Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Teaching Greek History

The non-controversial claim:  The Greeks (ancient, not modern) are extremely interesting.  (The modern Greeks are just a mess; it’s hard to believe that country was once a mighty empire.)  And, the Greeks are not just interesting in some particular way—across the board, there are endlessly fascinating things going on between 1000 BC and 30 BC in Greece. 

The Puzzle: Why did nothing in my education ever teach me that fact? 

When I think back to high school, I had two classes which had Greeks.  I had an English class in which we read Aeschylus and Euripides.  And I had a history class which had a section on the Greeks.  And, the combination of those two things left me a) having absolutely no idea why the Greeks were important, and b) having no idea about how Greek history related to anything else.  I had absolutely zero encounter with the Greeks in College.

Since then, I have read a lot of Greek authors.  I’ve taught all sorts of books written in those days.  There is much in that vast literature which I love.  But, in January, when I was putting the final touches on my new Great Books course, I realized that even though I have read all these authors and even though I am about to teach them again, I really had a very sketchy idea about how they all fit together.  I know Homer and Plato/Aristotle and Aeschylus/Sophocles/Euripides/Aristophanes and Euclid and Herodotus/Thucydides/Plutarch, but in my mind’s eye they were all just books out there, talking to one another to be sure, but just books and not a story unto themselves.  So, I decided to fill in that hole.

Fortunately, I had a book at hand. A few years back, I was at a conference with Thomas Martin, a Classicist at Holy Cross.  A very smart and very interesting guy.  I learned a lot talking with him.  So, after my return from said conference (on Adam Smith), I bought a book he wrote back in the 90’s: Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. A few weeks ago, I pulled it off the shelf and read it.  It is a quick history of Greece: 220 pages covering the whole range, touching on the history and books and civilization.  I think the audience was college students in some class or other who need a brief history of Greece.  Amway, it reads like a textbook—which is not really a compliment.  That being said, I enjoyed reading it and I learned a lot.  If you, like me, feel a lack of understanding of how the whole Greek thing fits together, I’d recommend it.

But, the book creates a giant puzzle for me.  While I enjoyed reading this book, if I had read it in high school or college, I would have hated it.  That is not a statement about this book in particular; I would have hated any book like this.  Presumably we read a book like this in my high school class and presumably I learned nothing from it. 

What is the difference?  Reading a book like this now is filling in details.  I love Homer and Plato and so on.  I find the Greeks to be fascinating.  So, the history here is connecting some dots.  But, if I imagine going the other way, it would never work.  I can’t imagine reading a brief history of Greece and then thinking that Homer and Plato and so on are things I really should read.

This is a rather disturbing realization.  Learning history is really important.  I enjoy history.  But, how do you teach history?  If my experience generalizes, then we are going about it all wrong.  We start when young by forcing students through the series of dates and cultural explorations.  But, that is not the stuff on which dreams are made.  Why don’t we go the other way?  Why don’t we start with the books?  Why don’t we get students to fall in love with Homer and leave the discovery of history for a later point in life?  Why don’t we just teach the Great Books of History—instead of some brief history of Greece, read Herodotus or Thucydides or Plutarch and that is.  And don’t teach those books as History books with an emphasis on who did what to whom and when, but teach them as living arguments for how to lead a better life.  I think, in other words, we may have the teaching of history all wrong.

But, I am not sure the preceding paragraph is right.  Maybe reversing the discovery process won’t work at all.  Maybe if I had read Herodotus in high school, I would have had exactly the same total lack of interest I had when we read whatever it was we read. 

Even more troubling:  in high school, I would have enjoyed Frank Miller’s 300, which I was prompted to reread after reading Martin’s discussion of the Persian War.  I would have liked 300 a lot in high school.  It might have prompted me to want to learn even more about Sparta.  I start creating the curriculum: 300, then Plutarch, then The Iliad, then Herodotus.  That might have worked wonders.  Is the fact that it would have worked enough?  I suspect Martin, for example, is less than enamored with Miller’s take on the Hot Gates.  Is it acceptable to try to cultivate a love of history with a book of fake history?

And it is not as if I can argue that the serendipitous approach to education is better than the directed route.  After rereading 300, I reread Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which is still not very good.  So, direction in education is really important.  (Yeah, sometimes, the conclusion on this blog are shocking, aren’t they?)  I am really stuck on this question:

Imagine I had a class with the goal of taking a set of students who know nothing about Greece and convince them to fall in love with Greece.  How would I do it?  I am not at all sure.

