Time Well Spent

… by studying why we’ve been wrong, we can be more right.

Russell Napier

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I’ve been called a cynic, which I’ve long held rather as healthy scepticism. And I’ve railed over uncertainty now and then, mostly in academics although, in fairness, never absolutely. But, all irony aside, I now defer with appreciative respect to Russell Napier, whose typically gripping understatement offers a typically brilliant case not simply for uncertainty but for its necessity.

In this video interview with the Parish Church of St. Cuthbert, Edinburgh City Centre, Napier paints a humble image of The Library of Mistakes, a repository of “the recorded uncertainty of how things work in the real world” (to quote his Keeper’s Blog on the Library website).

Napier initially co-founded the Library to register mistakes from business and finance although he mentions that the Library’s embrace has since widened to reflect more equitable representation… true enough: if there was ever a sector of sustainable growth…

On the other hand, if the Library may ever truly succeed, you expect it will need to put itself out of business – gladly, I suppose. But, as I say, all irony aside.

He devotes a good portion of his commentary here to sound money, fraudulent banking, and the consequences of ruinous ill discipline. He’s droll, simple, clear, and engrossing.

It’s not all negative, either: whether or not the flipside to every mistake is great success or mere intention – either way, hey… there’s a flipside.

And that, I suppose, is the take-away just now, for me anyway… with modest whimsy, Napier and the Library sound a call of respect for uncertainty and the untidiness that efficiency and statistics and computation are not only unwilling to consider but unable to predict or control. If the reason to embrace uncertainty is because outcomes can’t be guaranteed, what is that if not attributable to people… to our deficiency, our equivocation, our inexactitude? In a culture where metrics are religion and science invincible, truth is what can be measured, and qualitative uncertainty has been a nobly humoured side of fries.

Napier speaks here for about half an hour, ahead of a short and equally informative Q&A, and caps his remarks with a reminder that any opinion one has will utterly depend on the perspective one takes in order to have it.

As ever with Russell Napier, at least for me, the time spent feels most definitely worthwhile and insufficiently brief.

Seriously, watch this interview.

A Kind of Certainty: V. Fleeting Uncertainty

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith


A Kind of Certainty

V. 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: IV. A Kind of Faith

Click here to read Pt III. A Scripture of Truth


A Kind of Certainty

IV. A Kind of Faith

For all this, what exactly does it mean to be educated? From the sole perspective – yours, mine, anybody’s – free thinking means freedom granted to individuals to believe and behave as they do, then investing proportionate faith that they continue to believe and behave as we do. Of course, anyone’s beliefs might vary, freely, from ours, as compared to everyone conforming to the same beliefs and behaviours. Imagine that world, where every inhabitant lived according to self-established morality. In such a world, how would there come about any rule of law? Even real, lived experience here in Canada is tenuous, relying on everyone to rely on everyone else.[1] Whether out of respect for each other, out of gaining some advantage, out of fear for paying a fine or going to jail – on it goes, accountability, but the individual freedom we avouch is as ready to dissipate as the smoke of a powderkeg. For all its enlightenment, free-thinking is quicksand: shifting, uncertain, deceiving, solid ground by mere appearance. Is it any wonder that the liberty and reason of Enlightenment individuation has led us to Post-modernism, relativism, identity politics, and alternative facts? Be careful what you wish for. If there are any true binaries, to trust or not to trust must certainly be one. What need for faith when we trust that we are all alike, that all around is 100% certain?

Such a world is hardly plausible for me. I have learned not to trust everybody I meet. In the world I know, we need discernment and persuasive rhetorical skill to skirt potential conflicts and get others onside. And when others have discernment and persuasive rhetorical skill, too? Seen in that light, the curricular task is competitive, not cooperative. Even so, we might still argue that curriculum is collaborative, and it does not have to be belligerent. Curriculum falls within the scope of some given morality, morality being a question of right and wrong, positive opposing negative: to x, or not to x. However, curriculum itself is an ethical choice between alternatives and is, thereby, an empowering decision. We must therefore ask to x, or to y, which are positives, a question of competing rights, and not right competing against wrong.

