Teaching as a Vocation

Teaching as a Vocation (a personalist accounting)

            Sometimes those who can do, also teach. And teaching is also a doing, at least of sorts. Shaw’s perhaps unknowing indictment is well taken, however, for the vast majority of what passes for teaching in our contemporary systems, at whatever level, is tantamount to mass regurgitation and within the framework of patent unthought. This is what needs be for any social system to reproduce itself without too many mutations, not unlike the patterns our genetic proteins must follow. At the same time, the world does not wait for us, nor any systemic congery we have constructed for ourselves. So, within the mass, there must always be the mutant, as it were, the catalyst for a transformation of thinking and even of human experience itself, so that reproduction is itself given new life. And those who feel that assignation, who treat teaching in the traditional sense of vocation, are perhaps more apt to become those agents of necessary change. What follows is a brief narrative of both pedagogy as a discourse and of my own experience becoming both a pedagogue and an education theorist.

            Teaching as an Vocational Experience:

            Though I taught my first few classes as a graduate assistant in the Winter Term of 1989, I only became a sessional instructor five years later. Five years after that, I was awarded my first tenure stream professorial position, and for some twenty years occupied this perch in various units and in three universities, ending my career after a five-year chairpersonship of a liberal arts department. A quarter-century in the university classroom, with more than 140 courses taught over that time, and my experience was one of some irony. At the beginning, I felt the calling of teaching as an authentic assignation, but by the end, I felt nothing of the sort. Does the saint recuse himself from his hagiographic similitude? Does the pilgrim quit his progress? Or for that matter, does the dictator ever simply step down? Clearly, one’s personal sense of what one must do can shift over time. My friends have suggested that I teach still, just in different and distanciated venues, sometimes digitally, other times informally, and I have done various writing workshops and series over the past few years, though now even these are fading memories. I have not been inside a bona fide classroom in over eight years.

            As vocations go, teaching has many rewards, both in the light and, to be discussed below, in the shadows as well. But teaching presumes that one can also learn from one’s students, alter one’s pedagogic trajectory to fit their needs, or have at least the nerve, if not the outright gall, to suggest to them that they do not know their needs, or are only partially conscious thereof. This may seem rash, but any vocation demands also vision. The saint does not brook debate regarding ideal action in the world, and indeed seeks to make mere living action into transhistorical act. The pilgrim will not be detoured from her goal, however afar, and in turn will not be deterred from pursuing it by all means, even if such sometimes stray into the unmentionable. The dictator’s Diktat is indeed generally unfit to print, but nevertheless, it commends itself with utmost consistency to the principle of vocation. Teaching, much less glamorous than any of these, is nonetheless safer, and to the point of complacency. The goal of university teaching is to be, speaking of ideals, open-ended, improvisatory, iconoclastic, critical. Its actual character tends toward the routine, even the otiose, as evidenced by my own professors, trained as they were in mid-century, and many by canonical figures. By the time I possessed the terminal degree from a world top-40 institution, I was but once removed from the likes of Talcott Parsons – I possess to this day many of his office files in which he stored his accumulation of journal articles, as well as the papers themselves – Erving Goffman, Claude Levi-Strauss, Raymond Firth, Victor Turner, Virginia Oleson, as well as others, including the great Dorothy Smith. With this last I had the privilege of dialogue much later in my career, when I myself was nominally worthy thereof. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, their elite training in the human sciences, my own professors’ course outlines were sometimes forty years backdated, sometimes even non-existent, for these were the days when university administrations actually kept their distance from the pedagogic scene.

            I had numerous teachers of merit, but by far the most important was no less than Dorothy Heathcote, the legendary drama pedagogue, by whom I was taught firsthand in the summer of 1980 when I was but fourteen. It was a transformational experience, that summer festival workshops series, with same-aged peers and the most brilliant pedagogue for youth I have ever known. It was she who told me that I had the potential to teach, and she who took the first step with me and showed me a path upon which that potential could evolve into a practice. For many years as a professor in my own right, I attempted to conjure for my students that same sidereal realm in which she moved so effortlessly. Heathcote was compassionate, fearless, unbounded, and quick on her feet. She had about her an aura of gentle invincibility; this is the only manner of description that comes to mind when I think of her. She showed me that the best pedagogue did not so much live and die by her students’ aptitudes or abilities, but rather helped that student understand the very meaning of life and death in its relation to experience, to knowledge, and to education.

            My longest-lasting teacher, and also my most personal, has always been my sister, a five decade veteran of the public schools, in which she occupied almost every role imaginable, from itinerant music teacher to principle, through drama director and superintendent’s office curriculum planner. That she continues apace today, working as the field supervisor in teacher training for her regional university, attests to the truer sense of vocation in pedagogy which is no longer present for myself. One’s experience of teaching as a vocation includes moments of ethical fulfillment – the most commonplace is when a student relates how you have transformed their life and given them a keen drive to succeed or at the very least a hope and an aspiration to be more than they had been before – as well as a consistent sense of existential contentment. No one I know has had more of these future-oriented moments than has my sister, and every one well-earned.