Though, having students enter the classroom on the first day of class with this blaring at a very high volume might work wonders.   

Come to think of it, maybe I should start playing loud music as students enter my classes…

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Leadership...whatever that means

I am teaching a new course this semester: Leadership and the Liberal Arts.  It’s a course in the Complex Organizations program, which is Mount Hoyloke’s crypto-business minor.  The Economics department absorbed Complex Organizations this year, one of my colleagues is in charge of it, and he spent some time convincing me to teach the class.  It used to be something like an MBA Leadership course, but not surprisingly, I turned it into a Great Books course.  The reading list will become apparent here over the next 12 weeks.

But, all of this is just a preliminary to the question at hand.  What exactly is Leadership?  Here I am teaching a course with that word in the title, and as soon as I try to figure out what this course is supposed to have as its subject matter, I run into the seemingly important matter of the lack of any meaningful definition of the term.  I got a bunch of textbooks on leadership—the textbooks are hopeless in general, and they have a hard time with a definition beyond a fancy rewording of the definition “Leadership is the act of leading.”  Maybe by the end of the semester, I’ll know what this course is about—in the meantime, we are reading a lot of Great Books.

But all of that last paragraph was just a preliminary to the book review at hand.  In my Christmas stocking this year, I found a copy of a small book (6.5” x 4.5”) entitled: Leadership Lessons of Abraham Lincoln: Statements, Advice, and Words of Wisdom on Leadership, Responsibility, and Power.  Apparently either Santa Claus or my wife knew I was teaching a course on Leadership and either commissioned (in the case of the former—do the elves write the books which Santa Claus gives out at Christmas?  Or do the elves just bind books already written?  Clearly I need to learn more about how the present-generating-process works at the North Pole) or found at Barnes and Noble (in the case of the latter). 

It was a rather curious book.  Edited by Meg Distinti (no clue on the title page if Distinti is elf or human), it is a collection of quotations from Lincoln about…well, there is the catch.  Are these quotations about leadership?  If you think a quotation on leadership should be a quotation about, you know, leadership, then there are virtually no quotations about leadership in this volume.  However, if a quotation about leadership can actually be a quotation about, well, anything, then there are lots and lots of quotations about leadership in this book.

Taking a quotation at random.  (Really, I opened at random and took the first quotation in the page.) “It is always magnanimous to recant whatever we may have said in passion.”  [Letter to William Butler, February 1, 1839].  A true enough sentence.  But is that about leadership?  Wouldn't that also be good advice to a follower?  (Why don't we have a class called “Followership and the Liberal Arts” at Mount Holyoke?  Indeed, we have a Center for Leadership, but no center for Followership.  Why not?)  the editor puts this quotation in a chapter  entitled “Words of Wisdom for Conflict Resolution” in a subsection entitled “Passionately Pursue Peace.”  But is that Leadership?  Does that mean leaders are people who resolve conflict by passionately pursuing peace?  Is being a “Leader in Conflict” an oxymoron?  I genuinely have no idea how that quotation, which is nice and all, has anything to do with leadership.

Consider another example:  “I believe it is an established maxim in morals that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false, is guilty of falsehood; and the accidental truth of the assertion, does not justify or excuse him.” [Letter to Allen N. Ford, August 11, 1846]  Again: what does that have to do with leadership? 

After 121 pages of that sort of thing, I am convinced that either anything Lincoln said can be considered to be about leadership by definition (or some other such logic), or it is impossible to put together a book with quotations about leadership written by Abraham Lincoln. 

So, why does this book exist?  Obviously there is a market for such things.  There can’t be that many people who are teaching a course in the Spring and have a wife who is looking around at Barnes and Noble for something small enough to fit into a stocking.  Obviously, people want to learn about leadership.  Obviously, Lincoln is a great leader.  Put those two together and a book is born.  But, is everyone disappointed with this book after reading it?  Sadly, I suspect so. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Exhortation: A Short Story

I am happy to report the successful resolution of an experiment in changing one’s tastes.  As noted here some months ago, I had a true lack of appreciation for the Short Story.  Believing this to be a failing of some magnitude (OK, perhaps not as great as being a serial murderer, but nonetheless, a failing), I embarked on a quest to develop Taste (always a Nobel Quest).  It worked.  It took months, but little by little, I developed an appreciation for the advantages of the form. 

