Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Tale of Two Classrooms

“You cannot be a powerful life-changing presence to some people without being a complete joke and embarrassment to others.”
Mark Manson  (link)

Hello Reader,
Got classroom participation?
As practise for elsewhere?

Been There, Done That
Class one
Class two
Class one plus two

You may recall that after the Americans tossed out King George, there was a fear that in a few years, a few decades, or a few generations, they might go trumping along and elect an Uncle Joe or a Big Brother or some other “king in all but name.” Part of the reason they didn’t elect a Donald Duck to rule their pond was their experience with participation in all sorts of nonpolitical things. A French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1830 still-in-print classic Democracy in America, reported back to Europe that the Americans were big on forming associations… independent of government. 

Needless to say, an association can mean speaking up in participation. 

De Tocqueville pointed out (in my own words) that if government does not allow people to make decisions—with a sense of agency—in small things, then, for a big thing like voting, the people would fail: Their vote decision, however important, would lack the personal responsibility and intelligence that comes only after instilling a feeling of agency.

I think what you don’t want is a North American looking towards the expansive frontier with the same slumped shoulders as a proletariat looking at the factory walls saying, “I only work here.” For any democracy, to have the population saying “I only live here” is a disaster. 

My university student newspaper had a front page banner slogan, “The price of democracy is participation.” Nevertheless, some of the students, during their classes, would sit slumped like high school kids, feeling no sense of agency. Mere passengers. Bumps on a log. Children in adult bodies.  Others, though, would make their education serve them. They would listen… and, if need be, they would also talk, they would participate.

Been There, Done That
Out in the real world, at a community centre one night, during a break, someone told me I always speak concisely. Yes. I developed the skill of brevity partly by writing as a student newspaper reporter, partly by practising brevity as a student speaking in class, and partly from using a walkie talkie.

Class one
So there I was, in a liberal arts class, learning of Outstanding Lives. We studied three unusual people: Mahatma Gandhi, (Indian, assassinated) Simone Weil, (French, did not survive the war) and Thomas Merton. (U.S. monk, died with head wound but no autopsy) Having missed the very first class of the semester, I ended up sitting at the front, off to the side. (But we could turn around) 

My choice of seat worked out fine, as I ended up being literally touchy feely with a fellow mature student who sat beside me. She told me the others thought we were lovers. A young married woman next to her ended up inviting me as her “plus one” to a dinner for Dean’s list students. We three participated in class, as did a knot of people in the middle, and a knot of people in the back, and, well, as did everybody in that room, for that happy semester. 

Down the years, I have never attempted to ever be part of any “popular” or “in crowd.” Of course not: We intellectuals, and/or nerds, are traditionally independent. But for this class, I remember once, outside of class, a popular looking young woman saying sadly of we three (or more) “Why are you guys such friends (and not me)?” The main answer, which I didn’t share, was that my affectionate friend and I both had “a past.” I was sure happy I lucked out.

Of course it wasn’t pure luck, because I had used my sense of personal agency: 

So there I was, in my professor’s office, during the first week of classes: He already knew me because I attended the very first class of his other section (class two) for Outstanding Lives.
“May I transfer to your other section?”
“It would fit your schedule better, eh?”
“No, it knocks out my lunch break! But the section I attended is no good… On that first day, I swear I participated almost as much as the rest of the class combined!”  

Class two
What I didn’t tell my prof was that I had sensed, that first day, that I wasn’t respected. I would hope I wasn’t as bad as in Mark Manson’s quote “…a complete joke and embarrassment to others.” I had tried to lead by example, even heroically sacrificing some dignity, you might say, so as to encourage others to speak up too, but in vain. Not being one to cast pearls before swine, I transferred out before trying to help my peers a second time. I never dreamed what a splendid decision that would prove to be.

Class one plus two
We met up, both sections, for the final examination. While my own class had warm bonds, like under a warm yellow light bulb, I noted the other class as being awfully silent with each other, awfully drab, like being under a dull fluorescent light. I had no sympathy for them.

A few weeks before the final class I privately asked my prof, “Did your other section ever start participating?” “No.” I asked what it takes: He told me that if you can get three or four students to talk, as a critical mass, then you may have a class radiating excited conversation for learning. 

So how do you participate? By Listening well, that comes first. Encourage your peers with eye contact, head nods and smiles. 

I might add that some folks learn by solely listening, not talking. I myself have often been thanked after community centre meetings, where I barely said a single word, for contributing my intent energy for listening. 

Next: “Think before you speak.” People aren’t concise because they “wing it” but because they think it over first: As you rehearse what to say, try not to move your lips. (Joke) Army guys with back pack radios, and I was one, are taught to swallow their pride and write down their sentences on a field message pad, if that’s what it takes, before they speak. Looking back, I don’t recall anyone doing so. 

