from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

If we are going to talk about education 

It seems to me that we need to establish where we stand. So I will in this diary offer a suggestion of how those of us who support education should approach any discussion on ANY topic of education. I have decided that it is the framework within which I will henceforth carry on my own discussions, public and private.

If you care about this issue, I suggest you continue reading.

teacherken’s framework for discussion:

Unless and until you commit the principle that every child in the United States is entitled to a free, quality PUBLIC education, we have nothing else about which to converse.

I refuse to discuss any subtopics of education with anyone who will not commit to this principle, because absent this commitment to a public good, I am afraid - based on experience - that all I will be hearing is points designed to justify doing something other than meeting this baseline necessity of maintaining a democratic republic.

Make the commitment. Tell me that you are committed to this simple principle. Then I am willing and ready to look at all kinds of options.

Refuse to make that commitment and as far as I am concerned, you have indicated to me you don’t truly believe in public schools, as a common responsibility, as a common good, as something to which our society and our nation should remain committed.

And if you lack that belief, then we cannot have a meaningful discussion about any subtopic of education, because your agenda must be how you can use that subtopic to undercut support for public education.

Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University refuses to share platforms or tv appearances with holocaust deniers because that gives them a legitimacy to which she does not believe they are entitled.

I will also refuse to grant legitimacy by participating in discussion about educational issues with those who are not committed to the proposition of public education.

Make a public commitment, and then we can explore in depth. Refuse such a commitment and I know you are an enemy - of public schools and of those of us who are committed the simply principle that a free, quality PUBLIC education is the right of every child in the United States.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The relationship of religion and government 

Our First Amendment begins with two separate clauses about freedom of religion, one which says that there will be no establishment and the other which guarantees free exercise. Both restrictions were applied only to the Federal government (“Congress shall make no law”) because to have attempted otherwise would have doomed any chance of getting a meaningful Bill of Rights. Religion, like slavery, was an issue on which the country was deeply divided in the 1780’s, and any attempt to force a resolution would have meant the new nation would have been stillborn.

In this diary I want to explore something of the background of how the US developed a unique position on religion and government, with both clauses. I lack Unitary Moonbat’s skill as an historian, but this is an area that has long concerned me and I have just completed a month of intensive study at an NEH seminar. If the subject interests you, please keep reading.

Prior to the Declaration, the thirteen colonies that were to form the new nation had a very mixed record on the subject of religion. Despite the national myth of religious freedom being an essential part of our early settlement, the reality is something quite different. Massachusetts Bay was founded as a religious theocracy, and even Maryland in its early and Catholic days in theory prescribed in its famous Act of Toleration death for anyone who denied the Holy Trinity. The only colony which even guaranteed what we would consider free exercise (or non-exercise) for all was the Rhode Island founded by Roger Williams (who perhaps ironically we would probably best describe as a Baptist). Even Penn’s woods required one to believe in God in order to be a resident.

I cannot go through the complete histories of every colony / state during the period from the Declaration in 1776 to the final disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Massachusetts - first passed by the legislature in 1832 and ratified by the populace the following year. Probably the best work on the entire history of Church-State relationships in the US up until the time it was written is now out of print, published in 1950. It is by Anson Phelps Stokes, it is in three massive volumes, and is entitledChurch and State in the United States. Much of the material you will read in this diary is derived either directly from Stokes, or from the presentations of my fellows at the NEH seminar.

The first notable move towards total religious freedom took place in Virginia. George Mason, with some prompting from the young James Madison, first drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights which stood for freedom of conscience, and the enabling law under the new (1776) Constitution exempted dissenters from paying taxes for the still established Anglican Church. While not full disestablishment, it recognized the inequity of forcing people to pay for support of a religion that they opposed. In 1780, after heavy lobbying by Baptists, the Anglican monopoly of marriage was finally modified, with other denominations receiving the write to perform the ceremony and special adaptations made to meet the religious needs of Quakers and Mennonites. Over the next few years Baptists often took the lead in arguing for further separation, on the grounds, to quote Phelps
that the Declaration of Rights prohibited the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs by the legislature, and consequently that the latter had no right to adopt any regulations for the Episcopal Church.
(p. 374) Other influences in Virginia came from Presbyterians, from Quakers, and especially from the influence of philosophers, especially in their impact on thinkers like Mason, Jefferson and Madison. But here Stoke notes
It should be noted that chronologically the effective efforts of the philosopher-statesmen came only after the ground had been well cleared by the dissenting ministers, and that the former were for the most part connected by membership or association with Establishment which they overthrew.
(p. 379)
The clear ending of establishment in Virginia was the result of Jefferson’s Statute, which he had drafted while Governor in 1779, but not finally passed into law until 1785 while Jefferson was in Paris, and because of the good efforts of Madison.

While North Carolina adopted its own declaration of rights also in 1776, it was a document that did not go as far as Virginia would later go. It stopped mandating religious taxes and in theory disestablished the Anglican Church, but required one to be a Protestant to hold office and barred clergy from public office. These provision remained until1835, at which time being a Christian was substituted for being a Protestant, thus allowing Roman Catholics to hold office. Further changes did not occur until after the Civil War.

Let me skip to summarizing the status in the 13 new states after independence, but prior to the Federal Constitution. I will quote again from Stokes, p. 444, where he builds on the work of others:
Two out of thirteen, Virginia and Rhode Island, conceded full freedom;

One, New York, gave full freedom except for requiring naturalized citizens to abjure foreign allegiance and subjection in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil;

Six, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Georgia, North and South Carolina, adhered to religious establishment;

Two, Delaware and Maryland, demanded Christianity;

Four, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North and South Carolina, required assent to the divine inspiration of the Bible;

Two, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, imposed a belief in heaven and hell;

Three, New York,Maryland, and South Carolina, excluded ministers from civil offices;

Two, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, emphasized belief in one eternal God;

One, Delaware, required assent to the doctrine of the Trinity;

Five, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina, insisted on Protestantism;

One, South Carolina, still referred to religious “toleration.”

Congress under the Articles of Confederation, in 1787 passed the Northwest Ordinance to govern the territory that became the 5 midwestern Great Lakes states. In Article I of that document it declares that no peaceable person
shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments
which is the first statement at a national level of the idea of free exercise.

The Constitution itself is almost silent on the subject of religion. It was only at the last minute that the provision in Article VI for no religious test was added. Jonas Phillips, a Jewish Revolutionary War veteran, wrote to the convention asking for no test, and referred specifically to the Pennsylvania oath of office which required one to
acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.
The provision was proposed by Charles Pinckney of SC and referred to committee, which did not report it back in the final draft, so Pinckney moved it from the floor where it passed without significant opposition. Pinckney as Governor of the state was also able to get that state’s Constitution changed in 1790 to achieve full disestablishment and complete enfranchisement and complete religious freedom ”without distinction or preference” although the state maintained its ban on clergy holding office.

There is one more point that needs to be made about the early Republic. In 1797 the Senate ratified a treaty with Tripoli, a document whose 11th article contains the following words:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any .war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

It is worth noting that the Senate of this 5th Congress including 7 men who had been in the 1st Congress and thus voted on the First Amendment. There were at this time 16 states, and thus 32 Senators. This provision of the treaty was well publicized in the press of the day, and no significant opposition on account of Article XI is reported in the press, nor was there any serious opposition in the Senate.

By 1800 we can thus note the following. (1) there is a history of moving increasingly towards separation of church and state, but at the state level there are still established churches, mainly in New England. (2) Free exercise was generally accepted even at state levels, and had been guaranteed for federal territory even before the Constitution. (3) There was no religious test for federal office. (4) many states still had religious tests for office. (5) The Senate of the United States had ratified (and thus added to the Constitution under the supremacy clause) a treaty that bluntly stated that we were not a Christian nation.

