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Plains-spoken philosophy

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

(Via Roderick and my dad.)

Back when I was an undergraduate, I had the unexpected privilege of spending about two and a half years in one of the best Philosophy programs I could possibly have found–the Philosophy department at Auburn University. Those of you who know me probably know, and those of you who just know the blog may have guessed, that part of the reason for that was meeting and spending a lot of time studying with Roderick Long. Another important reason was the time that I spent studying and talking with Kelly Jolley, the current Chair of the department. It would be impossible to list all the philosophical, intellectual, and personal debts that I owe to Kelly, Roderick, and the rest of the faculty at Auburn (James Shelley, Mike Watkins, Eric Marcus, Jody Graham, …). So I’m really pleased to see the New York Times Magazine’s article about Auburn’s philosophy program, and Kelly in particular, which gives you a glimpse into a really quite remarkable story — the role that Kelly’s personality, teaching style, and indefatigable efforts played in transforming the Auburn philosophy department into the best department in the University, and a paradigm of liberal education at its very best — demanding, challenging, collegial, invigorating, and life-changing. And all this in the midst of a big state school that used to be dismissed as that cow college on the other side of the state.

It’s certainly a story that’s much deeper, more compelling, and ultimately much more useful than anything you’ll find in the firehose spray of little squibs and blurbs on lipstick or politicians’ summer homes or the sanctimoniously-executed power-plays and poll results for the Hopesters and Changelings of the world. Philosophers are constantly heckled — mainly by those who confuse busy-ness with importance and operational success with a life well lived — that philosophy, and the broader projects of the humanities and liberal education, are silly projects — useless really — because they don’t matter to what’s called real life. But if the sort of kitsch and trash that our practical journalists spread all over the front pages of our practical newspapers is what matters to your life, and philosophy is not, then the question you need to ask yourself is why is that the sort of life that I lead? And it’s as good a reason as you could ask for to change your life and to change the things that matter to it. And what I love about the Auburn Philosophy department, and one of the (many) things that I’m personally indebted to Kelly Jolley for, is the fact that that department really provides a place — one of the best examples of such a place that’s left in this modern world — where students are challenged to do that, expected to do that, encouraged to do that, and given access to the tools and the space and the teachers that they need for it.

Tolle, lege.

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  1. Anonymous

    Thank you.

    I think that it is a very sad thing that modernity’s opening up of social citizenship to significant numbers of people, and our phenomenal advance of potential education resulting from mass literacy and mass relative prosperity, had to coincide with such a disgraceful lowering of spiritual expectations. We should today be in the midst of a staggering overflow of genius and creativity, and yet in truth anyone who organises their soul to excellence is scorned by the illiterate elite and a ressentful socio-economic majority alike- to apply one’s mind well outside of narrow technical fields, and without concealment, is to invite ostracism (and even the kind of rationality and excellence nurtured in technical fields is largely relegated to a currently trendy but humanly imbalanced ‘nerd’ subculture).

    To speak firmly, to claim knowledge, to have definite opinions, to speak with conviction based upon breadth of knowledge- all of these are treated in form as offenses against harmony and egalitarianism, even when employed in defense of socio-economic egalitarianism. A folksy, populist ideology of ignorant servility towards power is more acceptable than a confident and forthright demand for socialist revolution.

    We live in age of poisonously increasing social inequality which is at the same time spiritually levelling. If Emma Goldman were to give a passionate public speech today, most would shrug in boredom and many would snarl something like ‘who does she think she is?’, and all this irrespective of class or political ideology. The few who recognised the incalculable value of a culture where such things are done would doubtless be already at least somewhat marginalised themselves for precisely that reason.

    Why can we not democratise an aristocratic ideal?- why can we not enable and encourage everyone to live as was possible to a Socrates or an Epictetus, to cite examples surely not made possible by social privilege. Why this pervasive anti-intellectualism? Where do we get this notion that to be great in spirit is to steal other’s spirits, while in fact greatness in spirit encourages the same in others? And how does our corporatist elite expect to maintain the civilisation they have stolen without the sensibility that only liberal education can provide?

    There is no hope for liberalism- in any of its forms (classical, modern, socialist, conservative, anarchist, feminist, or libertarian), without an immediate and severe program of re-civilisation. George Bush is made possible by of a society which cannot read and write. Eventually, a society afraid of individual quality will find itself very unequal indeed, and dominated not by the best but by the worst. The lies, tribal mysticisms, and spectacles which power uses to enslave souls (and bodies) is made possible by a culture which finds a principle of saepere aude offensive and disharmonising- where one cannot safely call anything ‘kitsch and trash’.

    No one has a greater stake in the heights than those who demand social justice. Without a pervasive and disciplined reinvigoration of the literate mind, the alphabetical mind, we will see a global return of a kind of callousness, oppression, and bigotry which most of us do not keep ourselves consciously aware, even tho’ this blood and foulness has been the norm throughout almost all known human history. The evils and oppressions we know will seem blessings if we turn a blind eye to this barbarism, which is everywhere rising around us.

