Me and Teddy Trying to Figure Out Me, Grand Canyon Version

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday afternoon Teddy and I travelled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We camped along FSR 688, which is dotted with large dispersed campsites. The next morning we hiked along the South Rim (pictured above).

2/2/2018 — Groundhog Day (Journal entry) 

I pitch our tiny tent alongside a giant Ponderosa, but Teddy stakes out a spot farther down the dirt double-track. I drag the tent to Teddy, who squats under another Ponderosa, HIS Ponderosa. We take a brisk walk at dusk, enjoying the last little bit of sunlight and sun-warmth.

In the evening Teddy burrows into my doubled sleeping bags, warming me as the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost gathers on the tent, and the nearly-full moon lights up the sky. Every now and then I emerge from the sleeping bags for a sip of freezing IPA, a Tucson delicacy.

Lately I have been reading two new books a week. I cannot stop reading and thinking! Tonight I read Yuval Harari’s, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Coyotes howl in the distance, and Teddy stiffens beside me. I learn that Homo Sapiens likely exterminated a related species, the Neanderthals, after mating with a few of these caring animals, a situation canines avoided. I pause on Harari’s reconstructed picture of a Neanderthal girl:

Neanderthal-girl

She looks so peaceful.

I do not romanticize our hunter-gatherer past, as some men do. Rather, the story of how we emerged as the triumphant species tells me something about what we might be in the future. Also, I am curious about what I could be. How do I live in a way that is more true to the story of an evolving, improving humanity?

To some extent most of my adult life has been unusual: eating a plant-based diet, having few possessions (and hating shopping), limiting my exposure to the mass media, studying and conversing deeply, eschewing dogma, and seeking out solitude and adventure in nature, despite the dangers. It is the way of life that feels most natural to me. Meat, tons of stuff, an overstimulating and busy environment, casual relationships, superficial ideas or conversation, dogma of any kind, unvarying routine, constant company — these are my worst nightmares!

Tonight I am trying to imagine a somewhat different form of life — something that works for me but is still recognizably human. I do not know what my life will look like, but I do know that time is the only valid currency in life. I must be careful with how I spend it.

I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a human desire?

Leo TolstoyFamily Happiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.

anita

Me and my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and dragged her to a commune!)

joshtree

Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit family. (What do I do when I camp alone? I read books and drink craft beer. See Part II of this post!)

nau

Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent a lot of time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on the ideas and arguments they learned throughout the term. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two simply talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). Only then can we achieve passionate conversation.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy in an institutional setting, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that militates against what we are trying to accomplish in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more free and deepening their humanity. So, I spend a lot of energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own internal standard. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I increasingly rely on observing people, institutions and my own self. I form my own impression, and I reflect. And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think. I do not enjoy “professing”. I will not discipline students, who are grown adults. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it! Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in Higher Ed, but I soldier on, so long as I believe I am doing something valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, easy means of transportation, excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom caused me misery. I invented ways to rid myself of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationships, etc. However, all these distractions made me more miserable.

Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing.

Happy 2018!

Sarah

Interview with “Snuggles”, Nomadic Adventurer and Author of “The Snuggle Diaries”

While doing a Bright Side Bookshop book signing as part of Arizona Trail Day Flagstaff, I had the great joy of meeting Snuggles and her husband, Darwin. The lively duo (plus dog!) are traveling around the country in their 5×8 camper, adventuring and backpacking. They are chronicling their nomadic life through blog entries and short films.

Ever interested in alternative lifestyles or “experiments in living”, I took an immediate liking to Snuggles and Darwin, who are authoring a very unconventional life. While I personally prefer a feeling of routine and rootedness, I have come to love camping in Flagstaff’s forests. Nothing beats good conversation around a campfire! 🙂 We can all do (on a small scale) what Snuggles and Darwin are endeavoring on a large scale.

 

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Tell us a little about yourself!

I go by the name “Snuggles” for anything I do online, but as you may guess this is not my real name. “Snuggles” is my trail name, given to me within the first week of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2015. I was given the name because I was snuggling up with anyone for warmth.

I am originally from Southern Indiana (Evansville, Indiana to be specific). I went to college thinking I wanted to be a Special Education Teacher but left with a BS in Psychology and a Minor in General Art. (This was actually unplanned; I just ended up taking a lot of art electives. Haha!)