            That I have a number of life-long friendships that began in the classroom is a lasting blessing. That I met the young woman who was to become my future wife in the classroom strikes me as a kind of miracle. The many thousands of students, most of them marginal and many the first-time college attempts in their respective families, have of course come and gone. Those once known fairly intimately I now know nothing of. Those who were obstreperous have long been forgotten. And all this is as it should be, for another principle of the vocation is its not quite diffident, but indeed quite dispassionate, stance and instantiation of itself. Assignation is itself impersonal, for whatever the source of such, be it the Fates or the Furies or both, could have chosen anyone in the end. A vocation is the result of a Valkyric light, shone upon the fragile being merely in the world and making him of that selfsame world.

            Teaching as a Fix, and as a Pimp

            But teaching as a vocation has its shadow side. If there is magic in it, there is also present sorcery. For myself, I was an attention-seeker, and the fact that I could transfix large audiences, keeping them on the edge of their collective seats for up to 90 minutes, only fuelled the sense that I was, as an individual, more than my vocation would, or should, admit. My narcissism could be rationalized away as being in the service of good product, and clever production. If the classroom experience with Professor Loewen was a commodity worth the price, even in steeply ascending university tuitions, I became, in that space, my own fetish object. I bathed in the applause, and I glowed in the admiration of people far too young to make any worthwhile distinctions of mature character. I came to need the fix, captivating, enervating, and especially offending cohorts of students, getting younger and younger as I myself aged. At present, long outside of such contexts, I have to police myself yet regarding the motives for my more critical work. That I am not always entirely successful any readership will attest. The fact that my course evaluations bore no signs of my self-interest was remarkable but also an important relief. One could say, ‘whatever it takes to get up there and kill it’, but as an ethicist, I maintain my doubts. Teaching as a vocation might cater to the fix, but it does not admit the fixation.

            Nor does it the lust. I was a member of what I think, and hope, to be the final generation of academic gigolos. A young male professor, the campus menace and, at least in my gendered druthers, the patent nemesis of the coed. What I can say, is that I never cheated on any one of them, and that they were all adults. That I even fell in love with three of those otherwise uncounted might also be worth something. And of course, my wife of more than two decades rose to the very apex of this otherwise somewhat sordid pyramid scheme cum bedroom farce. The teaching vocation cast as a pimp is unique to the university, or at least one would hope that it is, and as such it places a more stringent ethical demand upon the advanced pedagogue. Institutions have belatedly framed policy surrounding ‘campus romance’ as it is still sometimes sentimentally referred to, as if this were still 1950 or so, and I was witness to these changes, for such policies were non-existent not only when I was myself a student but also for about a third of my professional career. Romance or no, intimate liaisons with one’s own students is not recommended, and I say that as perhaps one of the very least prudish persons on the planet. Inevitably, one’s emotions, or worse, one’s desires, obviate the nobility of the pedagogic plane. It is not that all students must be ‘treated the same’, as if they are but lab rats, but rather that each student must be given their ownmost care and concernfulness, that which is most apt for their current condition, and most astute regarding their current abilities. Beyond this, the tables of desire can be easily turned. I was myself stalked no less than five times, and those represent the cases of which I was aware. By four women, one man, and fortunately the fellow involved was absolutely non-threatening and only one of the young women was, at least to me who is hardly GQ, unattractive. Even so, desire is a game that two can play, further obfuscating both the discourse and dialogue which must be present in authentic teaching.

            Teaching as a Discursive Activity:

            And speaking of which, late in my teaching career I somewhat randomly became an educational theorist. I have now written two books and a number of articles in the field, and I was both astonished and honored that my 2012 book has been used in multiple programs for curricular and pedagogic renewal. For me, the study of teaching became almost as important as teaching itself, and I was able to, as a more mature pedagogue, bring this work into the classroom, thus making it more historically conscious of itself, and allowing students to begin to claim a sense of the wider contexts within which teaching both functioned as a critical discourse as well as its very opposite. My enduring idols of modern education are John Dewey and William James, two pillars of pragmatism but more than this, two transcendental teachers and very much public figures. The present work in digital media I have undertaken with my corporate co-founder and business partner, Avinash Pillay, a true genius of the new age and someone who himself has all the makings of an effective pedagogue, remain profoundly in debt to Dewey and James, and their own attempts at disseminating more widely the history of ideas and the philosophy of consciousness entire, halting and of course technically limited as they were in their own time.

