Whither moral education?
To be sure, there is something eerily reminiscent of Facebook about this genre of writing: the tedious recording of the minutiae of everyday life, the minor pangs of frustration of those on the job market, the smallish victories of those already on the tenure track, and, above all, the niggling adjustments made in order to satisfy the whims of overly demanding students and brooding colleagues. Most, it seems, allow their lives to be governed by endless vacillations between hope and fear, measured optimism and probable disappointment. Meanwhile, the less fortunate few remain mired in once quiet despair now given voice through pseudonymous confession.
What, then, explains the disparity between scholars' expertise in a particular area of research and their naivete regarding how to live? It is reported of the Presocratic philosopher Thales that a servant girl calmly said to him, "How can you expect to know about all the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just beneath your feet?"
The trope of the self-absorbed thinker so engrossed in the subject matter before him--be it quarks or quasars--that he has no clue how things fare in the world was as common to the Greeks as it is to us. Theory is one thing, this line of thought seems to go, practice quite another. This is more or less the criticism Aristotle levels against the Platonists who erroneously argued that having metaphysical insight into the nature of things was necessary and sufficient for being both a virtuous person and a good legislator. In the opening pages of the "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle minces no words, stating that the chief aim of normative ethics is to teach us how to be virtuous and not simply to tell us what virtue is. After all, having theoretical knowledge of swimming alone will hardly improve your breast stroke.
Nevertheless, even assuming for the moment that theory and practice are cut at the joints in much the way that these jokes about beclouded metaphysicians seem to imply, such an explanation remains less than satisfactory since it does little to stifle our curiosity concerning why education should cultivate these sorts of persons and this sort of behavior in the first place. Why, in other words, does it seem perfectly natural for us to ask and to keep asking how it could be that so many academics, schooled at our finest institutions, could be no wiser than anyone else about the business of living?
Could the fact that educators have no wisdom to impart to us have something to do with the nature of American education itself and, by extension, society at large, or are we forced to conclude instead that human nature is simply inscrutable, fate merely inexorable?
On the gulf between learning and wisdom
The topic of moral education was one of Michel de Montaigne's hobby horses when he first sat down to write Book I of the "Essays" around 1580. Of the distinction between learning and wisdom, he insists that "Learned we may be with another man's learning," but "we can only be wise with wisdom of our own" (Montaigne, 1993, 155). He goes on to poke fun at his fellow Frenchmen who, he thinks, place too high a value on learning for its own sake:
"When someone passes by, try exclaiming, 'Oh, what a learned man!' Then, when another does, 'Oh, what a good man!' Our people will not fail to turn their gaze respectfully towards the first. There ought to be a third man crying, 'Oh, what blockheads!'" (ibid. 153)
That third man, of course, is Montaigne.
In such essays as "Du Pedantisme" (translated less stingingly as "On Schoolmasters' Learning") and "On Educating Children," what Montaigne finds fault with in medieval education is the rote learning that noblemen continued to be schooled in. Rhetoric, logic, grammar, and geometry made students conversant in, among other things, eloquent speechifying, syllogistic reasoning, Latin conjugations, and the properties of triangles, yet singularly and collectively they failed to touch the soul.
Indeed, Montaigne's main objection to medieval scholasticism is that scholars and aristocrats who become well acquainted with dates, names, facts, and procedures and who become skillful at logic chopping, verbal puzzles, and eristics know next to nothing about virtue. How, Montaigne complains, could this style of learning lead one to become a virtuous person: to become manly and prudent; temperate and humble; sociable, agreeable, and cultured?
Montaigne's conclusion is that it couldn't. Instead, what is needed is a form of education that can cultivate in the young pupil a "love" and "reverence" for virtue. It is not enough to be virtuous; one must "want to do what is good" (ibid. 187) for its own sake. The goal, in short, is to teach the pupil what Aristotle called "practical wisdom": not just the capacity to deliberate well about matters of ultimate ethical and political importance but also actually acting well here and now to bring about the ends aimed at.
To hit the desired mark, Montaigne reasons that the tutor would have to provide his pupil with assignments (understood fairly loosely) that exercise the latter's judgment and that develop in him the right moral disposition toward worldly affairs and toward others.
