one’s own mental state” (n.p.). Using meditation, “destructive things can be removed from the mind” and “the highest enlightened mental state” can be achieved (n.p., my emphasis). The effect of transcendence to Longinus is the corresponding state of “hypsos” it imparts. “Hypsos” is translated by Doran as metaphorically surpassing “one’s mental capacity or state of mind, going beyond normal human limits” to be closer to a “divine” state (39). He says that to Longinus “hypsos” and the Latin “sublime” “are virtually identical.” Both can be related figuratively to “an elevated thought or an elevated mind” (39). The act of experiencing the sublime is elevating—godly—by Doran’s explanation, and a source of divinity. Being in clarity is explained in the same terms by the Dalai Lama: “to elevate.” Both meditation and sublimity produce this heightened mental state. This state does not necessitate immediate fulfillment, yet we seek it out; Eastern philosophy would argue it is developmental.

Berkeley’s Professor of Buddhist Studies Robert Sharf describes the state of “samadhi” as the ultimate path in meditation, synonymous with equivalent end goals in other belief systems (935). Samadhi is “the highest state of meditation, in which the distinctions between subject and object disappear and unity with creation is attained” (OED). There are two major bodies of meditative exercise: one promotes total receptivity, a state of no-mind, and is observation without reflection; the other is total concentration disregarding distraction. Most practitioners use both, often together.

A mind full of activity is the opposite of clarity, and divided allegiances of spirit obfuscate unity. When the Duke and his men are seeking refuge in the woods they are described as “bewildered in the wilds,” and this is when they hear the bell of a monastery—a divine symbol of sanctity. They receive clarity in bewilderment. Coming out of receptivity and surmising the idea to discern, divide, and direct towards— “the way they judged led to the monastery” —they lose their way (Radcliffe 89, my emphases). Reason does not help—it hinders them. Divisions of mind and spirit undo characters in this novel. When the Duke is wounded “the effect of his wound [is] heightened by the agitation of his mind,” which proves a detriment to his health (95).

In the dungeon, Ferdinand “seem[s] to acquire the valour of despair,” loaning him a high virtue in a time of sublime submission (99). In the woods, Madame is “insensibly led on” through the sublime landscape which “elevated the mind of the beholder” (104, my emphasis). When she hears Julia, the sound “awaken[s] all her attention,” putting the sublime state to use, allowing her “captivated … heart” to be led towards that which called her like an “enchantment” (104-5, my emphasis). Madame Menon “seemed without interest and without motive for exertion” to find Julia (103, my emphasis).

Milbank claims these occurrences depict “weakness” being “transformed into power,” but the text explicitly demonstrates that it is more accurately receptivity and trust—intuition—which delivers Madame (xix). The Duke, with his firm, heady intentions, cannot find his way through the sublime landscape (93-94). Milbank explains that the “Duke’s refusal to accept a position of vulnerability makes him unable to benefit” (xviii). I would clarify this statement by pointing out that the vulnerability the Duke lacks is receptivity. As Radcliffe demonstrates, the causality of being receptive, if done properly—with agency— brings attainment.

Edmund Burke recognizes “certain powers and properties” of the sublime “that work a change in the mind” but he struggles to explain further (209, my emphasis). He explains how “pain and terror” that are not “carried to violence” or threaten “destruction” produce “emotions [which] clear the parts” and “are capable of producing delight … tinged with terror,” precisely because the mind enjoys being in clarity (217, my emphasis). The “highest degree” of sublimity is “astonishment” (217, Burke’s emphasis): “that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended,” a description identical to meditation (130). Burke’s definition requires a forced mental pause. Seated meditation, however, can engage a state of sublimity willfully (Sharf 935).

The astonishment Burke describes (where the mind is so entirely full of one object that it cannot comprehend another) is akin to a focus oriented meditation. Burke defines “greatness of dimension” or “vastness” as “a powerful cause of the sublime” (147). Sharf uses methods where concentration on the “four immeasurable states” obliterate the mind’s ability to perceive any measure and bewilder the practitioner into sublimity (941). “Another source of the sublime” to Burke “is infinity,” which can be mimicked by repetition: if “we repeat any idea frequently,” just as in a “succession of noises,” their echoes “beat” and “roar in the imagination long after the first sounds have ceased to affect it,” robbing the mind of its faculties by filling it with something meaningless (148-9). This is identical to Sharf’s description of “recitation” practices where focus is given to repeating mantras over and over or “breathing” meditations where you watch the breath ad-infitum until there is no thought left.

Stephanie Lou, following a study of Richard Davidson, explains how “meditative practice can physically change brain functioning” in progressive ways (a). Davidson’s study focused on measuring gamma waves—the “most important electrical brain waves”—of practitioners (2). Conducted on Tibetan monks recommended by the Dalai Lama, the study was controlled by students without meditation experience: “The meditation novices showed only a slight increase in gamma wave activity while meditating, while some of the monks produced gamma wave activity more powerful and of higher amplitude than any previously reported in a healthy person in the neuroscience literature” (2, my emphasis). In the neuroscience paper “Buddha’s Brain,” Davidson admits that “over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains” (i). The progressive element in the novel is accurate according to neuroscience; Radcliffe is a prophet.

Julia arguably benefits most in the book. She is presented as someone who willfully indulges in the sublime experience. She seeks “solitude in the woods” when she is longing for Vereza (42). She takes her lute to her “favorite spot” to enter the focused meditation which playing music requires, a “favorite” spot implying she does so on a regular basis (42). Julia struggles, but inevitably follows her intuition—she challenges her father and her betrothed. The other women in the book all allow their agency to escape them at critical points. Julia is not only a victim to sublimity, but also has agency, and develops fully due to the active way she engages; she employs the paradoxical combination of receptivity and control that Eastern transcendence requires.

The developmental effects of exposure to sublimity, or clarity, continue to work regardless. When Hippolitus’ sister eventually perishes, after enduring what she calls an unusual amount of terror, Julia tells us that her “countenance seemed to characterize the beauty of an inspired saint” (123). When the Marchioness, after years of torture, thinks Julia and her mother would not escape the cell she, “with a placid resignation which seemed to exalt her above humanity,” prays (182, my emphasis). The response to the sublime is, as Milbank notes, the primary differentiating principle marking Radcliffe as a prophet. Everyone who endures sublimity is happy. However, Julia and Hippolitus—those shown to express the virtues attained by, and the willingness to focus and grow from, sublime clarity—are the only characters to earn a fairytale ending. Through embracing the ironic state of active receptivity, willing openness, focus on clarity, and practice—one may achieve what Radcliffe calls “moral retribution” where we are guaranteed “the surest claim to the protection of heaven,” on earth (199).

 

Works Cited

Alison, Archibald. Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste. Edinburgh: JJG and G Robinson, London, 1789. Print.

Burke, Edmund. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke Vol. I[-IV]. Boston: John West, 75, Cornhill, and O.C. Greenleaf, 3, Court Street. 1806-[1807]. Print.

Burwick, Frederick. “Ann Radcliffe, Prose.” The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature. Vol. A-G. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 1091-1098. Print.

Dalai Lama. “The Dalai Lama: ‘On Buddha Nature’” The Buddha. PBS, 9 Mar. 2010. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.

Davidson, Richard, and Antoine Lutz. “Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation.” IEEE Signal Processing Magazine 25.1 (2008): 174-76. US National Library of Medicine. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Doran, Robert. Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant. Cambridge: University P, 2015. Print.

