Sunday, November 5, 2017

Advice to Myself: On Challenges

Some men seek out challenges because they expect to grow stronger, wealthier, or wiser by the doing. This is necessary and good if done with prudence, but do not, even if you have the wisdom to gain from failure, meet so many challenges that you exhaust your mind and body. He who undertakes too much grows weary and worn in body by excessive exercise and his mind grows febrile because of care and constant change. He is bloodied by his relentless pursuit of progress.

Other men refuse all challenges in the vain hope of protecting their life as it is. This man may wisely avoid ill-considered progress, but his inertia withers him until at last the most basic functions of life are tortuous routines. He is reddened not with blood, but rust.

Just as a tree protected indoors without breezes will never grow to full health or will grow and topple, and just as it needs wind to press its trunk and compel it to grow the new wood that with strengthen it, so man needs adversity to spur his maturation. Yet as a great wind will topple a tree, too much strain will topple a man.

Unlike a tree, though, man is not stuck in place, fated to suffer and endure whatever chance weather blows at him, rather by his prudence and intelligence he may seek some challenges and avoid others. His fate is to choose his challenge: good from good, good from bad, bad from bad.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Quote: Three Theories on Postmodern Jargon

Jordan B. Peterson:

After explaining how the zebra's stripes camouflage it not against the foliage but against the herd, which confuses predators who, unable to distinguish one zebra from the other, constantly lose track of their
targeted prey, he continues:

One of the things that academics seem to do is congregate together in herd-like entities and then they share a language and the language unites them. And as long as they share the same set of linguistic tools among themselves they know that there isn't anybody in the coterie that's going to attack them or destabilize the entire herd.
And that seems to me to account for that impenetrable use of language. It's group-protection's the search for security within a system and not the desire to expand the system. [Link to Source]
Camille Paglia:

Instead of quoting Paglia's famous discursive style verbatim, permit me to paraphrase:

The inscrutable texts are, first, blatantly careerist attempts at grabbing power in academia: the postmodernists created an impenetrable language whose complex technicalities only they could understand. Second, that language was an, "absurd, absolutely ludicrous" imitation by "amateurs" of Lacan's attempt by to break up neoclassical French formulations, an attempt unnecessary for the vital English language. [Link to Source]

Roger Scruton:

It is an exercise in meaning Nothing, in presenting Nothing as something that can and should be meant, and as the true meaning of every text. . . Meaning is chased through the text from sign to sign, always vanishing as we seem to reach it. . . The effect of such cryptic ideas is to introduce not a critical reading of a text, but a series of spells, by which meaning is first imprisoned, and then extinguished. . .  
Deconstruction is neither a method nor an argument. It should be understood on the model of magic incantation. . . The deconstructionist critic is. . . the guardian and oracle of the text's sacred meaning. . . the god of deconstruction is not a 'real presence', in the Christian sense, but an absence. . . The revelation of the god is a revelation, so to speak, of a transcendental emptiness, an unmeaning, where meaning  should have been.
A 'substantified void' is the Real Presence of Nothing: and this is the content of this strange religion.
(Selections from pages 137-144 of Scruton's, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture. St. Augustine's Press. 2000)

Advice to Myself: Know Your Role

We are inclined to glorify our circumstances when we fancy them the products of our own design–usually this is when life goes well–and likewise demonize them when we feel weak. Therefore first distinguish your role in arriving at present circumstances from other causes such as fortune and the influence of others. Give no cause more or less credit than it is due.

Advice to Myself: Plants and Habits

Like the plant that from a seed grows, so do our habits. Tend them so they provide shade and beauty for your character. Some plants, though, outgrow their pots, and so some habits overtake the man.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Quote: The Humiliation of the Britons

1066 and All That. Chapter II: Britain Conquered Again.

The brutal Saxon invaders drove the Britons westward into Wales and compelled them to become Welsh; it is now considered doubtful whether this was a Good Thing. Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (? or horse), Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse). The country was now almost entirely inhabited by Saxons and was therefore renamed England, and thus (naturally) soon became C. of E. This was a Good Thing, because previously the Saxons had worshipped some dreadful gods of their own called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Advice to Myself: On Seizing Days

Some time ago I began to write down, like the venerable Marcus Aurelius, exhortations to myself in the hopes of urging myself toward the good. These writings were not intended for publication because I hoped that by abandoning scrupulous reference and explication I might distill a variety of learning into simple, practical wisdom I could regularly revisit and follow.

I have decided to post them here, with the additional caveat that they were conceived in Latin, so please pardon the fact that they feel somewhat stiff and translated. I make no pretense of originalityyou will find many familiar thoughts throughoutbut only claim an often desperate desire to correct what often seems to be the incorrigible, that is, myself.

