30 April 2009

Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: An Alternative History"

I recently picked up Wendy Doniger's new book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School and America's foremost scholar of Hinduism, set out to challenge many prevailing notions of Hinduism and argue for a more inclusive, broad view of the tradition, a view that recognizes the diversity of folk religions in the Hindu world as well as the contributions of women, Muslims, and people of the lower castes to the Hindu tradition.

The book was reviewed last weekend in the New York Times Book Review, and it is slated to be chosen as an Editor's Pick next week. A comment by Professor Doniger can be found here, and the favorable Times review by Pankaj Mishra can be found here.

Readings from C. Taylor, J.T. Johnson, and the US Catholic Bishops

Faith does not insulate us from the challenges of life; rather, it intensifies our desire to help solve them.... From the resources of our faith we wish to provide hope and strength to all who seek a world free of the nuclear threat. Hope sustains one's capacity to live with danger without being overwhelmed by it; hope is the will to struggle against obstacles even when they appear insuperable. Ultimately our hope rests in the God who gave us life, sustains the world by his power and has called us to revere the lives of every person and all peoples.
As Americans, citizens of the nation which was first to produce atomic weapons, which has been the only one to use them and which today is one of the handful of nations capable of decisively influencing the course of the nuclear age, we have grave human, moral, and political responsibilities to see that a "conscious choice" is made to save humanity.

United States Catholic Bishops
--The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response - The Pastoral Letter on War and Peace

The definition of combatancy and noncombatancy follows from direct involvement in prosecuting the war, not from one's citizenship or one's personal preference among the belligerents. It is action that matters, not attitude. For this reason, I regard the use of the term civilian in the Protocols to the Geneva Conventions as misleading: it is not civilian status that matters, as irregular soldiers may technically be civilians; what matters is whether people are engaged in combatant activity or not. The relevant moral term is noncombatant, even though the language of the protocols uses civilian, and this usage has seeped into the moral debate at times.

James Turner Johnson
--The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: Just War and the New Face of Conflict

In the following chapters, I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call "subtraction stories." Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process - modernity or secularity - is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can't be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.

Charles Taylor
--A Secular Age

28 April 2009

Re: Mark C. Taylor on "reforming higher education"

Mark C. Taylor, contrarian philosopher and chair of Columbia University's Department of Religion, caused a firestorm in the academic community with his op-ed, "End the University as We Know It," in yesterday's New York Times.  The op-ed remains at the top of the NYT's most-emailed list.

There are few better places to have a debate about the philosophy of education than the University of Chicago, where the Core Curriculum and the school's historical emphasis on liberal education and distaste for vocational education permeates everything.  On the U of C men's cross country email list, five current and former runners had weighed in on Taylor's piece by this morning.  My thoughts were these:

1. You can't wish away the disciplines. I would argue that you can familiarize yourself with several disciplines and do interdisciplinary work, but "interdisciplinary" means within and among the disciplines. Examining a problem or topic in the abstract before locating oneself in a discipline, or in several disciplines, could easily lead to amateurism and reinventing the wheel, and it would likely lead to missing or mistaking the assumptions upon which existing scholarship has been built.

Does it make sense to look at questions through as many disciplinary lenses as possible? Absolutely. And yet the critical advantage provided by writing within a discipline, and what an ad hoc interdisciplinary analysis of a topic risks missing, is clarity of assumptions. You always know the outlines of where a Chicago School economist or a realist in IR theory or a Frankfurt School critic is coming from, and that helps you understand the nuances and innovations of his or her argument. If you begin a research project with the idea that you are writing something above and beyond the disciplines, something entirely new, chances are good that 1. you are mistaken, 2. you will do work that has been done more thoroughly before, and 3. you will be forced to make arbitrary choices at every step.

2. Taylor bases his argument on economic grounds, not educational or philosophy of education grounds. And so he speaks of academic journals and University presses in terms of "demand" for their "products," as if they were inferior versions of Newsweek and Random House. If we are to do interdisciplinary work, then we must learn when and how to apply the conceptual lenses of each discipline appropriately. By choosing to give primacy to a view of American higher education as seen through the disciplinary lenses of economics, Taylor implicitly endorses the value choices or axioms that form the foundation of contemporary economic thinking and suggests that these should govern our thinking about higher education.

It is true that we can learn something new about higher education by looking at it through economic lenses, but I would suggest that the central purposes of higher education differ from the purposes of the market (efficiency, profit, increased "utility"/pleasure).