Kane, Sarah Kim. “The Sublime, the Beautiful and the Picturesque in the Works of Ann Radcliffe.” ProQuest Dissertation and Theses Global (1999). Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2005. Print.

Lou, Stephanie. “Meditation and HD.” HOPES. Stanford.edu. Stanford University. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Lutz, A., L. L. Greischar, N. B. Rawlings, M. Ricard, and R. J. Davidson. “Long-term Meditators Self-Induce High-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101.46 (2004): 16369-6373. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

Milbank, Alison. “Introduction.” A Sicilian Romance. Ann Radcliffe. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Nagatomo, Shigenori. “Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy.” Ed. Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015). Stanford University. Web. 7 Jan. 2015.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. Ed. Alison Milbank. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Gothic Horror: A Guide for Students and Readers. Ed. Clive Bloom. 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 60-69. Print.

“Oxford English Dictionary.” Oed.com. Oxford University Press. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

Sharf, Robert. “Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan.” Philosophy East and West 64.4 (2014): 933-64. Print.

Townshend, Dale, and Angela Wright. “Cultural Contexts.” Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic. New York: Cambridge UP, 2014. Print.

Construction of the Genevan “Woman”

The Construction of the Genevan “Woman” in Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality

By Diana Pearson
Jean-Etienne_Liotard_-_The_Chocolate_Girl_2

Jean-Étienne Liotard, La Belle Chocolatière, c. 1743-44

1791, French feminist Olympe de Gouges critiqued patriarchy by writing Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. She was accused of treason and executed. This was not long after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in 1754, was awarded second place for his response to the Academy of Dijon essay question: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” His response, Discourse on Inequality, explains how men had progressed from a “natural state” into the artificial form of modern society within Rousseau’s time, which he claims is characterized by moral and political inequality. However, Rousseau does not address the gender inequality sanctioned through law at that period in history, which prohibited women from political, economic, and certain sexual rights. In Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau describes the role of Woman as central, due to reproduction, to the maintenance of Man. His text shows women’s responsibility to sex in two ways. Women are described by Rousseau as honourable when they have careful control over sex, embodied as “the chaste guardians of our [society’s] morals and all the gentle bonds of peace,” whereas they are viewed as destructive when “loose” (12). This essay explores how Rousseau’s construction of the Genevan Woman ensures inequality even as he claims to explain the foundations and state of inequality. I will explore this construction as a compound process: first, women are placed in an inferior position (without rights) by men. Second, Woman is constructed to embody particular (“feminine”) characteristics, such as gentleness and virtuousness, that serve to reproduce the very structures of inequality that hinder them. Finally, I explore the limited sexual power that women had in this era, specifically within the honourable confines of chaste servitude. In every instance, women are valued primarily in relation to men, for the well-being and maintenance of the state.


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Natural and Moral Inequality

Rousseau analyzes the state of inequality in modern society by reaching back historically to theorize man in his “state of nature.” This is less of an attempt to be strictly factual (24) and more so an ambitious attempt at explaining how the current society, in all its laws, morals, and institutions, may have come to be. Rousseau’s description of man in the state of nature is a conjectural attempt to answer the question by following “a few lines of … hypothetical and conditional reasoning” (15-24). He declares that he has “ventured a few guesses, less in the hope of answering the question than for the purpose of clarifying it and reducing it to its true proportions” (15).

Rousseau begins his story by explaining that for the human species there are two forms of inequality: natural (physical) and moral (or political) inequality (23). He describes natural inequality as “differences in age, health, physical strength, and traits of the mind and soul” (23). He claims that the “source of natural inequality . . . is expressed by the very definition of the word” (23) and that this natural inequality has been solidified by institutional inequality (52). He dwells on the emergence of moral inequality, which “depends on a sort of convention and is established, or at least sanctioned, by the consent of men” (23). For Rousseau, moral inequality involves possessing more or less wealth, honour, power, and potential for domination (23). This establishment of law by men highlights the progression of natural inequality into structural processes of moral inequality by Rousseau’s period in history. Women were not considered citizens (121) and were denied political rights to consent to or reject the law. While Rousseau doesn’t seem to explicitly promote women as inferior, he also does not challenge this notion and in fact refers to women later in the text as “the sex that ought to obey” (49). Once gender inequality has been established, what better way to maintain it than to prescribe for women responsibilities, expectations, and customs that will reproduce it?

Does Woman Make Man?

Rousseau then considers the role of Woman in Geneva. To him, Woman is the precious half of the population, an honourable one who “assures the happiness of the other and whose sweetness and goodness maintain its peace and good morals” (11). In addition, the “destiny of [women] will always be to govern our destiny” (11). Afforded with status and citizenship, men deny these rights and privileges to women. “Man” stands in for everyone when it is the interest of men, but Woman is created to explain why women do not get the same advantages as men. In this case, language is used to praise women’s servitude and at the same time to obscure the structural inequalities in place. Without political or economic rights, women were in a vulnerable position, and this particular construction of Woman is demonstrated by Rousseau’s text, a construction which has historically served to reproduce inequality from generation to generation.

Woman: Another Word for Unequal

Rousseau writes that the Genevan Woman must possess predefined qualities. The Genevan Woman is to be modest, graceful, amiable, virtuous, innocent, and subtle in her words and deeds (11-12). Rousseau states that these feminine characteristics maintain public well-being, specifically in that the “barbarous man” cannot resist the “voice of honour and reason in the mouth of a gentle wife” (11). Rousseau addresses women by demanding of them to “[a]lways remain as you are, the chaste guardians of our morals and the gentle bonds of peace” (12). Rousseau claims women are peacekeepers; however, this is an encouragement to continue to reproduce the moral structure of inequality that women are born into. The good Genevan Woman is instructed to promote concord between the citizens through marriage of families that are divided (12). In other words, women were to be traded as property to satisfy social debts and obligations, and Rousseau’s implication is that because this maintains peace it is virtuous and honourable. But this suggests that only through marriage may women maintain peace, and so their power as peacekeepers is only by servitude through marriage, once again in relation to men. Finally, women have the virtuous duty to discourage, through their sweet and modest nature, “the excesses that our young people pick up in other countries” (12). In other words, it is a woman’s job to socialize youth so as not to threaten the morals that have been established in modern Genevan society.

Sex Power

Let us look for instances in Rousseau’s work in which women do in fact have power. Once again, it is under strict guidelines, for their “chaste power, exercised only within the marriage bond, makes itself felt only for the glory of the state and the well-being of the public” (11). Women may use their power of sex and desire, strictly sanctioned by marriage, to honour the state and mediate morals, but once again only in relation to men. This becomes glaringly evident when Rousseau warns youth against acquiring “childish manners and ridiculous airs … from loose women” (12). In Rousseau’s time loose meant unfixed, free, unchaste, immoral (“Loose”). Thus even women’s sexual power is limited, and the paradox that women “deserve to be in command in Geneva” (11) can only refer to a chaste, virtuous, and limited form of power. The use of this sexual power might be considered political in its effects; but if so, it is indirect.

