My students will recognize war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, and his accounts of World War II, including a series of three columns that describe with stark intimacy the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. This week, all three will be reprinted by members of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Also well worth reading is this article from The New York Times, a tribute by David Chrisinger to Pyle, the man who told America the truth about D-Day, and the soldiers he commemorated, whose sacrifice in war leaves us all indebted.
Controversy arose over whether or not to publish a photo of Ernie Pyle in death. In this article, a different war correspondent named Pyle, the late Richard Pyle, quotes Ernie Pyle biographer, James E. Tobin…
“It’s a striking and painful image, but Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make, so it’s fitting, in a way, that this photo of his own death… drives home the reality and the finality of that sacrifice.”
Indiana University has a great repository of Ernie Pyle’s wartime stories – click here to see them
In addition to soldiers, I would add, casualties of war include the child with no parent, the home with an empty room, the people with nowhere to live and nobody willing who is able to help them. Families might live in separation as a consequence of war. Civilians can be caught or placed into the path of chilling technology and lethal weaponry. People left alive find themselves rudely displaced and nakedly vulnerable. We have seen pride and duty elapse into jingoism, internment, and genocide. War is fought and casualties suffer in many different ways.
Our historical record is clear for its brutality and the dispensing of lives, and any disdain for the politics that incite war might well be justified. We have so much to answer for. Yet flatly shaming war as foolhardy or inhumane is simplistic. By the same turn, dismissing observances of war as banal or romanticised might overlook the personal roots that inspired them. How do we reconcile this? Pyle is clear: despite its cruelty, war is sometimes necessary.
And when it is unnecessary? We have the liberty to have our say, but no matter our opinions or our politics, to live “in the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead.” Is this the imposthume of wealth and peace or the world of rights and freedoms? I can’t cover it all, or know every angle. For people like me, removed from war, what compels us into political debate differently than those facing imminent threat?
Beyond what I think of each war, anguish is real to those for whom war has meant sacrifice. Separate to written accounts, troubling memories are not easily and often never shared, but they are memories because those things really happened. Certainty of loss, uncertainty of fate: each is frightening, and both leave scars. Pain does not necessarily subside for no longer being inflicted. To disregard the sacrifices of war is to risk dishonoring, and nullifying, the people who made them, even as they might already be dead and gone. Particularly on an anniversary such as this, we carry the cost of their service to us. Yet their sacrifices will never amount to nothing because the debt we owe is one we can never repay. For this reason, let us value and earn our debt. As the sacrifices of war are permanent, the onus for us to honour them is everlasting.
Before introducing the moral pairing of right and wrong to my students, I actually began with selfish and selfless because I believe morality has a subjective element, even in the context of religion where we tend to decide for ourselves whether or not we believe or ascribe to a faith.
As I propose them, selfish and selfless are literal, more tangible, even quantifiable: there’s me, and there’s not me. For this reason, I conversely used right and wrong to discuss thinking and bias. For instance, we often discussed Hamlet’s invocation of thinking: “… there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II, ii, 249-250). Good and bad, good and evil, right and wrong… while not exactly synonymous, these different pairings do play in the same ballpark. Still, as I often said to my students about synonyms, “If they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word.” So leaving good and bad to the pet dog, and good and evil to fairy tales, I presently consider the pairing of right and wrong, by which I mean morality, as a means to reconcile Hamlet’s declaration about thinking as some kind of moral authority.
My own thinking is that we have an innate sense of right and wrong, deriving in part from empathy, our capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes and identify with that perspective – look no further than storytelling itself. Being intrinsic and relative to others, empathy suggests an emotional response and opens the door to compassion, what we sometimes call the Golden Rule. Compassion, for Martha Nussbaum, is that means of “[hooking] our imaginations to the good of others… an invaluable way of extending our ethical awareness” (pp. 13-14). Of course, the better the storytelling, the sharper the hook, and the more we can relate; with more to go on, our capacity for empathy, i.e. our compassion, rises. Does that mean we actually will care more? Who knows! But I think the more we care about others, the more we tend to agree with them about life and living. If all this is so, broadly speaking, if our measure for right derives from empathy, then perhaps one measure for what is right is compassion.
And if we don’t care, or care less? After all, empathy’s no guarantee. We might just as reasonably expect to face from other people continued self-interest, deriving from “the more intense and ambivalent emotions of… personal life” (p. 14). Emotions have “history,” Nussbaum decides (p. 175), which we remember in our day-to-day encounters. They are, in general, multifaceted, neither a “special saintly distillation” of positive nor some “dark and selfish” litany of negative, to use the words of Robert Solomon (p. 4). In fact, Solomon claims that we’re not naturally selfish to begin with, and although I disagree with that, on its face, I might accept it with qualification: our relationships can supersede our selfishness when we decide to prioritise them. So if we accept that right and wrong are sensed not just individually but collectively, we might even anticipate where one could compel another to agree. Alongside compassion, then, to help measure right, perhaps coercion can help us to measure wrong: yes, we may care about other people, but if we care for some reason, maybe that’s why we agree with them, or assist them, or whatever. Yet maybe we’re just out to gain for ourselves. Whatever our motive, we treat other people accordingly, and it all gets variously deemed “right” or “wrong.”
I’m not suggesting morality is limited solely to the workings of compassion and coercion, but since I limited this discussion to right and wrong, I hope it’s helping illuminate why I had students begin first with what is selfish and selfless. That matters get “variously deemed,” as I’ve just put it, suggests that people seldom see any-and-all things so morally black and white as to conclude, “That is definitely wrong, and this is obviously right.” Sometimes, of course, but not all people always for all things. Everybody having an opinion – mine being mine, yours being yours, as the case may be – that’s still neither here nor there to the fact that every body has an opinion, mine being mine and yours being yours. On some things, we’ll agree while, on some things, we won’t.
At issue is the degree that I’m (un)able to make personal decisions about right and wrong, the degree that I might feel conspicuous, perhaps uneasy, even cornered or fearful – and wrong – as compared to feeling assured, supported, or proud, even sanctimonious – and right. Standing alone from the crowd can be, well… lonely. What’s more, having some innate sense of right and wrong doesn’t necessarily help me act, not if I feel alone, particularly not if I feel exposed. At that point, whether from peer pressure or social custom peering over my shoulder, the moral question about right and wrong can lapse into an ethical dilemma, the moral spectacle of my right confronted by some other right: would I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family? For me, morality is mediated (although not necessarily defined, as Hamlet suggests) by where one stands at that moment, by perspective, in which I include experience, education, relationships, and whatever values and beliefs one brings to the decisive moment. I’m implying what amounts to conscience as a personal measure for morality, but there’s that one more consideration that keeps intervening: community. Other people. Besides selfish me, everybody else. Selfless not me.
Since we stand so often as members of communities, we inevitably derive some values and beliefs from those pre-eminent opinions and long-standing traditions that comprise them. Yet I hardly mean to suggest that a shared culture of community is uniform – again, few matters are so black or white. Despite all that might be commonly held, individual beliefs comprising shared culture, if anything, are likely heterogeneous: it’s the proverbial family dinner table on election night. Even “shared” doesn’t rule out some differentiation. Conceivably, there could be as many opinions as people possessing them. What we understand as conscience, then, isn’t limited to what “I believe” because it still may not be so easy to disregard how-many-other opinions and traditions. Hence the need for discussion – to listen, and think – for mutual understanding, in order to determine right from wrong. Morality, in that sense, is concerted self-awareness plus empathy, the realised outcome of combined inner and outer influences, as we actively and intuitively adopt measures that compare how much we care about the things we face everyday.
Say we encounter someone enduring loss or pain. We still might conceivably halt our sympathies before falling too deeply into them: Don’t get too involved, you might tell yourself, you’ve got plenty of your own to deal with. Maybe cold reason deserves a reputation for callusing our decision-making, but evidently, empathy does not preclude our capacity to reason with self. On the other hand, as inconsistent as it might seem, one could not function or decide much of anything, individually, without empathy because, without it, we would have no measure. As we seem able to reason past our own feelings, we also wrestle echoing pangs of conscience that tug from the other side, which sometimes we call compassion or, other times, a guilt trip. Whatever to call it, clearly we hardly live like hermits, devoid of human contact and its resultant emotions. Right and wrong, in that respect, are socially individually determined.
One more example… there’s this argument that we’re desensitized by movies, video games, the TV news cycle, and so forth. For how-many-people, news coverage of a war-torn city warrants hardly more than the glance at the weather report that follows. In fact, for how-many-people, the weather matters more. Does this detachment arise from watching things once-removed, two-dimensionally, on a viewscreen? Surely, attitudes would be different if, instead of rain, it were shells and bombs falling on our heads from above. Is it no surprise, then, as easily as we’re shocked or distressed by the immediacy of witnessing a car accident on the way to our favourite restaurant, that fifteen minutes later we might conceivably feel more annoyed that there’s no parking? Or that, fifteen minutes later again, engrossed by a menu of appetizers and entrees and desserts, we’re exasperated because they’re out of fresh calamari. Are right and wrong more individually than socially determined? Have we just become adept at prioritising them, even diverting them, by whatever is immediately critical to individual well-being? That victim of the car accident isn’t nearly as worried about missing their dinner reservation.
Somewhat aside from all this, but not really… I partially accept the idea that we can’t control what happens, we can only control our response. By “partially” I mean that, given time, yes, we learn to reflect, plan, act, and keep calm carrying on like the greatest of t-shirts. After a while, we grow more accustomed to challenges and learn to cope. But sometimes what we encounter is so sudden, or unexpected, or shocking that we can’t contain a visceral response, no matter how accustomed or disciplined we may be. However, there is a way to take Hamlet’s remark about “thinking” that upends this entire meditation, as if to say our reaction was predisposed, even premeditated, like having a crystal ball that foresees the upcoming shock. Then we could prepare ourselves, rationalise, and control not what happens but our response to it while simply awaiting the playing-out of events.
Is Solomon wise to claim that we aren’t essentially or naturally selfish? Maybe he just travelled in kinder, gentler circles – certainly, he was greatly admired. Alas, though, poor Hamlet… troubled by jealousy, troubled by conscience, troubled by ignorance or by knowledge, troubled by anger and death. Troubled by love and honesty, troubled by trust. Troubled by religion, philosophy, troubled by existence itself. Is there a more selfish character in literature? He’s definitely more selfish than me! Or maybe… maybe Hamlet’s right, after all, and it really is all just how you look at things: good or bad, it’s really just a state of mind. For my part, I just can’t shake the sense that Solomon’s wrong about our innate selfishness, and for that, I guess I’m my own best example. So, for being unable to accept his claim, well, I guess that one’s on me.
