Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 3—On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions, Section 2.

APP Editors’ Prefatory Note:

In “Philosophy Unbound,” we resolved to publish original works of real philosophy freed from the constraints of professional academic philosophy, come hell or high water.

Our first project flowing from that philosophy unbound resolution is the five-part, four-book series, The Rational Human Condition, which, starting on 3 July 2017, is being published by us here and on Medium, section-by-section, in weekly installments appearing on successive Mondays. The first installment of that is here.

The second project flowing from that same resolution is Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, which, starting on 28 July 2017, is hereby being published by us on APP and on Medium, in fourteen weekly installments appearing on successive Fridays.

Its author is Mark Anderson, who is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.

In both cases of The Rational Human Condition and Thinking Life, we’ve updated the 19th century mode of serializing novels and other literary works in hard copy, to works of real philosophy and the free-access internet.

Thinking Life will be of authentic, serious interest to all those who believe that real philosophy in general, and more specifically Plato and Nietzsche, are still worth thinking about, and simultaneously to all those who are either overtly or secretly APP.

After we’ve published all of Thinking Life, it will be deleted and later appear in paperback.


THINKING LIFE: A PHILOSOPHICAL FICTION

BY MARK ANDERSON

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Editor’s Introduction                                                                                      

1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions

Section 1

Section 2

2. We Scholars                         

3. Divine Madness                          

4. Hard Fate and Black Bile

5. The Wanderer and His Shadow

6. The Art of Philosophy

Epilogue

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The Next Installment

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CHAPTER 1.  ON THE DECLINE OF OUR EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS

SECTION 2

Of course I had come to similar insights prior to my encounter with the deer, and I have had them since as well. This particular episode is memorable for the pronounced contrast between my specific mental states before the encounter and after, but overall it was not unique in its general features. And this provokes a question pertinent to my story: why is it that almost every healthy human descends into a contemplative mood immediately upon observing a deer in the woods? It is true that this does happen, is it not? Imagine a man afoot in a woodland, agitated; imagine him unburdening himself of a garrulous gushing of words; imagine him in a sporting spirit or a violent passion; imagine him in love. Now picture to yourself this same man catching sight of a deer. Do not all haste and anxiety immediately flee from him? Does not his heart beat less rapidly? Does he not stand still as if in a dream or a meditative swoon? Yes, I am sure that he does.

Now ask yourself why this should be so. I say it is the stark encounter with nature. Something in our spirit knows that finally we have come home to the universal mother, merged into the innocent flow of becoming, that dark realm from which the thieving titan snatched us through the flame of self-reflective awareness. These I think are the deeper strata of the experience. But the effects of even the shallower layers are remarkable too. Every direct encounter with nature liberates us from the manufactured world within whose angular steel we daily enact our artificial roles. Street-sweeper, secretary, bond-trader, retailer; cabman and engineer; actuary and C.E.O; actor and academic. We did not evolve to inhale rubbish or to ingest iron filings, to slink about in the chill shadows of city skyscrapers, rarely beholding the sun or stars, to serve like drones the monotonous rounds of the factory conveyor belt, to “punch the clock.” The deer reminds us of our proper place in the natural order.

It is true that since we children of nature are the progenitors of mechanism and industry, the urban landscape of our construction is itself in a way a natural thing. Yet its fundamental unnaturalness is no less a fact. Natural life unobstructed begets natural life, as we do ourselves through the biological act of procreation. But our feats of mechanical engineering produce only sterile artifacts, dead things to which, madly, we sacrifice our living selves. An author of my acquaintance has written that in nature we encounter the mind of God and thereby are uplifted, whereas artifacts externalize the will of man, through which we are debased. There is a worthy insight here, or so it seems to me, even if I cannot assent to every assumption or implication of the thought precisely as expressed. The city is a source of alienation, both as a slab of synthetic matter dividing us from the skin of the earth, also as the locus of factitious routines that sever us from the purity of our innate human needs and inclinations. And one day even the green stretches between our cities will be cleared and overrun—the whole great round globe a uniform urban mass choked with clamor and commotion, a hurly-burly unending and unrelieved. This, with no haven of wood or deer for retreat.

