FAITH, HOPE, LOVE, IV

You know, sometimes I hate Isaac Newton, or, at least, his devotees who advocated that everything is a machine and is governed by intelligible, universal, and immutable laws. I say this because the scholarship of teaching and learning has turned the classroom in a Newtonian pedagogically and technologically mechanical system. In the rush to make teaching an important part of academia, in the effort to make it a worthy partner to scientific research and publication, in the effort to give teaching a scientific bent, far too many of us have made a pact with the devil. We’ve “scientized” teaching; we “thingified” it; and, in so doing, we’ve unnaturally de-humanized, impersonalized, and sanitized it as well. We’ve brought the 18th century view of people into the classroom; we’ve divided people into the separated higher order of the superior cognitive and the lower order of the inferior emotive. To prove ourselves, we’ve joined the mechanized bandwagon with our total focus on and reliance on scientific method of testing and grading and assessment. We’ve soften our stand, almost into extinction, on the “soft sciences” of feelings, emotions, and spirituality with devaluation, dismissal, and ridicule; and, we’ve hardened ourselves with the purely physical, and mechanical “hard sciences.” Like the 18th century champions of mechanism, too many of us say, “We don’t need that emotional realm. Its subjectivity distorts. We’ll just get rid of all of that.” We’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve risen above brutish, almost lawless, emotions. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are now only controlled, objective ‘thinking man,’ homo sapiens residing in the pristine Ivory Tower way above the fray of the outside sordid world. We leave no place for what we call the human psyche or human spirit or just plain humanity. So, we talk of “how” and “what” of physical assessment, or visible methodology, or apparent technology. We talk in terms of statistical generality, category, label, and stereotype. We “depeople-ize” classroom teaching as if we’ve let the laws of physics, like everything else, take over the classroom and accept that we’re all just machines playing it out. I think it’s because we conceived the classroom world in such a spatial system way that we have little way–or inclination–of describing the psychological, emotional, or spiritual aspects of our being.

It’s a delusion that is a barrier to insight. We don’t really know that we don’t know. In fact, we get in our own way by self-satisfyingly reading into things, engage in what the psychologists call comforting “attribution error.” We manufacture our own obscuring “In my humble opinion;” with accepted beliefs, perceptions, expectations, demands, biases, stereotypes, generalities, labels, categories. We don’t know how to ask the right questions. The result is that we don’t usually see things and people as they are; we numb ourselves to and turn away from what’s going on. So, when things don’t go as we expect, we play the blame game. We, at best, give lip service to, but generally ignore the challenging findings of such researchers as Dweck, Deci, Amable, Goldman, Fredrickson, Seligman, Boyatzis, Lyubomirsky, Csikszentmihaly, Halvorson, et al. They’re not talking about pedagogy or content or technology. They all are talking about the fact that it’s always personal. That no one has one objective bone in her or his body. It’s always about people’s attitudes, perceptions, and emotions. Its people’s values, character, morality, ethics, vision, purpose, meaning.

But, we don’t let the fact of research findings on learning get in our way; we haven’t really changed our view of things and people; we haven’t changed our ways. At best, as Clayton Christenson would say, our supposed innovations are merely sustaining, that is, merely tweaking in order to argue the absolute correctness of what we’re already doing and what we already believe.

You know, this morning I was sipping cup of freshly brewed Tanzanian Peaberry coffee, walking through my flower gardens, quietly watching the sway of the koi in the pond. I noticed that by walking a while in these landscape, my mood was changing. And, I realized that as landscapes change, so do our emotions and actions. So, we’ve got to shift the environment that rest solely on this “thingified” physical assessment or that visible methodology or that apparent technology. Education is overpedagogical-zed and over-technological-ized and under moralized. To barren and imbalanced “thingification” we have to add rich “peopleness.” We must acknowledge the invisible relationships and connections, the emotion of it all, the psychology if you will, that is prevalent in the classroom. To thingified “howdunnit” and “whatdunnit,” we have to add the critical human “whodunnit” and especially the “whydunit.”

That’s where the role of faith, hope, and love come in. They are not for “fixing,” or “correcting,” or “advising.” As I just told a few people, they are not about guiding to a particular place or to a particular activity. They make all the difference. They are what I call classroom “axis shifters.” They’re cleansers. They are, what Rabbi Chaim Stern might call, poetry in action. They’re the guiding light to insight. They’re a portal to a world of wonders. They identify and establish purpose. They enthusiastically capture the sacred in the mundane, ennoble the commonplace, and reveal the uniqueness in the ordinary.

They don’t the need for a self-inflating, and self-importance jargonized language. They “merely” select, rearrange, restructure, recast, and enhance the very same everyday nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs we already use to shed beauty, insight, and inspiration. In so doing, they call for considering what the daily grind adds up to; for taking pause for renewal and rejuvenation by reflecting on our efforts, by taking stock, by identifying and articulating purpose and meaning; and by seeing the bigger picture beyond information transmission and credentialling, beyond a test and grade and GPA. They create a mindfulness that breaks through imposed and self-imposed barriers of the impersonal numbness, disconnect, and disinterest created by the opaque veils of generality, stereotype, catalogue, and label. They close distances between “us” and “them,” and forge communal connections between “me” and “each of you.” Their requirements of silently and sincerely listening and seeing are deeply integrated components of a penetrating radar that gets beneath the surface of mask and facade, of stereotype, of generality, of label, of category, of simplification to the essential inner personal “me.” That is, who we and others are and can become. It’s the residence of character, principles, and values. It’s the seat of spirit, attitude, and emotions; it’s the source of self-esteem, self-confidence, self-respect; it’s the wellspring of priorities and allocation choices; it’s the measure of our lives.

Faith, hope, and love are about “people-ization;” or more specifically, they are about “humanizing,” “individualizing,” “personalizing,” and “realizing” in a way pedagogy and content and technology cannot. They’re about nurturing, caring, supporting, encouraging rather than weeding out. They are about mobilizing and channeling our moral energy. They are first and foremost about witnessing another human being just like us; and witnessing means a mindful, sustained, persistent, subdued ferocious but wise, and sustained presence: an awareness, an alertness, an otherness, a kindness. They are rooted in a deep commitment to our humanity and the humanity of others. They frame our gaze, what we watch and what we see, what we hear and to what we listen.

Think about how the landscape would change, how your emotions would change, how your feelings towards others would change, how your actions would change if you said sincerely to each person, and deeply lived, a simple, “I have undying faith in you. I have endless hope for you. I unconditionally love you.” Think about it.

Louis

 

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FAITH, HOPE, LOVE III

Wednesday, I heard from Arizona (her real name).  She is a former student from years back who is now a high school teacher.  Among the things she said was, “….Doc, you’ve written a lot lately about faith, hope, and love in the classroom.  And, you said you’ll write more.  Of course, that’s been your theme in everything you’ve put up, as you always say, into cyberspace.  And, what’s more important, that’s what your class was for each of us in there with you, a love story.  But, now I have an assignment for you.  Could you do me a favor?  I want you to boil all those reflections into one or two sentences that will be a tighter guide for following through on taking your  ‘Teacher’s Oath.’  I’ll give you a few days, but no later than Monday….”

