Perseverance Quotes

He conquers who endures.  ~Persius

via Perseverance Quotes, Inspirational Sayings on Persistence and Determination.

So often, especially in these United States, we think about victory as winning: the next great job, the next game, the bigger house and soon it’s time for the playoffs and the championship game.  Americans are proud of our military might.  World War II remains our greatest feat in battle.  Yes, we endured, surely our soldiers and citizens back home endured.  In the end as Admiral Yamamoto said, it was our industrial might and our ability to focus it, sustain it, that won the day.  We did not do it without our allies.

But when I think of endurance, I think of Britain who persevered and sacrificed, holding the fort until we got up to speed.  Britain had a very close call.  Endurance implies the ability to keep on, keeping on out of seemingly endless oppression and  suffering.  I think of Jesus toting his cross up the slope of Golgotha.  Somehow, one can’t romanticize endurance like you can the “glory” of a cavalry charge.  Poland endured. Czechoslovakia endured.  Latvia endured.  There are thousands of Syrians enduring.  The Jews endure. Sodbusters endured.  Endurance is struggling with no sign of help and relief. For a time endurance was Valley Forge.  Endurance is the mind game Sisyphus must play to continue his unending rolling of the boulder up a hill, down and up, down and up. Endurance operates when hope remains the barest dream, if that.  Endurance has no vision of trophies and laurels.  It sees no golden retirement.

So what is it that endurance conquers?  I think it is despair.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise

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Book Review: Harford’s Adapt

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Harford, Tim, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.

 

Can flip flopping possibly be the sign of a sound mind at work in the body politic? As the quadrennial silly season grows more and more inane, Tim Harford in Adapt seems to say yes, absolutely; but I’m sure he would exclude excessive, spineless, wishy-washiness. Assuming the President made a mistake, what would happen if President Obama said, “Okay, I’ve learned something. I should have done jobs before I did health reform. My tack in these past four years was ill-chosen and now I’m going to change, come about and do what I should have done in the first place. I am declaring a national economic emergency. We are going to find short-term work designed to create long-term job growth.”

Was it lily livered of Senator Kerry to say “I voted yes before I voted no.” Or was it the other way around? What if Mitt Romney said, “I lied. I am proud of my Massachusetts health initiative and I take responsibility for it — especially since it is full of Republican ideas. It’s not perfect. It needs tweaking and perhaps even some major repair, but I’m sticking with the plan as a national model. Oh, and by the way, trial and error, tinkering here and tinkering there, is as American as Old Glory. Trial and error lies at the heart of American ingenuity. Oh, and one thing more. While I have been knocking my own brainchild just to appeal to primary voters, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to do it anymore. You, the American People deserve better of me.”

Americans’ collective partials and dentures would fall from their mouths. Next, another round of nit-picking would ensue — but maybe not. Maybe the public would hail a new reign of candor and realism. The problem, says Harford, isn’t electing the wrong leaders. The problem is our simplistic notions of what a leader can do. Expertise and experts come under heavy scrutiny in Adapt — including research that supports the limits of specialized insight. Honesty about the complexity of modern problems has gone begging in the public debate and policy making. The pathology under study here applies to the private sector and individuals as well.

A recurring illustration throughout the book is the Russian engineer Palchinsky. He was assigned to analyze two massive projects in Stalin’s first five-year plan, the monstrous Lenin Dam and Magnitogorsk. He had the temerity to inform Stalin that his big project would be a disaster. There had been no hydrological studies. He warned that the river would be too slow to generate hydro-electricity and flooding would cause severe damage to farms and farmers. Because of drought the plants would require backup coal fired operations. He was proven dead right after the megalo-maniacal dictator plunged ahead because he wanted an epic scale project. Much smaller scale plants would have served far better. Palchinsky wanted wanted a step-by-step approach. Stalin ordered the relocation of ten thousand farmers.

The steel mills at Magnitogorsk were supposed to outproduce the entire steel output of the UK. Again, Palchinsky recommended more analysis, more caution and a step-by-step approach. Over three thousand died during construction and the iron ore ran out in 1970. Palchinsky was a brilliant thinker who had three principles which Stalin ignored: 1) Seek out new ideas and try new things. 2) When trying new things, do them so that failure is survivable. And finally (3), seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along. Some three thousand of Russia’s ten thousand engineer were sent to Siberia for similar professional behavior and Palchinsky suffered a secret death.. In short Harford is no hare counting on speed and grandiose imagination. Tortoise-like trial and error still prevails.

