An end to suffering

suffering

Travel, philosophy, literature, personal growth, history, the Buddha and his teachings all intertwine in this fascinating journey of an author who attempts to come to terms with his Indian background and his yearning for something which would present to him an acceptable picture of the world and alleviate his feeling of his own shortcomings. Pankaj Mishra (An End To Suffering. The Buddha in the World, Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) presents a balanced view of what the Buddha means in the world: this is not an earnest attempt at proselytizing, nor a high-brow disapproval. Looking at Buddha  “in the world” may seem a most ambitious undertaking, but Mishra is able to lead the reader, in 15 chapters, through the maze of Buddhisms, among a plethora of authors who both knew Buddha’s ideas and admired them, as well as those who were familiar with these ideas and were critical of them. Granted, he is more concerned with the United States (perhaps because it  represents the idea of ‘the West’ more than on any other country), but he also includes Russian, French, British, Indian  literary figures and philosophers who may have been attuned to Buddhist ideas.  Furthermore, his account of the Buddha’s life and accomplishments is accompanied by his own growth as an author and by his awareness of his place in the world.

This is a book rich in historical detail, full of parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and the musings by poets (for ex., Hesiod, Jack Kerouac, Osip Mandelstam) and novelists (Proust, Dostoevsky, Borges, etc.)  as well as philosophical ideas (Epicurus, Socrates, Descartes, esp. Nietzsche, Tagore, and others). These comparisons are by no means based only on the actual familiarity of the authors with Buddhism. The comparisons are also made on the similarity of concepts between Buddhism and the intellectuals’ ideas, so they reflect the wide-ranging possibilities of connections that the Buddha’s teachings have in the intellectual realm, even if the individual is not familiar with Buddhism. One of the great merits of this book is a most clear presentation of the Buddha’s life and his teachings. The other value of the book is the non-centre view of modernity: the description of India’s problems stemming from its post-colonial but wannabe ‘Western’, i.e. modern state is devastatingly honest. The sadness felt by the author of so much human pain inflicted on humanity by radicalization and fanaticism for any  movement exudes from each chapter. But the most essential value of the book stems from the author’s questioning his self-worth and his life’s value. Although one has the impression that Buddhism does not provide the antidote to the author’s questioning of his self-worth, and it does not impart value to his life, it does provide some explanations to why human behaviour is as it is.

In conclusion, this is a book to be cherished and read many times. The wealth of ideas and concepts provided will surely keep the mind working for a long time, and the humanity and humility of the author will definitely be a constant reminder of intellectual honesty.

What follows is a general outline of each chapter.

In the chapter “The invention of ‘Buddhism’ ” Mishra makes it clear that

the Buddha (“the enlightened one”) was not God, or His emissary on earth, but the individual who had managed to liberate himself from ordinary human suffering, and then, out of compassion, had shared his insights with others. He had placed no value on prayer or belief in a deity; he had not spoken of creation, original sin or the last judgement. (p. 28)

Thus, the Buddha was “more of a trenchant thinker and psychologist rather than a religious figure” (29); therefore, this thinking,  focused as it was on strengthening (by meditation and other ascetic practices) one’s own will to curb craving and suffering, did not involve the need for a large scale restructuring of state and society, most unlike the thinking of the intellectual fathers of the modern world  (Rousseau, Hobbes, and Marx) (29). Rejecting the religious orthodoxy and abstract speculation of the Brahmin philosophers he shifted his interest to ordinary human experience to  underline the fact that neither the individual self nor the world is stable, and that our desire for things “innately impermanent makes for frustration, turning life into perpetual discontentment” (p. 43). So for the Buddha, the release from suffering was the only worthwhile spiritual aim.

This chapter deals with the history behind the inspiration that Buddha provided for many intellectuals in Europe and America in the nineteenth- and early twentieth century. The sources of this inspiration were gathered in writings of dilettanti in the 17- and 18 hundreds – British invaders (officers, explorers, surveyors, such as Francis Buchanan, manuscript collectors, for ex., Houghton Hodgson,  etc.),  French tourists (for ex., the naturalist Victor Jacquemont and others before him), accounts often clouded by superiority complexes and lack of material remains.

“The World of the Buddha” depicts the ancient Indian history, the Aryan invasion of the Indo-Gangetic plain where other civilizations had thrived, the sacred religious knowledge (Vedas) these invaders elaborated into rituals the correct formulas of which were possessed by the Brahmins and live on even today.  It is assumed that the caste system originated around the 8th century BCE when there were four social groups: kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), brahmins (priests, thinkers, law-givers) vaishyas (landowners, merchants, money lenders) and shudras (darker-skinned aborigines or mixed breed without membership rights to the other groups). From nomadism and tribal bands, this culture evolved into stable agricultural society and towns, threatening the Brahmin-imposed social hierarchy as the merchant class enjoyed unprecedented economic power. But this order was shifting from independent republics towards more centralized monarchies when Buddha came of age. He was born as Gautama Siddhartha (“he who fulfills his purpose”) to a kshatriya clan, the Shakyas, who controlled what are now the borderlands of India and Nepal (the location of the  region’s capital city, Kapilavistu, is still disputed). His father Suddhodhana kept him protected but expected from him a future of tending the family’s farm, and possible chieftainship. Apparently, as a child, the Buddha was very fragile and delicate. He never knew his birth mother, Maya, who passed away while he was only seven days old. Her sister, Mahaprajapati, looked after him from then on. The Buddha was raised in  knowledge of the sacred Vedas, in the belief of ultimate reality (brahman), of the existence of the soul (atman) which is subject to reincarnation and therefore in the final analysis the brahman is identical to the atman. This union was knowable through a rigorous self-discipline (yoga)  and through meditation which controlled emotions and passions. The theory of rebirth went through various elaborations, and was based on human actions (karma) in all human endeavours, and Mishra offers this concrete example:

Sanskrit poetics assume that the individual reading and responding sensitively to a poem brings into play the experiences of his past lives, and that an unresponsive reading on his part can be put down to insufficiently refined previous experience. (p. 105)

The never-ending cycle of action and consequences, taught by the Brahmins, found also detractors: men who rejected the idea of karma and the Brahmin-defined social order. These homeless wanderers and spiritual seekers (sramanas) of which the Buddha was the greatest, unleashed a revolution of ideas in North India. They stressed the renunciation of the active life: this renunciation was the best way to avoid karma and endless life of suffering. They also challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy by establishing sects, prescribing their own mental and spiritual exercises, and stressed that each individual has to realize the truth personally, through long practice of asceticism or meditation. Those who left their home and family became wandering sadhus (mendicants) indifferent to weather, dirt, pain. The general population fed and sheltered them, admiring their dedication and renunciation. These homeless philosophers occasionally met each other, debated in a relaxed and democratic way publicly – among the audience there was also the young Siddhartha.

“The Death of God” focuses first on the philosophical, social, and political underpinnings of the revolution of ideas which the Buddha brought to the ethical level. General unhappiness, dismantling of the old social order, loneliness, widespread social insecurity, all conspired to bolster the momentous tendency of the sramanas to do away with the old teachings of the Brahmins. Clearly, Nietzsche took up the question that sramanas were too grappling with and each answered in their own way:

When, finally, all the observances and customs upon which the power of the gods and of the priests and redeemers depends will have been abolished, when, that is to say, morality, in the old sense will have died, then there will come – well, what will come then?              (quoted from Nietzsche, Daybreak; p. 113)

The European answer stays solidly on the foundations of science, but this answer led to the use of knowledge for one’s advantage rather than to the quest for the meaning of the world.

