Monday, 25 May 2015

Socrates the man

I've been working (somewhat peripherally to a group at work) to come up with a series of statements to try and develop a philosophical foundation for the use of Inuktitut at work (or, more precisely, use bilingualism at work). I call them 'axioms' and their 'corollaries' not so much because they're self-evident as Euclid's axioms on geometry supposedly are but because I think Spinoza's framework is cool.

These aren't all necessarily original but they provide me with some clarity of thought:

Axiom: "all human languages are equal"

Corollary 1: "grammar defines that equality"

Axiom: "concepts and ideas are not words"

etc. etc.

As a linguist, I've always been fascinated by such gems as "little, green ideas dream furiously" (actually it is: "colourless, green ideas..."), and I think I've got it why such constructs may be generated but are meaningless nonetheless. It has to do with how and what kinds of adjectives and adverbs are allowed in language: there are abstract nouns that require abstract adjectives and concrete nouns that require concrete adjectives...and so on.

But what has been mulling in my mind is how the syllogistic about Socrates the man works. I think I know why and how it works. But first here is the syllogism:

all men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Again, the abstract vs concrete notion applies here. Socrates the man is clearly different from 'man' per se in that Socrates the man may take on adjectives in ways that the notion of 'man' cannot and vice versa. There are 'old men' to be sure, but Socrates the man wasn't always old (despite all my mental images of him he was once a young boy, he grew up and died) whereas once I've inserted 'old' before 'men' I've collapsed the idea into that one grammatical specificity.

I've been doing a running joke with my students here in Baker Lake by mangling the calque 'good morning' in Inuktitut. Though I swear I use proper Inuktitut versions of adjectives the ones I use aren't of my dialect (nor anyone's for that matter in how I use them) and I get amused looks because they understand what I'm saying but what I'm saying doesn't make much sense.

This notion of specificity is an important concept in what I'm trying to achieve in what I opened with in this entry here. In mathematical terms it'd be a group (or, a set but I prefer group). We all know that literal translation rarely works and why it doesn't work happens at many different levels but that doesn't negate the possibility of translation. A translation that works well does so because of what is called the Karenina Principle. It's kind of hard to explain so I'll just quote a text I recently drafted for the course we just completed:

Some Persistent Issues Surrounding Translation
Besides the structural issues that arise when we try and do translation—which are, as we saw, technical in nature and, therefore, can be solved given the proper means and research—there are also deeper issues that seem rather insurmountable in comparison to the structural ones. The reason for this is that these deeper issues are not only technical but also philosophical and/or even ideological in nature.

One of these that have long been known to be problematic to Inuktitut translator/interpreters is the legal interpreting field. The reasons for the difficulties that confront Inuktitut translators are rather too complex for this course to address but there are broad and general cultural and sociological insights that may shed some light into the problem itself. Using the legal system per se as representative of this type of problem, let us see if anything can be done to alleviate the issue somewhat.

Form or Function
The notions of morality, as we know, are culture-specific—ie, are embedded into the structure and psychology of the language itself. This fact alone makes the issue a seemingly insoluble labyrinth of dead ends and false starts with no end in sight. We are swimmers in our own languages after all, and like the fish that may not even realize it is in water, we find ourselves pretty much in the same bind.

It has been said that “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back” (attributed to the famous Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdös). It is in this spirit (perhaps overly-naïve) that we should approach the problem of legal interpreting. There are two basic strategies open to us as translators: describing form and/or function.

Form and function are referenced here not in the sense of linguistic terms but rather in the sense of being descriptors of concepts and the processes in which these concepts are used. The reason for this stratagem is that the Inuit language is structured to describe novelty which then can become lexicalized into a root word in its own right.

If we but imagine the notions of “guilt” or “innocence” as two possible outcomes in the formalized ritual of arraignment, we can see immediately that the words themselves can be transcended with surprising efficacy. Having transcended a word trap of the most vicious kind we can now look into the purpose of ‘arraignment’ itself:

“In legal terms, a plea is simply an answer to a claim made by someone [else] in a criminal case under common law using the adversarial system.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plea)

The question then becomes a matter of phrasing an interrogative in such a way that a plea can be made without getting mired in the philosophical/ideological load of the words in the source language.

The quote above is an example of a 'group theory of translation'. Instead of getting trapped by "guilt" and "innocence" we treat it in binary terms (ie, yes or no; or, agree or disagree). The Karenina Principle also applies because there is really only one way of getting it right.

