Dao Du Jour: Day 16

Chapter 16

“Empty your mind of all thoughts.

Let your heart be at peace.

Watch the turmoil of beings,

but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe

Returns to the common source.

Returning to the source is serenity.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Every year I teach Genesis to college students. One thing that often puzzles them is the lists of names; why take a whole page to list all of Noah’s descendants?

I tell them a story about when I worked at the Grand Canyon for a summer when I was their age. During orientation, a park ranger was giving a talk about the Native American cultures indigenous to the region. He started by asking how many of us know who our grandparents were?

Everyone raised their hand.

Next, he asked how many of us know who their parents were?

Almost everyone raised their hand.

Finally, he asked how many of us know who their great grandparents’ great grandparents were? One man in the back—who revealed himself to be of Navajo descent—raised his hand. Imagine, Ranger Roger said, knowing your precise place in a family history reaching back hundreds or thousands of years. For the Jews, the Biblical narratives reminded them who they were and where they came from. What we moderns may deride as “ancestor worship” in primitive cultures serves a vital purpose.

The word “religion” is related, etymologically, to the word “ligament.” To remember where we came from is to literally re-member ourselves—to restore the connection that the emergence of self-consciousness severs. The term sin tends to be loaded with moral weight, as a personal failing for which we feel guilty, a red balance sheet we are forever trying to clear. But a better way to understand the term is “separation.” Religion, in this sense, means healing the rifts that rise up within our minds, between our minds and bodies, between each other, and with the world.

We are great at watching the turmoil of beings, but terrible at contemplating their return. “If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow.” Religion, at its best, reverses this existential entropy.

But what does it mean to be religious?

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 15

Chapter 15

“Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

From the moment we wake up, the mud starts to seep in—meetings, appointments, deadlines, dogs to walk, groceries to buy, meals to cook, commutes to bear. The cocoon of the covers beckons.

But these things are not the true mud. The true mud is how our minds relate to them. As stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” If we don’t find a way to let our mud settle, we are going to try and offload it onto others throughout the day—consciously or unconsciously, crudely or subtly. If we don’t clean our minds up, they’re going to pollute, and that, in turn, will lead others to pollute. All told, we’ll just wake up tomorrow with more mud on our minds.

The call of the covers, of course, is a siren song. They lead us not to escape from the mud, but to wallow in it, precisely because the mud is not in the world outside of them, but in our own minds. Marcus Aurelius, another stoic thinker, had a considered view of the matter:

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”

The opposite mistake of wallowing in the mud is the wish to rid the world of it. As Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh likes to say, “No mud, no lotus.” Rather than pushing the mud away, we must allow it to settle, for it is ultimately the soil that nurtures and reveals the flowers we seek.

And once the mud has settled, we can finally play in it.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 14

Chapter 14

“Look, and it can’t be seen.

Listen, and it can’t be heard.

Reach, and it can’t be grasped.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

As the saying goes, we do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.

Our seeing is always from an angle, refracted through our perspective. All seeing is seeing as. Our perspective binds us to reality, but also blinds us from it. That doesn’t mean our perspective should—or could!—be abandoned; as C.S. Lewis put it, “to see through everything is the same as not to see.” That way madness lies. What it means is that our perspective is not fixed, but fluid. And a facility to “take subject as object,” in the words of psychologist Robert Kegan, is the royal road to reality and the guarantor of growth.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 13

Chapter 13

“Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?

Hope and fear are both phantoms

That arise from thinking of the self.

See the world as your self.

Have faith in the way things are.

Love the world as your self;

Then you can care for all things.”

Two of the three theological virtues in the Christian tradition are invoked here by the translator—hope and faith—yet to convey an apparently un-Christian message. The notion that hope is a hindrance may strike Western ears the way the first noble truth of Buddhism—“life is suffering”—often does: as a world-weary pessimism. Yet it is hard to read the last lines of the chapter and not detect notes of Jesus’ “love your neighbor as yourself.”

All is not as it seems. The key to this passage is the connection between hope and fear. Both are understood here in terms of desire for a future outcome that is the flipside of a rejection of the way things are. Of course we “hope” and “desire” for some things to happen and others not to; the key is to see things going our way as “bonuses” on top of a fundamentally good deal. In Christian terms, this means seeing existence itself—all of it—as an unmerited grace. How often does Jesus encourage his followers to not worry, to not be afraid?

The recipe for overcoming fear is not to hope for a future, better life—here or the hereafter—but to turn completely toward the moment.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 12

Chapter 12

“Colors blind the eye.

Sounds deafen the ear.

Flavors numb the taste.

Thoughts weaken the mind.

Desires wither the heart.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

All five of these statements seem not only false, but the opposite of the truth: thinking quickens the mind, desire inflames the heart, colors excite the eye, and so on. But this is so only if we take them at face value.

Many believe this chapter to be a set of rough meditation instructions aimed at thwarting the power of distractions to pull us out of the moment. The mind, the heart, and the senses are typically distracted and disintegrated in our daily lives. Instead, the text encourages us to “trust our inner vision.” But this doesn’t mean retreating to a mountaintop cave, closing our eyes, and plugging our ears. The Master “observes the world” and his “heart is open as the sky.”

When we focus on colors, sounds, flavors, thought, or desires, we fixate on a part of the whole, and unconsciously close ourselves off from the world.

To really see and hear and taste and know and feel, we have to let go of colors, sounds, flavors, thought, or desires.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 11

Chapter 11

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”

One way to think of the Daodejing is a critique of our modern way of thinking about space. Our thinking about space is dominated by impoverished notions of utility, efficiency, productivity rooted in a mashup of perverted forms of Christianity and capitalism. Francis Bacon and John Locke construed the Biblical mandate for humanity to “have dominion over” and “subdue” the earth as a license to conquer nature through science and technology and maximize yield of the land. For Locke, the great sin was waste; one’s very right to property was premised on efficiently using the land. Extractive and consumer capitalism drives us not just to use, but to use up, scarce resources as quickly as possible in order to meet the multiplication of desires it produces.

But in the natural world, waste is food and trash is treasure. Daoism embraces a very different kind of efficiency—one that is basically conservative. For the Daoist, efficacy (de) is the supreme virtue. It is “making the most of your ingredients.” And the most important ingredients—the real “value-add”—is not our own manual or mental labor, or the materials from which we fashion our wares, but the empty space that allows the making to take place.

Take speech. All the words we perceive and receiver ride on complex currents of structured air projected through space. If we were more mindful of our breath—and the “conspiracy” (literally, “breathing together”) of life in which we are complicit—how much more often and easily would we speak true?

We shape sounds into words, but it is breath that holds whatever we think.

We work with speech, but breath is what we use.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 10

Chapter 10

“Can you coax your mind from its wandering

and keep to the original oneness?

Can you let your body become

supple as a newborn child’s?”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Meditation and politics would seem to have nothing to do with each other. But as I noted a couple of days ago, the Daodejing is not just ancient self-help, and does not think we can seriously separate the personal from the political, character from the collective, de—a key term we will come back to—from the doing of the people’s business. If the last four years have taught us anything, it is how powerfully—how viscerally—the character of a leader and the climate of our politics can affect our consciousness—even our nervous systems.

In his inauguration speech yesterday, President Biden called us away from the toxic culture of negative partisanship that has consumed us these last four years. We have wandered so long and so far from the good, the true, and the beautiful—hell, even the decent and the factual—that many have begun to wonder whether our country is hopelessly lost, whether Biden’s call for unity is just an old man shouting into a hurricane.

For those wondering whether it is possible for us to “keep to the original oneness”—whether we can, in Franklin’s words, “keep” our Republic—the recitation of Amanda Gorman, poet laureate of the United States, was a definitive answer. Her movements were graceful as her words were wise, coaxing the attention of a nation toward the unity—the feeling of home, belonging, and “original oneness”—that even those who deny our new President’s legitimacy deep down so desperately desire. If our body politic can become just a little more supple—if each of us can find just a bit more space between stimulus and response—we can climb whatever hills we face. Without a little wuwei, there will be no exit from the vicious cycle of polarization.

What the Daodejing calls us to, above all, is trust: to trust in our own minds, in others, and in the nature of things. What do we do each day but try to form a more perfect union in our psyches, in our relationships, in our world?

Dao Du Jour: Day 9

Chapter 9

“Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

One reason it is hard for us to “step back” these days is that we are always, at some level, plugged in. We carry in our pocket a portable Pandora’s box, perpetually propagating portents of end of the world, a taskmaster reminding us of all we have to do, and a tether keeping us “on call” to our employers.

Our attempts at achieving “work/life balance” are so many sad huts built on a beach in the face of an oncoming tsunami. The current of our culture of “total work” is a furious haste and busyness always sweeping us up and carrying us out of the moment.

The Daoist response is not, however, to fight the current, but to yield to it. In yielding to it, it slows; in rising to meet it, it becomes smaller; in working with it, it becomes more workable. Only in yielding to it can we be present to it, only in being present to it can we step back from it, and only in stepping back from it can we enter into it.

Only from a place of serenity can we truly do our work.

Chapter 8: The Low Place

Chapter 8

“The supreme good is like water,

which nourishes all things without trying to.

It is content with the low places that people disdain.

Thus it Is like the Tao.”

Find the “low place” that you “disdain”—right now—and rest your mind and body there for a moment.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 7

Chapter 7

“The Master stays behind;

that is why she is ahead.

She is detached from all things;

that is why she is one with them.

Because she has let go of herself,

she is perfectly fulfilled.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

The Daodejing is commonly cast as an ancient collection of cryptic fortune cookie sayings most relevant, if at all, for spiritual inspiration, the stuff of self-help. But it actually has a great deal to say about politics.

Consider the Dao of Obama.

The 44th president was maligned for “leading from behind” (stays behind), being “aloof” and “professorial” (detached), “arrogant,” “smug” and “condescending” (full of himself).

These were all the judgments of lesser men with lesser minds.

Whenever someone is criticized from both sides of a polarity, pay attention. There’s typically a lot of ignorance, hypocrisy, and projection going on from those who, unlike the “Master,” “take sides.” Because they have taken sides, they can’t see the whole, and they actually don’t see the other side as a side; hence they harbor the delusion that it can be defeated. This is a branch confusing itself for the root.

The phrase leading from behind was popularized by Nelson Mandela:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

The allegedly aloof, professorial president followed a monkish regimen:

Almost every night that he is in the White House, Mr. Obama has dinner at 6:30 with his wife and daughters and then withdraws to the Treaty Room, his private office down the hall from his bedroom on the second floor of the White House residence.

There, his closest aides say, he spends four or five hours largely by himself.

“He is thoroughly predictable in having gone through every piece of paper that he gets,” said Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. “You’ll come in in the morning, it will be there: questions, notes, decisions.”

To stay awake, the president does not turn to caffeine. He rarely drinks coffee or tea, and more often has a bottle of water next to him than a soda. His friends say his only snack at night is seven lightly salted almonds.

Finally, David Brooks made an insightful observation a month before Obama’s election in 2008:

We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.

Some candidates are motivated by something they lack. For L.B.J., it was respect. For Bill Clinton, it was adoration. These politicians are motivated to fill that void. Their challenge once in office is self-regulation. How will they control the demons, insecurities and longings that fired their ambitions?

But other candidates are propelled by what some psychologists call self-efficacy, the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them. Candidates in this mold, most heroically F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan, are driven upward by a desire to realize some capacity in their nature. They rise with an unshakable serenity that is inexplicable to their critics and infuriating to their foes.

Obama has the biography of the first group but the personality of the second. He grew up with an absent father and a peripatetic mother. “I learned long ago to distrust my childhood,” he wrote in “Dreams From My Father.” This is supposed to produce a politician with gaping personal needs and hidden wounds.

But over the past two years, Obama has never shown evidence of that. Instead, he has shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day.

There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious.

While statecraft and soulcraft are not the same thing, they overlap more than conventional wisdom suggests. If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that character matters. Having an “organized unconscious” helps us see our own “dark side”—and thus able to see the light in those who oppose us.

What could be more practical in our polarized age?

Dao Du Jour: Day 6

Chapter 6

“The Tao is called the Great Mother:

empty yet inexhaustible,

it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always within you.

You can use it in any way you want.”

Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom.” Sartre claimed that we are “condemned to be free.” This is blasphemy to American ears! Freedom is our transcendent value, and we shalt not take its name in vein.

It is easy to read the final line of the chapter as saying the Dao is like a genie who can grant all of your wishes. This reflects the bastardization of Eastern religions common in New Age thinking. The disturbingly but revealingly popular The Secret is the perfect example: if you just want it hard enough, the power of your intention will bend the cosmos, quantum foam and all, to align with your will!

But the message here is the opposite. The intent is not to help you get what you want, but to help you let go of what you want. True freedom is not the power to do or get what we want; it is realizing we already have everything we need. Put another way, once you realize that the pearl of great price is “always within you,” then you can play, free from the fear that you will lose it or the desire to gain it.

If we fail to make that distinction, the Great Mother transforms into Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. If life is a slow-moving conveyor belt, Kali is the black monster eyeing us the whole time, always hungry, ravenous, gobbling us each all as we plummet like lemmings to our demise. The Big Bloom becomes the Big Bang, an aimless, entropic universe whose direction and default is death. Our reactions to the face of freedom are familiar: fight, flight, fawn, freeze. Death provokes defiance, distraction, delusion, and depression.

