Friday, July 23, 2010

Like Heidegger, or Wittgenstein, you know.

I had a charming ride on the Hopkins shuttle this afternoon. Unlike the ride to campus this morning, which was on a school bus, the ride home was in a lovely, temperature controlled vehicle that smoothly took me from Homewood's green expanse to the subterranean origin of the Baltimore subway. While on the shuttle, I also had the occasion to overhear a conversation that, I think, can only occur near or in a modern university setting.

Directly behind me on the shuttle, a young gentleman and a lady were having a conversation. Their conversation was about a particular TA that the gentleman had, who, while working in one of our foreign language departments was actually a philosopher, and whose book is soon to be published. The TA's book looked, as far as I can tell from my eavesdropping, at the relationship between Heidegger's work and Japanese aesthetics. But that is not the point of my blog entry. No, I am interested, rather, in how the young man and woman were speaking to one another about this topic. It was obviously a topic that the young man found very interesting, and I sensed that young woman was also versed, if not as interested, in matters Teutonic and philosophical. Their discourse, however, consisted of very comprehensible statements about Heidegger, Japanese aesthetics, and Wittgenstein, and a garbled series of "likes" and "you knows", which I took to indicate nervousness from both parties.

I know that "likes" and "you knows" are verbal placeholders, akin to "ums" and "ehs" which we use when we aren't certain what we would like to say. What struck me is that these phrases so often are equated with low intelligence. The individuals behind me could not be said to be of low intelligence. In fact, I would say that they were quite the opposite, being, as they were, able to ruminate meaningfully on German philosophers and their potential intersections with Japanese culture.

So, what is my point?

My point is that I wonder how we can inspire young people, who have accepted the verbal cues of their age, to be more confident in their intellectual abilities, particularly in their ability to articulate those ideas to another person. How, in fact, do we foster the ability to articulate ideas among our students? I would want to see both the young man and the young woman lose much of their nervousness, and be willing (and to let their word choices indicate this willingness) to articulate ideas meaningfully and clearly. We haven't lost intellectual ability since the advent of the Internet, or Twitter, or whatever bugbear is currently en vogue. What we have reduced, however, is the training of students to speak their ideas clearly, and to be confident about their own intelligence. This is something that needs correction.

Well, for an entry that cries out for clarity in speech, this wasn't precisely as clear as I would have liked, but I begin with it. What is a blog if not a place where ideas start, where we can ruminate freely, where the practice of writing can lead to writing as art.

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