Rousseau theorizes a particular form of sexual desire that developed in modern society:

Among the passions stirring the human heart, there is one that is burning and impetuous, and makes one sex necessary for the other, a terrible passion that braves every danger, defies every obstacle, and in its fury seems destined to destroy the very human race it is designed to preserve. What will become of men, who are prey to unbridled and brutal rage, without shame, without modesty, without restraint, fighting every day over their loves at the cost of their lives? (48)

Rousseau believes that in the “natural state” of man, sexual desire was physical and served only to “unite the one sex with the other” (49). But he suggests that this desire was the result of combined ideas of merit and beauty which were fostered by imagination. Rousseau believes this desire is a corrupted, unnatural sentiment, which he calls the “moral side of love” (49). This moral love is possessive as it “shapes desire… [and] makes the desire for the chosen object more forceful” (49). In Rousseau’s narrative, it becomes the role of Woman to mediate this forceful sexual desire through her chaste power. This requires the strategic and careful denial of sex until the bonds of marriage, as this moral love is “honoured by women with much care and skill” (49). Rousseau considers this important because he sees sexual desire as a threat to the well-being of the public; without women’s careful control of their female sexual power, this desire evoked in men threatens to instigate “the vengeance of husbands” (50) and lead to duels, murders, and “even worse deeds” (51). And so, it is up to women to mediate this, “in order to establish their power over men and so make dominant the sex that ought to obey” (49). In Rousseau’s modern society, sex is evidently women’s most substantial form of power; however, since they were bound to a chaste moral code, they were only free to exercise their power in relation to men within the bonds of marriage. Thus, women were oppressed by not only denial of political and economic power at that historical period, but also constricted to a very limited and particular sexual power, as Rousseau suggests in his text.

Conclusion

Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex that, “[i]f we examine some of the books on women, we see that one of the most frequently held points of view is that of public good or general interest: in reality, this is taken to mean the interest of society as each one wishes to maintain or establish it” (16). While Rousseau’s is not a book on women, specifically, I would argue that a piece written on inequality is not thoroughly critical without including an analysis of gender relations. Among the many ideas Rousseau explores in the Discourse on Inequality, it seems he has unfortunately disregarded this significant inequality. Perhaps he truly believed women to be naturally inferior. Maybe he was so corrupted by modern Genevan society that he failed to see a very substantial social inequality of that time. Rousseau’s possible lack of clarity is particularly fascinating, because he is known to have criticized other social theorists for being unable to see clearly what was “natural” and true. He does provide a fascinating exploration of many societal concepts: namely, the moral consequences that emerge from the invention of property (greed, envy, vanity misery, jealousy) (55), as well as the structural inequalities formed by the mutual enslavement of master and slave (78), which Rousseau sees as (in his time) “the ultimate degree of inequality to which all the other [inequalities] lead to until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether or bring it closer to legitimacy” (79). However, I do feel that Rousseau’s oversight of gender inequality somewhat undermines the thoughtfulness in these other explorations within his text. Overall, I find the construction of Woman laid out in Rousseau’s text to be strict and confined in a way that seems to both ensure women’s servitude and oppression, and also work to reproduce this inequality for future generations.

Notes

  1. I capitalize “Woman” in reference to the construction of women in this period, as opposed to “women” which refers to women of that time period in general.

 

Works Cited

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. NY: Random House, 2011. Print.

“Loose”. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=loose. Online Etymology Dictionary, 2015. Web. 10 January 2016.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on Inequality. Trans. Franklin Philip. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Feminist Standpoint Epistemology and Objectivity

Feminist Standpoint Epistemology and Objectivity

By Andrew Freundlich

Can the feminist approach to epistemology only work in a relativistic framework that rejects the traditional concept of objectivity? Feminist standpoint epistemology seeks to create a stronger objectivity by rejecting the traditional concept of objectivity, yet not becoming a relativistic epistemology either. In her article Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is “Strong Objectivity?”, Sandra Harding, a prominent advocate of feminist standpoint theory, addresses this topic explicitly and argues that the objective strength of standpoint theory is its belief that knowledge is socially situated. Harding, like most standpoint epistemologists, is making three central claims: 1) knowledge is socially situated 2) marginalized groups have an advantage in being able to spot biases that the dominant group cannot see, and 3) knowledge should be built upon the marginalized perspectives (Bowell para. 1). For the purposes of this paper we will look primarily at Sandra Harding’s response to the question of whether or not feminist standpoint theory can work within an objective framework rather than a relativistic one. Harding’s article deals with the relationship between standpoint theory and what can be called “traditional science”. We can define “traditional science” as science that focuses on the examination of the object of research solely. Standpoint theory, in contrast, insists on the examination of the researcher as well as examining the object of research. Before we can deal with the question of relativism and objectivity, let us take a look at Harding’s definition of standpoint epistemology.


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freundlich fet

Frontispiece depicting Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle – a female scientist of the Early Modern era

Harding argues that knowledge is socially situated (353). In other words, who we are as knowers affects what we can know. Specifically, Harding uses the example of spontaneous feminist empiricists (354) to demonstrate the dependency of research results to the social situation of the researchers. Harding defines the original spontaneous feminist empiricism as the “‘spontaneous consciousness’ of feminist researchers in biology and social sciences who were trying to explain what was and wasn’t different about their research process in comparison with the standard procedures in their field” (354). Harding, while not ideologically aligned with the spontaneous feminist empiricist, notes that research done by spontaneous feminist empiricists was often able “to produce less partial and distorted results” (352) than research done by males. Harding therefore argues that the knowledge these feminist empiricists were able to produce was scientifically superior to that of their counterparts, precisely because of the feminist’s socially situated standpoint.  Hence the feminist endeavour of spotting androcentric assumptions in the production of knowledge is simply “good science” and can help “maximize objectivity” (356).

Objectivity, for Harding, seems to be more attainable if people are aware of their own social situation. Harding criticizes the concept of neutral objectivity. Harding refers to this concept as, in a phrased coined by Donna Haraway, the “God-trick” (360), which is when researchers attempt to observe the universe with a complete impartiality that is supposedly bias free – what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere” (Crumley 213). Harding admits that while traditional science is good at eliminating social values so that experiments can have the same results across cultures, she also claims that “the scientific method provides no rules …for even identifying… social concerns and interests that are shared by all (or virtually all) of the observers” (Harding 360). For standpoint epistemologists the scientific endeavour, as it is now, is flawed because it was created by people from particular social situation who had influence and power (355).

Harding argues that the system within which female empiricists are operating (traditional science) is one that lacks space and methods for researchers to reflect on their social situation, leaving them blind to their inherent biases. How then can people identify their own biases? Harding argues that marginalized groups have an advantage over others in spotting biases (357). The author likens standpoint epistemology in the production of knowledge to Marxism in politics with its production of goods by the marginalized workers. Harding argues that dominant groups are so engrossed in their dominance and power that they are blind to their own assumptions (357). For example, the Marxist worker would be acutely aware of the owner’s assumptions and biases. Similarly, according to Harding, feminist researchers would be similarly aware of biases in the scientific community since the scientific community has historically been dominated by men and androcentric assumptions (355). For Harding, having women in science is helpful as in the case of the spontaneous feminist empiricists, but ultimately not enough: for feminist standpoint epistemologists the system needs to be changed to incorporate marginalized groups.