Jay

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Person of Interest

I'm a huge fan of the TV show, Person of Interest, which was created by Jonathan Nolan of The Batman Trilogy. There are parallels, to be sure, between Person of Interest and The Batman Trilogy that are hard to deny. But these similarities go deeper than the obsidian aesthetics into the fracturing of the Batman symbol into the multiple principals of the TV show. And it works; it works beautifully.

The fiction genre called American Gothic has always been evolving into something of the psychologically real and the metaphorically plausible that, I think, is best captured not by description but by 'ephemera' of its kind, such as Cat Power's The Greatest:

Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
Stars at night turned deep to dust

Melt me down
Into big black armor
Leave no trace of grace
Just in your honor...

In its latest iteration a la Person of Interest superstitious angst gives way to moral angst of fallible, psychologically-real people who find themselves having to deal with the fallout of unmitigated, unhindered development of technology. But technology has always been a character of Gothic fiction, you say?

No doubt. But here we see it forming and evolving organically rather than presented fully-formed and one-dimensional. In Person of Interest there is The Machine (the good guy—Root calls it a her) and Samaritan (the bad guy—whom we know to be neither 'good' nor 'bad' but for its 'father'). There is nothing cursory about Nolan's treatment of his characters.

It is the difference between vintage comic book whose Superman is Nietzschean in nature and Frank Miller's The Batman whom Jonathan Nolan pays homage to in his Batman movies. The 'villains' also are more complex and organically-derived in that they're relatable at some level. The television series format allows that space and time for its characters to develop organically, but under Nolan's genius the characters' can do it even within the two-hours normally afforded in big screen format.

There are rumours going around that CBS has bought only 13 more episodes of Person of Interest after this season's powerful finale. Man, I hope not. If so, Ed The Sock will be proven right:

"...that's enough proof, says Ed The Sock, that in order to stay alive on television for a long time, all you have to do is suck.

According to our sock-puppet commentator, the fact 'Person of Interest'—a show that actually predicted the Edward Snowden NSA whistle-blowing scandal—might not stay on the air is proof that on network television mediocrity rules." (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/05/20/person-of-interest-cancelled_n_7343266.html)

Jay

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Nunavut University?

I held off as long as I could...

I love the idea of developing an accredited university in Nunavut—I'm a lover of education and knowledge in general. But I have found—much to my dismay—that I often have notions that seem somewhat at odds with those of others. This didn't use to bother me much when I had that indignant hunger for 'social justice' (ie, my ideas of it anyhow). But it was a hunger and thirst of equal opportunity—shall I say?

I must admit that I didn't read the articles about the idea of 'Nunavut university' that I have been seeing recently in the media outlets that focus on Arctic issues and current affairs. The taglines kind of put me off (I thought: here we go again), and I do not enjoy getting worked up like I used to anymore. But I bit the bullet and gave in to actually read the news piece on the CBC website.

I've been a longtime supporter of Terry Audla. I think he's one of a handful of Inuit leaders who take his work seriously and actually has the savvy to advocate for our concerns and interests convincingly from inside the system on out. His words make a whole lot of sense:

"It's based on Inuit becoming more aware of where they stand in society in general. When it comes to the decision-makers, academia has a lot of influence. When you have that, the more credence you're given." (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nunavut-university-promoted-as-voice-and-inspiration-for-inuit-culture-1.3077490)

This is in sharp contrast with what the other quoted comments say about the idea of a Nunavut university some of whom are already saying what Inuit think:

An initial course list was proposed: Inuit studies, fine arts, linguistics, political science and indigenous governance, education, health, natural science and law.

Research would be limited to what Inuit care about.

"One participant noted that the European tradition of 'knowledge for knowledge's sake' does not align with Inuit beliefs and values, and as such should not be promoted or supported by a university in Inuit Nunangat," says the report. (ibid)

wow. you don't say...

I was watching a The Simpsons episode where Lisa actually convinces Principal Skinner and the Superintendent to implement a Humboldt school. Though it made tongue-in-cheek fun of this education theory and practice the theory and practice itself is a very interesting concept.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (22 June 1767 – 8 April 1835) was a Prussian polymath who was appointed by Friedrich Wilhelm III to reform the education system of the empire. I first came across a reference to this great man in a book on the Riemann Hypothesis and was immediately intrigued by him in that his work produced one of the most productive era of advancements in human knowledge in the German tongue.

