Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Republic - Plato

Education, freedom, and happiness, are, among lesser issues, the preeminent themes of Plato’s Republic. I suppose no one ever accused the philosopher of thinking small. As is the case (though the contrast is less stark) with Shakespeare, or The Beatles, a modern reader (or viewer, or listener, respectively) might be struck by the seemingly pedestrian nature of Plato’s work. What, perhaps, strikes the modern reader the most, is the philosophical dialogue Plato, through Socrates, seems to be responding to. Here we find one clue to the riddle of Plato’s novelty. What makes Republic so seminal – along with other Platonic dialogues – is its very novelty, or, more precisely, the widespread impact this type of novel thinking would have on the Western world.
                While the works of Homer, Sophocles’ Aias, perhaps even The Symposium (my history may be confused here) represent a certain type of relationship between the good and ourselves, between society and the individual, Republic conceives of a person’s relation to the world differently. While those works judge action and right as concerns measured relative to social context, Republic judges our actions as internal affairs. That which is best is that which assures the greatest happiness, to be recognized by the proper balance felt within the individual. Though Plato is ostensibly speaking of how to ensure the proper stability of society he is, so he says, primarily concerned with understanding and fostering the best persons. Perhaps his seeming focus upon the best state was Plato’s subtle transition towards a more individualized ethics.

                Unquestionably Republic casts a long shadow, perhaps the longest in Western literature. By turning our focus inwards, by transforming glory into the pursuit of knowledge and the pre-eminence of individual consciousness, Plato helped to inaugurate the modern world.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paris, Capital of Modernity - David Harvey

David Harvey contests the notion that modernity was a discrete and absolute break with the past. Rather, in examining Paris’ political and social perturbations across the 19th century, Harvey shows how the city, through fits and bursts, was reimagined to become a modernized space. We might assert this title of modernization if we, as Harvey does, recognize that modernity is less something new under the sun, and more an emergent conceptual shift. When does a place or a people cross the threshold into the modern? How could we recognize this transition and what does it mean to say so? Leaving these questions open to negotiation, Harvey examines what remains a seminal transition.

Given Harvey’s Marxist bonafides, it is hardly surprising that his story of Paris pits the proletariat and bourgeois against one another. At times his work seems little more or less than a straight application of Marx’s thoughts to the Parisian situation. This should not be read as a denigration of his application. Rather, we cannot help but wonder to what extent a hammer sees only nails. Perhaps, when it is all said and done, historians will agree that the transformative powers of capital truly rendered the 19th century most recognizable through a Marxist lens. If this is the case Harvey convincingly posits Paris as the ideal urban space to bring the dialogues of capital and labour, urban and rural, and nature and production together.

The impacts of changing Parisian economics create a patchwork quilt of evolving modernity across the city. While Haussmann and his planners remade the city on the broad-scale rationality of straight lines and organized services (for which we should at least be partially thankful), they simultaneously necessitated movements and informal livelihoods of the working classes. Perhaps this call-and-response across the social sphere is endemic to ‘modern’ ways of being: as society becomes more rational informal space takes on new meaning. Even though it may be the official sphere which recognizes the designation of formal versus informal, this does not imply that the formal will dictate the informal. Along the parkways and over the barricades which delineated political identities, new identities and societies would be formed. Along each side both the formal and informal, the modern and the traditional, would play a role, respond to one another, and drive change. The modern inhabits and invents a space that is at once new and nested. Rather than simply break with the past, we consciously recreate and redefine it, as we recreate and redefine ourselves.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

1493 - Charles Mann

The coming of Columbus to the Americas would inaugurate a series of biological, economic, and ecological transformations unlike any previously experienced in human history. Much has been written about the social, cultural, and political transformations which cannot be imagined without the bridging of the new and old worlds. Yet what Charles Mann argues in 1493, the companion piece to his 1491, is that the previously underappreciated aspects of what Alfred Crosby termed “the Columbian Exchange” had further reaching consequences in altering the social-ecological world co-inhabited by humans and nonhumans. What we would term “globalization” first took flight in the transportation of different biological entities across the oceans.

Because we are linked together with the ecology of our world, human actions must also be viewed ecologically. Such is what Michel Serres termed the basis for our potential natural contract. Mann examines the implications of changing social and ecological relationships as they were transformed by the linking together of the old and the new world. This is a mighty task to address comprehensively – perhaps more than can be reasonably expected from one volume. The book is wide-ranging, to say the least, and Mann introduces some novel and necessary concepts for how we envision both our past and present. Most incisively the question arises: can we justifiably say that Europe, Europeans, or European culture dominated one side of the Columbian Exchange? Would it mean to suggest such a judgment? Too often, it seems, we assume that Europe expanded to fill the world. What if our assessments are misguided and the meaning of the West was irrevocably altered through contact? What would the implications then be? Mann’s book is too discursive to properly treat any certain aspect of such wide-ranging transformations. Nevertheless, it synthesizes a great deal of information and provides much food for thought.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The American College and University: A History - Frederick Rudolph

The development of American higher education demonstrates an interesting reimagination of both the English college and German university. A marriage between these two approaches, wed within a sort-of Jacksonian democratic ideal  accounts for a large part of the strengths, and difficulties which have come to characterize colleges and universities, both public and private, across the United States.

Tracing the growth and movements of higher education, from the birth of Harvard University, to the debates which typified Robert Hutchins' tenure at the University of Chicago, Rudolph situates his own history along the dominant streams of American cultural and social history. In so doing he has captured the notion and the feeling that the history of higher education, particularly those elite institutions which comprise the thrust of his work, stands at once separate from, and responds deeply to, changes throughout American history. Though schools like Yale, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and Cornell continue to play such a formative role in creating many of the country's preeminent leaders and thinkers, Rudolph succinctly illustrates how these institutions are responsive, albeit sometimes slowly, to the exhibited needs of the world around them. To the extent that this influences the type of experiences the next generation of leaders and thinkers will have, the arena of higher education cannot help but feel like a slightly conservative force within American society (there are, of course, exceptions to this).

Rather than moralize over the extent to which colleges and universities manifest democratic ideals - a critique so readily leveled in contemporary discussions of higher education - Rudolph traces the very growth of the democratic spirit, and how this has helped to expand colleges and universities, while often compromising the very mission they often pursue. The tension between trying to create an education which is deep, rigorous, and broad, and the possibility of providing for the learning of the many, may forever remain unresolved in American higher education. Perhaps this reflects a tension within society. Though it need not necessarily be the case, the demands of a practical education always seem to oppose the dreams of a scholarly and introspective one. While we may regard this as a failure of educational theorists and developers, we might conversely wonder if our social world forecloses the prospect of living a thoughtful and introspective life which is also social? If we agree that this tension exists in education, can we similarly assert that the same tension exists in society, and within ourselves?