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Roundtable

BETTY SUE FLOWERS, MODERATOR

 

Good afternoon. When we were planning this meeting, we decided to try something different this year for the roundtable discussion. We noticed that most members leave before the Sunday morning business meeting and discussion roundtable and so miss what have often been lively discussions. So we thought we’d move the discussion to the end of Saturday afternoon—but we neglected to take the football game into account! So now, once again, those who are left will have to be twice as philosophical for the ones that we’ve lost. I’ve also been asked, “Who’s on the roundtable?” You’re the people on the roundtable; this is the philosophy part of the philosophical discussion.

 

   I want to thank Mike for what I think is a wonderful putting-together of this program. Now, Mike is so modest, he’ll probably stand up and thank Ima Hogg—so thank you, Ima Hogg. As you can see, he’s clapping for her now.

 

   We have heard so much today and so many different things on many different themes. I’m guessing that at some point during the day, you’ve probably wished to say something in relation to a point made by a speaker. Normally, conducting a discussion in a classroom, I would want to make sure it stayed on topic and that if Person A said something, that Person B’s response should have something to do with that. Those won’t be the ground rules here. There is one rule, however, and that is that you will kindly keep your comments to a reasonable length so that other people have a chance to talk.  

  

   One of the issues we faced in thinking about the programming is that there are so many members of the Philosophical Society who could just as easily have been up here on one of the panels. Many of them are sitting out here in the audience today. I was thinking of Bill Wright, for example, a photographer and writer. I would have liked to know what he thought about some of the questions Evan asked. There are just so many people out there who could have been up here.

 

   So now is your chance. When you raise your hand, one of the three microphones will be given to you. Also, would you stand up so we can see you, and identify yourself? That would be very helpful.

 

Audience: My name is Tom Palaima, I’m a professor at the University of Texas and a member of the society, a very happy member of the society.

 

   One of the constant themes here has been the impact of technology on every subject that we’ve looked at. Larry Wright mentioned what I really want to get at because it even goes back to some of the talks we heard on education. We saw with the medical talks as well, that technology can usher in a lot of good, but it can also bring in a lot of ill. So what Larry was saying is the impact on how news is delivered—if we don’t have news institutions that fact-check, that keep reporters on topics, that cover things honestly, well, how do we know what kind of information we’re getting?

 

  And this is the question I want to ask to the educators who were talking about using technology in the classroom. To me, the idea that students will be able to go immediately to cell phones and get information—well, what information are those students getting? Even to establish as a paradigm, to go quickly to the internet for information. For example, every website on the Middle East, whether it’s pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, will talk about truth in information, or neutral information when, in fact, most of the websites are highly biased.

 

   So the question is how do you control the technology? And then the second question, too, is that I really wonder if there is such a thing as a new mind that we’re supposed to work with, or if this is not almost a selffulfilling way of looking at things. I was actually really troubled by the image of how we now read a page, left to right, down the page, taking in all the information. Now we’re told that students in the classroom only look at the perimeter and the upper left, and so that the solution to that is to load all the information in the upper left. But once they leave the classroom, they’re going to still be presented with information on full pages, and so what are we doing by essentially playing to a way that these students are being guided by technology? Technology is not a thinking thing; technology is being manipulated by forces like computer providers and so forth. I know I’ve just blown the idea of a short question, but there it is.

 

Dr. Flowers: Thank you, I thought that was very interesting.

Audience: Larry Speck, I’m a member of the society and a faculty member of the School of Architecture here. I was so taken with your talk about the way the brain is changing and brain waves are changing. There’s a fantastic book called Everything Bad Is Good For You. It’s a terrible name for a book, but it’s actually a pretty good scholarly book on the way that technology has changed our brains, and especially not our brains, but our kids’ brains, because developmentally they’re exposed to so much more. What we see as noise—actually, the brain is capable of absorbing that.

    But the evidence I have for that is that I’ve been teaching this large lecture class for years at the university, and part of it is visual identification. I’m trying to get these kids to see and to then test if they are. I used to give the same damn way of measuring that 20 years ago, and you know, 60 percent of the class would see. And I do it now, and I can’t get a bell curve out of it; 100 percent, they all see. They see so much better than kids did even ten years ago. It’s phenomenal, and it’s because they’re so visually aware. They’ve been playing those video games where you had to see that little rabbit over here half an hour ago to know that was going cue you into this little clue. They’re just accustomed to pulling in visual information in a phenomenal way.

