Looking Back, Looking Forward: Serendipity on Thursday
If you’ve read Fish over at #19 – either the interview or the title essay of his book – you know the following about his argument:
• “Free speech” is a conceptual impossibility. Speech must always be bounded, always contextualized – that is, emerge from some background of presuppositions – in order to be meaningful; otherwise, it is only sound. (It is sense and not sound that we argue over.)
• The idealized “open mind” is an empty mind (as a mind without context/presupposition would be a mind that took no position, made no discriminations, and did not adjudicate).
• Speech always has a purpose – e.g. to inform, to persuade, to trivialize – so it both privileges (what the speaker/community agrees with) and suppresses (what the speaker/community disagrees with).
• Speech is (like) an action: it always operates within and affects a community. Few people would argue for “freedom of action” – to allow people to act however they want – the same way some people sometimes argue for “freedom of speech.” Everyone draws a line/imposes a limit on such “freedoms,” and a “crisis moment” will reveal that line/limit.
• There is always some “cost” to be paid by the community whenever someone speaks, and the cost depends on what is spoken as well as the community’s norms/presuppositions. Whatever one’s position re: freedom of speech, one must recognize that there are costs. Those who would defend free speech “on principle” yet “trivialize” (or simply “harass away”) the potential negative effects/costs of speech. . . .
Looking Back, Looking Forward: Serendipity on Friday
“If there’s a thesis, I can’t detect it—and that’s the remarkable, even heroic, thing about it. The author of two previous novels, McConnell is interested not in making broad claims but in telling stories about how and where masculinity expresses itself as murderous violence. Contra Christy Wampole, he writes, ‘Straight men, who really are socially powerful, have been accustomed to a veil of discretion when it comes to the truth about their private selves, their weaknesses, anatomy, fears, silliness.’ But theirs are stories too, and McConnell tells a number of them. Some you’ve heard: about the killing of Billy Jack Gaither, for instance, who was gay; or the famous Jenny Jones case, in which a gay man went on TV to confess an attraction to a male friend, who afterward killed him. This last tale actually constitutes part of the book’s introduction: McConnell hasn’t really told us the why before he starts in with the what.
So this is more of a meditation, shorter on analysis than it is on simple thoughtfulness. . . .”
“There is no such thing as free speech”: an interview with Stanley Fish
Q : Professor Fish, what do you mean when you say that there is no such thing as free speech?
A : Many discussions of free speech, especially by those whom I would call free speech ideologues, begin by assuming as normative the situation in which speech is offered for its own sake, just for the sake of expression. The idea is that free expression, the ability to open up your mouth and deliver an opinion in a seminar-like atmosphere, is the typical situation and any constraint on free expression is therefore a deviation from that typical or normative situation. I begin by saying that this is empirically false, that the prototypical academic situation in which you utter sentences only to solicit sentences in return with no thought of actions being taken, is in fact anomalous. It is something that occurs only in the academy and for a very small number of people.
. . . Whichever side of this particular debate you might be on I think my point holds — there was a sense of balancing the rights of individuals to freely deliver their opinions against the desires and needs of the society and the community. Since the ’50s and ’60s that second pole has dropped out and more and more you get a First Amendment rhetoric of individual liberty which has the effect of producing a roster of First Amendment heroes, who gain that status by uttering the vilest statements that can be imagined in situations designed to cause harm, embarrassment, and psychological damage to others. These persons are then put forward as representing the best instincts of the American experiment.
Interlude #5: How do you respond to disturbing student writing?
This is a question that all college instructors must answer at some point in their careers, especially composition instructors.
Composition instructors find themselves with access to students’ thoughts and feelings about many different subjects. Instructors learn to recognize their students’ “voices”: in addition to favored stylistic/rhetorical maneuvers, students’ ideological and political affiliations also tend to manifest in compositions. There is consistency. A pattern develops. Arguments are strengthened, challenged, changed. The dialogue that develops between instructor and student can be mutually enriching.
But sometimes students write material that can cause discomfort. Perhaps the material is too confessional and personally revealing or perhaps the material expresses negative emotions, bizarre images, and a non-linear thought process.
