January 24, 2012
January 24, 2012
Getting out of the cave and seeing things as they really are: that’s what philosophy is about, according to Almira Ribeiro. Ribeiro teaches the subject in a high school in Itapuã, a beautiful, poor, violent neighborhood on the periphery of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast. She is the most philosophically passionate person I’ve ever met.
Most of the four million slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil were sold in Salvador, the first residence of Portugal’s colonial rulers. It’s still Brazil’s blackest city. In Ribeiro’s neighborhood, children play football or do capoeira, pray in Pentecostal Churches or worship African gods. Many are involved with drugs; “every year we lose students to crack,” she tells me. And they study philosophy two hours each week because of a 2008 law that mandates philosophy instruction in all Brazilian high schools. Nine million teenagers now take philosophy classes for three years.
“But seeing things as they really are isn’t enough,” Ribeiro insists. As in Plato’s parable inThe Republic, the students must go back to the cave and apply what they’ve learned. Their lives give them rich opportunities for such application. The contrast between the new luxury hotels along the beach and Itapuã’s overcrowded streets gives rise to questions about equality and justice. Children kicking around a can introduce a discussion about democracy: football is one of the few truly democratic practices here; success depends on merit, not class privilege. Moving between philosophy and practice, the students can revise their views in light of what Plato, Hobbes, or Locke had to say about equality, justice, and democracy and discuss their own roles as political agents.
To foster that discussion, Ribeiro must take on a deeply rooted political defeatism. Voting in Brazil is obligatory, but many think it’s useless. In 2010, the largest number of votes for any member of congress went to Tiririca, a popular TV clown, who ran on the slogan, “I don’t know what a congressman does, but vote me in and I’ll tell you.” João Belmiro, another high school philosophy teacher, finds this outrageous. Philosophy, he hopes, will bring change before long.
“There are also other ways of political participation,” Ribeiro tells her students. She gives them the town hall’s phone number for complaints about infrastructure and asks them to find something in their street they want repaired. When one student calls, nothing happens. But when fifteen call, the city reacts. “You see that pothole?” she asks me. “It’s been closed. And that street lantern? It’s been fixed. Thanks to our philosophy class. . . . Politicians can’t afford disgruntled citizens who will vote them out of office.” In the same vein she’s now organizing an association of philosophy teachers. One urgent matter is the lack of qualified personnel. Another project is improving the relationship with the philosophy department at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), the region’s academic hub. Most teachers I meet complain that academic philosophers ignore them or look down on them.
That’s not surprising, considering that the 2008 law is above all a political project. In 1971 the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 eliminated philosophy from high schools. Teachers, professors in departments of education, and political activists championed its return, while most academic philosophers were either indifferent or suspicious. The dictatorship seems to have understood philosophy’s potential to create engaged citizens; it replaced philosophy with a course on Moral and Civic Education and one on Brazil’s Social and Political Organization (“to inculcate good manners and patriotic values and to justify the political order of the generals,” one UFBA colleague recalls from his high school days).
The official rationale for the 2008 law is that philosophy “is necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” The law—the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere—thus represents an experiment in democracy. Among teachers at least, many share Ribeiro’s hope that philosophy will provide a path to greater civic participation and equality. Can it do even more? Can it teach students to question and challenge the foundations of society itself?
I was intrigued when I first heard about the law and wanted to see for myself whether philosophy could do something outside of academia. My path to this subject is both intellectual and personal. I am an academic philosopher in Canada, with Brazilian roots: my parents were activists with a Marxist student group opposing the dictatorship and fled before my birth, though we returned to Brazil for four years after the 1979 amnesty for political refugees. With the help of colleagues and undergraduates from the UFBA philosophy department, I gained access to a broad range of schools in Salvador, where I was often welcomed as a guest teacher and had the opportunity to discuss with teachers their curricula, instructional styles, and hopes for the students.
A 2008 law requires Brazilian teenagers to study philosophy because it is ‘necessary for the exercise of citizenship.’
In every classroom I was at first flooded with questions: Who is this professor from Montreal and what’s he doing here? the students wondered. I quickly learned that my excitement about Brazil’s experiment with philosophy is not universally shared. “Learning how to read and write and basic mathematics is useful,” one student said. “But why should I care about Plato’s concept of the soul?”
I conceded to the class that learning philosophy for the sake of erudition may not be the best use of their time.
“But if you want to build a just and democratic society, isn’t it useful to get as clear as possible on what you mean by justice and democracy and to examine if you have good reasons to pursue these?” I asked. “And aren’t your intuitions about knowledge, goodness and beauty worth investigating?”
Well, perhaps. But first the students had more questions for me. Is it true that Canadian bacon is the best in the world? What do people abroad think about Brazil? How did I get into philosophy? And—still more personally—do I believe in God, a question I encountered almost every time. I tried to get out of it by mentioning Spinoza’s impersonal God. That didn’t mean much to the students and, truth be told, I don’t even believe in the God of Spinoza. “We knew it—all philosophers are atheists!” they would say. When I asked who was a Catholic, who was an evangelical, and who practiced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé (Salvador alone has more than 2000 terreiros, Candomblé’s houses of worship), all students raised their hand at least once.
