Written when Jason was 23
So I’ve decided that instead of buying Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in full (since everyone who reads my blog wants all their content for free and thinks I shouldn’t be paid for what I do best), I’ll go to the Pierce College library to read it–for whatever reason in the last five years since I left they have built this wonderful library, while simultaneously complaining of a budget crisis and cutting classes. This is yet more particularly sharp and honest behavior from our college system, but at least this is a two-year kooledge so they can simply claim they don’t know any better. I might ask the question of why this collection of knowledge would be at all useful at a junior kolygye, but at least it’s something, and if my complaint is that coliiiigiis aren’t teaching anything then it would be hypocritical to complain here. It might take me a while to get through it, since the version there is 700+ pages, so I’ll use the time to scour some eye candy as well haha. (I apologyze for any spilling errours here, I due knot theenk it is yo playce to coment on them as I am mycelf a colidge gradduate.)
Now I’ve had a chance to think pretty deeply about this subject and, as I see it, we think we are so much better, that we have escaped so much from the follies of the past that we need not study it. The vast bulk of our population does not see any value in history. They believe technology has made history irrelevant. I think you figured out I disagree, that I think that if anything technology will exacerbate the fundamental problems of human nature but at the same time it makes the study of history so much easier. I can only do the online Great Books program because of technology, and you can only get most of the books for free for the same reason.
But the reality is that the university system itself–all these caulejes that teach our students so much (ahem, ahem, maybe I meant so little)–is the newest manifestation of the trend Mackay describes. This is something I described in The Bubble Boys so it is not a new idea, and you really should look there rather than here for a full explanation. In any event Mackay’s purpose is to examine what drives men to consume their lives and fortunes on things of no or next to no value. He describes the Mississippi scheme of John Law, the South Sea bubble (in which Edward Gibbon’s grandfather was a major player), Tulipomania, the pursuit of alchemy, the Crusades, and a number of other historical events that have cost hundreds and thousands of people their lives, their money, and/or their freedom. What in essence happens is these people are fooled into thinking they gain something from acting in a certain way, and the gain will be quick and automatic, when there is little or no evidence to support their belief, and in many cases there is strong evidence to the contrary that they choose to overlook.
The university system at present CLEARLY falls into the same line. We send kids there, millions of them, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a piece of paper. They claim they will provide our kids with the highest quality education, and yet I have met thousands of university graduates and come to the distinct conclusion that the quality of education a man has is almost entirely independent and where it is not it is often negatively correlated with the amount of years he has spent in skool. Then we are told we must spend another hundred thousand dollars or so for another piece of paper because the first one is not good enough. usually because they have not taught our kids anything. When we are finally released from the obligation to spend more hundreds of thousands of dollars on useless pieces of paper, we start telling the kids that there aren’t any jobs available, so they should work for free or for a cut-rate wage where they will learn the skills they were promised they would learn in the university. Instead the most fundamental skills, writing, critical thinking, mental processing–they never get them.
Of course you will laugh in my face and not think twice about what I am saying. At best you will read this, say “huh, he’s right,” then continue asking everyone what degree they have and from where, and telling them what a great school they went to, while silently judging them to be of inferior quality to that Harvard graduate you met a few years back. But think this one through: how many of the places whose degrees you are judging have you actually been to? Through how many of their doors have you passed? Any judgment you are making is one made without knowledge and on blind faith in what someone else has told you. It is therefore a weak judgment and not a strong one. It’s a judgment made with only second-hand information.
QED. Sign up for my essays and my program. They’re better educational options, and cheaper.
Just finished my essay for the week. This is going to turn out to be an amazing book, when I put them together–I’m getting 10 copies and signing 9 of them for free. I think everyone can figure out that every 6 weeks I’m going to publish them (and each one will be $18.99 because the incentive needs to be to subscribe). Already in 4 weeks it’s at 55 pages in a 6×9, which makes me very happy.
So I have a student in trigonometry at my favorite fine university (ugh), the one I graduated from, California State University, Northridge. And not only does he have a teacher who is straight off the boat from China, but they sold him a book that was “custom made” for CSUN students.
