The Power of Calm

An Open Letter to the Great Test Generation, Including the Class of 2020

Your have journeyed far to arrive at this point in your life. Further than you realize, perhaps. The elements that constitute your physical being traveled hundreds of lightyears across the millennia to arrive in their current form as your body. Folk singer Joni Mitchell put it best: “we are stardust.”

There are other parts of you beyond the merely physical. Those, too, have a long story. Indeed, your story isn’t just your story. Your life is the latest chapter in the story of your family. You are the descendant of survivors. Those who came before you, your ancestors, lived, loved, worked, and risked their lives, some of them more than others, so that you could be here today. Some crossed borders, even oceans, to give you a better life. All made sacrifices. All made mistakes, some moreso than others. But, in one way or another, all lived so that you could live. In innumerable ways, who they were has given shape to who you are. Never forget that.

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This Present Madness

Confronting Toxic Power by Destigmatizing Mental Illness

It still seems hard to believe. Eighteen years ago last week, our nation suffered its worst attack since Pearl Harbor. For those of us who came of age during the comparatively placid 1990s, the new world disorder came as a particular shock. U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ensued as part of the War on Terror. In addition to physical casualties, a generation of veterans remains burdened by the psychological, relational, and economic effects of long and repeated deployments. Despite a decline in violent crime overall in the U.S., the new era has coincided with an increase in mass shootings, proof of disproportionate violence against people of color by law enforcement, widening disparities of wealth, political gridlock, ecological crisis, and, especially recently, the scapegoating of immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, non-Christians, and those with mental illnesses as sources of America’s woes.

The America born on September 11, 2001, has reached maturity. But, like any new-found maturity, this is a condition fraught with internal-conflict, paradox, and room for growth. In a nation at odds with itself and with its neighbors, we Americans can remain hopeful of reconciliation so long as we can accurately diagnose this present madness. My own mental illness has helped me understand much that I might have otherwise missed, misunderstood, or refused to believe. On the basis of that experience, the time has come for me to shed what light I can. In the following analysis, my diagnosis serves as but one possible point of departure; people with other mental health conditions can doubtless offer further insights into the true state of things.

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Remember, Regret, and Resist—or Repeat

Commemorating Genocide

Although unique in its scale and intensity, the Holocaust was not original. Less well known, contemporaneous actions by Stalin in the USSR sought to eliminate entire groups of people (specifically Ukrainian peasants by means of  well-orchestrated famine) to accomplish the goals of the state. After the Holocaust, many have offered the twin vows “never again” and “never forget.” Yet, ever again, people seem to forget. 1970s Cambodia.  1980s Iraq. 1990s Bosnia and Rwanda. Early 2000s Sudan. Late 2010s Iraq (again). Today Myanmar—or, if not yet, probably soon. At least in the short-run, it is more comfortable for many of us to forget, to ignore, and to avoid learning such things in the first place.

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Why Rob Peter to Pay Peter?

A Modest Proposal for Saving Graduate Higher Education in the U.S.

Every Christmas while I was growing up, my dad had a gift giving ritual with his parents. They gave each other cash. I became convinced that this was often the same amount. From meager means Grandma and Grandpa scraped together a modest living punctuated by moments of extravagance, like their trips to Vegas. The cash swap was a form of empowerment: here is some money that you didn’t have to spend on whatever you want. It was a symbol of financial freedom. But, in terms of the actual balance sheets, it changed nothing.

I am not an accountant. I do not purport to understand most of the details of the tax plan that Congress has in the works. I do understand how it would make tuition stipends taxable, devastating the overwhelming majority of Ph.D. programs, as well as many M.A. programs.  The humanities and social sciences would be hit hardest. Whether as the direct or indirect result of impoverishing their graduate students more so than they already are (this is a thing), many graduate programs would close. (M.D., J.D., M.B.A., and other professional programs would be generally unaffected.)

