Two films currently in the running for the Academy’s “Best Picture” award are standouts for me. What they have in common is that, at their cores, they extol some very primal virtues. The first, Room, explores the value of freedom (which we too often take for granted); it’s ultimate price, courage; and the love that can motivate the needed courage: in this case, the mutual love of a very young child and his mother. This is a story that pushes some very emotional buttons, for all the best reasons. Here’s the official trailer, but if you haven’t read the novel, I recommend that you do not watch it prior to seeing the film, because it ruins the suspense of the plot (even if it doesn’t entirely neutralize its emotional wallop)-
The second film, Spotlight, is stylistically quite different. It’s a journalistic procedural, much in the spirit of 1976’s All The President’s Men, about how a dedicated group of reporters uncovered the depth and breadth of the “pedophile priest” problem in the Catholic Church. Being a (non-postmodernist) philosopher by trade, I’ve always been a sucker for stories about the pursuit and exposure of truth, especially when it’s intentionally been hidden, and when arriving at it comes at the cost of unexpectedly implicating apparent innocents in some moral morass. That’s where this film excels: when the head reporter (played by Michael Keaton) finally figures out who prevented the story from coming to light years earlier, it’s an enlightening surprise. Here’s the trailer (which, unlike the Room trailer, I can certify as “safe to watch”)-
At the end of a recent PBS NewsHour interview, Jeffrey Brown asked actress Juliette Binoche how she felt about the sorts of roles she can expect to be offered, now that she is older than 50. She gave one of the most positive responses about aging that I’ve ever heard. Here it is, rendered as verse-
I mean, I’ve aged, you know,
I have experience.
And so it’s not as if
I’m not facing it…
but it’s not a fear.
‘Cause time is a tool to grow!
If you don’t have that tool,
how can you grow?
How can you transform?
So, you have to believe that
time is your best friend!
Imagine if you had to die
when you’re young,
you’d feel like, wow!
You know, what I’ve learned with time
Here is the whole (6 minute) interview. The verse above occurs at about 5 min. 30 sec.-
An ongoing meme among Republican politicians is that a university education is over-rated, particularly if one is interested in majoring in anything other than a STEM field. I’ve heard Art History dismissed, as well as Anthropology and a number of other social sciences and humanities programs. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was the latest politician to dismiss a non-STEM and non-vocational major, one that is especially dear to my heart: philosophy. Here is what he said, along with the debunking by Politifact:
“For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational training,” Rubio said. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
It was a big moment in the debate for Rubio, but was he correct? Philosophically and statistically speaking, no.
Both government and private sector research show philosophy majors make more money than welders, and with much more room to significantly increase pay throughout their careers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers is $37,420 — about $18 an hour. According to Payscale, a company that collects salary information, philosophy majors make an average first-year salary of $42,200. The average mid-career pay for philosophy majors is even better: $85,000 per year. We rated Rubio’s statement False.
Politifact was not the only outfit that immediately recognized that Rubio’s statement was false. The first debunking I found came only minutes after Rubio said it, at the Associated Press. This was followed shortly thereafter by the Washington Post.
What is sad is not just the increasing tendency of Republican presidential hopefuls to spout falsehoods, pandering to their anti-intellectual base in order to win the primary. It is also the general cultural background that allows such remarks to initially sound plausible to a surprising number of people, with the result that public universities become the lowest priority in state budgets.
UPDATE: Senator Rubio’s penchant for speaking without thinking seems to be continuing: after the ISIS attack on Paris, he described the West’s fight with that terrorist group as “a clash of civilizations”. But,of course, there’s nothing civilized about ISIS. The only current civilization to which they are even distantly related is the Islamic world of over a billion people, and if Rubio wishes to characterize the fight against ISIS and similar groups as a clash between liberal civilization and that civilization, he is doing both civilizations a grave disservice.
In this dark age of deep budget cuts to once-great public universities like the University of Wisconsin, and politicians who pander to their anti-intellectual base by demeaning liberal arts majors while hyping technology majors (see previous post), it may be refreshing to remind ourselves that Steve Jobs himself once stated that what made Apple Computer different from other tech companies was that its goal was to bring a “liberal arts perspective” to computing-
I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers. … You know, if you really look at the ease of use of the MacIntosh, the driving motivation behind that was … to bring beautiful fonts and typography to people … it was to bring graphics to people, not for plotting laminar-flow calculations, but so that they could see beautiful photographs or pictures or artwork. Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective, and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience. That’s the seed of Apple.
Here is the audio of this quote, from a 1996 Terry Gross interview-
It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing — and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.
