Category: Rhetoric

Why I Ride a Bicycle to Work

Standing at the front door of my school one morning, juggling with the handle and my bicycle as I worked through toward the hallway, I met the mother of one…

Standing at the front door of my school one morning, juggling with the handle and my bicycle as I worked through toward the hallway, I met the mother of one of my students who said “Oh Mr. Snyder, we love the way you are so committed to a ‘green’ lifestyle, riding your bike to school everyday”. I hope I didn’t visually grimace as my will clenched  in reaction to the verbal blow. The last time I committed to a ‘green’ lifestyle was when I joined the Marines in what is becoming the distant past, and then to pursue decidedly environmentally harmful ends – at least for someone. I suppose I still regard the environment as a competitor with whom I struggle for dominance.
I didn’t reply in any other way but by a smile that morning, but have considered it ever since, that exchange on a school morning as a lesson in perception and intention. The green life I lead is more one of the virtue of struggle and combat than one of natural harmony and political virtue. This is at least true when I ride my bicycle. Think more of the novel ‘The Thin Red Line’ and its evocation of the ‘Green Hell’ of Guadalcanal than the fictional ‘Green Jobs Initiative’. I enjoy pitting myself against gravity, friction and distance in the morning and frequently venting the shortcomings of the intervening school day on the road back home. I live in Wichita, and my route carries me through neighborhoods of old houses with teeming, man cultivated yards and gardens. I often reflect that this same patch of the globe would have been an unbroken and shadowless grass wilderness in its pristine state. Now, in submission, it flourishes with trees, birds of all kinds, cats, children, mailboxes and undulating sidewalks being thrust upward by old roots. I see them all because I am there among them, shouldering through air, riding my bike.
I ride as fast as I want to. Because of the physical limits of my apparatus, the one composed of me and my bicycle, I cannot factually transcend the man appointed limits placed on velocity, expressed by the speed limit signs. Were the authorities to read my intentions, they might see that I accounted myself an anarch while riding. I am sequestered from the intrusions of mannish law regarding how I, Jehu like, thrash down the street. Dark green tunnels of trees overarch, and I charge on, not (gloriously) wearing a helmet.
Once, when based in Quantico as a Marine Sergeant, I disregarded a decree regarding helmets. For years I had ridden to my post aboard (as we quasi nautical types would say) a bicycle, first in Beaufort South Carolina, then in Quantico. I was a computer programmer for training and education command.  I had to pick up a print order, moving from one physical location to another,  computers being a bit more widely distributed regarding their occupation of space in those days. I would send a print job through the mainframe from my terminal, and pick up a bound report a couple of miles away from a top-secret cleared facility. The printed book would be slid out through a steel door with a steel flap, hands the only thing to be seen. I enjoyed those days of riding a bicycle back and forth around Quantico as I pursued my highly techno-bureaucratic duties. Then, as now, the sweet and sour combo was energizing: pedaling by brute force to move immaterial data.
That day of the helmet I had overlooked the change of command on base and the subsequent order concerning bicycle safety. In that day a decree had gone out requiring the wearing of orange safety vests and helmets while operating bicyclitic equipment. I rode intrepidly down the company street, cloth camouflage cap properly starched and blocked, to be disturbed by a wailing siren from abaft (more salty nauticisms). At first, I thought that of course this concerned some other more technologically compromised person, perhaps in a speeding Honda. As I came to understand that I was the subject of interdiction, I perversely began to pedal harder….

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Socrates on Facebook

  The longer we live, the more likely we are to fall into deep grooves of behavior. This comes about in our natures as surely as the green stick grows …


