Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Mass Effect Debacle: My 2¢, PART TWO

In the first part of this essay, I discussed the origins and some of the current themes in the ongoing debate/debacle/scandal regarding the ending(s) to Mass Effect 3.  Here, I discuss my reaction to the ending(s).  In the third part, I will give my opinion on the fan reactions and the Retake Mass Effect movement.

First, I want to state the obvious.  I watched the various ending cut scenes both separately and all together at the same time.  They are all essentially the same ending with only minor divergences.  Someone may be tempted to say that the devil is in the details.  Not this time.  This is one ending with slight variations in order to mimic variety.

Secondly, I want to point out that I've watched numerous commentaries on the endings and even read Shamus Young's column on The Escapist.  I recommend it.  I also think that Bioware didn't necessarily lie about the ending, they just employed effective marketing (not necessarily ethical marketing--welcome to dealing with business majors).  It can be argued that there were six endings--would that hold up in a court of law?  I don't know, but they can try to rationalize it.  Advertising lies all the time.  Go watch 1990s Crazy People.  There's the implicit warning: caveat emptor--buyer beware.

Now, I want to tackle something a bit more important--the artistic merit of the Mass Effect 3 ending.  Frankly, the ending is an artistic failure.  It is the product of hubris.  The writers of the ending reportedly did not subject it to peer review like they had everything else in the games' development.  They've revealed themselves to be incredibly arrogant regarding the artistic merit of the ending, refuse to change it despite the outcry, and are only releasing DLC that will explain and contextualize the ending for fans and provide closure in a half-hearted attempt at appeasement.  However, when analyzing the actual ending, the actual artistic merit of the ending can be identified but the ending is marred by the sloppiness of its scripting and the laziness of the writers.  The cut-scene ending is incapable of actually situating the designers' themes and arguments in any meaningful manner.  It has this rushed, impatient feeling, as if it is in a hurry to get to the credits.  Couple with the fact that all of the endings are essentially one single ending with minor differences and you have a recipe for artistic failure.  There is absolutely no love, emotion, or real rumination upon the human condition--and this last point is something that I have to really emphasize.  There is no substantial challenge or question posed to the player regarding the human condition.  They make a half-hearted attempt at doing so and they fail.  Narrative art (i.e. literature) functions by giving us the ability to consider at least one aspect of the human condition critically.  The Mass Effect 3 ending fails to achieve this.

This is not to say that it is not art.  What I am saying here is very distinct: I'm not saying the Mass Effect 3 ending isn't art, what I'm saying is that the Mass Effect 3 ending is an artistic failure.  There's a slight difference and in this case the devil is in the details because upon this statement depends the actual framing and meaning of the conversation.

Not only does the ending fail as art, but it fails as science-fiction.  Science fiction is a legitimate branch of literature that deals with the future and ruminates upon the moral, ethical, and humanistic dilemmas that technological advancement present.  It should come as no surprise that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells helped to birth the genre during the Industrial Revolution, when technological advancement was outpacing the intellectuals' abilities to consider the human responses to such advancements.  Instead of dealing with current issues, science fiction attempts to predict advancement, stay ahead of the curve, and wrestle with difficult questions regarding the human condition in hypothetical situations that have not yet occurred.

The Mass Effect series displays these traits right up until the very ending.  Once the star child emerges into the narrative, however, all of this is completely thrown out of the window and the creators thrust us into The Epic of Gilgamesh.  Moral agency, free will, and humanism are all eschewed in favor of a heavy-handed preachy and ultimately unsatisfying ending.  It's similar to my complaints regarding Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos.

First, let me explain what is not wrong with the endings.  The lack of denouement is not a weakness or a problem.  We do not need it.  They're not really a part of the overarching issues that the ending is trying to tackle.  This is an artistic decision that is designed to put focus on the broader, more complex issues.  If we get to see each character's resolution, our attention is drawn away from the difficult discourse regarding evolution, survival, and dialectic.  Indeed, the brevity of the resolution is actually one of the things that the design team did right.  This, however, needed to be tempered by a sense of payoff for the player.  A longer, more complex and challenging climax would offset a lot of player frustration with the ending.

