Corrupting the Youth Some More

Not long after posting yesterday’s entry, a few other thoughts occurred to me on this subject.  Partly these thoughts came about because of a thoughtful and sympathetic response by my friend and colleague, Theresa, and partly through the general process of rumination that besets my life.

One important difference between me and Socrates, other than the obvious one of philosophical competence and prominence, is what youth we actually have a chance to corrupt.  In ancient Athens, only the male youth of wealth and privilege would have time, or would be encouraged, to pursue philosophy as a student of some great man.  Actually, Aristotle remarks that there were a couple of women as students in Plato’s Academy, disguised as males, and the contemporary Plato scholar, Dave Reeve, has written a delightful short dialogue about them, called The Naked Old Women in the Palestra.  Good reading.  But they were the minuscule exception.  It would be a big deal if the upper class youth were corrupted, since they were something like the guardians of tradition for the future.  The youth of the tradespeople and slaves had no such role, and may have been deemed already corrupted by the nature of their social standing.  The upper class youth were important in Athens, and corrupting them was important.  Socrates alludes to this early in the dialogue Euthyphro, when he praises, at least in general terms, the indictment against him filed by Meletus.  There, probably sarcastically, he praises Meletus for looking out for “the young shoots” as he calls them, and desiring to protect them from whatever forces of corruption menaced them.

What are the young shoots like I menace in my community college classes?  They come from families much like I came from, and many from much more modest circumstances.  Middle-to-lower class, some being the first family members to attend college, they are much different from the youths Socrates lollygagged around with in the marketplace.  And, reflecting on today’s virulently top-down social and economic system, which also translates into a top-down political system, my students are powerless.  Or, at least that’s the way it seems.  In talking with them outside of class, few vote, or are inclined to do so.  Their aspirations reach no farther, for the most part, than owning a home with a boat on the lake for summer drunkenness.  How could they possibly be a threat to the powers vested in our political/economic system as it now operates?

The author (authors?) of Cyborgology, to which I referred yesterday, may have hit upon it.  Participation.  The current order needs the youth I fail to corrupt adequately to participate in in the sham economy and the sham democracy foisted upon them by our purchased officials and those who profit by the laws they cobble together.  And that leads to a point not derived from reading what other have read but thinking about a truly insane phenomenon in contemporary academic life: student debt.

The true crisis that mounting student debt represents is recent, but it has been serious since the Reagan era.  While it appears insane to burden citizens with a lifetime of debt for a marginal education, perhaps it does make sense to one segment of the population.  If universal higher education has become something mandatory for Americans who have an expectation of success, education has always had its dark side.  That’s what the critics of Socrates recognized.  Education can put funny ideas into a person’s head.  They may begin to question the expectations society has placed upon them if they are to become responsible citizens.  They may even begin to question whether there is a god, or that capitalism is the only viable economic system, or that cable TV is the biggest bargain on the face of the earth.  How can the cost-benefit ratio be skewed to the greatest benefit to the powers in place with the least cost in terms of risk of non-participation?  It’s simple.  Force people, through massive indebtedness, to remain anchored to the economic system for most of their productive lives.

The top-down social system of ancient Athens is not much different from contemporary America.  The leisure to go to plays and study philosophy was only available to the upper class in that time because of the powerless masses, enslaved in fact or metaphorically, keeping the system producing for the benefit of those at the top.  In our time, the lawmakers that continue to reject an increase in the minimum wage are merely guaranteeing the wage slavery of those too powerless to escape.  And those who try to escape to the community college where I teach then get thrown back into the same servitude they seek to escape by incurring unconscionable debt.  The system thrives for those at the top.

Let me return, finally, to my original question from yesterday: have I corrupted the youth in my time as a philosophy teacher?  The answer seems bleaker than ever.  What would corrupting them look like from this perspective, rather than the Socratic one?  Get off the grid?  It would take money.  Refuse to get an education?  That just trades one form of slavery for another.  The system is rigged at the bottom, so maybe accommodating yourself to the system is futile, which only leaves changing the system.  Marxian revolution?  Never say never.  But maybe some sort of grass-roots community like Annabel Park is working to form might be the first step.  Socrates approached the task one Athenian at a time.  He had no ultimate effect, and was executed for it.  Perhaps individualism, the bastion of philosophical thought, must tumble first.