It is my belief that this early history is poorly understood by most Americans. People will pick and choose data to support predetermined positions. While there was a general acceptance of the idea of free exercise of religion, and at a national level we had been able to separate church and state, that may have been as much because of the regional differences in religion as it was due to enlightenment ideas driving men like Mason, Jefferson, and Madison. One can see various levels of Christian domination continuing for years at the state level. Maryland did not allow non-Christians to hold public office until the Jew Bill of 1826. And if one were to look at the most recent Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, adopted in 1978, one finds the following:
Section 4.
No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.”

Now strictly speaking this is NOT a religious test - it is a guarantee. And thus it is not in conflict with having extended provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states under the doctrine of incorporation, something the Supreme Court first does for free exercise in Hamilton v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal., 293 U.S. 245, 261–62 (1934) and for establishment in Everson v. Board of Educ., 330 U.S. 1, 8 (1947). Thus when Justice Thomas argues against incorporation applying to the religion clauses of the First Amendment he has the greater part of our judicial history on his side, even if the trend at state levels was to fairly completely include the provisions of the Federal constitution in state constitutions and legislation.

One other issue that often comes up in disputes about church and state is the idea of the wall of separation, which comes from Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he argues that the First Amendment has the effect of
thus building a wall of separation between church and state
. This letter is first relied upon by the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States, 98 US 145. (1878) [which is a case that upheld a ban on polygamy in the Utah Territory, not allowing an exemption for religious reasons for a Mormon], and next used, by referral to this case, by Hugo Black in Everson v. Board of Education. 330 US 1 (1947).

The wall of separation argument leads into another, perhaps more subtle, argument. Does the idea of no establishment mean total neutrality on the religion or merely impartiality? That is, must government stay uninvolved with religion, remaining neutral as to religion or non-religion, or must it merely avoid showing favoritism to a particular religion? There is a fair amount of evidence that many of our Founders thought religion a good thing, and wished to encourage it, to which some who argue for more governmental involvement with religion often point. But it is not clear that their idea of religion and its role would correspond with what those advocates argue today - many of our key founders cannot legitimately be claimed as conventional or “orthodox” Christians as we might apply those terms in our own time.

It is probably fair to say that the vast majority of Americans accept the premise of free exercise in general, even though they may on occasion react viscerally to certain groups for varied reasons, including world events. But we are far less clear on the idea of establishment.

And in a sense this corresponds with what most of the world thinks. Even as there are an increasing number of democracies in the world, disestablishment at a national level is far less common than some sort of guarantee of free exercise to some degree. Thus the democracies in Scandinavia have state churches, as does the UK, and so on.

We can see this pattern in two key international documents, which do address elements of free exercise, but which remain silent on establishment. These are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Let me offer a brief glance at each.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 has the following items related to freedom of religion bold added):
Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. . . .

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution....

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The final article of the Declaration is also quite important:
Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

This document was a statement of principles, but was not something subject to ratification as an international agreement.

In 1966 an updated document, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was created, which became part of international law when it was ratified by 35 countries, a goal achieved in 1976. We find included there many of the same provisions as in the 1948 document. Here the key part is Article 18:
Article 18

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

While the U.S. signed this document, it was not ratified by the Senate, perhaps because it barred execution of people under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes, perhaps for other reasons. While Israel has ratified the document, many Muslim countries did not. Among those that did were Afghanistan(!), Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. I’m not sure what conclusions we can draw from presence or absence of ratification.

This has been an overview of the relationship of religion and government in the early history of the US. I have chosen NOT to go through many of the key Supreme Court decisions, because our national jurisprudence is not that stable, and given the current makeup of SCOTUS may well see even further changes.

I would argue that democracy is not possible without complete free exercise, and I think the span of our history and the trends in international documents such as those cited support that position. I do not believe that complete disestablishment, to the point of Jefferson’s wall of separation, is an equivalent necessary requirement: after all, there are many Western European nations that are quite democratic and still have state churches.

That does not mean that I am not a vigorous supporter of Jefferson’s wall, because I am. To my mind, absent that wall of separation the United States as the vibrant and diverse and free nation that we have been could not exist. Perhaps it is because I have spent much of my life as a member of minority religions that I tend to agree with Thomas Paine that the idea of tolerance is that a more powerful grants certain privileges to the less powerful, and that such an idea is alien to democratic thought, to the idea of full equality. But I also recognize that the idea of complete government neutrality towards religion has never been fully accepted in this nation. I believe that most Americans do not know our history on this, full as it has been both of achievements and problems. I am not an expert, but I hope this posting may help increase some understanding, and perhaps whet some appetites to explore the issue more fully than I could.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Thoughts for free - you get what you pay for. 

As a social studies teacher, at times I have taught both US and World History. As person from an educated family (both parents graduated from Cornell in 1930’s and both did substantial graduate work) I grew up reading widely. As a recipient of a liberal education (including a degree from Haverford where though my major was music my minors were history and philosophy) I have learned to read beyond official sources in order to have a more complete understanding.

Given all of what I have noted above, given some of my recent reading and one hell of a lot of reflection back on previous reading, I come to one inevitable conclusion:

the misconduct and atrocities we attribute to the Bush administration, especially but not exclusively in foreign affairs, are nothing new, differing from their predecessors not in kind but merely in degree.

I realize that there are those who will immediately accuse me of being anti-American. Far from it. I believe in holding my nation to its highest aspirations. As a believer in a democratic republic I believe that the voting populace of this country is entitled to the truth from their leaders, and do not accept the statement so exemplified by the character Col. Nathan Jessup in “A Few Good Man” when he spits back “You can’t handle the truth.”

The United States has always been willing to intervene in the affairs of other nations when our leadership thought (a) it was to our benefit, and (b) they could get away with it. Our history of doing so in this hemisphere cannot be legitimately gainsaid. The very expansion of our nation has included the Federal government validating the illegal acts by American settlers in seizing all or parts of other independent nations - Mexico (Texas) and Hawai’i - for the economic benefit of those doing the original seizures. As a former United States Marine I am well aware of the use of the Corps to intervene multiple times in the nations of Central America and the Caribbean. As one who was a child in the 1950’s, I realize how the specter of communism was used in my childhood to justify US involvement in destabilizing or overthrowing governments in places as far dispersed as Iran and as near as Guatemala. And I remember all too well how that same specter was used to silence critics, to ruin careers. But even the reign of terror of which Nixon and McCarthy were so much a part was nothing new. And it was not just Republicans who were willing to tramp down on civil liberties.

After all, Wilson was president when the WWI era espionage and sedition acts became law. Palmer - regrettably a Quaker - the man who did the “Red Raids” was appointed by Wilson. FDR was president when the Japanese-Americans were interned. And the first president to be truly harsh towards Native-Americans was Andrew Jackson.

I realize that -unlike the wonderful diaries by Unitary Moonbat on things like the Crusades and now Lebanon which have truly expanded the knowledge of many here - even a complete listing of all US interventions in other nations, all treaties with Native Americans unilaterally abrogated, all violations of civil liberties, would for many here not inform them of things of which they totally lacked awareness, although to see all listed together might make at least a few aware of the previous scope of how we have not lived up to the promise of this nation.

In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy offered the following remarks, which we often tend to forget:
To those people in the huts and villages of the world, of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help themselves, for whatever period is required - not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Noble sentiments, but I look at the final sentence and wonder how truly we have ever accepted it: If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. I think JFK was correct about that, but I cannot expect that we will apply that principle in our foreign relations when we are unwilling to seriously attempt to apply it at home. Can our rich truly believe that we can continue to move in the direction of a 3rd world nation, that they will have enough wealth to be able to buy security for them and their kith and kin while an increasing majority of the American people fall further behind? Can we exist as a democracy if we allow the existence and growth of a permanent underclass? Do we care? If so, why are so many of our people still without medical insurance? Why do we tell countries like St. Kitt’s and Nevis - which do have free health care - that they have TOO MANY doctors? Why do we keep lowering the taxes on the rich while effectively increasing them on the poor?