Now let’s take a second to think this through: trigonometry is no subjective subject, only to be processed one way by students from one school and a different way by students at another one. It is a common knowledge subject–you either have the common knowledge, or you don’t. So basically what CSUN is doing is offering a book at a higher price, claiming it is more effective for their students than some other book which is more effective for every other school’s students, a claim that can be assumed to be dubious at best. It’s just plainly stupid salesmanship.
With this book they’ve sold him a special CSUN-trig workbook and a computer program for another $100.
Now here’s the thing: if this book is so special, don’t you think it would teach the unit circle in chapter 1? Because really, the problem most students have with trig is that they aren’t taught the unit circle properly, and trying to go through trig without completely mastering the unit circle is like trying to go through American History without knowing about Federalism and who George Washington was. It’s simply not feasible.
Well, well, of course! High prices for a subpar product–typical university behavior. This book does not get to the unit circle until chapter THREE. And in the mean time they ask all sorts of questions about 60 and 135 and 210 degree angles, all of which are right on the unit circle–so they ask students to do something without giving them the tools with which to do it. (Nor, for that matter, have they taught the students to convert degrees into radians.)
Basically the student has stopped showing up for class–he’s not getting anything out of it–and is using me as his teacher. Which is the right thing to do because of how the class is being run.
If you still do not get that the universities way overcharge you and leave you less than prepared, and that I am the only real alternative out there right now, I don’t know what to tell you. Ditto (minus the overcharge for public schools) for high schools. We are in the midst of an educational crisis that will bring this country to its knees within a generation if not corrected for immediately. So I once again ask that you place a phone call to me, (310) 592-5681. It is for your own good as much as mine.
One of the subscribers to my essays said the following: “I very much enjoyed your essay this week. you are an excellent writer…I know that because you piqued my interest in something for which I had little interest previously.”
The same is often said to me of my teaching, so it is worth keeping in mind–if you are going to discard my program as uninteresting to you and everyone you know, as so many have done–that you may not be seeing things from the most ideal perspective. This also comes from someone who tends to be very conservative and cautious in issuing praise, to put it lightly.
As always I am looking for more subscribers and more students (and more readers for my books), and the sooner, the better–so please contact me ASAP, either by phone–(310) 592-5681–or through the box below.
“The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.”–John F. Kennedy
Making us all wonder what, exactly, is the purpose of sending our kids to schools for half their lives where they gain no knowledge and are actively encouraged to disregard truth.
I think everyone knows I am from the backwoods location of Los Angeles, which means I lack any form of urban sophistication and what not and thus can’t understand the parts of the Great Books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal with great cities such as London, Rome, Paris, and Athens. City life is foreign to me because of where I live and some other Great Books scholar living somewhere else would be a better educator on those things. Okay, okay, I am of course kidding. I’m a die-hard Dodgers and Lakers fan, tutor actors and actresses, and am connected with judges and lawyers of various kinds as well as filmmakers (I come from a fairly big Hollywood family, grandfather’s uncle was President of MGM and Universal and married to Louis B Mayer’s daughter, aunt was Dana Hill whose filmography would fill a full book despite passing at 33, cousins and uncles have been directors and producers, etc.). In essence one reason I am so gifted is because I am connected with so many of the most established institutions in a city that ranks as one of the ten largest in the world. I’m an incredibly unique man in that regard if not in any others.
One thing in LA that I am not a fan of, though, is the public libraries. And here’s an example of why:
I walk into the Studio City branch this morning to pick up a book containing the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. I had read this when I was at Pierce College and loved it, and one of the guys I play basketball with contacted me asking for help with an essay about it (I have lost my own essay, though, sadly). As I walk in I see a survey on the table asking what kinds of movies the patrons of the library like to watch: books converted into movies, movies about American politics, movies about the American Jewish experience, and so on and so forth. I fill it out and write at the bottom of it “I tutor actors and teach Great Books classes–Jason Goetz, [phone number]”
I go and find the book and go to check it out, and once I check it out I hand the librarian the sheet. She tells me to take it to the lady at the information desk–she doesn’t know what to do with it. So I take it over there. The lady is busy with someone else so I drop it on her keyboard and walk off. As I’m at the door she chirps up: “What do you want me to do with this?”
I threw up my hands. “I don’t know, figure it out–it’s your survey.”