The other thing that they did right was to emphasize the dialectic struggle of the game.  Essentially, the question is "What form of life should inherit the galaxy?"  If the biological species in Mass Effect represent an existential thesis and the synthetic life-forms represent an existential antithesis, then the "Green Ending" represents a synthesis.  If you chose the "Green Ending," congratulations, you've just selected the Hegelian dialectic writ large.  The war against the Reapers and Geth was essentially a deliberative period and you, the player, designated a sort of union.  Go read Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx/Engles, and Derrida.  If your brain doesn't melt, I will applaud you.

The climax makes apparent that there's an existential, dialectical struggle going on.  The star child is engaging in thought experiments on a galactic scale.  This is incredibly poignant.  The fact that we're given the decision as to how to resolve this thought experiment is also magnificently powerful.  The fact that the star child exists introduces an epistemological problem for the player--what's the factual reality about this war against the Reapers?  Is it for our survival or something else?  What does the star child mean when he says we'll be preserved?  Is chaos a moral wrong, as the star child seems to believe it is?

The cut-scene ending, however, fails to deliver on the results of the choice the player makes.  This is absolutely damning of the entire affair because it nullifies not only the impact of player agency in the game but also the narrative, epistemological, and existential power that is introduced by revealing that this is all one gigantic experiment in dialectics.  Again, there is no payoff.  The design team had said they originally had the star child explain everything to the player but then decided that there was a lot of things that the player didn't need to know.  I accept that there are mysteries unsolved and questions unanswered--that's fine.  Indeed, depending on how it's handled, those enigmas can even enhance the experience of an ending.  However, there are enigmas upon which the ending depends in order for it to maintain narrative coherency.

I guess I'm damning the ending with faint praise.

Elements of the ending were certainly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The Star Child in 2001 and the godlike boy at the finale of Mass Effect 3 are definitely artistically tied.  However, the god child is not the object or result of the game as it is in Kubric's and Clarke's masterpiece.  In 2001, the Star Child is the object of David Bowman's surrealistic and abstract journey--the unknown, unseen, and incredibly highly evolved entities evolve Bowman into something more similar to themselves.  The protagonist is humanity as a whole and the objective for Clarke and Kubric is to demonstrate our future and our evolution into something greater.

If evolution is the objective of Mass Effect 3, then it is actually stated incredibly poorly.  A deep, thoughtful analysis of 2001 is confronted with the Monolith from the very beginning--our australopithecus ancestors are gently pushed by the Monolith on their first steps toward critical thought and creative problem-solving, the very elements that make us human.  It is poignant that homicide is one of the side-effects of this.  The desolation of Africa, bereft of cities or development, is displaced by a ballet of orbital stations and spacecraft as humanity has achieved the ultimate zenith of homo sapiens' potential.  Into this milieu the Monolith re-emerges, this time on the Moon, and beckons our curious selves to evolve into the next step.

If the choices and struggles in Mass Effect 3 are designed to present the flip-side to this coin--the fear of the unknown, the xenophobia and distrust of the "other," and the struggle to maintain homeostasis in the comfort of remaining simply homo sapiens--all couched in a situation where the player actually believes he's fighting for the survival of physical and biological life in the galaxy, then there's some serious artistic merit here!  The potential is staggering.  The creators, writers, and designers of the Mass Effect saga have engaged our primal, less-evolved cave-man faculties and convinced us that we're the good guys.  Instead of 2001, we thought we were playing Babylon 5!  All of a sudden, these existential and dialectic questions are being thrown at us at the ending and we're faced with the sort of choice we never expected we'd have to make!

The problem is if this is what the designers were after, it's not spelled out enough.  The Mass Effect saga hasn't employed the same narrative conventions as 2001.  Kubric used film to tell a story in which humanity is the protagonist and the taciturn David Bowman is a stand-in for all mankind.  You need to pay attention to 2001 because dialogue was not the primary vehicle for storytelling, image was.  In Mass Effect, dialogue was equally (if not more) important than image in telling the story.  There was little or no image or dialogue pertaining to human evolution at the end.

