(Professor Jerry K. Fisher of Macalester College passed away on May 7. He was not only my undergraduate adviser, but also the person who first introduced me to Japan and in many other ways acted as my role model. Below is an edited version of remarks I made at a June 22 memorial service at Macalester’s Weyerhauser Chapel.)
I’m honored to speak today as one of the hundreds of students who studied with Jerry over the years. I have a theory that there are three kinds of professors: those who make their mark through their scholarship, those who make their mark as administrators, and those who make their mark through the students they teach—we know them through their students. (Of course, there’s a fourth category, too: professors who never make any mark whatsoever. That’s the category I’ve set my own eyes on). I think Jerry was very much a member of the third category, the kind of professor who devotes himself to his students.
Jerry was a Macalester alum, class of 1958. He then returned to Macalester to teach in 1969, teaching first in the History Department and later in Media and Cultural Studies as well. He earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia in 1975 with a dissertation on the Meirokusha group. Jerry also earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in 1964. His Christian faith was an important component of his make-up as a scholar and teacher.
I first studied with Jerry in 1979, my freshman year at Mac. To be honest, he wasn’t always the most spell-binding of classroom lecturers, but he was remarkably able at engaging students in dialogue. This in part represented the influence of the Japanese philosopher and educator Hayashi Takeji (林竹二, 1906-1985), who was one of Jerry’s intellectual mentors. Hayashi was the first president of Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, where Jerry spent time as a visiting professor. Hayashi was famous for engaging students of all ages in Socratic dialogue. Like nearly every Japanese university in the late 1960s, Miyagi University of Education was occupied by its students, who barricaded and shut down the campus to protest government policies. But unlike virtually every other Japanese university president, Hayashi did not call in the riot police to clear the students out by force. Instead, he went behind the barricades and personally engaged the students in a dialogue that extended for days. As a result, the protest reached a peaceful conclusion. The lesson was not lost on Jerry.
Jerry’s greatest impact as a teacher came from the personal mentoring he did outside the classroom. He made a practice of intervening in students’ lives, pointing them down roads that they hadn’t even known existed. Jerry practically adopted some of his students. I have a friend who never studied with Jerry but who knows personally several of these students who Jerry seemingly adopted: my friend calls this group “Jerry’s kids.” With apologies to Andy and Cynthia, Jerry’s real kids, and to Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, let me tell you what it was like to be one of Jerry’s kids.
During my first year and a half at Mac, I took a couple of classes with Jerry. Then I dropped out of school for a few years. When I returned to Mac in 1983 I found myself in his classroom again. I still didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with myself. That’s when Jerry made his first intervention in my life. In late 1983, he phoned me to inform me that I was going to spend the 1984-85 academic year as an exchange student in Japan. Macalester had an exchange agreement with Miyagi University of Education. It included one fellowship for a Mac student to come to Sendai every year, and that year no one had applied for it. So Jerry told me to apply for it, and having no better ideas myself, I did. Before that it never would have occurred to me to go to Japan. In fact, my real interest was in China, and the main reason I accepted the idea of going to Japan was that it was close to China. I figured if Jerry could get me 6,000 miles across the Pacific to Japan, I ought to be able to manage the remaining few hundred miles and get to China on my own.
I started my year in Sendai in September 1984 and somehow I got stuck in Japan, the way I think Jerry knew I would. I never made it to China—in fact, it took thirty more years before I finally managed to get to China. I spent that year in Sendai and had the amazing experience that Jerry knew I would have. One of the things that happened that year was that I met Hinata Yasushi (日向康, 1925-2006). Hinata was a novelist and scholar, another disciple of Hayashi Takeji, and Jerry’s best friend in the world. Hinata would become one of my own intellectual mentors. Another thing that happened that year was that I met Ogura Satoko, who a few years later would become my wife.
In other words, thanks to Jerry’s intervention that year, I acquired not only my lifelong interest in Japanese culture and history, but also the most important parts of my personal life. But Jerry wasn’t done with me yet.