Harding, in keeping with the view of standpoint epistemology, argues that the starting place for producing knowledge should come from the standpoint of marginalized groups. Harding contrasts spontaneous feminist empiricism to standpoint theory, and writes:

[s]tandpoint theorists think that this is only part of the problem. They point out that retroactively, and with the help of the insights of the women’s movement, one can see these sexist or androcentric practices in the disciplines. However, the methods and norms in the disciplines are too weak to permit researchers systematically to identify and eliminate from the results of research those social values, interests, and agendas that are shared by the entire scientific community or virtually all of it. (355)

For the standpoint theorists the prevailing knowledge production community is “too weak” to systematically uncover and eliminate all of its “social values, interests, and agendas” (355). Thus to “maximize objectivity” in research (356), the scientific community needs to incorporate the standpoint of marginalized groups such as feminists. Having people from various backgrounds participating in the knowledge production community might be beneficial for the scientific method, providing the inclusion of various perspectives. Presumably Harding would be open to drawing from a variety of groups to meet the goal of what she calls “good science”— science that is less distorted and partial.

Although Harding is critiquing dominant knowledge production communities, she does not reject the importance of science in her standpoint theory. Her critique of “bad science” shows us that she is not rejecting science itself. To have “bad science” Harding must have a notion of what “good science” is. In other words, “good science” must have normative standards with which to critique “bad science.” For Harding “bad science” is the more distorted and partial scientific research that resulted from androcentric assumption (355).  Harding seems to be using science to help elucidate how social situations within the scientific community affect scientific assumptions, practices, and outcomes. Harding is accepting at least some notion of objectivity, although she also seems to reject our ability to be bias free.

Harding is not an absolutist about knowledge: rather, her approach differs from a traditional approach to epistemology and thinkers like Descartes who looked solely at the objects of inquiry rather than there own social situation. For Harding, both the researcher and the research subject should be critically examined, because for her a purely objective analysis of the universe by an impartial thinker is a myth. Descartes on the other hand, retreated into his mind in the belief that he could see the world objectively. Descartes attempted to use a priori reasoning to discover universal principles that were, for him, unrelated to any social situation or even the physical world. For Harding we are intimately connected to our social situation and the physical world and cannot separate ourselves from them.

Harding’s theorising, while outside the approach to philosophy of thinkers like Descartes, does not fall into the category of relativistic epistemology. Harding is not a postmodern feminist since she argues for a starting point (standpoint) for knowledge, whereas some postmodern feminists might be against the notion of a standpoint. Standpoint theory’s starting point for knowledge production requires that the knowledge producer reflects on the relationships between sex and class, for example, and specifically draws on marginalized groups. Harding argues for objectivity, but she thinks we have too many biases to see reality as it really is. For Harding, standpoint theory can minimize our biases, though not eliminate them completely; the theorist is aware that her standpoint theory is a work in progress that “will be replaced by more useful epistemologies in the future – the fate of all human products” (364). Harding is not an absolutist, or relativistic: neither is she strictly a skeptic.

Feminist standpoint epistemology uses a multitude of perspectives to gain a foundation for knowledge and so avoids becoming skepticism. Feminist standpoint epistemologists believe that there are cognitive gaps between “evidence and theory” (Crumley 215). Harding, like other feminists, thinks that gaps between evidence and theory are filled with our own social values, agendas, and politics (Harding 360). This way of thinking is very much like the skepticism of David Hume, who thought inductive reasoning was produced by gaps in our cognition filled with nothing more than our own past experiences and subjective projections (Crumley 47). If standpoint epistemologists argue, like Hume, that there are gaps in our cognition which are filled with social values and imagination, then what prevents standpoint epistemologists from being skeptics and therefore making anti-knowledge claims? Insofar as it moves us closer to truth, filling the cognitive gaps with the social values of one marginalized group would be no better than filling it with the social values of another. Yet, perhaps unlike strict skeptics, Harding argues that we can move closer to maximizing objectivity (361). For example, she thinks that the sciences can reveal truths about the world, e.g. her notion of “good science.” For Harding, in the absence of having an objective view (God’s eye view) of the universe, what is necessary to produce knowledge is the inclusion of as many perspectives as possible when creating knowledge; this variety of perspectives might then be molded into our knowledge communities. Prioritizing a multitude of perspectives discourages the dominant socially situated perspectives that, without the multitude, otherwise gain too much authority in the production of knowledge which ultimately produces “bad science.” Being aware of social biases will help one find security in one’s knowledge-producing pursuits, and, as previously stated, minimize one’s biases while producing more objective knowledge.

Feminist standpoint epistemology holds that knowledge is socially situated and argues that marginalized groups have an advantage in spotting unexamined assumptions and biases in the knowledge production community. Thus for standpoint epistemologists traditionally dominant knowledge communities  (i.e. scientific communities) need to be adapted to include otherwise marginalized perspectives. The incorporation of marginalized perspectives will lead to greater and more accurate objectivity. Feminist standpoint epistemology diverges from the epistemology of detached absolutism and skepticism, while not being a relativistic epistemology either. Ultimately standpoint theory augments inquiry by broadening its scope and by adding a level of self-reflection and interrogation to any knowledge producing community.

Works Cited

Crumley II, Jack S. An Introduction to Epistemology. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2009. Print.

Bowell, T. “Feminist Standpoint Theory.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d. Web. April 16 2016.

Harding, Sandra. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” Knowledge and Inquiry: Readings in Epistemology. Ed. K. Brad Wray. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007. 352-384. Print.

How History is Presented in Sebald’s Austerlitz

An Analysis of How History is Presented in W.G. Sebald’s Novel Austerlitz

By Tyeson Davies Barton

sebald-austerlitz-us2When one says that something is a historical event, one is saying that it is important and therefore worthy to be included in history. But what happens to all of the events that are deemed unworthy of such consideration? Do they lie outside history? Or is it our conception of history that is to blame? Author W.G. Sebald deeply considers these questions in his tragic novel Austerlitz. Throughout the novel, it is reiterated by different characters that humanity’s conventional conception of history – that it is a linear progression of events that can be objectively known – is incorrect, and that history is rather an accumulation of interpretations and subjective experiences. By means of a stylistic choice, Sebald himself also demonstrates how unreliable our conception of history can be by regularly projecting the false history of his characters onto the photographs of real people, muddling the line between fiction and historical fact. Furthermore, while characters in the novel believe that they can obtain the knowledge of what happened to them and their relatives in the past, the circumstances that they are left with at the end of the novel say otherwise. In Austerlitz, Sebald shows how the truths regarding the past often remain beyond our grasp.


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Austerlitz focuses on the history of its main character, Jacques Austerlitz, as told by him and as passed on through the perspective of an unnamed and seemingly translucent narrator. During one of his many self-reflective conversations with the novel’s narrator, Austerlitz recalls the influence that a teacher had on him in his youth. The teacher had explained to Austerlitz the likely origin of his name during a history lesson about the Battle of Austerlitz. In that lesson, the teacher delves into the question of whether or not there is accuracy in our conception of history. Regarding the Battle of Austerlitz, the teacher states that “it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly” and that “[a]ll of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us” (71). Essentially, the teacher argues that our conception of what occurred in the past is heavily guided by the popular interpretations of the present, and that these popular interpretations are not entirely accurate. Their lack of accuracy is due to the fact that they could not possibly translate all of the subjective experiences of what it felt like to exist in that moment; because of this, we can only ever have a dim, altered sense of what took place in the past, instead of a realistic one. The narrator also addresses this notion that subjective experiences live frail and often short lives: “How little we can hold in the mind,” he thinks to himself, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on” (24). The narrator thus states that some histories that people create with “places and objects” will perish along with the people who held them. In other words, there is an inevitable loss of subjective experiences, and these lost experiences are chunks of our history. This belief that we have a skewed sense of our past, one which can never be rectified, is echoed by Sebald’s use of photographs in the novel.

