|This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking. But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do. I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.|
|"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man,
that thou visitest him? For thou has made him a little lower than the angels,
and has crowned him with glory and honor." -- Psalms 8:4-5
"Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether anyone who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures ever knowing and calmly preferred the lower, though many, in all ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both." --John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
"Make your lives extraordinary." --John Keating, protagonist in the movie The Dead Poets Society
"Be all that you can be." --U.S. Army recruiting slogan and jingle -- accompanied on tv commercials by video reference to career/organization skills, physical fitness, and extreme or exotic adventure
Books, magazines, news articles and programs, talk shows, infotainment, and infomercials, tell us all how to make more money, live longer and healthier, be more physically fit, be more active, and have more fun and excitement. Such self-improvement advice for "success", and the market for it, is pervasive. But with the exception of religious preaching, which is usually quite narrow in its exhortations(1), there is not much in popular culture nor in schools today that beckons or challenges us to "be all that we can be" in regard to nobility of spirit and understanding, and in regard to striving for a higher plane of non-material self-actualization and fulfillment -- along with whatever else we do in life.
It is not that one has to give up worthwhile physical pleasures or material comforts, joys, and goods in order to achieve higher aspirations. Even instant or merely temporary gratifications are not necessarily incompatible with higher pleasures, unless they are all one is seeking. It is that the pursuit of the physical and material need not, and should not(2), preclude thinking and reasoning of the highest order; nor should they prevent the pursuit of what is best for the spirit. Yet, in our culture today, the pursuit of the higher self -- the development of our individual worthwhile talents and abilities, the development of our senses of curiosity, wonder, and awe (which should increase, not decrease, as we gain more knowledge), as well as our senses of humor, the playful, and the ridiculous; the pursuit of understanding and wisdom (as opposed to just specific, factual or technical and practical knowledge), the pursuit of understanding of and appreciation for the good and the beautiful, rather than the possession of the merely currently fashionable and popular or immediately pleasurable(3) -- is neither fostered in schools nor modeled very much in the media, if at all. It is a pursuit that does not occur to many people, and when it does, there are forces at work that discourage it as being impractical, arrogant, too human-centered(4), anti-social, austere, disrespectful of tradition, or subversive of the allegedly more important economic need for specialization whereby people serve primarily to fill instrumental roles within viable organizations. I have titled this essay "Fighting For the Higher Self" because it takes a real struggle to overcome these forces, whether one is trying to do it for one's own inner being or whether one is trying to help others do it, particularly (one's) children. It takes as much of a struggle even to get children, and sometimes adults, to see there can be a higher self, and that it is worth pursuing, because too often, in our daily life, it just does not seem important or necessary to make the effort.
However, it may be in people's best overall personal interests(5), and for society's long term benefit, to pursue their higher selves even if that might cause some temporary conflicts with, or within, existing social and economic institutions. One should not mistake comfort in the familiarity of the status quo with its being the most beneficial condition.
With regard to what is in people's best interests, I think Aristotle had it close to correct when he said that happiness was not in the mere having of possessions nor of reputation or power, though those were useful, but that it is "an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence."
I would argue that happiness also stems from the pursuit of excellence or of desirable (not just desired) ends, even when the pursuit fails to achieve whatever is sought. Psychologically, there is something about the pursuit of the good that gets one's focus off just one's "self", particularly one's more petty or mundane concerns, and onto an ideal "outside" one's self that is, in some sense, more universal and more important, more satisfying and more uplifting --something transcendent.
(There is also a kind of happiness, that stems even from just a virtuous pursuit of desired things, though those things may not actually be desirable, and may end up being disappointing if achieved; and even if the desire for them itself later disappears and is regretted or thought to have been foolish. The happiness arises from the activity of the soul, the quest of the mind. So that one might be glad one strived for something, even if the actual achieving of it turned out to be hollow or disappointing. The endeavor, not the end, was good.)
But a number of things conspire to prevent people from seeking, or even
thinking to seek, wiser and nobler pursuits and deeper understanding. I
have written about many of these in regard to education, and some in regard
to popular religion, in detail elsewhere (www.Garlikov.com/writings.htm)
so I will only give the summary view here:
The above three elements are common to schools, and foster surface learning without deep understanding by camouflaging the need and benefit of it (particularly perhaps for "better" students when they can achieve A's without having to try to uncover and grasp the underlying foundations of the material). Students come to just accept facts and beliefs as part of the common furniture of the universe instead of having an appreciation for the wonder of discovery, insight, and invention. They are not likely to try to add significantly(6) to the sum of civilization's knowledge and wisdom if they see no particular importance in it. The next five appear primarily outside of classrooms, though sometimes still in school systems philosophically and administratively.
(4) pretentious pseudo-intellectualism that makes reflective, deeper
thinking seem contrary to common sense and reason, and
All these things give higher mental and moral pursuits and development a bad name and make them seem unnecessary. Of no more help are those who think that schools merely need to present works that have higher level or more significant content, such as "the classics", no matter how they might be taught. They do not worry whether the classics in art, music, philosophy, or literature will be brought to life for students or not. They usually make the unsupported and generally unsupportable claim that "exposure" to good works is all that is necessary for people to get much out of them and appreciate them. Most students find such introductions boring and meaningless, and rightfully so, since they have not been properly prepared to see the value in these works.
A false or misleading dichotomy seems to have arisen with regard to education. Too often, schools and parents seem to confuse simplicity and ease of material with its being stimulating and fun, while thinking that more valuable material must be complex and extremely difficult to learn(8). So the view tends to be that subject matter cannot be both interesting and stimulating to students while being complex or difficult at the same time, and when difficult material is then assigned, it is accompanied by tedious busywork to make students slave through it bit by bit, and/or tests are promised so that students will tend to try to memorize what they can. But I think it is not true that complex or difficult material cannot be made interesting. The important aspects to make something both interesting and worthwhile are not how easy or difficult they are to learn without much instruction, but how good they are and how well, with the proper teaching, they can be made accessible, interesting, and useful to students. It is not the worth of the content alone, but how well it is taught, that is normally what is important for bringing material to life to students and for making student efforts to work through it be worthwhile, stimulating, and enjoyable. There is nothing in the passive reading, hearing, or viewing of a great work, or even in the memorization, or forced slogging through, of what is in it, that automatically fosters excitement or wisdom. In fact, as all but perhaps the luckiest(9) students throughout history have known, such experiences of the classic or any complex works in any field -- from the humanities to mathematics and science-- produce quite the opposite result.