His second intervention in my life came in late 1986. After I graduated from Mac, I was working at a store that specialized in making gourmet popcorn in dozens of different flavors. That should give you some idea of the career I was bound for if left to my own devices. Jerry called me up and told me I was going to Japan again. His work as a consultant on Asian business for Hubbard Broadcasting had reached a level where he needed a full-time assistant based in Tokyo to serve as a liaison with Hubbard’s Japanese business partners. He wanted me to do it. It certainly beat making popcorn for a living.
And so in January 1987 I headed back to Japan and worked there for two-and-a-half years, with Jerry as my boss. I lived in an apartment in the western suburbs of Tokyo, a ten-minute walk away from the house Jerry and Aiko owned there. It was an amazing time for me. I learned what it was like to be a salaryman in Tokyo. I also got to meet more of Jerry’s intellectual colleagues: the journalists, scholars, and activists that formed his personal network in Japan. The financial stability of the job also allowed me in 1988 to get married to Satoko, right here in Weyerhauser Chapel, with Jerry and Aiko in attendance.
The third major intervention Jerry made in my life came in 1989. I did my best working for Hubbard Broadcasting, but I think it was clear to all that I wasn’t meant for the business world. Jerry told me it was time for me to go to graduate school. I asked him where I should apply, and he told me Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Minnesota. I applied to the Japanese literature program at all three schools. Jerry wrote letters of recommendation for me, of course, but I later learned that he also personally contacted professors he knew at all three schools and lobbied them not only to accept me, but also to offer me a major fellowship. The outcome was that I received fellowship offers from all three schools. I ended up going to Cornell. In 1996 I finished my Ph.D. there and became an assistant professor at UCLA. In 2007, I moved to the University of Chicago, where today I am Professor of Japanese Literature.
So you see, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I owe my life to Jerry. My wife, my children, my career, my interest in Japanese culture: none of it would exist had he not intervened on several occasions to set me on the right path. This is what it was like to be one of Jerry’s kids. I think there are dozens of other people, former students of Jerry’s, who could tell you similar tales. In his devotion to his students, Jerry was exceptional. Once, when I asked him how I could possibly repay him for all he had done for me, Jerry said I could do so by helping my own students in turn. I try to do that, but Jerry set the bar awfully high.
The last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of helping Jerry’s family go through his personal library, to try to find good homes for the many books he accumulated over the years. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to retrace the trajectory of Jerry’s intellectual life. And I’ve been reminded of some of the key principles that motivated him as a scholar and teacher.
Jerry specialized in the intellectual history of modern Japan, and later in the new field of global media studies. But I think he was particularly concerned with what we might call the ethics of scholarship, the way our classroom teaching and book knowledge intersect with the real world, with how scholars can contribute to the cause of social justice and help produce a better world. Among his publications, I think he was proudest of those that appeared in venues like the Asahi Journal, aimed at a general readership in Japan.
To be a scholar of Asian Studies in the 1960s meant confronting directly the role that scholarship played in supporting the Vietnam War. Like others of his generation, including his good friend John Dower, Jerry wasn’t afraid to confront famous scholars at Ivy League powerhouses when they spoke dishonestly or disingenuously about Asian culture and history in order to legitimate what Jerry thought were indefensible policies. Even as a vulnerable graduate student, Jerry publicly took on Edwin Reischauer, Harvard University Professor and at the time U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
In part, this was driven by the training Jerry received at Union Theological Seminary, where he studied the thought of theologian Reinhold Niehbur. Jerry was especially attracted to Niehbur’s 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, with its argument that we can never expect institutions to act in accord with a sense of morality, that only individual humans can act morally.
Another way Jerry practiced this ethics of scholarship was in his engagement with Japanese intellectuals. Japan Studies scholars from North America during the 1960s and 70s too often tended to look down on or ignore their counterparts in Japan. But from the start, Jerry was unusual in this regard: he actively sought out opportunities to engage with Japanese scholars like Hayashi Takeji or Hinata Yasushi, meeting them on their own ground by speaking, reading, and writing in Japanese. Jerry also insisted that his own students do likewise.