  2. Rad Geek


    I think that it is a very sad thing that modernity’s opening up of social citizenship to significant numbers of people, and our phenomenal advance of potential education resulting from mass literacy and mass relative prosperity, had to coincide with such a disgraceful lowering of spiritual expectations.

    Well, I think it was no accident, as the Marxists would say.

    The kind of stultification, sub-literacy, and relativism that you talk about has been a common feature throughout known human history (you certainly see a lot of it from, e.g., Socrates’s interlocturos), but its universalization, and the death of any self-confident alternative, was something that happened at the same time as what you call the opening up of social citizenship and the phenomenal advance of potential education precisely because of power’s reaction to the dangerous potential of that opening. In some cases this was the spontaneous ordure resulting from pre-existing forms of privilege (such as the obliteration of genuine working-class and folk cultures in favor of the elite-controlled prolecult of today, which nobody really planned, exactly, but which was the inevitable outcome of centralized corporate control over broadcast spectrum, copyright, etc.). In other cases — especially the ruination of liberal education by government schooling — it was the result of deliberate decisions to create institutions that would head off perceived dangers to power. Now that everyone could gain the benefits of a liberal education, the only way for power to hold on was by making everyone stupider, and by creating new authoritarian institutions to replace the crumbling forms of authority. Institutions that were set up deliberately in such a way as to deny students the tools, the examples, and the environment that they would need to come to any kind of proper understanding of themselves as human beings dwelling among fellow creatures in the world.

    (Of course nobody would put it that way, but just pick up one of Gatto’s books or articles and read through the quotations he assembles from the common schools movement and other government-schooling crusaders on issues of class, the supposed dangers of class solidarity, and on the goals of the Prussian model in education. They were actually pretty explicit about their goals of inculcating obedience, breaking class solidarity, normalizing children seen as deviant, tracking working-class students away from a liberal course of education, hectoring and bullying students into assimilating and hitching their identity to the kitsch of manufactured theo-nationalist identities, so as to make good citizens, etc.)

    In both cases, the promise of universally-accessible education and culture faltered not because the people who stood to benefit from it somehow failed, but because the ideals of education and culture were stultified by the concerted actions of power-players who still controlled the commanding heights of major institutions, or moved to take control over them, and who were ready to burn down the palace they occupied before they would ever allow the rabble to enter in through the gates.

  3. Roderick T. Long

    That reminds me – I’ve been reading Novalyne Price Ellis’s memoir One Who Walked Alone, and just came across the following incident (p. 183) from her days as a high school speech coach:

    I bawled out one of Mary’s judges because she caused Mary to get third. The dumb woman! I told her Mary should have had first place because she was by far the best in the senior girls finals! The woman opened her mouth and said, “Well, I guess you can blame me for that. The other two judges wanted to give her first place, and I talked them out of it.”

    I controlled an impulse to slap her, for she was bigger than I was. With icicles hanging on every syllable, I asked her why she’d done it.

    “Your girl was too perfect, and that’s what I objected to,” she said haughtily, moving her big black purse on her fat stomach. “I want to know that they’re just high school students saying a memorized oration that somebody else wrote. Your girl sounded as if the words were her very own! I want them to make mistakes and be just exactly what they are – high school students. I think, young lady, you trained your girl too well. You wouldn’t let her make mistakes ….”

    (The Randians used to have a “Horror File” for stuff like this.)

  4. Darian W

    The comments here remind me of an idea I had for radical libertarians to set up alternative education institutions in low-income areas. If anarchists provide a safe, comfortable, and friendly place for children to learn to read, and for older folk to learn better, that would be great for the community and great for anarchy. Certainly whatever was set up (could even just be meeting in a public library or homesteaded space) should not be run as a propaganda camp but would have to foster independent thought. Of course, there’s no reason not to have some anarchist and individualist texts in the curriculum. Call it counter-economic education if you will. “Making learning cool.”

    Speaking of which, are there anti-school zines or pamphlets around that would be useful for left-libertarians? If not, I smell a project.

  5. LadyVetinari

    Why can we not democratise an aristocratic ideal?- why can we not enable and encourage everyone to live as was possible to a Socrates or an Epictetus, to cite examples surely not made possible by social privilege.

    Because of slogans like “who are you to tell other people how to live?” and “surely it’s all just subjective, anyway.” People think an unexamined life is as worth living as an examined one…and that leads to today’s culture. Not that yesterday’s culture was a picnic by any means, mind you.

    I do think liberals are as much to blame on this as conservatives, and any solution has to come out of somewhere other than the mainstream liberal/conservative divide.

    RadGeek’s comments about public schools remind me of the “unschooling” movement, which has always interested me, though it’s a pity such schooling isn’t possible for people without a certain level of economic privilege.

    DarienW–maybe book clubs of some kind? Based around books kids actually want to read, not the stuff shoved down their throats in school?

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