Yet, some complex, even classic, works in almost all fields can serve
as models in at least five different ways -- as long as they are taught
using reasonable and stimulating (pedagogical) approaches that make the
gifts of the works accessible to students:
When I talk about "bringing a subject to life", I mean a number of things, including making the material "psychologically relevant" to students in some way, and/or getting them to think about it in their own terms so that they are pursuing questions about it they find curious, not just answering "classroom type" questions. Bringing a subject to life means making it important and interesting to students because of its intrinsic subject matter, not because their grades depend on it or because it is some sort of assignment to be got out of the way. There is a difference between typical classroom types of questions (such as "find the themes in Oedipus and tell how they relate to the main character's personality") and questions that really stimulate students to think, which may require some extensive introduction, such as: "Suppose you have been dating someone for a long time, and were passionately in love with them; and suppose that you really enjoyed kissing them and seriously making out. Perhaps you had even done some sexual sorts of things with them, and have found that to be exciting and stimulating. Perhaps you are married and have children, and you love your spouse and your children, devotedly. Then one day, through a series of accidental discoveries that fall into place, you and your partner or spouse find out that you actually are brother and sister, separated at birth. Would you kill yourself (as Jocasta, Oedipus' wife/mother did)? Would you take a dagger and poke out your own eyes (as Oedipus did)? Would you continue the relationship, as it had been, thinking now that there might be a lot to be said for incest after all? What would be your reaction to this news, and how would it affect your life? If you would not react the way Oedipus and Jocasta did, what is different about you from them (as human beings -- not just because you have tv and indoor plumbing and they didn't, and not just because you live 2500 years later than they did; these are only circumstantial differences, not basic human differences? What are the internal, essential differences between you and them, if any?); what other things in the story show them to be different from you in this way? Is there anything that would explain how they reacted; or would you react the same way for the same reasons? What are those reasons? Or do you find their reactions so natural and so obvious a way to react that you don't think any reasons are necessary? (Be careful here, for if you choose this answer as the "easy way out of all this", you may not be able to back it up when I ask you about how you would react in other, fundamentally similar situations I have in mind.) Are they similar to you or different from you in some fundamental ways, and, if so, in what ways?"
Or after a very rudimentary introduction to fractions you can ask first grade students what fraction of their family they are, what fraction of the family the females are, what fraction of their family their parents are, what fraction of all the living things in their household they are, etc., etc. Or you can ask students in an introductory ethics class when it is right to break a date, and why, discussing their answers in class in a way that makes them defend their views to you and to each other.
In a history class you can lay out an alternative, even better, plan for something than what was adopted and still in use, and challenge students to defend what actually was adopted since they normally think that what led to current policy and doctrine was somehow either inevitable or for the best. In a new middle school, seventh graders outnumbered sixth graders, and so all the student council offices were won by seventh graders. The sixth graders felt the election was unfair. It would have been a great time to discuss the problems of democracy which come under the designation of "tyranny of the majority", and possible remedies for them that would still be fair and democratic in some sense even though no longer involving merely rule by "simple majority".
Students tend to find these sorts of questions challenging and somehow interesting or relevant to them. Such questions make them become involved with the material, focus on it, and attend to it in ways that helps promote insights and understanding. The quest for knowledge and understanding of the issue becomes more important to them than just the pursuit of the easiest effort or answer that will satisfy a school assignment.
I am not altogether certain what makes certain questions more interesting to students than others, except perhaps that they are often "real"or meaningful(11) questions (except for those which are obviously just meant to be entertaining or imaginative practice, particularly when done in a group, out loud, extemporaneously, like the "fraction of a family" questions) and they are couched in terms (and with sufficient explanation) to arouse curiosity, sometimes particularly by promoting "cognitive dissonance"-- causing a perplexity in students which they feel the need to resolve.(12) But the sorts of questions in study guides, at the end of book chapters, and given for paper assignments, almost always tend to be uninteresting ones; and almost everyone knows that. Even teachers usually respond to the point that the assignment is boring with some comment to the effect "But it is the sort of thing you need to learn how to do because you will have to do it next year in your classes, and when you go to college." Even when it is true that it is the first of many such boring assignments, none of them justifies the others if none of them are themselves justified. As I write this, my younger daughter's summer reading assignment for tenth grade next year is to read The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and The Scarlet Letter, all of which could be interesting books. However, she is required to make note cards that individually describe each character, theme, symbol, and the plot in a chapter-by-chapter summary. This note card assignment is the same for the different books assigned to each of the grade levels. There is no guidance nor questions tailored for any of the specific works assigned; only the books change, not assistance with how students might most profitably read them. Such a project will suck any life out of reading these works because it reduces reading them to finding or fabricating certain pre-determined formulaic characteristics that the teachers have decided are the important elements of all books. I don't think great literature can be seen to be great if it is reduced to being read in this manner. Surely it is at least not likely seen to be great by students when read this way. As one of my daughter's friends, a good student also, put it, the things she has so far found interesting in the first 150 pages of The Scarlet Letter are not the sorts of things sought in the note cards; and "if these note cards do not turn out to have some really useful purpose, I will feel that I wasted my whole summer doing them." My daughter's comments have not been as charitable.(13)
I believe that one of the most revealing examples of what sort of thing is wrong in schools with regard to the use of even the classics, is that children who finish geometry courses generally do not even realize that all the material they have covered, studied, or even learned is derived from simple, obvious ideas that they all understood and accepted at the beginning of the course. None of the original axioms and/or postulates of Euclidean geometry are difficult to understand or to see as being true. Yet, it does not take very long before one can use those ideas, along with some basic reasoning, to deduce ideas that are neither obvious nor simple. Euclidean geometry, perhaps more than any other subject, shows the power of deduction to produce astonishingly intricate ideas just from the application of thinking to some obvious and simple ones. Yet most students never see that is what is occurring or that the same tremendous expansion of knowledge can occur with the same application of "thinking" and reasoning to almost any other subjects, ideas, perceptions, experiences or areas of life. They try to memorize derivations, or, worse, they try to memorize theorems because they see them appearing as just new, unrelated statements arising out of nowhere.