            To read what other teachers have to say about teaching is kindred with reading writers writing about writing, but more on that in a companion piece. Suffice to say that experience is both a great teacher in itself, but also, in its own shadowy form, a purveyor of bias, even bigotry. ‘I know how to do this and I don’t need to learn anything new about it’ might well be the least of it, regarding the poor attitudes the veteran teacher can accumulate. More subtle, and thus more dangerous, is the evolving sense that I can master any classroom ‘situation’, and that I am the master of any student. That I am unassailable not only in my opinions, but also in my very presence. That I, in a word, have moved beyond the need to risk myself.

            But in fact, within authentic dialogue, there is not only present the dialectic, which is objective without being objectificatory, but also, at a personal and a subjective ‘level’, a ‘diacritic’ function which entails that participants willingly risk not merely their beliefs but their entire manner of being; the way they have lived until this moment. The teacher is a mere resource and more experienced participant in the realm of dialogue. It is an intensely hermeneutic realm, and what I mean by this is simply that it entails translation, interpretation, and interaction unframed by specific discursive tropes. I have written at length about ‘hermeneutic pedagogy’, so suffice to state here that if either student or teacher is unwilling or unable to place one’s very reason for being on the pedagogic table, the results emanating from any lesser classroom or other context will tend toward the merely reproductive. This is not a case of the professor giving over his authority to his students, or even the by now cliché sense that classrooms should be ‘student-centered’. Even learning centered classrooms, in contrast to teaching centered say, still does not reach the apogee of authenticity in dialogue. Of course, the standards of intimacy which can be tractioned in various classes and courses must be utterly aware of the students’ own presence and their willingness to risk themselves. But I have always pushed my students to expand not only their perspective in relation to history and thought itself, but with regard to their own capabilities. I have encouraged them to ask any question, no matter how impolitic or unfashionable, and that they may speak to any topic, if only to express their incomplete knowledge, which is in turn a more profound expression of our incomplete beings, to be finished only in mine ownmost death. This concept of incompleteness is of the utmost in a serious pedagogy, for it reminds young people that no matter the life-phase or one’s ‘amount’ of experience both personal and cultural, that we are, ideally, always learning, and that the new is only what fully overturns and overcomes what we once thought we knew.

            Teaching the Vocation of Teaching:

            Lastly, I would like to add a few lines about how one’s sense of vocation in general is itself transformed by the experience of teaching.

            A vocation begins with wide eyes and bright imaginings. It resonates with childlike wonder and perhaps also even a smidgeon of childish anticipation, as if each new classroom were an unopened birthday gift of unknown proportion and value. It should carry one through many other vicissitudes of a life, its own exiguous thread enduring any strain, suffering any insult, and shrugging away any care. And this personal function may last the entire life course, even if its objective content and very character be altered, as it has been for myself. Teaching as a vocation should also stand aloof to both bribe and blackmail, for it should fear no evil other than being wary of that within the shrouds of its own shadows. Over time, one’s own sense of what one is doing alters its vantage point, pointing away from imminent joy and as well pleasure eminent, and toward the more practiced sensibility of ‘Am I doing this well, what can be better, how have my students changed over time, what now does the world ask of all of us?’ and other like queries ongoing. One progresses from painstakingly constructing course outlines, living and dying by every course evaluation, memorizing entire lectures and the like, to being able to gain the larger pattern and paint the more complete picture, of being able to walk into any classroom absolutely cold and simply flick on the killswitch, and of not being overly concerned about either the latest pretty face or the most recent and in fact non-teachable failure, both of which will ere be present as long as one remains an active teacher. These changes represent to oneself both a personal evolution as well as one discursive and dialogic.

            A vocation ends simply when one decides to end one’s relationship with it. Its presence then become a kind of remanant, but a good-matured one and one not given to haunting either our incomplete dreams or our doubts about what we in fact have accomplished, however distant and dated such may be. When I left teaching I was momentarily lost for purpose in action, but I was never alone, for the experience of assignation is fully portable across any specific series of vocations, and this by itself is perhaps the most profound thing one learns by having had one in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in education, ethics, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

On Corrupting Youth

On Corrupting Youth (its what I do)

            Perhaps someone may say, But surely, Socrates, after you have left us you can spend the rest of your life in quietly minding your own business. (Plato, The Apology).

            While the age range and definition of ‘youth’ has altered over the millennia, and while its current designation surrounds a more physiological conception, that of ‘adolescence’, what has remained within this phase of life are its social stakes. Youth represent an unfinished present, an unused voucher of the future, an investment as yet uncashed. And the rest of us are joint stock holders, collective stake-holders in this investment. But what is the character of the portfolio itself? In what company do we invest, and the more so, in whose company do we thus keep?

