From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Flowers Bloom (2)—An Open Book

[a] Open  RF
 During the summer, I will be posting segments of a memoir project I have begun that discusses teaching, learning, scholarship, reading...and the venerable, odd University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind rocked American education almost twenty-five years ago. I have already written a little bit about Bloom on this blog, and had promised to start posting more pieces starting in June. Read the introduction to the series if you want the full context, but the individual posts are meant to be read on their own (with hints throughout of the larger context).

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6

Flowers Bloom—A Teaching Memoir
An Open Book
As I opened the letter from the Committee on Social Thought—its heft had calmed me considerably—I began to think about how I was going to organize my time over the next six months, the last period of preparation that I would have before my years of planning and hoping would turn to actual graduate training. I was in, and the pressure was on. I had received a fellowship that humbled me and had heard from one of my college professors that they expected me to do well. It could have registered as negative pressure, but I was floating. I felt like a Daoist who had found the way.
[b] Leaves  RF
I learned that I was to begin my studies in October, and that I would spend my first two years attempting a complex balance of work in Chinese history and literature, on the one hand, and reading deeply from a list of twelve to fifteen “great books” of my own choosing, on the other. For the former, I was to study my languages, engage in seminar work, and begin the slow process that would lead eventually to the doctoral dissertation. I knew even then that I would take anthropological theory and classical Chinese, and look for the kinds of seminars that would teach me more about the “borderlands” between history, anthropology, and Chinese literature. For the latter—this strange concoction of a dozen or more “great books”—I was less sure, but I set out to learn more. I had already studied some formidable texts in my two years in Taiwan.
Now, I was to make my choices early, consult all faculty members (getting their signatures in the process), and begin the process of methodically studying the texts, reflecting upon the perspectives of other scholars, anticipating questions, and writing several original essays, to be submitted to the Chairperson each spring. That line of inquiry would culminate in the third year with the Fundamentals Examination—nine questions in three, broad categories, from which I would eventually write three “substantial” essays over a four-day period, with a fifth day added (it seemed quaint, even at the time), for “typing.” This was the fundamental goal that would shape my life for the next three years. It would be the most formidable cut in the entire program. “Don’t blow it,” I murmured to myself. I was in, and now it was time to put all of those years of longing together.
***  ***
Within a week, I heard the word “bloom” again as a proper name—Allan Bloom, the “unparalleled” translator of Plato’s Republic. I had read his translation carefully three times while in Taiwan, and was enchanted by the audaciousness and insight of Bloom's “interpretive essay” at the end. I had also—just by chance—discovered that Bloom had translated Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, a kind of Enlightenment era Republic focusing on child rearing and education. I had found a copy on a quick trip to Hong Kong, and began it with an utter disdain that turned rapidly to admiration and eventually into a permanent sense of awe for both the author (Rousseau) and the translator (Bloom). I still regard, to this day, the translation of Rousseau’s Emile as the greatest service that Allan Bloom has done for English-speaking humanity. Any of a small number of people could have translated The Republic in an astute new way. By now, several more have done so. It took a genius to “see” that Rousseau’s Emile is one of the greatest books ever written.
That is all that I knew of Bloom by the time that I had processed my acceptance into the Committee on Social Thought. It was only a few weeks later, though, that I heard his name again. It seems that the professor had written a very different kind of book that had caught the attention of several reviewers, including Christopher Lehman-Haupt, writing in the New York Times and published jointly in the International Herald-Tribune, which I read avidly. Lehman-Haupt liked it, and wrote that it “hits with the approximate force and effect of what electric-shock therapy must be like.”  I was intrigued, and not least because I saw myself (or a vision of what I wanted not to be) in his portrayals.

Allan Bloom fools you in his remarkable new book, The Closing of the American Mind, which hits with the approximate force and effect of what electric-shock therapy must be like. He begins by describing contemporary college students—or at least the ones he has taught and observed at such schools as Yale, Cornell, Amherst and the University of Chicago, where he now teaches—and he finds these students wanting and symptomatic of what’s wrong with American society today.

