A Kind of Certainty: I. An Uncertain Faith

Well, you had to know this one was coming… a meditation upon Hamlet.

This meditation, though, also happens to be a treatise on curriculum. I wrote this essay last year for a course I took with Dr William Pinar, who is Curricular Royalty on top of being a super guy. And, like me, he taught secondary English, so I felt I had a sympathetic ear.

Dr Pinar’s course was driven by chapters he was writing for a book about George Grant, who was (among many things) a philosopher, theologian, educator, and Canadian nationalist. Dr Pinar’s book is about Grant’s critique of time, technology, and teaching.

The series of posts, “A Kind of Certainty,” comprises my final paper, in which I attempt to present Hamlet, the character, by way of the same treatment that Dr Pinar presents Grant. That said, I don’t address technology here (although I do address it here and here), focusing instead upon teaching and curriculum, and granting due respect to the concept of time.

I debated how I might present this essay, whether to revise it into something more suited to the style and structure of my other blog posts. But it just proved far too difficult to change or remove anything without drastic revision, essentially having to rewrite the entire paper, so here it is in academic trim… citations, endnotes, and all – Dr Pinar is a big fan of endnotes, by the by, so that’s the explanation there.

Here, too, is the bibliography.

 


A Kind of Certainty

1. An Uncertain Faith

I taught Hamlet in English 11. During what typically lasted five months, we considered, among other concepts, certainty and faith. One example of mine to illustrate these was to ask a student why she sat down so readily on her classroom chair. She would be puzzled and say something like, “Huh?” My reply was to note how much faith she evidently placed in that chair to support her without collapsing. Then she would laugh, and I would ask further whether she knew the manufacturer, or the designer, but of course she knew neither. Then I would ask how many other chairs that week had collapsed beneath her, and (apart from one, unfortunately!) the reply would be, “None.” My point, of course, grew clearer to everyone as this conversation progressed, so my next question was to the class: “How many people rode in a vehicle sometime this past week?” Once most confirmed it, I would ask the same basic question as that of the chair: how were you certain that vehicle was safe? I was more tactful where it came to car accidents, usually using my own spectacular examples (… I have two). Ultimately, my claim was that we might have as much as 99% certainty, yet for whatever doubt exists, we rely on faith or else we would never sit in chairs, or drive in cars, or whatever else. As my tone grew more grave, so did their nods and expressions, as if we ought to be dropping Hamlet to study car mechanics, or industrial first aid.

My students were typically alarmed when they realised their faith was only as certain as its object, be it a sturdy or rickety chair. Where extremes present themselves rather obviously, even so, in any case of such offhanded faith, we make ourselves collateral. As if we live on credit, certain that all will remain as it has done, we borrow on faith against our future well-being until it comes time, as it says in the fable, to pay the piper. Meanwhile, what seems certain to us we literally take-for-granted, begging the question with impunity, I suppose, since every day the sun continues to rise.[1] Everyday, we overlook the caution, familiar to investors, that past performance does not necessarily indicate future potential, or as they say in the casino, the House never loses.

Maybe we never stop to consider just how loosely we play with certainty and faith in our day-to-day because doing so might mean never again stepping outside the door – no sense everyone being as hamstrung as the Prince of Denmark. Having studied the play as much as I have, I find every one of its concepts up for debate – arrghh – and where certainty and faith can actually seem either opposed or synonymous, that determination depends on yet another concept from the play, perspective. In any case, where it comes to certainty and faith – at least from my perspective – Hamlet is particularly instructive.

No matter your perspective, I would warn students, no matter where you stand or land, the play will then present you with a challenge of certainty, something I called the “Yeah, but…,” which was naturally a source of unending frustration. Conversely, and ironically, it was also a source of certainty since, like Hamlet in duplicitous Elsinore,[2] at least we can be certain that everybody else thinks, shall we say, uniquely, if not differently. Hamlet’s return home to the web of Catholic Elsinore from the symbolic bastion of Lutheran reform, Wittenberg, on account of his father’s death, finds him divided not unlike the Elizabethans comprising Shakespeare’s audience, caught between two branches of Christian belief.[3] The Bard besets his tragic hero with a matrix of inner turmoil – both secular and spiritual, of fealty and faith – a tesseract of beliefs such that Hamlet cannot reconcile any one to another, even as he quakes yet pines for some grand repose. For each possible value he might set down in his tables, his same self-assurance prompts Hamlet to pose questions more profound, rendering him unable to decide about, well, anything. Doubting that anyone can even interpret what it means to exist and, thereby, doubting that concern over living, or dying, or even debating the question is worthwhile, Hamlet, like the actors he so admires, effectively stands for nothing. As such, I admitted to my students, he was hardly an exemplary role model.

