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Cultivators of the Spirit

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, rant on August 13, 2012 by Pandesmos

Teaching, sowing the seeds of culture and civilization into minds old and young. That is pretty much the pretty picture they would dearly have you believe, the sales pitch to get you into the pedagogic business.

Oh, we poor devils.

Teaching, fighting an uphill battle against apathetic, uppity students and their cutthroat parents. The metaphorical right to bear arms in class has long since been relinquished, given up as a relic of a more barbarous era; no longer is there a single, sovereign leader clad in the vestments of authority. Rather, in the radiant path of chairman Mao’s footsteps, an age of student democracy has dawned, banishing into the night the dreadful times of autocracy. Problems, as our respected sociologists have demonstrated in all their infallibility, stem not from the destructive urges and impulses of youth struggling to make sense of themselves, the world and life – instead, the teacher is to blame for the failures of all, for is it not on the teacher’s responsibility to see to it that everyone learns on their own terms? Is it not the very essence of pedagogics to cater to each and everone’s needs as a student? Is not, as father Nietzsche says, ‘the strong impulse to punish to be distrusted?’

Droning, screaming, violence, threats to person and property, slander, defamation, work overtime without pay. Wrestle with ethics as good grades bring money and vacancy irregardless as to what a student’s actual skill level might be. Sleep soundly knowing that every day the phone might ring, gently urging you to clean your desk.

There has once been a time, some two thousand years ago, when it was the other way around. Teachers, being mostly self-styled sophists or locally recognized erudites, would choose their own students and enter an agreement of sorts – they would teach whatever and however they saw fit for whatever price they agreed on, and should the youngling not learn a thing, that would just be too bad for them. Of course, even in those times they had their reputation to consider to which repeated failure and association with dimwits certainly did more woe than weal. Still, theirs was a position of authority – parents, mostly of the nobility of yore, typically understood to keep their distance. After all, the desired product was an independent, learned man worthy of his freedom and citizenship – parental guidance and meddling would have only served in cultivating an atmosphere of passivity.

And to think that I actually have some faith in the modern society. The view I just presented is, of course, morbidly romanticized as is proper for a philhellenic – yet at the same time, I believe, in this eidolon of beauty there still is something viable for our time. As is already painstakingly evident, the foundations of parenting and pedagogics have always been in a state of flux (what has not, really?). Despite the current, well-fostered culture of entrepreneurship and the eternal pursuit of happiness, it strikes me dumb as to how parents nowadays see their part in raising up their independent tumors – for them the great task is to provide enough resources for sending the kid off to a reputable school which then takes care of almost the rest. That shouldn’t be too difficult, really; life’s basically the same as one’s career, I have been told. Surely, too, we all have heard the humorous anecdotes: a father filing a complaint after the teacher refused applying deodorant into his son’s armpit after gym class, a couple suing the teacher for teaching ‘too hard mathymytics.’ The situation, then, is as follows: we do not want to raise this being, yet when you try to do it for us, we punish you when you fail to meet our standards. Our standards are always the best, because we are the parents, no one knows this being better than us. We raise- oops, scratch that.

Responsibility’s a funny thing. Like suicide, it works both ways. In this case, it appears to me as a burden which, when successfully carried until the end, merits some sort of a reward, be it money, adoration, a title, whatever. Applied to the rant above this produces a picture in which parents give up or ‘delegate’ their responsibility to teachers and school staff, yet they still expect to retain all the goodies and rights that this responsibility brings. A metaphor about eating cakes and possessing them comes to mind, mind you.

Teaching, like all human activity, can obviously not stay immutable as time goes on – and the thing with change is that it often is accompanied by pain, however temporary it may be. Pain breeds fear, and after a merry cycle we find ourselves on the dark side. More seriously put, pedagogics may well be living through a pseudo-Kuhnian period of ‘crisis science’ – faced with the obvious pressure from the clientele and the lack of innovations, each must find their own answers, some in the form of older doctrines while others in that of new theories and practices. It is said that people have not changed since time immemorial, yet society certainly has. As pedagogics is the bread and butter of socialization, the art of producing new and beautiful citizens, it would be both stagnating and utterly destructive to cease seeking new venues and approaches. In addition, it would serve the purpose to keep the lessons previously learned clearly in mind, for if the thesis of homo immutabilis is true to a certain extent, then solutions once valid might still be applicable today.

From this rambling basically two things can be divined. One is that teachers, at least where I live, are pressed hard, too hard in my opinion, in producing society-worthy young adults with minimal support and constant budget cuts. The other is that while the situation is grim, the problem somewhat fulfills Hilbert’s description of a ‘good problem’ – something difficult enough to warrant our interest, yet at the same time simple enough so as to not elude our comprehension.

Crisis often attracts those capable of providing answers and solutions – the fact that this may well be ‘abused’ as an induced scenario is best left for later considerations. Regrettably, until these new Deweys arise, the cultivators of the spirit may little else but carry on.

For those literate in Finnish or Google Translate, a telling item of news:

The Pondering Philautic: An Introduction

Posted in Finnish politics, Politics, rant on June 2, 2011 by Pandesmos

Greetings all, and thank you for a hearty and jubilant welcome. I am not wholly sure whether I can live up to all the epithets thus presented, but as a popular green space dwarf once put: “Do or do not – there is no try.”

