Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Advocating for the study of biography as an academic discipline


After reading a piece in The Atlantic depicting psychological experiments that clearly illustrate a link between “disgust” and political affiliation, this scribe is pondering several questions, and some implications.

What is called the biological immune system, described as disconnected from human affect and cognition, seems to be invoked in groups of subjects leading researchers to a high degree of predictability of political leaning, liberal or conservative. According to the piece in the Atlantic, the higher the degree of disgust expressed to various visual stimuli, the greater the likelihood the person will be conservative; the corollary, in which a lower degree of disgust is predictive of a liberal political leaning. A different part of the brain is, according to the MRI images, activated by disgusting images, apparently involuntarily, in some subjects from other subjects, and the high degree of predictability is amazing to those conducting the experiments.

While there is every reason to continue such experiments, and other objective approaches to mining the biology of the human species, reinforcing the science of critical examination of human response to external stimuli, there is nevertheless also a little stone in my shoe whispering, “What about the gestalt of the whole human person?” What is happening to the academic tilt toward both scientific instruments and dissection of human responses measured by such wonder-machines as the MRI?

Across North America, university and college departments of “liberal arts” are facing reduced enrolments, leading in many cases to closing classes in subjects under this umbrella. Among many, including Fareed Zakaria (who has written about the value of the liberal arts education), this attrition of liberal arts education is both tragic and, it says here, dangerous.

Wikipedia says, “liberal arts education has its origin in the attempt to discover first principles which are the condition of the possibility of the existence of anything and everything. The liberal arts…are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries and most importantly military service. Grammar, logic and rhetoric were the core liberal arts while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music and astronomy were the following stage. Today, liberal arts refer to academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics and social and physical sciences….For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational or technical curriculum.

Notice the significant difference between a liberal arts curriculum’s purpose and matters of the professional, vocational or technical curriculum. Whether the human is seen from the perspective of the curriculum as the “performer” to be shaped and skilled, as the agent of highly detailed and complex processes or the free, active participating citizen in the public square, remains a highly relevant, operative and cogent perspective in the growth and development. Whether the segregation of these purposes has evolved in many jurisdictions in order to mediate costs or not, the question of humans as “professional agents” as opposed to public free citizens needs to be revisited, not merely in order to enable and sustain a healthy public square, but also to inject highly sensitive “professionals,” in all vocations into the culture. Fragmentation of the human species into micro-psychological, biological, chemical, anatomical, linked to various “deformities” or abnormalities or diseases or ailments, for the pursuit of health and wellness, while useful and valuable, so too is the deep penetration into a human lifeline, one’s biography. And from the source material that history has accumulated, stored and curated, individual human biography has the potential to open windows into the contexts in which our individual biology existed and contested.

A brief search for others who incarnate a perspective that focuses on the biography as an academic discipline, (biographysociety.org) points to a network reaching from Shanghai to Barcelona, Hawai’i, Australia, France, King’s College, Oxford, University of Groningen, Netherlands. Spectacularly missing in the list, is an address of a biographical studies department in North America. The archives for the biographysociety.org extend only to 2015, demonstrating how young is this initiative.

Of course, the study of biography, endorsed and fostered by James Hillman in his Acorn Theory, (from whose work the name of this blog is derived), crosses all academic disciplines, and yet yields so much insight, not only into the lives and instincts and motivations and fears, vulnerabilities and aspirations of real people in real time but also into the perspective that holds the human BEING as an intrinsically valuable (not because of some performance, work, duty or so-called objectively determined standard). We have become literally dependent on various forms of ranking, status, power, wealth, accomplishment and the attending social, cultural, political and even ethical values of people depending on these “extrinsic” features.

Whether we examine the biological symptoms like “disgust” or the extrinsics such as “street address,” “brand of car,” “academic degrees”…we have succumbed to the fallacy (in which we are deeply and perhaps irretrievably enmeshed) that specialists, and only specialists have value in the pursuit of opinions, observations, recommendations, hirings, and human valuation in general.

Anyone without a “stamp of professional approval” (credentials, accreditations, memberships, bank accounts, political offices, list of important friends knows as referral networks) is neither worthy of our time and attention. Nor are they valued outside their circle of influence which invariably breeds more of its own kind (political ideology, religious affiliation, social status, purchasing habits, even neighbourhoods, demographics, or interest groups). We have effectively succumbed to the “branding” culture which dominates the business/corporate/for profit culture, as if we were mere pawns in that system.

