Comments from the final exam

One of the essays that my students had for their final was one wherein they had give suggestions to a princely state (Hindu ruled, Muslim majority) on the border of India and Pakistan in August of 1947. Basically they had to choose either India or Pakistan to join, keep down violence, easy the passage of refugees moving through the state and then find a way to prevent, or otherwise deal with violence against women. These were all issues dealt with in class and in the readings, but, to be fair, a lot of this was what actually happened and what failed.

There were some very, very good suggestions for these issues, both for people who supported joining India and for joining Pakistan. Leaving alone your typical misunderstandings like where Nepal is in comparison to the India-Pakistan border, What exactly a Christian nation is (hint: A Hindu ruled, Muslim majority country is in no way a peaceful, Christian nation), some of the suggestions were frightfully naive.

Note: some of this is my own worldview coming out, cynical as it sometimes is. I tend to see myself as a realist (check this), not eager to use force, but understanding that sometimes it is necessary. Further, I venture that there are times when an active response is better than a passive one. Due respect to Gandhi, but most people do not have that influence.

I was blown away how many people suggested that the best way to quell communal violence was for the Raja to go on the radio and give a moving speech about non-violence. On one hand I applaud the effort, and they are right, there should be some sort of communication pleading for an end to violence, and reminding people that they have more binding them than separating them, but even Gandhi was only able to quell the violence by starving himself nearly to death. Further, he was a beloved figure, and a well known advocate of free India–not a prince. In a void such as this question, Gandhi would have more influence and more capacity to influence people passively than would the prince. Note: no essay actually suggested the Raja attempt a hunger strike.

The second issue that shocked me was one essay which suggested the best way to prevent violence and deal with the refugees would be to create routes across the country, complete with pit stops where community women (guarded by the police) would volunteer to give out refreshments. “I truly believe that with this type of hospitality, travelers would be highly unlikely to become violent.”

And then there was the issue of education. I am fully in support of education. I think all people should be as well educated as they can, or want, to be. It should be affordable, and for at least high school it should be mandatory. But a large number of people on these essays wrote some combination of curfew, martial law and mandatory education. Granted, the curfew and martial law were to stop abductions, rapes and murders, and the mandatory education was to teach people that violence and intolerance is wrong, but what was actually being suggested was a benevolent totalitarian state. In the ideal world this is safe, and we would all live a happy-go-lucky existence. The reality, though is that a benevolent totalitarianism is only better than non-benevolent totalitarianism in the outcome and sometimes changing the message is easier than changing the government.

With the exception of the lemonade stand idea, these were issues suggested in multiple essays. Off the top of my head, I would say that these answers got poor grades, but more because it was the only idea suggested for that aspect of partition. If, instead of ‘the leader giving a speech will work’, they gave ‘speech and some other idea, I would have given them more credit.

For entirely unrelated reasons (I was doing laundry) this morning I was watching ABC kids. During one of the commercial breaks from The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (an ABC kidified version rerun of the original series, which was most of the reason I was actually watching), there was one of these Disney stars who came on to talk about…something. TO be honest I wasn’t exactly listening, but I think it had to do with education or literacy or something. What I did catch reminded me a good deal of these essays with the message ‘if we just do this one little, easy thing, then the world will be made all better.’ This is not to say that ABC kids is to blame. I believe there is some deeper current in American culture which has perpetuated myths about voice and action. Some US foreign policy seems to work that way, the spectacles that are beauty pageants certainly do, ABC Kids does, and these essays certainly do. Faced with a situation which they don’t have a practical answer, but need to say something, they default to “be nice” (note: foreign policy language tends to be more forceful and more professional).

I realize that teaching our kids that the world is a terrible place and is out to get them isn’t the right solution, either, but at some age their horizons need to expand beyond Hollywood and TV. They need to learn about history and politics and other cultures. And that age should definitely come before college.

Ironically, after Power Rangers was a Cindy Crawford face-cream special infomercial.


I am an addict. I am addicted to facebook, to the blogs I read, to AOL Instant Messenger, to Google. To ESPN and the web-comics I read. I am addicted to the internet. The internet has so permeated my life that it is an extension of who I am, so bound up that to sever that link would be a testament to willpower. But I am not sure I can do it, I am not sure that I want to.

These are off the cuff remarks, ruminations while in a spiffy coffee shop (Mudtruck) in mid-town Manhattan. They stem from a number of sources, including another friend drawing back from Facebook, an upcoming movie about web-life versus real-life, conversations about culture and modernity while walking through Time Square, an article about loneliness and green living–to name just a few.

