Friday, September 24, 2010

Physical Education and Democratic Virtue

I thought this was a nice article on education in America as well as on the way to approach problems in a democracy. One of the thing that bothers me most about the current political scene is its strange radicalism. You have middle class folks who are enmeshed in all of these various systems, none of which are perfect but all of which are at the very least functioning--some of them functioning quite well--and the most complex criticism that folks have is that the system must be absolutely broken and has to be radically reformed.

This way of thinking leads to the two primary vices of our political discourse: ideological blindness and naive utopianism. It's behind the push from the right to undermine government as such, the attacks on taxation as such or any idea that smacks of social concern. It's behind radicalism on the left that boils all objections down to greed, racism or class conflict. These bankrupt forms of political discourse are grounded, uncannily, in the most moderate forms of life: the middle class folks who are living fairly well, saving some money, working a job, more or less carrying out an ordinary life in, historically speaking, an extraordinary social scene: a democratic country.

How to account for the emergence of a radical political discourse among the benign form of life that makes up the majority of 21st century living in America? I have my theories. We're not so well built for banality. We need war and sacrifice and all that. So, the best way to get it is to watch it on the TV screen, get it vicariously through the popular theatre of political campaign. Yeah, we need that art. The political theater: a way to release the sour aggression of banal life. However, so long as politics remains theater, it will serve a mere psychological function--not a political one.

Ideological blindness and naive utopianism are vicious because they are impediments to thinking through difficult issues where multiple conflicting values are at stake. Living in a democracy requires understanding that my view, the way I see things, the way I would like the world to be, has to coexist with a variety of other views that are in direct tension with what I want. That's what it means to live in a democracy, and it is from this position that political discussion begins and ends. (Here I show my cards as a militant moderate; others will say, for example, that political discussion ought to begin and end with a strict and literal interpretation of the founding documents or that it ought to begin and end with a discussion of the racism and coloniality embedded in the American experiment, etc. etc.--pluralism will always rear its head.)

Ideological blindness denies the deep pluralism that is the hallmark of a democratic social scene: it claims to know the truth, absolutely, and pretends not to see that there are multiple world views that are internally consistent and yet fundamentally at odds with other points of view.

Naive utopianism also denies the pluralism of democratic life because it imagines a single form of life as "American" (say, the white middle class from the '50s or a kind of Jeffersonian agrarianism or a cowboy rugged individualism or Berkeleyan multiculturalism) as being the form of life that everyone is striving for, then pretends that the problem of politics is that no one else is working towards that ideal. The reality for most people is simply that, as the Talking Heads sing, "I wouldn't live there, if you paid me."


These two vices lead to a kind of "crisis" form of politics--a paranoid revolutionary politics intent on discovering the conspiracy behind the reasons why one particular agenda is not being carried forward. There must be an enemy keeping me from my utopia: it can't just be the fact that other people don't want to live there! Why don't other people agree with my ideas: they must be insane or have a mental disorder! And so, to go back to the article, you get teachers unions vs. reformers. Or KIPP schools vs. plain old public schools. Or elite liberal arts schools vs. public state schools. In other words, we find comfort in the same old battles: you get war, not problem solving.

Democratic problem solving requires coalition and compromise. It means tweaking, regulating, relaxing. It takes imagination, critical imagination. It is slow, and you never get everything you want. in short, it demands growing up, being an adult, realizing briefly and sporadically that you are one of many, not quite the center of the universe. That's what it's going to take to solve all of the real problems that you mention. Not just anger, more than that. Maybe that's my own naive utopia, my own radical politics. But as Bob Dylan put it: "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours."

These are political issues, mostly, and it's hard to think that sport has a place in settling these issues, but a recent article in the New York Times by the philosopher/boxer Gordon Marino on the sweet science of boxing is helpful for thinking about how sports might serve an indirect political function. At stake in this article is exactly what to do with what seems like a natural need for aggression and what William James called "the strenuous mood" that sometimes accompanies it.

So, let's put the question out there. Do we have natural tendencies to aggression that sports can help us sublimate? Or do these activities teach us to be violent, as I am alleging that the contemporary political theater does? I think they can do either one, depending on how they are taught, and to what ends. Is the end of athletic endeavor the development of virtue or is its function one of winning at all costs? There you have the difference between physical education and the education of violence.

Experience and figures like Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Marion Jones, and Floyd Landis shows that there is no necessary relationship between sports and virtue. So much depends on what we are using sport for. I've been lucky to have great coaches who taught me to think of running as a skill of personal development; they gave me the gift of a lifelong activity that I can return to as a mode of self care. When I am running, I am calmer, more relaxed, less prone to misbehave. While my running appears from the outside to be grueling and ascetic, I find it quite pleasurable, relaxing, and calming, and I think it's because of a key point that Dr. Marino mentions. Running gives me courage by helping me separate out actual pain from anxiety about pain. Marino puts it like this: "If they stick with it for a few months, their fears diminish; they can begin to see things in the ring that their emotions blinded them to before. More importantly, they become more at home with feeling afraid. Fear is painful, but it can be faced, and in time a boxer learns not to panic about the blows that will be coming his way."

