Monday, August 18, 2014

"...with only a bare bones understanding of what it means to be alive..." PART SEVEN

Here's the final part of the huge discussion which broke out on facebook after my post on the liberal arts (part two, part three, part four, part five, part six):

Matt Might be a problem with medium. You read the cartoon, processed it and then wrote an angry post in response. Your readers read an angry post, and then, maybe, read the cartoon. So I reacted to your words, not theirs. And I stand by my characterization of your words. Sorry. I think you overstate the wretched existence faced by someone who learns a trade and you overstate the blissful intellectual mental utopia enjoyed by anyone who studied the liberal arts. It might have been for contrast or it might have been because you were so torqued. Or both.

One assertion that I've made that you haven't addressed is that this is total troll bait. Somewhere Rush Limbaugh is sitting by the pool having his feet rubbed by pre-teen illegal immigrant girls and drinking baby blood chortling away at how made he made all the liberals this time. I don't think most people actually buy the premise here and this cartoon should be ignored.

I agree that the choice between college as job training and college as intellectual cultivation is important. Both are valid pursuits. Colleges seem to have embraced job training as a lucrative exercise and no one has done a good job of defining how the liberal part of the education should matter and in what measure. On the other hand, I think the academics in liberal arts sometimes do themselves a disservice by being isolated and out of touch. The value in a liberal education is to apply it to the world we live in not surround yourself with like-minds.

Your story of the moment when it came together for you is compelling. I'm not sure how broadly applicable it is. My story, likewise not necessarily common, is that my dad was a really rational guy and he read all the time. I grew up in a house full of books. Lots of history and science, lots of quality fiction. I like sci-fi and was exposed early to Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, etc. The 3 laws are a nice exercise in rationality. What I don't have that you got (despite having a Liberal Arts degree) was a hardcore, rigorous exercise in argument. I also feel my overall background is lacking. Probably should have traded in some sci-fi for some Plato or Aristotle or Pliny and son. But I like to think of myself as an open-minded rationalist.

So I see critical thinking first as a value - what I got from my Dad. And then a learned skill as you got in your film critique. I actually think most of my skill development in this area has come from my work. Frequent decision making, choice selection, value measurement done in the absence of complete information.

So, I guess what I'm asserting is there is a lot of critical thinking capability out there and it's acquired in lots of places. But people choose to not use it or to misuse it. For the WMD debate, there where lots who supported the argument simply as a convenient tool to get what they wanted. Critical thinking can also fail in the face of bad inputs - do you have wrong or flawed info? Have you REALLY looked for alternative viewpoints? It takes a lot of effort in time and in reading poorly constructed arguments from people you don't agree with! Which is no fun.

Alright, this self-trained critical thinker has constructed. Enough weak and poorly formed arguments for the moment. Have a nice Saturday, everyone!

Oh, one more - speaking of weak arguments, "I got more Likes"?!? Really. Mr. Critical Thinker? A popularity contest? Well, in that case, I delight in the fact that my argument was LESS popular proving that only the few enlightened Liberal Artists agreed with me, while your argument must have applied to all the dim existing proles!

Ron Or it might simply be that your comment was buried deeply down the thread and fewer people saw it and were unable to vote for it. But really, I was just trying to find a way to see how people were responding to the post.

And about that, I feel almost certain that most people's eyes look at pictures first and text second, which is what this all seems to come down to. But that's most people, not all people, which means that, in the end, if I ever encounter this situation again, I should think about that small percentage of the population looking at the text first.

Okay, this is just something I found on the internet to support my position, but the essay on web design I'm linking below seems to support my point of view:

"The image captures the eye’s initial gaze, and the caption is the next thing to be viewed, because of this fact, many journalists actively use this in their writing as well."

Actually, I bet if you dig enough you can find something that says the exact opposite.