Life has always been about struggle and competition, whether this took the form of struggle against (and working with) the elements, or people, or nature or yourself, it is a constant struggle. Often the best solution is to work with the object of struggle, but the struggle remains. Further ambition, a goal to struggle towards provides inspiration for living, even if that ambition is (externally) to sit in front of a computer screen all day, it is likely (internally) to accomplish an particular feeling or to become an 80th level druid with the best healing capabilities on the server. Some ambitions are loftier than others. I am simply an observer of the realm of the mind, but not everyone is Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon, and to be honest that is probably a good thing. Nonetheless I am comfortable in saying that everyone has ambitions of one sort or the other, whether they know it or not, and those who do not have given up. That last group will hopefully be given motivation by those who love them, commit suicide or otherwise pass away. Morbid, but true.1

One of the most consistent ambitions people have is to leave a legacy. For some that is pioneering technology, or political office, or literary accomplishment. For others that is teaching people, or having children. This is so much the case that I wonder sometimes if there is something about sentience that pushes us to make a mark on the world, to be noticed.2 In the world of internet this urge appears through web presence. This includes facebook, youtube, google, and yes, blogs. This is not necessarily a bad thing and for many people this is great. I use most of the above and for one purpose or another, though usually to keep in contact with my loved ones who are not immediately available to me. More than anything else this is why I doubt I would be able to pull out at all, much less altogether.3 At the same time the more I use these things the more I feel I am caught in a real life matrix. In general I feel out of touch with so much of what makes modern America just because I don’t watch tv and I like this feeling. In a similar way that I am made uncomfortable by organized religion I am made uncomfortable by American consumer culture. It feels like a natural conspiracy, rather than an organized one, bent pulling a veil over our eyes and getting us to spend money. It is overwhelmingly successful.

Internet, especially these social networking sites provide a platform from which to scream your message. Pictures, thoughts, conversations are all enabled through these networks, foisting on others your life. Incidentally facebook provides a convenient mechanism to simply ignore those aspects you dislike–I ignore a number of games, including farmville, castle age and mafia wars, plus a handful of people. At times, though, this feels like yet another competition, another shoving match for attention. But leaving this mess behind will make me disconnected. Clearly not everyone will disappear for me if I did this, but enough would that I question the decision. This is ever more evident since my use of facebook in and of itself is not a health or societal detriment. I am not chopping down any more trees for its use, or drilling any more gulf oil.4 I am not Super-sizing myself, nor am I driving anywhere to do it. Facebook is a tool of procrastination and one networking. If I can conquer the first, the latter is a positive.

And still I may need to withdraw to drag myself from this matrix.

The day has not yet come where I give up online presence. It may never come. Likewise the day has not yet come where I give up technology and it probably never will. The day that is drawing speedily closer is the one where I give up everything unsustainable, everything corporate. Already I am making an effort to avoid the trappings and excesses–the unnecessary bags, containers, plastic silverware, grease, fast food, etc. I still want a legacy, I want to make my mark, but if mine is the same mark as a billion other people, how is that different from not leaving one at all?

1If you are feeling ambition-less, unmotivated or otherwise need a reason to keep going, please call me and I will give you some. Trust me, I have too many ambitions for my own good.
2Alternately this could be an urge more basic that manifests itself in more dramatic fashion due to sentience. Either way my point stands.
3Not to mention that I suspect my advisor would kill me if I stopped using email. And that Ancient History/Classics professors are notoriously bad with technology–as though the field needs more challenges to its survival in the 21st century.
4No, the trees suffer from my habits of taking notes on paper and hand-writing papers before typing them.

Post Script: The use of the term ‘matrix’ was deliberate and a direct reference to the original movie by the same name. The later movies in the trilogy expanded the allegory presented, but the concept itself is a message about technology and the most basic stages can be seen in the internet world that people voluntarily put themselves into, only to find themselves unable to, or unwilling to pull out of.


I have always liked museums, and I guess this is still true after a fashion. I like some of the objects which are now only available in museums, and definitely believe that those objects are better off in museums for people to see than in private collections for just the wealthy. The problem is that, increasingly, I see history as a flowing thing, rather than a static one. It is something that cannot be expressed by a singular narrative or pile of objects, the blurbs that accompanying them giving some measure of information, but largely the narrative or the curiosities.

My (first) problem with museums is that they present a distinctly static view of history. They do so because their objective is not history, but the objects in the collection, which themselves give a glimpse into a particular time and place–the problem of course is that for them to mean anything to the average observer, they need to look at the blurb, and the blurb gives only a very limited version of the history. Nonetheless this is the same problem I have with diluted history across the board, including elementary, middle and high schools and may stem from this being my life’s ambitions.

Related is that the removal of these objects from their original place dilutes the meaning. Some were clearly intended to be placed on walls an observed, or in buildings, but others were intended for outdoor or other public spaces. On one hand their removal may have actually saved some, on the other the impression is changed.