Corrupting the Youth

It is dawning on me that one of the least productive activities in retirement is second-guessing the past.  Are there things I didn’t do but should have?  Yes.  Are there things I did and wished I didn’t?  Yes.  Are there things I could have done better?  Yes.  Was I an ass too frequently?  Yes.  Was I noble too seldom?  Yes.  Yes to it all.  But it’s past; let it go.  I find that facile advice comes more easily when you perceive there is enough time to right the wrongs you committed and blot out regret with action.  

This subject came up yesterday in a discussion with my dearest friend, Chris.  He is five years younger than I, and of Western Kansas German farmer stock.  The picture of robust health and with as inquisitive a mind as I have ever encountered.  But on Tuesday, he had open-heart surgery to duct-tape a leaky valve.  When he and his wife got home, I greeted him even before his adoring dog, Jake.  As we talked all afternoon, he nodded off from time to time, and only with Chris would I not suspect it to be a subtle criticism of the conversation he was enduring.

We both like to travel, and prefer to do it independently.  His big regret was that he had never learned a foreign language so that he could interact with the people and their culture without an intermediary.  Chris is a great interactor, a word that spell check tells me does not exist.  It does now.  He is fast friends with a Chinese friend of our Lao-He, even though neither of them knows a word of each other’s language.  To see them together, but out of earshot, you never suspect it, since they very clearly are communicating.

My contribution to what might become our own private little regretfest was that, while there were omissions in my life that would forever remain incomplete, there are some moments in my life that were so extraordinary that savoring them had the effect of making the regrets dissolve from my consciousness.  I mentioned visiting The Great Wall, three times.  Most westerners have never been there once, and each time I go the effect on me is physical, emotional, intellectual, and very personal.  Regrets turn out to be pretty puny when compared with that.

So, you ask, when does he start giving us the steamy stuff about corrupting the youth?  Let me tell you, I wish I had something for you in that regard.  But I don’t, in the tawdry way you might leeringly imagine.  Come on: how could leeringly not be a word?  Maybe WordPress is a little too prim for my purposes.  But here’s what I do have.  It comes about through the minor tempest caused a few weeks ago by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in an interview with a softball-pitching devotee.  Tyson, who has given a rebirth to Carl Sagan’s great series, Cosmos, decided to offer some gratuitous slander in the direction of my discipline, philosophy.  His main gripe, in comparing philosophy to science, his turf, was that philosophers get so tied up in endless questioning and obsessing about language that they (we) just don’t ever accomplish anything.  For all our pedantic questioning, when do we ever come up with an answer?

The philosophy blogs I frequent quickly lit up with defensive posturing and incredulous whining  And that was just the tenured professors.  Actually, there were some excellent, well-reasoned defenses of the usefulness of philosophy, the best that I saw being from Massimo Pigliucci in the blog Scientia Salon, here on WordPress.  The author is learned in both the sciences and philosophy, which beats Tyson by one.  However, the response I most like, and the one that sticks in my craw, came from robinjames, a philosopher, in the section called Cyborgology, on the web site The Society Pages.    

Taking the example of Socrates in his trial, the thought is that the “job” of philosophy, or what philosophy is all about truly is corrupting the youth.  That’s what we should be doing, not all the “‘splainin'” (Tyson’s term) that science does so well.  The behavior of Socrates in his trial, behavior that sometimes seemed downright puzzling for someone trying to be acquitted, was precisely to be found guilty as charged.  That he was so beloved by many in Athens might obscure the fact that he was a philosopher, and corrupting the youth is what we do.  And when we become too beloved, or too chummy with the mainstream, or become an icon found on t-shirts and bags like Chairman Mao, we betray ourselves and the life we claim to revere.  Socrates saved himself by showing the unsavory, obnoxious side that is inevitable if you are a source of corruption.

The Socratic question is also a personal one, summoning the dull pain of regret once again, a regret the vistas of the Great Wall cannot blot out.  Before the hemlock finds its way to my glass, can I say I have corrupted the youth I touched?  The brightest of them are intent on giving their minds and bodies to the machine Socrates despised.  I have done nothing to dissuade them, it seems.  If I have not corrupted at least one, my life is but a vanity with a pension at the end.  


Rattles, though faint

August of 2013 was my last post.  Where was I?  I’ll begin to answer that by telling you where I was this morning.  It’s like amnesia therapy; tell us what you did this morning and maybe you can work your way back to cogency.  That may be asking too much of a blog, but I’ll try.