   Now, if we don’t take advantage of that, if we don’t understand their brains are better able to do some things, we’re stupid. I mean, we need to keep doing the same things we’ve been doing, traditional ways of learning, but these kids have brains that can do things that are phenomenal, and we need to address that.

Audience: Ken Shine, a member of the society. I have responses to the two previous comments and then a question. Professor Palaima, we’ve learned in medicine, for example, our house staff, interns, and students all carry PDAs; they know what the accepted sites are, where to get information about drugs. We tell our patients what sites to use when they need to get information about diabetes. There’s no reason why students can’t have access to all kinds of instant information, and our failure has been to help guide them as to where to look so they don’t make random kinds of decisions.

   And secondly, and this goes to Professor Speck’s comment. We still hear people talking about seminars and the need for face-to-face with small numbers of students, but watching kids on chat rooms, that experience is just as real as if they were in a classroom. Higher education, in my opinion, has been really derelict in its willingness to take on the use of technology. In, for example, the chat room approach, there are now courses that have been taught in neuroscience where the class never meets, but where the students can learn 24/7. They ask their professors questions, the professors answer those questions before they go to bed at ten o’clock at night, and they answer them to all of the students. And the fact is that, in my view, higher education has been extremely slow to do what Nancy has been talking about.

   We heard from some remarkably outstanding people about good programs; we’ve been hearing about that for 25 years. There are around this country extraordinary people like Nancy who are charismatic, who are knowledgeable, who work 24 hours a day, who put in enormous amounts of energy, and we never can scale it up. We don’t see evidence that we can reproduce this in a meaningful way for large numbers of kids. And when she goes on to become the president of some university, who will do this? And my question is how do you go up from KIPP and from Nancy and from others? How do you go from there? What has to happen to make an educational system K-12 work in this country?

Dr. Flowers: Yes, and that’s related to our questions about the political will to increase the class day and number of class hours.

Audience: Bob Inman here. First, Nancy, I thought yours was one of the most exciting sessions of the entire day, and particularly because they’re staying in school, in a place where we lose so many of them without ever getting them on to what Tom is worrying about. I’m worrying about how do we keep them in school and keep them learning and then hope they’ll get to the other things as time goes on.

   The other is we need to walk away from fear of change; accept the change that’s there; and find how we can adapt it to be the most effective. I was listening to how they can be sure about the data they’re getting, and I immediately thought of the paper of record. When it corrects its many ongoing current mistakes, it’s always buried on the second page, but never corrected in the database, so when you try to call up that source, what you still get is the original incorrect data. So we have a very imperfect system now, even as we need to try to find ways to make the oncoming system better.

Audience: My name is still Lloyd Lochridge. My concern is this—and there’s been reference to it in this program—and that is, our newspapers in this country, some of them have failed already. Some of them are in weak condition. I have the feeling that the newspapers have been the backbone of our news, and I don’t think I’m seeing that replaced by the technology, if you will.

   I don’t represent a newspaper, but my father started out as a newspaper man and had the Austin Statesman, a sister was a journalist, and a nephew has been a journalist, so perhaps that’s the interest. But this is my personal interest: I’m worried about who is going to publish the in-depth criticisms and the information that is vital, I think, for the public. Can you all tell me something optimistic that will happen to keep these newspapers going, the good ones in particular? That’s my concern.

Dr. Flowers: I’m sorry Evan had to leave because he’s trying to respond to that concern in his new enterprise.

Audience: James Galbraith. I teach here, and I’m a member of the society, and I find that as I get older, I’ve gotten more oppositional, and my dean, Bob Inman, is surprisingly tolerant of this. I’ve spent my whole career here, almost 25 years now, teaching against a stifling orthodoxy in my field—I’m an economist, of all things, something that I’ve gotten some mileage out of in the last couple of years because the central issue was whether the kind of crisis that we just  experienced is possible or not.

   The topic of today’s session was creativity. It seems to me one of the essential elements in creativity is the ability to disturb and to shock, to find the courage to challenge an established view or a sensibility. And there’s obviously an enormous tension between cultivating that and fostering it and having an orderly system of education and harmonious society. But as I listened this afternoon, I didn’t find myself disturbed or shocked by anything that I heard, and I found that somewhat disturbing.