One or two sentences!  I’m not sure how I get myself into these situations.  But, it was a challenge I could not ignore.  Anyway, picking up her gauntlet, this what I came up with:

Our attitudes drive our actions and our actions affect our attitudes.  Focusing on and making real unyielding, unconditional, non-judgmental, committed, persistent, inclusive faith, hope, and love “de-herds” the classroom; they transform “the class”  from an “is” into an “are,” from a collective, generalizing, stereotyping, depersonalizing, dehumanizing, faceless, nameless singular blur into a “gathering of separate, noble, sacred, unique ‘ones'” unclouded plural.  When we do that, we have no choice but to find ways to make each day a moral occasion when the process of unconditionally helping each and every student to help her or him learn how to make a good living and to live the good life come inseparably together.

Whew!  But, I beat her deadline.

Louis

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FAITH, HOPE, LOVE II

After I decided to scrap the title of my book of selected Random Thoughts, “A Dictionary of Teaching,” for my new title, “Faith, Hope, Love,” I read a comment made by Tyrion Lannister of GAME OF THRONES.  “Power resides,” he said, “where men believe it resides.”  Five things occurred over the past week and one this morning that reinforced my belief that a variation of that statement applies to faith, hope, and love.  Those people in whom those virtues reside and from whom they exude, who are practitioners of those virtues, brighten anyone’s day.  They’re infused with what I call a “de-self-centering otherness”: their reality is infused with caring about others; they have a bold strength in their own skin; they’re enveloped by limitless gratitude; they an earnest self-awareness; they don’t seek  title, position,or reputation; they never mistake motion for action, word with deed; they don’t excuse with “try,” but act with “do;” they don’t impress with a recitation of a career resume; they transform their profession into both an outer and inner calling; they’re kind and generous to others; they flood others with joy; they listen well to others; they notice others; they value others; they think only of serving others; conquering their fears and hesitations, they’re fearless, compassionate, devoted, persevering empaths; they nourish rather than weed out; and, they’re energized by and electrify others with faith, hope, and love.

Faith, hope, and love reside where people feel they reside.

So what were these one-plus-five events that confluenced and triggered these thoughts?  This morning, I was sipping my coffee by the koi pond.  There was a slight breeze in the air gently rustling through the philodendron guarding the pond.  The skies were gray and clouded as heralds of predicted rain.  The quiet of the dawn was broken by the song of a distant bird.  And, as I watched the koi dance their watery ballet, I remembered my Rumi:  “The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”  I listened to the five other occurrences.   First, at the request of Amy Carter, a teacher at local Lowndes High School, a fellow traveler and kindred spirit,  I participated in an exhilarating round table discussion with twenty students in her pre-education class who were considering education as their future profession.   As you might expect, my central theme, as I handed out my TEACHER’S OATH, was that at the core of teaching were unconditional and non-judgmental faith, hope, and love; that education is a people business in which its practitioners always have out-stretched hands to help others help themselves along their way.  Second, I had read yesterday in passing a statement by the political theorist, John Schaar:  “The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and their destination.”  Third was a piece by David Brooks, in last Saturday’s NY Times, called “The Moral Bucket List.”  The fourth was a profound and deeply personal message I received from a dear friend at a southern university.  About that I will say no more.  But, I will say something about a brief, but humbling, note from a student attending Mount Holyoke who read my last Random Thought on faith, hope, and love:  “After transferring from Valdosta, I have yet to meet a professor as passionate and caring as you . You had a great impact on my life and the lives of others, through your history class! I learned a lot about self-love and persistence! You know….life lessons that actually matter. You are a person who lives a life of purpose. You have cultivated your skills and helped others on the way! I hope to be more like you one day!  Thanks for believing in your students and me!”

Faith, hope, and love reside where people feel they reside.

These five streams meet at a junction to remind us that those with faith, hope, and love are made, not born.  They are practitioners who have chosen consciously, for a variety of reasons, to be the embodiment of those words.  They understand, as John Donne wrote, no one is an island; that everyone needs help from others.  They understand and recognize that education is personal, that the absence of unconditional, non-judgmental faith, hope, and love is a lethal barrier to betterment which needs tearing down.  They see that education is first, last, and only about people, that it’s not just a bunch of information and skills needed for credentialing.  They help others see over the horizon beyond passing a test, getting a class grade, accumulating a GPA, landing a “good” job, and getting a top salary.

It’s really amazing that so many academics are uncomfortable, to say the least, with faith, hope, and love; that as a consequence faith, hope, and love are so foreign in an academic vocabulary whose imbalanced culture is more concerned with developing skills and methods for a career rather and not being equally concerned with developing the qualities needed to build character; it’s unfortunate that academia focuses far more on the marketplace and almost always leaves the inner place ignored and unexplored; it’s sad when their presence and utterance is so surprising to students.  Personally and professionally, I wish faith, hope, and love would have a permanent place in the academic sun, that flesh and bone and name and face would be put on each of those words. Faith, hope and love are what I call one-person-at-a-time, look-in-the-eye “de-stereotypers,” “re-humanizers” and “re-personalizers” within a labeling, generalizing, and stereotyping culture that tends to impersonalize and de-humanize.

Faith, hope, and love reside where people feel they reside.

But, I also tell you that faith, hope, and love are struggles, and it takes both hard work and courage to live them.  And, should always be, for if we can do it “in my sleep,” it’s not particularly fulfilling; and fulfillment doesn’t come easy or sleep walking our way through things.  We can’t do anything free and easy, and expect it to be rich and meaningful to either us or others.  The treasure of what we do is in meeting the challenge to move away from being conditional, selective, small spirited, and judgmental.   So, faith, hope, love are not “Hallmark-ish.”  They’re not wishful thinking.  They’re not pop-cultural buzzwords.  They’re not trendy.  They’re not hip.  And, they certainly aren’t antique analogs in a digital age.

No, gracious as they may be, they’re kind of gritty.  We have to move away from being conditional, selective, small spirited, and judgmental; we have to stop presuming, generalizing, stereotyping, and assuming.   Going deep, they’re about hearing, seeing, and feeling in a certain way.  If we embark on this moral trek, we’ll find that they offer a clarity and sensitivity that gives us insight to the needs, not just the wants, of others.  As we venture along, they ask us to look at and pay attention to our spirit, our state of mind, and our state of heart.  They ask us to tune up and tune in our senses.  They are are words of “Now,” “Here,” “This.”  They required us to be present and right here; tied not to our lectures or controlled discussions, but to the person in front of us; concerned not only to help others learn how to make a good living, but to learn how to live the good life as well.  They ask us to be the embodiment of laughter, kindness, empathy, patience, dedication, commitment, compassion.  And, hardest of all we can’t mess with or short cut the amount of time and energy and presence that they require. There’s no technology for them, no app, no magic bullet, no hat trick, no quick fix, no sure-fire manual, no transforming elixir,

Faith, hope, and love reside where people feel they reside.

