Overall, I liked SLE a lot more this term than in previous terms.  The readings were more contemporary, so I could relate to them, gain from them, and write meaningful papers, and I meshed well with Greg Watkins, my section leader this term.  Because I’ve been so busy this quarter, I didn’t quite do 100% of the readings, but I made an effort to get through the ones that I found to be interesting.  And I sort of got the gist of the rest.

A side note: if you read much of this, you’ll notice that literary analysis occupies half of the pages.  This does not mean it has anything to do with the literary criticism that we do in lit class.  In my mind, the sole purpose of the humanities is inspiration.  It’s like Christianity: you can spend this life and the next bickering about theology, but its sole purpose is not theology but Grace.  As much effort as Stanford puts into researching the theory, I care about nothing but the practice, and for the sake of saving the world, inspiration is much more important than research.

So, as fun as the essays were, most of the learning occurred when doing the readings or discussing them.

Humor (3)

In the weekly SLE discussion sections, I learned how to tell a joke.

The driving force behind my push for more humor was my teaching experiences.  Debate is a group that pushes its people to devote all of their free time to academic pursuits, so debate coaches need to instill a community among its members.  Telling stories and jokes is one of the best ways to achieve that community.  Humor is also effective in terms of tutoring and teaching in general because when someone is laughing, it activates the same part of their brain that needs to pay attention.  In other words, jokes decrease daydreaming.

That’s not to say that I’m a class clown.  I just have learned how to make some of my observations succinct and humorous.  For instance, in our readings on feminism, we came to a question about marriage equality among genders.  The idea was that the man is culturally expected to work and the woman is culturally expected to take care of the kid.  This discourages women from getting an education or a career.  Someone advocated an “it takes a village to raise a child” system.  The section seemed very against that idea.  “One of the most natural things is for a mother to raise her child bla bla universal bla bla I love my mother bla bla bla.”  I interjected: “But what about me?”  The section broke out laughing.  I continued: “You’re so against a communal system because you say that it’s natural for mothers to raise their children, but you’re ignoring the question of men.  If the connection that a parent has with their child is important, then why is it acceptable for a society to deny fathers that connection?  It’s fine to disagree with the idea that a community should raise a child, but you’re disagreement with that idea is throwing out the basic idea of equality.”  In other words, I warm them up then take them down.

As the length of this letter demonstrates, my brain still associates writing with formality rather than humor, so my writing is either motivational, overly-academic, or just wordy.  While I know how to talk now, there’s still nothing interesting in my writing (in case you haven’t realized how true that statement was, that was a failed attempt at a joke).

I have realized how modular humor can be.  Humor is mostly awkwardness + irony.  That is, the world isn’t as you would assume, and you haven’t though enough about that particular irony to be comfortable with it, so you laugh to let off tension.  One of the modules that I use: one person says X ironic thing; I reply “I know that X is always true for me” or some variant.  I would give an example, but, out of context, it would suck out all of the humor that would ever enter whatever room you’re in.  People say tons of things in conversation that are ironic, so all that’s left is awkwardness.  And I’ve had years of practice at making conversations awkward.

I also am beginning to learn the limits.  In the meeting for a Sophomore College class that I’ll be taking in September (see “Sophomore College” at the very end), I made two moderately funny jokes.  Each of them succeeded in silencing the room.  I think people need to learn that I am intelligent before they are able to laugh at my jokes.  Otherwise, they just think I’m stupid.

The Reading List (1)

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill

Frankenstein, Shelley

Selections of romantic poetry

Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of History, Hegel

On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, Schleiermacher

Selections from Marx

Pere Goriot, Balzac

The Descent of Man, Darwin

Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche

To the Lighthouse, Woolf              

Selections from Freud

"The Waste Land", Eliot

Lenin's "The State and Revolution"

Selections from Beauvoir and Okin

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht

Survival in Auschwitz, Levi

Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt

The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon

The Stranger, Camus

Season of Migration to the North, Salih

Liberalism (2)

The quarter opened with Mill’s liberalism.  Not liberalism as in the modern American left, but rather the idea that there is no objective way to determine the Truth, so individual freedom should be prioritized over the enforcement of hierarchical social structures (ie, religion or totalitarian states).  Marx is typically cast as a critic of the limits of liberalism: in Marx’s industrial society, people had the ‘freedom’ to choose who to work for, but when a 14 hour per day sweatshop was the only industry in town, then all people were forced to choose that because people must eat, and that type of labor violates human nature by alienating the laborer because their work is not fulfilling or intellectually challenging. 

