Sunday, August 26, 2012


“The unexamined life is not worth living.” —Socrates

(for my students in Personal Writing)

Socrates’ words above have long been a motto for philosophers, those “lovers of wisdom” who feel summoned to ponder human experience and to make sense of and find meaning in what would otherwise remain baffling and daunting.

Human beings—given our marvelous brains and the languages we have devised to represent our experiences, to process them and to communicate our comprehension to others—we can do what no other species can accomplish.  We can examine not only the world and each other, but ourselves: physically, socially, mentally, and spiritually.

An implicit motive in our Personal Writing course is that you will take the opportunity of addressing one or more of your essays to the challenge of examining aspects of human experience intriguing to you, with the hope of “wising up” through your efforts to articulate a more considered and cogent understanding.

In your first essay, “Me10”, and in your final essay, “The Good Life According to Me,” you will quite directly be examining your own life, both your personality and your prospects.  Likewise, when you later reflect on the indications resulting from your Myers-Briggs Type indicator (MBTI) test, which you’ll take during the term, you’ll examine the distinctive proclivities of your personality.

Personal essays as a genre, however, include many more motives than self-scrutiny, and thus you will write about much more than yourself.  Personal essays are personal chiefly because they permit you to show whatever topic you select from your own viewpoint: subjectively, rather than objectively represented.

Of this, I think Socrates would approve, because you will be using language to express clearer understandings of what cannot be grasped and examined well until composed in prose.


Friday, August 24, 2012


The other morning on 90.7 FM, our public radio station, I heard the slogan of Stetson University, one of the station’s underwriters: “Stetson, where students dare to be significant.”  Rollins, by comparison, challenges its students to learn to become “responsible global citizens.”

How about you think for yourself and try to decide on a motto that designates your own best idea of what your collegiate experience ought to make of you?

Let the essay you write reflect the course of your ruminations as you consider one or another possible slogan, encapsulating what you believe is the upshot of a collegiate education in the liberal arts and sciences.  See what motto you can devise; then unpack that slogan at length, elaborating on its implications.

For instance: “A Rollins liberal education teaches you to think well for yourself.”

The two notions implicit here are (1) thinking well and (2) thinking independently.

(1)    Presumably, it takes training and practice to think well, an ability that’s not innate but a function of exposure to many examples of clear, rational thought processing, of many kinds: you can learn to think in many ways about many subjects—in the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and the humanities.  More fundamentally, you can learn the science of rational thought itself: logic, to discover what is cogent and what is fallacious.

(2)    Then you learn to think for yourself, rather than to follow the herd or the urgings of some powerful or persuasive manipulator who wants to make up your mind for you.

Take it from here yourself.  Devise a motto that captures memorably the aim of your collegiate education, as you now see it.  Then explain it.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012


                    My mind is like a hummingbird
                        That flits from flower to flower,
                    Not hunting nectar but a word
                        To give my verse terse power.


Monday, August 20, 2012


What good motives can you think of for reading and studying bygone literature, as we do in English 201, British literature from 800 – 1700, from Beowulf to Milton’s Paradise Lost?

Here are some that come to my mind:

•    Bygone literature is a window on long-ago worlds, letting us imagine how people lived, behaved, thought, and spoke in days of yore . . .

•    . . . which can give us a better perspective on ourselves, by comparison—what we’ve gained since then, what lost, how changed, how remained the same.

•    It exposes us to changes in our English language over the centuries: to words, syntax, figures of speech now defunct but once colorful and distinctive—some worth reviving or simply quoting—Shakespeare, for instance, forsooth.

•    It exposes us to mastery, to the issue of why, of all things written, only a few come to be regarded as masterpieces of literature and do not fade away into obscurity in later years.  To learn to appreciate, admire and enjoy what’s great and artful is to honor what human beings at their best have achieved, setting examples for others—perhaps us—to follow.


