Educating a Wizard

September 25, 2009

More stuff about Harry Potter.

So, I agree with that article in almost every aspect, and I thik it makes mary good points. But the entire argument relies on the following:

I like to hope that if most of us were handed a magic wand (literally) that removed a lot of the drudgery of modern life, we’d use that extra time in cultural pursuits. We’d read more, write more, take a dance class, go backpack around Europe, etc. We’d produce magical three-dimensional movies, and paintings conjured out of our dreams. Magic would be a tool for knowledge and truth and beauty. And yes, I know that most of us would just watch more TV. But still: magic would (theoretically) give us the opportunity to devote ourselves to the liberal arts, or at least explore them more than our non-magical lives currently allow.

But for the wizards of Harry Potter, magic is an end unto itself.

So the question becomes – why? Why are all of those “cultural” things worth doing, if there is absolutely no drudgery to modern life? What point is there in leisure, if our entire lives are leisure? This is the question Harry Potter accidentally raises but refuses to answer, getting around it by having wizards spend all of their time working in cubicles. Essentially, Rowling turns their lives into drudgery even though there is no need to do so within the logic of the world. She does it anyway.

So what should we take away from this? That Rowling is a bad writer? (Perhaps. In certain respects, she certainly is.) But the other possible interpretation is, that human life cannot be made sense of if there are not certain things we must do in order to survive. If we have no duties, this interpretation says, our lives cease to have meaning.

This interpretation makes a certain amount of sense in a Christian light, actually. God cursed Adam and said he would have to work for his food. This is not just a change to the how easy man’s life is – it was easy, now it’s hard – it is also a change to how human life is correctly structured. In the postlapsarian world, we ought to do work; it is unnatural not to have to struggle to survive.

Any world in which no such struggle is necessary, then, will feel hollow – because that aspect of Adam’s curse has been lifted, but not the part that made it necessary. It’s just like how immortality, it is often said, would be tortuous – because, while in man’s unfallen state he is immortal, fallen man is not capable a good immortality.

In this interpretation, the world of the wizards in J.K. Rowling is somewhat hellish; the wizards have nothing to do, and so they have to occupy themselves with pointless work to distract themselves from how meaningless their lives are.

It would have been fascinating if the books had actually explored this question.


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?

Recollection and Guessing

October 21, 2008

Plato, in his Meno and Phaedo, presents an interesting idea about learning. He says that our soul (which was created before we were born, and is in fact immortal – I’m using the singular because it seems to me that Plato’s view implies everyone shares the same soul) already knew everything, but forgot it when we were born, and so when we learn something we are actually “recollecting” it, rather than discovering it.

This seems somewhat arbitrary, but he does have a reason for it – it solves the paradox of learning. Basically, if we already know about X, we can’t learn about X, and if we don’t already know about X, how can we begin to learn about it, since we don’t know what it is? This wouldn’t be a problem if everything we know came from someone telling it to us, but clearly we discover things on our own, so… anyway, the idea of recollection solves this.

But I wonder if this idea of recollection is actually valid. After all, we don’t learn about something on our own by suddenly saying, “oh, I just remembered X is the case”. Instead, we will say, “I wonder if X is the case?”. Then we will investigate the matter, and either say “X is indeed the case”, or “X is not the case”. In other words, we learn by guessing and then investigating our guesses and determining whether they’re true. In Plato’s terminology, we move from ignorance, to opinion, then either to knowledge, or back to opinion (if our guess was false)…

Really, this seems like a somewhat obvious objection. Why doesn’t Plato consider this?

Anyway, I don’t have a guess, just thought I’d throw this out there. This also does a decent job of explaining why I write “speculation” posts – I’m guessing, and I don’t yet know whether I’m right or not. That’s how we come to knowledge.


April 26, 2008

I recently watched the movie Se7en. It was… well, a decent movie, but I have a serious problem with it.

The basic premise of the movie is that there is a serial killer trying to send a message of repentance. He killed one man for gluttony, another for greed, another for sloth, another for lust, etc. The seven deadly sins. And so in an attempt to learn more about his psychology, the cops themselves read Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Aquinas, some medieval morality plays, and so on. They even eventually catch him by scanning the public library records and seeing who had checked out all those books and books on serial killers. Makes sense, right?

Well… no. The thing is, the concept of the seven deadly sins is damned simple – there’s seven of them, namely lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, in ascending order of seriousness. You don’t need any research to learn that. What the killer would have found from those books was what exactly those sins mean. But there seems to be no evidence that he did – the person he punishes for pride isn’t guilty of pride at all, but rather vanity – a sin most people see as the same as pride, but which according to the seven-deadly-sins system is not at all the same.

