Monday, November 2, 2015

Extra, Extra

Without fail, at the close of every quarter and semester comes to the teacher the question, "Is there extra credit?" To this inquiry I answer an affirmative, "no." The credit for the class is the coursework for the class. The time for that work was the last few months. The coursework is not fluffy extra credit assignments designed to make up for the fact that students have not done the work. The obvious problem with extra credit is that it removes incentive to do the work of learning the material for class. The more insidious issue is that too many students, and adults, learn to expect a way out of their errors.

In the ancient world, a man did not simply atone for his crime and move on with life. The shame and implications were borne out generation after generation until the stain of the crime had faded. Far from this today, it seems more and more people don't want to deal with the implications of their actions.

If you are promiscuous and contract a disease, there is a cure. If you bring a life into the world, but realize you don't want it, you end it. If you borrow but cannot pay back the loan, you are exonerated. If you fail your tests, you get additional opportunity for credit. If you fall into dishonor, just wait until people forget. Should you commit a crime, you can get off early for good behavior or cooperating with police. A few short years ago the height of Clintonian diplomacy was the "Russian Reset," as if the memories of foreign powers would be wiped clean.

Technology only amplifies our expectation of being able to erase our mistakes. If you misspeak, delete the post. If you take a poor picture, delete the picture. If you mistype... Since all of our mistakes can be erased, what cannot be must be the fault of some one else. The gap in logic only puzzles those who insist that man is always, or predominately, rational. Such systematic expectation that all undesirable results of our actions are the result of injustice bears with it the aforementioned result of incentivizing vice, but three worse.

First, it turns the stoic, who elects to endure his burdens, into a chump. The stoic student who put in his time holds the same diploma as the student who dozed through class. The free man who lives as a virtuous citizen holds his head high and just as free as shameless criminals.

Second and as we see, the virtues are themselves debased, for more are thought to possess them than actually do. The virtue of clemency is meaningless, for if there is no fault, there is nothing to forgive. So to with failure, for if one cannot fail, for what excellence is there to aspire?

Finally, when we don't reflect on our mistakes, when we don't bear their burden, we don't learn from them. No longer will men undertake the pains of pruning their wayward branches if there is an easy alternative. We buy into our appearance, which is that of a faultless, blameless paragon of excellence.

It is perhaps the case, then, that we should be skeptical of anyone whose ideology excuses or justifies everything he does. Alas, that includes most of us much of the time, and some of us all of the time. More trustworthy and honorable is the man who labors to live his ideas and in failure and success is worthy of clemency and excellence.

Smith: When Everything Is Anything

Gregory B. Smith. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Transition to Postmodernity. p. 9-10
It is asserted that all 'difference' is a phenomenon of the surface, which continually reconstitutes itself in an endless and arbitrary process, beyond the control of any individual or group. There is no natural ground for difference; all difference is relational. This understanding leads to an ironic attitude toward life that inevitably transforms itself into a form of cynicism–a tendency to give in to a mocking superiority, the sense that nothing is worthy of passion or commitment because everything solid dissolves upon one's approach. An attitude of indifference, weariness, and exhaustion is often the result. All of this leads one to suspect a form of evasion, an attitude of avoidance, a blasé, unshakeable refusal to face up to the terrors and general groundless of late-modern life (a groundlessness that is blithely admitted and celebrated.) Only through such avoidance does nihilism cease to be a problem that needs to be confronted.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Normalcy

