A Few Words to a Few Students

The hour rolled ’round at last when I address my students and maybe three or four of them read my final words — the summation of the semester, my last thoughts to pass on.  I’m exhausted in every imaginable way and it probably shows in this, written at about 4:00 AM.  So now, I rest and go back at it in a week.

RVI

*********************

At this point in the semester — the final moment — it is my habit to say a few words to the class, a sort of summary of themes involving ethics, philosophy, life.

For the first time since February 2015 I find I’ve little to say. It was a difficult semester for this class all the way around: we switched to a blended format and I had to switch up how and what was taught; several students decided they did not have to show up for physical lectures as long as they attempted the online content; many students did not read or respond to e-mails or speak with me; and so, in the end, my contact with the class as a whole was severely limited.

Additionally, I’m unsure most of my contact, as brief as it was, was understood and I had little chance to elaborate or explain. Usually,when the class was four days face-to-face, I had much time to convince, to argue, discuss, until most students could see my point. As it is, some here took their own interpretations from brief statements or concepts and ran with them — I’m unsure any further questions or observations I made, even in discussions, were read or grasped.

From my end, this is not the best class I’ve ever taught here. Partly because I could not reach many of you or sufficiently motivate the class to look more deeply or consider the relevance of thinking with clarity about moral issues — even attempting it. There is nothing more important to your life than this and a first encounter with the approach can be shocking, threatening, irritating; it provokes in some great resistance, a desire to run and avoid the subject entirely, take refuge in feelings (subjectivism); in a peculiar and illegitimate appeal to a version of religion (Divine Command theory); by hiding behind “we’ve always done it this way” (cultural relativism); or simply by demanding one’s unjustified selfish desires receive moral recognition as valuable in themselves (ethical egosim).

Anything except setting all these irrational tendencies aside and attempting to answer the moral question, “Why?” with only good evidence and principles that all humans can see and interpret, put to use in their own specific situations.

I watched a movie the other day called “Saint Vincent” with Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. Vincent is a crotchety old man, in debt, drinks too much, keeps company with a pregnant “woman of the night” who is not carrying his child, gambles, smokes, and is generally a seeming ne’er-do-well. He winds up taking care of the neighbor’s kid after school by accident as she is a working single mother — he charges her, of course. But he also cares for that boy as best as he knows how, protects him, teaches him how to fight bullies, teaches him to be a caring person, diligent, do his homework with discipline. Vincent listens to the boy, keeps trying in spite of his many imperfections.

Go watch it — I won’t tell you how it ends.

But beneath the corroded veneer of many years of bad choices and rough luck, Vincent has been caring for his wife, raising money to keep her in a good nursing home — she has Alzheimer’s and hasn’t recognized him for eight years. He visits each week, dressed as a doctor so as not to frighten her and talks with her. He is devoted. Part of the gambling is to make enough money to pay for her room because he is devoted and will do anything for her.

He is a Vietnam vet, a war hero, bronze star recipient, saved many men under fire. Doesn’t talk about it at all. His everyday life is combat of a sort and he faces it the best way he knows how — not necessarily with the absolute consistency that would have pleased Immanuel Kant or with a blind utilitarianism that Mill would have approved of, but he does practice virtues in his own way. An imperfect, human, but honorable way not easily seen from the surface. And he doesn’t do it for show or for praise: he does it because he must in order to be himself. He has to try.

Morality, in practice, often looks like this: an everyday “sainthood” — the word “saint” comes from the Greek word “hagios” which is a translation of the Hebrew “kadosh”: which means, “to be set apart, dedicated to a divine purpose.” Now, “kadosh” is a neutral term — it does not mean either good or evil, but capable of either: one can be set apart to accomplish either the good or the evil and that is the meaning in the Tanakh (The Old Testament). We are all called to be set apart and be dedicated to our mission — but it is up to us whether we will devote ourselves to the decent and virtuous or to the destruction of these values. That part of the matter is up to us, our choice. Whether that choice is to be based upon something worth serving or not… well, that is why we have been granted the capacity to think clearly.

Everyday sainthood of a sort. Being “good enough,” not perfect, but always seeking to be and do better as we are nothing more than what we do and why we do it.

Ethics at work — that’s nothing more than a specific application of general, universal ethics for living within the confines of the workplace and the laws and rules governing that situation, making choices in light of those circumstances.

None of this is easy. Hardly. None of you are so young or naive as to think life is easy, that life does not throw disaster and surprise atop disaster and surprise at us time and again, daily, weekly, yearly, for the entirety of our sojourn in this reality. Ethics, morality is nothing mysterious, though: it is the human skill for being prepared to meet disasters and surprises and walk away, if that is our fate, with our souls and integrity intact, regardless what anyone else may think or judge from the outside.

In the end, we will meet death, our universal fate. If we live well, we will meet death well — our final battle — and do so with courage and patience, or at least without utter surprise and regret. Even had this course been years long, I am not capable of giving this gift to you. It is one you must seek out and gain through your own search, your own journey and experimentation in life, hopefully dedicated to the better rather than the worse.