            I am a social philosopher, by trade and by character, and as such, am a nominal member of a guild whose apical ancestor is Socrates, the smugly annoying interlocutor and critic who, on the charge of corrupting youth, was executed by the Athenian state. Now there were numerous philosophers before Socrates, usually referred to as, unimaginatively but appropriately, the ‘Pre-Socratics’. Most luminous perhaps of this clique were Heraclitus and Parmenides. But though tantalizing fragments of this the earliest period of Western thought remain, it was in Plato that we first meet the character who would revolutionize the arts and acts of thinking, That he did so with others, in dialogues for the most part, was also a first. And that he put first to test and thence to shame almost all of his conversation partners, representing as they did a great diversity of both popular and learned opinions on all matters and comers alike, underscored the advent not so much of a public personage – the official rationale for Socrates’ sentencing – but rather a way of being; that through reflective reasoning what passes for belief, value, and institution may be brought low, even entirely vanquished.

            This was the truer reason for murdering the messenger, as it were. Since one cannot kill an idea, the proponent or even the mere vehicle for such ideas is abruptly at risk. And since young people are indeed the future of society and thus as well the future arbiters of social reality as it stands upon its majority epistemological rule, any institution, especially any State, might well be suspicious of the individual who apparently seeks to disarm and even sabotage the smooth transitioning from one generation to the next. For it is not production per se that is of the highest value, even in capital, but rather reproduction.

            The status of stasis in all known human societies follows this cardinal rule. What is, is what must be, and what must be again. And though it is certainly also part of the evolutionary human character to be an innovator – at least relative to our cognitive apparatus; the toolkit, for example, of Homo Erectus remained essentially unchanged for about two million years – such inventions, improvisations, and even spontaneous actions occur by far only in the realm of the technical. Today, this for the most part constitutes the applied sciences, and with the ever-accelerating pace of technological change by itself, we cannot help but note the ever-widening gap between what humanity is capable of doing and what we are capable of being.

            This sometimes gaping disconnect between the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ was noted first by those very Pre-Socratics, when the gap was so much smaller as to be almost unnoticeable. And yet, the earliest thinkers asked a simple question, which we still can ask today: “Why am I doing this?”. This is not the same question as the inventor asks of herself, “Why am I doing this, this way?”, but rather speaks to an ontological puzzle that may be spoken more starkly as “Why am I doing this at all?”. Now we can understand perhaps a little better why there is an implicit threat within such a question. For here, we are not being asked to design a better means of accomplishing the same or similar end, as the applied scientist or technician is so asked, but rather to imagine a different, perhaps better, end in itself. And when we ask this much more radical question, everything else opens right up. Not, ‘why do I have to go to school?’, but instead ‘Why are there schools at all?’, ‘What is the purpose of schooling and why this purpose?’ ‘Why reproduce what we already know?” Why be the people that we have already been?’ ‘Why believe in what our ancestors believed?’, ‘Why is our society something that must be defended?’, ‘Why do I imagine that I am superior to others?’ ‘What is the truer nature of truth?’.

            There is no space within the formal social fabric wherein such questions as these even get voiced, let alone seriously discussed. It may seem a risky, even reckless, condition to be in; to promote a society or a culture that seeks only the expansion of its present guise, the reproduction of its current values, and the conversion of all infidels who might range against its destiny. But it was the same in Socrates’ day. The Athenians, and the Greeks more widely, held that they were the only culture of value in existence; that they were by default the chosen people, and all others mere ‘barbarians’. And even some of the greatest minds of the Hellenistic period following Plato kept up this charade, including Aristotle himself. The thinker is still a child of his time, yes, but by engaging in authentic dialogue and serious reflective thought, he begins to realize that his assumptions are often mistaken, especially about others to self. Young people the world over exist, momentarily, in a cultural space which is liminal. No longer children, not quite adults, ‘youth’ in all times and places since the beginning of mass civilizations experience something quite palpably that in no other life-phase is as menacing to their persons. That experience is one of doubt.

            Because the only other time we experience existential doubt is while we are dying, we arrive at the space of radical doubt either too early – the teenager can do little enough to push her doubts to the level of social revolution or even social critique – or too late – one is about to become permanently absent from the human experience – doubt as a force of being must be accessed in some other manner. Fortunately, and thanks to the Pre-Socratics and Socrates specifically, we do have this other means at our disposal, if we would only use it. For it is through philosophical doubt, the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, as Paul Ricoeur called it, upshifting itself into an ‘effective historical consciousness’, as his hermeneutic German counterpart Hans-Georg Gadamer had it, that a human being can practice doubt as a matter of course throughout the life course. And it truly is a practice, not unlike some other regular set of actions taken in light of other aspects of our human health, such as yoga, meditation, or even diet. To regularly engage in reflection charged with a reasoned doubt which is not sourced in either neurosis or common anxieties, is to begin to alter one’s consciousness of not only what society is and is made of, but also about what is; that is, of our shared existence and equally so, our possible shared fate.