The army teaches BASS: Brevity, Accuracy, Speed and Security. 

BASS for civilians: I already covered how to be brief.
 Accuracy could mean citing your sources as you talk, as if in a newspaper article. “According to…” 
Speed means, again, don’t try to slowwwwly think “standing on your feet,” not while you are monopolizing everybody else’s time
And security? Among civilians, that could mean don’t blab anything behind someone’s back you wouldn’t say to their face. I ask you: How could anyone, in a public setting, accidentally say something prejudiced against another race, religion or creed?

Bonus tool: Unless you’re out in the field carrying a big pack with a built in radio transceiver, just relax and be yourself. We are all looking for authentic people.

Sean Crawford

“Here’s a piece on talking, written by a transcriber. The best part is the numbered advice near the end. (link) 

~Here’s a (link) to the shortest textbook I ever bought, a “life changing” thesis written by Simone Weil during the Nazi occupation of France, with the Greek parts translated by essayist (Settling the Colonel’s Hash) and novelist (The Group) Mary McCarthy. I have mentioned Weil and her thesis before, first in Troy, the Iliad, and music, archived January 2014, and more recently in Yankee B.S. and Doctor Who, archived December 2017. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Schools within Society within Citizenship

...He (Ayama) believed a mistake of historical proportions may have been made as Japan prepared to deal with its future. The nation, he suggested, was producing workers rather than full citizens, and he once told me in passing, almost as a throwaway, that it was a great deal easier to produce a good car than it was to produce a good human being.

The Next Century, 126 hardcover pages, by David Halberstam, referenced in my essay archived June 2015

Hello Reader,
Notice how things are embedded in society?

Utah passed a law recently stating that children are allowed to play outside alone as well as walk or bike to school without parental supervision. It is the first law in the US of its kind. And the fact that it’s even needed in the first place kind of freaks me out.
From Mark Manson in his only 2018 April blog essay for non-subscribers. (link)

How grim. Manson goes on to explain that baby boomers, as part of their bizarre entitlement, see their kids as trophies to be shown off. Part of this means having their children well rounded and sent to enriching activities, even if this happens too much, even if natural “child’s play” must be “scheduled.” As must “play dates,” too. 

My formative years were of the 1950’s. A time when an “only child” was unusual. Our vocabulary did not include “play dates” or “helicopter parents.”

Back in my day children all attended their neighborhood school together. Maybe a city would have one vocationally oriented school, a school that would then usually turn out to surprise the teachers by garnering a bad reputation for having troubled youth. That was then. 

Now, in my own city, we have evolved a spaghetti snarl of bus routes as so many kids are crisscrossing the city going to special classes. This in perhaps the biggest city, by square miles, in the whole country. (And the fourth largest by population) The school bus costs are proving to be unsustainable for the taxpayers. The experts have no solutions.

…Easy for me to say it’s hopeless to give schools any thought; hard for me to think around the subject from an angle of ancient history. But I feel I have to try…

Meanwhile, over in sunny Greece, everybody knew that well rounded schools were the way to go. The children would be outside dancing and tumbling, reciting poetry, running relay races, singing, learning to strum the lyre, tackling geometry and rhetoric. The ancient Greeks had no problem doing all of this and the three R’s too: Reading, “Riting” and “‘Rithmatic”. Of course, our knowledge of Greek society comes from idealistic writing. 

Maybe, off the page, Greeks shared with each other ignoble, petty reasons for having their well rounded schools, like the reasons Mark Manson notes of our baby boomers; just as Americans, without saying the word hubris, had verbal reasons for keeping troops in the Republic of South Vietnam that didn’t get into history books. (Americans wrote of reasons such as honoring their word, saving the world from the spread of evil Godless communism and believing in South Vietnamese self determination)

I said “maybe.” In the end, if we want to be inspired by our Greco-Roman heritage (as well as our other two heritages, Christian and Hebrew) then we would do well to take the Greeks at their word. Greek parents would have been influenced by what adults told each other: “Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen.” As for that alien idea of having schools do nothing but specialize all day, every day, in the three Rs, Greek slogans included “moderation in all things” and “nothing in excess.”

As I see it, the Greeks understood in their very bones that the best way to maintain their freedom was with democracy, and the best way to maintain democracy was with good schools producing good human capital. The mighty Persian Empire, so close by, would have been instructive. Mighty, with a huge armed forces, but also with a vast unschooled public unused to freedom, unused to thinking for themselves. If once conquered, the downtrodden Persians would never rise up again. As Alexander the Great easily proved. Persians were like a giant chessboard where, if the king became resigned to his fate, all the pawns would surrender. Not like checkers. Not like in Greece, where every “citizen,” by definition, felt himself a king. For every new Greek generation the land would have to be re-conquered, or at least “occupied”—a word NOT in the (non-democratic) ancient world’s vocabulary.