As I see it, Montaigne makes three fruitful suggestions in these essays. In the first place, he argues that the teacher should draw the pupil's attention to particulars. Actual cases, examples of virtuous and vicious deeds, first-hand experiences of other cultures and customs, a humane and intimate grasp of history, as well as philosophical thought experiments all present diverse scenarios in which the pupil is instructed to praise or blame the right actions in the right way for the right reasons. Only particulars, not universals embodied in rules or general precepts, can strengthen the faculty of moral judgment. And only the right justification for praising or criticizing can, over time, nurture in the young pupil the development of a disposition to act well.
In the second place, Montaigne urges that the teacher should emphasize the desirability of personal autonomy. The paradox between influence and independence is really only an apparent one: Plato's and Seneca's ideas become our own once we endorse them and use them for our own ends. In an especially vivid illustration of this point, Montaigne suggests that others' opinions, like meat filling our belly, must be "digested" and "transmuted" so that they can "make us grow in size and strength" (ibid. 155). Affirming that an opinion is good and then putting it to good use in our own conduct: this is the way out of idolatry, the road toward full-fledged authorship, and the proper manner of esteeming one's forebears.
These two lessons are rounded out by a third one of a decidedly Christian bent. In virtue of the fact that human beings are fallible in their words, deeds, and judgments, the right attitude one should have toward oneself, Montaigne concludes, is humility. The pupil would be wise to reckon with the possibility of his being wrong, to acknowledge when the other man is in the right, and to reason in the light of his limited capacities. If the pupil is to love truth as he ought, then he would do well to make corrections to his opinions and conceptual adjustments to his thinking when these are called for--but not with a sour countenance. Go ahead and laugh at yourself, Montaigne seems to be saying; it'll do you good.
By these means, the teacher, wise and just, can have a hand in the formation of the pupil's character. The Greek lyrical poet Pindar clearly thought so too: "But human excellence grows like a vine tree, fed by the green dew, raised up, among men wise and just, to the liquid sky."
The three ingredients of the good life
Albert Camus once wrote that "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy" (Camus, 1955, 11). This is because the despair of the suicide bespeaks a stirring rejection of the claim that life has any objective value not just for the time being but also for the indefinite future. And the truth is that for increasing numbers of people living in the West today this has long since been the case.
In "A Strange Rush for the Exit," Robert Aitken takes as his starting point the paradox that over the last half-century the suicide rate has gone up steadily so that now more than one million people commit suicide every year despite the fact that during that same period material necessities have been increasingly provided for. The World Health Organization corroborates the first finding: "In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 years (both sexes); these figures do not include suicide attempts up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicide" (WHO, 2009).
If these figures suggest that well-being cannot be measured solely by the material conditions that make life possible, then other metrics in addition to that of material well-being are called for. Prima facie, it looks as though a 2007 UNICEF report on child well-being in 21 developed countries goes some way toward making up for this deficiency. The authors of the study confirm cultural conservatives' longstanding suspicion that the US is lagging behind other developed countries in various kinds of well-being. They found that while Scandinavian countries occupied the upper echelon, the US and the UK consistently rank in the bottom third in all but one of the six categories evaluated. For instance, in the category of material well-being, the US came in at 17; in behaviors and risks, at 20; in health and safety, at 21 (ibid. 4). In short, many children growing up in the US are not as happy as we might expect to understand.
As telling as the study is, it clearly neglects the philosophical nature of the problem of suicide itself and, in consequence, fails to provide us with the tools for adequately explaining the phenomenon before us. In their words, the authors of the study sought to determine whether children are adequately clothed and housed and fed and protected, whether their circumstances are such that they are likely to become all that they are capable of becoming, or whether they are disadvantaged in ways that make it difficult or impossible for them to participate fully in the life and opportunities of the world around them. (ibid. 41)
Fair enough. But their assumption that material well-being, educational well-being, and health and safety, among others, are good measures of overall human happiness seems to leave out of the equation two factors essential to the moral life: wisdom, or a practical orientation toward the good; and meaning, or a spiritual orientation toward things beyond the self and its vicissitudes. That is, if having one's material needs satisfied is necessary for living a good life (a claim that no reasonable person would deny), it is by no means sufficient (a claim that too few of us have taken very seriously). As a result, their study leaves us without an adequate answer to the question concerning why suicide has become so prevalent in the modern world.