Ah, the joy of Halloween. Spooky decorations, turning leaves, and everyone walking around a bit, or more, off their usual selves. Halloween is the one day of the year when we don't bat an eyelash at the sight of bizarre behavior, but it certainly isn't the only day when people are bizarre. In fact it seems pretty often that I have a day where no one seems normal, where no one is playing by the usual rules. My default inquiry, the rhetorical question I bellow in vain, is always: is everyone on something? I wonder.
  1. Eleven percent of Americans aged 12 years and over take antidepressant medication.
  2. 22 million Americans take illegal drugs.
  3. 16.6 million adults ages 18 and older had an Alcohol Use Disorder in 2013.
  4. Using 2004 Census numbers, 57.7 million people 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Now add to those hard statistics some general considerations, such as the quantity of people who are:
  1. not diagnosed with the above, but exhibit the symptoms.
  2. pathologically modern (i.e. raised wholly or mostly on pop culture.)
  3. wee-weed up because of media and political hype.
  4. jerks and idiots.
  5. chronically unable to deal with their lives.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that as a whole, there are a lot of people who don't fall into what once was a meaningful category: normal people. You know, people without major vices, and perhaps without major virtues either, but fulfill their duties to man, country, and God with minimal fuss. Who deal with problems quietly and privately. Who don't draw attention to themselves. Who do their job well, but with the humility of a professional. Who are reasonably polite, even if cranky.

There is inevitably the push back against normal, with some in contrast crying that normalcy is stifling to the individual, who should be able to express himself. There is as in all things a balance between extremes, between being belittled by the majority and unabashed exhibitionism. There exists today both extremes: those who follow every trend and the trend of anti-normalcy, that all choices and varieties of lifestyle are equal. Against the onslaught of democratic, multiculturalist, egalitarian variety, with all pleasures on an equal footing, the normal man:
has watched the frenzy of the multitude and seen that there is no soundness in the conduct of public life, nowhere an ally at whose side a champion of justice could hope to escape destruction; but that, like a man fallen among wild beasts, if he should refuse to take part in their misdeeds and could not hold out alone against the fury of all, he would be destined, before he could be of any service to his country or his friends, to perish, having done no good to himself or to anyone else–one who has weighed all this keeps quiet and goes his own way, like the traveller who takes shelter under a wall from a driving storm of dust and hail; and seeing lawlessness spreading on all sides, is content if he can keep his hands clean from iniquity while this life lasts, and when the end comes take his departure, with good hopes, in serenity and peace. –Plato. Republic 6.496cde. Trans. F. M. Cornford
Normal people are fewer, but out there. If that is to be their end, maybe we should have a day to celebrate them since the rest of the year belongs to everyone else.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Article Awry

aka a dialogue with myself ending in aporia

I admire people who can write the same thing over and over again without stress or dissatisfaction. I have thought more than a few times what popularity I might garner if, for example, I could like so many conservatives, simply rail against liberals and President Obama day after day, or libertarians, be satisfied to remark incessantly about the evils of the government. It is my weakness, though, and my refusal to flim-flam my kind readers, that I try somehow always to say something new. It happens many times, then, that as I write I find I've made the remark before. So went the first article I attempted today. Sometimes, however, what I attempt spirals into something much newer, or at least discursive and convoluted, than I expected. Take today's second attempt.

I started writing about how exasperating it is that liberals always co-opt terminology and re-appropriate definitions. They seem to delight in blurring lines and distinctions, an observation which set me thinking about the literal definitions of the words discriminate and judgment, and how the critical faculties of differentiation (discriminare, to separate) and discernment (discerno, to distinguish) are essential acts of defining the world, and that the act of judgment  (iudex, judge) is essential as an affirmation of that definition.

My mind then took a different direction, namely the Aristotelian direction, when I recalled how in the opening of the Metaphysics Aristotle describes how man delights in the use of his senses and that man's reaction to the sense of wonder which the world kindles in him is uniquely human because he can react by forming concepts and growing to know the whole, partaking in some small way of the divine mind which created it all.

Such consideration I applied to the liberal mind which constantly embraces variation in definition, which thinks that objective reality or truth is a moralizing or controlling fiction and that everyone should do what's right for him. What kind of mind is that of the deconstructionist which sets out to prove the world unknowable? What to him is knowing? It struck me what contradiction there is between liberal faith in reason when we apply to it the blanket label of "science," and how weak that faith when the wheels of reason drive to a point contrary to their beliefs.