But according to the Daodejing, the angst and ennui of the European existentialists—and the pep pathological positivity of the American New Agers—are misguided. If we do not rage against the dying of the light, but rest in the “darkness within darkness,” we will give birth to something new. If we embrace Kali, she will embrace us back. And then, we are free to play again. What Zen calls the “Great Death” and what the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross described as the “dark night of the soul” is the portal through which we must pass to enter what Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven”—and to do so, we must become “childlike.”

But the kingdom of heaven is not some place or plane beyond earth or after death. Jesus tells us that, like the Dao, it is “within you.” (Luke 17:21)

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 5

Chapter 5

“The Tao doesn’t take sides;

it gives birth to both good and evil.

The Master doesn’t take sides;

She welcomes both saints and sinner.”

Is Lao-tzu preaching moral relativism?

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace writing about atheism, in the day to day trenches of adult life, there’s no such thing as moral relativism. “Moral relativism” only exists as a theory that academic philosophers haggle about, and as a bogeyman in the imaginations of cultural conservatives. In real life, no one actually does—or could—live that way.

Just as Nietzsche’s call for us to go “beyond good and evil” was not sanctioning venery or violence, Lao-tzu is nudging us to consider that the moral categories we cut the world with are mere conventions—useful some of the time, dangerous when taken as absolute. We all cut the world with different dyads:  saints and sinners, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed. But when we do this, we cut others and, unconsciously, ourselves, in two.

Indeed, the real “relativist” is the moral absolutist, the fundamentalist who is blind to how what he calls “good” generates—and is thus related to—what he calls evil. And the true absolutist, the “Master,” is the one who sees the folly of trying to be “right” and “winning” the game of morality, the one, as we saw in chapter 3, who “leads by emptying people’s minds.”

Such a message might seem opposed to Christianity, since God only creates good, not evil. But is Jesus not like “the Master,” always going toward the sinners? Like Lao-tzu, Jesus is hell bent (!) on scrambling people’s dualistic moral matrices in order to lead them toward unitive consciousness, so precisely captured in St. Paul’s “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Yet as Father Richard Rohr likes to point out, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. The “mystical body of Christ” is not Jesus’ resurrected body floating around in some parallel dimension, but what Daoism calls the “10,000 things,” a term of art for the cosmos. Or put another way, it is the person Jesus’ resurrected body—but that is the same body, of which we are all a part, that we call the universe. “Salvation” is not about believing in Jesus, but becoming like Jesus.

Not without reason does Jesus rebuke his disciples for misunderstanding him. Like a Zen master striking a stiff student, Jesus upbraids them for failing to grasp his parables and metaphors. Warning them to beware the “yeast of the Pharisees,” he asks with exasperation, “How could you fail to see that I was not speaking about bread?” (Matthew 16:11)

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 4

Chapter 4

“The Tao is like a well:

used but never used up.

It is like the eternal void:

Filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.

I don’t know who gave birth to it.

It is older than God.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Alan Watts liked to tell the story of the astronaut who, upon returning to earth, was asked if he saw God in the heavens. He replied, “Yes. And she is black.”

One thing this chapter does is disabuse us of the idea that Dao is “God.” Many of the early translators imposed their own Western, Christian assumptions onto the text, supposing the Dao to be some transcendent super-being separate from nature, distorting a very different tradition with very different priors.

But not entirely different. While it would be wrong to regard the Dao as a cypher for a monotheistic God, it would be just as wrong to put it in the camp of atheism. One reason for this is that atheism is a Western phenomenon that emerged precisely as the rejection of a kind of God that Eastern cultures never embraced in the first place. It would be like addressing a man who never played baseball as a “non-baseball player,” only to receive the puzzled reply, “What is baseball?”

Nonetheless, as I’ll discuss later, the Daodejing—and Zen, the child it bore with Buddhism—is closer to Western spirituality than you might expect. My students are often surprised to learn that St. Thomas Aquinas, the Philosopher in Chief of the Catholic Church, wrote: “We cannot know what God is. We can only know what God is not.” Despite the magnificent cathedral of the mind he constructed—the Summa Theologica, a veritable Theory of Everything—here he gives voice to the mystics, what came to be called the tradition of “negative theology.” For the Hindus, this is the practice of neti, neti, “not this, not that.” We move closer to true reality not by addition, but by subtraction, eventually even letting go of the very idea of “true” reality. As legend has it, just before his death, Aquinas was reported to have uttered, “All I have written is so much straw.” Was this Aquinas’ realization, or perhaps confession, of the Zen formula that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form?”

Watts’ little parable, and this chapter, tell us three related things about the Daodejing.

First, while we Westerners tend to value the positive—I can think of no book title more representative of our “toxic positivity” than The Power of Positive Thinking, whose author’s church Donald Trump attended as a child—this tradition recognizes the power and potential of the negative. When Pascal, gazing up at the night sky, wrote “these eternal spaces fill me with dread,” he was voicing the idea that unfilled space is an abomination, neutral at best, negative at worst. The empty is the dead.

The alternative brings us to the second point: recognition and respect for the feminine principle. Arguably no major religion gives greater priority of place to the feminine principle than Daoism. Accordingly, the nothing is not a terrifying void which should lead us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but a creative matrix pregnant with possibilities. Empty space is less a tomb, more a womb. As Martin Luther King wrote, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

Lastly, we don’t just find empty space scary, but empty time. Pascal also wrote: “The problem with man is that he cannot sit quietly in a room.” If we are not doing something, we are “wasting” our time, not “making use” of it. Here, time is taken as a kind of raw material that has no value in itself. It only becomes valuable when we “mix our labor” with it. I take that phrase deliberately from John Locke, who laid the philosophical foundations for our understanding of private property and the “labor theory of value.” In this view, nature is not enough. For the Daoist, though, this attitude is premised on an un-useful understanding of what is truly useful.

Dao Du Jour: Day 3

Chapter 3

“The Master leads

by emptying people’s minds….

He helps people lose everything

they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion

in those who think that they know.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial) 2006.

For the Daoist, a mind is not a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to lose.

Something can only be truly filled when it is fully emptied. How often can we say that our minds are empty? For most of us, each day is bookended by checking our phones, which deliver a steady stream of information—emails, texts, app notifications, social media posts, and calendar appointments—and in the time between we check compulsively, whether due to FOMO, work anxiety, or the craving for dopamine hits. We are rather like the “hungry ghosts” from Tibetan Buddhism, with tiny mouths and distended bellies, doomed to forever gobble without satisfaction. They don’t call it “doom-scrolling” for nothing.

We cannot be satisfied because we are never really hungry—never really empty. Just as we are surrounded by cheap, abundant calories, we are inundated with cheap, abundant information. And just as fasting can help us feel lighter and become leaner—and help us appreciate a good meal—digital detoxing can help clear our minds and ground us in our bodies.

T.S. Eliot asked—around a century ago!—that “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” By collapsing the three into “information,” and believing that the more information the better, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can move closer to certainty and further from confusion by amassing more information. But as we have learned, this often merely reinforces our imprisonment in echo chambers and filter bubbles, as our attention and greedy desire for “comfort news” is invisibly monetized while we click, tap, and scroll.

Reading this chapter, it is tempting to picture the “Master” as a guru, a sage, a monk, or even a great political leader. But the chapter also says “If you overesteem great men, people become powerless.” The Master is really your own inner sage—what Buddhists call not-knowing, that part of us that is always free, open, and empty, of which we are usually unconscious, and which our culture tends to regard as “useless.” Lead from there, the text suggests, and you will empty your mind.

And if you empty your mind, what would you let back in?

Dao Du Jour: Day 2

Chapter 2

“When people see some things as beautiful,

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

other things become bad.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.)

Two thousand years after Lao-tzu, Hamlet would echo this idea: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Think about the last political conversation you had with someone you disagreed with. Did you make any progress? I suspect not. In our post-truth informational ecology, the conflict is not merely over what is good, but over what is true. There is nothing true or false, but Facebook makes it so.

A paradox arises: isn’t it then “good” to realize that all things are both good and bad, depending on your perspective? That strikes the mind as a contradiction only if we confuse thoughts with things. Daoism invites you to consider that contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox—put more positively, mystery—are not just bugs of bad thinking, but features of reality. And beyond this, the more we cling to one perspective, one half of a dichotomy, the more we strengthen its opposite.

Lao-tzu is not pushing nihilism and nudging us toward Hamlet’s existential despair. He is doing what Jesus does in the Gospel of Matthew when he says “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” The word hypocrite is related to the word for “actor.” We are all hypocrites in a sense—actors in the play of society, characters with unique desires, preferences, and histories with our own ideas about what is beautiful, good, and true. Wisdom is realizing our hypocrisy, which is also to realize that we are more than that character—we are caught in the broader cosmic drama. As Wittgenstein put it, “to draw a line to thought is to think both sides.” Practical wisdom is skillfully holding those two perspectives together while acting in the world.

We can hold our masks lightly. We can, that is, play our roles with a view to the script as a whole–especially the part that is unwritten–rather than see ourselves as the center and the script as fixed. When we do so, we create space—for ourselves to realize what is “bad” in what we consider “good,” and for our fellow actors to see the same—and to breathe.

Dao Du Jour: Day 1

“The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

This is the first line in the first chapter of the text. One implication you might draw is: read no further, you’re done! The end—in the sense of the goal, purpose, or “takeway”—is contained in the beginning. The text begins by telling us to let go of text itself—of words, ideas, concepts. As you’ll see throughout, the Daodejing is intent on disrupting our conventional view of the relationship between mind, word, and world. Our minds create and cling to our words, we come to confuse our words with the world, and this cuts our minds off from the world itself.

Lao-tzu would agree with Emerson: “Every word was once a poem.”

What words are you stuck to today?

Dao du Jour: Day Zero

Welcome to the launch of the Daodujour!

This project has been incubating for almost exactly one year. For one of my new year’s resolutions last year, I decided to start each day reading a chapter on the Daodejing. My reasons were both personal and professional: I was looking for a source of inspiration to start my mornings off, and I was scheduled to teach Daoism for the first time in the Fall for a course called “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” The text seemed like the perfect blend of poetry, spirituality, and philosophy to help me being the day with a clear, calm mind primed to create. And I figured it was a feasible goal, since the chapters are essentially poems, no longer than a page and often just a few lines. It ended up being one of the few resolutions I kept.

I was already familiar with Daoist philosophy, had practiced Tai Chi, a martial art it inspired, for an extended period of time, and felt confident I could do justice to it in the classroom. But I wanted more. As a saying from the Asaro tribe of Papua New Guinea puts it, “knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.” In their commentary on the Daodejing, Roger Ames and David Hall put it more prosaically: “For it is affective feeling itself rather than simply cognitive ‘knowledge’ that is the site of knowing…. The Daodejing recommends cultivating those habits of awareness that allow us to appreciate the magic of the ordinary and everyday” (Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation (188). I wanted to soak up the elusive essence of the text, to steep in it—if I wanted to really learn how Daoism can infuse our so-called everyday lives, I reasoned, I need to make it a part of my life—every day.

The next question was what translation to use. The Daodejing is one of the most translated texts in world literature, and classical Chinese is notoriously difficult to translate. Beyond this, in Daoism, as you’ll see, obscurity is a feature, not a bug. At some level, the very idea of a “correct” translation is a misunderstanding of the tradition, a product of the very mindset from which it tries to release us. The Western mind, so preoccupied with clarity, precision, logical consistency, and analytical acumen, is at a disadvantage approaching the Daoist tradition, rather like a man trying to eat soup with a fork.  

The text has 81 chapters, which meant I could move through it in a little less than three months, which meant I could digest around four translations by the time I had to teach it. I dared not delude myself into thinking I would by then have anywhere near a comprehensive, or even well-rounded, understanding and appreciation for the variety of interpretations and nuances of meaning they draw out of the text. But I figured that if I looked at translations coming from discernibly different perspectives, I would be moving in the right direction—or at least a good one.

I decided to, as it were, triangulate between the philosophical, the Sinological (the study of ancient Chinese language, culture, and history), and the spiritual. One way of thinking about these three perspectives is, respectively, an emphasis on the true, the correct, and the useful. Another, overlapping schema is :

  • moral (how does the text suggest we ought to behave?)
  • metaphysical (what picture of the world does it paint?), and
  • mystical (how does it aim to, in Aldous Huxley’s phrase, cleanse “the doors of perception,” and dilate our awareness to open to a deeper dimension of ourselves and the world?).

And, of course, there is the classical big three of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True from the Platonic tradition, or what Ken Wilber distills into Art, Morals, and Science. It is a mistake—especially with a text like the Daodejing—to cling too tightly to any scheme of categories, and better to approach it with what Zen calls “beginner’s mind.” But I figured cognitive flexibility and porousness of perspectives is the right way to circle around and sidle up to its inner sanctum. I wager that the reason certain texts stand the test of time is that they address all of these basic domains of our existence.

I decided to start where I was and with what I already had—a beat up old copy of the text I had gotten at a used bookstore in college—and got to work. Over time, as I entrained the habit and moved from one translation to the other, I found myself folding my reading into my morning walk and journaling routine, and the three actions began to constellate into one. I found the morning ritual grounding and therapeutic, and began to see just how practical and powerful such a gnomic little text could be. And being thus filled to the brim with daily doses of Daoist wisdom, I felt the urge to return the favor, and empty out the results of the reaction it catalyzed in me. I decided that my daily reading should be paired with daily writing.