If one of your students turned in material similar to what Realist has been posting on the Lounge, how would you respond? Would you comment on a lack of citations/supporting evidence, imagery, or a non-linear presentation of ideas? Responses will vary. Some instructors choose not to address such issues in written material. If you would not address such issues, what criteria/theory do you draw upon to make such a choice?
Below are several links from Binghamton University, Adams State University, and University of Colorado that may help all CCC instructors to answer questions about how to identify and respond to disturbing student writing.
“The apparition of these faces in the Crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.”
If there is a second sustained metaphor in the post other than that of pointing fingers, it is that of a bowel movement. That metaphor tracks as follows:
“Here are some initial thoughts, on the plastic tags and related crap, that flashed through my head. . . . I give these thoughts to you half-baked. . . . Are we back to thinking of our students as ‘customers’? What does that make me? I feel dirty just thinkin’ ’bout it. . . . [T]hat sounds like a stinkin’ excuse and not a proper rationale. . . . Branding: I’m waiting for the day when I’ll walk into the college and be asked to bend over so I can have HW branded on my assets. . . . All this crap started when the district said we needed new colors. If [I] focused more on the purpose of education, [sic] than reinventing the rainbow I think [I]’d find gold sooner.”
That dense, non-linear final sentence presents several challenges for the reader. The “reinvented rainbow” image not only refers to a change in CCC colors or a myth regarding found riches, the roundness of the image also refers to the figurative “mooning” that takes place in the lobby of Harold Washington College when “I” bends over so that “I can have HW branded on my assets.” The “found gold” refers not only to some kind of academic or financial success as Realist conceives it, it is yet another tag/badge intended to signify some worthwhile quality: the found gold marks the end result of the post, arguably the pleasure and value Realist places on having “re-branded” Reinvention.
The post closes with an italicized address to the reader: “*If I come across as bein’ flippant, it’s only ’cause I’m tryin’ to get my message across any ways I can. I’ve tried polite in the past. Humorous e’ery so often. Formal when I thoughts it apropos. Silly when sensible was not called for. And now? Perhaps if I appeal to the lowest common denominator of intelligence, maybe, maybe, someone might pay attention. When in Rome…”
This direct address to the reader is supposed to create the illusion that the “real,” sincere person behind the “I” has stepped out from behind all textual effects to speak candidly with the reader; instead, in the wake of the “rebranding,” a self-infantilizing persona is left standing in the lobby of HWC.
“I’m tryin’ to get my message across any ways I can,” declares Realist.
On the one hand, Realist denies responsibility for the post in general and the bowel movement in particular, essential claiming that “District Office made ‘I’ do it.” On the other hand, Realist makes a plaintive demand for attention: “Perhaps if I appeal to the lowest common denominator of intelligence, maybe, maybe, someone might pay attention.”
The demand for attention is profoundly conflicted. “What would [my] founding fathers say?”
“It’s about that reply Kamran and others left on PhiloDave’s post. I need not expound on it here. . . . [G]o back and read those thoughtful words…about education and academics and students. Ain’t no gimmicks there,” writes Realist. The reader will note that Realist simply avoids any attempt to summarize or paraphrase “those thoughtful words.”
Therefore, Realist’s post is redundant, unnecessary, and opportunistic after all.
And by asking the question, by (once again!) forcefully elbowing the reader/viewer to give up some affirmation or applause – for just a moment – Realist almost stops in mid-whirl and recognizes the insubstantial nature of a spectacle-dependent sense of self: the pupil-image/tag/badge Realist is creating may not be “true” (or not “professional”) after all.
But the moment passes quickly. Redoubling efforts at deflecting and delusion, Realist barrels on, “I” whirling and finger pointing at District Office’s trickster world of false symbols and shifting meanings. Ever playing to the (in) crowd at some “Other’s” expense.
“Riddle me this: Do ivy league [sic] faculty wear badges when they help their customers? Didn’t think so,” writes Realist.
Of course faculty at Ivy League schools wear “badges”: they wear the “Ivy League” reputation. That reputational good is what enrolling students purchase. Students there – just like CCC students here – dream of wearing graduation gowns, mortar boards and tassels, and receiving diplomas. The badges worn by Ivy League faculty and students – just like those worn by faculty and students who work at CCC, Best Buy, or video game stores – neither contain any fixed meaning nor have a fixed relation to those (“trained to be slaves”) who wear them. People give “badges” to themselves and each other, and people give meaning to those badges.
