Knowing By Heart

I’m just back from a regular practice session with the Atlanta Open Band, a community contra-dance band of which I am the chief instigator and organizer. We ran later than usual because, just about the time we’d usually wrap up, I fell into teaching the band a new tune by ear.

After practice, one of the musicians said to me: “The only tunes I know by heart are the ones I learned by ear,” with the implication that she might have to re-teach herself by ear all the tunes she usually reads from the page.

Mulling that over, just now, it struck me that it might be another connection between music and ethics: I hope for my students that they might know ethics “by heart” in a sense precisely analogous to knowing a tune by heart.

To know a tune by heart is to be able to play it, and vary it, and improvise on it, and dig into the structure of it, and play counterpoint against it without having to read it off a page or follow someone else’s lead.

On the side of ethics, I was thinking particular of theory. It’s one thing to read the Categorical Imperative off a page, for example, and to memorize it in order to copy it down later; it’s something else altogether to learn to notice and respond to the autonomy and dignity of human beings by experiencing them in real time, in their concrete immediacy, in the pulsing ebb and flow of social life.

The question is how best to create an environment and to structure a set of activities that might guide students to such experiences, and to help them to understand what they are experiencing.

Piaget on Cheating in School

I really have just a quotation and a few comments for today; I’ll have another brief entry, tomorrow, on a related matter.

From Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, trans. Marjorie Gabain (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), pp.286-7:

Cheating is a defensive reaction which our educational system  seems to have wantonly called forth in the pupil. Instead of taking into account the child’s deeper psychological tendencies which urge him to work with others – emulation being in no way opposed to cooperation – our schools condemn the pupil to work in isolation and only make use of emulation to set one individual against another. This purely individualistic system of work, excellent no doubt if the aim of education be to give good marks and prepare the young for examinations, is nothing but a handicap to the formation of reasonable beings and good citizens. Taking the moral point of view only, one of two things is bound to happen. Either competition proves strongest, and each boy will try and curry favour with the master, regardless of his toiling neighbour who then, if he is defeated, resorts to cheating. Or else comradeship will win the day and the pupils will combine in organized cheating so as to offer a common resistance to scholastic constraint.

Let me highlight one passage, which could very well be written of the system of public education in the U.S. in the current decade: Continue reading

Consideration Without Judgment

The unifying idea behind my courses is that students should be able at need to offer considered judgments on the ethical aspects of decisions and actions in response to complex situations. This is a fairly conventional notion lifted from the philosophical tradition, whereby a judgment based on nuanced awareness and careful thought is preferable to mere opinion.

Judgment is easy; consideration is more difficult, and the means of focusing on and improving consideration can be elusive if judgment keeps getting in the way.

One of the frustrations I have had with the conventional argumentative essay is that it keeps the focus on judgment which, for many students, simply defaults to prior established opinion. What I have encountered in student essays in the past suggests that, for many, to write an argument is simply to build fortifications for the opinions they already hold, using whatever material is at hand, a process that need involve very little in the way of genuine consideration. Continue reading

From the Archive: Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part four

This is the last of my old posts on Objectivism, from February 19, 2007.

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Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part four

I think that I am more or less done writing about my misspent youth, for now. I may have more to add at some point in the future.

I did want to add that I occasionally come across a student whom I suspect of being an Objectivist, or at least an Objectivist sympathizer. The signs are not hard to spot. Continue reading

From the Archive: Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part three

This one was first posted to A Skeptic’s Creed on February 16, 2007.

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Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part three

On second thought, it may be that the paper I wrote about Objectivism during my last semester in college is best left in obscurity.

Part of the problem is that I just can’t help reading the paper as the work of a student. I keep wanting to grade it, to comment on it, to correct it, to steer it in a better direction by sheer force of will. I am haunted by what the paper might have become in more capable hands than those of my twenty-one-year-old self.

(I experience this sort of thing a lot when reading students’ work. They have no idea what an agony it can be, always wanting their work to be the best it can be, but always seeing how it could have been better.) Continue reading

From the Archive: Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part two

Continuing the deep dive, a post from February 14, 2007.

Note that I never did post any text from the paper I wrote in my senior year at Miami. I dug it out and read it over and, as I should have anticipated, it wasn’t very good as writing.