I wanted to write about the kind of hope that’s faithful and loving, the kind of faith that’s hopeful and loving, the kind of love that faithful and hopeful.   That interlocking strand is like super-bouncy flubber, a strong emotional formula which gives that needed resilient bounce for the ounce.  It makes us poor haters and weak disparagers; it makes us passionate and compassionate advocators; it makes us strong lovers.  Those kinds of faith, hope, and love are harder to live by, because it’s easier to be cynical. I mean, when you’re cynical, you’re never disappointed.  Problem is that we may find safety and comfort among that with which we expect and agree, but we grow and change from risk, discomfort, and disagreement.  Consequently, faith, hope, and love, however, don’t come without significant challenges, if for no other reason than we cannot control those whom we wish to help.  Of course, at the same time we don’t make ourselves into who we wish to be.  Sure, we’ll be met with disappointment, heartbreak, mistakes, fatigue, frustration, ridicule, dismissal, disregard, disparagement, and a host of other challenges thrown in our path.  Let the cynics condemn what we feel and do as “new-age,” fluff, tosh, soft, touchy-feely, dumbing down, watering down.  Faith, hope, and love are among what David Brooks calls the more important “eulogy virtues,” the ones that Linda Ellis describes in her poem, “the Dash,” that will be talked about at our funeral.

However, we shouldn’t despair or throw up our hands in frustration or grit our teeth in exasperation if we don’t have immediate answers or solutions or approaches–or results–to silence the snideness’.  To the contrary, the more we have faith, hope, and love, the stronger our armor against the slings and arrows of disdain and ridicule.  They deepen our courage and further open both our hearts and minds to both others and ourselves.  We should, however, get up the next morning and do it again. And, the next morning after that, get up, and do it; and, if we have been disappointed, we still do it again.  They’re the kind of words with which we get up every morning and choose to make the world just a little kinder and people a little better in our own way at our own pace, even if it’s one person at a time.    And, if things don’t work out, as Samuel Beckett would say, they help to insure they don’t work out better.  Nevertheless, as Rainer Rilke might have said, they demand we live the questions, hold on to the questions, being a questing Diogenes, until we live into the answer, live the answer, and become the answer.

Later on how I do it.  Enough for now.

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FAITH, HOPE, LOVE

With the exception of my eldest grandmunchkin’s Bas Mitzvah in mid-February, I’ve been feeling off-balance for the last two months.   My brother-in-law, Stan, died immediately after that last Random Thought on gratitude.  He was one of the good guys; as my son, Robby, said, “There should be more like him in the world.”  Everyone thought he was over the proverbial hump when we gathered for Thanksgiving in Nashville to be feted by Robby, the chef.  Little did any of us know it would be the last time I would see him.  He returned to the hospital days later.  He never came out.  He was my oldest and dearest friend. Before he met and married my sister, we were room mates at UNC in the early ’60s.   I had said on Facebook at the time of his death,  “I will not mourn his loss. Instead, I will celebrate the gain I have from having had him in my life these past 51 years.”  And, I have lived up to those words.  Nevertheless, since his death, and though he had been serious sick, having undergone several major surgeries, for the past three years, I’ve felt a subtle void.  All that changed about ten days ago when, thanks to Venus (not her real name), I felt a rejuvenating “its time.”

I am putting together a selected collection of my Random Thoughts for E-publication that were part of a series that I sprinkled over years called “Words In My Dictionary of Good Teaching.”   But, I wasn’t satisfied with the working book title by that name:  “A Dictionary of Good Teaching.”  It didn’t have a zing, a “hook.”  It really didn’t capture the essence of all those particular reflections.  Then, about ten days ago, I found the title I wanted:  “Faith, Hope, Love.”  I might give it a subtitle of “The ‘Little, Big Words’ of Teaching.”  Let me tell you how I inadvertently and unexpectedly found it.

I was late to walking the streets.  I approached a young lady and offered her a “good morning.”  She stopped in front of me, blocking my way, and exclaimed,  “Dr Schmier!”  I must have had with a curious “who are you” look in my face.  “I was in class with you the last semester before your retirement (Fall semester, 2012).  I’m Venus.”  She told me a tale of being “not sure I belonged in college,” our encouraging conversations, of being “big time sick,” of dropping out of school the following semester, of “settling” (her word) for a “good paying” job as a waitress.  Then, she hit me square between the eyes and said something like, “But deep down I wasn’t happy.  One day after my shift I dug out my date book for that semester with you.  I began reading all those ‘Words for the Day’ you wrote on the board and we talked about.  I copied every one of them.  I read one entry that said these words weren’t just words but ways to look at ourselves and ways to live.  Then, I read two that said, ‘Your greatest enemy is your own fear,’ and  ‘faith means not worrying.’  I heard them speaking to me.  They suddenly opened my eyes to myself.  ‘Settling’ meant running away, being stopped by my fear and worrying I couldn’t do what I wanted and not having the faith to give myself a chance.  From that time one to today, every time I wanted to stop, every time I wanted to settle for something, every time I worried what others would say or that I couldn’t do something, I heard you say from one of our conversations, ‘you’re better than this and you can be better, if you’re willing to do whatever it takes to become better.’  You were living faith, hope, and love to me.  So, because of you I slowly stopped settling for things I didn’t want.  I soon stopped being afraid.  I stopped worrying about whether I could do what I wanted to do or not.  And, I decided, as you once told me, to put all of me on the field.   I took off my apron, went back to college, first at near-by ABAC, and now here.  I’m surprising myself that I am doing whatever it takes to become what I really want to become, and it’s working!”

“And what is it you want to become?” I calmly asked.

She hit me square between the eyes for a second time.  “To be the good clinical psychologist I can be.  I want to help people have faith in themselves,  have hope for themselves, and love themselves.  I want to learn to listen to people so I can help them learn to hear the truth about themselves and their abilities.   Just like you so did for me,” she answered.  After a few seconds, she added “And, I want to be the good person I can be.  I want to be for others what you were to me:  walking faith, hope, and love.”

We talked some more.  As we parted with a hug and I continued on my walk, I began thinking of what she said:  “you were living faith, hope, and love to me,”  “I want to be for others what you were to me:  walking faith, hope, and love.”

Those two sentences are still ringing in my ears and swirling around in my soul.  They, those three words–faith, hope, love–make up the story of teaching.  Over the past twenty-two years to the month, I’ve often said how these three words infiltrated my spirit, how those three words have been profoundly transforming on my self-perception, my perception of others, my sense of the value of teaching, my understanding of my craft’s mission, and my actions.  They helped me put aside so-called “human nature” and focus on an individual’s “unique potential,’ that humans can change.  They were sledge hammers that I swung to shatter the dehumanizing scaffolding of classification, labeling, ranking, disconnecting, tagging, pigeonholing, separating, dividing, stereotyping, and generalizing.  They helped me concentrate on teaching as an unending series of exciting milestones, not as objectives or as finish lines or as end points.