Some “badges” are earned, some not. Unlike Henry, Realist does not come to understand this.
Narcissistically, Realist identifies with the Ivy League and not with CCC or its students.
Realist writes: “Only educated peeps having [sic] the courage to promote true education with words and actions; which is more than I can say for the people responsible for authoring [sic] the badges.” Notice the use of the word “authoring,” not “authorizing.”
And Realist is responsible for authoring all of the “badges” in this post, for erecting unmistakable markers of class (if not race) in a post that, ultimately, was never intended as any kind of critique but as mere self-aggrandizement for the purpose of (in-crowd) affirmation.
Realist’s drive to separate “them” from “us” reaches new lows as the post concludes.
(Next: the conclusion to Second Sketch/B Three begins)
Since the post consists of Realist’s “half-baked” thoughts, it is misleading for Realist to use the pronoun “we”; therefore, the pronoun “I”has been inserted into the following:
“Graduation gowns: . . . I say graduation clowns. . . asked to stand in the lobby of our building wearing graduation regalia. [I’m]turning our academic institution into a circus. [I] appear to be appealing to the lowest common denominator of attention. ‘Hey kids, look over there! It’s Graduate Gary! Let’s go talk to him about graduation!’ ‘Kids, kids! It’s Betty with a badge! Let’s ask her about semester schedules!’ With [my]words [I] say [I] want to have a frickin’ ‘world class institution’; with [my] actions [I] say the complete opposite.”
Realist writes, “I don’t need to be tagged in order to continue assisting [my] students in their academic experience. My professionalism will let students know they’re at a community college, right?”
The tag/badge that Realist desires is the one that will signify an essential, worthwhile quality about Realist, one that readers/viewers will see and respond to positively. More to the point regarding Realist’s enormous need for belonging, it is in the responses and faces of the readers/viewers that Realist looks for and confirms Realist’s own sense of self.
The entire post demonstrates this.
However, the desired tag/badgeis chimerical because Realist’s sense of self is externally referenced: it is a tiny, fleeting image reflected on the pupils of the eyes of those who gather before the attention-seeking Realist-as-spectacle. The nature of this uncertain, spectacle-dependent sense of self shows through in the fact that Realist asks a question instead of making a statement when Realist writes, “My professionalism will let students know they’re at a community college, right?”
In case https://haroldlounge.com/2013/02/25/the-read-from-this-side-of-suite-711-11/ regarding Realist and the Blackhawks’ logo still strikes one as abstract, below is a relevant link to this week’s Reader. The article could enable transfer/critical thinking because it situates the issue in the contemporary, “hip,” pop-culture context of YouTube, video bloggers, and internet memes.
A badge is a symbol. A symbol, of course, cannot “lack courage.” (Attributing human emotions to a thing is a “pathetic fallacy.”) Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage takes place during the American Civil War, and the main character, Henry Fleming, comes to understand that the “red badge” of a war wound contains within itself no fixed meaning, so it does not have a fixed relation to the soldier who wears it. A war wound does not signify any essential quality about a soldier. It is only a symbol. People like Henry must assign meaning to “red badges.”
Realist writes, “Is this post redundant? Perhaps. Necessary? You tell me. Am I being opportunistic? Dunno. . . . Here are some initial thoughts, on the plastic tags and related crap, that flashed through my head. . . . I give these thoughts to you half-baked. I’m only following in the footsteps of my district leaders that appear to ‘do’ before they ‘think’.”
If a lesson was learned about the need for at least some sound knowledge about a topic and supporting evidence for an opinion from discussing the Blackhawks’ logo, it did not transfer to Realist’s attempt to read a badge.*
Regarding badges, Realist writes: “I ain’t pointin’ fingers at Don. Just makin’ observations.” In other words, the reader is to believe that the post presents self-evident facts. However, Realist goes on to write that “If I is to point a finger in any direction, I might start raisin’ it in the direction of Jackson Blvd and Franklin Street.”