So, I suggested, to avoid the debilitating trap that befalls the brooding Prince, that of “thinking too precisely on the event” (Shakespeare, 1997, 4.4.41),[4] we must simply and ultimately decide what we believe after having drawn such conclusions from the best available evidence. Easily said, yet is this not exactly what Hamlet is trying to do? Little wonder students find him so frustrating. Then again, I pointed out, all our sighing and huffing is its own judgment call, a very palpable hit borne of the frustration of those who are upset with him. With Hamlet’s inability to decide for most of the play comprising most of the play, and with him chastising his own cowardice and rebuking God-given reason as a consequence (2.2.571-580, 4.4.36-39, 43), a spendthrift sigh of our own is hardly unreasonable. On the other hand, observed one student, well on her way to modern material success, he sells tickets. Unquestionably, yes, Shakespeare made a meal of Hamlet making a meal of things. And, even though he doomed his protagonist from the start, the playwright does release Hamlet from his torturous hamster wheel – mercifully? – just before he meets his grand moment of truth.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare includes what I call “Let…” statements. Of particular significance are the following four statements, presented here in sequential order:

  1. Of Claudius’s machinations, Hamlet tells Gertrude to “let it work” (3.4.205)
  2. Exacting vengeance for his father’s murder, Laertes will “let come what comes” (4.5.136)
  3. Having finally made peace with the certainty of death as well as the uncertainty of what lies beyond, Hamlet tells himself (alongside Horatio) to “let be” (5.2.224)
  4. Later, as Horatio confronts doubts of his own, Hamlet tells him to “let go” (5.2.343)

Alternatively arranged, these statements help comprise, for me, a response to the famous question, “To be, or not to be.”[5] This alternative arrangement derives from a sentence analysis exercise that my students and I would complete while preparing for the play. The sentence is from an essay by Drez (2001) about American pilots during WWII: “There were no souvenirs, but the grisly task of scrubbing decomposing remains from their boots later left a lasting memory” (p. 144). Briefly, the words later, left, and lasting illustrate the creation and the span of the airmen’s memories over time – the future, past, and present, respectively – made all the more ironic since the souvenirs they found were hardly the ones they sought. Using these three words alongside my own interpretation of each “Let…” statement, I have arranged them chronologically out-of-sequence with the play, using instead an interpretive application of temporality as three discrete periods[6] to challenge the common concept of linear time as historical calendar pages or a ticking clock.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt II: Curriculum, or What You Will

 


Endnotes

[1] Shame on us for carrying on so fallaciously! At pedestrian-controlled stoplights, we eventually step off the curb believing that drivers have halted their oncoming vehicles rather than carrying on through and running us down. To call the stoplight “pedestrian-controlled” is somewhat of an embellishment on the part of the city engineers, I think, a deferral to who really is favoured, for whatever reason, in the equation. But for the pedestrian to step off the curb is an act of faith, surely, since they abrogate control to the driver who has the car’s capability to accelerate and manoeuvre at his disposal. For that brief moment, only the driver’s motives keep the pedestrian safe. And careful though we are, accidents still happen in such everyday circumstances. Worst of all, as more recent times demonstrate, cars and trucks can be used precisely as weapons of terror against innocent people; the danger I speak of, the giving-and-taking of control, however uncommon, has now been realised. That changes attitudes profoundly.

Security measures, safety audits, protective equipment, government regulations – on and on goes the list of processes and people in which we place our faith, believing with some degree of certainty – or, as often as not, taking for granted on faith – that proper standards are being met that ensure our safety.

[2] Just my interpretation, mind you, “duplicitous Elsinore.” Certainly, you will have your own analysis.

