Life in the Classroom

People often say that school is a training ground, or a practice session, a rehearsal for life, which usually means career. This whole “real-life” authentic learning stuff basically privileges the work place over the school classroom.

If the flipside to words like “real” and “authentic” is words like “fake,” “false,” or “contrived,” then maybe we’re just being sloppy with our words. Unless that’s actually what we think of school. Well, I’m probably just being too fussy because none of this is what’s meant by real-life authentic learning, is it?

Or, if it is, wouldn’t it mean that no one’s keeping score until “real life” happens, and no one’s getting paid in school since results are pretend, and no one’s responsible because, hey, it’s all just theoretical? School the Great Training Ground implies that school is not really a place that matters because it only teaches about life or career, which comes later…

And hey, wait, that’s just fine, isn’t it? School does teach stuff for later, for when things matter, for when it really counts.

But hey, wait.

Doesn’t anybody think school actually is part of life? Part of kids’ lives, and teachers’ lives? Kids and teachers are alive. School is not some neverland of make-believe. School is real. It has real, live people in it. A classroom is an authentic place. It’s a – go ahead, say it with me, now – “c l a s s r o o m.” Right! What goes on in school is plenty real and means more than “Yeah, this doesn’t really count.” Laughter and friendship matter. Anxiety and stress matter. Living affects us. Learning is meaningful. Here you go, how about this: if classrooms were inauthentic, if learning were just practice for later, if school weren’t real, then why are we grading people? Shouldn’t we save that for the regular season, when it really matters?

Students are young people who live a huge chunk of their lives every day in a classroom. For them, school is every bit as real as any other place they go.

Gratisography Pexels red-school-blur-factory-451
Image by Gratisography from Pexels

It has ups and downs, friendship and rivalry, anxiety and stress and reward and good times. Calling school “sheltered” essentially discounts being there because a kid’s life, relative to themselves and their own experience, is all there is. Kind of like any other point in our lives. Our lives are real, and we don’t just switch on like a light bulb upon leaving some unreal, inauthentic place – there is no such place.

School being this pretend place is adult condescension – oh-so well-intentioned, of course, on that infamous and overcrowded road to hell. Sure, kids have limited experience. Sure, they might be sheltered according to someone else’s perspective – fine, then that’s how big a kid’s world is. So be it. It remains that kid’s perspective. It’s not pretend.

How big a life is becomes how much that person can cope. School life, family life, sports, hobbies, friends, on and on – all of these teach us something about living. Are none of these other parts of life somehow sheltered, too, like school? Who decided that school takes that prize? How about piano lessons? Those are something like school… teachers, practice, grades. Tests, recitals, performances. How about sports, with competitors, and winning and losing. With coaches and referees who hold us accountable. Are these somehow less unreal or inauthentic, or pretend, than a teacher? Are they some kind of real life learning that school is not? We often compare sport to life, and value the life lessons it teaches, but when do we short-change sport by saying it’s less real or some kind of shelter?

In fact, there’s a subtle difference to what we say about sport: “Such great preparation for life!” Affirming, valuable, such a boon. In my experience, the attitude bestowed by adults upon the value of youth sport is nothing but positive, as compared to school…

Which parts of life is nobody grading? If school is so sheltered, aren’t we actually handcuffing teachers who attempt to teach accountability? I suppose it’s not ironic that kids live in “the real world” every minute they’re not in school.

Take the kid who sees school as sheltered preparation for the real world. The day that kid argues with their friend on Saturday, what has school really prepared them for? How to argue with friends, or how to be sheltered?

Telling kids that school shelters them from the harsh world out there is misleading.

Teacher: “You need to do better on your homework. If this were a job and I were your boss, you’d never get away with this.”

Student: Right, and since it’s not a job…

What’s the chance this kid did a less-than-stellar job on homework because they’ve learned school is sheltered? Hey, if it’s all just rehearsal, why bother? If it’s only my teacher telling me off, and not a real boss, then who cares? Duly noted: someday it will matter. But not here in school, not today. If we constantly send the message that school doesn’t really matter because the real world is still out there, what will young people grow to understand from their time in school?

But if kids were told and shown that school matters, just like the rest of life, maybe they’d understand it more respectfully, value it more meaningfully. Adults like to say that life is about learning and that we should all be lifelong learners. Seems to me that would make school a place to practise learning. And if the focus in school were simply on learning, then focusing on doing your homework, on careers and jobs, on “If the teacher was your boss…,” on whichever-whatever details… then all the details would just be mere details, as in not really all that important.

If life is about learning – lifelong learning – then what possible sense does it make to shelter anybody from anything? Shouldn’t we just live, and learn all the way through? At school, learn at school. At work, learn at work. With family, learn with family, and so in every circumstance. When life happens, you learn about it, and now you know a little more than before. If learning is what matters, how about we learn how to learn? And then learn, in every possible situation. Life’s going to happen, anyway.

Featured Image Credit: Image by sunil kargwal from Pixabay

On Having Re-Read Garnet Angeconeb’s “Speaking My Truth: The Journey to Reconciliation”

Problematizer, philosopher, contrarian. Critic, cynic, shit-disturber. I think I’ve been a problematizer all my life, just not in every part of my life.

