Dialog:Concerns to study
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Concerns to study
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V 1 — Hey! R, wait up a moment. I'm a bit concerned about this talk about concerns. On my campus, anxiety nearly paralyzes too many students. They feel great pressure to keep grades high. The syllabuses are highly prescriptive while actual feedback is often minimal and confusing. They sense a real threat of getting pushed out. Don't you risk adding to the tension? Grades, jobs, climate, political dysfunction, social disruption, a pandemic—who needs more angst?
R 2 — Yeah. Where I taught there was both too much anxiety and too much complacency. Let's think of concern as the healthy balance of the free person eager to live their own life, neither anxious nor complacent.
V 3 — Well, that'd be nice. But a lot of our culture nurtures the extremes—insinuating worries and anxieties while pushing highly engineered forms of instant gratification. An equilibrium between the two does not come easily.
R 4 — Maybe. Agitation and quiescence may be conditions one cannot fix because neither generalized anxiety nor complacent distraction have causes properly speaking. They simply happen in vital space that is empty of alternatives. You know, "nature abhors a vacuum."
V 5 — You mean, say, that despair isn't caused by something; it emerges when someone doesn't hope and assert a purpose?
R 6 — Possibly. I think we should pay attention to the concerns we feel, not as an absence, but as an important presence, the need to do something because doing so has value for self-development. I'm not sure coming to grips with those concerns will lessen anxiety or diminish the flux of distraction. Let's respect the ancient healer's injunction, "Do no harm." Let's act in ways that themselves have value, not because of a vague hope that it will correct things we think are wrong in current practice.
V 7 — That's a little obscure, but let's go on. I'm concerned to grasp what you mean more clearly. You're saying, I guess, that you are not going to try to correct the ills of campus life because you don't know how. Instead you're going to try something quite different, off campus in a very basic way. I get that, so tell me about concerns as you think they should work in A Place to Study. Others will talk later about side effects, good and bad.
R 8 — Great. Concern comes about necessarily in acting freely, inwardly, with one's will determined neither by the external authority of others nor by passive submission to the force of circumstances. Acting autonomously puts both can and should integrally in question.
V 9 — Ah ha! I heard my grand dad talking once about his time as a draftee in Vietnam, saying how he would do things without a second thought when the lieutenant ordered it, even though as a civilian such a thought would paralyze with doubt and anxiety. The soldier's training and the exigencies of battle blot out the concern over "can" and "should" in autonomous action that you're talking about.
R 10 — Yeah. I think all acting, no matter how constrained, has qualities of intentionality that imbue it simultaneously with tensions of "can" and "should". Am I able to do that and is that something I should do? Circumstances, however, often overwhelm this two-sided concern—I act, right or wrong, well or ill. short-circuiting the concern. In the military example you introduce, I think it is significant how a well-run military does not suppress the "can" and "should" inherent in acting, but takes it carefully into account.
V 11 — How so? What my grand dad was saying seems to suggest that the army had greatly suppressed those concerns compared to civilian life.
R 12 — It looks that way, but in principle, despite prominent breakdowns, with the chain of command and practices of battlefield training the military tries hard to manage the "can" and the "should" to serve the very specialized function of military organization. In principle, the training of each person in the military organization deals with the "can" by imparting the skills necessary to perform effectively the functions he or she will need to perform through the engagement of battle. And in principle the military takes care of the "should" by requiring that up and down the chain of command everyone binds themselves to working within the rules of engagement, which should clearly differentiate between permissible and impermissible actions.
V 13 — Uh. I think I see that in principle. But I've seen several war movies, most recently 1917, which graphically suggest that in reality things in principle don't go very far.
R 14 — Too true. "The fog of war" is proverbial. All the same, with the military, and other risky, large-scale systems like air transportation, it is important to maintain the quality of training, a chain of command, and rules of engagement. But everywhere the spontaneity, complexity, and unpredictability of life in its fullness confront us with continuous, many-sided concerns about our can and should uncertainties. These require study, not training.
V 15 — Life in the barracks isn't my picture of human fulfillment! So I guess we will feel concern about what we can and should do integrally as part of a full life, lived autonomously. But how can and should we study it? Ha! Here's that circle again!—We're concerned about our concern and feel the need to study how we can and should study it!
R 16 — That's life! It's worth listening to Frank Sinatra sing it sometime. How might we start studying our concern about how we can and should study our concerns?