Fix the tempo of the day by your design and do not let it be set by the mood in which you wake up. Contend with the variations and challenges of the day to make your mark. That said, some days are unlucky and go against you: do not fight such days and attempt to impress your designs on the wind and water crashing about you. Get out with your skin intact!

Most days are an admixture: seize a morning, afternoon, or evening, but do not demand all three.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Quote: Mises on Socialist Control of Industry

Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Translated by J. Hakane. Liberty Fund, Inc. 1981. p. 187

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #3: Test Wisely

Idiom, sir?
Many teachers resent giving tests, not because they are onerous to make and grade, but because they have to give so many evaluations in general. Any teacher worth his salt knows exactly the capabilities of all of his students all the time with relatively few and simple evaluations. It's not even that hard to know even a roomful of students, if you pay attention. There has been much-deserved pushing back against excessive testing, but so much that pedagogical trends have gone in the opposite direction and to an equally foolish degree. Reasonable tests and testing accomplish three things.

First, they give otherwise unmotivated students the impetus to commit skills and facts to memory. Second, they make the teacher accountable for progress and objectivity. Third, they show you what a student can do with only his own abilities under reasonable time constraints. Many students and teachers strenuously try to circumvent these features, often ingeniously, because they wish to conceal what is often the truth: that there is no learning going on in the class. In a world of ideal students and teachers, then, tests would not be necessary, but utopia is a fantasy.

The following little list of advice regarding tests clusters around balancing two ideas: what is right generally and what is suitable for your particular class.

First, be consistent about everything test-related, especially: how many per marking period, how many points certain types of questions are worth, how many points tests are worth, and how questions are to be answered. Consider also length, difficulty, how long students have to complete it, whether you review beforehand and afterward, whether they get review materials beforehand, at what intervals in the text and course you give tests, and of course how you grade. Quite fairly, students are bewildered when these factors vary far and wide.

Second, you have to finish teaching the material before giving a test. This means you need to give back homework and quizzes, for example, before the test! This also means you shouldn't give a test on one chapter when you've already started the next one. The class is cumulative, but moving forward.

Third, don't be the teacher whose attention to tests consists of slapping the publisher's book of test masters onto the copy machine and hitting, "Start."

Aside from the consistently poor quality of pre-made tests, no one teaches exactly the way any book does. Students get thrown off–and fairly so–when some test in a completely different style is thrown at them. You need to make your own tests, adapt tests, or diligently search for ones that suit your teaching idiom.

Fourth, make evaluations useful. Don't give tests in which students can work around the task by memorization, repeating the exact questions you've given before, or by giving you vaguely the type of information they know you typically want. (The lazy, students and teachers alike, secretly prefer vague questions because it means many answers can be construed as correct.)

Fifth, you have to accentuate the negative, but kindly. Students love to put the A+ grades on the refrigerator, but it's the failures that they need to work on, and those tests go in the garbage or get buried at the bottom of the schoolbag. You need to reinforce the good while attending to weaknesses.

Sixth, update your tests right after you grade them. Was one question unclear? Did even good students bomb out on one section? Was it too long? Did it have to much new or old content?

If you don't review your tests, next year's students will suffer the same fates as those of last year. If you wait until too long to update the test, you won't remember what you needed to change.

Seventh, take your test, and even if you don't take every test, take one regularly. You may only realize you made a few typographical errors, but more importantly you'll realize that physically writing out the responses wearies your hands and eyes. It is easy to get wrapped up in the intellectual business and forget what it feels like to be as physically confined as schoolroom students.

You may also realize one of the hardest things for a teacher to notice, namely that you are answering the questions with knowledge and experience you have but which they have yet to learn.

Finally, write precise directions and don't answer too many questions while administering the test. Some students possess a genius for swindling information from teachers. If you made a mistake in making the test, tell them not to waste their time in confusion but to do what seems best to them. Then deal with the issue fairly and generously when you grade.

Remember that whatever new directions you issue will confuse some and be ignored by others. Even simple impromptu directions may prove confusing.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Movie Review: The Founder

Directed by John Lee Hancock (2016)

There is something satisfying about a simple character piece. No complex plot obscures the crisp lines of the arc and no subplots complicate the drama. In the case of John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, not even any style or spectacle attempts to amp up the drama: the movie is all plot and character. The character is Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, and the plot is of his ambition to raise to greatness the California burger joint of the cautious McDonald brothers and in doing so raise himself.

The manner in which the script plunges us into the plot without lengthy introduction and backstory is a reminder–and a needed one given Hollywood’s obsession with the origin stories–that detail can sometimes be disposed of without loss. We don’t need fifteen minutes of 1950’s nostalgia a la Happy Days, nor do we need the backdrop of the Cold War against which our capitalist drama can unfold, nor do we need the whole life story of the protagonist. We need to know that Ray Kroc was having a lousy time hocking his wares and that in 1954 he saw that the ingenious efficiency and homely charm of the McDonald brothers’ restaurant was a river of gold that only need to be un-dammed.