For all this, what exactly does it mean to be educated? From the sole perspective – yours, mine, anybody’s – free thinking means freedom granted to individuals to believe and behave as they do, then investing proportionate faith that they continue to believe and behave as we do. Of course, anyone’s beliefs might vary, freely, from ours, as compared to everyone conforming to the same beliefs and behaviours. Imagine that world, where every inhabitant lived according to self-established morality. In such a world, how would there come about any rule of law? Even real, lived experience here in Canada is tenuous, relying on everyone to rely on everyone else. Whether out of respect for each other, out of gaining some advantage, out of fear for paying a fine or going to jail – on it goes, accountability, but the individual freedom we avouch is as ready to dissipate as the smoke of a powderkeg. For all its enlightenment, free-thinking is quicksand: shifting, uncertain, deceiving, solid ground by mere appearance. Is it any wonder that the liberty and reason of Enlightenment individuation has led us to Post-modernism, relativism, identity politics, and alternative facts? Be careful what you wish for. If there are any true binaries, to trust or not to trust must certainly be one. What need for faith when we trust that we are all alike, that all around is 100% certain?
Such a world is hardly plausible for me. I have learned not to trust everybody I meet. In the world I know, we need discernment and persuasive rhetorical skill to skirt potential conflicts and get others onside. And when others have discernment and persuasive rhetorical skill, too? Seen in that light, the curricular task is competitive, not cooperative. Even so, we might still argue that curriculum is collaborative, and it does not have to be belligerent. Curriculum falls within the scope of some given morality, morality being a question of right and wrong, positive opposing negative: to x, or not to x. However, curriculum itself is an ethical choice between alternatives and is, thereby, an empowering decision. We must therefore ask to x, or to y, which are positives, a question of competing rights, and not right competing against wrong.
And anywhere right does oppose wrong, curriculum should not permit a choice because wrong is simply wrong and not something that responsible choice can decide. Beyond simply learning about the freedom to think, curriculum is about learning how to make choices that are set within the scope of defined morality. Question the morality, compare it to another morality, and we are Hamlet: we are lost. But decide, and accept the morality, and question only those choices intrinsic to its milieu… now we are educating ourselves and others, however precisely or narrowly, for as long as we care to pursue whatever makes us curious.
For me, someone is educated who thinks, and discerns, and has aims. Admittedly, such aims could be countered or rationalised pragmatically or else, more perversely, aimed beyond oneself to harm others – thinking in itself, after all, is not inherently moral. So if morality is a thing to be taught and also learned, then an educated person, for me, is someone who learns generosity of some kind, hospitality. Being educated means learning to give of oneself, for others or on behalf of others, in positive, constructive ways. This belief, I suppose, reflects my learned morality, which I am as pleased in all caring as utility to pass along. Perhaps your morality differs. To that end, education, in itself, should intentionally be both constructive and benevolent in consideration of that sense of kairos, what is appropriate in the moment for teacher and learner, even as those moments accumulate over the passage of chronos-time, like endless waves upon the shore. Then again, who am I to anybody that the sole importance of my opinion should determine an education? If I am outnumbered, what is this sense of education that I describe but some solitary means of facing an existence nasty, brutish, and short? This thing called school will be the death of me!
See? Recruiting Hamlet’s cycle of misery seems all too easy “‘where the postmodern turn of mind appears to privilege the particular over the general’” (Roberts, 2003, p. 458). Frankly, I think our present culture regards the individual far too much. Naturally, the consequent short-changing of the bigger community picture has been playing out over chronos-time since, with every decision, there has been consequence. However, Roberts continues, “… ‘for Freire both [the particular and the general] depend on each other for their intelligibility’.” So perhaps a good education – by which I mean not just a moral one but an effectual one – is best measured with due consideration for its balance of the particular and the general, the heterogeneous and the homogenous, the certainty and the ambiguity, the inductive and the deductive. A little healthy scepticism, a little cloud for the silver lining. A little dram in the substance, to paraphrase Hamlet. “A little dab’ll do ya,” quips McMurphy. You can’t have one without the other, sings the primus inter pares.
We defy augury by flouting convention, even law, because we are free agents who do what we please. Some will have more courage than others, and some are just more foolhardy, but no one is literally predictable. We defy augury by being unpredictable, even inscrutable, although maybe the rest of you just never really knew me that well to begin with. Sometimes I even surprise myself. We defy augury by defying our senses, by not comprehending the world that we apprehend, which really is to say we see only what we want to see and recognise only what we already know. If there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow, what matter when we have spent all our time watching the chickadees? I cannot shake free from critiquing our cultural veneration of the individual: the less our shared beliefs converge and reciprocate a healthy community, the greater our insistence upon personal liberty to go our own way, then all the more do we miss the point of understanding exactly what freedom really is. True freedom results from having choices, and what creates choice is not the persuasive liberty of unequivocal individualism but discipline: to do ‘x’, or ‘y’, or ‘z’.
Shakespeare’s “Let…” statements are not so colloquial as to suggest the fatalism of c’est la vie, or the aimlessness of go with the flow – these, for me, amount to giving up, or else giving in. The tragedy of Hamlet is that the curriculum he really needed – the people he could trust, who would be willing to help him – they were already there, at his side the whole time, as ready and willing as ever, so long as he gave a little back, so long as he offered just a dram of willingness to coincide with their beliefs – to his own scandal, maybe, but who in the real world is so selfish as they might expect to have their cake and eat it, too? As compared to going it alone, Hamlet might have humbled himself and cast his lot with those to whom he is closest. His education from Wittenberg proved sufficient to challenge his upbringing in Elsinore, amply suggested by his continued trust to enlist and confide in Horatio throughout the play; as far as that went, the rest of us would do well to heed his lesson with due respect: if only Hamlet had not divided his loyalty but decided, once and finally, exactly who he was and whom he trusted, then lived up to his declaration with discipline. With integrity.
The most common criticism aimed his way by my students was essentially, “Get over yourself, and grow up!” Make a decision with the discipline to accept the consequences, which is to say, accept your personal responsibility. To be fair, Hamlet finally, triumphantly, does place his faith in Horatio, whom he entrusts to tell his story. Granted, he only asks once he is terminally poisoned but hey, better to ask while alive to breathe the words than come back and haunt Horatio as the next in a line of Ghosts. As for Shakespeare, whatever exactly it was that he saw in us, this ethical curricular dilemma, evidently he felt its redemptive quality was worth its cost, as Horatio makes known – or will do – for pledging to tell his dying friend’s tale to Fortinbras. Shakespeare’s appeal by way of Hamlet is not one of giving up or giving in. It is one of giving over, to something bigger than ourselves, to something in which faith placed is faith assured, and “attuned” (Pinar, 2017b, p. 1), and certain beyond our own devices.
What that object of faith might be… perhaps it comes as no surprise, but Shakespeare has a “Let…” statement for that, too: “… let your own discretion be your tutor” (3.2.17). I never included this one in the list for my students because, until writing this essay, I had never fit it in as such a central constituent. Hamlet delivers the line, as any nervous director might do opening night, during the aforementioned lecture to the Players before the Mousetrap performance. All the more ironic, of course, is that his lecture hardly exemplifies the statement, which would be fine if Hamlet, the director, did not assume the stage during the performance but let the actors get on with their craft. Hamlet, by contrast, twice assumes the stage to augment the performance. (Ahh, what to do about such insecurity! At least he sells tickets, you may remember.) Anxious or not, the wisdom of his advisement, taken for all, is easy for a lay audience to misinterpret, particularly as it comes buried within lines of such mundane theatrical detail. Shakespeare does not suggest that we give in to our discretion, carte blanche. He suggests that we give over to our discretion as a kind of teacher-student relationship.
Let curriculum be to trust your own better judgment, to search your feelings, yet to grant with humility that more may exist than meets the eye. Let discretion be a “tutor,” yet while you let it, also think before you act – and think during and after, too – because “… the purpose of playing… was and is, to hold… the mirror up to nature” (3.2.17-23). Whether this amounts to something esoteric or spiritual is down to the beholder, yet if that is true for any one of us, it must be true for all of us. Each one of us is finite and individual, and curriculum is composite, a sum greater than the whole of its parts, as in all of us, transcending time and space. As a force of faith, curriculum is vast indeed.
Click here to read the closing reflection to “A Kind of Certainty”: Pt V. Fleeting Uncertainty
 How often I referred students to Canadian Liberal MP Stephen Owen’s definition for democracy: “the pluralistic respect for citizens empowered to self-govern within the rule of law.” Democracy, so often simplified as “majority rule,” is more accurately understood (in my opinion) as entirely dependent upon its constituents. Democracy works because we all agree to make it work. Every member therefore has a personal responsibility to respect and live up to the standard of the law on behalf of every other member. One disobedient person weakens the system and places everybody, including themselves, at risk. Either we set that person straight, or we jail them, but unless we protect the system, we are only certain to lose it.
 *Sigh… culture precedes law, I would argue, and we endlessly debate and litigate what should be right versus what should be wrong. This is politics and the justice system at work, issue by issue, and with enough lobbying and / or civil disobedience, any given topic might be up for consideration.
 Okay, so I did find a way to toss in some surf.
 aka the Chairman of the Board, aka Ol’ Blue Eyes
 In Canada, we might say that Shakespeare’s appeal to “let go” means don’t grip the stick too tight. “Hold on loosely,” as Donnie Van Zant would sing, or “Give a little bit,” from Roger Hodgson. None fully clarifies the expression, as I gather Shakespeare intended it, but the notion of giving way in deference to others is helpful, for a start.
 Of course, the best rejoinder here would be, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” to which I would reply, “You can’t take it with you.” But dialectical bumper-stickers were never my strong suit, and I digress, even for end-notes.
On second thought, the best rejoinder is to say Hamlet is fictional, not of the real world. All the more reason to admire him as perhaps Shakespeare’s best creative feat, so life-like are he and the rest of the characters who populate the play.
 Between Opheila and Horatio, he nearly does so twice, and even towards Gertrude he aims some meager hope and sympathy. Alas, yet another essay…
 Shakespeare includes numerous allusions throughout the play to the theatre milieu, its characters and culture, and its place in Elizabethan society, many of which can be construed as humorous and even as insider jokes shared amongst his theatre company and his regular audience.
 I learned, for my own spiritual belief, to distinguish between what many religions have people do, as compared to what God through Christ has already done. The primary reference, here, is to the Resurrection and what Christ has done for all. Whether one chooses to believe or not is up to them, and should be, which is the essence of my belief: what comes down to a matter of personal choice is to believe, or not to believe. Consider Ephesians 2:8-9, for example, in which Paul explains that we are saved not by works but by grace, so that none can boast: justification by grace through faith in God is the essence of Christianity, and I emphasise that part of it left up to us, to have faith in God. Some consider this ridiculous, and that is neither here nor there to me although I wish no ill upon anyone. Upon believing, upon faith, one can grasp how a selfless attitude of giving – giving of oneself – matters as compared to more selfish concerns over what is given or how much is given.
