Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Bouquet of Rabbinic Wisdom

retold by Doug Lipman
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak walked down the main street of Berdichev, greeting all who passed him. To some he gave compliments; to some he offered blessings; of some he asked questions, then stopped to listen to their answers.

As the rabbi slowly made his way through the stream of people, one of his congregants strode through the crowd, elbows pumping with determination. Passing Levi Yitzhak, he murmured, "Sholom Aleichem, Rabbi."

Suddenly, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak shouted at him, "Stop! Where are you going?"

The man turned to face his rebbe. "I am pursuing my living, Rabbi," he growled. "Please let me continue."

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak smiled. "How do you know," he said, "that your living is not behind you, trying to catch up?"

How Do We Know?

retold by Doug Lipman
Some students of the Baal Shem Tov came to him one day with a question. "Every year we travel here to learn from you. Nothing could make us stop doing that. But we have learned of a man in our own town who claims to be a tzaddik, a righteous one. If he is genuine, we would love to profit from his wisdom. But how will we know if he is a fake?"

The Baal Shem Tov looked at his earnest hasidim. "You must test him by asking him a question." He paused. "You have had difficulty with stray thoughts during prayer?"

"Yes!" The hasidim answered eagerly. "We try to think only of our holy intentions as we pray, but other thoughts come into our minds. We have tried many methods not to be troubled by them."

"Good," said the Baal Shem Tov. "Ask him the way to stop such thoughts from entering your minds." The Baal Shem Tov smiled. "If he has an answer, he is a fake."

Also, watch this (YouTube wouldn't let me embed it). "Ich weiss als a Dybbuk esst nicht." (Forgive the poor transcription... haven't a clue how to write the language, though I can understand it better than I can Plautdietsch.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Learning Objectives

Justin EH Smith has written a timely piece on the closing of foreign language departments and the end of education as the transformation of mind and body. I have very little mental energy at present, so I'll let him do the talking.
The internal wiring of my body --the neurons and the nerves and the muscles-- simply has not been configured so as to enable me to even pretend for a second that I can play a violin. But look at Anne-Sophie Mutter's body. Is it so different? It is a woman's body, but it is not in respect of that difference that she is a violinist and I am not. Where is the difference, then? The difference, obviously, is in the way we were shaped and tenderized over the years. Her violinist-body and my slouching, contemplative, wholly non-musical body were shaped throughout the course of many years of handling, of dressage.

Now we're getting close to what I actually wanted to talk about: not music, but the humanities, and the state of higher education in general. There is, at this point, nothing we in the humanities can ask students to do that is analogous to what must be asked of anyone who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Anne-Sophie Mutter. We cannot say to students: "Welcome. We are here to rewire your neurons. We are here to completely transform you from the inside so that everything you do with your body (and mind, but that's an afterthought), every sensation and minute experience you have of your own capacities, will be entirely foreign from what you now know." Increasingly, in fact, universities are clamoring to assure students that no such transformation will take place.
And later:
To expect students to master a foreign language would be precisely to have a design upon the wiring of their brains, but such a design would entirely go against the trend, now fully dominant across the humanities, of creating, for every course, a parallel universe of so-called 'learning objectives', where the singular and obvious objective of a course cannot be mentioned, and instead one must speak vaguely of enhancing critical thinking skills, nurturing confidence in public speaking, learning to collaborate with others through small-group work, etc. But obviously the only legitimate learning objective of, say, a Greek course is to learn Greek. Once that basic commitment is abandoned, real education in letters is doomed.
As I said, it's a timely piece, particularly as I sit here copying learning objectives from curriculum documents to paste at the top of each lesson plan.

In teacher's college, much ado is made regarding the potentially transformative nature of education. We are educating for big goals, like active citizenship and an equitable economy, and these will be achieved through community partnerships and character education initiatives! Because who isn't transformed by parent-teacher events and "Respect" month at school?

In a bit of spokesperson weirdness, I have found nothing more promising than the curriculum developed by the Hawn Foundation (as in Goldie Hawn), which actually seeks to incorporate practices of mindfulness (meditation in public schools!) in order to develop gratitude and actual peace of mind. Neuroscience, it seems, has finally figured out what every wisdom tradition has known: that compassion requires spiritual disciplines in order to grow. Now if only we could think of all our learning as a transformative discipline, the results of which are not in our control.

Then maybe I wouldn't have to agonize over these damned lesson plans.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Life plans

Why college (and, I would add, life) should be less about career preparation and more about intellectual stimulation:
I mean, seriously, look around you. They’re phasing out the concept of a “job” little by little anyway — you owe it to yourself, to your fellow temps, and to your online dating profile to at least be a halfway interesting person.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Das Leben der Anderen: An emotional response

It's 1986. The East is heavy with coal. The concrete rises story after uniform story. There are rats in the attic of our soot-stained Ahrensfelde home and the cemetery nearby is equally greyed and barren.

I was three years old when we lived on the other side of the iron curtain, but the sights and especially smells of East Berlin still trigger an emotional response elicited by few other phenomena. Our memories of early childhood are, of course, sparse and reconstructed, and the importance I place on that time in my life is largely a result of subsequent developments, like that day in November three years later when my dad sat watching the television and crying. The result is that stories of life in the DDR, particularly when set in the 80s, automatically carry greater emotional resonance.