They don't read the classics. They get their information from movies and drug out on rock music. They lack passion and commitment and the capacity to love. They are confused, and the universities they seek help from merely reflect their confusion. The problem, Professor Bloom asserts, is the relativity of truth in the academic mind today. “Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings–is the great insight of our times,” he writes. But this openness has had the paradoxical effect of closing the American mind.
[c] Breeze 
His criticism of students was pointed, but I was less offended than fascinated. I could not help but see all of the intersecting themes from Western intellectual history coursing through his arguments. He might be saying on the surface that students don't read enough, but he was invoking great thinkers with whom I was only beginning to be acquainted. 

It all sounded rather odd—an argument and a set of texts that would be hard to put together in one place. Plato, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Heidegger, Nietsczhe…and a complex argument about the failure of the American university system. Was the Committee on Social Thought a breeding ground for scholars putting together oddly disparate texts in pursuit of larger questions?  I was not sure, but—if so—I wanted to be a part of it even more. The critiques of the text had not yet begun to surface, and the New York Times’ about-face was still several weeks away. In any case, I had not yet read the book. I special ordered a copy at Caves Books in Taipei, and waited.
It took a month for the book to arrive, but the reviews began to cool, even as the Taipei weather warmed. I continued to study classical Chinese, read a great and complicated history of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), and walk with my “anthropological” notebooks up and down the alleys and byways of Taipei—leaving the city for southern and western locations (the pull of “the exotic” was ever upon me) whenever I could put a few days together. I started making lists of books that I might want to study for the big exam that now was fewer than three years away, and I longed—pined daily—for a setting in Chicago that still seemed a distant dream.

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6 

Growing up History...and Culture
Flashback to early education. How "longing" for knowledge can begin early, even (and perhaps especially) on the North Dakota prairie.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (14)—Sleep Desk

Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party

Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 
George's arrangement is a good deal more covert than the one you can see in the photograph, above. No, George wants to get some serious work. The ethnographic and theoretical implications of this are enormous (much of Seinfeld works this way), so let's get right to the episode before we consider further aspects of what it means to sleep at work.

So what's up with that? There are biological, social, and cultural implications here, just to name a few. There are a few historical ones, too. Just think about it. How realistic was it to stay up all night...before the light bulb? Yes, the torchlight (or fireflies in a bag) could provide a little bit of scholarly or artistic extension, but the big ol' bulb in the sky was the best indicator of work time—whether that meant chasing down an antelope, digging tubers, or fighting for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Sunlight pretty much set the course for most of the...course of human history. The light bulb changed all of that, and it has been a dizzying century-plus of change. Now, George-types can stay up all night watching movies, and factories can work on twenty-four hour, three-shift schedules. 

I am not going to waste your time with all of the material out there in popular publications on biorhythms, sleep cycles, and "normal" patterns. No, I plan to bore you with the ethnographic and theoretical implications of thinking about life and work and sleep through the eyes of a few thinkers over the course of history. I have often referred to these weekly readings as "theoretical," and that was distinctly the tone in the first dozen Seinfeld Ethnography posts. There will continue to be plenty of "theory" in the weeks and months ahead, but you will be seeing more references to historical, ethnographic, and literary materials. Today's readings provide a good example.
[b] Desk, bed  RF

Let's think about George and the life patterns that lead us to sleep at night and work during the day. Or not.

Works and Days
[c] Work, day
(ll. 286-292) To you, foolish Perses, I will speak good sense. Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.

(ll. 293-319) That man is altogether best who considers all things himself and marks what will be better afterwards and at the end; and he, again, is good who listens to a good adviser; but whoever neither thinks for himself nor keeps in mind what another tells him, he is an unprofitable man. But do you at any rate, always remembering my charge, work, high-born Perses, that Hunger may hate you, and venerable Demeter richly crowned may love you and fill your barn with food; for Hunger is altogether a meet comrade for the sluggard. Both gods and men are angry with a man who lives idle, for in nature he is like the stingless drones who waste the labour of the bees, eating without working; but let it be your care to order your work properly, that in the right season your barns may be full of victual. Through work men grow rich in flocks and substance, and working they are much better loved by the immortals (8). Work is no disgrace: it is idleness which is a disgrace. But if you work, the idle will soon envy you as you grow rich, for fame and renown attend on wealth. And whatever be your lot, work is best for you, if you turn your misguided mind away from other men's property to your work and attend to your livelihood as I bid you. An evil shame is the needy man's companion, shame which both greatly harms and prospers men: shame is with poverty, but confidence with wealth.[1]

John Hostetler
Amish Society
[d] Work
Teaching the child to work and to accept responsibility is considered of utmost importance. The child begins to assist his parents at the age of four and is given limited responsibility at the age of six. The boy learns to feed the chickens, gather eggs, feed the calf, and drive the horses. The girl is trained to perform small jobs for her mother and to learn early the art of cooking and housekeeping. Some parents give a pig, sheep, or calf the child with the stipulation that he tend the animal and take care of it. In this way the child is motivated to take an interest in the farm.