We often hear that our troops should not be involved in situations that are not in our national interest. Those of a non-libertarian conservative outlook would argue that controlling access to petroleum is clearly in our national interest and hence justifies our intervention in places like the Middle East. That may be true, but I would wonder if we have sufficient troops to be able to assure such access, and whether the cost is greater than the benefit. I want an open discussion, not just an administration that cuts deals for the sake of oil, whether it is FDR’s with the Saudis, our interventions in Iran in the 1950’s (where the players included the sons of two presidents, Herbert Hoover Jr. and Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt), or Cheney’s energy task force dividing up the oil fields of Iraq long before 9-11.

And I would be prepared to argue that using our military to stop ethnic slaughter that destabilizes nations and regions is equally in our national interest, although we seem unwilling to intervene unless the people look like us or there is oil involved - if hundreds of thousands of Africans die we seem not to care.

I have been a politically active person since my early adolescence. And I will acknowledge that there are still many important battles before us, some that seem so important that we may not believe that we have time to stop and reflect - to see if the actions upon which we embark will possibly be deleterious to the long-term health of our nation.

Please note -- I am not arguing quietism. By all means challenge the abuses of this administration, call to account those Democrats who will not stand up for what is right. I do worry that they way we contest and compete may make governing impossible were we to be so fortunate as to have sufficient control of governmental apparatus as to be able to attempt governance, or at least that part in theory given to the federal legislative branch.

I have been accused recently of being self-indulgent, of navel gazing (a term that is a pejorative originally misapplied to hesychastic monks of the Christian East, something I find as offensive as gyp, or jew-down, or nigger-lip, or welsh on a bet). Others have said that I was attempting to portray myself as morally superior. Some accused me of being too sensitive, that I was withdrawing because my feelings were hurt. I chose not to respond then, and in general I will not respond to such comments now. But I do have thoughts to offer, so I continue to write and post when I think it appropriate.

Meteor Blades challenged us as to how we developed our positions, upon what sources of information and knowledge did we rely, and offered his own extensive explorations of the issues related to the current crisis in the Middle East. I am not attempting anything so significant, nor do I write anywhere as cogently.

But I believe that to argue that the abuses of this administration are something sui generis in fact weakens the argument that we can make, and hence abdicates the serious responsibility of challenging America to live up to its promise.

When I say that what have is a question of degree, I acknowledge that those who see themselves as Democrats will have to acknowledge that the hands of their party are not totally clean. And if we find what we encounter now offensive - as we justly should - then what principles of epistemology and hermeneutics are we willing to apply? How do we determine that the actions of this administration rise to the level where we are justifiably so upset and angry, and yet when similar things have happened on the watch of Democratic Presidents and Congresses we did not similarly object? What can we offer to voters other than “we aren’t them?”

I offer this diary, my first in about a week in any venue, not so much because I have answers, but because I wish to nudge a bit, to perhaps provide an occasion to think a bit differently.

Therefore I will end with something I read about a week ago, shortly before I wrote my last diary. It was written in 1965, and appears as the introduction to a new book entitled Calming he Fearful MInd: A Zen Response to Terrorismby Thich Nhat Hanh. In that volume it is entitled “Recommendation.”
Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:

Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you,
remember, brother,
man is not our enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion -
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone,
with your courage intact, your eyes kind,
(even as no one sees them),
out of your smile
will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

There is no appropriate title for this 

As I write this, I sit at a desk in a darkened dormitory room at the College of William & Mary, the only illumination from the screen on the computer upon which I write, and the green l-e-d on the speaker that is attached, playing late Piano Sonatas by Beethoven. I begin this not quite sure what I intend to say, nor if anyone other than me will ever read this words. I will make that decision when I have finished.

I find it necessary to attempt to record where I find myself at this moment - this is a spiritual question. It is also a moral question. And the impetus of my writing this is events and experiences of the past few days, some of which have been visible widely, some of which have not.

In many ways I would rather not make the effort to write this, but if I do not I will be abdicating a responsibility I believe is incumbent upon me - to at least be clear in my own mind.

I began writing electronically several years ago on educational list servs and bulletin boards. In the Fall of 2003 I began posting at the old Dean blog. I heard about dailykos shortly after Thanksgiving of that year, joining as member 4334 and posting my first diary in January of 2004. If I post what I now write, this will be the 490th diary I will have posted. Often I have written about education, at other times I have written about books or articles that I have read. Some of what I have written flew by without much notice, other pieces provoked much larger responses.

During the period from May 23, 2005 until May 23, 2006, as I lived through my 60th year, I began to become far more reflective about my life, both looking back and as I continued to go forward. Perhaps as a result, I found the nature of my writing changing.

As a teacher, my most important tool is myself. It is not a particular pedagogical technique, nor is it the specific content knowledge I may have developed. It is not even the knowledge and understanding I seek to develop about my students to inform my instruction. As a teacher I am most effective when I am genuine, when I am honest, when I am vulnerable to my students. Someone who has not experienced by class over several session may not fully grasp what I mean. I share why I think things matter, and try to see how students react. I do not wear a ‘teacher face” if I can avoid it. I try to explain why I am doing things, or asking things of my students. I will sometimes share my experiences and am willing to hear theirs as well.

I try very hard to help my students learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. There is a distinction between dissecting a weak idea or explaining on substantive grounds why you disagree with the person presenting that idea and attack the person who offers the idea with which you disagree.

I am not troubled that others and I can on some issues not come to agreement. I accept that neither are my arguments so cogent nor my argumentation so persuasive that I can expect to change the minds of others. And as I have reflected on my past life I have found that the intellectual rigor of an argument is often not what enlightens someone else.

What seems to make the greatest difference is if somehow we find a way to connect on the basis of our shared humanity. Clearly that is something I have learned from my time as a classroom teacher, which now stretches back over the past 11 academic years.

I am a very shy person. I am also fairly sensitive, although I often do not make that sensitivity as evident as it should be, and I acknowledge that I can be so intense as to seem oblivious to the sensitivity and sensibilities of others.

I find myself wrestling with two conflicting attitudes. I very much want to help people be able to understand one another, to bridge gaps. This part of me may make me come across as a nanny -- perhaps chastising people for the kind of language which shuts off the possibility of finding common ground or at least mutual understanding. And yet there is also a part of me that wants me to speak directly when I see wrong, to challenge.

My vision and understanding are quite incomplete, very flawed in many ways. Thus I acknowledge the arrogance in my attempting either of the roles I have just described.

The only way I have found that I can realistically hope to do both -- for I would be incomplete were I to attempt only one - is to do it through the template of my own experience, acknowledging that what I have lived or learned is but a small fraction of what has actually occurred in my presence, and that is an infinitesimal part of the totality of human experience.

In the past few days I have had the experience of trying to explain without intending that explanation to serve in any way as a justification for things I abhor. Some understood what I was attempting to do, and even as they criticized parts, they responded in the spirit in which I offered the words I posted or spoke in a seminar or in private conversations. In other cases - for whatever reasons - the response was not within the frame in which I thought I had expressed myself. And in at least a few cases the response I received back - whether directly or in a separate expression - was of the hurt I was creating by what I said or wrote.

I have wrestled with thoughts and feelings, meditated, sat in silence and even stillness (they are not the same). A part of me simply wants to withdraw. I do not wish to cause pain or anger, to exacerbate situations that are already grievous in the injury they do to individuals and to our common humanity. I have discussed some of this with my closest companion and most trustworthy confidant, Leaves on the Current. I have gone back and reread postings, and I have sat and remembered conversations and body language.

I have known for most of my life that I was an oddity. I do not really “belong” anyplace. I am not a good fit for most situations, be they social or political, religious or secular, public or private. While I have people who care deeply for me and many about whom I care deeply, I largely have acquaintances, and not friends. I am a very difficult person, which is why it is such a tribute to the largeness of heart of Leaves on the Current that we have stayed together for going on 32 years, and that her love towards me is irrevocable. That gives me a point of contact with common humanity without which I almost certainly would have chosen either suicide or madness decades ago.