However, the star child simply doesn't have enough dialogue with Shepard, doesn't describe the purpose behind what he's doing well enough, to make anything actually matter.  When confronted by the star child, Shepard basically has as much knowledge about what's going on as he would have had the star child never materialized in the first place.  The only difference is, now the door's been cracked a few millimeters into the 2001 evolution question and the dialectic experimentation theme.  But a few millimeters is not enough.  At least leave the door a foot ajar.

I'm reminded of the ending to The Matrix Reloaded, where Neo encounters the Architect.  Granted, the Architect represents heavy-handed philosophical wankery of the most poserish and pedantic caliber.  The star child doesn't.  However, the brevity of the scene is simply too short.  The star child insists that organics have choice, "more than they deserve," and then puts the decision regarding how to deal with the Reapers in Shepard's hands.  Therein is the thread that the designers needed to expand--the moral authority that the star child represents and the implications as to where the star child, the Catalyst, gets his morality.

One of the purposes of society and the ultimate dilemma of free will is the very struggle between order and chaos.  We surrender our freedoms willingly in order to live together in a society and avoid the Hobbesian nightmare world.  The star child seems to imply that the "chaos" that organic life represents is this sort of conundrum writ large--where does the good of the individual end and the good of all begin and vice-versa.  This spectrum is dealt with in the series, but the resolution of this very human puzzle is relegated to one or two lines.  So, too, is the inevitability of synthetic and organic life in perpetual conflict--this is relegated to a single line.  I'd be tempted to argue that this entirely ignores Asimov's Three Laws, but the star child seems to be the embodiment of the Zeroth Law.  While this is interesting, it's another idea that's discarded without adequate expansion or discussion by the final dialogue.

This is all nit-picking, so far.  The dialogue with the star child is only the tip of the iceberg and it, alone, doesn't condemn the entire existential dialectic upon which the ending has come to rest.  The decision that Shepard is faced with is excellent and reflective of the very meaningful premise of the series.

The agency of choice is nullified by the sameness of the cut-scene endings.  What was needed was a far more conclusive exposition of the very existential results of Shepard's choices producing greater variety in the endings.  One of the basic tenets of narrative structures is to provide a reward or payoff for being the audience.  There needs to be some sense of satisfaction.  The player's thirst needs to be sated in some manner.  The brevity of the ending is essentially a cop-out--the uniformity of the endings cheapens the experience even further.

The build-up to the ending should have included cut-scenes that demonstrate the impact of the player's choices as the great battle for Earth is joined.  This was Bioware's opportunity to stun and amaze us with incredible space-battles, futuristic ground combat on a titanic scale, and a sense of grandeur like a Cecil B. DeMille epic set in space.  What we should have seen was the greatest space battle ever put on a screen.

Similarly, our decisions should impact what we see once Shepard makes his ultimate choice--Green, Blue, or Red.  I understand that decisions made in the game determine which endings are made available.  That's great.  However, the sameness of all three completely undermines our choice.  The payoff is gone.  Of the three red, two blue, and one green ending we're given, the differences that our decisions in-game have made are so minor, so forgettable, so inconsequential as to minimize the very value of free will in the narrative.  Basically, if Bioware is making a case for determinism and fatalism, they're doing it in an extremely heavy-handed and brutal fashion without any real substance or introspection, Zeus-like in the arbitrariness of where they fling their thunderbolts.

As for the Indoctrination Theory, given the coherence of the ending, I'd say that this theory is a product of over-rationalization on the part of fans.  This is not 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン (Neon Genesis Evangelion).  The ending isn't so full of abstraction and intertwining plot threads and semiotic notions.  Indeed, the entire game is presented incredibly straight-forward in comparison to Eva.  Indeed, Eva's ambiguous ending was largely the bi-product of Hideaki Anno's self-reflection after emerging from a deep depression, although rumors that Gainax was running out of money (resulting in increasingly rudimentary animation culminating in rough still-frame shots).  This ambiguity made the ending incredibly open-ended (both of the TV and of the film endings), especially since it was entirely psychological, leading to a plethora of interpretations.

It's also worthwhile to mention the lack of artistic integrity among the developers in designing elements of Mass Effect 3.  This image demonstrates the sloppiness and lack of creativity regarding their ending.

In sum: the sloppiness of the final cut-scene's composition and execution which is why the end is an artistic failure.  I understand some arguments that say it is because Shepard's story is at an end and we're not supposed to see the consequences of his choice.  I understand but disagree because the ending violates basic narrative demands for a richer exploration of the ramifications of his choice.

