… of Robbie Burns Day

The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley…”

In observance of Robbie Burns Day and, thereby, of John Steinbeck‘s novella, Of Mice And Men, I highlight this thoughtful character study of Curley’s wife, by Leighton Meester for The Huffington Post, based upon her own stage portrayal of that character.

Perhaps above all I appreciate Meester’s nuanced intuition about the audiences who judge Curley’s wife which, beyond their relationships to the characters in the story, might suggest something about their own – our own – blind spots and hypocrisies. How often we live with daily nonchalance, oblivious to the interiority of those we encounter, and of those beyond. How much we rely on our affirmed belief of our selves.

If confronting ourselves is art’s great authenticity, then Meester’s perception is spot-on: in Curley’s wife, Steinbeck subverts our conceit – whether he intended to or not. Indeed, the best-laid schemes…

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.

Development and Learning: Part II – Youth Football

In the previous post, I proposed that development and learning co-exist alongside winning and that contriving debate to place them at odds actually misconstrues their concerted relationship. I add, here, that development and learning are characteristic of people, and winning and losing is inherent to the Game of Football and to sport in general. In other words, development & learning and winning & losing are not at odds; they arise in concert as people compete with one another by participating as opponents when they play a game.

I also suggest in that post that all sorts of people have fun playing the Game of Football for all sorts of reasons and that competition and fun, like development and winning, are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

Another facet to this topic, based on the inherent nature of winning & losing to sport, is that any and all attempts to win are justifiable. This discussion becomes especially heated in the context of youth sport because such a purist approach can be detrimental to the players as they learn how to play and be members of a team. In that light, what I discuss below is development & learning in youth sport – specifically, in youth football (soccer).

To those who say that the Game is purely about winning & losing: saying so is a red herring. We must account for the fact that youth football has been distinguished from the adult game, and this distinction is for good reason.

Although at first it might seem contradictory, I already grant that the objective of the Game of Football is to win. I have clearly claimed that every team plays to win. Nobody plays to lose – in sport, or cards, or board games, or any game. Youth modifications don’t change that. Yes, as in any game, the objective in the Game of Football is to win.

Old Trafford
Theatre of Dreams

But the objective lies apart from learning how to play and training to play to win. The modifications to Youth Football have come about on account of younger peoples’ traits and abilities. By analogy, it’s like when cars are modified for those learning to drive: two steering wheels, wider mirrors, or driving on quieter out-of-the-way roads, or using VR simulators. There’s a gradual learning process by which new drivers grow accustomed to the road.

Reversing that analogy, U9s play 7 a-side on a smaller field with a smaller ball and various rule alterations – the very existence of such modifications is evidence that the Youth Game differs from the Adult Game on account of youth differing from adults.

If someone is coaching a Youth team in accordance with the modifications, they tacitly acknowledge the difference. Therefore, to see nothing wrong with a purist viewpoint – that winning is utterly and always justifiable, even in the context of youth football – strikes me as insincere, perhaps in denial that young people differ from adults, or that priorities are skewed to place the self-security of winning above all else, or that someone is ignorant or uninterested in child growth & development , or some combination of these.

To simply say the Game is about winning… yes, it’s correct as far as the pure Game is understood, as a concept, but it reduces your margin for error. On that basis, we’d better be flawless now, and play with mastery, or else we amount to nothing more than a loser and a failure. I suspect none of our teams is flawless, as much as a purist belief might require them to be.

One youth team I coached (Ass’t Coach) years ago was successful enough that, during our U11 year, we were able to play versus three professional F.A. Academy sides. The results were 0-15, 0-5, 0-9. We had no illusions, and our players were shattered by the reality that same-age teams could have such quality and be so dominant, just as we were back home – that’s how we were accepted to play these Academies in the first place. In any event, there it was: a level of mastery relative to us that we were obliged to respect.

Match #4 vs Aston Villa Academy

So, given a belief in the purist objective of winning… unless you take on similar opponents, who can challenge your team, then purist winning reflects poorly upon you, making you look ignorant, if not cowardly. If the Game is simply to be played to its purest, then nothing short of mastery will do. And if that playing field is to be a level one, then the best example of mastery we have, in reality, is the pro game. To purists, I say this: if you test your youth team at that level, as I’ve done, you may well discover that…

(a) your challenge may not even be accepted but, if it is, then

(b) you may have a rude awakening.

In fact, that may be exactly what a purist needs. On the other hand, if it comes at your players’ expense, it’s not worth the cost. As I say, our team was shattered, and we had a great deal of respect for youth training and development, being professional educators and researchers as we (still) are.

Birmingham City FC Training Ground
A Visit to Birmingham City FC

Things are always much easier when all’s well and we’re winning. Real humility is found when we aren’t winning. To those who take a purist approach to sport, enjoy the ride at the top while it lasts because, someday, you may discover that you’ve not learned how to cope, yourselves.