            But to do so, and especially to do so publicly and with others is not without its patent and potent risks. And to deliberately do so by engaging young people is fraught with positive danger, as Socrates so discovered. I myself have encountered the signs of this danger. For in invoking suspicion directed against social institutions and their agents, it is to be absolutely expected that suspicion of oneself will be directed right back. Since I retired from my professorship and chairpersonship in a large university setting, I have been summarily rejected by the schools, by NPOs and NGOs that sponsor youth activities, by publishers too concerned about the commercial repute of their catalogues to publish my work, refused by a library which stated that the content of my fiction was ‘unsuitable’ for youth – even though it was written for that audience and the UK publisher itself suggested an age range of 14-24 – and no news media will publish my editorials. I have had civil servants tell me quite uncivilly that my ideas are not welcome in ‘their’ public institutions, and even had the police called on me for handing out my business card to a parent walking with her teenage child. And while I hope I am not naïve about the improbability of being assassinated by the latter-day State, at least, I am struck by the marshaling of focused forces, the circling of proverbial wagons, ‘all the king’s horses’ and so on, in the face of a lone social critic who sees himself as well as an advocate for youth.

            Par for the course, you might reply. Now you know that you truly are who you think you are. On one side, being off to one side suits the sensibility of the philosopher. A part of her reimagines herself as aloof to the petty influence of unthought, immune to the ‘insolence of officials’ and beyond the ‘slings and arrows’ both. But on the other, this aspect of the thinker is her most inauthentic selfhood. For thought is in fact the birthright of all human beings, and the philosopher represents merely a portal for others to step through; an entrance, and perhaps a momentary guide, to the wider world of the history of consciousness in its entirety, no matter its source. And yet even this is too sentimental a summary of what the philosopher does, who she is as a being in the world. No, in all honesty, the thinker dares the world to think for itself. She utters the Ursprach which sounds the hollow idols and pronounces the death of gods. He tells his fellow human, ‘What you hold most dear, I will destroy it! What you know of love, I will betray it! What you feel is most sacred, I will desecrate it unto death! You will no longer know yourself after you speak with the likes of me; you will instead be confronted by a new kind of being, a novel truth, a culture from which you are the newly estranged.’

            Is it any wonder then, that few people have the courage to engage in the regular practice of philosophical doubt. And this even more strikingly, given the fact that one doesn’t really need the philosopher to help with such a practice, at least, not in any consistent and continuing manner. For each of us, possessed of a consciousness which is a creation of reason and imagination alike, knows at some deep level that who and what they are, who and what they have been, is at the least not all they can be, and so their culture and so their history. All I can do, all I have done, promotes this other way of coming to grips with existence. And so I will continue to corrupt our youth in any way I can. I am a philosopher; its what I do.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 55 books in ethics, education, religion, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Parish the Thought

Parish the Thought

            In his legendary set of Gifford Lectures of 1901, William James placed a strong accent on what he referred to as the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’. More than anything else, it is faith that demands this existential oblation, for faith must ultimately forego the act of questioning. And even if, as I have suggested elsewhere, the ability to question may in fact be the ‘residuum of faith’, it is certain that faith alone drives reason outside of all contemplative life.

            But what is the character of such a sacrifice? How does it play out in our contemporary social scene? And what would possess a being endowed with reason and the language to facilitate its ongoing development, to give up what appears to be the essence of its make-up? Could it be that notoriety within reason is simply a difficult proposition, and thence that unreason should call to us the more strongly? Is it simply an easier thing to become something larger than life by depriving that very life of its unique contribution to the consciousness which otherwise might feel small in the face of the cosmos? Human existence, its ‘nature’, though mutable, is yet based upon the faculty of a reasoning intellect. Faith bereft of reason seems not merely counter to our collective character, our ‘species essence’, to speak with Marx, or the ‘Dasein that we are and which I am’, to speak with Heidegger, but as well appears as a kind of limitation, even an historical regression. This said, is it entirely a fair definition of faith that shaves itself of all capacity for critical thought?

            James seems to think that, while religious belief is itself based upon the not idle curiosity about origins – How is it that I exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a meaning to existence and more pointedly, to my specific existence? – and thus in its own development and proto-doxa, one finds reason at work, that in the end faith only comes into its own as a visceral veridicity when reason is fully abandoned. Akin to the act of love, perhaps, when two separate beings surrender their individuality for a few moments and unite in the bond of earthly rapture, the attainment of a faith undaunted by doubt and freed from any internal critique and self-reflection, surrenders not so much the body but rather the mind. In love, in regaining our distinct senses and thence our specific sensibilities, we realize that we have given ourselves over to the beloved other; this is the goal of human adoration. But in religion, we give ourselves body and soul not to a human other, but to a non-human Being who we imagine to be Otherness uplifted and made transcendent. From the divan to the divine, so to speak, this willingness to forsake our own paltry beings for a greater sense of existence, whether in love or in faith, also marks us as quite uniquely different from all other known forms of life.