The role of the child and the work performed by each is well illustrated in a family of six children, five boys and one girl. Five are old enough to perform certain tasks. Their ages are 22, 17, 15 (girl), 12, 8, and 3. The two oldest boys, ages 22 and 17, and the father carry on the farming operations and field work. The 15-year-old boy, who is still in puberty, and though capable of doing a full day's work, performs the lighter tasks about the barn. The girl, aged 12, and a boy 8 attend public school, and the youngest, a three-year-old, is in the age of curiosity...

The solidarity of the family and its ability to act as a unit in an emergency is illustrated by the co-operation at occasions when the livestock breaks out. Charles P. Loomis, who worked at an Amish place as a farm hand, describes such an incident. As they were seated at the supper table: "Mattie got up to get some milk and saw that the cows were getting through the gate. She screamed and the whole family dashed to the door. Mother hurriedly put the baby into the carriage. We ran after the 22 cows. The big family encircled them, one girl having run over a mile on plowed ground. We got them back in. They had not been out this spring and were wild. Mother said she has read about stampedes in the west. Chris and I put them back in their stanchions after supper. He fed them grain first, but still we had a job. He said, 'They're out of practice. When they get to going to the meadow each day they will do better.'"[2]

Stephen Kern
The Culture of Time & Space, 1880-1918
[e] Light
The structure of history, the uninterrupted forward movement of clocks, the procession of days, seasons, and years, and simple common sense all tell us that time is irreversible and moves forward at a steady rate. Yet these features of traditional time were also challenged as artists and intellectuals envisioned times that reversed themselves, moved at irregular rhythms, and even came to a dead stop. In the fin de siècle, time's arrow did not always fly straight and true...

The first commercially practical incandescent lamp was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1879, and three years later he opened the first public electricity supply system at the Pearl Street district of New York that made possible the wide-spread use of the electric light. The eminent historian of architecture Rayner Bahnam has called electrification "the greatest environmental revolution in human history since the domestication of fire." One of the many consequences of this versatile, cheap, and reliable form of illuminations was a blurring of the division between day and night. Of course candles and gas lamps could light the darkness, but they had not been able to achieve the enormous power of the incandescent light bulb and suggest that the routine alternation of day and night was subject to modification. One of the many such observations occurs in a novel of 1898, where a Broadway street scene at dusk is illuminated by a flood of "radiant electricity" which gave the effect of an "immortal transformation" of night into day."[3]

[1] Hesiod, Works and Days [Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White 1914].
[2] John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, Revised Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), 155-156.
[3] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time & Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 29.

Hesiod, Works and Days [Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White 1914].
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society, Revised Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.
Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time & Space, 1880-1918. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Wednesday, July 6th
Too Late for Coffee
George gets an invitation, but declines because it's "too late for coffee." It's all society, culture, and gendered confusion on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Flowers Bloom (1)—Letter from Chicago

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Flowers Bloom."
[a] Mingled hope, confusion  RF
 During the summer, I will be posting segments of a memoir project I have begun that discusses teaching, learning, scholarship, reading...and the venerable, odd University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind rocked American education almost twenty-five years ago. I have already written a little bit about Bloom on this blog, and had promised to start posting more pieces starting in June. Read the introduction to the series if you want the full context, but the individual posts are meant to be read on their own (with hints throughout of the larger context).

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6 

Flowers Bloom—A Teaching Memoir
Letter from Chicago
I opened the letter from Chicago. It was a cool, rainy morning in March 1987, and I sat in my small, third floor apartment on the northern outskirts of Taipei, sipping hot tea as I tried to stay warm amidst cold, cement walls dripping with icy moisture. I had been waiting for this letter for years—for all of my life, or so it felt. This was not just about graduate school, or about where I might spend the coming years getting the credentials I would need to be a college professor. It was about a persistent longing that I could not extinguish—to be a part of a serious, ongoing conversation about life and what we are doing in it. I didn’t just want to train to be a professor. That was just a job. I didn’t want a job.