Mishra spends some pages on his reminiscences of his university life in Allahabad, of visits to his friend Vinod’s home town, observing the injustices, seemingly endless,  perpetrated in India not only by the British but also by the Indians. Some people blame Gautama Buddha and Gandhi for the passivity and resignation of the Indian character, and for poverty and weakness. The massive changes that occurred in India (and elsewhere), from petroleum lamps to electricity, from life regulated by the sun to life regulated by the clock, from quiet of the countryside to the roar of the locomotives, were too rapid. How was India to react to this change, which, according to Mishra, was not random, since there seemed to have been a will and a purpose behind it? (p. 136) What was this modern world? How did one get into it? What were its benefits? (p. 138) In Europe, independent nations, based on “relatively homogeneous groups, seemed to reconstitute disparate human beings into citizens of a productive and efficient society” (139). Mishra brings in thinkers such as Marx, Hobbes, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, and other intellectuals to underline that there existed also the recalcitrant posture of non-Western societies to “catch up with the West” (140).  The West became a success story and Asia and Africa must emulate it.  But paradoxically, the West was also a hot-bed of conflicts and ruthless exploiters of their colonies. The Hindu philosopher Vivekananda’s experiences with the West as well as those of the Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala became sources of attitudes for young Indians to debate.

In “The Long Way to the Middle Way” the narration returns to the Buddha’s youth, his questioning of the existence of old age, suffering, death. Later, he married and had a son, still living in luxury. But he was not happy; he was lonely and had self-doubts. Probably with the support of a sramana, he left his family, his palaces, and his life of wealth and began his new life with short hair, no beard,  new yellow robes, an alms-bowl, and freedom. The Buddha meets various sramanas, meets with princes (especially important is his meeting with Bimbisara, king of Magadha), visits gurus (Alara Kalama, Udraka Ramaputra). Once he had learnt whatever there was to learn, he moved on, elaborating on the techniques and ideas he picked up from others. The Buddha reached stages of meditation beyond the first, that of detachment from his surroundings and preoccupations, feeling free of desires or other strong emotions and in which the meditator feels a high degree of comfort. “In the next two stages he stops thinking altogether and also transcends his feeling of comfort before reaching the fourth stage when he is aware only of the object of concentration and indeed has become one with that object.” (167) However, according to the Buddha,”concentration and endurance were important means, but without a corresponding moral and intellectual development, they by themselves did not end suffering.” (168) Having undergone severe ascetic practices, starvation, and withdrawal from society, he  “did not attain the special and wonderful knowledge and insight transcending the affairs of human beings”, and he still wondered if there could be another way to attain enlightenment. He pondered the possibility that seeking too hard was prohibiting him from achieving his purpose.

The chapter entitled  “The Science of the Mind” considers the Buddha’s enlightenment, which according to tradition happened under a pipal tree, one April or May during the full moon. The enlightenment consisted of having learnt “the four noble truths of human experience: suffering, its cause, the possibility of curing it, and its remedy. Knowing this, he felt liberated from ordinary human condition.” (p. 174) It also meant, that he would not be born into another existence. His enlightenment was not the result of divine intervention but of nine hours of meditation (so the legend goes) and more probably was due to his six-year long experience as meditator, ascetic and thinker. Later Buddhist philosophers refined and elaborated his enlightenment experiences. Today, psychiatrists and psychologists use mindful meditation in their practices, and neuroscientific research supports some of the Buddha’s observations. Buddhist philosophical contemplations did not elaborate and follow the path of scientific observations and explanations.

This was because Buddhist philosophers had different, more pragmatic, goals. They aimed not so much to transform the external world through science and politics, or to build nuclear bombs, as to help human beings understand the nature of mind and rid themselves of the negative emotions – anger, hatred, malice, jealousy – caused by their attachment to such solid-seeming entities as self and world. (p. 186)

The chapter entitled “Turning the Wheel”, analyzes the consequences of the Buddha’s  enlightenment both for him and for his followers and detractors. He tries to share his insight with others, gurus, ascetics, and sramanas. Most were unreceptive. His first sermon (Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma) illustrates his understanding of the Middle Way, i.e. one ought to follow neither the extreme of giving oneself up to indulgence in sensual pleasures nor the extreme of giving oneself up to self-torment since both are unprofitable. These are his four noble truths (189-190):

  1. Dukha, i.e., “suffering”
  2. Samudaya, i.e., suffering caused by craving (trishna)
  3. Nirodha, i.e., the cessation/cure of suffering
  4. Marga, i.e.the way leading to the cessation of suffering, consisting of an eight-fold path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

According to the Buddha, suffering was universal, felt by almost everyone alive, and he assumed that it was individual misperception or ignorance of the true nature of the self which caused this suffering. (190) Suffering is not only old age, sickness, death, mental anguish, physical pain, but also the impermanent and uncontrollable imperfect nature of the phenomenal world. Schopenhauer, Hume, Montaigne, Flaubert, Proust also dwelt on the impermanence of worldly things and of the individual self.

As a grand principle purporting to explain all of human life, trishna doesn’t seem much unlike Hegel’s Spirit of History, Schopenhauer’s Will, or Nietzsche’s Will to Power: something we can’t actually observe or verify, something vaguely metaphysical. The closest western parallel to trishna is Schopenhauer’s will to live, the blind force that lies behind life on earth...(196)

The Buddha traced suffering to actual human experiences of which the mind is a receptacle: experiences of impulses that underpin any individual action (changing posture, daydreaming, taking a break). These impulses are endlessly changing, and are not the result of an active decision by the individual, which is why the individual can’t be the cause of his own suffering. These impulses are the result of a human tendency of “clinging” (upadana), which “flourishes because of man’s profound ignorance (avidya) of the nature of the self and things as they actually are: impermanent, unsatisfactory, essence-less. Clinging produces our typical and renewable desire for status, power, wealth and sexual love. But, as the Buddha never tired of repeating, to desire complete and secure happiness with an elusive self and in an impermanent world is to court frustration and discontentment.” (196) He also redefined karma as “choice or intention” to act since a man acts by body, speech and mind. According to Mishra, the Buddha resembles the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics who claimed that philosophy must expel the suffering of the soul.

After completing his first sermon, the Buddha won his first disciples who became ordained monks – probably the first such monastic sect in the world; soon, other bikshus joined in the sangha, including women.  The appearance, routine, and rules of the bhikshus changed little over centuries, and their duties to offer themselves to society as a model of virtuous behaviour and self-awareness continue to this day.