   So I wanted to ask those who are also educators if someone perhaps has wrestled with this problem. How do you go about balancing the concerns that have been expressed here about accuracy in technology and all these important things with also the need to make sure that the truly creative talent, which is always quite distinctive, gets fostered, doesn’t get suppressed, gets recognized, and ultimately gets encouraged so that we have truly a creative state going forward?

Audience: Thank you, Betty Sue. I’m Gail Thomas from Dallas, a member, and I’m addressing this question about the way we are creating a new brain. I am remembering a book that’s just been published by Joshua Cooper Ramo called The Age of the Unthinkable. He has done brain studies with students in China, graduate students, and students here in the United States, and the brain. When a Chinese student is focusing at a picture, the studies show that the eye focuses on many things around the center of the picture first and then goes later to the very center of a subject. Say it’s a horse in a field. In America, our students look immediately to the horse, immediately to that central one subject. And his point is that the art of the Chinese is landscape painting, poetry, and so on. The texture, the landscape of the education of the Chinese, he said, is to look at the surroundings and then focus, zero in to some center focus. Whereas, our students, he says, have been educated to look at one thing and then they lose the ambiance and all of that particularity of what is surrounding it.

   And yet, what I’m hearing today is that perhaps all of the surrounding environment is filling in what we’ve been doing in the past, focusing on one center thing. So it helped me understand, Nancy, what might be taking place in this shift that’s going on. And, also, I couldn’t help but think that it’s an education through nature that would bring back, fill in this need that we have to be taught. Nature teaches from everything, every aspect of our being and our soul and our history and our future. It’s all there in the intelligence that’s in nature, and so we’re not able to focus literally, as we have when we’ve concentrated on professional studies and one item, one area, and so on. That was my comment.

Audience: My name is Israel Galvan. I’m from League City. I want to preface my question by two very short comments. I read once, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, that when books became readily available and cheap, that Oxford University and Cambridge thought about shutting down because now that books were readily available, they didn’t need any more professors. Perhaps we’re on a similar kind of thing here now with the modern technology. But in 1936, Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote a slim book whose exact title I don’t recall, but it was criticizing the American educational system with a thin-veiled attack on John Dewey. John Dewey appropriately responded in a criticism of the book, and this debate went on for about ten years in popular magazines.

   The question I have for educators, especially university presidents, is if the American university system is changing, or is it changing fast enough, or does there have to be a major readjustment in order to accommodate what we perceive to be a very rapidly changing landscape? Thank you.

Dr. Flowers: No one is willing to tackle that one. I can’t believe the Philosophical Society has run out of things to say—or perhaps there just aren’t any of our Society’s university presidents in the audience at the moment.

Audience: My name is Jack Shale. I’m from Temple, and I’m not sure if I should be speaking because I’m a guest, but I would like to respond to two threads that I’ve heard, and I think Mr. Galvan added to them. Professor Palaima talked about technology being out of control and the idea that the blogosphere has mushroomed, and Mr. Lochridge talked about what’s happened to newspapers, and maybe we should save at least the good ones.

   How to control it—control makes me very nervous. Probably the single greatest freedom we have in this country is the freedom of speech, and I get real nervous about who’s going to choose which of the good newspapers we’re saving? Quis custodiet custodes? Who will guard the guards? And I would lean toward taking the chance that that debate will go on for ten years, and this is a transitional period where newsprint is being replaced by digital methods of passing on information, and it will shake itself out. Mr. Murdoch has said that free news can’t be free, so he’s going to start charging for it, and people will start going where they can get news that they’re willing to pay for. I would be very, very cautious about any kind of controls.

Audience: My name is Steve Sonnenberg. I’m Professor Palaima’s guest, so I want you all to consider my comments as a way of saying “thank you” for a lovely day. Without going into too much detail about my discipline, I do want to tell you definitively that the brain of our next generation is no different than the brain that each one of us has. It takes millions of years to change a brain. What we may be doing is emphasizing new brain skills, new brain potentials that were always there. We emphasize one set of potentials, perhaps like the example that Larry Speck gave, students can recognize images much more readily now because they spend so much time looking at screens that change very rapidly.