However, this metaphoric finger pointing does serve to structure the post. The “I” of the post whirls around and around in the lobby of HWC – like a compass needle that cannot locate True north – pointing at symbols “I” cannot decipher. “I” blames District Office for this confusion: apparently, like some trickster god, District Office has created a world of “badges” and symbols that are “untrue.” The post develops dizzily as “I” makes use of facades, deflecting, delusions, stereotypes and clichés in an effort to avoid recognizing the true source of confusion: “I” cannot read or write critically.
“Badges: Are we to become the Best Buy of Academia? . . . What would our founding fathers say?” asks Realist.
Beginning composition students often write “cut-and-paste essays” where they include outside sources but do not understand what those sources mean or how to integrate them. Their only concern is to use “academically sounding words as a disguise” to mask their confusion or the lack of a solid research effort (https://haroldlounge.com/2012/06/15/when-is-a-graduation-not-a-graduation/). The “founding fathers” phrase refers to the comments found here (https://haroldlounge.com/2012/11/08/you-be-the-judge/) but it does not evaluate or amplify those comments. Similarly, “Jackson Blvd” and “Franklin Street” – as well as the title of Stephen Crane’s novel (although, as already noted, it is doubtful that Realist understood the symbolism of the red badge) – are tossed into the post just because Realist has made some cut-and-paste association between them.
So it is no surprise that Realist sees badges as the mark of the lower classes, things that are made for the kind of people who work and shop at places like Best Buy and video game stores. Therefore, Realist brands and/or hangs a kind of disparaging badge upon salespersons, those who wear Mario outfits, or those who wear orange body suits (DOC uniforms?) as people trained “to be slaves to work.”
(B Two/Second Sketch to be continued)
*The link on transfer/critical thinking comes from one of PhiloDave’s posts but the to that post has not been included because it could not be located prior to this “Suite 711” installment.
The reader will note that transfer is the ultimate goal of critical thinking. It occurs when students take knowledge and skills learned in one context – geometry, for example – and apply or transfer them to another context. Consider the use of word problems in mathematics. If a student truly has learned underlying concepts/problem-solving skills, then the student should be able to transfer knowledge/skills when presented with a variety of word problems. If students become confused due to the surface detail in various word problems, then transfer has not occurred. (Something similar happens in composition when students struggle to apply the basic structure of a five-paragraph essay to various assigned writing patterns.) Only by getting beneath the surface details of what they are studying will students learn to think critically: they will learn to think about their own thinking, and improve upon it by evaluating what they are thinking against certain intellectual standards. (See http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2012/07/study_deeper_learning_needs_st_1.html)
In a 2010 social post about the Chicago Blackhawks a discussion develops over whether or not the team logo/mascot is disrespectful.
In https://haroldlounge.com/2010/04/15/any-nhl-fans-out-there/#comment-338 Realist writes: “[D]on’t you think the history and the sport are so disconnected that the point has become irrelevant? Yes, if there was a team called the Chicago Popes, it would offend many because it is relevant to a very large group of individuals and the team would be raising issues that happen to be contemporary. Don’t you think the history of Black Hawk has been transformed into. . . a sport logo and nothing more? The idea has changed. We root for a hockey team with a name and an image. Period. When did it go from paying tribute to a person to becoming a derogatory remark? . . . We’re crying over spilled beer and nachos. . . . Signed, The Sophist.”
In https://haroldlounge.com/2010/04/15/any-nhl-fans-out-there/#comment-345 PhiloDave addresses Realist’s focus on surface detail and the lack of background knowledge (and/or discipline-specific knowledge) about the history and politics surrounding the use of Native-Americans as teams mascots, noting that this is why Realist sees no harm in the practice.
(In other words, because Realist brings no general/specific knowledge to the discussion, Realist cannot apply critical thinking skills either to the topic or to Realist’s own subjective responses, which appear to be entirely informed by a dominant/hegemonic American culture/pop culture sensibility. This, not the politics surrounding the logo, is the point here.)