For 2021, I would write about the Daodejing, share it with people, and see what happened.

The one thing most people know about Daoism is the yin-yang symbol. Indeed, it’s likely one of the things that draws people to Daoism in the first place. The symbol is directed at the subconscious—or, better, the superconscious (about which more later…). Like the Cross, or the Star of David, the symbol is arresting and archetypal, hinting at a simplicity beyond complexity. Like a Rorschach blot, it seductively lures you to pour and project, spill and splatter the contents of your psyche onto its façade.

The problem—as with all religious symbols—is that people often get stuck to the façade, turning an icon into an idol. Scholar Edward Slingerland explains:

“The yin-yang symbol is looked upon nowadays as a positive image of mystical wisdom, happily slapped on surfboards and tattooed on twenty-year-old butts. In fact, it actually symbolizes a dark and pessimistic vision, akin to the Buddhist teaching of dukkha or impermanence: all striving leads to disappointment in the end because there is no permanence in the world. The cycle of yin-yang is not to be celebrated but escaped.”

~ Trying Not to Try: Ancinent China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity (94)

How, then, do we escape? We’ll get to that.

I’ll be exploring the many meanings of yin and yang as we go, but I realized that it had a keen bearing on my little experiment. One of the most obvious features of the symbol is that dualities are interconnected and mutually interpenetrate each other; there is black in all white and white in all black. Reading is predominantly passive (yin-ish), writing mainly active (yang-ish). When you read, you’re reading something someone wrote, and when you write, you’re writing something someone else will (hopefully) read. Nevertheless, reading only works if the reader is bringing something to the table, and writing only sings if it’s open to the inspiration of the moment and mindful of the reader to whom it’s addressed. To read, you have to grapple with the writer, and to write, you have to listen, not just to the muse, but to the reader. You have to do something like dance.

How right and proper it seemed, given my subject, that my daily reading of the text be paired with daily writing. But I realized this was just a microcosm of a larger problem I had struggled with for years: creative constipation. I’ve identified as a writer ever since my ego congealed around 15, and while I’ve kept a serious journal since college and did lots of academic writing in and after graduate school to break into academia, over the last few years I kind of lost the habit. If a writer is a person who feels like a waste of planetary space on days when they don’t write, then by this point part of my psyche must resemble the garbage planet in Wall-E.

The flipside of this is that, as a reader, another part of my psyche resembles the rapacious consumer that produced all that garbage. Of course, I tell myself that it’s all “research,” fodder for future writing projects—books, blogposts, op-eds, long essays. As an Enneagram 5—the “observer”—I’m driven by the need to feel resourced. At best, this manifests as being well-informed about a topic; at worst, an obsessive-completism that snuffs out the creative spirit.

On top of this was another disordered desire: perfection. Despite knowing all too well, at an intellectual level, the paralyzing follies of perfectionism, I was nevertheless caught a state of perpetual conception, conjuring book outlines, chapter and essay titles, topics, but rarely converting any of it into finished products. I would return from a run burdened with insights and hastily record them in my journal before they stole away, the sweat smearing my chicken scrawl. And then the next day I would go on another run, and repeat the process. Over time, what felt like an albatross of debt—as though I owed the muse for her investment in me—began to accrue and, like a millennial cowed by an unscaleable mountain of student loans, I felt the urge to give up. The form this took was Netflix, video games and, of course, more reading. Reading, intended as either an end in itself (pleasure) or as a means to procure raw material for writing (research), tumbled into its opposite: drudgerous duty and procrastination from writing.

A marriage of obsessive-completism about reading and perfectionism about writing, needless to say, does not spirit children bear.

While I am unusually bookish, in some ways it’s a modern pathology: the desire—if not the perceived duty—to be well-informed about the world and in the know and have opinions about everything, cultivated by a 24-hour news cycle, a historically unprecedented abundance of information, and ready access to all of it in the palm of our hand almost every moment of every day.

Already in the 19th century, Nietzsche warned that modern man had begun to be weighed down by “knowledge stones” that blocked access to our creative, meaning-making power, that trap us in the cave of the present and suffocate the will to the future. Emerson, writing across an ocean at around the same time, began his great essay, “Nature,” with a similar thought: “Our age is retrospective.” Today, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has diagnosed ours as a decadent age—exhausted, complacent, fat, full, feeding on the cultural products of generations past.

All of which is to say: I have long found it instructive to consider the ways in which my own karmic knots are caught in and caused by a wider web of social pathologies. As Nietzsche also said, “Madness is something rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.” To find your bearings in the labyrinth of your own psyche, you need to discover the ways in which your culture is mad. To find your Ariadne’s thread, you need a lifeline from a culture not your own. And after spending a good year with the Daodejing, I’m convinced that the Dao is strong, needed medicine for our culture—precisely because we lack one—and our souls—precisely because we doubt they exist. It’s not the answer—as with the meaning of life, there’s no such thing, and to think so is folly—but it’s a damn good one.

So each day, I’ll select a quote from a chapter of the text, and offer you a short response to it. It may be only a sentence or a question; it may be a personal reflection along the lines of a journal entry; it may take the form of metaphysical musing, or maybe even mild moralizing; it may come off as clichéd, banal self-help or cultural appropriation; it may be social or political commentary; it may even, heaven forfend, get a little “woo-woo.” My hope is that it will give you a tiny dose of Dao to start your day off right—or at least better than it would be doom-scrolling Twitter.

If I ask myself about what I make of Daoism, or whether I “believe” in it, after my extended experiment, I smile and recall what one of my Zen teachers, Robert Kennedy (no, not that one), said upon first meeting the man who would become his Zen master. I paraphrase from memory: “I had no idea what Zen stuff was, but I knew right away…whatever it is, this is it!”

Episode #17: Cameron Keys–Philosophy at the Pentagon

Cameron Keys is a Financial Specialist at the Army Research Laboratory, but his intellectual journey started with philosophy. After studying the intersection of science, policy, and philosophy at ASU, Cameron was awarded a Presidential Management Fellowship that eventually brought him to work at the Department of Defense. In this episode, we talk about his work researching emerging technologies like nanotech and synthetic biology, laboratory ethnography, and what it’s like working at the largest organization at the world–as well as baseball, Buddhism, and how he accidentally ended up working as a production assistant on the film, Tropic Thunder in Hawaii.

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Episode #16: Marci Baranski

Marci Baranski destroys greenhouse gases for a living. After getting her PhD in biology and society, Marci became a Presidential Management Fellow and pursued a career as public servant, working for the US Department of Agriculture as a climate change specialist. Due in part to the Trump administration’s systematic rollback of climate policies, Marci transitioned into the private sector. Today, she works as a Research Asssociate at Tradewater, a new company that tracks down CFCs around the globe, destroys them, and sells the carbon credits on carbon markets.

At a time when understanding the interaction of biology and society has never been more important, Marci and I explore the epistemic and ethical issues around science and technology policy; the controversies over GMOs; the challenges of working on climate under the Trump administration; and more.

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Episode #15: Zachary Pirtle

Conventional wisdom regards the “STEM” disciplines as diametrically opposed to the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular. But Zachary Pirtle is living proof that this view is wrong headed. After studying philosophy and engineering as an undergraduate, Zach went on to receive an MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Arizona State University and his PhD in Systems Engineering from George Washington University. His training and research in engineering was deeply informed by science policy and the philosophy of science.

During his graduate studies, Zach became a Presidential Management Fellow and a civil servant in the federal government. In addition to his day job, Zach has continued publishing his research, and has helped organize the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology (fPET).

In this episode, he explains what philosophy–particularly ethics and epistemology–can contribute to engineering. We explore what engineering is; how the philosophy of science helped him stick with the study of engineering; and how to think about the obligations engineers have in and to a democratic society. At a time of waning public confidence in the federal government, on the one hand, and big tech, on the other, Zach helps us reflect on how science and technology policy might be intelligently designed to better serve the public and improve society.

We also talk about the power of science fiction to offer inspiring visions of the future…and his experience helping to organize a citizens forum on asteroids!

 (Note: Pirtle’s views are his own and do not represent his employer)

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Episode #14: Amy Reed-Sandoval

What can philosophy tell us about immigration and identity?

Amy Reed-Sandoval, assistant professor of philosophy at UNLV, is the founder of two Philosophy for Children (P4C) initiatives: one in Oaxaca, Mexico, and one at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso. She is the author of the new book, Socially Undocumented: Identity and Immigration Justice.

Amy was recently awarded the Public Engagement Fellowship from the Whiting Foundation to expand her P4C work. In this episode, she shares her experience working in the conceptual and geographical borderlands between American and Mexican culture, between teaching children and college students, between philosophy and everyday life.

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Episode #13: Tim Richardson (Part 2)

Tim Richardson is a Washington, DC based multi-client government affairs and media
consultant. After extensive political and business publishing and two congressional aide
stints, Richardson has become the nation’s only private sector consultant that has worked
on Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration. In addition, he has served
as Wildlife Forever’s Washington, DC representative since 1995.

In our conversation, Tim sings the praises of what he calls “normative careers,” and explains why studying the humanities and philosophy can not only lead to a fulfilling life, but a successful career. Tim has worn many hats throughout his career–journalist, speechwriter, fundraiser, consultant, lobbyist–and worked for a number of politicians, including Lloyd Bentsen. But what unites his efforts is his grounding in philosophy.

Continue reading “Episode #13: Tim Richardson (Part 2)”

Episode #12: Tim Richardson (Part 1)

Tim Richardson is a Washington, DC, based multi-client government affairs and media
consultant. After extensive political and business publishing and two congressional aide
stints, Richardson has become the nation’s only private sector consultant that has worked
on Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration. In addition, he has served
as Wildlife Forever’s Washington, DC representative since 1995.

In our conversation, Tim sings the praises of what he calls “normative careers,” and explains why studying the humanities and philosophy can not only lead to a fulfilling life, but a successful career. Tim has worn many hats throughout his career–journalist, speechwriter, fundraiser, consultant, lobbyist–and worked for a number of politicians, including Lloyd Bentsen. But what unites his efforts is his grounding in philosophy.

Continue reading “Episode #12: Tim Richardson (Part 1)”

Episode #11: Andrew Light (Part 1)

With the possible exception of William Bennett, Andrew Light is the first philosopher to work in a presidential administration.

Andrew has two interrelated careers.

One is as an academic. He is University Professor of Philosophy, Public Policy, and Atmospheric Sciences, and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. In his academic work, Andrew is the author of over 100 articles and book chapters on climate change, restoration ecology, and urban sustainability, and has authored, co-authored, and edited 19 books.

The other is as a policy expert and advocate where he works on the front lines of international climate and science policy. From 2013-2016 he served as Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, and as a Staff Climate Adviser in Secretary of State John Kerry’s Office of Policy Planning in the U.S. Department of State. In this capacity he was Co-Chair of the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Combating Climate Change, Chair of the Climate Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals across all agencies for the U.S. government, and served on the senior strategy team for the UN climate negotiations. He is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

In short: Andrew helped to negotiate the Paris Agreement.

In our conversation, Andrew tells the story of how he created a parallel professional identity: by first breaking into the think tank and policy community in D.C., and second landing a job in the U.S. government. In Part 1, he gives a report on the state of climate policy in the Trump era, how he got involved in interdisciplinary work, and what he thinks philosophers can contribute in the policy arena.

Continue reading “Episode #11: Andrew Light (Part 1)”

Episode #10: Greg Sadler (Part 2)

Over the last decade, Greg Sadler has emerged as the “YouTube philosopher.” Someone was inevitably going to fill that role, but the title is well deserved: Greg has produced around 1400 videos, has 84,000 subscribers and, at this writing, has received almost 8,000,000 views.

After leaving a conventional academic career as a philosophy professor, Greg struck out on his own and built a consulting business geared toward putting philosophy into practice. Through his company, ReasonIO, he offers a suite of services–consulting for organizations, counseling and coaching for individuals, curricular design for educational institutions, and more. Greg also edits the popular blog, Stoicism Today, is a prominent voice in the modern Stoic revival, a frequent public speaker, and is involved in oodles of cool philosophy projects.

In Part 2 (Part 1 here), we dive into how Greg developed a presence on YouTube, the simple power of making distinctions in business , and his advice for young philosophers considering leaving academia.

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Episode #9: Greg Sadler (Part 1)

Over the last decade, Greg Sadler has emerged as the “YouTube philosopher.” Someone was inevitably going to fill that role, but the title is well deserved: Greg has produced around 1400 videos, has 84,000 subscribers and, at this writing, has received almost 8,000,000 views.

After leaving a conventional academic career as a philosophy professor, Greg struck out on his own and built a consulting business geared toward putting philosophy into practice. Through his company, ReasonIO, he offers a suite of services–consulting for organizations, counseling and coaching for individuals, curricular design for educational institutions, and more. Greg also edits the popular blog, Stoicism Today, is a prominent voice in the modern Stoic revival, a frequent public speaker, and is involved in oodles of cool philosophy projects.

Join us as Greg walks us through his reasons for leaving academia, the struggles he faced in the wild building a new professional identity, and how he became the YouTube Philosopher.

Continue reading “Episode #9: Greg Sadler (Part 1)”

Episode #8: Dan Fincke (Part 2)

Dan Fincke is a “Rogue” par excellence. An expert in ethics and the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, he runs an online teaching business and offers philosophical counseling from his home in France.

