Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Anger, Forgiveness, and What Maturity Really Means

From Brain Pickings:

David Whyte explores in a section of Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — the same breathtaking volume “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty,” which gave us Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

I remember reading Whyte’s The Heart Aroused, Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, more than once in the mid-1990’s, an excellent book, my copy full of underlinings. Consolations looks like another good one.

“Snowflakes”—The Trigger-Happy Generation

From The Wall Street Journal, The Trigger-Happy Generation, by Peggy Noonan (but it’s behind a paywall). Nonetheless, read on:

Readers know of the phenomenon at college campuses regarding charges of “microaggressions” and “triggers.” It’s been going on for a while and is part of a growing censorship movement in which professors, administrators and others are accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, gender bias and ethnocentric thinking, among other things. Connected is the rejection or harassment of commencement and other campus speakers who are not politically correct. I hate that phrase, but it just won’t stop being current.

Kirsten Powers goes into much of this in her book, “The Silencing.” Anyway, quite a bunch of little Marats and Robespierres we’re bringing up.

Continue reading “Snowflakes”—The Trigger-Happy Generation

Are Authors Anything Like the Characters They Write?

From Huffington Post:

“Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. This is a work of fiction and are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.”

Legally every published book should have the above proviso. Every fiction writer I know is happy to have the statement included on the first page of his or her book. It’s as much a protection for the author as the copyright and ISBN number. Now that being said, if we’re at all truthful with ourselves, authors know that many times parts of a character in our stories are based on someone we have known or have met. Ninety five percent of the time the resemblance actually is coincidental. The character quirk or physical description of someone is already in the back of the writer’s mind and fits a certain character in the story.

Continue reading Are Authors Anything Like the Characters They Write?

The Slow Death of the University

By Terry Eagleton:

A few years ago, I was being shown around a large, very photo_68097_portrait_largetechnologically advanced university in Asia by its proud president. As befitted so eminent a personage, he was flanked by two burly young minders in black suits and shades, who for all I knew were carrying Kalashnikovs under their jackets. Having waxed lyrical about his gleaming new business school and state-of-the-art institute for management studies, the president paused to permit me a few words of fulsome praise. I remarked instead that there seemed to be no critical studies of any kind on his campus. He looked at me bemusedly, as though I had asked him how many Ph.D.’s in pole dancing they awarded each year, and replied rather stiffly “Your comment will be noted.” He then took a small piece of cutting-edge technology out of his pocket, flicked it open and spoke a few curt words of Korean into it, probably “Kill him.” A limousine the length of a cricket pitch then arrived, into which the president was bundled by his minders and swept away. I watched his car disappear from view, wondering when his order for my execution was to be implemented.


Deconstructing Academe

Colleges claim they’re the last hope for revitalization. But can they really revive struggling towns and cities?

The False Promise of ‘Practical’ Education

Today’s calls for pragmatic education are at odds with the idea’s history.

This happened in South Korea, but it might have taken place almost anywhere on the planet. From Cape Town to Reykjavik, Sydney to São Paulo, an event as momentous in its own way as the Cuban revolution or the invasion of Iraq is steadily under way: the slow death of the university as a center of humane critique. Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.

Much of this will be familiar to an American readership. Stanford and MIT, after all, provided the very models of the entrepreneurial university. What has emerged in Britain, however, is what one might call Americanization without the affluence — the affluence, at least, of the American private educational sector.

This is even becoming true at those traditional finishing schools for the English gentry, Oxford and Cambridge, whose colleges have always been insulated to some extent against broader economic forces by centuries of lavish endowments. Some years ago, I resigned from a chair at the University of Oxford (an event almost as rare as an earthquake in Edinburgh) when I became aware that I was expected in some respects to behave less as a scholar than a CEO.

When I first came to Oxford 30 years earlier, any such professionalism would have been greeted with patrician disdain. Those of my colleagues who had actually bothered to finish their Ph.D.’s would sometimes use the title of “Mr.” rather than “Dr.,” since “Dr.” suggested a degree of ungentlemanly labor. Publishing books was regarded as a rather vulgar project. A brief article every 10 years or so on the syntax of Portuguese or the dietary habits of ancient Carthage was considered just about permissible. There had been a time earlier when college tutors might not even have bothered to arrange set tutorial times for their undergraduates. Instead, the undergraduate would simply drop round to their rooms when the spirit moved him for a glass of sherry and a civilized chat about Jane Austen or the function of the pancreas.

