Thursday, January 26, 2012

At Least I know what Dexterity and Charisma are...

Charmides by Plato

This is the first dialogue in my collected works of Plato, so I have now officially embarked on my Life Quest (mentioned in an earlier post) to read the Collected Works of Plato.  Fare forward, and all that.

The subject of this dialogue is a Greek word (which I cannot read (it’s all Greek to me)), which, according to Benjamin Jowett, translator of Plato par excellence, can be translated as Temperance, Moderation, Modesty, Discretion or Wisdom.  In this dialogue, Socrates has a merry time (doesn’t he always?) asking people to define the term, and then watching as all the attempts at definition end up circular or absurd.

Obviously the people to whom Socrates is talk never played Dungeons and Dragons.  If they had, then they would have never attempted to define “Wisdom.”  When I was a lad and enamored of the game, I never did understand “Wisdom.”  For those not in The Know—in that most intricate game, every character is defined by scores on 6 attributes: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma.  Five of those are easy to define; wisdom is not.  I never did figure out what wisdom was.  Clerics have to have a lot of it, but they don’t have to be intelligent.  Magicians have to be intelligent, but don’t have to be wise.  So, wisdom is that thing which people to whom you might go to for advice have.  And a person who has wisdom will be the sort of person of whom others ask advice.  So, wisdom is what wise people have.  Which is circular.  And I realized this when I was 12.

Thus by the time I hit my teenage years, I would have never played Socrates’ game in this dialogue.

Now, however, I want to play it.  It seems to me now that I do know what wisdom is.  But, I still can’t come up with a decent definition of it.  My dear friend, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, give this as the connotation of “wise”:  “suggests great understanding of people and of situations and unusual discernment and judgment in dealing with them.”  That sounds good.  But, then I ask:  how does one know if one has discerned and judged correctly?  Who can evaluate wisdom?  And the answer is obvious: wisdom is the ability to discern wisdom.  And suddenly I am playing both Socrates and Charmides in my own mind.

I flip the question a bit.  Suppose I wanted to become more wise.  What would I do?  If I read more, I can become more knowledgeable, but knowledge is not the same as wisdom.  If I practice giving advice, that does not make me more wise unless I have the ability to discern whether my advice is wise or not, and I would have to be wise to know his.  Solomon had to pray for wisdom, was given more wisdom than anyone in the land, and then went out and made some really stupid decisions.  Socrates was declared to be the wisest man alive by the Oracle (in a dialogue I will get to eventually in my tour of Plato), but concluded that the only thing that made him wise was that he knew he wasn’t wise. 

So here we have a desirable characteristic, something to which it seems everyone should aspire, and we can’t define it or figure out a way to acquire it.  Puzzling to say the least.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Storyteller

Over the break, I read Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa.  This is the seventh novel by Llosa I have read—and I already own an eighth novel by him which I assume I will read sometime.  I have also read a collection of his non-fiction work.  I am thus reasonably certain that I enjoy reading Llosa.  (Well, it’s either a) I enjoy reading his work or b) I am supremely masochistic when it comes to reading.  I am reasonably confident that it is the former, but would entertain arguments that the latter is more accurate.)  So, having now finished eight books by Llosa, it seems reasonable that I would be able to answer a rather simple question:  What makes Llosa (a Nobel Laureate, no less) someone whose work is a pleasure to read?

And now the problem for the day.  I have no idea why I like Llosa.  None.  I have read eight books he wrote, but to the best of my recollection, I have never once recommended his work to anyone.  Part of the reason that I have never recommended him is that I would have a very hard time picking which book of his to recommend.  I’ve liked every one of them enough to think I should read another book.  Yet, they all have this quality about them, this undefined quality, which makes me think, “Well, I liked that book, but I am not really sure who else would like that book.” 

Consider the novel I just finished.  Young Peruvian author—who currently writes news blurbs, but wants to write novels—hooks up with his older, divorced, Bolivian Aunt.  (Don’t worry too much: there is no blood relation between the Young Peruvian and the Aunt.)  Meanwhile, the young Peruvian novelist regularly interacts with a scriptwriter for radio serials.  The Aunt and the Scriptwriter meet once, but otherwise the stories do not overlap.  Every other chapter in the novel is a short story which is the storyline from one of the radio serials written by the scriptwriter.  The main story meanders along in the odd numbered chapters.  Eventually young Peruvian and Aunt get married much to the distaste of the larger family.  The scriptwriter goes insane.  In the epilogue, we find out the marriage does not last.  End of story.

Now, I have a hard time imagining that anyone read the preceding paragraph and thought, “That is a book I simply must read.”  So, is it the prose style which makes the book sing?  It can’t be—the book was written in Spanish, so this is a translation, and his novels, all of which I have enjoyed, have different translators.