And anywhere right does oppose wrong, curriculum should not permit a choice because wrong is simply wrong and not something that responsible choice can decide.[2] Beyond simply learning about the freedom to think, curriculum is about learning how to make choices that are set within the scope of defined morality. Question the morality, compare it to another morality, and we are Hamlet: we are lost. But decide, and accept the morality, and question only those choices intrinsic to its milieu… now we are educating ourselves and others, however precisely or narrowly, for as long as we care to pursue whatever makes us curious.

For me, someone is educated who thinks, and discerns, and has aims. Admittedly, such aims could be countered or rationalised pragmatically or else, more perversely, aimed beyond oneself to harm others – thinking in itself, after all, is not inherently moral. So if morality is a thing to be taught and also learned, then an educated person, for me, is someone who learns generosity of some kind, hospitality. Being educated means learning to give of oneself, for others or on behalf of others, in positive, constructive ways. This belief, I suppose, reflects my learned morality, which I am as pleased in all caring as utility to pass along. Perhaps your morality differs. To that end, education, in itself, should intentionally be both constructive and benevolent in consideration of that sense of kairos, what is appropriate in the moment for teacher and learner, even as those moments accumulate over the passage of chronos-time, like endless waves upon the shore.[3] Then again, who am I to anybody that the sole importance of my opinion should determine an education? If I am outnumbered, what is this sense of education that I describe but some solitary means of facing an existence nasty, brutish, and short? This thing called school will be the death of me!

Hawai'i Summer 2008
” ‘Bove the contentious waves he kept, and oar’d / Himself with his good arms in lusty stroke–” Away from shore? A certainty all its own…

See? Recruiting Hamlet’s cycle of misery seems all too easy “‘where the postmodern turn of mind appears to privilege the particular over the general’” (Roberts, 2003, p. 458). Frankly, I think our present culture regards the individual far too much. Naturally, the consequent short-changing of the bigger community picture has been playing out over chronos-time since, with every decision, there has been consequence. However, Roberts continues, “… ‘for Freire both [the particular and the general] depend on each other for their intelligibility’.” So perhaps a good education – by which I mean not just a moral one but an effectual one – is best measured with due consideration for its balance of the particular and the general, the heterogeneous and the homogenous, the certainty and the ambiguity, the inductive and the deductive. A little healthy scepticism, a little cloud for the silver lining. A little dram in the substance, to paraphrase Hamlet. “A little dab’ll do ya,” quips McMurphy.[4] You can’t have one without the other, sings the primus inter pares.[5]

We defy augury by flouting convention, even law, because we are free agents who do what we please. Some will have more courage than others, and some are just more foolhardy, but no one is literally predictable. We defy augury by being unpredictable, even inscrutable, although maybe the rest of you just never really knew me that well to begin with. Sometimes I even surprise myself. We defy augury by defying our senses, by not comprehending the world that we apprehend, which really is to say we see only what we want to see and recognise only what we already know. If there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow, what matter when we have spent all our time watching the chickadees? I cannot shake free from critiquing our cultural veneration of the individual: the less our shared beliefs converge and reciprocate a healthy community, the greater our insistence upon personal liberty to go our own way, then all the more do we miss the point of understanding exactly what freedom really is. True freedom results from having choices, and what creates choice is not the persuasive liberty of unequivocal individualism but discipline: to do ‘x’, or ‘y’, or ‘z’.