I would teach this point explicitly to my runners as a coach. Our mantra for races was "the worst pain is the imagined pain." To run well, you can't be thinking of the pain to come: you have to relax and run through whatever pain is there. This takes courage. The immediacy of sport, where courage brings real consequences, is something that our virtually connected culture misses. You can make comments online anonymously--you can inflict pain, without courage, with no consequences. A sport like boxing, cross country, football, can bring courage into clear view because the effects of courage are immediately seen.

On effect of an overly mediated virtual culture is the elimination of immediacy from the way we experience politics, so that the effects of our words and actions are not immediately felt. Is it possible to apply the lessons that sport can teach us about virtue--the courage to relax in fearful states, the patience and adaptability of method that is a cornerstone of proper training, the attunement to the effects of our action in immediate experience--to the political realm?

It seems unlikely, unless concrete bridges between sport and politics are drawn, unless a real physical education is developed. This would be a physical education not just concerned with the health of our bodies, but one interested in drawing connections between the practices of self care and the practices of community care. My sense is that the health of our political communities is written on our bodies, that these healths are profoundly and deeply connected. Unfortunately, today, for a variety of reasons, we have too few coaches who are philosophers--and too few philosophers who would be coaches. It is up to coaches, athletes, and educational administrators, and also ordinary folks to begin to make these connections explicit and thereby make them more intelligent.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Philosophy, Running, and Synthesis

"That first feeling of something violent and resistless happening in the world at large, is accompanied by a hardly less primitive sense of something gently seething within me, a smouldering life which that alien energy blows upon me and causes to start into flame. If this be not the inmost texture of experience, I do not know what experience is."
--George Santayana, "Belief in Substance"

The American philosophers, folks like Emerson, James, Santayana, Dewey and their inheritors, took as one of their primary philosophical goals the articulation of the meaning of experience. They thought that much of modern philosophy thus far had been based on a false presumption, namely that there is a yawning metaphysical gap between the individual mind and the world that it perceives, and they thought that they could articulate a new way of doing philosophy based in and on a new way of viewing experience.

The false presumption of modern philosophy, like all false presumptions, has a lot going for it. We do seem to carry around this "I" that is with us wherever we go. Kant had a fancy name for it: the transcendental unity of apperception. The world comes to us, at almost all moments, as owned by a very particular person, by a very particular perspective. I do not see all the world, but only a very small and select part of it. My eyes at any one moment carve out a cone of vision, and what I do not see only exists in my imagination, which is a paltry thing indeed. The perceptive mind--these ethereal cones of vision supplemented by imagination--seems so unlike what we've come to know of as the world--that hard and raging and enormous and deadly whirl of solid objects, open spaces, gravity and fire, wolves and buffalo, water and wind--that to the modern mind they seemed to be made of absolutely different metaphysical substances. The mind one thing, the world something absolutely different and mysteriously irreconcilable.

The Americans took a different approach. They posited a world of pure experience, noting that the word can be taken in two senses. The first is the subjective sense, which tracks the qualities of mind. The second is the objective sense, which tracks the qualities of the world. The problem was not to reconcile these, to somehow figure out how one could be reduced to the other, but to look at the interaction between them. The problem of philosophy was how to make the interactions between our minds--those limited cones of vision and fantastic realms of imagination--and the world--that seething and powerful realm of objects, animals, weather, and others--better. This was their philosophical method, the method of pragmatism, which did not look to reduce one side of the equation to the other, but took the practical question of how to relate these sides, one to the other, more fully. The pragmatists didn't look for answers or for truth about which side of the equation was more fundamental. Their attitude was melioristic and fundamentally ethical, not metaphysical: they wanted to know how we could make better the lives that are forged out of interactions between self and world.

The key to this task was articulating a concept of experience that was essentially synthetic. Both self and world occur in experience. Experience includes both mind and body. Experience includes the feelings of pain, the rhythms of running, the calculations of effort as well as the long and winding road, your fellow competitors, hills, and the hot sun. The runner engaged in his task does not get caught up in metaphysical questions about whether his mind is more real than the pavement beneath his feet. The runner is attentive to all of the modes of experience, and as he moves down the road, the subjective and objective modes mingle and mix. The road itself takes on the qualities of the effort. It becomes long and hot. Hills become hard, measured in burning paces. A breeze takes on the qualities of freshness, winds become stiff. A primary reason that I value running is just this capacity that running has to integrate experience.



When we take up a skill with something approaching expertise, breaking the qualities of the task down into their subjective and objective aspects becomes increasingly artificial because we know these are always mixed. I suppose this is part of the reason that I resist so many of the new technologies that are meant to help us analyze our running. Analysis is important and intelligence depends on it. But equally important to intelligence is synthesis. Running logs, watches, garmins, and heart rate monitors teach us to break a run up into its component parts. But they do not teach us how to put it together.