Today, Oxbridge retains much of its collegial ethos. It is the dons who decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole. In recent years, this admirable system of self-government has had to confront a number of centralizing challenges from the university, of the kind that led to my own exit from the place; but by and large it has stood firm. Precisely because Oxbridge colleges are for the most part premodern institutions, they have a smallness of scale about them that can serve as a model of decentralized democracy, and this despite the odious privileges they continue to enjoy.

Elsewhere in Britain, the situation is far different. Instead of government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies, and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors. Senior professors are now senior managers, and the air is thick with talk of auditing and accountancy. Books — those troglodytic, drearily pretechnological phenomena — are increasingly frowned upon. At least one British university has restricted the number of bookshelves professors may have in their offices in order to discourage “personal libraries.” Wastepaper baskets are becoming as rare as Tea Party intellectuals, since paper is now passé.

Teaching has for some time been a less vital business in British universities than research. It is research that brings in the money, not courses on Expressionism or the Reformation.

Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose. One Northern Irish vice chancellor commandeered the only public room left on campus, a common room shared by staff and students alike, for a private dining room in which he could entertain local bigwigs and entrepreneurs. When the students occupied the room in protest, he ordered his security guards to smash the only restroom near to hand. British vice chancellors have been destroying their own universities for years, but rarely as literally as that. On the same campus, security staff move students on if they are found hanging around. The ideal would be a university without these disheveled, unpredictable creatures.

In the midst of this debacle, it is the humanities above all that are being pushed to the wall. The British state continues to distribute grants to its universities for science, medicine, engineering, and the like, but it has ceased to hand out any significant resources to the arts. It is not out of the question that if this does not change, whole humanities departments will be closed down in the coming years. If English departments survive at all, it may simply be to teach business students the use of the semicolon, which was not quite what Northrop Frye and Lionel Trilling had in mind.

Humanities departments must now support themselves mainly by the tuition fees they receive from their students, which means that smaller institutions that rely almost entirely on this source of income have been effectively privatized through the back door. The private university, which Britain has rightly resisted for so long, is creeping ever closer. Yet the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has also overseen a huge hike in tuitions, which means that students, dependent on loans and encumbered with debt, are understandably demanding high standards of teaching and more personal treatment in return for their cash at just the moment when humanities departments are being starved of funds.

Besides, teaching has been for some time a less vital business in British universities than research. It is research that brings in the money, not courses on Expressionism or the Reformation. Every few years, the British state carries out a thorough inspection of every university in the land, measuring the research output of each department in painstaking detail. It is on this basis that government grants are awarded. There has thus been less incentive for academics to devote themselves to their teaching, and plenty of reason for them to produce for production’s sake, churning out supremely pointless articles, starting up superfluous journals online, dutifully applying for outside research grants regardless of whether they really need them, and passing the odd pleasant hour padding their CVs.

In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not. Points are awarded by the state inspectors for articles with a bristling thicket of footnotes, but few if any for a best-selling textbook aimed at students and general readers. Academics are most likely to boost their institution’s status by taking temporary leave of it, taking time off from teaching to further their research.

They would boost its resources even more were they to abandon academe altogether and join a circus, hence saving their financial masters a much grudged salary and allowing the bureaucrats to spread out their work among an already overburdened professoriate. Many academics in Britain are aware of just how passionately their institution would love to see the back of them, apart from a few household names who are able to pull in plenty of customers. There is, in fact, no shortage of lecturers seeking to take early retirement, given that British academe was an agreeable place to work some decades ago and is now a deeply unpleasant one for many of its employees. In an additional twist of the knife, however, they are now about to have their pensions cut as well.

As professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers. Universities fall over one another in an undignified scramble to secure their fees. Once such customers are safely within the gates, there is pressure on their professors not to fail them, and thus risk losing their fees. The general idea is that if the student fails, it is the professor’s fault, rather like a hospital in which every death is laid at the door of the medical staff. One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.

Hungry for their fees, some British universities are now allowing students with undistinguished undergraduate degrees to proceed to graduate courses, while overseas students (who are generally forced to pay through the nose) may find themselves beginning a doctorate in English with an uncertain command of the language. Having long despised creative writing as a vulgar American pursuit, English departments are now desperate to hire some minor novelist or failing poet in order to attract the scribbling hordes of potential Pynchons, ripping off their fees in full, cynical knowledge that the chances of getting one’s first novel or volume of poetry past a London publisher are probably less than the chances of awakening to discover that you have been turned into a giant beetle.

Education should indeed be responsive to the needs of society. But this is not the same as regarding yourself as a service station for neocapitalism. In fact, you would tackle society’s needs a great deal more effectively were you to challenge this whole alienated model of learning. Medieval universities served the wider society superbly well, but they did so by producing pastors, lawyers, theologians, and administrative officials who helped to sustain church and state, not by frowning upon any form of intellectual activity that might fail to turn a quick buck.

Times, however, have changed. According to the British state, all publicly funded academic research must now regard itself as part of the so-called knowledge economy, with a measurable impact on society. Such impact is rather easier to gauge for aeronautical engineers than ancient historians. Pharmacists are likely to do better at this game than phenomenologists. Subjects that do not attract lucrative research grants from private industry, or that are unlikely to pull in large numbers of students, are plunged into a state of chronic crisis. Academic merit is equated with how much money you can raise, while an educated student is redefined as an employable one. It is not a good time to be a paleographer or numismatist, pursuits that we will soon not even be able to spell, let alone practice.

The effects of this sidelining of the humanities can be felt all the way down the educational system in the secondary schools, where modern languages are in precipitous decline, history really means modern history, and the teaching of the classics is largely confined to private institutions such as Eton College. (It is thus that the old Etonian Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, regularly lards his public declarations with tags from Horace.)

It is true that philosophers could always set up meaning-of-life clinics on street corners, or modern linguists station themselves at strategic public places where a spot of translation might be required. In general, the idea is that universities must justify their existence by acting as ancillaries to entrepreneurship. As one government report chillingly put it, they should operate as “consultancy organisations.” In fact, they themselves have become profitable industries, running hotels, concerts, sporting events, catering facilities, and so on.

If the humanities in Britain are withering on the branch, it is largely because they are being driven by capitalist forces while being simultaneously starved of resources. (British higher education lacks the philanthropic tradition of the United States, largely because America has a great many more millionaires than Britain.) We are also speaking of a society in which, unlike the United States, higher education has not traditionally been treated as a commodity to be bought and sold. Indeed, it is probably the conviction of the majority of college students in Britain today that higher education should be provided free of charge, as it is in Scotland; and though there is an obvious degree of self-interest in this opinion, there is a fair amount of justice in it as well. Educating the young, like protecting them from serial killers, should be regarded as a social responsibility, not as a matter of profit.

I myself, as the recipient of a state scholarship, spent seven years as a student at Cambridge without paying a bean for it. It is true that as a result of this slavish reliance on the state at an impressionable age I have grown spineless and demoralized, unable to stand on my own two feet or protect my family with a shotgun if called upon to do so. In a craven act of state dependency, I have even been known to call upon the services of the local fire department from time to time, rather than beat out the blaze with my own horny hands. I am, even so, willing to trade any amount of virile independence for seven free years at Cambridge.

It is true that only about 5 percent of the British population attended university in my own student days, and there are those who claim that today, when that figure has risen to around 50 percent, such liberality of spirit is no longer affordable. Yet Germany, to name only one example, provides free education to its sizable student population. A British government that was serious about lifting the crippling debt from the shoulders of the younger generation could do so by raising taxes on the obscenely rich and recovering the billions lost each year in evasion.