In the modern era, perhaps the most popular way to make an experience tangible and thereby more enduring is to take a photograph of it. However, photographs, like memories and history in general, are vulnerable to misinterpretation. Sebald acknowledges and emphasizes this vulnerability throughout his novel by taking actual photographs of people from the past and weaving them into the fictional past of his novel. One such photograph is of a young Austerlitz with his rugger team. Austerlitz describes the photograph while talking to the narrator about a good friend that he had made during his time spent at private school. “From the first day,” Austerlitz says, “when he asked me for one of the new photographs of the rugger team where I featured to the extreme right of the front row, I realized that Gerald felt as isolated as I did” (74-75). Sebald takes this photograph, which out of its original context would otherwise appear to be simply a group of young, mostly happy rugger players, and heavily colors it with meaning, altering the reader’s interpretation of it. The reader is forced to interpret it as a snapshot of a very lonely period in the life of the man whom the reader believes to be Austerlitz. However, this interpretation is very likely to be far from the reality this photograph is capturing. By constantly forcing his reader to form an insufficient perspective on photographs of the past, Sebald shows how easy it is to lose the reality of what took place in the past. While we may attempt to save the truths of our past through photographs or other means, Sebald expresses how this attempt will ultimately be futile through his main character Austerlitz.

The main focus of the novel is Austerlitz’s  self-imposed quest to unearth truths regarding his parents and experiences he had in the past. During moments throughout the novel it seems as though he will succeed; however, at the end of the novel, Austerlitz is left empty-handed and still searching. Some of Austerlitz’s last words to the narrator are hopeful, but they seem to predict the outcome of his search. “I am going to continue looking for my father,” Austerlitz says, “and for Marie de Verneuil as well” (292). Since Austerlitz’s story ends with him continuing on with his search, it suggests that any effort to obtain the truths of the past will, in the end, remain unsatisfied. Austerlitz’s failure to discover the truth about what happened to his parents is echoed during the last moments that the reader has with the narrator, in which the narrator starts reading a book that was given to him by Austerlitz the day they met. The book is a personal account written by Dan Jacobson who, like Austerlitz, is searching for a distant relative but who, also like Austerlitz, does not succeed. “[I]t was truly terrifying,” the man in the book writes regarding his failed search, “to realize that there was no transition, only this dividing line, with ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other. The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate,” the narrator reflects, “was Jacobson’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people” (297). As the narrator acknowledges, Jacobson thus states that if there is no transition between life and death but only a dividing line, then there is no real bridge between what was and what is. The uncanny resemblance between Austerlitz’s failed search and the failed search of this book’s author supports the idea that what has passed away can never be fully resurrected by the people who exist in the present. Furthermore, the last encounter between the narrator and Austerlitz curiously takes place in a graveyard, as if hinting at the inevitable loss that we all must experience while alive, and how we are all destined to become a part of humanity’s lost history.

Sebald struggles to answer the following questions: can the moments of the past truly be preserved by the people in the present? And if not, what happens to those moments? Is something still a part of history if it is not remembered? How should we define history? The novel refutes the idea that history is a chain of events, and asserts that instead history is a collection of subjective experiences, and that not all of these experiences will be remembered correctly, if at all. As the photographs in the novel demonstrate, due to our lack of knowledge regarding the subjective experiences felt in the past, we will inevitably try to imbue the past with our own false meaning. Our inability to hold onto all of the subjective experiences of the past is emphasized by the failed attempts of Austerlitz and Jacobson to rekindle parts of their past.  Austerlitz illustrates how some experiences will drift forever into the past, forever unknown by anyone in the present or future, and that these experiences, whether we’re conscious of them or not, will remain a part of our history.

Works Cited

Sebald, Winfried Georg. Austerlitz. New York: Modern Library, 2011. Print.

Redeemed Through Disobedience

Redeemed Through Disobedience

By Brandon Kornelson
MLK_mugshot_birmingham

Mugshot of Martin Luther King Jr following his 1963 arrest in Birmingham

While in Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), a powerful letter that responded to some harsh criticism from the local white community who were upset with the “problems” that King seemed to be stirring up. King emphasizes that the “problems” he was stirring up were direct results of the injustice that was being perpetrated against the black community, thus leaving the community no choice but to take action in order to achieve redemption. King’s tactic of nonviolent resistance, which stemmed in part from his roots in his Christian faith,1 played an important role in achieving social justice during the Civil Rights Movement. King understood that the possibility of redemption after years of social injustice was only possible through direct nonviolent action.


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In Christian belief, redemption is most often understood as the process of an individual or a group who receives compensation for, or achieves salvation from, “evil” or “sin.” For example, Christ sacrificed himself to redeem humanity from their sinful nature. In this metaphoric example, the only thing that could provide legitimate redemption for humanity’s condition was suffering and sacrifice. King’s ideas of redemption for the black community represent some striking similarities to the story of Christ. King understood redemption as something that could be achieved through sacrificial nonviolent resistance and the suffering that came with it. In King’s eyes, nonviolent resistance is a tactic designed to seek friendship from his enemies, rather than to defeat or humiliate them (Hunt 245). In King’s words, “[i]t is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons who are the perpetrators of evil” (qtd. in Hunt 245). Further, “[t]he nonviolent resister… realizes that [his/her nonviolent protests] are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation” (245). However, King also understood that in the struggle against evil, suffering accompanies the process of redemption. King understood that to achieve redemption he had to accept violence from his enemies without retaliating. “‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain freedom, but it must be our blood,’” King claims, quoting Mohandas Gandhi (246). In addition, King also understood the absolute necessity of both nonviolence and suffering to achieve redemption: “My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. … Recognizing the necessity of suffering, I have tried to make of it a virtue. … I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive” (247). Therefore, King’s ideas of redemption required the black community to carry a heavy burden of suffering and sacrifice, much like the story of Christ.

King had a deep conviction in the inherent equality of all of humanity, a conviction that was influenced by his Christian faith (Hunt 242). His philosophy of nonviolence has its deep roots in the triad of theology, fellowship, and faith (227). Through these conceptions, King developed a “‘serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate evil’” (qtd in Hunt 227) which led him to his aspiration of the ultimate form of redemption, which was to be achieved by establishing what he calls the “Beloved Community” (227). King’s vision of the Beloved Community has its roots in his deep faith and theological convictions of Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom of God. When the US Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on the transportation systems after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, King stated that a main end goal of the Civil Rights Movement was “the creation of the Beloved Community” (Inwood 493). For King, the Beloved Community was something that could only be achieved through nonviolence; he did not see nonviolence as an end, but rather as a means to appropriate the Beloved Community (Hunt 243). In addition, King was influenced by philosopher Friedrich Hegel who suggested that conflict is necessary for social change to occur; and “that conflict, [if] properly managed, can ground faith and hope for the future” (244). However, it is clear that King emphasized the necessity of nonviolence as being the only means to grasp the end goal of redemption and the Beloved Community.