The one thing he did seem to get from them was the concept of contrapasso – punishing them with their own sins. But even this he didn’t really follow very well. The punishments of the gluttonous, lustful, and wrathful made sense, kind of – the glutton is forced to eat until his stomach burst, the prostitute was raped until dead, the wrathful main character was made angry enough to kill someone and then get punished for it. I didn’t really understand the punishment of the greedy lawyer, so I won’t comment on that. The supposedly slothful drug dealer was tied in his bed and allowed to atrophy – I don’t see how it punishes sloth to force someone to be slothful. There’s no evidence he was slothful before that was done to him. The envious had no contrapasso whatsoever – he just got himself shot. And the vain model who supposedly was prideful was forced to choose between disfigurement and death, and chose death – a sin, sure, but that’s not what pride is, I don’t think. She didn’t die in an act of pride, she died in an act of envy, I would say…

Anyway, the point is, there’s no reason the killer would have had to read all those books to get the idea of killing one person for each of the seven deadly sins. He didn’t seem particularly erudite to me.

So why was that element inserted into the plot? My suspicion is that it is because many people don’t even know that much about the seven deadly sins in the first place. To them, what he was doing did seem to require a great deal of education. At UD, we read Dante, we read Milton, we read Aquinas, and we were kind of laughing at the movie and how the murderer didn’t really seem to be using the source material at all. (We also tried to draw connections between the actual punishments of sinners in the movie and Dante, but alas, there were none to be found. If there were, it would have made the movie much more interesting, in my opinion.) But most people don’t, and so it probably would have seemed mysterious and intellectual.

I suppose this is more of a problem with our culture in general than the movie itself – we no longer can write a book or movie and expect the audience coming in to have already read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. That’s probably an unfortunate side-effect of books and movies no longer being written for the upper classes, for people who could afford to get an actual education and had the time to read those things, but rather geared towards a general audience…

Crime and Punishment

February 18, 2008

A simple question – what is the purpose of punishing criminals?

A common answer is that you want to deter future criminals by showing what will happen when they commit a crime. Punishment as deterrent. Makes sense, right? Well…

The obvious problem with this is that you’re not showing what will happen when they commit a crime – you’re showing what will happen when they commit a crime and are caught. In a sense, this turns it all into a game of odds. As a potential criminal, you just evaluate what you will gain from committing the crime, what you will lose from being caught, and what your chances of getting caught are. If it ends up being an average gain for you, commit the crime; otherwise, don’t.

Following this reasoning, “an eye for an eye” is only effective if your chances of catching the criminal are greater than 50%. Otherwise, he gains an eye if he succeeds, the changes of which are >50%, and he loses an eye if he fails, the chances of which are <50% – the estimated result is a gain of a fraction of an eye.

Of course, most people don’t actually consider taking an eye from an enemy to be exactly equal to losing one of their own eyes. They’d rather have the eye themselves even if it leaves the enemy with the eye. But consider theft – there, you actually do gain something from the crime. Let’s say I’m planning on stealing $10,000. If I get caught, I’ll have to give it back, and I’ll go to jail for, say, 10 years. Let’s throw in that I’ll pay a $10,000 fine. So if I get caught – if I lose the crime game – I lose $10,000 and 10 years of my life. If I win, I gain $10,000.

Sure, that looks like a bad deal, but only if my chances of getting caught are fairly high. Let’s say I value a year in prison at $50,000 per year (in other words, that’s how much I’d be willing to pay to avoid that punishment). So, in defeat, my total losses would be $510,000, and in victory, my total winnings would be $10,000. That means that if my chances of success are over approximately 98%, I should commit the crime – it averages out to a benefit, not a loss. It all depends on how much risk I’m willing to take on, of course, but to reduce risk just ensure that your chances of success are higher. 99%? 99.5%?…

The point is that some people will have those chances at success – or at least they will think they do – and so people will still commit crimes. Even with a literal eye for an eye – at some point, if I want to harm the other person badly enough and I think my chances of success are high enough – I will take his eye even if there’s a chance of it costing me mine. It’s actually an even better deal than the theft because they can’t make me give the eye back.

And, as Saint Thomas More pointed out, you can’t just increase all punishments to be extremely harsh because then people have no incentive to commit lesser crimes not greater. If I’ll get hanged for stealing, why not kill the witnesses so there’s less of a chance of getting caught? If I get caught, I die either way. Might as well decrease the chances of that happening. So you need punishments that are fairly reasonable. But then people only have to have good, not even great, chances of success before it’s worth it for them to commit crimes – 70%? 60%?

So how exactly is punishment a deterrent? It deters criminals who were likely to get caught. It doesn’t deter the ones who will probably succeed. But that’s really what we need to do. They’re probably the more dangerous kind anyway. An executive at a large company who can steal $1,000,000,000 and probably get away with it is far more dangerous than someone who can rob a convenience story, get $100, and have a fairly good chance of getting caught for it. “Deterrence” might stop the latter, but it won’t stop the former.

