You’re about to walk someplace, maybe as a young child, maybe with a parent or sibling, feeling absolutely glum, maybe even dismal, because “… it’s so far away!… we’ll have to walk so long!… it’s going to take forever!” The whole way there, it takes ages, like one long walking wait.
But once you finally get there and do your thing, and leave again for home, the walk back feels nowhere near as long, or daunting. I remember one explanation was that we encounter all the same things on the way home in reverse order – a fence, a tree, a crack in the sidewalk. Obviously, we reach them sooner in reverse, but they seem to arrive more quickly because they’re fresher memories. Then, before you know it, there we are again, home at last.
… yeah, who knows. But I do know I’ve had that sensation plenty of times where the journey back felt way faster, and home nowhere near so forever-far away, than when we first set out.
Another explanation is that, when we first set out, a whole adventure lies ahead, and our imaginations have room to breathe and explore the unknown. This one rings true both directions, there and back, which is actually why I don’t buy it… if it’s such an adventure, then why all the dread and pre-walk fatigue and wishing we’re already finally finally there? Why do things one way feel like forever, but the other way seem so quick?
I got to wondering after another idea… how looking forward to the future can seem so far away, compared to looking back at the past, which can feel like just yesterday.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: the past really is just yesterday. But I mean the distant past, which can feel so recent, particularly as we get older. There we are one day, when suddenly – whoosh – it’s all behind us. All sorts of thoughts arise, looking back… ‘it just goes so quickly’… ‘if I could do it all over again’… ‘I wish I knew then what I know now’… all those thoughts, and emotions too, which we sometimes call ‘regret’ or sometimes we call ‘wisdom’, and which only arrive as we look back from where we came.
As we look forward, “…ages from now” or “…in a few thousand years,” the future just seems so forever-far away, though there’s also a reverse effect… say, when some local business tries to invent tradition by leaning on – wow – a whole “quarter century.” No question, time scales in the hundreds and thousands consume lifetimes. Yet I’ve also had days as an adult when even “… next month” felt like the distant future. Days like that, looking back at fleeting life, I might happily wish I really was back walking to some faraway place with a parent or sibling – then, at least, I’d be looking forward not to the weight of ages but only to the walk back home.
How many of you, I wonder, wear shoes that fit. No need to raise hands, but just now consider, “Yes or No… I’m wearing shoes that fit.”
As you consider this about yourself, ask as well whether you’re thinking not solely of your shoes but also of your feet.
This is an illustration of the way to think as a teacher: always holding more than one idea in mind at the same time. For most teachers, there’s typically even three or more ideas to keep in mind, but two will do for now, or perhaps better just to say, “For now, more than one.”
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1936, “The Crack-Up”)
And why say anything at all? Because suspending our judgment helps prevent leaping to conclusions, which inescapably leaves someone out, and leaving someone out is anathema to teachers, literally the opposite of good teaching. Leaving people out is politics.
Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful… the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry ― these are the essentials of thinking.
(John Dewey, 1910, p. 13, ‘How We Think’)
The point to stress, beyond keeping in mind more than one idea at a time, is the sense of what we value – that sense of what ‘fits’ – which is to say no longer simply the shoes or the feet contained inside them, but what most appropriately suits in their coming together. In assessing ‘appropriate’ value, that sense of what ‘fits’, we weigh more than any single consideration – even when we don’t recognise them all: we lump more than one consideration together and treat them as ‘one’ consideration, like a kind of rational shorthand. When asked about the fit of our shoes, we may think shoes, we may think feet, or we may think distinctly both at once. The point to stress is that shorthand is subtle enough to go undetected.
The point to heed is that talk about ‘fit’ is talk about more than just the assessment of our satisfaction or frustration – our emotions. Any satisfaction or frustration we feel about the fit of our shoes will have arisen from that pair of shoes, now bought and paid for – and buyer beware! So as we feel those emotions, let’s heed how they arise from an empirical objectivity: “I paid $200 for these blasted things – and look at these blisters!”
Money, foot care, bandaids, a trip to the pharmacy, maybe a trip back to the shoe store… even if tangentially, then still no less materially, all these considerations plus how-many-others will factor in to our satisfaction or frustration, our emotional approval or disapproval, of the fit of our shoes – what better measure or evidence, what better empirical objectivity, for assessing the fit of our shoes than a blister on the back of our heel?