A cursory glance at the Wikipedia entry on his name says of him:

Humboldt installed a standardized system of public instruction, from basic schools till secondary education, and founded Berlin University. He imposed a standardization of state examinations and inspections and created a special department within the ministry to oversee and design curricula, textbooks and learning aids.

Humboldt's plans for reforming the Prussian school system were not published until long after his death, together with his fragment of a treatise on the 'Theory of Human Education', which he had written in about 1793. Here, Humboldt states that 'the ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person […] through the impact of actions in our own lives.' This task 'can only be implemented through the links established between ourselves as individuals and the world around us' (GS, I, p. 283).

Humboldt's concept of education does not lend itself solely to individualistic interpretation. It is true that he always recognized the importance of the organization of individual life and the 'development of a wealth of individual forms' (GS, III, p. 358), but he stressed the fact that 'self-education can only be continued […] in the wider context of development of the world' (GS, VII, p. 33). In other words, the individual is not only entitled, but also obliged, to play his part in shaping the world around him.

Humboldt's educational ideal was entirely coloured by social considerations. He never believed that the 'human race could culminate in the attainment of a general perfection conceived in abstract terms'. In 1789, he wrote in his diary that 'the education of the individual requires his incorporation into society and involves his links with society at large' (GS, XIV, p. 155). In his essay on the 'Theory of Human Education', he answered the question as to the 'demands which must be made of a nation, of an age and of the human race'. 'Education, truth and virtue' must be disseminated to such an extent that the 'concept of mankind' takes on a great and dignified form in each individual (GS, I, p. 284). However, this shall be achieved personally by each individual, who must 'absorb the great mass of material offered to him by the world around him and by his inner existence, using all the possibilities of his receptiveness; he must then reshape that material with all the energies of his own activity and appropriate it to himself so as to create an interaction between his own personality and nature in a most general, active and harmonious form' (GS, II, p. 117).

In the original text from which this section has been lifted without attribution, "GS" refers to Humboldt, Wilhelm von. 1903–36. Gesammelte Schriften: Ausgabe Der Preussischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften. Bd. I—XVII, Berlin. (Cited as GS in the text, the Roman numeral indicates the volume and the Arabic figure the page; the original German spelling has been modernized.) "Gesammelte Schriften" means "Collected Writings". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_von_Humboldt)

This pretty well encapsulates the Humboldtian model of higher education  (German: Humboldtisches Bildungsideal, literally: Humboldtian education ideal) that—I would contend—is more in line and spirit of what Terry Audla (and, by extension, IQ notions of knowledge) envisions as to what form the Nunavut university should take.

The Humboldtian model of higher education [...] is a concept of academic education that emerged in the early 19th century and whose core idea is a holistic combination of research and studies. Sometimes called simply the Humboldtian Model, it integrates the arts and sciences with research to achieve both comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge, and it is still followed today. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humboldtian_model_of_higher_education)

The thing that concerns me greatly about the GN outline of the proposed Nunavut university is that embedded in it is the taking away of the notion of 'academic freedom' that founds not only our conventional institutions of higher learning but in particular the Humboldt model that has enriched the human experience in subtle but meaningful ways.

We should also distinguish bureaucratic notions of Inuit (traditional) Knowledge and the Inuit ideal of inuliurniq which is motivated by giving the individual intellectual and practical tools to be able to problem-solve even in the case of complete isolation out in the wilderness.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts...

Jay

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Does universality equal fairness?

Recently in the House of Commons during Question Period Prime Minister Harper thought he was handed a gift from Justine Trudeau when Trudeau apparently made a "gaffe" by premising his question to the Prime Minister: "Benefiting every single family is not what is fair..."

Harper could hardly contain his glee—actually for someone with a reputation for being a cold calculator he doesn't have much of a poker-face—as he pounced on Trudeau with a comeback: "This is what happens when you get off-script". Truly, it was his Count Olaf moment.

But it got me thinking about fairness and universality (ie, 'universal' in the sense of being a flat rate for all instances of application regardless of circumstances or situation).

A qualification of individualized "consequentialism" that seems to define Harper's political understanding of governance, I think, can and should justifiably be made here.

-Individual consequentialism is a vicious variant of the Utilitarian philosophy in that it takes on some of the coloration of Machiavelli's political philosophy which holds that a state's actions are justified (ie, should not be questioned) if the ends serve the purpose of preserving and maintaining order and constancy of its political structures (ie, serve the interests of the 'benign' ruling class).

