Thursday, February 26. 2009
Driving the through the countryside, taking the back roads to the NC Zoo in Asheboro, we saw lots of "real" North Carolina:
At the zoo, I felt myself melting in with the rest of the people there. I was just another parent with their kids. For so much of my life I've carried around a feeling of specialness, apartness . . . "I'm not like them", "I'm better than them." I could feel that softening, disintegrating. I am really not much different than any of these people.
And yet . . . I saw a man telling a woman, "All I ask you to do is to keep them with you and out of trouble," sounding calm and rational and like he's never, ever actually had to take care of children. The woman seizes a child, whacks him on the bottom several times, her face vicious: "Don't you walk away! Ever! We'll do this old-school!" Then, later, on the tram behind us, she tells her son: "You stop crying right now! It's because you don't listen to Uncle Tom." Ah . . . "Uncle" Tom. The boyfriend. And mom's beating on the kids because she's terrified the children will drive away her man. Evidently step-parenthood is contagious.
The kids had the most fun on the playground. It was a good one, with really squishy half-artificial mulch that had almost enough spring in it to feel like a trampoline. The play-sets were done in an elegant garden theme: knobbled squash big enough to climb on, twenty-foot-tall spider web, a praying mantis just begging to be ridden. The boys played so hard they eventually shed their coats and sweaters, charging up slides and hanging from giant vines with goofy grins on their faces. You can surround them with marvels, but they will still take the most joy in moving around and climbing.
They wore me out. For the first time, I'm the one who was tired and cranky at the end of the day, while they kept on rushing from one exhibit to the next. At the last stop, the Aviary, I succumbed and sat on a bench, telling them I needed to rest for a bit, and letting them roam on their own. I felt so old, more like Grandpa than Daddy. But I can't sit for long. "That parrot can bite. Don't try to touch him . . ."
Wednesday, February 18. 2009
One sad statement on the state of our society: it is a four-alarm emergency on Capitol Hill when 2% of the population might not be able to get TV reception.
The conversion from analog to digital signals for broadcast TV has been endlessly announced for the last two years, on TV, radio, newspapers, and billboards. The feds even offered to cover most of the cost of converter boxes for the 15% of less of the population that still uses analog broadcast signals (e.g. an antennae, instead of cable or satellite services, with a TV that's several years old).
At the last minute, the feds lost their nerve and voted to delay the switch for four months, because they (oops) ran out of vouchers for the converter boxes. Evidently it never occurred to them that those who need the vouchers (surely, the poorest of the poor, who can't afford to spend 50 cents a day to get basic cable, much less buy a new TV) would put off making that purchase until the last possible minute. Or that manufacturers and retailers, who don't want to be stuck with unbought converter boxes, would delay production and lowball estimates of demand.
We might as well call this the "TV Tax", since that's what it is -- a federally mandated expense for all those who want to continue watching network TV. No lawmaker in the land wants to be accused of saddling the poor with another tax, much less having to face angry constituents who missed their favorite show and then have to tell them they have to spend money they don't have to get it back.
What does this tell us? Only what we already knew -- television is the opiate of the masses. The people who have the least in this country are also likely to be the ones most dependent on a free, always-on mind-numbing device. Maybe those people are lazy and/or clueless, or perhaps they are just shrewd and don't want to spend a dime on TV until they absolutely have to. Either way, we anticipate rioting in the streets if our workers are not allowed to take leave of their minds for several hours a night. Or perhaps something worse (for the government, anyway) will happen -- people will awaken from their stupor, and start paying attention. People might read, and write, and talk to each other again. Talk about awakening a sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve . . .
Sunday, February 15. 2009
The premier of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse wasn't nearly as scary as I thought it would be. It evaded most of my dire predictions:
Overall, I enjoyed the first episode. Good action, suspense, and intriguing themes on its mind. I worry a little bit that the existential angst and mystery will dampen all potential for humor, which has always been an important part of Joss' previous shows.
Friday, February 13. 2009
Tonight is the premier of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's new sci-fi TV series. While I've been excited about seeing the latest creation from the genius who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible, I admit I'm a little nervous about it, too.
Friday, February 6. 2009
Kenny sent around an article from the New York Times ("The Last Professor," January 19, 2009), in which Stanley Fish analyses the long-running trend of universities trying to make themselves of practical use, resulting in "all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary." Fish takes the position that the university should be "expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining" – that is, knowledge for knowledge's sake.
Normally, I would jump in to defend the value of literature and philosophy, both for their real utility and as pursuits that have intrinsic value. In this case, though, I wouldn't be caught dead playing on the same team as Stanley Fish. He casts himself in a heroic role, the titular "last professor" who represents "a model of education centered on an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration". Somehow, the self-importance just oozes out his statements. In his mind, throngs of nubile co-eds are waiting breathlessly to greet him, The Professor -- as popular as a rock star and as holy as a saint. He, the last of a noble race, is struggling against those soulless profiteers who would reduce education to mere vocational training.
I should point out that Fish was not merely a by-stander in that trend. As the head of the English department at Duke University, he pushed heavy teaching loads upon the graduate students so that he and the lavishly-paid celebrity academics he hired could teach less. Evidently delivering "insight and inspiration" does not involve, you know, actually teaching something. Towards the end of his tenure at Duke an external review committee considered evidence that the English curriculum had become "a hodgepodge of uncoordinated offerings," lacking in "broad foundational courses" or faculty planning. Fish managed to exalt himself, but Duke and its students didn't seem to get much out of the deal. But maybe creating new scholars is too "instrumental" for his high ideal of being useless.
As to the purpose of a liberal arts education . . . I doubt I can say it better than Kenny did:
If the liberal arts are seen as deliberately useless indulgence-endless self-justification by people who want to spend their lives arguing about the meter of a 500-year-old poem or the meaning of "The Simpsons"-then perhaps they deserve to die. If the only "value" we attempt to instill is the value of multiculturalism (which is a wonderful value, but it isn't the only one!!!) then there is no need for the study of a bunch of dead white men.
But one of the lessons of the Obama campaign is that young people still want to make a difference, not just a buck. If they study Rome, they will see not only the origins of civic virtue, but models (good and bad) of civic virtue. If they study the Greeks they will see how the very questions they are asking ("How can I lead a meaningful life?") can be approached with intellectual tools and passionate commitment. If they read Wordsworth they will see all their idealism about love and nature transformed into something which is simultaneously intellectual and transcendent.
This is not deliberately useless, but it is not merely vocational either: it is, and should be, transformative. If professors lose that vision, why have professors?
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