Posts Tagged ‘Class’

Researching “Boys will be boys”

January 23, 2008

As a graduate student in Liberal Studies, one of my tasks this semester is to blog about our coursework.  See my About page for more information. 

There will be weekly blog assignments that a public intellectual can use and cite (the last entry for one on storytelling is an important tool to the effective blogger), but from what I understand there will also be a longer series of blogs about a topic of my choosing that is of importance to a community.  The size of this community depends in part on you and how effectively I create tags and searches and links. 

Currently, I subscribe to Yahoo news feeds and Google news feeds and Google blog feeds and Technorati feeds on the following three tags:  preschool bullies, preschool expulsion and raising boys. 

Right now, the information coming in is thin.  Maybe I’m not searching right, maybe I’m too prejudicial about what kind of information I want and what kind of information I don’t want, maybe it’s just too early or maybe there aren’t many people talking about my concern.  I notice there are lots of moms dealing with this problem in forums, educators dealing with this problem in forums, and the media is starting to pay attention, but there aren’t many dads.  Where are you dads?  How are you raising your boys to be decent yet able to stand up for themselves and others?  How do you teach a three year old those values?  

Despite my data collection concerns however, in the local newspaper last week there was an article that caught my eye (“Preschool expulsions examined” by Lori Higgins for the Detroit Free Press), and in light of the problems my son has faced in preschool, I have decided dealing with preschool bullies is an issue of urgency and a discussion worth having.  If you have suggestions for me, I welcome your comments, and if you want to participate in the discussion, please join in.    

Power in story

January 22, 2008

What makes a good story? 

In NPR’s StoryCorps, “A Father’s Memories of Auschwitz” Debra Fisher tells of the final time she asked her father about his experience in Auschwitz.  As a child, reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, Fisher had a hard time recognizing the camp described by Wiesel from the description her father had always given her.  Her father never wanted his daughter to know her father suffered.  But when her father was hospitalized, and she knew she was down to her last chance, she asked again.  The strength of the story she tells comes from the imagery she provides of her father kicking off his blankets, and the brief but effective dialogue, and the catch in her voice as she tells her story.

Does that mean a story must be sad to be good?

In NPR’s Story Corps, “As First Dates Go, This One Was a Doozy,” Sigmund Stahl tells how he met his wife.  Stahl had a list of names he’d consider asking out on a date, and a friend asked him weekly if he’d called anybody.  Stahl finally broke down and called the girl at the top of the list.  Sitting down together for the first time, he asked what she’d like to do, and she indicated she wanted to see Deep Throat.  Not familiar with the film, he took her to see it – “There was a line around the block.”  At the end of the evening, alone in his apartment, Stahl realized the gumption this woman had, and he decided to call her again.  The strength of Stahl’s story stems from the unexpected.  Stahl is 82 when he tells the story, and he was married to that girl for 30 years. 

Imagery, effective dialogue and a twist.  The catch in Fisher’s voice and Stahl’s marriage to the young woman he took to see Deep Throat are indicative of truth.  How do those qualities hold up against Ernie Pyle and George Orwell?

Pyle, in “The Death of Captain Waskow,” describes the captain as “young” with an air of “sincerity and gentleness.”  Members of his company share their experiences with Captain Waskow and Pyle places the reader in the scene by describing the night as Waskow’s body was brought back.  Pyle earnestly describes the numbers of dead bodies coming down the mountain and admits he did not know them all.  But when Waskow’s body came down the mountain, the members of Waskow’s company responded.  They cursed, they apologized, and when it was all said and done, they went to sleep.  Pyle uses imagery and honesty to share a single moment, and while there were other dead that evening, Pyle was clearly struck by the difference in approach to Waskow on this particular evening.  That is another part of what makes a story. 

Sometimes there is simply a singular inexplicable event or circumstance that needs re-telling, and telling it honestly is all it takes to tell the story well.  Another important factor in telling a story well is self-awareness.  Not self-consciousness in a paranoid sort of way, but an awareness of the self and how we view ourselves. 

Orwell, in the opening of “Shooting an Elephant,” indicates in the first sentence that “I was hated by large numbers of people,” yet one gets the sense that Orwell recognizes he is not singled out by this hatred.  In addition to this self-awareness, an effective story is also one that has the benefit of perspective.  Debra Fisher, Sigmund Stahl and Orwell all have the benefit of time from when their stories occurred to when they share them.  Pyle too has a certain perspective, but Pyle’s comes from having been in Europe for a lengthy period of time and witnessing death; his story is more immediate than that of the other three.  Orwell’s story re-emphasizes the role of imagery.  It is strong and detailed.  We know the author’s thoughts, and we know what the author sees, hears and smells:  “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.  It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him.”

