Saturday, November 21, 2009
"Al-Farabi, who lived from A.D. 87-950, was one of the "great medieval Islamic philosophers" responsible for translating Aristotle, Plato, and earlier philosophers we would have otherwise forgotten, from Ancient Greek into Arabic." [Note: This includes the Sophists, although Al-Farabi's emphasis was on Plato and Aristotle.]
"This tradition," Critchley continues, "was usually considered to have begun with Al-Farabi, known as the "Second Master" (second, that is, only to Aristotle). Avicenna, Averroes, and Moses Maimonides all acknowledge their debt to the Second Master, and many of his writings were translated into Latin.
Al-Farabi's fame rests largely on his commentaries on Aristotle, particularly his logical works, but also the Rhetoric and Poetics. But the word "commentary" has unfortunate connotations and understates the originality of Al-Farabi's philosophy. His work is an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to combine the logical rigour and empiricism of Aristotle with the more mystical intuition of the One in Plotinism and Neoplatonic thought.
The title of one of Al-Farabi's works from 900 makes this ambition plain: The Harmonization of the Opinions of the Two Sages, the Divine Plato and Aristotle. The goal of such a philosophical harmony cannot be separated from the more religious ambition of the salvation of the soul in the next life.
We do not know if Al-Farabi made it to the next life and we know very little about his life on earth. He was born in Turkestan, educated in Damascus and Baghdad and worked in Aleppo in northern Syria. According to one source, he died in Aleppo after a long trip to Egypt, but according to some medieval biographers he was violently murdered by highwaymen on the road from Damascus to Ashkelon."
This period in the history of philosophy is not as well known as it should be, and the importance of the Islamic world in transmitting Plato and Aristotle (amongst so many others) to the West is sadly underestimated.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
The following URL provides a tour of the building, but I shall insert some pictures taken inside the library itself.
For example, this incredibly beautiful ceiling on the First Floor has to be one of our great American treasures. It honors poets from Longfellow to Poe, whose names appear in painted wreaths around the ceiling.
In a rarely viewed Members of Congress room, there are various panels painted to represent certain virtuous undertakings the builders and designers thought worthy of inclusion in the 1890s, when this portion of the library was constructed. This panel represents my favorite activity, "The Light of Research."
Look at the incredibly beautiful Art Nouveau detail of this ceiling on the Second Floor:
The building's interiors are so incredibly detailed and beautiful, one might miss the highlights of the contents of the library itself; the special, permanent exhibits of the Declaration of Independence, including the various drafts; Lincoln's hand-written addresses, and Christopher Columbus' written diaries and papers. This library is an amazing resource, one I had no idea was as staggeringly beautiful as it is, containing so many precious works and images (but then, I love libraries; I love the idea of libraries, and revere Benjamin Franklin for coming up with the idea of a lending library).
I shall leave you with this picture. It is of the office of the Head Librarian of the Library of Congress. It has to be one of the most beautiful working spaces in the world, and the person who occupies this post is very fortunate indeed, to work in such exquisite surroundings.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
In Composition in the Rhetorical Tradition, Ross Winterowd states that the crucial split for English studies occurred when Aristotle’s “real world” philosophy diverged from Plato’s idealism, creating the “two roads” of the empiricist-idealist dialectic. More recently, in his study on the influences of this philosophical divergence on writing pedagogy, James Berlin has implicated this empirical/idealist schism through his contention that many teaching practices are based on divergent and coexisting approaches which have created competing and mutually-exclusive pedagogies. These beliefs, which continue, unexamined and misunderstood in English programs, cause what Berlin calls “confusing pedagogies,” which I suggest are created because writing teachers aren’t aware of the contentious history that lies behind the work they’ve chosen.
The rhetorical tradition lies in the agonistic, aristocratic Athenian pedagogies of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle, who, as members of what historian and political scientist Josiah Ober calls the Athenian “educated elite,” were trained in eristic, a method of philosophical debate popular among aristocrats comfortable with verbal sparring.[i] Eristic, with its warlike metaphors, became part of a traditional rhetorical education. After a protracted period during which rhetoric was forced to change its name or relocate to various university departments,[ii] it has, over the past fifty years, reemerged as a pedagogical tool within English studies.
