Back to Ze German Authors

If you know me at all, you know that Hermann Hesse is my favorite author. His last and greatest work Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game) [Das Glasperlenspiel] is my favorite book. I like his stories, I identify with his characters, I like his style.
In keeping with my love of Hesse, I have always meant to read Thomas Mann's work since he was a great friend and literary interlocutor to Hesse. In fact, in Magister Ludi Hesse names one of his characters "Thomas van der Trave," which is a veiled allusion to Mann, who grew up in a town on the Trave river in Germany. Van der Trave is one of the most enlightened and noble characters in Hesse's masterpiece.
Finally, I have made time for Thomas Mann. It was almost as if he made time for me, as I saw a wonderful hard back edition of his master work, The Magic Mountain, at a used book sale on campus. I have only read the first few chapters, but already I'm struck by wonderful passages such as this:

Two days travel separated the youth--he was still too young to have thrust his roots down firmly into life--from his own world, from all that he thought of as his own duties, interests, cares and prospects; far more than he had dreamed it would when he sat in the carriage on the way to the station. Space, rolling and revolving between him and his native heath, possessed and wielded powers we generally ascribe to time. From hour to hour it worked changes in him, like to those wrought by time, yet in a way even more striking. Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached, state. Yes, it can even, in the twinkling of an eye, make something like a vagabound of the pedant and Philistine. Time, we say, is Lethe; but change of air is a similar draught, and, if it works less thoroughly, does so more quickly.
-Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter 1939, p. 4.

Contemplating the last few sentences has yielded extreme aesthetic pleasure for me. Mann's prose is enchanting. He evokes the image of the "primitive, unattached state" in order to make palpable the grandiosity of Space and Time. Whatever it is that Hesse and Mann have in common, it is most striking in passages like this one.

The Oil Spill and the Man on the Moon

Everyone has heard this by now: "How is it that we can put a man on the moon but not plug a hole in the ocean?" Or some variant thereof.
I am utterly tired of hearing this. Not only is it irrelevant but it is poorly phrased. This analogy calls out for a corrective response rather than an actual answer. My counter to this question is: "That is misguided. Indeed we can put a man on the moon--but if something were to go wrong with his ship, how likely would we be that we could save him? Or would we most likely find ourselves in a situation similar to the one we are in now involving the Gulf of Mexico. What both of these feats--getting to the moon, drilling a mile underwater--have in common is that they represent typically human endeavors of being able to reach or get to some metaphorical (or literal) great height and have no idea how to get down. Our technology mirrors our teleology--to expand, to go outward, to explore ever further. It does not grow at a cautious pace, but rather in clumsy steps, some more ambitious than others, and some leading to a trip or major fall. The point is that having the technology to get to the moon does not entail that we have the technology to deal with a prolonged or abnormal situation of any kind on the moon. Likewise, we have the technology to drill for oil in the deepest water, but that does not entail that we have the technology to deal with a prolonged or abnormal situation of any kind on the seabed."
Now, whether we should regulate ourselves so that technology grows at a more cautious pace, is another question entirely.

A Pedagogical Issue

Much recent pedagogy operates on the assumption--the presupposition--that students (or anyone for that matter) have a 10-15 min. attention span. Accordingly, educators (or presenters of information of any kind for that matter) should tailor their lesson plans, presentations, and general mode of educating to this "established" empirical data. You might even say we educators have a duty to do as much as possible, or at least make a strong effort, to stimulate our students, to force them to engage, to "do them justice."
Another might object that this does our students (and citizens for that matter) a disservice. Our job as educators is to act as a resource of content for students--and it is up to them to take responsibility for mastering the information on their own. In fact, this laissez-faire approach may best embody an implicit duty of teaching not to coddle our students, so that they may learn to take responsibility for their own actions.
Personally, I tend to be more optimistic about students than most current pedagogy is. But perhaps my own anecdotal warrant for this optimism is as inadequate as, well, anecdote tends to be. I'd like to think that my own enthusiastic presentation of the material will be sufficient for the students, and that if it is not, its their fault and not mine. Am I a confident educator, or a naive well-wisher? Or even worse, am I actually negatively affecting students through my approach?
More generally, what's the best approach to pedagogy on the spectrum ranging from robust-progressive-liberal-educator to minimalistic-conservative-libertarian? Would love people's thoughts on this.


Kant's Majesty

Passages like this will always keep me coming back to Kant:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense and extends the connection in which I stand into an unbounded magnitude with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into the unbounded times of their periodic motion, their beginning and their duration. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and presents me in a world which has true infinity but which can be discovered only by the understanding, and I cognize that my connection with that world (and thereby with all those visible worlds as well) is not merely contingent, as in the first case, but universal and necessary. The first view of a countless magnitude of worlds annihilates, as it were, my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital force (one knows not how) must give back to the planet (a mere speck in the universe) the matter from which it came. The second, on the contrary, infinitely raises my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as this may be inferred from the purposive determination of my existence by this law, a determination not restricted to the conditions and boundaries of this life but reaching into the infinite.
-Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge 1996.

One might argue that the whole of philosophy is contained in this passage. Kant touches on contingency, necessity, time, space, and morality with grace and precision. Additionally, he does this with a phenomenological tone: there is something that its like to have this most unique perspective, that of the zoon logon echon (animal having reason)--our being-in-the-world as well as our being-beyond-the-world.