The next chapter traces the author’s travels through rural India, stopping at towns reeking of moral and physical squalor. He misses his accommodations in Mashobra, where he spent his time reading and studying,  and his landlord, Mr Sharma.  He notes the unimaginable fall of Bihar from the summit of intellectual and spiritual achievement to utter dereliction. He describes his meeting with Helen, an American student who many years later becomes a Buddhist monk and who he thinks has a greater awareness of the world than him: he saw her political stance and efforts in Nicaragua and Haiti “as another instance of the diverse advantages she enjoyed as an American – the same advantages that now permitted her to make herself into a Buddhist nun.” (258) And he avoids meeting her once he sees her back in India. His stay in London jars his emotions as he sees the city that he knew from literature and pictures come alive. He travels to France and then to America. He visits particular places because he wants to be where Proust had set his characters’ longing for fame, or where Emerson had preached self-reliance, or where Thoreau had translated Buddhist texts. (250) But he realizes his love of western writers and philosophers had been a form of idolatry, and that he has to see them as individuals shaped by circumstances. His observations of the mechanization of modern life, built around the gratification of individual needs, leads to no clarifications but only to more platitudes.

The chapter “Looking for the Self” returns to the life of the Buddha, his sermons, and above all his doctrine of “dependent origination”, which the author did not, at first, understand. According to his own admission, perhaps his understanding was limited by his perception of the Buddha as a thinker like Descartes, Kant, or Hegel – but the Enlightened one was not interested in dismantling or building a philosophical system (as they did), but his aim was therapeutic. The self was for him a process, rather than a substance, a becoming rather than a being. Consciousness, too, was primarily a reaction to stimuli: a visual consciousness, an auditory consciousness, etc. , stimuli which arise and fall constantly. The author claims that David Hume had a view of the self close to that of the Buddha. “The idea of reality as a process, first proposed by Heraclitus, entered the mainstream of western philosophy only with Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, William James and the discoveries of modern physics.” (259) And yet, everything is connected and in a state of change, nor random and chaotic but by a stable process of causation.  The Buddhists offer a twelve-point chain of “dependent origination”:                                Through ignorance,  volitional actions are conditioned;                                                    through volitional actions, consciousness is conditioned;                                                       through consciousness, mental and physical phenomena are conditioned;                  through mental and physical phenomena, the five senses and the mind are conditioned; through the six faculties, mental and sensory contact is conditioned;                           through sensory or mental contact, sensation is conditioned;                                        through sensation, desire is conditioned;                                                                           through desire, clinging is conditioned;                                                                               through clinging, the process of becoming is conditioned;                                                 through the process of becoming, birth is conditioned;                                                   through birth, decay, death, pain, etc.  are conditioned.

In other words, the Buddha posited a world which with its diversity, its structures and capacities had come into being as the result of prior actions of living beings motivated by greed, arrogance, passion and envy – by what he called klesha, afflictions, and their latent counterparts: ignorance, desire for sensual pleasure, thirst for existence, grasping onto identity, etc. Death does not end the causal connectedness: this made rebirth somewhat plausible, and it remains the one part of his teachings that requires a leap into faith. Other Buddhist thinkers elaborated on the notion of dependent origination, such as Nagarjuna, for whom each entity is empty of essence and nothing can be known except in terms of something else.

“The Fire Sermon” documents the slow but steady increase of the Buddha’s followers beginning with  those from the commercial class, i.e., people who were not a part of the Aryan caste system, lived in urban areas, and were open to new ideas. The increase of followers meant that women were asking to be a part of a Buddhist sangha (sect).  The Buddha’s stance was clear: the conditions for women were more severe than for men, and his thought was that he had expected his teachings to last a thousand years, but now that women were accepted, they would last only five hundred years.  This chapter also discusses the radically different view the Buddha held regarding fire – an element so crucial to the Brahmins’ religious worldview. Some enemies of the Buddha’s teachings did not stop at debating: there were attempts at this life and at taking over his sangha.

Although Buddhism is not concerned with political phenomena, as the chapter on “A Spiritual Politics” shows,  the teachings, to reach a wider audience, needed a convert in the king class. The conversion of Bimbisara, the king of Magadha, “appears a crucial event in the history of Buddhism” (p. 280). A further political move brought the Buddha to become a friend and advisor of Prasenajit, the king of Kosala. Furthermore, there was need to set some rules of the sangha, and it was to be structured as a small republic, which required a full assembly for reaching important decisions. If dissension among the sanghas appeared, the dissenters were to remove themselves and form a new group: clearly not a sentiment which puts the majority decision on a pedestal. But this attitude also saved Buddhism from sectarian wars, since its offshoots appeared early (Mahayana and Theravada, for example). But the monks’ duties included responsibilities towards the society that fed them and sheltered them: they were to enter the life of the society and direct everyone to honorable ends. In Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, the monks exercised a lot of influence, even if sporadically. In Tibet, a monastic order ruled the country from the seventeenth century. The Buddha, being opposed to any kind of aggression, warned specifically against arms trade.

After the Buddha’s death, “Empires and Nations” “were coming into fashion” (p. 293), and this chapter deals with Buddhism in these new political circumstances. From the invasion of Alexander the Great (not a great influence on the Indian culture and vice-versa, Greek art laid the grounds for a Buddhist art known as Gandhara), to Ashoka’s first large-scale attempt to apply Buddhist ideas to ruling a state, to the central and south Indian kingdoms  of the Satavahana kings (Nagarjuna’s benefactors, it seems), to the Gupta dynasty (supporting Buddhist philosophers such as Asanga and Vasubhandhu and Dignaga).  After the seventh century there seems to be a decline of Buddhism as a guiding principle for statesmen. Although many rulers embraced the ideas of non-violence, plurality of human beliefs, importance of dialogue, it was impossible to keep within the teachings. More recent examples show Buddhist monks supporting the Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka (1980s violent civil war with Tamil Hindu separatists), Buddhists in Japan supporting militarist and imperialist campaigns in Asia (early twentieth century).  In the West, nationalism comes under severe scrutiny, but imperialist and military interventions become more and more violent. For many reasons, India had a rough time after becoming independent from the British, liekly because the system of administration was foreign, and  the centralized state “set itself up as a supreme arbiter in the lives of its citizens”: dissent was dealt with ruthlessly, Kashmir became a hotbed of violence. Indians of all persuasions allowed themselves to use any means in order to prop meaningless abstractions like “national integrity” (p. 318). Can the Buddha enlighten the economic and political preoccupations of the modern world?

The Buddha seems far away from the world-historical events that preoccupied men like Rousseau, smith, Marx and Valéry: the rise of individual in a market society; the scramble for profits by the new individuals created by the break-up of old moralities; the creation of centralized states; the conquest and organized exploitation of peoples and their resources around the world; the violent revolutions based on the seizure of state power and private property.  (329)

Old age, disease, death, desiring and clinging – the most natural processes individuals know – proved to him the fact of suffering. To what extreme diagnoses and prescriptions would he have been provoked had he witnessed the twentieth century, the high intensities of suffering human beings inflicted and continue to inflict on other human beings, the wars, the massacres, the famines, the Holocaust, the Gulag? It was easy to imagine the Buddha from a simpler time who stressed the need for loving-kindness, and who could only be utterly bewildered in a historically more complex age by the enormous ordeals of human beings. But there was plenty of suffering during the Buddha’s time too – and people had fewer distractions with which to dull the pain. … Organized greed, war, genocide – they were not unknown to the Buddha. (330)

But the preoccupation with mental awareness and the acceptance of the fact that everything is connected in the world may lead to nihilism or may become the target of degraded forms of Marxism (Tibet, Vietnam). Some parallels are drawn between the Buddha and Gandhi (who was not a Buddhist), especially the latter’s methods of satyagraha (non-violent persuasion).