I love to read just about anything and consider myself a total bookworm. My favorite author is Helen Hoover. She wrote only a few books, but I feel very connected to her. She and her husband lived a somewhat similar life of adventure, as my husband and I do. She found a home in nature in the early 1960’s when everyone else thought she was crazy. One of my favorite books besides any of Helen’s would probably be Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose and Poetry about Nature. I also really like Bill Bryson’s stuff, along with a little Stephen King and Jon Krakauer. I always enjoy a good Jane Austen book, too. Recent books I’ve read: IT by Stephen King; Painted Blazes by Jeffery “Loner” Gray; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon; Stranger In the Woods by Michael Finkel; and (of course) Pedaling Home by Sarah Jansen! Currently, I’m reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore and A Walk For Sunshine by Jeff Alt. I am a total bookworm!

As far as backpacking goes, my husband “Darwin” and I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2016. We did over 1,500 miles in 2015 but had to leave the trail due to Darwin contracting a tick-borne illness and the death of my grandmother at the same time. Before that I had only been out for maybe three or four days.

I feel like it took me doing a thru-hike to find out I am more of a section hiker. I like to take my time and stop and enjoy the scenery, even stopping early in the day if I like a spot. Thru-hiking doesn’t really allow you to do this. I have backpacked a lot in the Smoky Mountains (my favorite place) and Red River Gorge in Kentucky (my second favorite place). I have done some hiking on all three major long distance trails: the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). I have also been out on the Arizona Trail (AZT) and Long Trail. I love to hike around and explore national parks. Darwin and I are super nerds and love to complete Junior Ranger Workbooks together!

Hiking on AT

Snuggles hiking on the AT

Why were you so drawn to the Arizona Trail, a trail not on everyone’s radar?

I think Darwin is to blame for the draw to the AZT! He was already talking about bikepacking it before we hit our final summit on the AT in 2016. At first I was kind of just like “whatever”. I couldn’t even think about life without the AT hanging over my head. Then when we got back to Albuquerque, he started actually planning a thru-ride, and I of course did my own research on it, too. I had no intention of bikepacking it, but I wanted to know more about this trail that Darwin was so interested in. Then when I dropped Darwin off to start the trail at the northern terminus, we drove through some amazing terrain, which really piqued my interest. When we most recently stayed in Flagstaff, we had no idea how close our camper was parked to it!

I like the fact that there is not a lot of people out on the AZT, so you’re able to really enjoy it by yourself. It seems like everyone is hitting the big three in the last few years: AT, PCT and CDT. Books and movies have made these three trails popular. This is both good and bad for these trails. The AZT is a beautiful trail and is challenging but is also way less intimidating to attempt than a thru-hike of the AT. I’m not sure I would attempt a thru-hike again, but if I did it would totally be on a smaller trail the like AZT. I like that it has a small hiking community around it and goes through some really cool little towns.

How can you not argue for the awesomeness of the AZT without mentioning the fact that it goes thru the Grand Canyon? Hella Cool!

What is it like to live semi-nomadically? How does your life now compare to your life before?

It’s pretty cool to live nomadically. It is awesome to experience different places or to revisit others. It can be a little complicated, as we do not have a shower in our camper. We feel comfortable not showering every day, thanks to our time backpacking. But eventually a shower is needed! We also have to plan to make sure we are somewhat close to services such as a grocery store, gas, Internet, etc. We have found tons of cool places that are awesome to visit but not really great to utilize for longer stays. We utilize solar power, which allows us more freedom with where we park the camper. We don’t have to depend on plugging in as much, which I have found pretty neat-o. It’s always fun waking up in new places!

We traveled a short time in 2015 before and after our AT hike and lived out of a van. Since then we have learned a lot about how to be more self-sufficient. The 5×8 converted camper we have now is pretty spacious compared to the van!

Before our hiking and travel life really started Darwin and I both had really great jobs with great bosses, all of whom really supported us and encouraged us when we told them we were leaving to travel and hike. I still remain really close friends with my old bosses! We also had a house and two cars but found that although we had everything we needed and more, we were never at the house, and we were using the cars to take us other places. Our hometown didn’t offer a lot of things we enjoyed, so we were constantly traveling hours away to backpack and explore. While our friends seemed to take the next step in life (i.e., having children), we felt more and more like we wanted to do the opposite. We were on-again-off-again about moving until the year both Darwin and I lost two very special people in our lives: Darwin’s grandmother and my grandfather. It made us think about our own mortality and what we wanted to do with our lives. Once we made the decision that we wanted something different, the Universe started putting things in motion in order for us to take on the Appalachian Trail.

