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Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut

I recently finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano". I forgot to post my usual quote from Marcus Aurelius, so I thought I'd post this instead. Cheers! Back to Aurelius tomorrow!

"...nothing of value changed; that what was once true is always true; that truths were few and simple; and that a man needed no knowledge beyond these truths to deal wisely and justly with any problem whatsoever."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Meditations LXX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“The Pythagoreans were wont betimes in the morning the first thing they did, to look up unto the heavens, to put themselves in mind of them who constantly and invariably did perform their task: as also to put themselves in mind of orderliness, or good order, and of purity, and of naked simplicity. For no star or planet has any cover before it.”

There is something remarkable about gazing at the stars, and it always helps me put things in perspective. It reminds me of my place in the "grand scheme of things". Cicero said, "If a man can look on the stars and not feel the power of God, I wonder whether is capable of any feeling at all."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Meditations LXIX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“He that has not one and the self-same general end always as long as he lives, cannot possibly be one and the self-same man always.”

I always tell my students that the only way to make a difference in the world is to make a commitment to something. All true impact comes from committed individuals.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Meditations LXVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Meekness is a thing unconquerable, if it be true and natural, and not affected or hypocritical. For how shall even the most fierce and malicious that you conceive, be able to hold on against you, if you will still continue meek and loving unto him?”

Kill'em with kindness... Too often I have seen people try to meet hatred and anger with equal hatred and anger. These two fires only feed each other. The best way to throw cold water on such a situation is meekness. Many people wrongly think that meekness is weakness, but in truth, meekness always overcomes anger and hatred, and thus it is more powerful. This was the eternal message of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Meditations LXVII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Whether they have sinned or not, you do not understand perfectly. For many things are done by way of discreet policy; and generally a man must know many things things first, before he be able truly and judiciously to judge of another man’s action.”

So often, I can be quick to judge. I think there must be something in our human nature that disposes us to this tendency. But this quote is an excellent reminder to hold off judgement, because I often don't know all the facts of the situation, and even once I do know the facts, I'll never fully understand the inner dispositions of the person(s) involved.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Meditations LXVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“To live happily is an inward power of the soul.”

I was so excited when I read this. My best friend, Andrew, and I used to talk about this a lot. I firmly believe that the degree of happiness in our lives is determined more by our perspective and inner dispositions than by our circumstances. Of course, there are some circumstances that are beyond our control that can bring sorrow into our lives (e.g. the death of a loved one). But Andrew and I, long ago, observed that the source of most people's unhappiness in life was their own attitude and disposition toward their circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves.

I have tried, ever since, to remind myself often of this fact, and to approach the curve-balls of life with as positive an attitude as I can muster.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Meditations LXV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“There is nothing more shameful than perfidious friendship.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Meditation LXIV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“From justice all other virtues have their existence. For justice cannot be preserved, if either we settle our minds and affections upon worldly things; or be apt to be deceived, or rash, and inconstant.”

As usual, Aurelius has offered succinct insight into his topic. The two primary enemies of justice are greed and ignorance.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Meditations LXIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“When you are offended with any man’s transgression, presently reflect upon yourself; and consider what you yourself are guilty of in the same kind.”

As Jesus said, "Remove the beam from your own eye before attempting to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Who among us has never committed a transgression? Aurelius' advice here is wise and humbling.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Deliberation vs. Reaction: Education as Mystery

There was an excellent article in the NY Times on Sunday entitled "The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools" by David Kirp. He talks about a school district that is having tremendous success educating a demographic that traditionally does not perform well in school. Most of their ideas are common sense, but toward the end of the article he said this:

School officials flock to Union City and other districts that have beaten the odds, eager for a quick fix. But they’re on a fool’s errand. These places — and there are a host of them, largely unsung — didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy reaching from preschool to high school. Each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.

Upon reflection, this quote seemed to encapsulate nicely a tendency I've seen in many schools: to react instead of deliberating, planning, and executing. The essence of what makes a school great (i.e. solid curriculum, eager students, and a wise faculty) has not changed since Plato opened his Academy thousands of years ago. 

Yet in the United States, we are always looking for the panacea for our education "problems". We have become so obsessed with "evidence" (evidence of what?), "standards" (which, oddly, are open to wide interpretation and often are not standard at all), and "accountability" (accountable to whom? and for what?), that we have lost sight of the real purpose of schools: they should be a place for students to discover themselves and the world, a place focused on learning. The complication is that learning is an organic process; authentic learning doesn't happen on time tables. 

We are so hell-bent on trying to quantify and measure learning (which, I think the argument could be made, is a fools errand), that we have lost the essence of what makes learning great. In place of the living organic process that is authentic learning, we have substituted something dead, because it is easier to measure, because it stands still for us. 

Like an avid collector of butterflies, in trying to capture and, literally, "pin-down" a rare beautiful specimen, we have forgotten that to pin it down, we had to first kill it. In so doing, we took it out of its context. Butterflies weren't meant to be looked at in collections pinned-down to Styrofoam; they were meant to be seen in a fleeting glance, riding on the wind, passing us by before heading on to some other place, mysterious, tenuous, and elusive. So too with learning.

I would argue that we need to recapture, reconnect with, the elusive and mysterious side of learning, and embrace the fact that learning is not always perfectly describable and quantifiable. There are valid non-quantitative ways of evaluating learning. That, I believe, is the territory we must explore if we are to make our education system great.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Meditations LXII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“So live as indifferent to the world and all worldly objects, as one who lives by himself alone upon some desert hill.”