Young people, the homeless, the unemployed, the dispossessed, the wounded veterans, the divorced, the fired, the retired, the LGBTQ community….these people are all almost exclusively isolated, alienated, rejected and dismissed as “trash” (way beyond ‘white trash’) unless and until they “organize” and somehow develop a political voice that shines a light on their plight, individually and collectively. The middle and upper class, if we were honest, patronizes the “underclass” as sad, unfortunate, dispiriting, dispirited, hopeless, useless, a high cost on the public budget. Of course, they all have a “vote” thereby assuaging any guilt we may harbour that we are incarnating insouciance, superiority, detachment, and dismissing them from our democracy. Yet, we all know that with the latest technology, there is not a single public policy that is politically salient and vote-generating that addresses the shared needs of the outcasts. (The recent blip of “public housing” as an potential issue in the upcoming federal election in Canada, will generate headlines and some public money without penetrating and resolving the gaping need.)

Sickness, old age, those who are handicapped/disadvantaged, orphans, the homeless, the unemployed, the redundant, the outsourced, the petty criminal, the addicted (whose numbers are spiking…duh! Is it any wonder?)….these are all “case-load” costs to the public purse. No longer are they individual people with individual biographies sketching the profiles of failed public policies, failed wars, failed tax schemes, failed educations, failed incarcerations, failed parentings. Like so much refuse, we gather them into institutional silo’s, like those green and blue boxes, depending on our objective categories. And then we fund schools in colleges and universities to generate “care-givers” in a quasi-professional attempt to satisfy our guilt that many of these individuals exist, without our really penetrating the challenge of critical evaluation of our insouciance.

Oh, we care deeply about our newborns, their physical and mental abnormalities, their Apgare scores*, their allergies and their colic#, and how much they resemble specific parents, grandparents or family members. At the other end of life, we are quite specific about our detailed curiosity into the specific kinds of cancers, or the specifics of a dementia, or a COPD diagnosis including the implications for care of the patient, and then there is the hospice where compassion, detailed attention to the specific needs and aspirations and discomforts of the patient are the focus of care. In between the first few months, and the last several months, we generally and tragically see others as a good worker, (or not) a good husband/wife/parent (or not) a good neighbour (or not), a good friend (or not) a trustworthy person (or not)….reducing ourselves and the other to a minimal “cardboard cut-out” in our perceptions….unless and until something “exciting” (tragic or victorious) happens.

How can we reconcile our dispassionate, detached, objectivity to our own lives (as really not that important, symptom of the disease of false modesty) and the lives of the others who might cross our paths (whom we then claim, “everyone who crosses our path is there for a reason”) with our multiple, repeated and tragic failures in public policy, public education, public health care, public law enforcement, public accounting, public institutions. Of course, we celebrate our numerous graduation statistics, claiming our democratizing of educational opportunities (of which I am a grateful beneficiary), our opening the doors of opportunity to those who in previous generations would not have been able to enter. Nevertheless, if we pursue  attitudes, conventions and policies that are based primarily, if not exclusively, on objective, impersonal, and specialized collection, interpretation and dissemination of data, and then devise policies that attempt to ameliorate the fundamental fault lines in our culture, we will be exemplifying that old definition of neurosis: Doing the same things while expecting different results.

We are neither married to, nor addicted to technology and all of its wondrous advancements. We are neither reduced or reducible to the kind of equation that succumbs to the analysis of atoms, molecules, quarks and chemicals, demographics, salaries, degrees, executive suites, dean-ships, heads of departments or even presidents or prime ministers. And, the growing movement to focus on the human biography, for each and every human being, at all levels and ages of our culture can and will only enhance and deepen our appreciation of each other. Such an approach can and will also give to pedagogues deeper insight into the lives of those young people sitting in desks before them every day, to doctors more insight into the kind of patient sitting in clinic, to lawyers a more profound insight into their clients, judges juries and witnesses.

Care refuses to be contained in public policies, public budgets, academic disciplines and intensive care units. It starts with our basic and fundamental perspective in the importance of individual time lines, biographies, shared with confidence, not merely in therapy, or in extremis, but rather in daily lives. Employers need to know and respect more the people their hire and fire, and all of us need to know and confront the details of our own lives, as a cultural shift that can and will shine light on what have to this point been hidden and blocked caves of gold (insight) in our individual and shared lives.

Can we even consider opening a department of biographical studies in a few of our universities in North America?



*Virginia Apgar, an anesthesiologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, developed the score in 1952 to quantify the effects of obstetric anesthesia on babies


#colic is defined as episodes of crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week for three weeks

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