The story told is good when it must be told.  It must be honest.  Its teller must be aware and conscious.  Imagery puts the listener or reader there alongside the storyteller.  But overall, I think truth is the most important.  The teller must know the truth and the reader or listener must believe the teller.         

What ill omen is this?

January 16, 2008

Is this somebody’s idea of a joke? 

First, let me remind you — at least one more time this week — that I’m taking a class. 

One of our assignments for the week is to look for public intellectual references in the world wide web and reflect on what we find. 

Google’s first reference is to Richard A. Posner’s Public Intellectuals:  A Study of Decline.  Really?  Is this what I’m getting myself into?  A declining field?  Clearly this is a book I’m going to have to pick up, but the review alone — “Posner tracks these two trends to their inevitable intersection: a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken. The resulting scene–one of off-the-cuff pronouncements, erroneous predictions, and ignorant policy proposals–compares poorly with the performance of earlier public intellectuals, largely nonacademics whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse” — is a challenge.  Do I comment only on my occupation at potential risk to my career, or am I a qualifying non-academic with a large enough breadth of knowledge to be able to speak intelligently about a wide range of topics?  I’m no Socrates, but I’ve read, taught and understood The Republic.     

The next link that catches my eye suggests further doom in its title:  “Did blogging kill the public intellectual?”  Oh, dear God, let’s hope not.  (Note to self:  must read  the Russell Jacoby piece cited by Alex Halavais, for another piece by Jacoby is mentioned by Siva Vaidhyanathan.)  Halavais explores this question about blogging and the death of public intellectuals.  The criticism that blogs — to paraphrase Ray Bradbury — say nothing and say it loud, loud, loud is a notion that Halavais disagrees with.  Come to think of it so does Ozick. 

If, for instance, tomorrow I were to write about my son’s problems with pre-school and explore how his little three and a half year old mind works, does that make my blog less useful?  Halavais asks it in this way:  “Why should the ways in which we arrive at our final ideas be hidden from public critique, involvement, and discussion?”  Writing about three or four year old bullies in pre-school and how to raise a boy in our world today may not be the stuff of Socrates, but as Ozick wrote:  “Contemplation in public is what political intellectuals commonly do, and what the quieter private thinkers on occasion slip into doing. . . The private thinkers have the advantage of being written off as bunglers when they do speak out, or as cowards when they don’t.  But for the public thinkers, who are always audible in the forum, the risk is far more perilous.”      

There is another interesting issue  Halavais raises, and it is an issue mentioned by Dunlop, and that is the idea that the fad of the blog has peaked, but Halavais suggests that even as blogs disappear, it does not mean the end of the public intellectual.   

We’re around.  We care about things.  We worry about our peers and colleagues and what we witness.  Because of our worry, we say something.  We may not always be heard, but we have to make our thinking public, because I’d much rather speak out like M. Frederick Voorhees than stay silent and wait for the Brotherhood to send me a razor blade like Winston Smith

Public or Private

January 15, 2008

Cynthia Ozick in “Quarrel & Quandry” establishes a difference between public and private intellectual.  And so far as I can tell it’s a thin line — in her opinion — between private and public.  I suppose up until now I have been more private; though, even now I might still better fit Ozick’s definition of private as opposed to public.  Time will tell ultimately.   

Despite her distinctions, Ozick does ask what you may be asking:  “if we could clearly define the difference, is it important, would it matter?”  I don’t think it fully matters. 

What is that distinction though?  Why does Ozick indicate Socrates is public and Aristotle is not? 

“Public intellectuals know that history is where we swim, that we are in it, that we can’t see over or around it, that it is our ineluctable task to grapple with it.”  In other words, sometimes the public intellectual gets “it” wrong.  Ozick says, “Thinkers, after all, do not simply respond to existing conditions. . . they strive to sort out — to formulate — the cognitive and historic patterns that give rise to public issues.” 

“People who are privileged to be thinkers are obliged to respect exigency and to admit to crisis.  They are obliged to expose and war against those rampant Orwellian coinages that mean their opposite and lead to purposeful deception.”  I am privilged to think and be a thinker.  I am in a position that requires me to find the truth in a world that Dunlop describes as increasingly relative in its truthfulness. 

I am traditionally careful with my words, but only in seeking to be truthful.  I am willing to risk “being judged mistaken” just in case I am right. 


What is this public intellectual?