Such concerns do arise since, as I believe, all inherit Original Sin, a concept that one must accept before anything else in Christian doctrine of any stripe will make sense: we all have inherited an imperfection to believe and have faith in our selves, apart from the God who created us; to go our own way; to obey our own inclinations and not His. This pride-of-self, set in motion by the conniving serpent’s lure that whetted Eve’s curiosity, then Adam’s, enough for them to disobey one simple command… this original “missing of the mark” prompted Adam, Eve, and all their offspring to realise within themselves what had never before even appeared on their radar screens: that obedience was only appreciable once disobedience had been tried. It’s the same binary idea as saying, “You only really understand peace once you experience war,” and so forth. So, for instance, in offering to God (Genesis 4:3-4), where Cain brings some, Abel brings the choicest; yes, each still gives, yet Cain is furious upon seeing the difference in God’s response between their offerings. The sense is that Abel gives in faithful obedience what Cain withholds for himself, Abel trusting God, in a way that Cain does not, that God will give back and look after him. Cain trusts in what he can manage and control for himself; evidently, he does not trust like his brother that God will give back. Perhaps he does not even believe that God created them although, if he does believe this, how much worse his distrust.
Avenging his own honour by killing his brother is a choice Cain makes, entirely selfish and sinfully predictable. This, for me, opens explanation as to why God allows evil to prosper: He gave us free will, in His image, out of love, to choose or to not choose His gift of salvation; to believe or not to believe in His Gospel, as a matter of faith; to trust Him or to trust something else. In either case, we, the people, are answerable for all we do. As I say, back then, Cain perhaps did or didn’t know he was God’s creation – he is left to his own account for that. These days, though, how many people hardly even consider God as real, much less as Creator or Benefactor? However, if God offered us no doubt of His existence, then what would necessitate faith? Were He to provide 100% certainty, anyone then would have no choice but to believe, of necessity, or else be a fool not to believe and delude themselves in spite of the certainty. As it is, some think believers are deluded; truly, you can’t convince all the people all the time, and you definitely should not force belief. All this, for me, is consistent with a caring God who has conferred free will. So, where some condemn believers as guilty of the crimes and evils committed in the name of Christianity (or religions altogether), in fact, I fully agree: hateful beliefs and violent acts are an abomination of how God would have us treat each other.
But, again, he has bestowed upon us the free will to decide and behave, and I argue that all such crimes and evils, whether in the name of religions or not, reflect Original Sin, our turning-away from God; they do not reflect God. They cannot reflect the character of God, whose nature is neither criminal nor evil; rather, they reflect the character of our selves, who are selfishly proud. People are responsible for bastardising and usurping doctrine in order to gain for themselves, something akin to Cain, so blatantly transparently selfish. Further, as that kind of belief and behaviour continues, it roots until generations have perhaps forgotten or lost any other way to believe and behave. We are human, taken for all, and finite in power and awareness. We can do no other than we continue to prove ourselves capable of doing – and in this I include both good and evil that we do – and this, truly, is why we’re in need of salvation. So much gets lost in scriptural debate over details – details that warrant discussion yet, being details, they are also prone to misinterpretation and thereby require careful, long-studied contextual understanding – but the basic doctrine and the loving character of God I find rather straightforward. It’s people who complicate and screw it up, not God. And I’m as guilty, neither better nor worse but just plain equal to every other person trying to live under our circumstances. So I try my best to respect peoples’ dignity, everyone’s.
My choice has been to believe based on the preponderance of evidence that I’ve learned and studied for many years – the careful, long-studied contextual understanding I mention above. I have plenty more to learn, but my point is that I did have to learn, to begin with. I did not just suddenly have some nuanced supreme understanding of Christian doctrine – indeed, I’m wary that superficial knowledge is so frequently the cause of the crimes and evils people commit in the name of religion. I consider myself blessed to have had the freedom to choose what to study without duress and to have had an education provided by good teachers who understood what makes for good curriculum. I have never felt assaulted or oppressed as far as my education is concerned – or my life, for that matter – and, furthermore, I achingly, mournfully recognise that so so many others cannot agree. Why not me, I can’t say, but I count myself as blessed for this, if for no other reason in my existence. I know so well that not everyone has enjoyed such Providence.
There is so much abuse and violence out there, person-upon-person, and I suggest that I, or you or anyone, ought to be enabled to read, search, and decide for ourselves whether or not to believe something. And never forced, and never judged. Personally, I’m not a big church-goer – I have done, but I don’t much anymore. But I still quietly personally maintain my faith. Even offering this endnote struck me as bold, but I wanted this post to be thorough and honest. I believe evidence exists – we have only to look for it: “Knock, and the door shall be opened” is God’s encouragement, to be proactive and search for Him rather than sitting idly by awaiting, or else ignoring, His imminent return. Nonsense, this, for some. And I can comprehend the doubt. But I don’t share it. By the same token, I offer my testimony, but I don’t impose it. People today who demand to see evidence – God performing miracles, say – are asking Him to lay foundations all over again. But, by analogy, a building only needs one foundation, so why would God repeat that process? Enough evidence has been documented over time, for me, that I now readily believe and join the church being built on the existing foundation. Again, as I opened this rather long endnote, what matters most is what He has already done: we have only to believe, with no further need to see more miracles, which is really what having faith is all about.
What is the story? In a nutshell, Facebook permitted C.A. wide access to its users’ private data, without their consent. Authorities now suspect that C.A. used the data to affect political influence in various countries around the world, specifically by way of on-line advertisements and news stories, both factual and contrived. People were fed information tailored to appeal to them and thereby challenged to discern the factual from the fictional.
Here are a sampling of reports about the story and its fallout, some of which has been severe.
Raising the level of discourse is all about discerning and appreciating peoples’ motives, thereby helping to determine what people are after, in order to understand why they do what they do.
To my students, I am confident that our coursework has prepared you to face the kind of cognitive assault launched by C.A. on people across the world. For my part, I’m comfortable keeping my Facebook account open… for the time being, anyway!
To everybody else, yes, absolutely this post is a plug for raising the level of discourse, an approach I encourage all of you to consider.
Read more about my own general take on Facebook here.
“The needs of the economy and our society are changing and therefore you need to have a learning system that fits the purpose, and that purpose is constantly shifting.”
So said Anthony Mackay, CEO of the Centre for Strategic Education (CSE) in Australia, during an interview with Tracy Sherlock from The Vancouver Sun. Mr Mackay was at SFU’s Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver on January 29, 2015, facilitating a forum about the changing face of education. Although links to the forum’s webcast archive and Sherlock’s interview are now inactive, I did save a copy of the interview text at the time, posted here beneath this essay. Tracy Sherlock has since told me that she doesn’t know why the interview’s links have been disconnected (e-mail communication, January 27, 2017). Nonetheless, there remainsampleon-line and pdf-printpromotion and coverage of the event.
The forum and the interview were first brought to my attention via e-mail, shared by an enthusiastic colleague who hoped to spur discussion, which is altogether not an uncommon thing for teachers. Originally, I wrote distinct yet connected responses to a series of quotations from Mr Mackay’s interview. Here, some thirty-two months later, I’ve edited things into a more fluid essay although, substantively, my thoughts remain unchanged. Regrettably, so does the bigger picture.
For starters, Mr Mackay’s remark tips his hand – and that of the CSE – when he precedes society with economy. Spotting related news reports makes the idea somewhat more plausible, that of a new curriculum “…addressing a chronic skills shortage in one of the few areas of the Canadian economy that is doing well” (Silcoff). Meanwhile, in Sherlock’s interview [posted below this essay], Mr Mackay concludes by invoking “the business community,” “the economy of the future,” and employers’ confidence. Make no mistake, Mr Mackay is as ideological as anyone out there, including me and you and everybody, and I credit him for being obvious. On the other hand, he plays into the hands of the grand voice of public educators, perhaps willfully yet in a way that strikes me as disingenuous, couched in language so positive that you’re a sinner to challenge him. Very well, I accept the challenge.
Whatever “purpose” of education Mr Mackay has in mind, here, it’s necessarily more specific unto itself than to any single student’s interests or passions. In other words, as I take his portrayal, some student somewhere is a square peg about to be shown a round hole. Yet this so-called purpose is also “constantly shifting,” so perhaps these are triangular or star-shaped holes, or whatever, as time passes by.
Enter “discovery learning” – by the way, are we in classrooms, or out-and-about on some experiential trip? – and the teacher says only what the problem is, leaving the students to, well, discover the rest. I can see where it has a place; how it enables learning seems obvious enough since we learn by doing – teach someone to fish, and all. But when it comes to deciding which fish to throw back, or how many fish are enough when you don’t have a fridge to store them in before they rot and attract hungry bears… when it comes to deciding what’s more versus less important, those minutiae of mastery, it’s not always as easy as an aphorism or a live-stream video conference. Where it’s more hands-off from the teacher, in order to accommodate the student, discovery learning seems to me better suited to learners well past any novice stage. And if the teacher said, “Sorry, that’s not discovery learning,” would the students remain motivated? Some would; others most certainly would not: their problem, or the teacher’s? When both the teacher and the students say, “We really do need to follow my lead just now,” which party needs to compromise for the other, and to what extent? Teaching and learning ought to be a negotiation, yes, but never an adversarial one! In the case of “discovery learning,” I wonder whether “teacher” is even the right title anymore.
In any case, Mr Mackay appears guilty of placing the cart before the horse where it comes to educating students according to some systemic purpose. I’ve got more to say about this particular detail, what he calls “personalization.” For now, it’s worth setting some foundation: Ken Osborne wrote a book called Education, which I would recommend as a good basis for challenging Mr Mackay’s remarks from this interview.
That Osborne’s book was published in 1999 I think serves my point, which is to say that discernment, critical thinking, effective communication, and other such lauded 21st century skills were in style long before the impending obscurity of the new millennium. They have always offered that hedge against uncertainty. People always have and always will need to think and listen and speak and read, and teachers can rely on this. Let’s not ever lose sight of literacy of any sort, in any venue. Which reminds me…
“Isn’t that tough when we don’t know what the jobs of the future will be?”
I must be frank and admit… this notion of unimaginable jobs of the future never resonated with me. I don’t remember when I first heard it, or even who coined it, but way-back-whenever, it instantly struck me as either amazing clairvoyance or patent nonsense. I’ve heard it uttered umpteen times by local school administrators, and visiting Ministry staff, and various politicians promoting the latest new curriculum. The idea is widely familiar to most people in education these days: jobs of the future, a future we can’t even imagine! Wow!
Well, if the unimaginable future puzzles even the government, then good lord! What hope, the rest of us? And if the future is so unimaginable, how are we even certain to head any direction at all? When you’re lost in the wilderness, the advice is to stay put and wait for rescue. On the other hand, staying put doesn’t seem appropriate to this discussion; education does need to adapt and evolve, so we should periodically review and revise curricula. But what of this word unimaginable?