“Western Dharmas” is a chapter focusing on the author’s stays in London (as an author, journalist, commentator on international events). History was his guide to London, and he concludes that “the past that was still alive for me was unrecognizable for most English people my age.” (351) In San Francisco he met Helen again, who as a Buddhist nun was involved with a hospice for AIDS patients and worked with homeless people. It reminded him about his early experiences with Buddhist thought through brochures and publications that spanned Buddhism,  Psychoanalysis and Ecology. He was discovering many facts about Buddhism, such as it was the oldest to come about, but latest to become a world religion. He took part in a Zen meditation retreat (“it seemed to be a peculiarly western way of dividing time – like the idea of confirming leisure to weekends. p. 358), where he wondered about the ethnically-diverse participants’ need to look for alternatives to their ancestral religions. The different types of Buddhism he encountered in America were due to the fact that Buddhism had to”adjust itself to a set of cultural assumptions fundamentally inimical to it.” (362), but Buddha himself “was inclined to modulate his teachings for the sake of his audience” (364). Mishra outlines the various ways different types of Buddhism (Zen especially) entered the United States: individual intellectuals, authors (such as Jack Kerouac), as well as middle-class people and workers in the corporate world. Mediation became the central practice, not only because it was emphasized by the Buddha but also because it was a release from the every-day irritating, nervous,  stressful consciousness and it permitted the meditators to engage in their other activities.

The chapter on “Overcoming Nihilism” is focused on Buddhism in ‘America’, its almost mainstream appearance. While meditation was practiced, “Few people explored its metaphysics and epistemology, partly because the key Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation were fraught subjects for people brought up that all human beings are born, or at least should be considered, equal in all respects.” (372) Buddhism had to come up against  other deeply intellectualized political ideologies, and psychological and emotional habits. The anecdote about the Dalai Lama is instructive: he heard some students at Harvard confess that they suffered from “self-hatred”. The Dalai Lama, who “was brought up in a tradition much less keen on individualism”, did not know what the expression meant. Mishra explores Nietzsche’s idea of the end of religion as the “most terrible news” because the consequence could be the possibility that other beliefs would lead people to reach a “private reconciliation with the general malaise”. No rapprochement is possible between the nihilistic attitude of Nietzsche and Buddha’s self-overcoming.

“The Last Journey” returns to the Buddha’s last days: he lived to be about eighty,  he had spent the monsoon months at a monastery near Shravasti, had journeyed and preached across North India. He ate a  meal in Pava after which he suffered from bloody dysentery which exhausted him: he knew he was dying. Even in his last moments, the Buddha repeated that “all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other….whatever is born … is subject to decay” (386).

“Committed to Becoming”, the last and the most gloomy chapter, recounts the original idea for this book to trace the teachings and evolution of Buddhism. The author was traveling to Afghanistan after the Taliban defaced the statues of the Buddha and mosque preachers railed against various infidels, with the consequence that there was no memory of Asanga and Vasubhandu, the fourth-century Buddhist philosophers who had  lived in in the area; the whole cosmopolitan life of Buddhism vanished from even its greatest centre in the Indian subcontinent (390). He attended an international conference of radical Islamists and he  realized the awful consequences for the radicalized youth who were uprooted from their native villages, whose ancestors created one of the greatest civilizations, but “who had now little to look forward to, except possibly the short career of a suicide bomber. The other kind of future once laid out for them failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, precise birth control, raise a nuclear family, drive a car and pay taxes.”(392) The march to modernity became harder and more frustrating. Those who were attempting a change “knew that there remained no unknown lands and peoples for them to conquer, control and exploit. They could only cut down their own forests, pollute their own rivers and lakes, and seek to control and thereby oppress their own people, their women and minorities.” (p. 393) These uprooted individuals dreamed a western dream of revolution, but this only underlined the fact that their rage went against imagined entities such as ‘America’ or the ‘West’, which the grand majority of them did not really know. Interestingly, the author muses on his own situation – by then, he is in his thirties, he had traveled, and had  written books and articles: a kind achievement given his modest beginnings.

For much of my life, I had been oppressed by the shame of being poor and ignorant and belonging to backward-looking community, of not truly possessing a language, and of not having any clearly defined gift or talentI had in time overcome these fears, partly by learning the ways of the modern world, picking up its primary language, English, and educating myself through the immense literature available in it. I had become  one of the privileged few who had overcome their disadvantages and found a provisional home in the West. In time, all that had initially struck me in England as inscrutable  …  had lost its power to alienate. Yet, this strange journey had also made a strange man of me. When I looked back, I saw many different selves…(395)

He still doubted that his intellectual and spiritual vagrancy was all he had to look forward to, and he could not suppress the  “quiet panic” knowing this.  He came back to Mashobra where many changes had occurred. He realized that his quest for understanding the Buddha had given him some sense of the effort needed to control one’s greed, hatred and delusion. But

I was still uncertain where the Buddha’s teachings stood in relation to the unmanageably large political and economic conflicts that increasingly decided the fates of most human beings. … I couldn’t see how they could be applied to the conduct of modern nations and empires, the clash of ideologies that had shaped much  of the contemporary world, and the globalization that reflected an actual state of economic and political interdependence. What did the Buddha, who had lived in a simpler time, have to offer people fighting political oppression, social and economic injustice, and environmental destruction? It was easier to see what he hadn’t promised. (398-399)

No large-scale social engineering advocated by all creeds, philosophies, religions, and -isms could entertain Buddhism. Mishra learned of the 9/11 attacks in Mashobra and a terrible image arose in his mind: that of the many uprisings in India, murders, suicide attacks on individuals and institutions – these “obscured the fact that the brutality of the world had come to America.” (400) The Buddha’s answer here would seem to be that the mind is the only place where human beings – however helpless – can have full control over their lives: what seems like necessity weakens in the mind’s self-knowledge, since concepts are revealed as fragile and arbitrary constructions, and real freedom becomes tangible. Mishra ends with his vision of the Buddha in this world, now, “amid its great violence and confusion, holding out the possibility of knowledge as well as redemption”. (404)

 

 

 

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Missing the mark

 

mountain

A missing-the-mark,  feel-good book. This is, in a nutshell, this reader’s reaction to Cindy Myers’ The Mountain Between Us (New York: Kensington Publishing, 2014).

The feel-good aspect of the book means that at the end, every young woman gets her man (the older women remain alone), every natural obstacle is removed, everyone’s life,  (despite some previous upheaval) settles into a routine, victims get their revenge, and Christmas cheer is everywhere. The novel is about two women’s quest for a lasting relationship. Maggie Stephens is a divorced 40-year old, newly arrived in Eureka, Colorado, pregnant by a younger man from Eureka, Jameso, whom she has known for a few months. Her preoccupation stems from his carefree lifestyle: will he want to stay with her and be a good father? Olivia Theriot, also an arrival to Eureka, is a single mother of a 13 year old boy whose father, D. J.,  left her to make some money during the Iraq conflict; but he comes back to Eureka to attempt a reconciliation which she obstinately refuses to entertain. The tiny town’s inhabitants have a role to play: there is an experienced ex-miner (Bob Prescott),  the town’s mayor (Lucille), the town’s old maid (Cassie). The mountain town itself, with its economic need for tourists, natural beauty and resources, paints an interesting setting. The town’s council was defrauded of all its money, some of which which they got back using not-so-legal means. This whole episode hangs on the willingness of the bank to cash all of the town’s investments, rather than just the sum the town agreed on with the new “investor”, really a swindler.