Anyway, that’s why I’m wary of the idea that punishing criminals is useful as a deterrent. So what is it good for? Education? Retribution? The former sounds absurd (the criminals who get caught aren’t the ones who need to be convinced that crime is wrong) and the latter potentially blasphemous (who are we to decide who is guilty and deserves punishment?). It might well be that deterrence is really all that punishing criminals is good for – the idea being that you don’t have to deter all the criminals, just enough to have some semblance of order in your society. Anarchy tends to be unpleasant.

But I suspect that so long as we have to punish criminals at all, there’s no hope of creating some sort of crime-less society… that would, after all, be a Utopia, a no-place. And any claim that a change in how criminals are punished will somehow drastically reduce crime should be examined very, very carefully. The only way to reduce crime is to reduce the criminals’ chances of success.

Academia (Dezember)

December 2, 2007

Heute ist Samstag, der erste Dezember.

If that’s correct – and it’s quite possible it isn’t – I just said “Today is Saturday, the first of December”.

Well obviously, you say. So what? Well – it means that today I took the Putnam today. It was a lot of fun. I think I got five questions correct (out of twelve). Not bad for a freshman, if I say so myself.

But now I won’t get to participate in any math contests until next December, when the Putnam comes around again. That’s one thing I miss about high school – we had various contests every few months or so, and if you didn’t do well on one of them, there was always another one coming up. I’m going to get to take the Putnam just three more times, and then I’ll be done with math contests. Yes, that’s three years away, but still – I don’t think I’m going to want to stop doing these sorts of things in three years. They’ve been a major part of my life for quite a while.

That sentiment seems to be one I’ve had a lot recently. Other freshmen are already talking about their plans for getting a job after college. My current plan is to go to graduate school, get a math PhD, and then teach math for the rest of my life (doing creative writing on the side, of course). In other words, I want to stay in academia for the rest of my life. I want to keep doing what I’m doing now, forever. (In fact, I had originally considered graduating from college in three years – I could do so fairly easily, I think – but now I wonder, why the heck would I want to get out of college and into the real world sooner rather than later?)

This sounds like a character from Orbivm to me. Who? Ptolenai, the mathematician. He isn’t in any campaigns, for a number of reasons – he lived in the Age of the Spear / Saecula Gentorum, he was a philosopher/mathematician not a political figure, and his story is not particularly dramatic. He lived in the Dardanoi version of the Academy his entire life. His main accomplishment, from what I’ve written so far, is his mis-calculation of the radius of the earth, which indirectly leads to the Apocalypse. Perhaps that’s a clue as to how my subconscious views academia – in which case, perhaps I ought to consider a different career path…

The astute among you will notice that Ptolenai is quite similar to the historical figure Ptolemy, though with several important differences I won’t go into here.

God vs. the gods; Literary Relativism

October 16, 2007

Last Thursday I went to a debate between two professors, one of theology and one of English, about “God vs. the Homeric gods”. It was enjoyable, and I agreed with a lot of what they said, but…

There seems to me to be a fundamental problem with how both of the speakers approached Homer. What both failed to address, I think, was whether or not the Homeric portrayal is coherent. Some mention was made of how Homer’s portrayal is confusing. It was assumed, however, that Homer had some deeper vision behind the confusion, and thus our inability to make sense of religion in the Iliad is in some sense our fault. Homer was a poetic genius; if he indeed said what he meant, as we assume, he would have had arguments for what he said.

Now, Christians view polytheism as fundamentally flawed and illogical. We cannot but say, then, that Homer must have been in error in his poetic theology. This position seems forbidden; one cannot say that the Iliad is flawed, only that it is confusing. Because it is one of the founding works of Western civilization, it is assumed that its composer – who, I agree, was a genius – must have intended everything he composed. When we look at what he has said in light of Christianity, however, we find that it is not only confusing, it is contradictory.

For example, there is somehow both free will and fate in Homer’s world. In the Christian view, free will and fate can coexist because God is timeless, and so he can know our destiny already and yet allow us free will because it just doesn’t make sense to speak of “already” when talking about God. For the Homeric gods, however, this is not the case. This is a contradiction.

We could make excuses for Homer, saying it is just an additional complexity in the work, but this is disingenuous. It is better to simply explain why the contradiction arose. Homer recognized that men had free will, and that if there were gods – as he saw that there must be – they must be great, much greater than men, and also that there was this thing “fate”, though he did not completely understand it. He then wrote his epic poems with this understanding, and this is why his poems ring true in so many ways – they are true in many ways. Homer did not see, however, how much greater than men God must be, or that there must be only one of him, or that he must be outside of time, and so he did not put that into his poem. Because of this, his poem is not just confusing, but contradictory and at times wrong when it talks about those subjects.

It really frustrates me how nobody is willing to say this. It strikes me as a kind of literary relativism; every author is always correct in the argument they make in their work, and our job as an audience is just to absorb their message…

Except for the first and last paragraphs, this was written as an extra-credit assignment for THEO 1310:06 “Understanding the Bible”. Most likely I won’t get docked points for posting it here as well; if I do, well, it’s extra-credit anyways.

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