Let me conclude by quoting a passage from a 1986 article that Jerry published the year after Hayashi Takeji died. The piece is titled “Hayashi Takeji and Tanaka Shōzō.” It explores Hayashi’s role in the 1960s rediscovery of Tanaka Shōzō (田中正造, 1841-1913), an early 20th century environmental activist and philosopher. This is what Jerry wrote:
Hayashi believed that contemporary Japanese had much to learn from Tanaka Shōzō. For one, membership in an intimate group which is just and caring is of central value to humans. Secondly, other larger structures and institutions are of only relative importance. Indeed, their value and importance is measured in relation to their support of the primary group. Finally, an individual has a cosmic imperative to act upon what he knows to be morally right. Only then is he or she human. (Waseda Journal of Asian Studies, 8 , 1-13)
Jerry Fisher was fully and gloriously human. My sympathy and condolences to Aiko, Andy, Cynthia, and their families.
I’ve just learned from the Tokyo Shinbun that Ito Emi, one of the twin sisters known as The Peanuts (ザ・ピーナッツ), has passed away. She was 71 years old. The Peanuts debuted in 1959 with “Cute Flower” (Kawaii Hana), launching a string of pop hits built on the sisters’ vocal harmonies that carried them through their retirement in 1975. Many of their songs contain an international flavor, such as “Coffee Rhumba” (1962), their cover version of “Moliendo Café”:
Their signature number was undoubtedly “Vacation of Love” (Koi no bakansu, 1963):
The Peanuts were also an omnipresent on Japanese television in the 1960s. They made numerous appearance in the U.S. and Europe, as well. Readers might recall their rather odd recurring role as miniature fairies in the Mothra monster movies.
The Peanuts’ music holds up remarkably well today: terrific harmonies, attractive arrangements, and excellent choice of material. I thought about including a chapter on them in my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, but in the end ran out of time. Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing about them: they are essential figures in the history of Japanese popular music.
RIP, Ito Emi.
UPDATE: A friend has sent along a link to this wonderful clip, a collection of scenes from “Shabondama Holiday” (Soap Bubble Holiday), the 1960s tv show that featured The Peanuts.
My father was raised in Minnesota during the 1940s and 50s. This predated the rediscovery of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so Sinclair Lewis, winner of the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature, was the celebrated hometown author. I remember visiting Lewis’s boyhood home in Sauk Centre during a family vacation in the late 1960s and I can vividly picture the squat pocket-sized editions of Lewis’s novels in Dad’s bookshelf: Babbit, Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers….
I read them all as a teenager. I was particularly struck then by Dodsworth (1929). It was likely the very first rendition of the jaded-American-reawakens-in-Europe plot I ever encountered, and it seemed quite brilliant to me at the time.
Sinclair Lewis’s stock has fallen considerably in the last few decades. It had been many years since I read him, but this summer I picked up (more precisely, downloaded) a copy of Dodsworth. I returned to it after this long absence with a sense of curiosity: would it still speak to me as powerfully as it did when I was sixteen?
The answer: yes. The novel feels dated in places. There is a misogynistic tinge to the portrayal of Fran, Dodsworth’s narcissistic wife, and there is some gay-bashing and some discomfiting ethnic stereotypes–though not as cringe-inspiring as in many other works from the period.
But the novel also includes much deft, sly writing–not something I usually associate with Lewis. Here is his description of Sam Dodsworth’s first encounter with the woman who will become his wife, at a party in 1903:
If she was an angel, the girl at whom Sam was pointing, she was an angel of ice: slim, shining, ash-blonde, her self-possessed voice very cool as she parried the complimentary teasing of half a dozen admirers; a crystal candle-stick of a girl among black-and-white lumps of males.
What really strikes me, though, is Lewis’s portrayal of his hero Dodsworth, a type of man that Lewis must have despised.
Samuel Dodsworth was, perfectly, the American Captain of Industry, believing in the Republican Party, high tariff, and so long as they did not annoy him personally, in prohibition and the Episcopal Church. He was the president of the Revelation Motor Company; he was a millionaire, though decidedly not a multimillionaire; his large house was on Ridge Crest, the most fashionable street in Zenith; he had some taste in etchings; he did not split many infinitives; and he sometimes enjoyed Beethoven. He would certainly (so the observer assumed) produce excellent motor cars; he would make impressive speeches to the salesmen; but he would never love passionately, lose tragically, nor sit in contented idleness upon tropic shores.