For months prior to its launch, proponents of BC’s new curriculum clarified – although, really, they admonished – that learning is, among other things, no longer about fingers quaintly turning the pages of outmoded textbooks. To paraphrase the cliché, that ship didn’t just sail, it sank. No need to worry, though. All aboard were saved thanks to new PDFs– er, I mean PFDs, personal floatation devices– er, um, that is to say personal floatation e-devices, the latest MOBI-equipped e-readers, to be precise. As for coming to know things (you know, the whole reason behind “reading” and all…), well, we have Google and the Internet for everything you ever did, or didn’t, need to know, not to mention a 24/7 news cycle, all available at the click of a trackpad. It’s the 21st century, and learning has reserved passage aboard a newer, better, uber-modern cruise ship where students recline in ergonomic deck chairs, their fingertips sliding across Smart screens like shuffleboard pucks. Welcome aboard! And did I mention? Technology is no mere Unsinkable Ship, it’s Sustainable too, saving forests of trees from the printing press (at a gigawatt-cost of electricity, mind, but let’s not pack too much baggage on this voyage).
Sorry, yes, that’s all a little facetious, and I confess to swiping as broadly and inaccurately as calling the future “unimaginable.” More to the point: for heaven’s sake, if we aren’t able to imagine the future, how on earth do we prepare anybody for it? Looking back, we should probably excuse Harland & Wolff, too – evidently, they knew nothing of icebergs. Except that they did know, just as Captain Smith was supposed to know how to avoid them.
But time and tide wait for no one which, as I gather, is how anything unimaginable arose in the first place. Very well, if we’re compelled toward the unknowable future, a cruise aboard the good ship Technology at least sounds pleasant. And if e-PFDs can save me weeks of exhausting time-consuming annoying life-skills practice – you know, like swimming lessons – so much the better. Who’s honestly got time for all that practical life-skills crap, anyway, particularly when technology can look after it for you – you know, like GPS.
If the 21st century tide is rising so rapidly that it’s literally unimaginable (I mean apart from being certain that we’re done with books), then I guess we’re wise to embrace this urgent… what is it, an alert? a prognostication? guesswork? Well, whatever it is, thank you, Whoever You Are, for such vivid foresight– hey, that’s another thing: who exactly receives the credit for guiding this voyage? Who’s our Captain aboard this cruise ship? Tech Departments might pilot the helm, or tend the engine room, but who’s the navigator charting our course to future ports of call? What’s our destination? Even the most desperate voyage has a destination; I wouldn’t even think a ship gets built unless it’s needed. Loosen your collars, everybody, it’s about to get teleological in here.
Q: What destination, good ship Technology?
A: The unknowable future…
Land?-ho! The Not-Quite-Yet-Discovered Country… hmm, would that be 21st century purgatory? Forgive my Hamlet reference – it’s from a mere book.
To comprehend the future, let’s consider the past. History can be instructive. Remember that apocryphal bit of historical nonsense, that Christopher Columbus “discovered America,” as if the entire North American continent lay indecipherably upon the planet, unbeknownst to Earthlings? (Or maybe you’re a 21st century zealot who only reads blogs and Twitter, I don’t know.) Faulty history aside, we can say that Columbus had an ambitious thesis, a western shipping route to Asia, without which he’d never have persuaded his political sponsors to back the attempt. You know what else we can say about Columbus, on top of his thesis? He also had navigation and seafaring skill, an established reputation that enabled him to approach his sponsors in the first place. As a man with a plan to chart the uncharted, even so Columbus possessed some means of measuring his progress and finding his way. In that respect, it might be more accurate to say he earned his small fleet of well-equipped ships. What history then unfolded tells its own tale, the point here simply that Columbus may not have had accurate charts, but he also didn’t set sail, clueless, to discover the unimaginable in a void of invisible nowhere.
But what void confronts us? Do we really have no clue what to expect? To hear the likes of Mackay tell it, with technological innovation this rapid, this influential, we’re going to need all hands on deck, all eyes trained forward, toward… what exactly? Why is the future so unimaginable? Here’s a theory of my very own: it’s not.
Discovering in the void might better describe Galileo, say, or Kepler, who against the mainstream recharted a mischarted solar system along with the physics that describe it. Where they disagreed over detail such as ocean tides (as I gather, Kepler was right), they each had pretty stable Copernican paradigms, mediated as much by their own empirical data as by education. Staring into the great void, perhaps these astronomers didn’t always recognise exactly what they saw, but they still had enough of the right stuff to interpret it. Again, the point here is not about reaching outcomes so much as holding a steady course. Galileo pilots himself against the political current and is historically vindicated on account of his curious mix of technological proficiency, field expertise, and persistent vision. For all that he was unable to predict or fully understand, Galileo still seemed to know where he was going.
I suppose if anyone might be accused of launching speculative missions into the great void of invisible nowhere, it would be NASA, but even there is clarity. Just to name a few: Pioneer, Apollo, Voyager, Hubble – missions with destinations, destinies, and legacies. Meanwhile, up in the middle of Nowhere, people now live in the International Space Station. NASA doesn’t launch people into space willy-nilly. It all happens, as it should, and as it must, in a context with articulated objectives. Such accomplishments do not arise because the future is unimaginable; on the contrary, they arise precisely because people are able to imagine the future.
Which brings me back to Mr Mackay and the government’s forum on education. It’s not accurate for me to pit one side against another when we all want students to succeed. If I’ve belaboured the point here, it’s because our task concerns young people, in loco parentis. Selling those efforts as some blind adventure seems, to me, the height of irresponsibility wrapped in an audacious marketing campaign disguised as an inevitable future, a ship setting sail so climb aboard, and hurry! Yes, I see where urgency is borne of rapid innovation, technological advancement made obsolete mere weeks or months later. For some, I know that’s thrilling. For me, it’s more like the America’s Cup race in a typhoon: thanks, but no thanks, I’ll tarry ashore a while longer, in no rush to head for open sea, not even aboard a vaunted ocean liner.
We simply mustn’t be so eager to journey into the unknown without objectives and a plan, not even accompanied as we are by machines that contain microprocessors, which is all “technology” seems to imply nowadays. There’s the respect that makes calamity of downloading the latest tablet apps, or what-have-you, just because the technology exists to make it available. How many times have teachers said the issue is not technology per se so much as knowing how best to use it? Teleology, remember? By the way, since we’re on the subject, what is the meaning of life? One theme seems consistent: the ambition of human endeavour. Sharpen weapon, kill beast. Discover fire, cook beast! Discover agriculture, domesticate beast. Realise surplus, and follows world-spanning conquest that eventually reaches stars.
Look, if learning is no longer about fingers quaintly turning the pages of outmoded textbooks, then fine. I still have my doubts – I’ve long said vinyl sounds better – but let that go. Can we please just drop the bandwagoning and sloganeering, and get more specific? By now, I’ve grown so weary of “the unimaginable future” as to give it the dreaded eye-roll. And if I’m a teenaged student, as much as I might be thrilled by inventing jobs of the future, I probably need to get to know me, too, what I’m all about.
In truth, educators do have one specific aim – personalized learning – which increasingly has come into curricular focus. Personalization raises some contentious issues, not least of which is sufficient funding since the need for individualized attention requires more time and resources per student. Nevertheless, it’s a strategy that I’ve found positive, and I agree it’s worth pursuing. That brings me back to Ken Osborne. One of the best lessons I gathered from his book was the practicality of meeting individuals wherever they reside as compared to determining broader needs and asking individuals to meet expectations.
Briefly, the debate presents itself as follows…
Side ‘A’ would determine communal needs and educate students to fill the roles
In my humble opinion, this is an eventual move toward social engineering and a return to unpleasant historical precedent. Know your history, everybody.
Side ‘B’ would assess an individual’s needs and educate a student to fulfil personal potential
In my humble opinion, this is a course that educators claim to follow everyday, especially these days, and one that they would do well to continue pursuing in earnest.
In my experience, students find collective learning models less relevant and less authentic than the inherent incentives found in personalized approaches that engender esteem and respect. Essentially, when we educate individuals, we leave them room to sort themselves out and accord them due respect for their ways and means along the way. In return, each person is able to grasp the value of personal responsibility. Just as importantly, the opportunity for self-actualisation is now not only unfettered but facilitated by school curricula, which I suspect is what was intended by all the “unimaginable” bluster. The communal roles from Osborne’s Side ‘A’ can still be filled, now by sheer numbers from the talent pool rather than by pre-conceived aims to sculpt square pegs for round holes.
Where I opened this essay with Anthony Mackay’s purposeful call to link business and education, I’ve been commenting as a professional educator because that is my field, so that is my purview. In fairness to government, I’ve found that more recent curricular promotion perhaps hints at reversing course from the murk of the “unimaginable” future by emphasizing, instead, more proactive talk of skills and empowerment. Even so, a different posture remains (touched upon in Katie Hyslop’s reporting of the forum and its participants, and a fairly commondiscursivethread in education in its own right) that implicitly conflates the aims of education and business, and even the arts. Curricular draft work distinguishes the “world of work” from details that otherwise describe British Columbia’s “educated citizen” (p. 2).  Both Ontario and Alberta’s curricular plans have developed comparably to BC’s, noting employers’ rising expectations that “a human capital plan” will address our ever-changing “world of work” (p. 5) – it’s as if school’s industrial role were a given. Credit where it’s due, I suppose: they proceed from a vision towards a destination. And being neither an economist nor an industrialist, I don’t aim to question the broader need for business, entrepreneurship, or a healthy economy. Everybody needs to eat.
What I am is a professional educator, and that means I have been carefully and intentionally trained and accredited alongside my colleagues to envision, on behalf of all, what is best for students. So when I read a claim like Mr Mackay’s, that “what business wants in terms of the graduate is exactly what educators want in terms of the whole person,” I am wary that his educational vision and leadership are yielding our judgment to interests, such as commerce and industry, that lie beyond the immediately appropriate interests of students. Anthony Mackay demonstrates what is, for me, the greatest failing in education: leaders whose faulty vision makes impossible the very aims they set out to reach. (By the by, I’ve also watched such leadership condemn brilliant teaching that reaches those aims.) As much as a blanket statement, Mr Mackay makes an unfounded statement, and I could hardly do better to find an example of begging the question. If Mr Mackay is captain of the ship, then maybe responsible educators should be reading Herman Wouk – one last book, sorry, couldn’t resist.
Education is about empowering individuals to make their own decisions, and any way you slice it, individuals making decisions is how society diversifies itself. That includes diversifying the economy, as compared to the other way around (the economy differentiating individuals). Some people are inevitably more influential than others. All the more reason then for everybody, from captains of industry on down, to learn to accept responsibility for respecting an individual’s space, even while everybody learns to decide what course to ply for themselves. Personalized learning is the way to go as far as resources can be distributed, so leave that to the trained professional educators who are entrusted with the task, who are experts at reading the charts, spotting the hazards, and navigating the course, even through a void. Expertise is a headlight, or whatever those are called aboard ships, so where objectives require particular expertise, let us be lead by qualified experts.
And stop with the nonsense. No unimaginable future “world of work” should be the aim of students to discover while their teachers tag along like tour guides. Anyway, I thought the whole Columbus “discovery” thing had helped us to amend that sort of thinking, or maybe I was wrong. Or maybe the wrong people decided to ignore history and spend their time, instead, staring at something they convinced themselves was impossible to see.