Someone like me can only show you the banquet table of ideas, well or poorly; it is up to you to eat, to desire to eat, to recognize you need nourishment for living as a proper human being.

Developing the desire is the first thing, not the ideas; only then will you go looking for the ideas, have any real desire for them beyond a grade.

My hope is that you stir up within yourselves that need, that discomfort, and go looking. Good fortune to you in your journey.

24 September 2015
Mr. Richard Van Ingram

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A Remnant of a Remnant

Every instructor, adjunct, teacher, professor probably has a sort of “Dark Night of the Soul” now and again.  There arrives that class — that one roomful of students the majority of whom could care less if they learn anything, even to the point of willfully failing and not even attempting to make a passing grade no matter how many chances they are given.

One cannot teach anyone who has no desire for it.  Should anyone arrive before someone who could help them on their journey with the attitude they are already fully equipped with all knowledge and are the images of perfection itself, regardless of the apparent reality which is says quite the opposite, what can be offered they will want?

Any questioning of their beliefs is experienced as “disrespect.”  In our age, “respect” is owed simply by turning up — it is not hard-won, it involves no labor, no self-doubt, no wonder and no wandering in search of a better way to live and be.  Oddly, the instructor who may well have spent her entire life in pursuit of such things will, in turn, not be shown even the formalities of respect due the position.  For the instructor is thought of by such “students” as merely an equal, at best, or an inferior — the employee, the hired-hand whose function is to bow, scrape, and dole out the demanded grade.

A grade owed simply by gracing a chair in a classroom (once in awhile) with the aristocratic glory of the employers’ (i.e. the students’) butts.

My journey in education as a perennial student full of doubts and questions, a traveller in search of better, of ways to be better as a human, has been long, difficult, demanding — as it should be, or else I’d have no right to stand before a classroom.  Aristotle once said, “It is better to deserve honors than receive them” and I’ve really sought no honors other than the few that adorn my life by labor.  And by sharing what I’ve learned.  My honors — irreplaceable, invaluable — come when students from past classes return to me and tell me I made a difference in their lives which happens frequently enough to keep me going.

I really haven’t had that class, the baffling students, before this month after years of teaching philosophy and ethics.  It truly made me doubt whether I had taught the class effectively.  Perhaps the problem lay within myself — my first thought, usually, when things don’t flow or work out in the normal way.  Certainly, I’ve had individual students who didn’t care, were resistant, or who took an instant dislike to the subject and transferred it to me.  Philosophy and ethics runs against the grain for many — but after some work, some jokes, some explanation, even many of these usually come around if just to make a grade.  They may well hate my guts when all is said and done (as if they know me, much less my innards), but they pass and move on.

But this month of a compressed semester — I’m not certain what lesson to take away.  I have some excellent students who are on top of things and learning.  But the majority in this one class are either openly hostile and resistant in a way I have difficulty believing — these are all adults in their 20s and 30s, some acting like petulant little children, others just drifting and barely responding, never working.  I have certain expectations of adults, as should we all, and some of these folks appear to have been emotionally arrested around the age of 9.

I don’t know.  It’s going to take me months to analyse this and abstract anything intelligible from it, if there’s anything there to grasp.

All I can hope is this is not a sign of the future and this class was a fluke, a bad mix and an unlucky draw.  Because I care too much to stand before a roomful of people who are starving for the little I have to offer and who, in their delusional omniscience, refuse to even take a nibble from the banquet table of questions and ideas our ancestors bequeathed them as their birthright.  They know all and Google has filled them to the brim with information — they do not need to know how to feed their own minds with their own experiences and think creatively.  Not one bit.

I do not enjoy watching even the most hateful of these people starve because they starve of a learned ignorance — they have a specialized knowledge in one thing, their job, and have the common opinions of a ditch digger about the underpinning of life, culture, meaning…. Why they thought they needed college, I’m not sure, except for the piece of paper, signifying they arrived perfect and left untouched.

I am a remnant of a remnant.  A stranger in a very strange land… one of the final witnesses to a bygone age.

20 September 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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To Write or Not to Write?

Learning a new thing is uncomfortable and something about us flees from the uncomfortable preferring to live only where we feel at home.  This is the case even if “home” is miserable and squalid.

Isn’t that a strange thing?  A sad, strange thing.

Refusing to adjust oneself to circumstances, accepting them even while looking to influence, even change them as much as is humanly possible leaves us in a terrible state.  For things will be as they will regardless of whether I accept them: they will continue to impose themselves and seize me by the neck whether I believe they are doing so or not.

I cannot understand what I will not accept.  I cannot influence what I do not understand except in the most haphazard, awful manner.  For the worse, not the better.

One often does not understand how fortunate one has been until the situation changes significantly and one’s circumstances present a new feature or remind one of a constant feature one has been allowed to avoid for an extended period.  So… the world rearranges itself and I am left to make sense of it again and again or face things I imagined I’d escaped or overcome.