Actually it needed a new course plotted too, and the path needed to be cut and dredged, and the boats on the river needed to be captained and then managed. The whole project needed to be financed too. The movie’s introduction is then not perfunctory preface but Ray’s struggle to wrest just enough control from the McDonald brothers to franchise the restaurants. The script draws fine lines between the different types of creators. We have the inventor, Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman), who created the systematization that introduced the world to the 30-second hamburger, shown distinct from the manager (Mac McDonald), who runs the brothers restaurant like clockwork. In contrast to both we have Ray (Michael Keaton), who has the tenacity and most of all the unbridled desire to turn McDonald’s into a national chain. No one plays all the parts well.

To the fussy, conservative brothers Ray brings guts and a vision for greatness. While Dick and Mac pour over minutiae like fry-time, Ray is out breaking ground on new restaurants and hustling to find the best managers for new franchises. Yet as Ray’s success grows so does his ego, no longer obscured behind failed sales pitches for mixers and folding kitchen tables. So grow both until at list his egotism gives way to hubris when he identifies himself as the founder of McDonald's, beginning his moral decline.

The faithful wife (played by Laura Dern), who endured his failed salesmanship, spent months alone while he traveled, supported his efforts to franchise McDonald’s to clients, and even scouted for potential couple-owners with him, he divorces–and for the wife of one of his franchisees. The contract, which the McDonald brothers signed in good faith that they would be able to uphold the standards of the restaurant they founded, Kroc flagrantly disregards, declaring that they don’t have the legal muscle to enforce their claim. Kroc's fall culminates in a full end-run around the brothers, buying them out and then fleecing them out of their royalties.

Yet intertwined with Kroc’s tragic moral fall is his heroic climb to the top. He overcomes the stifling conservatism of the brothers, whose restaurant employed only a few dozen, to franchise McDonald’s into a company that let thousands, who had been scraping by just barely paying the bills, grow and prosper as franchise owners. Kroc walked into a new McDonald’s not to cries of disdain for his galling deception, but rather to a hero’s honor with the newly employed cheering him triumphant.

It is this juxtaposition that creates the tension of The Founder: we both admire and deplore Ray. If his chicanery were not intermixed with good and if he had not overcome great adversity, we would judge him a terrible man without exemption. Yet greatness complicates our moral vision, and Kroc’s triumph intertwined with tragedy refuses to resolve in a neat verdict. The sentiments of Ray's speech are lifted right from the same cheesy self-help records he played when he was a failing salesman, but has he not ennobled and vindicated them by his success? When we see Ray emblazon "founder" upon his business card and proceed to humiliate the McDonald brothers by running their original restaurant out of business, we see something unjust and wrong, but his empire and the people it serves are no less real.

It is moral all the more striking because the film is so slender, that often the good and evil men do are inseparable.

A Humble Return

A few months after the birth of my daughter in March 2016, I resigned my position teaching high school Latin, and a few months after that, my wife and I moved from my hometown of the Bronx, NY to her hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. During the day she works and I care for our toddling bundle of joy and mind our home.

I certainly expected to take a hiatus from writing after those changes, though I did not intend it to be so long. I waited to return to the blog for intertwined reasons: the less I wrote, the weaker my powers of writing, and the weaker my powers, the longer the next essay would take. Absent the time to write, I fell silent.

My delay was also extended, unexpectedly for me, by my advances in reading Latin. So much has the language worked its way into my head that I have not yet assimilated it into my style, such as it is. I have grown, but require pruning.

On the flip-side of style, though, I have much to say, especially about my education as a husband and father. In particular I hope to live up to the name of this blog, which I stubbornly refuse to change although I am sure it is a source of confusion and keeps the blog in relative obscurity. Some plants, however, grow in the shade.

Oddly, I feel myself in a better position to live and reflect on a vita literati than I was eight years ago when Mr. Tyrell Northcutt invited me to this curious blogging project. Obligations have since taken him from the halls of this blog, and while he may return here at any moment, you may likewise seek him at the Philosophical Farmer.)

For my part, I intend to write often, but briefly. It will likely be the case that ideas spread unplanned over various and disparate reflections rather than in systematic articles.

I intend to make some use of Twitter, with, I hope, great restraint. The sight of many respectable people making fools of themselves has been a great caution to me and, frankly, I find the platform's arbitrary restrictions to be quite insulting. I would sooner bend my ideas to fit into hexameters than tweets.

Finally, if you are a long time reader, please accept my thanks and apologies. I hope that my future work here will redeem my absence and prove a small help or pleasure to you!