The trouble is that, at present, programs charge students tuition (on paper) and then offer them a soon-to-be-taxed tuition waiver (often on the same piece of paper). Instead, affected graduate programs should reduce the tuition charged to students to zero—not net zero but actual zero—so that tuition waivers and taxes on them would be similarly non-existent. This would, of course, involve finding new ways of doing internal accounting for program costs and perhaps making admissions policies even more selective, but this could be done. Otherwise, it’s like Peter robbing Peter to pay Peter. Couldn’t he just leave his money where it is?

Ill Logic

Confronting the Shoddy Reasoning that Helps Perpetuate Injustice

“You’re wrong.” So easy. So futile. In the annals of philosophical, theological, religious, social, and political debate, it seems unlikely that any adversary has ever found this persuasive. When it comes to matters of justice, we need to show, not merely tell.

Personal accounts with a strong emotional dimension can be persuasive. But, especially for those who do not identify with the victims of a given injustice, these seem to have their limits. To the bafflement of many among us, some resist acknowledging that certain protest movements do in fact raise legitimate concerns. Debunking illogic may hold the key.

Below I have explained six of the logical fallacies that I myself have consistently encountered among those who struggle to grasp the current gravity of racial injustice in the U.S., although these observations are certainly applicable to other forms of denial about injustice. My labels for these logical fallacies are original. The ideas are not. My hope is that, by calling attention to them, others can help friends distinguish legitimate objections from illegitimate ones.

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Dressed to Impress

Contending with Sophistry in the Classroom

“So refined that only fools cannot perceive it,” the salesmen said of the emperor’s new clothing, in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of that name. Afraid to be thought a fool, the emperor smiled, nodded, and pretended to see it. So did those around him, driven by that same fear. From his advisors down to the townspeople, everyone pretended to perceive what wasn’t there. In love with the idea of his own imaginary attire, the emperor paraded through town—until one brazenly honest small child declared the truth: the emperor was naked.

In their pretentious use of language, too, people can be unwittingly naked, metaphorically speaking. For the purposes of this essay, let us define unnecessarily complex and unclear communication as sophistry in the broadest sense. How can we college educators avoid it? How can we encourage our students to do the same? And how should we respond when we encounter it?

 

The Philosopher as Brazen Child

The men of Athens (or, more precisely, a narrow majority of them) killed Socrates for making them feel like fools. By contrast, the philosopher’s competition, the Sophists, were wildly popular. Their secret? They didn’t care about the truth. They cared about winning arguments and being popular. Such things can be useful tools; but when they supplant the pursuit of truth, they can also serve as distractions or worse—as in the case of those sighing into the emperor’s ear, “Ah, yes! What beautiful seams and stitching!”

 

The Student as Sometime Sophist

The path of the Sophists is a temptation for a significant number of college students. In their writing and presentations, and even during some class discussions, a certain kind of student seems keener to sound impressive than to communicate clearly.

This baffled me at first. After all, according to Forbes, The Huffington Post, and numerous other cultural commentators, authenticity ranks among millennials’ most deeply held values. Few things could be less authentic than sophistry. For some millennials, projecting an image of authenticity matters more than actually being authentic. One must forgive certain cultural observers and advertisers for confusing the two. Counterfeits can be convincing.

Why do some students prefer to be impressive rather than clear? Perhaps it is human nature. The problem is at least as old as Socratic philosophy. We academics are often part of the problem. Countless journal articles and conference presentations are erudite to the point of being nearly incomprehensible, even for fellow insiders in a given field. It is easier to smile, nod, and not be thought a fool.

Why? Why do many of us and our subfields cultivate needlessly complicated ways of saying things, as if this were a virtue? Some of us like to sound impressive, even if it means excluding others from the conversation. Or, perhaps, for the very reason that this does, in fact, exclude some people from the conversation. Language is, after all, an exercise of power. Worse still, I fear that we academics often risk saying nothing in particular. In a culture where anti-intellectualism runs rampant, we often have ourselves to blame. (For a fuller discussion of this problem, see Steven Pinker, Eric Charles, Joshua Rothman, and others. A recent Economist article explores the linguistic dimension of such issues.)

