Enlightenment

university_of_michigan_by_bagera3005-d4kqxbrWhen I first came to the University of Michigan, I was only focused on getting good grades so that I could get a good job.  All the work I had done in high school and was doing in college was towards my life in the future. Every time I wanted to take a break or procrastinate on an assignment I told myself that it would all pay off in time.  My thinking has changed somewhat, I still truly believe that my hard work will pay off in time but I am more focused now on actually learning for the sake of understanding the world around me.

The best way I can prove this shift in my attitude towards education is through the progression of my blog posts.  My first blog post, A Mathematical Proof of Menand’s Theory 1 (please not that this hyperlink is to a list of my blog posts with my most recent on top), is solely about getting a job after college.  I thought that simply receiving an education in anything, as long as it taught me the skills necessary for the job I wanted, was acceptable.

As the readings in my Political Science 101 class began to become older and authored by more famous philosophers, they also became more cynical.  My second blog post followed my reading of Huizinga’s definition of play and Bartlett Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise.  Huizinga, a 20th century philosopher, defined play as a disinterested world in which we enter where there are no consequences or worries. Giamatti wrote that people love to watch sports because essentially they are attempting to live through the players.  By watching their grace and coordination we feel the positives such as the thrill of the win or a great play without having to feel the negatives like injuries or financial dependence.  I saw spectators at sporting events becoming enthralled and aggressive in the stands.  I witnessed fans attempting to live through the players and although I understood why the spectators would want to experience the game through the athletes, and even though I participated in it, I was still partly disgusted by the behavior I was seeing.

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

This was the beginning of the downward spiral of my view of our society. My opinion of humanity was further soiled after reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, a book in which Hobbes defines social contracts and how humans interact with one another. Hobbes believes that our state of nature and war are synonymous and a main theme throughout the book is how humans are intrinsically fearful and selfish. Rousseau and Locke are two other philosophers who studied and theorized about social contracts.

Burke

Burke

  • Rousseau made points of how originally we were self-sufficient individuals but over time we became more civilized and began to live together and once this occurred we had social contracts in place to suppress our selfish desires for the good of society.
  • Locke delves more into whether we live in a state of nature versus a state of war. He argues that when we are free to pursue our own wishes and act as our own judge then war will always erupt. Only if we have a moderator or some force in place will peace be attained.
  • Burke was probably the most pessimistic of them all. Burke is a classic conservative meaning that he believe that there should be slow change in government and society. He explained how whatever class or profession people are born into is the place that they will die and trying to change is a fruitless effort.  He even went so far as to call the general population a “swinish multitude”.

After reading and analyzing these works how can one not be depressed about the future of humanity?  Apparently we are a group of dirty swine who will stab each other in the back whenever it will benefit us. We can’t trust each other, we have no control over our futures and the only times in which we were actually happy was far in the past in states of nature that will never be attainable.

But as I wrote earlier my thinking about college has changed. Before I was only concerned about money, which still has its perks: security, success, status, and pride. But I have decided that I want an education that will help me to understand the world rather than one that will only make me financially wealthy. So after contemplating the repugnant nature of humanity I thought, “What is the purpose of all these works? Is it all just to make us feel bad about ourselves? Do the authors think that they are above the rest of us and that they do not fit into their own descriptions of society?”

I believe that the reason we have these works today is to separate us.  There are those who will take Hobbes or Burke and become depressed at what they read.  And then there are those who become inspired to prove their definitions and theories about human nature wrong. In my third blog, Defying Hobbes Rules, I write about such people, mainly they are soldiers and daredevils. If I can take my education and what I’ve learned in Polisci 101 and use it to emulate the characteristics that these people possess- bravery, confidence, benevolence- then it doesn’t matter what job I have because I will be living a truly fulfilled life which is greater than any sum of money.

Advertisements

Witnessing Play

Michigan Hockey (via wikimedia)

“Ahh!” screamed the player as he fell to the ice in pain.  I gritted my teeth and watched in morbid curiosity, a player for the opposing team had just been hit in the neck by a slap shot. I sat in the spectator section at the Michigan versus Wilfred Laurie hockey game and to my astonishment the player quickly recovered and continued to play. Only a moment before he laid on the ice gripping his neck.  The student section continued to scream and cheer on as if nothing had happened.  I was also surprised at the chants I was hearing, most were fun, some were a little strange and then a couple were quite vulgar. Never had I seen a group of people yelling and screaming in such a manner, football is one thing but hockey was on a different level.