I had a vision, and wanted to be a part of a genuine intellectual conversation—really an overlapping, complex web of conversations through history and across cultures—that had been going on since Homer, or the Duke of Zhou, or Herodotus, or Sima Qian, or Plato, or Xunzi. I hungered for something beyond even the excellent teaching I had found all around me in the snowy southlands of Minnesota. I wanted something along the lines of education as a calling—something that thought of the 3Rs as worthwhile foundations, but nowhere near why we spend our lives teaching ourselves and others. Something drove me that cannot be accounted for in potential for employment or lifetime salary possibilities. That meant little. I wanted to “talk” to writers and thinkers from all over the world and across the centuries—in their own languages and idioms.

That is why I had traveled to Taiwan with a stack of great Western classics. It was why I studied classical Chinese philosophy and literature every day, even as I scoured the back alleys and marketplaces to understand a lively, growing, and changing culture. When I carefully packed my bags for my two-year trip to Taiwan, I made sure that I balanced peanut butter and narrow lined notebooks with Herodotus, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. I was going to do history and anthropology and philosophy and literature and everything else—heaven (天) help me. I hated academic boundaries with a passion that has eased a bit over time but of which I remain powerfully wary. I had a plan, and it was (after living and learning in Taiwan) to be in Chicago in a few years. I had heard great things about the place.

***  ***

Putting the envelope on my lap, I took a long sip of hot, tannic mountain green tea and thought back to the first time I had heard of the Committee on Social Thought, the University of Chicago’s body of idiosyncratic scholars studying a strange array of oddly connected subjects—shamanism, Greek historiography, Indian poetry, the French revolution, Chinese lyric poetry, German idealist philosophy, and so many other corners of the great Enlightenment chart of knowledge that I could scarcely describe it to myself, much less others who expected far “neater” categories in the world of education.

The Committee on Social Thought? The what on what? The name itself posed questions I still have not thoroughly disentangled, even today.

I had made my way to a third floor office in Laird Hall, where I had expected to have a conversation about South Asian history with a visiting professor from the University of Chicago. A.K. Ramanujan taught at Carleton College for winter term that year, and he told me of the pipeline of students every autumn going from Carleton to Chicago, from their undergraduate work to specialized studies leading toward the doctoral degree. “Not everyone is specialized, though—at least not in the usual sense.”  He accentuated the last phrase. He went on to describe a strange and intellectually vibrant body of scholars founded by a group of pioneering thinkers in the 1940s that included an economist, an anthropologist, and the president of the University. Some of the most interesting intellectuals (he used the word in a neutral sense that my egalitarian Midwestern ear could not then interpret) in the last half-century had taught there.

T.S. Eliot and Marc Chagall had been there in the early years. Right now (this was 1981) the faculty included the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, the Greek historian Arnoldo Momigliano, the novelist Saul Bellow, and the scholar who had produced the definitive translation (we still talked that way back then) of Plato’s Republic, Allan Bloom. By chance, I knew a little something of most of these people in my history, literature, and anthropology courses. Eliot? Check. Chagall? Check, check. Eliade and Momigliano? Good teaching had acquainted me. Bellow had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years before. I was old enough to remember…vaguely.

Bloom? Definitive translation? Huh? I had heard of Plato and The Republic, although I had not read much of the first or any of the latter. Bloom? Who was that?

In the course of the next hour, Ramanujan went on to describe this “Committee on Social Thought,” and to tell me of a seminar he had recently taught on the beginnings of great works of literature, as well as the larger concept of “beginnings” in historical, philosophical, and literary discourse. He explained that it was a place where students and professors embraced the ideals of liberal education, where they lived it through a steady stream of reading groups, seminars, lectures, and tutorials. Just a month before, he had finished ten weeks carefully reading Titus and Andronicus with half a dozen students, and he was looking forward to another small group studying Plato’s Theatetus in the spring. He described the Committee on Social Thought as a kind of liberal education for the graduate student, a place where aspiring doctoral students studied great works from the Western tradition, even as they pursued the particular scholarly paths that would lead to a place in academia.