The verb “to bully” appears repeatedly in the novel, usually with Dodsworth as its subject. We follow this unpromising personality, who “was extremely well trained, from his first days in Zenith High School, in not letting himself do anything so destructive as abstract thinking,” as he loses his position after selling his company and as he confronts his own utter loss of identity: “He had no longer the dignity of a craftsman. He made nothing; he meant nothing; he was no longer Samuel Dodsworth, but merely part of a crowd vigorously pushing one another toward nowhere.”
We plumb the depths with Dodsworth and experience the despair of his middle-age crisis. We watch his marriage disintegrate. But then we gradually float back to the surface with him, as he reawakens to the joy and possibilities of life, thanks in large measure to the “contented idleness” he enjoys during a sojourn amidst the humane culture and earthy landscape of Naples. Lewis depicts Dodsworth’s decline and rise with remarkable sympathy, complexity, and good humor. We can’t help but like this Dodsworth, for all his bullheaded dundering.
It is a novel, finally, about a bully’s redemption. How many of those do we have?
Happy New Year to you! Here’s hoping 2012 brings us all peace and joy.
As the traumatic year 2011 wound down in Japan, there were any number of notable music events. Rock veterans Moonriders ended their thirty-five year run with a rooftop concert in Shinjuku, holding the Beatles’ legendary “Let It Be” rooftop performance in London very much in mind. Leader Suzuki Keiichi even ended the set by asking, ala John Lennon, if the group had passed the audition. Here’s a nice Japanese-language report, complete with photographs, from the Asahi newspaper.
As always, we welcomed in the new year by watching NHK’s annual musical extravaganza, “Kohaku Uta Gassen.” Among the highlights in my mind were Shiina Ringo’s set (“Carnation” and “Onna no ko wa dare demo”); the borderline political remarks by the all-star indies rock combo Inawashirokos, who before performing their “I Love You & I Need You Fukushima” declared that “nothing is finished yet,” obliquely referring to Prime Minister Noda’s mendacious declaration a couple of weeks earlier that the nuclear disaster was now under control; and Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi’s chilling performance in a live remote from the playground of a devastated school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Tendo Yoshimi turned in a nice Misora Hibari tribute, as well, while the K-Pop representatives (KARA and Shojo Jidai) acquitted themselves nicely. Lady Gaga contributed video of a nifty performance from New York. Here’s the full line-up of performers from the show.
Over the break, we were also able to watch the DVD I picked up in Sendai last month of Kuwata Keisuke’s remarkable September 10 and 11 concerts in Sendai. The shows were held in the Sekisui Heim Super Arena–a facility that served for several months as an emergency morgue for victims of the March 11 tsunami. Kuwata chose to come to Tohoku to launch his first national tour since receiving cancer treatment, and it is clear from the DVD that the concerts were cathartic experiences for both performers and audience. Proceeds from the DVD will be donated to the Japan Red Cross.
Let me leave you with the promotional video for Inawashirokos’s charity single, “I Love You & I Need Your Fukushima,” featuring 47 famous actors and actresses (one from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures) singing along with the band in a message of support for the stricken prefecture. What a year it was….
It’s time to move on, methinks. I’ve been doing this blog in one form or another for nearly seven years. It is possible, of course, that I’ll resume blogging at some point in the future, but for now it’s time to try other pastures.
The original appeal to me in blogging was the opportunity to engage in the pleasures of purposefully purposeless writing–to string together and polish up sentences for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. Putting the results out there in public brought a measure of discipline to the proceedings: it made me want to write as well as I could do. I’ll still engage in the playful stringing of words together, but it will be in other sorts of venues.
I don’t much like Twitter (@sayonaraamerika), since their 140 character limit doesn’t allow for much in the way of creative composition. But I’ll still use that account to announce new publications, etc., if you want to keep track of what I’m up to. I’ll also still maintain my homepage (www.bourdaghs.com).
I’ll keep the existing blog contents on-line for a few more weeks. Then, at some mysterious moment early in 2011, they will disappear from the Internet. My sincere thanks to all who have stopped by to read this over the years. I hope our paths cross again in other realms.
