• Tag Archives history
  • The Humanities. Yeah.

    Spring                                                         Beltane Moon

    “Reminding us that “professor” means someone professing a faith, Delbanco exhorts us to keep the etymology alive: “Surely this meaning is one to which we would still wish to lay claim, since the true teacher must always be a professor in the root sense of the word — a person undaunted by the incremental fatigue of repetitive work, who remains ardent, even fanatic, in the service of his calling.” ” Stanley Fish, “The Case for the Liberal Arts.  Again.”

    It has been a while since the last impassioned plea to see things clear, at least those things important to a liberal arts education.  To see them clear and to embrace them as important, even necessary elements of an education.

    In the days since college its impacts still effect me on a daily, even hourly basis.  Here are a couple of examples from my freshmen year.  And the key to them both was the professor.

    The first and maybe most important impact came in the sheer joy of learning, a joy I didn’t grasp or even experience in high school.  Two courses at Wabash gave me a jump start.

    CC, or Contemporary Civilization, required of all freshmen, started at the beginning of human history and, over two semesters, brought us up to the present.  The professor, a man whose name I have forgotten, gave lectures that were narratives, heroes and villains, fools and knaves who blinked on and off as our species made its way from the past until today.  His lecture on town versus gown tensions in the middle ages was so famous among Wabash men that some would return for it each year.

    The second class, again a two semester course, an Introduction to Philosophy, was taught by J. Harry Cotton.  J. Harry wore tweed, smoked a pipe as he taught, a pipe with a paper wrapped plug of tobacco, and often rattled off paragraphs of Plato or Aristotle in Greek, finishing with a flourish on the black board, pointing out the intricacies of denotation and connotation.

    CC showed me that history was exciting, that I could expect it to be not only illuminating but also interesting.

    But Intro to Philosophy.  Ah. That one peeled back the entire cultural project of late 50’s, early 1960’s middle america and laid it bare.  I could see its sinews and its ligaments; its veins and arteries.  And more.  It was possible to critique it, to create a new way of understanding the world.  The only thing required was the mind and the courage to engage.

    In fact, it went deeper than that.  The intellectual content of my small town faith simply didn’t stand up to the rigors of philosophical thought.  When you march back through the argument from design to find yourself at the point of unmoved mover, it is possible, even urgently required, to ask one more question.  What made the unmoved mover?  Oh.

    So, there was this liberation, this vast opening, a vault of stars under which I could begin to stand as my own man, not a man made by tradition and custom, but a man made by saying yes and saying no.  Philosophy, for that reason, has been at the center of my life ever since.

  • Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?

    Fall                                                                 Waning Autumn Moon

    “Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.” – Ben Hecht

    Keyhole history.  A standard assumption among historians.  Decades, even centuries, must pass before we can determine the relevance of particular events in the flow of human history.  Anything said, for example, about the George W. Bush presidency, relies more on bias and hunch that on historical context.

    We judge poorly when we judge matters in which we have had some part, even if the part were only reading newspapers.  Hecht’s comment tells the story with a great metaphor.


    (This picture of the Earth and Moon in a single frame, the first of its kind ever taken by a spacecraft, was recorded September 18, 1977, by NASAs Voyager 1 when it was 7.25 million miles (11.66 million kilometers) from Earth. The moon is at the top of the picture and beyond the Earth as viewed by Voyager. In the picture are eastern Asia, the western Pacific Ocean and part of the Arctic. Voyager 1 was directly above Mt. Everest (on the night side of the planet at 25 degrees north latitude) when the picture was taken. Voyager 1 was launched September 5, 1977 and Voyager 2 on August 20, 1977. JPL is responsible for the Voyager mission.)

    Having said all that, let me give you two instances in which keyhole history does not have wait.  These photographs, amazing images, show historical moments that need no time to pass before their significance becomes clear.  

    Here humanity achieves a perspective never before possible.  Ever.  Not in the entire history of the human race.  A view of earth from the surface of the moon, the famous 1968 shot by astronaut William Anders, and a God’s eye perspective, looking at our home and its sole satellite in one and the same moment.

    Around 60,000 years ago or so homo sapiens left Africa, bound for other continents.  Over the next 45, 000 years this African animal had made its way onto all the continents of our planet and many of its islands.  Since then, we have populated these land masses.

    (World map of human migrations, with the North Pole at center. Africa, harboring the start of the migration, is at the bottom right and South America at the far left. Migration patterns are based on studies of mitochondrial (matrilinear) DNA.  Numbers represent thousand years before present.  The blue line represents area covered in ice or tundra during the last great ice age.  The letters are the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups (pure motherly lineages))

    Over the last 60,000 years our species has explored the planet’s nooks and crannies (at least those above the surface of the ocean), but in all that time we could never look at our planet whole.  We saw only parts at any one time, we looked at the second hands of earth’s totality.