[3] Since the time of those events described in the New Testament, their interpretation has divided Christian belief into myriad denominations, such as those found in both Shakespeare’s play and Elizabethan England: Catholicism and two respective branches of reform, the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther and the English Reformation decreed by King Henry VIII. I simply use “Christian belief” in a broad sense, wanting to avoid the suggestion that any particular denomination tops some hierarchy, since that sort of debate, here, is beside the point.

[4] For the duration of the essay, I shall refer to quotes from this cited edition of the play.

[5] Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, I’m hardly the first to devise this response to the famous question. Evidently, where my approach differs from other examples (Baumlin & Baumlin, 2002; Critchley & Webster, 2011) is connecting the four specified “Let…“ statements and Hamlet’s closing lines (5.2. 222-223, 358) with concepts of temporality.

[6] A full explanation of the four “Let…” statements and temporality demands its own essay, and I am already deep enough into Hamlet as it is, so for my weary negligence I ask some gracious leeway instead of a challenging “Yeah, but…”. Suffice to say, though, as we might feel this way or that about past or future, we still must inherently live each present moment, such as we are.

Play’s the Thing…

I used to say to my students, “Find the overlap between our English coursework and, say, Trigonometry, or the link from persuasive writing to PhysEd. Where does Hamlet end and organic chemistry begin? Find that one out… there’s genius in that.” The courses my Department offered were called “English” and, helmed by some teachers, they were more traditional, as one might expect. The most common feedback I received from students, though, was how unlike English our coursework seemed to them. I took those remarks as a measure of success: my aim was to prepare young people, soon enough entering the world as older people, to be responsible… to families, communities, careers, and so forth. For me, that’s the purpose of school and its teachers.

What prompted me to reflect was reading Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat – specifically, such remarks as “the appropriate relationship between thought and experience… [in which] creative new perceptions take place when needed” (p. 49). That distinction between thought and experience reminded me of another distinction, this between dialogue and conversation. And again I was prompted to recall my English courses – what we had, I’d say, were definitely conversations, scratching new surfaces and digging into things with fluid spontaneity, as compared to the “my turn / your turn” protocol of dialogue, which might dig one trench but deeper and deeper. Where dialogue strikes me as instrumental, a means to an end, conversation is an end in itself, without start or finish but continual – that is, until the bell rings. We notoriously lived beyond the rigour of scheduling in some of my courses.

Those conversations were hard to let go. And what exactly were we after? “The creative person does not strictly know what he or she is looking for,” say Bohm and Peat. “The whole activity [is] play itself,” and no better description of teaching (at least, my teaching) have I ever read. Who knew I was so creative? Not me although I did have fun. So who knew teaching was just so much play? “The play’s the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of–” well, anybody, really. I should clarify that I respected my colleagues and our Departmental philosophy as well as my professional obligation to Ministry curricula. At the same time, I relied on my own interests and concerns to guide our coursework, by day and by year. The result was a mixture of reading, discussion, writing, and presenting about topics as disparate as literature, film, fine art, civics, politics, economics, philosophy, etymology, all manner of topics – yes, even science and math – all bundled together in a process of classical rhetoric. Eventually, I developed a suitably disparate canon of texts, too, that flowed meaningfully from English 9 through 12. And I relied on students’ differences to alter and adjust the flavour however they might. I loved teaching for how creative it allowed me to be, and for how much creativity it provoked in my students. “Let come what comes,” Laertes tells Claudius – brazen, even foolhardy. Genius, perhaps?

Bohm and Peat seem to suggest that genius is not creativity per se so much as the effect of having challenged some assumptions, and maybe that’s mere semantic distinction. Either way, I like the notion. Later, reading Allen Repko, I found myself nodding likewise at what he calls “boundary crossing” (p. 22). There it was, this discovery of common threads in disparate disciplines, this crossing of amorphous boundaries, what my students have heard me call “genius” although I might now redefine that trait as “ingenuity.” Accompanying “boundary crossing” is a reaching across disciplines, with intent, what Repko calls “bridge building.” This, I think, I would call visionary. Discovery and vision, both what I would forever consider, as a teacher, to be meaningful developments of the learning process.

