How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.

Do It Yourself America: The Declaration of Independence

This entry on the Declaration of Independence means skipping ahead a little in the reading list, which can be found in the link above the picture. Sometimes, though, circumstances can change your order, even when reading the classics.

Every Fourth of July in Boston, the Declaration of Independence is read from the Old State House downtown, just as it was in 1776. In 2014, the reading was moved to Faneuil Hall because of Hurricane Arthur. I had gone down to hear the Declaration read, as I have done every year I have lived in Boston. I got to the Old State House and found that it had been moved.

After walking over to Faneuil Hall, I found that the hall was full and no one else was being admitted. There was at least one man with his kids who was very disappointed that they would not hear it this year. After thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that the rebels who started the country would not have been put off by a full hall.

I walked into the shop area of the Hall and bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were only a few drops of rain. I walked out into the area between Faneuil Hall and the shops of the marketplace, and said that since we could not get into the Hall, we could do our own reading.

I started to read, and a small group gather, with one man encouraging me to read on.

The Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of the United States, and it is a product of its times, enumerating the problems that the colonists had with England. At the same time, it sets out some of the ideas that make the country what it is, and reveals some things about human nature.

The writers of the Declaration make an observation that I think is fascinating: “accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I can’t help but read this sentence without thinking about what evils are ‘sufferable’ and how do people make that determination. Despite some of the outlandish rhetoric that finds its way into the public discourse in the United States today, we do not suffer under the same kinds of tyranny that existed then, or that exist in other parts of the world today.

It is hard to know how one can identify an insufferable evil — do we need to have a certain amount of knowledge to do so? In places like North Korea, do they realize that another way of life in possible in a totalitarian regime that offers so little to the average citizen? I have said before, one of the most important reasons to study the humanities is to recognize our own humanity and that of others. It is to give us the self-awareness to question those who would set themselves up as our leaders or try to control us. The humanities give us tools to help develop a code of honor and a wider awareness to understand how to live. While we can do it without books, they help us avoid needing to reinvent the wheel.

What the Declaration teaches us about the United States is that the founders never saw it as a heredity nation. I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, that the fundamental notion of the United States is that its people are a political people. In other words, it is our agreement on certain principles that make us Americans, not the accident of our birth location or our genetic heritage. These fundamental principles are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss these words because they were part of a document signed by slave owners. It is tempting to point to the history of the United States and the many times that it has failed to live up to these words and declare that they are empty and meaningless.

Instead, what we should realize is that the existence of these words gave the United States something to live up to, something to strive for. These words gave us something to consider as we strove with battles over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They are with us today as we deal with ongoing problems of freedom and justice for everyone.

It is worth noting too, that the language in the Declaration gives hints of what is to come, and the outlining of grievances against the British Crown provide a framework for the Constitution that was to come and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration describes how the colonists “have Petitioned for Redress int he most humble terms:” which presages the First Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ending of the  Declaration provokes some interesting thoughts as well.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

I feel like we have lost a little of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence as time has worn on. Even in our language, we have moved away from the idea of the United States as a political entity towards one of a state where people are born to it. We have a “Department of Homeland Security.” We are afraid of immigration. We hold ideas about people that run counter to the high ideals set out in the Declaration.

Our country may be in danger of falling short of those ideas again. But we still have them to guide us, and we still have the ability to live up to them. It will take work, but I think that we can do it. We just need to remember these ideas and study them.

 

 

A Driving Force Behind Keeping the Classics Relevant

This is an article about Amy Thomas Elder, who runs the Odyssey Project for the Illinois Humanities Council. This program provides college level classes that focus on the humanities for free to low-income people.
When I heard about the Odyssey Project, I wanted to write a freelance article about it. I called and left a message, and I got a call back from Amy. She said “We need volunteers, are you in or out?” Not a lot of fooling around. So, I said “I’m in” and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I learned a lot and hope that I helped others do the same.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/life/ct-tribu-remarkable-elder-20130127,0,4397907.story

More on Why We Need the Humanities

This column from The New York Times talks about why the humanities are important.

In today’s technical age, it is easy to focus on technical skills and knowledge as the pinnacle of knowledge. It is interesting to note that technical does not necessarily mean scientific, in that even the deniers of science, such as creationists, flat earthers, and climate change deniers have no qualms about using technology to spread their messages.

But part of the reason that we can’t have reasonable conversations, and we can’t deal well with many of the issues facing us is that we do not have the language or knowledge of ourselves and of philosophy to do so. We don’t grapple with the larger questions.

This article starts to discuss that. While there are bigger questions than can be handled in a single column, it is a start. I like to think this blog is part of exploring this question in a larger way.

“Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. ”

There are some problems in this article in that I think there is more to it in terms of what kind of work you do and what kind of person you are, but this is a start.