With rhetoric’s reemergence comes the question of how to integrate its politics of aristocracy with the material reality of today’s nontraditional and often disenfranchised student (or teacher). What had traditionally been a method of constructing persuasive discourse for ‘enlightened’ orators has been adapted for students who need to find a job. There are those who may not be able to understand the need for an education that has traditionally reified ancient divisions between aristocrats with the power to make policy, and the common person who must follow that policy. Because traditional constructions of rhetoric seem increasingly aligned with all that radical and democratic pedagogies must abandon if previously excluded communities are to consider themselves welcome at the university, the field of rhetoric must now discuss these politicized binaries, even if they cannot be resolved. These power binaries lie at the heart of the many difficulties inherent in a rhetorical education, so it is timely and necessary that educators who rely on rhetoric as a pedagogical tool take up this discussion and make it their own.
Students who wish to write but believe they cannot are too often prevented by societal constraints that tell them, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that this form of expression is denied to them. These are social forces that educators like Mike Rose, Mina Shaughnessy, and Paolo Freire have committed themselves to trying to counteract. It is because of their work, and the work of James Berlin and so many others who have inspired my questions, that I was tempted to try to find answers. Instead, what I found are connections and possibilities that I cannot prove empirically, but can only point to as indicators of teachers’ and students’ limiting beliefs and behaviors. Knowing that students rarely consider themselves writers is frustrating, but not surprising. However, my frustration caused me to ask why these limitations exist, and how they are perpetuated.
[i] Given the hierarchical structure of higher education, egalitarian ideals and elitist practices coexist uneasily at the university. Although the liberal arts’ tradition is inherently elitist, post-WWII expansionist economic ideologies encouraged increased access for the American masses to higher education. This practice has fostered the belief that the concomitant education received is based on liberal democratic principles of fairness and equality. However, the form of liberal democracy that privileges individual rights is at odds with the conservative view that education exists to foster civic responsibility. The power imbalances governing educational practices forces teachers to exist in an environment that asks them to behave democratically while at the same time they maintain ethical and moral standards that reflect the inherited elitist, agonistic, and exclusionary practices of Ancient Greece.
[ii] Cf. James Berlin, esp. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985, and Sharon Crowley, Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
To understand the history of writing, one really should have a better understanding of the importance of the Philosopher-Sophist debate, which centered on two antagonists: Plato, representing Greek philosophers, and Isocrates, representing Sophistic thinking. Unfortunately for those of us who inherited the legacy of this debate, this false binary, pitting one 'side' against the other, has perpetuated many myths and misconceptions about the Western philosophical tradition, as well as attitudes toward writing. In fact, Plato and Isocrates, both Athenian, had much more in common than not, and shared most, if not all, the same beliefs and cultural biases. Their differences, however, form the basis of this famous debate, and shape the way in which writing is taught to this day.
The traditional view of the Philosopher-Sophist debate begins with Plato’s ethical and moral rejection of the Sophists, which is portrayed as a philosophical disagreement between Plato and Isocrates. Following in Nietzsche’s and Hegel’s footsteps[i], Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1944) discusses how the ancient Hellenic “rivalry” to determine which was more important to personal development, gymnastic training or a ‘musical’ culture, devolves over time into a narrowed dispute about the “relative values of philosophy and rhetoric” (47). Jaeger characterizes Plato’s rejection of the sophists as ‘violent detestation’ and notes that Isocrates, who began his belated career in education after Protagoras and Gorgias were written, defended sophistic education against Plato’s attacks.
George Kennedy’s 1963 edition of the Art of Persuasion in Greece focuses similarly on the philosophical dimension of the debate; for example, he notes that Isocrates alone believes it possible to develop a moral sense from the process of rhetorical composition (178), a perspective with which Plato vehemently disagrees. Kennedy’s later revised edition, retitled A New History of Classical Rhetoric (1994), begins to look more closely at the political dimensions of the debate between Isocrates and Plato when he states that Isocrates’ ideals of morality are central to teaching arete or political virtue, which Plato firmly believed could not be taught. However, the focus remains largely on the cleavage between philosophical worldviews represented by sophistic and Platonic ideals.