This was it—what I had hoped existed even though I never could have articulated it for myself. From that moment, I wanted to be nowhere else, and I was consumed by my desire to pursue my graduate studies in Chicago, in that peculiar and exhilarating program. I had been studying history, anthropology, and Chinese studies for several years by then, and was oblivious to the polite questions from my professors about the feasibility of combining the study of Western classics with Chinese culture. One of my anthropology professors, who had gotten his doctorate at the University of Chicago, said “You certainly are quixotic, Rob…isn’t that the place where people never finish?” I heard a great deal of that over the next few months, but I didn’t care. I knew that some people finished. The number was not hefty over forty years, I learned, but some did finish, including that strange figure named “Bloom,” who wrote a dissertation on Isocrates in 1955. People finished and started working. I wanted to be a part of the mix.

And “mixing” disciplines and readings in ways that “traditional” academia frowned upon was precisely what I desired. In the course of a patchwork education—the holes of which I was beginning to feel painfully the more I studied—I had managed to avoid almost every serious book that had bonded readers together in earlier eras. I was aware that some people bemoaned this condition, and had just read a book review noting that “fifty years ago, the publication of the revised Cambridge Ancient History would have been greeted by a wide and enthusiastic readership.”  Now it was only specialists who cared. I had heard a bit of this kind of complaint because it was vaguely “in the water,” running like a small stream through my classes and my discussions with professors.

Until that day, I was mostly oblivious to it. I had “discovered” first the idea that I could learn anything at all at a reasonable level of accomplishment. No sooner had that sunk in than I found Africa, then China, in the course of my double major in history and anthropology. I had just enough acquaintance with what some called “the great books” to know that I knew absolutely nothing, and that most of my compatriots in Asian Studies and my other fields were not terribly interested in them. I knew just enough of my own ignorance to be enchanted, and to want to fill the prodigious gaps in my education. I had already begun this with great seriousness by initiating a program of memorization focusing on Western poetry. I started with T.S. Eliot and “The Wasteland” as my initial text. That done, and—for better or worse—coursing through my consciousness since that time, I went on to the Selected Poems, the Four Quartets, and, eventually to other writers and even other genres and languages. It was a clumsy but ever-so-serious attempt to begin repairing the dike of my ignorance. Just several years before, I had no idea that it was even a problem.

Leaving Professor Ramanujan’s office that day was freeing. I now had a plan to go with the memory work I had begun. Combining specialized study of Chinese culture with Western classics was precisely what I desired. I was a student from a Western country, and was beginning to see myself even then as part of a long and alternately problematic and illustrious Western tradition—from Herodotus studying the Persians onward—that took seriously the study of phenomena beyond cultural and political borders. I was going to get my doctoral degree from the Committee on Social Thought—a place I never even thought possible an hour earlier.

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6 
Opening Mind and Letter
Hoping, planning, and crafting.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Flowers Bloom—Introduction

[a] Pensée  PD

During the summer and autumn of 2011, I will be posting segments of a memoir project I have begun that discusses teaching, learning, scholarship, reading...and the venerable, odd University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind rocked American education almost twenty-five years ago. I have already written a little bit about Bloom on this blog, and had promised to start posting more pieces starting in June. This introduction is made up of a segment from a book proposal (now in process) for a narrative that commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bloom's incendiary book. If you have opinions about Bloom and Closing, I urge you to read on. My approach might not be what you expect.