This post is not me trying to be an Opinion columnist. And it’s not me trying to be some do-gooder or, worse, some feel-gooder. This is from me about me, something I was prompted to write from having read about somebody else. It’s a step in a process. Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.

On Having Re-Read Garnet Angeconeb’s “Speaking My Truth: The Journey to Reconciliation”

As far back as I can remember, Canada has told me that we embrace diversity. Not always using that word, but still that message.

Our various governments and politicians, our cultural day-to-day. Our jobs, our coursework. Campus life, news coverage, social media, friends around a table… continually, there it is, Canada telling me, telling all of us, how diverse and tolerant we are. For me, the word “diversity” became Canada’s overwhelming self-portrayal soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. But I remember the call as far back as Grade 1 class, an amenable time of life for anyone to be told such grand concepts.

We sat cross-legged around the front carpet as Mrs McCrae sounded out the word cosmopolitan on the chalkboard. This word, she told us, was what our Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, wanted for the country, for us: a mixture of people from all over the world, a good thing. That winter, 1977, Amanda’s Uncle Ron visited with footage of his trip through China – silent Super-8 images of crowded urban Shanghai, so drab and different from Vancouver, and the Great Wall, so mythic and unhurried. I remember we read Holling C. Holling’s marvellous book and sat wholly entranced not once but twice, a bunch of six year-olds, watching Bill Mason’s “Paddle to the Sea.” I can still hear the pops and scratches of the spliced soundtrack churning past the projector bulb, can still smell the chilly school building, which stands as ever just a few blocks away.

And I can still see Mrs McCrae tapping out the syllables with her chalk that day on the front carpet. Whether she gripped the class, I can’t say, though I knew we were listening. I was listening. I remember thinking and thinking about what she told us, thinking intensely, and when Trudeau was re-elected a year or so later, his name and face sounded it out for me, again and again: “Cos-mo-pol-i-tan.” Canada, for me, has quietly been cosmopolitan all my life because, when I was six, that’s what I was told.

Childhood experiences are momentous… their measure smaller, more intense, less diluted than an adult’s. Two years before, at our sunny backyard farewell, my pre-school teacher, Mrs Needham, gave me a goodbye card, green construction paper with a cheerful yellow lion glued to the front. Think Before You ActI sat in her arms when my turn came, and she read to me what she wrote: “Remember, Scott,” printed in big friendly letters, “to think before you act.” To say I never forgot, really, I always remembered. I remembered and did what she told me to do. I still have the card, bundled with the rest of my degrees and diplomas – the one that cost the least, time and money, perhaps worth most of all.

Primary lessons, intangibles, engrained so early. They can resurface, borne of reflection, yet years might pass before we notice them staring back from the mirror. When we’re children, we take our cues from adults, as we learn to become adults ourselves. My Dad coached my soccer team a few seasons. One evening, he said, “Hands up if you can think.” We dutifully raised our hands, and he told us, “If you can think, you can play.” Some nodded, some laughed. In fact, his point was to single out one particular boy, whose name is lost although I see his face so clearly, as a way to build his confidence. It’s something I only learned when my Dad told me years later. I’ve been coaching, myself, nearly thirty years now, and I still use this one: if you can think, you can play. I like its appeal, that basis of something commonly shared.

By the time I was an adult, whenever that happened, lessons like these were so engrained it took me years to notice them – and these just some influences I remember. How many I forget? That’s fair. Memories, influences, lessons… intangibles are borne of reflection. What took longer still was noticing their effect, or better to say having their effect pointed out to me, despite their staring back my whole life whenever I looked in the mirror. These days, I’m obliged to notice that who and what I am affects the way people treat me. I just took longer to feel obliged, and to notice that I noticed. I was blind to my self, really. But eventually… and I could list off a bunch of traits. It’s just that listing them seems a bit petty. There’s nothing petty about how I’ve been treated most of my life on account of who and what I am.

Once, long ago, I felt compelled to correct a customer who took our shared resemblance as a chance to share his bigotry. It was finally my girlfriend’s photo that told him we disagreed. Another time it was my daughter’s photo although this person assured me her comments weren’t about my daughter, specifically, just other people. Last spring, on my daughter’s field trip, the guide gave me the instructions instead of her teacher, who stood next to him. He’d just greeted her, shaken her hand. At the hospital, some of the nurses and specialists – not all of them, just some – spoke to me as though my Dad weren’t even in the room, even while answering the lucid, specific questions that he asked himself. At a restaurant, the smiling host walked right past our party planner and welcomed me with an outstretched hand, well over twenty feet away. I was holding the door open for our group to come inside.

Innocuous moments… hardly seem worth mentioning. No injuries, no threats. No danger. Yet also nothing trivial about somebody else reduced by a decision to single me out. Each time, I clarified. Told them different, set them straight. Other times, too, since then. And I only surmise what distinguished me as somehow different each time because no one ever actually said. On the other hand, I well understood what made me a punchline for howlie-jokes… party with the new in-laws, around the table, in the rec room, wherever it was. Once or twice I’d retort, but no no, they insisted, I was out of line. Just joking, they said. “All in fun, Shark Bait!” No offense, just some gentle family hazing.