When I write or speak from my center, from my own weakness and vulnerability, I cannot demand of others that they respond similarly. I can at best offer it as a means of showing what attempting to find our common humanity may demand of us, or rather, what I know it demands of me. Part of that process involves things seemingly of lesser weight - movies or books we enjoy or even songs we cannot stand, and why. it is like the small trust-building steps in negotiations between two nations or companies with a history of hostility to one another. Little by little we expose ourselves and when that is accepted, as we receive something similar in kind, the level of trust increases to the point where perhaps we may well be impossible.

But this is too theoretical. Give me a choice between being loved and feared and I would take love every time. Present me with a choice between being accepted and doing what in my heart of hearts I believe to be correct, and I will to the best of my limited abilities do what I think is right.

I have in recent days written and posted a piece about no longer willing to be silent. And yet why speak if people will not listen? Perhaps each of us has had an experience of saying what we thought was clear as well as being important only to have our words returned with silence, blank or quizzical stares, or simply ignored. And all of our speech cannot be challenging people - even if we were that correct (and I know I am neither that correct nor that prophetic in the Hebraic sense of serving as a moral witness) that cannot be our only communication with others or they will cease to listen and for all their putative rightness our words will be in vain.

In writing these words I am speaking largely to myself, but having reached the point of realizing that I will share these words publicly, I recognize that I have chosen to share my own inner wrestlings in the hope that there will be one person who reads them for whom they will have value, even if I never encounter that person or the value they derive is not what I would intend.

I stop periodically as I write and do nothing but give the Beethoven my full attention. It is now the final movement of Opus 111, which by itself can both wring me out and elevate me, and as a culmination of a series of riches beginning with Opus 103 and going through all five final piano sonatas is almost too much to bear in a single sitting, as it would be were I do to nothing but give the music my full and undivided attention for both CDs worth. Perhaps how I listen to this music is emblematic of how I should approach other things - there are times for absolute undivided focus, and others to enjoy what I can. That sounds sloppy, not clear, but I know no other way of phrasing it differently.

I am drawn to withdrawing from participation in electronic discussions, because what to me is best of what I offer is that which is drawn from myself, and right now I am feeling drained, empty, as if I have nothing else of value to offer. I cannot in my own mind rationalize away the pain I may cause others on the grounds of all the positive reactions I have been able to engender. That is not dissimilar from rationalizing some deaths as a means of saving others. But what of the lives that were lost? I have read and pondered this kind of question often, and seen it presented far more forcefully in discussions in which I have participated in the past few days.

I am not an absolute pacifist. There are circumstances in which I would be willing to use deadly force - to protect the school children entrusted to my care, for example - but that would not be something I could thereby rationalize away. I would have, however legally or even morally justifiably, have taken another human life. Spiritually I would also have killed a part of myself, no matter how “justifiable” the action. I would not, in terms that matter to me, be answering that of God in the other person, not unless my answer was to kill that of God, because I cannot pretend it is not there, no matter how hateful or dangerous that person might be towards me or towards the school children I would protect.

I have seen this expressed clearly in the writings of a man who began as a Russian Émigré painter in Paris, went to Mount Athos in Greece for many years, then ended his life as the leader of a monastery he established in England. Archimandrite Sophrony lived in a cave during World War II, it serving as his living and praying quarters as he confronted himself and God as he understood it. He had contact with other monks, and had at best a vague and general idea of the cataclysmic events of those days. He writes that when he heard about the war he prayed that the less evil side might win. Note the phrasing - it acknowledges that the very act of war, no matter how necessary it might at times be, is in itself evil. We are usually far too casual when we discuss choosing the lesser of two evils. And yet so many of the choices which confront us may on some smaller scale present us with a similar conundrum. Sophrony acknowledged that a choice might still be necessary, and prayed for the least evil he could.

What I wrestle with is not whether my choosing to write as I have engenders more harm than good. I am reasonably at peace that by and large, and for the vast majority of the pieces I do write, that the results of my writing them are far more positive than any “collateral” damage that may occur.

And yet that does not set my mind at ease. Because I am still causing harm - I am still doing “collateral damage.”

I began this not knowing where or how it would end. I did not know, until partially through, that I would make it available to the scrutiny of others. I knew that I had to at least try to have a conversation with myself. I came to realize as I was writing this that to share it with others will be seen by some as self-indulgent or self-aggrandizement on my part, by others as jejune or inappropriate or as soliciting affirmation or even as pitiful. It may engender all of those responses. I cannot control that.

And while I am interested in any response or criticism others may choose to offer, I do not expect that I will wish to dialog about what I have written. I have chosen to share some of my internal processes in the hopes that it may engender some level of understanding.

I do not wish to cause harm. I also know there will be times when I feel obligated to speak out. I will continue to do so. But I have always had a bit of a monastic streak in me. And monastic listens far more than he speaks. I have spoken far too much, far too often, and far too many topics in recent months. And because I write from myself, I have been draining myself. I can no longer do that.

What I most love about the late Beethoven sonatas is the slow movements of the last 3 sonatas, all of which I have taught myself to play. There are fewer notes, they are written from a place of depth, almost beyond the ability to express cogently. They are simultaneously simply and complex, lucid, and mysterious. No matter how many times I hear or play them, I cannot exhaust their possibilities.

And yet no single Beethoven movement, nor even the totality of Beethoven or of all the music I have learned and love, has the depth or the value of an individual human being, no matter how evil the behaviors, words, or actions. I have often said that my only real experience of the divine has been indirectly - in the natural world, in interacting with pets, in great art of any kind, and in making and sustaining the connection of common humanity. Of these four - the natural world, animals, art, and humans - my words can only connect with the last, and must serve for that purpose only.

My students are surprised to find out how easily I cry. I no longer wish to keep that hidden, from them or from others. My common humanity consists in my vulnerability to the hurt others might be able to do me, because otherwise I am not open, surrendered, and hence am not able to accept love.

And if I know that about myself, and if it is part of my COMMON humanity, then it is also true of each person I encounter in any fashion.

I began not knowing how this would end. I do now.

I apologize for any hurt I may have caused, and weep because I have been an instrument to some of harm. I will do harm again, sometimes without thought, sometimes unavoidably. And I will weep for those occasions as well. But I will also, albeit less frequently, continue to speak and to write if there are occasions which justify my doing so. Failure to act is to be complicit in evil. Even if I struggle to find the course which is less evil, at least then I am seeking to reach out across our shared vulnerability, To me that is the only way that peace of any kind is possible.

I will still speak truth to power if I feel I must. I will do so in the hope that my words and actions may lead to greater understanding and truer peace.

I wish your all that understanding and peace. I ask your forgiveness, but understand if you do not feel you can give it. And I surrender my anger and hurt, and commit that if you feel you need my forgiveness you already have it.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sunday Morning Meditation 

I am at the College of William & Mary relatively early on Sunday morning.  My seminar comes to a close on Friday. I will head home to attend a teach-in on impeachment that evening.  I will have until August 9 before I return to formal school activities, with the time until then split between planning, doing the reading for which I will not have time during the school year and relaxation and reflecting, and my last intensive period of time for formal political activities.

This morning there are a few things on my mind.  As of next Saturday I will have to balance my roles as a teacher and my needs as a human being beyond school, and I will confront one possible aspect of our current situation as I consider my own future civic actgions, this meditation will embrace all four elements listed in the first paragraph - teaching, need for reflection and learning, civic participation, and possible implications of our current political environment.

