The Core

August 24, 2009

In a week’s time I move into my new apartment and begin the newest semester of college, this being my junior year. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on the education I received my first two years at the University of Dallas, and the defining characteristic of that education: the Core. Prepare for a mild degree of ranting.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, I’ll briefly describe the courses UD’s Core (the list of those required of all students) includes (for a total of 21 classes):

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • “Fundamentals of Economics”
  • “Principles of American Politics”
  • Two science classes, one “life science” and one “physical science”
  • A math class and a fine arts class (for whatever reason these are listed together)
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

This is a fairly large list of courses; they’re usually finished by the end of a student’s sophomore year. I’m done with all of it except the foreign language, due to taking German Elementary I & II my freshman year and then not taking any languages last year (I blame Rome).

In general I think it’s a good program, but I have a number of complaints with it. For the most part, they boil down to, “either force students to take this subject seriously, or take it out of the Core”.

Complaint #1: The math and science classes in the Core are, for the non-math-or-science major, a joke. The problem is that, while the courses in English, Philosophy, Theology, and History all serve as a good introduction to the subject for someone wanting to major in those subjects, no math major will ever take “Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries” (the course non-math-and-science majors always take), instead they’ll take Calculus I&II (if they haven’t already), then Linear Point Set Theory, and go from there. No biology major will ever take the class known colloquially as “baby bio”, instead they’ll take Gen Bio I, and then Gen Bio II. Et cetera.

This results in the majors not taking the core courses, but jumping right into the actual subject matter, while the core courses are taught be people who don’t want to teach them to classes composed of people who don’t want to take them and study the subject to so little depth that it might as well not be studied at all. My solution? Sadly, unless the school could bring itself to start demanding that its entire student body learn calculus (which I don’t expect to happen, though I don’t see why it shouldn’t; for some reason calculus is seen as too difficult for fine arts majors), I think the best thing to do would be to cut out the math and science requirements altogether. These are subjects that (ought to) have been taught to the students in high school already to at least the same level they’re learning about it at college. Why duplicate that effort?

Similarly, though Economics and Politics majors do take Fundamental of Economics and Principles of American Politics alongside non-major classmates, the politics core course seems to me to duplicate what’s taught in high school politics classes and the history classes that are part of the core, and the economics one is just as bad. I doubt there was any need for the majors to take the class before taking higher-level classes, and the non-majors in the class learned little from them.

Then there’s the Fine Arts course inexplicably lumped in with the math requirement. I’m honestly not sure what the point of this requirement is. To get any kind of decent grasp of art or music or in the Western tradition would require a multi-course sequence (and indeed, the core requirement is satisfied, when not by “Art and Architecture in Rome”, by a single course picked from these sequences). The requirement can also be satisfied by a single “History of Drama” course. This major requirement just seems bizarre to me, especially given how it can be satisfied by studying visual art OR music OR drama, a somewhat random collection unified only by not being purely language-based.

Is the goal to convey a history of “aesthetics” in general, and visual art, music, and drama, are all seen as equally good vehicles at doing this? If so, then just put more emphasis on views of aesthetics in the English classes, which already serve as a history of artistic development, but are currently restricted to language arts only, or in the History classes, which are already essentially history of intellectual thought and incorporate a good deal of aesthetic history. But why have a separate core requirement that can be fulfilled by any of a large number of courses that each give you only a snapshot of the history of the arts?

So if I made these changes to the Core, what we we be left with? It would look something like the following:

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel, and also talking about how the works of literature fit into broader aesthetic categories (“Romantic”, “Renaissance”, “Medieval”, etc)
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”, talking about not only political but also intellectual and aesthetic history
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

Total: 14 classes. Which is essentially a student’s freshman year, plus the semester they spend in Rome if they go. A reduced core, but one that still fulfills its purpose.

Bringing it down to 14 courses also gives some room for additional courses, if desired; for example, since “history” is now explicitly burdened with talking about intellectual and aesthetic history, rather than just political and economic history, a fifth history course might be desired. (“Explicitly” is in place of “implicitly” – history classes at UD already focus on intellectual and aesthetic history more so than anywhere else, this would just make it official.)

