Mastering the Human Event: Why the Human Event? (III)

In this third and final post about why the Human Event is the cornerstone of your Honors education, I will follow-up our previous post on why books, especially material books with printed letters in them, are the key technology, the preferred medium, in which to confront the “key social and intellectual currents” of human history. In this post I will explain the practical reasons books and printed texts help fulfill the course emphasis on “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing.” But first, a warning by way of the irrepressible Calvin:

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Our friend Calvin has walked unawares into one of the great dangers of reading books. There is nothing more dangerous than a book and a library. Within them are the seeds for the overthrow of the world…and your own convictions. Revolutions are spawned in the library. Stroll through Hayden one day and observe shelf after silent shelf of sheathed swords. Some of them seem to have been asleep for centuries. But they aren’t. Like Calvin’s Hobbes, there are many among them that are tigers crouching behind the door, waiting to spring upon you.

Many Human Event students will report on their course evaluations things like Calvin says in the second panel: “this course presented me with perspectives and ideas I had never before considered…it was awesome.” You might appreciate that such experiences as you’ve read have been important to some humans in history and even today. But if you are actually doing close reading, like Calvin has, some of these texts might provoke some unlooked for self-examination to occur. Recall my earlier post, “Who Are You?” If you are asked to read a poem, a Greek tragedy, an Eastern religious work, an historical report of colonial practices, a philosophical examination of virtue, or any number of other works, and your answer is like Calvin’s in the last panel, then the Human Event is not for you. It indicates that your mind is made up and that developing new habits of mind, to explore “key social and intellectual currents” that challenge the established patterns and conclusions of your thinking, or even which you find offensive, is not an education that you value. Mind, to unsettle and complicate your life is not the point of the Human Event, but if you perform the necessary close reading of the texts, it is a possible, even likely, byproduct. Here be dragons, so prepare yourself accordingly.

Now, what is the connection between reading books, dangers notwithstanding, and the Human Event course aims of developing your abilities in “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing?” Let’s connect the dots from books to these abilities.

A. G. Sertillanges wrote, “We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading.” However, to develop the intellectual powers needed to “read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience [“the horizon” Sertillanges speaks of] analytically and disinterestedly,” you need the right content and the right method of reading that content.

The “right” content of the primary sources you will read is not the specific ideas advanced by the author of the work, though these are crucial to perceive and understand and you will need to note and think about them carefully. No text should be approached as if it were an unquestioned repository of wisdom, though the intellectual virtue of charitable reading should be your default posture toward them. No, many of the works you will read in the Human Event have been selected because their authors exemplify the very habits of mind that Barrett seeks to teach you. This is why books that can be read and understood desultorily are unsatisfactory, and why secondary sources like Wikipedia and Sparknotes will be of no help whatsoever in thinking critically about what you read.

Sertillanges goes on to describe why desultory reading is of no avail:

What we are proscribing is (…) the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.

The problem with only reading works that themselves don’t exemplify the ability to examine core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly is that they dull rather than sharpen your mind. Wikipedia, Sparknotes (not to mention almost all content written for the web) and other sources written with the express intent of being read desultorily (because they reduce the original material for you to what you “need” to know and therefore have already done your thinking for you) atrophy your intellectual powers, making you less capable of reflection and concentration, and of resisting the ebb and flow of ideas and images that have your momentary attention.

The “right” method of reading the texts is close, or studious, reading. Here’s the logic. You are assigned books of lasting value to read, so you ought to study what you read. And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to take notes. And if you take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. The point of close reading is ultimately to evaluate critically what you read. Ingest the good, reject the bad, but not on subjective bases, like whether you “like” what you read or not. Rather, critical evaluation of what you read must be done on careful analysis of the material and the disinterested weighing of its merits and demerits. This requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible. Remember, forming intellectually powerful habits of mind is the name of the game. This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned ideological sovereignty, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow critical thinker. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it.

You will need the right tools to do close reading well. medieval-scribe-aberdeen-bestiaryA comfortable chair and desk. Accessories such as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks. Water, tea, a cup of coffee. Atmospherics and location that will encourage your focus on studious reading, be it a particular playlist or silence, indoors or outdoors, in a library, a study room, a park, your dorm room.

Use a good dictionary to look up any words that are unfamiliar. Look up characters, places, or events that are unfamiliar in an encyclopedia (here Wikipedia may be a helpful resource, but use it cautiously). Find a system of annotations that works for you. Marginal notes are essential. Transpose and arrange your marginalia into more developed thought and commentary. Although your learning style might lend itself to nonlinear notetaking, I recommend that you not leave your notes in such forms (maps, trees, etc.). Ultimately, you will be required to write a reading response or an argumentative essay that draws from the text. You will save yourself a lot of trouble if you take the time at the time you read the work to impose a linear, sequential arrangement to your ideas. So apply some systematic method, such as SQ3R or the Cornell system, to organize and structure your notes. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.