Harford works his thesis through Rumsfeld’s disasters and many other examples, finally discussing the adaptive organization and the adaptive individual. Harford concludes that honest mistakes made honestly are far better than chasing losses and denials. Harford seems to be saying that the allure of meteoric success, the brilliant idea flaming overnight into success is only one way. The other requires uncelebrated, painstaking, trial and error, starting, stopping, perhaps turning about, but never quitting. But it also requires a communal tolerance for the late blooming in life like the poetry of Robert Frost. In our slap-dash, everything-on-the-fly culture of celebrity, I think of France which required eleven centuries or so to become a democratic republic. Afghanistan, if we’re lucky, has just begun. No wonder we’ve failed after a mere ten years there. Harford’s vision of adaptive evolutionary success would be revolutionary in America. Such a revolution would do wonders for the self-esteem of millions of Americans slogging it out in the unsung mundane. This is a book to own.

Steadfast and cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

 

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Democratic and Republican Attitudes

 

Perhaps the reason there’s so little  comity in Congress stems from the basic similarity of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee share only a need for re-election. The problem is that we really have a Congressional stew of governmentalists, libertarians, social democrats, tories, whigs, independents and know-nothings — strains we’ve had since the Founding.   We probably need a total re-alignment, if it were not for the fact that we need moderate Democrats to counsel the ultra-left.  And there are no moderate Republicans.  Everyone is  trying to make a two-party process work because we can’t have a six party system.  Because we’d never get a majority. pretend we have two. And everyone,  for the American people which is also equally splintered, emains that Democrats  and Republicans dabble in each other’s territory.  (Where are you Nelson Rockefeller when we need you?  We could sure use a little Clintonesque triangulation, you know?) Everyone is compromised despite his or her dogma. No one is purely anything except scared as hell of a second  Great Depression.

There may be value in looking at the seemingly simple to understand or remind ourselves what the two national parties represent.  Ostensibly the GOP represents the forces of free market capitalism, though the Republicans frequently compromise “free market.”  They have no problem profiting from huge government contracts, especially military — nor do Democrats.  Neither camp has a problem with stable, conservative investment havens  in public utilities.  There have been few better uses of public capital than turnpikes and the inter-state highway system.  It was a win-win for everyone except the small towns that died.   Most likely an infrastructure bill will be the next bogeyman for partisan bashing.

In capitalism jobs and workers are  instrumentalities.  Good, solid productive  jobs take time.  This is a real burden for Republican candidates. Jobs develop after land, capital, product/service and market are “firmed up.”  Certainly, Republicans are human beings with families to support; it’s just that slow development doesn’t sell well to voters.  That’s why “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” sounds odd on Republican lips.  They would more sincerely chant “Profit, Profit, Profit!” because that’s the nature of capitalism.  Jobs will come in time — or not.

Many small enterprises never get to the point of hiring help because profit never materializes; again, a fact.  Enterprises frequently die first.  So, we should never ever forget that net gain and profit must come first in business. Always. It’s a law.   Period.  Being passionate about business makes a business person seem “cold” and “calculating.” Must likely it’s only worry and caution because some entrepreneur has hocked his house. Hence, the Republican Party must thrive in the same culture.  It’s hard to hurry up and build a factory for jobs needed yesterday.  It’s impossible to be honest with the electorate about business realities.  Hard to talk this way in public.

Many Democrats are capitalists, too.  Democrats can make a profit.  So can a Frenchman or a Swede. Democrats are far more inclined to see the economic role of wage and salary earners be they public or private.  Democrats have a weakness for soft jobs, often  grant-based ones that die.  Good teachers are productive, but not in a way that appeals to capitalists. Artists are even more marginal — until they make a bundle on a best seller. Teachers and artists are absolutely essential as are doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists and hardware store owners.  For some capitalists, teachers teach because they cannot “do” anything else.

Salaried folks and wage earners are mere necessities — essentially costs — which fall victim to the economic cycles. Ask any contract engineer.   That’s why on occasion, however not recently, the stock market goes up when unemployment rises.  Up to a point unemployment reduces costs and drives higher profits. In the same way business will employ a machine in preference to a human being. (As latter day Luddite, I am dedicated to never using the self-check out.) Businesses  will also go off shore. It’s a business law.

