In Philadelphia, Waiting for My Flight

Currently, I’m sitting in the Philadelphia airport in terminal F and looking skeptically at a rickety propellor plane which I am supposed to board..

Looking around, there are the average people one might expect to see in an airport, or a mall, or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.  Overwhelmingly plain, some pasty, some extraordinarily, vividly orange. Greying or dyed or bleached.

Some, however, appear intelligent. A certain unnamable smoldering energy glows in their eyes. They are plainly- but well-dressed.  Most have glasses. One young bearded man is wearing a polo shirt. On it, in lieu of an alligator or a polo player is a simple, understated, very blue “Y.”

They are, like myself, waiting to depart to New Haven.

Go East, Young Man, Go East

For the next week, I’ll be away on vacation in New Haven, CT visiting a couple of friends at Yale.  Next weekend I’m likely headed to New York City for 48 hours of solid exploratory misbehavior and adventure.  

I’d love to make this a longer post, but I’m way behind on packing and I have a cab coming at 4:15 tomorrow morning.  Throughout the week I’ll be posting photos to The Halcyon Days and to my Twitter feed.  Expect short anecdotes to be posted as well.  Anyways, do wish me “bon voyage” and “godspeed” and any other quaint parting, vaguely nautical saying that comes to mind.

On Reading Habits of Young People

I met the most charming adolescent in a used bookstore. He saw I was reading Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and proceeded to converse with me with astounding alacrity about Fitzgerald’s short stories, the Great Gatsby, and our shared favorite, This Side of Paradise. He was eleven, and said his father had read these before bedtime.
I’d realised immediately that I was to be outgunned by him when he is my age. He, like most of my literary friends, had gotten something of a “leg up” on me.

This encounter got me thinking about my own childhood, about the books read to me by my parents: there was the dark refulgent story by Roald Dahl entitled The Minpins that made me writhe in fear of the various beasts that stalked the forests. My dad read to me the first four books of Harry Potter. There were more, shelves full. Looking back I can see that mine was a childhood filled with books, and from the confines of the WASPy Chicago suburbs I ventured into worlds strange and strangely familiar.

It’s dawned on me that children’s books are often incredibly dark. Good Night Moon can be read as a meditation on death, and most adventure-type books always carry the tropes of defying authority, dancing with mortal peril (even if not mentioned explicitly), and the protagonist overcoming the limits of his youth and inexperience to become, through cleverness, not brute force, the hero-figure. His maturity, his grownup-ness is validated.

I used to view children’s books as an entity unto themselves. To view literature in this parallax view now seems, at least regarding more complex stories written for older children, a bit misguided on my part. In reading some of these books again, this time aloud to my cousins, I see them as microcosms of the literary world. Like training wheels on a bicycle the experience of reading (or listening to) these stories contains the intellectual potential of “real” literature; the degree of verisimilitude between “real” and children’s books is a function of simplicity, and varies inversely therein.

But this comes back to the kid I met today, who hadn’t been read a “children’s” book since he was “seven and one-half” years old. Although he lacked the knowledge-base to make claims about certain books (“Moby Dick is allegory for the English-Irish struggle,” suggested a particularly outlandish friend of mine) he was capable of discussing its central themes of greed, wrath, and vengeance, and provided several examples of each within Melville’s dreary nautical-themed oeuvre. Instead of having insights spoon-fed to him in children’s books, he elected to have a torrent of information and themes and a degree of intricacy most aren’t capable of processing until high-school directed toward him, whereupon he could pluck from these works their salient points, become articulate in the language of literary criticism, and wax poetic to me.

His father came over. A tall bespectacled man of east-coast provenance with a glint in his eye shook my hand. “My name is Jason Rowley, and I’ve had a great conversation with your son about several authors and books. He is precocious, more so than I was when I was eleven. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.” I fumbled the last bit.

“Name’s Mr. ______, but call me Andrew. Glad you had a nice chat with my son. Studying English at school?”

“Passively so, but I feign literary competence more often than not.”

“Where’d you say you [went to school]?”

“University of Chicago.”

“Tough place, my brother went there. I’m a Harvard man myself.”

And he was.

If You Can Read This…

My previous post contained an extended quote from Chris Hedges’s book, Empire of Illusion. Although I finished it a couple of weeks ago, I’ve gone back to the pages which I’ve marked for followup.  

In the first chapter called “The Illusion of Literacy,” Hedges makes a convincing argument that our media diets are constituent mostly of saccharine brain candy. The following is a particularly revealing paragraph on page 44; the statistics are sourced from the National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, the Literacy Company, and the U.S. Census Bureau:

Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic. There are 7 million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence. There are some 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate–a figure that is growing by more than 2 million per year. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book. 