In https://haroldlounge.com/2010/04/15/any-nhl-fans-out-there/#comment-347 Realist appears to take this lesson to heart. “Well stated. (told ya I needed a course in Logic) [sic] . . . I’m processing the following statement for now: ‘If that were the standard by which we judge historical changes, then Brown vs. Board would have been merely ‘politically correct,’ not ‘Constitutionally correct.’”
(In this instance, it is not the lack of general/specific knowledge but the lack of a lived engagement with the social and political legacy surrounding Brown vs. Board that is the point. In other words – apparently up until this exact Lounge discussion three years ago – Brown vs. Board or the use of Native-Americans as team mascots were dim, abstract considerations for Realist.)
Notice, too, how the critical thinking skills Realist so often champions and claims to possess simply do not manifest themselves. After initially stating that “Personally, I don’t know the history behind the logo. What’s the problem?” Realist does not hesitate to make loud and sweeping proclamations, dismiss the logo controversy with typical bluster, then sign off as “The Sophist.”
Why sign off as “The Sophist”?
In common usage, the word “sophist” has negative connotations. It denotes a group of intellectuals and teachers of rhetoric in ancient Greece, but it connotes a person who relies on clever but misleading, fallacious reasoning. A sophist is one who uses words without any real knowledge of the topic at hand. (See Plato’s Gorgias as Socrates considered sophistry/rhetoric to be a false practice where the ignorant attempt to teach the ignorant. Take particular note of Socrates’ distinction between true arts, flattery, and sham. Also see http://donsdesk.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/irony/#comment-311 for a recent exchange concerning rhetoric/irony on the Lounge.)
In ancient Greece, “rhetors” taught “orators”; in modern times we might say a sophist is a speech teacher.*
Like Gorgias some 2,500 years earlier, Realist/“The Sophist” appears to give ground before PhiloDave’s logic: “Told ya I needed a course in Logic.” Subsequently, Realist and PhiloDave have gone on to praise the value of philosophy in what, at times – given Realist’s effusive descriptions of it (see https://haroldlounge.com/2012/07/03/why-i-blog/) – appears to be a master/apprentice relationship.
However, in actual practice over the past three years, Realist’s writing continues to consist of sophistry. It is always a focus on some surface detail – a word, a badge – followed by a subjective, often illogical and non-linear, associative response with almost no regard for the use of any substantive interpretive/theoretical framework or outside references to serve as supporting evidence.
(end of B One/Second Sketch to be continued)
*This statement is put forward in the interest of identifying an equivalent term or profession and not to make a sweeping generalization about all speech teachers. Since Realist signed off as “The Sophist,” the use of “speech teacher” as an equivalent term is specifically directed at this Realist/Sophist pairing.
Finally, what leap of thought initiates Realist’s focus on a perceived abuse of the word “graduation”? “GS introduced a pay to play program. Per the eligibility checklist, I needs me at least 150K to be considered for club membership,” writes Realist.
For the sake of argument, let’s make a partial concession that the word “graduation” is being abused, but only if we also concede that the phrase “pay to play” is being abused. After all, “pay to play” refers to the exchange of money for the privilege to “play” in political and business circles. Is that really what is happening with 10KSB’s eligibility checklist? Must participants hand over 150K to be eligible for a program lasting a few months that may or may not be academically sound and that may or may not grant a loan to participants? Or is a more fitting analog for this 150K stipulation to be found in the requirements that, say, potential home buyers must meet in order to secure a loan?
“GS is not an expert in the field of education and they have no business pretending to have any expertise [sic] than amassing profits,” writes Realist.
When viewed in light of this First Sketch, if there is an entity that might be pretending – about quite a few things – it’s Realist.
“Not trying to get under your skin. Just trying to make a point.” (But examine the tone and diction of Realist’s rejoinder.)
“I’ve claimed my ignorance more than once on The Lounge and I’ll do it again if necessary.” (See Ericsson’s essay.)
“But I’m not here to poison. I’m here to adhere to the quality of the education I’ve received and to voice my opinion. That’s what a democratic society provides to its citizens?” (This theme will be explored in the Second Sketch.)
“I also wouldn’t be doin’ us any favors if I didn’t give you my best. In no way do I mean any personal or professional disrespect. . . .”