Oh, life in this modern world is so ignoble, mean, and ridiculous that one can’t even call it tragic. But neither is it comic, for no one is laughing from high-spirited merriment. Sometimes I fear we are players in a cosmic farce, or a vicious satire of ourselves.

Such melancholy thoughts as these were worrying me as I sat before the window of my office on the morning on which my story properly begins. Powdery flakes of snow were falling to ground on the lawn below, blanketing the earth in quiet layers of repose. The dirty grey buildings of the city in the distance were obscured, the drone of its waking bustle muted, and all the world seemed pure, asleep and lost in innocent dreams. Troubled as I was by somber reflections, I was yet also at my ease. For sometimes it is comforting to nestle in one’s wistfulness, a posture that radiates an emotional warmth, as when in winter one wears a sweater indoors or lounges before the hearth fire.

But my morning’s reverie was not to last. A sharp knock disturbed my meditative quietude, and an envelope appeared beneath my door. A beige thing stamped with the crisp shameless lettering of bureaucratic officialdom. Inside was a memo issued by the so-called “Senior Administration” of my university. A fresh directive of compulsory chores to add to those announced earlier in the year.

“Every full-time employee shall henceforth, in addition to his or her regularly contracted obligations, discharge specific administrative and/or managerial duties as determined by Senior Administration and delegated by area Supervisors, including but not limited to etc. etc…

“Employees shall accomplish allocated tasks no later than the date as indicated by the relevant Supervisor upon issuance of notification, this date to be determined by the Supervisor, but never to exceed two weeks, or ten full working days, following the official allocation of assignments. Appeals and requests for accommodation shall be presented, in writing on official institutional letterhead, no later than twenty-four hours after receipt of designated assignments, to the employee’s immediate Supervisor, it being solely his responsibility to determine which appeals, if any, merit the attention of Senior Administration. In such cases final adjudication resides solely with Senior Administration in consultation with the Board.

“Of course we need not remind the staff that regular refusal to comply with the above directive shall result in official reprimands, with notices recorded on permanent file. Especially egregious violations shall be punishable by termination on grounds of insubordination, subject to official review by Senior Administration and the Board.

“We value your contribution and thank you in advance for your participation in our many exciting new endeavors. Etc. etc…”

The imposition of trifling new responsibilities extraneous to my regular obligations was now almost a monthly routine. And of course there was no negotiating. The much heralded “shared governance” ostensibly operative within the institution was no reality but only empty verbiage, claptrap disseminated for public consumption. One simply had to bite one’s fist and submit. For example, the University Council’s unanimously affirmed objection to the recent demand that professors increase the number of students in their lectures and tutorials, and that they document their activities by the hour on printed “schedule matrices,” all in the name of “efficiency, on the model of the most profitable corporations in our region”—this official protest was issued to no effect whatever.

Complying with these persistent demands to execute trivial clerical chores beyond the bounds of my academic expertise, and to conduct myself as an employee of a firm tasked only with maximizing profit, this siphoned time, energy, and (worst of all) enthusiasm from my life as thinker, writer, and teacher, a life on all counts more to be cherished than the tedium-death of administrative drudgery. Thus I grew more restive with every additional dictate, and the futility of attempting to reason with my superiors only deepened my frustration and resentment.

Over the course of several days following my receipt of this latest notification I brooded on my discontent until it hatched into a fit of rage. Late one afternoon before departing for the day I typed a memo of my own, addressed it to the Senior Administration, and deposited it in the mail bin on the reception desk of my departmental suite.