It is also a Core that is unapologetically unscientific. This is not ideal, I believe, but it better than being apologetically unscientific – better than pretending to include math and science, but actually not leading to any real study of those subjects except by those who are majoring in them. It would be possible to still include math and science in the Core, of course, but it would require a radical perspective shift; if you believe they ought to learn more than they already did in high school, then forcing them to learn calculus is the logical next step. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s pointless to force them to continue taking math classes.

So that’s my grand theory of what I would do to the Core if ever I were in charge of UD. I never will be, of course, which is why even if this plan is actually more harm than good, we’ll never know about it. But that’s the fun of wishful thinking, isn’t it – that there’s no consequences to poorly thought out wishes?


Book Review: Watership Down

August 23, 2009

I apologize for my lack of posting this last week; I’ve been busy securing an apartment to live in this coming semester and buying furniture to put in it. I’ll be doing that for another week, then I move in August 31st and the semester starts. Until then, though, I have a decent amount of free time.

Well. That said, even though I wasn’t posting, I found the time last week to read Watership Down, one of my favorite books from years gone by. The premise: a group of rabbits leave their warren on the basis of a vision of doom one of them had, and they set out trying to make a life for themselves on remote Watership Down. Once there, they realize their group is entirely bucks, no does, and so they try to find a warren that will give some females to them. Instead they find a warren led by the Nazi-esque General Woundwort. Meanwhile, a mythology is being built up of Elahrairah, the rabbit folk hero.

Anyway, I hadn’t touched it in over three years, and decided I needed to revisit it. Verdict: It is, as I remembered, awesome; it’s maybe even better than I remembered it being. (So, if you never have, if you get nothing else out of this post – go read it!)

But there’s an interesting caveat to this endorsement I want to explore. The book’s awesomeness is definitively not because of the characters. I like Hazel, and Fiver, and Blackberry, and Bigwig; General Woundwort is indeed a disturbing villain, for a rabbit; Elahrairah makes a cool folk hero, Lord Frith and Prince Rainbow are both well-done gods, and the Black Rabbit of Inle is awesome in its role as the Grim Reaper. But –

Those characters aren’t why the book is amazing. It’s rather how well the author, Richard Adams, paints the outlines of the rabbits’ world, making up his own “rabbit language” and convincing the reader that it is real (“silflay hraka, u embleer rah!” is left untranslated in the text of the book, but the reader already knows what it means by then, and using it doesn’t break suspension of disbelief at all), showing how differently they think about things (they don’t realize cars are machines; only the most intelligent among them understand floatation), in general presenting rabbitting society as alien and yet compelling.

And probably it’s that very achievement – the establishment of so alien a culture for all the characters to live in – that makes it so the characters are hard to relate to. In the end, Hazel’s a good guy, but he’s just a rabbit, and I could never have a conversation with him, even if we spoke the same language; we’d have nothing to talk about.

And because the lack of compelling characters is a direct result of the nature of the book as semi-anthropomorphic fiction, I doubt Adams could have done any better. It’s a problem with the medium he’s working in.

Movie Review: Sunshine

August 14, 2009

Yesterday I watched the movie Sunshine (2007). The basic premise is that the sun is dying (and that in only the year 2057! Though apparently there’s an unstated backstory that makes it slightly more plausible, though it’s still scientifically inaccurate), and humanity has to to try restart it. There was a failed attempt seven years ago to deliver a giant fusion bomb to the sun which would somehow fix it, but the spaceship Icarus I mysteriously disappeared, and now they’re launching the Icarus II to try again.

Such is the situation at the start of the movie. We see the eight crew members of the Icarus II, their differing personalities, and what it’s like for them to live isolated on a spaceship for over sixteen months with the fate of humanity resting on their shoulders. So far, so good. This is probably the best part of the movie, actually.