The public library system in LA has long struck me as abysmal. They don’t have a single working copy, over all the various branches throughout the county, of Statius’ Thebaid, for instance, which is an epic I know I need to read. And when I approached them about posting my flier for my program, since that would be the exact right place for it, they insisted that they would only do that if I did my program for free. I have neither the power to compel others to yield there income through taxation nor the desire to simply volunteer it, so this was not in my plans; the bigger issue is that a governmental institution is now putting themselves directly at odds with private business, rather than supporting it, which does not have to be the case and is only the case because the people running it are complete morons.
But this struck me as particularly bizarre, because basically what it means is that they’re putting this survey out with the intent to make themselves look like they’re responsive to LA citizens and patrons of their branch, when in reality they don’t give a rat’s ass. And not only do they not give one iota of shit for what patrons want, they have to deceptively try and make it look like they actually DO care.
Does anyone wonder why LA is such a poorly educated city and one which has such little interest in books, given this as our library system and what I’ve already described with our school system (much of which I have not addressed but which is generally horrible to the degree that it makes me sick to my stomach)??????
SUCCESS! Small group thus far, but there will be additions going forward. Students definitely appreciated what I’m doing.
The first one and the only one I will post for free; should you want more, feel free to contact me about subscriptions:
On the Value of the Classics
Welcome to the new “essays on the classics!” These essays, written once a week, will seek to bring the finest works of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, to life, establishing their relevance to the modern age. Briefly, then, we must address what it means to be a classic—or, in my preferred terminology, a Great Book.
There are at least a thousand Great Books, but what does that mean? The term is itself somewhat ambiguous, and lends itself to several different definitions, some of which are stronger than others. The most notable of these is that a Great Book is one that outlives its own generation. The most thorough, and the one that I lean towards the most, is like a three-pronged Supreme Court opinion, and it is the one given by the 20th Century Great Books scholar Mortimer Adler. Adler says that a book becomes a Great Book if:
1) The book has contemporary relevance;
2) The material in the book is inexhaustible, meaning that through successive readings there is still fresh factual data or methods of interpretation that can be found;
3) The book contains many of the great ideas that have occupied the minds of thinking men from classical antiquity to the present.
Clearly I lean towards the second definition, if I am attempting to “bring [them] to life.” But it is worth noting that it is not always plain what the contemporary relevance of many of these books is—hence one might require a teacher–, especially for some of the archaic scientific texts such as Aristotle’s Physics, and that the second part of this definition is itself not always applicable: while some books approach inexhaustibility, notably The Iliad of Homer, the medieval epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, others can be fully dissected in a matter of only a couple of readings. Be that as it may, a Great Book is one that requires serious thought, often including multiple readings, and discusses human nature or matters of the external world in such a manner as to induce the reader to note the applications of the text to his own time and place.
This said, it goes noted that the Great Books are somewhat out of style. I see students routinely who would not know a Great Book if I smacked them on the head with one, and there has been a general tendency, especially within academic circles, to discard the wonderful ideas contained within them on the grounds that they are either biased or out of date. I have already addressed the latter—nothing could be farther from the truth—but the former needs some consideration.
What’s particularly disturbing is not only that the students have not read the actual books, but that they do not even know about the existence of the books, with a few exceptions, especially Shakespeare’s plays and The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (which is mentioned in every European History class).
Generally speaking, the Great Books come from Europe and North America after the onset of colonization (and, to be sure, after the revolt of England’s thirteen colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard which ended in 1781). There are very few Great Books from Asia, none from Africa, and certainly none from North America prior to Columbus’ expedition in 1492. It is easy, then, for someone looking only at racial or ethnic identity to class these works as the ravings of dead white males.
But how true is this? Sure, many of the works were written by men who clearly favored Europeans and males to other ethnic groupings and to women. There is a patriarchal undertone to many of the works that cannot go unnoticed.
At the same time, claims of misogyny in the classics are in many cases not even relevant, as some works of history and political theory deal with events exclusively in the hands of men; and in many texts, such as The Odyssey of Homer, the women are in fact treated much better than the men. But where women are criticized in many Great Books, men receive much worse treatment, and in fiction and biography, as well as in some forms of classical history, women are rarely presented as being of anything less than critical importance.
More wrongheaded is the claim of bias on the grounds of whiteness. This claim has been so pervasive and so widespread that on my blog one commenter went so far as to say that the writings about North Africans in the works of Roman historians show a clear racist inclination. (This is why some of us need teachers: the North Africans were distinctly white.) University professors have said this so many times that it makes a true scholar nauseous.