In 1976, Samuel Ijsseling published Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict, which comes very close to a political critique of Plato’s rejection of the sophists, especially when he discusses sophists’ awareness of the power of logos, which Ijsseling acknowledges as central to Plato’s problem with rhetoricians. Ijsseling does not pursue this line of reasoning, however, as he relies heavily on Plato’s difficulty with language’s moral ambiguity (7-14). As recently as 1999, Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, skimming briefly over the history of rhetoric in their textbook Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (4th Edition), state that despite Isocrates’ high ideals, he “did not succeed in allaying Plato’s suspicions of rhetoric” (492). Few writers choose to complicate the conventional view of the debate by providing historical and political context.
Two notable exceptions who have begun this discussion incorporating the political are Sharon Crowley, in her primer Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students (1994), and John Poulakos in his book Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece (1995). Crowley acknowledges the complexity of the political relationships in Ancient Greece by historicizing the role of ancient rhetoric as contingent upon the political atmosphere in sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries B. C. E. Noting in the opening paragraphs of her textbook that Athenian citizenship was determined by birthright, she goes on to discuss the ways in which rhetoric became “useful in the new Athenian democracy” (21) and the responses to its use by Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle.
The historical background she provides indicates to the student-reader that a rhetorical education is in no way politically neutral, but that it comes with a long history of contentious debate at its center. Poulakos is also careful to discuss the historical and political context within which this debate occurs. As he says, to follow the tradition of portraying Plato as “an eccentric thinker, an elitist mind, or an unrepresentative intellect of the Hellenic world . . . would be to admit that he, or any thinker for that matter, can be considered apart from the historical moment in which they lived and thought” (96). Instead, Poulakos tries to understand Plato’s position against the sophists by showing that, for Plato, the sophistic movement “had not led to a better world; worse, it had reduced the world it had inherited to virtual ruins” (104). In this effort, Poulakos makes it possible for the reader to comprehend the values and morals at stake for Plato, and to put the Philosopher-Sophist debate into historical and sociopolitical context.
[i] However, there is also a long tradition in philosophy of characterizing Plato’s relationship to the Sophists as one based on envy and agonism, in the belief, as Nietzsche says, that the “rule of one” is an abomination and must be challenged. In Homer’s Contest (1872), Nietzsche, focusing on envy, which he believed to be a Greek trait that spurred them on to “glory,” characterizes Plato’s reception of the Sophists as a “contest with the art of the orators” (37). And from 1892-1896, Georg W. F. Hegel gave lectures on the history of world philosophies; he characterized the relationship between Plato and the Sophists as a “rivalry.” Later, Samuel Ijsseling discusses Nietzsche’s influential belief that Plato’s jealousy of the sophists is one way of trying to understand Plato’s hostility (9). Also see Catherine Zuckert’s Postmodern Platos for a discussion of Nietzsche’s influence on later philosophers.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
I have seen other arguments against homeschooling, but because most of the people making them lack time in the college classroom, they also lack awareness of what your child needs to excel in a college environment. The skills your child will need are not skills you can teach them through homeschooling most of the time, not unless you are using a diversified, collaborative group system that more closely resembles a charter school, rather than the typically casual environment of the home.
Homeschooling is not inherently antisocial, it’s not ‘unfair’ to public school children, it’s not necessarily elitist, although it can be intellectually unfair to your child to deprive him or her of a rigorous academic environment that challenges them through diversity and collaboration. The National Education Association lobbies against homeschooling for precisely these reasons, stating that “home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience."
The heart of the psychological reality for parents of homeschooling is control, control over your child, his or her focus on what you deem important, and the sense that you know best and are equipped to provide the kind of education you think they will need. To understand this belief, read this article written by a mother who makes it clear that, although she is not qualified to judge her children's future academic needs, she nonetheless is "pulling them out of school" so that she can take the "burden" off of them: http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-248471.
This attitude, that children should not have to withstand the "burden" of the traditional classroom, is worrying. Unless you are a trained professional, you might only be thinking in terms of course material and your personal values, rather than the ways in which a more traditional, albeit imperfect, school setting, provides academic skills you are not currently aware your child will need to excel in today’s more rigorous college or university environment.