In my first paper, I tried to reconcile these two theories by focusing on the justifications that Marx and Mill use for their societies.  I argue that, at the core, both thinkers care most about creativity, and a society that cultivated creativity would be inbetween a communitarian and a liberal society.  A totalitarian interpretation of Marx would fail to achieve individual creativity, but an individualist interpretation of Mill would isolate creators from one another, destroying the creative community.  I use the metaphor of remix culture: just like academics cite others in their community, a strong community is essential to society, but it is still individual academics creating.  Or, with music, some of the best music contains allusions to other artists, or, like DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album (a remix of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay Z’s Black Album), by using the actual sounds from previous artists to create something new.

The first half of this term, like the previous two terms, was more about the history of western thought than thoughts directly relevant to me.  That is, Nietzsche is certainly an interesting philosopher, but the majority of his philosophy is not anything that I would ever advocate.  Similarly, Lenin was very insightful about the distributive harms of capitalism, and his revolution advanced Russia by leaps and bounds (doubling the average Russian life expectancy, among other things), but a violent revolution to overthrow the United States government is certainly not the correct tactic for the current historical moment.

Feminism (2)

Each of the readings after Lenin, though, spoke to me very strongly.  The literature was very similar to the things that I read in my own free time.  Beauvoir was one of the earlier feminist authors, so some of her ideas are problematic or overly individualistic, but most of her ideas are very useful.  Okin, a more recent feminist author, took a very policy-oriented approach, and I would love to see any of the policies that we read about enacted.  For instance, men and women aren’t paid equally for equal work.  Since laws against employment discrimination haven’t worked yet (women are still paid between 70 and 80 cents on the dollar), we could also try things like dividing pay equally between partners.  That is, if a man and woman are married, the man works, and the woman doesn’t, half of the weekly paycheck would go to the man and half to the woman.  This would solve a number of important gender issues.  Right now, if a woman wants divorce, she might be forced to stay married just for financial purposes, but splitting the paycheck would solve that.  If the man gets all of the paycheck, then even though the average housewife works about 60 hours per week, the man will own the house and have control of the bank accounts.  If the woman wants to divorce, she would have to get a job to support herself, find a place to live, probably find a way to take care of any children, and she will likely not have as much education as him; the man will have none of those disadvantages.  Compound that with the low payment rate of alimony and child support, and you have a very compelling policy.

Radical Responsibility (3.5)

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is about her experiences at the post-holocaust trial of Eichmann, a Nazi who, more or less, helped in organizing (though not so much in executing) the holocaust.  The book attacks the notion that evil is supernatural.  Eichmann was not drastically anti-Semitic.  Rather, evil is banal.  Eichmann just took orders.  He separated his personal morality from the morality of his job, so even if his actions as a Nazi were immoral, he didn’t take responsibility for them (particularly relevant in a society where people will pursue jobs that they consider immoral for money).  He lacked critical thinking skills, so he was fine with simply taking orders.  I particularly like Arendt’s conclusion.  She argues that the trial hung Eichmann for the wrong reasons, but he still deserved death.  She writes:

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder.  For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same.  And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.  This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Though I disagree with the death penalty, I like Arendt’s argument and philosophy overall because of my realizations that, as much as my philosophy disagrees with traditional values (since I believe, more or less, in utilitarianism, and values like ‘responsibility’ necessarily come second to preserving utility), I am fine with those values when they are taken seriously.  In other words, I don’t care about ‘responsibility’ when it means that a poor person who steals food out of necessity is held ‘responsible’ for their crime and punished but a person who buys clothes made in a sweatshop assumes no responsibility for actively support sweatshop labor conditions.  However, when someone actually believes in responsibility with zeal rather than solely when it is convenient, the result is good  even if it isn’t perfect utilitarianism.  I have come to similar realizations about ideals like Truth, Compassion / Sympathy, Duty, Hope, Community, Love, and Honor / Fidelity / Respect. 