Darwin and I are accused a lot of being trust fund kids or spoiled millennials, but this is totally not the case. (We just barely hit the generation of the millennial, and neither of us like being considered in this way!) Before we hit the road the first time we saved for two years to make sure we could sustain a thru-hike, travel a small amount, and have a nest egg to come back to. After trail hiking we both worked full-time jobs for almost another two years before hitting the road. We actually seem to work more now than before, just in a different way. We now work remotely doing the things that we could only do on the weekends before. We have turned our passions into a full-time lifestyle.

With all that being said, we also have given up a lot in order to afford our current lifestyle. We don’t have a big screen TV or cable. We don’t have a new car. We don’t shower every day. We don’t have a gym membership or a Netflix account. We don’t have a couch (or really any furniture). We live mostly outside, even in the snow, rain, hail or extreme heat. We don’t have a flushing toilet or a shower. We constantly deal with bugs. We don’t have a washer or dryer, so we re-wear our clothes several times before washing them. (We only have maybe four different outfits each!) We have no electric lighting. We eat a lot of the same things, due to having only a Coleman stove to cook with. We only buy what we can afford to pay for at that time. (No making payments!) We ride our bikes as much as possible to get us places, etc. Not everyone is willing to give up all of these things to travel full-time. I totally have those days where I question my sanity for living the way we do, and I often have fantasies about air conditioning or a couch!

What does an “average” day look like for you? 

It changes depending on where we are parked and camping. Right now I get up around 7 am and start the process of making coffee. I am totally one of those people who finds life easier when starting the day with caffeine. I then start looking over emails and check in on a few blogs and YouTubers I follow. Once fully caffeinated, I start looking over our Etsy Account and Website along with a few other ventures we have going. I continue to check in on these periodically during the rest of the day. Once breakfast is done I usually hit the trail for a run, then I go back to work on whatever needs to be done that day – e.g., uploading new merchandise to Etsy, shipping sold items, blogging, brainstorming video ideas with Darwin, planning our next destination, journaling, reading for a current book review/discussion, helping Darwin film, etc. Later in the afternoon we usually go on a hike (usual filming along the way or taking pictures for media purposes) or hit town for any groceries or other services we may need. After dinner we tie up a few loose ends. We then try to chillax before bed, maybe watching a movie or watching a few of our favorite YouTubers. I sometimes listen to a podcast or read before bed, or I journal if I haven’t already. Playing with Bowie (our black lab) is always a constant in my day as well!

Is it hard to travel with a dog? How do you make that work?

I love her (Bowie) to death, but she can be a pain to travel with. Lots of national parks only allow dogs to be on certain paved paths and usually no backcountry trails. This means we can’t backpack in a park with Bowie. On cooler trips when we were living out of our van, we did leave her there (with plenty of air and water of course!). However, she still limited how long we were away. Bowie personally can be a little naughty if left unattended too long. We also have to make arrangements for her, if we want to hike in the back county or go anywhere without her. Sometimes we use boarding facilities. And if she is hiking with us, this limits the length of our hike. She is not as young as she used to be (8-and-a-half!), so we find ourselves accommodating her needs all the time in our choice of everything (e.g., hikes, campsites, travel in general, etc.) When we hiked the AT she stayed with my mom. Now she is a bit traumatized, thinking we are going to leave her and not come back! She is SUPER attached to both Darwin and me. She is also getting grouchy in her old age. Sometimes she could care less about what we want her to do. If she wants to sleep, she is staying put. If she wants to bark, she is barking. She has also started to become aggressive with other dogs, which creates problems with camping, boarding, hiking, etc. She is a great companion, and we love her dearly. But sometimes it would be easier to travel without her!

What do you do when you or Darwin need some space away from each other?

So, we basically have to deal with each other! We had “those moments” several times on the AT, so we just hiked without each other, but we had to resolve the issue at least by the time we got in our tent together… . Long distance hiking is a great way to really find out who a person is, because you get them at their most raw state of being, and it forces a couple to communicate. We had a really strong relationship before the AT, but afterwards we really knew we can rely on each other for anything and what we are both capable of together and apart.

