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BOOK REVIEW: Sapiens

October 18, 2019

Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. [Toronto]: Signal, 2014.

I have often heard that if we choose not to learn from the mistakes of history, we will inevitably end up repeating them. Though it is undeniably very practical advice to be aware of the perils and pitfalls to which we as human beings are susceptible, in spite of my best intentions to be a well-informed member of the species, history has never been a subject that has thrilled me. I took the requisite courses in high school, of course - but names and dates blurred together and important concepts failed to stick with me. More than a decade later, I obtained Sapiens at the recommendation of a family member.

It took less than two pages to realize that this history book is unique. Beginning approximately 2 million years ago with the plethora of human species that failed to survive past 12,000 BCE and spanning into predictions for the future, Harari’s Sapiens focuses on broad concepts and questions that have influenced the behaviours and movements of Homo sapiens as a species, rather than the individuals who may have made culturally significant impacts on a smaller scale. Harari presents the vast and complex history of our species chronologically, organized largely by the Revolutions that set human beings apart from their non-world-dominating counterparts, extinct and otherwise: Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific.

The Cognitive Revolution represents the transition of sapiens from one of many human species struggling for survival into the dominant species on the planet - but the explanation for that transition is not as simple as large brains and opposable thumbs. Human species possessed those traits for millions of years and remained in the middle of the food chain. Gaining control of fire and developing language are also not unique to Homo sapiens. So how did they, in a relatively short span of time, become the only surviving species of humans? And how did they then develop from bands of 50 citizens cooperating together into cities of millions?

The Agricultural Revolution, which Harari refers to as “history’s biggest fraud”, describes the progression of modern humans from a population of hunter-gatherers into communities of farmers. How and why did this change take place? And was the domestication of grain the benefit to the species we believe it to be? How do we define evolutionary success and whether or not we, as humans, have been successful?

Beginning about 500 or so years ago, the goals of education transitioned from preservation and validation of existing rules to discovery and acquisition of new ones in a process called the Scientific Revolution. By accepting that modern culture was ignorant, it opened the door to scientific discoveries and real progress. This change led to the discovery of medications, the invention of new weapons, and the stimulation of economic resources that led to men on the moon and the invention of the atomic bomb. But do technological advancements necessarily mean that quality of life - rather than lifespan - has improved? Is Capitalism the key to progress, or a cult that holds the hardest-working members of its population back? What will continued technological advancements mean for the future of Homo sapiens, who are, biologically, little different than we were 200,000 years ago?

Enormous questions such as these have no simple answers, but Harari tackles them with a level of knowledge and insight that allows him to lay out the myriad facets of each topic with eloquence and clarity. Sapiens is written in language accessible to laypeople with a degree of humour, but uses it to set forth complex concepts and theories about the history of human beings. And as promised, that history is repeating itself. According to Harari, Homo sapiens are no stranger to causing mass extinction on a global scale. Nor is the current post-truth climate the first time our species has been willing to justify behaviour based on common myths. Even being ensnared in the “luxury trap”, an endless cycle of working harder in pursuit of luxuries we aren’t able to enjoy, is part of the history of humankind. Though understanding our history may not allow us to accurately predict the future, it does allow us to “widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural or inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”

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Comedy Hour

October 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In a 2014 interview with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld says that he was inspired to create Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to play with a new format, something that could be viewed on a phone. This occurred to him at a time when recent changes to technology have really disbanded old-school structures in media. No longer must a sitcom, for example, be 22 minutes long with breaks for commercials. Rather, on-demand and streaming devices leave the show length up to writers, directors, and artists. Seinfeld says, “The show happening at the time that it did, and the internet and being able to watch things streaming, a few years ago, I never could have done it. The fact that I could make the shows any length I wanted - that gave me the freedom to do it.” While Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is not a sitcom, but rather an interview, Seinfeld completely upends stereotypes. Camera angles move, cars drive the scenes, and interviews are chopped from three hours down to fifteen minutes.