My primary mode of extended communication with most people is writing.  This may strike the reader as an oddity and I freely admit that it is not usual in this world.  Certainly people have taken to social media and texting and the 150 word summation of existence — little of that, for me, is what I call “writing.”  Writing is an extended serious examination of self and world in confrontation, both together, neither apart.  Perhaps all of the examination does not occur all at once; it’s more a process of feeling one’s way through reality, interior as well as exterior.

My interpretation of this process is always happening, an exertion, as I understand so very little and find my experience of reality has been narrow, hermetic, mainly interior and intensive.  And unshared.  Eventually it boils up and I attempt, again and again, to throw my version of the world into words, symbols, and images.  Each is a fractured piece or perspective that, when added together or overlayed, begins to present a sort of autobiographical record; not in the form of exhibitionism for its own sake, but as revelation of my peculiar encounter with being.

Otherwise, all of this would be pointless for me and I’d speak even more rarely.

I write to my students.  If you read this website, you see that I write to my students regularly, thoroughly, seriously aside from the day to day necessities of getting someone’s attention or handing out assignments.  There is something of myself and my struggles in those silly essays, hard-won truths, small but not insignificant.  Truth, inasmuch as a human confronts it and makes it her own, is never insignificant.

This semester, I find the situation in my classes shifted as the structure of my courses was changed: a new circumstance.

Part of that new circumstance is fewer students read my e-mails; thus fewer care to hear anything I have to say and expose before them to do with as they will.  It is dismissed without a hearing.

Not a new thing on planet Earth, certainly not a new feature of my life.  A common experience.  But what is the appropriate response?  In my circumstance, a great deal of the richness I add to my courses has suddenly been amputated, its effectiveness negated.  There is a feeling of injury and rejection in it on my interior as well.

Nothing pleasant in the least.  I’m not sure I fully comprehend it… but I never fully comprehend much of anything.  Certainly not all at once.

My normal action taken in the face of an uncaring audience is to go silent or stop sharing anything with that audience until a need for it from their side is demonstrated.  Not out of spite; not in the least, but partly out of self-preservation and partly to stop wasting time I do not have to spare.

I have spent much time in my life — an inordinate amount — writing to and for audiences that, truly, could care less.  What I had to say was a passing amusement for them, one among many, not better than others, and once the words ended, for whatever reason, I ended for them.

The fate of a writer — to never know if there is any lasting meaning shared between oneself and others through the sad, fragile medium of the word.

Worse is to know the words went unread, the message unheard because not needed and unvalued in the first place.

It is wounding to know that this may be because one is incapable of writing in the first place, ineffective; that one’s choices of terms are unshared by the reader, one’s style is difficult or laborious, or that the whole apparatus of the essay is not transparent but opaque and ungainly, a monstrous birth:  A horrible thing deserving of no attention and unfit to bear the weight thrown on it as its designated burden, a distraction in itself.

An artist, a writer, has at least one requirement: for the audience to meet him where he is at the time — but he owes the audience a clear path, as clear a path as can be cleared out, to come meet him.  The journey for others will be difficult enough — to go out of oneself to meet another is a grave difficulty if seriously pursued.  But the construction of the pathway — the writing — itself is all the more a labor, not that the labor is shown or noticeable at completion.

That, itself, is a significant fraction of the work: to hide the difficulty.

Does one risk the exhaustion such work demands in creating a thing that goes forth stillborn or poisonous, as far as the intended recipients are concerned? Many, many others before me have, but I am not of their calibre; yet, how will I even approach the worth of such people unless I try with no mind for “success”?

I do not know the answers here.  They will come to me in their good time and they cannot be forced.  That much I do know.

12 September 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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On Reputation and Friendship

Take me or leave me — that’s up to others. I am an acquired taste for most and my reputation, like all reputations, is in the mouths of strangers. My intrinsic value lies in what I have overcome and what I do, which cannot be seen or understood by all. Prejudices create thick, distorting lenses, and fear of the stranger causes many to flee. Understandable. Emulating Marcus Aurelius to the degree a terribly flawed man of my background can in the 21st century, I take all as they come and labor to accept that many will pass by, though I’d prefer to know them. That is more my loss than theirs, I’ve learned.

Should anyone approach me in the spirit of friendship, I will not hide who I am. This is on purpose — a Rorschach Test of sorts and a small trial by fire. Because should one wish any level of friendship with me, they need to see who it is they wish to know, even if at a superficial level.

If that much is tolerable, then we are fine. If not, then pass by; no questions will be asked, no judgments will follow in your passing other than my regret (which is meaningless to you) and we will return to the state of simple cordiality we enjoyed before as far as I am concerned.

People think of one another what they will and we’ve no control whatsoever over what others choose. Or why. As a feature of my world every bit as unavoidable as what we call gravity or the weather, it simply has to be accepted. I try — try — to set a good example and constantly work at that… I cannot do much else aside from staying to myself.

Even the Deity has no direct control over others and their opinions: I cannot sanely hope for a better situation than that of the Divine.

5 September 2015

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