For me, education is a love story.  It means to dream dreams while you’re awake.  Education is an act of faith. Faith is a “you can do it” word.  It’s faith in the fact that human beings have the capacity to grow and that as humans, we can become better.  Education is an act of hope.  Hope is a “could be” word.  It’s a “this isn’t it” word.  It’s a “keep going” word.  It is hope in possibility, in the fact that there is more to come, that this is not all there is.   Above all, education is an act of love.   Love is the first principle of teaching.  It is a “you’re somebody” word, a “you’re worth it” word, an “I care” word, an “I see you” word, an “I’m here for you” word.  It’s love in the fact that each person is too valuable, too unique, too noble to lose without a fight.  These words never take a holiday; they are never selective; they are never conditional.  They are mind opening, heart unlocking, eye opening, spirit raising, firing up–driving.  They’re “never give up,”  “don’t walk away,” “don’t despair” empathies, compassions, commitments, dedications, and perseverances.

To talk of faith, hope, and love in the same breath with teaching is to make the classroom into an inviting oasis that welcomes all to come to nourish their souls, spirits, and minds.   They are the cause of more miracles than are information, assessments, grades, test scores, reputations, publications, grants, resumes.  If you embrace them, they will teach you.  They will teach you, as Dale Carnegie rightly said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”  Living those three words create a habit of the heart; a wellspring of respect for, valuing of, caring about, concern for each student; and, a practice of unconditional inclusion rather than exclusion. It’s unconditional faith, hope and love in each student that makes teaching worth doing.  They mean we don’t define a person by a GPA, an academic recognition, any more than we do by how she or he dresses, the color of skin, religion, ethnicity, special needs.    Faith?  Hope?  Love?  Little words?  Little things?  Little moments?  There’s nothing little about them.

Louis

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IN GRATITUDE

Can’t sleep been up since 3:15 a.m.  I was thinking about a “….thank you for caring about me….” message I had received a few weeks ago from a student of thirteen years ago whom I’ll call Joe.  The subject line of Joe’s message read “A Long Overdue Thank You.”  That message, those particular words took me back over fifty years to Dr. Birdsal Viault.   You know, as John Dewey said, we never learn from our experiences, we only learn from reflecting on our experiences.  This reflection is where I get really personal about what teachers, or anyone who cares about someone else, can do.

         I unknowingly began to walk the road to who I presently am by stepping into Dr. Birdsal Viault’s history class as a default history major in the fall of my junior year.  My already weak self-esteem and self-confidence had been shaken to the core by the seismic devastation of a sophomore semester that dashed my–and my family’s–visions of a medical career on the rocks of a lousy transcript.  I was feeling more pain than usual, feeling a more than usual sadder disappointment to myself and others, feeling smaller than usual, feeling more unseen in a darker corner, feeling more unworthy and more incompetent than usual. I had reinforced the walls and deepened the moats of my inner redoubt to further protect myself.  

         About a third of the way into the semester, after handing in a short research paper, Birdsal Viault called me into his office.  I thought I would receive the usual caustic “you don’t know how” destructive dressing down I had received so many times from other professors and high school teachers before them.  I vividly remember him saying to my surprise, “Mr. Schmier (he always used the formal address), you have a lot of potential.  You are a good researcher and a very good writer.  I’ll help you if you want me to.” At the time, being a-washed in the formidable shame of “not good enough” and “don’t belong,” I stood there stunned, mentally looking around with a puzzled “who, me?”  For a moment I thought he was talking to someone else in his office behind me.  After all, only two years earlier I had been a high school graduate voted “clown of the class” by my fellow-students, and my teachers almost unanimously said I would be the least likely college-bound graduate in the class of 1958 to succeed.  The first two years, with a GPA dragged down by poor grades, it seemed that I was fulfilling their prophecy.  But, Birdsal Viault ignored all that.  He saw something in me  Over the next two years, he worked with me, encouraged me, had faith in me, invested in me.  In his own very, very reserved way, Birdsal Viault, only eight years my senior and relatively new to the professorial game, began to help me start taking down everything I had put up that was supposed to keep me safe, or, at least, he helped me to begin to remodel my sanctuary. 

         Now a Mr. Keating he wasn’t.  He was not one to rip pages out of a book or to get photographs to whisper or to go out on retreats in caves or to jump up on desks.  He was not given demonstratives.  The reserved airs Dr. Viault maintained made him not one for boisterous academic rah-rahs.  I could never envision him as a pom-pom waving professorial cheerleader.  He never wore his emotion on his sleeve; he almost embodied the idea that emotion was something to which those in the Ivory Tower not succumb, much less display.  He seemed outwardly to numb his emotions; he never let his guard down, always maintaining “proper” professorial decorum, always costuming everything he said and did in intellectual garb, always being the stately Ph.D. he thought he was supposed to be.  But, his empathy and compassion, closely guarded as they may have been, came though his outwardly tough armor.  He always came out from behind his separating desk, pulling a chair to sit next to me when giving me feedback.  His support and encouragement was subdued, slow, patient, and kind, but challenging, demanding, and pushing–and touching.  

         His comments to my work and me were always kind, constructive, supportive, and encouraging.  He never said an angry or corrosive word to me.  He always accentuated the positive.  He was the first to make me open my eyes–even if they were at the time only a squint–make me feel like I had a future, that I could dream, that I had a unique potential.  He showed me things about my self that I didn’t know and didn’t believe were there.  It was he who gave me confidence to go on for my Masters degree and then at his urging on for my Ph.D.   He made a difference in my life; he helped send me on my way.  It was a way I would never have struggled to find, the way ahead to a meaningful, satisfied, purposeful, and fulfilling life.  Though he sent me on my way, it was a route that was still fraught with a struggle between an angelic sense of worthiness to be loved and belong on one hand and the demonic minions of self-doubt and worry.  It wasn’t until I had my shape-shifting epiphany twenty-eight years later that spark Dr. Viault struck burst into a brilliant flame.  I realized at that moment in late 1991 that you find your way not by just opening doors to the amazing unknown ahead, but by what hard doors you close behind you, acting out from a place of knowing your worthiness.   

         Birdsal Viault has since died.  He had lived a short hop from Charlotte where my Susie and I often had visited her parents.  But, for some reason, he wouldn’t take my calls, wouldn’t agree for me to call upon him, would never answer my letters, would never respond to my later emails.  I don’t know why and I won’t speculate.   Then, again, he never was able to accept a “thank you;” always seemingly embarrassed by those two appreciative words.  I see now that Dr. Viault, for whatever reasons, might have had what Brene Brown in her “Daring Greatly” calls an “allergy to vulnerability.”  I always had a sense that he had built a protective facade around himself, with which I could relate, against being hurt or being seen as weak or being accused of gullibility, or being assaulted as “unprofessional,” or being judged as unmanly.  I remember overhearing the chair of the department assailing Dr. Viault as if he was trying to beat the emotion out of him, asserting that when it came to me, Dr. Viault was wasting his precious time, that he should stop being so emotional and, in his words, “just cut him out from the herd.”  Nevertheless, he cautiously became my ally.  He quietly dared greatly to reach out.  He secretly made a connection, and silently went all in wholeheartedly.  Though I don’t think he realized it, he had thrown caution to the wind and had put a lot of himself on the line for me.  