Saturday, August 18, 2012


               Before the sun has shown its face,
               Though in the sky there glows a trace
               Of morning now about to be,
               Our little pup instinctively
               Lifts up her snout and sets about
               To yodel—leaving then no doubt
               The sun will shine again today,
               And we’d best rise so she can play.


Thursday, August 16, 2012


Personal Writing is a course to encourage you to write personal essays.  Personal essays (sometimes called “familiar essays”) allow you to write from the first-person viewpoint—to say “I think,” “I feel,” “I believe,” “I urge,” and so forth.  You get to speak your own mind.  But not as you might in a diary or journal, because you write personal essays with an audience in mind, a readership of others to whom you address yourself.  You are not only expressing yourself but communicating to others.

In this course you will read an anthology of such essays, written by both professional writers and by students like you.  Those essays will illustrate the range of opportunities that the genre of familiar or personal essay opens you to.  Whereas most of your academic composition requires you to write impersonally and objectively, here your personal point of view is paramount as you convey your observations, attitudes and opinions engagingly to your readers, showing them this or that aspect of the world according to you.

When I was in college I never had or heard of such a course, but I think it is a course in which I would have flourished, one that would have started me far sooner doing a kind of writing that’s vital to my well-being and useful for sharing my self with others.

Doing personal writing, I make up my mind because I don’t clearly know what I think about something until I verbalize the diffuse and incoherent notions buzzing about in my brain or in my gut: “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”  That seemingly silly sentence is the motto of our course.  Although attributed to “a garrulous and scatter-brained old geezer,” that sentence recognizes how thought takes shape as it finds apt language in which to emerge and manifest publicly.

“Making up my mind” suggests another aspect of personal writing, one that fashionable women who wear makeup will readily recognize: for your mind to go from schlepping around in a daydream to dolling itself up to impress others in public introduces the element of artistry into your writing.  In Personal Writing you dress to impress others with well put-together sentences and paragraphs in an ensemble that pleases both writer and reader.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012


for Daniel R. DeNicola

      Are we humans half empty or half full?
      A race of oxymorons, we’re wise fools
      Or doltish sages, subject to the pull
      Of appetite and passion, flouting rules
      Of reason and decorum on a whim,
      The urgings of perverse or selfish drives
      That make the light of righteousness go dim,
      Without which nothing wondrous ever thrives.
      For human beings to flourish as we ought
      We need to cultivate the wisdom in
      Our hearts that may be either taught or caught,
      Since wisdom is the way beyond our sin.
           For only when we fully realize
           Our sapience will Homo saps grow wise.


Monday, August 13, 2012


Somehow, here we are!  And aren’t we human beings amazing!  Really—think about us!

We can only speculate how humans emerged in the universe on planet Earth.  Our sciences reveal much about that fabulous story, and our religions propose mysterious spiritual causes, but still: how little we comprehend of the mystery of us and of our speculative intelligence that has evoked many languages to articulate and communicate our expanding consciousness, both to ourselves and to each other.

Here we are!  Look at the best that our species has done, has made and has become during our adventure of consciousness.  To admire that, to fathom that, and to venture further into human possibility is the aim of a liberal education, an education meant to liberate our own latencies of comprehension and invention.

We humans would seem to be an on-going experiment the Cosmos has cooked up, and we seem designed to seek challenges and try to overcome them, on larger and larger scales, thereby expanding our intellectual and practical capacities—thinking bigger and making better.

Inferring this much about ourselves and our circumstance, we must conclude logically that our prime imperative is to survive as a species and to thrive in the full flourishing of our potentialities— despite those insanities sometimes afflicting us, bordering on the suicidal and even ecocidal.

The human experiment, the experiment of Earth-life itself, must not fail through human stupidity or insanity.  The prime imperative that every human being is charged by the Cosmos to carry out is the preservation and enhancement of life and intelligence on Earth and beyond.