At the beginning of King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail (1963), King sheds light onto an alternative perspective for his criticizers to see. He agrees with his criticizers that it is unfortunate that nonviolent demonstrations are occurring and disrupting the peace in Birmingham; however, he then continues to outline the sociological realities of the white supremacist power structures that gave birth to the demonstrations in the first place. King claims that these racist structures of power gave the black community no choice but to take action. King states: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… [which can] no longer be ignored” (para. 9). That the white community had been frustrated with King demonstrates that King’s tactic was successful. However, legalized racial segregation in America had created a tense social and political atmosphere; the experiences of injustice within this tense context fostered bitterness and hatred amongst members of the black community. King understood that when minority groups are ostracized, marginalized, and oppressed, social environments are created that become ripe for the harvest of radical violent ideological movements. Although King acknowledges that “violence has a certain cleansing effect” (qtd. in Inwood 504), he believed that violence perpetuates fear and vengeful punishment, which is counterproductive and creates the same conditions that the black community has endured, only for others (Inwood 504). “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness,” King claims (qtd. in Hunt 245). In other words, King knew that violence would destroy exactly what it was meant to achieve. However, with the oppressed black community, King also fully understands that “[if their] repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence” (para. 24).  Thus, while understanding that violence was inevitable if oppression was not challenged, King sought to “transform the suffering [of the black community] into a creative force” of nonviolence (qtd. in Hunt 247).

King claims in his letter that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (para. 11). In other words, power does not dismantle itself; on the contrary, it does everything it can to preserve itself. Therefore, it was up to the black community (the oppressed) to demand equality and liberation from their oppressors. Redemption from structures of power that are responsible for injustice is not possible unless the structures of power are directly confronted, challenged, and either dismantled or reformed from exterior forces. In addition, King explains that it is our “responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” as he reminds the reader that laws are not inherently based on justice, giving the example of the horrific legalized policies of Nazi Germany (para. 18). In explaining this, King contrasts the view that laws are always based on justice, and he demonstrates that it is morally justified to challenge and break unjust laws; if these unjust laws are not broken, injustice and oppression will continue, inevitably manifesting into more tension and conflict.

King’s letter addresses his profound disappointment with what he calls the “white moderate,” a term he uses to refer to the person who does – and prefers to do – nothing, and who is committed to “order” rather than justice, because, in King’s mind, redemption is only possible through direct action. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people,” King claims (para. 21). Towards the end of his letter, King outlines this point further in a core statement that illustrates the message that redemption must be achieved through action: “I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends” (para. 35). What King is describing in this quote is that failure to take action against injustice is itself injustice; neutrality is an illusion during times of injustice, and remaining silent in the face of “evil” makes you complicit with acts of injustice. Indeed, for King, the oppressed can only be redeemed when the oppression is directly confronted.

Contrary to common belief, it is worth noting that what ought to be emphasized when we discuss, write about, and remember the Civil Rights Movement, is that King’s nonviolent strategy was mainly a tactic. King and many other nonviolent activists did not embrace a 100% nonviolent lifestyle. On the contrary, they owned weapons, and they guarded their communities as preparation for violent resistance if they were attacked. For example, when journalist William Worthy had visited King’s home, he went to sit down on an armchair, and almost sat on two pistols. “Bill, wait, wait! Couple of guns on that chair!” yelled Bayard Rustin, a nonviolent activist (Cobb 7). Rustin questioned King about the guns, and King responded that they were “[j]ust for self-defense” (7). Indeed, it was no secret that many civil rights activists, such as King, were well armed in order to protect themselves and their families: local law enforcement and the federal government refused to provide adequate protection for them (Cobb 7-8). Glenn Smiley, a man who gave advice to King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, had claimed that King’s home was “an arsenal” (Cobb 7-8). These anecdotes outline one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that is often overlooked: the campaign of nonviolence was integrated and supported by a campaign of armed defense. Indeed, as civil rights scholar and author Charles Cobb demonstrates in his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, violence played an essential role in the Civil Rights Movement and the redemption of the black community (187). For example, Cobb writes of a heavily armed resistance group called “Deacons for Defense and Justice” who were committed to protecting the nonviolent movement (192-193). Further, another example that demonstrates this collaboration of the nonviolence movement with armed resistance is that although black activists from the group CORE – Congress of Racial Equality – were committed to nonviolent principles, they also received protection from armed defenders (196-197). In other words, violent and nonviolent groups, who were dedicated to the same goals of redemption, corresponded with one another to create a successful alliance and strategy for social change. The nonviolent campaigners needed the armed defenders to protect their movements, and the violent campaigners needed the nonviolent resisters to lead the path to redemption, as true redemption could only be achieved through nonviolence. Nonviolent activist Fred Brooks highlights this alliance by stating that “[a]ny time we were having a demonstration [armed defenders] would be standing there on both sides of the street. Wherever we went it was like a caravan; these guys in their pickup trucks with… rifles up in the back” (196-197). Charlie Fenton, a dedicated nonviolent white activist with CORE, was confronted with this merge of armed and nonviolent resisters when he arrived at the Jonesboro Freedom House. The house had become an armed camp. Although this disappointed Fenton greatly, he quickly realized the necessity of the arms; without the armed men in Jonesboro the nonviolent movement would have been violently destroyed by white supremacists (200-201). Some nonviolent activists questioned the compatibility of having armed defenders involved in the nonviolent movement; however, as racist violence began to surge, so did the agreement on the necessity of armed defense as being crucial to the movement (Cobb 197-198). In Cobb’s words, “nonviolence and armed resistance are part of the same cloth; both are thoroughly woven into the fabric of black life and struggle” (240). The armed defense component of the movement managed to create spaces of relative sovereignty, which ultimately allowed the nonviolent component to succeed in its mission of redemption.

Martin Luther King’s method of nonviolent resistance was a thoughtfully constructed strategy to achieve redemption. The objective for King was never to harm, destroy, defeat, or humiliate his enemies; rather, his objective was to embrace his enemies with love in an attempt to persuade them to change their position on the unjust status quo that was represented within the socio-political system (Hunt 245). For King, the achievement of redemption was only possible through direct nonviolent confrontation with legalized injustice through a process of consciously disobeying, undermining, and rebelling against unjust laws. As history has shown, King’s strategy was successful in changing the legalized racism in the US. However, the legacy of racism continues to systemically haunt US political structures.

Notes

  1. While King’s tactic of nonviolent resistance draws in part from his roots in the Christian faith, he was also heavily influenced by the philosophies of Thoreau, Hegel, Rauschenbusch, Gandhi, and his family (Hunt 243-244).

 

Works Cited

Cobb Jr., Charles E. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books. 2014. EPUB file. 11 April 2016.

Hunt, C. Anthony. “Martin Luther King: Resistance, Nonviolence and Community.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 7.4 (2004): 227-251. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

Inwood, Joshua F. “Searching for the Promised Land: Examining Dr Martin Luther King’s Concept of the Beloved Community.” Antipode 41.3 (2009): 487-508. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

King, Martin L. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” African Studies Center.  16 Apr. 1963. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>.

Should Statecraft be Soul-Craft?

Plato and Machiavelli: Should Statecraft be Soul-Craft?