The contemporary philosopher of religion John Cottingham, in an excellent essay "The Fine, the Good, and the Meaningful," calls food, shelter, security, and the like the preconditions for human flourishing but not the thing itself. Were these preconditions to be identified with the good life, we would end up regarding human beings as though they were just biological organisms and not something more--according to Nietzsche, something indeed which "arouses interest, tension, hope" (Nietzsche, 1994, 62). Since equating human life with self-preservation leaves out much of what makes us human, we do well to follow Cottingham who thinks that there are three substantive elements to human nature which together are necessary and sufficient for human flourishing.
To live a good life, one has a duty to cultivate one's talents to the fullest extent possible. So thought Kant and so thinks Cottingham. In the example Cottingham cites, the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), we read that the two slaves who improve upon what they are given are rewarded in turn while the one who lays by what he has is sorely rebuked. This view seems right--yet not necessarily for religious reasons but for deeply human ones. Both the wastrel who fritters away his talents and the wanton who doesn't care one way or another about his desires cannot be said to be flourishing for the simple reason that they are doing nothing but courting death.
In addition, one must seek to perfect one's nature. In Cottingham's view, virtue is neither some extra to the good life nor something inimical to it. Instead, virtue and, on account of it, character development go to the heart of the very thing we are seeking. For immoralists such as Thrasymachus, Mozart's Don Giovanni, and--to take a more recent example--Enron's former CEO Jeffrey Skilling, leading vicious lives cannot but produce the lack of mental tranquility so cherished by Socratics, skeptics, and Stoics. Of course, if "immoralism" is to be ruled out, so, by my lights, is "duty for duty's sake." Far from being opposed to pleasure as its contrary, virtue, as Aristotle shows us, is accompanied by pleasure. For this reason, he likens pleasure to the "bloom of youth" that completes the "flower of their age" (Aristotle, 1971, 174b33).
We come now to the final and perhaps most controversial feature of Cottingham's account of human nature. The enigma of existence, Cottingham thinks, is that though we are finite creatures we strive to put ourselves in touch with that which is beyond ourselves. Sometimes philosophers (notably, Spinoza) like to say that this underscores our ontological dependence on a substance which, by definition, is ontologically independent. However the thought is expressed, it amounts to saying that our finitude is an ineradicable part of our lives, a condition that we are most acutely aware of when we are forced to face up to contingency: our best-laid plans, projects, and commitment may undoubtedly come to naught, and there's nothing more to be said or done about it.
This line of argument, I think, can be re-cast in tragic terms. To the degree that we are susceptible to moral luck, we are essentially tragic figures, vulnerable yet resilient, cognitively limited yet metaphysically inquisitive. In hopes of bending back the darkness, we--as Kant well knew but ventured to tame--grope along toward transcendence.
Our principal question had to do with why educators aren't wise and why many of those living in developed countries feel dissatisfied with their lives. We are now in a position to give a provisional answer. By and large, American public education has been governed by the ideal of making us viable, highly specialized workers competent enough to excel in an information and service economy, but it has pursued the end of achievement at the expense of the other two, "thicker" ends--namely, the good and the meaningful. Locutions of the sort "I'm not a good person" and "The world is not a home" intimate how the real or imagined lack of goodness and meaning in my life can lead me to despair. How it came about that the good and the meaningful were "forgotten" and how this situation can begin to be remedied are the subjects of the remainder of the essay.
Skills, values, and educational stalemates
In an April 2009 interview conducted by The New York Times' David Leonhardt, here is what President Obama had to say about education reform:
"I think the big challenge that we've got on education is making sure that from kindergarten or prekindergarten through your 14th or 15th year of school, or 16th year of school, or 20th year of school, that you are actually learning the kinds of skills that make you competitive and productive in a modern, technological economy." (Leonhardt, 2009)
On the face of it, there is nothing especially politically contentious about President Obama's argument. Every American citizen, no matter his or her political affiliation, would agree that in order to be employable young people will have to have the requisite skills in mathematics, science, reading, and critical thinking. What is more, recent studies measuring competency in these areas unequivocally and rather ominously show that American children are falling behind their peers in other developed countries. Thus, whatever education reforms that are implemented in our public school system in the near future must be done with the end of improving these basic competencies. No argument here.