Just… now there’s a versatile word. Maybe they were right. Maybe I just needed to learn how to smile. Years later, outside the Blue Mosque, made to feel especially white and tall and exceptional, I was more prepared, thanks to those (now ex-) jokester in-laws. Thanks, then, from an “out-law,” as that family liked to call us, we who married in. I’m better at it now, laughing and letting go. The stakes no longer feel so high. But I’ve had good fortune in life. Not that I mean to compare.

Where or why or how differences began encouraging us to neglect each other I don’t know. People warrant consideration. Dignity and respect for all is not a platitude. I can only speak for myself. Even in difficulty, my childhood was fortunate. I took a while to notice that who I am, what I am, affects the way I’m treated, or as I said before, I took a while to notice that I noticed. But I did. For years after, I kept to myself, thinking that nothing I had to offer could amount to what people knew better for themselves. Respect others by minding my own business.

I suppose I offered when it seemed constructive. But mine, as any life, was entirely simply mine, so I actively sought to respect everyone else’s autonomy to go it alone, just like I was doing. And surely they did go it alone, didn’t they, since that’s what I was doing… I became expert at minding my own business, and you should have, too – would have saved me years of road rage. Anyway, none of this was my decision to begin with, right? Tall, white, heterosexual, male, the petty list… offering an opinion about how to treat people, about anything, really, would not just look self-righteous, it would be self-righteous. Wouldn’t it? Respectful detachment, I thought. Respect people to be themselves. People are different, being themselves. Let them be. Respectful detachment.

Diversity. Diversity is Canada’s strength, after all. That’s what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been telling the world. He and I are the same age; I wonder if his teachers ever told him about being cosmopolitan. I figure his Dad must have done. Our greatest strength, says Trudeau the Lesser. Strong because of our differences. And, he warned, so easy to take for granted – that bit reminded me of when people say Canada is “historically a nation of Peacekeepers.” Not that the two messages relate, but just the presumption to think that every Canadian has ever known that we have ever known this all along. As for peacekeeping, I think the BNA Act preceded the UN by some 82 years, during which time Canada earned a reputation for fighting in both World Wars and dozens of armed conflicts prior to the 20th century. Although, granted, for much of that time, “Canada” wasn’t even a country yet. Are we squeamish over such history? p.s. in 2017, a Canadian sniper fired a record setting rifle shot, keeping the peace from 3.54km away. That sentence makes the sniper sound cowardly, but that’s not my intention. Irony is my intention, and Canadians are my target. So hey, why not just rewrite my sentence?

When the times are a-changin’, does that make us more informed, egalitarian, advanced, sophisticated, woke? I guess we’re just better now than we were back then. Or maybe we put ourselves at risk by misconstruing our memories and cherry-picking our history for judgments good and ill. I mean our judgments about history, by the way, not theirs when it wasn’t yet history. Big difference. Diverse, you might say. I’d say there’s a lot more to history than any one’s record of it. Historical records are just the bits that someone decided to keep, out of what someone could remember, out of what people felt was worth remembering that way, for the reason they want to remember it.

As surely as Canada has always been this nation of peacekeepers– p.p.s. if you’ve missed the irony, I’m saying we haven’t always been peacekeepers. I’m saying that we owe much to our military for their combat as much as their peacekeeping. I’m saying our trumpeting diversity is afforded time and space thanks to a lot of others who assertively provide for Canada’s stability. I’m saying the world is far more layered and interconnected and ironic in time and space than any lone one of us can account in any one moment. Anyway, as surely as the doubt cast upon “always this nation of peacekeepers,” have we also always been that nation of immigrants? As in, are we not colonists and settlers? That change to history’s now a-comin’, too, judged and rewritten every time we utter the words.

So who’s responsible for Canada’s history? I mean all of it, not just the recorded bits. Which people, or culture, or government, exactly, should we say has slowly come their ways to initiate change… change that respects dignity and culture, change that redresses abusive power and obtuse ignorance and acknowledges history? Whose decisions were they that have caused incalculable suffering to entire nations of people over a few centuries? Where’s the change that leaves less room to agree with platitudes like diversity being Canada’s greatest strength? Weigh that against change that gets our goods moving again, and our traffic, and jobs and our economy. Both matter, or is this just long-term / short-term? Rights and recognition vs. stable day-to-day? Driving change or punting the ball? These are different motives because they have different outcomes. Our priorities drive our politics. I don’t know what he thinks before he acts. But politics is a tangled web, and I suspect he would welcome that benefit to my doubt. Well, it’s a free country, right? We all have opinions. Diversity is a strength except when it isn’t.

This is but one moment. I’ve been prompted to look back at myself. It’s the history I know best. I’m compelled to think before I act because that’s what my teacher told me to do. Luckily, it’s also a lesson that seems wisely conceived, if not always exercised, like when emotions run high. As for cosmopolitan mixture, life alongside others without need for comparison or category– With every passing day, I still benefit in ways I will not even realise, thanks to the historical currency borne by that list of traits issued from a lottery of birth. But, since then, also thanks to snipers in far-away places. Thanks to a lot of things, really, way more than I can explain or know about. Maybe it’s easiest just to say I’m not alone, in my history or my present day-to-day or, so it would seem, in my future. I am not alone, and neither are you. Here we are, with each other, all of us. And all my respectful detachment… amounted to nothing, or may as well have. That could be disappointing, a life’s effort or, in fact, just perfectly Canadian, things in this country being so unresolved.