As the internet becomes more visually-based, and in so doing coming to more closely resemble television, it seems logical that rates of illiteracy may continue to rise at an increasing rate.  As txt-patois becomes the standard, American children glued to their mobile devices lose the ability to spell and employ proper grammatical structure. Public discourse degenerates to an increasingly “accessible” level. Most frightening to me, the bar of what is deemed a “big word” by young, insipid sesquipedalophobes (those who fear big words), is being lowered. Constantly.

A question posed by Hedges regarding the obesity crisis: Might we enjoy fast food not only because it’s cheap, but because we order not from a menu but from a picture?

On Thinking Critically

In many ways, the following is a rejoinder to my first Halcyon Days post, Are You Too Smart for College?, but in still more ways it exists as a free-standing entity: a brief, critical treatise regarding the once-venerable “college education.”

Late last week, I posted to Twitter a paraphrased quote from Christopher Hedges’s The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. I said, “We have bought into the idea that education’s end goal is monetary enrichment, not [the development of] critical thinking abilities…” For reasons still a bit unclear to me, this prompted a small kerfuffle on my Facebook page, to where all of my “tweets” are posted automatically.  A friend and classmate of mine, Patrick Ip, whom I respect greatly as an absurdly ambitious and accomplished aspiring politician and education reformer, posited the following: [sic, all over] “Hm, what do you say to students that go through high school and are able to game the educational tests that are given to them. Thus, scoring high on exams like the SAT/ACT and state standardized test. Does that create critical thinking?”

I responded that the short answer to his final question re: the creation of critical thinking skills is “no.” Resoundingly so.  But to see why I responded in the negatory to the latter question, I feel obligated to unpack the former. “Hm, what do you say to students that go through high school and are able to game the educational tests that are given to them, [thereby] scoring [higher] on exams like the SAT/ACT and state standardized test[s]?”

To answer the first part of your question, Patrick, I’m inclined to believe that obtaining the skills necessary to “game” the educational tests is indeed “learning how to think” in the strictest confines of the phrase’s definition, but it is commonly understood–not only by educational reformers such as yourself, but by the greater academic community– that these exams are not only woefully incomplete in their scope (a concession made in favor of scalability), but that the type of thought processes tested for, those that are taught in test-prep courses nationwide, aren’t necessarily equivalent with what might be deemed “intelligence” or “critical thinking skills.” Allow the following quote from the book to elucidate my argument: 

When my son got his SAT scores back as a senior in high school, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math but is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated middle-class Americans do. We hired an expensive tutor from the Princeton Reivew–its deluxe SAT prep package costs $7000–who taught him the tricks and techniques of standardized testing. […] The tutor told my son things like “stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting your time thinking about the ideas. [!] Just spit back what they tell you.” His reading score went up 130 points, pushing his test scores into the highest percentile in the country. Had he somehow become smarter thanks to the tutoring? Was he suddenly a better reader because he could quickly regurgitate a passage rather than think about it or critique it? Had he become more intelligent? Is it really a smart, effective measurement of intelligence to gauge how students read and answer narrowly selected multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over them? (Hedges, 101-02)

If what Patrick means by “game” is learning how to do a standardized test, I’m inclined to say that this person wasted their time learning a very specialized skill-set that, let’s face it, has little resemblance to how one goes about a successful academic career. I’m also inclined to believe that we all know the sorts of people who really shined on standardized testing, enrolled in the proper extra-curriculars, attained leadership positions therein, dabbled in athletics and ran their admissions essays by their parents, English teachers, college-age siblings, and/or (in the case of a high school friend of mine) a Nobel Prize winning novelist, got into college, tried to play its game like they played high school and summarily and spectacularly failed.  Why is this? The methodology of high-school success–the find-and-fill-in model that can be applied with equal felicity to science lab write-ups, math problem sets, and English and history papers– simply does not work for very long in a college environment.  

If what Patrick means by “game” amounts to cheating, the same rule applies. A friend of mine at UChicago, a second-year who will not be named, was a fabulous student in high school. Talented in math and history, he teamed up with a friend gifted in English and Biology and another proficient in Physics and Chemistry. Each did the work for his two classes, distributed it among the other two to copy, and before exams or papers they would hang out and one would teach the others the required course material. This freed up quite a bit of time for the pursuit of extra-curricular activities and reviewing for the SATs. Again, one is at UChicago, another is at Princeton (allegedly “easy as shit,” according to my UChicago friend) and the other is at Berkley (“tough as fuck. lol.”). Cheating of this grand scale is difficult but possible in the first two years of college, after that it becomes nearly impossible and the student in question encounters the same brick-wall problem as the over-achiever.