In the second part of our conversation (Part 1 here), Dan walks us through his period of experimentation in starting an online teaching business, and how he learned to think like an entrepreneur and business person. We end by diving into his brilliant interpretation of the Star Wars saga, and how Nietzsche can help us make sense of The Last Jedi.

Continue reading “Episode #8: Dan Fincke (Part 2)”

Episode #7: Dan Fincke (Part 1)

Dan Fincke is a “Rogue” par excellence. An expert in ethics and the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, he runs an online teaching business and offers philosophical counseling from his home in France.

Of all the people I met in graduate school–including myself–Dan Fincke is the one who most deserves the title “real philosopher.” His personal story is good proof of concept for the power of philosophy to alter the course of a life: after growing up a devout Christian, his encounter with Nietzsche led him to leave the faith.

At Fordham, Dan had a reputation for being a captivating teacher, and knowing him well, it was easy to see why: his default setting is what David Foster Wallace described as “that special kind of intensity that happens after about the fourth beer.” I remember having an intuition early on that like his favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, Dan’s raw energy would not be contained by the academy, and that he would eventually leave. And he did. After completing his PhD, Dan adjuncted aggressively in the New York City area–at one time teaching a mind-bending 9 courses in a semester at 5 schools across 3 states–all while becoming a luminary in the atheist blogger community.

Join us as Dan shares how upon leaving academia he not only built a sustainable online teaching business, but unexpectedly met the love of his life.

Continue reading “Episode #7: Dan Fincke (Part 1)”

Episode #6: Matthew Stewart

One night, after completing a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University and wondering what he was going to do with his life, Matthew Stewart was shooting pool with a group of graduating seniors. They were going on about the jobs they were about to begin in something called “management consulting.” For lack of a better idea of what to do, he applied to ten jobs and, yada yada yada, found himself plunged into a strange new world that, to his surprise, bore a striking resemblance to the academic one he had just left.

After a short but successful career as a management consultant, Matthew returned to his true passion: writing. He spun his memories in the business world into a rich and riveting book that is not only a history of the very idea of “management” in the 20th century, but a penetrating philosophical analysis and critique of the ideas and values that dominate in the business world.

More recently, Matthew has turned to writing about economic inequality, including what became the most widely read essay in The Atlantic magazine in 2018.

Join us for Matthew’s story, his advice for students interested in entering the business world…and some laughs as we lampoon all those self-help business books you see at the airport!

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Episode #5: David Brendel

David Brendel wears many hats–philosophical counselor, executive coach, and psychiatrist. After catching the philosophy bug reading the Great Books at Yale, David pursued a medical career at Harvard Medical School. Refusing to choose between medicine and philosophy, he enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Chicago, where he did pioneering work in the philosophy of mental health. Armed with his medical and philosophical knowledge, today David is a counselor to individuals and a consultant to businesses.

Join us as we chart David’s unusual intellectual trajectory, probe the fine line between a medical and an existential approach to mental health and wellness, and explore the challenges and opportunities of equipping executives with philosophical tools to help their businesses thrive.

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Episode #4: Ryan Stelzer (Part 2)

A “philosophy company” might sound like an oxymoron, but Ryan Stelzer had the audacity to found one.

After studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, Ryan landed a Presidential Management Fellowship, and went to Washington to work in the White House as a management consultant. Torn between returning to the academy to complete his PhD and staying in the business world, he created a third option: starting a philosophy company, Strategy of Mind, an executive coaching firm that helps companies solve problems using the tools of philosophy. When he and his business partner co-wrote an article for LinkedIn, within 48 hours, the article had 300,000 views and they received 70 job applications.

Ryan walks us through his journey from academia to government to the private sector, and talks through the challenges of importing and translating philosophy into the world of business.

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Introducing Lyceum

I’m thrilled to announce that Wisdom at Work is officially a member of Lyceum! Lyceum is a new app whose hand-curation cuts through the noise of a million podcasts to help people find great educational shows and have great conversations about them, right in the app.

Download the app at lyceum.fm and then check out Wisdom at Work’s Discussion Room to hang out with me and other listeners.

Listen and Subscribe:

Episode #3: Ryan Stelzer (Part 1)

A “philosophy company” might sound like an oxymoron, but Ryan Stelzer had the audacity to found one.

After studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, Ryan landed a Presidential Management Fellowship, and went to Washington to work in the White House as a management consultant. Torn between returning to the academy to complete his PhD and staying in the business world, he created a third option: starting a philosophy company called Strategy of Mind, an executive coaching firm that helps companies solve problems using the tools of philosophy. When he and his business partner co-wrote an article for LinkedIn outlining the idea, within 48 hours, the article had 300,000 views and they received 70 job applications.

Ryan walks us through his journey from academia to government to the private sector, and talks through the challenges of importing and translating philosophy into the world of business.

Continue reading “Episode #3: Ryan Stelzer (Part 1)”

Episode #2: Sal Giambanco (Part 2)

After studying philosophy and training to become a Jesuit at Fordham in the early ’90s, Sal moved to San Francisco. Here, he served as a hospital chaplain for the dying, at the veritable ground zero of the AIDS plague. Years later, he left the Jesuits and academia, and went on to a successful career in human resources, working for companies such as PayPal, eBay, and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm. Sal is an expert in human capital and an executive coach.

In the second part of our conversation (Part 1 here), Sal and I dig into what he learned from the dying during his time serving as a hospital chaplain in the trenches of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco; why he had to leave the Jesuits to truly love (and truly experience poverty!); how he transitioned into the business world; why the liberal arts have everything to do with today’s global economy; and much more.

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Episode #1: Sal Giambanco (Part 1)

If I had to pick the most interesting person I’ve ever met, it would probably be my friend and mentor Sal Giambanco. When we first met over ten years ago at our common alma mater, Fordham University, he described what he did for a living as “philosophical counseling for CEOs.” Needless to say, he had me at “transferrable skills.” It was Sal that first planted the idea for this podcast in my head–that philosophers can succeed beyond the ivory tower–so he is the ideal guest for its inaugural episode.

After studying philosophy and training to become a Jesuit at Fordham in the early ’90s, Sal moved to San Francisco. Here, he served as a hospital chaplain for the dying, at the veritable ground zero of the AIDS plague. Years later, he left the Jesuits and academia, and went on to a successful career in human resources, working for companies such as PayPal, eBay, and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm. Sal is an expert in human capital and an executive coach.

Join us as we explore his fascinating life, his extraordinary career, and his personal encounters with Elon Musk, Pope Francis, and the Dalai Lama…

Continue reading “Episode #1: Sal Giambanco (Part 1)”

The Jaime Lannister of Climate Politics

Bjorn Lomborg is like the Jaime Lannister of climate change politics:  a square-jawed, towheaded, smooth-talking semi-villain who never seems to go away.  Unlike the “Circes” of climate denial, he concedes that climate change is anthropogenic and poses a serious threat.  But he thinks devoting substantial resources to dealing with it is a miscalculation based on mistaken priorities.  He is a skeptic–not of the science, but of the policy.  His latest, an Op-Ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (paywall), rehashes the argument he’s been making for years.

You might be surprised to hear that Lomborg’s position on climate passes as liberal for the WSJ Op-Ed page.  Despite being the most widely distributed newspaper in the world, and one of the most widely respected, and a bastion of center-right thought, count the Journal a skeptic when it comes to climate change.

Lomborg’s was the article that tipped me over the edge and led me to spend a morning penning a letter to the editor that, as it turned out, got published a week later (albeit substantially trimmed):


Arguments like Lomborg’s are actually more dangerous than those of climate skeptics or deniers because they threaten to sow doubt among those who are already on board with climate science.

Below, I re-print my original letter to the Journal.  As you’ll see, its length is probably not the only reason they didn’t print the whole thing:

“Unlike the Journal, Bjorn Lomborg (“The Charade of the Paris Treaty,” June 17-18) laudably acknowledges the reality and gravity of anthropogenic climate change.  However, his piece contains several fallacies.

First, Lomborg correctly notes that the first round of pledges will fall far short of the stated goal of 2 degrees Celsius, and cites the failed Kyoto protocol as evidence for Paris’ likely failure, but he misconstrues the long-term logic of the agreement, as well as the way in which Paris is importantly different from Kyoto.  For one, every five years pledges are reviewed and ratcheted up, which aims to foster trust, cooperation, and peer pressure between parties and gradually build toward more ambitious targets.  For another, Kyoto had binding emissions cuts, whereas Paris has voluntary commitments in order to allow flexibility to account for countries’ political and economic feasibility constraints.

Second, Lomborg erects a straw man:  no one serious is claiming that we’re sailing into the solar paradise tomorrow.  The global energy economy is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat.  The point of Paris is to create a sea change in how countries think about climate:  to see it as deeply tied to their economic and geopolitical interests so that they begin to invest more in renewables and put a price on carbon.  Lomborg ignores the geopolitical dimension of Paris.  The Obama administrations’ most important strategic diplomatic achievement was to elevate climate to the same status as core issues in international cooperation, such as trade and security.

Take it from philosopher and policy analyst Andrew Light, who worked in the Obama Administration to craft and negotiate the Paris agreement:

Trump’s decision will damage U.S. integrity at the negotiating table and impede the ability of this White House to effectively pursue other international issues that require multilateral support. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, put it bluntly: “I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility” than leaving the Paris Agreement. It will also make it difficult for other leaders to justify to their citizens sitting down with this White House to negotiate anything the U.S. wants, given the broad and deep recognition of the need for cooperative action on climate change among other major powers.

In the new reality, if you’re a bad actor on climate, countries can leverage this against you and make it harder for you to get what you want on a range of issues.  Or punish you—France, e.g., has floated the idea of slapping a carbon tax on US imports.

Third, Lomborg descries subsidies for renewables.  What he fails to mention is that fossil fuel subsidies far exceed the former.  This should bother conservatives, since subsidies distort markets—the price of fossil fuels does not reflect their true cost, which leads to an inefficient use of resources.  This is basic, uncontroversial, conservative economics.   And he should know, from reading energy historian Vaclav Smil, whom he cites, that no major energy transition has ever happened without massive government support.  Bizarrely, he concedes this toward the end of his piece, calling for increased spending on R and D; and indeed, one of the main goals of Paris is to stimulate such investment—hence billionaires such a Bill Gates rallying around the agreement and launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Fourth, Lomborg clings to the canard that action of climate is bad for the economy.  However, in his work he relies on a morally and economically dubious value for the social discount rate.  Even William Nordhaus, the dean of climate economics and a long time conservative on climate action, has conceded that he was wrong about the value he ascribed to the social cost of carbon.  And others, such as economist Nicholas Stern, claim that the cost should be much higher, which makes the price tag of eventual climate change much, much higher than the investments needed to decarbonize the global economy.  Again, the social cost of carbon is a fundamentally conservative idea:  individuals and firms ought to pay the full costs of the byproducts of their economic activity.  Economic growth is just one value among others, and it is unclear whether it is best fostered by weak climate policy.  Prudent investors hedge against risk.

Lomborg is right to claim that we must approach action on climate in the context of global issues such as education, health care, poverty, etc., and that, in the short term, investments in these areas would have a greater impact on welfare.  But he seems to assume that if we don’t direct resources to climate, they will indeed be devoted to these areas, which seems unlikely.  Moreover, a number of these issues are entangled with and may be exacerbated by climate change.  One reason e.g. that China and India are investing heavily in solar and decreasing their coal dependence is the costs of pollution to public health and their economies.

All told, Lomborg’s position—like the Journal’s editorial stance on climate in general and Paris in particular—is unserious, unconservative, and untenable.”

It seems to me that the winning strategy for climate advocacy is to craft arguments to appeal to 1) social conservatives and 2) economic conservatives.  How, in other words, to explain why Christianity and Capitalism logically lead to action on climate?

Don’t talk about the “environment,” talk about “creation.”

Don’t talk about “ecological balance,” talk about “economic growth.”

Don’t talk about “ecological destruction,” talk about “job creation.”

The language is jobs, infrastructure, investment, insurance, energy independence.

More later on the psychology, culture, and communication challenges of climate politics.

The Great Grad School Debate

Over at onlinecolleges.net, a sort of fun interactive infographic with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” decision tree to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school:

The question of graduate school isn’t really one question, since grad school is said in many ways:  there are worlds of difference between grad school in the humanities, in law, and in business, for instance.  In contrast to the infographic, I am going to talk here exclusively about grad school in the humanities.

Continue reading “The Great Grad School Debate”

If Businessmen Became Bodhisattvas: “Selling In”


Young people who go into lucrative professions scorned as bereft of moral scruples rather than choosing a noble profession helping others are often regarded as “selling out.”  But Jason Trigg, a recent MIT graduate, “sells in“:

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn….  he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary…

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

His inspiration?  The moral philosophy of Peter Singer:

While some of his peers have shunned Wall Street as the land of the morally bankrupt, Trigg’s moral code steered him there. And he’s not alone. To an emerging class of young professionals in America and Britain, making gobs of money is the surest way to save the world. When you ask Trigg where he got the idea, his answer is a common refrain among this crowd: “I feel like I’d read stuff by Peter Singer.”

Singer’s influence notwithstanding, we can also see Trigg as trodding the path of the Bodhisattva…

Continue reading “If Businessmen Became Bodhisattvas: “Selling In””

“Caged Wisdom,” Part One: Value Theory, Value Added

Should philosophers focus less on Value Theory, and more on Value Added?