I’m feeling gorged in contemporary music that eschews the guitar. There is, for starters, the brilliant British charity holiday single by “Cage Against the Machine,” an all-star assemblage of performers gathered in one studio to record an epic cover version of John Cage’s 4’33” (you know, the one that is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence). It’s all designed to derail the evil Simon Cowell’s vice-grip on the annual competition to top the UK pop charts at Yuletide. It’s been quite successful, and now the inevitable remix versions are available, too. The Guardian has the story here.
Then there is “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” a great new track by Chicago hiphop diva Kid Sister. Scheduled for official release early next year, the song’s been leaked and is available all over the Internet now — including here. Not a guitar in sight: voices, percussion (most of it seemingly synthetic), and a few electronic effects are all you need to produce a very catchy piece of music.
Finally, there are the Agitators, a new band that is emerging as one of the musical voices of the ongoing British student rebellion. They’ve released a couple of singles and have appeared live at several campus protests. The Guardian has a nice feature on the band, which boasts a strict “no guitars” policy. Three voices and drums, and that’s it. “A new kind of music, nothing more than banging, stamping, clapping and voices,” they declare, “something anyone could do anywhere – on a march, at a protest, on the barricades.”
I pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday,
Then I get on my knees and pray,
We won’t get fooled again.
We’re tired of doin’ nothing,
Let’s start marching
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ now-classic 2003 portrait of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. A decade ago Beane led the statistical revolution in contemporary Major League baseball, using computers, the Internet, and statistics to identify sources of talent that were undervalued by traditional baseball wisdom (meaning, primarily, the collective wisdom of scouts) and thereby helping the A’s to consistently field teams that were competitive despite low payrolls.
Beane clearly is a terrific general manager, and the book on the whole offers a good read. But there is also something troubling about it, something I’ll try to put my finger on here. The book identifies Bill James as the heroic pioneer of the new knowledge that Beane exploited, but it seems to me there is a decisive difference between James’ approach to the game and that of Beane and Lewis–a qualitative change in the nature of our enjoyment of baseball. For James in his classic Baseball Abstracts from the 1980s (I was an avid reader from 1983 on), statistics were a tool for identifying more precisely what made Joe Morgan or George Brett such invaluable figures: his focus was on the marvelous skills that major leaguers brandish on the field.
James was interested in fun, while Lewis’ Beane is interested in power–and I don’t mean slugging average. For Beane and Lewis, statistics are weapons to shift power to the general manager. In their version of baseball, the heroes no longer wear spikes on the diamond; instead, they wear cuff links in the front office. You see this new focus in the explosive popularity of fantasy baseball games (which I enjoy as much as anyone), in which participants take pleasure in imagining themselves not as the batter at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, but rather as a general manager trying to cobble together the best possible roster on a limited budget. The language used in recent editions of Baseball Prospectus (the annual publication that has largely replaced James’ Abstracts) reflects this: veteran players are perceived as suspect malingerers who want only to eat up too much salary.
In Moneyball, this shift is rendered explicit. Lewis quotes A’s executive Sandy Alderson, the man who hired Beane as GM, as saying “What Billy figured out at some point…is that he wanted to be me more than he wanted to be Jose Canseco.” Alderson, according to Lewis, wanted to “concentrate unprecedented powers in the hands of a general manager,” a stance Lewis describes as “rational.” It requires (in Alderson’s words) shedding “player-type prejudices” (pp. 62-63).
This isn’t just a question limited to baseball, I think. Moneyball crystallizes the celebration of what is sometimes called managerial science, a new branch of knowledge. Again, Lewis is explicit on this: the revolution he describes
…set the table for geeks to rush in and take over the general management of the game. Everywhere one turned in competitive markets, technology was offering the people who understood it an edge. What was happening to capitalism should have happened to baseball: the technical man with his analytical magic should have risen to prominence in in baseball management, just as he was rising to prominence on, say, Wall Street. (p. 88)
The essence: an outsider comes in and radically devalues the forms of specialized knowledge accrued by veteran insiders, reshuffles the deck, and thereby improves the bottom line.
Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that this sometimes works. An outsider’s perspective often provides a valuable rethinking of the way things are done in a given field. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in history arose when someone crossed a boundary and transported knowledge developed in one sphere and applied it in a novel manner in a foreign discipline or field.
It can also, however, lead to disaster. The trainwreck that is the Chicago Tribune arriving on my doorstep each morning provides ample evidence of that. Non-journalist managers have destroyed the paper (and the even better Los Angeles Times) by focusing on their outsider’s version of “the bottom line.” George W. Bush, the “Decider,” is another exemplar and proponent of this version of managerial science. Disasters such as the Iraq War, the Katrina bungle, and the banking meltdown are in large measure products of this version of managerial science. Still to come: radical climate change. In each case, the knowledge accrued by specialized experts over decades was disregarded by managers. We increasingly see this same tendency in education at all levels in the U.S.: managers are brought in from outside to improve “the bottom line,” and they proceed by radically devaluing the knowledge produced within the field over decades.
Often, the error comes in the assumption that the new manager knows better than anyone else what the bottom line is. The bottom line for a baseball fan is, I think, enjoyment. The new approach Lewis champions provides its version of enjoyment, but at the expense of other kinds. In sum, the increasing stress on the power of quantitative knowledge is producing a qualitative change in our experience of the game. We see this change in fans, I think: the quality of watching a game at Wrigley Field today is quite different from what it was when I first visited the park in 1984, and the changes has little to do with the lights (another brilliant “innovation” courtesy of the Chicago Tribune Corporation). In 1984 the thought of booing the Cubs was absurd; it is a regular occurrence nowadays.
This also relates to the increasing dominance of the financial sector in our world. Again, Lewis is quite explicit on this. He describes Beane’s sense of triumph when he acquired Nick Swisher in the 2002 amateur draft:
There’s a new thrust about him, an unabridged expression on his face. He was a bond trader, who had made a killing in the morning and entered the afternoon free of fear. Feeling greedy. Certain that the fear in the market would present him with even more opportunities to exploit….Like any good bond trader, he loves making decisions. The quicker the better. (p. 113)
Again we see a new species of hero being manufactured here, one with an “unabridged expression on his face,” whatever the hell that means. Other kinds of heroes are, of course, being displaced: the “fat scout,” for example, who is driven away with his outmoded knowledge (p. 118).
What’s striking in Moneyball is that the book unconsciously presents a counterargument to its own thesis. Billy Beane’s rise as a general manager is in fact due to the experience he acquired as a (largely failed) major league prospect. The book narrates this as a prime instance of the failings of the “old” knowledge it aims to devalue, but it is Beane’s experience on the field that opened his eyes to the value of certain statistics. The book downplays the ways in which Beane’s knowledge is acquired the old-fashioned way: through hard work on the baseball diamond and the acquisition of “player-type biases.” He wasn’t just a geek with a computer.
The value of so-called managerial science is the opportunity it provides to recognize the limits of existing forms of knowledge. Its disasters come likewise when it fails to recognize the existence of its own limits. Sometimes, the “bottom line” isn’t as clear cut as Lewis and his ilk believe. It’s often more enjoyable to be a fan of a losing team than it is to cheer on a championship club. Why? Because it’s fun.
[Postscript (2 December 2010): I’ve now read a bit more of the book, and the early hints at giddy celebration of finance capitalism have grown even more explicit. It’s almost quaint today to read passages such as the following, celebrating the scientific overcoming of risk by the managerial wizards who invented arcane derivatives: “The fantastic sums of money hauled in by the sophisticated traders transformed the culture on Wall Street, and made quantitative analysis, as opposed to gut feel, the respectable way to go about making bets in the market. The chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities was to price risk more accurately, and distribute it more efficiently, than ever before in the long, risk-obsessed history of financial man” (p. 130) That old “fat scout” sounds better and better with each page I read….]
I’m now reading a book I’ve been curious about for more than a decade, Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. I’m up to the chapter on John Dewey now and was interested to learn the history of the University of Chicago Lab School, where my son graduated from high school last year and where my daughter still goes today. We’re justly proud of the school, and we love to point out that it was founded by the great educational philosopher Dewey as part of his mission to transform philosophy into a form of radical democratic practice.