Repko also points out the origin of the word, “discipline,” deriving from the Romans and their need to “relate education to specific economic, political, and ecclesiastical ends” (p. 32). How delightfully Roman! I thought, reading that. Such instrumentalism, “the logic of utility.”[1] Finis at its finest: How long, O Lord! Will their legacy never end? But I trust in teaching and my unfailing students.

I enjoyed sixteen years teaching Secondary English to brilliant students. In that time, we developed a philosophy, addressed the BIG Questions, and fed our curiosity. But my planning process was seldom more than make-it-up-as-we-go. “We could never get away with this in Math,” I used to say to them, “although if you do find a way, I’d love to hear about it.”

 


[1] Phelan, A. (2009). A new thing in an old world? Instrumentalism, teacher education, and responsibility. In Riches, Caroline & Benson, Fiona J. (Eds.) Engaging in Conversation about Ideas in Teacher Education, (105-114). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

 

Teaching Open-Mindedly in the Post-Truth Era

A year on, and this one, sadly, only seems more relevant…

[Originally published June 16, 2017]

I had brilliant students, can’t say enough about them, won’t stop trying. I happened to be in touch with one alumna – as sharp a thinker as I’ve ever met, and a beautiful writer – in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election campaign and wrote the following piece in response to a question she posed:

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

I was pleased that she asked, doubly so at having a challenging question to consider. And I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to compose a thoughtful reply.

I’ve revised things a little, for a broader audience, but the substance remains unchanged.

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

Good heavens. Hmm… with respect for peoples’ dignity, is my most immediate response. But such a question.

Ultimately, it takes two because any kind of teaching is a relationship – better still, a rapport, listening and speaking in turn, and willingly. Listening, not just hearing. But if listening (and speaking) is interpreting, then bias is inescapable, and there needs to be continual back-and-forth efforts to clarify, motivated by incentives to want to understand: that means mutual trust and respect, and both sides openly committed. So one question I’d pose back to this question pertains to the motives and incentives for teaching (or learning) ‘X’ in the first place. Maybe this question needs a scenario, to really illustrate details, but trust and respect seem generally clear enough.

Without trust and respect, Side ‘A’ is left to say, “Well, maybe some day they’ll come around to our way of thinking” (… that being a kind portrayal) and simply walks away. This, I think, is closed-minded to the degree that ‘A’ hasn’t sought to reach a thorough understanding (although maybe ‘A’ has). Whatever the case, it’s not necessarily mean-spirited that someone might say this. With the best intentions, ‘A’ might conclude that ‘B’ is just not ready for the “truth.” More broadly, I’d consider ‘A’s attitude more akin to quitting than teaching, which is to say a total failure to “teach”, as far as I define it from your question. It would differ somewhat if ‘A’ were the learner saying this vs being the teacher. In that case, we might conclude that the learner lacked motivation or confidence, for some reason, or perhaps felt alone or unsupported, but again… scenarios.

Another thing to say is, “Well, you just can’t argue with stupid,” as in we can’t even agree on facts, but saying this is certainly passing judgment on ol’ stupid over there, and perhaps also less than open-minded. To be clear… personally, I’d never say bias precludes truth, only that we’ll never escape our biases. The real trouble is having bias at all, which I think is what necessitates trust and respect because the less of these is all the more turmoil. I figure any person’s incentive to listen arises from whatever they think will be to their own benefit for having listened. But “benefit” you could define to infinity, and that’s where the post-truth bit is really the troublesome bit because all you have is to trust the other person’s interpretation, and they yours, or else not.

Yeah, I see “post-truth” as “anti-trust,” and that’s a powderkeg, the most ominous outcome arisen of late. People need incentives to listen, but if treating them with dignity and respect isn’t reaching them, then a positive relationship with me wasn’t likely what they wanted to begin with. That’s telling of the one side, if not both sides. At the same time, it’s harder to say in my experience that students have no incentives to listen or that, on account of some broader post-truth culture, they don’t trust teachers – that might be changing, who knows, but I hope not.

But I’m leaving some of your question behind, and I don’t want to lose sight of where it’s directed more towards the person doing the teaching (you asked, how do you teach open-mindedly…).

That part of the question was also in my immediate reaction: respect peoples’ dignity. For me, when I’m teaching, if I’m to have any hope of being open-minded, I intentionally need to respect the other person’s dignity. I need to be more self-aware, on a sliding scale, as to how open- or closed-minded I’m being just now, on this-or-that issue. So even while that’s empathy, it’s also self aware, and it’s intentional. It’s not “me” and “the other.” It’s “us.”