It is in this light I think that the true context of Harper's "politics of meanness" must be understood. After all, small governments are 'good' and 'lean' not so much in terms of their 'distributive capacity' to the greatest good but if, and only if their policies and means to exact taxes and levies on big business and the rich remain checked and emaciated. Forget "trickle down economics"; this is unabashed Darwinian corporatism.

Universal child care allowance that the Harper gov't is proposing is simple and seemingly 'fair' in that it treats everyone 'equally' regardless of income and socioeconomic standing. But it is really a 'regressive' benefits scheme by any other name (ie, it is tied to the notion of further decreasing the tax burden on the rich in relative terms whose take-home pay increases significantly at the expense of those who need the assistance the most simply because it adds to the tax avoidance toolkit that the poor do not have access to).

The means-tested scheme that Trudeau is proposing seems to be a complexification of the tax and benefits system in comparison to Harper's proposal because it would make these benefits to Canadian families dependent upon their ability to draw household income in absolute terms (ie, the proportional distance between benefits and entitlements as in relation to real income and wealth: the wealthier one is the smaller the gap between needs and means).

In theory, under the Trudeau scheme, the burden on tax payers is more evenly and fairly distributed because it is tied to that hypothetical zero gap between need and means.

Jay

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Stoicism and old Inuit Christians

Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life.
-Epictetus, Discourses 1.15.2, Robin Hard revised translation

When asked if I believe in G*d I tell people that I'm a believer in the Gospel of Christ. I get all kinds of interesting reactions, but they always confirm to me the basic human nature of courtesy and civility. Normal people usually just want to leave it at that; I want to leave it at that.

Like Epictetus, I believe that the subject matter of faith and "the art of living is each person's own life". I think that this is the central message of the Gospel, after all.

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the philosophy of the Stoics in trying to find a level of equanimity in my life. I have a reputation of being a "hot-head" but whether it is well-founded or not (I think it is) this searching for equanimity is a lifelong project.

I sometimes fail to live up to the standards I admire and feel a deep desire to subscribe to but I'm slowly coming to realize that these "shortfalls" in ethics and morals are and can become rarer if acknowledged when they happen and a re-commitment to try again is made in that acknowledgement. This "art of living" is the definition of teshuva (Hebrew: תשובה‎, literally "return"). Aharon E Wexler gives us a good and serviceable primer on the idea of teshuva in this link: http://www.jpost.com/Not-Just-News/On-teshuva-375740.

I, in fact, believe the personification of teshuva (as spoken of by Wexler) is the key to interpreting the wondrous opening lines of the Gospel of John.

I was, for the longest time, a completely natural defeatist. Every perceived and real disappointment in life was cause for great woe-woe-is-me and for gnashing of teeth and ripping up of shirt. So much drama it is embarrassing. And disastrously costly to my personhood and those around me, especially those whom I love and who love me.

As a believer in Christ I have very little if any empathy for mainstream Christianity. I grew up in the faith and have known true "salt of the earth" Christians who were also stoics in inclination that I'm trying to follow in the footsteps of (ie, the older generation of Inuit who truly believed in the Stoic principle of "living in accordance with the divine order of the universe"). But I have as my goal to become less and less like the so-called "evangelists" and more and more like my father's generation of Christianity who seemed more concerned about living the life than mindless moralizing. There are a few of them left still (at home and elsewhere).

I live my life mostly in solitude and I have no interest in attending church so I listen to Charles Stanley and Charles Price. These two Charles, I have found, regard their faith as "...not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, [but as] a way of life involving constant practice and training" (Cf: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism).

The more I learn about Marcus Aurelius and the personal and historical context of his Meditations the more I'm interested in the Stoic Philosophy. He is said to be the last of the five good Roman emperors. His writings, as anthologized in Meditations, have a lot of self-encouragement and constant reminding of his commitment to Stoicism:

"See that you do not turn into a Caesar; do not be dipped into the purple dye—for that can happen" (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.30)

This certain fastidiousness (or, more precisely, assiduousness) is not surprising given that he held absolute power over one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. How he did this—how the Christ Himself and the Apostle Paul did, for that matter—is by recasting familiar and seemingly tired spiritual/philosophical principles into personal commitments to live up to them:

Either the gods have no power or they have power. If they have no power why pray to them? But if they have power, why not rather pray that they should give thee freedom from fear of any of these things and from lust for any of these things and from grief at any of these things [rather] than that they should grant this or refuse that. For obviously if they can assist men at all, they can assist them in this. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.40, trans. CR Haines, Loeb Classical Library)

That he came to this conclusion is to be taken in the context of him having lost three children who died early in their lives because the quote immediately above begins: "One man prays: 'How I may not lose my little child', but you must pray: 'How I may not be afraid to lose him'." (trans. Anthony Birley)

Wow.

