Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Untimely Death of Idealism

As I get older, I seem more inclined to think back over my life in academia and wonder what has been accomplished by me and others. I might be classified as a baby boomer, and, like others my age, there is a tendency to think back to formative years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when most of my college education occurred.  What was I thinking about in those years? Vietnam? Yes. I served without distinction as an intelligence officer in the Air Force. Teaching? Yes. My dream was to be a college professor and have the summers free for camping and hiking in the wilderness. Somewhere, I got lost along the way, although I managed to earn a PhD in philosophy and have a career in academia (not much camping and hiking in the wilderness, though). I remember reading a lot in those formative years. Perhaps the things I can now recall shaped who I have become. I remember a few lines from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” (from A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958):

“I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America.”

I thought it might be me … the one to really discover America, I mean. But then I read Growing Up Absurd (Paul Goodman, 1960), and was nearly certain that the book was about me. How could I discover anything in the midst of so many contradictory trends and beliefs? In the midst of ups and downs, some psychological and emotional, I turned to philosophy – in search of the truth and that lost sense of wonder. That is when I began to seriously listen to Bob Dylan. I found words and sentiments that resonated with all sides of my many confusions:

From Bob Dylan’s Dream:
“While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had.
As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices they were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split.”

To Wedding Song:
“It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large
Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge
’Cause I love you more than all of that with a love that doesn’t bend
And if there is eternity I’d love you there again.”

And eventually to Mr. Tambourine Man:
“Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin’
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.”

I read, I listened, read more, and began to move away from dreams of seeing truth and kindness and tolerance and all those other youthful ideals rule supreme. I came to a conclusion not unlike one I had read about in T. S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

“Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

I was the rock. I was becoming a motionless object lost in a non-descript landscape. I also remember much of my Jewish upbringing as the son of an orthodox Rabbi. My favorite lessons revolved around the Book of Job. I remember talking with my father about what G-d said to Job from the whirlwind – essentially asking Job where he was when the world was created and whether he had seen the gates of death or the breadth of the earth. The lesson I recall is that it is precisely because our knowledge is incomplete and limited that the possibility of a deity exists. A powerful lesson. But also a challenging one. Because a person cannot know what G-d knows, a person cannot attribute beliefs, causes, reasoning, and so on to G-d. One can only make the best of one’s situation without pretending to know what one cannot know.

That basic lesson of humility has threaded its way through my philosophical studies in skepticism and led to this self-imposed question adapted from O. K. Bouwsma: Would it not be a remarkable coincidence if the limits of my imagination happened to coincide with the limits of reality? Otherwise worded, it comes to this mantra: I know less than I am generally inclined to believe. While that may sound depressing, it is a very liberating thought. One need not be bound by entrenched beliefs, tradition, bias, and so on. One can nearly always find alternatives to explore. One can learn. One can help others learn. The problem with education now, versus what I recall from a wayward path to this day, is that too many people are not interested in a rebirth of wonder. Too many believe they know the right answer to nearly every issue of any complexity. Too many are not willing to consider alternatives or learn. Learning involves a stable and persistent change in what one knows or is able to do. To learn, one must admit first to not knowing or not understanding. Then one must commit to an inquiry process and be open to alternatives. Learning involves effort and an admission of ignorance. Too many have grown old too soon, given up on learning, and lost a sense of wonder in a sea of emotionally-held opinions. That one idealistic road I was traveling as a youth has been shattered and split.

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