Rush Limbaugh. Actually, I disagree on that. The notion that a liberal arts degree is useless predates his rise to prominence by at least ten or fifteen years. I know this because I remember the derisive references to studying "underwater basket weaving" when I was a kid in the 70s. That is, and I also know this because of the book I've just finished reading, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," this social bias against college study, or rather, study of something that is not perceived as having an immediate practical value, goes back centuries. It's embedded in the American cultural DNA. Limbaugh and his ilk may aggravate it, but they didn't invent it and only recently have contributed to sustaining it.

I mean, don't you recall our KHS lunch group referring to the brown-nosing types in our honors English classes as "liberal arts f**s"?

I don't think it was troll bait at all. I think it was expressing a very widely held bedrock view in this nation. One that I think needs to be decisively dismissed whenever it manifests. I mean, obviously.

Matt I certainly will not disagree that Rush Limbaugh is likely not the source for an original idea - but seems like the kind of thing he would offer to spin someone up. And I agree about the anti-intellectual trend - I would be interested what the book you just read said about the rise of this trend. Perhaps a brief synopsis is in order?

Ron What's great about the book, to me, is that it was published in 1962, but seems as though it is aimed at the current era.

Matt Well, that's interesting because it seems as if their are likely some legitimate roots of anti-intellectualism, hence the stereotypical scientist or liberal in movies, books, etc - remote, overconfident, overbearing. But since it became a political tool of the right, it's transformed into something else - it's moved from legitimate skepticism about experts (related to anti-authoritarianism) to derision of all things intellectual. Was '62 prior to mainstreaming of this trend by the politically minded?

Ron Actually, the Wikipedia blurb doesn't really answer your question directly. The two biggest factors affecting intellectualism in America were the frontier/pioneer rural nature for most Americans until the late nineteenth century or so, and the continuing hardcore nature of the Protestant Reformation, which was always trying to lessen the role of the church as an institution, with its emphasis on seminary and educated clergy, while increasing the role of the individual believer, which wedded with the American democratic spirit.

Actually, we see it in mainstream politics by the time Jefferson, an intellectual, was running for President. He was trashed as an elitist with all his book larnin'. We see the trend come to full fruition pretty quickly after that with the election of Jackson and his King Mob. Since then, politicians have routinely been criticized by opponents as being elitist snobs--there have been, of course, a few exceptions, Wilson, for one, FDR with his brain trust, and JFK with his best and brightest. But we've seen the same attacks recently, too, against John Kerry and Obama, in spite of the fact that most of these guys running for President are Harvard/Yale, anyway.

I mean, Bush, a Yalie, criticizing Kerry for going to Yale. We live in strange times. Romney did the same thing.

Matt Proves the point, doesn't it? Willful ignoring of pertinent facts. But we see lots of reasons for it as well - look at the terrible management of wars in our history - it's just one bad general after another killing men needlessly through incompetence. Neo-conservatism is an intellectual exercise - a bunch of college brainiacs explaining how this will all make our world better. Fail.

Ron Oh dude. You're so right. I do think that such knowledge in the hands of elites only, a class of intellectual "betters," is what leads to this kind of folly, which is why I would love seeing the population intellectually armed against manipulation by our "betters."

It's not simply the neo-cons, either. If you get some down time, I HIGHLY recommend this documentary about one of Kennedy's "best and brightest" Robert McNamara, who was unarguably brilliant, and who may have saved as many lives as he destroyed.

Also, it's got a Philip Glass soundtrack. Okay, now I've piqued your curiosity.

Okay, it definitely stings being called "arrogant and condescending," but I must admit that you inspired me to go all out in this discussion, and I think it has ended up being a pretty great one.

Matt Well, just to be clear, I was characterizing one thing you wrote. Sorry if it was overly strong or felt like a comment about you - I don't think that's you. Which is why it surprised me! But, yes, we ended up covering some interesting ground.

Ron Maybe you should call me arrogant more often.

Matt My pleasure!
'Nuff said.