Perhaps this focus also drives Republican politicians who receive their pay and health insurance from tax revenue.  They play the role assigned, but it must seem a little hypocritical to the more empathetic among them.  In the end, even for them, government is a good employer.  They forget that economics looms far larger than business alone.  The worst of them, the anti-government faction, will never understand that government and education cannot be businesses.  Only a part of education and government can be a business.  It’s a law.  Whatever shall we do?  Admit all this and reason together? Yeah, right.

 

Non-partisanship really should come  easily since the business ethic has triumphed in America — perhaps even in the whole world.  Everyone must be a marketer or die. Global capitalism is alive, just ailing a little.

David Milliken

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Wanted: Convicted Moderates to Stop the Anarchy

What rough beast slouches toward Washington?  Pundits, politicians and citizens have their own opinions; but I cannot believe that anyone doubts, as the poet Yeats writes, that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Only the radical, right fringe is convicted. They alone are willing at all cost to see their dogma realized, step by ugly step. Sweet reason has gone begging. Again in the poet’s words, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

No one voted with passion.  Aye votes were painstakingly drawn from those at the least risk of losing votes back home. Others waited for a comfortable plurality to hide beneath — voting as late as possible and hoping for forgiveness back in Peoria. Many voted  “necessarily” to stop the madness — hardly the stuff of true belief. The liberal left cast its inconsequential votes, but partly to  prevent default.  The ultra-right and  the ultra-left made strange bedmates. It remains to be seen whether or not we have squashed the tyranny of  minority views, Tocqueville’s greatest fear for the survival of the republic. Effectively we got a taste of multi-party politics in the form of factionalism.

Now, the rough beast will come in the form of the Committee of Twelve, carefully stacked to continue the same polarization, six to six, between democratic socialists and libertarians. It’s beginning to look so much like European history that I wonder when the fascists will appear — fascism being the triumph of the military industrial complex, i.e. money and might. In the meantime deadlock will occur and the triggers will be pulled and we will be off again into the madness, trying to correct not having dealt with the Simpson-Bowles Commission Report. Simpson-Bowles was our last shot at reasonable tough love and sweet reason.

The poet’s wisdom must be heard. Yeats’ “Second Coming” should be required homework for Americans. Things have fallen apart. The center has not held. The 2012 election must bring victory for  a new center — a center that can hold. Nothing is more important now than convicted moderates in large numbers.

Steadfast and cautious,

 

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

 

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

 

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On Patience, Etc.

While I chose perseverance as the central theme of this blog, perseverance had a close rival. I suppose I chose the former because it rings more truly as action; and yet what is perseverance without the quality of patience. Both rank high in the Tortoise Philosophy. In thinking about the subject for a blog, I was tempted to make patience something that a person learns with age and experience, that somehow patience is not typical of youth Then I glanced at my muted television screen where the peloton in Le Tour de France lay a ribbon of color and rhythmic motion across the countryside of France. I thought of the years these cyclists, all twenty and thirty-somethings, had doggedly put into maintaining near-perfect physical condition. They have competed in scores of lesser tours and races all over the Western World. Patience? Near-infinite amounts of it — plus courage, perseverance, dedication, hope and faith; so, no, impatience is not specific to age.

I thought then of the patience of accountants, architects and cartographers going daily to work, most of them not managing Microsoft’s billions, designing the Pompidou Center or creating the breakthrough e-atlas. Millions of them manipulate details patiently and keep the books and prepare reports for small businesses, plan and design strip malls and revise fifty state highway maps every year. Life for most of us is a routine broken only by the birth of our children, the sports of our choice and the arts we favor. Occasionally one of us climbs Mt. Everest for the first time or wins the Tour de France or becomes a war hero. And these are our heroes whom we humbly admire and try not to envy.

