Friday, December 28, 2012


     Consolation Twenty-Three argued that solitude is both a harsh and a consoling fact of human existence.  Further, it speculated that the primordial components of the All, whatever they are, are absolutely material, self-contained, and indistinguishable and that their symmetry probably prevents any exchange among them.  Their primal state of absolute flux or chaos ends when they somehow lose or break their symmetries and randomly produce asymmetrical, disordered kinds of order like that of our cosmic spacetime.
     Do sleeping dreams support a similarly materialistic explanation of the world or not?  Premodern answers have favored the opposite, non-materialistic option.   A famous example is the story of Joseph in the biblical Book of Genesis.  Joseph is introduced in Chapter 37 as a "dreamer" who offends his brothers by telling them two of his dreams in which they bow down to him as their master.  The brothers plot to kill him but end up selling him into slavery in Egypt, where Potiphar's wife has him thrown in jail for spurning her sexually.  There, in Chapter 40, he interprets the dreams of a butler and baker Pharoah has jailed, telling the butler his dream means he'll be saved in three days and the baker he'll be hanged in three days.
     The interpretations come true.  The butler, restored to Pharoah's service recommends Joseph as an interpreter for two of Pharoah's own dreams, one of seven fat cows eaten by seven starving cows,  the other of seven healthy grains eaten by seven blighted grains.  Joseph accepts the challenge but tells Pharoah (Chapter 41), "It is not in me; God will give Pharoah an answer."  His interpretation is that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven of famine, to which Pharoah responds, "Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you" and puts him in charge of Egypt's food supply on the spot.  Seven lean years do in fact follow seven fat years.  Joseph's brothers unwittingly confirm his dreaming prowess by journeying to Egypt for food during the famine and, not recognizing their brother, bowing down to him as their master.
     To the so-called J-writer of Genesis, who called God "Jahweh" rather than "Elohim," dreams were infallible channels of communication between God and humanity, and most pre-modern writers shared his opinion.  But in classical Greece and Rome an opposing, materialistic view also had eloquent backers.  Best known is Lucretius, who shortly before the Christian era began laid out a thoroughly naturalistic explanation of dreaming in The Nature of Things.
     The fourth of the six books comprising Lucretius' great poem lays out his materialistic theory of human psychology.  The general foundations of his argument are set in Book I, expanded in Book II to corollary doctrines like void, motion, swerve, aggregation, and chance, and focussed in Book III on the physics of percipience.  Book III argues that the human soul is material, consisting of atoms small and sensitive enough to respond to the equally small and sensitive atoms constantly peeling off everything in nature and bombarding sensing atoms in the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin with images of the outside world.  Book III ends with Lucretius' famous denial of immortality and his insistence that the human personality is annihilated in death.
     Book IV then argues that when we're sleepy the constant bombardment of foreign, stripped-off atoms against our body disorients our soul-atoms, making them lose contact with our sensing atoms.  The ensuing sleep is deepened if we eat just before bedtime because the digesting of food displaces and disturbs our soul-atoms even more.  Likewise, many dreams are prompted by our interests or worries: lawyers dream of court trials, generals dream of war, Lucretius dreams of his poem.  Dreams make people speak or cry out, wake up with pounding hearts, even urinate or have orgasms.  Lucretius believes animals dream too.  Twitching and convulsing in their sleep, horses often seem to be running or dogs to be hunting.
     Aside from some of its quirkier and more primitive psycho-physical notions, Lucretius' assumption that sleeping dreams are natural, self-generated phenomena in sentient organisms has become the norm worldwide since the Renaissance.  Although many people doubtless still believe in the kind of divine intervention propagated by the J-writer of Genesis -- that is, dreams are imprinted on human souls supernaturally -- informed people today agree with Lucretius.
     They follow him and other ancient Greek and Roman poets, playwrights, and philosophers whose ideas came to prominence during the European Renaissance after having been suppressed by Christianity for a millennium.  Chief among these post-Renaissance thinkers were writers like Shakespeare, who never, to my knowledge, created a character with a prophetic, Joseph-like ability to foretell the future on the basis of dreams.  Reverse evidence that Shakespeare's London audiences no longer believed that dreams were supernatural is the fact they still did believe in ghosts, as the famous ghost scene in Hamlet proves.  There, several people see and hear Hamlet's father, proving Hamlet himself does not dream the ghost up.
     In other words, the fact that Shakespeare still used "corroborated" ghosts for dramatic effect but not divinely-inspired dreams strikes me as a fair measure of how far European urbanites had moved away from the J-writer's assumptions.  No longer were dreams considered conduits of divine inspiration.  They were now, as Lucretius had argued, seen as natural products of human animals.  This is apparent in Shakespearean characters like Lady Macbeth, whose guilty conscience makes her try to wash blood from her hands as she sleepwalks, or Richard II, whose victims torment his dreams the night before his final battle.  Shakespeare uses their dreaming to make the orthodox moral point that Lady Macbeth and Richard II deserve to die for their heinous crimes.  But their dreams, and those of the rest of Shakespeare's characters, are always self-generated and self-reflexive.  No deity sends them from heaven.
     Furthermore, the hallucinatory, delusory quality of sleeping dreams began appearing in stories about people whose waking lives were more dream than reality.  Cervantes' Don Quixote chronicles the adventures of a poor old knight whose sanity's been undermined by medieval romances -- too many giants, abducted ladies, and heroic knights.  The Don transforms the real world of Spanish windmills, peasant girls, and itinerant barbers into a constant waking dream of knightly adventure.  Cervantes' satire depends on the reader's seeing Don Quixote's waking life as in effect a sleeping dream.  His assumption is that the sleeping human brain works more or less as Lucretius had argued.
     In tales like The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne is similarly averse to giving dreaming supernatural credence.  Though some of his stories, like these two about puritan New England, create symbolic resonances that suggest the supernatural, they never require us to see putatively supernatural events as anything more than products of a character's imagination, especially if he or she might be asleep.  This is true of the famous twelfth chapter of The Scarlet Letter, in which Dimmesdale, the town minister and unconfessed father of Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl, climbs the public scaffold at midnight to ease his guilt.  Hester and Pearl happen by and join him on the scaffold, a comet shaped like an A illuminates the scene like lightning, and Chillingsworth, Hester's former husband and sworn discoverer of Pearl's paternity, appears nearby in the flash.  This dramatic scene, literally in the novel's center, hints of supernatural overtones, but Hawthorne elaborately points out that Dimmesdale probably dreamed it.
     So too Young Goodman Brown.  Here Hawthorne portrays another troubled New Englander, this one anxious about his "Faith" -- literally his wife and metaphorically his religion.  Brown goes at night into the forest to find his Faith, discovers and joins her and the rest of the village in lurid devil-worship, and wakes up next morning alone in the woods.  Again Hawthorne makes the dream option explicit, concluding this time that, dream or no, the experience changed Goodman Brown from an optimist to a pessimist. For Hawthorne and many other Euro-American writers of the Romantic era, the importance of dreaming lay in the kind of psychological self-revelation these two New England stories dramatize.
     The heyday of dreaming as psychological self-revelation arrived in the early 1900s with Jungian and Freudian dream theory.  Jung held that dreams are expressions of a collective unconscious evolved and transmitted over countless generations.  Their primordial images of fear, pleasure, success, and failure have been passed along through biological reproduction and lodged deep in the human brain as archetypal memories.  Arguing that dreams of water or reptiles, for instance, did not reflect simply the dreamer's own experiences but also archetypes buried in his or her collective unconscious, Jung denied immaterialism.  Everything we are and dream, he held, is a product of natural evolution.
     Freud's theory was even more materialistic.  It assumed human beings are driven more by libidinal urge than self-preservation, because reproduction counts more than personal survival towards species success.  That's why Freud's id, or primal sexual instinct, is the hot lava on which the ego, or primal survival instinct, floats.  The ego in turn supports the super-ego, or consciously reasoning, socializing, and moralizing self.  Dreams are products of these conscious and unconscious drives and are vitally important in treating psychiatric disorder in general and sexual psychosis in particular.  They are natural, physical events without a shred of supernatural content.
     Freud's view of human civilization as a thin veneer over volcanoes of human amorality, irrationality, and selfishness was widely shared by Euro-Americans of his day and helps explain his profound influence on them and us.  His dream theories represent the apex of a psychological realism friendly to Lucretian materialism and hostile to J-writer supernaturalism.
     If, then, dreams consist of nothing but electro-chemical neuronal firings in the brain when we sleep, how are they caused?  No one yet knows.  We do know that when we're awake our brains constantly re-image and re-create the external world with the help of the body's sensing mechanisms, subject it to countless kinds of measurement and judgment, and interact with it in ways so "experiential" and "intentional," to borrow some  existentialist terms, that we not only imagine put can pretty well prove we're alive.  This feeling of being alive -- of perceiving, intuiting, imagining, and gloriously existing -- is caused by countless neuronal and synaptic events in our brains that, individually, are no more capable of thinking or feeling than is a campfire spark.
     Collectively, though, they can do wonders like landing human beings on the moon, writing and playing Corelli concertos, and finding the Higgs boson.  Of course they can also massacre schoolchildren, pollute and overheat the planet, and become addicted to heroin or reality TV, but I'll defer negatives like these to future posts.  The point here is that, given the fantastic complexities and capabilities of the human brain, dreaming isn't one of its more remarkable accomplishments.
