Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Philosophy of "3:10 to Yuma" (Warning: Spoilers!)

One of my favorite Westerns, as well as one of my favorite movies in general, is 3:10 to Yuma, i.e., the remake with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe (the original was made in 1957 which itself was adapted from a short story of the same name). It's a rather straightforward moral tale in which Dan Evans ( Bale), a one-legged Civil War veteran turned rancher agrees to help escort the notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) to the town of Contention in order to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison all while trying to stay one step ahead of Wade's trailing gang. Along the way the group encounters many obstacles including their prisoner Ben Wade killing off some of their members but in the end Wade actually turns face and helps Evans put himself on the train as well as killing off his own gang after Charlie Prince (played brilliantly by Ben Foster) guns down Evans.

And any time that I hear that one of my friends hasn't seen the movie I'll promptly, unilaterally, clear their schedule so that the situation can be remedied as quickly as possible. I recently had to do this with a fellow co-worker. In fact, I've done this so many times now that it has effectively become an informal social experiment. The result? Well, it's strikingly right down the middle: half really like it, half really don't. For those who don't like the movie it comes down to one thing: Ben Wade's turn from the dark side; "Why would he do that; he's the villain, it doesn't make any sense for him to help Dan, kill his entire gang, and willingly get on the train!" are their typically exasperated replies. Furthermore, this revolt is usually ironclad for when I try to point out that Wade's volte face is actually consistent with the rest of the story (throughout the movie hints are dropped that Ben Wade isn't all bad even at one point having Dan's son, William, explicity suggest such) they refuse to budge from their entrenched position of incredulity at the film's turn of events.

But what is more fascinating to me is what most tend to say next, namely, that in "real life" Ben Wade would not have acted in such a righteous fashion, never mind the fact that most film is inherently otherworldly and so not intended as an authentic representation of reality. This is intriguing to me because of what these remonstrations and outcries suggest about the philosophical worldview of these viewers, namely, that they believe our natures are immutably fixed, that people don't really have the capacity to change. This is of course a strongly fatalistic notion and if you were to mention this to these viewers they might argue otherwise, maybe even vehemently so. I'm just surprised at the number of people predisposed towards a predestinarian/fatalistic view of reality who are not aware of such.

Because I've become progressively more cynical over the years I would have thought that by now I would have found such a strict fatalistic worldview appealing. And I suppose I do to some degree but the truth is, whether due to an atavistic trait leftover from my former pious Christian days or some other intangible reason, I still cling to the hope that people do have the ability to change their natures, though extremely difficult it may be. Moreover, I've always been fond of the redemption motif in film and literature which is essentially what changing from "bad" to "good" is all about. Indeed, most of my favorite movies contain a redemption theme to one degree or another, especially probably my all time favorite movie, Star Wars, which isn't really about Luke Skywalker as some mistakenly think but is rather about the ultimate redemption of his father, Anakin Skywalker.

I guess the bottom line is that no matter how cynical I become I'll probably never give up on the, perhaps futile, hope that people can change, that they can be redeemed. And for this reason I am moved every time by Ben Wade's actions at the end of the film. Thus, I'm happy to continue to claim 3:10 to Yuma as one of my all time favorite movies.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Discere Gratiā Discendī

I realize there has been quite another lapse in blog entries, partly because I got a new job that has been keeping me quite busy, partly because I had to get moved into my new place, and partly, if not mostly, because of pure sloth. Anyways, I'm going to try to remedy the situation by blogging more often. And by that I mean committing to posting at least one blog entry a week.

Now that housekeeping matters have been taken care of I want to briefly discuss public education reform, a matter of which I've always been particularly passionate about. But it had been a while since I had actually thought about the variegated and controversial issues surrounding public education until I recently had a chance to watch David Guggenheim's documentary entitled Waiting for "Superman". It's a searing and disheartening look at the state of public education in the United States and the many factors that continually stymy attempts at genuine reform of the system such as the inequity that exists in terms of access to good schools, the near impossibility of firing bad teachers because of a well entrenched tenure system, staunch opposition from teacher's unions, the lack of uniformity in regulations across state and county lines, and more. In addition to explicating these roadblocks to PE reform the documentary also attempts to elucidate some potential solutions to the problem such as arguing for the creation of more charter schools. (Note that it is on the subject of charter schools where the documentary is least persuasive because it appears to have exaggerated some of its statistics concerning comparisons of rates of success with other schools. See this article for more.)

While I agreed with much the documentary had to say about PE I was disappointed that it didn't address the more fundamental, philosophical problems that have become systemic in our education system. What I'm thinking of particularly here is the failure to inculcate within our children at a young age the desire to learn for learning's sake, i.e., to think of acquiring knowledge as an end in itself instead of as a means towards an altogether different end. I propose that if we could at least modestly achieve such there would be better disciplined, better performing children in schools.

The problem though is that our society has always valued pragmatism over idealism, utility over abstraction (much of which is due to our philosophical inheritance but just as much to our history of characteristic rugged individualism). This bias then permeated our public education system with the reforms of the pragmatist philosopher and psychologist John Dewey during the early 20th century. Those of you who have studied or gotten your degree in the Humanities encounter this bias of utility all the time: "Oh, you're getting your degree in English. Well, what can you do with that?" We instinctively regard doctors, lawyers, scientists, and others with higher esteem than other professions because their contributions to society are more readily apparent. Now don't misunderstand I'm not trying to disparage this well ensconced American tradition but in my opinion it's precisely this exaggerated emphasis on the value of function that I think prevents us from seeing the value that can come from loving knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Again, I strongly believe that if you can instill within a child at a young age the desire to learn as an end in itself and more importantly, to love knowledge, then I think you can create a much larger group of children who are going to perform admirably both in school and society. Of course, I realize that without the reforms mentioned in the above documentary this proposal would not on its own fix the many problems in our public education system. Nevertheless, I think addressing the underlying philosophical problems is a must and this is something that the documentary fails to do.

So how do you plant the desire to learn for learning's sake within children at a young age? I admit that I'm less certain as to specifics here. But for my part I didn't start appreciating learning as an end in itself until I enrolled in an introductory philosophy course in my first year of college and I can certainly say that I was a better student all around afterwards for it. Now I'm not suggesting that we start having kindergartners read Descartes Discourse on Method in the original Latin and then submit their proposed solutions to the mind/body problem but I do think there may be a way one can present certain ideas within philosophy in a comprehensible way to young kids.

Another idea may be to resurrect the classical learning tradition where kids get a good dose of Latin, Greek, Ancient History and Literature, Logic, and others in addition to the more "practical" forms of learning such as math and science. There are some private schools that have begun to adopt this method but those have a strong Christian element which is obviously not something I'm advocating for public schools. Again, these are just some random ideas of mine that may or may not have any merit.

Regardless, it is clear that our public education system is in severe disrepair and, not withstanding its flaws, Guggenheim's documentary does well in presenting this unfortunate fact to the public. Do watch.