“The learning partnership has gotto go beyond the partnership of young person and family, teacher and school, to the community and supportive agencies. TONY MACKAY CEO, CENTRE FOR STRATEGIC EDUCATION IN AUSTRALIA
Tony Mackay, CEO at the Centre for Strategic Education in Australia, was in Vancouver recently, facilitating a forum about changing the education system to make it more flexible and personalized. He spoke about the rapidly changing world and what it means for education.
Q Why does the education system need to change?
A The needs of the economy and our society are changing and therefore you need to have a learning system that fits the purpose, and that purpose is constantly shifting. So it’s not just a matter of saying we can reach a particular level and we’ll be OK, because you’ve got such a dynamic global context that you have a compelling case that says we will never be able to ensure our ongoing level of economic and social prosperity unless we have a learning system that can deliver young people who are ready — ready for further education, ready for the workforce, ready for a global context. That’s the compelling case for change.
Q Isn’t that tough when we don’t know what the jobs of the future will be?
A In the past we knew what the skill set was and we could prepare young people for specialization in particular jobs. Now we’re talking about skill sets that include creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and the global competence to be flexible and to have cultural understanding. It’s not either or, it’s both and — you need fantastic learning and brilliant learning in the domains, which we know are fundamental, but you also need additional skills that increasingly focus on emotional and social, personal and inter-personal, and perseverance and enterprising spirit. And we’re not saying we just want that for some kids, we want to ensure that all young people graduate with that skill set. And we know they’re going to have to effectively “learn” a living — they’re going to have to keep on learning in order to have the kind of life that they want and that we’re going to need to have an economy that thrives. I believe that’s a pretty compelling case for change.
Q How do you teach flexibility?
A When I think about the conditions for quality learning, it’s pretty clear that you need to be in an environment where not only are you feeling emotionally positive, you are being challenged — there’s that sense that you are challenged to push yourself beyond a level of comfort, but not so much that it generates anxiety and it translates into a lack of success and a feeling of failure that creates blockages to learning. You need to be working with others at the same time — the social nature of learning is essential. When you’re working with others on a common problem that is real and you have to work as a team and be collaborative. You have to know how to show your levels of performance as an individual and as a group. You can’t do any of that sort of stuff as you are learning together without developing flexibility and being adaptive. If you don’t adapt to the kind of environment that is uncertain and volatile, then you’re not going to thrive.
Q What does the science of learning tell us?
A We now know more about the science of learning than ever before and the question is are we translating that into our teaching and learning programs? It’s not just deeper learning in the disciplines, but we want more powerful learning in those 21st-century skills we talked about. That means we have to know more than ever before about the emotions of learning and how to engage young people and how young people can encourage themselves to self-regulate their learning.
The truth is that education is increasingly about personalization. How do you make sure that an individual is being encouraged in their own learning path? How do we make sure we’re tapping into their strengths and their qualities? In the end, that passion and that success in whatever endeavour is what will make them more productive and frankly, happier.
Q But how do you change an entire education system?
A Once you learn what practice is done and is successful, how do you spread that practice in a school system so it’s not just pockets of excellence, but you’ve actually got an innovation strategy that helps you to spread new and emerging practice that’s powerful? You’re doing this all in the context of a rapidly changing environment, which is why you need those skills like flexibility and creativity. The learning partnership has got to go beyond the partnership of young person and family, teacher and school, to the community and supportive agencies. If we don’t get the business community into this call to action for lifelong learning even further, we are not going to be able to get there. In the end, we are all interdependent. The economy of the future — and we’re talking about tomorrow — is going to require young people with the knowledge, skills and dispositions that employers are confident about and can build on.
On-line comments are not guns, they don’t kill people. And the people who wield them, as in write them, are not having a stand-off at high noon. On-line comments are not deadly but, boy, can they be deadly stupid.
They’re so very often uninformed, superficial, and emotionally driven as well as – frankly – bloody lazy. Plenty of opinions from plenty of people carrying free-speech chips on self-righteous shoulders. On-line comments, these days, are just another sign of the times.
“Just how many people bother to research and draft for a ‘Comments’ section response, anyway?”
Does it show I’m fed up with people trying to win personal pissing matches in the “Comments” section? Does it show? …people clawing their way to the top of some imagined pile of respect, in a community comprising whomever read the article – unless of course they only read the headline. Does it show? …the invective, the insults, the one-liner spree? Commenters affirming, negating, defending, attacking. Pointing out who’s so obviously wrong, what’s so evidently right. Commenters commenting, exercising their democracy, one comment at a time? On-line comments are the Twitter of– er, hmm, I’ll need some time to work on that one.
Of course I’m unable to say on-line comments kill people, but that’s not because they actually don’t kill people. It’s because, in the analogy, on-line comments are just the bullets. Computer keyboards would be the guns. And it’s still people pulling the trigger by pressing send – there’s got to be a triggering joke in here somewhere, I’m sure of it. For now, enough to say that guns don’t post comments, people do.
Time was when a letter-to-the-editor was the main public recourse. But sending one to your chosen publication was no guarantee of being published, or at least not published in full. But then came the Internet, the great equalizer. I can only suspect that, way back when, when that first on-line article permitted readers to leave comments, that the author or editor or publisher proudly lifted a glass of wine to rejoice the enabling of the public voice. One step forward for free speech. Here’s to democracy.
How often I’ve read an article, then followed up with the on-line comments, thinking, “I’d like a sense of the broader opinion out there, maybe encounter some different perspectives, pick up a hyperlink or two for this topic.” This does still happen, and it’s what makes on-line comments, for me, worthwhile. It also means I’m relying on the other commenters to offer anything of substance. But, obviously (…is it obvious?) substance doesn’t always just happen. Honestly, though, pretty naïve to expect that it would. And if you thought, in the sheer amount of comments for just one single article, that the law of averages would help, then you probably haven’t read too many on-line comments. They can far, far surpass the length of the article and illustrate far, far less than broader opinion or different perspectives or anything useful at all about the topic. Just as often they proliferate because somebody needed to win.
How often is someone’s on-line comment about the article as compared to that commenter seeking personal affirmation or recognition as some kind of uber-reliability source? How often does an on-line comment chain turn into a personal on-line shoving match? And how often has somebody replied along these lines: “You’re pretty tough when it’s not face-to-face…” ?
Nobody thinks they’re even beginning to solve the issue [whatever it is] in the on-line Comments section. Do they? At least, they couldn’t possibly think so when all they’ve written is a sentence or two, right? At least, when they’ve written sentences. But, unquestionably, essay-length on-line comments are the exception to the rule. Aren’t they? At least, they are in the Age of Twitter – wait, sorry, I already slammed Twitter. This time, I’ll go with Google making us stupid (not for the first time). By the way, even shortened attention spans have been called into question (have a look, neither’s a long read). My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that we attend to what stimulates us the most although – egregiously – I have no research to back my opinion, and if any of you trolls call me on that, I’ll comment you back. So just be warned. Gotta be almost time for that trigger joke.
Are people commenting when maybe they should be writing an article of their own? Would that be too much responsibility to bear? to ask? Would writing an article require too much effort? People seem to care enough to leave a comment yet not enough to offer something more substantive than a line or two, or a paragraph the odd time. Even a few paragraphs, that one time by that one person, but anything truly edited for cohesion – are you kidding, what are we, journalists? How many of us are writers, period, much less paid ones? Heaven forbid anyone be expected to offer more than a few lines of opinion masquerading as oh-such-obvious-fact, or a one-liner, or a dogmatic tirade! (Yes, I not only see the irony, I intended it.) Leave all that responsibility crap for whoever else. Whomever, actually, but that would mean caring.
Who are you, anyway, that you’d present yourself in so superficial a manner as on-line comments yet expect to be taken seriously? Who are you, that you’d conflate your real-life person with your on-line persona in such a way where one belies the other? Which one is demonstrating the true you? Who are you, to be taking this so personally right now when, in fact, right now I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt? Cynicism aside, everyone can think – hence my frustration. If on-line comments suggest anything, they suggest that emotion rules, not thinking.
Don’t misconstrue – thinking and emotion, I’d say, both occur, but by default (I’d say), emotion controls thinking more than the other way around. Far more rarely does rationality show up beyond the article itself, if even there.
Below is an edited chain of comments that I cut & pasted from an NPR article posted to Facebook, about the bombing of the Manchester arena following the Ariana Grande concert in 2017.
To be precise, these comments that I cut & pasted are from the Facebook post, not NPR’s website. I also present these comments as a single, focused discussion when, in fact, other peoples’ semi-related comments had appeared in between some of these, responding to still other people. But the way comments appear is evidently controlled more by their time stamp, when they were posted, than by which person’s receiving a reply in the thread. So, in selecting only these comments here, I tried to maintain the direct discussion between particular people, back and forth. Finally, I’ve published their Facebook names with hyperlinks because all this is publicly published anyway, and nobody’s owed any shelter.
Rather than take sides, see if you can read this thread to understand my point, the futility of trying to solve such grand issues in a Comments section, the pointlessness of on-line comments in general. (Yes, I see the irony in having my own Comments section below. I even intended it.)
Ask of each comment, and each commenter…
what, really, is the motive behind this comment getting not just written but posted?
what, really, is the response that this person…
believes for themselves?
presumes from the other person?
seeks from anyone else (like us) who may be reading?
Read not only with self-awareness but with other-awareness, with empathy. But please resist taking sides on the issues, irrespective of your own feelings, because the point here is the comments having been crafted and shared, not the terror incident or the politics that are introduced. A tangential point is to acknowledge that it’s possible and sometimes productive to keep our feelings and our rationality separate.
James Alford What a great freedom festival! I just don’t know what we’d do without all the freedom that comes with unfettered access to semiautomatic weapons. Thanks for sharing this awesome display of our enviable freedom!
How do other nations cope without our awesome brand of freedom?! I mean, other than longer life expectancy, ultra low crime rates, drastically lower prison populations, and better overall quality of life.
Yep. Would never wanna swap my bullet-y freedom for any of that.
Scott Macleod How are the Ariana Grande concerts in places without freedom?
James Alford Scott, they do have WAY less freedom, don’t they?! They only have 0.23 gun homicides per 100,000. We have almost 11!!! Murkah!
Scott Macleod James, that is a meaningless statistic. Here I’ll show you:
Last year cars killed:
United States 36,166
Deaths from drowning, children under 14:
United States 548
Deaths from alcohol per year:
United States 88,000
The United States is an outlier on all of these. You can do the same breakdown with antibiotics. You can do it with hot water heaters. Or with deaths from bees. And the US will have higher death rates.
Jacqui Parker Percentages based on overall population would make more sense in your example.
Seth Martin Did anyone in this thread actually read the article?
Scott Macleod The numbers don’t change when broken down per capita. The US is still an outlier. Know why? Because deaths from X will always be higher in countries with more X. Determining causality is much more complicated. Would taking X away eliminate those deaths? Or would X just be substituted for something else and what would have been deaths from X become deaths from Y? This is what’s important.
Jim Chan Total death doesn’t equal to death rate. What are you a 2nd grader?
Scott Macleod Jim, see comment above. Per capita break down does not change the analysis.