Realist writes in order to belong. In pursuit of belonging, Realist writes to create and exploit an in-crowd of HWC and CCC faculty and staff who are hostile to 10KSB and, more generally, Reinvention. How readily this in-crowd has come together and handed over its trust to Realist.
Whatever the merits or abuses of 10KSB and Reinvention, none of it elevates Realist’s writing.
And the writing simply does not extend beyond its one purpose of belonging. Or (like capital) amassing more to itself.
Belonging through the affirmation (and subsequent exploitation) of beliefs that are already held by an in-crowd is something very, very different than writing a persuasive argument. Realist is not conducting a rational argument either for or against 10KSB or Reinvention.
Discontent makes for fertile ground, and Realist has worked to seed that ground through an almost incantatory repetition of words: “educator,” “academic,” “scholar,” “critical thinking.” A curious, rather barren garden grows as a result, a garden without depths, perhaps, or something from a Pollock-inspired painting: it may be evocative of many negative emotions but it is not particularly representational or portable beyond its own self-serving purpose.
Again and again, Realist focuses on surface details – which results in the use of god and devil words – but the text suggests that Realist is not entirely in control of this focus. Another way to say this is that the focus on surface details – whatever the topic – suggests a real lack (e.g. critical thinking skills, life experience).
Ultimately, the greatly important words that are endlessly repeated take on highly personal meanings. The remaining sketches will examine that too. And this exchange between Realist and Laackman over 10KSB’s graduation also will be returned to.
Be it put forward by three or two – or the multitudes of one –who gather in the name of anonymity, a ludicrous statemement that strikes at the heart of these things called universities and colleges simply must be addressed. Malice is malice: there is no witticism to be found in a comment that undermines the professoriate, let alone reasonable discourse or the very source and store of a culture.
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life. . . .”
This is no attempt to wave the flag but to make a simple point. Since the document quoted above marked a departure from the idea of rule by the divinely appointed, this interlude’s title begins with the definite article “The” and not “an.” This document’s particular argument is currently being lived. One could argue that some of the best arguments are those that are lived out and acted upon, which is one way that they become long and beautiful. The alternative is. . . how many words of what? How credible or clever is the professor who would even make a statement like https://haroldlounge.com/2013/02/14/the-read-from-this-side-of-suite-711-8/#comment-10639 and then not put her or his name to it?
As a bonus, here’s an excerpt from “What Is A University?” by John Henry Cardinal Newman
And such, for the third or fourth time, is a University; I hope I do not
weary out the reader by repeating it. It is the
place to which a thousand schools make
contributions; in which the intellect may safely
range and speculate, sure to find its equal in
some antagonist activity, and its judge in the
tribunal of truth. It is a place where inquiry
is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and
perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and
error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind,
and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place
where the professor becomes eloquent, and is a
missionary and a preacher, displaying his science
in its most complete and most winning form,
pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and
lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of
his hearers. It is the place where the catechist
makes good his ground as he goes, treading in the
truth day by day into the ready memory, and
wedging and tightening it into the expanding
reason. It is a place which wins the admiration
of the young by its celebrity, kindles the
affections of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets
the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a
seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of
the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation.
It is this and a great deal more, and demands a
somewhat better head and hand than mine to
describe it well.
An excerpt from Parker Palmer’s Politics of the Brokenhearted as well as an excerpt from an interview with Palmer are presented on Valentine’s Day. Ever poetic and ever a Quaker, Palmer reminds us that love is responsibility within community, never aiding one to bring violence to another for caprice (where violence/non-physical violence is “any way we have of violating the identity and integrity of the other”), and never a withdrawal.
Politics of the Brokenhearted: On Holding the Tensions of Democracy
Habits of the Heart
The image of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life by contradiction and tension is not merely my private poetic fancy. It is a central strand of three wisdom traditions that are deep-woven into the fabric of American life: Judaism, Christianity, and secular humanism.
For Jews, learning to live openheartedly in the face of immense and devastating heartbreak is a historical and spiritual imperative. So it is no surprise that Jewish teaching includes frequent reminders of the importance of a broken-open heart.