Shakespeare’s “Let…” statements are not so colloquial as to suggest the fatalism of c’est la vie, or the aimlessness of go with the flow[6] – these, for me, amount to giving up, or else giving in. The tragedy of Hamlet is that the curriculum he really needed – the people he could trust, who would be willing to help him – they were already there, at his side the whole time, as ready and willing as ever, so long as he gave a little back, so long as he offered just a dram of willingness to coincide with their beliefs – to his own scandal, maybe, but who in the real world is so selfish as they might expect to have their cake and eat it, too?[7] As compared to going it alone, Hamlet might have humbled himself and cast his lot with those to whom he is closest.[8] His education from Wittenberg proved sufficient to challenge his upbringing in Elsinore, amply suggested by his continued trust to enlist and confide in Horatio throughout the play; as far as that went, the rest of us would do well to heed his lesson with due respect: if only Hamlet had not divided his loyalty but decided, once and finally, exactly who he was and whom he trusted, then lived up to his declaration with discipline. With integrity.

The most common criticism aimed his way by my students was essentially, “Get over yourself, and grow up!” Make a decision with the discipline to accept the consequences, which is to say, accept your personal responsibility. To be fair, Hamlet finally, triumphantly, does place his faith in Horatio, whom he entrusts to tell his story. Granted, he only asks once he is terminally poisoned but hey, better to ask while alive to breathe the words than come back and haunt Horatio as the next in a line of Ghosts. As for Shakespeare, whatever exactly it was that he saw in us, this ethical curricular dilemma, evidently he felt its redemptive quality was worth its cost, as Horatio makes known – or will do – for pledging to tell his dying friend’s tale to Fortinbras. Shakespeare’s appeal by way of Hamlet is not one of giving up or giving in. It is one of giving over, to something bigger than ourselves, to something in which faith placed is faith assured, and “attuned” (Pinar, 2017b, p. 1), and certain beyond our own devices.

What that object of faith might be… perhaps it comes as no surprise, but Shakespeare has a “Let…” statement for that, too: “… let your own discretion be your tutor” (3.2.17). I never included this one in the list for my students because, until writing this essay, I had never fit it in as such a central constituent. Hamlet delivers the line, as any nervous director might do opening night, during the aforementioned lecture to the Players before the Mousetrap performance.[9] All the more ironic, of course, is that his lecture hardly exemplifies the statement, which would be fine if Hamlet, the director, did not assume the stage during the performance but let the actors get on with their craft. Hamlet, by contrast, twice assumes the stage to augment the performance. (Ahh, what to do about such insecurity! At least he sells tickets, you may remember.) Anxious or not, the wisdom of his advisement, taken for all, is easy for a lay audience to misinterpret, particularly as it comes buried within lines of such mundane theatrical detail. Shakespeare does not suggest that we give in to our discretion, carte blanche. He suggests that we give over to our discretion as a kind of teacher-student relationship.

Let curriculum be to trust your own better judgment, to search your feelings,[10] yet to grant with humility that more may exist than meets the eye. Let discretion be a “tutor,” yet while you let it, also think before you act – and think during and after, too – because “… the purpose of playing… was and is, to hold… the mirror up to nature” (3.2.17-23). Whether this amounts to something esoteric or spiritual is down to the beholder,[11] yet if that is true for any one of us, it must be true for all of us. Each one of us is finite and individual, and curriculum is composite, a sum greater than the whole of its parts, as in all of us, transcending time and space. As a force of faith, curriculum is vast indeed.

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read the closing reflection to “A Kind of Certainty”: Pt V. Fleeting Uncertainty


Endnotes

[1] How often I referred students to Canadian Liberal MP Stephen Owen’s definition for democracy: “the pluralistic respect for citizens empowered to self-govern within the rule of law.” Democracy, so often simplified as “majority rule,” is more accurately understood (in my opinion) as entirely dependent upon its constituents. Democracy works because we all agree to make it work. Every member therefore has a personal responsibility to respect and live up to the standard of the law on behalf of every other member. One disobedient person weakens the system and places everybody, including themselves, at risk. Either we set that person straight, or we jail them, but unless we protect the system, we are only certain to lose it.

[2] *Sigh… culture precedes law, I would argue, and we endlessly debate and litigate what should be right versus what should be wrong. This is politics and the justice system at work, issue by issue, and with enough lobbying and / or civil disobedience, any given topic might be up for consideration.