Now, Mrs. Tortoise, extremely patient, is proud and loyal to her astrological sign. She doesn’t try to predict the future or plan her day with one eye on the daily horoscope, but the mythology amuses her. She’s pleased to be in the company of fellow Scorpions. Why not? Astrology bemused Carl Jung.  It bemuses Mrs. Tortoise. While she values the brains and pluck of Hillary Clinton, she also likes Hillary’s being a Scorpio. And I am bemused by my fellow Pisceans like Hamlet. I mean I have always been pre-occupied with being and not being — more than the average bloke I think. Hamlet was not noted for patience while Hillary Clinton remains a testimony to it. We have to give her kudos for tolerance and forgiveness as well. Mrs. Tortoise says the water signs are the oldest in the Zodiac, Scorpios being the most venerable, then comes Pisces and Cancers. Pisces strike her as deep thinkers while Cancers are shallow and lighter-brained. Well, all I know is that I have a great deal in common with fish, especially twins swimming first one way and then the other.

I certainly would not bet my last dollar on astrological predictions of specific outcomes in my daily life, however, often I cannot dismiss the general drift. But then, I have always believed that today’s science was yesterday’s myth. Being born of sea foam somehow seems as plausible as Immaculate Conception. I mean babies are born of “virgins” every day. But I’m getting away from the subject of patience — or am I. Hamlet had little of it. As I say, I drift.

Patience is the subject, not Hamlet, who had no patience; or Mrs. Tortoise who has lots of it. People are born with varying degrees of patience. My father and two brothers have far more than I. Dad had the engineer’s patience where respect for detail is paramount as it is for the lawyer.

Patience has grown on me with age. I made a decision the other day regarding a novel I am reading.

Belen Gopegui’s The Scale of Maps is an account of the love relationship between two geographers — speaking of detailed callings. At first I found Gopegui’s fiction baffling. I almost quit the effort, but no, I resolved to push on and at least reach a conclusion. Was I confused by the writer’s shifting point of view, the nature of contemporary Spanish fiction or just impatient? I have answers now to these questions and others. Pushing on rewarded me with discovery and pleasure in this fine work, but I had to push on. Books have often been like that for me. But I will return to this in a subsequent blog.

I have tried your patience enough today so I push off.

Steadfast, cautious et à bientôt,

The Tortoise

 

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Friendship

Text:     Dear Friend: —  If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I would never think again of trifles in relation to thy comings and goings.  I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed;  yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment.  Thine ever or never.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

In a crass, profane age of advanced species endangerment, global warming, 16% real unemployment and constant threat of economic collapse worldwide, surety is indeed a rare and precious commodity. Paralyzed leadership and dysfunctional government clouds our hope even more.    My best friend tells me this quotation will be unfathomed by at least 90% of the American public; alas, she may be correct — judging from our current cultural mess.  Nineteenth-century prose and syntax puts us off and tries our patience in the digital age.  And yet, who doesn’t still need a friend.

In his essay Emerson cautions the reader that “these fine pains” in regard to friendship are for curiosity, not for life. We should not indulge these high-minded notions lest we “weave cobwebs and not cloth.”  Emerson was an idealist but he knew the place of idealism:  — examining the conduct of life against an ideal. In the Twentieth Century JFK”s New Frontier and Johnson’s War on Poverty come to mind as examples of idealism’s limits. Another contrast is the inspiring rhetoric of JFK contrasted to the plain-spoken realism of Harry Truman.  We are sadly lacking in both these days.

Assuming that sure people make sure leaders, I want surety not only in my leaders but in my friends.  When I see a potential friend approaching, I am immediately cautious, guarded, ready at any moment to withdraw my head back under my shell.  However, I also want to stick my neck out, take a risk with a new acquaintance in the hope that some bond may be built between us. I want surety in my friend

I do not  claim to be all wise. I try not to be dogmatic despite apparent evidence that may challenge my set beliefs. I often fail in this.  My beliefs do not go willingly into doubt and then into renaissance.  As a true liberal I have a little dogma myself, but I am not worthy of liberal mindedness if I don’t try to know my own prejudices.  I’ve got blind spots in my vision as do all men and women.  I must keep an open mind, for example that libertarians and conservatives can be right.  I must at least entertain the possibility that Michelle Bachman can harbor a thought worth considering.  And she and anyone, politician or not, must have the same openness to me — if America is to succeed.  I expect a friend to listen.

