The evil that is email

I can recall entire summers when I was not teaching at my college and would hear nothing at all until the end of summer letter inviting us back to campus for fall term.  Ah.. Those were the days.  Or at an office job:  the weekends were yours in privacy unless some unmitigated catastrophe occurred that necessitated a phone call to your home phone.  

Now we are all of us bombarded by emails all day, every day.  I will confess to being guilty in both initiating emails over the weekend and in the evening hours as well as responding to them.  

But is this so bad?  Isn’t it great to instantly touch base with someone when you are thinking about an issue or problem and get a response back?  Or catch up on work from the luxury of your own back yard in a summer evening? And do not all these emails signal how indispensable we are to our places of employment?  And how dedicate we are in responding?

And therein lies the rub.  If we ignore emails over, say a weekend or a vacation, when we return we face pages of unread messages, many of them out of date as the senders get increasingly frustrated by our silence and move on to a “more important person.”  And that silence serves to brand one as not committed, not really all that concerned about one’s all important places of business–i.e. the source of our paycheck which measures our value to our company.  You can see how this spirals downward fast.

But the electronic barrage sucks the vitality our of us as we can never redirect our

attention to that which is at hand.  We must always be living in the land of work.  As most of us are not the president of the United States, one has to wonder why we have to sacrifice our personal lives for the omnipresent work life. We cannot be alive to the bigger world around us:  the sound of crickets in the late summer, the biting cold of the winter wind on a winter’s walk in a forest or down an urban street.  We miss the joy of a child playing at pretending to make stone soup and we cannot smell the baking bread as we are buried in our laptop, firing back emails to someone who is likewise disconnected from the 3-D world around them. Our minds are full of buzzing electronic waves that shout to be heard and rule our every thought, waking and sometimes in the middle of the night.

The irony is that I am not convinced we are really accomplishing any more than countless generations before us achieved.  The medievals lived full and adventuresome lives with nary a computer in sight and often died at an age we would find tragically young.  And yet look at  all they accomplished.  Empires were built and destroyed, music and art was created, novels were written, people lives fulsome lives.  Businesses grew and created the modern world.  Without email.

My daughter types letters on a typewriter and for a number of years lived off the grid on a farm.  Maybe we need to rethink the ways in which technology has mastered us and made us its slaves, even as it promised us that our lives would be immeasurably improved with its presence.  Walk away from it.  Advocate for a workplace where weekends, vacations, days off are silent.  Regain privacy and retool the ancient forms of communication knows as our five senses.  Breathe.  Look.  Hear.  And walk away from the computer.  Like I will do now.

Next meditation:  the cell phone…

The Value of Philosophy


As a philosophy professor I often am called upon to defend my discipline. When it comes to the media and any examples of “useless humanities,” philosophy ranks way up there, probably along with comparative literature and art.  As colleges around the country tighten their belts and work hard to justify the high cost of higher education (a genuine concern but consider what drives up the cost…), the first departments to be chopped off are the liberal arts, the humanities in particular.  After all, “what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?”  Academic departments are asked to complete a PPR, “Program Prioritization Report“–admin-speak for justify your existence in terms of quantifiable numbers or else.


Ralph Waldo Emerson

Now much of this rhetoric against the humanities is fueled by administrators in two camps:  those who have but a nodding acquaintance with anything beyond business subjects and those whose entire college education was composed of the subjects that they are rushing to condemn as useless.  It reminds me of the Transcendentalists in 19th century America who scoffed at European values and especially a classical education and used the very language of that education to do so.   While they  may have been making some good points about authoritarianism and rigid thinking, many of their ideas became the foundation for an anti-intellectualism that we still see thriving in our country today.

OK, all that aside, in a world where college = job training, how does one defend the humanities?  Majoring in accounting, hospitality and tourism, nursing, computer science clearly signals a paying job at the end.  However, this kind of thinking is driven by a mid-twentieth century notion of career: one majors in x and works in X for the next 45 years, retiring as the CEO of a X-firm with that gold watch. Hmm… not the way it works any Career-Change-at-50more, folks.  Most of our young people will change careers many times in their lives and work in jobs and careers that do not even exist today.  Imagine being in college in the 70s and now working in the IT industry.  Oh wait, you do.  What did you major in?  Chances are it was not Social Media or even Programming.  To do the business community credit, most companies will clearly say that they want young employees who can write, speak and think creatively–regardless of their major.  In fact, most corporations will train their new employees as they want them to be trained.  They do not want the business majors whose thinking has been shaped by their 50-60 year old profs.  But all of this has missed the ears of anxious parents (and yes, the cost of college is worrisome), college administrators hoping to lure more students to enroll, and government officials.  They stick with the script that college’s duty is to train workers.

So, what can anyone do to defend the humanities in ways that does not simply look rantings from self-serving luddites?  I hate to use a generation of college students as guinea pigs so as to say in 10 years, “we told you so.”  Some research minded colleagues at the Daily Nous blog (extra points for the great title, right?) are working on collecting data and reasoned arguments so as to provide philosophy–and other humanities–with some ways to argue asimovfor the continuing value of the liberal arts. And in a country that is skewing more and more towards ignorance, this may be the needed wake up call.  So, let’s stop and think about the value of philosophy, but not only in terms of those data-driven mandates, but really–what kind of life do you want to live?  What values matter?  How do you determine truth from ‘truthiness’ or falsity?  Who are you and how can you create a meaningful life?  These are some of the fundamental philosophical questions that every human grapples with.  Oh, and yes, thinking philosophically can help you get that job if you can present a clear argument and listen carefully to objections.  And to end with words of wisdom from  Steven Wright:

I was in a job interview and I opened a book and started reading. Then I said to the guy, “Let me ask you a question. If you are in a spaceship that is traveling at the speed of light, and you turn on the headlights, does anything happen?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “I don’t want your job.”

Everything is connected

bfdc5f77-ad82-470b-bffe-0039d63ea7bcSo with trepidation I have tried to install a link from this blog automatically to my Facebook page.  Will it actually work?  I had to sign a million disclosures and accept all sorts of scary conditions and then obtain mysterious numeric keys that looked as if they could for for the Missile Defense Shield.  Let’s see it this actually posts to FB… shall we?

Nevermind… cannot get it to work.  But now I am trying again; it is another day.