[3] Okay, so I did find a way to toss in some surf.

[4] https://youtu.be/d_mASr1djMM?t=1m33s (Zaentz, Douglas, & Forman, 1975)

[5] aka the Chairman of the Board, aka Ol’ Blue Eyes

[6] In Canada, we might say that Shakespeare’s appeal to “let go” means don’t grip the stick too tight. “Hold on loosely,” as Donnie Van Zant would sing, or “Give a little bit,” from Roger Hodgson. None fully clarifies the expression, as I gather Shakespeare intended it, but the notion of giving way in deference to others is helpful, for a start.

[7] Of course, the best rejoinder here would be, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” to which I would reply, “You can’t take it with you.” But dialectical bumper-stickers were never my strong suit, and I digress, even for end-notes.

On second thought, the best rejoinder is to say Hamlet is fictional, not of the real world. All the more reason to admire him as perhaps Shakespeare’s best creative feat, so life-like are he and the rest of the characters who populate the play.

[8] Between Ophelia and Horatio, he nearly does so twice, and even towards Gertrude he aims some meager hope and sympathy. Alas, yet another essay…

[9] Shakespeare includes numerous allusions throughout the play to the theatre milieu, its characters and culture, and its place in Elizabethan society, many of which can be construed as humorous and even as insider jokes shared amongst his theatre company and his regular audience.

[10] https://youtu.be/bv20ZoBcdO8?t=1m43s (Kurtz & Kershner, 1980). A clever mash-up of the Star Wars scene with characters from The Lion King (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mf6JKC_V4v0) suggests that this idea about an inner core of balanced discretion or a healthy scepticism, if not desperate inner turmoil, has resonated beyond Shakespeare’s work into our own theatrical pop culture.

[11] I learned, for my own spiritual belief, to distinguish between what many religions have people do, as compared to what God through Christ has already done. The primary reference, here, is to the Resurrection and what Christ has done for all. Whether one chooses to believe or not is up to them, and should be, which is the essence of my belief: what comes down to a matter of personal choice is to believe, or not to believe. Consider Ephesians 2:8-9, for example, in which Paul explains that we are saved not by works but by grace, so that none can boast: justification by grace through faith in God is the essence of Christianity, and I emphasise that part of it left up to us, to have faith in God. Some consider this ridiculous, and that is neither here nor there to me although I wish no ill upon anyone. Upon believing, upon faith, one can grasp how a selfless attitude of giving – giving of oneself – matters as compared to more selfish concerns over what is given or how much is given.

Such concerns do arise since, as I believe, all inherit Original Sin, a concept that one must accept before anything else in Christian doctrine of any stripe will make sense: we all have inherited an imperfection to believe and have faith in our selves, apart from the God who created us; to go our own way; to obey our own inclinations and not His. This pride-of-self, set in motion by the conniving serpent’s lure that whetted Eve’s curiosity, then Adam’s, enough for them to disobey one simple command… this original “missing of the mark” prompted Adam, Eve, and all their offspring to realise within themselves what had never before even appeared on their radar screens: that obedience was only appreciable once disobedience had been tried. It’s the same binary idea as saying, “You only really understand peace once you experience war,” and so forth. So, for instance, in offering to God (Genesis 4:3-4)… where Cain brings some, Abel brings the choicest; yes, each still gives, yet Cain is furious upon seeing the difference in God’s response between their offerings. The sense is that Abel gives in faithful obedience what Cain withholds for himself, Abel trusting God, in a way that Cain does not, that God will give back and look after him. Cain trusts in what he can manage and control for himself; evidently, he does not trust like his brother that God will give back. Perhaps he does not even believe that God created them although, if he does believe this, how much worse his distrust.