To a certain extent this is the fault of students, but it is also a natural consequence of learning a great many things over the years in school that never made sense and that probably were unreasonable or unreasonably presented in the first place. After a while, only the most curious and determined student keeps looking for understanding and intellectual satisfaction instead of just for answers. Instead of seeking interesting insights in literature, math, science, art, or music they search merely for answers that will earn acceptable grades and complete assignments that teachers give to meet their own bureaucratically imposed, pointless obligations.
Physics textbooks (and multimedia) tend to present the classic case of bad explanations. They are often are constructed in ways similar to geometry texts, in this case deriving "classical" physics from Newton's three laws. (And they often introduce certain principles of relativity and/or quantum mechanics in order to derive the remaining results of more modern physics.) However, unfortunately the derivations in many physics books (or multimedia) are not as straightforward or helpful as they need to be and could be. It is often difficult in physics texts to tell what is evidence and what is a conclusion based on other evidence. It is often difficult to tell where some factual evidence came from or how it was discovered. And when formulas are manipulated algebraically to yield a different form which will ultimately have some purpose, it is seldom clear why that was thought to be done, would be thought to be useful, or how anyone happened to think of doing it. The unfortunate implication is that it should be obvious why one would convert a formula mathematically from one form to another, or why someone would combine two or more formulas to produce a different one that will prove to be useful. I believe that it is difficult to fault students for not understanding the derived nature of physics, and the reasoning that produces it. Explanations in physics classes tend to be so inadequate that they serve as a deterrent to seeing that reasoning can expand knowledge and understanding.
It seems to me that students would be better off in the long run if instead of covering all material superficially and shallowly, less material was attempted to be covered so that at least some of it could be covered in much greater depth and with greater understanding and reflection. In geometry, for example, it would be terrific if students could become little Euclids and start to think as he did, to some small extent at least. If a student could get to the point where s/he deduced, before getting to it in the book, one insight on his/her own about geometry because s/he was curious and thinking, I believe that would be more important than a surface understanding or temporary memorization of all the theorems in the book. If schools could get students to see the power of analysis, deduction, and reflective thinking, so that they applied them to math, science, literature, relationships, work, auto mechanics, art, and everything else in life, students would mature faster and be able to do so much more in their lives than most people do now or can do. Teaching students to be able to analyze, interpret, understand, deduce and extrapolate from material, and inspiring them to want to do so, will allow them to gain far more knowledge over time than will simply teaching them whatever number of (often boring, because insignificant) facts one can cram into a semester's time.
Now it may not be that every person can reason or be curious, or want to think even if s/he can. But I think we will never be able to tell what the upper limits, or even the average degree, might be as long as so much of school and so much of life unnecessarily stifles whatever curiosity and excitement about learning and pondering ideas children might have or might have developed.
Virtually everything we know today, whether in science, music, art, literature, business, government, philosophy, or daily life, is something that had to be discovered, invented, created, or confirmed in some way. It is all the product of human perception and of human reasoning. Much of it arises from attention to accidentally observed or accidentally discovered phenomena. Yet we teach almost nothing from the perspective of how it was discovered or what the reasoning and evidence is behind it. We teach nearly everything as though it were just a fact that can be seen or as though it is simply known because someone in authority or someone famous or "brilliant" (and usually very old or dead) created, discovered, or decided it. Students do not often get to see that reasoning, reflection, and experimentation went into the discovery or development of many of the processes, theories, policies, practices, customs, and ideas we have today. That makes it particularly difficult for them even to think about discovering new ideas on their own.
It is not that we should have every student re-invent or re-discover all the knowledge and wisdom of prior history and civilization, but we should have them learn to re-invent or re-discover enough things so that they have a full appreciation of the process of discovery and the processes of coming to understanding. And we should give them the questions we ourselves wonder about and cannot answer. They need to see that they can be, and need to be, an extension of the progress in civilization, not just beneficiaries of its past successes and mere place-holders of its current condition. They need to see that they are the ones capable of making the next inventions, the next discoveries, the next creations, better social policies, and better institutions. They need to see that they can have the next insights if only they will realize that, and then seek, and be receptive to finding, the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Instead of being taught to be passive and docile recipients of information, students (and employees and citizens) should be taught and encouraged to reflect on the information they have at their disposal, analyze it, draw conclusions from it, evaluate it, make judgments about it, and try to draw creative insights from it. Students should be allowed, and encouraged, to question accepted ideas, practices, and policies, not only about the content of their subject matter, but even about how they are taught it. And about their own behaviors and beliefs as well as that of other people. They should be able to see what will stand up to rational scrutiny and what cannot. I am not talking about mere rebelliousness or the discarding of beliefs just to be contrary, but the persistent renewal of understanding, from individual to individual and from generation to generation, of what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true, and of what is still useful and meaningful and what is not. There cannot be too much practice in learning how to uncover latent or unrealized beliefs and assumptions; and there cannot be too much practice in learning how to analyze and evaluate all beliefs and assumptions.
This includes assumptions and ideas about both means and ends. In a pragmatic culture or a capitalist business climate, often much thought and energy is put into achieving ends, with no, or insufficient, attention's being paid to the real value of those ends and whether they ought to be pursued at all. Much work is done that is essentially wasted energy or wasted time, squandering the lives of those who pursue it. An adequate education should prepare students to ask and be able to answer what the meaning of their lives and of their work should be. It should teach students not only how to be successful, but what being successful means, or ought to mean. It should teach students not only how to achieve, but how to evaluate what is worth trying to achieve.
Transcending Mundane Vexations
Books, the Internet, and other kinds of durable media permit knowledge to be shared over time and distance. The wonderful thing about any relatively permanent medium of communication is that it can transmit to you the ideas of those long dead or those physically far away. Someone from 2000 miles away or 200 years ago may already have written down the very insights you need.