   We also need to ask what skills might be lost that previous generations had—previous generations that sat in libraries, went into the stacks, and didn’t have computers. Remember the stacks at Princeton? You didn’t know what you were looking for, you just found things. You encountered a book, and suddenly, surprise! A whole new idea. And what I want to emphasize is that creativity involves the capacity to experience surprise. And what I want to just say, finally, what concerns me about the technology is that there’s so much stimulation that there’s a loss of the capacity to stop and experience surprise.

Dr. Flowers: Maybe that’s a kind of answer to Jamie’s question about shock or creativity and surprise. And that makes me wonder whether writers like Larry Wright or Steve Harrigan—to what extent do you think in your own creative work you need to surprise or shock? I’m actually calling on you, Steve.

Audience: Steve Harrigan. This is scary. Well, there’re a lot of interesting things that have been brought up. While this conversation was going on, I was thinking about our two-year-old grandson. About a year ago I showed him a photograph of one of the family members, and he did this [gesturing]; he tried to stretch it with his fingers.

Dr. Flowers: I don’t know if all of you could see what Steve was doing. That gesture he made is what you do to stretch a picture on an iPhone.

Audience: And so that was almost inbred in him, that instinct. But yes, I think shock and surprise is something that is sometimes overvalued in art, but it’s sometimes undervalued in an individual artist. I think you need to keep shocking and surprising yourself—horrifying yourself even, with stuff that you dredge up from your sub consciousness. But I think that the sort of deliberate attempt to shock the bourgeoisie has been going on for so long, it’s a cliché. And so to me, it’s always a fine balance between finding what’s new within you and also what’s new that you can present to the world at large.

Audience: Hi, I’m Kathy Supple. Today’s discussions reminded me of several things that—oh, somebody spilled their coffee. Sorry.

Dr. Flowers: That’s what being a president’s wife is all about!

Audience: Always worried about the rug! Years ago, I taught high school English, and I did a couple of essay assignments that really remind me of what we’re talking about today. One of the assignments that I used to give was to ask them to write about something that they thought that in 50 to 100 years, people would look back at 2009, or whatever year, and say, “Oh, my God, did you know what those people did back then?” I’d give my high school students examples like the car. When my grandmother was a kid, she had to go by horse wherever she went—those kinds of things.

   But the really revealing one to me was when I said to my kids, “Describe something that when you were a child, you didn’t understand, but you made up your own explanation for it. I gave them an example that was so revealing to me. I was driving down the road with my three-year-old son, and we stopped for a red light. And he said, “Mom?”—You know how kids ask a million questions. “What, Paul?” I said. “Why are we stopped in the middle of the street?” I said “There’s a red light.” “Mom, what’s a red light?” And I thought to myself, this child—all these years he’d been going down the street with his mother stopping every once in a while. Did he think I was thinking about philosophy or something?

   So I told these students to think of something they tried to explain when they were a child that they didn’t understand. This one student wrote a wonderful essay about being a child in New York City. His parents had emigrated from Greece, and the grandparents got left behind. But when he was about eight years old, they brought the grandparents over. The grandparents spoke no English, but they lived in a community where there were lots of Greeks, and so all the people who were, say, 70 and above, spoke Greek. Of course, he didn’t understand it. And so in his mind he decided that when you got to be old, there was a secret language everybody knew.

Dr. Flowers: That may still be true. Is there someone else who hasn’t spoken?

Audience: Cheryl Fleming, North Zulch. Yes, Jon and I are from North Zulch, and it is close to College Station. I want to thank Mike Gillette and the members of your committee for putting together what I think has been an amazing survey of the human condition from the beginning—to educate and to learn, to explore and to discover, to express and to communicate. I think it’s been a marvelous revelation of what is the art of life. We are all alive; we are all creative; we all attempt to communicate.

   How do we communicate? We label things. We’re going to move and express, and we’re going to call that dance; we’re going to organize sound, and we’re going to call that music; we’re going to put together images, and we’re going to call that visual art. But at the root, we are exploring, discovering, reaching out to one another to find new essence of life, the art of life, to be creative and to be who we are, humans, and express our humanity. And I think this session on creativity today has been a magnificent exploration into our own humanity, and as we educate and learn, as we seek and explore, as we express and communicate with one another, we are the most human at that point. So Mike and everybody, thank you from North Zulch.