    We could see the moon whole, sort of, but we could never see our own home in the same way.  With William Anders earthrise photograph and the Voyager shot of the earth and moon, our human perspective could position earth and its satellite in the cosmos not through abstract conjecture but by simple visual observation.

    Not only were we finally and truly out of Africa, we had gone beyond our planet’s comfortable precincts and into the unimaginable distances of space itself.

    No, there is no need to wait on the historical significance of these photographs, we knew it the instant we saw them.

  • The History of Ideas

    75  bar falls 29.90  0mph ESE dew-point 60 sunrise 5:49  sunset 8:49  Summer

    Waning Gibbous Thunder Moon

    The mayfly lives only one day.  And sometimes it rains.    George Carlin, RIP

    Freud, Marx and Hegel expelled from school.  The article to which the first sentence here links refers to the strange disappearance from the college curriculum of these three seminal thinkers in psychology, economy and philosophy.

    Here’s an e-mail I sent to its author:

    Hello, Mr. Jacoby,

    In 1965 I began the study of philosophy with the pre-Socratics, moved onto Plato and Aristotle, and then on toward the present.  The early study of philosophy excited me so much I chose it as my major.  The methodology, the history of ideas, has remained with me as the most important intellectual tool I have.  When I switched schools, I entered a school dominated by logical positivists.  The most important and interesting questions of philosophy, questions which mattered to individuals and to public discourse did not matter to this department.  I left philosophy behind, sad that it refused to engage matters of ontology, values and beauty. 

    I write to you because I felt then what the gist of your Chronicle of Higher Education article suggests is a contemporary problem.  It is a problem with its roots, I believe, in the logical positivist and linguistic analysis movements which tried to align philosophy with the scientific method.  There would have been nothing wrong with this as an adjunct discipline, but the arrogant dismissal of metaphysics, for example, for reliance on what I would call a shallow epistemology gutted philosophy of its humanist core.

    This same attempt to bring economics and psychology into the scientific realm, and sociology too for that matter, has identical problems.  The quantifiable in these disciplines is fine and produces important insights, but, again, the core of these disciplines, with the possible exception of economics, is humanistic, not scientific. 

    Your article reminded me of those long ago days when I moved on to anthropology.  The dismissal of historical perspective leaves us with the need to reinvent all those old arguments and to approach their resolution without the aid of some of humankinds most creative thinkers.  Too bad.

    As I grow older, history looms ever higher and higher in my intellectual pursuits.   As I said in the e-mail to Mr. Jacoby, the history of ideas, learned during classwork for my philosophy major, has informed everything  I do.  I gravitate naturally at this stage of my life toward the historical record.  Where did that word originate?  How has it been modified over time?  Where did this artistic movement come from and what questions did it try to answer?  What are the roots of the so-called New Age thinking?  Why are not its current proponents interested in its intellectual history?  What is the source of liberal and conservative political thought and how does their history help us modify them to fit present needs?  Why is the issue of climate change such a problematic one?  What in the history of humanities relationship to the natural order created such a situation?

    These are the questions that get me up in the morning, that drive my decision making about what to do with my time and how to direct my own work.



  • Writing Makes Its Own Space

    66  bar steady 29.79  3mph NNW dew-point 63  Summer night, rainy day

    Full Thunder Moon

    We had rain and storm, tornado warning and tornado watch.  A full thunder moon day.  The rain poured down, drenching the lily blooms, forming small rivers on the wide leaves of the acorn squash.  While I read the first chapter of the book on the Western Unitarian Conference, the rain drained from the sky and onto the azalea, the begonia, the several amarylis and a bed full of hosta.  Reading a good book while it rains or snows pleases me, makes me feel at home, in place.

    Kate harvested beans tonight, a few onions, too.  I used the onions with some beets I bought at Festival, delicious.  We also had a few early sugar snap peas and wax beans.  Some fish.  Some pasta with pesto made from hydroponic basil.  An evening meal.

    Kate works this weekend, as she does every other weekend.  Ten days in a row, a long stretch, but she likes the four days off it gives her.  We pretend she’s retired on those days.

    The Minnesota UU history piece has begun to take shape, get bones.  When there is a subject matter to master before I write, it usually takes me a while before I get a gestalt, a feel for the whole.  Once I have that I know where I need more information, or that I do not.  At that point I can sit down and write, usually in one setting.  A few days later, after its cold, I go back, reread and edit, revise.  Then I’ll put it away until I need to present it.

