alexis nexus

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

gunning down meritocracy in academia

a short and sweet discussion topic.

merit is broadly used to justify policy and action in academia: shall a student be allowed to study? shall a teach be permitted to teach? shall a school receive funding? shall racial and economic representation be affirmatively enacted? etc.

let me offer as an alternative notion the idea that education ought exist not to reward the most meritorious, but to provide any student access to education, and to provide a society with an educated populace.

to be clear; i am not suggesting that meritocratic methods can not be implemented within an educational framework, but that access to education at all levels be open. if one granted my assertion, how would education and the academy change?


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Creating Meaning

I know that none of us has enough time to write here--and, to reflect that, I'm curious what y'all think about the whole idea of 'making meaning' in life. Lex is almost done with her PhD, Steve's teaching and has a coolio family...these things are huge goals that y'all (at some point) set for yourselves and are now finding yourselves achieving.

How does that feel? Is there any sort of meaning in life apart from picking these things to do and doing them?

One of the reasons I ask is that I think that my 'meaning creation' engine has mostly been set to recognize what *not* to persue as meaningful (i.e, for me, God, buying a home, getting hitched are all things I've sort of wanted to not persue), whereas I see most other people as thinking about this stuff 'more positively'.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Incoherent or just wrong?

Religion - Discuss.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Faith as Knowledge

I've been reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris, which is on the face of it an argument that certain types of so-called knowledge, mainly religious faith, are not only misleading but ought not be tolerated because of the danger that those who believe may put everybody in. Harris is more than heavy-handed, and his arguments are steeped with question begging. Further, while he gives serious nods to the history of what I might term 'religious-inspired violonce' in a chapter that discusses the Crusades and the Jewish Holocaust (both of which he counts as religious and political), for a good chunk of the book (though I'm not finished with it yet) he focuses on Islam in particular, quoting the Koran (ad nauseum, actually) and other texts important to that religious tradition and basically saying one simply can't be a Muslim and not want to kill people who aren't Muslims. He clearly doesn't back up these sorts of claims in any meaningful way--it reminds me of when I was 19 and I would argue with Christians that they just couldn't be christians if they weren't following Deuteronomy and stoning people left and right.

Still, one of his main points does have a certain ring of truth to it for me: Are there certain ways of believing or knowing which we should always condemn? Should appeals to faith--and a subsequent definition of faith as something like 'knowledge that can't be wrong' or 'knowledge that doesn't ever need, even in principle, to be justified--be struck down as just not good ways to believe?

Big can o' worms, I know, but the whole quest for certainty-through-faith does seem to take on some dangerous consequences for all.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

discussion piece: the hero and her sister the villain

this is for steve. :} happy new year.

also check out the project this brieff essay came from: what is your most dangerous idea?


Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University; Author: Shyness

The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism

Those people who become perpetrators of evil deeds and those who become perpetrators of heroic deeds are basically alike in being just ordinary, average people.

The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism. Both are not the consequence of dispositional tendencies, not special inner attributes of pathology or goodness residing within the human psyche or the human genome. Both emerge in particular situations at particular times when situational forces play a compelling role in moving individuals across the decisional line from inaction to action.

There is a decisive decisional moment when the individual is caught up in a vector of forces emanating from the behavioral context. Those forces combine to increase the probability of acting to harm others or acting to help others. That decision may not be consciously planned or taken mindfully, but impulsively driven by strong situational forces external to the person. Among those action vectors are group pressures and group identity, diffusion of responsibility, temporal focus on the immediate moment without entertaining costs and benefits in the future, among others.

The military police guards who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the prison guards in my Stanford Prison experiment who abused their prisoners illustrate the "Lord of the Flies" temporary transition of ordinary individuals into perpetrators of evil. We set aside those whose evil behavior is enduring and extensive, such as tyrants like Idi Amin, Stalin and Hitler. Heroes of the moment are also contrasted with lifetime heroes.