I had a similar feeling while I was at the Michigan versus Maryland girls’ field hockey game.  I was surrounded by parents of opposing players and they too were getting very caught up in the game.  They were screaming at the referees and players as loud as they could.  At times I almost felt embarrassed for these parents.  But I realized that this is exactly what A Bartlett Giamatti was writing about in his book Take Time for Paradise.  These parents and students were living through these players.

via wikimedia

The students at the hockey game and the parents in the stands cannot compete on the level of those in the game so they instead chose to play vicariously through the players.  And to them that’s what they were watching- play.  But it was most certainly not play for those in the game, as they were competing not playing.  In Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens, he defines what play truly is.  One part of his definition is that play is contained, it does not spill over into the real world and does not have any consequences. For those competing this is most udoubtedly not the case.  If that hockey player doesn’t get up after getting hit in the neck and is then unable to play, he is cut from the team and he loses his scholarship and can no longer afford an education. If those on the ice or field do not play well or make too many mistakes then they are benched, they can be cut by the team and they too may lose their ability to afford an education.  There is no situation in which something as serious as what I have just mentioned can occur for those in the stands.

In my political science 101 class we talked about things that we consider play that do not fit into Huizinga’s definition.  One student came up with the games that the Ancient Aztecs played in which the losing side would be sacrificed to the gods.  Similar to the ice and field hockey game, the presence of such a consequence transforms what was once play into competition.

These players have extra stress put on them to play well.  The fans do not have such stress so, as Giamatti writes, these people are living in utopia, or a world without work, stress, or any other worries. They don’t have to worry about their scholarship or the physical labor of playing the sport and can thus become completely enthralled with the play aspect of the competition. The spectators are in a state of perfect bliss and enjoyment. So when that puck hit the player’s neck, there were an infinite amount of terrible things that could have resulted from it, but we fans just kept on cheering.

Enlightenment

university_of_michigan_by_bagera3005-d4kqxbrWhen I first came to the University of Michigan, I was only focused on getting good grades so that I could get a good job.  All the work I had done in high school and was doing in college was towards my life in the future. Every time I wanted to take a break or procrastinate on an assignment I told myself that it would all pay off in time.  My thinking has changed somewhat, I still truly believe that my hard work will pay off in time but I am more focused now on actually learning for the sake of understanding the world around me.

The best way I can prove this shift in my attitude towards education is through the progression of my blog posts.  My first blog post, A Mathematical Proof of Menand’s Theory 1 (please not that this hyperlink is to a list of my blog posts with my most recent on top), is solely about getting a job after college.  I thought that simply receiving an education in anything, as long as it taught me the skills necessary for the job I wanted, was acceptable.

As the readings in my Political Science 101 class began to become older and authored by more famous philosophers, they also became more cynical.  My second blog post followed my reading of Huizinga’s definition of play and Bartlett Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise.  Huizinga, a 20th century philosopher, defined play as a disinterested world in which we enter where there are no consequences or worries. Giamatti wrote that people love to watch sports because essentially they are attempting to live through the players.  By watching their grace and coordination we feel the positives such as the thrill of the win or a great play without having to feel the negatives like injuries or financial dependence.  I saw spectators at sporting events becoming enthralled and aggressive in the stands.  I witnessed fans attempting to live through the players and although I understood why the spectators would want to experience the game through the athletes, and even though I participated in it, I was still partly disgusted by the behavior I was seeing.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

John Locke

John Locke

Edmund Burke Photo taken from Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Edmund Burke

This was the beginning of the downward spiral of my view of our society. My opinion of humanity was further soiled after reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, a book in which Hobbes defines social contracts and how humans interact with one another. Hobbes believes that our state of nature and war are synonymous and a main theme throughout the book is how humans are intrinsically fearful and selfish. Rousseau and Locke are two other philosophers who studied and theorized about social contracts.

  • Rousseau made points of how originally we were self-sufficient individuals but over time we became more civilized and began to live together and once this occurred we had social contracts in place to suppress our selfish desires for the good of society.
  • Locke delves more into whether we live in a state of nature versus a state of war. He argues that when we are free to pursue our own wishes and act as our own judge then war will always erupt. Only if we have a moderator or some force in place will peace be attained.
  • Burke was probably the most pessimistic of them all. Burke is a classic conservative meaning that he believe that there should be slow change in government and society. He explained how whatever class or profession people are born into is the place that they will die and trying to change is a fruitless effort.  He even went so far as to call the general population a “swinish multitude”.

