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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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The History of -Ess

August 16, 2019

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


-ess (or -esse): from ME -esse < OF < LL -issa < Greek
-Merriam-Webster Online



English borrows words from many languages. One way to identify the origin of a word is to look at the word parts. Today’s blog will outline some details about the suffix -ess (or -esse). When investigating a single morpheme, such as -ess, the dictionary is a good place to start. In this case, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists -ess as a noun suffix which means “female.” In other words, -ess does not mean female by itself, but that when attaching it to a specific noun, that noun becomes gendered. So, instead of steward, we have stewardess, or a female flight attendant, for example. Or instead of host, we have hostess.

The next thing to notice from the dictionary entry is the suffix’s etymology. One of my favorite parts of a dictionary is the line that reads like a math equation. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the -ess suffix comes from Middle English (ME) -esse, which comes from Old French (OF), which comes from Late Latin (LL), and originates in Greek. However, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition offers a slight adjustment. The following note changes Old French to “Anglo-French” in this entry. The note explains their reasoning:

“Incorporating material from major scholarly reference works completed in recent years, the etymologies of late Old and Middle English words borrowed from French now apply the label ‘Anglo-French’ (abbreviated AF) to all medieval French words known to have been used in French documents written in Britain before about 1400. This treatment acknowledges that literate English speakers then were typically bilingual or trilingual readers and writers who cultivated distinctive varieties of Latin and French as well as of English, and that words moved easily from one to another of these three languages. The label ‘Anglo-French’ should not be taken to mean that the etymology is attested exclusively in Anglo-French, for in the great majority of cases the word has a cognate form in the continental northern French of Picardy and Normandy or the French of Paris and its surroundings.”

This note alone demonstrates the complexity involved in tracing etymologies. It is often hard to find the date that a word came into English usage as well as the parameters which define a specific language such as Anglo-French or Old French. And though suffixes were common in Old Engish, documents demonstrate that English borrowed this specific suffix from French about a century after the Norman Conquest.

One of the oldest known usages of -ess in English comes from the Ancrene Wisse, which is a Guide for Anchoresses written in the early 13th century. Since the anchoress tradition no longer exists today in the same form, the term has also fallen out of use. However, the Middle English offers insight into the suffix -ess itself.

-Ess is of particular interest to me because what was once so popular has now become almost an anathema. For example, female TV and radio show hosts now prefer host over hostess, because the latter sounds more like someone throwing a party than an official job title. In other words, hostess runs the risk of belittling or demeaning rather than granting respect. Likewise, stewardesses are now flight attendants and actresses prefer actor. (It is interesting to note that the decline of stewardess has also dropped the usage of steward, while actors and hosts remain unchanged.)

Dictionary.com notes that: “Nouns in -ess denoting occupation or profession are rapidly disappearing from American English. Airlines now refer to cabin personnel as flight attendants, not stewards and stewardesses. In the arts, authoress, editress, poetess, sculptress, and similar terms are either rejected or discouraged and almost always replaced by author, editor, poet, sculptor. Nouns in -ess designating the holder of public office are hardly ever encountered in modern American usage. Women holding the office of ambassador, mayor, or governor are referred to by those titles rather than by the older, sex-marked ambassadress, mayoress, or governess. (Governess has developed a special sense in relation to childcare; this use is less common in the U.S. than in Britain.) Among other terms almost never used in modern American English are ancestress, directress, instructress, manageress, oratress, postmistress, and proprietress. If the sex of the performer is not relevant to performance of the task or function, the neutral term in -er or -or is now widely used.”

The suffix -ess demonstrates one of the many, many ways in which language is always changing. -Ess seems to capture the instability of this precise juncture in history which combines women’s rights, Me Too movements and political rhetoric. Our desire for precision, accuracy and political correctness adjusts our speech, whether we notice it or not.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of language, or suffixes, I suggest the following resources (in addition to dictionaries, of course!).

  1. The History of English Podcast on suffixes

  2. The Online Etymology Dictionary

  3. The Dictionary of Prefixes and Suffixes by Manik Joshi

  4. The Ancrene Wisse

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Max Weber on Intellectualism

May 31, 2019

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

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, intellectualism is defined as a “devotion to the exercise of intellect or to intellectual pursuits.” Max Weber coined the term in the early 1900s, in which he stresses the importance of “technical means and calculation.” What exactly is implied in his definition? In “Essays on Sociology” Weber describes an evolution towards rationalism which stems from intellectualism. Using historical data, he explains how the Protestant ethic feeds into rational views and even intellectualism. But rationalism is not the sole basis of intellectual pursuits. Hidden beneath this seemingly simple concept are a few other layers that require analysis.

It is ironic that a puritan ethic fostered this idea of rationalism, because one of the foundational features of intellectualism is that it is devoid of what Weber calls magic. By this he means that the world no longer needs gods in general. He says:

“It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it [the conditions of life] at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalulable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means” (114A).*

Weber uses Plato’s cave analogy (from The Republic) in order to elaborate. According to Weber, when man sees light and finally emerges from the cave, he is seeing the light of science. He writes, “He is the philosopher; the sun, however, is the truth of science, which alone seizes not upon illusions and shadows but upon the true being” (114B). Weber calls this utilization of concepts as the first real tool in scientific history. The second great tool in history, according to Weber, was developed during the Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci and others who relied upon rational experiments. The combination of concept and rational experiment eventually leads to a world in which intellectualization is possible.