I assured the students that until the nineteenth century hardly any philosopher was an atheist. Plato’s Euthyphro—with its argument about the relationship between ethics and the will of the gods—gets us into a lively discussion.
I asked them, “Do moral norms depend on God’s will? Would it be fine to murder an innocent child if God says so?” The students found the idea outrageous.
“But doesn’t God order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?” I asked. There was a moment of confusion.
“But Abraham also holds God responsible when he wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorra,” one student replied. That can be interpreted as an independent norm of justice, I admitted.
I pressed on. “But if God must submit to objective moral norms, do we still need the Bible for moral guidance?”
Another student doubted that reason can replace the Bible: “Reason even justifies killing an innocent child if that’s the only way to save a thousand lives.”
We assumed for the moment that reason is indeed unable to ground absolute moral norms. “But how can we act on the authority of the Bible if there are so many different interpretations of it?” I asked. A third student intervened: “Can’t each interpretation be right in its own time and place?” I reminded them of Salvador’s Museum of Modern Art, which they visited on a class excursion. It is located in a beautifully restored casa grande—a colonial plantation owner’s mansion—with adjacent slave dormitories—senzala. “You remember the private chapel? Going to mass and having slaves obviously wasn’t a contradiction back then.” Most students have slaves among their ancestors. So they were reluctant to concede that an interpretation of the Bible allowing slavery is valid. “Is, then, reason the arbiter between competing interpretations?” I asked.
We hadn’t reached a conclusion when the bell rang, but we’d touched on a wide range of important issues in an open-ended Socratic discussion that seemed well suited to the public philosophy envisioned in the 2008 law. By giving students the basic semantic and logical tools they need to clarify their intuitions and to analyze arguments for and against their views, philosophy could help to extend and refine the debate that naturally arises in a pluralistic society from conflicting interests, values, and worldviews. And it could also help citizens make wise use of the power they have in a democracy, as Ribeiro’s town hall exercise shows.
But can philosophy really become part of ordinary life? Wasn’t Socrates executed for trying? Athenians didn’t thank him for guiding them to the examined life, but instead accused him of spreading moral corruption and atheism. Plato concurs: Socrates failed because most citizens just aren’t philosophers in his view. To make them question the beliefs and customs they were brought up in isn’t useful because they can’t replace them with examined ones. So Socrates ended up pushing them into nihilism. To build politics on a foundation of philosophy, Plato concludes, doesn’t mean turning all citizens into philosophers, but putting true philosophers in charge of the city—like parents in charge of children. I wonder, though, why Plato didn’t consider the alternative: If citizens had been trained in dialectic debate from early on—say, starting in high school—might they have reacted differently to Socrates? Perhaps the Brazilian experiment will tell…
Upside of the Downturn: Reduced expectations for our material success might make us happier, even if we’re poorer
January 24, 2012
We have been living with the consequences of a worldwide economic calamity for several years now. Unemployment hovers around 9 percent, and underemployment may be twice that. The value of our houses, which many have used to finance current consumption and others expected to finance their retirement, may take a generation to recover. People who counted on endless stock-market growth to compensate for not saving are hurting. And new college graduates face a combination of miserable employment prospects and student-loan obligations that in aggregate now exceed the nation’s credit-card debt. Despite the feeble cheerleading that we are on our way out of this morass, there is little reason to believe that things will soon get better, and a real chance, with Europe falling apart and our own government completely dysfunctional, that things will get worse.
We all know the bad news. But is there anything good that can be extracted from all this misery? I certainly don’t celebrate our economic suffering, nor do I wish it to continue, but I do think there are potential benefits. They come from two sources: a reduced focus on material success as the measure of all things (because material success has become less likely), and reduced expectations. Why are these benefits? There has been a research boom in recent years on the determinants of well-being, and it shows that material wealth contributes too little to well-being, once incomes are above subsistence, to justify people’s efforts. And it shows us that lowered expectations may enable us to derive satisfaction from life events that would have left us disappointed in the boom years.
The role of material success in well-being is an unsettled matter. Some evidence suggests that once people reach a certain income level, increases in wealth contribute almost nothing. Other research suggests that “richer is happier.” It’s true that rich nations are happier than poor ones, and rich people in a given nation are happier than poor ones. But there is evidence that over a 50-year period, as per-capita gross domestic product more than doubled in the United States and quadrupled in Japan, well-being hardly changed at all. Increases in material wealth do much less for people than they expect. That is, people devote far more time, energy, and worry to wealth than the payoff justifies.
And gains in wealth are especially unhelpful if material success is a person’s goal, rather than a byproduct of other motivations. Thus people who want to be wealthier and succeed derive little benefit in well-being, while people who become wealthier by accident do benefit. Researchers have also found that what we do has a bigger effect on well-being than what we have. This is in part because we adapt rapidly to what we have, so that the new car, tablet, or smartphone provides a hedonic kick for a disappointingly short time. This is less true for what we do, perhaps because there is so much variety in activities, especially when they are interpersonal, that adaptation is reduced. Our work is a major source of well-being, as long as the work is meaningful and engaging. So is our network of relations with family, friends, and community organizations.