The author attempts to give authentic voices to the characters when she narrates their innermost feelings. This is done in a conversational style, perhaps mirroring the linguistic usage of a small town. For es., “familiar in the way only someone with whom you’d shared the deepest intimacy” (p. 10). This is perhaps also the reason for using trite and tired stock phrases, such as “life was full of surprises” (p. 144),  “picture-postcard perfections” (p. 164),  “the world around them was a frosted wedding cake” (p. 165),  “People fall in love and they just know they can get through anything together” (p. 189), etc. It is quite sad, then, that the world of these small-town characters is circumscribed by such rudimentary vocabulary.

There is an underlying tension between independence and rules (similar to the one in Glass Castle – see the review below). “Craziness” is admired; Bob’s words underline this: “If crazy is not wanting to play by the rest of the world’s rules, then maybe you’re right.” (p. 175); or Olivia’s claim that people bragged about living on their own terms (p. 239). It could be that echoes of the idea of rugged individualism must appear in all American writing.

The title does not really reflect the content: who is really the “us”? Is it the inhabitants of Eureka? And who then is “them” – between “us” and “them”? Is the “mountain between” a good thing, i.e. some distance to ponder the events? Or is it something insurmountable?

However, the novel fails to take advantage of the signposts that are already in the narration and could have become much more than asides, such as the consequences for soldiers and para-military personnel as well as their loved ones of their involvement in war (in this case, in Iraq); the question of a Christmas tradition without religious bases; not-so-ethical business practices; the unattainable goals of women, especially if they involve the arts;  trite romantic dreams of middle class women; definition of community. These signposts revolve around social consciousness, i.e. the idea that the actions in the novel are embedded in a wider political, social, economic contexts all of which bring problems to individuals. The lack of knowledge about social consciousness among many authors today stems from their lack of reading: many authors jump into writing as if it were something like walking, which seems innate. Writing, on the other hand, is not innate, but many work with ignorance of  models (even to destroy), and without any need for awareness of linguistic creativity.  Attentiveness to the world beyond one’s navel is based on familiarity with a wealth of other writing which requires time and effort and study. Long gone are the times when authors were conscious of the fact that if they wanted to reach future readers, they had to write using excellent language and superior content. Nowadays, publishing at all costs and immediately is the goal, so the results clearly miss the mark.

According to Pankaj Mishra, to be a writer is “to concern oneself particularly with the fate of the individual in society” (p. 149 in An End to Suffering, Picador, 2004). But to do this, one has to study, read widely and incessantly, think deeply and edit constantly: all of these activities are time-consuming, lengthy, profound, ill-suited to the modern hasty superficial obsession with a two-minute fame.

 

Knowledge-less world of billionaires

desperation

(Subtitle: Cognitive despair)

There is a video going viral on Facebook: Jack Ma’s pronouncement on what to teach children in the future (during the Davos 2018 World Economic Forum meeting) .* This billionaire’s remarks are truly awe-inspiring, they are so ignorant. His main thesis: “Teach children something  that machines are not good at, such as values, believing, independent thinking, team work, care for others, because machines are better at  content”. Five lifetimes would not be enough to challenge and disprove this man’s critically ignorant declarations.  Here are three reasons why any self-taught billionaire should not be listened to about matters that concern children’s education and general knowledge:

1. Values are always about something. The meaning of the word “value” carries within its meaning a hook and that hook is “the value OF something”. By itself, the meaning of “value” does not signify anything, and therefore the meaning cannot be taught. So teaching about value must be teaching content, knowledge, context, all the matters that according to this great thinker are subjects belonging to the past. How can the meaning of “belief” be taught without its cognitive hooks, such as “belief in something”, “belief about something”? Therefore, as much as he would like teachers not to teach content (knowledge), this is not possible. The same goes for his push to teach “independent thinking”: thinking is always about something, so what is this something which teachers should avoid teaching? And, in any case, critical social thought demonstrated that there is no such thing as “neutral thinking” – every idea has its context, history, development.

2. He advocates for teaching sports, music, painting, art, anything that humans are apparently better than machines. Here too, he’s contradicting himself, since all art is about something and therefore the artist has to have something to be artistic about. One does not have to have a knowledge of human history, of course, and one can still paint (such as the painting of elephants, or chimpanzees). Is this the “painting” that teachers should teach kids? Furthermore, computer programs are now creating music and they will probably be better, faster, cheaper at it than humans.

3.It remains to be seen why the war on knowledge continues so vociferously (Ma’s statements are just the tip of the iceberg). Is he promoting himself, a billionaire (a self-made man)? Is this attitude the result of a long tradition of anti-intellectualism which some Western democracies put on a pedestal? Is it a not-so-underhanded way to say “get out of my way”, since it is impossible in the capitalist world view to allow stiff competition at a certain level?  Is he promoting his own lifestyle and way of doing things? Is the world really so uninformed as to accept, without any shred of opposition, the future made by and for self-taught businessmen in whose eyes everyone is a consumer?

In the final analysis, clients (and he needs many and constantly) are better consumers if they are ignorant. This is why ignorance is promoted by billionaires.

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*https://www.facebook.com/worldeconomicforum/videos/10155081394521479/?hc_ref=ARRgNdc-ue4UkNeiDtCuz84joLLl4yw1LJcWT-j7-qSRAYP5DKaSbEVFTnFSIawImbM&pnref=story

A tug of war between independence/originality and dependence/conventionality

glasscastle

What is one reviewing when the subject of the book is a memoir? Here is one answer, offered by Beth Kephart: “Reviewing becomes a warscape of its own when the reviewer of memoir chooses to forget that it is not the life itself we are asked to judge, but how that life has been swept up into words.”  (1)

From the perspective of language and narrative technique, then,  Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005) first-person narrative reads well, it is fast-paced, the style is unadorned, the structure well-thought out, there is not one word out of place. It is a matter-of fact, emotionless rundown of one daughter’s life with her family from when she was 3 to when she reached her early twenties. Hence, the book’s continuing popularity on this basis is deserved and understandable.  If one had to quibble with the chronology, Part I, “A Woman on the Street” already gives many of the forthcoming events away, so its place in the life account is questionable, as it discloses crucial character traits of the daughter-author and her mother, preventing the reader from  discovering these facts on her/his own.

However, a memoir is not simply a “life that has been swept up into words”. Words carry meanings, but these are both denotative and connotative, they create sentences, similes, metaphors, they build allegories, parallels, links, comparisons to other lives. Why write a memoir if you do not react emotionally and intellectually to what happened to you, either at that particular moment, or many years afterwards? Therefore, this review asks for what reasons the author keeps her emotional gut reactions and intellectual musings in a straitjacket throughout the account by using a sort of documentary narration (clearly, in any documentary, certain images are foregrounded, just like in this memoir). Given the tremendous impact on the author’s life stemming from her parents’ choices, one would expect some emotional and intellectual response/feedback/closure by means of a charged, metaphor-laden description. In other words, writing as re-living in order to make sense of what happened.  If this emotionless narration happens by design, then the result is significant, because it forces the reader to come up with the emotional and intellectual reckoning for herself/himself. If this cold narration just happened, then it leaves unanswered the questions about the author’s stance on child raising, values of self-reliance and originality, and, above all, on love between parents and children.