Twenty-five Years; Open and Closed
Several years ago, while flipping through radio stations on a long drive across the prairie, I caught a clear signal, with Rush Limbaugh’s distinctive voice in its ever-so-serious most sincere tone, telling a listener about the books a conservative must read. I had never really thought about the concept of partisan reading (liberal or conservative), but have come to see that those on both left and right have created lists, and take them more seriously than I ever would have guessed. In any case, Limbaugh worked his way through a number of popular tracts published since the 1980s before pausing and saying, “and then there’s Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.” The pause drew a line of seriousness between the books that came before and the ones (including Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom) that would follow. “These are not easy books,” cautioned Limbaugh, “but they will repay careful reading.”
Not long after that, sitting in a large university auditorium, and easing into the flow of a lecture on Southeast Asian history, I was startled by the words, “…as everyone can see, except perhaps Westernizing crackpots like Allan Bloom…”  I was reminded that Bloom had not been completely forgotten by the academy, where he spent the bulk of his working life. Twenty-five years have passed since The Closing of the American Mind took American readers by surprise, and it still seems that people (not unlike the case in 1987, when it was first published) make of Closing what they want. It is like a strange kind of educational Rorschach test—conservatives see truth and liberals see red.
[b] Mum  RF
It is not difficult to see where this is going. Both sides are wrong, and neither is even close to the mark either with Bloom or Closing, not the least because they have mined his text and pronouncements for sound bites that suit their positions. He is a protector of the canon, according to one mindset; he is a reactionary defender of dead white males, according to another. It is beyond tiresome. I have another approach. I propose to tell a story of a (half a) lifetime spent with Bloom and Closing—in one way or another, and in ways that have both inspired and irritated me.
I knew Allan Bloom, and liked him. He was difficult not to like, but my own book owes as much to my profound differences with him as to any similarities. You see, I study anthropology and history…and Chinese civilization. I was certified for these scholarly activities under Bloom’s guidance—direct (he composed one of the questions I answered on the infamous Committee on Social Thought fundamentals examination) and indirect (in numerous conversations and seminar meetings during my graduate studies). I received my doctorate from the same institution and department—“committee” in Chicago’s quaint language—as Bloom did, forty-one years earlier, the same one in which Bloom taught until his death. He was a powerful influence on my thinking, and as often as not in the utter exasperation I have felt in arguing with him.
Exasperation, absolutely. Bloom reveled in creating it. Yet almost every critic has fallen into his trap. He was capable of luring you—in text or speech—into idiotic counterpoints meant to match his own. He loved it, but critics to this day often do not understand that they are spinning about in Bloom’s own webs of overstatement, confidence, and, let us admit as much, deep intelligence. The poor souls who have twisted themselves into impossible postures over Bloom’s almost ludicrously overstated chapter on music are legion. They are victims of their own passions and inability to see through Bloom’s combative ridiculousness and sense the utter seriousness of the message that lies just below the surface. The joke is on Bloom only in the shallowest sense—he reveled in playing the provocative clown. Ultimately it is on those who, through sheer passion or seething anger, just don’t get it.
Polemics on Closing have failed. Thoughtful reassessments have done slightly better, but they, too, have run their course—it has been a quarter century. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publishing of Closing, I argue that the best way to “remember” it is through the story of a teaching career in its shadows—a career in Chinese studies (specializing in the “most read” and “least read” books in Chinese history) inspired by Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind.
[c] Memoire  PD
Allan Bloom’s Closing inspired a young Chinese historian and anthropologist to focus his career on precisely the way that people learned…from dog-eared books that others may or may not open. I resented many aspects of our interactions, and think to this day that Bloom did not have to be quite so argumentative in what I consider meaningless situations. That was Bloom, though, and I have learned as much from his missteps, as I see them, as his undeniable brilliance.
It is not necessary here to stress what an influence Closing had on American discussions of higher education in the late-1980s. Even then, though, it failed to get attention down to the level of everyday discussion. It is a bit ironic that even the biggest bestseller in the history of higher education can be remembered only in part, and in convenient, partisan, sound bites. There is also an entire generation of readers that has never heard of it, and cannot imagine the stir it made in the late 1980s. That reintroduction is a large part of the argument behind my own book. Just publishing a re-issue opens the same hackneyed responses of yesteryear. A new approach is needed, and I have a solution in the memoir format.
Most of the critiques of Closing stressed this or that point of agreement or disagreement, but it is absolutely startling to see how few of them come even close to the most important point by far—the passion, the absolute, consuming passion…for learning. That is my starting point, and it carries the narrative through the entire book. Bloom was a showman, to be sure, and loved to put his passion for learning on display in the classroom and while talking in his office. It was almost as though he was saying “match this; just try.”