     Although how and why we dream is currently no better scientifically understood than most other brain processes, dreams themselves often seem fairly easy to comprehend in terms of proximate causes.  When I'm sleeping and need to urinate, I often dream of being in or near water, and when I badly need to urinate I may find myself in a house where all the toilets are occupied or clogged or where I'm wandering naked among strangers.  Usually the unpleasantness and embarassment I feel corresponds to my urinary needs.
     Or I may have been sleeping in one position too long and developed arthritis pain in a shoulder, hip, or knee.  Here the dreams vary widely.  I may be lost in a city I vaguely recognize but can't remember my way around in.  Or I may be driving a car that keeps stalling or falling apart.  Or I may be a student taking a test in a class I've never attended or done any work for.  Or I'm a teacher teaching a class whose subject matter I don't know.  The list goes on and on, but what matters is that the moment I wake up I know the dream was mostly a reaction to the pain in one of my joints.  The same is true of some dreams I have of snow or skiing.  Waking up, I realize the blanket's fallen off or the bedroom's cold.
     Academic dreams of the kind just mentioned often recur.  They stem, I suppose, from some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome I developed during my sixty years in academia as student and teacher.  Often nightmarish, they're sometimes pleasant, even euphoric, and I suspect these nicer dreams indicate how much I enjoyed some aspects of academia despite my dislike of many others.
     Not all my recurring dreams have any links I'm aware of to my waking life.  One dream takes place in a landscape that begins in a valley containing a village-like cluster of houses and rises to a bluff where elegant governmental or commercial buildings block the way and force me to find a route through.  Doing this isn't hard, and beyond them rise attractive hills from which I can look back and admire the architecture of the buildings I've passed and the village cluster beyond.  Sometimes I'm going from village to hill and sometimes the other way, but I always find an easy path through the mid-buildings.
     I have no idea what the dream means, nor do I know why I sometimes dream I'm renting the front, left, second-floor room of a run-down, almost furnitureless house somewhere in a seedy, semi-rural area.  The first dream's more agreeable than the second, yet in both I seem to recognize where I am and feel at home despite never having seen either place in my entire waking life.
     But this lack of connection between my recurring dreams and my waking life may be more significant than all the links I make between my dreams on the one hand and my worries, bodily functions, and bedroom conditions on the other.  In the final analysis, I'm convinced the brain-body is too complex a material system to explain in simple cause and effect terms.  Even when sleeping, the brain bubbles with tremendous energy, superfluity, and redundancy.  If its network of neurons and synapses can re-image and re-process the empirical world so well that we know we exist, it can easily manufacture dreams full of things and events we've never seen or known.  In fact, most dreams are probably nothing but aimless, random doodlings of the brain's circuitry.


Thursday, November 29, 2012


     My last five posts have had self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and going-it-alone at their core.  Number eighteen described my forty-year suppression of a UFO sighting in the 1970s for lack of personally convincing evidence.  Nineteen argued for self-education over formal, purchased education.  Twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two chronicled my private war with academia, religion, and the military at the University of Rochester and the U.S Naval Academy during the 1960s.
     Today I'll explain the philosophical basis of my belief in the solitariness of human existence, a belief underlying my point of view in the past five posts and throughout these Consolations.  I see human solitude both as a tragic fact of life and as one of life's major consolations.
     I start from the assumption that human life is a random accident in a basically non-human All, "All" being my term for the material order whose essence is absolute Being and from which all subsidiary being like that of our own cosmos has emerged.  In our cosmos, this process of emergence is now so well understood that everyone who accepts modern science knows how it happened.  Some thirteen billion years ago, an unexplained, probably random burst of infinite heat and density broke the symmetries among time, space, and the four fundamental forces of whatever material state preceded it and, in a fraction of a nanosecond, swelled and cooled into the physical realities that produced the cosmos and us.
     At the instant of the Big Bang, everything that was to become the cosmos existed in chaotic relationship to everything else.  Time, space, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces were in some unfathomable way symmetrical.  They did not interact.  Their imperviousness to reciprocity -- their resistance to exchanging, blending, or sharing with each other in any way -- was, in its perfect symmetricality, also of course perfectly chaotic.  It was a state of absolute mutual isolation, in which everything was absolutely cut off from everything else.  From this initial state of cosmic symmetry, I infer that the All as a whole is is some ultimate way similarly symmetrical and chaotic.  Further, I infer from the fact that our cosmos is materially unified that the All is also materially unified.
     Though how everything can be at once both chaotic and unified is an impenetrable mystery, it's a mystery everywhere manifested in the natural order surrounding us.  In physical nature, for example, photons and quarks are both waves and particles.  Particles randomly decay into other particles.  Gravity bends space and time.  Order everywhere produces disorder and vice versa: galaxies coalesce and collide, gravity crushes protons into neutrons that then, given sufficient mass, explode into supernovas; stars and human beings are born and die as much through probablistic chance as deterministic cause and effect.  From observing, experiencing, and learning  facts like these, I've deduced that ultimate matter is similarly chaotic and unified.  That is, from the cosmic materiality I see everywhere around and within me, I extrapolate an absolute metacosmic materiality.  All of this is speculative, of course, but it rests on proven science rather than hope, faith, or charity.
     Further, it's led me to think that the All's state of absolute Being must also be a state of absolute solitude.  The ultimate, material components of the All, whatever they may be and do, do not, I believe, interact.  Infinitely separate, they comprise a featureless, oblivious ocean of material Being whose individual drops, or parts, are absolutely unique, identical, and symmetrical.  Radically separate from each other, theirs is the solitude of chaotic flux, which, as in the Big Bamg, inexplicably and randomly breaks its essential symmetries and somehow effuses itself into the disorderly order of subsidiary, asymmetrical existence like that of our cosmos.
     If so, human solitude may not be just next to but the same thing as godliness.  Sensing your aloneness among the galaxies may be analogous to being one of those drops of featureless, identical matter in the All's primal flux.  Imagining myself as such a drop actually consoles me:  I share in the All's fundamental materialness and at the same time in the infinite separateness and uniqueness of each of its ultimate parts, whatever they may be: -- infinitely dimensional or non-dimensional "objects"?  metacosmic "energy fields"?  vibrating "strings"?  "membranes"?  quantum vacuum "ripples"?  infinitessimal "uncertainties"?  I'm also consoled to think I'll be nearer that absolute state of Being after I die than I am now.
     In other words, my conception of ultimate reality -- that is, as a state of complete disconnection and non-interaction among bits? traces? waves? loops? of material stuff whose symmetry is so perfect that nothing but their featureless sameness, paradoxically enough, binds them -- raises solitude to the level of a primal absolute.  As one of a handful of such absolutes (others are infinity and eternity), solitude seems alien to humanness only if humanness is defined as somehow immaterial, as containing some kind of supernatural ingredient or essence.
     Philosophical materialism rejects any such definition.  Existence is just as material, natural, irrational, and chaotic beyond our cosmos as within it.  Nature here shares some kind of insentient essence with everything else in the All.  Sentient life is rare, accidental, and aberrant everywhere it appears.  No supernatural planner or designer creates it.  It evolves randomly from the flux.
     Obviously I set great philosophical weight on solitude.  But I value it in mundane, human terms too.  For one thing, it often helps me understand and accept death in general and my own death in particular.  Walking alone through forests, deserts, or mountains, or contemplating bodies of fresh or salt water by myself, leads me sooner or later to the problem of dying.  While birds and animals may notice me at such times, usually to keep as far away as possible, the rest of the wilderness ignores me.  Leaves flutter, clouds hang and drift, rain or snow falls, the sun moves overhead, all without reciprocating a single thought or feeling I may have about them.
     They're as unaware of and indifferent to me as I'll be to them when I rejoin them as part of inorganic nature.  Though their masses and energies will continue interacting with the masses and energies of my corpse, as they do now with my living body, I'll know and feel nothing of it.  In becoming as unconscious as they, I'll in one sense have become vastly more like them than I am now.  But in another sense I'll have radically distanced myself from them by entering the solitude that's a primal attribute of every material object.
     It won't be a disagreeable solitude.  There, ignorance really is bliss.  The lack of self-awareness all inanimate things have is an existential condition most human beings long for in one way or another.  Addicts try to achieve it through alcohol and other narcotics.  Many people crave it as a way of overcoming shyness and loneliness.  If only I could forget myself, they hope, I'd be more confident, likeable, and popular.  Many want to get away from self-consciousness for other reasons -- they think they're too fat, too thin, too tall,, too short, too dumb, too smart, too garrulous, too quiet, too glib, too serious, too good, too bad.  Some mystics try to transcend selfhood to states of depersonalized being.  And almost everyone at one time or another gets tired of making a living, coping with illness and other mundane problems, or simply being alive.
     Above all, the solitude of death will be restful.  Having already, at age seventy-six, lived an active and reasonably happy life, I look forward to leaving the clamor of human existence.  I long to escape the dissatisfactions of daily life, its pain, frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness.  To me, one of materialism's greatest comforts is on the one hand its denial of personal immortality and on the other its insistence that sentience and cognition are permanently extinguished at death .  There is no heaven, hell, or afterlife, merely the natural peace that passes all understanding.