During this same interview, Seinfeld relates the story of the show’s development. He explains that most of the tech-gurus steered him away from longer formats. They claimed that five minutes was a social-media breaking point and that the majority of people would not watch programs longer than five minutes. Seinfeld disregarded this advice in order to include all of the elements that he wanted to address. The show has no consistent length, but generally runs twelve to eighteen minutes. These edited interviews move between cars and coffeeshops. Seinfeld believes that since the show has no plot or narrative, the action must be artificially introduced. He says, “I think part of what makes the show watchable is that it’s moving. There’s an energy. When you have no narrative drive, you’re not telling a story, no one’s waiting to see what happens - we know they’re gonna get coffee, that’s the only story - you need a kinetic energy. So it’s like, take a talk show and make it move and make it outside and then maybe you could sit through the eleven or twelve minutes that it takes.” This is done via the car as well as moving into different locations. The show usually begins with a focus feature of the car for the episode, picked to match the comedian. Then, Seinfeld includes a phone-call invitation to coffee. After Seinfeld picks up his guest, the conversation is taped and then edited. They may choose scenes from the car, while walking, and while ordering and eating.

One of the most important aspects of comedy, for me at least, is the way that it resonates with so many people at one time. While anyone can be funny within the confines of their family or friends, it is much more difficult to craft a joke that grabs the diversity of a crowd. When discussing his previous television hit show Seinfeld, he explains the amount of years and experience that it takes to get to the point where jokes can be universal. Of course, a joke can capitalize on contemporary rhetoric, but it mostly has to do with rhythm, pacing, grammar, brevity, and timing. In short, it has to do with language.

During his 2017 Netflix stand-up routine Jerry Before Seinfeld, Seinfeld stands on a city street among a series of notes written on yellow legal pads. These notes are actually jokes that he spent years writing and perfecting. He begins with an idea, sketches it on paper, and crosses out bits that may not (or did not) work. Later, in a Wall Street Journal article, he explains why a joke about cereal is funny with Nietzsche’s name included, but in the end, he cut out the part about Nietzsche because it wasn’t universal enough. "You're always trying to trim everything down to absolute rock, solid rock," says Seinfeld. "I will sit there for 15 minutes to make it one syllable shorter." Seinfeld labors over the rhythm of the words, their sound, the delivery and their brevity. Furthermore, in the Letterman interview Seinfeld compares a stand-up routine to a machine built. While the act has been carefully crafted and structured, it often appeals more when it sounds off-the-cuff.

The elements of movement, of unknown length, comedic focus, attention to craft, and diverse personalities all remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (I am guessing that you didn’t see that coming.) In truth, Chaucer knew all of those pointers and learned them the way that Seinfeld did – by trial and error. Chaucer read poetry in a small, private salon for much of his life in London, but rarely read in public. We consider him one of the first English poets, but truthfully, he combined so many elements that I hate to pin him to a single genre. He lived at a time in England when language was a mix of Latin, English, and French. Chaucer collected tropes and rhetoric from all three of these cultures in a way that was unique and universally appealing. In The Canterbury Tales, he often repeats a joke throughout an entire narrative. For example, in “The Miller’s Tale” (one of the more humorous in the collection), Chaucer alludes to a variety of flowers when describing Alisoun. An awareness of this seemingly small detail sets up the ironic ending when, instead of smelling like flowers, Alisoun offers her backside and a nasty smelling toot to Absolon’s kiss. A key to Chaucer’s success with The Canterbury Tales is his effectual buildup of symbols which overemphasizes the ironic or humorous – the same is true of stand-up. In other words, Chaucer was playing with these ideas of stand-up comedy way back in the 1380s and 90s. As Seinfeld explained, it also took Chaucer most of his life to compile these jokes and organize them into the very appealing Canterbury Tales.

While I traditionally study language and literature, I have become increasingly interested in humor. Luckily for me, humor can now be formally studied through the Ideas for Inquiry at Harrison Middleton University. Scroll through the list of Ideas on our website for a sampling of what we offer!


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A Core's Strength

September 27, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

If you have been to a personal trainer or regularly attend the gym, you understand the importance of the core. All of our limbs extend from a core whose strength allows us to be upright, graceful, and strong. In other words, core fitness is essential for the body’s freedom of movement. While there has always been a focus on core strength, equipment for the core has drastically increased in recent years. Things such as the bosu ball, TRX bands, medicine balls and the large exercise ball have been added to our existing planks, pushups, and situps. Many of these intend to create a destabilizing effect, which, in turn, makes the core work harder to attain balance.

I know what this term means in relation to the human body, but I also hear it when discussing a core curriculum or core beliefs. I believe that “core curriculum” encompasses a number of vital texts necessary for cultural dialogue. Core texts are meant to be the internal structure around which you deepen your knowledge of a subject, such as religion or love or justice. Many schools begin by selecting a standard, core curriculum. Some of these texts may come and go as they age, though the majority will remain. I began to wonder if these two usages of core have the same meaning. Am I conflating two different things? I realize that the question, are abdominal muscles in any way related to a core curriculum, is a bit absurd. But, are they?