After reading and analyzing these works how can one not be depressed about the future of humanity?  Apparently we are a group of dirty swine who will stab each other in the back whenever it will benefit us. We can’t trust each other, we have no control over our futures and the only times in which we were actually happy was far in the past in states of nature that will never be attainable.

But as I wrote earlier my thinking about college has changed. Before I was only concerned about money, which still has its perks: security, success, status, and pride. But I have decided that I want an education that will help me to understand the world rather than one that will only make me financially wealthy. So after contemplating the repugnant nature of humanity I thought, “What is the purpose of all these works? Is it all just to make us feel bad about ourselves? Do the authors think that they are above the rest of us and that they do not fit into their own descriptions of society?”

I believe that the reason we have these works today is to separate us.  There are those who will take Hobbes or Burke and become depressed at what they read.  And then there are those who become inspired to prove their definitions and theories about human nature wrong. In my third blog, Defying Hobbes Rules, I write about such people, mainly they are soldiers and daredevils. If I can take my education and what I’ve learned in Polisci 101 and use it to emulate the characteristics that these people possess- bravery, confidence, benevolence- then it doesn’t matter what job I have because I will be living a truly fulfilled life which is greater than any sum of money.

A Mathematical Proof of Menand’s Theory 1

Last week I was meticulously studying the Syllabus for my Math 116 course in anticipation for an upcoming quiz.  A theme that my Graduate Student Instructor stressed was teamwork to encourage learning. Throughout the year we will be having group assignments and we will have opportunities to teach the other students. One point my instructor made about teamwork was that once we graduate and begin to work in the real world, we will be probably not be working individually but rather be part of a group. And to prove the power of teamwork outside of the classroom my Graduate Student Instructor alluded to a statement from some professionals in the working world. Below is taken directly from the syllabus,

Boeing’s most famous plane the 747 (via Wikimedia)

Here’s what a principal aerodynamics engineer from The Boeing Company and members of the Washington State Software Alliance have to say.

What do we look for in employees? We hire those who have demonstrated that they:

  • Enjoy the process of learning & know how to learn independently
  • Thrive on intellectual challenges
  • Are creative and flexible in how they solve problems
  • Have a good understanding of the fundamentals (mathematics, science, economics)
  • Can manage knowledge and information, as well as tasks and things
  • Can operate effectively in a team environment
  • Have good communication skills

College acts as a Sorting Hat like the one featured in Harry Potter

As I was studying, a light went off in my head, I thought, “where does it mention anything about an engineering degree?” It was my belief that an aerospace or software engineering degree was crucial for a job at Boeing or similar companies. I realized that these companies are following Louis Menand’s Theory 1. His theory states that college is simply a four year intelligence exam, so that by the end the smart and hardworking are separated from the lazy and dumb. My political theory professor, Mika LaVaque-Manty, was able to relate this theory to Harry Potter as he has done with many other aspects of our class. He said that this theory treats college like it is a sorting hat- it will separate people based on their skills and strengths.  A controversial aspect of Menand’s theory is that the content of the classes a student takes is irrelevant, so it does not matter what the students learn just so long as it is challenging.

Boeing and the Washington State Software Alliance are stating that just so long as someone is intelligent and willing to work hard then they are a good candidate for a position in their companies.  This is in direct opposition to Menand’s second and third theories of what college should be. Theory two is focused on knowledge and actually teaching students for the purpose of learning rather than for a job. Theory three is similar but is more focuses more on teaching students only one skill. This theory states that the purpose of college is to teach students a skill that they can then apply to a job later on.

Wall Street, New York City (Via Wikimedia)

This is an example of a real company putting their support behind theory one. Up to this point we have discussed these theories and their meanings, but we have not looked at any concrete examples of them being put to use. In my own experience I have seen other instances in which theory one has been applied.  After I graduate I am looking to go into business- hopefully finance or investment banking.  I have met a lot of people in that field who haven’t majored in finance or economics but rather in history. I can guarantee that Wall Street firms didn’t hire these people because they know a lot about ancient Greece.  These people were hired because of the skills they developed during their time in college- writing concise and “to the point” essays, and being able to read lots of information and pick out the important points. Employers look for these skills, and it doesn’t matter what the person has actually learned, just so long as they have a skill set that fits the job.

After seeing this in my math syllabus I was convinced.  Theory one is definitely the theory I put my support behind because up to this point I have not heard about a company strictly hiring people because they have an education in a relevant field. Just this small omission of a requirement of having a degree in engineering was all I needed to persuade me. It is beginning to seem more and more like employers want people with skills, not with knowledge.  Companies can train and teach employees what they need to know, but it is much harder to teach good writing or communication. The argument can be made that college is not all about getting a job.  But my time here at the University of Michigan will only be four years (hopefully). I need to get a job and make a living for the rest of my life and it seems that an education that follows theory one is the best way to achieve that goal.