From West’s fine book, I also learned the part of the story that usually gets left out when it gets related here in Hyde Park:
Unfortunately, Dewey himself failed to articulate a plan for social reform to which his progressive schools could specifically contribute. He was aware that schools by themselves could not bear the weight of a full-fledged reform of society; yet he also knew that the schools themselves were ideologically contested terrain, always worth fighting for and over. And in 1904 Dewey’s school came to an end after a series of mergers and the subtle dismissal of Dewey’s wife from its principalship by University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper. Dewey immediately resigned from the university. Luckily, Columbia University moved quickly and financed a new chair in philosophy for him. And the luck was American pragmatism’s too, for it was in New York City, and maybe it had to be there, that Dewey emerged as a world-historical figure. (p. 85)
For the most part, I accept the thesis — argued, for example, by Nicholas Carr (thanks for the link, Linda) — that the Internet is making us all stupid and asocial. On my visit to Japan a couple of months ago, a friend put her finger precisely on why reading text on a computer screen is less satisfying than reading a book: when we pursue virtual reading, we enter into the same mental frame as when we watch television.
And yet, and yet…. This afternoon in my office on campus, I took a break from stultifying end-of-the-year administrative work to watch the second half of the Uruguay-France World Cup match being streamed live by ESPN. A so-so game (Uruguay’s defense was the highlight, and you know how exciting defensive soccer can be), I was still thrilled to be watching it in my office, thanks to the Internet.
The first World Cup I followed was in 1978, well before the rise of the Internet or even cable television. As I recall, that year only the final championship game was shown on American television–and at a taped delay, at that. During the 1982 tournament, I was luckier: I was doing the backpack-through-Europe thing and watched games at pubs, youth hostels and train stations across the continent. I was in Frankfort staying with cousins for the final match between Italy and West Germany, and I remember all the Gastarbeiter waiters and janitors from Italy exploding onto the streets of Frankfort to celebrate their team’s win–and to rub it in the faces of their employers.
In subsequent tournaments, cable television kicked in, giving us futbol-ignorant Americans better and better access each time around. Now we get it streamed live over the Internet so that we can watch it in the office, on trains, in coffee shops.
Perhaps not all change is completely bad. Maybe stupidity and alienation are a small price to pay. I’ll have to mull on those thoughts a while longer, if my Internet-addled brain can hold the problem in focus long enough. In the meanwhile, I’ll be setting my alarm clock to get up early tomorrow morning to watch South Korea play Greece, followed by the U.S. taking on England for the first time since the great 1950 upset match, still the greatest moment in American soccer history.
There was an amusing editorial cartoon in the Chicago Tribune this past weekend by Scott Stantis. A mother sits at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper, and announces to her two children that the Post Office might stop delivering letters on Saturday. Her son, busy at his laptop, asks, “What’s a letter?” Her daughter, texting on her cellphone, tops this by asking, “What’s a newspaper?”
The state of the newspaper industry in Japan isn’t quite so grim as in America, but the numbers are still tumbling. The hard-right Sankei newspaper is taking the biggest hit, report Peter Alford and David McNeill in a very interesting article up this week at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Daily circulation figures for Japan’s major newspapers still dwarf those in other countries.
Slowly, however, the gravity-defying circulations appear to be heading for earth. ABC statistics on the main morning-edition circulation for 2006 to 2009 show that every Japanese newspaper recorded a loss of sales, except the business-oriented Nikkei. In relative terms, the declines are tiny: the world’s best-selling newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri is down from 10,042,075 to 10,018,117; the liberal-left Asahi from 8,093,885 to 8,031,579; the liberal Mainichi has taken a more substantial hit, from just under 4 million to 3.8 million. The Nikkei is up slightly from 3,034,481 to 3,052,929. Perhaps more indicative, and worrying, for the industry is the sharp drop in advertising revenues: from one trillion yen in 2007 to an estimated 600 billion in 2009, a year in which online advertisements continued to grow.
Those same newspapers are reporting just now (so far Japanese-language only, but I’m sure the English papers will be carrying this in a few hours) that film director Kitano Takeshi has just been awarded France’s highest cultural honor. This all coincides with a film festival and art show in Paris featuring his works.