      Countless other thoughts also occur to me when I'm alone.  Hiking by myself, I've often found myself admiring the splendors of nature itself.  Few of the places I've been to in the world have failed to show me how magnificent our planet is.  Coastal and mountain California, the Rockies and the Tetons, the Mississippi basin, the Louisiana and Florida swamps, tidewater Maryland and Virginia, Appalachian New York and New England, and the maritime provinces of Canada have all revealed breathtaking landscapes, waterscapes, and seascapes to me.
     The territories of western Europe, especially Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, and Greece, have impressed me too.  There, however, nature has been more often modified and enhanced by conscious human effort than in North America.  Awesome as the Swiss Alps are as a wilderness filling horizons with rows of jagged peaks, they're also unforgettable as a human habitat.  Massifs of rock and snow tower over valleys softened at lower altitudes by evergreen forests and fields and farms that have been worked into them with immense human effort.  I find this combination of inhuman, invulnerable wildnerness and human, vulnerable agriculture moving.
     Another stunning mixture of humanness and wildness is the ancient Greeks' building of gorgeous structures on spectacular natural sites.  Everyone's seen photographs of the Parthenon in Athens, but fully to appreciate it you must see it live.  So too the amphitheater at Delphi and the stadium at Olympia.  Best of all, for me, is the temple of Poseidon near Athens at Cape Sunion, which has stood for more than two thousand years in the splendid isolation of its seaside promontory.
     This habit of preserving and enhancing nature is evident everywhere in European town zoning and especially in Germany.  Villages and cities there follow much stricter rules about what can be built where than in the U.S.  Almost all German villages are marvels of compactness.  Residential, commercial, and agricultural buildings are tightly bunched on central streets, while surrounding fields and forests lay unbroken on all sides.  Cities and industrial zones are less tightly controlled, but even there cows graze next to factories and forests are within walking distance of downtown centers.  A major reason for Europe's heavy subsidization of agriculture is that Europeans are willing to pay to keep their living space green.
     Besides recharging my love of both wild and humanized nature, getting away from people and being alone consoles me in yet another way.  It helps free me for a time from the bedlam and mayhem of humanity's greed, stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty and get over the anger, frustration, and depression they often cause me.  Like many earlier materialists, I do not adore much of what I see in myself and the rest of my species.  The surviving writings of Epicurus, the earliest materialist documents that exist, recommend friendship mainly as a safeguard against human viciousness.  Lucretius, whose Nature of Things was the only full exposition of classical materialism to survive the first millennium and a half of Christianity, ignores Epicurus' doctrine of friendship and instead recommends science and reason as the best defense against the "howling rage" of the religious masses.  And d'Holbach's 1770 System of Nature, the first great materialist treatise after Lucretius' poem, concludes that atheistic materialism isn't "suitable to the great mass of mankind."
     By disposition and circumstance, I too have always been a loner.  Though probably reinforced by my being orphaned at thirteen, my lonerism stems mainly, I think, from my having gotten used to living alone with my mother during my Vermont boyhood and, after she died, from having pretty much made my own way through high school, college, and graduate school into college teaching.  Yet I've also always needed close or intimate relationships with at least one other person.  I always had at least one close male or female friend before I met my wife in graduate school, after which she was my best friend till our separation twenty-three years ago.  Our children remain two of my best friends, and she and I maintain contact.  I met my current best friend, my partner, six months after the separation, and she and I have been virtually married ever since.
     So despite my somewhat hermit-like avoidance of cocktail and dinner parties and holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July and, more importantly, of humanity in general, I still manage to amuse myself with communal activities like golf and poker that require contact, however superficial, with others.  I find I enjoy such contact in limited doses.  I much prefer it to the virtual socializing that more and more pervades the internet and other kinds of social media.  However anti-social and misanthropic my kind of lonerism may seem to others, it strikes me, at least, as a lot more friendly than communicating via Twitter, Facebook, and the like.  Yet I do like writing and sharing this blog with others.
     And despite my philosophical and personal bias in favor of isolation, separateness, solitude, and aloneness, I'm finally and powerfully aware of how comforting and consoling it has been to me to be able, however briefly, to reciprocate love and affection with other human beings in a universe that seems to be primordially incapable of such feelings.  Though humanness is evidently inessential and accidental to the All, it has as much validity and reason for being as anything else.  Material existence, which is the only kind there is and can never not exist, is also infinitely self-justifying and valuable no matter what form it takes.  I'm delighted I've had the extremely rare and improbable chance to live, know, think, and feel with human clarity and passion.  I look forward to the calmness, serenity, and solitude awaiting me when I die, and I look back just as contentedly to the interactions I've had with everyone and everything here on earth.  The view strikes me as sublimely mysterious in both directions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


     In Consolation Twenty-One, I narrated my first year of military service as a civilian teacher at Annapolis.  I'll conclude the saga of my war with the Navy there by chronicling my second and final year, which made the first year seem like a stroll in the park.
     After my 1965 summer of six-day work weeks at the Library of Congress, during which I began expanding my dissertation into what I hoped would be a publishable book, I returned to fall classes at the Academy in no mood to tolerate sleeping mids and rotten classwork.  I yelled, threw chalk-filled erasers, ordered pushups, gave F's like they were going out of style, and made life miserable for my already miserable plebes.  Like all short-timers, I was counting the days till my hitch was up.
     The grade fixing of the past spring had slithered off into administrative tall grass.  Having juiced grades enough to get past its immediate problem, the Navy now seemed to be holding grade-fixing in reserve against inconveniently low grading in the future.  The almost honest grades I'd given spring semester had been swallowed up in the generally adhered-to grade quotas like a drop of chlorine in a sewer.
     In October, I submitted a second article, this time to Journal of American History.  Knowing I'd scarred what little academic sex appeal I'd had when I left Stanford by my antics at Rochester and Annapolis, I also sent out scores of job applications to the kind of school I'd disdained at Stanford -- state universities between the coasts.
     Although half the places I wrote offered me job interviews at the upcoming MLA convention in December (academia was booming back then), for months I'd had my eye on Maryland at College Park.  My wife and I liked the Washington-Annapolis area, where we'd met several congenial College Park teachers and graduate students.  A week after they got my application, Maryland invited me to an on-campus interview and a week after that offered me a job.  I accepted on the spot.
     Within a day of the Maryland offer, I was the star of  Bull (midshipman slang for the English, History department, aka EH&G).  Outside offers, however modest, were the stuff dreams were made of in the Bullpen.  Now that they knew I wouldn't be around to rock the boat anymore, even the senior Bull professors who'd supported the grade quotas began lamenting to me about all the other promising civilians they'd seen pass through Bull to greener academic pastures.
     After relatively smooth sailing (compared to the year before) with my plebe sleepers during  the fall, I found an official-looking envelope waiting for me in my Bullpen mailbox at the end of Christmas break.  The letter inside, dated December 29, 1965, was a From - To - Subj notification of "Non-renewal of appointment to U.S. Naval Academy Faculty," as the Subj rubrick put it.  They'd fired me.
     My first impulse was to laugh.  Getting fired struck me as a fitting climax to the Punch and Judy show I'd been starring in for almost a year.  Because of my protest to the dean last spring, the letter said, in which I'd threatened to resign if grade quotas weren't disavowed, Bull was asking the dean not to rehire me.  "This decision," it continued, "will give you even greater freedom in pursuing employment elsewhere and will allow this Department to seek a replacement for you."  The letter acknowledged my excellent ratings but added, "your own decision to leave the Naval Academy indicates that you will be far more satisfied in a position elsewhere."  It ended with good wishes.
     It was signed by a new Captain of Bull who'd replaced the Rhodes Scholar over the summer.  But the true authors were the members of a "committee on promotions and reappointments" alluded to in the letter, a committee consisting of the half-dozen civilian full professors really in charge of running Bull.  Since they'd all known for a month I'd accepted the Maryland job, why hadn't they just asked me to resign?  Everyone in academia knows from day one what the protocol for changing jobs is:  you submit a letter of resignation to accept a new job, as I'd done at Rochester, and you're instantly released from your existing contract.  No one resigning to take another job gets fired.
     The only sense I could make of the letter, as I read and reread it in baffled outrage, was that it was deliberately meant to damage my career by booting me from a civil service job involving FBI clearance.  And it did so in face of work ratings a notch below extraordinary (one of my three performance areas was rated outstanding; two of three would have qualified me for special raises, bonuses, and promotions.)  Canning me like this apparently satisfied two aims.  It punished my boat-rocking disloyalty, and it affirmed the military chain of command.
     I immediately vowed to do whatever it took to expunge the letter from my record.  Within the hour I was in Captain Bull's office, demanding to be allowed to resign.  Fresh from commanding a cruiser and of course ignorant of academic niceties, he called in Bull's senior senior professor to listen.  My parting shot was to tell them both I was going straight to AAUP (American Association of University Professors) for redress.
     The man I met two days later at AAUP headquarters in Washington was interested because AAUP, never having dealt with any of the service academies, would, as he smilingly put it, welcome the opportunity.  He was even more interested when I mentioned the grade quotas.  Within a couple of weeks I got a copy of a letter he'd sent Captain Bull.  It wondered innocently whether the Captain had had a chance to confer with me about the firing letter, which it described as a "problem that can be so easily remedied that we hope it might be handled without undue delay."  It offered to send someone to the Academy to "facilitate arrangements" and ended by assuring the Captain that AAUP was "quite willing to extend its good offices for such a constructive purpose."