    This one has been a bit unusual in that history requires a certain precision and accuracy with details, chronological sequence, names and places.  This means the material that I use to illustrate and make my points must get reordered to fit my needs, yet remain accurate and true.   It’s part of what I love about this kind of work.

    When I have this kind of work, it pushes out everything else.  The writing work makes its own space in my life, creates openings and time for itself.  Just like this blog.  It happens each day, two to three times a day and often I do not recall having written here.  The breadcrumbs, though, are there, laid down in words and postings.

  • Wisdom of the Past Brought Forward

    79  bar steady 29.77 3mph N dew-point 52  Summer, warm and clear

    Waxing Crescent of the Thunder Moon

    “To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse. They are of two kinds: the library of published material, books, pamphlets, periodicals, and the archive of unpublished papers and documents.” – Barbara Tuchman

    Given this definition I must be, ipso facto, an historian.  In fact I consider myself a humanist in the traditional sense, one who searches the literary and artistic and faith traditions of the world for guidance.  In a broad understanding this is a historical work since it relies on the wisdom of the past brought forward, a version of the history of ideas.  It takes me into many libraries and archives and I am most happy there.  The sense of possibility in a place stacked with books or objects of art or the accoutrements of faiths journey is, for me, boundless.

    Having had my little car in the shop for so long I found I had a desire to get out during the day, to drive around, go shopping.  I did.  It didn’t amount to much.  So I came home and planted beets and carrots for fall harvest.

    After a long nap I have picked up again my research on U-U history in the Twin Cities area.   This project puts me squarely in the historians camp and will find me rummaging in boxes of letters, meeting minutes, newspaper articles and old sermons.

    There is a very interesting video on YouTube that highlights a heresy  controversy in late 19th century Minneapolis within the Universalist community.  Here’s the link.

  • Unitarians in the Upper Midwest

    81  bar steep drop  29.62  0mph E dew-point 69  Summer, warm and sunny

    Waxing Crescent of the Thunder Moon

    A lot of online research today about UU history.  The UUA (Unitarian-Universalist Association) keeps its congregational data close to the vest.  I wanted to hunt out the location and size of the largest congregations in the US, but they make it really hard.  To get the info I have to wade through 1067 different files.  Yikes.  Maybe I don’t want to know.

    My goal is to create a history of Unitarianism and Universalism in and around the Twin City’s metro area.  Not a full blown book-length deal, but more than the one page historical summaries available on congregational websites.  I want to discover why liberal religion took such firm root here.  We have three large and two mid-size congregations, a remarkable number when you look at the maps in the rest of the US.

    Unitarianism has the nickname, the Boston Religion and it’s not much of a joke.   Outside New England the UU movement is thinly dispersed.  We even have as strong or stronger group of congregations than the Chicago area.  It intrigues me and I want to figure out the why of it.  That’s always what interests me, the why.

    The Mammoth herd stops tonight at the outdoor cafe of the Black Forest, an urban oasis.  I look forward to seeing the guys, catching up.

    Kate had lunch with a friend today.  Not notable in many lives, but Kate has had her head down for so long she’s almost forgotten lunch, nights out.  I’m glad she’s venturing out.

  • Swollen Muddy And Fast

    90  Sunny, hazy   Airquality alert in Nashville.  Suggested:  Limit trips.

    The deep south is close.  Tennessee was one of the upper slave holding states at the beginning of the civil war and did not secede with the lower south states of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and tomorrow’s destination, Alabama.  

    Murfeesboro, Tennessee has the Stones River Civil War Battlefield. 

    Today’s journey was and is hot.  As the road pushed further into southern Illinois, there were signs for college majors in coal mining.  Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University was in the vicinity.  These are also unglaciated limestone hills sitting atop layers of plant life from the Carboniferous, now black and concentrated into veins of coal.  Heat and coal and the underground, the cthonic realms go together.

    The Ohio river, the mighty Ohio, flexed its muscles today, swollen muddy and fast.  It was over its banks and looked like it would get higher.  This is a big river and where it feeds into the Mississippi multiplies the river we call the Father of Waters. 

    Kentucky, which never seceded and therefore allowed Union access to the south side of the Ohio, continues, in the main, the rolling limestone hills in southern Illinois.  

    Paducah, home of the National Quilter’s Museum and the only place in the US creating nuclear fuel for electricity generation from out of date Russian weapons (literally swords into plowshare), is not far from the bridge over the Ohio.