Avenging his own honour by killing his brother is a choice Cain makes, entirely selfish and sinfully predictable. This, for me, opens explanation as to why God allows evil to prosper: He gave us free will, in His image, out of love, to choose or to not choose His gift of salvation; to believe or not to believe in His Gospel, as a matter of faith; to trust Him or to trust something else. In either case, we, the people, are answerable for all we do. As I say, back then, Cain perhaps did or didn’t know he was God’s creation – he is left to his own account for that. These days, though, how many people hardly even consider God as real, much less as Creator or Benefactor? However, if God offered us no doubt of His existence, then what would necessitate faith? Were He to provide 100% certainty, anyone then would have no choice but to believe, of necessity, or else be a fool not to believe and delude themselves in spite of the certainty. As it is, some think believers are deluded; truly, you can’t convince all the people all the time, and you definitely should not force belief. All this, for me, is consistent with a caring God who has conferred free will. So, where some condemn believers as guilty of the crimes and evils committed in the name of Christianity (or religions altogether), in fact, I fully agree: hateful beliefs and violent acts are an abomination of how God would have us treat each other.

But, again, he has bestowed upon us the free will to decide and behave, and I argue that all such crimes and evils, whether in the name of religions or not, reflect Original Sin, our turning-away from God; they do not reflect God. They cannot reflect the character of God, whose nature is neither criminal nor evil; rather, they reflect the character of our selves, who are selfishly proud. People are responsible for bastardising and usurping doctrine in order to gain for themselves, something akin to Cain, so blatantly transparently selfish. Further, as that kind of belief and behaviour continues, it roots until generations have perhaps forgotten or lost any other way to believe and behave. We are human, taken for all, and finite in power and awareness. We can do no other than we continue to prove ourselves capable of doing – and in this I include both good and evil that we do – and this, truly, is why we’re in need of salvation. So much gets lost in scriptural debate over details – details that warrant discussion yet, being details, they are also prone to misinterpretation and thereby require careful, long-studied contextual understanding – but the basic doctrine and the loving character of God I find rather straightforward. It’s people who complicate and screw it up, not God. And I’m as guilty, neither better nor worse but just plain equal to every other person trying to live under our circumstances. So I try my best to respect peoples’ dignity, everyone’s.

My choice has been to believe based on the preponderance of evidence that I’ve learned and studied for many years – the careful, long-studied contextual understanding I mention above. I have plenty more to learn, but my point is that I did have to learn, to begin with. I did not just suddenly have some nuanced supreme understanding of Christian doctrine – indeed, I’m wary that superficial knowledge is so frequently the cause of the crimes and evils people commit in the name of religion. I consider myself blessed to have had the freedom to choose what to study without duress and to have had an education provided by good teachers who understood what makes for good curriculum. I have never felt assaulted or oppressed as far as my education is concerned – or my life, for that matter – and, furthermore, I achingly, mournfully recognise that so so many others cannot agree. Why not me, I can’t say, but I count myself as blessed for this, if for no other reason in my existence. I know so well that not everyone has enjoyed such Providence.

There is so much abuse and violence out there, person-upon-person, and I suggest that I, or you or anyone, ought to be enabled to read, search, and decide for ourselves whether or not to believe something. And never forced, and never judged. Personally, I’m not a big church-goer – I have done, but I don’t much anymore. But I still quietly personally maintain my faith. Even offering this endnote struck me as bold, but I wanted this post to be thorough and honest. I believe evidence exists – we have only to look for it: “Knock, and the door shall be opened” is God’s encouragement, to be proactive and search for Him rather than sitting idly by awaiting, or else ignoring, His imminent return. Nonsense, this, for some. And I can comprehend the doubt. But I don’t share it. By the same token, I offer my testimony, but I don’t impose it. People today who demand to see evidence – God performing miracles, say – are asking Him to lay foundations all over again. But, by analogy, a building only needs one foundation, so why would God repeat that process? Enough evidence has been documented over time, for me, that I now readily believe and join the church being built on the existing foundation. Again, as I opened this rather long endnote, what matters most is what He has already done: we have only to believe, with no further need to see more miracles, which is really what having faith is all about.