The Walls family’s life can be summarized in one sentence, although there are countless other themes which are not dealt with here (religion and superstition, sexual abuse, alcoholism, theft, family falling apart).  The memoir describes the upbringing of children in a conscious homeless and nomadic existence by an alcoholic father/dreamer and incompetent mother/visual artist. The parents are complex figures: the mother is depicted as willfully inept care-giver.  Rose Mary Walls sees “adventure” in every obstacle that life places before the family; she is an “excitement addict”.  She paints, sculpts, and is not interested in cooking or cleaning. Her motto is “What does not kill you makes you stronger”. Granted, the children brace for and face any eventuality with resolve, because complaining would not stop the roof from leaking or bring food to the table;but this resolve is often inadequate for the task. The shocking fact revealed later on in the book is that the mother seems to own a pretty valuable plot of land in Texas, which she is unwilling to sell, since according to her, it’s not hard times yet. She expresses constant frustration at not being able to devote all her time to her art. Also, she wants to act unconventionally apparently because her mother forced her to follow all kinds of rules and guidelines. She believes that everyone has redeeming qualities. The father is described as a dreamer and his constant promises of a better life are thwarted by his alcoholism. He makes up for his lack of funds by giving children poetic “gifts”, such as letting them choose a star/planet to be their own. Rex Walls has one compulsion: to build a glass house for the family, and when he is sober, he works on the plans with his children. Needless to say, this construction never materializes. Rex instills his children with love of nature and animals. Both parents are avid readers and insist that their children have access to books wherever they live, and that they attend school. The mother and the father abhor conformity, conventionality, uniformity, dependence, rules. They value individuality, self-reliance, self-confidence, non-compliance, originality, independence.

Clearly, it would be too easy to criticize Rose Mary’s and Rex’s parenting. The children lived through some pretty traumatic events which could have been avoided, and at least three of the four of them have seemingly stable lives now. Nevertheless, the reader does not know whether they are happy and what, in their opinion, constitutes love and family.

The Glass Castle raises at least two thought-provoking problems: one deals with the question of teaching “value” to children, and the other with having self-reliance.  If there is “value” in a clear starry night in Arizona, how does one reconcile it with the fact that in New York one cannot see such sky? What is the consequence of this for the child who chooses a star as a gift from her father? Or, what is the “value” of a plot of land full of underground oil deposits, if this plot is not sold, keeping children hungry and cold? In other words, “values” have significance beyond the strictly pragmatic implication: they carry psychological and emotional baggage, perhaps for the rest of one’s life.

The other concern, that of self-reliance, is a much more complicated matter, deeply ingrained in the American culture and politics. The belief in the individual’s strength to live a life of self-reliance and personal independence runs deep in the American psyche. In the memoir, though, self-reliance borders at times on selfishness. The mother believes that letting her 3-year old cook on her own strengthens her character and self-reliance. On this particular occasion, cooking leads to a fire and then terrible burns. Not only there are scars but also there is a possible pyromania developing in the child (stealing matches, starting fires, etc.). Undoubtedly, no parent is omniscient, and the consequences of events are truly unpredictable. So the question remains: what does “taking care of” mean and does not taking care of someone teach them independence? At what cost? Does suffering really lead to self-reliance and does it really teach abnegation and strength? What effects does telling children that they are special have on their individuality? Is not following sewing rules and then abandon the disastrous product a truly learning experience?

From another perspective, how do you help a person who does not want help, who thinks self-reliance is what keeps them going? Being homeless and unemployed: is this a lifestyle of dreamers or social and psychological misfits (sometimes bordering on mentally unstable)? The Wells use public libraries, hospitals, schools (but they are never on food stamps nor receive unemployment benefits, they don’t “accept handouts from anyone”): theirs is a half-hearted independence from services which society offers. Yes, Jeannette is ashamed of her parents in front of other people, but not when directly facing them. All in all, the memoir underscores the fact that there are no definitive wrong and right answers to raising children, but it also illustrates that love between parents and children is a very tender flower, easily bruised and repaired with difficulty, if ever.

In conclusion, these are some of the ideas raised by the book. If memoir writing is a cathartic undertaking, the author did not let us know how successfully she cleansed herself from her previous life, of the traumas and inadequacies which populated her development. Above all, how will she raise her children, if she has any?

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(1) Beth Kephart, “What does it mean to review a memoir?” http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-memoir-reviews-20151112-story.html

Call for Academic Papers: Technology and (un)employment from the Italian perspective

CSIS Annual Conference in Ottawa (May 11-13, 2018)

 Italian Studies: Technology and (Un)employment 

Organizers: Antonio Marturano (Università Tor Vergata, Roma) and Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (York University, Toronto).

This session aims to investigate the cultural implications of technology and (un)employment from the perspective of Italian Studies. Expressions of the impact that technological advancements have on work are part and parcel of Italian culture (in films, such as Io e Caterina; in novels, for ex., of Paolo Volponi, or Francesco Verso;  in visual art: Futurismo, etc.).

Technology has come to replace human workers not only in repetitive tasks but also in more complex occupations. Technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence keep developing rapidly; the trend indicates  that no occupation or profession will be immune to technological progress. The proponents of technology extol its beneficial aspects for humanity (medical, lifestyle, etc.), and the critics propose various doomsday scenarios (general unemployment, economic divide, hopelessness, etc.). But the consensus from both sides appears to lay in increased education and re-training both to keep working, as well as keep oneself otherwise occupied.

Contributions which take account of the writings of philosophers, political thinkers, literary critics, such as Antonio Gramsci, Giorgio Agamben, Gianni Vattimo, Alberto Abbruzzese are welcome.

Topics to be explored include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Italian approaches  to technological (un)employment: educational, philosophical, social, political, economic, literary, etc.
  • Italian popular culture and technological (un)employment: film, science fiction, i gialli, music,  etc.
  • Italian Weltanschauung with regards to technological (un)employment
  • Pedagogical strategies and curricula contents vis-à-vis technological (un)employment
  • Role of Italian studies in view of reduced workload or jobless future
  • Italian (im)/(e)migration, technological change, and work
  • Italian language and technological (un)employment

 

Please submit an abstract in English or Italian and a short bio to a.marturano@gmail.com and jvzocco@yorku.ca,  by February 15, 2018.

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** CSIS Annual Conference in Ottawa (May 11-13, 2018)  http://canadiansocietyforitalianstudies.camp7.org/Conference-2018

For information on CSIS News or to post a message, please contact the List Manager, Dr Maria Laura Mosco, at csisnewslist@gmail.com

Millennials and beyond: born to satisfy the “needs of the market economy”

dream

Youth (un)employment can be analyzed from various perspectives. Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison chose the university and college systems as their focus in Dream Factories. Why Universities Won’t Solve the Youth Job Crisis (Toronto: TAP Books, 2016,  231 pages). The book is a collaborative effort of two university professors who together have been in higher education for almost 100 years, and they have researched colleges and universities for almost that long, so their academic credentials seem to stand on a solid ground.