I will discuss more tips and suggestions for reading and annotating in future posts, but I conclude this “Why the Human Event?” subseries with the connection between reading books and the writing you will do in the Human Event. Reading books that must be studied to be understood is essential to becoming a good writer. “We learn to write by reading,” as Leo Strauss puts it. Here’s more from Strauss’ excellent insight:

It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written.

In my next post we’ll turn to that decision that worries so many incoming Barrett freshmen: selecting your Human Event instructor.

Mastering the Human Event: Why the Human Event? (II)

We are continuing our examination of the Human Event course description to understand why the Human Event is required of Barrett Honors students and how it aims to help you develop habits of mind that will help you reach your full potential. In this post, we’re going to look at why so much reading is required in the course.

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Recall from the course description that you will be confronted by some of the “key social and intellectual currents” in human history. The means for this is through the medium of texts. And that means mostly books. But not always. Here are some texts you may be assigned:

    •   Unabridged, printed books
    •   Unabridged, electronic books
    •   Full selections and extracts of literature in a printed anthology
    •   … in a course reader
    •   … in electronic form
    •   Images of works of architecture or works of art
    •   Musical selections

Each of these is a text. Some you already know how to read. Others will require you to learn how to read. You may be expected to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” to give just two examples, and discuss it like you would a book or story. Relax and sit down. Your HFF will teach you what you need to know. NB: not all HFFs assign non-written texts. Many do, but not all. In a future post I’ll tell you how to find out what texts to expect from your HFF.

Most of your texts will be reading selections. So let’s talk about books for a minute.

Many of you are already fond of reading. That’s good. It helps. But you will need to develop skills in close reading. What is close reading and why will you need to read this particular way? And what does this have to do with books?

Glad you asked. Once you read my answers, you’ll understand a lot better what you’re in for and also whether the rigors of this course are really compatible with your college goals.

Most reading we do in these days of text and image mediated to us electronically is desultory. This type of reading is precisely the opposite of what I mean by close reading. Why is most of our reading these days desultory? Because the medium through which we do most of our reading is designed to deliver content that is ephemeral, unsystematic, and rapidly grasped. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but the habits of mind required to consume content intended to be served in a desultory fashion are at odds with those habits required to think about and study what you’re reading, reflect on those thoughts, and have a plan while doing so. Allow me to digress a moment on this irreducible problem of the medium.

As philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich observed in a 1991 speech before educators in Berlin, you are no longer born into an institutional web—home, school, entertainment, civic life, etc.—that makes you grow up around the metaphor of the lettered page. This metaphor had been essential for the university to appear as “the prototypical social institution in which readers of books create niches of intense face-to-face inquiry, controversy and conversation,” as Illich put it. This remarkable human achievement, a social organization dedicated to learning, had been brought about by technical innovations that generated a new image of the page, a visible, organized, silently readable, and arbitrarily accessible text, some 800 years ago. The university became the place for critical thinking, arguing, and learning rooted in the students’ experience with the book.

But the lettered page metaphor no longer dominates the model of learning in the age of the computer. Screens, not the page, are now the umbrella of optical technology. You know that content can be “stumbled upon,” that a Wikipedia entry is never fixed, and that audiovisual add-ons are often necessary to keep your attention (cats, anyone?). The screen metaphor carries over into textbooks, which are designed now to look more and more like web pages. Tables, diagrams, formulas, illustrations, slogans—in short, any kind of NON-lettered image—are framed with the effect of reducing the lettered text to a legend, to commentary, to captions. You wouldn’t trust your textbooks as much if they didn’t adopt and to some extent mimic the screen metaphor.

The medium by which you have learned most of what you know and the opinions you hold has shaped your habits of mind in such a way that your trust in “older,” material texts–and even in your own reading of a lettered page–has been eroded.  When you arrive for your Honors education at Barrett, you have already been acclimatized to a mode of presentation of ideas through inputs from disembodied “information” networks. You have been trained to value instead near-instantaneous reception of messages and evaluated on your ability to trace, manage, and reformat these strings of linguistic data for your school reports and projects.

By the time you enter college, you have been trained to forego anything that would formerly have been called or recognized as reading. That’s why it’s not sufficient to tell you to “read the book.” I have to explicitly tell you the kind of reading that you’ll need to do: close, or studious, reading. This “older” form of reading rooted in the metaphor of the page is the necessary basis for the Human Event seminar, where you are expected to accompany your teachers in the struggle for an author’s meaning and its implications. You need to be prepared for a major shock to your system: your mind will try to integrate the written texts you will read within the optical metaphor of the screen rather than the one in which the modern book arose. You will find close reading very difficult at first. It’ll have to become a new habit.