This is easier said than done. It fits nicely in line with Aurelius' stoic philosophy of detachment, but I question how practical it is for real living. I suppose there are some individuals who are able to live this way, and I'm sure there is something rewarding in it. But I wonder if perhaps the better message to take away from this is a more moderate one: understand the role worldly objects play in your life and your happiness (hopefully a minimal one) and recognize them for what they are: tools; without giving them too much power over you or your happiness.

On a joyous note, I have finished reading Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations", and will be posting the last 10-15 quotes over the next couple of weeks. I'm reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano" right now, and am getting a lot out of it. I think it'll be the next book I read analytically and share on the blog!


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Meditations LXI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Many of those things that trouble and straiten you, it is in your power to cut off, as wholly depending from mere conceit and opinion; and then you will have room enough.”

There is much truth in this quote, that our dispositions are largely dependent upon our perspectives and our willingness to let go of things. I often tell my students that learning to live well (to live happily) is the art of learning to let go.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Meditations LX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“And how many there are, who never so much as heard of your name, how many that will soon forget it; how many who but even now did commend you, but who within a very little while perchance will speak ill of you. So that neither fame, nor honour, nor anything else that this world offers, is worth the while.”

This is a little extreme for my taste: "nothing this world offers is worth the while"? I wonder if he wasn't near death when he wrote this. It seems decidedly more pessimistic than the rest of this text. I think there are things in this life which the world offers us which are worth pursuing and having. But I think we have to be on guard not to let those things dominate and rule our lives.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Meditations LIX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“As things were in the days of those whom we have buried, so are they now also, and no otherwise.”

Some quotes require no commentary.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Meditations LVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“This time that is now present, give to yourself. They that rather hunt for fame after death, do not consider, that those men that shall be hereafter, will be even such, as these whom now they can so hardly bear with. And besides they also will be mortal men. But to consider the thing in itself, if so many with so many voices, shall make such and such a sound, or shall have such and such an opinion concerning you, what is it to you?”

This is a perennial theme in Aurelius' "Meditations": don't be concerned with the opinions of others. There are so many more productive things I could be doing with my time rather than worrying about what other people think of me. In truth, what impact do their opinions have anyway? None. Opinion doesn't change anything.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Meditations LVII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“To look back upon things of former ages, as upon the manifold changes and conversions of several monarchies and commonwealths. We may also foresee things future, for they shall all be of the same kind.”

We have many sayings in English that convey this premise of a symmetry between the past and future. For example: "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it." But I wonder how true it is. In some ways, this idea is manifestly false. The computer, the satellite, the vaccine, and other technologies have changed life irreversibly.

On the other hand, as I have commented on this blog before, I always find it amazing how appropriate and fitting some of the things that these authors wrote thousands of years ago are to us today. To me, that hints at the possibility that there are aspects of the human condition which are immutable: friendship, love, family, etc. Some of these things, and all their associated joys and headaches, were part of life before recorded history, and they will always be part of life as long as humanity continues.

But even some observations related to power and money seem perennially true as well. Even though our governments, armies, and economies are considerably larger and more powerful than those of several thousand years ago, the same kinds of temptations of exploitation seem to be present. The same kinds of personalities of domination seem to prevail.

Under that lens, it seems strange that all of the changes of the 20th century haven't had that much impact on what is fundamental to us as humans after all.

Food for thought!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Meditations LVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Either teach them better if it be in your power; or if it be not, remember that for this use, to bear with them patiently, was mildness and goodness granted to you.”

I try to keep this in mind as a teacher. Patient forbearance is something I have worked very hard to develop, and I try to exercise it in the classroom. But it can be very challenging. This generation of students can be both hard to teach and hard to bear with, because they live in cocoons of technology, purposefully isolating themselves from outside influences (or at least from the influence of people who are not their technological peers).

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Meditations LV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“You are bound nevertheless to be a good man, and what it is that your nature requires of you as you are a man, be not diverted from what you are about, and speak that which seems to you most just: only speak it kindly, modestly, and without hypocrisy.”

Excellent advice here: 1) do not be distracted from your goal or purpose ; 2) say what is just, but do it with kindness, modesty, and without hypocrisy.

For some people, staying focused on their goal/task/purpose is a challenge, and the first part of this advice might be more relevant. But for me personally, the second part is more challenging. I often want to speak my mind (what, to me, seems "just"), but I do not always do it kindly, modestly, or without hypocrisy. There's the real rub. It's so easy to take an easy swipe at someone else in sarcasm or casual conversation even though it's not nice. It's so easy to brag or boast without modesty. And it is always easiest to see my faults in others and to criticize them for it rather than correct the fault within myself. So, as with much of Aurelius' advice, it is good advice, but hard to follow!

Cheers! Keep reading!

PS. I recently finished a great book by Steven Strogatz entitled "The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity". I highly recommend it!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Meditations LIV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“All things both good and evil come to pass according to the nature and general condition of the universe, and within a very little while, all things will be at an end; no man will be remembered.”

I've always liked this quote, because it reminds me that eventually, all things will be forgotten and erased. So there's no need to trouble much over things. It always recalls Shelley's poem "Ozymandias":

I met a traveler from an antique land 
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal these words appear: 
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: 
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.