Over at Salon, a plea for philosophers to swallow their pride and get on with selling themselves and their profession:

if philosophy is so important, then selling itself to the culture at large is important too. So it’s time for philosophers to put their clothespins on their noses, wade into the stench of real-world commerce, and ask some of those tanned and toned marketing majors who skipped out on Philosophy 101 for some help.

Philosophy, in short, needs a Marketing Makeover.

Continue reading ““Caged Wisdom,” Part One: Value Theory, Value Added”

Rage Against the Machine


Over at Adjunct Rebellion, a scathing assessment of MOOCs:

While the last 20 years of academia have seen these two destructive practices aimed at the professoriate, it hasn’t been until lately that the threat is driven by the internet — in the case of academia, in the form of MOOCs that are now looming enormous, casting monstrous shadows over the college campus. The MOOC model, from the standpoint of the professoriate, is an entirely exploitative one.  The professor designs a class, has lectures and other media support shot and “canned” — and then the university, or the MOOC itself owns that material.  It OWNS the intellectual property of a professor who has trained for, on average, a decade for advanced degrees, who has taught for years and developed skills and abilities.  And, once that particular area of scholarship is canned — who needs the professor, ANY professor, anymore?

This is an example of the rhetoric of crisis I discussed earlier, and let me be clear that I don’t always think that’s a bad or un-useful thing–it just depends on what your goals are.  If your goal is to wallow, then it works great.  If your goal is to get tenure, you’re barking up the wrong tree (these two goals, incidentally, are espoused by the folks over at the Philosophy Smoker Blog, a nest of nattering nabobs of negativism, which openly admits that its focus is to “bitch about” trying to make it in academic philosophy).  If your goal is to make a living, then just quit and do something else (and you CAN do something else).

Continue reading “Rage Against the Machine”

One Meta-MOOC to Rule Them All

Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke, has a great idea:

In January 2014, I will offer a six-week Coursera class, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” free and open to anyone. I’d like to turn the class’ weekly forums into an opportunity for a massive, global, collaborative, constructive, peer dialogue about how higher education got to its current dilemma. And from there, I hope we can come up with some creative, innovative, and workable ideas to make a better future.

A MOOC about MOOCs seems to make a great deal of sense for a few reasons.

For one, it provides a forum for investigating just what a MOOC is, what it can and cannot be, whether and to what extent it does indeed enhance learning, and whether and to what extent and in what ways this can be measured.  If it turns out that such an experiment yields a more nuanced and useful picture of the ontology and application of the MOOC, then this itself would be evidence that the MOOC is a sound design and delivery mechanism.

Second, as Cathy notes,

In the present mood of high polemic, hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort out the questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a national or international level: Is now the time to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and open access to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yet another cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from tax payers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be the public good of higher education?

Crisis rhetoric is seductive but does not have a great signal-to-noise ratio.  A MOOC that took a, well, academic approach to MOOCs might help to dispel the fervor over the MOOC-ment and help people think clearly about just what it is and what it means.

Third and related, much of the chatter about MOOCs is so focused on the “disruption” of the status quo, but sometimes the storied history of that status quo is not sufficiently excavated.  An inquiry into MOOCs in the context of the history of higher ed might help us see that the notion of Higher Education enshrined in our social imaginary is a historical anomaly made possible by a set of specific events, notably World War II and the G.I. Bill.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed just ran a piece along these lines (though it is paywalled).

I have finally decided to take the plunge:  I have signed up for Coursera’s “Internet History, Technology, and Security” course.  It’s not quite Christopher Hitchens voluntary trying out water boarding in order to do his subject justice, but I figure it only makes sense to walk the walk.  Reports forthcoming.

A Balanced Approach to MOOCs (Ctd.)


Robert Maguire has profiled a math MOOC funded by the Gates Foundation and launched at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse that had an unexpected effect:  though it was offered worldwide, it was widely embraced around the state by high schools and led to deeper coordination between high school and college students, teachers, and administrators in order to avoid the “redemial math trap and close what we might call the “Preparation Gap.”  From McGuire’s interview with two representatives from the college:


The way MOOCs are growing I imagine a lot of graduating high school seniors are thinking about using them this summer, whether they’re being driven to it by the necessity of a placement exam or for enrichment or to stay sharp for college. What would you advise a graduating high school senior who’s thinking about taking a MOOC?


A MOOC can be helpful to show what a college course actually looks like, how it’s done and what to expect in their first year of college.


Over summer, taking a MOOC is going to help them learn how to be an independent learner, how to study, how to find that internal motivation, how to seek out resources, recognizing that they do have multiple ways they learn, and they need to find that strategy within themselves.

Students might look at what’s aligned with their discipline of study. If someone’s looking at going into a history major, then they might look for some different history MOOCs. They can use the MOOC as a way to find out, “Is this something I am really passionate about and want to study for the next several years of my life.”

This is proof positive of an idea Noel B. Jackson floated which I mentioned yesterday:  MOOCs not only expand open access to what, for convenience sake, I’ll call the Third World (Globalization), but they can strengthen local and regional communities in the (f/c/s, again) First World.  They not only expand the net to wire more nodes, but they deepen the connections around each node.  MOOCs can potentially have “glocal” impact.  In the case of the MathMOOC at UWL, the connections are spanning vertically across the different levels of the education system.  This might take the teeth out of the objections of MOOC skeptics, who dismiss MOOCs as trojan horses for neoliberalism or digital colonialism.

This “localizing” side-effect of MOOCs targets a serious problem that so many college teachers face:  beset with near illiteracy and/or innumeracy in their students, they find themselves asking, “How did these kids get into college?”  This often happens with writing skills. The college teacher faces a dilemma: should I teach them the content, or teach them how to write? If you just teach the content, then a) they aren’t likely to grasp it as roundly, since you can’t cleanly separate the ability to write clearly and the ability to think clearly, and b) you shirk your responsibility as the “last line of defense” before the students get out into the real world bereft of solid writing skills. If you teach them how to write, you’re not teaching the content. And if you try to split the difference, well, as Lao Tzu says, “if you chase two rabbits, both get away.”

Better coordination between high school and college teachers and administrators could help close the “preparation gap” that frustrates so many teachers and short-changes many students.

By the way, MOOC News and Reviews is a treasure trove of information about the cluster of issues orbiting the MOOC-ment.

(image courtesy of http://www.apartmenttherapy.com)

A Balanced Approach to MOOCs


Noel B. Jackson, a professor of literature at MIT, has a thoughtful and balanced take on MOOCS over at “Sustained Inattentions”–he has the advantage of proximity, since he is essentially at one of the two ground-zero’s of the MOOC movement (Silicon Valley and Cambridge).  He testifies that, in his time at MIT, no issue has arrested the attention of folks in higher ed as much as the MOOC.  His view on the place of MOOCs in current discourse about higher ed is insightful:

“The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed.”

The rhetoric of crisis and disruption can inhibit us from thinking clearly and carefully about how best to surf this strange new wave.  The utopian and dystopian narratives are, as Noel points out, the views that MOOCs are either democratizing or corporatizing:  that they are either making the highest quality education available to the world’s poor, or they are merely the latest step in the corporatization of the university that has been underway for decades.

Confessing his ambivalence about MOOCs, he points to a possible benefit of MOOCs that I hadn’t heard of before:

“My interest in MOOCs extends to how the format can be imagined to provide access to a university curriculum to populations that may not have had this kind of access, as this is the population that stands to gain most from them. But in addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?”

This is certainly a pressing need at the university I teach at.  Fordham University’s main campus is an oasic bubble plopped in the middle of one of the poorest counties in the country, and few of the students venture past the perimeter of security-saturated environs.  Anything that could facilitate a deeper engagement–heck, any engagement–with the world beyond the walls would be a very good thing; and perhaps MOOCs and other online approaches might facilitate that, though I’m not sure how.

(image courtesy of http://www.apartmenttherapy.com)

Scumbag Philosophers


Genius. (Analytic)

My favorite:

“Is fictional construct designed to make you feel superior.”

“Will still do better than you on the job market.”

Not quite as funny, but also kind of genius. (Continental)

(image courtesy of memegenerator.net)

Reality Bites, Philosophy Bites Back


In a recent interview over at The Philosopher’s Magazine, Nigel Warburton, co-presenter of Philosophy Bites, the wildly successful philosophy podcast, riffs on his experiments in public philosophy, the problems plaguing philosophical research, and his recent decision to leave academia.  The success of his podcast is proof positive that there is a hunger for philosophy in the publicyber space.  Excerpts below.

The surprising success of the podcast:

The initial thought was that mainly philosophy students and lecturers might take an interest, but he’s heard from American listeners with time to kill on long drives, people waiting out wildfires in Australia, and soldiers in Afghanistan concerned about ethics. When I ask for details over email, Warburton sends me a list of 40 countries, all with more than 10,000 downloads each, some with vastly many more, millions more in some cases. Just after the usual English-speaking suspects, China checks in at number five. The United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Taiwan, Iran and Indonesia make the list. Several spin off series, two books (and a third in the pipeline), more than 250 interviews and an alarming 16.7 million downloads later, and Philosophy Bites is an international philosophy phenomenon.

Warburton explains that he is leaving his secure position at Open University largely because of the dominance in academia of what he calls “crossword puzzle philosophy” (essentially, what Daniel Dennett has deemed “chmess“):

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11. Issues about free expression, all over the world, are not just academic. They’re matters of life and death. There are exceptions, but philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

On philosophical “research”:

I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that?…  It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did…  Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

One is hard-pressed to disagree with a straight face.  As someone who has been on the job market for a couple of years, I always inwardly cringe when I am asked to explain my “research” to a search committee or a dean.  In a formal sense, research is something that a scientist does in a lab or in the field:  designing and conducting experiments, collecting and interpreting data, and the like.  In an informal sense, it means doing your homework–gathering relevant information–before a meeting, an interview, etc.  Philosophical writing, for the most part, is not research:  it is reading articles and books, thinking about them and the subjects concerned, and then writing what one thinks about them.  Exceptions could arguably be made for “experimental philosophy” and branches of philosophy in dialogue with the sciences, such as philosophy of mind or biology, but for the most part, I think it’s a category mistake to think of the reading and writing of philosophy as “research.”  We might view today’s philosophical “research,” largely a consequence of the rise of analytic philosophy and “science envy,” as a new form of scholasticism, a defensive, conservative crouch destined to be consumed by the coming Avalanche (more on this, Higher Education’s equivalent of the Singularity, later…) (I hasten to add, however, that analytic thought, at its best, provides a needed check against the scholastic excesses, verbosity, and sheer fictioneering of much Continental thought.).

Despite the coming storm, Warburton is ultimately optimistic about the fate of philosophy:

“Because of changes in online teaching, in the next ten years, the university system will be turned on its head. If Philosophy Bites can make such an impact with two guys with a hard disk recorder and a couple of laptops, think what people who fully understand the new technology, who can write code, who can employ the best philosophical communicators around, think what they could produce. It’s only just starting. We’re going to see dramatic changes to how we learn, teach, do research and share ideas. I think philosophy’s future’s very bright.”

I asked two days ago what, in light of Leon Wieseltier’s view that philosophy these days only “tweaks and tinkers,” an alternative might look like.  Philosophy Bites seems to be a solid step in the right direction.

(image courtesy of Philosophy Bites)

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: a Sorry Sort of Idealism


I came across a letter I wrote to a friend last year who inquired about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and thought I’d repost excerpts of the philosophical content below:

[I had to laugh when I got your message–I was in church of all places.  Next question: what was I doing looking at my phone in church and committing digital blasphemy? Answer: obnoxiously long Catholic ceremony. The supreme irony is that Rand’s most recent notoriety in American culture is Paul Ryan–a, well, “severe” Catholic–a big Rand fan.


About Rand. Let me take your questions one at a time, but let me be blunt: I think Rand’s philosophy is ludicrous–it is an attractive and interesting philosophy embraced with zeal by adolescents (including high-school me!) first starting to think for themselves, but when touted as a philosophy of life, or as a serious platform for political economy, it is dangerous, historically uninformed, and morally abhorrent. Hopefully my responses to your questions will convey why I think this.

Continue reading “Ayn Rand’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: a Sorry Sort of Idealism”

Technology and the Fate of the Humanities

Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic, added another entry to the growing genre of commencement speeches targeting technology.  He worries about the shrinking of the humanities in higher education and the culture at large, as technology colonizes more and more corners of our lives.  His piece reminded me of T.S. Eliot:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Leon is taking aim at the values and worldview of Silicon Valley, an ideology that Evgeny Morozov has dubbed “technological solutionism”, the reduction of all problems to technical problems, the notion that technology can fix all things, and the reduction of knowledge to information:

There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

He is referring, of course, to Ray Kurzweil, the scientist, inventor, and anointed Philosopher Prophet of Silicon Valley who has just been hired by Google.  Leon’s piece is aimed squarely at Kurzweil’s scientism:  the extension of science from a method to a metaphysics, with claims based not on data but on dogma.  There are some who consider Kurzweil the Most Dangerous Man in America.  While Steve Jobs has been raised up as the Great Man of our age, he may end up being overshadowed by Kurzweil, who is on track to become the Father of AI.  I will be addressing Kurzweil’s worldview–essentially, that technology is the continuation of evolution by other means–in future posts.  For now, see Michael E. Zimmerman’s recent reflection on AI from the perspective of Integral philosophy.