In my younger days what you now read online would have been inaccessible to anyone except perhaps my closest friends, and then only if I took the initiative to share.  When I would reflect it would take the form of my handwritten endeavors in a spiral pocket notebook, perhaps written while sitting in a bar - there were no Starbucks in those days.  I was unsure of my own thinking, unwilling to expose to the eyes of others, and doubtful that what I wrote had any validity or purpose to it beyond getting things down where In was able to encounter them outside of the disorganization of my own thinking.  In writing like this - a personal piece rather than an analysis of something that I have read that I believe might be of value for others to read, I recognize that there is a possible arrogance - what I write still may have no validity or purpose to it beyond getting it down so that I can read and reread.  My being willing to expose it to the eyes and reactions of other is a recognition that much of what provokes me to write is a part of my being a member of something larger than myself, whether it is my school, my immediate community, or some broader aspect of the society in which I live.   Thus the reactions of those others who may encounter what I write and choose to offer responses is an important part of my being - it helps me learn to communicate to those different than myself, and of greater importance to listen to what they have to say back to me, or to offer of themselves.  This is one form of civic participation.  It is an even more important way of reminding myself that my experiences and ideas cannot exist in isolation from those of others around me.

Recently when I write it has often been a reflection of the fear I have for our futures.  I know I am not alone at feeling pummeled almost beyond belief by occasion after occasion in which I experience yet again this administration's contempt for the Constitutional process, or when I see yet another threat to the long-term stability of international relations.   Some will respond to writings that reflect such fear with encouraging me not to despair.  While I appreciate that affirmation, I think it does not recognize that if I despaired I would not be writing, nor would I still be wrestling with whether I can continue teaching or whether my participation in the political process could make a difference.  I would simply give up.  I might not commit physical suicide, but age 60 it would be quite possible to commit metaphorical suicide - withdraw from any attempt to make a difference, and find ways to occupy my waking hours that did not require me to wrestle with how to address injustice.  Lord knows I would not take a month to try to learn more about an issue such as separation of church and state as I have done hear in Williamsburg.  

I cannot pretend that what I write - about anything - will be of major importance in the larger scheme of things.  Perhaps that is one reason why, no matter how well written I may believe something I post is, I should cease worrying whether or not people recommend or respond to it, how visible it may become.  Perhaps one person who never recommends or comments upon a post will in some way be touched, perhaps in a fashion I cannot fathom.  If so, then the effort I take to create an entry has more than served the value.  Or I will receive in response one comment that at first seems irrelevant, but when I make the effort to offer to tis author the respect and attention I hope readers give to my efforts, I realize that it speaks to me in an important way, perhaps addressing my greatest need at that moment, even thought it was not where my mind was before I grasped it.  In a sense, it would be like Jacob awakening after his dream and acknowledging that "God was in this place and I did not know it."  

Or maybe the process of writing and posting can be a form of letting go of something that would otherwise be an obsession, thoughts that tormented me because I could not fully see them.  As I write, as I attempt to give them coherence, I become somewhat like a small child turning on a flashlight to look under the bed and realizing that it was not a boogeyman after all, but something possibly far more benign.

I cannot fix the world by myself.  One reason for political participation is to accept my shared responsibility for the world and society in which I live.    There are perhaps a few people who can totally meet that responsibility by writing or by giving money.  I have not enough of the latter nor am I skilled enough or with a wide enough audience that the former satisfies what I feel are the demands upon me as a civic person.  On a personal level, my shyness might serve as an excuse to isolate myself, reinforcing my tendency to self-doubt.  If I did not participate in some way that forced me to come out of my house or from the personal space in which it is possible to hide even in public places - as I used to do by writing in a notebook while sitting at a bar - then in fact I would not be fulfilling my responsibilities as a civic person, at least not as I must do -- this is a personal reflection that I am sharing to explain myself to you even as I attempt to better understand myself.  In writing about myself I make no attempt to impose what I must do as a condition of my finding your actions commendable.

That leads me to realize something I have come to learn as a teacher, but which I do not always apply to my interactions outside that role.  As a teacher I am quite aware that I cannot expect all of my students to learn in one fashion, that not all will grasp things in the same way, at the same speed, in the same order.  As an educator part of my responsibility is to try to know them well enough to help them connect with the material, to assist them in understanding its relevance in their own lives.  I must  be willing to accept that there will be those who with no disrespect intended towards me as a person really have little enthusiasm or even interest for things that have great importance to me.    As a civic person, as a member of many overlapping groups, social circles, or larger portions of our shared humanity, I will experience that in my encounters with others, and quite often it will be that one is a passion or a concern for someone else is of lesser interest to me - Somehow my lack of interest for the subject should not become a matter of disrespect for the person, nor should I assume that when I am expressing my concern that lack of agreement means that I am being rejected.

I am not expressing this clearly.  I believe it is legitimate to say that some things matter so much to us that lack of agreement may mean an occasion where we will not expend further effort.  Certainly I have chosen to limit willingness to politically support some people because of a particular issue that is crucial to me, in one recent case the matter of the flag desecration amendment.  I can accept that a reasonable person can come to a different conclusion.  I can also accept that others may not be as consumed by a dedication to the Bill of Rights as am I.  I hope that our difference of perception will not mean a cessation of all human interconnection and communication.  Far too much of our politics is of the variety of "if you are not with us you are against us" mentality, one that is often arrogant in its expression.   The one who speaks in such a fashion seems to operate as if s/he has divine understanding without possibility of error, and I would point out that even Popes claim such authority only when speaking ex cathedra.   Perhaps one reason I was never a Catholic is because I could not accept even such a limited claim for inerrancy.  Here I remember the words of the Russian philosopher and theologian Alexander Khomiakov who said that if in so speaking the Pope could not make an error than he was less free than the basest of the serfs on Khomiakov's estate, because freedom consisted in large part in the possibility of making an error.  

On a more immediate - and for me personal level -- to presume that I cannot be wrong would justify my not having to listen, not paying attention to the concerns of those who disagreed with me.  I can legitimately make a choice not to listen further, because time and energy are not inexhaustible.  But I should always maintain awareness that such is my choice, my exercise of my freedom, and paceKhomiakov, the exercise of that freedom may mean that I am making the wrong choice.  Still, to avoid paralysis we do have to make choices, to build upon the choices that we have made.  And perhaps the only solace I can offer to those who might question - as I have often asked myself in the past -- but what if that choice is wrong, what if all we do based upon it is wrong, is to again offer my favorite tale from the early Christian monks, the Desert Fathers:

A young novice asked, "Abba, what do we do here in the desert?"  and received the response "We fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up."  My trousers may be torn, my hands and knees scraped, my nose bruised, but I can pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again.

I have not yet addressed one point raised in the beginning of this meditation, my one planned event for next Friday.  Many have argued that we should not discuss impeachment, that it is unrealistic, that even were the Democrats to gain both the House and the Senate, they would not have 2/3 of the latter, so why waste time considering something one cannot achieve.  And given how limited are our time and energy and the nature of the crises we already face, there is a certain appeal of such an argument.    While some may be passionate about this, I have above discussed how lack of agreement with the passion of another does not mean that the person whose passion is being expressed is necessarily being rejected as a person.

But I am sixty years old.  I have seen how an idea can start small, and spread.  The method being used, a teach-in, was a part of how American attitudes about the war in Vietnam were changed.  I also know something about history, both of our own nation and of the larger world.  Most who today consider themselves Christians have an approach to the Holy Trinity that did not have to be the position of the Church at large, that was a matter of some great controversy in the 4th Century.  Church historians will often note that the man most responsible for how the church came to address the Trinity, Athanasius of Alexandria, was (a) but a deacon at the time the controversy first exploded, and (b) later on despite loft church offices was often isolated, almost alone in his position, something occasionally described as Athanasius contra Mundum (and if my Latin is slightly inaccurate please grant some slack to my senior status).  

I believe I have a responsibility to consider the possibility of what others claim is a necessary step.  In choosing to attend a teach-in on impeachment I have made no commitment beyond two hours on one evening, to hear what others have to say on a subject of great importance, even if it seems unrealistic.  That the process of impeachment has in recent years been used inappropriately is not the issue.   Nor is the fact that most people are not yet willing to consider it.  When our Constitution was written abolition did not seem immediately possible, yet in less than  a century the vast majority of Americans accepted the idea that one human should not own another -- that many did not accept the full humanity of the former slaves is a separate problem.