Then our heroes receive a distress beacon from the Icarus I, which has apparently not been destroyed, it’s just sitting out in space somewhere between Mercury’s orbit and the Sun. How this is possible, given that the sun has gravity and would suck the Icarus I right in unless it were in orbit, in which case they’d have really no way of pinpointing the location of the Icarus I in the first place. I might add here that apparently they plan (at first, anyway) to return alive from this mission, after going to the very surface of the sun. It doesn’t make much scientific sense – thus the merit of the movie is determined by whether the psychological insights it has are enough to excuse its scientific inanities.

Anyway, they then try to reach the Icarus I, stuff goes wrong, someone dies due to mistakes in calculations, they they reach the Icarus I but find nothing useful. They do, however, discover that the original reason the Icarus I failed was not machine or human error, but rather sabotage.

The movie goes downhill from here; the man who sabotaged the Icarus I (because he thought it was against the will of God) sneaks on board the Icarus II, kills some people, and tries to sabotage it, barely failing, and the entire crew burns to death as the Icarus II manages to restart the sun.

The most interesting thing about this second half is how scientific progress – restarting the sun – is contrasted with the crazy captain’s religious belief that God wants the sun to die, and it would be hubristic of mankind to try to restart it anyway. Specifically, I found interesting how it contrasts with the dying sun in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. There, religious belief is in fact centered on the idea that some day, the Conciliator will return and bring the New Sun, healing the world in the process, and this hopeful attitude is in contrast to the attitude of the established powers, who don’t want the New Sun to come because it will destroy the current order and bring chaos  – the new sun, when it finally arrives, raises the ocean levels greatly and thus drowns a great part of humanity.

Why would restarting the sun be opposed by religion in one of these worlds and supported by religion in another? The answer, I think, is in how the sun began to die in the first place. In the Book of the New Sun, the dying sun is a result of the natural decay of the star – the book takes place millions of years in the future, and the sun has been in its current state of decay for as long as anyone can remember. Sunshine, in contrast, is set in 2057; the sun would have been in full health as recently as 50 years ago, and its apparent death is brought about by a somewhat incomprehensible force. It is not a natural occurence, and religious believers might view it as an act of God, and thus something not to be fought.

So in a world where the sun dies naturally, in a fully predictable way, there is a religious desire for a rebirth, something that will break the natural order  of things. (The coming of the New Sun, in the BotNS, is often spoken of the same way we speak of Judgment Day). But in a world where the sun is destroyed by something unnatural, it is seen as an act of God, and fighting it is an act of blasphemy.

That’s an interesting idea, I think. It’s a pity Sunshine didn’t emphasize it more; the reasons behind the crazy captain’s religious belief was never fully explained, and that bugged me more than perhaps any other aspect of the movie.

As is, it’s a fun movie to watch, but certainly not the “best movie of 2007” as I heard some people call it. (I’d probably give that distinction to No Country for Old Men.) It’s just an entertaining movie that attempts more than it actually manages.

Mysteries Are Not Secrets

August 9, 2009

There’s a type of story called an “ontological mystery” (beware: I linked to, an extremely addicting website). In an ontological mystery, “the characters are locked in, have no idea how they got there, why they’re there, or how to get out, nor do they know exactly who is behind their predicament, if anyone.” A few examples of ontological mysteries are the movie The Cube, the television show Lost, and Sartre’s play No Exit.

Now, I like ontological mysteries. When they’re done right. But I don’t like it when the mystery of “why they’re there” turns out to be reducible to the secret of “how they got there”. The entire appeal of an ontological mystery is that these people in this bizarre(ly simple) universe are seemingly there for a reason, a reason that’s not reducible to the fact that they were put there.

