The Measure of Our Own

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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.

Image Credit: Erin Li on Pexels

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! But 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!

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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?”

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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.

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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?

On Bias: I. Disparate Bias

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On Bias: I. Disparate Bias

Various dictionaries define bias as a tendency or inclination: usually preconceived, sometimes unreasoned, and typically unfair; an inherent if not intentionally irrational preference. Partiality, expectancy, perception… where such words are synonymous, still if they meant exactly the same thing, wouldn’t we use exactly the same word? So what exactly is bias?

Sociologist Jim Mackenzie, ostensibly on behalf of teachers, introduces bias as “something we all deplore.” He associates bias with truth, in a negative way where bias leans toward its own ends, and with justice where bias unchecked is distinctly unfair. Still, his ensuing analysis of two “images” is instructive. First, bias indicates something to be gotten rid of… imagine an excess of prejudice, or a distortion or “impurity in a lens… that prevents us from seeing things as they really are” (p. 491) which, you’ll notice, leaves an alternative of being unable or unwilling to get rid of it. Second, as a void or deficit to be filled, or an insufficient consideration or partial blindness by which we’re unable to see what’s already there, or even see any alternatives, bias indicates something to be gained which, again, leaves open the inability or unwillingness to gain it.

Before going any further, I’d be remiss to overlook my own word choice, summarising Mackenzie: both times, you’ll see I wrote “… bias indicates, which leaves….” Something indicated is pointed out, presumably against criteria or else how would you know to single it out? And for leaving an open alternative from which to choose, such criteria would be definite, or else why not assert amidst ambiguity? Anyway, this is the reasoning for my word choice, and you can take it or leave it, as you will.

Considering his first image, an excess of prejudice, Mackenzie cites Edmund Husserl and the “full intellectual freedom” needed to “break down the mental barriers which [our habits of thought] have set along the horizons of our thinking” (p. 43) – by today’s messaging, ‘open-mindedness is a hard ask’. Maybe so, but set against this is Husserl’s steadfast urgency that “nothing less is required.”

Husserl’s prescription reminded me of Sir Francis Bacon, who would have us overcome what he called the four Idols of the Mind that “imbue and corrupt [our] understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways”:

The human understanding is most excited by that which strikes and enters the mind at once and suddenly, and by which the imagination is immediately filled and inflated. It then begins almost imperceptibly to conceive and suppose that everything is similar to the few objects which have taken possession of the mind…

… although the greatest generalities in nature must be positive, just as they are found, and in fact not causable, yet the human understanding, incapable of resting, seeks for something more intelligible. Thus, however, while aiming at further progress, it falls back to what is actually less advanced, namely, final causes; for they are clearly more allied to man’s own nature, than the system of the universe, and from this source they have wonderfully corrupted philosophy.…

The human understanding resembles not a dry light, but admits a tincture of the will and passions, which generate their own system accordingly; for man always believes more readily that which he prefers. He, therefore, rejects difficulties for want of patience in investigation; sobriety, because it limits his hope; the depths of nature, from superstition; the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects; paradoxes, from a fear of the opinion of the vulgar; in short, his feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways. (pp. 24–26)

My guess would be no love lost for Bacon, these days, which is nothing if not ironic.

Husserl also reminded me of one of my professors, Dr. William Pinar, whose concept of “reactivation” would seem to grant history just that wee bit more consideration as we set about our ideas and memories, revisiting if not revising them with more intention and, presumably, greater awareness. All these together – Bacon, Husserl, Pinar – I see reflecting Mackenzie’s second image, a deficit of alternatives, not something to be corrected or removed but rather a void to be filled, an absence noted, an allusion by Joyce to the “gnomon in the Euclid” (p. 1). What luck for Mackenzie, being so well represented (thanks of course to me).

And lucky for all of us to be surrounded by the greatest unfilled void imaginable, a universe of limitless time and space: “… a pretty big place!” to quote Dr. Arroway, and certainly big enough to surpass any no-worries belief that, nah, we have it all well in-hand. Mackenzie’s implication is that everyone’s necessarily biased for being finite. Sure, we continually develop new understandings across spaces over time, but short of real omniscience, as if we might observe the Earth’s sphere from its surface – so, make that well short – who could possibly come to know all there is to know? Our limit is our bias although I find a lot of people seem to get this reversed. Then again, pride and prejudice pair up for box office mojo that wisdom and humility would hardly dare to dream.

Our limit is our bias although I find a lot of people seem to get this reversed.

Bias arises inevitably from… call it what you want: our nature, a state of being, Dasein. We’re inescapably subject to it, beset and enamoured by it. Its cumulative effects inflect our cultural systems and institutions while remaining, as Heikes says, invisible to everyone involved, like the water to those oblivious fish. This may be why Mackenzie sets the “onus of proof” for demonstrating bias, be it misunderstanding or insufficient consideration, upon “the person who claims that something is biased, for that is provable,” i.e. hey look! something more, something else, something different. As for demonstrating that someone has fully completely understood or utterly thoroughly considered a matter, and therefore is unbiased: this remains impossible although more and more our cultural infatuation is to start your impossible and put those pesky finite limitations to the sword. Time to fly on waxen wing and silence father’s voice.

