Saturday, March 28, 2009


Yesterday I enjoyed and participated in the 14th annual "Baseball in Literature and Culture" conference, with scholars from far and wide (though I had only to amble down the hall) assembling to explore and celebrate the meaning of a game. The luncheon speaker was Jim "Mudcat" Grant, one of thirteen African-American twenty-game winners chronicled in his book The Black Aces.

He spoke of visiting the White House's Previous Occupant, who had difficulty distinguishing Dontrelle Willis from Montel Williams - to Condi Rice's evident embarrassment; of "gross" memories of a brutally-segregated America from which we've just awakened; and of the joy of living long enough to be able to tell his grandchildren, with conviction, that they COULD grow up to be president themselves one day... children whose great-great grandmother was born into slavery.

Dr. Harriett Hamilton of Alabama A&M reminisced as she paged through "Daddy's Scrapbook," the sacred memory-trove of her late father Henry Kimbro - one of the great under-sung stars of the Negro Leagues.

For my part, I paid tribute to John Updike and his classic New Yorker tribute to the great Ted Williams, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." It was my small way of bidding "Rabbit" adieu. Ted, we learned from Mudcat, was one of the too-few white stars who welcomed baseball's integration and were kind to African-American ballplayers.

I can't wait 'til next year.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


College Station, Texas. The Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy yields an unfortunate acronym, but as academic organizations go it's one of the best. It's a club I'm proud to belong to, even if it does accept someone like me as a member (that's a nod to Groucho and Woody, if you don't know the line). I started attending SAAP's annual March meeting when it was still just a few years old, in the '80s. This year's gathering is the 36th, and it's being held on the home turf of the colorful and distinguished American philosopher John J. McDermott, who - with my mentor John Lachs - was present at SAAP's creation. McDermott still sounds like a New Yorker, though he's been an institution at Texas A&M for decades.

It was McDermott's critical anthologies of the writings of William James and John Dewey that really drew me into the world of classical American philosophy, and thus into the sphere of John Lachs.

This year's conference has been memorable. I've particularly enjoyed sessions devoted to the Jamesian concept of "healthy-mindedness" - a tendency to seek the good in all things, and sometimes to see it where it ain't. James himself criticized un-self-critical healthy mindedness, but was willing to concede its usefulness - in measured doses - for life in general, and for some lives especially. Happiness and how to get it is one of philosophy's perennial preoccupations, and has lately been a cottage industry with good books on the subject from the likes of Jennifer Michael Hecht, Jonathan Haidt and many others. Classical American philosophy has always had its eye on this ball.

Norris Frederick, a philosopher from Charlotte, NC, presented a particularly illuminating talk on how James' approach to teaching informed his philosophy generally. In Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals, published over a century ago but still fresh and relevant, James observed:

Spinoza long ago wrote in his Ethics that anything that a man can avoid under the notion that it is bad he may also avoid under the notion that something else is good. He who habitually acts sub specie mali, under the negative notion, the notion of the bad, is called a slave by Spinoza. To him who acts habitually under the notion of good he gives the name of freeman. See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good.

Healthy advice!

Another fine session featured James Pawelski, one of the clearest voices articulating Positive Psychology.

Mitchell Aboulafia discussed Barack Obama as Pragmatist-in-Chief.

And - most unsettling for some - Andrew Light of the Center for American Progress urged us to send our best students not to grad school and careers in academe, but into the world to save it. I'm very much in sympathy with this advice, even if it strikes some of my colleagues as a form of professional suicide. But remember Al Gore's scale: the whole planet on one side, some bars of gold on the other? It's time to save the planet.

The conference continues through tomorrow. My take-away: seek happiness, and encourage the best and brightest young minds to do that too... and oh, by the way, encourage the brightest of the bright to reclaim the mantle of "public intellectual" that has fallen dusty since Dewey's day, and try to save the world.

I'll do what I can. Accelerating Intelligence News