Captain Fantastic

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This is a great movie: from the gut reaction of shedding some tears to laughing out loud, it has us also wonder about some basic questions of parenting. Above all, this little jewel underscores the generally well-observed fact which almost no one adheres to: do not make value judgements about people and their actions, since you don’t know the whole truth. In the case of Ben, the truth is that he  made his 6 children live in the forests of the US Pacific Northwest because he wanted his wife to get better by attempting to make her lose the chains of mental illness, not because he was some type of freaky hippie.

Here are three questions-considerations stemming from some scenes in the film which made an impact on me:

  1. Is knowledge acquired from books such a bad thing?  Ben’s oldest son (Bo)  claims that he does not know anything that has not been written in a book:                                     I know nothing! I know nothing! I am a freak because of you! You made us            freaks!  And mom knew that! She understood! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!                                                                                  This is interesting, since nowadays, teachers often say  that students don’t know anything because they do not read and therefore are not appropriately familiar with any topic.  Furthermore, Ben’s 4-year old daughter knows not only what the Bill of Rights is, but she can also quote the individual amendments. Ben’s sister’s children (boys over 10) do not know what the Bill is. One could ask what the utility of knowing the Bill of Rights is while living in the wilderness. Either everything written has a value no matter where one lives (and therefore one can actually think about many, many topics and put arguments together, making one’s own mind  naturally), or nothing has a value and therefore making one’s own mind does not come easily (and one is easily persuaded). The film clearly leans on the side of usefulness of books for the cognitive growth of children, especially as the father asks the children to talk about the ideas that the book evoke (not to describe the plot).
  2. When will a “controlling” parent stop being such a parent? In the film, Leslie’s  father controls the way her body is to be disposed of,  even though it is contrary to her last wishes. What does it exactly mean when a parent/caregiver says to his/her child: “I am doing this for your own good”? Different parents have differing opinions of what this “good” means. The film attempts to give children the right to express their own “good”. In this meaning, the title of the film may be misleading.
  3. Is spirituality always connected to giving/receiving gifts? Noam Chomsky is the spiritual godhead in the film and celebrating his “birthday” means Ben’s children get gifts. Gifts which are bought in the store; therefore, the film seems to be saying that even a “wild” education falls prey to  consumerism.                                                                                                                                                                                                          One of the most entertaining  lines of the film mentions Marxists, Trotskyit, Trotskyist, and Maoist almost all in one breath, the other reflects the mother’s desire to have her body cremated according to the Buddhist tradition and then flush the ashes down the toilet.  A number of American cultural traditions and problems are either made fun of or questioned (giving some wine to children, obesity, consumerism, hypocrisy, ostentation of wealth, etc.). It would be most instructive to hear what children and young adults think of the film.  All in all, since the idea to live in wilderness as a family was not really the initial push toward this type of unconventional education, it is difficult to make judgements about it. Suffice it to say that good parenting is never just parenting: it is also (maybe above all) the relationship between the parents. The dynamics may be unpredictable (one child or more? one parent or more? religious background or atheistic or agnostic? right-leaning or left-leaning politically? etc. etc.) but in conclusion, parenting is always unwitting experimentation.
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McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality

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For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?

 

 

Social Media: Implications for the University

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The purpose of this volume is to offer a balanced critical reflection on the role of social media in the workings of the engaged university. The 15 contributors analyze, critique, and explore the rich ideological and pragmatic relationships ensuing from the intersection between social media and academic life. This book is the sixth volume in the Social Theory: Communication and Media Studies published by Aracne Editrice (Rome). Its contents are definitely of interest to 1. those who work or have a stake in modern academia, as well as 2. those who observe the radical transformations of the manner in which knowledge is shred, elaborated, and used in contemporary life and 3. those who reflect on the unforeseen ramifications of technological advances. Moreover, many contributions have readers step outside of the classroom, presenting bridges especially to the arts communities: bridges that would have been impossible even 5 years ago. Oftentimes, edited volumes are criticized for “unevenness”, but the pleasure deriving from reading various ideological perspectives on, and multifaceted illustrations of the same general topic overrides any “unevenness”. The individual voice of each of the contributors is clear and purposeful.  It is hoped that the volume engages all the crucial players in today’s academic life and that the contributions may reach those who work as platform designers, making the most of (automated) connectivity and (human) connectedness (J. Van Dijck’s terms). In times such as these, when the end of many human occupations and professions are being placed in the hands of robots, questions should be asked also of what will become of the engaged and purposeful university – and it is without doubt that social media will have a significant role to play in the spread of knowledge. Decisions must be made regarding the balance between academic gatekeepers and technological gatekeepers: this volume provides a number of starting points in order to reach satisfactory answers.