If one answers the questions posed by Hedges with any honesty at all, one clearly sees that the current mode of standardized testing selects for modes of thought that might prove counterproductive to “the goal of a liberal arts education:” the genesis and nurturing of dialectic, integrative thought processes that go beyond the superficial search and recall of the ACT/SAT. These “aptitude tests” test for the brain’s Google-like capacity to undergo a keyword based search protocol of the most popular (most plausible) possibilities, find it and fill in the blank. Google often returns gobbledegook when we ask it for specifics.

 If Google is to the test-prepped brain, Wolfram Alpha is analogous to the immense potential of critical thought.  One provides a search engine, the other is a so-called “knowledge engine.” Google can’t properly answer the world’s questions. It will search for silly cat videos on Youtube, free pornography, and Wikipedia articles about the search term. Stephen Wolfram’s creation just might, and he can articulate his vision for the future better than I.

Why I Am So Happy, a Follow-Up

In looking through the internal statistics of this blog, I found that my post, Why I Am So Happy, was one of the most widely read thus far. In it I referred to the wish to scan and distribute William Hazlitt’s essay, On the Pleasure of Hating. I found a full version of the text instead, and it can be found at the link below. Happy reading, and you too might learn to stop worrying and love to hate.

As promised, here is William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating. Courtesy  of Blupete.

Happy Fourth of July

Have a happy birthday, America! Celebrate safely: keep fireworks out of the reach of those with below an 8th grade education, and reduce the amount of processed beef and pork sausage products you consume.  I don’t want to subsidize your quadruple bypass operation with my tax dollars.

More snarky, lengthy posts to come. In the meantime, please find solace in the fact that I’m not poking fun at any of the innumerable things at which I could poke fun this holiday weekend, like Sarah Palin, Orientalist packaging of fireworks, the corpulent national debt, crappy summer movies, the mismanagement of the City of Chicago, the death of un-self-important patriotism, or the downfall of intelligent conversation.

On Reading Critically

There is no ought, objectively speaking. There is thus no gage of what “a modest amount of analysis” is; it varies from reader to reader, and from one prescriptive I-can-read-closer-than-thou snob to another.

In my last post, “In Defense of Good Television,” I believe I didn’t clarify a point integral to my argument. This oversight prompted the following comment from 1 in Washington, DC:

In Ulysses, James Joyce claims that he has left so many literary twists and turns that readers will be engrossed looking for them for the next century. Do you suggest that the reader simply gloss over the details and hope to gain a superficial understanding of the text? And that if he is to recognize some motif, then this is purely luck and should not be further looked into? I certainly agree that one should avoid the “pointy headed commentary” that is so often associated with this, but shouldn’t some works require a modest amount of analysis?

Part of me is tempted to say that James Joyce presents a special case in that he is, arguably, one of the most nuanced and multi-layered, if convoluted (to the point of abstruseness) writers of the past hundred-something years; the fact of the matter is that, for better or worse, most writers do not release works of such conceptual and cultural density.  This is not to dismiss your question, 1 in Washington, it’s just that writers of Joyce’s intellectual caliber should be approached differently than those who didn’t write Gordian tomes.  Modern literature, characterized by a degree of playfulness, irony, and aspiring to be more real in its mimesis (as it sought, unlike 19th century realism, to describe what is and not what ought to be), i.e. that which was produced by Joyce, Woolf, Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Proust, Faulkner, Pound, et al. contains innumerable pithy bits upon which I enthusiastically encourage readers to chew but do not stubbornly force to swallow.

I believe that there can be two modes of reading these (except in the case of Joyce): one could read them just for the sake of entertainment and mull over their findings from these texts in peace, or one could go into a text, pencil and highlighter and index cards or (if you are so inclined) Moleskine at the ready, and vivisect it, get one’s hands dirty with its viscera. Mince and slice in search of the sinew of Truth. It is not my place to say how one should read a text, nor is it my place to say which mode yields the more “significant” experience, nor, dare I say, is it yours, 1 in D.C.. Might it be a little presumptuous to suggest that understanding yielded from one mode of reading is less superficial than another? Forgive the relativism (it is a bit po-mo, don’t you think?), but speaking from experience, each mode of reading yields its own insights; the first mode yielded for me juicy moments of introspection, the second left me in awe of the author in question, of his or her craftsmanship and ability to commentate; the first yielded something more tangible for me, but the latter yielded more lofty insights that seemed, while impressive and worthy of putting in a paper for an analytical literature course, somewhat contrived, and in seeming so, felt cheap, hackneyed: as if this has been thought before.