May 15, outside of SLE lecture time, Rashi Jackman, one of the section leaders in SLE (he was never one of my section leaders, but he has always been a cool person to talk with or listen to), gave a talk on genocide.  His overall argument was that people need to realize their own individual responsibilities rather than assuming that the US government or the UN will take care of the situation.  This could mean raising awareness about the issues for yourself and your community, or it could mean volunteering overseas. 

One small disagreement that we have: Rashi focuses in on the personal connection that people have from volunteering, whereas I focus on the results, so I would be more likely to work and donate money to an organization like Oxfam because they will have a drastically more significant impact with my money than I would have with my time.  Part of Rashi’s point, though, was for the mass scale.  Not everyone knows or cares much about international issues, and Rashi’s idea is that if an individual expands their community a little bit (ie, volunteering in their local community), it will make it much more likely that they will expand their community a lot (ie, volunteering in the global community). 

Postcolonialism (2)

Fanon’s book is a psychoanalytic take on colonialism.  Even more than the book itself, though, I liked the introduction to the book by Sartre.  Partly, I like Sartre’s take on Fanon because, while Fanon focused more on colonialism, Sartre focused more on neocolonialism and the responsibility of everyday people living in industrialized nations in supporting neocolonialism.  I would go more in depth, but I wouldn’t do Sartre justice.

Salih’s novel is about the problem of cultural imperialism versus cultural relativism.  That is, in postcolonial society, the society is just now rebuilding its culture and recovering from a violent imposition of western culture.  At the same time, why have sympathy for a culture moreso than a person?  A culture cannot think or feel; it is just a construction.  In that sense, impositions of western feminism or the knowledge of how to build a well are good: if a culture is harmful to women and if an individual believes that all people should be treated with equal respect, then that individual should disregard the culture and help the people.

The book didn’t bring me to any definite conclusions, but it did remind me of how good my high school education was.  It took my Stanford course in western thought 3 terms and 60 books to get to one of the most relevant challenges of the 21st century.  In my International High School program in high school, I spent four years hashing out every angle of that issue. 

Non-Literary Stuff (1)

Each week in SLE, there are historical, related, or completely nonrelated lecturers that come in as a supplement to our literary lecturers.  So, in our unit on the holocaust, we had a lecture on modern day genocides.  Because contemporary genocides are one of the issues that I care a lot about, I already knew much of what the lecturer discussed, but there was also a very significant emotional element.  He had us watch the movie “Shooting the Dogs” about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and it was one of the more emotionally evocative movies that I have seen on the subject.

There were also some other cool lectures.  There was one on the history of electronic music by someone at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (they have the patent on the FM synthesizer.  It is one of the most lucrative patents that Stanford has.  And Stanford has a lot of patents).  The Darwin lecturer was one of the former presidents of Stanford (and maybe the founder of the Human Biology department?  I don’t remember).  Estelle Freedman gave the lecture on modern feminism – she’s one of the best lecturers on campus, and she knows a lot about feminism.  She teaches the Feminist Studies 101 every other year – I’m planning on taking it from her my Junior year.  We also had a lecture from Soren Johnson, the developer of the video games Civilization 4 and Spore.  He isn’t a professor, but it was still one of the best lectures that I’ve had.  More discussion of the lecture will follow in the Speakers section.

The Final (1)

My final was a 20 minute conversation with Rashi Jackman about modernity.  Basically, there were some broad philosophical questions (Is modernism the era of the individual?  Can you defend that the 20th century tells a history of progress?  Is moral relativism, because it cannot condemn evil, or moral absolutism, because it leads to intolerance, worse?), and I was encouraged to answer them using any of the works from this quarter.  It went by quickly, and I ended with an A.


Experience Type:

Experience Date: 
Saturday, June 20, 2009