Something needs to happen, so I’ve begun by working with who and what’s been given to me. I encourage all to do the same.

School

The Bridge to Hell…

Peter Benson’s article, “Francis Fukuyama and the Perils of Identity,” in Philosophy Now (Issue 136), got me thinking again about multiculturalism. I’ve had plenty to say about multiculturalism – seldom positive – although none of it here on The Rhetorical Why.

If you haven’t yet leaped to conclusions about me, I’ll point out that the full title of this post is “The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention.” It’s meant to be a little satirical, a little disparaging. It’s a wordy mash-up of axioms, cultural and academic. I’m okay with wordy this time.

I’m also conscious of the juxtaposition of my crude title and the wisdom of Dr. King. I’m less okay with this but felt the contrast worth any shock, ambiguity, or misapprehension.

Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.

 


The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention

Has the trumpeting of multiculturalism taken itself so literally that even individualism (… multipersonism?) is insufficient?

Taking itself, as I say, more literally, multiculturalism sets one culture at equal stature with the rest – seems fair enough – apparently, a shift in meaning from diversity to inclusion, which implies that diversity wasn’t working on account of exclusion.

So, within Culture X or Culture Y, as we might imagine an individual being equal alongside other members, we can imagine across the two cultures potential impasse: “… unresolvable conflicts between mutually exclusive viewpoints [that] dominate the political landscape” (Benson, 2020). I still grant here individual differences, but I have in mind some divide between distinct communities of individuals, i.e. a divide between cultures.

In relation to Culture Y, for example, Culture X might deem its equality mere lip-service and feel de facto unequal: “How are we in Culture X obliged to consider those in Culture Y as ‘equal’ if our culture is not equal to theirs?

Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay
Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay

“How can we treat them as equals, much less be treated as equals, if our larger culture is not equal – that is, if Culture Y does not accept us on equal terms?” Culture Y might declare all individuals equal to begin with and counter that Culture X only perceives inequality. Yet this simply compounds the same injustice for Culture X, who will hardly waive their due consideration.

In any case, equality of cultures seems not the same thing and unable to play out to the same effect as equality of individuals – even more so since an individual who identifies with more than one culture might feel strewn across their own intersections. (Curiously, this assumes one’s identity to be chosen as much as bestowed, which echoes individualism as much as collectivism.) In fact, if equating cultures equates individuals, then equality rests further upon equity, a mantle of justice issuing from a superior authority.

Perhaps Culture Y lives by some unproblematic axiom, such as ‘might makes right’, ‘stay the course’, or even just ‘common sense’ while Culture X lives by ‘power to the people’, ‘diversity is strength’, or ‘revolution is no dinner party’. Can they bridge their divide? Is one culture responsible to reach across, as it were, halfway? We might define an obligation to come any distance according to power of authority. To be sure, imbalanced authority does seem a constant throughout history; for exactly this reason, though, would we expect the side with authority to yield?

I turn to Dr. King. In his time, a generation or two before mine, Dr. King sought and fought for equality and “the cause of peace and brotherhood,” there surely being little more equal than “a single garment of destiny” (King, 1963). As we are all, he claimed, paradoxically yet beautifully this makes us one. Standing upon the authority of centuries, of historical proclamation and practice, and there resting in long studied philosophy and lived experiences of spiritual belief, Dr. King challenged his brothers to bear witness upon themselves. Such authority remains as stable for those to come as for those preceding – that is, unless or until those to come decide to rest authority someplace else.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

In our time, justice supersedes civility, and restitution tinges redress. The zeitgeist these days is emotional, distinctly angry. Individuals possess rights, and cultures bear responsibilities. “The politics of identity,” Benson says, “multiply conflicts and divisions.” As we ostensibly advocate for the equality of all individuals, identity politics fights a culture war, a battle for equity across cultures-of-particular-individuals, which actually precludes a wider equity. Cultural equality has supplanted individual equality because, where there is axiomatic ‘strength in numbers’, multiculturalism can only ever be ‘us vs them’. If so, is it still defensible? Is multiculturalism a way to ensure that our outcomes match our aims? Or are the aims of those with authority forever destined to pre-empt the aims of those without it? Indeed, what is the way to ensure that no one of all will ever be marginalised?

For one final point I turn to Benson (2020), not in comparison to Dr. King but out of respect for all being one: “Only when we stop having identities in the group-defined sense can we return to being individuals” (original emphasis). We may discover too late the folly of burning a bridge-too-far while crossing it.

Washington, DC (March 2014) - Day 4 - 101

True North Strong… but Free?

True North Strong… but Free?

The Dog's Bollocks.jpg

post-modern

post-national

non-patriotic

These are all descriptors I’ve encountered for Canada, from one source or another. I can make of each one something contextual. Yet as each suggests a departure or break from something previous, that’s really just a subtle way of saying, “Here’s what we aren’t.”