However, if learning technical and procedural skills is unquestionably a good thing, it is far from the only thing. As Montaigne makes clear, this sort of learning leaves much to be desired. Quite apart from the question of whether it is actually feasible, an education in technical expertise alone doesn't make perspicuous how skills and talents are exercised for the sake of some end: a doctor treats her patient in an attempt to lessen her suffering and to improve her health; a grocer sells food for the sake of providing his customers with sustenance; and a just politician acts in order to further the common good.
In what sense, then, would we be justified in saying that we are properly educating our youth to be good doctors, grocers, and politicians if we didn't also make them intimately familiar with the final causes that underwrite the activities in question? Even if we don't agree about which good is truly ultimate (whether, say, the mystic's meditations on the divine are to be ranked above the artist's beatific vision or vice versa) and so come to the resolution that value pluralism is a good rainy day policy, this conclusion needn't entail our exiling ultimate values from public life in general and from public education in particular.
Quite the contrary, we are worse off without taking up these questions because we are less able to perceive clearly the genuine reasons for our developing these skills rather than those without first, and all along, becoming cognizant of the ultimate aims that are their reason for being.
Unfortunately, value pluralism, the view that there are a diversity of final ends in human affairs, has seemed to entail value relativism, the view that all ends are good or bad relative to the persons (or, in a modified version, the cultures) that endorse them.
Under what I shall term an "anemic liberal democracy," pluralism has been too squishy by far. The nineteenth century liberal Benjamin Constant was already privy to the insight that liberal democracy could get "too thin" so that individuals would prefer to pursue their own pleasures and luxuries in the private sphere in lieu of collectively participating in the civic affairs that bind them together. No doubt Constant's point came home to roost during the current economic crisis, and we are just now beginning to come to grips with the idea that economic prosperity on its own may not be the ultimate gauge of collective well-being or individual happiness.
Granting this much, however, there remains a larger point implicit in Constant's argument but considerably more explicit in the writing of the contemporary political philosopher Michael Sandel. In his book on civic participation, "Democracy's Discontents," Sandel argues that since mid-century we have seen the creation of the voluntarist self for which the power of choosing (the sovereignty of electing to do this or that) has become of the first importance, leaving the item chosen to fade into the background.
On this construal, the faculty of choosing is a fundamental feature of my personality, the ends chosen independent of my personality.
Consider as a case in point Nadya Suleman's decision to undergo in vitro fertilization despite the fact that she is currently receiving disability payments as well as caring for six small children. During doctor-patient consultations, the moral considerations, we are told, remained at the level of whether or not this was her choice. Whether her choice was indeed choice-worthy--whether, that is, any rational person who already has sextuplets would regard giving birth to octuplets as an integral part of human flourishing full stop--seems to have fallen outside the bounds of deliberation. All gave way to the sovereignty of electing to make what MSNBC too blandly called an "unconventional choice."
In its reaction against paternalism and social engineering and in its defense of the private sphere as a site of liberty, anemic liberal democracy, wherein the voluntarist self is most at home, has unwittingly led to the subjectivation and privatization of values. For this reason, any individual can pursue his plans, projects, and commitments without outside interference so long as these do not conflict with others' ability to pursue their own private ends. What stale bread crumbs are thereby left to the public realm is the set of facts and formal procedures which are objective and so amenable to being taught and debated.
It is here that the insights on child psychology and public education of William Damon, a prominent scholar of human development, and education reformer E.D. Hirsch come into play. According to Damon, research in childhood development during the past 200 years has shown us that children are not "little adults." Instead, they "have their own special feelings, wishes, and fantasies, and they see all things very differently than do adults" (Damon, 1995, 100).
More recently, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has found that children have active mental lives, perhaps more active and more imaginatively rich than those of adults (Lerner, 2009). As a consequence, parents and caretakers have begun to treat children as experimenters whose experiences need to be diverse and whose creativity needs to be nurtured. These important findings unfortunately led to what it would be no exaggeration to call the "cult of self-esteem," a cult propped up by the self-help industry. Paradoxically, self-esteem has never been higher than it is today, suicide never more prevalent.