While living in the trailer, we can take a break from each other by going into a town or on a hike around the area we are parked. Sometimes my working outside and Darwin working inside the trailer is enough distance for us, if we are having a disagreement. Regardless, usually by the end of the day we have resolved the issue just because the small space that we live in forces us to communicate.

Darwin & Snuggles Final Summit

Darwin and Snuggles backpacking the AT together

Do long stays in national forests enable you to disconnect from mainstream media and social media, or do you remain pretty connected? 

I feel a lot a lot more connected to nature and the natural cycle of things when out in the forest. The time we spent out in Coconino National Forest specifically was amazing. I think I personally could be a lot more disconnected, if I chose to be. Unfortunately, since we work remotely now (Darwin more than I!), we have to be connected to mainstream media in some way at least once a day.

Darwin (primarily) makes money off of YouTube by the monetization of his videos using ads. Very, very little money comes in from this specifically, so we also use affiliate links in both videos, websites and my blog. This means that when I give a website link for a product and you buy the product (from the link I presented to you), I make a small commission from your purchase at no extra fee to you. We have a few other small income sources, like Etsy, and we sometimes do consulting for companies.

I am actually totally against social media, but I must admit I find myself sucked into it and living off of it. I hate Facebook and refuse to have a page of my own. I do utilize Darwin’s page to post the Snuggles Diary or some of Darwin’s videos, but he usually has to show me how to do this. I do have my own YouTube account in order to learn from others who inspire me. I do occasionally leave comments on videos (but not very often). Our current lifestyle centers greatly around social media, as much as I hate that. I think it’s great to connect with family and to share media with others, but I prefer a phone call and in-person interaction more. I think social media has allowed us all to be lazy with personal communication, which causes problems. I may read even a text message one way (because I can’t hear the tone of your voice or see your facial expressions), when you actually mean something totally different by the message. I also think social media gives people the feeling they can say and post whatever they want with no appreciation of the consequences. We don’t allow ourselves time to think about something anymore. We simply get pissed and tell the world we are pissed off and how much we hate so-and-so, along with their address and phone number! The emails and comments Darwin gets are insane. We understand that not everyone is going to like our media, and we are fine with that. But some comments are just hateful and insulting. Things you would never say to a person’s face somehow seem okay via social media. There are simply no boundaries when it comes to social media.

Darwin is in front of the camera for a reason. He gets recognized a lot. I prefer to be a little more undercover.

Do you have plans for the future, or do you live day by day? Or a combination of both? 

Maybe a combination of both?  We do live day by day, but we make plans for things like how long we can travel for, stops we want to make, our next destination (if not already planned), etc. As far as the long-term goes, we have discussed buying some land at some point and putting a small structure on it. We had talked about putting some roots down close to a long-distance trail even before we left our hometown. Other than that we have no other plans for the future. Usually when we do make plans we only change them later. Our current lifestyle may change depending on the current trends of the time. If you would have asked us a few years ago if we thought we could go full-time as YouTubers/Bloggers, we would have laughed and asked whether people really do that.

When you choose to stay in a community what features do you look for? What features do you avoid? 

Typically we first look for a BLM area or campground where we can park the camper. We then look at how far away amenities/services are in the area (in particular, showers and Internet). We try to avoid bigger cities and camping in popular areas.

Do you have a good network of friends across the country? How do you stay in touch with them? 

Yes! We have friends and family spread across the US and even a few outside the US. A lot of this is due to the trail community, which is big, loving and supportive. I love sending postcards to friends and family when we hit neat-o places and (of course!) shooting out an email and a phone call to stay in touch.

Ending on a big note — What do you want to make and do in this world, and how do you see your lifestyle enhancing that? 

I think what Darwin and I show with the media we produce is that you don’t have stay in one place and work a 9 to 5 job to be successful or happy. There are lots of ways you can do this! Darwin gets emails all the time from people saying that they feel he has helped them to rediscover old passions of hiking or find new passions for the wilderness in other ways. He has even had someone tell him his videos saved their marriage! No Joke! As for me, I play secretary a lot to Darwin, helping with forming emails, letters, mail, etc. In my blog I think I provide a little humor to the small group of people who follow me. We both have been told we inspire people by sharing what we are doing. When we are in town we try our best to support the local business and donate to local charities when we can. All this is a very small contribution to the world and totally not as meaningful or impactful as what others are doing, but it works for us, and again we try to do more when we can.