Big Hits to the NFL’s Contracts

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

My last blog, War and Hobbes, was about the military and my thoughts on desertion, or leaving one’s post without the intent of returning. One of the last points that I made was that desertion is a cowardly action because soldiers are in the military voluntarily meaning that they understood the implications and consequences of their decision. So once death became a possibility and they decided to bail out they were breaking the rules of their contract. A similar situation is happening in American football today concerning whether or not players understand what they’re getting into when the strap on the helmet.  I am going to prove that a similar anomaly of contract breaking is occurring in the NFL currently as it does in the military.

In order to understand the similarities, one must understand contracts. In my Political Science 101 class, we read Hobbes’ Leviathan. In his book, Hobbes defines contracts and specifically how there must be motivations in place that make it beneficial for both parties to follow through on their end of the deal.  In other words the punishment for not holding up your end has to be pretty bad.

Why the Changes?

Concussions from big hits are becoming an increasing prevalent issue in the NFL (via wikimedia)

Marc Tracy, in his 2013 article, discusses the recent rule changes in the NFL toward a safer style of play. Ball carriers are no longer allowed to lower their helmets into oncoming tacklers, kick offs now take place five yards further downfield to create more touchbacks, and there are more strict rules on how defenders can hit “defenseless” receivers. The reason for the change in rules is not discussed in the article but it is main reason I believe is public opinion and ultimately money.

The NFL settled a lawsuit by former NFL players by agreeing to pay close to $800 million to former players and on concussion diagnose and awareness. The former players claimed that the NFL purposely didn’t inform them about concussion research and the long term impacts which include memory loss, headaches, and possibly dementia.

The point that I am making is that now in professional football the players are educated about the effects of brain injuries yet we still have changes to the rules. We are seeing a shift from traditional, hard nose, black and blue football to a softer more offensively minded league, the purpose of which is to prevent future lawsuits. The players signed up to play a violent game knowingly, but now that game has become less violent.  Like soldiers, they are willingly a giving themselves up to injury or at least they were. And when a soldier leaves and decides he does not want to risk the possibility of death the consequences are severe. But In football today there are no consequences of not risking injury (of course football has not yet gotten to the point of zero injury, yet progress is continually being made towards that point).

In the military when you walk off to avoid death, there is no doubt that you are explicitly breaking your contract.  But a football player has no control over the rules, so can he break his contract if he doesn’t have control?  I believe what we are seeing is an anomaly of the Hobbesian contract.  In a Hobbesian contract whenever one side of a deal isn’t held up for whatever reason there has to be some downside for each side.  But players are now safer and the NFL is making more money than ever.  This gap in Hobbesian philosophy is because of public opinion- the public is rewarding the NFL for forcing its players to be safer because that is what it wants to see.

Injuries are still a very real possibility

Injuries are still a very real possibility

My thoughts then wandered to how Hobbes would feel about this? Would the NFL’s contract truly be a Hobbesian contract or would it still be considered something else? I feel that Hobbes would agree that the NFL player’s contracts fit under the realm of Hobbesian because they still have motivations in place that force them to play.  First of all, injury is still a very real possibility and the only way of mitigating injury, even with today’s rules, is to simply not play.  But if a player chooses to sit out he will not only lose his salary for that game but he will most likely be fined.  He will then probably lose his job.  So yes, although injuries are less frequent, players still must put themselves at risk similar to soldiers in the military.  And like soldiers, if they decide not to participate then the punishment is swift and harsh.

War and Hobbes

“If there be a common power set over them both [parties in a contract], with right and force sufficient to compel performance, the [contract] is not void” – Thomas Hobbes, 17th Century philosopher and author of Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan

This quote from Leviathan is about social contracts and the state of nature as Hobbes sees it. He discusses the promises we make and specifically how when we enter into a contract with another party, there must be motivation to prevent us from breaking the contract.  Most of the time this “motivation” is going to be punishment, which must be worse than the benefit we would gain from breaking the contract.

Another important aspect in Hobbes’ theories are that a state of nature and a state of war are synonymous. It is my belief that no one truly lives in nature anymore.  Sure, there are some tribes in the amazon jungle that could be considered in nature, but in our civilized society, with iPhones, social media and other technologies it is impossible for us to live in nature. So then how can we see Hobbes’ social contracts in work? By looking at war.