The second problem I have is that museums present a specifically constructed history. This is more obvious on controversial topics, and patriotic ones, but is there across the board. For example, today I saw a exhibit on horses and native culture in America. It was an apologetic account, for better or for worse, and emphasized a few choice issues in the history. Yes, the United States government did some awful things to the aborigines of this continent, but there is much more to the cultures than just that.

Graduate School really is not about learning – Semester in review – Spring 2010

Anyone who writes articles or blog post and expects people to read them will tell you that a catchy, witty, vulgar or otherwise outrageous title is the best way to gain instant readership. The next step is to use the first sentence or two to hook them, either explaining your title, presenting interesting information or blowing them away with your writing; for me that will all begin in the third sentence. School is about education, education is about learning, and as the highest schooling (currently) available, graduate school must also be about the highest level of learning available. Professors will impart knowledge, which will be devoured eagerly by the students with the ambition of having the opportunity to do the same someday soon. What I just painted was a caricature, based off of accurate sentiments, but not at all true.

Perhaps I am being cynical in saying all of this, since graduate school quite clearly is about learning, but I have learned next to nothing in classes. I have gotten better at Greek and Latin, but mostly through doing my homework and working on the side. I have learned some about Greek history and debates surrounding Alexander, but almost entirely on my own. I have learned a little about writing, but mostly by having someone critique my writing. Graduate school is about learning, but in the sense that graduate students are expected to learn on their own and experience their particular field and thereby learn, not necessarily go to classes and thereby learn. Sometimes I suspect that this changes the more people there are working in a particular field.

This has been one of my revelations this semester and while I am not entirely comfortable with it, I am becoming reconciled. A related issue is that even though almost all of he historical (rather than experiential) learning is independent, there is a requisite amount of coursework that must be done. I have not really enjoyed any classes in over four semesters. I have enjoyed, and do enjoy, aspects of school and thinking about history, but I am beginning to understand why people say that graduate school sucks all the joy out of history, but the signs were already there by the senior year of college. My hope is that there will be some change in all of this next year since I am looking forward to a bunch of my classes, plus there will be a new Ancient History student. I truly do love history, and like talking about history, thinking and writing about history, but it has given me some thought.

Writing issues

I have been in a writing funk for a good six months now, if not more. Periodically I can turn a good phrase, make a good point, or delude myself that I have snapped out of it. I am always wrong. An unfortunate side effect of these periods is that one of two things happens as a result:

1) Suddenly I am convinced that my writing hitherto was exceptional.
2) Suddenly I am convinced that nothing I have ever written was worth the paper it was printed on.

Now I am well aware that neither of these statements is correct, but sometimes the mind does funny things. In truth there are things I have written that I think are quite good, and some that are absolutely wretched, but the defining characteristic of both is how (in)effectually I developed the idea behind the piece of writing, and how remarkable that idea actually was. As with the pieces of writing themselves, there are some I am proud of and would like to build upon further, and some that I would really rather I forgot.

In this moment, I suspect that I am over-thinking writing, over-thinking the ideas and simply trying too hard. The defining characteristic of written comments from graduate school professors (so far as I can tell) is that the most scathing comment they can give you is that your writing resembles that of an undergraduate. In general I can sympathize with this statement, and having received it before, it does sting, but the larger issue that I see is that each professor finds different characteristics “undergrad-esque” and none of the expectations are well defined. To make matters worse, at least for me, I have taken just one course on writing since high school, and even then there was a greater emphasis on how to write a ‘proper’ bibliography (just for the record, I still don’t really know how), than there was on our writing. I have learned some from osmosis, from comments in undergrad and now graduate school, but most of my writing remains from how I speak and from imitating authors I respect–this gets more awkward when I begin to write akin to Greek authors.

And now I am trying too hard, thinking too much. I am looking at my writing as though I must come up with the perfect kernel, the perfect idea, and then develop it perfectly. But instead of actually doing this, I stare at the blinking cursor, seemingly without the capacity to translate thought to page. In the past I have circumvented this by writing everything longhand, which helps some, but not as much as it used to. I need get back to simply writing. Let the thoughts flow onto the page just to get the thoughts out. If they are not out, I cannot play with them.

I do not want to give the impression that I have learned nothing, or that this thinking is entirely bad. My writing certainly has gotten tighter, more precise and denser, but is not necessarily better.

Where there is a will, there is a way, and I need to find a way to merge the free-flowing imitation with methodical thought before it is too late.

P.S. I once told a professor that I was having real issues. I liked my topic, but I was hitting wall after wall, throwing myself into them until the walls cracked or I fell around them and stumbled into the next. That was almost five years ago, so I suppose this is not exactly a new phenomenon.