         So, Dr. Viault, though you wouldn’t allow me to say it in person, thank you for being who you were and still are to me.  Thank you for extending your hand and having the first hand in my achievement.  Thank you for not being isolated and remote, for noticing me, for acknowledging me, for your beautiful thoughts, for mentoring me, for caring about me, for being kind to me, for nurturing me, for loving me in your own reserved way, for having faith in me, for believing in me, for taking me from being stuck in the abyss of hopelessness to start climbing up to the heights of hopefulness, for taking me from ugliness to getting a first peek at my beauty, for being my “philosopher’s stone” and helping me to start transmuting from a base metal of worthlessness to having a noble mettle of worthiness,  for letting me begin developing my own “elixir of life,” for supporting me when no one else would, for encouraging me when all others did just the opposite.  While I could never pay off the debt I owe you, I realized, however, as someone said, my greatest acts of gratitude is living by them, doing for others what you did for me, that I could “pay off my debt forward” by unconditionally loving with my whole heart and soul, by willing to show up and go all in, and by helping others to be their own alchemists as you helped me.  So, I thank you, Birdsal Viault.  All the Joes whom you’ve touched through me thank you.  And, I thank all the Birdsal Viaults who were and are out there transforming lives, as teachers should, and not just credentialing.  Wherever and whoever you all are, I am deeply grateful.  

Louis

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BEING YOUR OWN PERSON

A professor, not in an admiring tone, just called me “revolutionary,” “radical,” “a threat,” and “audacious.”   Guilty to three out of four.  I admitted to her that I make no bones about being a cable cutter.  I added that my vision is bright, shining, and valuable only when I have the courage to follow it. When I know that it is the thing to do, then I step up and do it.  But, I am no threat, however others may feel threatened.  All I do is to stay informed, to educate myself on the latest research on learning, to pay attention, very close attention to what others have discovered, say, and write.  It doesn’t bother me that a lot of the new brain-based findings on learning goes against long held myths.  I am “revolutionary” and “radical” in that I don’t hesitate to find ways to change my thinking and doing.  I don’t tightly grip to the comfortable, risk-free ignorance of age-old presumption, assumption, or perception.   I am not, for example, threatened by the recent revelations in Frances Jensen’s “The Teenage Brain” that adds to the challenge of long held views that our students are rational, thinking-before-acting “adults.”    I just remember who I am, who I was, where I came from, where I am, where I want to go, and what I have to offer.  I give color and texture and substance and sensation to my most treasured dreams.  I focus my mind, my energy, my spirit, my feelings, and my emotions on helping others to help themselves become the persons they each are capable of becoming.  When that occurs, it is the most joyful and fulfilling scenario of service I can imagine.  If that be “revolutionary” and “radical,” and a “threat,” so be it.

Now,  as for being “audacious,” I admit that I have an engaged amazement of life, or what Rabbi Abraham Herschel would call a “spiritual audacity.” And why not.   At this stage of my life, at the age of 74 and still young in spirit and somewhat physically spry, after a forty-six year academic career, after surviving myself, after having an enlightening epiphany, after overcoming cancer, and after miraculously–that’s the only word that fits–surviving unscathed a massive cerebral hemorrahage that normally kills or seriously disables 95% of the people who have experienced it, should I be otherwise?  Am I really supposed to be worried about what others think?  Am I really supposed to succumb and become the person others want me to become?   Am I really supposed to tow the academic party line and kowtow to academic convention?  I think not!

I’ll tell you, my greatest sense of stability is to live my vision and base my intentional choices on it.  I get going when I get life going my way, when I move my dreams from “someday” or “tomorrow” to “now” and “today.”   My greatest sense of liberation, the bedrock of my self-esteem, comes from not worrying about what others think, not performing as others would have me, and not conforming to the demand of others.  Over the past twenty-three years or so since my epiphany, catalyzed by having survived cancer and that cerebral hemorrhage, I have learned that my life is the result of all the conscious and unconscious choices I’ve made about whose voices to heed, what paths to walk, what vision I may or may not have, in what direction I go, and whom I serve.   As I had begun slowly and cautiously to control the process of choosing, I found that I had begun to take control of all aspects of my life. I slowly found the freedom that came from being in charge of myself.

It was and is that simple.  When I take control, I have control.  I intend consciously to live my intention of living well, that is, to bring sincere happiness, fulfillment, and purpose to each moment.  And if any shortfalls occur, I’ll choose to morph disappointment into unstoppable determination.  It breaks whatever controls others may wish to exercise over me.  When I stop looking over my shoulder, I look forward and have my eyes on the prize.  When I take the responsibility of the choices I make, when I silence that blaming whispered or proclaimed “the devil made me do it,” when I replace “you made me…” with the recognition that “I made me…,” I, and only I, am in charge of me. When I accept that “I am responsible for…,” I am the only one who owns me.  I am my own person.  I decide how to react to and respond to people and circumstances around me.  The truth is that I will be miserable when I choose to be miserable, and I will be happy when I choose to be happy.  I don’t need a particular job, title, income, or any set of circumstance to enjoy; I must simply choose to enjoy.  The bottom line is that whatever and wherever and whenever I choose to feel, I feel.  It’s all in the way I choose to look at life and all in the way I choose the way.

Of course, it’s not that simple, not as simple as self-help platitudes make it out to be.  As DaVinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Sure, the outside world exerts a lot of pressure and influence that yield anxiety and fear.  But, I found that I can have greater inner influence over me.  So, breaking the binding chains is not easy.  It requires courage and strength.  It requires commitment, dedication, perseverance, and patience.  It demands sweat.   It demands a lot of challenge to inner conventional thinking, a lot of inner crockery breaking.  It requires a new course setting over a long haul.  Now, you may say that I’m going too far.  But, as T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

So, my inner peace comes a twenty-four year and counting inner emotional and spiritual workout program of listening to myself,  being honest with myself about myself, and constantly in pursuit of becoming and being my authentic self.  That inner serenity and freedom give me a power, not to overwhelm, but to transform; not to be the bull in the proverbial china shop, but empathetically to tread carefully and lightly; not to be arrogant and self-righteous, but to be a mergence of power and gentleness and authority and kindness; to be humble; to be harmonious, but to be in community; not to be self-centered, but to have a keen sense of awareness and otherness and deep respectfulness; not to be haughty, but to be empathetic and sympathetic; not to take, but grab the chance to serve and to contribute to something bigger than myself.

I guess, as Cornel West would say, I am unbound, unafraid, unbought, and unintimidated to be me.  You see, when I sing my own song, when I dance to my own choreography, when I perform my own lines, when I feel obligated to enlarge my world and the world around me, that’s when I have ownership of what I do, that’s when I experience purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.  And, that’s when I am truly happy: when I truly love who I am and love more who I am constantly becoming, when I have a durable and enduring feeling of well-being, and when I have a quiet and honest satisfaction with what I am doing with my life.