I am part of a larger civic environment, in which I participate.  But if I burn myself out I am not of use - to myself or to others.  I must have time to simply "be."  I also must allow myself the time and space to reflect -- to look back upon what I have been doing to see if in fact "we fall" and may now need to "pick ourselves up."  As a teacher, the primary official way in which I interact with others, if I am to be effective I need to step back and reexamine:  was how I presented a lesson appropriate for the audience of students?  Did I miss something a student said that was a key to helping her understand or make a connection to her own life?  

For me the process of reflection is not merely about the past, about what I might have been able to do better, or even of those things in which I can take some comfort as to their value.  Have I given due consideration to the possible impact of the actions I propose to take in the future?  Will I be allowing myself the opportunity to experience the perspectives of others from which i might be able to grow?  Am I so committing my time and energy so that I do not have to confront a possibly uncomfortable choice or course of action?

It is Sunday morning.  I have meditated in words, and recorded those words in case there may be some small nugget of value to someone else, or that my words might serve as the occasion when one reading them can offer me a larger nugget from their own perceptions and experiences.

I am a teacher, but I am also a student.   In my classroom I often learn far more than do my students, for far too often they focus only on me and not on one another.  They think they have one teacher  -- I know the thirty in the seats before me are all my teachers, as well as the teachers of each other.  It is Sunday.  As I recognize that we each have the freedom that means we have the right as well as the opportunity to make mistakes, I also know that the answer to the Biblical query of whether I am my brother's keeper is contradictory, for it is both yes and no.  That contradiction is the only way I can understand wholeness, through paradox.  I am his keeper, in that I cannot ignore his well-being, I cannot pretend that "he has made his bed, let him lie in it."  But I also cannot impose, to assume that my perception is so infallible that I can remove from him his freedom, his opportunity and right to be wrong.

For me part of the magnificence of our shared humanity comes precisely from that individual freedom to be wrong, for without the possibility of error true learning and change are not really possible.  For me this meditation is a way of expressing the humility that I can be wrong, that I will need to apologize as one way of picking myself up, but because that exists, I can go forward, exercise my freedom, not fear that I will be wrong.  For me our shared humanity is what enables me to grow, to learn from trying albeit at times unsuccessfully.   Our shared failure and acknowledgment of same is as important as our shared successes.

And I have written more than enough.   Enjoy your Sunday, but be sure you give yourself some time to reflect.  It can be quite worthwhile.  And thank you for being willing to share mine.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

I am unwilling to remain silent anymore 

Perhaps it is that I am now officially a senior citizen.  It may be not having children and having a wife who  makes more than me and hence is economically self-sufficient.  Perhaps as a result I may feel more at liberty to act on principles and damn the consequences. 

Maybe it is that I have reached a point where I want to set into the movie “Network” and be like the character Howard Beale played by Peter Finch, that I want to throw open the window and yell at the top of my lungs “I”m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Maybe it is that I have finally reached a point at which the idea that things can’t yet be that bad no longer has any salience -- they are that bad, they are worse than “that bad.”

All that sounds fine.  But there are no maybes.  It is not a question of perhaps.  I have a moral imperative, and as a result I am unwilling to remain  silent anymore.

There is an expression that those of us in the Society of Friends will on occasion use, that we have the responsibility to speak truth to power.  We also do not believe in oaths, and some will not even offer affirmations, because oaths and affirmations imply that absent these we are not bound to speak only truth.  I will speak truth as I know it, and let those who have ears hear. 

I will not remain silent while the Constitutional underpinnings of our liberal democracy are undermined.

I will not remain silent while the rights of others are denied.

I will not remain silent while some are labeled in fashions to demean their humanity or to justify treatment that is inhuman.

I will not remain silent when I encounter those who would divide people into “us” and “them”, whether that be political opponents domestically or those who are called the enemy.

I will not remain silent in the presence of those who seek partisan or personal advantage in manipulating elections, courts, laws and regulations.

I will not remain silent when racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, or demeaning language of any kind is use towards any other human being.

I will not remain silent when I encounter those who justify a particular course of action when they do it but condemn when done by someone whom they deem their opponent.

I will not remain silent at rationalization of selfishness.

I will not remain silent at the destruction of the environment or any part thereof - it is the common heritage of all humanity.

I will not remain silent when destruction of lives and property in other countries is justified on the basis that it is our national self-interest or that it is better to fight them over there than over here.

And I will certainly not remain silent when people argue that it is better to keep quiet now in order to win an election and/or achieve power at some future point - how can I explain that to those whose lives, families, homes, freedom are destroyed or lost in the interim?

I cannot assume that my choosing to speak - to no longer remain silent - will be affirmed. I must expect that other will criticize, condemn and reject the words I speak, the actions I take. I know that I will be accused of exercising a judgment which is not mine to apply, or that I do not see all the facts.

I will listen, I will attempt to understand what others have to say, what they express as their thoughts and motivations. I accept that we will not always agree. But that does not remove from me the moral responsibility to speak out when I encounter any wrong.

I will not always speak in the same way.

Sometimes public confrontation does not empower the person to easily change their mistaken ways, while a private encounter gives the space necessary.

Sometimes phrasing my concern in terms of a question might elicit a recognition by the person to whom the question is addressed of the need to change, or allow her to give me the information that allows me to recognize that I have misunderstood or misperceived.

Sometimes I will speak without words, by simply shaking my head, or refusing to nod, or not laughing at a “joke,” thereby allowing the other person an opportunity to self-correct.

If I have doubt, I will inquire. I know I can be wrong.

But if I know, I cannot pretend that I do not know, that I do not understand. And if then I remain silent I become complicit. That I will no longer be.

I will speak out because I still can. I will write because perhaps some will read the words I offer. I will participate politically because that is part of speaking out.

I am 60. I have had a life far richer in material benefits and in the opportunity to learn than the vast majority of people who have ever lived. If I die tomorrow, the measure of my life will not be how much I have consumed or accumulated. In my mind, if I could then look back, the measure will be how willing I was to stand up for others.

This is not altruistic, because what can be denied to others can be denied to me.

And I do not hold myself out as thereby superior. This is quite selfish, because I am affected.

And it is not original in thought.

Let me offer the words of Hillel, from the Pirkei Avoth:

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?

And if I am only for myself, then what am I?

And if not now, when?

I am not willing to remain silent anymore.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Pete Hamill -- Downtown - a worthwhile read 

Pete Hamill is a New York legend whom I was fortunate enough to know slightly from hanging at the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street and from living briefly in Park Slope at the same time as he did. He was a terrific writer for both the New York Daily News and the New York Post, for both of which he served as editor in chief. He also wrote for Newsday, the New York Times and the New Yorker. He is now in his 70s a writer in residence at NYU., earned because he also wrote several successful novels.

In 2004 he published another book entitled Downtown: My Manhattan. I lived in New York as an adult for only a few years, 1967 through 1971, although I visit often, and I did grow up in the suburbs. For anyone with memories of Manhattan or a love for New York, this book is a must read. Thus I choose to dedicate my diary today to describing it a wee bit, and offering a very few (far too few) samples of the magnificence of Hamill’s writing. Please continue along this journey with me.

Hamill largely defines downtown as the older part of the city, below the point where the grid system was firmly imposed on the landscape. And yet his description is more inclusive, because he includes in it landmarks that are outside that area, especially the areas along Broadway, which of course pre-existed the grid system, and was thus allowed to cut at a diagonal along the length of Manhattan. His downtown will include places of importance, in his life and in that of the city, far above the earlier settlements at the lower end, place like Luchow’s on 14th Street ( where my family used to eat New Year’s Dinner every year when I was a child), Birdland, the old Penn Station replaced by the current Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and the nearby Carnegie Deli.