     Ouch.  To a Navy man such a letter, coming from mysterious realms of civilian academic power, would seem as "constructive" as a torpedo about to hit his ship.  Almost as I was reading my copy of the AAUP letter, I got an anguished call from Captain Bull, who prostrated himself over the phone.  He said he'd been waiting for me to call, afraid of offending me by calling first.  What should he do?
     I spelled out my demands.  All copies of the original letter were to be removed from the files and destroyed.  In their place, I'd send him a letter of resignation, backdated to before the date of the firing.  He not only agreed but sweetened the deal by offering to give me all the copies of the firing letter so I could destroy them myself.  Within a week, the exchange was made like something out of a spy thriller.  I sent him a letter of resignation, dated December 15, to take the Maryland job.  He then sent me a letter dated December 17 praising my "effective teaching, research, and publication," saying my services at the Academy had been "deeply appreciated" and offering me "best wishes" at Maryland.  Finally I sent him my copy of the December 29 firing letter, whereupon he sent me the original and three copes with an initialled note of the back of the original:  "All copies for your personal destruction -- if you wish."
     All the while, grade quotas never came up.  Then, early in March, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post set the Yard abuzz by initiating a series on the Academy.  At first his articles were unfocussed, questioning in a general way whether taxpayers were getting their money's worth at Annapolis.  He made no mention of the grade-fixing, and I concluded the Academy had probably closed ranks and decided to try to keep its worst potential scandal in years hidden from him.
     Then in late March he quoted an assistant professor in Dago (midshipman slang for Foreign Languages), who said that in his field, Spanish, quotas were still in effect and that he'd been fired at the end of fall semester for protesting it to his civilian chairman.  He also claimed he'd been ordered to change a failing grade he'd given the son of a former Academy superintendent to pass.  Till I read the article, I thought I'd been the only member of the faculty to protest grade-fixing to the point of getting canned.  Discovering the Spanish teacher's plight, and confirming it by meeting with him and seeing his evidence, rekindled my own outrage at the whole business and convinced me to join him against the Navy, especially since I'd managed to clear my own record.
     The Navy countered the Spanish teacher by flatly denying his grade-fixing charges and by painting him as an incompetent being fired for weak teaching and credentials.  By the first week in April, it looked like the Navy was succeeding in isolating him and halting the momentun of the Post series.  So on Friday, April 8, I called the reporter and arranged to meet him in the Jefferson Annex of the Library of Congress next day.  At ten a.m. I carried a folder full of documents down to a snack bar in the building below ground level.  With its dim lighting and windowless walls, the place looked and felt conspiratorial.
     The reporter was an unsmiling man about thirty years old.  At a table in a secluded corner, he interviewed me for an hour, listening non-committally and occasionally asking questions.  At the end he said,  "You say you have supporting documents.  May I see them, please?"  Thumbing through the folder, he paused at points to read more carefully.  While the rest of his face remained expressionless, his eyes widened and narrowed, widened and narrowed.  Feeling parental affection for my stuff, I wanted him to like it, but when he finished he simply said, "I have your permission to use everything?"
     "Whatever you like."
     He thought a moment.  "Would you wait while I call my editor?  It won't take long."
     Five minutes stretched to ten, ten to fifteen, fifteen to twenty.  When he finally reappeared, he apologized for taking so long and held out his hand.  "Thanks for coming forward," he said.  "I'll get this back to you as soon as I can."  Then he left.  I was disappointed at his lack of enthusiasm.
     Next day, my wife and I scoured the Sunday Post.  Nothing.  Chagrined, we concluded the editor had decided against me.  In our eyes, the Sunday paper would have been the ideal place to reach the most readers.  So sure was I they weren't going to use my material that next morning I didn't even look at the paper when I brought it in before breakfast, merely glancing after breakfast at the front page headlines to see what was going on in the world.
     Halfway down the page, my eyes hit the words, "PROFESSOR LEAVING NAVAL ACADEMY IN DISILLUSIONMENT OVER GRADE QUOTAS."  Omigod.  The lead sentence:  "An assistant professor of English who is praised by his superiors as a fine teacher is leaving the U.S. Naval Academy in disillusionment."  Holy shit.  It didn't sound like me, but there was my name in black and white.  On and on it went, making me sound like Socrates himself and the Academy like a gang of psychopaths.  It quoted liberally from the memo I wrote to myself after my first semester at Annapolis, which was full of the kind of inflammatory rhetoric the Post reporter put near the end of the article:  "One comes to prize what other schools call mediocrity, for at Annapolis mediocrity is excellence, incompetence is mediocrity, and mindlessness is worth a D."
     I had no idea what to expect at the Yard.  Imagining mids throwing rocks at me, I was relieved  when I arrived that no one in the sea of blue uniforms scurrying to 8 o'clock class even noticed me.  My own eight o'clock was a plebe elective called The Literature of Democracy that I was teaching for the first time.  Stomach tightening as I neared the classroom, I stopped ten feet from the door, took a deep breath, and stepped in.  To my astonishment, I was greeted with a standing ovation.
     Heartened, I confronted my colleagues after class in the Bullpen.  Predictably, most of the officers and younger civilians who'd seen the article liked it, warmly shaking my hand and razzing me.  The bitter comedian, who'd become one of my best friends at Annapolis, gave me a long, benevolent look.
"Well, young man," he said, "you've really done it this time.  Our lords and masters will not be pleased."  On the other hand, many of the senior civilians shunned me.  One turned on his heel and stalked off when he was sure I'd seen him.
     The air was humming with excitement.  On my desk lay a pile of memos already hand-delivered by the department secretaries.  CBS and NBC wanted television interviews.  Half a dozen newspapers, including the New York Times, asked me to get in touch ASAP.  A television crew from the CBS affiliate in Washington owned by the Post had already arrived, obviously to scoop the story, and was waiting to interview me at the Academy administration building.
     Clearly, national and even international notoriety was mine for the taking.  I could have extended my fifteen minutes of fame for some time if I'd wanted.  But as I walked the hundred yards to the administration building, I decided to give no interviews at all.  I'd gotten everything I wanted and needed from the Post article, and making myself a pseudo-celebrity would only have made my life at the Academy, where I had to finish the year, and maybe later on at Maryland more difficult.
     So even though the television reporter was furious with me, I stuck to my guns then and throughout the following week, when phone calls from TV networks, newspapers, and magazines like Time and Newsweek never stopped pouring in.  The Spanish teacher did a fine job filling the interview vacuum caused by my refusal.  Interviewed by the Post TV station in my place, he did so well that network TV had him on the next day.  AP and UP picked up the story.  Though coverage subsided in a few days, he'd already knocked the Academy reeling.  Several Congressmen were calling for an investigation.
     The hullabaloo ended as quickly as it began.  As soon as the media saw I wouldn't cooperate, they dropped me cold.  I got back to my humdrum duties, and most of the senior civilians stopped snubbing me when they saw I wasn't chasing the spotlight.  But I will never forget the reaction of the senior midshipmen in my first-class English course (the one requiring Homer, Virgil, Dante, et al) on April 11, 1966, the day the Post article appeared.
     The plebes in my elective course may have applauded me, but the seniors in World Lit did no such thing.  I've never felt such hatred as I did in that room, a hatred etched in the scowling, white-lipped faces glaring at me from the rows of classroom chairs.  I had the oddly calm sense that, if they could, those men would have killed me on the spot.  They had closed ranks in true military fashion, shutting their minds unalterably against me for having rocked the boat they'd spent four years learning to sail unquestioningly.  What I saw in those homicidal glares was the real goal of a Naval Academy education:  to obliterate all challenges to military tradition and the chain of command.
     This unwillingness to tolerate skepticism toward or deviation from orthodoxy is the main source of the fraudulence I found at Annapolis and continue to find in all military, academic, and religious organizations.  By inculcating blind faith among their followers in the rightness and needfulness of the institution's viewpoint, they not only continually distort and deny reality but often, as in the Annapolis grade quotas, academia's publish-or-perish dogmas, and Islamic terrorism, pursue vicious,  stupid, and ultimately self-destructive ends.  In other words, their fraudulence stems as much from self-deception as from efforts to deceive others.  Academia is arguably less prone, for many reasons, to this kind of fraudulence than is religion or the military.  But forty years as a professional academician convinced me plenty of it exists there too.  After all, the Naval Academy is both a military and an academic institution.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012


     In my last post, I explained how disillusionment with fulltime teaching at the University of Rochester in 1962-64, along with discovering that the Bible was an entirely human artifact, experiencing Kennedy's assassination in fall 1963, and chancing across a recruiting letter from the Naval Academy, led me to leave Rochester for a civilian assistant professorship at Annapolis in fall 1964.
     When I and my wife moved into our waterfront rental near Annapolis with our two pre-school children in July 1964, we felt we were escaping from a nightmare to a sunshiny morning.  We joined the Academy clubs -- officers', sailing, swimming, golfing -- and enrolled the kids in the Academy's K-3 primary school, all at no cost.  After being processed through a series of personnel offices, I underwent a battery of physical exams and an FBI security check.
     In the large, high-ceilinged, Victorian room that I and the twenty other English teachers, many of whom I got to know during the week before classes, shared as an office, I heard from the editor of American Quarterly that the article I'd submitted back at Rochester had been accepted.  Enclosed in his letter were clips from the anonymous readers' reports, the first typifying the rest:  "Boring, but okay."  Thrilled though I was by the acceptance, which I felt vindicated me against my Rochester detractors, I was cynical about it too.  "Boring, but okay" -- some showpiece of academic thought and care that.
