Academic journal article Humanitas

The Matrix, Liberal Education, and Other Splinters in the Mind

Academic journal article Humanitas

The Matrix, Liberal Education, and Other Splinters in the Mind

Article excerpt

Here are superbly imaginative treatments of logical principles, the uses and meanings of words, the functions of names, the perplexities connected with time and space, the problem of personal identity, the status of substance in relation to its qualities, the mind-body problem....


This passage is taken from Roger W. Holmes's "The Philosopher's Alice in Wonderland." (1) Holmes discusses a number of philosophical problems, which appear in a variety of forms in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He delights in the pedagogical potential of Lewis Carroll's work: "Most often Carroll uses the absurd hilarity of Wonderland to bring difficult concepts into sharp focus; and for this gift teachers of logic and philosophy have unmeasured admiration and gratitude." (2) Writing in 1959, Holmes might well have been able to expect that many, and perhaps even most, students would have read one or both stories before arriving at university. Drawing upon the fantastic comical examples from Carroll's books, a teacher of philosophy and literature might both instruct and delight students, drawing them into a deeper discussion of questions and ideas, and initiating the journey that is liberal education.

A professor today teaching first-year students cannot realistically expect them to have read Carroll's books. In fact, it would be difficult to name any particular book students could be expected to have read. And yet a shared set of images and characters that can be used for talking about important ideas and questions continues to be an invaluable pedagogical tool. Teaching now seems to require turning to contemporary popular culture. As Paul Cantor observes, students will enthusiastically provide serious and insightful comments on popular television shows which "provide students today with whatever common culture they possess," and he reminds us not to be dismissive too quickly: "much of popular culture may be mindless entertainment, but we should be awake to the possibility that in what a former FCC chairman Newton Minow once famously called the 'vast wasteland' of television, oases of quality and maybe even of thoughtfulness can be found." (3) Popular culture frequently provides the rough and ready equivalent of shared texts. Much of it may be primarily entertainment, but it is at least dependable. For you can count on students' all having watched a good number of the most popular current and syndicated television shows. They know the most popular music and have seen the top selling movies, often watching some of them numerous times on video.

Many such "texts" are of limited use. Their treatment of difficult and complex ideas is often superficial or contradictory. Moreover, they at times simply retail the conventional moral and political teachings of the moment. (4) This said, popular culture can provide some of what is necessary for beginning to educate students. As Cantor suggests, "If students can learn to reflect on what they view in movies or on television, the process may eventually make them better readers of literature.... By being selective and rigorously analytical, one may be able to lift popular culture up to the level of high culture, or at least pull it in that direction." (5) The popular movie The Matrix is an exemplary case in point. (6) Its intimations that there is something much more interesting than popular culture make the film a potentially valuable tool for teaching. While not a candidate to replace the Alice books, the film can be engaged to raise significant philosophical questions and to begin a more profound discussion of the purpose of a liberal education. The film's merits in this regard are substantial. It can thus serve as a portal for students, through which they can pass from popular culture to culture simply--the equivalent of leaving the subway and ascending into the sunlight.

A great deal has already been written about The Matrix as film, as popular culture, as it connects with contemporary philosophy (particularly the work of Jean Baudrillard). …

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