I might as well take a few lines for a short introduction: a young philosophy major in search of ultimate reality, omniscience and power, I see myself as an heir to the awesome and immense wisdom of the sons and daughters of Greece and Rome. I am also an avid friend of sarcasm and lyrical presentation, so you will do well in disregarding my grandiose choice of words and constant self-glorification. After all, a play of words is akin to a play of swords.

I see myself as one not too prone to producing long rants on recent events; rather, I am interested in the more fundamental subjects concerning knowledge, existence and our possible place in it – surely you know the pattern. The following must, then, be understood as a healthy deviation – one must be open to new venues as well.

Formalities having now been laid aside, there is something I wish to discuss concerning the status of students, at least the status of those studying in Finnish universities. It was only this morning that I was once again treated with a cup of fresh disappointment, flaming moron-brew, when I stumbled upon an item of news. The title, sublime in its wittiness, requires little analysis: “AN END TO SLACKING: ARE YOUTH NOT BROUGHT UP TO WORK?” The cornucopia of such brilliant spouts of wisdom, the Confederation of Finnish Industries, has once again targeted students and newly graduated people with accusations of laziness and lack of willingness to work. These allegations have almost become somewhat an annual, displeasing tradition – “If something’s wrong, I bet it’s because of those damn students. My poor tax monies, my poor alimonies…”

The corporate powerhouses criticise the tendency of taking a sabbath year before applying to a university which some 25% of Finnish youth do at the moment. The reason for this, the magnates argue, is that young people are either provided with too little career guidance or they “have not been taught the ethos of work enough” whatever this ethos may be. If a sabbath year seems to be the best option at hand for some, they clearly lack a well-founded picture of where they are headed in life.

These pillars of society seem to think that it is not far from malice that young Finnish people, eager to immerse themselves in the best possible education and knowledge by enrolling at a university, take so dreadfully long to complete their degrees and start doing something useful to the rest of us, that is, get a job. “If you are not ready to give your share to the society, you should not expect to get much in return” claims Markku Koponen, education director of the Confederation of Finnish Industries. This kind of talk about being useful, doing one’s share, even repaying a debt of some sorts I find both unnerving and unappealing – are we, for one, to tread down the road of assessing the worth each occupation and individual has, or are we perhaps to lay down dicta to ensure that the individual must always bend to the will of the many? Besides, Koponen fails to acknowledge that students are doing their share to the society – they pay taxes just like everyone else and approximately 70% (study published in Yliopistolainen 7/2011) of them work alongside their studies. Many of them, id est almost every male one of them, have also sacrificed a year to universal conscription, an institution I cannot possibly see as a part of a modern society. Plus ultra, another lapse of judgement is the possible assumption that a society could do well without students; while I am not certain whether this is what Koponen suggests, I find his disdain for people not immediately entering the job markets either short-sighted or misguided, possibly both.

What about the ethos of work, what in Helios’ dread name could that mean? Is Koponen arguing that there is some metaphysically intrinsic value in the very substance of work – if so, what could it be and why would it be? In the traditionalist’s opinion not any kind of job will do, oh no – it has to be a respectable one like a doctor or the kind; what good is an archaeologist or a historian for? Being a theoretical philosophy major myself, this is a question I have dealt with numerous times. Ipso facto no occupation, no lifestyle can in itself justify its existence and practice – historians are good for history, but what is history good for? What are doctors good for if humans are good for nothing? If we are to independently prove that something and something are good and reasonable pursuits in life, we ought first be able to present the instrument with which these assessments are carried out. Take happiness, for one; if an occupation brings happiness, it is a justified pursuit in one’s life. Clearly, this kind of metron will not suffice – I, for one, have not got the slightest clue about what happiness actually is. The challenge Koponen and his ilk face is demonstrating that either there are intrinsic qualities and predicates (and that they are knowable and applicable) or that work, in contrast to studying or unemployment, is arguably a superior way of life; being no diviner myself, I do foresee some foreboding troubles for that kind of a project.

Instead of bickering about this and that person’s duties to the society, I have in mind a scenario in which the society acts as a sort of fail-safe organ providing a progressively better minimum framework for every individual while also enabling the gifted and the talented to become as good and great as humanly possible. Koponen, along with his pals in the CFI, seem to think that investing in education carries too great a risk to pay off enough in the immediate future, and that contrasting this with the immediate rewards of manual, menial labor ultimately tips the scales. Yes, it may be and it is a fact that investing in education and youth will generate instances where funding goes down the drain and chocolate turns into shit – another fact is that in some cases we turn chocolate into gold, id est science, innovations, new ideologies and new welfare. Even if we accept the viewpoint that labour is the summum bonum of every society, I fail to see how education, through which new approaches to labour are developed, is detrimental to it.

The way I see it, humanity, of which Finland, as much as any other piece of heaven on Earth, is a part cannot afford holding back on progress and research. It may be costly, it may all be in vain, but upon the brink of extinction we, the merry few, will face Terminus, the boundary-setter, with bold, stern faces and shout: “Be it as it may, we did our best! There was a try, and for that, our greatest triumphs and most monumental failures, we will be tried.”

The world needs more romantics.