There are many similarities between the United States’ military and Hobbes’ Social contract theory but I will only be

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, prisoner of war for five years (via wikimedia)

focusing on the aspect of motivation. It is hard to think about someone being punished in war because it’s almost impossible to top the trauma they’re already experiencing. As I began thinking about punishment I thought about the recent occurrences with Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl was serving in the US army in Afghanistan when walked away from his unit, or went AWOL (absent without leave). In doing so he broke the contract he had with the military, an action that Hobbes would no doubt disprove of.  He was then captured and held by the Taliban for five years. In May, 2014 the United States traded five Taliban members in exchange for Bergdahl. Many believed that the United States shouldn’t have traded for him because he abandoned his post and deserted.  I did some research and found out that desertion during a time of war is a crime punishable by death (although it is mostly handled with persecution).

A person would only go AWOL if they believed they were going to die or be severely wounded, so at first I wondered what the point in killing someone who walked away was.  But then I realized that the military is employing Hobbes’ philosophy that the punishment must force the parties to remain in their contract. So the punishment of death gives a possible deserter two choices 1) a consequence that they understood was a possibility or 2) die as a coward who is putting all the other brave soldiers in jeopardy. Any rational soldier would chose the first option which is exactly how a Hobbesian contract is supposed to work.

(via wikimedia)

I understand that this sounds harsh, but we live in a time where there is no draft.  Every soldier in our army is fighting voluntarily and knows that there are potential consequences of their service.  So once a soldier is actually facing possible death, they cannot back out at the last moment and decide that they would prefer not to fight. Imagine if all soldiers abandoned their post as soon as danger was imminent.

Hobbesian contracts are best exemplified in nature, but seeing as that is something that is nearly impossible to find in today’s world, war is the next best option.

Defying Hobbes’ Rules

Are we all the same? Can we all be clumped into one grouping of altruistic vs selfish or fearful vs confident? There are billions of people in this world and we are all different in some way or another.  So how is it that 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes can get away with stating that just because we are human we have some essential characteristics?  There are so many examples of people who defy Hobbes’ natural laws but I will only touch on a couple.

Example 1: altruistic vs selfish

(from wikimedia.org)

(from wikimedia.org)

In his book Leviathan, Hobbes makes that argument that we are all selfish and fearful. He states that even things that we do that may appear to be selfless and charitable are actually just for our own personal benefit.  In my Political Science 101 class I was learning about barriers to competition and to illustrate his point, my teacher brought in a guest. He name was Suzy and she is an officer in the United States Army having served multiple tours of Afghanistan. During her time she not only had to fight terrorists but also the institutional sexism of the army.  She faced constant harassment from her both her commanding officers and her subordinates.  She pushed on through such adversity to fight for our country and lay her life on the line daily. Still the case can be made that she weathered through such hardship to prove to herself that she is strong enough to take it and bolster her pride, which would be for her own benefit.

But we can look to the military for another counter to Hobbes argument.  Can we really say that those soldiers who were gravely wounded or killed joined the military for their own benefit?  Dying for one’s country or cause is the most selfless action anyone could ever do, there is no denying that. And to assume that those who were killed did so for their own gain and not for the protection of their country is absurd.

Example 2: Fearful vs brave

Hobbes states that we are all fearful; fearful of death, injury or loss. Recently I watched the 30 for 30 documentary, The Birth of Big Air, which chronicles the life and accomplishments of Matt Hoffman, a professional freestyle BMX rider. Matt Hoffman revolutionized the sport of freestyle BMX by inventing new tricks and constructing the largest ramps to date.  Throughout the movie, clips are shown of him crashing, landing on his head or falling in a mangled heap with his bike.  He has suffered over 100 concussions, 20 broken bones, and two comas. Yet throughout all of his injuries he is persistent to return to the sport and keep pushing his limits; this is a man who literally has no fear of pain or death.

I bring up these examples of people who defy Hobbes’ definitions of what make us human to prove that humans can’t all be grouped together. We are not all scared and we are not all selfish, some are more courageous than others and some are more philanthropic.  But it is unfair to say that all humans, across all cultures and times, possess the same traits.

Hobbes is right to certain extent, we all have fear and are all selfish; even Suzy and Matt Hoffman.  But the same could be said the other way around, every human has bravery and altruism. It may be the case that in most us our fear and selfishness are the characteristics that are most prevalent in our daily lives but to say that that is the only characteristic that people possess simply is untrue.