Yet describing something with negative terminology is ultimately meaningless because it can end up becoming silly; for instance, “I am not a giant Godzilla-like dragon that breaths fire and enjoys sipping my iced coffee on Tuesdays.” We could literally imagine anything that isn’t the case and say as much, and we’re no further ahead knowing what actually is the case.

So when I see descriptors like these – for Canada but really for anything – I’m unclear and confused about what to think. It’s a concern for me, the citizen, because who I am and what I value have direct effect on you and everyone else, and me in return all over again.

In the vaunted year 2015, according to Canada’s newly elected PM, Justin Trudeau, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”

Ottawa-Toronto 2015 (Day 1) - 028
Canada’s Parliament Building

Ignoring the post-modern fallacy, i.e. nothing is true other than the statement that confirms nothing is true, this description of Canadian identity also falls in line with the negative terminology and serves as the on-ramp to the freeway of silliness upon which no Godzillas sip their Tuesday coffee.

And where the link above was an American take on our Prime Minister’s interpretation of whom he leads, others have taken noted concern of his statement, too, among them some Canadians whom he leads…

On the other hand, and perhaps in response (?), the Government of Canada is now apparently reversing course, telling Canadians and would-be Canadians something awfully more specific about Canadian identity:

I admit, once more, to losing track as a “Canadian,” although at least this time the terminology is positive: “We are indeed ‘this’ and ‘that.’”

Some pretty specific stuff in this Global Affairs guide. For example…

“When lining up in a public place, the bank for instance, Canadians require at least 14 inches of space…”

Right down to the inch? Granted, I’m not the most social-media savvy citizen you could find, but I think a colloquial Canadian response to this – at least on-line – might be “WTF!!!”

Ottawa-Toronto 2015 (Day 7) - 02
… anybody here still know that guy, Al Waxman?

Still, please don’t let me speak on your behalf. That said, the guide seems to have been compiled by one person in an interview format with a second person because it’s written with a first-person perspective: it’s uniquely Canadian, you might say.

Now, if your rejoinder is to excuse this guide as merely a helpful list of suggestions for what is “Canadian,” then I counter with the challenge to separate, in these suggestions, what are quintessential as compared to what are stereotypical descriptions. After all, what Canadian does NOT love beer and hockey and The Hip, just as they detest the gesturing of hands and public displays of affection?

Bowen Island Day Trip (Greycaps Pre-Season 2015-16) - 44
Beautiful British Columbia

We’re approaching another freeway on-ramp, this one a sloped and slippery freeway that circles and loops and arrives at no particular destination because at its terminus interminably works a construction crew, who build it out just a little further than before, apparently with no idea who they are, or what they do, or – perhaps worst of all – why they might want to reflect, with no small concern, upon the work they consider to be of national significance.

Seriously, am I the only one who’s concerned by this?

 

 

I May Be Wrong About This, But…

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.

A Kind of Certainty: V. Fleeting Uncertainty

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


A Kind of Certainty

5. Fleeting Uncertainty

Like a vast sea of experience is all that we know and learn and encounter every single day. We are but tiny ships bobbing and rolling upon its waves, its currents steering us here and there. How on earth do we discern and decide what we value, what we believe, in order to collaborate with others in meaningful curricular relationships? (I almost wish I could just be waylaid by pirates, or something.) For me, one way to decide is to consider our shared motives, and find incentives to collaborate from there. Notwithstanding the degree to which people are educated, or by whom, everybody has motives.

But we do not all necessarily have a particular destination or a future port-of-call. So the aim for curriculum appears to be that of shaping motives to coincide with the current state of affairs such that, in a broad sense, people can (a) function – a measure of the self-ful[1] – and then (b) contribute – a measure of the selfless. Upon this vast sea, we are not so much bound for any one destination as we are bound to assist each other, each underway to wherever best suits our particular circumstances at that time – yours for you, and mine for me – and let the tangents direct us as they will.

Education, I have come to learn, is learning to have more than a destination or purpose of my own. It is to convoy with others and have faith that they do the same for others and for me, and putting in to decidedly worthwhile ports-of-call on the way. On the way, we chart our courses, but as similar as the ocean might look any given moment, wave after rolling wave, no two moments are ever exactly alike. To that degree, everyone must chart on their own. How intentionally we aid each other, how much or how little we trust, how sincerely we navigate, it is our shared curricula that will determine how effectively we undertake any particular decision we are ever likely to face, alongside whomever we find ourselves. The more we convoy in earnest, the safer we will be. With that kind of support, what is it that would sink us?

One final cautionary note: if and when some finally do make landfall somewhere, with certainty to their decision, we must acknowledge that their perspective will shift dramatically from those others who remain, however more or less certain to remain, at sea. Not everyone wants to remain at sea, and such variances our curricula are obliged to accommodate, if not fully comprehend or appreciate. There on that solid shore might be a tighter homogeneous culture that yields a more one-sided – or dogmatic? prejudiced? – communal certainty all its own. On that shore we might find a trade-off that sets the communal trustworthiness of the bobbing convoy against the stable individual footing of landfall. Yet somehow we all must sustain what we share, no matter the differences that may arise between sailor and landlubber – and why?