On the one hand, of course this is what ontological mysteries are. “Ontological” means “metaphysical”, directing us to the idea “final causes”, and “mystery” comes from the same root as “mystical”; both of these are clues leading me to the idea that an ontological mystery’s primary focus is on the numinous, that the final cause is what is secret here, not the material or efficient. But often supposed ontological mysteries seem to lose their way, and forget what they’re supposed to be about, so I can’t just make that claim. Rather, I’d like to argue, by presenting examples, that the quality of an ontological mystery story is fairly directly correlated to how well-done the exploration of this metaphysical question is, and not at all correlated to whether there is an answer at all to the question of material and efficient causes.

So what is the ontological mystery in The Cube? The characters speculate about how they got there. A military-industrial complex conspiracy? An ultra-rich sociopath? Punishment for their sins? No, none of these. It turns out it is simple governmental neglect – a mistake, an abberation, something completely meaningless. At least, the how they got there is meaningless, an explanation that brings them no closer to any understanding of their situation.

Where The Cube gets interesting is in two places: how they end up finding their way around the cube without dying, and what ends up happening to the different characters. How do they find their way around? By using mathematical formulas – the numerical labels on the cubes use prime numbers to designate the “safe” cubes, there is an elaborate mathematical formula that helps them find their way to the edge of the cube and get out. And what happens to the characters? They are all punished – by the cube itself and by each other – and in the end Kazan, the autistic man, is the only one to escape from the cube. The cube seems to be some sort of trial, or perhaps even is purgatory, but what is considered pure is not goodness, in the moral sense. It is simplicity of being and mathematical perfection. That aspect of the movie is interesting; really, given how mediocre the acting is and how simplistic the set designs are, that’s all the movie has going for it.

What about Lost? I remember how at the beginning of the show, there were numerous theories as to what the people on the island were. A common one was that they were in purgatory, being punished for their sins by the Island. I never really bought that, but it was at least interesting.

Where the show really went downhill, I think, was when it just continued stating explicitly “the Island is meaningful” without ever showing us any evidence of that, and then giving us simple cause-and-effect answers for the numerous questions they raise. All right, so we find out in season 2 that the plane crash was caused by Desmond failing to “push the button” – but who cares? What we really want to know is why the plane crashed, what the purpose of the Island is – but all they’ll offer us is  vague “everything happens for a reason” aphorisms, and reveal ever more complex layers of “how” – the Dharma Initiative, the various stations, the Others.

Basically, none of it ever seems to actually amount to anything. By the end of the final season, yes, they’ll probably have wrapped up all of the loose ends and so no one will be able to ask “what made X happen?”, but the writers of the show have basically convinced me that the only grand purpose behind everything that’s happened is that the writers needed everything to fit together or there’d be no show. (Incidentally, this is my dad’s main complaint with Battlestar Galactica, and where I disagree with him about the show – he thinks that the final season was just about tying up loose  ends and was never anything more than that.)

My final example is No Exit – in my opinion clearly the best ontological mystery of these three, and the best of these three period, really. So what is No Exit’s ontological mystery? The fact of where they are is fairly quickly found out – they are in Hell. The question is, why are they in Hell? What are they being punished for? The answer at first appears to be,”Garcin slept around and deserted from the army, Inez killed her lover, Estelle drowned her child”.

But, while these are the physical manifestations of the reasons for their punishments, they completely fail to say why they are in Hell – they more answer the question of “how did they get to Hell?”. In the end, they all went to Hell because they acted ‘in bad faith’, which doesn’t mean they did any particular action a particular way, but roughly means that they did what they did with the wrong intentions. Their actions point towards what their sins were, but what they did to get to Hell is in the end  not the same as why they went to Hell, they’re just related. That’s actually one of the main points of the play, I think. And it’s part of what makes No Exit a much better work of art than either of my other two examples – that it fully understands its nature as an ontological mystery, and part of how the plays functions is as an explanation of how ontological mysteries differ from mere secrets.

To close, I’m going to try to make two contrasting lists of words. “Why” versus “how”; “reason” versus “cause”; “truth” versus “fact”; “mystery” versus “secret”. Does that division basically get across the idea of what I mean by the title of this post?