January 15, 2008

As you may or may not know, I am currently a graduate student, pursuing a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies.  The final course is the Public Intellectual Practicum, and while I’ve indicated Rusbridger identifies potential outlets for the Public Intellectual, there is arguably no stronger outlet for one who wishes to make his or her thoughts public than the blog. 

Tim Dunlop is one who recognizes the power of the blog.  In his piece “If you build it they will come,” he argues “bloggers are the new public intellectuals.”  But is just any old blogger a public intellectual?  There are, after all, a lot of blogs out there.  And Dunlop argues that some still believe this style of public thought is just a fad. 

Dunlop, and I, believe strongly that a blog is what puts the public in public intellectual.  “Without the resources of a media agency. . . they are [often] merely reactive to the news of the day as published by major outlets.”  However, “the interested blogger can read behind the headlines. . . and subject the bare news story to more scrutiny than it would normally get.”  For instance, with all the talk and questions about what went wrong with the polls in the New Hampshire primaries that had Barack Obama leading Hillary Clinton until the results were in and Senator Clinton actually won, folks were asking what went wrong.  Let me suggest that maybe the polls were flawed.  With my state’s primary today (Michigan), I answered four calls over the weekend from the Huckabee and Romney camps, and for one call I admittedly lied about my intentions.  Why I did that may be the subject of a future blog, but let me suggest that perhaps when we are polled, sometimes we are not fully truthful about our intentions.

Dunlop argues then that public intellectual blogs “are politically engaged, not artificially detached,” but where Dunlop says political, I understand political to be about more than just politics.  I think social engagement is just as vital and valuable for the public intellectual. 

While when I say social engagement, on one level I mean a social consciousness and the activity that ought to come from such social consciousness, I also mean the act of making thinking social.  Public. 

By making thinking social and public, there is an element of what Dunlop describes as breathlessness:  “[B]y engaging in political debate in such a public way, people often move beyond their own knowledge horizon, or come up against people who are simply better informed than they are.”  And it is that element of exposing oneself – so to speak – that is so important about public intellectualism.  “Argument precedes understanding and is central to democratic opinion formation.”   For instance, I’m not sure what I will be blogging about in the future.  I’m not sure what issues I will write about for my practicum.  I will write about things I know about, but there are other things I  want to write about that I don’t know much about.  Illegal immigration for instance.  I know on some level what an illegal immigrant is, but I’m not quite sure why Americans are so virulently anti-illegal immigrant.  Aside from the illegality.  More often, it seems to me that we are anti-non-English speaking immigrant, and we automatically assume that if you’re non-English speaking that you are therefore an illegal immigrant.  Do we know how difficult it is to become a citizen?  What distinguishes an illegal immigrant from a worker on a visa?  How easy or difficult is it to go from being a visa’d worker to an illegal alien?   I don’t have answers to those questions, but as Dunlop argues:  “democracy relies on public argument.”  He cites Christopher Lasch in arguing:  “only by subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate” do “we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn.  Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain opinions. . . It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of ‘opinions.’”

Thinking aloud

January 14, 2008

As Alan Rusbridger, editor of the UK’s The Guardian, recognized, it is never more easy to make one’s thinking public, and it will only get easier.

In a 2006 off-note lecture titled, “Newspapers in the age of blogs,” Rusbridger outlines scenarios of challenge faced by the “print-on paper newspapers” of Europe and North America where a decline in circulation means a decline in revenue.  For instance, Rusbridger cites Craig’s List as an interruption in both traditional classified and advertising revenue, and such a threat in turn challenges the integrity of an independent press.  Before advertising in papers, Rusbridger reminds us, politicians paid for space.  Is this current decline in advertising revenue why we hear challenges that the Bush administration has actively sought favorable press from policy friendly reporters?

Such challenges to the public’s faith in the integrity of reporters working in Washington become a greater affront as thoughtful citizens recognize a disconnect between how newspapers behaved in the past (and some still behave today) in light of the wealth of knowledge available to anyone with internet access.  Rusbridger recognizes newspapers can no longer assume the mantle of know-it-all.  With e-mail and the internet, “people started talking to each other and they didn’t ask our (the newspapers’) permission.”  Readers “went behind our back to our sources because increasingly the information we were using was available on the internet.” 

If you want a book critique, why read the paper when you can go to Amazon.  If you want a feature article or commentary on travel or entertainment or politics, there’s a social networking site or blog for that.  Rusbridger acknowledges that for all the challenges, there are few clear answers.  As the newspapers figure out their future, the public intellectual uses all these available sources to remain empowered. 

Mutability is the key.