I have also realized why I had such a difficult time learning to love the Short Story.  The problem arose from their length—they are short (hence the name).  Now, if you want to publish a book of short stories, you necessarily need more than one story.  So, let’s imagine you have four really good short stories written, and you want a book, what do you do?  Add a bunch of mediocre stories.  The experience of reading a book of short stories is thus one of enjoying a story a lot, wishing it would go on, and then instead of starting off on another similarly brilliant story, reading a mediocre effort which only amplified the sense of longing.

Collections of Great Short Stories don’t solve this problem—in those, all the stories on their own may be good, but they are in different authorial voices, so they don’t necessarily cohere very well.  And, in that case, the collection feels like constant whiplash.

It took me months, but I finally developed the ability to do the obvious—take each story on its own merits.  Some are great.  Some are horrible  But each one is complete unto itself.  At this point, the Reader is exclaiming, “Well, no duh.” (Does anyone actually talk like that anymore?  Is “No duh” still an expression?  And now that I am thinking about it, what exactly is the “duh” which is being negated?  And, don’t the expressions “Duh” and “No Duh” mean the same thing?  Odd.  Why have I never thought about this before? (Yes, I know you, the Reader, are not wondering why I never thought about it before, but why I am thinking about it now.))  But, while I realize this is not an insightful realization, I do wonder why I have never learned this before.  I suspect it is because the bulk of my literary reading is books, complete books.  I have, before now, rarely ever sat down to read just a single short story.

The immediate occasion for these comments on the short story is that I read George Saunders’ Tenth of December, a collection of (surprise) short stories.  It was fantastic.  The whole book.  Sure, some of the stories are better than others, but even the low points were really great.  Yet, I have no doubt that if I had read this a year ago, I wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much as I do now.  Each story stood on its own—I had no mental temptation to blur them into some sort of long novel.

Saunders reminds me of Wodehouse, and I suspect that is the first time that comparison has been made.  Wodehouse is a story writer who consistently reminds the reader of one thing—that life is a grand comedy.  In story after story, Wodehouse coveys the same message and feeling—life is really funny and we should just laugh.  Saunders similarly conveys the same message and feeling in every single story in this book.  The stories are different, but the underlying theme is exactly the same.  That is how he is like Wodehouse.  How is he unlike Wodehouse?—well these are not stories that remind us that life is funny.  They are stories that consistently, unrelentingly remind us that Life is Cruel and Brutal. 

Yet, the stories are nothing like what the reader is imagining when hearing that the underlying message is the cruelty of life.  Saunders is a brilliant writer (and I use the word brilliant there not as cheap praise, but as accurate praise—it is truly brilliant writing).  The stories have a light air, one would think the story being read is amusing, but it isn’t.  It is cruel.  Just like life—the cruelties of life are rarely akin to arriving home and finding my house burned down and my family dead.  The cruelties of life are more systematic, that we all just go through our day not noticing just how bad things really are.  Just like Wodehouse shows us how funny life is when we don’t really notice it as funny, Saunders shows us how cruel it is, when we don’t notice the cruelty.

So, who is right?  Oddly, both Wodehouse and Saunders are right.  Yes, their messages are rather different, but nonetheless, they are both entirely correct in their depiction of this world.  Life is really funny.  Life is really cruel.

Anyway, I’ll be reading more Saunders.  (And thanks to Diane for the book.)

For more on combining funny and cruel, there is this.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

So, you wanna be a Jesuit?

What is a book?  When is a book not really a book?  Before now, I thought I knew; that doesn’t seem like a terribly complicated question after all.  War and Peace is a book.  So is Thus Spake Zarathustra.  So is Go, Dog. Go!  But what about a lengthy instruction manual for a Television?  It’s bound like a book, and is longer than many things which are obviously books.  Is it a book or is the category “Instruction Manual” not contained in the set of things called “books”?

Now Your Humble Narrator is not unaware that the Mythical Reader does not find this question interesting in the least.  But wait, Mythical Reader—by the end of these ruminations, you will surely be utterly convinced that you were right in doubting that the question is interesting.

