26 June 2009

Nothing New Here

What passes for thinking today is the old process of relating the unknown and unexpected to familiar categories of explanation which have been arranged on a symbolic basis by our educational experience. If an event does not relate to the categories we have committed to memory early in our youth, then it has no ultimate existence for us or it is forced into these categories and forgotten. Society is trapped between a world which it experiences and a world it has been taught to recognize. Never have so many foolish statements been sent abroad in search of true believers.
Vine Deloria, Jr., We Talk, You Listen (1970), 23.
What is remarkable about this piece of commonsense?

First, as I was remembering it while walking laps on an asphalt trail around a nearby city park, I thought I'd read it the previous evening in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). It took me a lap and a half to correct this error of recollection. I did not read it in Robert Pirsig's classic on Tuesday evening, but in Deloria's second book on Monday morning.

Pirsig has been sitting on the shelf for many years unread. In graduate school, my wife often told me that I should read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which she assigned to her English composition courses. I started it once a few years ago, perhaps twice, but other priorities interfered and the text went back on the shelf. Then, last week, one of my son's friends (a college sophomore) sent me a text asking about Phaedrus. I did not know the answer, so I started anew reading Zen on Sunday evening. This time, I'll get through the whole by dedicating to the task thirty minutes or so each evening.

Second, the notion of fixed categories that fail to account for observed phenomena tend to irritate dark horse politicians. I'm thinking in particular of John Waite who is running for Spokane City Council. He is one of several candidates hoping to unseat Nancy McLaughlin, who has raised more money than "all other candidates in every council district combined" (Pacific Northwest Inlander). This morning, Waite sent out through Facebook a rant against the Inlander article, stating:
You have done a great disservice to the 3rd district city council race in Spokane, and a disservice to me, a progressive independent running for office. Just because someone doesn't carry around their "progressive democrat" card doesn't mean that you cannot have progressive leanings. Neither does being a fiscal conservative stop you from being a social progressive. It just means that I actually think about how I can pay for government plans. The things I think are important are fiscal responsibility, fair and responsible budgets, social equality, a healthy social service structure (preventive services, healthcare and policing), an emphasis on "quality of life", and all of this built around a progressive tax structure (which we don't have). And to say that the 3rd district is some "conservative bastion" disregards all the non-republicans, non-conservatives who have suffered through 8 damaging years of conservative government. Maybe you need to take off your two-party system glasses, get out of the office and visit some of the neighborhoods you write about in your newspaper.
John Waite
Third, the construction of such categories is the integral to the business of college, but perhaps not of the "real University" as Phaedrus conceived it. Thinking and effective writing differs. The teaching of rhetoric in freshman composition classes, for instance, brings out this scene in Zen.
A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to the writing after the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were suppossed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right and changing it if it didn't. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation because that's the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had a certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn't pour. But how're you to teach something that isn't premeditated?
Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 156.

24 June 2009

Columbus: the Truth

Here's a video from YouTube:

When "their" appears as "they're," the author's close reading of texts seems less than credible. Even so, the allegations raise interesting questions.

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