Me being me, I’d still be the realist and say you just can never really know what that other person’s motive truly is – whether it’s a pre-truth or post-truth world doesn’t matter. But whether or not you trust the other, or they you, the real valuable skill is being able to discern flaws of reason, which is what I always said about you – you’ve always been one to see through the bull shit and get to the core of something. I’m no guru or icon, I’m just me, but as I see it just now, the zeitgeist is an emotional one more than a rational one. And there’s plenty to understand why that might be the case. And given that emotional dominance, I do think post-truth makes the world potentially far more dangerous, as a result.

Whatever incentives people are identifying for themselves, these days, are pretty distinct, and that’s a hard one for unity. That saying about partisan politics – “We want the same things; we just differ how to get there” – that doesn’t apply as widely right now. So, by virtue of the other side being “the other” side, neither side’s even able to be open-minded beyond themselves because trust and respect are encased in the echo chambers. More than I’ve ever known, things have become distinctly divisive – partisan politics, I mean – and I wonder how much more deeply those divisions have room to cut. Selfish incentives cut the deepest. Trust and respect guard us from deep cuts.

So, for instance, lately I find with my Dad that I listen and may not always agree, but where I don’t always agree, he’s still my Dad, and I find myself considering what he says based on his longevity – he’s seen the historic cycle, lived through history repeating itself. And I obviously trust and respect my Dad, figuring, on certain issues, that he must know more than me. On other issues, he claims to know more. On others still, I presume he does. Based on trust and respect, I give him the benefit of the doubt, through and through. One of us has to give, when we disagree, or else we’d just continually argue over every disagreement. If you want peace, someone has to give, right? Better that both share it, but eventually one must acquiesce to their “doubt” and make their “benefit” finite, stop the cutting, compromise themselves, if they’re to see an end to the debate. So should I trust my Dad? I respect him because he’s given me plenty good reason after such a long time. Certainly I’m familiar with his bias, grown accustomed to it – how many times over my life have I simply taken his bias for granted? Too bad the rest of the world don’t get along as well as my Dad and I do.

I see it even more clearly with my daughter, now, who trusts me on account of (i) her vulnerability yet (ii) my love. The more she lives and learns alongside me, as time passes by, the more cyclically her outlook is reiterated, a bit like self-fulfilling prophecy. Other parents have warned me that the day’s coming when she’ll become the cynical teenager, and I’m sure it will – I remember going through it, myself. But I’m older, now, and back to respecting my Dad, so at least for some relationships, the benefit of the doubt returns. My Dad preceded me, kept different circles than me, and lived through two or three very different generations than me. Even as we see the same world, we kind of don’t. So this is what I wonder about that deep cut of division, reaching the level of family – and, further than one given family, right across the entire population. Do I fact-check my Dad, or myself, or maybe both? Should I? Even if I do, neither one of us is infallible, and we’re only as trustworthy as our fact-checking proficiency.

Anyway, the child of the parent, it’s as good an example as I can think of for questioning what it means to learn with an open mind because there’s no such thing as “unbiased.” Yet love, trust, and respect are hardly what we’d call “closed-minded,” except that they are, just in a positive way. Love, trust, and respect leave no room for scepticism, wariness, and such traits as we consider acceptable in healthy proportions (for reasons about motive that I explained above).

But “teaching” with an open-mind takes on so much more baggage, I think, because the teacher occupies the de facto as well as the de jure seat-of-power, at least early on – school is not a democracy (although that now seems to be changing, too). Yet teachers are no more or less trustworthy on the face of it than any other person. That’s probably most of all why I reduce my response to respecting human dignity because where it’s closed-minded, for all its “positive,” it’s also a do-no-harm approach.

That jibes with everything I’ve learned about good teaching, as in good teaching ultimately reduces to strong, healthy relationships. Short-term fear vs long-term respect – it’s obvious which has more lasting positive influence. And since influencing others with our bias is inevitable, we ought to take responsibility for pursuing constructive outcomes, or else it’s all just so much gambling. At the core, something has to matter to everybody, or we’re done.