The book is available from http://www.aracneeditrice.it/aracneweb/index.php/pubblicazione.html?item=9788854897427.

 

 

Technology-driven unemployment: dilemmas for ethics and social welfare

This is a call for articles to be published in a Special Issue of the journal Ethics and Social Welfare.

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In Praise for Idleness (1935), Bertrand Russell claimed that “We have the technology and infrastructure to greatly reduce the forced workload of the average human, and that should be our goal—to liberate people from excessive work so that they can freely pursue the things that bring them intrinsic joy and happiness.” Russell’s optimistic vision regarding the role of technology advocates for work reduction which would increase human welfare and liberate people to be able to devote their time to culture and leisure. His optimism does not seem to be justified in light of recent economic and technological developments which lead to serious unemployment rather than cheerful work reduction. The loss of jobs due to technological innovations is starting to reach crisis proportions as many scholars (such as David F. Noble, Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, Between the Lines, 1995) and popular press warn (for ex., Eduardo Porter, “Jobs Threatened by Machines: A Once ‘Stupid’ Concern Gains Respect”, The New York Times, June 7, 2016).   There are indeed many voices which decry the unemployment situation exasperated by the replacement of humans by machines, and apparently no job is likely to be immune. The World Technology Network forecasts that “Accelerating technological unemployment will likely be one of the most challenging societal issues in the 21st Century”. Although the scholarly work published on the topic focuses mainly on the technical, technological, and market side, assessments which consider the ethical and social welfare implications of technological unemployment are still to be addressed in detail. The submissions to the special issue will contribute to setting the agenda for this serious and timely discussion. Topics to be explored from theoretical as well as practical perspectives include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • The role of governmental institutions in technological unemployment
  • Jobless future: is unconditional basic/universal income the answer?
  • Social, political, and economic approaches to welfare in a jobless future
  • New ethical dimensions of work originating from the technological unemployment crisis
  • Political and social inequality created by a jobless future
  • Strategic plans for skills, education, re-deployment for the technologically jobless
  • The political control of technological unemployment
  • Welfare, leadership and jobless future
  • Technological displacement vs technological innovation from the perspective of social welfare
  • Historical visions on the ethical impacts of workload reduction
  • Creating new values for a jobless future
  • Political values in welfare and technological disruption in the job market
  • Work as human value
  • Conflicting values in a jobless world (for ex., the refugees crisis in the EU)
  • Religious values and technological unemployment

Brief for contributors: In line with the editorial aims of the journal, this call for papers focuses specifically on the relationship between ethics, welfare, and values implicated in the policies and political strategies on the one hand and technologically-driven unemployment on the other. The editors welcome academic papers which are interdisciplinary in character. Contributions may combine wider ethical and theoretical questions concerning technology-driven unemployment with practical considerations leading to social policies and professional practices (especially the existing and future policies of local/national governments and international institutions, such as EU, UN, WTO to cope with the problems of technological joblessness). The special issue, as with other issues of the journal, welcomes material in a variety of formats, including high quality peer-reviewed academic papers, reflections, debates and commentaries on policy and practice, book reviews and review articles. Academic papers should be between 4-7,000 words long, and practice papers should be between 750-2,500 words long. Please consult the style rules laid-out on the journal’s website: http://www.tandfonline.com/resw. All academic papers will be double-blind peer- reviewed in the normal way.  Practice papers will be considered for publication by the editors. 

For any further information, contact Prof. Antonio Marturano (marturano@btinternet.com) and Prof. Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (jvzocco@yorku.ca).

Procedure and timelines

Submitters will be informed about the outcome as soon as possible after this date.

Abstracts should include 1. The essential content, argument, and methodology of the submission, 2. The submission’s aims and conclusions, 3. The relationship of the submission to the aims and scope of the journal.