The book is an intermixing of Hamill’s life, that of his family even before he was born, the city’s history and geography. He combines his observations and experience with quotes from writers of previous times, things learned from extensive reading about the history of the place, including descriptions of building and people. We learn of the inescapable imprint Stanford White had on the landscape of the city. We learn of the roles of the various groups -- the Knickerbockers, descended from original Dutch settlers, intermarried with the English who followed. We see the role played by blacks, both slave and free, in the earlier life of the city. We experience the sense of loss of the Twin Towers, even for people who did not like them but for whom they were an important part of the visual landscape. We learn of the irish, the Jews in their different and sometimes conflicting groups over time. We learn of the many current immigrant groups, in a city now almost as full of those not born in this country as it has been at any time in its past. We trace the city as it expands northward. If we did not know we learn there was a wall wherein know is Wall Street, a Canal in the location now known as Canal Street, and that Bowery is derived from the Dutch word Bouwery which means farm.

We se some famous landmarks in multiple incarnations, such as Trinity Church. We discover that the term “skyscraper” was first applied to the tall masts of the sailing ships in the harbor of one of the world’s greatest natural ports, including what was originally called the North River until it was renamed for a Englishman sailing for the Dutch, Henry Hudson.

For me there was bittersweet in reading descriptions of places in the city I knew that are no more, but which were so much a part of it -- Luchow’s, already described. Ratner’s Kosher Dairy Restaurant on Delancey, where the waiters deliberately insulted you, and to which i was able to take Leaves on the Current before it closed. The Thalia, was uptown in the 90’s, open of the great repertory film theaters where I learned much of what I know about the history of cinema.

But enough of me. To keep this of manageable length, I will tease you, tantalize you, with a few excerpts from Pete. And urge you to do what I expect you will want to do after reading them -- go and get the book and devour it.

A taste of the very beginning:
This is a book about my home city. I was born in the immense and beautiful segment of it called Brooklyn, but I’ve lived and worked for much of my life in its center, the long skinny island called Manhattan. I live here still. With any luck at all, I will die here. I have the native son’s irrational love of the place and often think of William Faulkner’s remark about his native Mississippi, and how he loved it “in spite of, not because.” New York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty.

A brief example of explanation of the history of place. in this case The Battery:
Walking around the Battery, I know I’m almost always on landfill. All twenty-three acres of Battery Park were placed there by human beings, starting with the seventeenth-century Dutch. Beneath the trimmed grass surface lie the granite bones of today’s park: boulders, clusters of rock, small reefs. Over the year the landfill even closed the gap with the old restored fortress now called Castle Clinton. This was built in 1811 on a small man-made island ma hundred years off shores, with the British were building towards war, and Castle Clinton was part of a system intended to defend the harbor. But the War of 1812 never came to New York. Before, during, and after that war, the Battery remained a zone of tranquility.

By the way, in earlier days,the island was known as Castle Garden, and before there was Ellis Island, this was the port of entry to the city. My great-great grandparents on my my maternal grandfather’s side came through there in 1862, with a two-year old son who came to be known as harry Livingston, the father of my my mother’s father. For me what Hamill describes is part of my familial history, as it will also be for many others who read his words.

Hamill spends a good deal of time describing the place, role and history of Trinity Church, In a chapter entitled “Trinity Country”, after describing the bigotry of Dutch governor of Nieuw Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant, he describe the origin of the tolerance that is so characteristic of New York (and so often resented in other parts of this nation):
That legacy of tolerance was not created by starry-eyed Dutch idealists. The Netherlands in the seventeenth century was the most religiously tolerant country in Europe because the Dutch were pragmatists. Paradise could wait; what mattered was making money today, this week, or this year. That in turn meant that everybody must have a share in the nation's enterprise. When Stuyvesant wanted to expel Jewish refugees from new Amsterdam, the true bosses back home, the directors of the Dutch West India Company, told him, in effect, Forget it; we have Jews on our board. Tolerance was more than an ideal. It was good business.

Hamill entitles his chapter on Broadway “The Music of What Happens.” Let me end my selections, only up to page 102 of the total of 281 pages of text, with the first paragraph of that chapter:
For me, this commonplace is true: Broadway exists as a concrete place and as an idea. As a place, physical, touchable, it stretches the length of Manhattan from the Battery to the Harlem River, just short of thirteen miles, and then moves four more miles into the Bronx as as far into Westchester as Sleepy Hollow, a final destination that would have delighted Washington Irving. I’ve walked most of the avenue in Manhattan block by block across more than a half century, and certain parts of it live vividly within me no matter where I am. Broadway in my mind is an immense tree, with its roots deep in the soil at the foot of Manhattan, which is why I insist so stubbornly to my friends that the uptown places I cherish on Broadway are actually part of Downtown.

I hope I have enticed you. If you now live or ever have lived in Manhattan, the book will bring back memories. Even if you have never visited, but have imagined through film and books what the city is like, the book will invite you in.

I urge you. Read the book.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Fourth from the viewpoint of one teacher 

The Forum for Education and Democracy is an important new endeavor to reinvigorate public education.  Leading with a headline of Strong Schools for a Strong Democracy, their webpage has a brief one paragraph statement of their purpose:

The Forum for Education and Democracy is committed to the public, democratic role of public education - the preparation of engaged and thoughtful democratic citizens. We work to promote a public education system worthy of a democracy, one characterized by strong public schools, equity of educational resources, and supported by an involved citizenry.

For today's July 4 holiday, George Wood, who is Director of the Forum and principal of Federal Hocking High School in Steward Ohio, sent out an email which offers information on and links to several key resources appropriate to consider on this anniversary of our national independence.

I am going to offer all of those links with some reference to the comments Wood includes about them, and quote as well other portions of his email -- this is a non-profit about which I will again explain some more.  I will as is my pattern also offer a few thoughts of my own that I deem related to the contents of this email and appropriate for this day.

I will begin with the two introductory paragraphs of Wood's email, because they establish the frame for the rest of the discussion:

It seems appropriate on Independence Day to remind ourselves that a healthy democracy relies upon a healthy system of publicly supported schools. Perhaps America needs more than to be reminded, it needs to be reawakened to the fact that without public education they very notion of "the public" will perish. Or, as Jefferson put it so eloquently, "If Americans desire to be free and ignorant, they want something that has never been and never will be."

In all the sound and fury around school reform these days the notion that public education serves a public purpose - that is, preparing citizens - has been lost. We hear the commitment to citizenship mouthed in bromides that our schools are to prepare children for college, work, and citizenship; but in the very next breath the focus turns to training in job skills, boosting test scores, or taking college courses in high school. Nary a word about the habits of heart and mind that would make democratic citizenship possible.

Much of the rest of the email is designed to help us understand what is missing, and what we can do about it.   In the process there are references to items of particular interest, for which links are provided.

The first site to which Wood refers is the relatively new effort led b y Sandra Day O'Connor and Roy Romer entitled Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, about which he notes the leaders' belief that "A healthy democracy depends upon the participation of citizens and that participation is learned behavior; it doesn't just happen. Indeed."

Here I intervene with a current political observation -  the current administration obviously does not believe this.  It wants neither the American people nor their elected representatives informed of the actions it undertakes.  It has spoken untruths to both, and claims an unfettered power of action that is no where found under the Constitution.  It talks about the President's responsibility to protect the American people while ignoring his oath to preserve and protect the Constitution.  Perhaps were we better educated about our civic rights and responsibility - as citizens, voters and members of the Federal legislature - this administration's illegal arrogation of such power to itself would not for so long have gone unchallenged.

The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum did a survey on Americans' Awareness of First Amendment Freedoms.  I will apologize in advance to Matt Groening fans for the particular comparison, but the survey found that more than one in five Americans could name all of the Simpsons while one in a thousand could name all five First Amendment Freedoms [parenthetical note from teacher:  that's if you count no establishment and free exercise of religion as one rather than two separate freedoms;  the others are, of course, speech, press, assembly and petition;  I say "of course" because I really want to believe that anyone likely to read these words knows that, although if you are a visitor who primarily frequents sites like RedState of Little Green Footballs or NRO my assumption is on the evidence likely to be incorrect].

