Friday, October 30, 2015

Defining terms and battling assumptions

Beginning an Investigation
Defining Terms and Concepts by Asking Questions
            One very important skill honed in humanities courses is how to ask probing questions (Investigation).  Asking questions serves to clarify the meanings of terms and concepts which are shared by you and your audience, whether you work in a lab, law office, corporate environment, retail, school, band, etc.  In depth questions and responses are essential for analysis and strategic planning. It is really useful everywhere.
When beginning your investigation, Do not take any term, word or phrase at face value, and Do not assume that your audience necessarily shares your intrinsic understanding of that term and its related concept.
For the most part, many of the terms used in our own sub-culture carry meaning which we do not feel necessary to define. We are able to cruise through life and conversation utilizing words, phrases, cliches without giving them a second thought.  The people in our immediate family, social circle, and subculture share our interpretation of these ideas.  The moment we begin to converse .with those outside our immediate sphere of social interaction, we need to be more careful with our use of language if we are to be understood.  Each group has a specialized understanding of words and concepts.  Often the same word carries multiple meanings.
It is this very real language phenomenon which makes “literal interpretation” impossible.  It is however a great demonstration of the humor found in satire and puns.  One must of course understand the cultural usage of the word, phrase or idiom to understand the meaning.
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So lets try an example:  How would you define The Green Bay Packers
We could say, “They suck!, "They have rabid fans”, "Cheeseheads!" while these may be a useful subjective sentiments in understanding a certain sub-cultural emotional perspective, it doesn’t really serve as a useful objective definition.

Just as we often find that people have emotional responses to music (e.g. "Its relaxing", "Its upbeat" ,"It makes me feel like dancing." etc.), we need to find a way to get past those initial sentiments in order to describe musical events objectively in order to have fully meaningful discussions.
So lets try to define in measurable terms what the Green Bay Packers are as if we had to explain it to  someone who knows nothing about them.  We do this by asking questions ourselves to discover what is really necessary to know.
Q: What are The Green Bay Packers?
A: The Green Bay Packers are a sports team.
Q: Do they play against the Yankees?
A: No, the Yankees play baseball.  The Green Bay Packers are a Football team.
Q: Have any of their players played in the World Cup?
A: No, the World Cup is for soccer teams (called football teams everywhere else in the world).  The Green Bay Packers play American Football.
Q: Oh yeah, you mean like the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Do they ever play each other?
A: No, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are a college team.  The Green Bay Packers are a professional American Football team.  There are 32 professional teams.  These teams are divided into two conferences of 16 teams, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference).  Each conference is further subdivided into 4 divisions, North, East, South and West. After the regular season the winners of each division (plus two of the higher performing teams within the division (termed Wild Card teams) goes on to play for the conference championship in a round of play-offs.  The Champion of each Conference then goes on to play for the NFL Championship in a game called the “Super Bowl.”  The Green Bay Packers are a professional American Football team in the National Football Conference, North Division of the National Football League and are the most recent Super Bowl Champions.
Q: North Division, NFC – got it, so where exactly is Green Bay.
A: Green Bay is located on the western shore of Lake Michigan in the state of Wisconsin.
Q: How close is Lake Michigan to Lake Tahoe?
A: Not even.  Lake Michigan is one of the 5 Great LakesWisconsin is a Great Lakes state north central United States bordered by Lake Superior and the Upper Peninsula of Lake Michigan on the north, Lake Michigan on the east and the St. Croix river on the west.
Q: Can they use their hands? Can they touch other players? How many people on a team? How many on the field at one time? etc.
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As you can see one can get really get down to specifics when asking probing questions. In fact in the span of 10 minutes I have written about one page of essay worthy material by describing something I already know through question and answer. And I haven’t even gotten into discussing, venues, how the game is played, positions on the team, fans, merchandising advertising, its relationship to the rest of American culture etc.
This technique is easily applied to your studies in the book. i.e.
Q: What is a kidi?
A: A kidi is a drum
Q: Like a snare drum in an American rock band?

A: No it is an African drum.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Un-examined Life, Diversity, and the Classical Model

As a college music educator who guides students meeting the expectations of college life, each class presents unique challenges. Not only is there diversity in learning and working styles, but there exists differences in economic and educational privilege as well as distinctions between global, rural, and urban cultures.  I use the Classical Model in my classes to conduct a practical laboratory for civic engagement. In one brief example, most people have an emotional connection to the music they value.  Music analysis is a near perfect vehicle for distinguishing these tastes and presuppositions from the objective musical elements that can be identified (Grammar) and measured (Logic). Equipped with these tools, students discuss their perspectives openly. They learn to articulate how that music persuades (Rhetoric) their emotions, sharing their experiences to produce a clearer understanding of each other through common meaning of descriptive musical elements.  This method hones the transferable skills of analysis, listening, civil dialogue, and serves as a means to engage those with other cultural perspectives.

The issue faced by many of us in higher education is the increasing number of students who require remediation in the varied perspectives of human experience: world history, literature, fine arts, and science. This makes the insights from the example above difficult for students who arrive with a limited knowledge base. What excites me about Classical Education is the dedication in preparing students with a rich foundation to begin fearless investigation into the unknown.

At Nova, we have adopted Seneca's motto 'We Learn not for School but for Life.'   As an extension of Socrates' maxim, 'The un-examined life is not worth living' it encapsulates the Classical spirit of continuous self-evaluation and our connection to nature.   Our Great Hall visually reinforces this spirit.  Students are greeted by the banners of Plato's Cardinal Virtues. Raphael's fresco, "The School of Athens" adorns the stair wall.  This work depicts a nearly 2,000 year long conversation between men and women. In the lower left we see Pythagoras discussing the early science of Music. Above him are influential scholars like Hypatia and Averroes. In the lower right, we would see Euclid on Geometry and Ptolemy on the Cosmos.  At the center, Science and Virtue walk hand in hand in the form of Plato with his "Timeaus" and Aristotle holding "Ethics."

In the 500 years since this work was created, our examinations have become enriched by discoveries revealed through the Scientific Method.  Coupled with the rise of democracy and the recent exponential growth in primary historical sources through digital media, peer-reviewed scholarship today has a more reliable means to evaluate the evidence which constitutes the basis of shared knowledge.  The Classical spirit of Socrates quest yet remains: promoting inquiry into the nature of our motivations as we interact with each other and the practical world.