Because what remains the same amongst us – indeed, that which makes us who and what we are – is what we have in common. Common to all of us is being alive, being a person, being a human being, someone deserving of a basic respect for human dignity. Each of us, all of us, every one of us. We are all people. In this regard, really all that differs between us is where we are, and when. For people to think in any way differently than this about other people is narrow, delusional, perhaps cruel, and flat-out wrong. That may hardly feel a satisfactory closing, maybe even anti-climactic, but who ever said learning was meant to be entertainment?[2] Learning’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of each other.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] Forgive the invention, “self-ful.” I hesitated to use “selfish,” which tends to connote self-seeking and self-aggrandizing behaviour (in that colloquial sense of “No, you can’t have any of my ice cream”), and taking inspiration from the Bard, I just made up a word of my own. Likewise, I do not use “selfless” in some altruistic way so much as simply to counter “self-ful”; as a pair, I intend them to signify simply the notion of there being, for each of us, an intrinsic “me” and plenty of extrinsic “not me’s.” Further, with my students, I would liken self-fulness to each one’s academic efforts and scholarship, and selflessness to voluntary service and community stewardship of whatever kind. The longer-term idea was teaching students to balance these as required by kairos, by circumstance – an appropriate time for each, and the wisdom to know the difference.

[2] Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a curricular role for those gnarly amphibious surfers, after all.

Hawai'i Summer 2008
Teacher at work: catch a wave to catch the conscience?

A Kind of Certainty: II. Curriculum, or What You Will

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith

 


A Kind of Certainty

2. Curriculum, or What You Will

Baumlin (2002) distinguishes three concepts of temporality. Chronos is linearity, our colloquial passage of time, “non-human; impersonal objective nature” (p. 155), from which we understandably define past, present, and future. In relation to this is kairos, a single point in time, “[describing] the quintessentially human experience of time as an aspect of individual consciousness, deliberation, and action… that single fleeting moment … when an individual’s fortune is ‘set in motion’, … [providing] the means” and yielding “Fortuna, the consequences” (p. 155). Interwoven with kairos, then, is Occasio, the cause to Fortuna’s effect, a sense of “‘right-timing’ and prudent[1] action,” an opportunity[2] to better the capricious lies of fortune and fate. Although this sense of opportunity was emancipating, it also engendered accountability for consequences.

The developing belief that we possessed not mere agency but free will weighed upon Renaissance thinking and was a trait that Shakespeare often imparted to his characters, Hamlet (4.4.46-52) being but one example.[3] By the time 17th century Elizabethans first watched Hamlet on stage, the humanist challenge to “a grim… Christian sufferance and resignation to time” (Baumlin, 2002, p. 149) was well underway. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare offers nothing firm in Hamlet as to where our belief should lie, either with fortune or with free will; indeed, leaving the debate ruptured and inconclusive seems more to his point. To this end, perhaps most notable is his placement of Hamlet alongside Horatio in the graveyard to ponder the dust and fortune of Alexander, Yorick, and – hard upon – Ophelia.

In handling Yorick’s skull, Hamlet revives the poor fellow’s “infinite jest [and] excellent fancy” (5.1.186), memories of such fond “pitch and moment” (3.1.86) as to “reactivate” (Pinar, 2017a, p. 4) his own childhood, even momentarily. Such specific remembrances educed by Hamlet (which is to say, by Shakespeare) expose the springe of kairos; ultimately, certainty is beyond our capacity, rough-hew it[4] how we will. Colloquially, this might seem obvious (i.e. “the best laid plans…” and so forth, and no one person apparently able to pick the right lottery numbers each week). Yet the extent to which we consider ourselves masters of our own fortune is, for Hamlet, presently in the graveyard, a kind of epiphany, “a spiritual (re-) awakening, a transformation” (Baumlin & Baumlin, 2002, p. 180).[5] He decides that yielding himself over to “divinity” (5.2.10) is wise as compared to the folly of trying to control what was never within his grasp to begin with.

He does not give up any freedom so much as give over to dependence, which of course is a leap of faith. Shakespeare poses a question of allegiance – to obey, or not to obey – further compounded by which allegiance – obedience to father, or to Father; to free will, or to fortune; to an unweeded garden, or to what dreams may come – all these are the question.[6] Shakespeare has Hamlet “reconstruct” (Pinar, 2017a, p. 7) his conceptions of allegiance and obedience during the exchange with the Gravedigger, which hardens Hamlet’s resolve yet also enables him to come to terms with his tormenting dilemma over fealty and honour. By the time his confrontation with Claudius is inevitable,[7] Hamlet’s decision to “let be” (5.2.224) “[marks his] final transcendence of deliberative action in worldly time” (Baumlin & Baumlin, 2002, p. 180). Thus is indicated the subtle dominance of the third temporal concept, aion, “the fulfillment of time” (Baumlin, 2002, p. 155), a circularity like the uroboros, the serpent swallowing its tail. As such, aion signifies what is boundless or infinite, neither more nor less than eternity.