Amon-Raa Valencia Scott Macleod the replacement theory can be checked by looking at life expectancy.
Do the countries you point out have higher life expectancy than the US?
James Alford I’m afraid you’re unacquainted with how percentages work, Scott.
If I have 10 tomatoes in my garden, and 2 of them are rotten, and you have 10,000 tomatoes, and 200 of them are rotten, then my problem is still 10 times bigger than yours, even though you have 100 times more rotten tomatoes.
Find a local 5th grader. He’ll be happy to provide more illustrations.
Wesley D. Stoner So Scott Macleod, in your example, if X = guns then the US logically has more gun deaths because there are more guns, right? Where do you think I am going next….
Scott Macleod So by that logic, James, those other countries have the same problem the US does from guns? Please respond without insults.
Scott Macleod <<Scott Macleod the replacement theory can be checked by looking at life expectancy.
Do the countries you point out have higher life expectancy than the US?>>
Other factors go into determining life expectancy. Access to healthcare for example.
James Alford Nevermind, Scott. The original stat said it all. The U.K. (who you brought up) has a gun homicide rate 44 times lower than ours. If you can’t grasp that incredibly straightforward piece of empirical data, then we don’t have a starting point.
Chris Toscano James Alford, you have unlocked Master Troll Level 99. Fine work sir! Look at all the ammosexuals that you have up in arms.
Margaret Moore Bennett Scott Macleod, I am a statistics teacher, you show a basic lack of understanding for how statistics work. You are a poster child for why the GOP is successful with the un and under-educated.
Scott Macleod <<Nevermind, Scott. The original stat said it all. The U.K. (who you brought up) has a gun homicide rate 44 times lower than ours. If you can’t grasp that incredibly straightforward piece of empirical data, then we don’t have a starting point.>>
A) Again, this stat is meaningless. It tells us nothing about causality or how public policy changes the death rates.
B) Those are GUN death rates. Of course a country with 330 million GUNS is going to have higher death rates from GUNS. Just like a country with greater access to antibiotics has more deaths from antibiotics. It tells us nothing about whether antibiotics or guns are good or bad for society.
Scott Macleod How about explaining it to me Margaret rather than resorting to ad hominem and appeals to authority?
Scott Macleod I am not uneducated. I am not a republican. There’s two misses. What are the odds your third claim that I demonstrate a lack of understanding for statistics is correct.
David Houghton Well, you led with raw numbers and not per capita numbers. Not exactly putting your best foot forward on the stats front.
Tandy Fitzgerald Scott Macleod does that mean a US citizen is more reckless when it comes to driving that the rest of the world and less aware when it comes to their children swimming or less aware of health issues and oblivious to the affects of alcohol? Man US citizens really do prefer to live on the edge far more than anyone else in the world…I guess freedom has more prices then just serving in the military.
Scott Macleod I led with what I had available to copy and paste to demonstrate what I was getting at. I agree it would have been better to break them down per capita. Alas, I’m on my phone and these comments move quickly.
Normally when you see this argument, though, it involves raw numbers. As I have said, what I was illustrating does not change when broken down per capita.
Nick Lucas Scott Macleod My favorite part about your posts is that you are trying to dismiss data because of your claims of causality but you make your first statement of the Ariana Grande concert without the same rule of thought.
What gun would have somehow stopped that bomb from exploding? Why didn’t a person with a gun stop the OK bombing or Boston bombing?
This is the problem with bias is we tend to not be able to apply the same logic to our own beliefs that we do others we disagree with.
Michael Dugger Scott Macleod no gun would’ve have stopped a silent bomb carrier Scott.
Scott Macleod Nick, my original comment was a quip. It was a snarky counter to the OP. I feel like you are reading too much into it.
Nevertheless, it does illustrate what I mentioned earlier. When X is not available, people will substitute with Y and nearly the same amount of people would likely die anyway. Why commit suicide with a $500 gun when you can do it with $3 of rope? Looking at guns only is a disingenuous way of looking at the problem. To be sincere, we would need to look at all homicides to determine causality.
I have not made the claim that access to guns will stop bombings.
Bill Melton “Would it make you happier, little girl, if they were pushed out of a seventh floor window?” Archie Bunker
Jenny Caldwell Scott Macleod Those aren’t death rates, those are simply the numbers of deaths. Death rates are population-based, i.e. # of deaths by drowning/1000. US death *rates* by gun violence are indeed much higher than other countries.
Paul Errman James Alford go cry yourself a river. When their violent crime rate drops and they actually have a population of over 300 million call us.
Onica Annika Scott Macleod you can’t take a gun into a concert permit or not. Stupid example.
Scott Macleod <<Scott Macleod you can’t take a gun into a concert permit or not. Stupid example.>>
I never said you could or that you should. Why are you bringing this irrelevant insight into the conversation?
Scott Macleod <<Scott Macleod Those aren’t death rates, those are simply the numbers of deaths. Death rates are population-based, i.e. # of deaths by drowning/1000. US death *rates* by gun violence are indeed much higher than other countries.>>
I know this. I never disagreed. US death rates by gun violence are higher. I never claimed otherwise. What I dispute is the significance of this information.
Scott Macleod We also have higher death RATES due to drowning, alcohol consumption, motor vehicle accidents, and a whole host of other phenomena. Why?
Looking at RATES and ignoring all other factors gives people a misleading glimpse into reality.
Onica Annika Scott Macleod YOU WROTR “How are the Ariana Grande concerts in places without freedom? 👌🏻”
By comparing the bombing in Manchester to carrying guns and implying people would be safer at concerts WITH GUNS is how THIS WAS BROUGHT UP.
You cannot shoot a suicide bomber without expecting to have an explosion. It would have made absolutely NO DIFFERENCE!
Next are comments following NPR’s report on two bounty hunters who engaged a fugitive at a car dealership in Texas, also in 2017 and also posted to Facebook.
The Next Thread
‘Jonathan Fitzgerald So I’m starting to get a little pissed by all this bounty hunter bashing. While a little rough around the edges. Boba Felt was a pretty decent guy. And could tell some great jokes, once he got a few drinks in him. Cad Bane was a generous and loving fellow. He was known to work at the soup kitchens all the time. So chill out. They aren’t ALL bad.
Candy Ellman Johannes That may be but when you see the video it’s quite clear that the two bounty hunters handled the situation very badly. Because they were like that doesn’t mean they were good at their JOB. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. Just that they shouldn’t have been handling this job.
Isaac Unson Wow, what a tragic and visceral story! Should I maybe post a comment to spur discussion about bounty hunting, or the lack of consideration for things going south very badly?
Nahhhh, that’s original content worthy of discussion. Why not just be cynical and predictable instead and make the usual jokes about guns?
Russell Good It’s fitting this happened in a death merchants offices. More people are killed with vehicles, than anything else, and yet anyone can buy a car without a background check. Unlicensed drivers and unregistered vehicles are hurtling past the innocent in their thousands at this very minute. When will we stop the insanity?
Candy Ellman Johannes A death merchant? No, they’re not. They can’t control how someone is going to drive the cars they buy. And a background check will not tell you how they will do that. Just drive around our community in Texas and you will see a lot of idiots on the road. Most of whom would clear any background check you might think they should conduct.
I hardly even know where to begin with either discussion. The responses, pardon the pun, speak for themselves, from the aggressors to the defenders to the cooler heads to the comic relief. I don’t even say “aggressors” and “defenders” with any political bent so much as simply noting name-calling and tone. The fact that one person or another, with [whichever] political beliefs, is the aggressor or the defender, here, is not my point, which is why I cautioned to read without taking sides – everybody can be mean-spirited or good-willed, aggressive or defensive. My point is that everybody can also think and listen and reflect, if only they wish to do so, which means more targeted effort and more controlled emotional reaction.
The futility of quoted statistics, which are then attacked and defended, as are the people themselves, in a forum that is informal and, for the most part, unmonitored (perhaps beyond hate speech or something that Facebook would moderate) …what’s the point of it all? Once these people close their browsers, what does each one feel he or she has accomplished? If little to nothing, then why even participate? If something more, then who besides themselves is measuring their effectiveness and, anyway, to what end? And who besides themselves even has a right to judge their effectiveness, especially since this cast of characters – evidently – would have plenty more to say about being judged, and we just kick-start another thread!
How many of you just now reading saw either of these comment threads before reading them here in my post? Which audience needs to see these threads, and why?
Are Comments sections some kind of exercise of free speech? If so, are they worth the trouble? On-line comments are not always anonymous, but they’re also not face-to-face, and that’s perhaps most significant here as to the point of being responsible and thorough before posting something regarding another person. However, it’s most significant in both positive and negative ways – positive because we owe the other person enough dignity to offer them an intelligent reply that respects their point of view, and negative because we can insult the bastard without (likely) ever feeling some physical repercussion. At the opening, I called on-line commenters lazy. Maybe they’re cowardly, too.
Geez, how seriously am I taking this? They’re just blog comments, for goodness’ sake!
Oh please, it’s a comments section not a peer-reviewed journal.
Here’s another partial comment thread, cut & pasted from The Atlantic website, this time without any comments removed from in between – these are consecutive responses to an article about America’s intellectual decline – a topic not too dissimilar from this very post, even though I disagree in detail with a number of the writer’s claims. However, again, the point here is not to debate the issues. It’s to note the motives and tone behind the comments.
Start with Gutenberg. Then move on to education, art, medicine, culture, and philosophy. Don’t forget Martin Luther and Henry VIII.
Yes the Greeks and Arabs and others made their contributions. But how did those contributions find their way to becoming building blocks for Western Civ? Via the Romans (Christians by the end) and the Crusades (Christian holy wars). For centuries it was literate clergymen who preserved the ancient knowledge which would eventually set the stage for the Enlightenment.
Like it or not, Christianity is at least as inextricably entwined with the building of Western Civilization as any other influence one could name.
It’s truly odd that you find this overwhelmingly obvious fact truly odd.
In other news, if your Mom had chosen a different man to be your father, not only can we never know what you’d look like today–it wouldn’t in fact be you. That child might well not have even existed.
Europe’s faced many existential threats over the millennia. Change just a few events, and Western Civilization wouldn’t have survived. Subtract Christianity, and there’s a strong chance the region becomes conquered by neighboring civilizations, and never even develops the thing we now call Western Civilization.
And that’s as far as I need to go chasing after this particularly nonsensical counter-factual.
“exactly, it’s a counter factual, no need to chase it.”
Asking what might have happened if different decisions had been made is often vital to understanding historical events. Although the process is inherently fraught with ambiguity, it’s a valid exercise.
Your reply makes it seem like perhaps you don’t grasp the purpose of a counter-factual.
This counter-factual is nonsensical. Not all of them are.
yes I understand that as well. This is getting a little exasperating. My only point in this was that one cannot attribute western civilization’s existence to christianity. At most, one can say that christianity was instrumental in the history and current state of western civilization.
