Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupy Aristotle

Occupy Harvard set up camp in the Yard (with tents that "look like they belong to the 1 percent," as one of my students observed) earlier this month, provoking the Administration to lock all but four of the gates into the university's main quad, which is now only open to Harvard ID holders. Miss Self-Important has mixed feelings about this. Every morning, she must decide between getting coffee or getting to Latin on time b/c the walk to class has been extended by half a mile (Latin timeliness has suffered dramatically). In the initial confusion of the occupation, there was only one tiny gate open for both entrance and exit, and it would take 20 minutes of standing in line to be permitted to leave, making me and my students all late for my discussion section on causes of revolution in Aristotle's Politics. Eventually though, we were able to occupy the classroom in order to occupy Aristotle. On the other hand, the patent absurdity of the "occupation" by approximately seven people (at least judging by the repetition of the names quoted in the articles) has provided a steady stream of entertainment from the Crimson.

In response to complaints from the freshmen living in the Yard whose mobility is hampered by the protest, we learn that
“Student inconvenience is not on the level of global oppression,” said Sandra Korn ’14, who is also a Crimson editorial editor. “I have little concern for students who have to walk 30 seconds more to get to CVS.”
So local oppression is ok as long as it's in the name of fighting global oppression. When inclement weather broke the iron wills of some protesters, the movementarians responded
that the Occupy Harvard movement does not require a large number of people for the tent city in the Yard to remain active. “We don’t need all of our tents to be 100 percent full all the time,” Whitham said. “We just need to make sure there are enough people to hold down the fort in the encampment, and I think we’ll be ok.”
Or maybe they don't even need to be 1 percent full 99 percent of the time? Why not just pitch 'em and leave? The university will treat a cluster of empty tempts just as diplomatically as it's treating a cluster of half-empty tents, and Drew Faust will issue press releases extolling free speech for tents if she has to. Harvard is very protest-savvy. This is no small issue--if you've ever done any college "activism," the scripts for this event will sound familiar to you.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Catching up

I guess a lot of things happened in the past two months? Or maybe it just seemed that way to me from the vantage of my tiny cubicle in the windowless grad student office. If we hope to catch up, let us begin. In October, as I was teaching the books he first taught me, my favorite professor, known on this blog as "hum professor," died. The magazine I edited in college asked me to write something about him since he was the magazine's faculty advisor. Here is, more or less, what I sent them and what I now send you.

There aren't many people like Herman Sinaiko around at universities--people who spend their entire lives, more than half a century at the same institution. Sinaiko taught in the Humanities Core and in eccentric programs like Fundamentals and Big Problems and ISHUM, but he wasn't the Humanities Core or ISHUM or any of those things--he was the whole university. He had been so involved in its workings for so long that, as far as I could see when I studied with him, he contained the whole thing. I once took a reading course with him on the history of American education, for which I read people like Robert Hutchins and Wayne Booth, while he simply narrated the history of the College--the original curricular debates and the late '60s unrest and the later Core reform debates of the '90s. There also aren't many people who do what Sinaiko did—dedicate themselves to teaching undergraduates. He was also a great supporter of student organizations, among them, this magazine, for which he served as faculty advisor since its inception in 2006.

Sinaiko started his classes with Plato, and sometimes also with Homer. Greek Thought and Lit opened with the Iliad rather than the Apology, but Sinaiko's argument was no less Platonic. Consider the rage of Achilles, the class began. (And began, and began again. Sinaiko once explained his tendency to get so caught up in the openings of books that he rarely made it through the whole work in one quarter: “You’ll have to forgive me. I have a passion for beginnings.”) Achilles is angry that Agamemnon stole his concubine. What's the import of such a little slight? Just look at Zeus and Hera—he insults her and they go to bed together that very night. The immortal gods don't understand insults. They get irritated, and they cut down a few dozen men, and then they make love. But they don't understand rage, and what it means to have your own—your family, your honor, your life—threatened. Sinaiko told a story about someone breaking into his house one night while his children were sleeping, and how, thinking of his children, he understood what it really meant to "see red"—the closest thing to Achilles' rage he had experienced. The gods don't understand that you can't get these things back once they're gone. They have all this power, but no understanding—their lives are wanton and meaningless, and in this respect, hardly better than those of beasts. We understand, and we long for things--material things and other people, but also justice and beauty and truth--precisely because we know we will die.

The wrath of Achilles costs the Greek army the lives of hundreds of men. It nearly costs them the war. The Iliad is full of dozens of deaths, each described individually. Each death matters. Our deaths matter to us; they spur us to live consciously and make living well a matter of literally mortal importance. These were—loosely, of course—the lectures on the Iliad. Then he found a place for the Apology—he pounded on the table and yelled, "You will all die! And what kind of life will you live in light of that?" A week or two later, reading the scene in Book XXIII in which Sinaiko particularly loved in for its dramatic recognition of this demand—the one in which Achilles comes to Priam's tent to hand over Hector's body—I found myself unaccountably crying over it, to the consternation of the other patrons on the second floor of the library.

But to be reduced to tears by Priam's appalling tragedy in the university library is not, after all, a final recognition of one's mortality. It's a hint, a moment of poetic clarity that may move one to probe further, read more, work later, sacrifice small pleasures for more substantial goods.But to be reduced to tears by Priam's appalling tragedy in the university library is not, after all, a final recognition of one's mortality. It's a hint, a moment of poetic clarity that may move one to probe further, read more, work later, sacrifice small pleasures for more substantial goods. In Aristotle’s Ethics,which Sinaiko taught in the third quarter of Greek Thought and Lit, Priam’s fate clarifies why external goods can neither create nor destroy happiness. It demonstrates why the good life is worth striving after, why it’s still wretched to “choose the life of fatted cattle” who seek consolation in transient pleasures, even in the face of the enormous uncertainty and fragility of human life.

Valuing liberal education at Chicago meant valuing the Core, and the possibility of being told by other people who know something you don’t what is important—necessary, even—to learn. This kind of authority is rare and rarely accepted, perhaps for good reason, but perhaps not; some people might deserve such deference. Sinaiko was the first teacher I'd ever encountered who seemed to know more than the contents of a textbook. He took literature and philosophy seriously, he took his students seriously, and he remained unfazed by the demands for practical application and the accusations of irrelevance leveled at the humanities from outside the university. It may be objected that this is an education founded on prejudice, since none of us can actually know the value of a liberal education before we receive one, but all education—even one that claims to offer infinite choice but really relies on whatever ill-founded ideas have chanced into the mind of an 18-year-old—begins from prejudice. Starting with Plato is not, I think, the worst way of dealing with the difficulties of foundational prejudices.

Sinaiko’s death is a tremendous loss for the University, and particularly for the College, which has benefitted immeasurably from his erudition and dedication. The highest life in Aristotle’s Ethics, which Sinaiko taught in the third quarter of Greek Thought and Lit, is the contemplative life, and Sinaiko served as an exemplar of such a life—the first that I’d ever met--for thousands of college, graduate, and even high school students. Aristotle says of such meetings that, "It would seem that payment ought to be made to those who have shared in philosophy; for the value of their service is not measurable in money, and no honor paid them could be an equivalent, but no doubt all that can be expected is that…we should make such return to them as is in our power." Because teachers like Sinaiko are rare, their students are correspondingly numerous—Sinaiko’s reputation ensured that his Hum courses always required a pink-slip—and so, one hopes, will be the returns they make for his teaching.