Regarding “perfect intelligence” of another, I don’t possess it. I have no radar or sonar that can reveal the truth to me about a potential friend approaching me.  Late at night in the middle of the Pacific when my ship steamed alone in unlimited acres of water, we came across  other ships.  Depending upon whether the blip “closed” us or seemed intent on its own course, we in the radar shack were more or less curious.  At some point we could use  IFF or identification friend or foe.  If the contact responded with the correct code, we were assured of a bogey and not a skunk.   Human beings apply the same technique when they take fine pains.  Trifles indeed can be excellent warnings if they are confirmed.   The more trifling thoughts we can dismiss regarding another, the greater the potential of safe passage or encounter in the darkness. Without this process, we are naive sitting ducks. We must presume in others the same intelligent facility of us.  Thus begins the delicious torment.  The mutual sniffing begins.

Unfortunately we often  refuse even to sniff around, to check each other out, to even participate in trying to understand another person and his opinion.  It is quite unnatural to behave this way.  Animals instiinctively perform this ritual that ends up in coitus, play or battle.

We no longer quite understand genius as the spirit of a person or a place.  We think of it as bright IQ.  Nothing can be more unfathomable to one person than the spirit, largely intangible and powerful, of another.  Truthfully we do not fully understand our own spirit, our own genius, but it remains our essence.  The best we can do with the genius of a friend is to love it, to befriend it without question.  Of course, we must have decided it is a genius worth respecting.  More often than not,  liking a friend will be non-rational if not irrational.

All of this goes on whether we have a personal agenda or not.  So when Emerson says, “Thine ever or never,” he means “I apprehend your genius and I determine that it is good and at least compatible with my own which you must also see in me.  When we do this we cease to make of our friendship “a texture of wine and dreams.”  Instead we weave “the tough fibre of the human heart.”  And he adds, “The laws of friendship are austere and eternal.”

“Twitting” and “friending” on the Internet are nothing more than the sniffing when two dogs meet — assuming we don’t leap into a bad deal.  Children and young kids are incredibly vulnerable to predators because they don’t understand the virtues of coyness, camouflage, watching the back trail, reserve. playing hard to get, checking things out, even those trifling thoughts.

Steadfast and cautious,

 

David Milliken

 

 

 

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Ghost of My Failure Past: the PhD Octopus

For more than thirty-eight years I have been haunted by a failure . that has tinctured my life. Counseled by some to “just get over it,” I am only now seeing the ghost vanishing slowly behind me  in a mirror, but it recedes ever so slowly, too slowly at the pace of a tortoise. I want this specter to disappear from my life. Perhaps final demise depends upon this offering to cyberspace, an effort to save another PhD wannabe from a similar fate.

My ordeal battling the PhD Octopus occurred from 1970 through 1973 at a Midwestern, land-grant university I will call Stiltmoor State. While passing time and other careers have brought a measure of peace — enough for me to admit that a 20 something put himself into his own predicament — I would have preferred to be a professor today. I’d have been a good one, a teaching professor. At least that was my dream. However, there were causes of my failure to become another Mr. Chips and I want to reveal them. The particular PhD program itself is long since dead; and all emotion aside, deservedly so.

Therefore, I offer my caveat emptor. Because the University progresses no faster than the tortoise, much of what I experienced still goes on. And while schools have created Doctors of Arts programs for the teaching professional or better focused the PhD on teaching, the old, excruciating, academic, medieval dragon waits in his cave for the next knight in armor.

Perspective for my story goes back to 1903 when William James, brother of Henry James, wrote “The PhD Octopus,” for The Harvard Review.  James wrote his paper because he was concerned about the “tyrannical Machine” of graduate education and the growing obsession with examinations, diplomas and “decorative titles.” He feared that the American university could lose its openness to individuality and encourage a machine that would throttle personal independence. Jacques Barzun in his History of the American University(1968) said, “That octopus . . . has not relaxed a single one of its tentacles; rather, it has grown additional ones.” Barzun’s statement occurred in 1968 just five years before I bilged out of PhD School. Corey Olds most recently 1n 2009 has written “My ‘Miserably Naked Name: The Ph.D. Octopus Is Alive and Well.”

I encourage anyone considering a PhD program to read these and other articles on this arduous ordeal. Research on success and failure in graduate study is available from schools of education — and less likely from the academic disciplines themselves. The latter remain above it all. Read and then if you choose to venture into PhD Land, choose your university well. Not only did I make a miserable selection, but I picked a start up program at a mediocre English department. The vet school, however, was excellent and the football fanatical.