Then I began to wonder whether that position can be justifiably called liberal. Is it not right-wing, traditionalist, or at least willful in the Nietzschean sense, simply to plant one's flag in the ground and defend it, irrespective of rational, empirical underpinnings? On the other hand I question their commitments to the totems of the day and wonder whether they would truly fight for them if they didn't have the machinery of bureaucracy already churning and lacking only well-placed clerks. Is that the blood and guts of building a culture? Likewise, maybe their convictions are just reactions against their upbringing? I suspect much political liberalism is in fact personal revenge on past and parents.

So then they don't really believe in anything. They're like Nietzsche's last man, enervated into nihilism, only occasionally animated to life by the promise of bourgeois comforts. Can they live with this skepticism at the end of philosophy, history, and culture? Can any society be fully skeptical? How many people can cope with the variety and uncertainty of the modern world? Can any be fully traditionalist?

To that question I do not know the answer, except to propose moderation between a progressive society which is at liberty wholly to reinvent itself and a traditional one which is wholly beholden to the past. If such a path is the ideal, and if being moderate is aiming for the small center between extremes, then it is no surprise the world so often waxes wantonly from one end to the other. One wonders whether once you let skepticism out of the box, the end is inevitable despite the high points on the way there. Can a society tolerate reserved inquiry in the service of reserved truths, or will one predominate? Will the tense contradiction yield a civil war and rebirth? Reconciliation?

Is this contradiction simply part of man's nature or a problem unleashed by intellectuals?

Finally, the issue is unresolved and I am tired. I don't know whether I have argued both sides well and therefore have arrived at an impasse–a sort of Protagorean irresolution–or in the Platonic sense have missed some essential truth. Therefore, sad Keanu.

Jaeger on Aristocracy and Civilization

From Werner Jaeger in Vol. I Ch. 1 of Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture.

It is a fundamental fact in the history of culture that all higher civilisation springs from the differentiation of social classes–a differentiation which is created by natural variations in physical and mental capacity between man and man. Even when such social differentiations lead to the creation of a rigid and privileged class, the hereditary principle which rules it is counterbalanced by the new supplies of strength which pour in from the lower classes. And even if the ruling caste is  deprived of all its rights, or destroyed, through some violent change, the new leaders rapidly and inevitably become an aristocracy in their turn. The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation's culture. The history of Greek culture–that universally important aspect of the formation of the Greek national character–actually begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal towards which the élite of the race was constantly trained. . . Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cicero, Frightful Reactionary

You know an academic just finished a book and is ready to start hocking it when they start publishing a lot of fun, fluffy articles that people will actually read. Enter Mary Beard's "10 Best Ancient Romans." We'll of course ignore the ridiculous title, which we assume was written by an editor, and won't castigate the author for applying such a ridiculous criterion of "best" to the category of Romans. Whatever that means, she wrote 10 blurbs, one about Cicero.

The whole list vexes me, especially that of Cicero, whose description especially irks me for three reasons.

First, saying that you have many reasons but not articulating them makes that pronouncement of them a dishonest qualifier. Obviously there is no space there for lengthy explication and evidence, but the ambiguity is misleading and confusing: is she emphasizing that Cicero was predominately reactionary or that he wasn't wholly reactionary? I guess everyone can think what he wants. The fact that she subsequently refers to the events of Catiline's conspiracy as a low point invites someone to interpret that as evidence of Cicero's reactionary views, although I fail to see how it does.

Second, the word frightful is a cheap shot. It's the kind of word people casually toss in when they want to let you know that someone doesn't hold the approved opinions. I guess Cicero wasn't a LibDem. Who knew?

Third, she mentions that Cicero was exiled for the summary execution of Catiline's conspirators as if it was justice, when in fact Cicero's exile was simply what suited the advancement of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar and provided Clodius an opportunity to take revenge on Cicero. In February of 58BC Clodius as tribune proposed a law which would exile anyone who did or had executed a citizen without due process. While a redundant law, it would exact revenge on Cicero and distract the optimates. It is telling that, when Clodius passed a law which further punished Cicero, forbidding him from living within 400 miles of Rome and forbidding anyone from giving him aid, Cicero didn't have trouble finding people to put him up.