By Michael Robert Caditz

Niccolo_Machiavelli_uffizi

Plato and Machiavelli are fundamentally different in their approaches to leading a state. Plato is idealistic and appeals to “the good” and the soul. He believes justice is always the most profitable path for leaders, and justice must be taught to citizens to improve their lives.  On the other hand, Machiavelli’s ideal ruler is strategic, using whatever tactics are required (within limits) to remain in power, secure glory, and benefit society. Machiavelli is interested in satisfying citizens’ (subjective) desires, not preaching goodness. While Platonic idealism may seem utopian or unreachable, to its credit it strives for harmony and morality. However, Machiavelli’s instrumentalism is cruel, dangerous, and self-contradictory.


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Plato views justice and profitability to be one and the same: “And so, my good Thrasymachus, injustice is never more profitable than justice”(“Republic” 2008 354a). Just as virtuous doctors by definition always act in the best interest of their patients, virtuous leaders will always better the lives of their subjects. In fact, it is not even possible for a just man to be unjust.

Rather than seeking to fulfill subjective desires of the populace, Plato envisions instilling “the good” and “beauty of reason”:

. . . We would not have our guardians grow up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul. Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason. (“Republic” 1892 401c-d)

Indeed, rather than allowing citizens to pursue their desires (whatever they may be) Socrates advocates controlling everyday life in the just city, with rules that govern which musical instruments are allowed, as well as rules forbidding “ugliness” and “vice” (“Republic” 1892 Book III), for example.

In order to teach “the good” in Plato’s ideal city, speech is censored. One example is the campaign to change the traditional definitions of the Greek gods from flawed and imperfect (as are humans) to perfect and the source of the good: “This then is one of the rules and guidelines about the gods within which speakers must speak and poets compose, that the god is not the cause of all things but only of the good” (“Republic” 2008 380c).

Because the integrity of the soul is more important than outcomes, Socrates goes to his death rather than abandon piety. On death row, if his goal were to save his own skin, Socrates might have taken the escape route offered by Crito (“Crito” 44b). But he makes no exception to his just obligation to Athens: “one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice. It is impious to bring violence to bear against your mother and father, it is much more so to use it against your country” (“Crito” 51c).

For Machiavelli, on the other hand, statecraft is one of strategy and outcome, not of idealism or morality. In contrast with Socrates, Machiavelli seeks to make people content by fulfilling their subjective desires (rather than making them more just and virtuous): “Well-ordered states and wise princes have taken every care . . . to keep the people satisfied and contented; this is one of the most important concerns a prince can have” (366). This is public relations management, not soul-craft.

A ruler, given the choice of being loved or being feared, is better to be feared: “love is preserved by a link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage. Fear, on the other hand, preserves you with a dread of punishment which never fails” (363). This is not an appeal to the soul, to justice, or to virtue; it is a strategy to stay in power.

However, it is also strategically important to not be hated. While Plato might suggest that generosity, as a virtue, is necessarily profitable, Machiavelli views generosity as a mistake: “A prince should guard, above all things, against being despised and hated; and generosity leads you to both” (363). The reason he should not be hated is to preserve his power: “he can endure being feared easily while he is not hated” (363).

For Machiavelli, excessive violence should be avoided not for reasons of the soul, i.e., because violence is unjust or morally wrong, but rather to preserve power: “in seizing a state, the usurper ought to consider carefully which injuries it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily. By not unduly unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by offering them benefits” (353).

Killing is viewed strategically: “When it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it with proper justification and manifest cause” (363). This is not because Machiavelli is morally opposed to killing. Indeed, life seems less important than property, specifically because of the way the two are supposedly perceived by the populace relative to each other: “men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony” (363).

Rather than forbidding cruelty as a matter of morality, it is actually encouraged for military benefit: “when a prince is with his army, and has a multitude of soldiers under control, then it is quite necessary he not worry about the reputation for cruelty, for without it he would never keep his army united or attentive to its duties” (364).

To be fair, Machiavelli makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence (and thus can be viewed as rational). Agathocles, the Sicilian, is an example of someone who gained power through cruel violence, but attained no glory: “his barbarous cruelty, his inhumanity, and his many wicked deeds do not allow him to be celebrated among the most excellent men. What he achieved cannot be attributed either to fortune or to virtue” (352).

Machiavelli, however, does explicitly permit “evil”:  “Cruel measures are properly used—if one might speak well of evil—when they are applied a single time” (353). Unlike Plato’s concern for the soul, Machiavelli’s politics is trumped by strategy. Once a ruler seeking glory tastes the supposed benefits of “legitimate” cruelty once, can he draw the line before the second time any more than one can forego the proverbial second potato chip?

If violence is permitted on the path to glory, then this doctrine would seem to include the horrific actions of despots, so long as they were acting in good faith (however misguided). Adolph Hitler would seem to fit this criterion. Hitler sincerely believed his actions would lead to a better world. He also was rational, in the sense that his brutality was systematic rather than arbitrary. One might respond that he achieved no glory in the opinion of the world, and thus his legacy is not protected by Machiavelli’s justification for cruelty. But that is a retrospective assessment. Had he won the war and controlled much of the world, sentiment would be quite different; his tactics would retrospectively be perceived as justified; he would be celebrated. That Hitler’s cruelty failed to achieve glory in the eyes of the world is knowable only in hindsight.

Machiavelli’s apparent assertion that ends justify means has a parallel in the modern American debate over whether defeating “terrorism” justifies utilizing torture such as waterboarding. The arguments in favour include the assertion that preventing terror attacks justifies torture, even if such is forbidden under domestic and international law and flies in the face of the morality espoused by democratic societies. The arguments against waterboarding include the questionability of whether valuable information is actually gleaned, the precedent set (if we do it to them, they are more likely to do it back to us) and importantly, the argument that ends never justify unjust means. It’s difficult to imagine Socrates agreeing that injustice produces justice. However, it seems likely that Machiavelli would be on the side of waterboarding, given his utilization of cruelty if it seems profitable.

Finally, there is a fundamental contradiction in Machiavelli’s subjective acceptance of violence as a strategy. The contradiction is within the following logic:  “The end goal is to make society a better place. What makes society better is if people are living happy lives. Therefore I will kill people to make for a better society.” One might argue that this makes sense insofar as killing some people makes life better for others. But then we must ask, what is the threshold? What percentage of the populace is it justifiable to kill and still assert that life is better for the rest? One percent? Fifty percent? Ninety percent? Such a determination seems arbitrary. It would be consistent and objective, on the other hand, to argue that no amount of premediated killing is justified.

Plato is clear that soul-craft is one and the same as statecraft. Machiavelli’s overriding goal may ultimately be well intentioned. However, his statecraft is less concerned with the soul than with something different: maintaining power and achieving glory. But Machiavelli’s model sets a dangerous precedent which can be—and perhaps has been—seized upon by cruel leaders in pursuit of their subjective versions of a “better world.” In the end, Machiavelli contradicts himself by promoting cruelty and violence as a questionable path to making lives “better.”

Works Cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought – Volume 1: From Plato to Nietzsche. Eds. Andrew Bailey et al. Peterborough: Broadview, 2008. Print.

Plato. “Crito.” The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought – Volume 1: From Plato to Nietzsche. Eds. Andrew Bailey et al. Peterborough: Broadview, 2008. Print.

—. “Republic.” The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought – Volume 1: From Plato to Nietzsche. Eds. Andrew Bailey et al. Peterborough: Broadview, 2008. Print.

—. “Republic.” The Dialogues of Plato Vol. III. Trans. B. Jowett. London: Oxford University, 1892. Print.