Next, I'll discuss my opinion on the Retake Mass Effect movement.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Monte Cook Leaves D&D Design Team

I just had to post on this.  I'm delaying my personal opinion on the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle in favor of this particular story and its implications.  Monte Cook has left the WotC design team for 5th edition D&D.  I have to admit, this gives me a very "I-told-you-so" sort of feeling, mixed with a bit of Schadenfreude.  I can't help it, I think 4th edition was very much not a roleplaying game and am perplexed by those who say it is and enjoy it (read this if you haven't already).  The announcement of 5th edition pretty much made a Part II of my diatribe against 4th edition kind of pointless, admittedly.

The implications of Monte Cook leaving 5th edition's design team because he and WotC had creative "differences of opinion" should be apparent to almost everyone--WotC has learned nothing.  D&D 5th edition is probably going to be a disaster.  I don't blame people for holding out hope for 5th edition, but I'm not holding my breath.

See, by trying to create a versatile product that can be customized to satisfy the OSR player, the 3.5/Pathfinder gamer, and the 4th edition adherent, WotC is going to make a product that satisfies no one.  I don't care about all of the fans playtesting it and saying it's great.  Research states that focus groups don't work.  Psychology and in-group acceptance help to shape our perceptions and make us biased.  Therefore, people playtesting a game are predisposed to rave about it even though, six months later in their friend's basement, they're going to realize that the game is the opposite of fun and get this very sour taste in their mouth.

When you try to make a product that pleases everybody, you end up pleasing no one.

Now that one of the most creative minds in tabletop RPG gaming and game design has left the WotC design team, I have pretty much shed all doubts I had about the poor design and unplayability of 5th Edition.  What's worse is that the D&D community might fracture even more as a result!  If 4th edition fanatics dislike 5th edition, that's an entire faction that WotC just lost.

I keep saying that WotC should just sell the entire franchise to Eric Mona and the guys at Pathfinder.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Mass Effect Debacle: My 2¢, PART ONE

Unless you've been living under a rock when it comes to videogames, you are probably aware of the massive backlash against Bioware regarding the storyline and ending of Mass Effect 3.  If you aren't, I'll give you a quick synopsis: Many fans/customers who purchased the game felt disappointed by the lack of impact previous decisions had on the storyline and downright robbed by the lackluster endings to the game.  They went so far as to create a Retake Mass Effect 3 organization that has actually resulted in Bioware announcing an extended cut for the game.  Even the Better Business Bureau has weighed in on the subject.  The protestors/disgruntled fans/cheated customers claimed victory but numerous voices have warned that this may not have achieved the results for which they were hoping.

In the midst of all of this, a few prominent voices on The Escapist have entered the fray, essentially on opposing sides.  They've not really engaged one-another in direct debate, instead choosing to respectfully attack the issue itself as opposed to one-another's arguments.  I'm talking about Jim Sterling and Bob "MovieBob" Chipman.

Jim Sterling at first wasn't a supporter of the Retake Mass Effect movement.  He did note that the very existence of such a powerful backlash, comparable to the backlash against Lucas' hack-scripted Star Wars prequels, was a sign that games were actually becoming significant as a storytelling medium.  After reviewing the endings to Mass Effect 3, he actually came around to sympathizing with the protestors and arguing in support of their grievances.  He asserts that "art has no rules," therefore it is constantly fluid and changing.  He also seems to agree that the ending to Mass Effect 3 is, in no way, artistic or deep.

MovieBob's position is that the Retake Mass Effect movement is threatening the artistic integrity of video games as a storytelling medium.  Bob sums up his position in this post pretty well:
I don't accept the premise that gaming is fundamentally different from film or literature because of the manner of user-engagement, nor that choose-your-own-adventure structuring and letting you adjust the visual look of a main character makes Mass Effect some kind of sea-change, NOR that any of this represents some kind of important shift in the relationship of audience to artist - and if it does, it's a bad shift. Good art and good stories are not made via democracy. The artist is the superior of his/her audience, with the sole caveat that they may choose to render said artist powerless by withholding support. You take that away and all we've got is made-to-order bullshit, which is where cultural stagnation comes from. People who only ever get what they WANT will never discover what the didn't know they NEEDED.