I want to experience what the world has to offer. By living a little more on the nomadic side, I do this. Because of the media Darwin and I produce, we allow others to share in the adventure and encourage them to experience the world for themselves, too. Social media can be evil but it can really be a beautiful thing, too. Thanks to the Internet and social media I think the younger generations now not only know what else is out there but can see it, which makes them want to experience it for themselves.

 

Citizenship and Political Community

Tonight I am writing in a coffeehouse as part of a community writing group. People of all ages, vocations and backgrounds gather here Wednesday nights to work on poetry, novels, memoirs, screenplays and the like — writing that often draws on their own lived experiences. We begin each session by simply having a conversation for half an hour. Over time the strangers become familiar, and maybe the familiar become friends. Perhaps even a community of friends. Who knows?

We are all having different reactions to the crises of our country. For my part, I have disengaged from mainstream media. I get the short version of the news every morning from my roommate, Margot, a former social worker. We talk about it. We yell about it. We laugh about it. And lately — cry about it. Along with my morning coffees (yes, plural!), this ritual wakes me up. Every week I select a few longform articles to read — because I like lengthier pieces of journalism, which explore various angles and complexities of a single issue. Sometimes I share these articles with friends. Often I do not. Largely I do this for my own well-being. After all, I wrote an entire dissertation on the destructive effects of worthless media on the soul. Seriously.

My relative disengagement from the ‘show-that-is-mainstream-news’ has led me to think a lot about citizenship. I agree with Aristotle that citizenship is an essential ingredient in “eudaimonia” (human flourishing); part of what it is to lead a good human life is to be a good citizen. However, if being a good citizen requires remaining “well informed” on the “spectacle” of reactionary media+politics, then I am no citizen at all. I am what the Greeks call an “idios” — a private person. We get our word “idiot” from this word. It is not a nice word.

The summer before last I traveled to Athens for the first time. After mountain biking the Aristotle Trail (in Stagira, Macedonia), cycling/running up Mount Olympus and off-roading along the wild Mani Peninsula (in the south Peloponnese), I finally landed on Socrates’ stomping grounds, the ancient agora in Athens. Despite the heat and my own exhaustion, I walked and walked. For the first time I glimpsed what it is like to live in a genuine participatory democracy. Imagine if, on your way through the public square, you were to pass a senate assembly house (bouleuterion), a “tholos” (housing chief government officials), law courts, a stone “voting machine” or even a gigantic placard listing all current lawsuits. Imagine also that you are deeply familiar with most of these spaces and tools, having used them together with your fellow citizens. Interspersed with these familiar structures are religious temples, altars, a public bath, a jail, a theater, stores and more. Religion, recreation, commerce, culture and politics all meshed. And people actually spent time talking to each other in public. Indeed, Plato’s philosophic dialogues are based on the kinds of deep conversations citizens had with each other. (Unfortunately, “citizens” only comprised about 15% of the population, freeborn males.)

The great joy of citizenship — i.e., what makes it part of human flourishing — is that of being part of a political community. How do we skip the spectacle and embrace the community? What kinds of political communities can we “home grow”? Perhaps we need to broaden what we mean by ‘political’ and also disentangle it from partisan politics — the great divider and conversation stopper.

I will stop here, because I have been at this coffee shop for far too long, and all my companions have wisely abandoned me. But I do hope to develop these ideas, because this is just a start. Please comment or write me with any thoughts!

And because a blog post cannot not have a picture, I leave you with a picture from an Arizona Trail Association trail work day at Mormon Lake last weekend (does the path look less bumpy?):

22047997_10107518857665786_5467454387186179144_o

 

Teaching Humanities: Dispassionate Reasoning, Passionate Conversation and Friendship

 

In his essay on friendship Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,–and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words. … For long hours [in conversation with friends] we can continue a series of sincere, graceful, rich communications, drawn from the oldest, secretest experience, so that they who sit by, of our own kinsfolk and acquaintance, shall feel a lively surprise at our unusual powers. But as soon as the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation, it is all over. He has heard the first, the last and best he will ever hear from us. He is no stranger now. Vulgarity, ignorance, misapprehension are old acquaintances. Now, when he comes, he may get the order, the dress, and the dinner,–but the throbbing of the heart, and the communications of the soul, no more.