So, it must be something about the way the stories are told which makes him so compelling.  And that is what puzzles me—after seven novels, it seems like I should have some ability to describe what it is that makes Llosa novel so good, and yet I cannot.  It also seems like after seven novels, I should be able to tell someone, “you really ought to read book X.  It’s really good—I think you’ll like it.”  Not that I should be able to tell everyone that—but I should be able to tell someone that, right?

At this point, my inclination is to conclude with a recommendation that you, The Reader, should read Book X.  But then I think about the novels I have read, and I cannot figure out which title to substitute for X. 

After a lengthy pause, staring out my window, I arrived at the following, thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion the present post:

Dear Reader, Mario Vargas Llosa is a Nobel-prize Winning Peruvian novelist.  I have enjoyed every novel of his I have read.  You should try reading him.  A good place to start is (select one) [Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Death in the Andes, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Storyteller, The War of the End of the World, Who Killed Palomino Molero?]

And right after finishing that conclusion I realized, that all books are not equal.  So, really, start with The Storyteller if you like the idea of reading Peruvian short stories; The War of the End of the World if you like long Victorian British novels; In Praise of the Stepmother followed by The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (the latter is the sequel to the former, though I stumbled upon the latter before I realized it was the second in the series) if you like erotica; Death in the Andes if you like vaguely disturbing endings; or Aunt Julia if you like clever short stories which feel like they just continue after the story is done.

Next up on my Llosa reading list, by the way:  The Feast of the Goat.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Tour of the Academy

I’m out in Davis, CA today, finishing up some details from my grandfather’s estate.  I had the afternoon free, so I wandered around the UC Davis campus.  I spent 10 years here, but I left in 1994.  So, it’s a bit strange.  The Economics department, for example, is in a new building, and a look at the faculty roster shows that there is only one professor still teaching from whom I took a class (in graduate school—none of my undergrad profs are still teaching).  There are two others for whom I was a TA.  And few others who were around when I was in grad school.  My old office is now a computer lab for Political Science (shudder).  I think they painted my old undergraduate dorm.  And the place I used to work when I was an undergrad is now a locked room with a mirrored window in the door—who knows what Top Secret activities take place where I used to run the VCRs for the campus.  (Note for young’ins—VCRs were like DVDs, but bigger and more awkward.)  The whole campus felt like that—eerily familiar, yet strikingly different.

So, thinking about colleges, it seems like a good time to review Riley’s The Faculty Lounges.  The subtitle tells all:  The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.  There are two problems with that title: 1) It ends in a preposition—a grammatical failing which always causes me pain, and 2) it is terribly misleading.  The Book should really be called:  The Faculty Lounge: Why Tenure Should be Abolished.   That title is honest, but wouldn’t sell as many books as the title the book actually has.  Such is capitalism.

This book, predictably enough, is not well liked by academics.  I decided to read it now rather than waiting for it to come out in paperback because I kept hearing people castigate it.  I don’t think the people castigating it have read it.

On the whole, there isn’t really all that much shocking in it; it’s not a terribly polemical book at all.  It takes a long and critical look at the rise of adjuncts (visiting faculty) and the problems of the tenure system.  I really have a hard time imagining anyone disagreeing with Riley’s assessment of the situation.  The debate is thus not whether there is a two-tiered system in the academy with a Select Few getting Lifetime Jobs and the Masses ending up in low-paid, low-prestige jobs with absolutely no job stability at best and a guarantee that the job won’t last more than 5 years as the norm.  The debate is what to do about it.  On the one side the well-meaning liberal academics think the solution is just to tenure more faculty.  Such an answer shows a rather shocking ignorance about the cost of such a plan.  On the other side is Riley and people like her, who argue that Tenure should be abolished.  After all, nobody else gets permanent jobs, so why should academics?  Abolishing tenure, Riley argues, would free up the academy, making it more flexible and responsive to students.  Not surprisingly, when you say to faculty that maybe tenure should be abolished, faculty get really agitated and make disparaging remarks about your book even if they haven’t read it.

I’ve read the book now.  It’s pretty good—not earth-shattering, and I didn’t learn all that much, but Riley organizes the facts in a nice way and she writes well.  If you want to read a book about the state of the modern academy, I have no hesitancy in recommending this book to you.