Also, I still say that the precedent this will set is one of the worst things that could possibly happen to this increasingly-ridiculous industry - YES, it's possible that Bioware's back-to-the-drawing-board approach will yield a "better" ending for this ONE game... but that won't be the end of it. This being so high-profile will have an automatically-disasterous effect on fans, telling them that if they throw a tantrum they'll get their way, and on publishers especially: they're already disgustingly risk-averse, and "Remember What Happened To Bioware!" will be a convenient cudgel to bludgeon the ambitions of any creative team that wants to do something risky or unconventional in the medium...
His two videos on ScrewAttack back up his argument rather well.  It's well thought-out, articulated, and defended, just like Jim Sterling's.  In his Game Overthinker Episode 68: "Crass Effect," he argues that in order for storytelling to be good the story needs to be controlled by the storyteller and that the players/protesters have an attitude of entitlement over their control of the game's story.  The players/protesters have stepped out-of-line by claiming Bioware owes them a new ending.  In his Game Overthinker Episode 69: "AfterMass," Bob explains that by caving to fan demands, Bioware is setting a dangerous precedent that threatens the artistic possibilities of the medium of video gaming.  In addition, he identifies a few films where focus-groups and test-audiences actually ruined films because they didn't like endings that had far more artistic merit in favor of bubble-gum endings that didn't challenge them (I Am Legend is discussed in detail).

But all this dialogue rests on one single premise: Mass Effect 3's ending is bad.  This begs the question--is it?  Objectively, artistically, is the ending actually bad or did people fail to understand it?  Is it challenging in a way that I Am Legend's original and alternate ending was, thereby resulting in confused and illiterate plebians demanding a more pedestrian ending where the good guys win and dance with Ewoks?  Or is the ending simply underwhelming, poorly presented, anti-climactic, and overall empty?

Devin Faraci of BadAssDigest found the ending to Mass Effect 3 to be "spectacular."  He writes:
The endings of Mass Effect 3 are, essentially, infinite. You see the decision your Shepard made - domination, destruction or co-existence - and a quick glimpse of how that immediately plays out. But what happens next is for you to chew on, to mull over. What does it mean that you chose to control the Reapers, and how will that impact the galaxy? What does your decision to destroy all synthetics tell future generations about your Shepard? And what does your decision to co-exist say about you, as a player? These are exciting, fun questions. Just as the ending of 2001 doesn’t bring the Starchild all the way to Earth, the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t follow the impact of the final choice all the way through history. The game designers at BioWare assumed that you’re smart enough to understand that they’re leaving the next steps unfollowed on purpose.
He goes on to say this at the end:
In the end Mass Effect 3, like any other narrative video game, is a story being told to us. We have some control over the peripheral business but the meat of the story belongs to BioWare. This is the tale they’ve been telling. This is the culmination of what they’ve been doing since the beginning of Mass Effect. And I love it. This is true scifi, a story that examines the nature of conflict and humanity through the prism of imaginative, speculative fiction. I’ve never played a game where the decisions I made felt so powerful in the abstract; I wasn’t worrying about whether or not one choice would give me a better power up, I was worrying about the moral and ethical implications of the choices. And after all of that the final choice was so obvious, so true to what had come before, that I was kind of irritated at how slowly old Shep moved.
Perhaps MovieBob has a point.  Ken Levine, creator of BioShock, expressed disappointment over the whole debacle.  And he's not alone.  According to Casey Hudson, the executive producer and director of Mass Effect 3, the endings were intended to "polarize" the audience.  If the endings were meant to be deliberately ambiguous and generate so many theories (such as Shepard is actually indoctrinated by the Reapers or is actually dead) and spur discussion and multiple interpretations, there's a lot of artistic substance there.