The heroic action of Rosa Parks in a Southern bus, of Joe Darby in exposing the Abu Ghraib tortures, of NYC firefighters at the World Trade Center's disaster are acts of bravery at that time and place. The heroism of Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi is replete with valorous acts repeated over a lifetime. That chronic heroism is to acute heroism as valour is to bravery.

This view implies that any of us could as easily become heroes as perpetrators of evil depending on how we are impacted by situational forces. We then want to discover how to limit, constrain, and prevent those situational and systemic forces that propel some of us toward social pathology.

It is equally important for our society to foster the heroic imagination in our citizens by conveying the message that anyone is a hero-in-waiting who will be counted upon to do the right thing when the time comes to make the heroic decision to act to help or to act to prevent harm.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Tyranny of the Questioner

In a recent post on her very own Online Journal, Alexis discussed some realizations she had that came about as a result of somebody objecting to the way she was having a discussion. The complaint, as I understand it, was that she was asking questions in a leading way, using semi-rhetorical questions to lead the others on in a way that tended to allow her to dominate the conversation; in a way that Socrates is often accused of having done.

Alexis says:
...and at some point eden said something that i thought was problematic about betsy's idea. "don't you think that… ?" came out of my mouth, and when she had responded with her take i came back with "but that… how does… ?" and then betsy jumped in, and called me on the way i was having a conversation. she very flatly said that she did not want to partipate further because i was engaged in a Socratic Dialogue, to which she did not wish to participate.

The Socratic dialogues are sort of notorious regarding whether or not Socrates was really a questioner who wanted to understand things, as he professed to be, or a guy who thought he had not only figured out a bunch of stuff but figured out a good way to convince others that he had gotten it right: Ask them lots of 'questions' to which they could mostly only answer "It cannot but be so!" until he had led them to a conclusion that they hadn't agreed with at the outset--a conclusion that, some say, Socrates had in mind to begin with. (Steve Martin has a great mock Platonic dialogue about a guy talking with Socrates about taking pictures of Madonna in her backyard with her top off, coming to the conclusion that 'it cannot be otherwise' that it's ok to do so; ok, it's funnier when Steve Martin explains it.)

I'm not a scholar of ancient philosophy, so I probably shouldn't comment too much on whether or not/how much Socrates was guilty of doing that sort of thing (and if he was, well, he did get the hemlock in the end, so he paid the price now, didn't he?). Still, I have to say that I think that if I recognized that somebody was doing what Socrates if often accused of doing (whether Lex was doing it or not in the above particular case), there are many other options besides opting out of the discussion (although I understand why opting out might be the most attractive option--simplicity, for one thing, and a nice little protest against the whole Socratic(?) line of questioning for another). For instance, howabout not agreeing? There is a reason that the so-called Socratic Dialogues don't sound much like dialogues at all (a performance of such dialogues, which is something I sort of tried once, would come out about as stilted as my 5th grade story about my friend Mike and I who travelled to a mystical land to befriend elves and engage in swordfights--anybody else butcher Tolkein as a kid?)---because they're not really dialogues at all. They are a series of questions and answers, where the questioner is generally the same person and the answers are generally nodding of the head sort of answers, simple affirmatives with no discussion of possible problems with the questions. If any of Socrates' interlocutor's would have just said, "Um, Socrates, where are you going with this? It seems to me that your question sort of ignores x, y and z, and as such doesn't really tell us anything, (etc)" then the 'dialogues' would resemble their namesake a bit more.

Answering the question, questioning the questions, these seem to be viable alternatives to opting out of a discussion because one thinks one is being led down some primrose paths. And these options have the advantage in that they facilitate more talk instead of cutting off roads to inquiry. Asking "Do you really mean that as a question, or have you decided what you think and you're asking that rhetorically?" seems to be one way to go.

But I think Lex's larger investigation is an even more interesting one:
...if an individual asserts an interrogatory position (while others do not), then the conversation becomes more about answering that individual's line of questions (socratic or otherwise), than about the more egalitarian flow of ideas (or the opportunity for letting one's ideas flow) among all participants. this is important for me to understand, and, i think, explains for me precisely how it is that i (or anyone else, for that matter) can dominate a conversation. good to know, good to be aware of as i'd like to be intentional about such things.