James referred to three types of graduate students. At the top are people who complete with ease, the great ordeals in life. These students are “naturally born” for professional success like natural athletes. Examinations do not terrify them. Their spiritual and worldly interests remain unaffected by sacred rituals. They might take a law degree, and then pop over to the medical school and wind up with an MD as well, and on schedule, hippity hoppity. I was decidedly not in this group. Frankly I don’t know why any of this class would ever have gone to low-prestige Stiltmoor State University, unless like me they had no alternative for financial reasons.  Taking out a private loan never occurred to me. In those days I had no awareness of the crucial importance of graduate school prestige in one’s career.

James’ second class of students are not as gifted as those in the first group, but somehow they still rise to the challenge and get a ‘stimulus from the difficulty.’ James says there are some among the cannon fodder “for whom to pass one degree after another seems the limit of earthly aspiration. A professor’s advice does not discourage them. They will fail, and go away to recuperate, and then present themselves for another ordeal, and sometimes prolong the process into middle life. Or else, if they are less heroic morally they will accept the failure as a sentence of doom that they are not fit, and are broken-spirited men thereafter.”

My heroic morality lasted only through the allotted two chances to pass prelims. Intellectual stimulus from literary ideas worked far better for me than the difficulties of an academic program.  My priorities were askew and thus, I fell among the cannon fodder certainly, but I didn’t fit perfectly into any of the classes.

While I was found “not fit” by the Committee, passing one degree after another has never appealed to me. Gauntlets have never inspired me with the competitive spirit. I had my Masters from a student-oriented institution I loved. In contrast my Stilty State professors had no effective advice to offer or they held their tongues. Only at the end one said, “There used to be a place for someone in your position, but unfortunately the market is very tight. Small liberal arts colleges don’t have to settle for a Master’s degree or Ab D (All but Dissertation). Good luck.”

I wasn’t even a certified AbD.   I had only a certified packet of course transcripts and a 3.7 GPA;  oh yes, and the memory of one professor’s recommendation to publish one of my papers on Shelley. I have read since that spending too much time on class work can be fatal in PhD school, but I always enjoyed writing papers and I put much time and effort into them — time that would have been better spent on memorization and data storage.

Thus, I fit James’ third group in my lack of “native force,” but I exclude myself from not having “marked originality.” In evidence I cite notations on papers praising my “imaginative insight.” For example,  I was good at associating ideas and relating, say Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” to America in the late Sixties.  I knew that in strict scholarly terms, association of ideas ranked low as marked originality — despite the fact that association lies at the heart of poetry. To be markedly original one must be William Empson developing the concept of The Seven Ambiguities of Literary Criticism. No one on the Stiltmoor faculty swam in Empsonian waters. (Later on I found some solace in the fact that a disillusioned Matt Arnold, one of my heroes,  slogged through a dull career as inspector of schools without benefit of a doctorate.)  In all my papers I was, if not original (and who really is), at least inventive. I was rather persistent and stubborn, but that’s not what James meant by “native force.” I was  willfully strenuous at best. Third groupers are fond of truth, study and books — here I finally fit. My cohort ranks as cannon fodder of the wars of learning — chair à canon as James puts it.”

My mood was improving when in 1973 I began re-inventing myself as a community college public information officer. There was hope. At least I was in post-secondary education, if not higher education. I hoped for a course or two to teach, but administrators were denied the chance. As an Idaho State friend of mine did, I might have started a doctoral program in communications, but I was utterly exhausted by my ordeal and could not immediately start another. And I was fed up with preparing. Besides, a proper job was in order.

Some Stiltmoor faculty maintained that GRE scores alone should not exclude a potentially fine professor. Stiltmoor, having said this, then utterly ignored the possibility that the English Department, might bear some responsibility for individualized mentoring, i.e. taking an interest in the student’s idiosyncrasies, and at least helping a man stay within the white safety stripes and guard rails. In truth Stiltmoor recruited its annual yearly chattel of teaching assistants, pre-MA’s and pre-PhD’s, and unleashed them on the freshmen. The senior faculty in order to publish and not perish were thus enabled to pursue the academic preferment of their fancy. Unfortunately Stilty State typified the profession-wide boondoggle.