I will just come out with it. I want my classroom to be a place of friendly, passionate conversation. This is an ideal, to be sure. But given that I teach relatively small classes, it is realizable — in part or in full. I want my students’ hearts and souls to be on fire.

Is this ideal unreasonable and wrongheaded? Or rather, is it just what we need in order to improve campus climates and to broaden the appeal of the humanities beyond the academy — to hardworking people who do not have the leisure to play vacuous games of intellectual one-upmanship.

I sigh when educators sell the humanities on the basis of “critical thinking” skills. First, the humanities do not have a monopoly on critical thinking. Far from it! Second, critical thinking is only a small, relatively insignificant part of what the humanities teach.

When, in the 1960’s, Northern Arizona University was transitioning from a college to a university its slogan was “to become educated is to become more human“. Indeed, many small liberal arts colleges today incorporate similar notions into their mission statements. And yet — these same institutions tout the classroom as a place of “dispassionate reasoning” and “cool thinking” — a space quite different from the Emersonian ideal of exalted conversation and friendship.

How do the humanities teach us how to be human? They connect us to our human ancestors and to other cultures. They open us up to new ways of being and doing and seeing in the world. The humanities expand who we are. They help us tell better stories about ourselves and our world. They cultivate our awe of beauty. They inspire us to dream big and live large. I have no idea how one would achieve such connection, openness, storytelling, awe, inspiration and dreams in a dispassionate classroom that engages only cool reason.

Perhaps the way forward is to take our cue from Emerson and foster friendliness and friendship in the classroom. Too often classmates treat their peers as nameless strangers. But students can learn not just with each other; they can also learn from each other. How do we foster friendly bonds between students? How do we teach them how to be more human to each other?

 

 

Philosophy, Higher Education, Psychology and the Desert: Mental Illness and Society

This week I started teaching philosophy at Northern Arizona University, one of Arizona’s three public universities.

I am Arizonan. Although I went to UCLA for undergraduate and graduate school, I always felt guilty about that. My parents both went to the University of Arizona (in Tucson). Only my father graduated, with degrees in education and business. My mother, a psychology major, questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.

Over time, philosophers helped move the field of psychology forward. They formulated alternative models to behaviorism, drawing on ancient Greek traditions, especially Aristotle’s “functionalism”, which represents the soul or psyche as a set of non-material life capacities or functions.

I have never been terribly fond of psychology. It always seemed to me that ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said them better. There is a real wisdom in ancient traditions. The ancients were not constrained by modern science and its supposed moral neutrality.

How can we understand humans and human problems without considering the moral hue of things?

It is only my opinion, but our current mental health crisis should lead anybody to question the ability of psychological science to solve what are fundamentally social and societal problems — perhaps even spiritual problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological neuroses. We are sad and sick because societies and families are sad and sick, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual cognitive architecture.

So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma. People are traumatized because modern society is, in many ways, traumatic. Any real solution is a social solution, not an individual, psychological or biochemical solution. How do we create healthier communities? You cannot fix yourself, if you do not fix your community. This is the problem with treating individuals in isolation rather than treating communities.

The irony of my own trajectory is that I took my first philosophy class in Arizona, the very state I avoided going to college in. It was a community college video course, back before online courses. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the time, the sparse, Sonoran desert seemed to be asking me all kinds of questions. Perhaps the desert is a natural place to ponder timeless questions. It is a place of relative emptiness, and so there is room for a person (and her mind) to wonder and wander. There is space. There is time. There is the searing heat, too. It makes things shimmer.

I am always terrified when I start teaching. I remember my own college experience. I know what an impressionable time college is. I know what one professor can do for a student’s life. It is a scary thing. I always wonder whether I am rising to the task. I am always wondering, how do I reach them? I resist standardizing anything, because every class is different. Every student is different. We are fortunate as professors to be able to construct our own curricula, to react to the times and to our students.

Teaching in higher education is hard for so many reasons. One reason it is hard is because we professors so often internalize our disciplines. I have been doing philosophy for nearly half of my life. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about philosophy. I rely on my students to tell me when they do not understand. I worry that I am out of touch with them. But perhaps this is the perfect challenge for them and for me, when we try to reach each other across a divide.

Sarah