Someone asked me the other day why I write this blog. What's the point? I suppose that it is an attempt to put things back together, at least momentarily. This, in the end, is the discipline of philosophy, the last synthetic mode of intelligence. Among all of the disciplines intent upon ripping the world apart in the search of nuggets of knowledge and information, mining it for gold, like the catacombed mountain of Potosi, philosophy stands alone in its synthetic quest.

The moderns thought that it was possible to unite world and mind, to reduce the one to the other with tricks of logic. They hoped for a total synthesis. For us postmoderns, that seems an impossible task. For us philosophy is a noble and tragic sort of thing, not a search for final and transcendent perceptions, but a temporal process of living. To take up philosophy is to give one's self a synthetic task among an over-analyzed life. It is to try to see life as a whole, to try to live it as a unity, amid and among all of its moving and sometimes divergent parts. This seems like a task worth trying, to me, even if the final destiny of both minds and body is to end up scattered and vacant, dispersed to the four winds, returned to the wild and seething violence of the world. Like the runs we embark upon daily, whatever insights we attain into life, are temporal, hard won, and doomed someday to disappear.

It takes courage to head out the door anyways, to confront the violent and resistless happening and to glimpse against that backdrop that primitive and febrile vitality that is me.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Gurus, Toads, Earthquakes, and Training

People conceptualize conditioning in different ways. ... Some think it's a ladder straight up. Others see plateaus, blockages, ceilings. I see it as a geometric spiraling upward, with each spin of the circle taking you a different distance upward. Some spins may even take you downward, just gathering momentum for the next upswing. Sometimes you will work your fanny off and see very little gain, other times you will amaze yourself and not really know why. Training is training, it all seems to blend together after a while. What is going on inside is just a big puzzle...
--Bruce Denton, from Once a Runner

On the running message boards, training theories proliferate. Once you've read them for long enough, you begin to see that it's always the same sorts of questions: how best should I train? How should I combine my workouts? What kind of mileage should I be running? What's a tempo run? How fast should it be? How long should I taper? What about strides? Easy pace? Long runs?

The questions recur, new runners plying the wisdom of the experienced and usually coming away disappointed. Experienced runners hardly ever answer training questions directly. They usually either criticize the question or they offer up vague aphorisms. "Run more." "Go by feel." Or, "You are sweating the small stuff." "Just run, baby."

The experienced runner gives non-answers because he knows he doesn't know. One of my favorite internet running board gurus is a guy named Nobby. He's a Japanese guy who loves Arthur Lydiard and has coached a number of elite runners in Japan and in the U.S. His English is sort of perfectly second language, and it adds a type of guru charm to his posts. But the very best thing about Nobby's posts is that they will take a seemingly straightforward question and make it multiply and variegate and shift into a fractured and spiraling narrative replete with digressions about topics as varied as nutrition, cultural differences, running shoe construction, "famous" unknown female Japanese marathoners from the 70s, etc., etc. His posts are tomes by message board standards,often running upwards of 500 words, sometimes in a single paragraph. He is a master at deconstructing running questions. He's basically the Jacques Derrida of the running scene. (Here's a more or less typical Nobby reply.)

The mastery of Nobby's responses has nothing to do with the information he gives. You are as likely to find concrete information about how to train from Nobby's posts are as you are to find concrete strategies for business success in Of Grammatology. (Here's a more or less typical excerpt from Derrida.) What Nobby does supply is the right attitude for training. His replies about training mirror training itself, just as the wild and dispersive weave of Derrida's philosophy can also track life. There are no bullet points, just an endless flow of words masking themselves as understanding.

We want training to be a ladder, like Denton says. We wish life were as simple as Stephen Covey makes it out to be: able to be mastered through the acquisition of seven essential habits, like seven steps to the top of the world. But training is not like this. It is like Denton's spiral. Its effects are mostly hidden, its logic a-linear and irrational, its magic dark. Training works like Nobby's internet posts: often long and dull, seemingly leading nowhere, but occasionally yielding diamonds when we least expect them. Nobby doesn't know how to tell you to train. He can only write about training. And in precisely the same fashion, we don't ever know how to train. This is what's so hard to tell the new runner who comes to you with a question. I've been doing this for 20 years. I don't know. Really the main struggle is only how to keep training.

All this analysis of message board chatter is grounded in a thought I've been turning over lately. I've been in the training spiral pretty deeply for the last three years, and most of the swings of my fitness have been of the mundane sort. It's been a while since I've surprised myself in my racing. This thought had been bothering me a bit because like the rest of you runners I want the work in to lead directly to results out. I want the ladder, most of the time, because that's the simplest image of progress, the most familiar paradigm.

But I'm also familiar enough with the peculiar logic of long distance to know that Denton's picture is closer to the way training works. These slow and all too predictable movements in fitness are like "foreshocks," signals of an earthquake to come. I don't know when the event will come. I don't even know that it is coming. But, just as toads can predict earthquakes better than scientists, I've got a sense that thus far the few results I've had are really only harbingers, superficial indicators. I've sent the spiral down deep, and I'm not sure when it will come up. I hope I'll be ready when it does.

Six weeks to the marathon.
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