Had David simply crafted a more thorough reply to begin with, as he indicates in the final response of this chain, he might have pre-empted all these back-and-forth remarks. More complete remarks might have stirred new ideas, better avenues for discussion, alternatives for research, and just a more thorough model for others to consider. And, sure, where his exchange with Duncan Tweedy was essentially civil and pain-free, he has still made the potential for a bunch of negative things to occur…
(i) people might have accepted his cursory remarks, thereby reinforcing (albeit superficially) their own beliefs in that echo-chamber kind of way
(ii) people might have rejected his cursory remarks, thereby reinforcing (albeit superficially) their own beliefs in that polarising kind of way
(iii) people might have misread, misunderstood, misconstrued, or otherwise missed the context of his remarks and, additionally, might have failed to follow up this thread as far as the point where I have cut & pasted it here
(iv) as a result of (ii) or (iii), people might have grown upset or angry with his cursory remarks and taken him on with vitriol, or worse, simply have begun insulting him outright, neither of which contributes to any constructive progress but, rather, destructive regress and both of which inspire ill feelings that those people now carry into everyday life, and which might later be echoed – on-line or off-line – by still others
(v) some other outcome I haven’t mentioned
Had David afforded more time and thought to (a) the kind of response that could adequately convey his thinking, and also (b) the kinds of responses he might elicit from people who read his remarks if he were to write them this way or that way, then he wouldn’t have responded the way we find here. Yet it hardly seems worth critiquing these, or any, on-line comments at all, they’re so ubiquitous! Yes, I see the irony; in fact, I intended it.
Just how many people bother to research and draft for a “Comments” section response, anyway? The whole concept of the on-line “Comments” section seems tailor-made to evade the vetting and sober second-thought of taking a breath and waiting the requisite 24 hours before responding to messages we don’t like. I’d pay $49 for the t-shirt that reads, “Who took the ‘Editor’ out of ‘Letter to the Editor’? Send me $50 and I’ll tell you.”
Obviously, the question is not how many bother to research and draft. It’s not even a question of whether to bother researching and drafting. It’s a question of whether to bother engaging in the on-line comments, to begin with. And I describe it as “bother” because research and drafting mean “work,” i.e. “What a blasted bother!” as in making a deliberate driven effort versus the blurt of perfunctory emotional reaction, which has always been a human foible and which, these days, seems even that much more common.
All that bother for… what, exactly? For someone to reply with one-line invectives? Who are we trying to reach, on-line? And, in light of that, who are we trying to be?
“Who are you on-line? The person versus the persona – it’s a concept worth considering.”
We’re all still responsible for the things we say, especially when they get published, and especially when “published” now means forever to be seen on-line (a consideration discussed here as well) – a newspaper or a book might at least fall out of print or get tossed in the trash. We might consider being responsible for the writing of an article, so why not for the offering of a comment? All the people I’ve quoted here have plenty to offer, I suspect, given their apparent literacy. But taking the time and resources at their disposal and using them in a more constructive way evidently hasn’t happened. Can that be changed?
What incentive would motivate these, or any, people to offer more when commenting on-line? Do people care about a growing reputation, however much or little it permeates the Cloud of e-culture? Who do they think they are? Who do they think that we think they are? Do they even care what others think they are? Do they care, themselves? There’s so little accountability, no formal editing or vetting as might be found in print publication, aside from moderation, as I’ve said, and that often simply automated. Sometimes there’s a log-in procedure via Facebook or Disqus, say, for whatever assurance that offers. It allowed me to publish selected commenters, here.
“Who are we on-line?” asks Flora the Explorer. It’s a question worth considering before we ever touch a keyboard. So, okay: who are you on-line? The person versus the persona – it’s a concept worth considering since I suspect 99% of on-line commenters will never meet their fellows face-to-face. Yet, precisely because of that physical separation, I suspect few care to consider (or even just bother to actively recognise?) this concept. Yes, that’s ironic, and it’s a shame. If people did care more (or at least actively acknowledge?) the fact that dialogue comprises more than self, how much more might a conversation yield? As it is, on-line dynamics affect our selves so subtly yet profoundly that the Internet, the great democratic equalizer, is proving its ability to take us one step forward and two steps back.
In and of themselves, given their entire context including their culture, article & blog comments tend to run the risk of oversimplifying issues that warrant and deserve far greater diligence and time spent in meaningful appreciation. Issues that deserve… really? Why? Well, for starters, somebody published an article about [whatever it was], so now it’s out there for public consideration. Moreover, somebody decided that publishing [whatever it was] was worth the bother, and like you and me and everyone, that somebody deserves some basic dignity and respect, whether we ultimately agree with their published material or not. At a minimum, that requires reading the article, if not subsequently researching a bit more. Beyond that, it requires crafting responses of your own that do right by the author who invested the time and effort to create an article worthy of your comment – not “worthy” because you agree but “worthy” because you bothered to respond. Boy, all this bother! Why bother?
The Rhetorical WHY, itself, is a response not unlike what I suggest here – like anyone, I can’t cover it all in one go, but at the least, I can offer something more than a one-liner. The rest of you deserve that much, as I deserve likewise from the rest of you. So, in fact, it is about deserving: if one deserves, then all deserve – either no one is above any other, as far as it involves basic respect for human dignity, or we’re all of us bound for war, waged by all upon all.
For the record, this time I’m not trying to be ironic, though it might seem so now more than ever before. This time, it’s all too serious.
If people considered article & blog comments as I’ve tried to frame them here, as a matter of respect for human dignity, then comments – and public discourse, altogether – could be a whole lot different, and probably more constructive. Instead of comments, maybe people would compose entire articles of their own, which I remember is what Internet apologists used to boast: “The platform of the Internet is the great equalizer!” and “The Internet gives everyone a voice!” and “The Internet is democracy at its finest!” …that sort of thing. Shame that so many decide, instead, to use it superficially, far beneath both its potential as well as their own.
So, please, follow up on your own, comment and post, publish and be responsible. Contribute constructively. Most importantly, be thoughtful and thorough because that’s respectful of everybody else’s time and effort and bother. No one can cover every single detail, and every person has two cents to add of their own. But don’t be fooled by that miniscule metaphor – two cents refers to humility, so please make an effort to offer more than a reactive outburst.
Thanks, everybody, for leaving whatever considered comments you might have, and don’t let the end of this post be the end of your opinion.
Sometimes, the hardest part of teaching felt like finding a way to reach students when they just didn’t get it. But if there’s one thing I learned while teaching, it’s that it takes two. In fact, the hardest part of teaching was coming to realise it wasn’t them not getting it, it was me not getting them. In my own defense, I think we just never can know what another person’s motive truly is. It was times like that when I realised the true constructive value of respect and a good rapport. To have any hope of being open-minded, I intentionally needed to respect my students’ dignity, and I needed to be more self-aware as to how open- or closed-minded I was being. Humility has that way of being, well, humbling. These days I’m still fallible but a lot better off for knowing it. And, yes, humility’s easier said than done.
Over sixteen marvellous years teaching secondary English in a high school classroom, I learned that teaching is a relationship. Better still, it’s a rapport. I learned that it takes two, not just hearing and talking but listening and speaking in turn, and willingly. And, because bias is inescapable, I learned to consider a constructive question: what motives and incentives are driving anyone to listen and speak to anyone else? It has an admittedly unscrupulous undertone: what’s in it for me, what’s in it for them, who’s more likely to win out? The thought of incentives in high school likely evokes report cards, which is undeniable. But where listening (maybe speaking, too) to some degree means interpreting, what my students and I valued most was open-minded class discussion. With great respect for our rapport, we found the most positive approach was, “What’s in it for us?” The resulting back-and-forth was a continual quest for clarity, motivated on everyone’s behalf by incentives to want to understand – mutual trust and respect. Looking back, I’m pleased to say that tests and curricula seldom prevented us from pursuing what stimulated us most of all. We enjoyed very constructive lessons.
Of course, we studied through a lens of language and literature. Of particular interest to me was the construction of writing, by which I mean not just words but the grammar and punctuation that fit them together. My fascination for writing has been one of the best consequences of my own education, and I had encouraging – and one very demanding – writing teachers. In the classroom and on my own, I’ve always been drawn to structure as much as content, if not more so, which isn’t unorthodox although maybe not so common. The structure of writing gets me thinking on behalf of others: why has the writer phrased it this certain way? What other ways might be more or less well-suited for this audience? How might I have phrased something differently than this writer, and why? Most English teachers I know would agree that pondering such questions embodies a valuable constructive skill, these days trumpeted as critical thinking. I’d argue further that it’s even a pathway to virtue. Situated in context, such questions are inexhaustible, enabling a lifetime of learning, as literally every moment or utterance might be chosen for study.
In that respect, we loosely defined text beyond writing to include speech, body language, film, painting, music, architecture – literally any human interaction or endeavour. I’ll stick mostly with listening and speaking, reading and writing, just to simplify this discussion. The scope being so wide, really what our class sought to consider were aim and intention. So when students read a text for content, the WHAT, I’d ask them to consider choices made around vocabulary, syntax, arrangement, and so forth, the HOW. That inevitably posed further questions about occasion and motive, the WHY, which obliged varying degrees of empathy, humility, and discernment in reply: for a given writer, how best to write effectively on a topic while, for a given audience, what makes for skillful reading? What motives are inherent to each side of the dialogue? What incentives? These and others were the broader-based “BIG Question” objectives of my courses. They demanded detailed understanding of texts – heaven knows we did plenty of that. More importantly, the BIG Questions widened our context and appreciation even while they gave us focus. When times were frustrating, we had an answer for why studying texts mattered. Questions reflect motivation. Prior to exercising a constructive frame-of-mind, they help create one.
Questions, like everything else, also occur in a particular context. “Context is everything,” I would famously say, to the point where one class had it stencilled for me on a T-Shirt. So much packed into those three plain words – everything, I suppose. And that’s really my thesis here: if we aim to be constructive, and somehow do justice to that over-taxed concept, critical thinking, then we need to be actively considering what we hear and say or read and write alongside other people, and what it all makes us think for ourselves – especially when we disagree. (Is active thinking the same as critical thinking? I’m sure the phrase is hardly original, but I’ll consider the two kinds of thinking synonymous.) During my last 3-4 years in the classroom, all this came to be known by the rallying cry, “Raise the level of discourse!” These days, however, the sentiment is proving far more serious than something emblazoned on a T-Shirt.
I’m referring, of course, to the debacle that has been the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and its aftermath. Specifically, I have in mind two individual remarks, classic teachable moments inspired by current events. The first remark, from an NPR article by Brian Naylor on the fallout over the executive order banning Muslim immigrants, is attributed to the President. The second remark is a response in the comment section that follows Naylor’s article, representative of many commenters’ opinions. To begin, I’ll explain how something as detailed as grammar and punctuation can help raise the level of discourse, especially with such a divisive topic. From there, I’ll consider more broadly how and why we must always accept responsibility for this active language – sometimes correct grammar should matter not just to nit-pickers but to everybody.
In the article (February 8, 2017), Brian Naylor writes:
“Trump read parts of the statute that he says gives him authority to issue the ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as a temporary halt in refugee admissions. ‘A bad high school student would understand this; anybody would understand this,’ he said.”