Jay

Saturday, 9 May 2015

True North Strong and Free

I'm watching the VE Day celebrations on CBC right now as our war vets are being feted by the Dutch.

As an Inuk I have almost no linkages to those brave and inspiring Canadians, whom the Dutch clearly love and appreciate, save my citizenship to this great country of ours; as a first Canadian I realize that we have a collective, awesome responsibility to not waste, to "never forget" their sacrifice and their commitment to help their fellow human beings. Remember these Canadian soldiers so long ago were not conscripted servicemen but were in fact volunteers.

There was an observation offered by one of the talking heads a couple days ago that caught my attention when he mentioned that these Canadians really were of a different breed: stoic, humble and rather self-deprecating when asked to describe what it was like in the Second World War. They weren't fighting for noble ideals nor even against an enemy; they had seen the atrocities in Europe in news reels and wanted to help end that. Simple as that.

I'm certainly ambivalent about state-sanctioned violence but I have no problem understanding where our boys were coming from and I great admire their humanity. We know of a handful of Inuit who fought in WWII. They were of the same cloth: unfettered by any psychological BS they simply answered the call to help their fellow human beings.

Our current state of affairs would be alien and disappointing to them, I'd surmise.

I see Stephen Harper as a symbol for a great many things that I find "wrong" with our society but most of all he epitomizes, to me, the deliberate arrested development that resulted from the disastrous and long social experiment starting from the 1960s. Shamefully, I count myself among the children of these decades of frivolity, willful ignorance and uncritical (unmitigated) selfishness.

Randy Janzen is just one in the long, long line of this perversion, this hubris, this uncomprehending staring out into the maw of ethical and moral emptiness (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/randy-janzen-facebook-post-an-apparent-confession-of-killing-wife-daughter-sister-1.3066803) as much as the unhindered (perhaps unintended) bigotry, pettiness, and all negative characteristics that unfortunately marks the tenure of our current Prime Minister. He is after all a product of his times.

I've stared into this darkness (uncomprehendingly at first) but I consider it a great blessing this existential alienation from my parents, my grandparents and my culture in that it allowed me the opportunity to reflect upon how great the chasm was and had become through no fault of their own devising. I'm usually a bit too dense and self-absorbed to profit from my many mistakes in life but realizing how different I was and am (in all possible ways) from my parents stirred something deep within the darkness of my soul and I realized that there was something profoundly wrong with me.

The character of the liberating soldiers now celebrated in the Netherlands is the exact same character of my dad's generation. The twin fires of hardship and suffering seem to have a way of annealing the soul of the frivolous, the superficial but if and when we allow ourselves honest reflection and guard against embitterment from our personal experiences. The Book of Job talks of this at length, culminating in the 23rd chapter:

...if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
My feet have closely followed his steps;
    I have kept to his way without turning aside.
I have not departed from the commands of his lips;
    I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. (Job 23: 8-12)

I am no saint and if I seem that I'm trying to give that impression I profusely and sincerely apologize. If anything has taken hold it is despite myself, and only and truly because of love—of those who have loved me, all of them contributing individually to the person I have become and am still becoming.

The words of my dying father to me were: be kind and compassionate. He knew who I was and how cruel, selfish and thoughtless I can be without guidance. I am not and never have been a demonstrative person of human affections, and I have largely reserved them only for my children (though I definitely feel it for my siblings, my mom and those who love/have loved me). My dad's last gift to me was a new perspective: people deserve respect (agape) because no human is an island.

This is the message I take away from the VE celebrations from Apeldoorn, the Netherlands.

Jay

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

What is "literacy", and why do we need it?

What draws me to ideas is often much enhanced by the historical developments of the ideas themselves and life stories of the people who have helped developed those ideas. It is never enough for me to be presented with an idea already fully-developed and impervious to further input. There is no satisfaction in that. I have to seek out the subject further if it interests me.