As for the conspiracy itself, it is unclear whether the found arms sufficiently demonstrate intent to betray the fatherland and thus condemn Catiline's conspirators. If it was, then one could argue they had by taking up arms against Rome relinquished their citizenship.

I'm not exonerating Cicero here, and I'm not doing justice to the intricacies of the conspiracy either. I guess the situation deserves a little more than a glib remark.

Fourth, what of such forthright criticism and disdain for being a reactionary when others get a pass in the very same article? Ovid gets a pass for being subversive and opposed to Augustus' moral regime, the wife of that same emperor gets a pass for no other reason, it seems, than she was female, and Caligula of all people gets a pass after brushing off "most" allegations as "invented or embroidered." I'm not condemning Ovid, Augustus, or even Caligula, but why is Cicero held to a completely different standard. Usurers, corrupt emperors, provocative poets–everyone gets a pass and Cicero slammed in this list of favorite people? I guess it's still better than being compared to Obama.

I realize Beard wasn't out to pick out the most moral and upright Romans. (Who would do such a terrible thing like that nowadays?) Her selections are all colorful characters, but alas, bias has to enter. Perhaps less bias than insecurity, for her criticism reminds me of when someone qualifies their agreement with someone by adding, "Not that I agree with everything he says," as if anyone would assume such a thing. As if, though, I would assume anyone of notoriety today would approve of Cicero. As an aside, though, how typically liberal is this list??

A hypocritical conservative white man is in charge, women are oppressed, evil men are victims of bad press, and a cool hip author write about sex. Reaction and conservatism are out, opposition to traditional power is in. Worst: Caelius est in horto needs to be translated. O temp–oh never mind.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Top Ten: Latin Proficiency Impediments

Latin has a bad rap nowadays. Actually it's had a bad rap for a while. It is stuffy. Archaic. Blah blah blah. I won't take aim at those paltry objections here, since I pity–and endure–modern man's alienation from his past. To one accusation, however, I strenuously object, and that accusation is of Latin's peculiar difficulty. Yes, the process of learning Latin has challenges, but far fewer than of learning languages like Greek or English, and no more than many other endeavors. Unlike the problem of learning the subtleties and seemingly endless variations of English, the difficulties in learning Latin, at least for the native speaker of English, are few and predictable. In my years teaching, they are the ten which follow. Additions welcome.

10. Ignoring the Part of Speech

One of the struggles I least expected was how unfamiliar some students are with the parts of speech: noun, verb, adverb, et cetera. Even having overcome this difficulty, I still have ripped hairs from my head trying to help students limit the function of words to what they are categorically able to do. Chiefly, this problem applies to comprehending verbs. For example, many times students define vultis, as "wish," which is all well and good excepting that in English, wish can be a noun or a verb. Similarly, many students try to determine case and use of adverbs, such as paulisper, "for a short time," since they seem often to conform to the case uses, ignoring that their part of speech makes such unnecessary and impossible. The problem is harder to overcome when explaining compound forms such as infinitives, participles, and gerunds.

9. Vocabulary and Broad Meanings

While every Latin teacher has to cope with students who don't diligently study vocabulary, more challenging is getting them to memorize the fully entry, and harder still to use that information. It is one thing to know that manus means "hand," another thing to realize it uses fourth declension endings, and still another to know its gender is feminine and therefore must agree with a feminine adjective. Likewise it is easier to know that pono means "put" than it is to know all of its principal parts by which to conjugate and recognize its forms in all tenses, persons, numbers, and voices. Even students who memorize their vocabulary, though, often struggle at calling them to mind as they read and using the information of the entry to identify the form in from of them.