While this may be obvious about the transmission of factual knowledge, what is often overlooked is the wealth of insight and wisdom in literature, social studies, and perceptive art (including film) that can help us cope with ordinary personal and social phenomena in better ways than we tend to on our own. Unless one learns how to read for relevance, and unless one sees all life as part of the same human dramatic tapestry, it is difficult to see the application of the social sciences and of literature, or even film, to our own lives.(14)For example, most people who were "made" to read Jane Austen in school don't remember much about her books other than that they were "okay love stories". But one of Jane Austen's great gifts was the ability to describe people and their social peculiarities in the wittiest and most interesting ways(15). If she were alive today, I think it highly likely her novels would characterize the foibles of those in the contemporary work place, particularly in business offices and schools, with the same wry observations and wonderful turns of phrases she used to describe the landed gentry of her day. Irritating, self-absorbed chatter, the patronizing pronouncement of pretentious principles, or even stressfully offensive, insulting, remarks might appear simply comical after you heard her describe the characters of people who engage in them. And since she has shown us the possibilities for this type of descriptive depictions, we are all capable, even if just to a minor extent, of emulating her in order to characterize, categorize, and caricature, the habits and behavior of those people --customers, clients, colleagues, teachers, supervisors, managers, and bosses-- who otherwise serve merely to torment us.
Genuineness and Intellectual Honesty
Lack of genuineness and honesty with oneself or with others seems to be a trait common not only to teachers, but to many managers and employers, and to many other people. I do not understand it because I do not know what people think they are hiding from others when they not only do not treat them reasonably and decently but think they are successfully pretending they are. There is no such successful pretense; only the additional implication that one is as insincere and dense as one is inept or unkind.
An example of an issue that involves what I have called intellectual genuineness can be found at www.Garlikov.com/Soc_Meth.html and at www.Garlikov.com/PlaceValue.html where the concept of mathematical place-value is examined. It turns out that if you ask most people, including most elementary school math teachers, why place-value is the way it is, and why columns are named the way they are, and whether there could have been some other way of designating what place-value designates, they do not really know. Yet adults can use place-value in writing numbers and doing arithmetical calculations, so they think they understand it. Furthermore, it is known to be difficult for children to learn, and there are all kinds of educational devices and "manipulables" that futilely try to make teaching and learning it easier. It is my contention that if teachers really confronted their own lack of understanding of the concept of place-value, they would see what they have been missing and then be able to teach it much more adequately, quickly, and easily to students.
Similarly, fractions, another realized terribly difficult topic for students, are usually introduced as being any or all of the following three things: a portion of a thing, a proportion of a number of things, and division (of the numerator by the denominator). Texts and teachers normally interchange these various usages without even noticing they are all quite different things and without realizing how complex the relationship among them is. An explanation of all this can be found at http://www.Garlikov.com/math/fractions.html in an essay called "More About Fractions Than Anyone Needs to Know". The point of the essay is not so much to teach about this relationship among the three concepts of fractions as it is to point out the complexity, and how glossing over or ignoring that complexity when trying to introduce fractions to students, adds tremendously to their confusion and lack of understanding. It is not that teachers ought to teach students what is in that essay as they introduce them to fractions; that would only make matters worse, and make a difficult situation virtually impossible. It is that teachers need to see they should not cavalierly interchange the three concepts (as is usually done) and expect students to be able to follow. The three concepts of fractions need to be introduced in totally different ways, with students being told at some points that these ways are related but that the relationship can only be seen when they have gone further into math; for now they should concentrate on learning how to use fractions in each of these different ways, and not worry why they can go back and forth among them in ways they will be doing. That is better than simply acting as though there is nothing complex about the matter at all, and thinking it should be obvious why, for example, that 3/5 of five pies is the same thing as three pies out of five. Just to hint at the complexity, notice that if you have a cherry pie, an apple pie, a lemon-meringue pie, a blueberry pie, and a peach pie, any three of those pies will not be the same thing as 3/5 of each of the pies. Yet students will be expected to blithely do all sorts of problems that go back and forth between proportions of the whole and multiple portions of each; e.g., that five times 3/5 equals three.
I say that these sorts of things are matters of intellectual honesty for teachers rather than just matters of their lack of knowledge about them (e.g., fractions or place-value), because I believe that if teachers really listened to student questions, or really tried to understand how students were misunderstanding, or failing to understand, explanations or instructions, they would come to see how those explanations were inadequate. There are some very easy examples to see from primary grades, the first two involving directions; the third, involving understanding an explanation:
(1) One teacher passed out pictures of bananas, apples, grapes, strawberries,
peaches, cherries, blueberries, etc. and told the children to write down
the first letter of each object. One girl just put an "F" for each of them.
The teacher called in the mother to tell her that the child did not understand
sound/symbol correspondence. The mother knew better and asked her child
why she said each object started with an "F". The kid said they were all
fruit, and she did not feel like wasting time writing the individual name
Genuineness and Transcending the Mundane
It does not even need to be verbal. In one of those brief but indelible moments, I was walking on the sidewalk early one morning when a Volkswagen bug drove by in the opposite direction. I could see it was a young woman driving, and as I peered into the car to get a better look at her, she peered out toward me to do the same. We both caught each other checking each other out, and both immediately were tickled by the fact and smiled, laughed, and waved at each other as she drove by.
On a more artistic level, drawing, painting, photography, and sculpture often give non-verbal universal insights and perspectives. A temporary museum exhibit of paintings related to the practice of medicine one time portrayed the point that in some cases modern, sterile, technically-driven care, though more effective, was less comforting and caring than those situations in poorer communities of long ago where doctors could do little but hover with relatives to provide emotional comfort for the ill or dying and emotional support for each other. Some of the paintings made it appear that the latter may be a more desirable situation than the former, particularly where death was going to occur anyway. There is also a nice small, bronze sculpture by Rodin of a seated mother with a child standing in her lap, more or less climbing toward her face. The mother has an arm out touching the child. When you first look at it, the statue appears to be a warm, loving, playful interaction between mother and child, but a closer look reveals that the mother's expression and the position of her arm shows that she is really gently, but firmly, trying to hold the child a bit away from her, trying to maintain some of her own space. It is a beautifully constructed, subtle commentary on the balance between the joys of motherhood and its potentially consuming, emotionally suffocating, physically and emotionally draining nature.