For the longest time I thought mathematics was arithmetic and mindless algorithms (BORING!), and after I learned in first grade how to add and subtract I completely lost interest in it (or, more precisely, what I thought was "it"). I know I'm not alone in this indictment on the (public) education system. There is even a word for lack of interest in maths and the sciences in general: Meh.

When I came across what is called "pebble notation"—a method of arranging numbers (pebbles) into geometric shapes invented (or, adopted) by the ancient Greeks—I realized how much is robbed of us starting from day 1 by inadvertently unimaginative elementary school teachers.

For eg, square numbers are not just N2, nor is the definition even really:

"...a square number or perfect square is an integer that is the square of an integer; in other words, it is the product of some integer with itself. For example, 9 is a square number, since it can be written as 3 × 3" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_number)

A square number can literally be arranged into a real square! For eg, nine dots (or pebbles) can be arranged like so:


For other numbers there are other shapes in which they can be arranged: squares, triangles, rectangles, and simple lines (or, numbers that cannot be arranged into perfect rectangles—ie, prime numbers!).

There is much more to this seemingly simple pebble notation, much much more. In fact, this is the very beginning of "number theory"—what Gauss called "queen of mathematics".

In Mathematical Mysteries: the beauty and magic of numbers, Calvin C Clawson writes of one of the greatest of number theorists from England:

...[Godfrey Harold] Hardy believed a mathematical idea is good because it is beautiful, beautiful because it is serious, and serious because it is connected [in a deep way] to many other mathematical ideas...Hardy's claim that beauty is central to the enjoyment of mathematics is fervently believed by the majority of all who are enthralled by mathematics. In this he seems to have captured the essence of our love for this subject matter. Jerry King, in The Art of Mathematics, points out, "Mathematicians know beauty when they see it for that is what motivates them to do mathematics in the first place. (Clawson, Mathematical Mysteries, Perseus Books, 1996, p. 213)

But it is what Clawson says in the continuation of the passage above that I'm interested in:

Hardy's idea that pure (good) mathematics should be devoid of meaningful applications has been adopted by many mathematicians at our universities. Unfortunately, this idea has caused some mathematicians to become elitists, casting disdain on all other branches of knowledge. This, in turn, has tended to alienate mathematicians from the rest of the academic community. Most elementary and secondary teachers we send out of our universities are not professional mathematicians, and they feel this alienation between themselves and what they see as snobbish old men barricaded in the ivory towers of academia.These same teachers, who feel alienated from higher mathematics, are asked by us to teach our children the foundations of mathematics. Do you imagine they embrace the task with enthusiasm? (ibid, pp. 213-214)

Given this state of affairs in teaching mathematics it is hardly surprising that our children suffer the drudgery of what is passed for mathematics as we ourselves suffered before them. Yet, this laying down of "foundations of mathematics" is absolutely essential to what I call "mathematical literacy".

It gets even worse. It is not just this basic subject that suffers thusly. The language arts (at least, in the aboriginal experience) is likewise an utterly alienating experience where the mechanics of reading and writing (becoming a copyist of mindless word lists seems to be the goal here) is heavily emphasized, full stop. This, in lieu of regarding and treating the field of language arts as a means to enhance the humanity of our students.

In my efforts to learn in the style of "the liberal arts", I've had a happy accident in discovering an appreciation for good writing. Under this broad rubric of "good writing" I would include not only literary classics, great historical documents such as the "Declaration of Independence" but also movies, tv and radio.

It is the ideas that get me. These ideas, in turn, further enhance my appreciation of what and how the subject matter is expressed/articulated. It is a snowball effect. Some experiences are so exquisite it is very much like a spiritual euphoria.

I know of someone who is likewise affected by well-crafted linguistic expression, and, whom I would consider rightfully belongs to a master class of French letters. My attraction to and admiration for this person has transcended the physical, into the deeply spiritual, if I may unabashedly betray my true affections.

Literacy, thus defined above (ie, as mathematical literacy, as linguistic literacy, as any kind of literacy that inspires self-improvement), is less a skill than a state of being, and it truly goes beyond the act of reading into a realm of becoming. Northrop Frye said that up to the secondary grades one takes a subject, and at the college level the subject takes you. I have always found this to be a truism.

Literacy as such may not save our lives (that is not its point after all), it may not promote us to the status of a rock star (who but the very banal would regard art as such anyhow), but it truly has the capacity to raise us above ourselves and provides us space to imagine the possible.

Jay