Throughout the entire three years I felt like an outsider and, for a little while an unabashed one. Some said I was a little cavalier in my attitude. If true, perhaps I was reacting to my sense of isolation. I just did not fit. Behind my failure in PhD school lie elements of youthful ignorance, radical behavior and bull-headedness which I admit.  I was not an humble supplicant at the altar of erudition.

Once my faults are taken  into account, there remain questions of why I received positive comments and high marks on graduate papers and then was rejected by the examining committee.  Before I left I posed just this question and heard in response, “Well, we talk a lot about this in our meetings.” Silence.  Certainly a faculty of PhD’s, successful survivors of the ordeal themselves, could have seen behavioral warning signs and spoken up.  I heard not a word of admonition. Periodic performance reviews did not exist. Why didn’t the system filter me out sooner so that I might have got on with another life? They knew that most of their GTA’s were miserable and even established a liaison committee to improve morale and continued to chat in closed meetings — or didn’t. Many of us ultimately concluded that misery was part of silent harassment. A few smarter folks baled out. I tried to transfer but there was no assistant ship available. It did not even occur to me to take out a private loan.

James greatest fears have been realized. University faculties are responsible for creating this new class of ‘social failures.’ I am not among them now nor in their trap which ‘intends to pass no man who has not native intellectual distinction.’ That’s what William James said of Harvard. In some equally twisted form I have no doubt that the attitude prevailed at Stiltmoor State University as well. James also said critically that ‘we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of the inability of men who are not distingué in intellect to pass our tests.’ I do not regard myself as a social failure. Stiltmoor State was a social failure.

Quickly from my point of view I cannot tell anyone whether grad school is for her or not. For me, as far as credentialing or enhancing my income or copping better employment, my three years pursuing the PhD in English literature were wasted. I had every research skill I needed by the end of my Master’s program. Unfortunately I elected to hold the pencil harder.  I’m afraid I was badly spoiled by my previous institutions and faculties where amidst hard work there had been joy of learning — even some laughter. Because I had prevailed before, I assumed I would again. I admit my ignorance of the realities of the institutional, academic life. Mr. Chips world disappeared long ago if it ever existed.

Stiltmoor State, of course, had a library and I did benefit personally from more books and writing. In an otherwise stultifying atmosphere of academic pretension, I recall with greatest pleasure my courses in 19th Century British Literature, my projected area of specialization — especially The Romantic Movement. The Augustans or Neo-classicists of the 18th Century? Well, I found them august; and satire has never much appealed to me, even though at Idaho State I wrote my thesis on the first four novels of John Barth. Given time and application I hoped to appreciate them better. The Metaphysicals like Marvel and Donne? Oh, one day in the quiet of my cellar room I’ll return to them. I might have been wise then to become a journalist — seeing that Addison and Steele produced literature. But that’s useless hindsight. In an otherwise grim society one professor of Old and Medieval English provided warmth and humor. He seemed to have a whole other life. Alas, now I remember only a line from Deor: “Thaes ofeorode, Thisses swa maeg,which means “That passed away, so may this.”

The good friend at Idaho State wound up teaching English in a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts — pretty close to the ideal I had imagined. Hindsight again. In fact, later on when I entered PR, I taught myself a journalistic style. An MFA might have been another avenue or even rhetoric and composition. But no, I decided to slog on and try to finish what I had started. How many times can a man start over? I pondered.

I let myself be trapped. I also think that the faculty at Stilty knew they had sold out to this Mandarin system. And it seems to me there had to be some cynicism in setting up a new doctoral program in an already glutted market. But I was there too, an enabler of sorts, a buyer. They had to have known they were guilty of malpractice — especially related to a certain type of student.

But I learned to beware of the poo pah of the academic effete. The pretentious, high nose of erudition can be very cruel. And Stiltmoor State  University was its home and still is metaphorically speaking. A little research well after my failure revealed that many universities like Northwestern and Columbia take greater care with pedagogy at the graduate level. Some attempt to reveal the real demands of university career building. Many schools design programs with checkpoints of progress. In addition some sensibly break twelve centuries of  literature into manageable pieces. Like law schools they take stock in one’s ability to look something up — far more important than a pedantic memory bank.