I myself have been accused of dominating conversations in this way (probably was accused of it more often after I read some Plato!), and I've gotten the sense that Alexis has dominated conversations in the past this way (although more often than not any domination I feel regarding conversation with Alexis is the prevelance of non-sequiter humor--or simply references I don't get :). Then again, it seems like most of my friends have 'dominated' conversations this way...which may just show that I've got a skewed sample.

I think that it would be a mistake to think that questioning in the way that Alexis seems to have questioned ought always be considered 'dominating' a conversation. (Not that Alexis is claming this, exactly, I'm just taking what she said and riffing on it.) That is to say: It's more complex than that. First of all, there can be very good conversations where one person dominates, I think, in this way. Sometimes when one person really does know a lot more than another the conversation can go this way for a while and be very productive for both people. Which brings me to my second point, which is that the timing involved is important, I think. Asking a question may indeed highlight the questioner's contribution, make the conversation focus on the questioner and the like, but it's extremely important for the concept of domination of a conversation, I think, for that sort of thing to happen for some extended period. Imagine if nobody ever asked a question during a conversation (i.e. if nobody ever 'dominated' the conversation in this way)...certainly those conversations can be had and can be worthwhile, but so can ones where people genuinely (or not!) ask questions.

I suppose a more simple way to put my point is this: If asking questions is always dominating a conversation, then it seems to me we have to also add that dominating a conversation is sometimes/often something that's ok to do, at least for a little while.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

wenn das Kind ein Kind war, fragt es "warum bin ich mich, und nicht dich?"

jeff's most recent friday simone de beauvoir blog raised the point "The interesting fact that, for me to come into being as the person I am, it is at once a wholly improbably sort of thing and almost completely causally necessary thing--or at least, it feels both of these ways, some of the time." or in simone's words…
sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement--why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?

both of which smack of the wim wenders quote in the title from wings of desire, and also of a conversation i had with eden and zack about a week ago (in that yummor organic japanese restaraunt on mission 'twixt 17th and 18th). zack, prefacing that he was a life-long atheist, and that he pretty much always looked at others with the assumption that they were "biochemical" complexes, said that sometimes he was bowled over with a question: (to the best of my recollection) "why am i me, and not you?" or more simply "why me?"

only "why me?" turned out to be only an approximation. he, and eden, asserted that people either felt the question, or they didn't. i would (of course) attempt to answer the why questions (including why me) with the "because history and geography" type answers (being couched in a post descartes/newton western world view, as i am :). but i was left with the impression that this question (or question of a question) about awareness, about I becomes a discussion of some metaphysical (as in "irreducable complexity that implies a higher consciousness that designed the universe" type metaphysical) essentialism, despite their protests to the contrary, because they could only assert a faith that the I (or the question of it) somehow transcended history and geography.

i was left puzzled. particularly because of the passionate importance they attached to the question itself. simone's argument and jeff's recapitulation of neccesity puts me in mind of arguments that the universe was created by a higher power god because how else could we have found life on this planet of all the others. (my response being well you'd be saying the same thing if we were on planet koozbain, so that doesn't get you very far :). if you weren't you1 wondering why you1 were you1 you'd be you2 wondering (or not) the same about you2.

my concern about creationist arguments notwithstanding, i am also interested in the importance that gets attached to such things as awareness. after all, i am a scientist, and believe that the creation of knowledge—the advancement of consciousness, if you will—is a critical component of a progress in human welfare. paolo freire's contientization comes to mind in this regard, also.

so becuase i am not persuaded that the fact of the historical contingency of one's awareness itself is somehow more miraculous than the "stain on the sidewalk," despite the greater importance of my awareness (to me) than the stain on the sidewalk (to me) i have two (sets of) questions:

what exactly is this question that awes so many people (perhaps) does it truly defy articulation? is it really unanswerable by everyday language? is it really utterly independent of time and space?


what is the significance of answering it? just philosophical masturbation? what gets motivated by its answer or the attempt to answer it?