October Quarterly Discussion Review

November 1, 2019

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

During October, I was fortunate to discuss W.E.B. Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk. In our discussion we spent quite a bit of time exploring the metaphor of the veil, which Du Bois says exists between African Americans and “the other world.” His first experience with this veil was in the schoolhouse of his youth. When the children pretended to exchange visiting cards, one white girl refused to exchange with Du Bois. He writes: “The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, - refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.” In trying to understand the veil itself, we explored the potential reasons for making it the metaphor. Why a veil? It seems that a sort of transparent or opaque line always exists between the two different groups, sometimes invisibly even. While acting as a physical barrier, it is also barely there, both noticeable and not. Du Bois says that those inside the veil are most disillusioned because it impairs a true apprehension of potential, but he quickly remarks that it also acts upon those who are outside of it. In fact, it seems innocent, but the veil damages everyone it touches. Once again, the translucent, flexible quality of a veil can present a mask, which seems to affect not only the one wearing it, but rather, it obscures and distorts all viewpoints. The veil is an apt metaphor for these reasons: its ambiguity and formlessness, an intentional or distorted barrier, and the very fluid nature of it.

On the very first page of the book, Du Bois explains that between the two worlds exists an unasked question. Some people attempt to ask, or dance around the subject, but to the question of “How does it feel to be a problem,” or how does it feel to be the problem race, he does not answer. I could not understand why he did not respond to this question, which seems so important to his message. But our discussion helped me better understand his reasons for not answering. In his eyes, and in truth, the answer to that question requires a whole history of explanation. Rather than deliver a lecture at a cocktail party, he attempts to answer in the complex, weaving narrative of his book. He writes:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, - this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Despite the notion that, at that time, being “Negro” and “American” must have seemed almost antithetical, Du Bois astounds me with his hope. He says that America is an experiment, in which he hopes to play an equal part. Much of this book addresses the educational system because it is there that we find communal, foundational beliefs. Education can open up dialogue about what it means to be American and what it means to be African-American. While it is important to Du Bois to bolster the African-American pride and potential, he repeats that the conversation must include everyone. If the American experiment is to be successful, it must sincerely address slavery, it must sincerely address racism. And the African-American responsibility is to teach others how a formerly enslaved peoples can share in equality and freedom.

We briefly discussed, and I continue to wonder at the intended audience for this book. Did he mean to address elites, intellectuals, African-Americans specifically, educators? For whom is his message most important? I keep returning to the answer that everyone must be the intended audience. Du Bois’s grace and eloquence in dealing with such a difficult subject is impressive.

Published in 1903, Du Bois uses Atlanta to explain his fears for the rest of America. He sees Atlanta as a city rising in greed and excess, and yet still unable to address equality. He feels that money complicates Atlanta in an unhealthy way. Du Bois says of the Civil War that right triumphed but with something of the wrong, by which I believe he means to say that ownership of peoples transferred into greed and excess of other types of property. Du Bois says, “Not only is this true in the world which Atlanta typifies, but it is threatening to be true of a world beneath and beyond that world, - the Black World beyond the Veil. Today it makes little difference to Atlanta, to the South, what the Negro thinks or dreams or wills. In the soul-life of the land he is to-day, and naturally will long remain, unthought of, half forgotten; and yet when he does come to think and will and do for himself, - and let no man dream that day will never come, - then the part he plays will not be one of sudden learning, but words and thoughts he has been taught to lisp in his race-childhood.”

The education of African Americans had been so minimal and unable to address economics and equality, so the nation grew by experience only, which created inaccuracies and perpetuated inequality. This appears to be the period of “race-childhood,” with which we are just now coming to terms.

I am grateful to those who dedicated an hour and half to discuss the vital words of W.E.B. Du Bois with me. Our next Quarterly Discussion will be in January on Natural Science. Check out our Facebook page and website for more information on upcoming events.

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Maoist Influence on Contemporary Chinese Thought

October 25, 2019

Thanks to Ned Boulberhane, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

China: The far lands of the Orient, and perhaps the world's oldest living civilization. However, the days of Huang He River Valley have evolved into something quite different than the previous centuries. 1949 saw the rise of communism in China, and the foundations and thinking of an individual named Mao Zedong would begin to affect the course of Chinese education, thinking, ideology, and culture. I first came to China in 2013. The first vivid memory I have of the country, other than the airport, is the array of hanging lights from the all the trees along Guangzhou's Tian He Road (天河路), yet after six years in the world's most populous nation, it becomes quite clear that the presence and direction of Chairman Mao (毛主席 Mao Zhuxi, Zhuxi meaning Chairman) is very present in not only education but in the thinking of Chinese daily life - a Maoist presence of thought.

As a teacher in China, I often discuss the differences between Chinese and American education. One of my students explained to me that Mao Zedong (毛泽东), the first president of the People's Republic of China, was opposed to the humanities. He valued the hard sciences, engineering, and even disciplines such as physics. Mao's biographer, Philip Short, wrote a detailed argument about how he claimed that this type of educational philosophy came to be.