Once at Stilty I said to a don, “Then I should assume I need to know everything from Beowulf through Arthur Miller ?” “Yes,” came the reply, “and in depth and breadth and a little Faulkner would be wise.  Memorize the Cambridge history and don’t forget the best of literary criticism.” Had I known at the time, I might have selected one of those universities that permit a measure of specialization between the completion of credit requirements and prelims.  Question is, would any of them have been interested in taking a man from Bench Three?   Probably not.

I came out okay, but I’ve had to repair a broken spirit. A sense of the damage has never left me and never will. You can usually tell when a car has been through a major accident. There are signs that disappear only in final demolition and recycling — tough to do with a human being. In the mean time the damage is permanent. Just like a once-wrecked car, my frame’s a little twisted. I consistently pull a little to the left and I shall never have even tire wear.

At this juncture a natural tendency would be to serve  up  some woe is me and wring my  hands over what might have been.  I will not do that.  First, I have already done so to the extent necessary. Privately and alone I have had my excesses. I will not do it again. The brink of despair isn’t fun. Eventually the cud must be expectorated and rumination ceased.  Some stuff cannot be or should not be digested.  Second, it is not the way of the wise tortoise to pass hours in lamentation. The clock ticks and I must get on with new activity.  Third, that’s the way God made the world and I will not challenge his design. Professor Larry Rice at Idaho State, a Milton scholar, once advised me to submit. “I submit, Larry.”

I can’t blame anyone for not having in Emerson’s term “a perfect intelligence of me” (although Larry Rice came pretty close). I did not have sufficient intelligence of myself — even at thirty-one. And I’ve taught enough to know that no teacher can predict or perfect a student’s performance or savvy. No professor is responsible for developing anyone’s self understanding. I do think they might have made some effort, however, to salvage a 3.7 failure and one whose insight impressed them. Basic humanity can be sorely lacking in the academic Humanities. There was no reality at Stilty State — only my delusions butting against quietus. Something was wrong and it needed fixing.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken


HERE ARE SOME SITES TO VISIT:

http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7661357/a-phd-in-the-humanities.  This is animated and worth the visit.  Wish I’d seen it years ago.

http://www.whitecoatblackhat.com/academicfailure/. An amusing, satirical view of the whole process.  A budding grad student should not miss this, while there’s still time.

http://matt.might.net/articles/successful-phd-students/.  Three requirements of a Ph.D. student.

 

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Perseverance

Goodness, Lord, what more perfect word could there be to contemplate on Good Friday!  Call it persistence on a course through time, such as a mission or an ordeal — steadfast and undaunting  and not without doubt for even Jesus cried, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me.”  The idea of enduring despite setbacks and pitfalls has to be an essential part of the meaning of perseverance. One must be tested in some way against high standards or great threatening evils.

Theologically speaking, particularly in the Calvinist way, perseverance is the peculiar virtue of the Elect of God, those chosen few who persevere until they are lifted up into Glory.  Well, the Tortoise will not presume to be in such a class or state of Grace, although animals probably have a legitimate claim to the condition — more so than a lot of humans; ah, but that is to judge.  A tortoise should never judge a creature “higher up” on the Great Chain of Being.

Split the word into per– as in “through” and  “severance” and you get the notion of severing one’s self away from something to be arduously avoided, perhaps a Puritan’s mark of scorn — the Scarlet Letter being an extreme. Perhaps the persevering person severs himself from baser behaviors, i.e. sin.  It seems to mean that passage through a mission or ordeal remains essential to the meaning of the word.  Fanatical self-righteousness need not be the  goal of perseverance.

In Ephesians 6:18 , the only reference I find in my Concordance, Paul says, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit; and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.”  This comes after Paul has spoken of bearing God’s armor, and “loins girt about with truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness.”  So perseverance is the behavior of convicted veterans or persons pretty well along their way in a faith quest.  Through perseverance one “quenches the fiery darts of the wicked.”  Whether one must have this trait in full or whether he can always be striving for it is not clear to me.  If it’s the former, I’m out of luck. I know for certain that I am not one of the Elect.  I’ll have to stick with “praying always with all prayer” in the hope I’ll come out a better person in my striving. This tortoise  hopes a lot.

Of one thing I am certain, the Man of Good Friday and the Christ of Easter passed the test immaculately and set an example far beyond my poor powers.

Happy Easter!

The Tortoise

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