Not even all of the authors of the Great Books are white: the Greeks were not white, they were Middle Eastern; the Romans are the first “Western whites”, but they were a society where no distinction was made between whites and other ethnic groups strictly on grounds of ethnicity, so in at least a few cases we don’t know whether a Roman author was white at all. But even were the authors of the Great Books all white, I see no reason why this should imply that their positions are all the same and, therefore, of dubious intellectual merit. This is immediately suspect with Euclid, the great mathematician, about whose codification of geometry I believe we can all agree that it has relevance for every high school student, white, black, blue, green, or brown.
But even amongst the political theorists and humanitarians this is a strictly moronic claim. One could put Hobbes and Augustine of Hippo in a room together and be almost certain that only one would exit alive; both held passionately to belief systems that are nearly diametrically opposed. These two were certain of what they saw; which distinguishes them from the French essayist Montaigne and the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were skeptical. Dante was a rabid monarchist, Milton an anarchist, and Lenin a totalitarian. Nor is this only true of authors living in different time periods and from different cultural backgrounds; both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine spent much time in late 18th Century Britain, yet Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France outraged Paine, who replied (rather vindictively) with The Rights of Man. The racial identity of the author has nothing to do with the greatness of a book or the positions he espouses within it. And even the racial identities of the authors must be questioned: for in what sense is John Stuart Mill, writing in Protestant 19th Century England in the Age of Industrialism, the same kind of white male as Dante, writing at the very beginning of the 14th Century in Catholic Italy? Moreover, how does one discard the political theory in On Liberty and the epic poem in The Divine Comedy for the same reason? These are not even the same kind of book!
Because of the vast range of positions, attitudes, values, and beliefs represented within them, the Great Books present a complete course in the study of human nature, on top of a strong education in mathematics and science, both natural and social. To discard this on the grounds of the supposed ethnic prejudices of the authors, which are not to be found in most of the actual books themselves, is the height of absurdity. If anything, we owe a lot to the dead white males.
One of the worst consequences of the supposed archaism of the Great Books is the belief that all Great Books are fictional. One friend of mine went so far as to say that I should target my courses and my subscriptions to those who like the pages of great fictional works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, only to reply when I told him of the great nonfiction ones that “they’re all the same to me.” In one case I told a parent how much her son would benefit from a course in the classics—to which she replied that he was “fine with the English”, as though English and classics are synonymous. If they are not just “English”, they are considered only as “fine arts” or “humanities”—which is little better. In fact, while fiction in the form of long poems, epic poems, novels, satires, and plays comprises a solid portion of the Great Books, there is far more nonfiction, across several different genres.
The nonfiction genres include history and political theory, mathematics and the various sciences (as all mentioned above), as well as philosophy and theology, economics and sociology, biography and memoir, speeches and letters, and mixtures of all of the above. Nor are the Great Books of anywhere near universal length: while a classic essay or an ancient Greek play may be no more than ten pages, a 19th Century novel may run anywhere between 150 (The Turn of the Screw by Henry James) and 1000 pages (War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy), and a work of classical history might be either 35 pages (as in Catiline’s War by Sallust) or 4000 of them (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Ditto for political theory: Milton’s Areopagitica, the passionate defense of free speech, is barely 30 pages, whereas Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws is close to 600.
Because of the great range of nonfiction material in the Great Books, readers of them are forced to confront the world as it really exists, not as they wish it would be. Works of fiction can sometimes be constructed in fantasyland and remain intriguing, but a book about the history of a well-known revolution, or on the theory behind civil laws and legality, must be realistic in order to survive—or on the alternative, it must appear to some people to be realistic, which, if it is not, says a lot about how crazy people can be.
What do I mean by this last statement? Take the following quote from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution—generally considered a Great Book and written within the last century:
“How did the Compromisers explain their conduct? One explanation had a doctrinaire character: Since the revolution is bourgeois, the socialists must not compromise themselves with the power–let the bourgeoisie answer for itself. This sounded very implacable.”