Your liberal education should liberate and enable you to carry out that mission by growing wise—which means to realize what is of highest value for yourself and others, bringing it into being, making it so.


Sunday, August 12, 2012


     The mystery of evanescent breath
     That vanishes from mortal beings in death
     Inspires a quest to find our spirit’s source
     Some call √Član Vital, a vital force
     That permeates the living universe
     Proving itself a blessing and a curse.

     Though we must die and know our fate is sealed,
     There’s recompense in finding that a Field,
     A Code informs and underlies all being,
     Which intuition knows beyond all seeing.

     Though breath expires and spirit flies away,
     It’s only in our sight they cannot stay:
     Somewhere we cannot fathom they will be,
     Yet we’ll catch glints of that Eternity.



I define “personal writing” in this course as prose essays (not poems, not stories) that you will compose from a first-person perspective, in which you attempt (another word for essay) to express what you think and feel about subjects you desire to address in writing.

By doing so, you will come to realize that the process of such self-inquisitive writing can lead you to discover and develop ideas and attitudes you had not previously articulated.  While simply cogitating may generate new notions, the more tangible action of writing proves more provocative and productive as it transcribes into explicit language, in sentences and paragraphs, what that process evokes from your mind.

“How do I know what I think till see what I say?” is our operative question in this course.  As you write your draft, you will compose your mind and reveal to yourself and others what only becomes explicit when vague notions unfold themselves in prose composition.

To practice such writing reinvents your mind.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012


     Well versed in rhyme and meter, he’d proceed
     To turn a sonnet out most every day,
     Giving exigencies of form the lead,
     Surprised to find out what he had to say.

     He praised the magic of this mystic verse
     That urged him to discover in his mind
     What only its contrivance could disburse,
     Miraculously fashioned and designed.

     He therefore rightly would refuse to claim
     Full credit for the poems that came forth:
     The form and he were partners in the game,
     Collaborators in the verse’s worth.

          Platonically, both Form and Mind conspire
          To extricate True Beauty from the mire.



for Ken Burns and THE WAR

   Yes, Jesus had it right, and Gandhi, too,
   And all those other saints and sages who
   Have shown us that the only righteous way
   Is peace and love: the One Law to obey.

   For once we set ourselves above another,
   Forgetting they’re our sister or our brother,
   We violate the law of harmony
   That should prevail throughout humanity.

   Such discord and dismay erodes our souls
   Casting us in a pit of fiery coals
   That hatred, wrath and vengeful fury fans,
   Subverting God’s first optimistic plans.

        Though given freedom and then shown the Way,
        We fucked up royally and went astray.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012


     Though curiosity may kill a cat,
     And many a human has discovered that
     Poking our noses into mysteries
     Precipitates unreckoned miseries,
     The boldest of our kind are still inclined
     To scratch what irritates an itching mind,
     And if that means we send a probe to Mars,
     A long step toward exploring distant stars,
     Then we’ll apply our ingenuity
     To gratify that curiosity.

     If only we might be as curious
     About what makes our kind so furious
     Right here on Earth, and learn to quell our rage,
     Not worship Mars but start the Aquarian Age.


Monday, August 6, 2012


When you come to college you enter the realm of “Higher Education,” the aim of which is to cultivate the higher capacities of your mind.  You are here to develop your mind because mentality is the most distinctive characteristic of human beings.  “I think, therefore I am,” said Rene Descartes, the philosopher, yet he spoke for all human beings, possessed uniquely among earthly creatures with brains that can wonder and ponder, speculate and suppose, analyze and theorize, imagine and create.  “What a piece of work is a man,” exclaimed Hamlet, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties.”

When you come to college for a “liberal education,” to study “the liberal arts and sciences,” your proper aim is to liberate the potentials of your mind by activating your latent powers for thought and action that lead to wise deeds: to the realization of what is valuable for yourself and others.