     The Academy was very sociable.  In no time my wife and I had met a dozen young couples, civilian and military, whom we liked.  Near the end of August the social season officially got under way with an afternoon cruise on Chesapeake Bay in a fancy launch the Academy maintained for just such events.  Those of us new to the Navy were dazzled by the lavish food and drink served aboard by white-gloved Filipino orderlies.  As we disembarked, bursts of alcohol-fueled laughter filled the dusk.
     Even more impressive was the superintendent's reception, held a week later in the mansion, located next to the Academy chapel, that served as the superintendent's residence.  All the officers were in formal dress, the Navy people in white tunics with full braid and ribbons, the Marines in their extraordinary red, white, blue, and gold costumes.  Most of the women wore long gowns, most of the civilian men tuxedos.  We were greeted at the door by a receiving line of the Academy's top brass and their wives, anchored by the superintendent himself.  His residence was a three-story palace full of chandeliers and floor-length draperies, with formal gardens out back.  To the strains of a string quartet, scores of elegant couples moved through the halls, salons, and flowers, sipping champagne and sampling hors d'oeuvres.  The mansion, the music, the calling cards dropped from gloved hands into a bowl at the entrance were part of a centuries-old tradition that could mean getting killed, as countless plaques, tablets, and monuments on the Academy grounds testified.  Beneath all this gossamer finery lurked mortal danger.  I was snowed.
     My first day of teaching was a rude shock.
     We new teachers had been given an orientation of sorts to plebe English by the professor who chaired the course, an articulate Yale Ph.D. who, like most of the tenured EH&G civilians, had begun his career at Annapolis during or just after World War II.  He'd said just the kind of thing I wanted to hear -- our teaching mattered because these men would control nuclear weapons, we had to teach them to think, read, and write clearly, we had to instill in them the humane values of western civilization --, and he'd said it amusingly and convincingly.
     He'd also told us the rituals to expect, like the mids standing at attention while reporting attendance.  But he'd barely hinted at what turned out to be the central fact of every one of my four plebe English sections from the start.  Half the men in  every class were too tired to stay awake.  The first day, many simply put their heads down on the writing arms of their chairs when I gave the at-ease signal and fell asleep.  Others sat upright with their heads slack-jawed on their chests, likewise oblivious.  Still others made a pretense of propping a book or notebook on the writing arm, then scrunched down to sleep behind it.  One pale, sick-looking mid unnerved me by rolling his eyeballs up into his skull whenever he nodded off.  Another held his eyelids open with his fingers and stared at me with blank, bloodshot, saucer-like eyes.  One snored so loudly I had to stop the class to wake him up.  Books and pens kept clattering to the floor, nudged off desks by unconscious heads and arms or dropped from unconscious hands.  One mid barely caught himself from falling out of his chair.
     At the end of the day I staggered back to my desk in the bullpen, stunned.  I and several other new teachers, civilian and military, gathered in a knot of disbelief and began swapping atrocities.  Suddenly a gray-haired man I hadn't met joined us and launched into a deadpan harangue.
     "My good fellows," he said, "welcome to the United States Naval Academy.  The other day, our lord and master" -- meaning the course chairman -- "told you of the glorious rewards of teaching midshipmen.  What he did not tell you, indeed, what our Navy lords and masters never tell anyone, is that the real aim of the United States Naval Academy is to transform the average, decent, acne-plagued, eighteen-year-old American adolescent, within the space of four short years, into a perfect monster of ignorance and incivility.  They begin the process, gentlemen, by depriving the plebe fresh from farm, suburb, or city, during the first six months of his naval career, of a modicum of the sleep he needs, which naturally gets him in the habit of sleeping through anything irrelevant, like his classes, to his becoming an accomplished lout.
     "The pitiable creature must quickly learn, if he is to survive, to accept stupefaction as the norm of his Naval Academy existence.  Stupefied, he stumbles from one class to the next, not knowing whether he's in Bull, Steam, or Dago," -- he hissed the mid slang for EH&G, engineering, and foreign languages melodramatically -- "seeing his teachers as nothing but diabolical tormentors who will not let him do the one thing he longs from the bottom of his heart to do --  sleep, sleep, sl-e-e-e-e-p.  Sooner or later he must accept his destiny, if he is ever to graduate and get his commission, and become the brute our lords and masters want."
     I liked this bitter comedian at once.  My first months at the Annapolis gave me a similarly sardonic opinion of the place.  Though plebe hazing eased and some of my students did marginally acceptable work, I was appalled at what I faced every day in the classroom, where the war against "stupefaction," as the bitter comedian put it, never ended.  In one unusually drowsy section, I was struck dumb when, having had my eyes on the blackboard a minute, I turned back and found more than half the class wandering around at the rear of the room like restless zombies, which they were allowed to do to stay awake.
     The sleeping was symptomatic of an anti-intellectualism that pervaded the Yard, one that followed seamlessly from what I came to understand was the Navy's top priority at Annapolis -- training the mids to follow orders.  Plebe hazing was the system's bedrock.  Though the harshest kinds of hazing had supposedly been outlawed during the decade before I arrived, they were all still secrectly practiced, as several mids confided to me.  Plebes were still ordered to swim to Baltimore after lights out:   lie on their bellies and pretend to swim the crawl for hours.  Or their gear was trashed just before inspection.  Or they were ordered on illegal scavenger hunts over the wall into downtown Annapolis to steal public or private property.  Or they were given far more trivia to memorize than officially allowed.
     Learning to fear, depnd on, and live by the chain  of command was the ultimate reality of a midshipman's life.  In most respects, plebe English and, as I gathered from colleagues in other subjects, the entire Academy curriculum was more like that of a second-rate high school than a college or university.  In January, at the end of my first semester, I wrote myself a memo of everything I disliked about teaching at Annapolis.
     Yet shaken as I was,  I began the second semester looking forward to my section of first-class English, a semester-long survey of world lit required of all senior-year midshipmen.  Designed to expose them to works like the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Inferno, Hamlet, Candide, Faust, Moby Dick, and The Stranger just as they were getting their commissions and joining the fleet, it represented what I most wanted to do as an Annapolis teacher.
     But however hardened I'd been by my first semester with the plebes, I was cut to the quick by how many first classmen settled down to sleep before we were two minutes into the class.  What galled me most was that they didn't even look tired.  They were so used to sleeping in class that they did it automatically.
     All but a couple of the fifteen men in the section proved in succeeding weeks to be utterly uninterested in the material and unprepared for the reading and writing assignments.  It was as though Homer, Shakespeare, and Camus were from another universe.  All that mattered to these elaborately fed, dressed, exercised, and trained young animals was escaping from the Yard.  They thought of nothing else, they lived for nothing else.  I and my babble about life and death, war and peace, appearance and reality was to them no different from inspection or forming for chow.  It was all part of the same enchainment, one that after four years had become so trivial, boring, and banal that they found no meaning in it save for the one great commandment:  fuck off whenever possible.  Trying to make them read Virgil was like trying to make a pack of wild dogs eat celery.
     What to do about their mid-term grades?  As in my first-semester plebe classes, I knew that on the basis of their tests and papers I should fail almost everyone.  Not to fail at least half would be a travesty of the academic standards I'd absorbed from a decade at Amherst, Harvard, Stanford, and Rochester.  Stretching, straining, and fudging as generously as I could, I came up with a grading curve centered at  D plus/C minus.  My three second-semester plebe sections were better:  they bell-curved roughly around C.
     Thus I was caught completely off guard by what happened two weeks later.  We were all summoned by the chairman of plebe English to a meeting in the bullpen, where he told us that, because low grades threatened to keep too many mids from making the C averages they needed to graduate, the Navy's Bureau of Personnel (BuPers) had ordered the Academy to raise grades instantly and across the board.  What this meant for plebe English, he explained, was that at least fifteen percent of all final grades must be A, at least thirty-five percent B.  In other words, half the plebe class must get B's or better in English.
     From the way he announced it, he plainly saw nothing odd or wrong in the order, winding up his briefing on a cheerful, let's-all-pitch-in note:  "We don't have to give fifteen percent A's and thirty-five percent B's in every section," he said.  "A bad section can get less, a good section more.  We've got lots of flexibility."
     Dead silence.  Finally the bitter comedian stood up and peered around at our frozen, open-mouthed faces.  "Gentlemen," he said, "our lords and masters are about to lead us into exciting new realms of academic infamy.  The least we can do is follow like good little sheep."  He sat down.
     Uproar.  No one came to the chairman's defense.  Among the loudest protesters were the officers.  Sputtered one jg, "The whole time I was in the fleet, I was trying to find the real Navy.  I thought for sure I'd find it at Annapolis.  Have I ever!"
     A Marine captain:  "Outrageous!  Absolutely outrageous!  What the hell do they think they're doing?"
     So furious and insubordinate were the cries that the bullpen doors and windows were shut in order to prevent any outsider from hearing.  Clearly, further protest would be dangerous -- for the officers, impossible.  Having gotten a direct order, they could be court-martialled for disobeying.  Only the civilians were legally free to act, yet everyone knew that resistance would be seen by the administration, including the new civilian dean who'd signed the order, as grounds for dismissal.