Sometimes this sort of genuine perspective on life is merely a matter of attitude or perspective. My sister reported to me one time that when she and my mother were passengers while my father was driving home after they had visited me at college, he got to a place in a city the interstate highway did not yet bypass, where there were about ten or fifteen blocks of traffic lights in a row. They were timed miserably from a driver's perspective because each one turned red just as you got to it. My father is not amused by this sort of situation, and because the street was basically deserted, he kept trying to "race" (within reason) ever quicker to the next one in the hopes of catching all the green lights instead of all the red ones. He would gun the engine when his light turned green and try to accelerate to the next light, only to have it turn red no matter how fast he went without actually trying to drag race. My sister started to worry that he was going to get totally upset and frustrated, and while they were waiting at the next red light, she suggested he might be happier, and it might work out better, if he just either went very slowly to the next light, or if he just did not really care whether he made one or not. She said something like "Dad, it's okay if we don't make these lights." Such a suggestion to my father under such conditions was itself a bit risky, but she felt his building exasperation was not healthy. To her astonishment, and totally uncharacteristic of him, he just calmly looked back at her, settled back against his seat, pushed his arms against the steering wheel, and said, "No, this is just something I have to do; it has become a personal challenge." He never beat any of them, but it had become something of an amusing, competitive adventure, rather than a total aggravation.
Years later, when he was 83, he visited my sister's family and was kicking a soccer ball back and forth with his 9 year-old grandson. Although he had always been fairly athletic, his more youthful forte had been basketball and baseball and anything that required good hand-eye coordination, and he had never played soccer. Time has taken its toll on his eyesight and his agility, and that day on one of his kicks, he accidentally got his foot on the ball instead of into the ball, and he fell to the ground on his shoulder. He told the kid he was all right and swore him to secrecy, and then the next day told my sister he must have slept wrong on his shoulder because it was bothering him. When he got home, after driving 500 miles with pain that would barely let him keep his hurt arm on the steering wheel, he went to the doctor and found out nothing was seriously damaged, and that time and some rehab therapy would be sufficient. He was really upset with himself for having been so clumsy, however, and for having become what he considered to be relatively fragile. He was embarrassed about what had happened and he didn't want anyone to know about it. But after I said, "Gee, you should be proud of your injury; how many 83 year old guys do you know that get hurt playing soccer!" he began to take the incident as a sign of athleticism instead of its loss, and he started to get mileage out of bragging to his friends that he had suffered a soccer injury. He even later trotted out an old line that he had always used on me when I had gotten hurt or had a problem as a kid, except that when he had used it with me, he did so seriously. He said he guessed getting hurt this way was "just all a part of growing up." To me, it was especially satisfying, funny, and poignant, coming from him, because as far as I had ever seen or heard before (and so far since), that kind of humor at his own predicament was only part of his nature these two times in his life.
I had to show a young desk clerk a photo ID recently, and when he looked at the ID and then at me, he laughed and said "Don't worry; time does that to all of us." It made me laugh, and perhaps he had surmised I was the kind of person it would. I thought it was a terrific comment to turn a mundane situation into something that allowed us each to see a bit of spark, a bit of the playful and mischievous in each other, a shared moment that gave us each some pleasure, and whose pleasure multiplied as I told friends and relatives the story.
That, of course, is a case of flippancy or sarcasm that might not be appreciated by everyone even though it was not meant as a personal gibe but as a general commentary on the human condition and on the futility of vanity based on, at best temporary, external appearance(16). But if one chooses one's opportunities carefully, it is one sort of thing that can make life be more interesting, and, I think, lived on a higher plane because it acknowledges the existence of other thinking minds and their likely thoughts, peculiar views, or humorous vanities, instead of pretending they do not exist as one only deals with people in a supposedly "civilized", but merely impersonal, mechanically perfunctory manner, "just doing your job", and actually ignoring the fact that those whom one is serving are fellow thinking human beings.
The flippancy or sarcasm in the above case is not the heart of this; it is the willingness to engage honestly the soul of another whether in humor or seriousness. I photograph weddings, and that is a somewhat stressful, difficult task if you are trying to get pictures that actually show joy and excitement instead of stiff self-consciousness and nervousness. You and your subjects are also under severe time constraints because you don't want the pictures to be an intrusion on the event itself and everyone's sharing of it. Yet you usually have to exert a certain amount of direction and control or the pictures they will want to have later will not get taken or will not look very good. Knowing how and when to intrude in order to direct is difficult and nerve-wracking. The actual picture-taking part is easy compared to what is involved in cultivating the subjects, if necessary, and getting them to the point where they are at their best for capturing. I liken the experience of doing wedding photography to shooting landscapes in a minefield, because using the camera is the easy part. So the comment that a groom's father made one weekend was particularly nice; and it was not something that he had to say. In fact, it took a kind of gentlemenliness and act of humanity for him to say it. He said that the way I worked showed that I saw myself as someone trying to serve the family, not just someone doing a job. He was a very nice man, and I had noticed, and commented earlier to that effect when I saw him spontaneously move from where he had been standing for a previous picture to accord his wife a place next to their son for one of the group photographs. Most men would not have thought to do that. I thought he went beyond just thanking me for my professional efforts at the wedding in order to make a more personal comment that showed his own sensitivity and feelings and that, I believe because of that, took some social courage which most people would not be willing to exercise. I appreciated very much what he said.