I was bowled over by Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Particularly impressive was the sympathetic portrayal of the committed ideologue even before his aesthetic conversion, who, because of his very commitment, cannot easily watch his beloved system be so abused by those in power. In fact, I wonder if the man's quiet dedication had fostered the sort of attentiveness that allowed him, after all those years, to recognize and be moved by the beauty in the world of the writer Dreyman. Perhaps ideologue and aesthete tread some common ground, ground unfamiliar to those interested only in personal gain and utility.

Of course, our sympathy for the quiet Wiesler increases due to his heroic sabotage of the Stasi system. There was much to appreciate about the DDR. Those who had few material desires, who had little personal ambition, could live quite comfortably and enjoy many of its definite advantages (I think always of the education and health care). But then there was the Stasi. A few years ago I sat in on a conversation between my father and the former pastor of the Mennonite church in East Berlin. They would not look at the records, they decided. What was the point? They were already reasonably certain that three of the members in the congregation had been active informants.

Accompanying the soot and the concrete were watchfulness and fear, strategy and enforced silence. Perhaps it's naïve to think this doesn't take place in our capitalist republic, but I simply do not live in fear of the government, and for that I am increasingly grateful.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Colour and the Canon

My regular perusing on 3 Quarks Daily led me to this article by Lindsay Johns in which he offers a strong opinion on the "sensitivity" of education to the colonial history of thought. Much to highlight and much to explore.
As black people, we cannot change history, and should not try to reject knowledge because of its provenance.
I would find this statement more palatable if it were amended to read "wisdom" instead of "knowlege" for the simple reason that the "provenance" of wisdom is much less determinate than knowledge. As per yesterday's post, new knowledge is gained through a conquest of some kind, whereas wisdom is as likely to dismantle as it is to fortify.

Most welcome insight:
Terence, regarded as one of the founding fathers of western drama, and a seminal influence on Renaissance humanism, was in fact a freed black African slave from Carthage. Saint Augustine, philosopher, theologian and intellectual bedrock of Christianity, was North African, from modern day Algeria. In our consciousness, we have come to see these figures as white. So the way the canon has been refracted through racist lenses does need to be incisively and intelligently critiqued.
The uncomfortable truth that you will never hear me say in an education seminar:
But it is undeniable that man’s inhumanity to man is only one part of the human condition. The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm.
He concludes that insofar as we want to teach humanity, we should consider the canon of "dead white men" profoundly relevant to every student. Interesting.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Demography and the Imperialist Imagination

The will to know finds only idols.

Idolatry is not a popular topic for Canadian educators, and writer John Willinsky instead describes the will to know as the intellectual interest of imperialism, for “at its root was a desire to take hold of the world”. In Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End Willinsky leaves aside any discussion of global capitalist empire in order to examine the even more direct consequences of European colonial expansion, namely the categorization and classification of the world. Our education system is predicated on this division and naming, and yet we rarely look at the political and economic conquest that accompanied this “new knowledge”. Willinsky proposes an educational accountability that teaches how our system of knowledge developed, thus complicating the divisions we too often consider given. We used geographical examples in my “School and Society” seminar, and I do think these make the point most spectacularly. Why is it more important to know the location of present day Brazil than it is to understand the political history of the region? Why do we learn the name Baffin Island without knowing how it came to have that name?

Imperial education is the education of the industrial and managerial age. The conquering mind keeps hold of what it conquers by keeping it manageable, by orders and ranks. Our seminar also addressed the poorly-named hidden curriculum (could it be less hidden?), the task schools gave themselves of creating obedient and docile citizens through militant exercises. We were asked to think about how the contemporary school system replicates the status quo, but I soon became convinced that the “scientific” socio-economic model is unequipped to really speak to that question.

To explain I must say a little about my professor, but let it be known that this dissent was already voiced in seminar. The professor has several convictions that quickly became apparent, stemming from his initial claim that one is either racist or anti-racist. He is convinced that all the students entering his class have internalized certain racial and social prejudices and that the only solution to these divisive attitudes is to name them and denounce them with much gusto. Wielding statistics as weapons, he made a simple morality tale out of every historical and contemporary situation and sought to teach all the supposedly white students about their privileged whiteness (regardless of the protests of an Irish and a Portugese woman). Europe (whatever that is) was the unequivocal aggressor and the colonial project was likened to WWII, “except the bad guys won”. Where does this get us?

No study of colonialism can ignore the new manifestations of the imperial imperative, especially the push to classify the world according to monetary value. If our first task is to clearly identify where privilege lies, based on access to particular cultural communties and the wealth they command, we are accepting the dominant definition of privilege and only continuing the imperial project. We read a speech by James Baldwin for the same seminar in which he insists that the white people are the victims of their own oppression. They have deluded themselves; they do not know who they are. If only some of this wisdom could be brought into our pedagogy. If only we could learn that the managers of knowledge destroy themselves in their conceit. Such a claim upsets the neat division between victims and oppressors, but aren't these supposedly fixed divisions exactly what we should be challenging?

There is a certain strand of sociological orthodoxy that desperately needs the arts, or even psychology, to begin to think about the human condition. Sociology (in its crassest form) makes its home in demography, using gender, race and class to “classify” the world, thus extending the imperial imagination it seeks to challenge. The task I give myself is to bring a Yoderian pedagogy into the classroom, one that denies the binary of conquered and conqueror, and to hold a Dostoyevskian picture of humanity, in which human beings are not known according to what they are, but according to their sufferings, desires, and loves.

Warning: This is the first of what may be a barrage of posts in response to the climate of contemporary teacher education.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Promotional Purposes

My friends are embarking on exciting projects. If you're in Winnipeg, you should listen to this radio show. And you should all keep an eye out for this band.