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 #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)”

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”

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?

“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.

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.

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!


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.