The question is prompted by a {insert appropriate description} I just read:
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
I enjoyed reading this…what do I call it?…that is where I get stuck.  It looks like a book; I thought it was a book.  But, it is an instruction manual.  It is much more like the instruction manual for my television than like anything I have in my office (well other than itself—technically it is most like itself). 

Ignatius set out a series of exercises which, when followed, will over the course of weeks draw one closer to God.  It is a pretty rigorous set of exercises—hours a day for roughly four weeks.  Broadly speaking, the exercises would fall into the category of prayer, but here again we run into a definition problem.  For example, one of the exercises is to spend the hour (Ignatius is really insistent on the fact that you need to spend an hour at a time doing each exercise) imagining the Last Supper.  Picture where everyone is sitting, what they are wearing, what they are saying to one another.  Imagine the room and the food on the table.  (Is there a dog?)  Fill in all the details.  This is all part of a reflection on the Last Supper.  This sort of imaginary thought experiment is quite common in the Exercises—there are lots of things to picture here.  So, is that prayer?  Again, I am not sure.  (I am now running through the types of prayer described in the Zaleski’s excellent book, Prayer: A History (reviewed somewhere in the archives of this here space)—as they note, parts of the Ignatius exercise fit cleanly into their category of devotional prayer, but I am not sure if a meditation on hell (week 1, fifth exercise) counts as prayer or not.)

What I am sure about is that I would not make a very good Jesuit.  Not only would I have a hard time spending an hour imagining the details of the Last Supper or most of the other things in these exercises, I have a really hard time even imagining the act of imagining them.

Clearly some people find such exercises meaningful and profound and worthy of their time.  Is it a failing that I think I would get nearly nothing out of the attempt to follow these exercises?  Is it possible I am wrong when I read them and think, “Not for me?”  In other words, are the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius for universal application?  Ignatius does note that not everyone is ready for the whole series of exercises—some people may not graduate from week one to week two, but does that mean week one is suitable for everyone?  If I spent a month in the summer at a Jesuit retreat going through these exercises, would I learn something and become a more Godly person?  I don’t think so, but how would I know if that is just being shortsighted?

But to return to the writings of Ignatius—as I said above, I am glad I read them, but the only point in rereading them would be to actually go through the exercises.  And so, you Mythical Reader have now been warned—don't pick this up expecting a book.

On a related subject: the new Pope is a Jesuit (presumably he has gone through these exercises).  On that subject: a really remarkable insight from the ever-insightful David Mills in the January 2014 issue of First Things:

“So what do you think of Pope Francis?” asked my friend, a young New Testament scholar at a Southern Baptist seminary. I said that I thought Francis was a perfectly orthodox man who wanted people to live out the faith more deeply, but whose method was a risky one. He frowned. He wasn’t buying it. “I was really worried by that interview,” he said, referring to the long interview that ran in America. “And some of the other things he said . . . ” he added, and frowned again.
I tried to reassure him, and after a pause, he said, “He’s not ­Benedict.” He had drawn heavily upon ­Benedict’s moral theology in his latest book and thought the former pope understood the modern world with rare insight and knew how to speak about it. Of Benedict, he was a fan. But Francis, Francis bothered him.
Later, thinking about the conversation, I was struck—and cheered no end—that my friend, a committed Southern Baptist, is so personally invested in Francis’ success. He looks to the pope as a crucial, if not the central, spokesman in the world for the Christian mind and morality. He feels the pope to be his guy. 
His predecessor in his chair at the seminary would not have felt this. Things have changed. 

Mills is right; there is no doubt that I care more about the new Pope than any Catholic of my acquaintance.  (Perhaps I need to meet a better class of Catholic, but nonetheless, it is true. )  (And speaking of Mills—I wish his section of First Things was longer.)  (Also, speaking of First Things—I used to review it regularly when it was declining.  It is now excellent.  Even the book reviews are vastly better than they used to be.  If you abandoned your subscription at some point, it’s time to resubscribe.)  (No, First Things is not paying me for this blurb.  (Not that I would object if they wanted to do so.))  To return to the Pope, as I said, Mills is right that things have changed at Southern Baptist seminaries.  But it is also fair to note, things have changed over at Jesuit Central too—Francis is not your grandfather’s Jesuit.