Leon’s is exactly the argument that C.S. Lewis made over half a century ago in The Abolition of Man:  man’s modern conquest of nature is really nature’s conquest of man.  Why?  Because when reason is turned into a tool to satisfy our desires, our desires are running the show–but our desires or instincts largely come from nature.  I will return to Lewis’ argument and its connection to modern nihilism in future posts.

One noteworthy thing Leon mentions is the place of philosophy in all of this:

Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

What would it mean to not just “tinker and tweak”?  What would that look like?  Why is it so difficult, not only to do, but to even imagine?

I think philosophy has been assigned one of its great tasks for the present age.   If Hegel said philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought, then the great challenge for thought in our time is that one of the most important matters, technology, is largely about our future, and its grip on our present makes it so hard to reflect on it.

Gamification, Part Two


[Reposted from the following discussion thread]

Thinking about this and reading your posts, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is emerging as sort of the Big Novel of our era. The story takes place in the not too distant future, and the title refers to a film that is so addictive that it kills the people who watch it; and the film, unsurprisingly, is wildly popular.

Wallace was concerned that, in the words of sociologist Neil Postman, we are “amusing ourselves to death”–not literally, of course, but psychologically or spiritually. I find this narrative seductive, but I resist it for that very reason. Part of the problem, I think, is that people just have different dispositions. Humanist folks tend to have a European part of their soul, a melancholic affect, a deep suspicion of the popular, the common, the fashionable, the masses, a reverence for some distant past, a disdain for the practical. But a lot of Americans don’t share this affect or this outlook: they just want to do their work, make their money, and have some fun, however the culture is currently defining and delivering it–”what’s the harm in that? Lighten up?” The Euro-humanist, of course, looks at these people and just cries “false consciousness”–they either don’t know, or won’t admit, their true condition. The Euro-humanist sees most people as trapped in and bespelled by some kind of Cave, and tends to see The Next Big Thing (MOOCs, gamification, Facebook, etc.) as just more distraction, illusion, ideology, etc.  As the inimitable Roger Sterling puts it:

So what I think we’re dealing with here, at some level, is just different sensibilities: the can-do, practical, pragmatic, American happiness pursuer just NEVER WILL see the world quite like the intellectual, Europeanish, theory-minded soul will; for that reason, the gamified world is a blast (“awesome!”). This person does not have a problem with just doing their work, whatever it is, and going home and living their life. They don’t see, and they don’t care, that the compulsion to be entertained does any kind of damage to the soul, or makes us less of a human being. Maybe some people can just handle entertainment in a more moderate way. Wallace himself, for instance, had a highly addictive personality, and couldn’t handle fun things because he just found them to be, well, too much fun.

I have grown suspicious over the years of what I’ll call the Office Space Ideology that lots of intellectuals and humanists and liberals adopt: that corporations are evil, that office workers are drones, that it all really is as stupid and wretched and soul-rending as films like Office Space portray it to be. Why? Because most of those people have probably never worked in an office! And yes, they probably would find it to be drudgery. But maybe for people of a different sensibility, that’s not what it is. Maybe they are just better at accepting things for what they are–that, as Matthew Crawford puts it in his thoughtful and important meditation on the value of work, work is necessarily toil and serves someone else’s interests.  And so rather than futilely try to fuse work and play, erect a separation of powers:  work is the realm of necessity, play is the realm of freedom.  And that reminds me of something Wallace said in a different context, when he was interviewing a pro tennis player: “I am almost in awe of his ability to shut down neural pathways that are not to his advantage.”  People who are well adjusted are better at adapting to the reality of American life, which in some important ways overlaps with reality itself.

And let’s face it, the American Pragmatist is sometimes spot on about the EuroHumanist’s posturing, pedantry, and pretentiousness:

Maybe one reason that Euro-humanists disdain things like gamification is that their attachments to an idyllic past and an ideal future create such a sense of loss, longing, disappointment, and frustration that the escape and pleasure provided by games et al. is an irresistible narcotic. The crucial question is, whose sense of reality is more warped?

Gamification, Part One


[Reposted from the following discussion thread]

Discussions about education these days often reference something called “gamification”:  the use of games or game-like structures to enhance learning.

On the one hand, I see the appeal: rather than fight the forces affecting students’ behavior outside the classroom, harness them and integrate them into the learning process. “Badges” will replace “grades,” and “competence-based learning” will replace degrees, etc. Now earlier iterations of online learning may well fall prey to the diploma mill problem (a piece of paper saying you can now do what you could already do), but it sounds as though the next generation of online learning tools will be more sophisticated: they will be able to empirically demonstrate that student x has learned skill y to do job z. And they achieve that result through an engaging learning process that motivates them through gamified learning modules (like a video game) that take less time (more efficient) than the traditional course/degree model.

But what unsettles me about this, from something like a sociological perspective, is that it turns everything into a “game”–the game of professional advancement and money-making that people will be playing for most of their lives, of competing and achieving and winning, will become seamless with the educational sphere. It feeds into the hyper-competitive culture we are becoming more and more each year.

Moreover, the shift from text to image based learning seems to be a kind of surrender to our culture, which has been image-based for a long time. In my view one of the chief functions is to give students the tools to RESIST and challenge and criticize the present culture–to give them a chance to be an individual. And so gamification seems like another stage in the subsumption of education by corporate values: “fun” on the outside (infotainment), soul-eroding on the inside. All to equip students with 21st century skills so that we can “beat China”, or whatever.

But to challenge THAT–video games aren’t what they used to be. Many involve sophisticated cognitive tasks. So part of the gamification craze is a challenge to the highbrow, elitist prejudice that only book smarts and book learning are real smarts and real learning. There is a parallel here to the time-lag in critiques of capitalism. I wonder whether Marxist, or Marxish, intellectuals are ragging on a form of capitalism that was, well, creatively destroyed, ages ago, and not that capitalism is perfect, but 21st century capitalism is an importantly different animal. They might retort that it is still the same SPECIES–inherently, structurally unjust and exploitative and dehumanzing, and so on…which is an essential debate to have.

“What Does it Really Take to Succeed in Academia?”

Paige Harris has an informative piece over at Online PhD Programs on some best practices for landing an academic job.  Despite one factual error–Paige claims that academia has long been “unscathed” by the vicissitudes of the economy, when in fact the job market, at least in the humanities, has been abysmal since the 1980s–I think it is all sensible advice, though I would say that the understated tone of the piece may be misleading to those in or aspiring to graduate school.

Paige writes:  “There’s no doubt that building a career in academia is a challenge these days, but it can be done.”  There are challenges, and then there are challenges.  Running a 6-minute mile is a challenge for many, but pretty much anyone can do it if they discipline themselves.  Running a 4-minute mile is nearly impossible; it depends not just on an unusual degree of hard work and determination, but on winning a genetic lottery.  As someone who has just hazarded the punishing fire of the academic job market and lived to tell the tale, while I would not equate landing a tenure-track or secure position in academia with running a 4-minute mile, it’s not far off.  I will recount my harrowing tale–which, I can assure you, has a most happy ending–in a future post, “There and Back Again.”

A couple of things that Paige does not mention (and, to be fair, need not mention, as her subject is simply HOW to get a job) are how “success” is measured in academia, and whether “success” is really as desirable as wide-eyed graduate students tend to believe.  First, reading her post, you might be wondering how, with all of the energy that goes into “packaging” yourself, you ever find time to focus on the ACTUAL job:  teaching, thinking, reading, and writing.  As I recently told a group of young graduate students, the first rule of the job market is also the first point in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life:  “it’s not about you.”  It’s about a persona that you will create that will, hopefully, be selected in the lottery that we call the academic job market.  This is essential not just for marketing purposes, but for maintaining mental health.

But this marketing does not end once you get a job.  As you will see–through attending conferences and publishing papers and getting your nose dirty in department politics–academia is a game–everything is not as it seems.  This is partly why Frank Donoghue claims, in his book The Last Professors, that today’s academic is less an intellectual than a kind of salesman.  I will be blogging on Frank’s book–and, hopefully, interviewing him via podcast–in the coming months.

Second, as Paige rightly emphasizes, people need to think very, very carefully about whether they really want it–and what they’re really signing on for, financially, geographically, socially, and professionally.  To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, the eccentric mathematician from Jurassic Park:  “Academics are so focused on whether or not they can get a job, they never stop to think if they should.”

I will be posting about these and related issues in the coming weeks.

David Brooks’ Practical University


David Brooks has, I think, made progress in the discussion about MOOCs and online education.  His central idea is that given the increasing sophistication and decreasing cost of online learning as a delivery mechanism for technical knowledge and skills, universities can no longer cling to a business model in which they charge a small fortune to impart technical skills.  As Brooks flatly states, “There will be no such thing as a MOOC university.”  One thing they can do–perhaps with a somewhat lower price tag–is specialize in the acquisition and development of practical knowledge and skills–the “Practical University”:

So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.

Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.

While Brooks’ notion of “practical knowledge” is a bit thin (column-sized), the point is important.  What makes all of this possible is the “flipped classroom.”  While humanities teachers have generally shaken their heads at and pooh-poohed EdTech, the flipped classroom is a game-changer.  Lectures on Plato, colonialism, and Melville can now be placed online (and software can check to make sure students are watching them), while class time can be used exclusively for seminar-style interactions in which students can develop prized social skills.  As Brooks notes,

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

Let’s face it:  where and when do we deliberately try to develop these “soft”, “people” skills?  One might carp at Brooks using an example of a corporate environment–a critic might say that this just makes university seminars into a lab for “behavior modification”–but we can view his point more expansively:  that universities taking this approach are helping to develop the whole person; in that sense, they could become more congruent with the original liberal arts ideal.

Whereas before professors had to (often awkwardly) balance lecture and discussion, now they can have a clearer division of labor.  I can testify to the challenge of “getting through” lecture–transmitting the ideas, interpretations, facts, etc., that you want to highlight from the reading–to get to what, in my heart, I consider the real business of teaching:  the conversations that you foster and facilitate in the classroom.

Brooks explains how technology might be used to enhance the classroom environment:

The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.

In this way, technology can create the space in which a stronger sense of community can take root in the classroom.  Moreover, in reviewing their performance on video, they would be able to see how they appear in public.  This would make students uncomfortable in the very way that we want them to feel uncomfortable.

The general sense in these sorts of discussions is that all of this EdTech stuff is bad news for humanists.  However, notice that the technical knowledge sounds like stuff that robots can do; as Kevin Drum details, the long imagined future of the robot worker is not too distant at all.  This might lead to a cruel irony:  online learning is maturing–through gamification, analytics, adaptive learning mechanisms, and so on–at around the same time as automation.  What is the sense in equipping the masses with all of these technical skills if robots are just going to perform the jobs to which they are suited?  Then, you might say, people should be trained how to build the robots and do the programming and engineering, etc.  But the reality is that there are only so many people who will be needed for this kind of work.  All of which begs the question:  just what the hell are all of these people going to do for a living?

But this might put humanists in a surprisingly good position.  Daniel Pink, one of the new darlings of the business self-help industry, has argued that Right Brainers will rule the future.  And indeed, Forbes recently listed the Top 10 In Demand Skills in 2013–check out the top four.  What is driving this?  I think it’s the fact that life in our new Technopolis is creating problems and raising questions that are not scientific and technical problems and questions.

My chief concern with Brooks’ proposal is not about substance, but about scale.  It’s easy to imagine something like this going on at Harvard et al.  But at Wannabe University?

(image courtesy of marketingzen.com)

Profit, Prophecy, and the Case of the Hybrid University (Ctd.)

One more point about the Bloomberg article raises pertains to the plight of adjuncts.  Though SNHU’s online program was initially supported by adjuncts getting paid the usual pittance, it has generated enough revenue to hire full-timers to do more (and, hopefully, eventually, most) of the teaching.  This may be a way to break the fatal logic of the adjunct dilemma as it exists at (solely) brick-and-mortar universities.  Not only would schools have the resources to ensure that many, most, or all of their on-site teachers are full time, but now adjuncts could still teach part-time, but do so more comfortably, without having to shuttle from campus to campus, which is a major drain on time, money, and mental health.

Of course, the true adjunct dilemma is faced by the teachers themselves, not the administrators.  My fellow blogger Dan Mullin recently shared his ambivalence about going back to adjuncting after a hiatus.

Profit, Prophecy, and the Case of the Hybrid University (Southern New Hampshire University)

Looks like Southern New Hampshire University has devised a nimble business plan.

This is just the kind of “disruptive innovation” that Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has predicted:  this refers to, in John Hechinger’s words, “the process by which companies at the bottom of the market use new technologies to displace more established competitors.”  The attack comes, not from the front, but from the side:  from the other two raptors you didn’t even know were there.  It is exactly the kind of thing that universities that wish to survive will need to do if anything like Christensen’s Prophecy–that in 15 years, HALF–that is right, half–of the institutions of higher learning in the United States will be gone.  (More on Christensen’s Prophecy–and the coming Avalanche–later…)

This may well be a viable pathway–and the only pathway–for middling universities attempting to surf and survive the volatile seas of the EdTech Era.  Frank Donoghue, whose essential book I’ll be plumbing in upcoming posts, thinks that the lasting mark on higher education left by the first generation of online for-profits will not be the companies themselves, but the selection pressure they exert on traditional institutions of higher learning:

“The real legacy of this industry, I believe, is its lasting and widespread influence on traditional universities.  Whatever the fate of specific campuses of the University of Phoenix, Career Education, or DeVry, these companies have demonstrated that it is possible to operate a university as a business….  The business model for higher education devised by the for-profits has tremendous appeal to administrators and lawmakers in an era of steadily declining public funding and tuition increases that are quickly becoming prohibitive.”