Audience: Tom Palaima again. Well, there was one question that was asked that I think is extremely important. That was how to take all of the successful educational programs, the sort of experimental programs, and make them general. Is Michael Feinberg here still, or did he leave? Because with the KIPP program, I think I remember correctly, he said that what he was aiming at was 10 percent, and there’s this tipping point theory. In other words, you have to get to a certain scale, so at least he thinks it’s 10 percent.

   And I wanted to also tie into this question about what happens with institutions like newspapers—and this is leaving aside whether it’s run by Rupert Murdoch or run by the New York Times or Washington Post. That problem has always existed. And this ties into what Jamie was saying. One of the most revelatory books in the last 20 years in ancient Greek history had to do with creating the barbarian, and it’s a known phenomenon. We’ve had it in the United States ourselves; we know who we are as long as there’s an enemy out there. We had that in the Cold War, and we’ve been rather rudderless since the end of the Cold War. The Greeks had the same deal. But in many ways, this is, I think, a follow-up to what Jamie is saying. If creativity really is breaking down orthodoxy, or challenging orthodoxy, what is going to happen if we don’t have the standard sources that define for us what the orthodox is? In other words, if there’s just the kind of Tower of Babel effect out there with blogospheres and un-checkable news sources, and we don’t have a common trough, what will happen?

   Steve Sonnenberg and I have a piece appearing in tomorrow’s Austin American-Statesman in the “Insight” section about the impact of war violence on the general population and what the civilian population can do to help essentially defuse the toxicity of the violence of war—so look for that tomorrow. But one of the things we had inserted in it is that the difference between what’s going on now and what went on during the Vietnam War was that during Vietnam, we had three national television stations, all of which really did take seriously the responsibility to get some form of standard news. Now, whether you were on the far left or the far right, whether you were in New York City or Topeka, Kansas, you were watching these three stations, and they were the starting point of information for discussions in your community. Again, you could have very different takes, but at least you had a standard to go by.

   So there are two serious questions connected with this news source: do we have the standards that allow us all to feed from the common trough and then talk to one another; and secondly—and I think it’s related to your question, Jamie—if you don’t have orthodoxy, how do you have the creativity that challenges orthodoxy. So essentially, ironically, orthodoxy is like the enemy, the Persians for the ancient Greeks, in many ways.

Dr. Flowers: Well, maybe there’s an opportunity there to define ourselves by our relationships and not by our enemies—that’s just a thought. Is there another comment or question? Does anyone want to hear from someone that you’re willing to call on?

Audience: I was struck also by the quality of the program, but as you pointed out, there’s a lot of diversity of knowledge and experience, and I just wonder, for purposes of future programs, whether the planning committees might want to consider some portion of the program, one or two parts of it, to take the form of point-counterpoint kinds of  conversations. That is, where there is a perspective of different views posed in which there would be real opportunities for representation of members who have experience or knowledge in a particular area to debate, in fact, in some depth, some of these important questions.

   It’s perfectly reasonable to have the general discussion, but in some cases, it seems to me—and technology is a good example where there are both pluses and minuses—a structured debate about impact. There are obviously ethical issues associated with many of these things and that might make for an interesting kind of program.

Dr. Flowers: I know we have one future president here in the room, so I’ll pass that suggestion along. I think we want to hear you. Could you identify yourself, also?

Audience: Yes, we’ve done this before. I remember when we had capital punishment and the prison systems, and that is a really good thing to do. We had a couple who talked about “This should be done, and the people should be electrocuted”—this was a while ago—and others said “People shouldn’t.” I think it’s a great idea.

Dr. Flowers: Anyone else with any questions, comments? Thank you all.

Dr. Gillette: Thank you, Betty Sue and everyone.

   Now we come to the passing of the baton or gavel. And I’d just like to say as I hand the gavel to Mark McLaughlin that it has been a great pleasure for me to have this opportunity and the honor that you have bestowed. To me, this organization is really the best conversation in Texas and every time I go to a meeting I simply do not have enough time to have all of the rich conversations that I want to have because there are so many of them and so many people you want to see.

   I deeply appreciate the chance to shape the program this year, but more than that the chance to interact with you and to get to know the other members of the board. That has really been a very special experience for me to share the governing of the organization with members who have guided it for so many years, and I’ve learned a great deal from them and I appreciate their support, all the support that they have given me. I am really looking forward to next year and not having the responsibility of planning a meeting but just simply enjoying it.

So thank you so much. I appreciate it.