     From the moment I grasped what the chairman was saying, I knew I'd not only have to fight the quotas to the bitter end but also, in all probability, leave Annapolis.  Obviously the Navy had decided it needed as many officers as possible for the Vietnam war buildup, then at full throttle.  My opposition to that buildup heightened my revulsion at the grade-fixing scheme.  Both seemed to me perfect reasons for not allowing any military establishment to determine policy.  The essential fraudulence, self-delusion, and stupidity of the military mind seemed clear to me in both cases.
     After a month of stonewalling and sandbagging, the Academy chain of command finally routed my protest through to the dean.  It read, "1.  Several weeks ago [the course chairman] announced to the Fourth Class Committee your instruction on grade quotas, and since that time I have been demoralized as a teacher of midshipmen and disillusioned with the Naval Academy.  2.  I feel it is my duty to inform you that if the device of grade quotes is not disavowed by the Academy I will resign my position of the expiration of my contract next year.  I have reached this decision with regret, since I have enjoyed many aspects of my work here.  Respectfully."
     Common sense told me the gesture was futile, yet deep down I hoped it might help bring the Navy to its senses.  A week later such illusions were blown to bits.  The dean told me by letter that since grade quotas were the result of "most careful consideration," the faculty would "have to abide" by them.  If I couldn't, he'd be "pleased" to accept my resignation but would like "reasonable notification" if I meant to resign before my contract expired.
     So much for heroics.  Fortunately, the academic job market back then was still good, and the dean's letter convinced me that the only way to avoid even murkier backwaters than Annapolis was to re-commit myself to the academic ratrace I'd left at Rochester and publish.  I started serious work on a project I'd been toying with since my article was accepted -- expanding my dissertation to include two more authors and getting it placed at the best university press I could.
     My motive for trying to get my name on a scholarly book was hardly love of learning.  It was to get tenure and a leg up on a full professorship at a decent school.  Convinced literary scholarship was incurably self-reflexive, I was nevertheless willing to do it to escape from the Academy to the kind of place that at least wouldn't fix grades.
     With this goal in mind, I plunged during the summer vacation into ten-hour research and writing days.  Aiding me were the extraordinary privileges I had as an Academy faculty member at the Library of Congress in Washington, where I proceeded to put in three solid months of six-day work weeks.  If all went according to plan, a year hence I'd be teaching anywhere but Annapolis, with everything but the writing done for a publishable book.
     But of course nothing ever goes exactly according to plan.


Thursday, August 23, 2012


     My last post, on education, got me thinking  about my two wildest years as a professional academician.  From 1964 to 1966 I was a civilian assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, the only military or semi-military service I've ever done.  My stint there resulted from disillusionment with academia and religion at the University of Rochester and led to even more disillusionment with the military at Annapolis.  The entire experience taught me that academia, religion, and the military are all deeply fraudulent.
     I want to make clear at the outset that I'm not a pacifist.  Hobbes was right to describe human existence as a state of war.  The ultimate human appeal isn't to heaven but to armed force, as overt and covert wars throughout human history have proven.  Almost everyone believes that some, albeit often very different, principles are worth fighting and dying for, and wisdom has always dictated being ready to shed one's blood for them if necessary.  Armies and navies are indispensable to personal as well as national survival, a fact no African-American freed from slavery, no Jew freed from Hitler's death camps, and no human being freed from the Cold War has every seriously doubted.
     Yet armies and navies, like religions and academies, are incurably mendacious.  1962 was my first year of full-time college teaching.  I'd chosen the University of Rochester because it was the most prestigious eastern school to offer me an ABD (All But Dissertation) lectureship out of the Ph.d. program at Stanford.  Of my many reasons for not liking Rochester when I got there, none matched the the repugnance I felt for the chase for academic merit badges -- grades, honors, letters of recommendation, publications, etc. -- that had dominated my life since high school.  During 1962-3, it was all I could do to get the dissertation done for a June 1963 Ph.D.
     Which was all Rochester required the first year.  But at the beginning of my second fall semester, I was asked to read a forty-five minute paper from the dissertation to English department.  Finding nothing unreasonable in that, I put together twenty pages from one of its livelier sections and read it to my colleagues over wine and cheese at the faculty club.  Although I dislike reading papers to audiences, a technique I never used as a teacher, I finished this one without mishap and found that it stimulated more interest and discussion than anything like it since I'd been at Rochester.
     One full professor asked me a string of questions, listened to my answers, then suddenly stood up like he was late for something and walked out.  At the time, I barely noticed him because I was too busy fielding other questions.  But a week later, the chairman called me to his office and told me that while my presentation was lively, a senior professor questioned its validity and, consequently, whether I'd get tenure at Rochester.  He demanded I start publishing articles from the dissertation at once.
     Of all the blows I'd so far gotten from academia, this was the worst.  I felt like somebody had walked up and slapped me in the face for no reason.  Somehow I heard the chairman out and muttered thanks for his offer to critique anything I wanted to submit for publication.  From the moment I caught his drift, I saw he too was unhappy with me.  More painful, I understood that the man who had walked out had been trying to publicly insult me and my paper.  Back in my office, fuming, I couldn't believe what had happened.  Why, I asked myself, would a full professor with tons of money (the walk-out man was rich) waste so much petty, melodramatic overkill on a nothing like me?  Even if my paper deserved to be walked out on, which I refused to believe, why couldn't he have told me afterwards, man-to-man and privately?  What did he gain by trying to humiliate an academic insect in front of colleagues?
     Searching for an answer,  I concluded that academicians were more brutal and petty than I realized.  The idea of trying to get tenure from such people seemed nuts.  Hotly resenting this unexpected and, in my view, unwarranted command to hoop-jump, I found myself fantasizing about leaving Rochester as soon as possible.  Though I wasn't really serious about doing such a thing -- I was, after all, in the second year of a three-year contract --,  my doubts about my future there were now so strong that common sense told me to keep all my options open.
     As if all this weren't unsettling enough, I was lecturing in a world lit course that included key parts of the King James Bible.  Back at Stanford, I'd begun speculating that religious revelation might possibly have validity because of the billions of people who believed it.  My thought was that a sentient and intelligent god, if such a god existed, could possibly reveal itself through divine scripture as a rational favor to humanity.  But I'd never read or studied any such scripture closely.
     To prepare myself for the Bible lectures at Rochester, I started reading standard scholarship on the Old and New Testaments and was thunderstruck to learn that nothing in the Old Testament predated 1200 BCE, that most of it was patched together no earlier than 600 BCE, that key parts of it, like Job and the Egyptian erotic poetry known as the Song of Solomon, were borrowed from non-Jewish sources, and that the whole thing was packed with polytheistic myth and superstition.
     I also learned that the New Testament was based on savior-sun-vegetable gods found in many Mediterranean and Near East religions at the time Christianity was beginning.  Like Jesus, these gods were reborn at the winter solstice and restored life and the world at the vernal equinox.  I learned too that the authors of none of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) was born till many decades after the crucifixion; that the earliest of these gospels was written after 90 CE; that the latest, Luke, was a clumsy conflation of Mark and Matthew revealing much about post-100 CE Christian dogma but nothing about the historical Jesus; and that Revelations was part of an old Jewish literary genre.  Especially suspicious was the lack of reliable documentation before 60 CE, when the earliest part of the New Testament, Paul's epistles, were written.  All the miraculous trappings of Jesus' life and death resembled religious fable the world over.  In short, there was no divine revelation.  All so-called holy scriptures, including the Bible, were human fictions like the poems, plays, and novels I'd been reading all my life.
     A few weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated.  My shock at his murder, heightened by his being the first president I was old enough to vote for, transmuted during the week of televised ceremonies that followed into a patriotism that rushed into the vacuum left by my disillusionments with academia and revealed religion.  What moved me most were the military rituals honoring the dead commander-in-chief:  the honor guard in the Capitol rotunda, the empty saddle with reversed stirrups, the massed troops at slow march behind the caisson.  Those rows of disciplined, expressionless, anonymous faces stirred more grief and love of country in me than all the crying and poetry.  To me, they embodied the nation.  The United States is not like other countries, I told myself.  It's stronger and better.  Just as at Stanford I'd identified myself with American literature, I now identified myself with American citizenship.
     This new love of fatherland also affirmed my long-standing assumption that human life was precious.  My upbringing in the vaguely Judeo-Christian culture of American democracy had instilled in me a gaseous love of my own species.  Individual human beings were immensely valuable.  Everyone had to develop his or her potential to the fullest.  Everyone was so important that protecting his or her rights was the first duty of government.  And if individuals were priceless, humanity en masse was even more priceless.  Everyone ought to see everyone else as invaluable.  After Kennedy's assassination, American benevolism became my Holy Grail and Mecca.
     Though I'd always seen publishing, reading papers, getting on editorial and governing boards, winning awards and grant, and the like as nothing but academic scut work, I now also began questioning what to me had been the only meaningful thing I did as an academician: -- teaching.  Teaching literature had begun to seem like little more than imposing my own interpretations on my students.  Although I used published scholarship and criticism to ease into unfamiliar material, ninety-nine percent of my class preparation consisted of interpreting literary texts for myself.  Mostly I disagreed with the published criticism.  What was the point of promulgating my own interpretation of a poem, play, or novel?  It was just one more opinion; there was no right answer.  Often irritated by students who disagreed with me, I recalled my own scorn for most of what my own teachers had said in class.