Louis

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MICRO NONVIOLENCE

         Tomorrow we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Having been in the civil rights movement, I slowly began to discover that there are always other ways to experience the world and to act in it, and to refuse to accept the than prevailing “this is the way it is” reality.  In that spirit, I slowly, too slowly until my explosive epiphany in 1991, evolved to be a kind of a micro-practitioner of activist physical, intellectual and emotional non-violence. Because of that, some called me rebellious, non-traditional, a “save the world” dreamer, a “new ager,” and worse. I’m none of those to me. If and when I have to, I describe myself as an ever-curious “what if,” “live on the edge’ kind of guy, a guy who enjoys the struggle of the journey, a good trouble maker who is always finding ways to get in the way, a guy who never hesitates to ask the uncomfortable question, an innovator, a positive creative disruptor. I’m a guy who is always seeking consciously to connect my inner self with my outer doings. I’m more of a persuader and convincer than an imposer by struggling to be a living expression of hope and love. I work in the trenches as what I call an engaged, risk taking “change maker.” I work to help guide people to guide themselves toward something I have experienced and understand: find a balance between self-inflation and self-denigration; accept that we are all frail and fallible, carrying both large and small imperfections; not being without fault, don’t be quick to fault others; nothing in life is perfect; love the sight and sound of both yourself and others; don’t honor yourself at the expense of others; it’s always too early to stop dreaming and never too late to start dreaming; have faith; hope; believe; love; care about both yourself and others; and, the best way to find yourself, as Gandhi said, is in the service of others.

But, if truth be told, I don’t have a label for myself. If I did, I’d screw things up because self-labeling is just as distorting, misguiding, imprisoning, depersonalizing, and dangerous as being labeled. It would skew my perceptions and expectations; I’d focus on it; I’d be conscious of having live up to that reputation. No, I see myself as just a label-defying “Louis, that rhymes with ‘phooey.'” I do just what I do to be fruitful in what I do, make it feel like fun rather than arduous work, have a belief that I have a voice worth uttering, have a humility to learn from others, share and hopefully influence others, and have a faithfulness to what I see needs to be done and is within my reach. I’m zealous in a quiet sort of way; sometimes I’m not so quiet. Either way, I don’t play the 100% or perfection or gimmick games.

I am deeply impacted constantly by my reflections on my upbringing and youthful experiences, by my involvement in the civil rights movement, by my volcanic epiphany in 1991 at the age of 50, by my overcoming cancer in 2004, and especially by my survival of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 2007. A lot of well-intentioned people tell me to get over these events, especially the cerebral hemorrhage, and get on with my life. They don’t understand that the fact that I did not die from that sudden and unforewarned huge brain bleed as almost all do, gave me a life mooring like nothing else. I knew just to be alive was a blessing and that I had to meet the challenge to live my life. They made everything crisper, sharper, and more vital. Let me tell you something. You are never more appreciative of and more in love with life then in the presence of death; you never love more the people you love.

So, I consciously make sure I never get over and forget anything, especially that near-death hemorrhage. Because of it, my bucket list is simple and long: to live as full of a life each moment as I possibly can. I wake each day and bounce out of bed with a “yes” in my heart for each opportunity life gives me that day. This touch of winter’s crud or flu these past two weeks has reminded me that days may not turn out the way I expect or want and people may not do what I expect or want, but I am still be grateful to be alive, and have hope for and love those other people. I do my damnedest not to sigh with a host of self-righteous “ah me,” not to arrogantly surrender to resignation, not get frustrated, not to point fingers of blame, not to demean and belittle, not to sneer, not to get irritated, and not be angered. Those negatives are too heavy to bear, and they will not build anything positive. Now, I may not like what happened or what those others did or did not do, but my response is with continued wonderment, faith, belief, hope, and kindness; I will not stop smiling; I will not stop being kind; I will not stop embracing; I will not stop supporting and encouraging; I will not stop being grateful; I will continue loving them.

No, I sustain myself with a faith, belief, hope, and love. I never turn away, never give up, never give in, never throw in the towel, never throw up my hands; I never hang it up; I just hang in there; I keep looking life and others in the eye; I just hold on; I remain excited, hopeful, and loving; and, I patiently and persistently–patiently and persistently–keep coming back and back and back and back. I just actively support and encourage the apathy out of them; I hope the disbelief out of them; I love the self-disrespect out of them. All this is not a feeling; it’s a release; it’s a stirring; it’s a vibrancy; it’s an energizer and encourager; it’s a way of life; it’s an active and powerful doing. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Heschel, it’s praying with your entire being, and hearing a returned whisper, “Louis, you, too, can make a difference.”

Making a difference in the lives of others, that’s my “true north,” my guiding wisdom that helps to insure as much as possible that my disruption, innovation, and creativity are for the betterment of others by instilling belief, faith, hope, by instilling the basic values of love, empathy, resiliency, responsibility, respect; to find that middle ground between the varied pitches of over-selfestimation and under-selfestimation.

When I draw my last breath and stand before the Pearly Gates, I won’t be asked about the numbers of the assessments by others of me; no one will look at my professional resume of degrees, titles, grants, and publications as recommendations to enter; I will not be vetted through my material possessions. No, I will be asked whether I heeded that whisper; whether my heart was in the right place; whether I kept walking the long road; whether I left the roadblocking doubts and insecurities behind; whether I cast aside excuses and rationales; whether I seized fleeting teachable moments to make them lasting; whether I kept making every effort to be a good and just person; and whether I constantly worked to transform some of the impossible into the possible. I will be asked about the bedrock of my values, if my life was my message, if I felt I stood on holy ground each day, if I unwrapped the presents of each present day and used them–my abilities, my unique potential, my possibilities, and my vision–to make a difference in the lives of others.

Louis

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MONEY AND COLLEGE SPORTS

Rant alert!!

I’ll be brief.  It’s the day after the college championship football game, and I am in a “grrrrrrrrr” mood.  I’ve been gnashing my teeth lately.  A lyric has been swirling in my angry head:  “Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round.”

That’s not the sordid world outside the Ivory Tower.  That’s the Ivory Tower.  Higher education is increasingly being lowered by bigger bucks.  It is becoming as imbalanced at a huge container ship listing and stuck on a sandbank.  It is becoming more brashly commercialized.   Conferences expanding; governors politiking governors; schools being wooed  away to one conference by another; schools switching conferences; players wanting to unionize.  For what?  It’s hasn’t got a thing to do with academics.  It’s all about “football” and “basketball,” and in academia that translates into “cold cash.”  It’s not about academic integrity; it’s about money.  It’s not about character development; it’s about building up bank accounts.  It’s not about graudation rates; it’s about win/lose records.  It’s not about the future well-being of the kids–yes, the student/athletes are kids–it’s about the coaches’ jobs. Athletic meat markets aren’t becoming much different from diploma mills.   Instead of diplomas stacked high; money is stacked in rolls.  It’s not about academic honors; it’s about football championships.  Presidents talk academics and walk money.  Power in so many colleges have been surrendered to coaches and ADs by emasculated Presidents.  All these athletic cents make no academic sense.  And, they’ve brought me to my senses.  The Big 12 commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, self-servingly and self-aggrandizingly said in reference to college sports. “I think it’s a function of higher education.”  I think he should have said “disfunction.”