I do remember the experience of writing it as something of a catharsis, though.

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Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part two

In the wake of my experience with Objectivism, I came to mistrust all claims to certainty. This was reinforced by my continuing study of philosophy, through which I gained a growing understanding of the richness and ambiguity of human experience and the elusiveness of knowledge.

Through many years of disorientation and bafflement, I gradually came to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. By recasting myself as an environmental philosopher, using the intellectual resources of the philosophical tradition to grapple with complex issues of knowledge and value in environmental ethics and policy, I was slowly able to open up a practical domain in which I could make some (tentative) assertions and hold some (tentative) convictions. Continue reading

From the Archive: Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part one

This week I’m going to dig much deeper into the archive, back to a blog I maintained for a few years called A Skeptic’s Creed, of which the tag-line was “splashing around in the acid-bath of doubt.”

This entry is from February 13, 2007.

An interesting connection – or is it a near miss? – has come to light since I first posted it. I mention an Objectivist club I founded in my first year in college . . . at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

If memory serves, I started that club in Spring 1987 and abandoned it at some point in the ’87-’88 academic year . . . just before Paul Ryan arrived at Miami for his undergraduate studies and the beginning of his own complicated relationship with Rand’s writings.

(For those who don’t know or don’t remember, Ryan serves in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election. I cannot claim ever to have met him, at Miami or since.)

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Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part one

I owe a debt that I do not often acknowledge openly. At least some of what I have become as a philosopher, as a citizen, and, for that matter, as a human being can be traced back to a two-year period during which I was devoted to the writings and the thought of Ayn Rand.

That’s right, I was an Objectivist.

In fact, reading Ayn Rand’s books – nearly all of them, if you can believe it – was the reason I first decided to study philosophy. It was not, however, the reason I continued to study philosophy.

Let me start at the beginning. Continue reading

Hydraulic Fracturing: Toward Better Deliberation

When the conversation opened up on the second day of our November workshop, after my presentation on acceptable risk, the project team and the invited participants spent much of the remainder of the morning developing and jotting down ideas for fostering better, more informed and more constructive public deliberation about hydraulic fracturing.

Our initial ways of phrasing the questions were rough, and many of them were likely to be perceived as biased against one group or another, playing on stereotypes, say, of engineers or of some of the more strident individuals who might show up for a public hearing.

In the weeks that followed, the project team at Georgia Tech revised the list, and reconsidered it, and revised it again.

The end result is a set of questions that will frame the work of our second workshop, now scheduled for early April: Continue reading

Hydraulic Fracturing: Risk v. Acceptable Risk

I have said that the first day of our workshop on hydraulic fracturing, in November, brought out a long list of risks related to hydraulic fracturing and, indeed, the engineers and scientists who participated were quite adept at identifying such risks and possibilities for mitigation.

Something else came out during those first sessions, though, which I found troubling.

What I heard was simply a repeated assertion or implication that those who oppose hydraulic fracturing are moved to do so only by emotion, especially by fear. The assertion was reinforced with reference to certain bad actors in the public arena who engage in campaigns based on misinformation, distortion and possibly even fraud to manipulate the emotions of an uninformed public.

The underlying assumption of such claims, I think, is that there is a clean distinction between reason and emotion, and that only those who base their decisions on the methods and findings of the sciences have reason on their side.

Beneath this is a still deeper assumption that quantitative analysis is the essence of rationality. Continue reading

Hydraulic Fracturing: Images from Under Ground

My tongue-in-cheek comment on the language of hydraulic fracturing was intended to get at the ways in which metaphors and images can affect – and sometimes skew – our understanding of risks and responsibilities.

This effect can work in any direction, for or against any particular position, and it can be especially pronounced when the problem situation within which people are making decisions – and disagreeing with one another over what decisions to make – are not well understood.

One theme that emerged early in our first workshop on hydraulic fracturing was that nearly every available image of hydraulic fracturing is inaccurate in ways that may exaggerate or, at least, misrepresent the risks involved in the process – and this is true even of images on websites of those who should know better, and on websites of organizations generally favorable to the use of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction.

One of the students on our project team came across an especially egregious example of the type, an image used in the film, Gasland: Continue reading