Mao Zedong was born to a rather poor family, but his father was a strict disciplinarian, and even described as tyrannical (Short, 2000), yet Mao possessed a rebellious spirit by nature and developed a domineering attitude from an early age.

While the journey of Mao's life is complex there are a certain set of criticisms that have evolved into the contemporary academic discussions on Chinese thought:

1. Treating human beings as statistics.

2. Viewing group identity as paramount.

3. The previously mentioned disregard for the humanities.

It is a harsh statement to accuse Mao Zedong of treating human beings as statistics, but it is a brutal reality that is employed by the powerful across many different nations and time periods from the writings of the Italian Giovanni Giammaria Ortes, who went on to influence Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham (Tarpley, 1996) to the Principles of Scientific Management used by Frederick Winslow Taylor to advise the Ford Motor Company, all of these examples share the concept of treating humans as numbers that can be rearranged. This is heavily relevant to a particular time in Chinese history known as the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), a plan to convert China from an agrarian economy to a massive industrial power (Short, 2000). The practice of private farming was prohibited and many farmers were forced to work in the steel industry, so that China could go on to compete with the economic forces of the British Empire. The nationalization of farming led to an inadequacy to produce food for the nation, thus the foundation of the Great Famine.

In Guangdong Province ( 广东省), there is a saying "The Cantonese eat everything," meaning that any form of animal or edible plant can be consumed.This is a reference to the Great Famine when food was scarce, and it served as a necessity. When living in Guangdong Province, it is not uncommon to hear stories such as "My father also refused to eat sweet potatoes. As a kid, that was all he ate for three years."

When it comes to political commentators in the Western World, there is almost a blame game that the liberal vs. conservative dynamic chooses to play. The left wingers proclaim that Mao Zhuxi was an authoritarian right wing controller, and the opposition claims that Mao was a left wing identity-centered communist (Peterson, 2018). It is a fair criticism to say that Chairman Mao promoted national identity over all else, a sort of always striving to the greater good of China, even if it meant the means were destructive. In Mandarin, the name given to the nation we know as China is Zhong Guo (中国 meaning Central Country). Perhaps a more honest perspective on the political leanings of Chairman Mao and the Maoist influence on contemporary thought is that the current People's Republic of China views it as a central nation, one that incorporates the left and right political dynamics together. The two major divisions of western politics have blended together in China.

On the topic of education, the interactions of people from different nations around the world is impossible to avoid in China. The internet is censored with something commonly referred to as the "Great Firewall" of China. Websites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and thousands of others are blocked. These sites are associated with free expression and would give users the ability to share creative material and information that is critical of the government; however, as someone once told me "when the internet was created, it was not designed to be censored." The interactions of ideas are difficult to contain or limit.

Education takes many different forms. There are the traditional methods that involve classroom learning and the methodologies of an instructor, but on the other hand, there exists a benefit in intercultural communication. In 1975, Mao Zedong met with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in what was called, "The Opening of China to the West," but in reality by that time Mao Zedong was in the last full year of his life, and his cognitive faculties were not functioning properly (Short, 2000). Perhaps, the Maoist educational form has left a major impact on the citizens of China in the current day and age. The consequences of the Great Leap Forward, Great Famine, and Forced Industrialization are present in China's ability to perform as a manufacturing power of the world. At the same time, the death toll resulting from the methods to achieve that economic status is impossible to record in a proper manner with estimates as low as 14 million and as high as 70 million (Short, 2000).

The ages of technological advancement and global interconnection are bringing strong challenges to the Maoist-centered ways of 1949-76. One of the components of government that China was never able to escape was corruption, and even on lighter terms, opposition to those in power. Mao died in 1976, and one his successors, President Deng Xiaoping, opened the nation to a rudimentary usage of free markets and trade (Cella, 2018). This should not have come as a surprise since the plan for the foundations of Maoist China were focused on the expansion of the industrial sector.

In the most general of terms, China still stands as a nation that is a far off land to the Western observer. The East of the East and the West of the West converge on a variety of issues surrounding trade, international business, and tourism. Yet in the near future, more and more individuals are coming toward to China, and the CGTN anchor Liu Xin declared in 2017 that the 19th Century saw the dominance of the British Empire, the 20th Century saw the rise of the United States, and the 21st Century shall be for everyone. Will that take place? Only time will tell. As for now, one can say that there has been a deviation from the economic practices put into place from Mao Zedong. This has almost certainly served as a benefit, but the academic, intellectual, and communicative effects of Maoist Chinese thought are very present in the interactions of Chinese daily life, running deep into the educational systems as well as interpersonal relations.

Cella, C. (2018) CCCT with Chris Cella. Chris Cella Channel.

Liu X. (2017). The Point with Liu Xin. China Global Television Network.

Peterson, J. (2018). Debating the Gender Pay Gap. BBC 4.

Short, P. (2000). Mao: The Man Who Made China. Tarius Publishing. Amazon Digital Services. LLC.

Tarply, W. (1970-96). Against Oligarchy: Essays and Speeches 1970-1996. ICLC.

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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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