Dear Sirs,

I write to you today to offer my assistance, for it strikes me that you formulated your recently published vision for this university while suffering from an especially virulent strain of cognitive blight. My fear is that you have lost your wits, and that consequently you have misapprehended the relevant state of affairs. That is to say, you seem to believe that we professors have too little work to do. If this is so, I should like hereby to relieve you of the fancy that has lately bewitched your faculties. I can only assume that the proximate cause of your condition is ignorance of the nature of intellectual life, itself resulting from your living always under the influence of the grubby lust for money. I am sure that men who occupy your station, and who staff such managerial positions as yours, cannot easily help themselves. You are business men after all, and it is your business to increase revenue. I well know that some of you are fond of boasting of having once practiced as pedagogues yourselves; but I also know—as does every other instructor associated with this institution, permit me to assure you of this—that no genuine educator desires to inhabit the bland domain of administrative bureaucracy. Not for any stretch of time, that is. Oh, yes, one or another academic might be tempted occasionally; this is only natural, and due to our own brand of ignorance. But immediately the conditions and consequences of such a life are revealed, every true thinking man will throw up his hands and hurry back to his books and students. Books and students—hard as it is to believe, it seems that I must stress to you the following point, namely, that a professor’s vocation is to read and speak of books with his students. Also to conduct research, to think, and perhaps from time to time to conceive and compose his own written works. This appears to you a frivolous waste of time, I am sure. You imagine that we are malingering when we might instead be busy identifying and exploiting fresh ‘revenue streams,’ as I believe you refer to those whom men of my cast of mind call, simply, ‘people.’ Is it possible that you overlook the fact that your river of lucre will evaporate if you neglect to nourish it with the elements necessary to its survival? Must you be reminded—even if you think so meanly of yourselves as to conceive it your function as university officials to act as hawkers of goods and services—must you really be reminded that if you are to act as salesmen you must have access to a store of the relevant items on offer? And of the highest quality? Surely you understand that no business can flourish on the memory of a former glory, especially if the report is spread abroad that the place no longer merits its reputation. To put the matter frankly in terms you will appreciate: there will be no demand if you have nothing to supply. Now, the demand at issue is an education. But as you are not yourselves competent to meet this demand, you have need of scholars and teachers to supply it on your behalf, and they in turn require from you the provision of the resources to do their work well, unencumbered by needless burdens. Therefore I conclude by suggesting that you see to the mundane business of fattening your bankbooks, and allow us scholar-educators to keep our heads and hands pure of crass concerns, that we might be at liberty to do what it is that we know best how to do, which is to learn, and to share our learning with interested students. In other words and in short, in future please resist the urge to augment our responsibilities with the numerous little inane tasks that properly belong to you and your administrative staff.

Sincerely, etc.

I suppose it goes without saying that the recipients of my analyses and advice were none too happy with my input. Or rather, with me, personally. They communicated their displeasure to my area Supervisor, presumably quite vigorously, and he in turn called a meeting at which he informed the gathered members of several departments that the recent directive of Senior Administration was really quite unremarkable, that staff at similar institutions labored contentedly under comparable expectations, and he implied moreover that recalcitrant personnel were malcontents ungrateful for the opportunities our employment provided us. Had there been any doubts anteriorly, he thereby proved himself a flunky enforcer of his superiors’ every whim, no matter how ill-considered, rather than an aid and ally of those for whose benefit he was supposed to advocate.

The following day I was summoned personally to meet with representatives of Senior Administration. I dreaded the event, but more than that the whole affair infuriated me. To be subject to the power—I do not say authority—of such crass bureaucrats, who knew little, and cared even less, about the true substance and mission of the institution they managed, was deeply dispiriting. The rage came from the hopelessness of change. I shudder as I write these words to imagine my reaction had I be aware of the still more egregious degradation to which the university would soon be subject. But I defer any further treatment of these matters until I have introduced a theme more immediately relevant to the substance of my story. My first trip into the mountains.

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The Next Installment

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