Am I persuaded?  Nope.  And neither, I suspect, are many other conservative academics.  You see, in the modern academy, tenure protects not just deadwood (the technical term for faculty who have retired on the job), but people with opinions which are really unpopular in academic circles.  That would be people like me.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I honestly don’t think I would get fired from Mount Holyoke because of my views.  Indeed, I think Mount Holyoke as an Institution likes having me around—it’s like at the zoo when they have one of those prehistoric-looking birds and everyone can say, “Oh, look at the strange bird over there.”  Having one religious conservative on campus is kinda cute.  And it shows how committed to diversity Mount Holyoke really, truly is—they even have a member of the Religious Right in the Economics Department.

So, the reason that I would argue strongly in favor of keeping tenure at MHC is not that I am worried about losing my job.  It is the other side of the coin—if I was wrong about that and I did lose my job, finding another job would not be as easy as it should.  The problem is the way the academic job market works.  Because schools cannot have a mandatory retirement age for tenured faculty, when schools go out to hire, they want to hire young faculty.  If you don’t hire young faculty at every chance you get, then you run a real danger of having a very old faculty down the road.  So, the market for 45 year old professors, let alone those in their 50s, is very, very thin.

This problem is what economists call a coordination failure.  Now if every school abolished tenure simultaneously, then the market would free up and there would be a market for 45 year old profs.  Perhaps a big one.  Indeed, I could probably get a raise in that new world.  But, now we are living in Fantasyland.  And that is where Riley missed the point—even if she is right that it would be better if there was no tenure, as a policy prescription it is DOA.  How is anyone going to coordinate a massive simultaneous abolition of tenure?

Moreover, Riley spends too little time thinking about what that new world would be like.  I have no idea how things would change in that new world, but it is not obvious that things will get better in any way that Riley or I would like.  The problem is that the academy, unlike most industries, has no real measure of productivity.  So, in the new post-tenure world, schools may scramble to adopt productivity measures to decide when to keep faculty, And it is quite possible that the productivity measures many schools will adopt will be counter-productive.  Class sizes?  Student teaching evaluations?  Performance on standardized tests? 

And (another) moreover, I am not at all persuaded that tenure is really the biggest problem facing the Academy these days.  The bigger problem is the very real question:  What exactly am I getting for $50,000 a year?  To that question, schools have no good answer.  We need a new articulation of the benefits of a 4-year undergraduate education, but the Powers that Be have not yet developed a language to describe it, partly, I suspect, because they don’t really know the answer themselves.  It’s a shame.  It’s not hard to articulate a reason why an expensive undergraduate education is the best thing you can do for yourself or your child, but I think many schools no longer believe in themselves, deep down they think they are frauds, so they buy off the students with nice dining halls and hope nobody notices.  Tenure is irrelevant to that larger problem.  Indeed a school which could forcefully articulate why it exists and charges so much and then put together a curriculum to back up that claim would do very well, even with a bunch of tenured professors.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading Paradise

As I have noted many times before, one of the best definitions of a Great Book is that it is a book you can reread many many times and always find something new.  (I think the origin of that definition is Adler and van Doren.)  I have reread many Great Books, and always do enjoy that fact about them.  But, I recently finished a Great Book that I have read 3 or 4 times before, and this time, not only did I discover something new, but the book suddenly seemed so immensely better that my new love of it makes my old love of it look like a trifling infatuation.  And, I used to think the book was unbelievably amazing.

Dante’s Paradiso has vaulted to the top in answer to the question, “What’s your favorite part of The Divine Comedy?”  I was reading it over Christmas (I finished it on Boxing Day—a holiday with a better Name than Traditions—does anyone actually celebrate Boxing Day anymore?), and for the first time in my life, I almost immediately started rereading a book I just finished.  (I refrained—other books called.)  But for the last three weeks, I have still been constantly tempted to reread it.  I am quite serious when I say that I used to love Paradiso—I love the whole Divine Comedy—it’s easily one of the greatest of the Great Books.  But, suddenly  Paradiso seems like the crowning jewel of the magnificent trilogy.

Why the newfound appreciation?  This was the first time I have ever read the book as a stand-alone book instead of at the end of reading the whole Comedy.  I had noticed before how the third part of the trilogy is quite different than the two preceding parts.  In Hell and Purgatory, Dante has long discussions about the lives of the people he meets.  In Paradise, the discussions change, becoming vastly more theological and philosophical.  This is fitting in the Dantean scheme of things.  While in Hell and Purgatory, the souls are naturally enough obsessed with their own lives.  In Heaven, however, the individual lives are not nearly as important as God.  So the discussions move from a backward look to an eternal perspective.  Very clever of Dante (assuming he just made it all up—if his trip was real, then I guess we have to say it was clever of God.) 