Thus Freud, who was wrong about most things, may have been right when he said that love and work are the key determinants of happiness.
Given what we know about well-being, an upside of the downturn may be that we’ll turn our attention to pursuits that don’t take or make money, but that may be more satisfying. Perhaps we’ll spend more time with friends and family and less time at the mall. Perhaps we’ll spend more time hiking and biking and less time buying. And perhaps fewer of our most talented graduates will seek careers in the financial world. Perhaps they’ll choose to solve the world’s problems instead of exacerbating them.
But there’s a very important caveat: Meaningful, engaging work is crucial to well-being, and unemployment is devastating. In a difficult job market, people will take any job, whether or not it’s a good one. And today millions have no job. The suffering caused by the lack of work is incalculable.
Human beings spend a lot of time asking themselves, “How am I doing? How is the job going? How are classes going? How about romance, or friends, or parents? Am I pleased with the stuff I have?” When we ask ourselves questions like those, our answers come from comparisons. It’s hard to apply absolute standards to evaluate most aspects of life. So “How am I doing?” becomes “How am I doing compared with … ?”
Compared with what? There are several answers. We compare ourselves with relevant others (the economist Robert Frank has written several books about this over the years). We compare ourselves today with ourselves yesterday. We compare where we are with where we expected to be. As should be obvious, we like it when we’re doing better than our peers, and better than than we were doing yesterday. And we like it when we meet or exceed our expectations.
Here lies the second possible upside to the downturn. When expectations are high, the best we can hope to do is match them. When expectations are lower, matching them is easier and exceeding them is possible. By lowering expectations and keeping expectations modest, the downturn may actually enable people to derive satisfaction from activities and possessions that would previously have been disappointing. Managing expectations is a crucial determinant of well-being, and the downturn may be managing our expectations for us…
Diving for the Secrets of the Battle of the Atlantic: Off the coast of North Carolina lie dozens of shipwrecks, remainders of a forgotten theater of World War II
January 24, 2012
It’s a World War II campaign largely forgotten, a coastal reign of terror Joe Hoyt and a team of marine archaeologists are determined to bring into sharp focus 70 years later.
During the first six months of 1942, German U-boats, often hunting in wolf packs, sank ship after ship just miles off the East Coast of the United States, concentrating their ambushes along North Carolina, where conditions were most favorable. From the beaches, civilians could see the explosions as the submarines sank more Allied tonnage in those months than the entire Japanese Navy would destroy in the Pacific during the entire course of the war.
German submariners dubbed it the “American Shooting Season.” While estimates of the carnage vary according to where boundaries are drawn, one survey concluded that 154 ships were sunk and more than 1,100 lives lost off the North Carolina coast in that period.
“It’s always surprised me that it’s not something everyone knows. It was the closest war came to the continental United States,” says Hoyt, a marine archaeologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary staff in Newport News, Virginia. “For six months, there were sinkings nearly every day off the coast. We think it’s an important part of American history.”
Flowing like massive rivers in the sea, the cold-water Labrador Current from the north and the warm Gulf Stream from the south converge just off Cape Hatteras. To take advantage of these currents, vessels must draw close to the Outer Banks. This area off the North Carolina coast is a bottleneck where U-boat commanders knew they’d find plenty of prey. In addition, the Continental Shelf comes close to shore, offering deep water nearby where they could attack and hide.
Hoyt says 50 to 60 Allied, Axis and merchant vessel wrecks rest off the North Carolina coast. Hoyt has led teams of NOAA researchers for four summers looking for and surveying wrecks from those World War II battles. A sonar survey last year revealed 47 potential sites. Whether they are 1942 wrecks, ruins from another time or just geologic anomalies will require further research. The project’s ultimate goals are to produce a comprehensive report on the wartime shipwrecks, create detailed models of the locations and channel the findings into museum exhibits or film productions. Key to that is the video work by a team of 3-D camera operators from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution using both divers and remote vehicles rigged with cutting-edge equipment.
The 3-D cameras don’t just produce dramatic video; they also allow researchers to create detailed models of wreck sites from the comfort of their offices, without extensive measuring on the seabed. Because their lenses are offset providing three points to determine where something is in space, the cameras create thousands of stereo still images that become a digital data set researchers use to build detailed, highly accurate create models of wreck sites.
“It can help you learn about how the actual engagement took place,” Hoyt says. “You can look at torpedo damage or collision damage. You only see one section at a time when you’re underwater. You’re not able to step back and see the whole thing because of the water quality. So we try to create through video or a photo mosaic an overall image so you can get a good conceptualization of the site.”
Evan Kovacs, director of 3-D photography for Woods Hole, has been photographing wrecks, including the USS Monitor and the HMS Titanic, for more than a decade. “One of the greatest things about 3D from a storytelling perspective is its immersive quality,” Kovacs says. “You’re able to bring people there. You’re underwater, surrounded by sharks. There’s all of the innards and guts of the ships. It’s going to be pretty spectacular.”…
January 24, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.