            So if reason is necessary to attain an unreasoned faith, why presume such a faith to be no less of an essence to the human character than should reason itself be? For James, it is because faith is itself a mere vehicle for transcendence. If reason is the motive force behind the dynamic of human existence as reflective consciousness and as historical being, then faith is that which is ‘alongside’ reason, providing it with its ahistorical foil and its idealized selfhood. We would like to think that unreasoned faith is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms, but clearly we are faced, in the day to day, with a diversity of types of ‘blind faith’. Such a catalogue might not be worthy of a Gifford Lecture – ‘the varieties of unreasoned experience’, say – but this in fact is part of the core argument James makes regarding religion in general. The key to understanding the chief difference between a mere critical compendia of such misadventures and a reasoned and profound analysis of them can be found in his subtitle: ‘a study of human nature’.

            Now this claim radically upshifts the content from mere contemporary ethnography – you owe yourself a prayer, you owe yourself a soul – into the ontological sphere. It is part of our very being that we have the ability to experience religion. Faith may be ultimately unreasoning in order to preserve its function over against the world and against the history of that world, but it remains the near side of the coin which is consciousness as we have thus far known it to be. To study ‘human nature’, however diverse and changeable – James never claims, in what is still an all too prevalent shibboleth, that this or that is ‘simply human nature’; this type of response itself unreasoned – is to engage that very essence in the process of self-understanding. How does reason understand itself? What is the reason of reason, why does it itself exist and how is it made manifest? Reason is, in short, a gloss for human divinity.

            Until our modern period, reason was understood as a gift. It was what made us the imago dei under the skin, as it were. It is surely yet our most profound gift, Promethean in its scope and daring, ravenous in its Raven-like acquisitiveness; nothing novel can escape its sharp-eyed vision. But is it not as well the case, given the unreasoned tempi of human history, that we must maintain a kind of faith in reason itself in order to enact it, to return to it, to know of its perennial presence? For can we be apodeictically certain that our reason will always come to our rescue in the face of historical or yet cosmic happenstance? It is too trite a dyad to shrug this off with a ‘faith in reason, reason in faith’ kind of nod. For in reminding ourselves of their uneasy partnership, any balance that is struck within our consciousness which asks of both to remain present in the presence of the other presents to us a kind of intellectual miracle. On the one hand, reason in itself does not admit to faith of any kind. It is thought alone that carries it forward and faith, in its uncritical and even unthinking character, is at best an irresponsible diversion, at worst, a temptation. On the other, faith can neither reason itself nor for itself. It floats above the fray of the conflict of interpretations and it takes knowledge to be within the truth of things only when knowing is no longer associated with reason-inspired devices, such as science, method, criticism, and analysis. If reason sees faith as a half-way house for the febrile minded, faith sees reason as the professional artist sees the amateur. In the latter, reason can only take one so far, while in the former, there is no ‘farther’ place into which consciousness can travel. Hence the idiom, making a ‘leap’ of faith.

            Why not instead take one of reason? For James, such reasoning connects consciousness with cosmos, hence his near post-Broca musings about the architecture of the aspects of the brain about which we yet know little enough. Since reason does not itself require faith, but rather thought, and faith requires of us a reasoned appreciation of chance rather than the contrivance of a fetish surrounding risk – and on both counts, mind you; the shill of the thrill and the faux sage that sells to us ‘security’ – the unthinking chestnut that attempts to unite them is both unreasoned and faithless. Instead, we become aware not through philosophical inquiry but rather by virtue of quotidian experience that human life requires a kind of practical wisdom which includes what I would refer to as Phronetic faith. For James, this is one of the hallmarks of pragmatism, and even his most read work works itself into the service of this sensibility. Phronesis is itself based upon a practicality of ‘faith’ that recognizes the simple limitations of human insight and our dependence upon prior experiences which may, or may not, aid us in the nearest future, that which will be and that which can be known in spite of our ownmost presence as a ‘here’ and not a ‘there’. This is the faith by which we live.

            But this simpler and half-calculated faith addresses life only as we know it. It is, after all, reasoned, though in the moment of action reason must depart, even if only momentarily. And just as thoughtless action should not be carried on as if it were a kind of ‘tarrying alongside’ Dasein’s authenticity, nevertheless action requires of thought that it carries within it an element of faith to be discharged in the act, allowing it to occur and thence humanity to make good on its existential thrownness. Seen in this way, the wider faith that is both bereft of and exempt from reason could only take hold in another realm. The essence of unreasoned faith is that there is an object that itself cannot be reasoned, and this object is God or the Gods. For the theist, then, the ‘death of God’ reduces the entire concept of faith to mere guesswork, more or less confident, based upon a biographic quantity of personal experiences and lacking any wider quality. But I think this aspersion is overdone. While there is no reasoned atheism, in spite of the claim that reason has always been godless – God is, after all, the very metaphor of Reason and remains, even in Its afterlife, Reason’s apical ancestor – there is also no reason to sneer at the everyday existence of Dasein’s closest-by and nearest-to. It is its own uniquely human experience and it presents just as much of a challenge to any potential God on earth as the transcendental realm would present to a mere mortal. Immortal being is brought into unreasoned existence by everyday life, just as we imagine mortality to be uplifted by a faith knowing only in itself.