If the indoctrination theory is correct, well, I'll let Phil Hornshaw and Ross Lincoln at GameFront explain:
Indoctrination is a long-standing and very big feature of the Mass Effect universe and the Reaper war itself. The idea of loss of control, manipulation and subservience to the enemy comes up a lot, in the games and in the expanded universe of the novels. This is a huge theme; it would make lots of sense to find it in the ending.
Furthermore, if the endings as they stand are fake, then the resulting vitriol regarding them may well have been planned. Think about that one for a minute — BioWare might have manipulated us into hating the ending of the game. In essence, BioWare would have indoctrinated just about every Mass Effect player into thinking, like Shepard, that the events as they stand are what happened, when that assumption is actually untrue. It wasn’t just Shepard, a cartoon you control, who was indoctrinated — you were indoctrinated, forced to make the Reapers’ choices just as he was, whether you wanted to or not.

Your video game would have basically brainwashed you. Welcome to the only possible situation in which that would be simply awesome.

If that’s BioWare’s design, it’s a staggering feat of gaming. Mass Effect has always harped on player choices, interactive storytelling and immersion, and this would take those ideas to a level never even attempted before. But it only works if there’s more to the story. And that means a hidden ending somewhere, or further DLC releases. Because without additional material for the ending, an indoctrinated Shepard makes things even worse, not better.
That's got some pretty damn heavy artistic merit, there.  After discussing some of the plans, scripts, and storyboards the design team had and the decision to omit a lot of stuff about the Mass Effect universe that the player "didn't need to know," Hornshaw and Lincoln had this to say:
It looks a lot like whatever plans they had were scrapped along with a lot of important dialogue for reasons that may never be known. It’s probably wise to bet that the Indoctrination Theory isn’t true because there is no true version of events at all.
That's pretty heavy.  And it kind of contradicts what Devin Faraci said above.  Hell, the entire premise that you'd have choice and those choices would have visible, definite, tangible consequences on the games' universe kind of disprove Faraci's belief that this is "Bioware's story" and not the players'.  If there is no true version of events at the end of Mass Effect 3, then there is no official ending therefore it's up to interpretation.

This is awesome... if it's done right.  The question is, do we have a Stanley Kubric or a David Lynch at the helm of Mass Effect?  Or do we have a Hideaki Anno?

In the end, I had to just cave in and watch the endings myself.

I'll talk about that next time.

Monday, April 23, 2012


The documentary film Two Million Minutes, Chapter 1: A Global Examination is a film whose premise I cannot, with any honesty, support or agree with in any way, shape, or form.  Its bias is blatantly self-evident and the logic it employs is a classic case of flawed deductive logic and can only be accepted by those employing a confirmation bias fallacy.  It purports to present a realistic picture of Indian, Chinese, and American schooling, but cherry-picks the students it utilizes to represent the three nations in question, leading viewers to erroneously conclude that American schools and American students are disastrously behind in global educational standards. 

The reality is that, although rapidly and catastrophically shrinking over the past fifty or sixty years, emphasis on the humanities and associated skills of critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, synthesis, dialectic, and liberal, creative thought and experimentation is a standard foundational pillar of American (and indeed Western) education that is largely absent from non-Western schooling.  The tragedy of American schools and, indeed, the greatest failure of American schools, is the shrinking support for and inept instruction of the humanities coupled with our insistence on being more like Asian educational institutions.  Indeed, I would strongly argue that it is because of the perception that Asian schooling is superior to that of the West that we are abandoning the humanities that have generated the liberal political models, freedoms, philosophies, and reasoned, rational critique that have been hallmarks of Western thought since the Athenian agora.  Indeed, Albert Einstein, who had difficulty with mathematics but could visualize the immense complexities of space-time, would never have succeeded in these Asian school systems.

My own experience with Asian schooling and my numerous colleagues in the ESL field abroad who have worked in China can attest to the dismal lifestyles and stunted intellectual, emotional, and analytical development of Asian students.  In those countries, equality of education is not guaranteed nor is it even remotely encouraged.  In the United States, educational equality may not be a reality for some geographic and demographic sectors of society, but it is still the ideal for which we strive.  In countries like Korea, China, and Japan, students brutally compete for percentile ranks in their schools, since higher test scores can secure seats in better middle schools and high schools, which in turn can help students get into more prestigious universities.  Once in university, a student no longer needs to study as hard and most of their activity at that level is geared toward creating connections and building a network that will help them in a workplace environment that is most assuredly not a meritocracy.  The West still has the lion’s share of the best and most rigorous universities in the world.