Now noting this and appreciating it turn out to be different things.  When reading the Comedy through, I always found Paradiso to be the slowest part—conceptually brilliant, but not as riveting on a canto-by-canto basis.  But, now I realize that it only had that impression because after the long journey through Hell and the quicker trip through Purgatory, I entered Heaven with a natural expectation of more of the same. And so, I (the Reader) started looking at the levels, trying to focus on what differentiates each level, thinking about the individuals and where they are placed, imagining a gradual ascent toward perfection at the Summit of Heaven.  And I thereby fell into exactly the trap which Dante had set for a reader like me.

Reading the book as a stand-alone book, suddenly the structure of the whole book came into focus.  It is not a journey through levels of souls; it is a journey through levels of theology.  It is an extended discussion of God, with each level representing the next step in the gradual revelation of the overwhelming and awe-inspiring vision of God.  For the first time, on reaching Heaven, I was overwhelmed not with satisfaction that the journey had finally ended but rather with Awe and Devotion.  This is easily the best devotional I can imagine—and I am simply stunned that I never noticed this before.  As Dante would put it:

I now see clearly that our intellect
cannot be satisfied until the truth enlighten it
beyond whose boundary no further truth extends. 

Indeed, it is the first time the following was quite literally true:

Merely consider, reader, if what I here begin
Went on no farther, how keen would be
Your anguished craving to know more.

Anguished craving indeed.

If you have never read The Divine Comedy, then by all means you should do so (in order, if it is your first (or second, I suppose) time).  (The Hollanders’ translation—don’t even think about reading any other translation.)  And if you have read The Divine Comedy multiple times, then read Paradiso alone.

In yet another sign that I have the best job in the world, the impetus to read Paradiso came from a student who was writing a senior thesis on it.  It was fun talking to her about her thesis, so I figured on the off-chance that she ever actually sends me a copy of it (yes, Hannah, that is meant to encourage you to do so…), it would be good to have the book fresh in my mind.  Little did I know that my experience would be so breath-taking.  I have had a few experience like that—reading a Great Book just to enhance my enjoyment of a senior thesis (Our Mutual Friend still takes the prize as the longest book I read purely for a student (it was also the first of Mallory’s string of perfect book recommendations.))  Like I said, I have a Great Job.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A passion for hunting something

For the first time in the last two weeks, I actually have nothing pressing to do right now (well, other than answer the e-mail in my Inbox (which I probably should be doing right now instead of writing this (but, I am afraid that an e-mail response right now would end up being nothing other than a long series of parenthetical asides since I seem to be having a hard time sticking to the subject (then again, since I just started writing, I guess there isn’t really a subject yet from which to digress)))).  So, it seemed like an opportune time to get to a book review, since there is now a growing stack of books waiting to be reviewed right here next to my computer.

And so, a review of my favorite Christmas Gift:
Lee Bermejo, Batman: Noel 

Janet bought this for me.  She actually went into a bookstore and walked into the comic book section just to buy me a gift.  I have no idea how she gathered up the courage to do so.  And then, faced with an array of comic books, she chose this one.  I am very happy to report: she chose wisely.  An utterly wonderful comic book.

The book is remarkably clever, actually.  There are two levels to it.  At one level, it is Charles Dickens’ son retelling A Christmas Carol.  The son acts as a narrator, relating the story as he heard it from his father.  The son adds in a wealth of asides, noting where the story makes sense or not, editorializing along the way, adding notes about the characters.  If you just read the narrator, it would be an interesting take on the story of Scrooge.  But, since this is a comic book, there are pictures throughout.  And the pictures are a story of Batman.  If you ignore the narrator, you’d get a standard Batman story.  Overlay the two, and it is one of the most creative comic books I have read.  Combing the narrator and the comic book story, we get Batman as Scrooge, meeting the four ghosts, and finding redemption in the end.  And until the book cheats on the very last page, it does a fantastic job keeping the narrator and the Batman story independent entities which feed into each other but are never blurred.  (The last page blurs that line when the narrator morphs into a character in the story—it showed a serious lack of conviction by the author—he’s just pulled off a clever feat an then he feels the need to get cute which lessens the achievement.  It makes one want to shake the author and tell him to have more courage.)

In terms of thinking about Batman, who is probably the most psychologically interesting canonical superhero (indeed, it’s hard to think of who even rivals him for that title), the book does a great job at blending the fun-loving Batman of the 60s (think Adam West) with the dark Batman of the 90s (think Frank Miller) by painting the transition as similar to the difference between Scrooge’s youthful self and his older self.  By the time we get to the hardened Batman, we find someone willing to sacrifice an innocent life to pursue the Joker.  It’s easy to imagine Batman reaching that point.  And then it’s an interesting exercise to imagine how Batman might awaken from this darker self to recover his purer incarnation.

The book has now become a new Christmas staple.  It’s nice to think that I have a Batman story to look forward to rereading ever December.