            All this said, the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’ is today mostly either a convenience or a contrivance. The marketeer assuages the consumer by her own feigned idiocy, the parish pirate invites the listless into his own fraudulent faith. It is exceedingly rare, in my estimation, to discover an authentically latter day saint. But the ignominious fate of faith in our own time is mimicked by the corresponding downfall of reason, which in its turn is mostly used to calculate social control, warfare, or at best, economic trends. Could it be, for the first time in the history of human consciousness, that both reason and faith, in the face of their respective sacrifices, need one another more than ever, the separated siblings and estranged lovers that they are?

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Greatest Challenge: The Human Future

The Greatest Challenge: The Human Future

            I can only share what I am. Perhaps I look like your abusive father, the would-be domestic divinity who knows nothing but monopolizes false authority, or your condescending teacher, a channel for the ‘dark sarcasm’ of the classroom, or the talking head politician whose only interest is to attain power and thence maintain it. I am not a beautiful seventeen year old in a bikini, though I rather wish I was, if for nothing else than more of you would listen to me. But if by some exotic existential sleight of hand I could appear before you, youthful, stunning, healthy and charismatic, my message to you would be the same.

            Exactly the same; that is, the ‘new three r’s’. For while I am manifestly none of the above, I am yet your ally, your comrade, your supporter and your resource. But what is a middle-aged white straight European philosopher doing on social media? What is his message to global youth? First of all, let me apologize for addressing the world in English alone. The language of commerce and science but neither thought nor art, it is the only fluency available to me, and that is my loss. But in any tongue, even the undead language of those whose historical accomplishments are disdained by fashion, the perennial cause for thinking is ever and always the same; the pursuit of truth, the fight for justice.

            And it is just now that both of these essential aspects of our shared human birthright are most at risk. And it is you, the young people of the world, who are at present being enslaved to a gross conformity of both expectation and aspiration, to whom I appeal. In every moment, you are told what to do, how to think, where to act. Imagine a world where no one can think, not because thought itself is dead, nor its essential language, but because no one has learned how. It is mostly the fault of we adults, but as we shall see a little later on, I cannot exempt youth themselves from any critical commentary on the turning away from the human future. For that is precisely what we are collectively engaged in, most of the time, in the vast majority of things that we do in our lives.

            In no institution or organization are young people aided in learning how to think for themselves. Such a program would run contrary to the basic character of these places, whether schools, churches, youth clubs, sports teams, summer camps. Even the university is focused upon preparing you only for the changing and fickle job market, for somehow, you will have to find a way to survive. Thought, apart from the practical utility of the day to day, seems a petty luxury, unaffordable and unattainable alike. And yet thought is the only key to the human future; thinking our way forward is the hallmark of humankind alone.

            But all of this is mere backdrop. Today, I want to call you to action; resist, rethink, redo. These are the new ‘three r’s’:

            Resist: when confronted with any authoritarian demand, any command of fascism, disobey, refuse to cooperate in any way and at any time. Examples are physical and sexual abuse, ‘punishment’ or ‘discipline’; emotional and psychological torture, manipulative adults, charming ‘authority figures’; petty rules of conduct of all kinds, school dress codes, vocabulary, enforced activities, organized sports and camps. Waste no effort following any adult who insists upon obedience based upon either unreason or a simple display of power. Confront authority with the truth of thought, speak into being the power of human reason.

            Rethink: change the scene of your encounters with adults from their rules to dialogue. Do not fool yourself when an adult suggests finding a ‘common ground’, or working out a ‘compromise’. Authentic dialogue pierces into the heart of the matter, without restraint in the face of, or respect for, what has been called the ‘sacred’. The adult world consists of the use and abuse of power, and it is something each generation must wrest away from those previous, sometimes by force, though it is important to note within the middle term of this triune process, that peaceful protest has attained its goals a full quarter more times than has that violent, over the course of the past century. It would be a cowardly and irresponsible act on my part to call to arms world youth while I sit safely in my study.

            Redo: what has passed for thinking in institutions, in systems, in government, is precisely what has lead us to the brink of world annihilation. What adults have done, what we do, does not work. No sane person would follow along blithely and blindly, respecting adults simply because they are older, fearing them simply because they are stronger, obeying them simply because it is easier in the short term to do so. No thinking person would be satisfied, in any way, by the process and progress of the adult world: poverty, climate change, warfare, injustice, child abuse and torture, false religion, extorted science. Need we repeat such a damning list? There has never been a more momentous time for a redo, but only youth can accomplish it; that is, only yourselves.