The book is a well-developed indictment against the inability of today’s degree-granting institutions of higher learning to provide support, instruction, and preparation for young people to find and land a job. Although concentrating on the Canadian and US higher learning systems, the book makes it clear that world-wide, the situation is woefully similar (examples are given from the universities in China, Brazil, and various European and North African countries).  According to the authors, there are three reasons for the existing enthusiasm for higher education, which, however, are not reflected in the realities of the world of work: 1) sustained evidence that a university degree produces highly beneficial results, if not for everyone, at least on average, 2) major shifts in the industrial workforce, 3) changing attitudes towards work/physical labor (pp. 41-42). Not every graduate, however, enjoys the realization of the dream: specifically, arts majors earn less than unionized heavy-duty mechanics, graduates from lesser-known or non-elite universities struggle to find jobs even if their field is finance, law, or economics, or the tech sector. Many graduates work part-time without benefits. The following reasons underpin the tragic ineffectiveness of universities and colleges:

  1. they are reticent to change their mission, which, expressed in various ways, usually means to expand the mind, improve public discourse, celebrate the world of ideas (p. 16), i.e. they are not job factories,
  2. they are very expensive businesses which rely on government funding per student, so they are forced to accept candidates irrespective of their preparation, stamina, competitiveness, and willingness to study,
  3. their status is vastly overrated by the parents’ and society’s  interpretation of the no-longer valid equation Education = Employment (or learning = earning),
  4. they were seen as the only way to riches during the post-WW2 era, especially the 1960s, but this dream no longer holds true, since “knowledge economy” replaced natural resources and industry as the foundation for national and personal prosperity (pp. 20-21),
  5. they mass-produce graduates in a way that is disconnected from the needs of the modern economy (21), so they are not responsive to the job market,
  6. they (often for-profit universities) employ unscrupulous recruitment procedures and do not inform the prospective students truthfully,
  7. they have to follow the governmental push for accessibility, so they make the point that admission is not a guarantee of graduation (admit everyone and then cull the number to a manageable level in the first year),
  8. they accept foreign students (whose tuition fees are double or more than the regular ones) who may or may not stay in the country they studied in and therefore may not contribute to that country’s prosperity,
  9. they allow credentialism to be rampant,
  10. they do not appear to correct “the serious problems with the students’ basic skills, limited curiosity, lack of commitment to studies, and disengagement from learning as a whole” (64),
  11. they pave the way for those faculty members who engage in research and publish; university administrators emphasize political correctness and sensitivity to issues of gender, class, etc.: “The struggle to reassert the primacy of college teaching is shaping up as one of the epic professional battles of the twenty-first century” (64),
  12. the “dream factories” make parents save relentlessly, force students to get into horrible amounts of debt, without any specific, concrete return on this “investment”. “This is gambling of the highest order.” (p. 79).

There are numerous other reasons for the inefficiencies and out-of-synch status of higher education, including the demise of the American Dream, the rampant inequalities, the obvious lack of drive and interest on the part of students to learn for learning’s sake, the change in the job market, off-shoring, globalization, excessive naiveté of parents, shirking of responsibilities of governments, nonexistence of the desire of excellence, and many others. Of course, a number of caveats are discussed. Firstly, there is the fact that most “elite” universities do choose the caliber of the student (for ex., Harvard accepts fewer than 7% of applicants; p. 50), and these institutions attempt to go with the market flow and support studies in technology. Secondly, the statement that graduates do eventually find jobs is misleading, since this may involve driving taxis or serve hamburgers, so statistics are not a reliable measure to support the old adage learning=earning. Thirdly, data about those who drop out with debt burdens do not appear in the glossy universities brochures.

What suggestions do Coates and Morrison offer in order to bridge the gap between the universities and job market?

The situation, though grim in general, certainly is not without hope for the individuals. Thus, as a response to the realities of twenty-first century education and work, we offer the following ideas. First, parental and youth expectations need to be reined in – not everyone is going to be a rich professional. Second, the fixation on colleges and universities as the focus for youth aspirations must be drastically reduced. Third, these institutions must be reformed to make them more responsive to public needs. And fourth, the debate about the future of youth must be reoriented away from colleges and universities toward a more realistic view of twenty-first century job creation. (p. 138)

“Responding to the needs of the economy” and “relying on market forces to reshape programs” (pp. 146-147), needing “to be responsive to job market conditions” (149) are suggestions which dramatically underscore the seemingly desired  pragmatic purpose of higher education, according to the authors. Technical education (polytechnics) is likely the one to embark on, as well as education which provides highly skilled workers.

Moreover, there are routs to avoid university education, such as applying to companies which offer ad hoc skill training, i.e. firm-specific job training, on-line accredited short courses, open to everyone irrespective of their educational level, thus by-passing university education altogether: “companies do not need colleges and universities to identify, hire, and train top-flight employees.” (160) From this perspective,then,  it behooves the modern universities to focus on the career-readiness of their graduates. The authors suggest that “it is vital that families, with young people fully engaged, pay more attention … to the evolving North American and global economy” (180). They give the example of the fact that five years ago, a career in petroleum engineering was the best way to prepare for the future; however, the prices and demand for oil collapsed, the good jobs disappeared, so that career path is not the right one for today. The same path was followed by the financial sector. “Given all this, parents and young adults have to do the best that they can to prepare themselves for future uncertainty” (182). Possible creation of job openings from today’s perspective is in the care of the elderly, blue-collar work including the trades, technology, digitalization. However,  the future is uncertain, and “the promises of degrees seemingly perfectly aligned with the modern economy often prove illusory” (186).  Words for parents:  “Prepare your children for uncertainty. … Prepare them to be future makers, not future takers” (214).

The book is of course much more comprehensive as to the woes of the higher education system and to the possibilities of making it right than can be detailed here. What follows is my critique of some of the content as well as certain assumptions which I found problematic. The whole book is built on the premise that overall, things will go on as they have been for the past 10-15 years  now: there will be governments which will function as they have been, there will be the job market which will dictate the fate of billions of people, and there will be amazing entrepreneurs who will model their behavior for young people. It is therefore understandable that Coates and Morrison can state openly that higher education institutions should provide young adults with the means to satisfy the needs of the economy. This is a troubling statement for two reasons: it assumes that humans are born to fill the needs of the market economy (!) and it does not take into account that whatever job one may hold, that job is surely to be filled sooner or later by an AI, since it is cheaper for companies to employ robots rather than humans. If the only mission of universities and colleges is to  successfully  prepare young people for a job in the market economy, this process will certainly be taken over by a smart AI which will produce robots who can fill those jobs cheaper and faster. This is, after all, at the heart of the question of the universities’ existence: what do they have to provide, to whom, and at what cost? The answers offered in the book are deceptively simple: provide a set of skills (that the market requires), provide this not to everyone, and have governments and employers pay for it. Unfortunately, the authors do not  delve into the nitty-gritty details of the manner in which this is to be achieved.

In many instances, reliable data is not quoted in order to make certain claims: it is disturbing that some notions expressed in the book lack a clear source of information. Specifically, these notions revolve around 1) the arts programs, 2)  i. children and language as well as  ii. children and averages, 3) students from wealthy backgrounds, 4) students accepted to the university but not suitable for it.

As for 1), it  is disconcerting that arts programs are seen as offering a lower quality of instruction: “Smart applicants realize that they can often apply for a low-demand program, sadly, in the arts at most institutions, and wrangle a transfer later into a high-demand offering, like business”  (51). Anyone working in the faculty of arts can vouch for the fact that certain arts disciplines are not only rigorous but also provide a measuring stick by which excellence is easily demonstrated: it’s enough to mention foreign languages, literatures and cultures in this instance.