We are as a people also geographically illiterate, as was shown in National Geographic's 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, which showed that 60% of us could not find Iraq on a map, and only 66% could, even after Katrina, located Louisiana on a map (here I presume that Michael Brown and his immediate subordinates were not surveyed or else the figures would be lower).

The Forum has specific goals in its work that are worth listing again (I have posted on this fine organization previous):

Strong Schools

Equity of Educational Resources

Democratic Responsibility for Public Schools

Building Public Education Resources

The State of Childhood

On this day it is appropriate that our focus be on the third item in the foregoing list, Democratic Responsibility for Public Schools.   Let me quote from George' Wood's email:

Developing a democratic character is not solely about memorizing amendments or reciting preambles or even, gasp, passing standardized tests of civic knowledge. Rather, the soul of a citizen is nurtured by developing, through practice, civic habits. While we should be worried about how the recent emphasis on math, science, and reading test scores are pushing out other parts of the school curriculum including civics (see our previous post on this here), it is not just what is taught that is at issue. It is, more importantly, the entire experience of school with which we should be concerned and whether or not that experience develops in future citizens the proclivity to democratic citizenship.

The civic mission of public education, the preparation of citizens who can take their place in a democracy, is the primary mission of our schools. It will not be achieved by simply adding more courses or tests on civics. Citizenship is simply not synonymous with course work or test scores. Rather, it requires that we learn by doing what it means to be an informed and contributing member of a community.

Wood then offers a wish list of ideas drawn from the experience in schools of the members of the forum.   I believe important to share this portion uninterrupted:

Start with how adults are treated when it comes to schools. Children model adult behavior on real adults, and when the adults around them (teachers and parents) are powerless to make genuine decisions about the school, young people learn powerlessness and disdain for democracy. We need to make sure that there is appropriate democratic control of schools exercised by those closest to the learners, that is, their teachers and parents.

Rethink how everything, not just civics, is taught. Do students see what they learn as a tool for understanding the world and, if need be, changing it? Or do they just learn "academic" knowledge to be memorized for the next test? Take reading for example. Is the focus on thoughtful literacy so students can use reading as a tool to explore the world or is it solely on decoding so children can pass a test?

Civic engagement is best taught, as are most things, through actual experience. How much time, funding, and opportunity are given to engaging children in the life of their community? Or for that matter, how much opportunity do young people have to influence the rules, regulations, and norms in their own school? If we want young people to learn civic behavior they have to practice it, otherwise they only learn cynicism as they simply recite what they know not to be true. See our previous post on this for more detail.

As a teacher I often wonder if the structure of our schools and our instruction is not counter to the idea of being citizens in a democracy.  Increasingly we find that some wish teaches to be quite restricted in what they present - and how they present it - in their classes.  Students are given little choice - even as high school juniors and seniors - in what they can study (especially as we increase course requirements for graduation), how they can study it, what they can wear in school, their movements within the school building, and so on.  As a society we then act surprised when their behavior away from school seems to lack evidence of the self-control and judgment we imagine they should have by middle to late adolescence, and yet for more than 6 hours on each weekday we deny them any opportunity to practice the relevant skills.  

We have many teachers in my own domain of Social Studies who will never share their own ideals or civic commitments with the students in a belief that it represents an inappropriate influence.   I disagree.  I do not attempt to inculcate my personal political or moral beliefs upon others while I function as a teacher.  But if I wish my students to accept the importance of individual civic involvement and commitment, I can think of no better way of doing so than by modeling it myself.  Besides, in an age where  "google" is a common verb, and given as visible as I have become, they are likely to encounter my activities anyhow, and were I unwilling to discuss these with them would serve as an obstacle to the building of trust and relationship which I believe is an essential part of the learning experience.  I provide my students with access to various points of view on controversial issues, and encourage them to challenge points of view with which they disagree.   They are, when we study Supreme Court cases, expected to understand the points of view and arguments of dissenters - if any - in important decisions.  I bring in speakers from the outside from across the political spectrum, in one week this year people from both The Nation and National Review.   And I try within the obligation of curriculum coverage and development of necessary skills to provide students with opportunities to periodically choose how they will study a particularly subject and then demonstrate their competence.  My personal frustration is that there is so little opportunity to do so because there is so much material to cover.

I think the survey data cited in Wood's email is a bit deceptive.  It perhaps may be a function of my age (I am 60), but I went through a period of time when there were far fewer places to learn location on a map or Globe.  And although I am a fairly aware adult I have to acknowledge that were you to give me a map of Africa and a list of all the country names there are a few I would have trouble accurately connecting.  Still, that does not excuse knowing the location of the 50 states, or of nations in which our troops are engaged in ongoing conflict.  More than 60 years ago many Americans began to learn the geography of the South Pacific only because of news coverage of the war, just as several decades before they had begun to learn the geography of France and the Lowlands because of another war.   But those wars became the major focus of news coverage, not diluted by stories of the latest missing white girl in Aruba or California, or tales of celebrity linkups or breakups.  But as my focus today is not on the failures of the media, but concerns about our schools, I will do naught but mention such things in passing.

Those of my generation sometimes do not realize how much more knowledge we expect our students to absorb.  Since I began school, there are over 100 new independent nations.  Just think about that.  We have added history of military conflicts in which the U.S. was involved in Vietnam, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East.  What was then the young nation of Israel has fought with its neighbors in 1956, 1967, 1973 and since an ongoing low-grade conflict.   I began school when Truman was president.  There have been 10 presidents since, of which to date only 3 have completed two full terms.   We have been through scandals involving Bernard Goldfine and Sherman Adams, Billie Sol Estes, Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinsky, and far too many others to list.  Supreme Court jurisprudence has expanded and the restricted our rights and the powers of the presidency in such important cases as Brown v Board, Gideon v Wainwright, Miranda v Arizona, Tinker V DesMoines, Hazelwood v Kuhlmaier, Engel v Vitale, Abingdon v Schempff, NY Times v Sullivan, Pentagon Papers, US v Nixon, Griswold v Casey, Roe v Wade, Casey, Webster, on through Kelo, Hamdi and Hamden.    When I began most people crossing the Atlantic did so by ocean liner.  Since then we have seen the 707, Sputnik, the Concorde, transistor radios, portable tvs, broader understanding of DNA, portable telephones, personal computers, video recording, Walkmen, Ipods.  When I began school far fewer people graduated from high school or from college than college, either in absolute numbers or as a percentage of the age cohort.  There were no heart transplants, or liver transplants.  

We are a remarkable nation in many ways.  We have much of which to be proud as we look back upon 230 years of independence.  As a teacher and as a citizen I believe incumbent upon me to live up to the ideals upon which this country was founded.  At the time of the Declaration not all were included in its ideals -- to a large degree one had to be a white, property owning Protestant male.  Within a few decades we began to expand that ideal to include all white males. And over time we expanded it much further, although still not all feel included.  I am reminded of the powerful words of Barbara Jordan at the hearing for impeachment of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, that when "We the People" was first written she was not included in those words, although by the time she spoke her faith in the Constitution was whole.

There is one way as a teacher in which I suppose I impose my viewpoint, and that is on the importance and meaning of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.   We established a limited government, with a system of separation of powers and checks and balances, with guarantees of the rights of the people against governmental action, and the understanding that the people were sovereign.  It is a government of laws and not of men, which means that all people, whether holding high office or no office, are subject to the same laws.  I believe in that ideal, and oppose anything that might take this country in a contrary direction.

Which is why for me the most important words I remember on this anniversary are those with which the Declaration ends.  The Signers affixed their names beneath a statement which makes clear the risks they took:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

I am a teacher.  I have no fortune.  I do commit my life to these principles.  And I am unwilling to live without a sense of honor, that I abide by my principles, even if it costs me position, respect or my life.  I can think of no better way to commemorate this occasion than to affix my name in principle to those of the Signers  beneath the words above.

Enjoy your barbecues and your fireworks.  

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

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