At the upper levels, though, with the essentials mastered, the definition again becomes a challenge. No longer is it acceptable to know the most famous definition of condo "build," or even that it can also mean to bury, store, or hide, but the student must understand that its most essential, literal definition is "to put into," and that by extension it can mean "to found" (i.e. to put a foundation in the ground), "to save" (i.e. to put in a container for future use) and "to hide" (e.g. put in something out of sight.) I encounter the problem most prominently when I first teach Tibullus 1.1, where among many examples, lustro means not "shine" but "purify," lacus not "lake" but "trough," and levo not "lift" but "comfort," among others. The issue, though, is best exemplified by line 40 from Horace Ode 3.1:

Post equitem sedet atra cura.
Horace's line has been infamously mistranslated by Latin neophytes as, "The black lady sits cautiously behind the horseman," instead of "Black care sits behind the rider."

8. Brute Force Memorization

I have a passable memory, and I find it as often works to my disadvantage as to my benefit. For students with the gift of recall, the temptation is to memorize rather than comprehend. I have have seen students convince themselves, and others, that they can read Latin when they are in fact merely regurgitating. Sometimes the problem is obvious, as when a student vomits out a translation–how confused the look of a student whom I asked why he translated a phrase with "hath" and "doth"–but sometimes the error is concealed. Even students who don't memorize translations often simply remember the gist from the first read-through and use that as a tool by which to piece together what they missed. Other students, while they don't recall full translations, are apt at recognizing patterns, which is in some respects a virtue. (See #7) Other times, though, it can stunt their growth.

For example, it is one thing to remember that nomine may mean "named," because it is commonly seen as such, at least in some text books, but another to realize it is used in the ablative case to mean "with respect to name." This recall may simply look like experience, and it is in fact useful and as far as some students get in their understanding, but it is not proficiency. Such recall is commendable if it proceeds along with and feeds grammatical understanding, but alone is illusory understanding.

7. Heuristics

Similarly, one does want students to cultivate experience into rules which narrow down probabilities. It is reasonable, for example, to gravitate toward taking Marco as dative when the verb is one of giving, showing, or telling. I have seen many students struggle because they are unable to rule out what is improbable and they attempt every conceivable solution to a problem. On the other hand I have had difficulty restraining students from jumping the gun and getting them to explore the less obvious solution.

6. The Inflection Hump

A common situation: a student can perfectly write out all the forms of qui, quae, quod, but not translate it in a sentence. Likewise, a student translates all forms of the verb as if they were in the same tense. It's simply very hard for some students to break the habit, acquired by their familiarity with English, of taking words next to each other as related.

You can put a subject and object next to one another as in Marcus manum and you'll get "Marcus' hand." Likewise some students default to making proper nouns the subject, so if you put lupus Marcum terret, you will most certainly get as a translation, "Marcus scares the wolf."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Things I Don't Get #10: Jeopardy Shenanigans and the Cult of Personality

I like Jeopardy, always have, and for the same reason everybody who does, does: I like to think I'm a lot smarter than I am. Trivia, aka random facts, are neither knowledge nor wisdom, and small cause of celebration. Still, the questions are the appeal of the show, that and Alex Trebek's awkward questions and segues. You know what isn't the appeal, though? The contestants. Pace The Trebek himself, the show is not about rooting for anyone, at least not for viewers who themselves can answer the questions. Most other game shows delight in their contestants. Spastics bounder up the aisle on The Price is Right and kooks guess off-the-wall answers on Family Feud, and on and on in the circle of television antics. Jeopardy doesn't encourage wrong or silly or creative answers. We don't get to know the contestants. They are there to bludgeon their competitors. The end.

Lately there has been a trend toward making celebrities of contestants though, perhaps triggered by the ratings garnered when certain players won much money or consecutive games. The trend is worsening and more often contestants are letting their precious foibles and ever-so-fascinating identities bleed over into the show. One has to make a little joke when he answers, another does a little dance during her opening introduction, another has to explain the whole thought process of his wager.