Take, for example, this remarkable Hasidic tale. A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”
The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
In Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistinguishable from the image of the cross. It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of humankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate. In fact, the cross as a symbolic form embodies the notion that tension—“excruciating” tension—can pull the heart open. The arms of the cross stretch out four ways, pulling against each other left and right, up and down. But those arms converge in a center, a heart, that is pulled open by the tension of opposition so we can pass through it into the fullness of life.
Secular humanism does not speak explicitly of the broken-open heart, but the essence of the idea is laced through that ancient and honorable tradition. Humanism advocates that scholars and citizens alike develop a “habit of the heart” (to use de Tocqueville’s famous phrase) that allows them to hold the tension of opposites without falling apart. So a “liberal” education—that is, the education befitting a free person—emphasizes the ability to comprehend all sides of an issue, to be comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, to honor paradox in thought, speech, and action. Liberally educated people know how to let the tension of opposites open them to new insight, or so the theory goes.
Given the power of these three traditions in shaping the American dream, it is no wonder that division, conflict, and tension, far from being the enemies of democracy, are among its primary reasons for being. Democracy at its best is both a celebration and a demonstration of the benefits of creative conflict; democratic institutions are designed as looms strong enough to hold the political tensions that accompany our efforts to weave the fabric of a common life. The differences that emerge whenever two or three are gathered are the very stuff of our political system, in which the freedom to express diverse values and viewpoints is valued, encouraged, and protected. Only in a totalitarian state, where the “dangerous other” is silenced or driven underground, are differences regarded as intolerable.
But the litmus test for a democracy is not merely whether it allows our differences to be on display: we must be willing to engage each other around those differences. Democracy depends on the unwavering trust of its citizens and leaders that the free play of conflicting views will open us to a larger and truer view of the world—its needs, its resources, and its potentials—eventually issuing in political decisions that serve the common good.
When we hold that trust and act on it by participating in the democratic process with commitment and goodwill, we not only live up to our own ideals but also model hope to the rest of the world. Today, too many American citizens, and some of our leaders, seem to have lost that trust— and with it our democratic capacity to debate real issues and envision new possibilities with tenacity, intelligence, and hope.
MA: Can I ask you about another one of those things that sort of knocked my socks off. And I’m asking this particularly as a Quaker, because this sentence so much went against what I’m use to hearing in our culture of heavy duty tolerance. You wrote: You and I may hold different conceptions of truth, but we must mind the difference. Could you expand on that?
PP: I’d be delighted to do that. I’ve always had tremendous trouble with what I think of as mindless relativism, which takes the form of someone saying “one truth for you, another truth for me, and never mind the difference.” And I suspect that the sentence you just quoted comes shortly after quoting something of that sort.
The problem is that we inhabit the same world, and we are related to each other as plants and animals in an ecosystem are related to each other. We have an interactive life. That, I think, is Quakerism 101, it’s spirituality 101. It’s Thomas Merton’s “hidden wholeness,” it’s the interconnectedness of all things. And if it’s true that we’re interconnected, that we’re in community, in the broadest and deepest sense that way, then we have to mind what each other takes as true. If someone believes that “blood, soil and race” are the ultimate truth of life, and that anyone that doesn’t share your blood soil and race really needs to die, that would be called Nazism. I need to do battle with that “truth” in every way available to me. I need to confront it. I need to challenge it. I need to call it for the idolatry and the evil that it is. So I’ve never been able to settle for tolerance when it’s defined in kind of a mindless way. In fact I think that tolerance generally is a weak virtue. “I tolerate you.” How does that sound? It doesn’t sound very good.
Engagement is the model, I think: taking each other seriously. If we’re related, then let’s relate. Now obviously in the course of a finite lifetime there are only so many relations of that sort that you can manifest in a concrete way. But I think you have to hold the world in that kind of caring responsiveness. It was H. Richard Niebhur, I believe, who offered this very simple definition of ethical responsibility: he said, “it’s the ability to respond.” And I think we need to respond to each other in a way that goes far beyond the infamous “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
“I do know how to take off my proverbial capitalist hat when I walk into HWC. . . .”