I excepted Joyce for a reason, he, at least in my personal experience with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, can only be read in this latter mode.

I do not suggest breezing through texts, I believe in taking time with them, getting what one can from them, delving as deep as one wants, rather than as deep as one ought, and moving on. There is no ought, objectively speaking. There is thus no gage of what “a modest amount of analysis” is; it varies from reader to reader, and from one prescriptive I-can-read-closer-than-thou snob to another. I’m not saying that you, 1 in D.C., are one such snob. I’m just sayin’.

Ultimately, this touches at a larger issue: which is more valuable, a profound if self-involved understanding of one body of work or a broad-based knowledge of many? I’m partial to the cause of the amateur (in both the French and English meanings of the word), the dilettante.

I can sympathize with the specialist, but there is a danger of falling into the anti-historicist, decontextualized trap of New Criticism: a text is not a standalone island, it is part of an archipelago, its neighbors being those books coeval or stylistically similar to the one in question. They have birds, too: finches, but each with localized variation. I concede that I notice these variations, find them curious, mull them over, examine further to the extent I feel necessary, and move on. I might not write On the Origin of Species, but instead of focussing on the minutia, I’ll stick with the much-maligned “big picture.” I’m the cantankerous polymath of this over-extended metaphor; I’ll gladly pen The Selfish Gene instead. I won’t be the one-hit wonder.

In Defense of Good Television

Extremely well-done television provides an experience akin to reading well-done literary fiction. One empathizes with certain characters, embraces some, and reviles others.

This post is, in part, a response to my friend Ted Gonder’s recent post, “Is TV Worth Watching?” In part, it is a shameless defense of television as modern visual literature.

Like Ted, since going to college, I haven’t watched much television. I “was one of those people” who didn’t own a television; I was not self-righteous about it, nor did I engage in the self-referential humor particular to UChicago students about the volume of work they have to do that otherwise precludes them from watching TV.  Like many UChicago students, I did quite a bit of extra-curricular reading (much to the detriment of my GPA), but when even Woody Allen’s contributions to the New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section got a bit too cerebral for me, I watched, among other shows, Mad Men.

Now, I do not mean to intimate that Mad Men, one of the most aesthetically pleasing, thoroughly well-researched, and decidedly pro-masculine television programs on the air, is otherwise unworthy of my attention. Rather, extremely well-done television provides an experience akin to reading well-done literary fiction. One empathizes with certain characters, embraces some, and reviles others.  One effortlessly absorbs the periphery, those bits extraneous to plot but valuable to developing the aesthetics of the viewing experience, and in doing so one can marvel in the mimetic, artistic talent of the program’s writers, actors, and the behind-the-scenes people in the props and wardrobe departments. Television, and for that matter any variety of film-making, achieves what literature can’t. That which is in the shot’s background simply, without need for description, is. No valuable page-space need be expended; there is no risk of losing the reader’s attention by rattling off a laundry list of accoutrements and their particular details necessary to set the scene. 

Well-done television programming, like well-done literature, may provide great insight into the human condition, poignant social commentary, or the simple pleasure of rediscovering the “real” world through a fictional representation thereof.  To actively, critically search for these things conflates work and play. Doing so leads to the pretentious, pointy-headed, platitudinous commentary that pervades book reviews by Maureen Corrigan for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and class discussions in Advanced Placement English Literature courses, among other venues.  One should not have to justify watching television, be it cinematic, well-acted drama or lowbrow, increasingly perverse (sur)reality television, as an intellectual activity. Other forms of entertainment, literature chief among them, never require such justification.

I did not set down to re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise for my intellectual betterment.  I did so because it was read rather hastily in high school, and because I wanted to experience again the halcyon days of my adolescence, days whiled away in comfortable library chairs or idly spent on the beach dancing mentally to F. Scott’s sharp, frenetic Jazz Age style. Television, however, does not evoke such sentimentality.

It just so happens that Mr. Fitz dropped a lot of knowledge on me, or, rather, I revel privately in my insights into the meaning of college life, upon which I stumbled quite accidentally.  And I’ve learned much about masculinity by parsing the behavior of Mad Men‘s Don Draper into two categories: that which I consciously emulate, and those errors which I find reprehensible, but catch myself committing on occasion. I did not go looking for these insights. I watch television and read fiction for entertainment, for that is what, arguably, such media were designed for.  That increased emotional intelligence and self-awareness might result from its consumption is purely incidental. The fact that I’ve decoupled the need to find “teachable moments” in my media diet with the simultaneous need to occasionally be entertained allows me to savor said diet, and renders my “takeaways” more personal, less forced, and thus more significant.