In Hirsch's view, the provenance of this nexus of ideas is Romanticism, a literary movement that swept across Europe and then across the US in the nineteenth century (Hirsch, 2007, 3-7). Above all else, what Romantics stressed was how an individual's natural way of doing things put he or she in connection with something divine or sublime so that nature came to be seen as intrinsically good while impositions from without came to be regarded as deformations of nature.
Romanticism so conceived is the foundation of the "child-centered approach" to teaching which has been popular in K-12 since the 1970s. For those following this approach, the child's natural desires should be respected and her intrinsic motivations should be the basis of any meaningful instruction. Carried to an extreme, grade school mathematics teachers, Damon points out, find themselves trying without much success to "tap" each student's desire to do math from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Child-centered learning, according to Sol Stern, has opened the door so wide that some teachers see fit to teach mathematics as a program of social justice (Stern, 2009). What is more, as Hirsch ably shows, curriculum becomes a vexed issue (for what content is absolutely value-neutral?), paving the way for strictly formal strategies such as critical thinking to come to the fore.
Thus, what we have been witnessing in public schools in recent years is an ongoing conflict between a Romantic child-centered approach geared toward raising numinous self-esteem and cultivating self-expression and a paternalistic teacher-directed approach seeking both to discipline young people and to impose general standards for achievement and competency. Romantics charge paternalists with failing to respect the plurality of talents and abilities manifested in young students when the latter call for standardized testing and accountability. In turn, paternalists decry the culture of self-esteem that Romantics support, pointing to the decline in standards as well as students' less than promising performances on competency exams. Hence, we have a stalemate.
The exile of the meaningful and the good
Isn't something still missing from this debate?
An anemic liberal democracy which pushed us in the direction of endorsing the subjective nature of values and ultimate ends; the ascendency of the voluntarist self which culminated in our privileging the faculty of choosing over the independent value of the item chosen; a Romanticism which laid the groundwork for the apotheosis of self-esteem: together these brought about the exile of the good and the meaningful from our public schools at the same time that they provided the intellectual framework for the formal and technical strategies that make up the lion's share of childhood education today.
These problems--above all, the split between facts and values--have been carried over into higher education. Note how Romantic talk of identity, of finding out who you are, has become the dominant narrative arc of the college experience. Note too how egoism according to which the desire to do as you please and live by the maxim of self-love has become the philosophy of life tacitly shared by many college undergraduates. Here is secularism, a defensible creed otherwise, at its worst. Worse still, though, these problems have become exacerbated as a result of the two factors that, most of all, have changed the face of higher education since the 1970s. I am speaking of the twin pillars of any contemporary education in the humanities: the culture of political correctness and the overestimation of the value of research.
It is these forces that Anthony Kronman, in his prescient book "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life" (2007), picks out in order to explain the demise of the humanities. Traditionally, an education in the humanities was synonymous with the art of soul-craft. However, once they swore off this venerable mission the humanities lost their way as well as their legitimacy in the eyes of those outside academia.
To understand why this is the case, we need only look to the results. In fact, Kronman suggests that while the culture of political correctness has put before us important insights about the modern world, insights that we are much better off for knowing, he is not sanguine about the fallacious inferences drawn there from. When the principled defense of racial equality turned into an affirmation of diversity for its own sake; when the reasonable enough claim that other cultures oughtn't to be trodden on slid into the presumption that all cultures are worthy of our respect; and when the level-headed view that culture and history are important influences in our lives took on its current shape as the position that all our ideas, especially scientific truths, are "socially constructed" and so are infected by the political ideologies from whence they arise: when, in a word, all these hyperboles became second nature, the discourse of celebrating difference and that of the West's decline became seemingly permanent fixtures in the humanities curriculum, legitimized through research and reinforced through practice.
For those in support of this constellation of ideas, questions about the ends of living and the meaning of life must have seemed hopelessly fuddy-duddy in comparison, and, as such, were ultimately set aside.
In addition to its allegiance to political correctness, the humanities embraced what Kronman aptly terms the "research ideal."