This has been a long digression, but I would have you recall Dr. Humphrey‘s point about Honors education developing specific intellectual dispositions: the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and systematically. Consider how dull the mind would be if you lose the following characteristics of the “older,” bookish, optical textuality which attach to your learning and awareness:

    • A self-understanding of the human being as one capable of thought that can be remembered as a line, written yesterday, and reread in the present;
    • A self-understanding of the human being as one endowed with a conscience that can be examined as one would consult a book;
    • The understanding of stable social relationships—personal, civic, and professional—as the result of contractual arrangements;
    • The belief in knowledge that can be fixed, tested, and falsified;
    • Respect for the originality and authorship of an individualistic self.[1]

This is part of the humanistic ideal that your Honors education seeks to elicit, preserve, and extend. End of digression.

As a reward for having read this far, I will give you your first piece of advice about selecting your HFF: pick one who assigns material rather than electronic books or course readers, or who requires you to use printed copies of assigned readings. And look upon this as an opportunity to build your own library. Don’t rent the book (I’m talking about Human Event books, not your subject textbooks for other courses.) The cost savings are minimal and you will hamstring your ability to do close reading, which requires you to underline, circle, and markup your book or papers with scribbles and marginalia.

Think seriously about the idea of the library. In all of intellectual life, what is more solid and enduring? Academic fads and fashionable theories will pass quietly and unmourned into the abyss of history. But the library will endure and grow stronger as it weathers the deluge of ephemera that floods your screen. Ideas are slippery, woolly, easy to scorn. But the library holds and retains the best that humans have thought and experienced, and attests to its significance by its sheer material presence in spacetime. And your library can include your thoughts alongside those of the authors.

So I’ve finally gotten ’round to discuss the important practical steps of close reading…annotating your texts is so important, I’ve decided to dedicate the next (and much shorter!) post to it.

[1] “Text and University: On the Idea and History of a Unique Institution,” keynote address delivered at Bremen Rathaus, Sep 23, 1991. Illich’s ideas are very helpful to understand the different learning experiences between book and screen.

Mastering the Human Event: Why the Human Event ? (I)

In the previous post, I asked you to think about and list your goals for your Barrett Honors education at ASU. I also introduced you to the founding Dean of Barrett, Dr. Ted Humphrey, and his role in developing the Honors College at ASU as an institution that (a) built upon the growing demand and interest for undergraduate Honors education in the U.S. and (b) is shaped and defined by the democratic and civic purposes of public education. As a student within this institution, it is helpful to prepare yourself by considering how your goals align with this mission and the values of Barrett. picasso-paris

In particular, your goals should include the desire, or at least openness, to obtain and develop certain habits of mind that will help you reach your full potential as a reflective, serious, and socially engaged human being.

In this lesson of the Honors Seminar tutorial, I will begin to explain how the Human Event itself is designed by the administration and faculty of Barrett to help you develop and strengthen those habits of mind, and how the content of the Human Event specifically furthers that aim. This will probably take a few posts to complete. So let’s begin with the Course Description

The Human Event is an intensive, interdisciplinary seminar focusing on key social and intellectual currents in the development of humanity in its diversity. Students examine human thought and imagination from various perspectives, including philosophy, history, literature, religion, science, and art. Coursework emphasizes critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing. Exploring texts from earliest recorded history to approximately 1600 C.E., HON171 is the first half of a two-semester sequence that concludes with HON272.

Who wrote this? The Barrett Honors faculty, a.k.a Honors Faculty Fellows (HFFs), wrote this collaboratively in August 2013 during a faculty retreat. It took hours. There was disagreement; arguments were made and heard. Objects were thrown (not really). There was compromise and eventually consensus. This process reflects how seriously your future Human Event instructor(s) take the Human Event. This course description is the specific and detailed answer to the question, “So. What is the Human Event?”

Parenthetically, when anyone who is not a Barrett student or who isn’t familiar with the idea of interdisciplinary courses or scholarship asks you this question, they probably won’t accept the course description as an adequate answer. That’s because they’re really asking a different question, namely, “What subject is the Human Event about…is it a literature course?” or “What major is the Human Event for?” or “Why is the Human Event a required class?” An understanding of the ideas in Dr. Humphrey’s article and a close reading of the Human Event course description, however, will help you answer these questions, too. Let’s break this description down and focus in on a couple of key points.

The first obvious point is that you should expect the order in which you work through the course readings and assignments to be roughly chronological. In Aug/Sep, you’ll be “exploring texts from earliest recorded history.” The majority of HFFs select the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh as one such text. From there, you will work your way forward through history, moving more or less around the world–like Odysseus, seemingly haphazardly at times–to encounter a diversity of cultural perspectives and voices.

The second point is that the way you will encounter the “key social and intellectual currents” is through texts. And that usually means books. Sometimes you will read entire books while other times you will read excerpts selected by your HFF. I’m going to devote an entire follow-up post to this point because it is very important to understand how the role of texts in the Human Event is crucial, and therefore your success and intellectual growth made possible in virtue of the course hinges upon it.
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