By looking at the language we can dissect the precision of Trotsky’s ideas, or the lack thereof. A revolution cannot itself be bourgeois. The leaders of a revolution can be, but the thing itself refers to a sequence of events, and I have never seen a middle-class event or an event that holds property. And it was not twenty pages before that this same author claimed that the revolution was brought about by ideas fed into the minds of the masses by the Bolsheviks, the Communist group that sought to do away with property. Beyond that, how does an explanation sound implacable? Does this writer even know what that word means? A person can be implacable; my fat cat can be implacable. But a statement cannot be implacable.
To be educated in the classics means to confront this quote head-on by virtue of having seen more direct quotes in better works of history; it means that you can recognize that someone with these kinds of ideas is in fact dangerous, and that if he is persuasive (and Trotsky surely was) then followers of him will be equally removed from the real world. It means that you understand what the consequences are when this happens, and it means that you can see that such a thing can happen anywhere and at any time. It means that you will confront the historical consequences of words like these—the rise of totalitarian governments built on flimsy ideas and rooted in systems such as fascism and communism—and that you will be honest about how those are or are not relevant to the world in which you live. The words in the quote meant enough to Trotsky that he was willing to publish them, so they must be considered carefully. Because of that they are almost enough to give an entire history of practical, Soviet communism at one glance. But do they really have any meaning at all to one with an unclouded mind? To someone with a Great Books education—one effect of which is that it gives meaning to a man’s life—this is the essential question.
If the critiques of the classics say that they are biased and unrealistic, and mostly only fictional, that is because those who are making the critiques are not engaging honestly with the books. They are credulous, not critical, in their approach. And this is only three sentences in a work of well over 450 pages—in an abridged version.
And therein lies the value of the classics: when you begin to consider them and to study them on their own terms, your reasoning sharpens to a degree that is unmatched by any other so-called “academic discipline.” You can dissect each of these texts from hundreds of different angles, and each text and each way of approaching it sharpens your reasoning another notch. You begin to see everything in context, as parts of a whole picture, and not as isolated pieces of statistical data with no consistency.
The classics demand such careful examination because they deal with large things, not small ones. Because of this they expand your mind to a point where it cannot go back to what it was prior to your engagement with them. You find yourself with more flexibility and better ability to adapt to circumstances that are not what you expected because you can see things more fully. Knowledge is power. So one classic says!
Sharp reasoning, large-mindedness, the ability to adapt: surely these are practical things. If you knew one course of study brought you these things, and another didn’t—why would you forgo it? It is no accident that a Great Books education has for centuries led to success in careers in film and theater, journalism (both broadcast and written), government (both domestic and foreign affairs), politics, law, writing, teaching, and business. No doubt for a student in school it would drastically improve his reading and writing work and his ability to thrive in English and History courses, as well as on standardized tests where two of the three major categories tested are reading comprehension and writing. Especially in an age where writing is one of the skills that distinguishes an educated professional from an uneducated one, and thus boosts income, this would seem even more compelling. It is certainly no radical idea, despite what modern educators might try to tell you.
I am here to write for you on these fine works of literature and not to criticize the world in which we live for whatever failings it might have. But you can judge for yourself, I think, what the consequences might be in an age where there is no widespread appreciation for the Great Books.
“How did the Compromisers explain their conduct? One explanation had a doctrinaire character: Since the revolution is bourgeois, the socialists must not compromise themselves with the power–let the bourgeoisie answer for itself. This sounded very implacable.”–Leon Trotsky, from History of the Russian Revolution
Showing you all how not to write. As we will explore in the course this fall (and wait! I forgot! Last day to enroll!), language like this is unclear and thus constitutes poor writing. One author on our list says “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” That might be part of it.
In any event, how can a revolution be “bourgeois”? Perhaps its leaders were bourgeois–though Trotsky says elsewhere that the revolution’s leaders were the Bolshevik faction feeding the ideas to the masses, who are hardly middle class–but the revolution itself certainly cannot be described in such a fashion.
Moreover, the use of the word “implacable” makes Trotsky (and his translator) look just plain stupid. It makes no sense in this context. A person can be implacable. So can an animal. My own fat cat is often implacable. But an explanation cannot be implacable.
Anyone still wonder why Soviet Russia didn’t work?
Again, this is not taught in schools. Look at many of the writings that are read in schools–they take on just this same character! And then we wonder why so many of the things we read don’t make a whole lot of sense?
You know what to do!