    At Russert’s, a woman named Keeum (Kim) took mah ordah.  Cahtfeesh.  She was real nice.  She gave me a to go order of iced tea.  Good food.  Boy, the folks must like it down here, it’s roly polyville.

    Nashville had a freeway down, but there was a quick way around the bottle neck and I found it.  Cities do not draw me in as they once did.  I find myself more interested in the quiet, secluded setting and Murfeesboro, though a city, does not intrude too much out here near the Stones River Battlefield.  I’ll go there in the morning, then scoot on down to Prattville and the Plantation Bed and Breakfast.

    I finished a 24 lecture course on the American Revolution in the 11 plus hours I drove yesterday.  A nice setup for the 48 lecture course I began today on the Civil War.  Fits right in with the trip.

  • Offerings to Keoniloa, God of the Sea

    Sunny.  80.  Ocean blue.  Ocean green.  Waves steady.  Low tide today at 9:28AM.

    Took a 2 hour hike along the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail.  This is an up and down trail along the southern shore of the island.  It begins in the County Park right next to the Hyatt and heads east from Shipwrecks Beach.

    At the county park an older Hawai’ian man with a great bushy white beard got out of a beat up pick up, slung a plastic bag over his shoulder and headed out along the trail.  I followed a bit later.

    There was a blue tent pitched not far east of the parking lot, also not far from the sign that read No Camping in County Parks.  The trail goes up over a lithified dune into Pa’a Dunes (dry and rocky).  All along the way trails worn down by hikers, runners and island fisherfolk weave in and out, sometimes three, sometimes only one.  One trail finds shade, if there is any and another finds the edge nearest the ocean.  Through Pa’a I hiked the edge trail going out and the shade trail coming back.

    After the dunes come a stretch of sandstone pinnacles (think Lake T’ai rocks) eroded by wind and rain and ocean into fantastic shapes, shapes that any Chinese literati would make a home for in their study.  On a tide pool just below the sand pinnacles I saw the Hawai’ian man waking in flip-flops collecting something from the pool area just vacated by low tide.  On the way back I went out there myself and tried to figure out what he was after.  The only thing I saw were sea slugs.  Are they edible?

    The trail runs up hill from the pinnacles to a bay filled with black lava rocks covered with a green lichen.  These rocks, stacked carefully to form a huge structure, look like other Hawai’ian temples or heiau’s, but these are so old that no one, not even the Hawai’ians know its name or whether it was ever a heia’u.  It’s called the fishing temple, the assumption being that offerings to Keoniloa, god of the sea, placed here would ensure good fishing.  No one really knows.

    After crossing just behind the heia’u, the trail strikes out across another sacred landscape, the Poipu golf course, scene of many of pro golf’s most important contests.  Why?  Well, where the trail used to run near the edge people fell off as the ledge crumbled.  They died.  So, the trail now runs along the greens for about 300 yards.  There are signs to make sure hikers look for golfers and vice versa. 

    I stopped about three-quarters along the way and struck out off the trail to find Makau-wahi sinkhole (Fear, Break Through). It is a small part of the largest limestone caves found in Hawai’i. Paleoecology and archaeology have found evidence here of how the first humans affected the local biome.  This is one of only a few such sites in the world.

    The walk back, with the sun higher, became hot and somewhat onerous, so I headed back to the lanai for a rest.

  • The Miracle of Hydraulics

    -13  64%  19%  omph WSW bar30.43 steady  windchill-13  Winter

                Waxing Gibbous Winter Moon

    Annie came over and we moved the old TV out near her car.  But, it was -10 and I couldn’t lift the damn thing into her car.  A real Minnesota moment. The air blistering cold and I’m trying lift this way too heavy TV in the back seat of a Chrysler generic car.  I’m a little guy and even when I work out I have real limits.  This was one. So.  I backed the truck out of the garage, put down the lift gate and horsed the TV onto the gate.  Lifted it up with the miracle of hydraulics and Kate will take it out to Annie on Monday.  Course, I have to secure it in their before she takes off with it.

    I’ve got enough on the religion and art historical perspective to write tomorrow.  My packet for the docent book club will contain a book recommendation, James Elkin’s The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art and an essay by Camille Paglia entitled, “Religion and Art in America.”  I’m going to summarize the beginning of Elkins because he lays out 5 different positions toward the religion and art question, each one helpful in its own way.  The bottom line appears to be the corrosive affects of modernism, seen first in what is now often called the early modern period which includes the Renaissance.  I’ll finish with this tomorrow and start work on Transcendentalism next.

    This is great way below zero work.