 

Degrees of Sophistry

There are varying degrees of guilt when sophistry is at work. First-degree sophistry is a premeditated choice. By definition, liars know that they are lying. It can become a way of life. This was the case for the salesmen of the emperor’s new clothing in the fairy tale; or, if you prefer, the role of the fake Rolex salesman in the subway station. A variation of this, still very much premeditated, is that of the impressive person who speaks, indifferent to whether what they are saying is true or not, neither knowing nor caring, because truth is not the point. Educators must convince first-degree sophists that their path is less effective (i.e., not actually impressive) and less purposeful than the clear, straightforward articulation of one’s position, even if this involves frequently admitting the limits of one’s knowledge. Our task is to lead by example (saying “I don’t know!”) and to teach them that sophistry does not really work. At the very least, we must avoid rewarding such behavior.

Second-degree sophistry is a spontaneous action. Like first-degree sophists, the second-degree variety know what they are doing. But the distinction is that there is a greater chance that they regret their actions, once taken. One might spread it actively by perpetrating it or passively by permitting it. Many of the emperor’s advisors and the townspeople were examples of the latter. They knew, deep down, that he was naked, but they chose to act otherwise. Our task is to remind students why sophistry is wrong: it is intellectually dishonest. We must apologize when we fall into it ourselves. How tempting it is to say something impressive rather than something truly straightforward!

Third-degree sophistry is accidental. This is the intellectual equivalent of manslaughter. The perpetrators are not deliberately unclear and confusing. They believe that they are saying something meaningful. Perhaps they do know what they mean, but in some cases it appears that they don’t understand what they are saying. Such students find themselves in the position of the emperor. Rather than offer a blanket critique, I find it more effective to highlight specific, confusing phrases. “What did you mean by saying X?” I ask, to which most reply with one of two responses. In the case of, “I just meant to say [more conversational alternative],” I can reply, “Why didn’t you just say that?” Or, if a student responds with a shrug, we might best suggest omitting the passage in question.

 

Breaking with Socrates

In dealing with self-aware liars, carelessly inaccurate show-offs, and the incorrect but genuinely oblivious, we must take care. So worthy of emulation elsewhere, Socrates may fall short of what college students in any of those categories need.

Historically speaking, Socrates’ method was not merely the asking of questions in the pursuit of truth; it was the public exposing of intellectual fraud. Public figures deserve public scrutiny, but students deserve a gentler approach. Our reproaches should be gentle and clear, best delivered after class, in office hours, and in written comments. Socratic or not, anything less is bad pedagogy and likely to yield more resentment than results.

No one wants to feel foolish. No one wants to be exposed as a fraud. Yet this world needs more brazen innocents to embarrass the rest of us. How else can we learn to face the truth? We all require intellectual humility to accept such awkward moments with gratitude and grace. Otherwise, we risk falling in love with the praise of our peers and superiors, praise for substance that is merely imaginary.

The Journey vs. the Map

Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom

What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.

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A Light-Hearted Requiem for Old Europe

Reflections on The Grand Budapest Hotel

One must forgive some viewers for mistaking Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) for comedy. The film was billed as such. But, as in the case of its titular edifice and the rest of Anderson’s corpus, beneath a light-hearted veneer lurks deep melancholy. Ostensibly this is a caper about a hotel concierge dodging murder charges while chasing a vast fortune. At the same time, it is also a portrait of Old Europe—along with its Jewishness—in the midst of its dying. Beneath the film’s cartoonish frivolity lies that tragedy.

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The Minds of Others

Reading Advice for Extroverts

Have you ever wanted to read someone’s mind? That is the power of books. They invite us into the minds of others, to see the world through their eyes. The bookish among us know this. This essay is not for them. I have a friend who is a well-educated and thoughtful people person. He recently admitted to me that he has little desire to read—but he wants to want to read. This essay is for him and for those like him.

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