The twofold purpose of graduate programs is, first, to train scholars who can contribute, in whatever small way, to the sum of human knowledge, and second, to train these scholars to teach at the undergraduate level; if we judge that these are valuable and necessary functions in our society, as I believe we must, then we ought not to begin our critique of them with the question of what the consumer or the market "wants." I would also add that strong universities are at least partially public goods that add value to society and humanity at large, not just to the undergraduates they teach, and so it is a mistake to think of higher education as merely a collection of transactions between colleges and students.

3. If I am right in claiming that one of the central purposes of graduate education is to contribute to the sum of human knowledge - to train scholars, not just advanced students - then I'm afraid that Taylor's idea of substituting Powerpoint presentations and video games for dissertations misses the point, as does his suggestion that we introduce non-academic vocational training into graduate education.

--Ryan McCarl

(Mark Taylor's original op-ed is here.)

23 April 2009

Readings from Camus and Melville

I once said that, after the experiences of the last two years, I could no longer hold to any truth which might oblige me, directly or indirectly, to demand a man's life.  Certain friends whom I respected retorted that I was living in Utopia, that there was no political truth which could not one day reduce us to such an extremity, and that we must therefore either run the risk of this extremity or else simply put up with the world as it is.

They argued the point most forcefully.  But I think they were able to put such force into it only because they were unable to really imagine other people's death.  It is a freak of the times.  We make love by telephone, we work not on matter but on machines, and we kill and are killed by proxy.  We gain in cleanliness, but lose in understanding.

Albert Camus
  --"Neither Victims nor Executioners," in David P. Barash, ed., Approaches to Peace.

I would up heart, were it not like lead.  But my whole clock's run down; my heart the all-controlling weight, I have no key to lift again.
I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail.  The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.
Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.

Herman Melville

20 April 2009

Why we must remember Iraq

The Next Forgotten War,” an op-ed of mine, was published on Antiwar.com this morning; check it out here.  In it, I argue that we must keep the memory of the Iraq War, and the individuals caught up in its maelstroms, alive:

"As Iraq recedes from the headlines and slips from the public’s mind to make room for the next 'crisis,' we have a responsibility to give some thought to the two million Iraqi refugees displaced by the war and the tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed or maimed as a consequence of the war. And what we should remember is not statistics or grand narratives, but individual stories and the weight they lend to the principles of prudence, humanism, and nonviolence."

If you enjoy the article, please consider linking to it or sharing it with others you think may be interested.

19 April 2009

Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Conscientious Objector"

I discovered one of the best poems on war I've ever read the other day while reading David P. Barash's Approaches to Peace, an excellent edited volume on peace and conflict studies:

Conscientious Objector
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans,
many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Excerpts from Melville's "Moby-Dick"

Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries - stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.  ...Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?  What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament?  Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance?  Who aint a slave?  Tell me that.  Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about - however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way - either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed around, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content.
As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.  I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.
Each silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable.
But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from those dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.
I began to be sensible of strange feelings.  I felt a melting in me.  No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.
One most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye.  Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.
'Now then, thou not only wantest to go a-whaling, to find out by experience what whaling is, buy ye also want to go in order to see the world?  Was not that what ye said?  I thought so.   Well then, just step forward there, and take a peep over the weather-bow, and then back to me and tell me what ye see there.'...

Going forward and glancing over the weather bow, I perceived that the ship swinging to her anchor with the flood-tide, was now obliquely pointing towards the open ocean.  The prospect was unlimited, but exceedingly monotonous and forbidding; not the slightest variety that I could see.

'Well, what's the report?' said Peleg when I came back; 'what did ye see?'

'Not much,' I replied - 'nothing but water; considerable horizon though, and there's a squall coming up, I think.'

'Well, what dost thou think then of seeing the world?  Do ye wish to go round Cape Horn to see any more of it, eh?  Can't ye see the world where you stand?'

Herman Melville

12 April 2009

Article on Coach John Swinburne

An article I wrote about my incredible high school cross country coach, John Swinburne, was published today in the Muskegon Chronicle and on MLive.com.  Check it out here.

Swinburne has worked formally and informally in education as a coach, teacher, athletic director, driver's ed instructor, youth group leader, and mentor to thousands of students in the Muskegon, MI area for four decades.  He is a truly great man who has changed many lives, including mine, through his coaching.