All posts by John Messerly

Best Books on Writing

These are the books on writing that I have recommed. For more information click on one of the links below. (**Zinnser’s is the single best book on writing in my opinion.)

• Mortimer Adler ~ How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading …
• Harold Evans ~ Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters
• Steven Pinker ~ The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing …
• Strunk & White ~The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
** William Zinsser ~ On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction **
• William Zinsser ~ Writing To Learn

Teacher Burnout

The teacher-student-monument in Rostock, Germany.

I can still remember the thrill of teaching my first college class over 30 years ago. I walked into the room wondering “What am I going to talk about for an hour, three times a week, for sixteen weeks?” As I soon found out, I could talk that long easily!

For the most part, I enjoyed teaching, but I’m glad to have put it behind me. For one thing, I can now concentrate on my scholarly thinking and writing, and for another, I was burned out of teaching toward the end of my career.

There were many contributing factors to my teacher burnout. First, many of the students in my introductory college courses didn’t want to be there—most of them took my philosophy classes to fulfill a requirement. So it was like teaching someone to play the piano or program a computer who doesn’t want to learn how, not an ideal situation. Looking back I wish that I could have gone into a class and said: “If you want to study and learn then we can do it together but if you don’t please leave.” No, I never said this but I admit I wanted to. Also, you meet a few nasty students when teaching.

Another factor is the inherent conflict surrounding grading. Most students care primarily about grades whereas I care about their learning. This led to occasional, dispiriting battles over grades. Moreover, the cumulative effect of teaching as many as 8 classes in a single semester slowly took its toll. This resulted from the fact that, in addition to a full load at my primary institution, I usually taught community college classes at night. In all, I estimate that I taught about 250 classes in my career covering 25 different subjects to a total of about 9,000 students.

A final factor had to do with the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy is mostly about controversial topics like ethics, religion, and politics. Thus teaching it well forces such topics to be broached. As Spinoza put it: “I can’t teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace.” That’s exactly right but the problem is that most students don’t want their peace disturbed. Add to this the current instability and hyper-partisan nature of American culture and the classroom is fertile ground for tension. I just tired of the conflict.

As for the students who wanted to learn, I enjoyed teaching and learning with them, and I remember many of them fondly. I say with all honesty that I did everything I could to contribute to their educations and would spend hours talking with them if that helped. Real education is something I believe in and I’d still teach today if I had interested students.

But now I feel about leaving teaching the way Thoreau did about leaving the woods.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Good Books on Atheism and Agnosticism

These are some books on atheism and agnosticism that I recommend. For more information click on one of the links below. (** Books that had a special influence on me.)

• Alain De Botton ~ Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
• Marshall Brain ~ How “God” Works: A Logical Inquiry on Faith
• Simon Critchley ~ The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments In Political Theology
• Richard Dawkins ~ The God Delusion
• Daniel Dennett ~ Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon **
• Ronald Dworkin ~ Religion without God **
• Greg Graffin ~ Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God
•  A. C. Grayling ~ The Good Book: A Humanist Bible
• Sam Harris ~ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
• Sam Harris ~ Letter to a Christian Nation
• S. C. Hitchcock ~ Disbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism
• Christopher Hitchens ~ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
• Julian Huxley ~ Religion Without Revelation
• Philip Kitcher ~ Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism
• Michel Onfray ~ Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
• Bertrand Russell ~ Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects **
• Victor Stenger ~ God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion
• Mitchell Stevens ~ Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World 
• Phil Torres ~ A Crisis of Faith – Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity
• Peter Watson ~ The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God

Summary of “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria”

EscherichiaColi NIAID.jpg

I recently watched the PBS “Frontline documentary “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria.” It investigates the rise of deadly drug-resistant bacteria. As the world health organization has recently reported, we may be heading for a post-antibiotic world where common infections will again kill.

Most of us realize that a big part of the problem is that most antibiotics are fed to livestock. Everyone knows that we shouldn’t engage in that practice but the agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies are just too powerful to defeat on this issue. And those lobbies are interested in profit, not public health.

Perhaps lesser known is that few drug companies are developing new antibiotics because it is less profitable to develop antibiotics which are taken occasionally, as opposed to drugs that need to be taken regularly for conditions like blood pressure, cholesterol, hair loss, or erectile dysfunction. This is a classic example of how the market doesn’t always serve the individual’s best interests. We may get erections and hair but die from the effects of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

How real is the problem? The CDC claims:

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Only government research supported by tax dollars is likely to solve such large problems. The purpose of good government is to act in the interest of the common good. This is their raison d’être.

But private corporations answer to their shareholders—profit is their only concern. Need evidence? 1) Consider that while tobacco killed millions over decades, the tobacco industry actively covered up the problem since tobacco was a profitable product. But government slowly exposed the problem by placing constraints on the sale of tobacco and publicizing it as a public health hazard. 2) Consider that after decades of polluting the air, earth, and water, only the creation of the EPA stemmed the tide, successfully enacting measures to clean up the environment. 3) Consider the deadly effects of leaded gasoline, lead paint, and other lead products. Again industry profited, people died, and government saved us. Today, as global climate change proceeds unabated, fossil fuels companies and their allies again lie and deceive. And why not? It is profitable to burn fossil fuels. Only governmental power is likely to stop the ruination our fragile climate.

From an economic standpoint, even larger steps are probably needed including the creation of a new economic system or at least serious changes to our current one. Politically we needed more global cooperation or we should grant intergovernmental bodies like the IPCC or UN more power to make states comply with international law. The fact is that many problems we confront today cross international borders.

So thanks PBS for an informative documentary. It wasn’t profitable to investigate this for a small audience, and without adequate public funds you are forced to beg for money, but this broadcast performed a great public service. Thanks “public broadcasting system.”

Note – The NY Times published this op-ed about the documentary.

Good Books about the Future

These are books about the future that I recommend. For more information click on one of the links below. (**Books that especially influenced me.)

• Michael Bess ~ Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society …
• Russell Blackford ~ Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for …
• John Brockman ~ The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the …
• Damien Broderick ~ ** The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being Transformed By Rapidly …
• Chris Gray ~ Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age
• Michio Kaku ~ ** Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century
 • Jaron Lanier ~ You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
• Jaron Lanier ~ Who Owns the Future?
• John Maddox ~ What Remains to Be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe …
• Martin Rees ~ ** Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning
• More & Vita-More ~  The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary…
• Gregory Stock ~ Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future
• David Wood ~ Anticipating Tomorrow’s Politics