V 17 — Well, maybe we can think about vital functions somewhat differently so that they pertain across all or many situations for action, not only specific, highly structured ones.
R 18 — That seems promising. Can you suggest how we might begin to identify those vital functions important in determining what we can and should do in any life situation?
V 19 — Oy! Yeah, I know—to begin we need to begin. But look at our schools and colleges. The military way seems to be used all over the place. Start with the outcomes, give instruction on the steps that lead to it, and then trust that an assessment of the results will suffice for a chain of command.
R 20 — Well, all that starts with particular whats, specific outcomes, matters about which we might feel concern. Can we examine the feeling itself? Perhaps we will find more generality there. What are we feeling when we feel concern, not when we feel concern about x, y, or z?
V 21 — It's hard to isolate it and I'm not at all sure, but here's a try—concern arises for me whenever I feel myself in a consequential situation with multiple possibilities apparently open to me. Then I'm concerned about what I can and should do, and sometimes the situation forces me to act and I just do it, like right now, the situation forces me speak and to say what I'm saying.
R 22 — Well, you know, that says a lot. Every person's life includes a great variety of unscripted situations, some with crucial import, in which multiple possibilities appear to be open to them and they are going to have to go with the capacities they have at hand and be decisive on the fly. That's thinking on one's feet.
V 23 — OK, but I don't see how we study these concerns. It is hard to see it whole, all at once. I'm looking at things from inside my life and I can't get out of my life to see everything in it whole. Maybe that's the key to the difference between the arts and the sciences.
R 24 — Quite possibly. Certainly in studying we practice an art, not a science. Let's be content to keep working to understand it in our lives. I think we are recognizing that to study our concerns we need to inquire into how we can best comport ourselves in situations of complex import having to make do with our capacities. Let's look at how general human capacities, modes of acting, link to broad forms of import, matters of worth to us.
V 25 — That's pretty abstract. Are you trying to put together a capacity, say to express ourselves, and a broad value, say, to have meaning for us? We might study as a general concern how we can express ourselves meaningfully. Is that a good example?
R 26 — Yes, excellent. There's no definitive list, but I think if we consider cultural achievements, we can identify a number of capacities for acting in the world and an associated sense of worth, of fulfillment, to which the capacity conduces. These would be concerns leading to full lives.
V 27 — That sounds good, but I have a question. Linking a mode of acting with a related form of worth, we might identify "upholding value" as another general concern for study. How would that differ from studying ethics as now done in college?
R 28 — To my mind, studying a concern to uphold value concentrates attention much more on historical realities of lived life. When you abandon the duality, looking only at the verb or the noun in it, you get either a crass instrumentalism or an airy discussion of abstract universals. To hold the center we must preserve the tension. Things have let go and historically we are getting polities in which even the law is nothing but an instrument of dominating power, while academic intellectuals serve up an ethics of hypotheticals. Upholding value in lived experience takes place situationally. It is difficult and not at all clear cut. Let's embrace it, not tut-tut it as relativistic.
V 29 — I was going to ask whether study had room for strong emotion, but I guess that's unnecessary. What other verb-noun concerns might we take up?
R 30 — Well, I suspect the list could get long, but I prefer to keep it short and diverse. In experience, basic concerns will overlap a lot and including too many will tend to diffuse attention. With a short list we can study its components intensively and have vigorous debates about adding and dropping possibilities. Here's my initial list— Expressing meaning, Directing desire, Exercising autonomy, Empowering knowledge, Upholding values, Overcoming alienation, Understanding difference, and Sharing commonalities. And here is an intimation of how the list could get long.
V 31 — You know, it's interesting. Frankly I feel I need to go off and really think, quietly and hard, about what we've been saying because I'm not sure I clearly grasp the steps we've gone through and I'm uncertain whether or not I think they are sound. But what strikes me is how uncomfortable my teachers, up and down the instructional ladder would be if students expected them to illuminate such concerns. They wouldn't dismiss them as trivial or obvious, but they would be uncomfortable with them, concerned whether addressing such concerns is something they can and should do as teachers in the instructional system. These are concerns that people have, all people have as part of being human, but as soon as we get into abstract roles, they become a bit foreign, out of bounds. It nevertheless behooves us, as persons, to study them. I feel that's part of what draws me to a place to study.