Merriam-Webster includes three separate definitions for core. First, “a central and often foundational part usually distinct from the enveloping part by a difference in nature.” Under this definition they include such things as fruit cores, computer parts, and elevator shafts. The second definition reads, “a basic, essential, or enduring part (as of an individual, a class, or an entity).” Third is the standalone (meaning that it has no bulleted or additional parts to the definition): “a part (such as a thin cylinder of material) removed from the interior of a mass especially to determine composition.” It is important that the first definition introduces a difference in nature – in that the two substances naturally exist together, but are essentially different somehow, like the apple and its core.

Furthermore, while core’s etymology is unknown, it is thought to have arrived during Middle English, perhaps borrowed from French. If it means the center, then the gym terminology makes sense. All limbs extend from a center, so it only makes sense to concentrate on the center for balance and strength. Furthermore, without a strong core, the human body also loses balance. This idea reiterates how I feel about core texts. They are vital. They increase stability and movement. They make minds nimble, intelligent, directed.

These various definitions helped me to further investigate the complexity of this term. Which definition of “core” do we mean when we say our “core beliefs” or “core texts”? Can it be that we are speaking about two different kinds of text? To me, it seems that core texts are the basic, enduring ones which speak about issues central to our knowledge base. A core text is essential, but so is an apple core. Yet the core text is supposedly of the same material as the rest of texts, just more important, whereas an apple core is different in kind from the apple’s skin and flesh. Furthermore, it seems ironic that, in the apple, the core is inedible and generally thrown away. On the other hand, it contains seeds, which are vital to the fruit’s existence, and so they are obviously not always thrown away, but also create seedlings. When distinguishing a core text, however, I often find that there are texts that speak more urgently or directly about issues that matter. Yet, I also find utility and interest in nearly everything. So, I am back to the question of, in what sense do we use the term core texts? With an apple, the answer is simple, bite into it until you reach a difference in texture. Perhaps the same is true of texts; that our responsibility is to sample enough to know the difference ourselves.

Columbia College coined the term “core curriculum” in 1919. Their website explains : “The Core Curriculum is the set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major. The communal learning - with all students encountering the same texts and issues at the same time - and the critical dialogue experienced in small seminars are the distinctive features of the Core. Begun in the early part of the 20th century, the Core Curriculum is one of the founding experiments in liberal higher education in the United States and it remains vibrant as it enters its tenth decade. Not only academically rigorous but also personally transformative for students, the Core seminar thrives on oral debate of the most difficult questions about human experience. What does it mean, and what has it meant to be an individual? What does it mean, and what has it meant to be part of a community? How is human experience relayed and how is meaning made in music and art? What do we think is, and what have we thought to be worth knowing? By what rules should we be governed? The habits of mind developed in the Core cultivate a critical and creative intellectual capacity that students employ long after college, in the pursuit and the fulfillment of meaningful lives.” This, then, explains how core texts begin the dialogue about what it means to be human. They endeavor to find and/or illuminate the center of humanity, which extends in many different ways on many different limbs.

Of course, Harrison Middleton University also functions on discussion-based learning, centered around the human experience. The website states , “We at Harrison Middleton University believe that the study of the humanities is both timeless and timely because it focuses on the central questions of human existence, lasting debates that bear directly on the problems we face today. And in a time when information of all kinds is increasingly fragmented, the study of ancient and modern classics provides a rich source of fundamental knowledge and unifying ideas.” While there is a core, much is left to the student’s discretion. The student’s personal path toward entering into this dialogue is of great importance at Harrison Middleton University.

It does matter which voices we teach and hear and listen to. It does matter what we include in our definition of core texts. Very often it can be nearly impossible to decide upon core texts for a broad group of people. And yet, we must, at the very least, discuss what composes our core. I do believe that conversation about what fits into this elite category is as vital as its existence. Culturally speaking, we must maintain foundational points of reference, even if we disagree on what or why. This dialogue gets at the heart of culture and society in a healthy way, very similar to the way that the core of the human body does. In the gym, we have toys which exercise our core. Personally, I like the destabilizing effects of a bosu, and I like it in my texts as well. I think we have as many different core texts as we do toys in the gym because it is good to remember that our minds require just as much exercise.

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Clara Schumann

September 13, 2019


“Nothing surpasses the joy of creation.” - Clara Schumann


Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I am indebted to Jade Simmons (pianist and storyteller) for most of this information. Check out her podcast Decomposed for a more detailed history of Clara Schumann.