The fit of shoes is a congruous match-up of size and shape, the shoes and the feet that wear them. It’s something any good sales person comes to learn over time: as much as you must know your product – available in these shapes and sizes – you must also come to know people because customers also come in all imaginable shapes and sizes, and unimaginable ones, too – did you know the same person might have two differently sized feet? What on earth to do then!
In the same way we might consider feet while we consider the fit of shoes, let’s now put on our teacher hats and consider what makes an appropriate learning environment for young people. For starters, count how many things we’re now bringing to consideration… at the very least, I count two:
• learning environments, and • young people
… and what else?
I’m sure we would all share similar feelings about the fit of a poor learning environment for young people. So, as we put on those teacher hats and consider what makes for an appropriate learning environment for young people, zero-in on that word, ‘appropriate’, and ask yourself what informs it… its prescription, its sense of value. Ask yourself, “Beyond what I value, what I say ‘fits’, what is my source of that value?”
I’m pretty sure we could eventually reach some consensus on the empirical objectivity of an appropriate learning environment for young people although I hesitate to suggest what that consensus might actually be. But while we decided, what exactly would account for our initial reactions? What would we lump together in shorthand, and what could we factor in to more considered measure?
It’s as if to say of young people and learning environments, both at once, that each one doesn’t just stir its own reaction within us; rather, together they prompt a reaction within us, on account of something about each one of them, something not just worthy but something that warrants our appreciation: young people, for instance, evoke from us emotions like humility and compassion, on account of their vulnerability; and learning environments provoke emotions of respect and approval, on account of their helpfulness.
So ask yourself… what empirical objectivity arises from this combination of young people on the one hand and learning environments on the other: in their coming together, what is it that makes us so certain? And beyond mere nature, how do we measure – how do we know – what’s most appropriate… almost as if to ask, “What does each one deserve?” And, in between ‘what each one deserves’, how do we not simply describe but also account for what’s most ‘appropriate’?
Before blisters and complaining and asking for our money back, before even spending as much as one thin dime, how do we know if the shoe fits?
For her part, what she’s suggesting connects our emotions, which help us respond to the world, with our memories, which arise as a flood of perceptions that she calls emotional habits. Essentially, in our day-to-day living, the purpose of our emotions is to help us make sense of it all by recalling previous times when we felt such-and-such a way; the purpose of our memories is to supply those emotions with substance – and not with just any old substance but with invested value. If Nussbaum is on to something, then this is why we’re moved to say about [ your life here ] that “we care.”
Nussbaum refers to neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux, who suggests that memories are not individual items but composite outcomes of our physiological network – in one sense, like how a check-up isn’t just your doctor and a stethoscope but all their years and training, and this upon centuries of practice, which now includes you, the patient; in another sense, like how a bridge isn’t just an edifice of concrete, cable, and steel but an intentional span engineered to overcome the gulf that precluded any link between two separated sides.
One idea suggested by memory is that, with something going on inside everybody, we can still only respond from our current perspective. That means some parts of our lives will remain unseen from others and maybe even subconsciously from ourselves – we can never really completely know what’s happening with anybody. Occasionally, I’ve seen people apparently lose sight of this and press ahead with someone else, despite what seemed to be signals to hold up – yet as this is merely something I remember seeing from my perspective, here’s me doing it, myself, right now! A lot of our shared living is guesswork, and if it seems like I’ve suddenly departed from the topic of memory, I wonder if it’s fair to say I’m still in the ballpark.
Memories remind us of when we were other places, doing things, which all contributes to describing who we are now although, of course, not completely since nobody remembers everything, much less remembers anything perfectly. Maybe let’s say what gets remembered is what we take to be most important, which could be rather selective and self-serving, as we might decide to ‘remember’ only what helps us out the most. That’s a pretty blanket statement, though, and I can’t blame your eye-roll just now. As to what we do remember, we can decide whether a memory is something from the past to which we’re attached, or something in the past from which to distance ourselves. But either way, the past is always there, all of it, and that’s affecting all of us.
As to memories being fallible, this takes me back to guesswork, of a kind, as we try to recall exactly this-or-that detail. But since we can only remember from our current perspective, there’s a great deal of our lives that goes never seen by others, and even grows fuzzy and inexact to us – like I said, we can never really completely know what’s happening with anybody. If each person’s memories can only acknowledge their own cross-sections of the past, and this but partially, then over time I imagine this would cause a bit of collective amnesia, eventually having a kind of atomizing effect as certain details were highlighted while others were finally lost forever.
