Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New Melody Same Tired Lyrics

A friend emailed me this Michael Dirda review of John Armstrong's In Search of Civilization. Dirda's review contained two inspiring paragraphs.
To be civilized, Armstrong argues — with a nod toward Matthew Arnold’s influential essay “Culture and Anarchy” — each of us should strive to become our best self. This requires us to be attentive to ends rather than means. Cellphones, he observes, may allow us “to communicate more often, to take more photographs, to locate restaurants; but these resources do not automatically help us reach the ‘ends’ they ideally serve: good conversation, deep relationships, convivial evenings, the appreciation of beauty.” Whatever “the cross-currents of fashion,” we need to bear in mind those goals in life that truly matter.

Thus Armstrong doesn’t deride cellphones or any other aspect of technology, but he does emphasize that “civilization is material prosperity plus something else. The character of that something else is to do with inner life: the prosperity of the soul.” What matters is that an increase in material comfort be accompanied by a corresponding expansion in spiritual growth, by the nurturing and diffusion of “wisdom, kindness and taste.” To many, Armstrong admits, these three words will sound old-fashioned and elitist. But they shouldn’t. The real task of art and intelligence is “to shape and direct our longings, to show us what is noble and important.” Rather than happiness, per se, civilization should promote what Armstrong calls “flourishing,” a sense of personal “satisfaction grounded in character and action."
For a few hours I foolishly allowed myself to bask in the idea that educators actually help students become civilized.  We help students see technology as a tool and recognize that “civilization is material prosperity plus something else" and that one needs an "inner life: the prosperity of the soul." Literature and history help everyone attain this prosperity when students are exposed to the "'wisdom, kindness and taste'" of great thinkers from the classical to modern eras.

As Dirda notes, many will find Armstrong old-fashioned and out of fashion.  By 5 pm, I encountered such a person.  Following a tweet by @KealeySDPB, I was able to hear Kealey Bultena's interview with South Dakota's Secretary of the Department of Education Melody Schopp.  It takes Schopp approximately 20 seconds to reduce education to "an economic focus" and about 40 seconds to tell the audience that schools need to focus on STEM.  In what may go down as a gaff, an honest statement that shouldn't have been said, Schopp says that the budget crisis "is what it is" and will probably be "this way for a long time."

Let's be clear; schools need to prepare students for a job; therefore, we need to help students master higher level math and science.  That fact doesn't mean that students don't need critical thinking skills, writing skills, and abstract thinking while on the job.

Even though job preparation is important, work occupies 40 hours a week.  During the rest of the week, people eat, sleep, raise children, hopefully perform their civic duties, or engage in recreational activities.  I seriously doubt anyone with a "flourishing" life claims that the best part of the week is the 40 hours at work.  I also seriously doubt STEM will help anyone become wise, kind, or cultivated enough to flourish because STEM by its very nature focuses on ends rather than means.  It also focuses on the material not the "plus something else."  STEM isn't concerned with civilization, it's concerned with technology, a byproduct of civilization.

Finally, Schopp's admission that the budget crisis will be here a long time means that South Dakota will keep trying the same old economic development plans that rarely work.  People who want to disparage intellectuals used define an intellectual a person who thought ideas are more important than people. This sort of accusation is often made against philosophers or literature professors.  If the accusation is true, intellectuals are not nice people.

On the other hand, STEM is not even a person; it's a theory that has become a dangerous end unto itself. Wendell Berry reminds us
STEM’s definition of humanity includes no suggestion of reverence or neighborliness or stewardship. Instead, people are encouraged to think of themselves as individuals, self-interested and greedy by nature, violent by economic predestination, and members of nothing except their careers. The lives of these “autonomous” individuals will be “successful” insofar as they subserve the purposes of the corporate-political powers, who will regard them merely as consumers, votes, and units of “human capital.”
Berry also offers a bit of light at the end of the tunnel or at least a path of resistance that may preserve civilization and the values that many South Dakotans claim they hold.
. . . .you will have to refuse certain assumptions that the proponents of STEM and the predestinarians of the global economy wish you to take for granted.
You will have to avoid thinking of yourselves as employable minds equipped with a few digits useful for pushing buttons. You will have to recover for yourselves the old understanding that you are whole beings inextricably and mysteriously compounded of minds and bodies.
You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by “success” supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do.

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