This morning, I decided to drive the one hour to just east of Lawrence, Kansas, to pick asparagus at John and Karen Pendleton’s farm.  This is not a new career venture as a seasonal agricultural laborer.  The Pendletons have a farm where you go out in the fields and pick what is available, paying for what you return to the barn carrying.  Other than ticks.  No charge for them.  I retrieved both green and purple varieties of asparagus, and speckled trout lettuce, much beloved of Jackson Pollack, I would guess.

I went out there alone, and that’s where the real story begins.  I’ve tried to get any number of friends to go with me, and the urgency in my requests always hinged upon how brief the asparagus growing season was, and how heavenly the flavor of freshly-snapped spears would be.  But everyone is busier than I, and now I am beginning to understand that fact is a part of the meaning of retirement.  It’s not that I don’t like or even function well in solitude, but it’s not the way my life is optimized.  It was a nice morning.  Yuja Wang played her sexy little fingers off on the car’s CD player both coming and going, and I even got to flirt with a young mother and her two children picking in the field close to me.  Pleasant enough.  But pleasant enough doesn’t cut it.  I haven’t more or less taken care of myself this long just to be minimally alive.  I want to thrive, and extensive, cold, impersonal solitude is that.  It’s just maintaining vital signs, itself a misnomer.

So that’s where I was this winter; maintaining vital signs and feeling as unvital as it is possible to feel.  One might think that the mere whisper of the topic of suicide would send some of you to report me to the mental health police, and the rest to plan an immediate intervention.  I’ll risk that.  Of course, I’m not thinking of suicide, and I know that because I have thought about suicide.  “Thinking of” suicide I take to mean contemplating the act itself and making it a genuine possibility at some point; “thinking about” suicide I take to mean analyzing and evaluating the act from the widest possible viewpoints.  I have been doing the latter this winter, and writing about it now is partially prompted by the fact that my father would have been 99 this month, and that he hanged himself in June of 1975.

My thoughts on this matter have been greatly influenced by the most recent writings of philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt.  I have taught a course dedicated entirely to those works for several years at my college, but next week I will turn in the final grades for the final iteration of that wonderful experience.  His writings, especially in “Reasons of Love,” describe and work through meaning in life and how it is found and cultivated.  His view, and I think he is right about this, is that love gives meaning to life more than any other component; love turns mere living into thriving.  And a crucial element of love must be self-love, a love of what Kant seemed to disparagingly term “the dear self.”  But love, whether of one’s dear self or of something else in one’s landscape, is not a matter of emotional response, or rational analysis, or even moral commitment.  It is a matter of the will.  In philosophical terms, it is volitional.

So, in thinking about life and its meaning for me, and its inevitable end, whether hastened or natural, I focused more on what it is like to will one’s end before its time, and whether that was a kind of continuity of willing life, or somehow contrary to it and antithetical.  And seen that way, the latter answer seems stunningly correct.  If willing is an integral part of the process of loving, then willing an end to living is also willing an end to loving.  I am far, far from ready to do something like that now.

But the trap, I believe, at least for most successful suicides, is that they think of suicide before they think about suicide.  Perhaps my father was that way.  He ministered so lovingly and tirelessly to others for so much of his life that he never prepared himself to be in the straits that he guided others out of.  And suicide was a taboo subject in that era, especially in religious atmospheres.  Maybe it still is.  If you don’t work your way around the conceptual and volitional issues concerning you own life, and its end, you may succumb to personal or emotional pressures and consider and act on suicide before understanding it more completely.  I was gratified that I could find some of the best advice about death from the author from whom I found some of the best advice about life, and love.

Though my personal life is a shambles of bad choices and mismatches, that’s not all there is to love.  I was reminded of that last night on the deck around 7:00, as the sun slid behind trees in the west, the temperature fell into the 70s, and most sounds were muted and utterly normal.  A basketball dribbled hesitantly around the corner.  Children playing peaceably.  Birds coming in for their last meal before sunset.  An indolent breeze hardly troubling the newly-sprouted leaves on the maples.  As I said recently, I am a wealthy man.  Were a woman I loved softly nestling one of my hands in hers as I sat there, I would be wealthier still.  But her absence does not impoverish me enough to make the rest of it meaningless.

That’s where I was.  It was not a pleasant place, but it was a productive place.  And, in the words of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful song, “I’m Still Here!”