Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I recently came across a CD of the soundtrack to That Thing You Do!, a movie I didn't see when it came out in 1996 or now. I vaguely recall having seen previews for it, and thinking, "oh, another cute Tom Hanks movie." (Is it at all interesting that looking at the release date, it came out the weekend before I met Dr. Fledermaus? Two weeks later and it could have been our first date!)

The premise of the movie is that it's about a (fictional) US rock band in 1964--the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder. And, of course, there's a bunch of music--the title track, of course, is the one hit.

Now, this is where it gets interesting: By vague recollection (again), I think that the music, when it was made, wasn't a bad facsimile of pre-British-Invasion pop, but now, my God! it is straight out of 1995 and couldn't possibly have been made any other time. Not that it's bad, it's just 1995 pop through and through, with a bit of a nod to the early sixties.

Stylistic dating. It works. (Whoa, wait, that sounds like an internet dating service ad.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Proposal

I had the rare pleasure of teaching two classes last week, one-shot deals during orientation to discuss the themes of democracy, inequality, and education. It was a great experience—reading three excellent texts (not that I didn’t have my quibbles with them), and spending a couple of hours preparing for a good discussion, and then having a good discussion—two of them in fact.

The thrill of closely reading arguments about the place of education in society, filled with hope—and, yes, criticism (though Martha Nussbaum’s critique of education outside of her model of the liberal arts is misplaced, and Geoffrey Stone’s fears about political correctness have been revealed to be somewhat overstated)—was overwhelming! I could have taught a three-quarter sequence based on these essays.

The most striking thing about these essays was they way in which they each recalled Robert Maynard Hutchins’ belief that education was for freedom. The forces restricting freedom which worried Hutchins were Fascism and Communism, but any of these writers would have to agree that Hutchins arguments stand equally strong when the enemy is ineducation—unequal education, that is—in the form of unequal opportunity and the violence it breeds, as well as the anti-intellectualism rampant even on college campuses.

Both the experience and the material—Danielle Allen’s piece in particular—inspired a revolutionary thought. As an institution, the College should require undergraduates and graduate students to teach or assist teachers in either the University’s Charter Schools or through the Neighborhood Schools program. “A university seeks to advance the reach of knowledge through open intellectual inquiry and exchange,” Allen writes, “but presently this university presents itself to its neighbors armed and in uniform rather than carrying books and ideas.”

We believe, as a University, that teaching and research are complementary. We require faculty to teach, and specifically to teach in the Core. Why not require teaching of our students?

I can imagine some of the objections: The students might say: “Oh, that would interfere with my own studies!” I’d suggest that they start by talking to their own professors and see whether they view teaching as an unalloyed betterment to their own research. A betterment, yes, but truly a suck of one’s mental energy. No, it’s an investment with hard-to define returns.

The admissions office may say, “But this will scare off high school seniors!” I have two responses. First, do we want more applicants or better applicants? Yes, this will discourage the selfish and the cowardly. It is the job of the admissions office to make students (and their parents) aware of the fact that this is a feature, not a bug. Second, the programs I’m proposing expanding are not a matter of throwing a 19-year-old into a room with a bunch of fourth (eighth/first/tenth) graders. There is (and must continue to be) training and support for student teachers. Yes, this will cost money.

We’re well-positioned to revolutionize higher education. It’s a great leap from complimenting ourselves on 19 graduates earning spots in Teach for America (out of 1,200) to requiring a few years of part-time teaching in the classroom, but this is a University known for having, and acting on, important ideas about education in the past. As Hutchins himself wrote:
The attitude of the University is experimental because it is willing to try some things when success is not guaranteed. It is willing to change if change seems, on reflection, to be desirable. But it is not striking out blindly in the effort to do something new merely because it is new. I might say in passing that almost everything in education is experimental, for we can seldom prove that anything we do is conclusively better than something else we might do, or indeed, than nothing at all.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Urban Homesteading, a Marxist take....

We're in the outer reaches of the Urban Homesteading movement--growing herbs, letting our kid eat dirt, making and keeping good friends in the neighborhood, sharing our stuff with them, fixing what we own and owning less, etc. etc. etc. It comes with liking bikes and good food. Today's reading turned up this bit from Louis Althusser:
In short, the final historical totality, which marks the end of alienation, is nothing but the reconquered unity of the labourer and his product. This end is simply the restoration of the origin, the reconquest of the original harmony after a tragic adventure. . . .
Yet it is only in a formal sense that the final unity is the restoration of the original unity. The worker who reappropriates what he himself produces is no longer the primitive worker, and the product he reappropriates is no longer the primitive product. Men do not return to the solitude of the domestic economy, and what they produce does not revert to being what it once was, the simple object of their needs. This natural unity is destroyed the unity that replaces it is human.*
If that doesn't describe what's going on in the Urban Homestead movement, I don't know what does. On what level folks are trying to return to the natural unity (the italics are Althusser's), as opposed to realizing that they are postlapsarian (or merely postmodern) I don't know. I suspect that self-awareness is pretty high amongst the urban chicken-farmers and tomato-growers. Idealism is, too.

*Louis Althusser, The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings, ed. Francois Matheron and trans. G.M. Gosharian, (London:Verso, 1997) 137, cited in Robert S. Kawashima, Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004) 207.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

More study

Whilst reading great gobs of ancient history, one's mind can, believe it or not, wander on occasion. The chapter I read at lunchtime today (Mario Liverani's "Telipinu, or: on solidarity," in Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004, pp 27-52) had an epigraph from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams:
The dream discharges the unconscious excitation, serves it as a safety valve and at the same time preserves the sleep of the preconscious in retern for a small expenditure of waking activity.

And so, when, in the middle of the chapter (I'd just finished off a warm bowl of soup), and I drifted into the half-awake state known technically as "seated drool," I thought it would be appropriate to remember the things that went through my brain as I drifted into the book, especially as they seemed appropriately historiographic.

I was entering a cave with Telepinu, a Hittite king of the sixteenth century, and author of an Edict, whose contents have provided the backbone for much scholarly reconstruction of the prior century or so of Hittite history. The goal was to enter the cave and come out with Hattushili (first?), king of the Hittites, and his mother the Tawanna (queen, and one of the plausible, though almost certainly insufficient, links to and reasons for Hattushili to claim, the Hittite throne). We had no success; our quarry kept disappearing around corners, and quite frankly, I got rather closer to Telepinu (imagined second-millennium Hittite hygiene is what you might expect) than entirely comfortable.

That's ancient history for you.