It would also seek to restore the honorable lineage of the university as one of the few arenas in modern society (another is the arts) in which prevailing ideologies can be submitted to some rigorous scrutiny. What if the value of the humanities lies not in the way they conform to such dominant notions, but in the fact that they don’t? There is no value in integration as such. In premodern times, artists were more thoroughly integrated into society at large than they have been in the modern era, but part of what that meant was that they were quite often ideologues, agents of political power, mouthpieces for the status quo. The modern artist, by contrast, has no such secure niche in the social order, but it is precisely on this account that he or she refuses to take its pieties for granted.

Until a better system emerges, however, I myself have decided to throw in my lot with the hard-faced philistines and crass purveyors of utility. Somewhat to my shame, I have now taken to asking my graduate students at the beginning of a session whether they can afford my very finest insights into literary works, or whether they will have to make do with some serviceable but less scintillating comments.

Charging by the insight is a distasteful affair, and perhaps not the most effective way of establishing amicable relations with one’s students; but it seems a logical consequence of the current academic climate. To those who complain that this is to create invidious distinctions among one’s students, I should point out that those who are not able to hand over cash for my most perceptive analyses are perfectly free to engage in barter. Freshly baked pies, kegs of home-brewed beer, knitted sweaters, and stout, handmade shoes: All these are eminently acceptable. There are, after all, more things in life than money.

Terry Eagleton is a distinguished visiting professor of English literature at the University of Lancaster. He is the author of some 50 books, including How to Read Literature (Yale University Press, 2013).

Continue reading The Slow Death of the University

B.B. King’s Best Songs: A Playlist

From The Daily Beast:

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.
B.B. King, who died Thursday night at age 89, was a famous blues star in an age that had mostly forgotten about the blues. But King’s talent was too large to remain confined in a niche music genre. He influenced countless guitarists of allstyles, who still recycle his licks in bands all over the world. And let’s not forget his extraordinary voice—King possessed one of the finest blues/R&B voices of modern times, and could have been a star solely on the basis of his singing skills. Above all, B.B. King was a tireless road warrior, bringing the blues to audiences all over the world, and sometimes playing more than 200 gigs during the course of a year.But many listeners nowadays have never heard his music. Blues music doesn’t get much radio airplay, and even a venerated king of the genre rarely appears on TV or generates impressive YouTube metrics. So here’s a quick tour of eight of my favorite B.B. King tracks.

(1) “Every Day I Have the Blues”
Live at the Regal

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

If you haven’t heard B.B. King before, his live recording on November 21, 1964 at Chicago’s Regal Theater is the place to start. The whole album is electrifying, and will show you why this artist packed concert halls all over the world even as the blues faded from mainstream culture. Check out the opening track “Every Day I Have the Blues” and feel the excitement surging through the audience.

(2) “How Blue Can You Get”
Live in Cook County Jail

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

This song was a staple of King’s concerts, and his version at Cook County is riveting. Here he wins over a tough audience that was certain it already knew how blue things could get. This album reached the top of the Billboard R&B chart and stayed there for three weeks in 1971, beating out Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, and a host of other soul legends.

(3) “Three O’Clock Blues”
Singin’ the Blues

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

This track, which topped the R&B charts at the end of 1951, turned B.B. King into a national star. The song follows a standard 12-bar blues form, but sounds more like a lonesome love ballad. In his early days, King specialized in melancholy songs of this sort, and few have ever matched his skills at slow tearjerker blues.

(4) “Never Make Your Move Too Soon”
Midnight Believer

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

I don’t know why Midnight Believer isn’t better known. This 1978 album featured King alongside the hot jazz-fusion band The Crusaders, and the partnership was magical. This very funky song should have been a radio hit.

(5) “Paying the Cost to be the Boss”
Deuces Wild

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

What would have happened if B.B. King had played with the Rolling Stones? You don’t need to imagine it, you can actually hear it. This track from the 1997 album Deuces Wild is a delight, especially for the vocal give-and-take between King and Mick Jagger.

(6) “The Thrill is Gone”
Completely Well

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

“The Thrill is Gone” was a surprise AM radio hit in 1970. This minor blues sounded very much up-to-date, and few listeners realized that the tune had been introduced by Roy Hawkins back in 1951. King’s rendition is the definitive version, but also give credit to producer Bill Szymczyk, who added a subtle string arrangement that helped propel the track to crossover success.