            You may be surprised that this is also a personal request on my behalf. For a decade my wife and I lived round the corner, quite unknowingly and unwittingly, to a school wherein young people were allegedly tortured and abused on a daily basis in the name of a false God. Such a God as these adults imagined must have been a pedophile, a sadist, a child abuser. Not even a devil would engage in such things. We drove by this place most days, never giving it a glance. It was simply part of the neighborhood, simply another place of learning. But what was being learned, what was being taught, was a brutal fear of the world and of intimate adults alike. Violent beatings, of both girls and boys, ‘conversion therapy’, ‘exorcisms’, all forcibly and cruelly undertaken, all highly illegal in my country, occurring in my very own backyard. I am ashamed of myself for not knowing, for not helping, for not stopping such things. I am ashamed of my country for letting such domestic terrorism take place and over a period of decades. No penalty exists in my country for such inhumane acts; there is no more vile a crime than the ritual abuse and torture of children; for it, and for all those adults involved, teachers, administrators, and parents all, if true, the death penalty must be reconsidered.

            The courage of these young people, now belatedly coming forward, represents an astounding role model for all of us, but particularly for yourselves, my audience today. Yes, courage unabated, will unbroken, bravery unadulterated and indeed, bereft of any ‘adult’ sense of what constitutes purpose and agency, for we have lost almost all understanding of both in our own narrow, apolitical lives. Think now of your station, your own situation; are you not also being systematically robbed of your shared human birthright? The loss of human reason, the only thing that clearly separates us from the animals, and by virtue of this unique consciousness, human thought, human thinking; this is what is at stake.

            And yet all is not lost, for the simple fact that all bullies are ultimately cowards. They will break before you will and before your will; your resistance will stultify them, your rethinking will mystify them, your redoing will vanquish them along with the dust and dross of all unthinking myth. I urge you now, as a world collective, to begin this gifted task, to take up this ultimate challenge. And I do so not without another critical observation. Yes, think about your condition, and learn to recognize all the signs of fascism, of bullying, right down to the tone of voice adults use, for in even in their most gentle paternalism, they are talking down to you, pretending that you are not human, that you do not have reason, that you cannot think. This is what we adults desire of you; obedience unquestioning, parroting the desires of the commercial world, placing all your energy into labor, into service, into sporting, into the State, and at the cost of love, of art, and most especially, of thought. And forgive me if I am thorough, if I as well remand the atheist for his stupidity equal to that of the evangelist, for his is a faith in nothing at all. It is true that we do not hear of atheists torturing children, but their zealotry, their blind belief that there is no God nor can there ever have been a God is mindful of the same on the other side, as it were, the side in which a God is indubitably present and always has been, no questions asked or even imagined.

            And my thoroughness cannot stop there, for the other question I feel you must ask yourselves today is ‘what am I doing to vouchsafe the human future?’, ‘what am I doing that has any real merit to it?’. Another list: playing video games, playing sports, watching social media – how about that? – shopping and flaunting the fetish of commodities in your ‘hauls’ – how do the penitential factory workers of the global poor gain by your obliviousness? – experimenting with drugs, engaging in petty spats with your school chums, with your gossiping enemies, with your opposing team members, with those who belong to different cliques or yet participate in different activities – all without merit – than those you yourself take up. Twenty scant minutes a week to protest environmental degradation, taken at lunchtime, adoring the darling of parents and teachers and even some politicians? How is any of this of merit? No, it is pathetic, and the more so, it is this inaction of youth that allows we adults to dismiss you. You are only the reason that we are currently in control; the youth who frivolously expends her endless energy and her timeless beauty in shallow unending cul-de-sacs of self-absorbed vanity.

            So add to your resistance all that you imagine you do for yourself. No, the vast bulk of these ‘personal time’ activities take you as far away from the world’s reality as do the formal and officious duties that school, family, and the State impose upon you; just as far away. They are but the illusions contrived by those adults who desire in you a patent self-delusion. In one stroke, make your new ‘three r’s’ destroy both the institutional culture of violence against youth and your own soporifics that you have used to pretend that such violence isn’t there, that you are not being brainwashed at every moment, that your human birthright is not being taken from you by force. Understand instead that the new mythology is nothing other than demythology. That the future must be freed from the dead weight of the past, and that only you can free it, and by first freeing yourselves.

            I have no simple parables for you. I am not a messiah any more than I am a demon. Where a figure like Jesus took a paragraph to explain the ‘good Samaritan’, I have taken 5500 pages of fiction to provide a blueprint for a better human future. But the upshot of both is the same: ‘go and do likewise’. Young people of all nations unite; you have nothing to lose but the past, you have a future to win.

            Thank you for listening to me today and I wish you both the truest good fortune and wish upon you the most profound of human reason and conscience alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.