Must everything be personalized? Does everything have to center around people? We ought to be content with being ball players, actors, contestants, doctors, librarians–with being good at our job and station in life. Yet you can discuss nothing–sports, politics, movies, anything–without leaving the world of ideas for that of gossip. It's not a good turn for Jeopardy.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Walk in the Park

At 2,772 acres, Pelham Bay Park is the largest in NYC. Its name derives from that of Thomas Pell, who bought the land in 1654 and ham, the Old English for home. Presently home to tracks, trails, and trees–as well as the Robert Moses-finagled Orchard Beach–Pelham Bay Park is best known to posterity as the sight of the Battle of Pell's Point, in which American Colonel John Glover by a brilliant series of ambush, holding, and withdrawal, delayed General Howe's British forces long enough for Washington to lead the Continental Army safely north. Allegedly the stone walls behind which Glover and his men withstood the canon fire remain, now subject to golf instead of cannon balls. Some day I'll see if I can get on the course to find them, without having to pay for tee-off.

At the war memorial–optimistically called the World War Memorial–someone made an additional inscription. There's a lesson in it, though: if you are literally going to put something in stone, be sure about it.

Sorry for the quality there, but I didn't bring a zoom lens.

Of course sureness is no guarantee of wisdom. Take the plaque below another statue, that of a youth.

I've often said to those despairing of today's progressivism to imagine the shock of the days when it was in full flower. It's fitting to remember that bloom on a cloudy autumnal day like today. Of course I can't resist a little of the deconstruction of which the left is usually so fond. (Hey, turnabout is fair play.)

First, either the engraver missed a period on the first line or the author missed punctuation day at his progressive school. Speaking of which, exactly why is the period of youth entitled to freedom and untrammelled happiness? Who has less freedom and children, who must be constrained as they learn the ways of the world? Who is often less happy than children, who don't even know what happiness is, and how it is distinct from whim? Third, what does the author mean by "stultified happiness?" How can you render happiness futile? Fourth, how is it possible that "the proper spirit of play... is the natural instinct of the young?" That's mighty convenient. Born just perfect for play, are we?

Finally, was this translated? Because it doesn't really read so much like...English.

Healthy clean mind in a strong clean body is the idea for which we should strive.
It reads like the label on a bottle of Chinese laxative. Is this really engraved on an American monument?

Seemingly like all progressive documents, this inscription could be interpreted moderately, but it is so vague that you could easily drive a society-steamrolling truck of change right through its hazy, lazy, feel-good sentiments.

Still, a splendid afternoon walk in the park, untrammeled by progressive gobbledygook.

Things I Don't Get #9: Guessing Accents

I was born in the Bronx and I've lived here for thirty years. While my interests in language and music have muddled my accent into something which has variously been identified as English and "European," in moments of unguarded anger and enthusiasm–driving and teaching Cicero, inter alia–I can cut ehhhs and awwws that slice granite. Now I don't mind this, and in fact I relish my ability to pierce the human ear and scare animals and pedestrians at whim. Why, though, does identifying the accents of others seem to amuse people?

As a relatively untraveled man, I've spent most of my time in NYC its surrounds, and so few have ever commented on my accent. My wife, however, is from Kentucky, and it seems every time we meet someone here, they get this little glint in eye and, smirking and tilting their heads, ask, "Do I detect an accent? Now where are you from?" Why does everyone who can spot an accent different from his own think he's Henry Higgins? As if an ear that can distinguish something heard constantly, daily, and for decades from something slightly different–my wife's accent is gentle and mild–is a heaven-sent gift of observation.

Now some people like to show off, that I understand. Yet is seems to me that the moment when you meet someone is a particularly inappropriate time at which to put someone on the spot and make them feel that they don't belong, that the inquirer is in charge. Such is in fact the root of this phenomenon, that some people cannot approach others as confident and amicable equals, but need immediately to establish hierarchy. People who ask such questions like to establish themselves either as natives, which they take to be the same as superiors, or as experts, and of course expertise makes someone superior, right?

I take such a dim view of the question because in an allegedly liberal and egalitarian society as New York, I assume people are beyond tribal bonds. In the Old World it made sense to ask an outsider, "Who are you and from where have you come?" The outsider needs to establish himself as trustworthy and with good intentions. Today, at what we are constantly assured is the apex of modernity, what else could be the cause of such a shakedown? Certainly not that we are less modern than we fancy.