Although you may harbor a different conception of college that simply reflects the curricular program and tallies course requirements to be checked off, that concept reflects the letter but not the spirit of Higher Education—which is really about the growth of your mind.  You should view each course you choose or are required to take, in both your general education and your major/minor programs, for how it will exercise and develop one or another mental skill, one or another cognitive or affective faculty of thought, as well as how it will inform you with not trivial data but significant knowledge.

College can initiate and accelerate this kind of mental growth in you, but college ends in a commencement, not a conclusion; which is to say that college, rightly undertaken, prepares you to continue learning and developing your mind, autodidactically, directing your own course of learning, for the rest of your life.


Sunday, August 5, 2012


    With relatives and friends so near their ends
    Or having lately passed to the Beyond,
    She sought a way that truly comprehends
    Our Fate yet skirts at last that slough, Despond.

    Is there some way to see or to believe
    That everything we know is not for nought,
    That even though we find we cannot cleave
    To earthly life, another may be sought

    And found: eternal life and consciousness
    That’s cosmic in its comprehensive scope,
    For how can life be tolerable unless
    Such knowledge is more certain than mere hope?

         I told her that Eternity is nigh,
         Here now in life, and also when we die.


Friday, August 3, 2012


Write essays to make up your mind. 

An old saying goes: “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”  That my seem silly, at first, and an excuse for merely blabbering, but my experience proves that rather than trying to ponder a subject in silent contemplation, figuring it out “in my head” abstractly, my thinking proceeds much more clearly and coherently when I speak or, even better, write. 

This way, sentences begin to emerge and connect to subsequent sentences, building into paragraphs, taking shape tangibly, available now for review and revision.  This way, a train of thought travels along a track, moving from station to station, paragraph by paragraph, toward a destination unlikely to be known until it’s reached. 

To essay means to try or to attempt.  To write an essay is to venture forth on a journey, eager to find out where your roving mind will take you and what unforeseen discoveries and revelations will emerge as you travel.

Grab a pad.  Pick up a pen.  Sit somewhere comfortable and quiet.  Listen for the inklings of a notion.  Then set your hand in motion to verbalize what’s flowing from your mind.  Begin.  Keep going.  And see where you arrive.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012



How does one, then, “create” a culture?

One doesn’t, I suppose; rather, many like-minded, like-spirited people do—by concurring in their values, assumptions, beliefs, practices, customs and mores.

The first challenge for creating a wiser culture, though, is to envision better behaviors for human beings to exhibit, alone and together, behaviors that contribute to the most desirable ends we aim to achieve, expressing the values we exalt, such as these:

•    Honoring the essential dignity of fellow human beings (unless their own undignified behaviors forfeit their innate esteem)

•    Honoring the well-being of the animate world—the biosphere—within which our species has evolved, the supportive matrix of our own flourishing, yet inherently precious with or without our presence.

•    Developing the potentialities of human intelligence and capability as fully as possible, both individually and collectively.  We are an evolving, emerging species— still in our collective adolescence, some would say, not yet mature in both wisdom and deed.

Therefore, one may contribute to creating a wise global culture by learning and practicing humane and intelligent behaviors with respect to all living beings. 

The chief motive for doing so is the awe and wonder one may feel in realizing how marvelous the Cosmos is that has brought us and all else into being.  Hallelujah!

A foolish global culture—the one we find ourselves mired in—produces not wonder but woe.


The task is to become wise—despite present difficulties—and try to build a culture in which wisdom will not only be possible but will be the norm, normal.  The world is what it is.  Considering everything that has gone before, it couldn’t be any different.  So there is no point regretting or recriminating.  But there is a lot of point in making the next moment better—and the next and the next.  Our culture may be slow to change, but our culture is not our enemy.  Our culture is, in fact, a direct reflection of us— at least the us of yesterday.  We must help our culture grow and mature, help it mirror the wisdom-seeking us of today and tomorrow.

—Copthorne Macdonald, Toward Wisdom, p. 130