Whereas scientists are more than justified in thinking of their individual disciplines as accumulating bodies of knowledge--which expand their scope for the most part through fresh discoveries made by well-funded research programs -humanists can make no such claim in good conscience. For who can honestly justify the claim that new monographs on Jane Austen not only naturally extend our knowledge of her novels gleaned from prior studies but also set forth new lines of research that promise to open up broader vistas?
Speaking charitably, such a view is trifling if not woefully obfuscating; less charitably, it is wrong-headed and disastrous. If indeed Kronman is right to believe that the humanities are the site of ongoing conversations in a Western literary, historical, and philosophical tradition anchored to the question of human flourishing, then the research ideal transplanted from the sciences into the humanities can be charged and found guilty of severing us from this rich tradition. In place of substance, we have become satisfied with the latest, sexiest fads.
Consequently, pupils yearning to discuss big questions have found themselves exiled from one of the places they used to frequent in order to explore books concerned with the good and the meaningful. No wonder humanists continue to find themselves in a crisis of legitimacy that shows no signs of abating even after we recover from the present economic recession.
The renewal of moral education
Clues to a revival of moral education can already be found in Montaigne's writing. In order to foster in our children a love of wisdom, we need to support an educational system that stresses the exercise and improvement of pupils' faculty of judging so that they come to know which specific actions are praiseworthy, which blameworthy; that impresses upon them the desirability of becoming autonomous beings; and that instills in them an acute sense of their humility, a fact every day confirmed by the moral complexities that abound in the modern world.
With these ends in mind, we should listen closely to Damon when he says that primary and secondary school education works best when teachers set up "bridges" between themselves and their students. That is, the way beyond Romanticism and paternalism is to begin with the desires, passions, and beliefs that students already have but to build paths to the sorts of beliefs and moral outlooks they should embrace. It is not the case, then, that precepts and rules must run contrary to students' inclinations, making education in key part about students learning how to resist acting on their desires in hopes of ultimately being rewarded. Rather, teachers must make it possible for students to finally want to do what is right in the right way. In so doing, we can hope to bridge the great divide between is and ought, desires and duties, actions and ultimate ends.
In brief, during young persons' formative years, we should help them acquire good habits in order that they may intuit the right course of action. During college, we should see fit to test and strengthen their forms of moral reasoning. If our program of moral development is to be complete, it is not enough that students know that something is wrong; they must know why it is so. Reflective understanding must thereby supplement as well as reinforce habits of feeling.
So much for the moral virtues: But what of the intellectual virtues? Insofar as the humanities are the repository for man's striving to transcend his condition in an effort to contemplate the absolute, humanists are in the unique position to ask the question that in the opening decade of the twenty-first century has become never more exigent: the question of the meaningful.
It seems only natural, then, that core and honors courses in comparative religion and theology, history, literature, philosophy of science, ethics, and politics should seek to shed light on the tragic condition of human experience--shorn by contingency but longing for eternity. The following anecdote from Montaigne is exemplary in this regard: after hearing that the Egyptians were fond of bringing out a human skeleton into the banquet hall while they were feasting, Montaigne resolved to have "death continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth."
Without doubt, we are living in a secular age when despite the fact that most Americans still profess to be theists religious practices, whose aim is to shape the everyday life of a religious community and whose loss, described so eloquently by the poet Philip Larkin as a "tense, musty, unignorable silence" (Larkin, 2004, 58), cannot but be felt in the marrow of our bones, have been on the wane.
By themselves, the "thin" secular values of romantic love and financial success are not sufficient to satisfy our most urgent human desires. Should we fail to put the practical and spiritual dimensions of moral education front and center, then we shall be hemmed in on one side by nihilism, in the middle by New Age mysticism, and on the other by self-help psychobabble. Crass, opportunistic to be sure, but nevertheless prescient, self-help books have sought to fill the void left after the good and the meaningful fled the educational scene. The mission of the humanities should thus be to reclaim what they have for too long forsaken.
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Andrew Taggart, Ph.D., is a philosophical counselor and educational adviser living in New York City. He is currently writing a book on philosophy as a way of life. He is also working with social entrepreneurs to build new educational institutions that are aimed at meeting our higher ends.
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|Title Annotation:||MODERN THOUGHT|
|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2011|
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