This quick fixsolves many problems – it makes Realist, 10KSB, and 10KSB’s participants more alike than unalike if only everyone would agree to take off their hats upon entering HWC – but this is only a metaphor. Nor does this statement inaugurate any demonstration of Realist’s critical thinking skills. Moreover, the metaphor reflects a deep naiveté. No one can stop participating in reproducing the values and beliefs of a society as easily as removing a hat. In a sense, we are always “marketing a name” – a religious belief, a political ideology, an unwritten social norm – even if we say that we do so in the name of opposition or empowerment. College professors and their classrooms are no more neutral or value-free than any other human being or institution. Degrees of bias – either intentional or unintentional – will vary from professor to professor and from discipline to discipline (this latter in the sense that some disciplines simply must make the examination of ideologies a part of their curricula while other disciplines do not and need not) and those who live in a democratic society must be able to detect that bias and respond to it responsibly. The goal of argument is communication, not confrontation. Polarizing rhetoric inhibits the multi-faceted debate that informs a healthy and vibrant democratic society.
There is a much more refined way of discussing questions of consent versus coercion under capitalism when it comes to the influence of ideology than can be addressed here; for the moment, it is enough to make clear that the hat-removal metaphor that Realist offers is not it. Equally empty is the assertion that 10KSB participants are some kind of mindless automatons that have been “used” and “insulted” and deserve pity from people like Realist. There are important issues here that cry out for debate, but Realist does not foster debate, only a reductive and simplistic bias. Ultimately, the best and most practical way to guard against bias – especially bias borne of malice or incompetence – is to learn the basics of how to recognize it. (For more on bias and/or the “culture wars” in American college classrooms – from a conservative point of view – see Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind or almost anything for which Harold Bloom writes prefatory remarks. Read against the Blooms to generate a more liberal point of view. For a more reasonable reflection on the ever-increasing rush to reinvent college, see http://chronicle.com/article/The-False-Promise-of-the/136305/.)
Realist writes, “GS is doing nothing more than investing capital to produce more capital (and we are their factory). Again, nothing wrong with doing that, I just ask that they do it in their corporate environment and call it what it really is: a capital gains project.” Should this be read literally? It does not seem that readers have been provided enough information about 10KSB’s daily business operations to read this literally. Perhaps Realist means that 10KSB blurs the lines between for-profit and nonprofit educational institutions? This line of inquiry could have been productive, but this cannot be Realist’s point because Realist has already asserted that 10KSB has no educational value, even though Realist has not demonstrated that 10KSB is academically unsound, illegal, or even Un-American. Maybe Realist’s purpose is to demonstrate that 10KSB is engaging in the use of god and devil words in order to deceive CCC as to its true intentions? This line of inquiry also could have proven fruitful, but this isn’t Realist’s purpose at all: Realist is far too busy engaging pigheadedly in a tug of war over words to develop any moderately objective response to the topic.
What, then, is the larger argument Realist is getting at?
There isn’t one.
Realist’s June 21 rejoinder to Don Laackman’s June 15 response goes to great lengths to emphasize this: “Not arguing transformation of lives. . . .The point of my post was the disagreement with the word ‘graduation’ being abused as it was.” Realist writes that the 10KSB graduation activity “pollutes and dilutes the educational system,” and assures Laackman that the negative impact of this activity is indeed “what I want to argue. But that’s tangential to the focus of this post. Perhaps another day we can return to this.”
As of this date there has been no return. The rejoinder attempts to identify several fallacies committed by Laackman, but identification of those fallacies still doesn’t constitute any evidence to support the assertion that the activity “pollutes and dilutes the educational system.” Additionally, including links to definitions of fallacies does not demonstrate the application of any critical thinking skills to the topic at hand. (In fact, the inclusion of the links and the way they are used demonstrates that Realist is operating at the lower tiers of Bloom’s taxonomy in the cognitive domain – knowledge and comprehension – while the meta-cognitive, critical self-reflection that makes critical thinking possible is simply absent from Realist’s posts.) Apply a rubric and you discover that Realist does not engage with the topic of the 10KSB graduation in a way that goes beyond subjective responses. Careful analysis with supporting evidence is lacking; more telling, the links to fallacies are themselves a red herring that uses “academically sounding words as a disguise.”
This is a poor showing for an educator exhorting all to “Truly educate in the academic and scholarly definition of the word.”