But it is moments like these, when they are honest and genuine, that make commonplace activities rise to the sublime. They are moments that can be created almost any time and in almost any situation if we are just willing to acknowledge our common humanity with others, and appreciate the remarkable coincidence that we and they, in all the vast amount of time and space that will ever exist, happen to share the same place and moment in the universe, and can help each other out with a touch of kindness or a touch of amusement if we wish to. One has to be willing to reach out to (deserving) others in ways that show something of one's inner being and thoughts, or one's knowledge and understanding. (In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, there is a scene in which an Arab ruler begins a passage from the Koran that T.E. Lawrence finishes, showing knowledge of and respect for his host's culture -- which, of course, made a very favorable impression on his host and the other Arabs, though in the movie Lawrence's superior officer did not like it because he considered it a pandering delay from the business he wanted to transact). Such behavior helps ameliorate the isolation between people. It always makes an impressive movie scene, as well as a great impression in real life, too, when someone quotes a passage of literature from memory that is fitting for the circumstances. And in romantic movies, of course, it is often even more wondrous and melodramatic because the two protagonists will know the same passage and thus essentially be fated to fall in love. But in real life, comments and quotations that show a consciousness of what is both personal and universal permit a bond, even if temporary, to be formed and seen between people.
But there are simpler, more common ways to show concern for others and a sense of shared humanity. And in some cases, really nice experiences can result from doing so instead of being afraid to be different in some way. One time, during college, I visited my roommate's fiancée in the hospital after her appendectomy. She was in a ward with a great many other patients, one of whom kept calling for a nurse but getting no response. I went over to ask her whether I could help in some way. She was a high school girl, and said she just needed a nurse. Another patient whispered to me that the nurses were really busy, and short-handed, and that what the girl wanted a nurse for was to empty her bedpan, which was filled to the brim. The girl was paralyzed from the waist down and could, of course, not empty it herself. I said I would empty the bedpan, and despite her protestations, did, washed it out and returned it. The girl felt totally embarrassed and I told her she need not be and, with a wry grin said that I was sure she would have done the same for me. She laughed.
We talked a bit, and her mother came in, and told me off to the side that her daughter had been a cheerleader in school and then suddenly one day just could not walk. It came from out of the blue and the doctors did not know what was the matter. They had brought her some 60 miles or so to the university hospital, and doctors were running all sorts of tests. The mother was distraught, of course, but she told me that her daughter's spirits had been good and that she had vowed she would walk out of the hospital on her own. However, time was starting to take its toll on her morale. Everyone in the ward seemed to pity the girl and to talk with her as though they did. I felt she may have had enough of that, and as I left, she asked whether I would return the next day. I called back, loud enough for all to hear, "I will be back tomorrow; so don't go running off with anyone else now." The other patients all sucked in their breath at what they assumed was a terrible faux pas, but I had chosen my words purposely. The girl gave me the biggest smile and the brightest eyes she had shown.
I went back every day and talked with her about everything but her condition, except one time to tell her that when she could walk again, I wanted the first dance. Her mother said I helped her daughter recapture and keep her spirit. In a few weeks, she regained the use of her legs, though haltingly at first, just as surprisingly as she had become paralyzed. She wanted to walk out of the hospital, and they let her. I got to be her escort. The last time I spoke with her mother by phone, the girl had finished college, married, and had children of her own. There was no remnant of whatever had been wrong with her (probably what has since been designated as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a sudden form of temporary paralysis). All in all, it was a really nice experience in my life that just began by doing something easy and decent, though rather unusual, for someone who needed help.
Perhaps that deed atoned in advance in some small measure for the really stupid stunt I pulled one day at a zoo, in a crowd in front of a cage at the snake house. I was behind a couple of young women in their late teens or early twenties, and as we all watched the snakes slithering around in their glass cages, much too close to us, the devil got into me and I slid the back of my index finger upward along the back of the girl in front of me, who was a complete stranger. She jumped further and shrieked far louder than I had imagined, and I thought I would probably have to be arrested, especially if she died from fright, but as she turned around and looked at me, she touched her hand to my shoulder and just doubled over laughing at what a great joke that was, and how well it had worked on her. I was saved, but I apologized anyway. She wouldn't hear of it; she thought it was great. I was lucky. I had accidentally picked someone who understood my recognition of the perfectly natural concern while watching these snakes that one of them might have escaped.
Of course, there are situations where it is not easy to know what is the right thing to do -- whether, for example, it is even physically safe to become somehow personal with a stranger who may be using familiarity and friendliness to undeservedly gain your confidence, or whether one might be being too forward with another by saying something that calls for a response they would prefer not to give. Many people would not welcome various kinds of comments or offers to help them, and would feel such comments were impudent. I am not arguing for the indiscriminate or aggressive intrusion into the space or privacy of others, nor am I arguing for conjoining risky behavior to verbal interplay. I am arguing merely for genuine verbal exchanges and for making available opportunities, under reasonably safe conditions, for others to be similarly verbally responsive if they wish. There is, of course, a fine line between being intrusive, indelicate, or distasteful on the one hand and being open and available on the other, but the point is not to let fear of being intrusive squander all the moments that might have been special.
It is perhaps fear of being considered different or odd, of not fitting in, of not meeting the expectations of others, that keeps people from being honest with themselves and with others, unable to notice, analyze, or express things that do not seem consistent with what they feel they are supposed to perceive or believe, and which impedes the pursuit of higher, more genuine, more important values. The irony, of course, is that in many cases, the fear of being open and genuine, while seeming to help us fit in socially with others, actually psychologically and emotionally isolates us from them and keeps us apart by making us behave so impersonally. It may seem the safest way to go, but it makes us miss so much from each other, and from what the world has to offer. And when we, and teachers, behave that same way around children, we tend to socialize their generation into the same pattern of alienation and isolation. It is a vicious spiral that takes awareness, insight, and a bit of luck to recognize in its specific individual manifestations; and social courage, to try to remedy.
1. Religion in popular culture, and in many church
sermons --as opposed to deeper, more reflective and meaningful theology--
too often merely re-phrases Sunday school pronouncements and simplistic
moral and spiritual advice. Much of it sounds naive, unrealistic or blindly
optimistic, or hypocritical, even when it is couched in the latest fashions
of psychology and psychiatry. For those who don't already believe it, it
is easy and reasonable to ignore. But, moreover, even people who are religious
in the sense of fearing and/or being devoted to God, being active in their
religions and religious organizations, or sincerely proselytizing at every
opportunity, don't all have basic human general kindness, let alone nobility
of spirit and character, or appreciation of the capacity for being just
"a little lower than the angels". A naive form of religious spirituality,
particularly ones based on docility or the avoidance of a narrow band of
specific "sins" --primarily those of the flesh-- does not necessarily lead
to "a higher self". (Return to text.)