2) i. The authors state that children of professionals “hear thirty-two million more  words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare” (70), but they never cite the source of this information. 2) ii.  It may be true that we live in an age of egregiously spoiled children (54), but to claim that “By definition, half of all children are below average ; not all of them achieve great things” (173) without citing the source of the number does not add to our understanding of the meaning of the term “average”.

3) The authors claim that “Students from wealthy backgrounds end up wealthy themselves” (70); again there is no indication of the meaning of “wealthy” or in fact how does this bear on the woes of the university.

4)  I personally have said on many occasions that 3/4 of my students should not have been accepted to the university, and my fraction is just an impressionistic figure due to my experience, so I was struck that  the authors state that  75% of enrolled students do not belong to the university. I would have loved to see who came up with made this statistics and what criteria they used to come up with it. In any case, the number can simply show that not everyone is or can be made a university candidate.

The volume does not clearly state the responsibilities of the government, parents, job market for the education and future employment of young people.  Governments (partially) fund universities, but they “have surrendered educational decisions to the collective choices of high school graduates and their parents” (194), allowing these choices to be costly,  and haphazard. Parents tend to cling to the traditional idea that universities will provide a great paying job. Job markets work in unison with some elite universities but that touches only a small fraction of university students.

In conclusion, this book will surely make all readers think seriously not only about the role and value of the modern university, but also about the significance and purpose of the job market. There is no definition of “public needs” in this volume, so it is hoped that this will spark a serious and substantial discussion about whether, in fact, universities should exist. If institutions are to prepare young people for jobs, these institutions exist already, and they are the trade schools, 2-year colleges, ad hoc training schools for specific companies, various on-line degree granting courses, etc. As it is now – and this is my strong belief – students do not need to attend university to become pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, or AI researchers – they could learn all these things in less time, cheaper, and in a more focused manner. Workers in all of these jobs, however, can be and will be replaced by robots. The university should exist, but its study length should be two years, and the academic work should be devoted to those activities which humans, to keep being humans, ought to find pleasure in: access to and thinking deeply about ideas, and a fertile ground for unbridled imagination about numerous subjects and for no particular purpose. In case  the students have a job,  no job market will offer these to them, and in case they will be out of a job, they will have these to fall back onto.

 

Representations of 1. abuse of power and 2. superficiality in two recent films

The European Union Film Festival 2017 in Toronto included two films noteworthy for their effort: The Teacher and The wolf from the Royal Vineyard Street. In the first case, the effort is worthwhile; the second effort is questionable.

 

 

The Teacher (Ucitelka; Slovak Republic-Czech Republic co-production 2016; directed by Jan Hřebejk)

Setting: Middle school in Bratislava (1983-84 and 1991-92 school years): classroom events and a principal-parents meeting. Also scenes in the teacher’s and some parents’ apartments.

Plot: A teacher (widow, local chair of the Communist Party, played with naturalness and ease by Zuzana Mauréry) demands, by various means, the services of her pupils’ parents: styling her hair, fixing her fridge, baking and cooking food for her, cleaning her apartment, etc.). In return, the parents who comply with her request are told to pass on to their child the exercise he or she will be tested on so they can study and receive good grades. Students whose parents do not bow to the teacher’s requests receive failing marks no matter how hard they study. The lack of academic success of their children makes for the parents’ frustrations and abuse. Things would have evolved this way forever had it not been for the fact that one female student tried to commit suicide because her father did not agree to be the go-between the teacher and her sister living in Moscow. The girl’s parents attempt to sign a petition to have the teacher removed, and the principal calls for a general meeting with all the parents to ascertain the level of corruption and abuse of power. The meeting’s discussion (as well as the silences) demonstrate three reactions to the teacher’s behaviour: 1. fearfulness for possible repercussion if the petition is signed (social/economic: demotion from work, political: on the black list of the Communist Party, academic (children not allowed to continue their studies).  Therefore, these parents do not sign the petition. 2. support for the teacher who is deemed of high moral standing – and these parents are vehemently against signing the petition. 3. animosity against the teacher and decisiveness to sign the petition in order to set things right. Most parents fall into the first category, but after the meeting closes, they too sign the petition which successfully removes the teacher from her position, to the great sigh of relief of all the pupils. The final scene – the academic year 1991-92 after the change from socialism to “freedom” – gives us the same classroom, different students, but the same teacher, undemoted, but using the same strategy to extract help and continue her abuse of power.

Comment: A number of themes run through the film, but clearly, the most obvious is abuse of power from a teacher, who should be a paragon of virtues. Corruption runs rampant regardless of the political system one lives under, and it touches, in this case, the most vulnerable: the children who are helpless to fight against this injustice. One should never assume that teachers act morally. It must be added that those who lived under Czechoslovak socialism see in the film almost a well-made documentary of the panic fear and distress brought about by abuses in the name of political power. The feeling powerlessness against moral abuse, exploitation, corruption, as well as the mental state of loneliness since no one else wants to help, are portrayed masterfully in the film. It is true that others simply see a black satire, but a worthwhile satire nonetheless. See also https://smolka.blog.sme.sk/c/468990/ucitelka.html?ref=tit.

Noteworthy lines: at the beginning, the teacher, by way of introduction, says: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, the Russian language, and history”. And at the end, she repeats with due modifications: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, English, religion, and ethics.”

The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street  (Vlk z Královských Vinohrad; Czech Republic 2016; directed by Jan Němec)

Settings: 1968 Cannes Film Festival, Prague 1968 Soviet Invasion, California and Long Island 1970s and 1980s, 2000s Prague

Plot: A Czech film director, nicknamed John Jan, “supported” by the socialist government, is up for the 1968 Cannes film prize, which he does not win since the festival closes early. Exhibiting the well-known cliched desires of all movie makers (fame, flashy cars, company of female escorts, champagne, rebelliousness),  he achieves some semblance of fame by documenting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and sending the film abroad (some archival footage is used). His attempts to shoot a film based on Kafka’s Metamorphoses is thwarted by the Czech military. He ends up in California shooting wedding videos, mostly views of the seascapes and couples and guests getting drunk. He asks Ivana Trump to put in a good word to her husband, not yet President; his request is denied as Mr Trump does not support movie making; but he sends John Jan a copy of his book. He has a heart attack which is “cured” by a sex session. He is taken advantage of by a young woman on Long Island. He returns to Prague by getting a special permit to “see the death of communism”. The final scenes, round images of nature in Vinohrady (now a trendy residential neighbourhood), get him back home untouched by all the experiences he lived.

Comment: What can one say about self-reflecting and autobiographical film about a director? That despite the effort by the now recognized Czech artist Jan Němec (called also “diamond in the rough”), or maybe because he passed away just before finishing the shooting, the film falls short of expectations. It is true that obtaining fame and respect is not easy. It is true that film directors love what they do. So these things do not need an autobiographical filmic representation. What is not true is that movie audiences want to see rebels everywhere and at all costs. And then, being a “rebel” nowadays, in the postmodern era, does not add much to our understanding of the world, and, above all, it does not contain the seeds of transformation of those values which, in fact, are wrong.

One tidbit I did not know: Jean-Luc Godard  was not against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.