We all know the 45th U.S. President can be brusque, even bellicose, besides his already being a belligerent blundering buffoon. This comment was received in that light by plenty, me included. For instance, by classifying “bad” (versus “good”), the President appeals at once to familiar opposites: insecurity and self-worth. We’ve all felt the highs and lows of being judged by others, so “bad” versus “good” is an easy comparison and, thereby, a rudimentary emotional appeal. However, more to my point, his choice to compare high school students with lawyers, hyperbole or not, was readily construed as belittling since, rationally, everyone knows the difference between adult judges and teenaged students. That his ire on this occasion was aimed at U.S. District Judge James Robart is not to be misunderstood. Ironically, though, the President invokes the support of minors in a situation where they have neither legal standing nor professional qualification, rendering his remark not just unnecessarily divisive but inappropriate, and ignorant besides – although he must have known kids aren’t judges, right?
To be fair, here’s a slightly longer quotation of the President’s first usage of “bad student”:
“I thought, before I spoke about what we’re really here to speak about, I would read something to you. Because you could be a lawyer– or you don’t have to be a lawyer: if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”
Notice, in the first place, that I’ve transcribed and punctuated his vocal statement, having watched and listened to video coverage. As a result, I have subtly yet inevitably interpreted his intended meaning, whatever it actually was. Yet my punctuation offers only what I believe the President meant since they’re my punctuation marks.
So here’s another way to punctuate it, for anyone who feels this is what the President said:
“Because you could be a lawyer, or you don’t have to be a lawyer – if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”
“Because you could be a lawyer. Or you don’t have to be a lawyer. If you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”
Finally, but not exhaustively, here’s another:
“Because you could be a lawyer… or you don’t have to be a lawyer; if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”
Other combinations are possible.
Rather than dismiss all this as pedantry, I’d encourage you to see where I’m coming from and consider the semantics of punctuation. I’m hardly the only one to make the claim, and I don’t just refer to Lynne Truss. Punctuation does affect meaning, both what was intended and what was perceived. To interpret the President’s tone-of-voice, or his self-interrupting stream-of-consciousness, or his jarring pattern-of-speech, or whatever else, is to partly infer what he had in mind while speaking. We interpret all the time, listening not only to words but tone and volume, and by watching body language and facial expression. None of that is typically written down as such, except perhaps as narrative prose in some novel. The point here is that, in writing, punctuation fills part of the interpretive gloss.
Note also where a number of newsheadlines have used the word “even” as an interpreted addition of a word the President did not actually say. Depending upon how we punctuate his statement, inclusive of everything from words to tone to gestures to previous behaviour, perhaps we can conclude that he did imply “even” or, more accurately, perhaps it’s okay to suggest that it’s what he intended to imply. But he didn’t say it.
If we’re going to raise the level of discourse to something constructive, we need to balance between accepting whatever the President intended to mean by his statement with what we’ve decided he intended to mean. In the classroom, I put it to students as such: “Ask yourself where his meaning ends and yours begins.” It’s something akin to the difference between assuming (based on out-and-out guesswork because, honestly, who besides himself could possibly know what the President is thinking) and presuming (based on some likelihood from the past because, heaven knows, this President has offered plenty to influence our expectations). Whatever he meant by referring to good and bad students might be enraging, humbling, enlightening – anything. But only if we consider the overlap, where his meaning ends and ours begins, are we any better off ourselves, as analysts. Effective communication takes two sides, and critical thinking accounts for both of them.
Effective, though, is sometimes up for debate, not merely defining it but even deciding why it matters. Anyway, can’t we all generally figure out what somebody means? Isn’t fussing over details like grammar more about somebody’s need to be right? I’d argue that taking responsibility for our language includes details like grammar precisely so that an audience is not left to figure things out, or at least so they have as little ambiguity to figure out as possible. Anything less from a speaker or writer is lazy and irresponsible.
In the Comments section following Naylor’s article, a reader responds as follows:
“Precisely describing Trump’s base…bad high school students who’s [sic] level of education topped out in high school, and poorly at that. This is exactly what Trump and the GOP want, a poorly educated populous [sic] that they can control with lies and bigoted rhetoric.”
Substantively, the commenter – let’s call him Joe – uses words that (a) oversimplify, blanketing his fellow citizens, and (b) presume, placing Joe inside the President’s intentions. Who knows, maybe Joe’s correct, but I doubt he’s clairvoyant or part of the President’s inner circle. On the other hand, we’re all free to draw conclusions, to figure things out. So, on what basis has Joe made his claims? At a word count of 42, what was he aiming to contribute? Some of his diction is charged, yet at a mere two sentences, it’s chancy to discern his motives or incentives, lest we be as guilty as he is by characterising him as he characterises the President. Even if I’m supportive of Joe, it’s problematic defending his remarks for the same reason – they leave such a gap to fill. At 42 words, where he ends is necessarily where the rest of us begin, and maybe I’m simply better off ignoring his comment and starting from scratch. Maybe that’s fine, too, since we should all have our own opinions. In any event, Joe has hardly lived up to any measure of responsibility to anybody, himself included – here I am parsing his words months later in another country. I’d even say Joe loses this fight since his inflammatory diction and sweeping fallacy play to his opponents, if they so choose. Unsurprisingly, Joe’s comment is not at all constructive.
For all its faults, his comment aptly demonstrates the two-way nature of dialogue. On the one side, responsibility falls to each reader or listener to bring their research and experience, then discern for themselves what was meant. In that regard, Joe has left us with a lot of work to do, if we’re motivated enough to bother. Yet I chose his particular comment as mere illustration – literally hundreds of others, just as brief and labour-intensive, scroll by below Naylor’s article… so much work for us to do, or else to dismiss, or perhaps to gain-say, if not insult. On that note, consider the other side: responsibility falls to the speaker or writer to offer substantive claims as well as the evidence that prompted them. In this instance, no matter the justification for offering something at all, what can a two-sentence comment add to issues as complex and long-standing as, say, Presidential politics? Whether or not on-line comments are democracy in action, certainly offering 42 words in two sentences struggles to promote a meaningful, substantive exchange of ideas.
I used to liken such on-line comments to my students as standing in line, debating with others while waiting for coffee, before returning to our cars or our lives, none the more informed except perhaps annoyed by some while appreciative of others. With the best intentions, we might excuse people, overlooking that we’re the ones who walked out and drove away – maybe we were late for work that day. We’ve been closed-minded to the degree that we haven’t sought to reach a thorough understanding, and certainly we’ve failed to raise the level of discourse. Would it have been better to just say nothing, grab our coffee, and leave?
Yes, I think so, which may not be easy to accept. Conversely, consider that reasoning from presumption and enthymeme is not reasoning at all. Further, consider that two sentences of 42 words or a few minutes spent chatting in the coffee line will barely scratch the surface. Who can say what motivates people to contribute so readily yet so sparsely? Recent times are emotional, growing more volatile, and potentially far more dangerous, as a result. We see in Joe’s comment, and so many others like it, that trust and respect are divisively encased in separate echo chambers. By virtue of us versus them, both sides are challenged to be open-minded.
Worse, the so-called era of “post-truth” impedes exactly the constructive dialogue we need right now, raising ire and diatribe in place of substance and equanimity. Satire compounds disagreement and grows that much more venomous, and ridicule has a way of locking closed doors. I don’t support proceeding from pretence or unfounded opinion – there’s nothing whatsoever to show for an exchange-of-opinion based on falsehood. The burden of post-truth is far too high. A bias and the truth can co-exist, and they do, guaranteed – one truth, objective, and one bias per person, subjective. Bias is an inevitable fact of existence. Left unchecked, bias obviates respect, which is why a constructive approach is so crucial. As I’ve said elsewhere, post-truth is anti-trust, at least for me, and, at its furthest extent, a threat to civil security, which sounds alarmist – good, let it. We need to attend to this. More than ever now, we need respect or, failing that, at least greater tolerance. That’s for starters.
Worse still, in this post-truth world, fictional claims face no arbiter but the other side so distrusted and maligned. The kind of polarised situation made infamous in Washington, DC is spreading, realised in a zillion on-line comments like Joe’s with every article published. Hopefully not this one, unless maybe someone hasn’t actually read this. On such a perilous path – facts in dispute, emotions enflamed – each side qualifies “open-minded” as unique to themselves and misappropriated by the rest. That’s significantly divisive and the recipe for unrest that I spy, and it sounds my alarm. In that divided state, in lieu of anything left to discuss, even as reality has its way of catching up, what damage might already be done? Especially when facing fellow citizens, whatever we choose now must accord with what we’re prepared to accept later. Let that sober thought sink to the core because the less we share common goals, the more we’re set to clash over unshared ones. But it’s within us to converse and to converge.
Let’s be willing to listen with empathy, understand with compassion, research with diligence, and respond with substance. Do your own investigation. Accept responsibility to inform yourself. Yes, take what you find with a grain of salt until you can believe to your own satisfaction what is right and trustworthy. Yet, even then, be tolerant if not respectful of others – too much salt is harmful. We all have our own motives and incentives for listening and participating, so let’s dig deeper than how pissed off we are with the other side: walking the high road with pride or smug assurance is really the low road and a path of hubris. It’s closed-minded, but not in the sense that we haven’t sought to reach a thorough understanding of the other side. It’s closed-minded to the degree that we haven’t sought to understand how and why the other side reached their position to begin with.
None of this is hard to understand. Once upon a time, we decided that education mattered, and it’s no accident that the trivium – grammar, rhetoric, dialectic – was given a central role. These days, its value in niche markets, notably private Christian education, is enough to switch some people off, which sadly exemplifies this entire discussion. I believe classical education is valuable for all. We’ve neglected it to our detriment, perhaps to our peril. We have a lot in common, more than we might credit, with our neighbours and fellow citizens. It’s not like they grew up on Mars. We’re not significantly different – hands up if you’re a human being. Start with that, some basic human dignity.
There’s a lot to be offered by rapport in our relationships, and little to expect without it. All we can do is understand the other person’s interpretation, and they ours, and go from there – or else not. And it’s easy to nod and say, “I already do that while others do not.” But reflect upon yourself anyway, in every conversation, debate, or exchange. Humility is a virtue, even when kept low-key. Everybody bears responsibility for their own participation. The more we live up to being respectful, even of those whom we oppose, the more progress we’re liable to make – however slowly it might happen.
As I said at the outset, yes, humility’s easier said than done. But by the same token, why write this essay if 42 words would do? We must neither hide ourselves away nor proceed prematurely. We must be able to discern flaws of reason, and we must be able to communicate with humility if we aim to deliver – and, more critically, if we hope to be received – from a place of thoughtfully considered understanding. Whether or not we truly trust one another, let’s help put the logos back in dialogue and accept our own responsibility to approach people with intentional self-awareness. Let’s seize the opportunity to be role-models – you just never know what somebody else is thinking. Let’s raise the level of discourse. And let’s remember that taking the high road must be open-hearted as well as open-minded.