     The December following the assassination was horribly depressing.  I was grinding away on an article to satisfy academicians who'd questioned my essential worth.  The weather was cloudy, cold, and snowy the whole month.  Near the end of Christmas break, I dropped by the English department office to check the mail and noticed a letter tacked to the bulletin board with the words, "Information for Candidates to the Civilian Faculty," across the top.  Curious, I discovered it was from the Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Normally I paid no attention to posted job announcements because I knew the kind of job I'd want if I were looking wouldn't be advertised like this.  But Annapolis?  I didn't know they had a civilian faculty.  The letter was from a Navy captain who was head of the English, History, and Government (EH&G) department.  It said the department wanted experienced civilian teachers with doctorates in English, history, economics, and political science to help overhaul its academic programs.  Qualified candidates were urged to apply.
     By the time I finished, my pulse was racing.  Everything about the idea appealed to me.  Like most American men born in the 1930s, I romanticized World War II, remembering the radio reports from the front, the boys in uniform, the salvage drives, the ration coupons, the gold stars in front windows.  Though after the war I myself had always gotten student deferment, Kennedy's murder had reawakened my boyhood longings to serve.  Knowing nothing about them, I'd always glamorized West Point and Annapolis.  My most heroic images of the war were of the naval battles in the Pacific.  One of my aunts had married an Annapolis graduate, as had her daughter and granddaughter, giving me a sense of family tie to the place.
     I took the letter home to my wife.  Six months pregnant as a result of an experiment with the rhythm method, she'd been trapped by snow and ice in the apartment with our two-year-old daughter for weeks and found the thought of leaving Rochester irresistible.  She too was drawn to the glitter of Annapolis after her year and a half of Rochester frowsiness and was sure that people outside of academia saw the Naval Academy as a far better school than Rochester.
     A week later I wrote the Captain a letter presenting myself as an assistant professor worth roughly $8000 a year -- a big promotion from my current rank of lecturer and a gigantic raise from the $6500 I was now earning.  By return mail the Captain invited me to join the EH&G faculty, not a year and a half from now but the coming fall.  He asked me to visit the Academy immediately for the obligatory on-campus interviews, during which specifics of my appointment would be discussed.
     Late in January I caught a 6 a.m. flight to Washington National (now Reagan National), rented a car, and headed east through the misty, soft browns and greens of rural Maryland, which, after Rochester's grim grays and whites, seemed exquisitely beautiful.  I reached the Academy's main gate just as the midshipmen were changing class and found myself in a sea of young men (there were no female midshipmen in 1964) buttoned to the throat in identical blue-black, brass-buttoned greatcoats and topped with identical, black-visored, white caps.  They exuded a rugged, clean-cut virility unknown at Rochester.  The Yard, with its granite buildings roofed in weather-greened copper, seemed to express the stoic strength I'd always associated with a naval career.  As I stepped out of the car and looked down tree-lined walkways towards Bancroft Hall, the huge dormitory brooding fortress-like in the mist, I knew I wanted to come here.
     Everything went well.  Several civilian full professors had good Ph.Ds and publications.  Some were witty.  The civilian staff I met was friendly and pleasant.  A civilian dean had just been appointed to revise the Academy's curriculum, and a few midshipmen were already being allowed to major.  Soon all of them would have enough elective slots in their schedules to concentrate in math, science, history, or even literature.  Especially appealing was everyone's telling me how important teaching was here.  These young men deserved the best  America could offer.
     The officers seemed extremely capable.  The Captain had been a Naval Academy Rhodes Scholar in the forties, and virtually all the ensigns and lieutenants teaching in EH&G as a tour of duty had master's degrees.  By culling these ROTC and OCS (Officer Candidate School) graduates from the fleet to staff the Academy, the Navy had assembled an amazingly well-qualified group of officers to help teach the required courses in plebe (freshman) and first class (senior) English.  The only drawbacks I saw were a lack of office space (everyone shared a large room called the Bullpen) and my own ignorance of military life.
     By the end of February the formalities were done and the Academy superintendent, an admiral, had offered me an assistant professorship at $8040 a year.  The day the offer reached me in Rochester, I took it to the chairman, handed it to him wordlessly, and watched his face cloud as he read.  Two weeks earlier, I'd given him the dissertation article he'd demanded, which he'd liked enough to advise me to submit without reservation to American Quarterly, a top journal.  "Well," he said, laying the Academy offer on his desk, "in terms of rank it's certainly attractive."
     "Yes it is," I said. "Will Rochester match it?"
     The bluntness jolted him. "Ah -- ah, I don't think -- no, no, I'm sure the rank won't be a problem.  Yes, I can assure you right now you'll be an assistant professor next fall."
     That was easy, I said to myself cynically.  But after a year and a half of personal experience and conversations with colleagues, I knew how miserly Rochester was.  "And the salary?"
     He squirmed, rocked his chair, rubbed his face, fiddled with a pencil.  "Um, that could be a problem.  Ah, a salary at that level would be more than all but a couple of our non-tenured people earn.  Um, I doubt that can be arranged.  Conceivably seventy-two fifty, but eight seems out of the --"
     Looking for any reason to quit, I stood up.  "I see.  Thank you."  Speechless with surprise, he watched me leave.  Not another word passed between us.
     Three weeks later my wife gave birth to nine pounds of flawless masculinity, and we had the same sense of excitement and fresh beginnings we'd had when our daughter was born at Stanford before the move to Rochester.  At the end of spring semester we took a house-hunting trip to Annapolis.  As though fate were smiling, we immediately found a three-bedroom brick rambler with two hundred feet of waterfront on the South River five miles from Annapolis, at a rent not much more than we were paying for the Rochester apartment.  Its front porch had a spectacular view of sky and water.  We took the place at once and went wading on our new beach, enthralled by its tidal, salty smell.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


     By "education" I mean formal education, the kind you get from publicly or privately funded schools.  We're talking here about the professional academic industry, with its countless non-profit and for-profit schools, colleges, and universities teaching everything from cosmetics to cosmology.
     The aim of each of these cogs in the academic machine is to transmit value from teacher to learner for a fee.  The value sold is some kind of enhanced survival capability, be it swimming in water over your head or math over your head.  Unfortunately, no one survives much more than a century, meaning that sooner or later all the value bought and paid for by you, the consumer, regardless of its short-term usefulness, will be snatched away by the Grim Reaper.
     That's assuming value's actually transmitted.  What happens much of the time is that every penny paid to teach Johnny to read, Brandi to program computers, Dieter to deconstruct texts, or Bettina to pirouette is pretty much wasted.  Johnny drops out before he can read "illiterate," Brandi can't fathom binary math, Dieter's competing for a teaching job with 500 others in a national university system that hasn't hired a deconstructionist in a decade, and Bettina wasn't told by her online ballet school she lacks the talent to be a pole-dancer, much less a ballerina.
     In other words, all human beings ultimately end up being no different after getting as much formal education as they want or can afford from what they were before they were born.  As dead meat, they're oblivious of everything they've learned when they were alive.  All their education in how to survive has been a total loss for them personally.
     And while educators can and do transmit many kinds of survival advantage to posterity, succeeding thereby, especially through science, in improving humanity's terrestrial lot over time, no individual's long-term survival chances ever fundamentally change.  He's randomly born out of primordial chaos, lives to whatever age luck or skill determine, and then returns to primordial chaos.  Though some people currently claim to hope that humanity will someday escape the mortal cycle through future technologies, their vision of a material immortality made and marketed by entrepreneurs -- for example, cloning physical copies of a person and perpetually reinvesting them with the person's cybernetically-stored thoughts and feelings (I kid you not: books on the topic now exist) --  is still too pie-in-the-sky for academia to cash in on.
     Things may not stay that way for long.  If past is prologue, academia's history of selling supernatural immortality points straight to natural immortality as its next great profit center.  Instead of simply selling mundane survival skills like how to fix cars or teeth, establish websites or fast-food restaurants, design internet games or jet engines, read Arabic or computer lingo, or write resumes, reports, and reality TV shows, the academic industry may once again be able to expand "survival" to include "eternal survival," as it did during Christianity's heyday, and once again sell immortality as the hot new survival product.
     That's what market-sensitive religions like Judaism and Islam did after Christianity showed them how.  From its earliest days, Christianity spread its gospel through cells that offered a little ritual and lots of oral indoctrination.  Educationally speaking, the Church was a school run by a literate elite that transmitted the school's blockbuster new survival product to its largely illiterate customers by word of mouth.  What you paid for was life after death in a state of perpetual joy if you did what the Church said and perpetual torment if you didn't.
     In trying to teach the illiterate underclass anything at all, the early Church was an educational business unique in the Roman Empire.  In return for teaching the Word, it expected and got payment from its students in cash or cash equivalents.  Gradually it became the dominant educational vendor in Europe.  It sold immortality so well that almost no European of the Middle Ages could imagine a universe different from that of the Church's earthly hierarchy of laymen, priests, bishops, and pope and its parallel, heavenly hierarchy of believers, saints, angels, and triune god.  The damned, of course, suffered forever in hell.
     One of the Church's key marketing strategies was to confine literacy to the ruling class of priests and noblemen.  This helped it monopolize education and devise increasingly lucrative methods of selling its main product.  By the last Middle Ages, for instance, you could buy immortality insurance policies called indulgences.  The deal here was that for cash the Church would guarantee your after-death well-being.  So profitable was the scheme,  and so corrupt,  that it helped create the backlash known as the Protestant Reformation.
