Saturday, January 02, 2016

Don't let Peter Pan lead you astray

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, adulthood, personal growth

I was not expecting a book of philosophy. I selected Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, by Susan Neiman, as an end-of-year wildcard. Never have I so enjoyed reading a book of philosophy.

I confess that I have not read through the books of the "great philosophers". I never even finished The Republic by Plato. I have read quite a number of articles and even monographs, but always found the labor involved to decipher their turgid writing yielded little or nothing of use to me, so I eschewed their longer works. Instead, I have read various summaries, synopses, syntheses, and collections of extracts. I did read all of Who Needs Philosophy by Ayn Rand, and concluded, either Objectivism is no valid philosophy, or there is a genuine Objectivism out there that is quite different from her brutal scheme. I haven't found it, and I certainly don't consider I am capable to create it.

Come to think of it, I did read Dao De Jing by Lao Tzu, more than once. And if The Holy Bible is considered philosophical, or to contain philosophy, then that counts. Not much of a foundation, would you say? Yet one concept from Rand's book stuck with me: Note that her title does not include a question mark. It is instead a statement, that Everybody needs philosophy. I find this echoed in Dr. Neiman's book, though she might shudder at the thought. She does not come right out and say, "Philosophy is too great a matter to be left to the philosophers," but she comes close.

So the question remains, Why Grow Up? I would ask, Where do we see examples of genuine grownups to emulate and learn from? Are there some Adults out there, so we can see what adulthood is like? Has anybody grown up?

Step into any Men's restroom on the planet, and you'll be surrounded by evidence that few "men" were properly raised. Even in the Men's rooms of workplaces, where you wouldn't expect anyone under about 20 years old to enter the place.

So, our author asks, why indeed should we grow up? What's in it for us? A major theme, and perhaps the major theme, of philosophy is "How to grow up." The prerequisite to this is "How to think." Not what to think, but how, because very few ever learn how. People substitute almost everything for thought: their decisions are based on hunches, feelings, whatever their friends did or might do, what this or that "authority figure" says, and so forth.

I noticed when our son was in High School, that the program placed great emphasis on "critical thinking". But I realized, too late, that what he was really taught was how to avoid thinking critically, being rewarded only for regurgitating the thoughts of others who were the most "politically correct". Every attempt at genuinely critical thought was squelched, ridiculed, and rewarded with a low grade.

Fortunately, he found a refuge, for a time, in poetry. His main English teacher was "adult" enough to value her students' poetic efforts on their own merit, and our son wrote some very touching poems. The teacher called me once, to ask if our son was OK; one of his poems had made her "cry and cry". He wasn't suicidal or anything, was he? I asked her to read some of it to me, and then I asked, "Isn't this pretty ordinary teen angst? It is just more eloquently expressed than usual. I think that is a good thing." Hey, kids, do you want an A in English? Y'gotta know your teacher, but if she cries over your poetry, that's probably a good sign.

Why is it that the education system, with its stated mission of preparing valuable grownups, seems to do the opposite? Dr. Neiman points out something Immanuel Kant stated several times (and he probably had learned it from others): Governments prefer to govern dependent children, not independent adults. That goes for most teachers also. The more independent a student is, the harder she is to teach, and the more of a teacher's time she'll consume. So "teacher's pets" are the sweet, quiet, studious "tape-recorder" kids who do everything the teacher wants, and nothing the teacher doesn't want.

Some might quote Matthew 10:24: "The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master." (NIV) They may not realize that Jesus was talking about the level of persecution his disciples could expect; he was saying, "Don't expect to be treated better than I was, if you have learned well from me." He later told his disciples that they would do greater works than he had done. A wise professor who may never aspire to a Nobel Prize or Field Medal will be immensely gratified to have a student who is so honored.

Why Grow Up? reviews the writings on education of Kant, Rousseau and others, to conclude that, try as we might, we never really finish growing up. Yet that is no reason to abandon the effort. Learning begins when a tiny child first encounters frustration. A particularly diligent mother may be able to meet every need of her infant, but at some point there will arise a need that must be deferred or denied. It often comes with the first tooth, when the infant bites the nipple, only to have it withdrawn. Usually, a few repetitions of this will teach the child to withstand the temptation to bite until there is something else to bite; nipples are not to be bitten. Or the mother will switch to a bottle and let her sore breasts dry out.

To the infant's way of thinking, every need, even every faint desire, ought to be instantly fulfilled (many so-called grownups still think this). But the little one soon learns the word No, whether or not it is accompanied by corporal "consequences". These are the first lessons on the difference between "ought" and "is". Much of our learning, including our schooling, is devoted to learning the difference between "the way things ought to be" and "the way the world is." But the little frustrations behind the word "No" to a toddler will soon be superseded enormously by the major inequities of the world. Little children are bullied by big ones; the big ones may find themselves inwardly distraught that they are hated, but they usually respond with more bullying. Teachers do have "pets", who typically consume 1/3 or 1/4 of the available "A" grades, or even all of them in smaller classrooms. By High School graduation, many, many youngsters have heard, and may also say, "You can't win. You can't break even. You can't even get out of the game." In the quest for being loved and feeling useful, there is plenty of fodder for teen angst!

Thus, our author asks, "How do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?" (p. 75) We find a discussion of the tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes". Why is it that the child was wiser than the older folks (I dare not say, the grownups; they weren't)? It is not just that a child has no filter. An adult with no filter can be very unpleasant. The tale states this was a little child, one young enough to be indulged. Had a ten-year-old been the one exposing the emperor's dishabille, he'd have been shushed, dragged to the back of the crowd, and smacked. But a toddler? Just old enough to speak clearly, too young to be blamed for frankness, and just persistent enough to insist that he really does see an emperor in underclothes. These are qualities that Jesus also valued, and exhorted his disciples to become like such a child, if they were to have a place in his kingdom.

One of my favorite passages from the New Testament is in Ephesians 4, ending with verses 13 and 14: "…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming." Isn't this the perfect antidote to the deceitful tailors? This also answers, "What is in it for me?" Does avoiding being stolen from sound like a good thing? Does the wisdom to trip up scammers, phishing, and fast-talking, pushy salesmen appeal to you? Grow up!

Dr. Neiman gives us the best bits of Kant and others, without the drudgery of their badly written prose, to show that we need both reason and sense plus experience to attain good judgement. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was not meant to turn us to thoughtless bundles of feelings, but to drag people into some kind of balance, contrary to the philosophy of Hume and others. Drink too deeply of Hume, and a person may learn to analyze any situation to the tiniest atoms, without achieving the slightest insight into why they go together this way and not that, or what usefulness might result.

I like the proverb, "Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement." The beauty of human communication is that not all the bad judgement from which we gain experience has to be our own. When someone has a tale of woe, mark it well and learn from it. I'd add another proverb: "Learn all you can from others' mistakes. You don't have time to make all the mistakes yourself". That is the beginning of growing up.

I truly enjoy the way Susan Neiman writes. She brings us a heavy subject with a light touch.

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