Even then, for all of his display, I could see the personification of his words. Real education was about channeling energies, of tapping into human needs and, indeed, longings. This last phrase was one I remembered from both his interpretive essay in The Republic and Closing. I felt an immediate kinship with him. Here was a person who, for three hundred pages seemed utterly clueless about education, yet he had nailed it with the most critical feature of all. He was saying something that only a few people beyond Plato and Confucius bothered to say clearly. Unequivocally.
Over time, it is what Bloom taught me to see in my own life. Eventually I learned just a little bit about teaching it. It was something I already had—a longing and passion for ideas, as important as eating or sleeping. I had also learned (through painful socialization) that describing one’s passion for knowledge is not something one does indiscriminately. It can clear a room—or silence it, creating embarrassment for everyone except the speaker, who fails to understand that such things are usually not mentioned in polite company. Interest, yes. Passion, not so much. Let’s just keep to test scores and not get “all emotional” about learning. Bloom wanted the emotion. He wanted learning to matter. I do, too. It is as simple—and powerful—as that.
Let us not kid ourselves, though. Bloom reveled in riling people, and he took particular pleasure in the consternation he created with some of the passages in Closing. Even the sympathetic reader might wince at Mick Jagger references that seem just a bit too passionate. Or references to rock and roll that recalled jungle rhythms and writhing consternation. It is almost as though he was intent upon setting so many mousetraps for his critics, often at his own expense. I later learned that was precisely what he was doing. This was not difficult for a few careful interpreters to sense in 1987, even without confirmation from the author. Most, however, went straight for the cheese and snapped right into the traps.
The points in Closing are Platonic—in the strict sense. Plato had strong opinions about rhythm. So, too—Bloom was only vaguely aware of this when we first met—did Confucius. Bloom became visibly excited by the connection between Plato and Confucius when we spoke, and this was not even close to the fireworks that were created later by Thucydides and Sima Guang…or Wang Yangming and Rousseau. You see, Bloom was complicated, and he didn’t mind letting others be perplexed by his positions (even if he might reconsider portions of them “down the road”). He had a serious message, and he loved life—all the more so after the success of Closing, which any of us who were around him understood as clearly as any page one might read in Saul Bellow’s barely fictional account of Bloom, Ravelstein.
[d] Mutual  PD
And he meant what he wrote. Sort of. This is a difficult and complicated point for me. I should say that he meant what he wrote, and was willing to consider new information—but usually not without a glibly disdainful remark to set a negative tone at the outset. That might get closer to my relationship with Allan Bloom. He appears to have been powerfully closed to outside ideas in the narrative of Closing. The Bloom I knew was tremendously irritating, to be sure (calling the great French ethnologist Marcel Mauss “Micky Mauss” when I proposed reading him as part of my fundamentals examination preparation, and that is just one small example). He was also surprisingly open to the Chinese tradition in a kind of expanded “great books” format. This both impressed and frustrated me. What was the role of studies “beyond the West?”  What was the role of the canon?  Did it refer to dead, (Eurasian) males writing in various scripts, so long as the interpreters of the texts approached them “correctly?”  Were great Chinese texts classics? Japanese? Korean? Folk stories from these places? Histories? Accounts of social life?  ….Horoscopes?
Allan Bloom didn’t really address these questions, but they stuck in my mind from the very moment that I heard about his book, almost to the day that I opened my acceptance letter (sitting in my room in Taipei, Taiwan, studying classical Chinese grammar). They shaped in fundamental ways the approach that I would take to both my graduate education and my teaching career, long after I had received my doctorate from the Committee on Social Thought. My narrative takes the reader through two educations—my own and the one I seek to impart to my students. You see, Bloom is still a part of what I do, and his lessons in channeling the longing for knowledge affect all of my teaching.
And let us not forget, in what remains a powerfully publishing-centered academy, that Bloom was foremost a teacher. What is the role of the teacher in today’s academy, and are there spaces where the vision can be sustained?  It might be that American liberal arts colleges could be such a place, but most have squandered their potential by trying to become little “research colleges,” on the one hand, or self-admiring (amour-propre) little thickets on the margins of academic relevance. One of the larger purposes of my book is to consider what settings might be most conducive to the kind of teaching that channels students’ longing for knowledge.
***  ***
Welcome to this series of reflections on teaching and learning. The project charts—and shows—a path through the thicket, and describes how I found my own way to and beyond Bloom…in the shadows of Closing. Twenty-five years after The Closing of the American Mind riled American education, it is time to engage in a calm retrospective that takes Bloom as seriously as he deserves—going far beyond his own argument in the process. It is about engagement, not adulation; channeling of scholarly longing, not politics.