Donoghue thinks that the majority of non-profits will be torn asunder by the cross pressures of vocational for-profits, which lead to jobs, and elite nonprofits, which leverage prestige.  Large state research universities, he thinks, have largely lost their way, unable to decide what their mission and role in society really is, and thus plagued by “mission creep.”  This is the arms race that Christensen terms the “bigger and better” virus that has infected academic administrative culture.  However, the model of SNHU may well offer them a middle way:  the profits from an online apparatus that offers primarily vocational training can be funneled back to the leafy host campus in order to boost its prestige.  The challenge facing universities that take this path is, in part, one of perception, as Hechinger relays:

“Even some of the beneficiaries of Southern New Hampshire’s online push are uneasy. John Wescott, a 19-year-old sophomore at the physical campus, expects to graduate with only $15,000 in student debt thanks to financial aid. Yet he recalls a spirited discussion at a student-government meeting: ‘There was a sense that we were turning into the University of Phoenix and the value of our degree was going down.'”

Thus the “threat to Harvard” I discussed yesterday comes not just from the for-profits themselves, but from the effects they are likely to have–and are already having–on the non-elite, traditional universities.  But, again, let’s be clear:  Harvard feeling “threatened” is like the prom queen who is insecure about her appearance.

The Dark Side of MOOCs

Check out this infographic on MOOCs posted over at http://www.onlinecolleges.net:

The Dark Side of MOOCs

I will have more to say about the developing debate over MOOCs later, but at first blink, I have two impressions based on everything I have read:

The Good News:  MOOCs will disseminate the highest quality education to the poorest people.  As I noted in a previous post, and as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, whatever the fate of MOOCs in higher ed in the developed world, one unadulterated good they provide is giving people in the developing world a chance to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to have a fighting chance in the 21st century economy.

The Bad News:  The new strains of premium MOOCs being devised and piloted by the elite universities–the Big Three players listed in the graphic above–threaten the other players in the higher ed ecosystem:  for-profits, non-profit, 2nd and 3rd tier private schools, and non-profit state universities.  Harvard et al., fueled by virtually unlimited coffers, can BOTH kick butt in the arms race for prestige, and leverage that prestige to dominate the online landscape, thus furthering weakening the hand of mainstream, “middle class” universities.  Indeed, (ironically) Harvard economist David J. Collis predicted as much; in The Last Professors:  The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donogue explains Collis’ prescient speculation:

“[Collis] speculates that these top universities, made all the richer by capitalizing on their brand names to market “basic lectures and course”s online, could then ‘shift back to the tutorial system to differentiate their on-campus education’ experience.  They will, in other words, offer convenience to one market of students and prestige to another.”

They will, in other words, corner the markets for both the Technical University and what David Brooks has recently called the Practical University.  I will treat Brooks’ proposal–which seems correct but salutary in a depressingly restricted sense–in a separate post.

But one thing to notice is the story behind how Harvard made the decision to MOOC forward.  As Nathan Heller recently reported in the New Yorker,

One day in February, 2012, a social scientist named Gary King visited a gray stone administrative building in Harvard Yard to give a presentation to the Board of Overseers and Harvard administrators. King, though only in his fifties, is a “university professor”—Harvard’s highest academic ranking, letting him work in any school across the university. He directs the university’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and he spoke that day about his specialty, which is gathering and analyzing data.

“What’s Harvard’s biggest threat?” King began. He was wearing a black suit with a diagonally striped tie, and he stood a little gawkily, in a room trimmed with oil paintings and the busts of great men. “I think the biggest threat to Harvard by far is the rise of for-profit universities.” The University of Phoenix, he explained, spent a hundred million dollars on research and development for teaching. Meanwhile, seventy per cent of Americans don’t get a college degree. “You might say, ‘Oh, that’s really bad.’ Or you might say, ‘Oh, that’s a different clientele.’ But what it really is is a revenue source. It’s an enormous revenue source for these private corporations.”

HARVARD feels threatened?  Are you serious?  One is reminded of the bizarre phenomenon in recent American politics, in which the RICH plead that they are under attack by the “takers.”  Whereas under “normal market conditions,” the only class reasonably contemplating any kind of protest and revolt would be the lower and working classes, in today’s bizarro world of Gilded Age income inequality, the people at the top are so out of touch with reality, so insecure about their position at the top–perhaps haunted by a kind of “thriver’s guilt” fueled by the deep down knowledge that they did not really earn it, but won a cruel lottery–that they deceive themselves that they are under attack.  It is not enough that Harvard win the prestige game, it is not enough that they be the richest (with an endowment of–take a deep breathe, because i guarantee you are not ready for this figure–over $30 billion)–no, they must one-up the “1.0” for-profits (University of Phoenix, et al.) by leveraging their brand name, with one hand, and undermine the strapped middle class state universities and struggling 2nd and 3rd tier private universities, with the other.

This is a seriously incomplete and somewhat ranty account, and there is much more to the story–and, I think, more Good News that what I noted above–but it’s a perspective that needs to be laid out on the table and reckoned with.



After a prolonged hiatus–due almost exclusively to the interminable demands of the mad campaign of the academic job market–I am finally returning to blogging.  Over the next several weeks, I’ll be exploring the supercluster of issues orbiting education, technology, and the rapidly evolving relationship between them (so-called “EdTech”).

Along the lines of education, I’ve been working my way through several of the most recent screeds on and exposes of higher education.  I’ll be trying to sort through issues such as the following:

  • Corporatization of the university
  • Adjuncts
  • The future of tenure and the nature of academic freedom
  • The very idea of a public intellectual in the 21st century
  • The so-called “skills gap”
  • For-profit universities
  • online education and “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • The role of Big Data in higher ed
  • Student loans and the prospect of a higher ed “bubble”
  • Changing student demographics
  • The psychology and culture of academia

One of the most fascinating things I’m coming up against in this research, again and again, is how ignorant many academics, particularly humanists, tend to be about the conditions of their labor (as well as their reluctance to recognize what they do as labor), about how the university works, about the macroeconomic forces operating, as Hegel might say, “behind the back of consciousness.”  Our reflexes dictate that we bemoan the corporatization of the university, and scoff at the conservative critiques of tenure, intellectuals, and academia in general, yet we often fail to consider whether these positions have a kernel of truth.  What the research suggests–what students and the public suspect, and what more self-aware academics know–is that the university is not what it seems to be.

In much the same way that we continue to refer to something called “the middle class” in America, despite the radically changed and changing economic landscape of the last few decades, and especially the last five years, we continue to cling to a conception of the university that arose in a very different era; it is part of our “social imaginary” and is deeply bound up with our understanding of what it means to be a successful, middle class American; which, for many of us, sadly, is more or less equal to what it means to be a full citizen and, like, an actual human being.

On the technology front, I will be exploring recent critiques of the micro- and macro- roles and effects of technology:  in our personal lives, and in our political economy and culture.  Jaron Lanier, a founding father of virtual reality and early web, has emerged as one of the most perceptive and, given his tech chops, authoritative, critic of digital culture.  Lanier’s most troubling claim is that Web 2.0 and what he calls the worldview of “cybernetic totalism” is not only making it more difficult to be an actual person, but is accelerating the erosion of the middle class set in motion decades ago.

The great danger, he thinks, is that cultural creatives–musicians, journalists, and the like–are canaries in the “data mine”, but the first wave of middle class professions that will be rendered “redundancies” as more and more jobs are made obsolete by robots, computers, etc.  To this list, we can add professors.  As Lanier has it, a democracy is not possible without a middle class, but a middle class is not possible unless a society is structured to provide sufficient opportunities for most of the people to amass more wealth than the infinitesimally small number of people at the top.  The symbolic numbers of Occupy Wall Street point toward what Lanier considers the barely distant future:  In our new technopolis, there are the Lords of the Cloud, and the digital peasants.  Digital technology, the child of a democratic society in which prosperity was widely shared, is coming to undermine the bulwarks of the society that spawned it.

While Lanier focuses more on the political, economic, and social dimensions of tech, Sherry Turkle, MIT sociologist, zeroes in on how tech might be harming our psyches and our relationships.  Her central concept–that in the new, hyperconnected world we are always and everywhere “alone, together”–points to the dark side effects of technology, and the ways in which we have become addicted–like the incubants in the Matrix, or the prisoners in Plato’s Cave.

And that, it seems to me, is what connects these two great themes of education and technology:  they so pervasively define the contours of life in today’s world, yet their recent pasts are so unknown, their present effects are so hard to pinpoint, and their likely futures are so difficult to predict.  They constitute such a crucial part of our contemporary Cave.    The great task, then, is to patiently, persistently grapple with them.

(Image courtesy of gasparandmichelle.com)

Socrates Café #3: “Education: What is it Good For?”


In his famous Allegory of the Cave, Plato inquires into “our nature as it concerns education.”  These days, education is a hot-button issue, and with good reason:  from concerns over “teaching to the test” in elementary school, to deficits in basic reading and writing skills, to skyrocketing tuition and crushing student loans, to the corporatizing of the university, to the rise of online education–education is in a state of dysfunction, disrepair, and decline. Indeed, the title of the most popular recent documentary on education is apt:  “Waiting for Superman.”

These problems raise questions about precisely what education is for, what it means, and in what it consists.  Why is education such a difficult problem in American life?  In modern life?  In life itself?

Please join us as we delve into these and other thorny questions!


Socrates Café #2: Minutes

A belated thanks to all those who took part in our second Socrates Café a couple weekends ago.  This time we had a smaller group and a somewhat more intimate discussion that centered on the effects technology is having on our everyday lives and innermost minds.  Our conversation ranged over a swath of issues:  the positives and negatives of social media, the incentives for children to approach relationships transactionally, digital reflexes, boredom, distraction, online dating, and more.

We also got a couple suggestions for how to improve the event:

-Distribute a short reading to the group beforehand that touches on the topic at hand, so that everyone has a common base to launch from

-Tilt more toward divisive or at least controversial issues in order to spark more spirited debate and avoid a bland consensus

-Recommend some additional philosophical literature on the subject

I will keep these in mind in planning for the next event, but per the last suggestion, I want to post a few readings for those who’d like to learn more:

1)  Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”.  Heidegger’s classic essay on technology is noteworthy for his (at first) strange thesis that the question concerning technology is not technological.  That is, technology is not really “the stuff”–the computers, iPhones, planes, trains, and automobiles–but rather a way of seeing, knowing, disclosing the world:  it is a way the world is presented to us.  It is not a purely human artifice, but one-dimension of the world that, in the modern age, has been blown out of proportion such that it crowds out and obscures other modes of appearance.  While not intrinsically an evil or a negative force in our lives, the danger with technology is that we will come to see ourselves in terms of it; that, as Emerson put it, “things are in the saddle, and ride us,” such that we forfeit our freedom and humanity in our attempt to gain control over our lives.

2) C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”.  Following up on the last point, Lewis questions the long-term goal of modern secular humanism and the modern scientific research project–which, he argues, is to gain total control not just over nature, but over human nature.  The danger is that, in such a world, our only polestars for what counts as progress are our desires–our instincts–rather than some transcendent moral order, such as the Tao, Natural Law, God.  As such, Lewis concludes that, in our attempt to use technology as, in Freud’s phrase, a “prosthetic God,” our victories over nature are really nature’s victories over us.

3)  Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity is Near”.  Kurzweil is the intellectual prophet of Silicon Valley.  A distinguished and brilliant scientist, his radical views on the telos of technology can be roughly distilled into the following equation:  Hegel + evolution + technology + the Matrix = the cosmos.  Put differently, technology is the continuation of evolution by other means, and technology is developing at an accelerating rate.  Soon, with the birth of AI, evolution will reach a new stage, and the changes that will be wrought not just in human life but in the universe are so disruptive and unimaginable that this singularity is like an eschaton, a point of no return, the edge of a black hole–what lies on the other side is inconceivable from our present standpoint.  But Kurzweil insists it is good.

4)  Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget”.  A scion of Silicon Valley , Lanier, plays the puckish trickster to the pantheon of Gates, Jobs, and Zuck.  In this polemical text, he argues that the internet and digital technology is gradually corroding the human spirit and dealing away our dignity, one click at a time.  Like Heidegger, he fears the ways that technology warps our minds and constricts our engagement with others and the world around us, offering up a form of false consciousness in which he imagine we are free and following our heart’s desire, a state he calls “digital Maoism.”

Finally, I encourage everyone to visit TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), which contains a cornucopia of short talks on tech.

If you have any recommendations, please post them here and/or on MeetUp!

I will be in touch soon about our next MeetUp, which will be in late February.  I plan to lock down a more commodious venue.



MOOCs, Globalization, and Geist

originalThomas Friedman, ever the technological optimist, heralds the coming revolution in online education.

There is a kind of Hegelian strain in Friedman’s boosterism for neo-liberalism and globalization; not the state, but the free market is the march of spirit on Earth.  Any nasty consequences are just the acceptable side-effects and bugs of the beta version of something that will be surely perfected in the next iteration or soft-ware update.  Though Friedman’s natural optimism sometimes gets the better of him, his point about the potential impact of online learning in so-called developing countries is hard to deny.  This, coupled with increasing access to nimble tools like micro-finance, may well give people in the poorer countries and forgotten places of the world more opportunity to improve their lives.