While Weber admits that intellectualism was reinforced, in part, by a religious influence in which church scholars look for salvation, he also continues to question the irrationality of religion. He writes:

“It has only been these genuinely priestly interests that have made for ever-renewed connections between religion and intellectualism. It has also been the inward compulsion of the rational character of religious ethics and the specifically intellectualist quest for salvation. In effect, every religion in its psychological and intellectual sub-structure and in its practical conclusions has taken a different stand towards intellectualism, without however allowing the ultimate inward tension to disappear. For the tension rests on the unavoidable disparity among ultimate forms of images of the world.

“There is absolutely no ‘unbroken’ religion working as a vital force which is not compelled at some point to demand the credo non quod, sed quia absurdem – ‘the sacrifice of the intellect’” (227B-228A).

I take this to mean that religion involves a system of belief, and belief without empirical evidence is irrational, according to Weber. I wonder what Weber’s motivations are for positing intellectualist views as opposed to belief systems. Does he find fault with ethical systems which are founded upon belief systems because they are not inclusive enough? Though he focuses on America in describing political and cultural value systems founded upon religious morals, I wonder if his historical moment (early 1900s Germany) plays a large part in his analysis.

As a final note on Weber’s intellectualist movement (though much more could be said), a couple of Weber’s definitions also prove useful and insightful:

1] “By ‘intellectuals’ we understand a group of men who by virtue of their peculiarity have special access to certain achievements considered to be ‘cultural values,’ and who therefore usurp the leadership of a ‘culture community’” (133A).

2] “One might well define the concept of nation in the following way: a nation is a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own” (133A).

These broad definitions give some insight into his practice. I believe that he left definitions so vague as to sound almost ridiculous, yet, perhaps they are broad by design, so that they can be universally applied to a diverse and ever-changing idea of nation. This would, of course, be useful in sociological studies which can utilize his definition in a study of specifics. I find that Weber’s lectures are loaded with ideas that seem basic on the surface, but are actually extremely challenging when fleshed out. This kind of reading makes for a great discussion since nation can mean any number of different things, as can intellectual, citizen, etc.

I will leave you with a few questions to get you started with Weber. In what way(s) does Weber challenge our understandings of either nation or religion? In what ways does Weber lead the way for sociological studies? Why does Weber focus on intellectualization?

* All quotations are from The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 58.

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Rankine's Citizen

February 8, 2019

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

“I feel like one of our American peculiarities which is not serving us is our amnesia around trauma.” - Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine has a long list of accolades: bestselling poet, essayist, playwright, MacArthur Fellow, and the list goes on. Recently, I read Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric (which won the 2015 PEN book award). According to Merriam-Webster, a lyric can be just a song or musical composition, or it can express “direct usually intense personal emotion especially in a manner suggestive of song.” Two things strike me as important: first that lyrics carry intense emotion, and second, that they are musical, but not necessarily music. I think the latter is important to me because of the expressive voice throughout the book. Rankine’s voice has a musical quality of the chorus which repeats the main point again and again and again until we finally get it. This technique left me feeling weary, and because of it, I began to glimpse what it must be like to have experienced oppression. Moreover the lyric aims to fight back at one of the most frustrating aspects of racism: language.

Rankine writes about everyday life in this book. She writes about moments with trusted friends and also moments with complete strangers. Both scenarios often arrive at similar points: that she is seen within a particular frame of reference. Or more clearly, that she is who she is because other people have defined her and see her in a certain way. In this book, she felt the need to address both minor injustices along with blatant injustices. As she says, “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” This after a series of frames which demonstrate two soccer players insulting each other. Some insults strike too close to home, or have been lived with for too long. In the clips, the soccer player’s response is physical, because a single hateful phrase cut too close to the quick.

Rankine’s book investigates responses to hatred, but it also expresses anguish in moments of intimacy. Rankine writes, “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx….Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” In a recent interview, she claimed that these were the hardest lines to write in the book because they criticized a close friend, but they demonstrate the pervasive nature of difference. Again and again, she depicts moments in which people refuse to speak to someone who is different, who feel fear based solely on visual cues. In these moments, people forget decency, transparency, curiosity, or whatever it is that makes us human beings.

These everyday examples: the housekeeper, or dinner conversation, the bus seats and sports games add up. Repeated lashings give the reader a sense of what it must feel like to walk around wearing a visible stereotyped identity. However, the title of the book is what hits home the most to me. Discussions that I run often end up on topics such as what it means to be a citizen, a member of any community, what does it mean to have a home and how do you identify it. After reading these perfectly banal moments with the grainy subtext of oppression (or at the very least, disinterest), I have been continually pondering the idea of citizen. What does it mean to belong. How many people belong? Who is in my community? Do I know my community and if so, how do I recognize them?

Rankine began this project after September 11th, when she witnessed the elevation of a very real fear. She noticed fear and hate creeping into rhetoric. I suppose this book was always in the making, but perhaps that event spurred her onward. Near the end of Citizen, she writes:

“I they he she we you were too concluded yesterday to know whatever was done could also be done, was also done, was never done –

The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you--”

I would benefit from a discussion of this work as I am sure there are many subtleties that I have yet to see. I suggest pairing Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric with her short films titled “Situations” found on her website. http://claudiarankine.com/

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