Click here for the next post in the "Flowers Bloom" series.
[e] Journey  PD

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (9)—Too Cold

The last few days in Wisconsin have been cold days in June. I, of course, mean that the weather was unseasonably chilly. This week's country lyrics take that basic idea and move it to another level—one that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever engaged in social interactions of any kind, especially intimate ones. Take a listen and a read.

Trivia question: what is the exact date referred to in the audio "pre-song" in the link below, just as ol' Mark Chesnutt is driving up to the bar? The answer can be found at the end of this post.

       Too Cold at Home
           —Mark Chesnutt
           (Bobby Harden) 

           Well it sure feels good to come in here, and just pull up a seat
           A frosty mug of a cool one helps to beat the heat
           These old dog days of summer, Lord I'll be glad when they're gone
           It's too hot to fish, and too hot for golf
           And too cold at home

          Well that baseball game on TV takes me back to when I was a kid
          We proudly wore those uniforms, just like the Dodgers did
          Yeah we won a few and lost a few, and for me it still goes on
          It's too hot to fish, and too hot for golf
          And too cold at home 

          Well I only planned on one or two, I might stay for three
          If that good looking thing in the corner keeps smiling back at me
          It's so easy not to care about what's right or what's wrong
          It's too hot to fish, too hot for golf
          And too cold at home 


          It's too hot to fish, and too hot for golf
          And too cold at home

        Is it Cold in Here?
            —Joe Diffie
 (Danny Morrison;Kerry Kurt Phillips;Joe Diffie)

There's something wrong
Lord I'm feeling a chill
That runs through my heart
Like a torch cuts through steel
You haven't said a word
Are you feeling it too
Is it cold in here
Or is it just you?

Did I leave the door wide open
And let the chill just kill that old desire?
Should I put my arms around you
Or put another log on the fire?
Is it my imagination
Or did the temperature just drop
A notch or two?
Is it cold in here
Or is it just you?

There's no warmth at all
When I try to hold you near
You stare into space
As if I wasn't here
Did our love just die
Or is it just about to?
Is it cold in here
Or is it just you?


Oh is it cold in here
Or is it just you?
[b] Ripples  RF
This week's East Asian poem comes with a twist. It will be our first Japanese verse, and comes in the rich context of the Tales of Ise, a tenth-century compendium of stories and poems that is one of the most memorable and distinguished classics in the Japanese tradition. I have already referred to the Tales on Round and Square in an "Endings" post several months ago, and it is always a pleasure to return to one of my favorite books. Although I enjoy translating, I think it would be far better to let Helen Craig McCullough's fine rendering of the passage stand on its own this week.

As always, remember that the East Asian poems are meant to be juxtaposed with the country lyrics, not echo them. I say it every week, and will continue to do so. Juxtaposition often creates interpretive fireworks that are resonant and lasting. Trying to find cross-cultural "echoes" of themes often mires us in a cultural kind of "common denominator" pursuit that gets us nowhere. Enjoy the contrast the Tales of Ise give to the "too cold" images above.

Tales of Ise
Once when a Grand Empress was living on Gojou Avenue in the eastern sector of the capital, a certain woman occupied the western wing of her house. Quite without premeditation, a man fell in love with the woman and began to visit her. Around the Tenth of the First Month, the woman moved away without a word. The man learned where she had gone, but it was not a place for ordinary people to frequent, and he could do nothing but lament the wretchedness of life. In the First Month of the following year, when the plum trees were in full bloom, poignant memories drew him back to her old apartments. He sat and looked, he stood and looked, but it was hopeless to try to recapture the past. He burst into tears, flung himself on the floor of the bare room, and lay prostrate until the moon sank low in the sky. He composed this poem with the preceding year in his thoughts.

               tsuki ya aranu                                                   Is this not the moon?
          haru ya mukashi no                                          And is this not the springtime
               haru naranu                                                      the springtime of old?
          wa ga mi hitotsu wa                                          Only this body of mine,
          moto no mi ni shite                                            the same body as before...

He went home at dawn, still shedding tears.[1]

[1] Helen Craig McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 41.

McCullough, Helen Craig. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Trivia answer: June 12, 1990 (Ryan pitched the no-hitter the evening of June 11, 1990.
Sunday, July 3rd
Kentucky Rain
Elvis is on a quest to find his loved one in the cold Kentucky rain.