Homeschooled children receive somewhat mixed messages, in that they are usually very bright, curious kids who like to learn, like to read, and are constantly absorbing new information, but they receive this information through their parents. The home environment is not rigorous, and you lack objectivity and authority in your child’s eyes. Instead, children and parents work out a schedule that suits their personal needs and purposes. This is great for special needs’ children, who, it can be argued, rely heavily on parental intervention to begin with, but most kids do better with much more interpersonal, academically-oriented interaction, rather than interaction with a small group of well-known, familiar people. This articles discusses this concern, and brings up some of the other arguments against homeschooling:
I have clients who are currently considering homeschooling their nine year old boy. He is very bright, but has a lot of trouble focusing at school. This problem is exacerbated at home, where he is surrounded by interruptions and cannot apply himself. His parents are well-meaning, but are doing him a disservice by ignoring his lack of focus at the expense of wanting him to have “the best” education money can buy. He needs to be in a disciplined setting, where specific behaviors are expected of him, rather than a more casual home environment, where he can get up from his work whenever he pleases.
Students I have taught who were homeschooled have shown themselves to be very bright, and good at paperwork, but limited in their abilities to interact collaboratively. Their abilities to argue constructively are poor, because they have so little experience discussing their beliefs and opinions amongst groups. One student in particular stands out, because she learned at home that there was only one book she should ever rely on, and that was the Bible. However, in a typical composition classroom, we use a minimum of three sources to support an argumentation paper, and her inability and unwillingness to do so earned her a much lower grade than her intellectual abilities deserved.
Ultimately, there are students who will do well being homeschooled. As I've said, they are typically special-needs students who simply must have the one-on-one focused attention to succeed in an academic environment. However, most students who are capable, bright, and eager learners, lose out relying on parents to provide a rigorous, in-home preparation for their academic career.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
The Platonic Approach to Writing: The Creation of the Divinely Inspired Author
The myth: Few writers are divinely inspired, but they are special because they do not have to work to produce their text. Writing comes to them from somewhere indefinable. Its source is a mystery.
The message: Hardly anyone can be a good writer, a writer of genius. The writing style must flow, be poetic, and have a deeper, universal meaning.
Type of writer produced: If you believe your WRITING SOURCE is Divine Inspiration, you privilege the notion of the Genius, the Inspired writer, who then becomes one of a select few who are chosen to be well-educated in the classical, liberal, belletristic sense.
Teacher’s role: The teacher's role in this system is to be a mentor or a guide, like Socrates, who could only bring forth or encourage what already existed in the mind of the creator, thinker, writer (cf. midwife imagery in Theatetus, and Socrates-as-guide in the Meno).
Problem: This education is exclusionary, and perpetuates an isolated position in society for the writer of genius. She is elevated to the status of Author, and her words become 'pearls of wisdom.'
Material Outcome: No mere worker can compare to the Author, so by definition, only a few can possibly be considered writers. Writing classes will not help because anyone who has to struggle to write is not a genius, nor is she divinely inspired.
The Sophistic Approach to Writing: The Creation of the Expedient Writer
The myth: You can buy an education that will teach you how to write. This education is available to everyone (who can afford it), and will focus on individual abilities and effort.
The message: Anyone can learn to write if they apply themselves, but good writing takes time and hard work. Styles promoting clarity, logic, and linearity are valued.
Type of writer produced: If you believe your WRITING SOURCE stems from effort and application of skills learned with a teacher, you privilege the Expedient writer.
Teacher’s role: The teacher's role in this system is to be a coach, a mentor, a fellow writer showing new writers how it is done, and how to succeed in a capitalist society of publishers, editors, and bosses.
Problem: The educational experience furthers the notion that hard workers will rise to the top of a hierarchy. Some will make it; some won’t. The less worthy will be culled because they lack ability. The worthy will be exalted as special because they worked against the odds. The classroom experience is designed to capitalize on this writers abilty to manipulate words for persuasive affect.
Material Outcome: The writer learns that her worth is related to realistic notions of her usefulness in educational and professional fields. Although the writer is encouraged to work in collaborative groups, capitalism, with its own elitist markers, means that this writer’s work will be considered of value only when it is marketable.