Oddly enough, these three concepts, in concert, can seem both time and place,[8] describing a “spatial-temporal sequence … from point, to line, to circle”; from “natural to human to divine orders” (p. 155). I am not fixed to the idea of a “sequence,” but the general composite still shapes my response to Hamlet’s most famous question of all.[9]

 


Let go. Learn from the past, but don’t dwell on it.

left (past)

Let it work. Anticipate the future, but no need to control it.

later (future)

Let come what comes. Every possible decision will still yield consequences.

Let be. Pay attention now to what is now.

The readiness is all. (5.2.222-223)

lasting (present)

The rest is silence. (5.2.358)

(a clever double-meaning here: “the rest” = either past regrets and future anxieties or else the undiscovered country, death)


 

As I take them, these four “Let…” statements amount to sound wisdom, like trusted advice from teacher to student or parent to child. As a student and child, myself, writing this paper, I faced some question of certainty – the same question, strangely enough, that we ask about curriculum: what is worth including? By the same token, what is worth omitting, and from there, what will also be otherwise left out or unmentioned? Whatever we decide, one thing is certain: we can neither cover nor even conceive it all, which of course was my original problem. In fact, knowing as much as we know can even shed paradoxical light onto how much we remain in the dark. Eventually, as my Dad recommended over the phone, I simply needed the courage to make a decision and go with it, and even with his voice in my ear, I knew my own advice with my students had always been the same.

Hanging up, I reasoned further that any feedback I did receive – from peers during revision or from my professor’s formal evaluation – would illustrate how effectively I had collated and communicated my message. Beyond that, say revising the paper for publishing, I would have some ready direction. And there it was, I realised, staring me in the face, curriculum in a nutshell: conversations, decisions, actions, evaluations, reflections – all these, in relation to me as I wrote this essay, amounted to a lived curricular experience of my very own.[10] My curriculum, like this essay, does not simply pose the straightforward question about what is worth including. That question is insufficient. More particularly, my curriculum, like this essay,[11] prompts me to consider what is worth including in light of the audience, the topic, what is already known about the topic, and whatever aims exist in further pursuit of the topic.[12] Succinctly, my curriculum – all our curricula – is contextual, multitudinous, and a question of – questions of – what is particularly worth knowing about any topic of study under the sun: “Why this, why here, and why now?”[13] That is the question.

Well, maybe that is the question. The essence of this question, this curricular particular, lies in kairos, the concept of opportune timing or occasion that “signals the need to bring universal ideas and principles to bear in historical time and situations [i.e., deductively] and, thus, calls for decisions [requiring] wisdom and critical judgment” (Smith, 1986, p. 15). We can only note what matters to us once we have a reference point. And since nothing occurs in a vacuum, any detail can be potentially informative, so we must learn to pointedly ask not, “In what way(s) do I already know what I’m looking at?” but rather, “In what way(s) do I not know what I am looking at?” which tends to be deductive. Typically, curriculum begins inductively, with what someone already knows, and we all know plenty of things. But we generally bring to bear only what we deem relevant to the moment. By the same token, someone who knows what is relevant to the moment has a kind of prescient “mechanism” (Christodoulou, 2014, p. 54) for spotting what will likely be of use.[14] So curriculum is a means of determining, if not discovering, in the moment what works. It is, therefore, also a means of coming to know ourselves.

As we develop confidence and self-esteem, and dignity, we grow to feel that we have something to contribute, that we matter, all of which prepares us for helping others. Curriculum helps us to sort out our values and beliefs,[15] which provide a frame-of-reference in order to select and, later, to measure our day-to-day efforts. Of course, none of this happens immediately; we need time to grow more self- and other-aware, each kairos experience filing in alongside the rest, like a crowd of ticket holders. I can only wonder whether Shakespeare might have characterised curriculum as something akin to being held over for an indefinite engagement. In any event, we never stop learning – may our auditoriums ever sell out – as we continually induce as well as encounter influence. But how deliberately do we do so? Maybe that is the question.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here for Pt III. A Scripture of Truth

 


Endnotes

[1] As Baumlin (2002) notes, “For the student of prudentia, time reveals itself as golden Opportunity rather than as fickle, devastating Fortune” (p. 141). Certainly, Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audiences were feeling such debate permeate their own lived experiences, a dram of an idea that, once diffused, might only thereafter suffuse.

[2] According to Claflin (1921), “‘opportunity’ in Shakespeare means more than it does now [in the 20th century]; it is closer to the original force of Latin opportunus, and means ‘a specially favourable occasion’” (p. 347). Curiously enough, however, as I searched a concordance of Hamlet (Crystal & Crystal, 2002), I found no usage of “opportunity” whatsoever and only three of “chance,” most notably that of Hamlet to Horatio: “You that look pale and tremble at this chance…” (5.2.334) in reference to the dead and dying at the play’s closing. Of further interest is the concordance’s report that Shakespeare used “opportunity” throughout his entire catalogue of poems and plays only sixteen times as compared to “chance,” which he used 114 times.

[3] Kiefer (1983) examines Fortune at length as one colour in Shakespeare’s palette for his characters, noting of King Lear: “In no other of Shakespeare’s plays do characters invoke Fortune so insistently [or] so frequently at pivotal points of the action” (p. 296).