A seven year contract salary of $35 million–for starters? For a college football coach? How about $7.3 billion–yes, billion–for seven years of championship TV rights paid by ESPN.  $5 billion yearly earnings, just for football?  Lucrative?  No.  Ludicrous!  Corrupting!!  That’s the height of obscenity in higher education. But, that’s not the point. You say these athletes are getting an education to which they otherwise wouldn’t have access?  The point is in a rampant mentality, that’s even infected my beloved UNC, revealed in a tweet by Cardale Jones, starting quarterback of Ohio State in the championship game, that appeared recently in the  NY Times: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”

–“we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POONTLESS.”–Now, whomever that doesn’t bother is part of the problem!!  Lock away your idealism?  Let your ethics shrivel?  Trade them both off for entertainment? Tolerate and be content with exploitation?   I, for one, won’t. I’d rather walk away, but not quietly.

I know, this train has left the station.  But I don’t have to wave at it with a fluttering handkerchief, smile and cheer.  This ex-student/athlete, avid sports fan, hasn’t watched one collegiate or pro football or basketball game this year, not even the playoffs and championships.  Not one.  Haven’t even gazed glancingly at the sports section, much less scores or standings.  I am that angry.  But, I was amazed how easy it is.  I don’t feel any separation anxiety.  I’m sure that no one will care about my “nano-protest” or “micro-rant,” but it sure makes me feel better.

As Joel Gray sang, “Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money….”  GRRRRRRRRR!!

Louis

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A CAMPUS DIVERSITY WE NEED

It is damnably hard not to angrily condemn the Islamic terrorists in France this day.  But, while all these recent incidents are horrifying, before we get high and mighty with a host “je suis Charlie” and issue blanket “we are better than them” condemnations of Islam, we should stop, take a breath, slow down, reflect, and learn.  I’ve already read, “We don’t shoot and kill like Islamists when we disagree with someone.”  Some of us don’t?  We just had a bombing of NAACP offices in Colorado Springs a couple of days ago.  Without going back to the Crusades or the religious wars of the Reformation or to pogroms against the Jews or the “Gangs of New York” or SLA,  without referring to signs “Italians (aka Catholics) need not apply” or “No Jews Allowed,” do a lot of us always converse openly, respectfully, and civilly with people of different faiths, or do too many of us often take the high ground for ourselves, pontificate, insult, accuse, and condemn?  We don’t have our share of puerile, simplistic, fundamental biblical literalists quoting scripture left and right in support of their intolerant views and actions, condemning to hell left and right those who disagree with them?  We shouldn’t forget the equally home-grown intolerance bombings of abortion clinics, killing of abortion doctors, beatings of homosexuals, burning of Korans, demonizing of transgenders; we shouldn’t forget white supremacists, anti-feminists, anti-semites, anti-Catholics, and, of course, the KKK, all of whose close-minded stands and actions were and are self-valdiated in the name of their version of Christianity.

But, there’s something else, something that’s been sitting in my craw for the last nine months or so, something that is part of this story.   I want us to think about a crime that too often is regrettably being committed on our campuses.  That crime is an intolerant and disrespectful strangulation of debate, debate that is essential to reminding each of us who we are and what are our beliefs.  By that I mean, are our campuses really open-minded?  Are they really bastions of free expression?  Are they really trading posts for an exchange of ideas?  Do they really give a wide latitude in allowing disagreeable, even offensive, speech?   How long do you think a satirical publication such as Charlie Hebdo would last on any campus?
I want us to think of all those commencement invitations that were stridently attacked last May and June by the holier-than-thou, close-minded, and self-exaggerated who were offended by the views and positions of the invited speakers and demanded that they be denied a podium.  I want us to think about, as David Brooks reminded us in his column yesterday, the plague of all those cowardly administrative disinvitations of commencement speakers this past spring.
All this has taken me back to a June micro-furor on my campus in which childish, arrogant, and self-righteous groups loudly protested against an invitation issued to the ultra-conservative Ben Carson to speak at VSU in September.  Filled with self-puffery, they resorted to close-minded, disrespectful insult.  He was labeled, “branded” is a better word,  “attacked” is still a better word, a “conservative darling” and the “dr. of division.”  A call was made for the President of the University to display “assertive leadership” and withdraw the invitation.  And, he did display “assertive leadership,” for unlike on other campuses where the authorities caved in and withdrew commencement invitations, our President refused.  Rightly so, I say. These people were just plain wrong.  Agree with Carson’s stands or not, we should stand up for free expression on our campuses.  As Sun Tzu said, “If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”  And, even if you disagreed, you were, at least, better informed.  Nothing is learned with ear plugs and blind folds, or an ostrich stance.
The one labeling attack on Ben Carson was interesting:  he was an “affront to academe.”  Why?  Because he was a conservative?  Because some people didn’t like or disagreed with his pronouncements?   The real affront to academe was the close-minded call to bar him a campus podium.  You know, when we talked of diversity, we initially meant racial diversity.  Then, we added gender diversity.  And, then, we added sexual preference diversity.  To these we added ethnic diversity and a host other differences.  We talk of the diversity this and the diversity that.  We say diversity does all great things for each of us, that it expands our world by meeting and entering other worlds, that it forces us to reflect and articulate the “why” of our thinking.  It does all of that.   If this true, and I believe it is, we must embrace another diversity, one too often greeted with closed door inhospitality:  diversity of thought, a diversity of belief, a diversity of all kinds of religious, cultural, social and political stands.
This past year my campus was celebrating “50 Years of Inclusion.”  It was a celebration limited to racial integration.  It should been expanded to include and embrace all who knocked on our doors to enter.  If our campuses are truly Ivory Towers with lowered bridges for all to enter, they must be down for other forms of thought.  The real test of supporting the right of free speech, that corner stone of American democracy, is defending and allowing the presence of expressions when you think such thoughts are different, disagreeable, indefensible, unsupportable, offensive, and detestable. Never have I seen in that First Amendment’s eloquent terseness, “Congress shall make no law….abridging the freedom of speech,” anything said with adjectives such as convenient, comfortable, appropriate, agreeable, inoffensive, untroubling, acceptable.  Were our Founding Fathers to have imposed such restricting and imprisoning and subjective adjectives on speech, that portion of the First Amendment would be hollow.
We all need challenge to our own too often closed certainty, challenges that chisel at those things we have set in stone.  We need to realize that no one and no one group possesses all the truth and wisdom, we all should have an openness to the experience of the other.  To be sure, it makes for a more messy place.   But, then, what do we want?  Neatness?  Commonality?  Order?  Peace?  Uniformity?  Conformity?  Certainty?  Imposition?  Or, do we want freedom, skepticism, inquiry, individuality, and authenticity. Think how poorer would we have been if we didn’t have those who got under our skin, pushed our buttons, tweaked our noses, got us mad, needled us, gave us pause to reflect, and caused us–forced us–to articulate. How much farther would we be from the ideals of American values.
Ever read Dale Carnegie’s HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE?  I think many on my campus, and others as well, should.  We all would be better off not starting off with a self-righteous, arrogant, and closed “I am right” and “you are wrong.”  Instead, we should humbly stop talking and start listening; we should begin with a little humble “let’s hear what you have to say,” a bit of acknowledging our own fallibility, and a praise for the something about the other side.  We should cut ourselves a little slack.  Maybe we should say in word, thought, and deed about us and them,  “our guys got some things wrong,”  “we were wrong about this,”  “your guys got some things right.” “you were right about that.”  We’d all be better off having a civil conversation then a verbal pie throwing fight.  By that I mean doing more respectful, sincere, and open listening and reflecting than close-minded talking, finger pointing, and pontificating. We would be better off overcoming close-mindedness.  We’d be better off respecting and learning something from the other person with whom we differ.  We would have been better off if people avoided the dynamic of combatants, had praised for the other guy, and acknowledged that no one has the perfect answer.
What we need is a truly fusion academy when we can taste all sorts of foods for thought and then make an informed decision for ourselves about what suits our palate.