The actual lives of the students are completely consumed with school work.  In Korea I have seen some students study themselves into illness and others become dependent on drugs to the point of severe abuse in order to stay awake and study.  About half of students at my Korean middle school had resigned themselves to menial-labor jobs because they had fallen too far behind the most advanced students in their grades.  They felt they could never catch up fast enough to make a difference and so studied only enough to scrape by without getting into trouble.  After school, the students would attend cram schools into the night.  Few got any decent amount of sleep.  None of them ever had the opportunity to have a real childhood and develop the imaginative, creative lifestyles that American students could enjoy during their off-hours.  Students rarely had time to play in organized sports, develop hobbies, or engage in activities that fostered self-esteem or gave the students a sense that life was worth living.  I would strongly suggest the viewer watch this documentary ( which is in the works.  Although South Korea is not part of the documentary, many of the characteristics of Korean education are identical to Chinese education (as well as Japanese education) from the evidence I have gathered from the other expat English teachers I had met during my sojourn in Korea.

The problem with the American students is not that we are falling behind in math and science.  That we are falling behind in those fields is a product of a sickness that has developed in American culture since the end of the Second World War.  The prosperity of the 1950s decade created a generation that was used to getting what it wanted—the Baby Boomers who referred to themselves as the “Me Generation.”  The birth of the adolescent in society and culture heralded a shift in what constituted as adulthood in the United States.  Ever since, the ability of Americans to become adjusted adults has become more and more tenuous.  For one who is curious as to the socio-historical roots of this phenomenon, I would advice the reader to watch the BBC documentary Century of the Self by Adam Curtis (it can be found on youtube for free).

The illness in our educational system is cultural and not entirely academic.  Yes, poor teachers, low funding, oversized classes, and other elements come into play in American schools (just watch Waiting for “Superman” and ask yourself why all those kids want lottery tickets to go to charter schools).  However, the real culprit is culture.  American culture is decadent.  Our television, movies, and video games celebrate stupidity and mindlessness.  People who are intellectual are shunned in American schools and the butt of jokes in American television (just watch Big Bang Theory on TBS and you’ll see what I mean).

 If this documentary had approached me when I was in high school (1994-1997), they would have traced a student who graduated 9th in his class, scored a 1300 on the SAT without studying, took honors and AP classes, did concert band and concert choir, read John Locke and Plato in his own free time, memorized and recited Shakespeare for fun, studied chess competitively, participated in the school musical, played drums in a rock band, did community service with the National Honors Society, took karate classes twice a week, had a part-time job delivering pizzas, and still managed to paint models and play miniature wargames on odd weekends.  However, this documentary chose to focus on two mediocre American high school students that I (when I was 16) would have thought were complete idiots (yes, even the boy who got a full ride to Purdue).  My parents pushed me relentlessly.  If I got an A, my father would ask me, “Why isn’t it an A+?”

 My parents also taught me how to change brakes, oil, fluids, lights, filters, spark plugs, shocks, and various engine components on a car, do laundry, repair home appliances, cook, fix household plumbing, balance a checkbook, use MS DOS, and maintain and care for a home and lawn—lessons absolutely unheard of in East Asia.  Students over there are far, far too busy studying to actually acquire any practical, real-world experience in maintenance, repair, or even an appreciation for the value of money.  None of them have time for part-time work because of their devotion to study—study which, for far too many of them, given the competitive nature of their schooling, results in many students going to mediocre universities despite how much effort they put into their studies.

What these students have in East Asia that American students do not is an appreciation for education.  And that, again, is cultural.  Americans view education as simply a means to an end.  High school is boring and a drag.  University classes are, too, but at least they are job training and you get a pretty piece of paper that says you can get a job making $90,000 a year.  Americans disdain intelligence and intellectualism, celebrate self-interest and ostentatious consumerism, and are loath to take responsibility for their own actions.  Many professors in the liberal arts to whom I have spoken feel that these cultural traits of Americans today are products of our dwindling emphasis on the humanities in school, university, and society as a whole—disciplines that encourage introspection, self-criticism and analysis, free and creative thought, and inculcate a desire to be free tempered with a sense of civic duty and appreciation for order.  A philosophy professor here at Eastern once commented to me on an article he read in Rolling Stone about the Dartmouth fraternity scene, saying, “These guys were beasts.  They were going to end up at Goldman Sachs.  They were completely self-interested, barely liberal, beasts.  And the university didn’t much care.  They were going to be good donors.”