Today Persia (Iran) and the adjoining Arab nations are rich in oil but very poor in people. Partly because their society has only a timid connection between merit and success—because of corruption and entitlement. A Canadian in the British army reports, in his recent memoirs, of being on manoeuvres with Arab soldiers. He looked over at an Arab mortar crew: The arabs didn’t even know how to aim their weapon properly… This makes sense: How could it possibly be otherwise? Armed forces are always embedded in the surrounding civil society.

I grew up poor and working class. Many years ago, back when I still thought university students knew a lot, and dreamed of being one myself, I stood outside the door of a classroom in the physical education building. I lost my innocence about white collar students when I heard a professor asking her class, like a mother talking to her simple children, “Why do you think the Spartan girls were encouraged to run to school?” Sparta, of course, fielded the best warriors of all the Greek city-states. She asked again. As I recall, with no answers forthcoming, at last she had to spell it out for her students: The women were to be strong, to raise strong warriors… Again the concept of the army reflecting the surrounding society.

So why, today, do certain Arabs and Muslims believe a girl should not even attend school? To me, one of the reasons is obvious: Surely so she won’t learn to think, and therefore won’t set an example in thinking for her children. So she won’t raise boys and girls who will question the king or dictator or ayatollah. 

From 1983, during the first decade of suicide bombers, is Memoir From the Women’s Prison (translated by Marilyn Booth) by Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian Muslim medical doctor and writer. She was politically imprisoned. On page 124, a guard is talking with a prisoner:

“I don’t know anything,” she said in a loud voice. “Not even how to read and write.”
“Why do you cover your face with a veil?” he asked.
“Because God commanded me to do so in his Noble Book.”
“How did you find that out? Have you read God’s book?”
She was silent for a moment. “I don’t read, but I heard it on the radio over at the neighbours….and I heard the Shaykh say that God has commanded all women to cover their faces.” 
On the cover of her book, old white haired Saadawi poses with an uncovered head.

To an Arab or Pakistani Muslim extremist it makes sense: Better to shoot an uppity fifteen year old schoolgirl in the head, like they did poor Malala, than to risk someday having a Greek-style entire generation of housewives who could think over new ideas and, say, ponder head coverings. The lands of Islam are fine already, say the gunmen, especially if we can return to older, purer Islam, so there’s no need to for Islamic people to take any chances of maybe, eventually, getting the separation of church and state, let alone (spits on the ground) democracy!

As I type this, dear reader, I feel a tad foolish, pointing out the obvious. But it’s not obvious to our teenagers who claim that Islam is under attack worldwide, or who would run off to join the Arab bombers and be-headers in their dark caliphate. And I won’t forget adult university students needing to be mothered: Things aren’t obvious to them, either.

Our pioneer ancestors would take a day off from farming to raise a neigbor’s barn, or erect a community school. As our ancestors in Africa might say: It takes a village to raise a child, a society to raise a school. 

Schools: Not off in a bubble, not magically hopeless. We built them. We staff them. We can surely open their windows to the light. 

Needless to say, no matter how many schools we have in our sad sorry world, there will always, for every time and space, be extremists. When my dad was much younger than I am now, he fought an army in which were embedded Hitler Youth. Because his army was “first in, first out,” Dad didn’t have to stick around for the occupation of Germany. But if he had, he could have told the Germans: “Whatever schools you choose to have, will mean the citizens you deserve.”

Sean Crawford
North of Utah

“I am starting to think. Thank you.” A student
Considering my opening quote from Ayama, on producing good human beings, and then seeking for proof that schooling could be effective, I found a standing-ovation Ted Talk by a man from Microsoft. 

Without using the word citizen, he represents the ideal of responsibility beyond oneself. He cofounded a postsecondary school that effectively trains the leaders (that is, the nation’s educated) to look beyond themselves, to feel less entitled and more responsible. (Link)

Literary Musings: I have been thinking of the young adult science fiction novels from the 1950’s of Robert Heinlein. 
In one, a beggar suddenly surprises his son by showing that he can juggle. The son, who as a member of the beggar class will never need algebra, gets tutored in math by his father, and discovers that algebra is worthwhile for it’s own sake.

In another, a mid-west high school boy takes extra classes to get into engineering school, including taking Latin. (Which comes in handy when he meets a time traveling legionary) In another, an old asteroid belt prospector complains to two brothers about uneducated kids these days: “Quote a bit of Latin at them, and they look at you like you’re funny in the head.”

I think Heinlein and his generation must have been raised to be aware of the ancient Greeks believing in well-rounded schools, and well rounded citizens.