Characterising limit as the antagonist is not our only option although for raising hackles, or for squeamish sentiments like Mackenzie’s introduction, I guess bias was inevitably doomed to be the dagger of our mind. Still, somewhat less drastic is MacMullen, who casts bias as more benign prejudice “that exhibits resistance to rational criticism” wherein, I suppose, the patient must minister to himself. As it happens, I have a teacher bias that’s comfortable with MacMullen’s perspective, particularly where he cuts to the core debate that has faced biased educators through the ages: what should comprise the curriculum? what should we teach because what is worth learning? what is school for? Whatever our response to any of this, surely it’s not to cap our limits but to stretch them.

“We must decide,” MacMullen counsels, “whether, when, and how to expose children to (what we take to be) the most powerful critiques of and significant alternatives to our existing political order.” Critical thinking powers activate – that goes for you too, Critical Theorists, so I hope you brought enough for everybody.

Hey, though, one look at the pantheon of scholars and heroes in this post should be all anyone needs, as compared to MacMullen’s thing about (what we take to be) critiques and alternatives to our existing political order, or any order really… since when did the root of all debate become a mere parenthetical?

Click here to read On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?

Three Memories…

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At a glance, this post admittedly seems eclectic, which is writer’s code for incoherent. Two things… (i) okay, that’s fair; (ii) ‘show, don’t tell’ is writer’s code for respecting the audience, which is coded code for ‘intentionally eclectic’.

If this works out, future posts will probably be a whole lot easier.

Elsewhere, briefly, I consider something Martha Nussbaum offers about emotions – their essence, their “history,” as she puts it – which really I take to be our histories, and history too, I suppose.

To characterise grief, for example, she says, “… the experience itself involves a storm of memories and concrete perceptions,” what she earlier calls “rich and dense perceptions” (p. 65). Later, she indicates “memory” as synonymous with “an emotional habit” (p. 114) and cites neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux to say memories are not individual items per se but composite outcomes of our physiological network – in one sense, like how a movie isn’t just ‘by’ the Director but thanks to the enduring efforts of an entire cast and crew; in another sense, like how a highway is not so much a destination as a well-trodden connection between two destinations.

For his part, LeDoux distinguishes between (what I will call) instincts and emotions – the former we share with the lowest bacterium, the latter all our own, being self-aware, to boast on high as we will.

All this is fascinating. But when I experience flashes of memory, that seem to me disjointed things, which come and go, glimmer and fade, tripped by who-knows-what… when this happens to me, rather than look back at what comprises them, just as often I’m trying to piece them together with sharper moments into some more indicative pattern. I guess you could say I’m trying to find some meaning to them.

So… three memories, falling together…

In the backseat of my Mom’s VW, stopped for a fill-up, when gas stations belonged in neighbourhoods…

A 1964 Volkswagen Beetle

The jockey’s a young guy, teens or twenties, although that’s still just an adult to me. And he is hustling – from the driver’s window to the pump, the squeegee, the tires, back around to check the oil. I crane my neck, too obedient to undo my seatbelt, so all I see is an elbow and a ball cap. Into the building, back with the Chargex. Somewhere in all this, while he’s blurring past the front windshield, my Mom remarks to me, to herself, something like “Would you look at him – if the whole country worked that hard, the economy wouldn’t be in so much trouble.”

At the time, I took her word for it – this is before friends, or books, or stuff like favourite bands and watching movies. I just logged the admiration, and only much later was I struck that my Mom would ever note the economy. But I figure that’s how pervasive inflation really was at the time. For me, inflation was California on the evening news, people atop car hoods and lounging in open passenger doors, lined up waiting for gas.

“Check the oil too, I guess”

VW Image Credits: Photos by Joel Stocksdale on AutoBlog

Click here and here if you like the VW Beetle

In the front “yard” of the Firehall, where we played soccer and football, and watched the trucks come and go – today with one of the neighbourhood kids.

Just me and him, and no football – just talking. He’s one of these kids who’s already matured, a real brain, and speaks with that cadence adults have. Of all things, we’re talking about gold, which somewhere along the way I’ve heard my brother talking about with my Dad. And you know what they say… by the time you’re hearing nine-year olds talk about it at the Firehall, it’s definitely reached its peak.

In fact, he informs me with assured cadence, gold is now well past its peak on the way down, a claim my Dad confirms for me later that evening. And in one conversation for decades is lost all the lustre that no amount of history will sustain when you don’t know any of it anyway.

New building these days… same trees, less grass

In the living room – the second one, where the furniture feels out of place and the jaded nuclear family finally muddles to a close.

I listen from the door as my Dad, in his deliberate way, explains fractional reserve banking and fiat currencies to me from the easy chair – derisively, at my incredulity, and ruefully, now that he, and we, are irrevocably scarred by misfortune. He explains the Commodity Exchange, in all its cacophony, and the primacy of foreign exchange, and he explains bank reserves, and the vacuous basis of all: debt.

And he forecasts the end – how it can only end, how it must end – and offers his strictest piece of advice: never owe what you can’t afford because – and really now I’m paraphrasing, this was like 1985 – because what people commonly call a House of Cards is actually a Set of Dominos, that are already well underway.

They’re faded memories, 35–40–45 years ago now, and an admitted jumble… is their only common thread “me” and nothing more?

You might say so – and hey, belonging to me, how could they mean anything to you beyond the scope of your physiological network? Different cast + different crew = different movie. So why even share them like this?

No, I wouldn’t expect my memories to strike you, at least not the way they strike me. Still, though… high road or low road – I just can’t help but wonder whether we’re all bound for the same destination.

Click here to read Memories Go Fourth

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