A better comparison would be with German and perhaps Dutch education systems.  The Germans also track students and based on performance assign them to different high schools which, in turn, determine if the students go on to university or vocational/technical training academies.  However, they also emphasize the humanities and many of their modern cultural heroes are philosophers and intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault.  American cultural heroes are brash, arrogant athletes that couldn’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag.

However, the film completely ignores the European educational scene entirely, playing off of our fear of the “Yellow Peril,” as if Sax Rohmer’s worst nightmares for the Western world could be summed up by Chinese high school education.  The makers of Two Million Minutes started off with an assumption—that Asian schools are beating us—an assumption that they fail to prove yet attempt to work backwards, cherry-picking the students they wish to examine and track as if that sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning will suffice.

 It does not suffice.  Indeed, the premise is entirely wrong.  The Indians and Chinese are not beating us because of our education system.  They are beating us because of culture.  Their citizens value education and learning.  Ours once valued frugality, industriousness, creativity, risk-taking, and hard work.  Americans have come to value stupidity and self-interest.  That is why we have fallen behind.  It is not because we do not push science and math in our schools but because in our decadence we have abandoned those principles which made us unique and strong in the first place.

Friday, April 6, 2012

HIST 315: Ancient Greece -- Required Texts

When designing a course that is set to cover everything from the Bronze Age all the way to the conquest by Rome, you have to decide what you can fit into a fifteen-week semester with about three hours of class-time each week.  This is not easy.

The most difficult decisions are not what to include, but what to omit.  This also crosses over into readings that the course requires.  Since it is a 300-level class, I've had a lot to consider.  I want to expose the students to some of the more prominent historians of the ancient world.  This would include guys like Donald Kagan, N.G.L. Hammond, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Peter Green, Victor Davis Hanson, and Moses I. Finley, to name just a small few.  I also want to give them readings from the time period, which would include guys like Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Hesiod, Homer, Aristophanes... and the list goes on.  The students should be exposed not only to texts by those that lived during the time but also to theory, discussion, interpretation, and analysis by modern historians.

Though choices have to be made.

As a primary text for my course, I've settled on Chester G. Starr's A History of the Ancient World.  It's a pretty thorough survey of human history up to the fall of Rome in the West.  I was going to assign N.G.L. Hammond's superb A History of Greece to 322 B.C. but that book didn't cover the Hellenistic Era.  I will, instead, try to integrate some of the things Hammond has to say into my lectures and perhaps a few print-outs for my course packet.

I want to have at least two or three other modern, supplementary texts that will help illustrate scholarship, research, analysis, and interpretations of Greek history and society.  To that end, I wanted to include A. Andrewes' The Greek Tyrants but it seems to have gone out-of-print (and the "new" prices at amazon can't be justified by the brevity of the book).  Therefore, I'm only going to assign the students W.G.G. Forrest's A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C. and N.G.L. Hammond's The Genius of Alexander the Great.

So much for modern texts.  When it comes to Ancient Greeks, I'm definitely going to require the students purchase Lattimore's translation of The Iliad.  Playwrights are also an important inclusion, so I'm assigning some Aristophanes (preferably The Wasps and Lysistrata) but I don't want to give them bowdlerized Penguin editions, so I'm searching for more accurate translations that have all the plays I want the students to read contained in one volume.  As for Plato, I'm certain I can find a decent volume that contains The Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, and maybe a couple other dialogues.  As for tragedy, I've pretty much settled on Oedipus at Colonnus since it illustrates a lot about the polis.  Although Plutarch was writing much later and was a conservative/reactionary whose moralizing severely slants his biographies, I'm considering the inexpensive Penguin collections of his Lives, such as The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives and On Sparta. 

The course packet will contain selections of readings, excerpts of poetry, plays, Plato's dialogues, some Aristotle, some Herodotus and Thucydides (especially the Melian Dialogue) and a couple of chapters from some modern scholarly works.  Perhaps I'll discuss more of that later.