  • Completed first drafts of papers are due by the 23rd of July 2017 and must be submitted to https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/resw.
  • Final (revised) versions must be submitted by the 18th of June 2018.
  • Final confirmation of paper acceptance by the 30th September 2018.
  • Papers published in the first issue of Volume 13, 2019.                                                                                                                                                                       

College experience on film: “God’s not dead”

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There is no doubt that using the university classroom as a setting for any film could be entertaining and thought-provoking. The film God’s not dead misses these results since it attempts to account for Catholicism and postmodernity from the perspective of the “persecuted” and “silenced” believers placing the actions in an unreal, aseptic, conspiracy-filled setting. In a true postmodern fashion it discredits the professoriate*, and in a modernist fashion it relies on easily swayable underdog (student) body.
Although the generous reviews on the web give the film a mark of 3/5, the comments and reviews accompanying this mark tell the producers that viewers need more than was given to them in the first film. Obviously, the producers did not listen as God’s not dead 2 is to be released in April of 2016!

In any case, without getting into the content of the film marred by logical fallacies, slow pace, few examples of real suffering, and, above all, an unrealistic, static, one-sided vision of the academia, let me simply outline in three points through which the college experience in this film illustrates the amazing desire of film makers not to show the really messy, interesting classrooms of today. My more than thirty-year long academic life allows me to base these comments on facts.

1. In the film, the professor acts in a god-like manner but he is really less than smart.

Even for entertaining or teaching purposes, giving voice to a technologically-stupid and pedagogically-unprepared prof is a mistake, a mistake that obviously makes the life of the student who opposes him so much easier. It does not take much to shoot down an easy target. The prof relies on puny little white boards where his minuscule notes can hardly be read, whereas his adversary (the student) comes prepared with all the technological bells and whistles which dazzle the 80 or so classmates. What is more interesting, though, is the fact that this philosophy prof is made to miss the mark of a great prof by having students sign the statement “God is dead” (as if signing something had a pedagogical value). If the producers and directors had any insight into really great teaching, they would have had the prof make the students work (yes, thinking is work) to decide for themselves, through great teaching strategies, through comparisons, through deep reading, through writing. But all of this takes time and is as far from the day-to-day experiences of the fictional students as is the nearest galaxy for us. The makers of the film obviously did not ever step into the contemporary classroom, where technology allows students to be on the web (rather than to pay attention to what’s happening in the front of the auditorium: yes, the prof is forced to entertain), where they eat, drink, talk, comment, ask questions, send e-mails, think about their jobs to which they have to hurry after the class, etc. etc., all a far cry from the attentive student body in the film. The most unethical feature of the fictional prof’s behaviour is his letting the student “teach”: the teaching  unions in the real world would surely either slap the real prof’s hands or have the student be paid for his “work”. This, aside from not only illustrating (wrongly) but above all strengthening the postmodern view that anyone can teach.

2. In the film, the student body is easily swayed.

For all its proselytizing aims, the film makers’ biggest mistake is to show the student body as superficially savvy as the prof. In real life, there would be lots of objections and there certainly would not be a unanimous decision which sides with the student. There would be comments which show that some students did not pay attention at all, there would be attacks ad hominem, etc. On the one hand, students (whether fictional or not) will side with anyone who subverts the perceived god-like powers of the prof. On the other hand, in the film, the students are made to sign a statement to which only one of about 80 objects, therefore they side here with those powers who give them marks, showing their pragmatic view of what they expect from the course.

3. In the film, teaching is talking and learning is siding with whoever seems more popular.

One thing the film got right: if you are a boring prof. who is not passionate about what you teach, you might just as well let a student do your job. So beating up a dead horse, so to speak, is easy. But the old paradigm, shown in the movie, of teaching as pouring some knowledge into the learner’s head is long gone, replaced by the teacher being a facilitator of learning, thinking, critiquing, especially in the humanities.

It is clear that films are entertainment, but nowadays people “learn” from multimedia products, so any film also carries some type of teaching, reinforcing or subverting ideas, likes, dislikes, tendencies, and actions. Given the three points outlined above, it is clear that something is wrong with a not-so fictional society which 1. accepts a piece of paper containing one’s signature as a statement of one’s beliefs; 2. makes teaching/learning a popularity contest. What is the conclusion as far as the college experience on film is concerned? This film is not the answer to the real need of a well-though out, profound depiction of academic life today, with all its messiness, challenges, and excitement.

 

*By the way, Willie Robertson: the phrase God’s not dead has four, not three words.