The Moral Imagination

August 4, 2009

The First Things blog is a fascinating source of insight, I find. Something came up today that really agrees with what I’ve been saying about seeing the universe as not just a physical object but as something with a meaning not reducible to it’s material and efficient causes. The post is Monsters Under the Bed and Other Biblical Doctrines.

A good word related to this which I learned recently is “numinous”, an adjective meaning the power or presence of a divinity. The numinous would be that which gives us the sense that there is more to the world than what we only see and feel.

I also like, in that post, the statement that “we give them a story that provides the only comfort that really is lasting comfort; it’s a comfort that the enemies have been defeated”. This is a large part of what Christianity is about. If you are on the side of God, you cannot lose. There is no question that God will win. The only question is, will you side with God? As long as you do so, you may fail in many ways, but in the end you’ll triumph.

Church and School (August)

August 3, 2009

Firstly: I have spent the last week working on a LEGO cathedral. Pictures can be found here. An explanation of sorts:

So when I was a kid I had a decent number of LEGOs and liked castles. So I built towers; at first just stacks of bricks with people on top, then with staircases and somewhat reasonable dimensions, then with multiple floors and a large wall attached, two feet wide and maybe a foot and a half tall all told. I always wanted to make an entire castle, with four walls and four towers in the corners, but I always figured I didn’t have enough pieces to build anything that large.

Then last summer I realized I could just buy $100 worth of LEGOs and that, combined with the by now quite large number of LEGOs I already had, would be enough to build such a castle. So I built it. How big is it? If a LEGO minifig were 6ft tall, the walls would be 35ft tall, the towers 45ft tall. By way of comparison, the Tower of London is 90ft tall.

So I had this castle. The problem was, it was a blue-and-white themed castle, meaning it used up most of my blue and white pieces but not many of other colors. So I had an overabundance of reds, blacks, and yellows. Thus, I decided last week to build a red-and-black cathedral. I finished today. It takes up less ground area than the castle, but is considerably taller; if a LEGO minifig were 6 ft tall, the ceiling would be 55ft tall, the belltower 105ft tall. In comparison, the towers of Notre-Dame de Reims are 267ft tall.

Two comments:
1) I was tempted to build a Baroque church rather than a Gothic one, but… the peak of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is 452ft tall. A LEGO-scale model of St. Peter’s Basilica would by about 8 feet high and take up almost my entire bedroom. I’m not that ambitious.

2) I might try to build something huge out of yellow bricks next summer, but probably not. There’s really nothing that looks good in yellow.

Secondly: It is now August. I’m just wrapping up my Summer II course (Calculus III), have three weeks of free time afterwards, and then school starts. My goals, for the next month, are essentially:

  • Finish reading William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I started on this back in June and still haven’t gotten through the second book, which is the slowest I’ve gone through a book in a while. I need to finish it!
  • Read at least one more article, and perhaps one more book, about Gerard Manley Hopkins in preparation for Junior Poet (the big English major project for fall of junior year).
  • Get at least some other reading done – I have two Gene Wolfe books and the poems of T. S. Eliot checked out from the library, but haven’t gotten anywhere with them, and am twenty pages into a book about the public domain.
  • Finish the rough draft of chapter one of at least one of my two secret book-length projects. (I have chapter one of Project1 planned out but not written, and chapter zero of Project2 is written, I just need to start on chapter one. Writing two books at once perhaps isn’t wise, but they’re both pretty fleshed-out ideas, and after I’ve thought about one for a few days my mind goes back to the other, so I figure it’s best to work on both at the same time. Or at least, it can’t hurt.)

So that’s what this month looks like for me. I think that since I have consciously pulled myself away from the Wesnoth project – I no longer actively develop either Wesnoth or Orbivm – I’m going to discontinue theming each month around a Wesnothian character. From now on, just a boring explanation of what’s to come in the month ahead, with a fictional character (not specifically Wesnothian) listed only if one comes to mind immediately. None do right now, except for the main character of William Golding’s The Spire, which I never actually finished reading, insofar as that book’s about building a cathedral.

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