The Making of an Ethnobotanist in a 1960s University Scene

One of the books on my ethnobotany shelves is Witchcraft Medicine:Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, a colloboration between Wolf Dieter Storl, Claudia Müller-Ebeling, and Christian Rätsch, all three anthropologists and ethnobotanists.

Müller-Ebeling and Rätsch are married and live in Hamburg, but Storl was born in Germany in 1942 and came with his family to Ohio in 1953. Now he goes back and forth but lives primarily in Germany with his American wife.

Despite the cover and and subtitle, “A German ethnobotanist’s wild roots in the Psychedelic Sixties,” what  Storll’s memoir, Far Out in America, really describes is the pre-psychedelic late 1950s and early 1960s, the time when only a few university students would have heard of LSD and — lacking a connection to certain psychology professors or a father working in the right section of the CIA — would have had no idea how actually acquire some.

Storl himself describes Far Out in America as a story of personal adventure that would be “told in the hall of the gods.”  When not in school, he sets out on epic hitchhiking adventures, passing through every subculture from Appalachian moonshiners to civil rights activists to Chicano adventurers to seasonal workers in national parks.

I liked the two half-assimilated German beatniks, sons of German scientists brought to the US after World War Two “to continue their reearch on miracle weapons, rockets, antigravitational objects, and jet fighters.” They introduce college freshman Wolf Dieter to the music of Bob Dylan, whose 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Storl says “expressed the feeings of the times, the Weltschmerz, world-wearienss, and all that was stirring young hearts.”

For a bright young Ohian, Ohio State University is an obvious choice, and he goes off to Coumbus to study botany and agriculture, only to discover that he has enlisted in the Green Revolution, learning to “export high-yield ‘miracle seed’ to backward peasants in Asia, africa, and South America,” as one of his professors explains. The program is totally about large-scale, mechanized, monoculture farming guided by technocrats like he was being groomed to become.

Erika Bourguignon in the 1970s.

He drops out. After other false starts, he ends up in anthropology, where one of his professors is Erika Bourguignon (1924–2015), who taught more than forty years at OSU, and who was one of the few anthropologists to take “woo” — excuse me, “extraordinary states of consciousness” — seriously.

She published a lot, and when I was in grad school myself, her books and article were widely cited. Nikki Bado, my friend and former Pagan-studies book series co-editor, was one of her students.

Another was Felicitas Goodman (1914–2005), whom I met in the 1990s and thought of as sort of the European Michael Harner. She came to OSU as a middle-aged student, another one whose family emigrated to America after WW2, and earned a PhD there. She also started her own school of (neo)shamanism, The Cuyamungue Institute, in New Mexico, but also taught classes in Denmark, Germany, and other countries.

When I edited Witchcraft and Shamanism (1994) for Llewellyn, I was thrilled to get a chapter from her, “Shamans, WItches, and the Rediscovery of Trance Postures.” For the whole story how how she managed postures depicted in ancient and and indigenous pictures and sculptures with different sorts of trance experiences, read her book Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences.

Wolf Dieter Storl has numerous YouTube videos, about two-thirds of them in German and others in English.

Mescalito Meets Calligraphy Class

Death is a whorl, he said.
Given my choice of text, what do you think that I had been reading back in my dorm room?

Cleaning out a stash of frames, mats, framed photos, some of Dad’s old watercolors, etc. today, I found this.

It is work from my beginning calligraphy class at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where the study of calligraphy shaped the visual identity from the 1940s–1980s in particular, and to a lesser extent today.

My teacher, the former monk Robert Palladino, was forced out in the 1980s, apparently by a cabal of humanities professors who felt that calligraphy was just pretty writing but not really intellectually serious.That is my take on it; in his interview Palladino says that his half-time job was sacrificed so the studio arts program (always an orphan) could hire a full-time sculptor. But I think that he was too nice a guy (and hampered by his half-time appointment) to be an active player in the game of faculty politics and to build alliances to fight for his program. (I saw something similar happen to two other professors, who had in common that they were female and foreign-born.)

The professors who sneered at calligraphy were wrong, of course. If you took Lloyd Reynolds’ or Palladino’s courses, you ended up getting a whole history of the Western tradition, since the study of calligraphy — like music  history — brought with it lineages of thinkers, rulers, and texts. And in everyone’s favorite anecdote, the fact that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs sat it on one of Palladino’s classes influenced the screen fonts and graphics of Macintosh computers a decade later.