(7) “Let the Good Times Roll”
Bobby Bland and B. B. King Together Again…Live

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

The name B.B. King is almost synonymous with the blues, but this artist could have been a soul or R&B star, or even a king of rock ’n’ roll. Here he joins Bobby Bland in a spirited rendition of the early rock ’n’ roll hit “Let the Good Times Roll” that shows just how fine King was with this kind of material.

(8) “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”
One Kind Favor

The late blues legend left behind a huge recorded legacy, but too many people today have never heard his music. Here are 8 stunning tracks to get you started.

This track from the 2008 album One Kind Favor show B.B. King digging way, way back. King was born in 1925, and this song was original recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927. But if you are expecting a respectful arrangement of a traditional blues, think again. Even in his 80s, B.B. King was updating the old songs, and bringing his audience to new places.

Celebrating Viktor Frankl

From medium:

Acclaimed Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, would have celebrated his 110th birthday on March 26, 2015. Though it’s been more than 15 years since his passing, his work to help humanity understand happiness continues today.

Born March 26, 1905 in Vienna, Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, a form of existential analysis and psychotherapy.

He was also a prolific author of over 39 books published in 43 languages, including his celebrated memoir, Man’s Searching for Meaning. Based partly on his time in Nazi concentration camps between 1942 and 1945, Frankl’s memoir sold more than 10 million copies worldwide at the time of his death in 1997, making it one of the best-selling books of the 20th century.

Drawing from both his personal experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and the experiences of the patients he treated years later, his work on the nature of human suffering represents an important distinction between our perception of happiness and the process of discovering happiness through meaning.

It also may offer some important solutions to the career crisis many people are facing today and the growing dissatisfaction we see in the workplace.

Work and Suffering

The hellish conditions Frankl endured at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau taught him an important lesson on the nature of human suffering. Though humans often view happiness and circumstance as inseparable, Frankl argued that even in the most challenging of environments, we have the power to choose our own path based on how we react.

In his memoir, Frankl wrote: “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

According to Frankl, the discovery of meaning happens because of three factors: Having something to work on (a project), someone to love (a significant relationship), and a redemptive view of suffering.

Despite his environment, he remained dedicated to working on the book manuscript he had started before entering the first concentration camp. He also remained convinced that his family was waiting for him, something that helped him stay alive.

With time and reflection, Frankl saw beyond his suffering to the purpose in his pain — an awareness that brought light to his experiences and helped him survive the worst of the Holocaust when many others did not.

What This Means for Us Today

When contemplating stories like that of Viktor Frankl, we might wonder if the difference between remarkable people and the rest of us has less to do with circumstance and more to do with mindset.

The direct route to deeper purpose is rarely smooth sailing. It is a chaotic experience, and how we respond to the chaos is what matters far more than what happens to us along the way.

As Frankl argued, the way to overcome a feeling of purposelessness isn’t to focus on the problem but to find a more noble distraction. Perhaps, the best way, then, to finding happiness — in work and in life — is to stop trying to be happy and start focusing on what brings meaning to our lives.

Whether that’s finding the path to a new career or simply seeking a different perspective on the work we already do, we all have the power to turn our lives into significant stories if we can learn to see our obstacles as opportunities.

And if true happiness and meaning are indeed intertwined, then perhaps the first step to finding the path to our purpose is accepting that it doesn’t happen according to some carefully-crafted plan. It’s what’s left when the plan goes horribly wrong.

Happiness, in other words, is not a condition but a choice.

10 Keys to Changing Your Life

From Fierce Gentleman—I liked the comment about deleting your Facebook account, but not the one suggesting giving up alcohol. I thought red wine was good for you? Part of the text:

Changing your behavior is hard.

Luckily, there is a scientifically proven way to do it that gives you the best chance of success.

Anyone who is trying to change their behavior without understanding this science needs to stop, now. Read up on the science. Learn to do it the more effective way.

Then, start again, with better strategies, and create the life you’ve always wanted.

Continue reading 10 Keys to Changing Your Life