Louis

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A REPRINT: WHAT IS IT WE GET PAID TO DO

I was reading in today’s Valdosta newspaper of a presentation made by the University’s President, whom I highly respect, to the local Rotary Club.  Something jumped out at me.  According to this article,  all he talked about was the University becoming a center for “pure and applied research” and an “economic engine.”   Assuming that the reporting is accurate, the President noted that the University’s relevance in the region and “the near future,” for my tastes, was certainly one-sided. The contents of this article took me back to something I shared in February, 1995, before I call my reflections “Random Thoughts.”  I titled it, “What Is It We’re Paid To Do?”  It was to become a keystone in my developing philosophy of education and vision of my purpose as a teacher.  It is certainly at the core of my “Teacher’s Oath.”  It was relevant then; it is even more relevant now.  I believed it then; twenty years later I believe it even more.  So, for the first time in my over two decades of sharing, I am reprinting and resending this Random Thought as a reminder of what is “higher” in Higher Education:

It’s late. I am sitting here in my office thinking. A student just left. We were sitting in the empty hallway, sucking on Tootsie Pops, talking about his difficulties in class.

“What’s your major?” I asked between licks.

“Accounting,” was his slurpy reply. “Why do I have to take history anyway?” he continued as he tried to defend his lack of studying. “What good is all this dead stuff in the past? I’m not going to do anything with it. I don’t need it for my major.”

A reasonable question.

“Why are you here at the university?” I asked without answering his question.

“To get a good job,” replied without skipping a beat. “I want to make money.”

An expected and reasonable answer.

“Is that all,” I kept probing.

“What else is there,” he replied with a look of amazement.

That, too, is regrettably a reasonable answer.

Well, as I walked back into my office I started thinking about a question my e-mail friend, Kathy Bolland, raised. In the course of one of our exchanges, she asked, “What is the public paying us for?”

Good question that deserves an answer.

Heck, that student could probably answer the question in a flash. He is probably a good reflection of all that John and Jane Q. Public perceive to be the value of an education. That’s probably all they think they pay us and want us to do: train people to get a good paying job. That’s probably how many of us educators would answer the question. It certainly is more often that not how we in our kowtowing to legislatures, in our patronizing of the public, in our pandering to ourselves usually explain the value of an education and defend the reasons for our existence. We talk so much about education almost solely in economic considerations, the need to prepare the student for the work place, the need to compete in the global economy, that we have become–or at least think of ourselves–as little more than what I call “white collar vocational institutions.” We also hear the earned pronouncements of how the universities are research centers from which spew the world’s major scientific advances and technological development necessary to maintain the country’s economic vitality and high standard of living.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these are legitimate and important purposes and goals and achievements. As valuable as these missions are, and however desirable are the consequences of such efforts, they are not the whole picture. Maybe, not even the most important part of the picture. They may address the issue of economic leadership, technological gaps, and the budget deficits. But, I’m not sure they are effective in generating and harnessing the moral and spiritual horsepower necessary to eliminate the social deficit.

There is an all-important third mission of an education beside teaching of the professions, the search for new knowledge, and the development of new technologies. You can’t see it, feel it, hold it, count it, list it, or hear it. It’s not to be found in physical structures or test scores or resumes or scholarships or grants or spread sheets or in test tubes or in labs or on keyboards or even on the scoreboard. It doesn’t have glitzy or sexy instant quantifiable gratifying results that you can extol at a fund-raiser for alums, brag about in an annual report, or earn an award with. Like the weather, everyone talks about it but does little about it. Oh, you’ll find it mentioned in glowing and meaningless mission statements as well as in eloquent and meaningless speeches. But, in reality, it is too often relegated to the neglected position of the third son; it is too often exiled to the periphery of consideration; it is barely and haphazardly addressed; it is too often given little more than grudgingly “let’s get it over and done with as quickly as possible so we can get on to the important professional stuff” lip service; it is not taken seriously in either the curriculum–first-year core or otherwise–and the definition of education. If it is embraced, it is done so more often than not with reluctance rather than with great aspiration.

Yet, it is this third mission which distinguishes what we do in higher education–or are suppose to do–from vocational training. Its moral vocational role and function is inseparably woven in with the material missions. It’s moral compass provide the guiding spirit of both education and society that are, as Thomas Edison said, the heart and soul that control, guide and give meaning to the creature creations of the mind.

That mission is the preparation of the broadly informed, flexible, adaptable human being endowed with knowledge, skills, and attitude to live rightly as well as to earn a living. It is the development of a thoughtful citizen and a compassionate human being who is also a skilled worker. It is a mission that is concerned with the whole person rather than merely the partial wage-earner. It is the mission that seeks to insure that our students will graduate as individuals of character more competent in their ability to contribute to society, more civil in how they think, more respectful in how they talk, more sympathetic in how they act, more sensitive to the needs of the community of which they are a part. It is a mission that promotes a flexibility and adaptability in the face of rapid change both inside and outside the work place, that affords the students a better opportunity to play the many roles in life outside of the work place. I don’t think we educators are what someone might call value neutral however we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise. Like it or not, it seems so obvious to me that society’s future citizens, not just its future work force, is being groomed in our educational institutions. Wasn’t it Pericles to said something to the effect: as people are educated so they shall live and lead.

Education, then, should go beyond the narrow confines of subject matter and vocational skills. It’s the communication of a basic set of personal and social values which include: understanding that life is teamwork and thus learning how to work together; learning how to work through miscommunications and the conflicts that arise from individuality and diversity; learning how to acquire a love for excellence; learning a tolerance for others; acquiring a commitment to each other and to the dignity of all; developing a love of learning, commitment to free inquiry, devotion to free expression.

It should, therefore, instil in all students genuine, loving, lifelong eagerness to learn, flexibility across fields, love for their chosen lives. It should foster a life of continual growth and development. It should encourage and assist students to develop the basic values needed for learning and living: self-discipline, self-confidence, self-worth, perseverance, responsibility, pursuit of excellence, emotional courage, intellectual honesty, humility, compassion for others.

This may not be what the public pays us or thinks it pays us to do. This may not be what we think we get paid to do. This may not even be what the public wants. It certainly isn’t what my student wants. But, we must, forcefully argue that we must require students throughout their educational experience to learn about and reflect on people, places, ideas and things with which they are unfamiliar, which have no obvious technical, scientific, or vocational value, but which are an essential part of living. This is what I think my student needs and should get. This is what I think the public needs and should get. This is what I think I really get paid to do.

Louis

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