Book Review – “In Defense of a Liberal Education”

Zakaria coverIn Defense of a Liberal Education

Fareed Zakaria

204pp. Paperback $15.75

Zakaria is an American author and journalist, a contributing editor of the Atlantic and a columnist for The Washington Post. Zakaria has authored four books including international bestseller The Post-American World. He is best known as the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.

A review by Stacey Harper

Liberal Studies is under attack, and everyone from Obama to my mother-in-law seems to have an opinion on its usefulness. Have you seen that meme “The only thing that can stop this asteroid is your Liberal Arts degree”? No? Let me paraphrase: NASA employs a barista to head a team of astrophysicists attempting to nuke an asteroid hurtling to Earth …. Because they “need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study… When you’re lowering a hydrogen bomb into a craggy mass of flying astronomic death with barely any gravity, you’re going to need to draw on all the multidisciplinary analysis you’ve got”.[1] As far from the point as it is deliciously sarcastic, this kind of barbed criticism is part of an entrenched trend in post-secondary to devalue the Liberal Arts. When did literature, philosophy and history become so useless to our lives? Isn’t that what we would be saving the world for?

It was nothing short of heart warming to see best-selling author, intellectual heavyweight, and popular television commentator Fareed Zakaria take on the fight.

Zakaria presents a concise, well-defended argument, traversing the revolutionary (and of course uniquely American), nature of the Liberal Arts. He takes us through the history of how Americans have funded and valued higher education. He speaks eloquently on the polarization of knowledge—the way science and the arts have become somehow mutually exclusive. Zakaria highlights the need to see these two aspects of general education meet again in some common forum—as symbiotic aspects of grooming future minds. Liberal Studies is guilty of failing to teach its students even the basics of scientific principals and Science students need to develop the values, political literacy, and familiarity with the humanities that can give an ethical framework to technological development. And I heartily agree with his proposition of a “common core” for all undergraduates, giving a strong basic framework that students can specialize from within.

Zakaria argues his points well and would make fast work of my friend David who likes to crack jokes about Liberal Studies and “platonic dioramas” at my dinner parties, but I will admit that I found Zakaria’s defence more of a pandering appeal to business than an incisive cutting defense of literature and philosophy. He easily devotes 26 pages to dropping the names and opinions of American CEOs like Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner (69) or Jeff Bezo’s founder of Amazon (74), or Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, or Norman Augustine CEO of Lougheed Martin (74).  I assume because all things considered, it is Zakaria says, economically useful to “have a well-trained population“ (97).

As a Liberal Studies major with technical training in business I am constantly defending my educational choices: “Why Liberal Studies instead of Commerce, for example, or a Bachelor of Business Administration?” I regularly trot out many of Zakaria’s arguments:  I have learned how to learn. On top of my technical skills, I am skilled in research. I am an excellent writer and communicator able to present, defend ideas, and collaborate with co-workers. “I am a flexible thinker,” I tell those potential employers, “I have not simply learned that A=B and memorized a sequence of transactions—I can think on the ground and work well in ambiguous situations where I must use judgement and weigh possible outcomes.” I also argue that Liberal studies allowed me to develop a strong ethical sense; an increasing concern in business these days – as the Enron scandal and the 2008 financial crisis might highlight.

I have managed to become gainfully employed despite my degree’s lowly coinage … but when did this become the point of higher education—managing to trade your labour for the necessities of life? The increasing commodification of education, the transformation of Universities into trade schools, is a disturbing trend. I flicked through the pages of Zakaria’s defence desperate to find some dazzling logic and cutting social commentary that I could flay Dave with when he next comes over. But it just didn’t arrive. I was downright puzzled by Zakaria’s discussion of MOOC’s (Massive Open On-line Courses) as a viable alternative to well-funded and valued public education system.  I see MOOCS as the fodder of canned program types—for the study of accounting, let’s say, or software programs, typing, and basic economics. Liberal Arts entails the exchange of ideas, reading and arguing in groups, honing one’s writing, and a certain amount of personal transformation—the development of a community of thinkers—not just acquiring basic skills and jumping through credential hoops. Zakaria paints himself as a man of a new age of technology. He argues that we can embrace MOOCs as a way of levelling the playing field and engaging new audiences with the technology youth are so addicted to. However, I can’t help but feel we would lose the skills of readership, debate, and community. And wouldn’t we end up with the monotone and prescribed opinions of the few celebrity ‘greats’ chosen to present?

Zakaria’s take on what constitutes a Liberal Education, and the failings of teaching from a ‘Canon’ of texts, run contrary to my own view. Zakaria tells us “those [courses] I took out of genuine curiosity or because I was inspired by a great teacher have left a more lasting and powerful impression. After all, one can always read a book to get basic information about a particular topic, or simply use Google” (61). Seriously? Uncovering and rediscovering the greats works of our cultural, philosophical, and literary history seem to me to be key to the Liberal Studies project. I disagree with the suggestion that a “Great Books” education clutters young minds with “antique furniture” and a patriarchal imposition of “moral authority” (59). Even when I felt this was the case I was driven to pull the text apart. I thought of a John Stuart Mill quote when reading these passages: “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”[2] Smashing into texts like Plato’s Republic, unearthing and exposing new interpretations, or uncovering weaknesses and discarding old ideas is a hallmark of the Liberal Arts. I would also argue that these are “Great Books” because they have stood the test of time. They are the thoughts and writings that have built the world around us; they contain the history of our political, social, and ethical development. Sure, a canon of texts should always be added to, critiqued, and edited. I think the process of having students pick them apart and challenge them, fight about them in seminar, has had great intellectual usefulness … and the process has created a more inclusive and broad range of core texts. I also feel that there is something in the reading of “Great Books” that creates a common language—it moves up the starting point for many difficult conversations by becoming reference points and summations of incredibly complex ideas. Moreover, I depended on my professors to guide me through a series of texts that built upon ideas and understandings. I needed to be shown the pitfalls of relativistic thinking, and the shades of grey in ethical positions I once thought absolute. I learned to vigorously defend my position, which is best done when fully understanding another’s. The kind of “free exploration” Zakaria describes as an alternative strikes me as vastly inferior.

The economic precedence placed on utility versus quality in education is an important debate. Yet, Zakaria’s defence of Liberal Studies occasionally feels like a hollow appeal to commercial viability rather than that of becoming a well-read and thoughtful citizen. However, he does have his moments of real clarity. In a discussion about virtue Zakaria raises a concern that we have become morally inarticulate. He finally points to the true heart of the matter: Doesn’t an educated and thoughtful population have intrinsic value? Good and healthful citizens seek to live together in a just, safe, inclusive, and mutually profitable ways. I think we lose something very valuable in instrumentalizing our youth as factors of production.  Are our societies tools to benefit business and economic value? Or the other way around? Zakaria relies too much on arguments based around global economic positioning and employment forecasting and far too little on the true meaning of the Liberal Arts, which ultimately seeks to answer the question of “Where are we going?” and “How should we live”? When the asteroid hits—is the iPhone 7 the most valuable thing we are going to lose? Is the production of technology what will describe the apex of human potential?

All in all Zakaria’s book was worth the read, and it is excellent prep for Liberal Studies students come job search time—but don’t expect salvation.

[1] http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-only-thing-that-can-stop-this-asteroid-is-your-liberal-arts-degree

[2] On Liberty

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