The longer we live, the more likely we are to fall into deep grooves of behavior. This comes about in our natures as surely as the green stick grows  thick and woody.  The flexible inquiry of youth becomes a stolid comfort of certitude, and people will note us as eccentric or dull; we will grow toward others or away.  Not judging the merits of either for the moment, merely noting that a certain eccentricity in relation to those representing a vulgar solidarity is laudable, as is a contrary stone-like stolidity when lapped by the waves of the fickle sea of various opinion and tide of vacillating fancy, I say we examine our purpose when we discover these worn paths through the garden of our selves and make a conscious choice.  We either re-cultivate that dirt worn footpath we have been inadvertently plodding along, or decide to purposefully pave it over as a profitable and pleasant direction of travel.
Whether this path goes anywhere other than through the garden where words may be exchanged in the pleasure of the soul’s evening, or through incisive streets toward action as directed toward labor, is not important. Cultivation as labor and pleasure is given to man, and those of us who are teachers charged with the cultivation of others should not, as the shoemaker’s sons do, travel barefoot.  We should be conscious of why we are the way we are.
I was surprised on my own trodden path one day when I found myself flaring up in reaction to a perfectly entertaining proposition put up by an experienced colleague in the field of classical education. This startling up happened during a conversation that produced a change of attention, like that between snacking and biting at the words I heard, and I found myself fighting against both the idea presented and myself in instant instinctual objection and a bilious impulse to blurt out words of objection. Obviously one of my sensitive nerves had been touched, and being an overly talkative man with long experience of post conversational regret, I struggled to emulate Tacitus, both in name and posture, remaining quiet but writing furiously in my notebook.
What happened? Did someone deny the history of the resurrection? Did my excellent and experienced comrade champion ‘common core’ or the French Revolution? No, the proposition was something of the times, and could be considered harmless or even obvious as an assertion. She said something like “I’m not against technology in our schools.” No one gasped. I remained in my seat, meekly plodding behind the train of the idea. I did have a slight dialectic tic as I thought of the term ‘technology’ and its etymology, the categorical application of the word, and its common use, but this subsided and I remained in a quiescent if not receptive state of mind. My irrational intuition was already under control when the thunderclap followed.
“If Socrates were alive today, he would be on Facebook.” The jaws of my mind snapped reflexively shut. “Yes”, I thought, “and Bach wouldn’t have played the organ.” Now I rethought the first proposition that technology was good for our schools, thinking of the ahistorical reconstruction of Plato’s favorite talker. The school is made of students and teachers. When we think back to dinner parties of Plato’s dialogues, we think of the philosophers engaged in dialectic attracting crowds of wisdom enthusiasts. In a setting much like this one, Socrates himself (according to Plato) argued against the idea that technology was a good idea for the school, or at least the student. Oh most expert Thoth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are.In ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates chides a young student for merely reading a speech about love written by the popular speaker Lysias rather than discoursing about love itself. Socrates eventually reveals his suspicion of the written word itself as a technology that ruins the memory and fools people into thinking that they possess wisdom merely by possessing books. Memory is stunted as man more and more keeps things written rather than in his soul, and wisdom suffers because life no longer grows alongside these things planted in the heart. If you doubt this technological crushing of memory, simply try to remember a phone number or two. It isn’t only car manufacturing robots that threaten human occupations. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.
As educators, we must care about the formation of the soul in the student, but we must also care about the effectiveness and expertise of the student as that is understood in their own time. We need only compare Socrates in his rags and bare feet with Aristotle and his overflowing riches working for the king of Macedon to understand the choices involved between the purity and practicality of the life of the cultivated. Aristotle focused on the ‘doing’ amongst his students, as Socrates focused on the ‘knowing’. As Aristotle succeeded Socrates and Plato, so the western mode of ‘doing’ has characterized our education since. This has had geometrically expanding consequences for wisdom. A dilemma begins to form in the shape of a struggle for wisdom in our time that may grow and add to the available wisdom for the future, not atrophying in the face of prosthetic devices like smart phones or even books, but not receding from the border of effectual life either in a dreamlike retreat. We face, it turns out, the ravages of nature even in our interior lives as the struggle for survival continues even when man the animal is cared for in his comfort with ever-increasing certainty. Is there a way forward?

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Nebuchadnezzar on his wall part 2

“Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle…” -Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics,…

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle…”

-Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, II; 1107a

Nebuchadnezzar had his aspirations, and he had his dreams. Today, we often conflate the two concepts under one word, or perhaps make them cousins under the tired concoction of “hopes and dreams”. I have listened to Amway practitioners, politicians, and popular singers cement aspirations to dreams. Dreams though, as anyone can honestly admit to a close friend, are not goals. They are more often ghouls. These dreams are revenants picking through dumpsters of doubt. Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams suggested that the symbols colliding in uncanny ways in dreams provide distance to a mind unable to confront the unacceptable situation of existence in its working and wanting hours. A dream is the telemetry of crashing life.

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Nebuchadnezzar on his wall part 1

The book of Daniel in the fourth chapter reminds us of Nebuchadnezzar at the height of power, considering his walls in the mighty Babylon of the 6th century BC. Babylon,…

The book of Daniel in the fourth chapter reminds us of Nebuchadnezzar at the height of power, considering his walls in the mighty Babylon of the 6th century BC. Babylon, inheritor of the realms of Sumer and Akkad, now ascendant over the brutality that had been Assyria. A new age of peace and prosperity opened for those reasonable enough to recognize the ‘right side of history’. Outmoded civilizations like the corrupt and vacillating kingdom of Judea were phased out, and the cream of intelligentsia, like Daniel the wise man and advisor, were grafted in to the new administration. Just like Gilgamesh, millennia before on the walls of Uruk, the master of the universe now drank in the majesty and surety of his place in progress. Like Gilgamesh, however, Nebuchadnezzar would experience a mid life crisis all the more strange because of the altitude of his accomplishment.

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