Monday, April 26, 2010

Reading Eric Hoffer

Today's Quote of the Day:
The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.
Eric Hoffer
(1902 - 1983)
Over the weekend I had been thinking about how one might teach students something about ethics in an economics course, one I might be teaching, and in a way that really would matter to the students. With ethical failures seemingly so much in the news as of late and with many of the students in the class likely to be Business majors, I wondered if it were possible to make any headway on this goal whatsoever, or if though it might be impossible to get students to articulate this way that their underlying cynicism, which they surely would prefer to keep concealed rather than bring out into the open, would block any attempts to reconsider their point of view.

I found some sites about teaching ethics with economics. This one looked promising. But the focus seem entirely on "outer world" issues that have an ethical dimension to them yet may seem merely to be academic matters to the students. As I wrote about a year ago, for students to make headway on the ethics they need to freely make decisions that matter to them and then observe the consequences on others with whom they interact. If they are dead to the impact on others, then I believe developing their sense of ethics is unattainable. If they do care but have been heretofore unaware of consequences of their actions, there is hope.

I was unsatisfied with the solution of economics readings and normally when in that state I just let it stew for a while. As it turns out, I saw the Eric Hoffer quote and that piqued my interest. I had read The True Believer in college in a seminar course on radical political groups. My memory of it was essentially nil except for the fact of one surprising conclusion - extremists need extremism rather than particular ideology, so one can switch from the far right to the far left without feeling the internal contradictions that caring about ideology would seem to suggest.

I found this page, which has references to articles written by Hoffer. He was prolific as a writer, with many contributions in popular outlets. I was surprised that none of the references were hyperlinked to the actual articles. Indeed, I couldn't find any of the articles openly available online. So I went to Illinois' Library Catalog and looked to see what digital resources I could find with articles by Hoffer. I found as a pdf How Natural Is Human Nature, published in the Saturday Evening Post 1962 and Beware The Intellectual, which the Hoffer Resource site says was published in Harpers, but the Library Catalog (and the last page of the pdf) says was from the National Review, 1979. I read both pieces eagerly. They drew me in.

Hoffer proposes a duality in human nature that I believe is readily accessible conceptually, even by undergraduate students. Humans are incomplete beings and in that way are unlike the rest of nature. Humans need their wits and especially their creativity to get beyond survival and live above nature. Creativity is strongest in the weak and disenfranchised because the spur, according to Hoffer, is self-loathing. The strong don't have as much of a need for creativity. The weak do and through their inventions they can overturn the strong. Indeed much human motivation is quite base, but from that can emerge caring and compassion. His arguments for compassion are what I want the students to learn about ethics.

I didn't have my fill of Hoffer and looked for more of his writing. Ultimately I found Between the Devil and the Dragon. The Library has a copy, which I checked out. The Dragon, we learn immediately, is the symbol of our struggle with nature, a concept that is earlier than the Devil, which he attributes to the Hebrews. They were the first group to see man as living above nature. God made nature, but God made man in his own image. Once living above nature is possible, a different battle commences, the one with our inner selves. The fall happened in the Garden of Eden, when innocence was lost. As we evolved from brutes, the devil emerged to do us ongoing battle. The devil was there with God, right at the outset. Compassion is the result when a battle with the devil is won.

Hoffer's book starts out with 15 or 16 pages of aphorisms. I haven't seen writing of this sort before and I found them compelling to read. This one, in particular, might challenge students:
There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for attainment of the most marked solution.
Hoffer argues that there is an essential unpredictability about human behavior as it is applied to creative endeavor. The unpredictability results in enormous diversity among us. This idea in itself I find quite compelling. It helps us to understand there will be others unlike ourselves and yet like us too in pursuing their own struggles. Learning comes out of that struggle and it is learning that shows we are not making alibis. Hoffer, therefore, might be quite an interesting read for learning technologists. His name doesn't normally come up in the list of folks from whom to look for foundations - Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Freire, and others. Hoffer's style is different, a consequence of his life experience rather than a scientific exploration, and his writing is direct. There are metaphorical allusions in his writing, to be sure, but they are accessible and treated in a matter of fact way.

Some of Hoffer's style might be off putting to the reader, particularly his repeated reference to the Occident. As I'd like to argue that much of what he has to say has a timeless appeal, I don't want to push too hard on the fact that most of what is in the book was produced more than 50 years ago and that the world was not nearly as flat as it seems today. If you can ignore these unattractive bits, or if not that then forgive him for the minor transgressions, you'll find a wealth of insight that might very well serve as a teaching foundation.

When I finish the book I'll write another post to see if I've reversed myself or maintain that conclusion.


NIS said...

I enjoyed your post about Hoffer. What page is this quote taken from? It is excellent and I will be looking forward to your next post, you have convinced me about reading that book. I believe that this type of aphorisms would certainly make students reflect on things from a fresh perspective that is not pure theories but life itself. Thanks for the post.

Lanny Arvan said...

Thanks. The book has multiple publication dates, so wonder if the pagination stays the same. In this version, the quoted aphorism is on page 17.