2. I do not think it is an "elitist"position to think
that people should pursue wisdom and understanding. First, it is
available to everyone; a university degree is neither necessary nor sufficient
to attain it. Many college graduates have surface learning without understanding,
while many insights into human nature and the "meaning of life" even appear
in comedy and in the proverbs, observations, and witticisms of the poor
or the unschooled in any culture. It has nothing to do with money or position
in society. Second, there are people who are quite successful financially
and in daily life with a narrow sphere of technical knowledge and normal
social skills. Yet these people themselves seem to feel happier and personally
better off if they then also acquire deeper understanding of art, music,
literature, science, human nature -- things unnecessary to make a living,
but things that seem to be important to make living be more interesting
and fulfilling. Many of them feel they did not realize how much they had
been missing until after they had learned it. In one sense they were missing
nothing, but in an important way, meaningful to them, they realize they
were missing much. Third, when one sees, for example, a famous athlete
who cannot speak very well or who has nothing much to say, one feels that
despite his/her athletic prowess and financial success, something important
is missing. The same is true for people who are more articulate but who
still seem to have little to say, particularly about events that would
seem to call for more important comment. Finally, all other things being
equal, the person with more insight, understanding, and wisdom in general,
and who strives to do more than just what is required, will normally be
able to do more or better in any given endeavor than the person with just
surface knowledge and the desire to do only what is expected. (Return
3. This list is not meant to be definitive, nor necessarily
even accurate. Understanding what the higher self involves --figuring
out what is (or are) the best way(s) to live, and why-- is itself part
of the pursuit. This is just a list of things I believe are involved, without
my reasons given for them here. (Return to text.)
4. Often the word "humanistic" is used here. The
problem with using that word without explanation, however, is that "humanistic"
can be meant either laudably or pejoratively. The laudable sense means
something like "humane" -- being sensitive to, and trying to serve, legitimate
human needs. The pejorative sense means making all value center
around not only the deserving needs, but also the (undeserving or sometimes
the lowest) whims and desires of human beings. In this latter sense, it
is perhaps most frequently used in contrast with more God-centered or holy
values. However that alleged contrast may be unfair in some cases, because
many humanists also believe in (often many of the same) transcendent values,
but just do not attribute their foundations to God. (Return
5. I overheard a group of young high school girls
admiring the ring one of them had just received from her boyfriend as she
excitedly told them that he gave it to her as proof that he would love
her forever. Even if his belief is sincere, it is not likely to
be accurate. How many young people have acted on such beliefs only to regret
it later! It may be more fun, while one is young, to be blissfully ignorant,
but one generally ends up paying for such bliss later with the regret one
was so naive. And relationships are only one area where one regrets naive
actions of youth. Pursuing reason and wisdom will not eliminate mistakes
one regrets, but it should eliminate or at least minimize the more naive
errors and prevent one from regretting having been stupid or gullible.
(Return to text.)
6. This is stated somewhat more generally than is
quite accurate. Those who seek additional factual or technical knowledge,
as in some areas of science or medical research, may add something of great
value if they labor sufficiently, even if fairly mechanically, in a path
someone else has set. But without using reason and imagination, one is
not likely to be the one to have thought to pursue that particular path
to begin with. (Return to text.)
7. When I was in college, there was someone who sometimes
on summer days played the trumpet during lunch time from the balcony of
the house he rented near central campus. The music wafted over the campus
as people walked across the quad or sat in the grass eating lunch and visiting
or basking in the sun. It added an extra element of beauty and joy to whatever
people were doing outside. Yet, when I would tell about this to high school
band students, in an attempt to get them to consider playing their instruments
outside --at their homes or in nearby parks-- to share their music with
others, none were willing; and all thought the idea frightening or silly.
I was able to get one elementary school one time to allow students to play
instruments in the cafeteria during lunch period. It lasted a week or two,
because only a few students had anything to share or were willing to do
it. Yet students will "show off" new cars or clothes or new moves on the
dance floor, or they will be happy to display athletic skills because all
these things are considered socially acceptable. Social priorities and
what counts as socially acceptable behaviors are interesting ... and strange.
(Return to text.)
8. A female psychologist one time, who seemed to
confuse "typical" with "normal" or "desirable" even told one of her female
high school patients that she was sorry she (the patient) had always made
A's in school because that obviously put too much stress on her. She said
she wished for B's in the girl's future, so the girl would be happier.
The girl felt she was happy enough getting A's, since she liked much of
what she was learning and thought if she was going to study anyhow, A's
were preferable to B's. She didn't feel any pressure to achieve A's; she
just liked learning. I played tennis one day with the girl after she had
told me about this experience, and after she missed one shot that she had
run a really long way to luckily get to, and then blew the easiest part
by hitting it right into the net, she stopped and laughed, saying "Oh,
the pressure of this game is obviously too much for me." So I said, "but
you missed the shot, so now you ought to be ecstatically happy." She loved
it. (Return to text.)
9. There are rare individuals who are inspired the
first time they read some particular work or attend a performance. These
people seem to have accidentally acquired or been born with an affinity
for such a work, an affinity that escapes most of us without a great deal
of nurturing during, or just prior to our introduction to the work. (Return
10. I have written elsewhere (http://www.Garlikov.com/Interpretation.html)
about the difference between understanding something for yourself and having
someone else's understanding presented to you. The latter is not often
helpful, by itself, in fostering your own understanding. An "active tracing"
of a classical work is one in which the learner gets involved with the
problem in such a way that the steps and insights of the author/artist/composer
become meaningful -- in some cases leading the student to figure out the
next insight of the author before reading it. (Return
11. By "real" questions I mean questions that the
teacher finds personally interesting and either wants to know the answer
to or genuinely wants to know what the students' answer is. They are not
questions that are asked just to "test" the student or to give a grade.