     Protestantism reformed medieval Catholicism's educational industry in one important way.  It encouraged everyone to read the Bible for herself.  But the basic business was still selling immortality.  Though Protestantism was less aggressive than Catholicism sales-wise, its chief business was also peddling eternal survival, and in early New England virtually every school and college was founded to that end.  Harvard and Yale, for example, supplied New England Congregationalism with ministers.  Exeter and Andover supplied Harvard and Yale with students.  Amherst and Williams opposed the Enlightenment liberalism that had infected Harvard and Yale by 1800.
     In the U.S., most public schools at the elementary, secondary, college, and university levels stopped selling immortality as their main product by the mid-1800s and began developing the vast buffet of mundane survival products that confronts the academic consumer today.  Though most elementary schools still focus on basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, secondary schools now offer dozens of college prep and vocational curriculums, while trade schools, junior colleges, colleges, and universities will sell anything that generates enough customers to repay the investment, be it backhoe driving, transgender ethics, or spatiotemporal locality in quantum metaphysics.
     While sectarian schools world-wide still make a pretense of selling immortality as their number one survival value, only a handful of rabid institutions likes madrasses or bible college really mean it.  The rest, like Catholic parochial schools, colleges, and universities, sell immortality as merely one of the dozens of survival-advantage products that have nothing to do with immortal, and everything to do with worldly, success.  Schools like Exeter, Andover, Yale, Harvard, Williams, and Amherst today have no more religious identity or purpose than the thousands of public elementary, middle, and high schools and hundreds of state colleges, universities, and branch campuses that crowd the American educational landscape.
     The ability of world-wide academia to deliver the value it advertises has been increasingly questioned in recent years.  A key measure of the survival advantage academia sells is the gainful employment of its graduates.  Since 2009 unemployment among the formally educated has been high and growing globally.  Many graduates in the U.S. have been unable to find work one, two, and three years out of college or graduate school in their chosen fields, and many more have found no work at all.  Compounding their problem is the debt they've racked up to pay for their education, amounting in many cases to scores of thousands of dollars.
     Faceless monolith that it is, academia of course hears, sees, and speaks no evil about the economic mayhem it causes in this and other ways.  Unions representing staff, teachers, and administrators push relentlessly at every level of the industry for less work and more tenure at higher pay.  Unfunded pension obligations in the U.S. alone are estimated at four trillion dollars for non-federal public employees, half of whom derive their pensions from academic jobs.
     The dysfunction of K-12 public education in virtually every American city is not at bottom the unions' fault but instead the fault of the economic boom that drew millions of unskilled and uneducated workers during and immediately after WWII into urban factories.  At first these factories prospered, but then they declined because of overproduction, poor quality, and foreign competition.  Economically mobile workers left the inner cities, but the unskilled and illiterate stayed behind and overwhelmed welfare and school systems unprepared for them.  Cities like Baltimore, where I live, clung to the past, refusing to acknowledge the flight of their richer residents to the suburbs and instead maintaining huge school systems for populations unable or unwilling to benefit from them, taught by teachers unable or unwilling to acknowledge the grim new reality.  Today, Baltimore's public schools offer almost no survival value to their consumers, at mind-boggling cost to the city's taxpayers, whose property taxes are twice that of surrounding jurisdictions.
     But academia is inflicting serious economic damage on itself as well as others.  According to Douglas Belkin of The Wall Street Journal,  U.S. colleges and universities increased borrowing at an annual rate of 12% between 2002 and 2008, meaning their collective debt jumped by almost 100% during those years.  Just covering interest on this debt and keeping abreast of other rising costs meant constantly hiking tuition, which as an example at Washington State University has ballooned 49% in the past four years.
     WSU's experience is typical of state universities, whose legislatures have cut support for higher education by 25% since 1986.  Though places like Harvard and Yale have been shielded from such carnage by huge private endowments, the Great Recession cut their endowments by as much as half, and as anyone who's recently dealt with the Harvards and Yales of the world knows, fees there have gone through the roof.  Yet even as all this blood was hitting academia's walls and ceiling, Belkin says, "an arms race for bigger recreational facilities, fancier student programs -- and for growing ranks of administrators to run them -- drained some schools of cash before the crash."  Some academicians never seem to learn.
       This is not to say that everyone who buys or sells formal education sees it as a crass business transaction.  Some students love studying, and some teachers love teaching.  Interestingly, the students who like school best tend to be adults, while the students whom teachers like best tend to be little children.  The most intellectually curious, self-motivated, eager, happy, and successful college and graduate students I taught during forty years of university teaching were almost always returnees to school after significant time away, often as my seniors.  On the other hand, of the hundreds of teachers I've known, by far the largest number of those who've liked teaching best have taught kindergarten and first grade kids.  Neither fact should surprise.
     What should surprise is the widely-held view that formal education is not a commercial enterprise.  It's far more often romanticized and sentimentalized than trashed or even gently criticized.  Mr. Chips-like fictions are common.  Even movies like Animal House picture college as an escape from economic reality, a last fling before the adult burden of making a living.  This pervasive idealization was created in part by Christianity's retailing of immortality as education's chief survival value, in part by Plato's skill at making the teacher-pupil relationship in the Socratic dialogues seem so transcendently non-commercial and so, well, platonic.
     Yet anyone who knows the academic industry knows perfectly well that this idealized image is baloney and most of formal education consists of a boredom, resentment, and frustration felt by students and teachers much of the time they're together.  Most students don't know what they want from school and don't like what they get from their teachers, especially in terms of grades.  Most teachers, on the other hand, hate correcting and grading homework, especially when it's written.  Student-teacher antagonism is a guaranteed byproduct of their relationship, because students want high grades while teachers want to give either honest grades or no grades at all.  Most human beings like neither grading others nor being graded themselves, especially when careers are at stake.
     So uncomfortable and unprofitable has the traditional student-teacher classroom become that all kinds of variations on the basic teacher-standing/student-sitting setup are being tried.  One of the worst, in my judgment, has been the student-on-student ploy, in which two or three students sit together and supposedly strengthen each others' grasp of the course material but in fact do nothing of the kind.  Avoiding it like poison in my own courses, I suffered through it several times in advanced undergraduate conversation classes I audited to practice my German.  Theoretically ideal for student classwork, what trying to get supposedly fluent undergraduates to speak German together always turned into was adolescent gossip and chit-chat -- in English.
     Another variation is increasingly heavy use of online teaching.  Research proves that when college students meet with a teacher once a week for an hour and spend the rest of time learning the course material online, they do just as well, using 25% less time, as students taking the course in the traditional three-meetings-a-week format.  More to the point financially, the online method costs half as much to staff as the traditional method.  Public colleges and universities like it because it helps them control tuition, up 42% in the past decade.  Classier schools like Stanford, Princeton, Penn, Cal Tech, Duke, Hopkins, and Virginia are currently forming a for-profit consortium they hope will eventually provide "a high-quality education to everyone around the world," according to a consortium spokesman.  Ideally, if the system takes hold, degree programs will be offered online for a fee, and consortium members will share the profit.  Is this the future of survival-value academic sales?
     Who knows, or perhaps better, who cares?  You and I certainly won't when we're dead.  Until then, I for one will keep on learning the only way I've ever found satisfying -- through self-education.  Looking back on the countless hours I've spent studying this, preparing that, teaching this, and writing that, I'm convinced the only indispensable time I spent was in figuring things out for myself, without any direct help from formal education.  Granted, my training in how to read, write, add, and subtract helped me think and learn for myself, as did my later grinding through dozens of literature, history, foreign language, math, and science courses.  And I always learned a great deal (doubtless far more than my students) from the courses I taught.
     Yet for me all that academia ever did was touch the outer fringes of realities I wanted to get to the heart of.  For instance, learning to read and write was finally not just learning sounds and symbols but knowing in my belly what words actually were.  This I failed to do till I was in my fifties and had thrown off the shackles of a linguistic absolutism that had, without my knowing it, held me prisoner all my life.  Like everything else in the physical world, words had always seemed to me somehow charged with an invisible, platonic meaning, like batteries with electricity, and it wasn't till I'd discovered, chiefly by teaching myself philosophical materialism, just how random, arbitrary, and meaningless they, and all material objects, are that I really understood what words were.
     The self-education I'm describing in fact forced me to repudiate a major survival value taught me by the formal education my family and many others bought and paid for on my behalf.  I was formally taught, subtly and bluntly, that nature was a symbolic reflection, shadow, or hieroglyph of an invisible but infinitely superior supernatural reality, one that secretly governed the visible world.  From primary school on, I learned this lesson by formally studying a host of my fellow New Englanders, including orthodox Calvinists like Edward Taylor, Anne Bradstreet, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards, and later post-Calvinists like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost.
     Only when I'd taught myself that materialism squares better than this murky, Christian-generated transcendentalism with the best scientific and existential evidence was I able to free myself from its medusa-like power and for the first time, as though seeing daylight after a lifetime underground, discover the consolations of atheism.
     Two and a half centuries ago Baron d'Holbach concluded The System of Nature, the first unequivocally atheistic book ever written, by saying "Atheism, then, as well as [natural] philosophy, like all profound abstruse sciences, is not calculated for the vulgar; neither is it suitable to the great mass of mankind."  He was distinguishing not among the economic or social classes of his day, but rather between formally educated theists and self-educated atheists.  Now as then, freethinkers must liberate themselves from their formal education and embark on voyages of self-education to find out what really matters.