How is it that Clara Schumann became a famous classical pianist at a time when women were not allowed on the stage? And, why is Robert Schumann arguably more famous than Clara?

Clara Josephine Wieck was born on this day (September 13, 1819) in Liepzig, Germany. Her mother was a famous singer and her father was a famous piano teacher. Clara was her father’s prize student and he pushed her intensely, nearly dominating every aspect of her life. Due to Mr. Wieck’s pressure and intractability, Clara’s mother divorced him when Clara was five. Clara remained with her father who saw a brilliant future at the piano for her. She first toured at age eleven, and was such a success that she continued touring for many years under her father’s guidance. During this time, Clara became a huge celebrity. She was famous throughout Europe as a child prodigy. She also composed a number of her own pieces.

Around the time she turned nine, her father took on another student, Robert Schumann. At age eighteen, nine years older than Clara, Robert came to piano very late in life. While Clara’s father took her on tour, Robert was left as a lodger in the Wieck family home. During her teenage years, Clara and Robert began writing letters to each other and eventually fell madly in love. Though her father forbid the marriage, the couple decided to sue her father for the right to marry. Furthermore, he would not give Clara any of the money that she had earned during ten years of concert tours. The court decided in favor of the young couple. Robert and Clara married immediately, one day short of her twenty-first birthday, on September 12, 1840.

The day after their marriage, Robert gave Clara a journal that was to connect them both. They would each keep the journal for one week, and then give it to the other for a week. Robert writes, “This little book that I am starting today has for us a deep significance: it is to be a diary of all that concerns us in our domestic and married life; to be a record of our wishes and our hopes, and the means whereby we may convey to one another any requests we may have to make, for which words may not suffice; and to be a mediator and reconciler should we chance to misjudge or misunderstand each other. In short it will be a good and faithful friend, to whom we may always come with open hearts...”

It seems odd that Robert chose to give Clara a journal for the two of them to write together particularly because her father had done the same. Clara’s entire life was directed by her father who wrote her every thought for her. He penned many entries in Clara’s journal and then signed Clara’s name as if she had written them. He also dictated what she played and how. This odd, obsessive treatment overshadowed Clara’s ability to develop her own skills, at her own pace. Even as a married woman, free from her father, Clara still had to fight for piano time, which meant, she still wasn’t free to play as she would like.

Life as a wife and mother took precious time away from Clara’s piano career. In fact, she continually notes in her journal that it was hard to find time for herself, or her music. Due to her years as a child prodigy and a tour celebrity, she could earn more money than Robert, but that arrangement was unacceptable in the culture of the day. Rather, she continued with housework and raising children, while trying to sneak time for the piano in stolen moments. Though, she did tour on occasion but she nearly stopped composing, famously saying, “A woman must not desire to compose.”

A rare exception occurred after Clara Schumann suffered a miscarriage when she wrote the Piano Trio in G minor. A year later, Robert wrote a Trio which seemed to overshadow her own piece and in her mind, she started to see herself more as a wife than as a performer and composer. However, at this same time, about 10 years into their marriage, Robert began to display symptoms of a severe illness. Finally, he entered a mental institution, where he died about two years later. His death was devastating to her, but during the illness and after his death, she had to earn as much money as possible, which meant that Clara once again left on tour.

As her life had evolved, Clara’s relationship with music necessarily changed too. She began to see herself as an interpreter of music and very much enjoyed the performance element. She also was one of the first to memorize music for the stage. And though she composed very little anymore, at age sixty-six, in a concert in London, she chose to play one of her own pieces in public, on stage. As Jade Simmons explains, maybe she was beginning to rethink the idea that a woman should not compose.

To put this in perspective, she was born two years after Charlotte Brontë, which means that during her celebrity years, the Brontë sisters attempted their own unheard of feat: to publish a novel. They succeeded only by resorting to pseudonyms. It is curious to think of the legacy of women in unique positions such as these. I do not know if Clara Schumann is still considered famous, but I do believe that Robert’s legacy overshadows her own. I also wonder why Jane Eyre (for example) has seen such resurgence, but the same is not (yet) true of Clara Schumann’s works. It brings to mind questions of difference between the arts, such as music and novels. How does society consume, perpetuate, encourage, or desire any of the arts? I do not believe that these situations are entirely analogous, but they are not totally divergent either. In my mind, Clara Schumann has much to teach us, if we would listen.

Analysis of Clara’s Trio in G minor; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmU2F3U3tbY

Clara Schumann’s Trio in G minor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzTcsluFxU4

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