We often discuss the merits and demerits of online education in the context of life in the developed world.  While this is surely an important discussion to be having, it may blind us to the prospect that the most far reaching, world-historical effect of online education may be felt not by us, but by those still struggling to secure basic needs.

What Courage Looks Like

My friend and colleague Dan Fincke just posted a reflection on his own journey through the twisted funhouse of the academic employment market.  Dan’s energy and passion–as a teacher and a blogger–has for years simply dumbfounded those of us who know him; his efforts are über-human, and in this way he is true to the ideal of his favorite philosopher, Nietzsche.

Dan’s situation is a symbol for what is wrong with professional philosophy.  In much the same way that Andrew Sullivan–one of Dan’s role models as a blogger–has led the charge in upsetting the conventions and exposing the limitations of traditional print journalism, Dan is leveraging the new medium of the blog to do philosophy in way that is accessible, interesting, relevant, and important for a broader audience.  I don’t say “popular” audience because that carries the whiff of “pop culture,” which spells “dumb.”  But today’s popular audience, in some parts of the country and the world, at least, no longer spells dumb.  When academics turn their nose up at “popular” writing and venues, I think they have this 19th century vision of a semi-literate hoi polloi a world removed from the elite bastions of oak-adorned studies and sophisticated salons.  But Dan, like an increasing number of younger academics, smells the rot and decadence that infects this way of thinking and this way of doing philosophy.  Again, like his intellectual hero, Nietzsche, Dan is finding a way to do philosophy outside the confines of academic scholarship.  And it should concern us that the 20th century was the first in which almost all the major philosophers were academics.  I heard a talk recently where a scholar argued that philosophy has always done better as a parasite (gadfly?)–when it uses something else as fodder for reflection, be it new developments in science, culture, technology, or politics.  Whenever it tries, or pretends, to become it’s own thing, it retreats into a sorry sort of solipsistic solitude, a cloud of self-important knowingness; a retreat fueled by fear and insecurity.  Voltaire’s Candide is precisely a mockery of this tendency–Dr. Pangloss (literally, “all words”) is the caricature of this mindset.

Continue reading “What Courage Looks Like”

The Law of Subtraction


Not to be confused with the “Law of Attraction,” the concept peddled by the best-selling self-help New Age book and film, The Secret:  the idea that, if you just want something hard enough—“I think I can, I think I can”–it will eventually come into your life.  Taken at a literal level, of course, this is plainly stupid and easy to mock.  But the book wouldn’t be so successful if it didn’t contain a kernel of truth.  The message resonates with people because it taps into a brute and basic psychological truth:  that people who are generally open and optimistic will generally attract other people and opportunities that will generally get them what they want and where they want to go.  It’s not a law of gravity, but a pragmatic strategy to help us navigate life.

One other such strategy is what we might call the Law of Subtraction.  We can come at this concept by defining it in terms of what it’s not:  the Law of Addition, which rules our lives more often than not.  What is the Law of Addition?

Continue reading “The Law of Subtraction”

Socrates Café #2: “What is Technology Doing to Us?”

Please join us for our second MeetUp!  RVSP

Our topic:  “What is technology doing to our society?”  Digital technology is rapidly and radically changing just about everything we do.  As Emerson said, “things are in the saddle, and ride us.”  Whether we see this spreading as a wildfire, a disease, or a wave of freedom–or as just really cool–I think we can all agree that its simply a fascinating phenomenon.  How are different technologies–medical, transportation, communication, information–changing our lives, for better or worse?

Please come join us for a Sunday afternoon of collective inquiry!

If you’d like to learn more, check out my website at http://www.davidestorey.com



*If you plan to attend, please be sure to patronize our generous host, Sit and Wonder Café.

**If you would like to suggest discussion topics, please let me know.

***Space is limited.  I am exploring an alternative venue that can accommodate more members of our growing group.  Stay tuned!

Socrates Café Meeting #1: Minutes

Thanks to all those who attended our first Socrates Café Brooklyn, “What is Success?”  It was a real pleasure meeting all of you, hearing your stories and struggles, and peeling back the veneer of our conventional views on success to try and approach the heart of the matter.  I think we often fail to realize the power and importance of throwing ourselves into dialogue with people from different walks of life and suspending, if only for a few minutes or a couple of hours, our basic assumptions about ourselves, our trajectory in life, and our view of the world.  It is not easy–indeed, in our discussion, we hit a few bumps in the road and the engine stalled a few times; but confusion is the crucible of a higher, deeper, rounder form of consciousness.  And we had some unpleasant exchanges; it became clear pretty quickly that the philosophical is the personal.  But overall, I think we had a good first showing and I look forward to our next meeting in January.

Some highlights from our discussion:

Continue reading “Socrates Café Meeting #1: Minutes”

What is Critical Thinking? The Single Most In-Demand Skill in 2013.


Academic philosophers, pressed to explain their unique contribution to the university, how they “add value,” why they are relevant, and so on, often fumble about, and the first thing the seize upon is the good old, tried and true “critical thinking.”  Ironic as it sounds, today’s academy isn’t all that interested in their critical thinking prowess.  But as it turns out, they may be fumbling in the wrong place, all while sitting on a pile of gold.  In its forecast of hiring practices for 2013, Forbes puts critical thinking at the top of the list.  In fact, philosophical habits of mind dominate the list:  complex problem-solving, judgment and decision-making, and active listening round out the top four.

Forward-thinking business leaders have been singing this song for years:  technical know-how is more downloadable than the supple habits of mind needed to deal with ambiguity and complexity, integrate concepts, perspectives, and data across domains, and see the bigger picture.  As Dov Seidman has argued, in today’s new economy, it doesn’t just matter what you can do, but how you do it, and philosophy is uniquely-suited to help us navigate the new normal of hyper-complexity, hyper-connectedness, and hyper-transparency:

Philosophy can help us address the (literally) existential challenges the world currently confronts, but only if we take it off the back burner and apply it as a burning platform in business. Philosophy explores the deepest, broadest questions of life—why we exist, how society should organize itself, how institutions should relate to society, and the purpose of human endeavor, to name just a few. 

Credit, climate, and consumption crises cannot be solved through specialized expertise alone. These problems, like most issues businesses confront in the global marketplace, feature complex interdependencies that require an understanding of how political, financial, environmental, ethical, and social interests influence each other. A philosophical approach connects the dots among competing interests in an effort to create synergy. Linking competing interests requires philosophers to examine areas that modern-day domain experts too often ignore: core beliefs, ethics, and character. 

Perhaps we might amend Plato’s dream of the philosopher-king:  that the world will limp on until philosophers become CEOs, or CEOs become philosophers.  Bodhisattvas must become businessmen.

Out of the Shadows

What leadership looks like:

On Thursday afternoon, on Day 2 of the Council of Graduate School’s annual meeting here, Michael F. Bérubé was scheduled to give a plenary address titled “The Future of Graduate Education in the Humanities.”

“There is no way to talk about the future of graduate education in the humanities without talking about everything else involved in the study of the humanities,” he told a rapt audience of about 700 graduate deans, most of whom were not from humanities fields.

Mr. Bérubé opened his remarks by saying that every aspect of graduate education in the humanities is in crisis, from the details of the curriculum to the broadest questions about its purpose. “It is like a seamless garment of crisis, in which, if you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels. It is therefore exceptionally difficult to address any one aspect of graduate education in isolation,” he said.

Among the problems he cited were high attrition rates among graduate students, the many years it takes students to get their degrees, the need to revise the content of graduate courses so that students are prepared for jobs outside of academe, whether alternative forms should replace the traditional dissertation, and if some programs should be reduced in size or eliminated altogether.

Mr. Bérubé also noted the glut of Ph.D.’s in the academic-job market and the 1.5 million people now employed as adjuncts, with no hope or expectation of ever getting a tenure-track position.

“For what are we training Ph.D.’s in the humanities to do, other than to take academic positions in their fields?” Mr. Bérubé asked the audience. “What does one do with a Ph.D. in philosophy or history, other than aspire to teach and conduct research in philosophy or history?”

The great task of the current generation of graduate students and early-career academics is to answer that question–together.  The university system cannot save them.

A Modest Proposal

Lenny Cassuto makes one:

What if we reconceived the guiding assumption that Ph.D.’s are supposed to become professors? As the Versatile Ph.D., a Web site dedicated to alternative careers for Ph.D.’s, pointed out in a comment to me, “Recognizing nonacademic placements as legit communicates a much more positive message about the skills and abilities that are nurtured by graduate education. It affirms the value of the entire enterprise.”

But it also throws a bone to administration.  If graduate programs were tricked out with nonacademic job training programs and workshops; if they forged partnerships with university career services offices, AltAc alumni, and administrators; talked openly about applying PhD training and skills, rather than relegating these conversations to the shadows; and/or incorporated internships and/or service learning into their programs–if any or all of these things are done, then graduate schools gain a competitive advantage.  They can say to prospective students:  “We don’t just place our graduates in tenure-track jobs.  We prepare them for a whole host of careers in different sectors.”  A healthy culture is one capable of criticism, reform, and adaptation–that is how institutional metabolism works.  But as Cassuto points out, cultural change can only happen if it starts at the academic equivalent of birth:

That affirmation has to begin at the earliest stage of graduate school. Professors need to shape students’ expectations before they enter graduate school—which means more transparency about their career options. And we need to shape students’ expectations while they’re in school about what’s waiting for them afterward. Most important, we need to alter their training accordingly, to prepare them for the full range of jobs they will be able to get.

The system only gets fixed from the inside, granted.  But I worry that Cassuto’s solution is only a rearguard action that eases the passage of the current generation of graduate students but concedes that the war is lost:  admissions will be cut and programs will close, and “becoming a professor” will no longer be a legitimate career path.

In any case, if present trends continue, I think we’re likely to see three species of PhDs:  the few Elites idling in Ivy Heaven , the many Plebs toiling away in Adjunct Hell, and the plucky, creative NACs who parlay the PhD into something new.

The Corporate Philosopher

Roger Steare, an organizational ethics professor in the UK, guides organizations in the private and public sectors:  “Ethics is no longer optional, it is absolutely crucial to the sustainability and success of our businesses, our public-sector services and every other institution and enterprise.”

More at his organization, Ethicability.

The AUdacity of MOOCs: “These are people who just want to learn”

In the last two posts, I broached the question of what long-term, structural effects online learning will have on higher education.  At Thanksgiving, I spoke a great deal with my two nieces, who are getting ready to go to college next year, and their parents, about the myriad dimensions of the process.  Like health care, college has become one of the most complicated, and most anxiety-inducing, pieces in the puzzle of modern life, not least because they are the sectors in which costs mock inflation.  Indeed, with the election over, I’d wager that families discussed these issues more than maybe any others.

As we’ve seen over the last decade, industries we considered staples of life in the modern industrialized world–music, journalism, and retail–were radically disrupted and transformed when the world became Flat.  This year, the New York Times has declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with 3 flagship online universities pioneering the new platform:

I want to follow up and throw into the mix two other perspectives I’ve come across in the meantime:

  • Robert Koons, a professor of philosophy at University of Texas at Austin.  Though Koons does not explicitly discuss online learning or MOOCs, his scathing, Closing-of-the-American-Mind-ish critique of the modern university–which he considers the most corrupt institution in modern society–casts light on spiritual, intellectual, moral, and economic weaknesses in the status quo that make the university vulnerable to the digital disruption.
  • Clay Shirky, NYU new media guru, one of the closest things we have to a public intellectual.  Essentially, Shirky seems willing to bet his tenure that early MOOC platforms like Udacity are tantamount to Napster, and that over the long haul online learning will indeed to to higher education something like what the mp3 did to music.

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The “Rock Star” Professor

The NY Times’ fascinating report on the rise of the MOOC raises questions about what we might call the “Professors of the Future”:

Udacity courses are designed and produced in-house or with companies like Google and Microsoft. In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”

The implications are enormous, and difficult to sift through.

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“Faster than Facebook”: the Brave New World of MOOCs

Apparently 2012 is not only the return of Quezacotl and Mayan Apocalypse, but, according to the The New York Times, the Year of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course).

The paint is barely dry, yet edX, the nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this fall in its first official courses. That’s nothing. Coursera, founded just last January, has reached more than 1.7 million — growing “faster than Facebook,” boasts Andrew Ng, on leave from Stanford to run his for-profit MOOC provider.

“This has caught all of us by surprise,” says David Stavens, who formed a company calledUdacity with Sebastian Thrun and Michael Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Dr. Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” last fall, starting the revolution that has higher education gasping. A year ago, he marvels, “we were three guys in Sebastian’s living room and now we have 40 employees full time.”

“I like to call this the year of disruption,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, “and the year is not over yet.”

What does the MOOC mean for the future of the traditional university?  The $20 million question–or, perhaps more accurately, the $50K/year question–is whether digital technology will do to higher education anything like what it did to the music industry.  A decade ago, few would have thought that a computer company would replace the record store; but here we are.

What might a tipping point look like?  

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An Inconvenient Storm

As Sandy approached, the media compared the storm, in its scope, rarity, and composition, to the three-headed monster that hit south of Nova Scotia in 1991 and was featured in the best-selling novel and feature film, The Perfect Storm.  In addition to the multiple meteorological elements, many all but immediately started speculating about the human element that magnifies the storm’s disruptive power:  next week’s election.  But there is another dimension to the storm that makes the moniker, “perfect,” even more apt:  climate change.

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