Certainly our culture seems to embrace the individual, has done ever since the Enlightenment sort of introduced the world to itself, as it were. What crawled from those Platonic caves of religious obeisance and feudal sovereignty eventually separated into an oddly homogeneous heterogeneity of individualism, which today we venerate with slogans like “Liberty, Happiness, and that other one – slips my mind. If we’ve actually been killing off cultural memory and swapping in some individuated substitute… well, in that case, I’d say cultural memory is becoming a rather haphazard assemblage of whatever coincides between us. Which, hey, might work for a while, but… life-by-coincidence I just feel like can’t be good.
That brings something else to mind… for all our enlightenment, we seem awfully susceptible to uncertainty. Weren’t we a lot longer chained up to those cave walls… yet now it’s like we can’t even remember what certainty is. Maybe our uncertainty – what the kids these days call narratives – whether spun by someone or spun by us, whether in our favour or in our face, maybe our uncertainty lies in its doctor’s motives. And of course, the better the storytelling, and the sharper the hook, the more we’ll feel we can relate – which is something else I mentioned of Martha Nussbaum although, this time, I’d say let’s take heed as a cautionary word. Yes, the more precise the object, the sharper that vision, and the more certainty we’re likely to feel, but no trust will exceed the worthiness, the value, of its object. Stick to the healthy objects, I guess is what I’m saying, objects not just inherently potent but of the greatest worthiness… your most highly treasured value.
In that sense, memories – remember this was all about memories? – in that sense, memories implicate, or are they implicated by, our present circumstances and our future objectives. As we presently look back to our memories, our memories are prompting our attention forward, into the future. We don’t remember anything perfectly, but we also don’t forget everything utterly. I’m not necessarily saying we spin solely what we remember; rather, I’m saying let’s not spin solely to remember. Just like words matter because, once spoken, their consequences flow, our memories matter too, for the same dynamic reason. They need to be as genuine as we can recall them. “And then,” Nussbaum concludes, perhaps with a touch of whimsy, “it remains to be seen what the world will let us do about them” (p. 135). Whether their flow will be placid, mundane, inconsequential, or anything beyond is beside the point that their flow is indisputably certain. What is past is having a very real effect right now and will thus see its effect realised in what is yet to come, come what may.
“Okay,” you say, “but what happened to that imaginary bridge – what was it, spanning the gulf between here and memory, or something? I mean, here you are, now, going on about time and spin and worth? Has this post lost its way? Another batch of mixed metaphors?”
Fair. OK, well, besides piecemeal memories inciting ad hoc futures for atomized individual persons, what all this seems to implicate, for me, is the sincerity of relationships, of care. Our continued honest attempts to communicate with each other are like an antidote, and in their absence we risk sullying or undoing whatever may have been true of us beforehand. Of course, though – and here I go again! – that last sentence was written through an altruistic lens, not really allowing for someone with, say, more practical motives. Meanwhile, as to any less-than-honest attempts at communication, well, they’re obviously no antidote at all but really pollutants. As only real engineers build bridges, so only real physicians administer antidotes, and only real spin doctors spin.
One last thing… I think maybe what’s most potent about our memories – in their pointing us toward objects ahead – is the nature of their absence, like travelling into the city and saying, “Look where there used to be trees.” As we take hold of a memory and turn it over in our fingers… with the curiosity that brought it back, we acknowledge a kind of respectful past-that-was as we find it within us-as-is. There’s a bit of healthy mutuality in that, for without that memory, we could only make less of ourselves while, without us, the memory wouldn’t be recalled at all. I suppose that’s all a bit banal, but still… it seems important, a kind of respectfulness that authorizes both the memory and ourselves at once, however inexact our memories may actually be.
But we need to be careful. Any respectful authorization of memory and ourselves at once is us doing both, which is tantamount to saying “I am history,” as in “Whatever I declare now is now what happened then,” which of course would be delusional. And not in the sense of claiming to be God, who controlled it all back then as now but, rather, in the sense of looking inward to ourselves, like a doctor prescribing an antidote without remembering what it was for.
Someone very practical once told me there are plenty of good memories to be made and happy events to experience wherever one resides. Practical health in this object, practical wisdom, a beautiful radiance such as might alight you from the bridge deck with delight since now you want to see where it’s landed you, over here on the other side. As I recall, my reply was something along the lines to say, yes, that’s definitely true although it ain’t where you’re at so much as it’s who you’re with.
In the gulf beneath, a mighty flood rolls on, and you still hold your dearest treasures to heart. And from the shore you understand a wee bit better why somebody decided to build that bridge.