By the way, since I was acquainted with Jobs when we were both students at Reed College, I’m looking forward – with just a wee bit of trepidation – to the new Sorkin/Boyle movie, “Steve Jobs” (even though it might have more to do with the artists who made it than with Jobs the man – something Steve actually might have approved of…)-
Update: Well, I saw the movie, and I’m sorry to say that I can’t recommend it, at least if you’re interested in learning much about the major events it depicts: the release of the original Mac; the (apparently) intentional failure of NeXT; the release of the iMac following Jobs’ return to Apple, and finally the ambivalent Sculley-Jobs relationship (which, as the film handles it, is simply confusing). Nor can I recommend it if you’re more interested in learning about Jobs’ attitude towards his daughter Lisa: first he disowns her, then [spoiler alert!] he finally tries to make amends – a transformation that might have been worth exploring if Sorkin could attribute it to something deeper than Jobs’ merely growing up. The acting, as you might expect, is all fine (Fassbinder really nails Jobs’ persona in the film’s third and otherwise weakest act), and the dialog is certainly pithy enough (Sorkin’s trademark). But the kid I remember from Reed College was far more complex than the character I saw on the screen, and I can’t believe that he lost so much depth and subtlety over time. He certainly might have become as obsessive and inflexible as the film portrays him, but surely he continued to be more than that, at least when he was away from the high-pressure events the film focuses on. To achieve a more satisfying portrait of Jobs the man, a better film would follow him between those events, during many quieter moments, and track his development at a more leisurely pace.
There is a very good cover story in Harpers Magazine this month (September issue) by William Deresiewicz entitled “How College Sold Its Soul… and surrendered to the market.” This story is especially relevant here in Wisconsin, where Governor Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature recently slashed the UW system budget by $250,000,000 while freezing tuition, and “the search for truth” came close to being excised from the UW’s mission statement. Although many students are under the misapprehension that eschewing liberal arts programs in favor of business and professional ones is likely to improve their financial position over the long run, pointing that out isn’t Deresiewicz’s main concern; rather, he’s arguing that college should not be viewed in economic terms at all. Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:
It is not the humanities per se that are under attack. It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake. It is the liberal arts, but understood in their true meaning, as all of those fields in which knowledge is pursued as an end in itself, the sciences and social sciences included. History, sociology, and political-science majors endure the same kind of ritual hazing (“Oh, so you decided to go for the big bucks”) as do people who major in French or philosophy. Governor Rick Scott of Florida has singled out anthropology majors as something that his state does not need more of. Everybody talks about the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – but no one’s really interested in science, and no one’s really interested in math: interested in funding them, interested in having their kids or their constituents pursue careers in them. That leaves technology and engineering, which means (since the second is a subset of the first) it leaves technology.
Deresiewicz locates the origin of the problem in the ascendence of “neo-liberalism”, by which he means “an ideology that reduces all values to money values.” Corporate and other business interests would prefer that colleges act as vocational schools, rather than that they train students to reason critically and creatively. He points out that it is not in the interests of economic elites to have students conceiving of alternatives to the status quo, or at least to have them gaining the skills that would allow them to do so. Whether you agree with his diagnosis or not, his critique of current attitudes towards higher education (even on college campuses themselves) is well worth reading.
If you have trouble finding the article, Kathleen Dunn of WPR interviewed Deresiewicz on Monday 8/31, and they covered many issues not discussed in the article, including Wisconsin-related ones. You can listen to or download the segment here. You can also find the podcast on iTunes.
When I first heard the Weepies back in 2006 (thanks Cheryl!), it was by way of the song featured in the video below: And The World Spins Madly On. I thought: “Hmmm… a duo that, in some oblique way, sounds a lot like Simon and Garfunkel”. It was partly the two-part harmonies, partly the songwriting, partly the lightness of the production, bathed in a semi-transparent haze of reverb – one reason why this song seems to almost float away as you listen to it. I’ve since learned to appreciate the duo for their own quirky but relentlessly accessible style, which is most evident on their current release, Sirens.
Ryan Woodward’s animated video, uploaded in 2010 but which I just stumbled upon, nicely captures the song’s tragi-romantic sentiment.
So… it seems that I haven’t posted anything all month. Chalk it up to the summer doldrums.
In any case, I’m determined not to neglect July entirely. So, for your amusement, here’s a curious little acceptance speech Leonard Cohen gave at the 2011 Prince of Asturias Awards event in Spain. He won the prize for Literature, but his speech is mostly about how he came to be a songwriter. As you might well expect from Cohen, what he has to say is a little bit beautiful, a little bit tragic, and just a tad absurd (particularly in its opulent setting).
Monk seals have made a comeback in Hawaii of late, but rarely (if ever) have any decided to take a nap at this crowded beach just a few hundred yards from Waikiki beach. Fortunately, the humans were well-behaved, and let it rest.
That’s because, although it was originally constructed in wood, it was cast in bronze. I know, I couldn’t believe either, until I touched it (and thereby broke a museum rule). It is entitled Mali’u and Ahona (2013), by Deborah Butterfield.