Since 2012, an effort has been made to bring back the formal study of calligraphy via “the Scriptorium.”

Me, I just took one semester’s worth. I was a little overawed by my roommate, who sucked down calligraphy like oxygen and went on to become a professional calligrapher and graphic designer in San Francisco. I was a toddler scribbling on the wall with a crayon compared to him.

Alexa, I Want to Talk to Julius Caesar

Via Mary Harrsch’s Roman Times online magazine: She is creating Alexa “skills” on ancient Roman topics.

I received word from Amazon that the newest version of my FREE educational Alexa skill, “Caesar’s Ancient World” has been certified. This latest version of the skill includes 280 images of ancient art from almost 100 institutions worldwide for those of you with Alexa-enabled devices with displays like the Echo Show, Echo Spot and FireTV. Of course the voice-only version remains available for those with regular Echos or Echo Dots.

I have redesigned the interface so you can now just ask Caesar what you would like to talk about and he will reply with narrative including sound effects. You can say things like “I want to know more about chariot racing” or “Tell me more about your greatest victory” or “I’m interested in gladiators”. If you can’t think of anything just say “I don’t know” or “I can’t think of anything” and he’ll suggest a topic!

Topics include priesthood, horseback riding, and the Roman institution of slavery. There is another one called “Ancient Wisdom.”

Roman Times is in the sidebar under “Classics,” but you need to be at this blog’s home page to see the sidebar!

Joss Whedon on how your Body Wants to be Mulch — and other Wisdom

Joss Whedon returns to his alma mater to give the commencement speech.

If this had been my commencement speech, I might have remembered something about it. It’s nice to see someone with a tragic (in the old sense) view of life.

As it was, my commencement  speaker was some history or poli sci professor from somewhere . . . I don’t remember a single thing about it. I can remember what I wore that day (Reed College did not do gowns), and that is about all.

Other classes before mine had it better. One year the Æsthetes were in charge of the committee, and they brought in Anaïs Nin, in flowing garments — speaking about Beauty, I suppose — while young Æsthetes swooned at her feet. Paperback copies of her diary were not uncommon on campus.

The next year the jocks-with-brains were in charge, and they hired Heywood Hale Broun. A sportscaster!

But it was my girlfriend’s graduation, so I went, and my expectations were upended. This guy whom I had seen on TV blathering about football and racehorses while wearing loud plaid sport coats ended up giving a straight-up-the-middle talk about the eternal verities of the liberal arts. As I recall, he actually used the phrase “eternal verities,” making it both sincere and simultaneously ironic. I learned something that day.

As for my class, I knew we arrived at a rough time for the college — how rough, I learned only later. Maybe we should just have been happy that there was still a college to gradate from four years down the road.

Some Snapshots of the Shifts in Higher Ed

A cluster of related articles on higher education.

1. From Washington Monthly: why states are funding higher ed less.

State support comes out of taxes. When the economy goes bad, states collect less money in taxes. States, however, are legally required to fund certain things. Pension plans, for instance, are usually not things the governor can simply reduce or cut one year. He has to pay for them. To a certain extent this makes sense, but it can be devastating for other items in the state budget.

2. A longer Washington Monthly piece on how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are seeking to make money off higher education, if they can just find the right key.

So the VC guys and the start-ups look at K-12 and higher education, which between them cost over $1 trillion per year in America, and much more around the world. They see businesses that are organized around communication between people and the exchange of information [like Facebook], two things that are increasingly happening over the Internet. Right now, nearly all of that communication and exchange happens on physical platforms—schools and colleges—that were built a long time ago. A huge amount of money is tied up in labor and business arrangements that depend on things staying that way. How likely are they to stay that way, in the long term? Sure, there are a ton of regulatory protections and political complications tied up in the fact that most education is funded by the taxpayer. As always, the timing would be difficult, and there is as much risk in being too early as too late.

Still, $1 trillion, just sitting there. And how much does it cost for a firm like Learn Capital to invest in a few people sitting around a table with their MacBook Airs? That’s a cheap lottery ticket with a huge potential jackpot waiting for whomever backs the winning education platform.

3. Meanwhile, the Community College Dean, of the blog with the same name, thinks about the “Big Sort,” where educated people from top-tier schools marry each other and cluster in certain places, and the “two-body problem” in academia. But mostly he wonders what the future role of community colleges will be.

 Community colleges, by dint of the “community” part, are tied to particular places.  As those places become more polarized, and as instruction becomes more removed from those places, some of the baseline assumptions of the colleges come into question.