[4] Read either “certainty” or “our capacity,” here, in place of “it”; either works just as well. The line from the play I have paraphrased, of course, because the original antecedent is “our ends” (5.2.10) in place of “them” (5.2.11). However, where I have changed the diction of the thought, as a matter of perspective, the meaning remains intact. The implication that we – in essence – play God might not be nearly so alien for Shakespeare’s audience as to their feudal predecessors. By contrast, to postmodern audiences these days, the notion of a divinity standing apart from our own free will and shaping our ends might be the more alien concept.

I might finally point out that Shakespeare, as his creator, is Hamlet’s god, of a kind. But that analogy does not last long under scrutiny since Hamlet, being a fictional character, has no sentience, free agency, or tangibility, and actors who portray him are left with prescribed dialogue and beliefs.

[5] Because I am ultimately discussing what Shakespeare did, his characters being only conveyances as such, I was tempted to complete this sentence with a line from Macbeth, as follows: “The extent to which he considers himself master of his own fortune, presently in the graveyard, is laid plain for Hamlet, leaving him to conclude only that ‘…all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death’ (5.5.22-23).” The key difference, of course, is that Hamlet decides against being a fool whereas Macbeth seems all too keen to excel at it. Where Hamlet best demonstrates a respect for “divinity [shaping] our ends,” Macbeth better represents the rough-hewing bit, which makes him a far less redeeming character in the end. So, upon reflection, it seemed prudent to stick substantively to just the one play. Thank heaven for endnotes, I guess.

[6] Had he fallen clearly to one side, as a subject to his monarch, Shakespeare might very well have sealed whatever freedom he did enjoy; his own response, evidently, was to render unto Caesar, and render unto God, and continue writing plays. Four centuries on, what is there about us, that we might think we are any less susceptible than he was to coming to terms with our finite nature? We live in civil society, by the rule of law under a Constitution, within which are Rights and Freedoms that include the assurance to believe, or not to believe, whatever we decide suits us best. Furthermore, we have the advantage over Hamlet in that his example exhorts us, interminably – just ask my students, remember? Alas, though, poor Yorick.

[7] As Horatio notes, “It must be shortly known [to Claudius]” that Hamlet has tricked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths at the hands of England (5.2.71-72), a move by Hamlet in his contest that must certainly harden his uncle’s resolve to have Hamlet dealt with once and for all. Of course, Claudius had sent Hamlet to England to be killed, but in secret, on account of both Gertrude and the public’s love for the Prince (4.7.5-24). However, in dispatching his childhood comrades – and with such calculation (5.2.57-70) – Hamlet has now given Claudius justifiable means to overcome any such favourable opinion as might have benefitted Gertrude’s “son” (5.1.296).

[8] Time and place are what we commonly refer to as setting in English class, which is a curious way to consider eternity.

[9] Seldom mentioned amidst all the consternation is that Hamlet does not actually ask a question. If he had, he might have worded it as, “Is it to be, or not to be?” In that case, we would need to know what “it” means. Alive? Dead? Happy? Sad? Anything goes, I suppose, but then… what would you expect? He might have been asking, “Am I…” or “Are we to be, or not to be?” But where that is still somewhat existential and vague, now we might want to know whether his use of the verb, to be, is more open-ended or copular. I suspect Shakespeare knew enough about a general audience to trust that only the most fastidious grammarians would fuss over particulars such as antecedents and verb tenses in the dialogue. Otherwise, why decide to use the most protean verb in the English language?

[10] As far as lived curricular experiences go, there are many like it – as many as there are people to have them – but this one is mine.

[11] At this early stage, I confess: why struggle writing a paper when I could use the age-old trick of writing a paper about writing the paper? Why…? Because the age-old trick is just that – a trick – and spinning academic wheels stalls any hope of contributing to knowledge, so I would hardly be honouring my responsibility if I tried pulling that off. Still… the paper within a paper got me thinking about Hamlet, which oddly enough had been my original inspiration for this essay. As my students used to say… once you study Hamlet, he just never goes away. How true, how true…

[12] According to Hartmann (2014), it was just such questions that prompted Ezra Klein to leave The Washington Post and establish Vox.com in 2014.

[13] Students in my all courses learned to rue the question “Why?” so much so, one year, that it became a running joke simply to utter “why” as a pat-response, whether as a question, an interjection, a plea, a curse, an epithet – those last two maybe reserved for me, I don’t really know. In honour of their perseverance, and their angst, I named my blog The Rhetorical WHY.

[14] Surrounded by Winkies, confronted by certain capture, only Scarecrow eyes the chandelier above the Wicked Witch, so only he can yank Tin Man’s axe across in time to chop the rope that suspends it. Hardly the grandeur or the gravitas of Hamlet, I realise, but The Wizard of Oz has much to offer pertaining to curricular theory as well as teacher autonomy.

[15] In keeping with the three temporal concepts, perhaps a more suitable metaphor than threading our own needles would be to say we surf a long pipeline. But, this essay being more concerned with curriculum and theatre, any such Hang-Ten imagery is better suited to another time, like connecting curriculum to gnarly waves and bodacious beaches (“Surf’s Up,” 2015). Anyway, certainly no one would ever dream of linking Hamlet to surfing (“’Hamlet’s BlackBerry’,” 2010) in the first place, would they?