And they are not meant as a substitute for lecturing without listening,
as in simply telling a student his/her answer is incorrect and the correct
response should have been something else and then moving on without really
wanting to know or caring why the student gave the initial answer s/he
did. (Return to text.)
12. Often it is not the original question that stimulates and engages student thinking so much as it is a forceful (and, if necessary, persistent) challenge to, or attack on, their first answer or two. It is finding that an apparently obvious answer will not hold up that suddenly captures the intellect and demands its attention. At www.Garlikov.com/Philosophy.html I have a series of questions that seem to elicit student interest, but I have found that it takes a challenge to their first inadequate answers to really engage student thinking. For example, there is a question about whether a man is going around a squirrel or not if the man walks around a tree, keeping a distance from it of 5 to 10 feet, while the squirrel on the opposite side of the trunk also circles the tree in order to keep the trunk between it and the man. If students say that the man is going around the squirrel because his path encompasses it, you can ask, for example, whether a boy walking a girl around the park, holding her hand but always staying to the outside of her is walking around her, since his path encompasses hers; or you can ask whether Pluto is going around Mars, since its path encircles the orbit of Mars. That tends to throw a monkey wrench into their idea. If they say the man is not going around the squirrel because he is always on the same side of it, you can ask one of them to step forward and remain on the same spot as s/he pivots to keep facing you as you walk around the room, clearly walking around them even though they are always keeping the same side to you. It is at this point that they begin to really appreciate the problem and see that the answer will need to be more complex than it appears.
Sometimes it takes a great deal of persistence to get a student (or
anyone) to see flaws in their answers. I am white, and in a college of
predominantly black students, I had one (black) student one time who firmly
believed that for black people to be treated decently and fairly by any
institution, it would be necessary and sufficient for it to be owned and/or
operated by black people. He thought that all black people would treat
each other better, and that only black people would treat black people
right. I brought into class a black banker who assured him that he would
not make loans to people just because they were black if they could not
establish credit; and he also said that predominantly white banks today
would make loans to blacks who did establish credit. He pointed out the
specific things people need to do, and can easily do, to establish credit,
but these were things many people did not know to do, and which, for historical
reasons, black people in particular did not know to do. That did not deter
this student from his beliefs. All term I tried to think up ways to change
his mind. The last day of class, an administrator came into the classroom
and verbally attacked this student and another for wearing hats in the
class. We had already discussed this in the classroom, and I had permitted
them to wear their hats, after explaining that in many places, people considered
wearing hats indoors to be disrespectful (except in synagogues, where not
wearing a hat is considered disrespectful) and that in such environments
they should not wear a hat. I defended their doing this and challenged
the administrator to explain why it was the wrong and egregious behavior
he indicated. He could not adequately defend his own view, and instead,
after a number of unsuccessful and really foolish attempts, became extremely
angry. My employment there was obviously not going to be continued. The
students could see that. When the administrator left the room, I turned
to the student and asked him what color the administrator was. He responded,
"Black". I pointed out that if this administrator had been white, the student
would have said his attack was clearly a case of discrimination, "but since
he is black, and you are black, what do call what he did to you?" The student
said he would have to think about it. So I said, "Then let me ask you this:
if you had the choice between attending a college run by someone like him
who was black or someone like me though I am white, which would you choose?"
He looked at me for a while and then said "You". I think that finally gave
him something to think about in response to his view that all and only
black people would give other black people a fair shake. It is not so much
the asking of a leading question or perhaps even the initial response to
its answer that makes students think, as it is getting them to see, and
to realize, that their original view or answer will not hold up. (Return
13. Of course, as a parent who sees these problems
with school assignments and who wants his children to rise above them,
I have the responsibility to help them. I do that. But it is more difficult
trying to overcome the mentality of the school culture in certain ways
than it would be to teach them if there were not such a culture. One expects
schools to have higher standards of intellectual excellence, not lower
ones; and one expects professional educators actually to know more about
education and matters of the intellect, but that is not the way it turns
out to work. Turning out the most reflective and intellectual students,
even if they are well-adjusted, gregarious, and likable, is not in general
part of the mission of education today. (Return
14. A teacher in a ghetto school brought Shakespeare
to life in an interesting way for her students by introducing them to the
cursing epithets or disparaging denunciations the characters used against
each other in the plays. The students used them on other students and then
began to make up their own similar denunciations to see who could do it
with the most wit and flair. It gave them an appreciation for how stylistic
language could be more interesting to use and to hear than the ordinary,
unimaginative, mundane comments they were used to and had previously thought
sufficient. Their interest in creative cursing led them to a broader interest
in the imaginative use of language in general. They liked Shakespeare,
and they used his works as something of a model to improve their own speaking
and writing in general. (Return to text.)
15. Movies made from her books lose this characteristic,
because they show you just the character, not her description of
the character. You cannot take her descriptions, create characters based
on them, and then expect people to deduce her descriptions from those portrayals.
You can imagine her characters based on her descriptions, but you cannot
imagine her descriptions based on her characters. Attending a movie made
from one of her works would not be dissimilar from attending with her the
events she attended in her lifetime and witnessing personally those same
people. What you would not have then, until and unless you talked with
Jane Austen, was her perspective and description of those people
and their behaviors. Beholding the characters is not one tenth as interesting
as beholding her depictions of, and commentaries on, those characters.
That is what her writing gives; and that, I believe, is a crucial part
of the value in her work. (Return to text.)
16. My interpretation or explanation of part of
the value of the desk clerk's comment is given here because of the context
of this essay. Wit and comedy can often be explained by an in-depth prose
analysis that is itself neither witty nor humorous, and which essentially
robs the comments being explained of any fun. There are even somewhat mechanical
recipes for constructing great jokes, based on what people tend to find
funny. But none of this has to do with our immediate enjoyment of wit or
humor, and I do not mean to imply it does or that I analyze every witty
or funny comment I hear in order to decide whether to laugh or not. I am,
here, only trying to make some particular points about the use of a certain
kind of humor; not trying to explain how or why I or anyone laughs or enjoys
wit and humor. (Return to text.)