Rhetoric: It’s “Classical” Because It Works

“Back to the basics” works if you chose the right basics. (We could debate that.)

The Writing Revolution,” an article in The Atlantic, argues that attention to basic rhetorical principles — as opposed to expressing your feelings or writing in order to become a better person— helps disadvantaged high school students to succeed.

And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well.

The Potential Strength of a Liberal Arts Degree

I have written here before about the Higher Education Bubble. Related to that perception, you hear a lot of people devaluing education in the humanities and arts. High-profile news stories about graduates with degrees in, for example, film studies and a big debt load did not help.

But here is an article from a business publication saying that liberal arts grads are being hired—if they can demonstrate what are essentially good research and rhetorical skills. And by “rhetorical” I mean the ability to analyze and argue a given problem or situation. Quintilian, call your office.

From an article titled “Revenge of the Liberal Arts Major,”

More interesting, at least for those of us who got some parental grief over our college choice, was the apparent love being shown for liberal arts majors. Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

“The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. “They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.”

Contrary to what the “expert on Generation Y” says, however, a liberal arts degree is no guarantee of communication skills, however. I see plenty of Facebook and blog posts from professor friends’ complaining of their students’ poor writing, inadequate research, and inability to think beyond checking the right answer on a multiple-choice test.

You have to work at it.


“Higher Ed Bubble” Goes Mainstream

Another article on the “higher education bubble” (think housing bubble, but with college degrees) from that screaming right-wing rag The Christian Science Monitor. (That was meant as sarcasm.)

A college degree once looked to be the path to prosperity. In an article for TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy writes, “Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe.”

“Administrative bloat” is real. At many big universities, the administrators now outnumber the teaching faculty.

At the other end of the spectrum, the small liberal-arts college that I attended has about the same number of students than it did a few years ago, but it now seems to require more deans and assistant deans to operate.

At least Reed College has not wasted money on big football stadiums full of empty seats like so many universities.

Universities keep raising tuition. Students get easy, taxpayer-guaranteed loans to pay that tuition, because a college degree is a Good Thing.

Can’t pay off the loan? Too bad. Not even personal bankruptcy will make it go away—the banks saw to it that the law was written that way. And no one can foreclose on your bachelor’s or master’s degree.

So what if people stop climbing on this particular merry-go-ground? What happens to all those assistant deans and the big, empty football stadium then? What happens to all my friends trying to get teaching jobs? What happens to me hoping that someone will adopt my book as a class text? What happens to my publisher?

The linked Tech Crunch article is even more hard-hitting.

Next thing, National Public Radio will discover this issue.

The Higher-Ed Bubble

Talk of the “higher-education bubble” seems to be increasing. This short article from a North Carolina-based think tank  pretty well sums it up:

Like the nation’s housing bubble, which eventually burst, the college bubble is caused by a number of factors. But the biggest force is, as my colleague George Leef has often pointed out, the overselling of higher education. The housing bubble was created, at least in part, by the conviction that everyone ought to own a home; the college bubble is occurring because so many peoplebelieve that everyone ought to attend college.

It’s depressing because so many people whom I know are employed in higher education, want to be so employed, or are connected with it, such as through academic publishing.

Speaking of the United States, what is the figure for entering freshmen who actually complete a bachelor’s degree in a generous six years? Under 50 percent, right?

Yet every high-school guidance counselor tells kids that even if they take on a pile of debt to get a degree, they will earn it all back and more. Not always true.

I don’t think making university education dramatically cheaper is the answer either. Some countries do — and then they end up with large numbers of young people who are now “above” working with their hands.

So they get jobs in bloated government bureaucracies, sit around drinking tea and soliciting bribes — or they emigrate.

(I’ve heard enough horror stories from the international students, of whom my university has quite a few.)

After decades of growth, starting post-World War Two when university education was subsidized for returning servicemen, then when the Baby Boom went to college (1960s-1970s), and then the “bubble” years following those,  it is really hard to think that higher education might be contracting.

But it might. And we have to have some response to that, right?

Gallimaufry with Graphs

• The writing process, graphed, from Boing Boing.

• The “great conversation” lives on: University students discovering ideas that their so-called teachers kept from them because they were not “relevant” or something.

•  Why did Borders crash? Here is one view. Too much space given to music. for one thing, says the writer.

Support for a “gap year” before university grows in the U.S. I could have used one.