Thursday, 17 March 2011

the value of literature to a liberal education

I'm a true believer in the educational value of political and philosophical ideas as expressed in oratory and well-crafted dialogue in literature. This is liberal arts in the flesh. The continuous historical strands of thought and expression of humanity are the purview of "classical education" and can be discerned in the difference of quality between, say, Canadian and American Literature.

The difference in quality has to do, in part, with our respective collective educational histories. In America, "classical education" persisted much longer than in Canada. In classical education, grammar, logic and rhetoric form the basis of primary and secondary curriculum. But "grammar" in classical-type education is not just about the mechanics and structure of language; rather, it comprises of the mechanics and structure as well as, more importantly, analysis and discussion of ideas behind the literary classics where insights and questions of substance are to be gotten.

We seem to have forgotten that philosophy is not just about reading some dead guy's navel-gazing. Philosophers like Sartre, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzche, etc. are navel-gazers - dense, pedantic and obscurantists - and give the wrong impression that philosophy is intellectually hard and wears "boring" as a badge of honour. Philosophy is rather more about asking and reflecting upon basic questions of what makes us human, about justice not only as an idea but how the world would look like if it were applied to individuals, society and our outlook and collective behaviour.

I see and perceive philosophy in popular works yet: In movies, in books, in song, it touches and inspires me, and angers me in the context of current events like the threat of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, in the political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. I see these things and events in philosophical terms and think much as the fictional US President, James Marshall (Harrison Ford) in the movie, Air Force One:

"The dead remember our indifference. The dead remember our silence."

I came here tonight to be congratulated. But today when I visited the Red Cross camps, overwhelmed by the flood of refugees fleeing from the horror of Kazakhstan, I realized I don't deserve to be congratulated. None of us do. Let's speak the truth. And the truth is, we acted too late. Only when our own national security was threatened did we act.

Radek's regime murdered over 200,000 men, women and children and we watched it on TV. We let it happen. People were being slaughtered for over a year and we issued economical sanctions and hid behind a rhetoric of diplomacy. How dare we? The dead remember. Real peace is not just the absence of conflict, it's the presence of justice.

And tonight, I come to you with a pledge to change America's policy. Never again will I allow our political self-interests to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right. Atrocity and terror are not political weapons and to those who would use them: Your day is over.


I may be naive and a dreamer. But if the real world comprises only of inescapable double-binds and cynical contradictions as we have seen in the inaction and hand-wringing of the West regarding the current political unrest in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, etc. I'd say the real world created by corporatism and economic self-interest is truly insane.


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