Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hobbes, Locke, and Those Legislators Who Want to Read Our E-Mails

Today the news is full of stories about government shut downs.  It's the birthday of Thomas Hobbes, and so, a good day to think about the role of government.  Do we want governments that troll through the e-mails of university professors, for example?  More on that later.

When I taught the Brit Lit survey classes, I always periodically gave my students a crash course in political theory.  It was great fun to talk about Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and their views of humanity.  I'd include a question on the exam:  are you more like Hobbes or Locke in your view of human nature?  In some ways, it was a give-away answer, except that for the student who wasn't there the day we discussed the 2 philosophers.

So, are you more like Hobbes or Locke?  Oh, how I wish I could believe, like Locke, that humans are by nature rational and reasonable and tolerant.  But I turn on the news, and it's hard to argue that point.  These days, we all seem to be like Hobbes, who describes the lives of humans left to their own devices as "poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan).  Yes, I know, I'm simplifying their views. 

But on Hobbes' birthday, it's worth considering the idea of government as social contract, an idea that can be traced directly back to Hobbes.  Do we want government that controls our most base impulses towards each other?  Do we want a government that somehow ennobles us (or, as a Simpsons episode might say, embiggens us?).  And how do we manufacture such governments?

I'm rather intrigued by the drama playing out in Wisconsin, where there's a state legislator who wants access to the e-mails written by a university professor.  Really?  Really???!!  What on earth does he expect to find?  News stories like that one bring out my Hobbesian beliefs--but why do nasty and brutish people become legislators?

National Poetry Month brings out my Lockeian self.  I'm amazed at how people in the poetry world help each other and look out for each other.  I'm happily surprised at the level of support that's out there.  Look at what Dave Bonta has done in his live-blogging post that also reviews Diane Lockward's Temptation by Water.

I will be writing a post about this book tomorrow or Thursday, but I will not live-blog.  Here's what my live-blog would look like (a disclaimer:  all the writing below describes fictional events, although it points towards the truth of my administrator life):

Thirteen e-mails with syllabi attached.  All looks well with the syllabi, as it always does.  I file them into the appropriate folder, just in case a student appears with a question later or in case something happens, and I need to cover a class.

Read a poem.

Read two e-mails that were forwarded to me so that there would be an e-paper trail.  As far as I can see, they don't require action on my part.

Read a poem.

Read ten e-mails about various student issues that don't really concern me or my department, but I'm kept in the loop as a courtesy.

Try to read a poem, but interrupted by an irate student who is upset because she had to do a group project for her Anthropology class, but she didn't think she should have to do a group project, she prefers to work alone, she shouldn't be required to work in a group, and besides, her group was lame.  When I point out that she had the syllabus from day 1, and the syllabus is very clear about the group project, she asks, "How would I have known about that?  I didn't read the syllabus."  I almost say something unkind, but choke down those words.  We go round and round, and she claims that working in a group will have no relevance to her future life when she's a famous director of films.  Finally, I resort to one of my points I always have to make:   the syllabus says there will be a group project, and it's a contract of sorts.  We continue in this vein for over half an hour.

I want to read a poem, but my head hurts.  Instead, I eat chocolate.  In the time that I've been talking to the irate student, I've gotten 30 more e-mails.  Not a one solves essential problems.  Not a one will be important a month from now.

I think about that legislator who is convinced that those of us working in the post-high-school educational fields are plotting great social change via our e-mails, and we must be stopped.  I think about my 19 year old self, who would not believe my life has come to this:  a relentless cycle of e-mail management.  I try to remind myself that I do some good in the world, even if I'm not setting the world on ear, like a liberation theology priest, like Archbishop Romero, but surely he felt ineffectual at times, as the bodies piled up and the rivers ran red with blood during that horrible time in El Salvador.

I go back to reading the blog posts of others, and I feel better, knowing that there are kind poets in the world, wonderful voices, everyday acts of kindness and redemption.  I make a note to myself to remember to make a vegetarian lasagne for dinner with the homeless on Wednesday and to call those people who need a ride to the BOLD Justice rally Thursday night.

With a bit of peace restored, I return to Lockward's book . . .


Dave said...

LOL. Wow, you need to do something about all those emails. Maybe create a set of FAQs that they have to read before proceeding further, and if none of those satisfy, have a forum where they can submit questions and answer each other, with brief, occasional visits from the moderator (you)? That's how the software people do it.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Ah, Kristin, you are not alone. That fictionalized student interaction is PERFECT! In fact, I think I had that student last semester.