Why Soccer is Not the New Football

I was extremely fortunate to have the day off yesterday, and I am still more fortunate to own a television with picture-in-picture capabilities. I was sitting in my room, watching the World Cup on ESPN and flipping between the USA-Algeria match and that between England and Slovenia, deducing from the scores if staking a points bet deposit promo code was worth all the effort.  And suddenly, like an unwarranted smack to the face, it hit me: Americans do not belong in the announcers’ booth. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gotten my fix through streaming Premier League games for years, and as a result I’ve just come to expect my announcers to speak with round vowels and drop the r’s in their words, or if it is something more significant: that, as a general rule, Americans sound silly when they try to speak authoritatively about the obscure sport, usually relegated to white, middle-class suburban 12-year old girls, known as “soccer.”

To be precise, it’s been said bazillions of times that “the World Cup is a unifying event, bringing our World together to celebrate humanity, athleticism, and football.” [Emphasis mine] I don’t know if anyone has yet told the Americans, but their little game called “Football” has a fan-base several orders of magnitude smaller than what the rest of the world calls football.  Based on my personal boots-on-the-ground experience, excluding the quadrennial World Cup, Americans tend not to watch much soccer, and the general perception of the sport is remarkably similar to the median American’s perception of Europeans: vaguely effeminate, nuanced, confounding, and something to which the word “prancing” might be attached.

But soccer has a certain fluidity to which American sports fans, spoon-fed on play-by-play analysis of “American football” and baseball, sports which proceed in fits and starts as if afflicted by a severe stutter and punctuated by brief narcoleptic fits, are unaccustomed.  The two aforementioned sports are characterized by a distinct lack of physical activity; to wit, there is a lot of standing around.  There are moments of frenetic, confused action and long stretches of television-friendly inactivity, which allow “experts” to analyze and quantify gameplay, make banal generalizations about such-and-such a player’s good day or bad day, flirt with attractive female anchors, and engage in an introspection particular to the American male: repressing homoerotic feelings whose origin lies in staring admiringly at sweaty men in tight pants.

There are, however, two sports watched in America that move with any speed or continuity at all: basketball and hockey.  But basketball has numerous opportunities for time-outs, and both move sufficiently quick to hold the attention of even the most scatterbrained. It also must be said that hockey carries the promise of violence.  This brings to mind the quintessence of American sports, that they render masculinity in absurd burlesque: hypertrophied overweight men mashing into each other play football, tall sinewy men with veneers of urban toughness in baggy shorts play basketball, the beer-drinking All-American man-child wanders about on the Field of Dreams, and Caucasian men from northern climes put on their pads, pick up their sticks, take a whack at a hunk of rubber, and occasionally make a boxing match of what is, ultimately, Ice Follies without the women.

Not only are Americans unaccustomed to the fluid, organic play of elite-level soccer, they find themselves incapable of articulating what is going on: inculcated with the argot of AYSO, we play our games on fields not pitches, wear shoes not boots, and the guy in the ugly long-sleeved shirt and fat-fingered gloves is a goalie and not a keeper.  That we so obstinately refer to “American football” as football at all perplexes me, as it is a game played with hands.

This all leads me to believe that Americans, devoid of the attention-span and the capacity to articulate nuance necessary to be a successful footballer, despite success yesterday over a surprisingly formidable Algeria, will continue obdurately with their current mode of play: running up the middle, flouting all rules of verve and politeness, and play aggressive Shock-and-Awe tactics, wearing their opponents down not by outsmarting them, but by grinding them into submission with salvo after salvo of poorly-planned carpet-bombing to the box. The law of large numbers applies here, that given enough shooting opportunities even the most stylistically devoid of teams will find weakness in their superiors.

Physically speaking, soccer players are as close to perfect as possible: lean and toned, muscular in the legs and upper body, and capable of preternatural mental and physical endurance.  The American team is a bit too tall, a bit too muscular, and are clunky on the field. It might take a little while for Americans to realize that on the global stage, when it comes to physical prowess and stylistic verve, we just don’t cut it. There is a reason why the World Series consists of one city’s team playing another; we like our American exclusivity, and would likely lose if we had to come up with a home-grown national team a la the World Cup. The Dominican Republic, Cuba, or Japan would likely win that one.  In the world of soccer, we are, for now, lucky, and sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. It will run out, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps not. But it will.