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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

the impact of ‘thoughtlessness’ (and the importance of teachers)

think

courtesy Google

Today, following yesterday’s post about research, I was reading the National Endowment for the Humanities bi-monthly magazine, Humanities. In it is an article about NEH-funded research on political theorist Hannah Arendt. And it underlines the importance of the critical thinking explicit in good research.

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I admire & respect most serious Holocaust scholarship, but Arendt is in a class of her own. Her work Eichmann in Jerusalem garnered both critical acclaim and death threats. The reason? Arendt’s contention that Eichmann wasn’t a ‘monster’ (although certainly he was instrumental in horrific, monstrous acts), but rather a ‘thoughtless’ clown.

Considering the man orchestrated the deaths of millions, this assertion didn’t (and doesn’t) sit well with many.

thinking 2

courtesy Google

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But if you read Arendt’s conclusion about Eichmann, and his ‘thoughtlessness,’ what you have is a damning indictment of much ersatz education and learning. Because what Arendt argues is this: “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak [in anything but clichés] was closely connected with an inability to think [emphasis the author’s], namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” (Humanities Mar/April 2014)

Wow. What a profound damning of the kind of education that produces only obedience without critical contextualisation. In the article, the distinction is made between knowing what you’re doing, and seeing the large picture, a pivotal difference. Eichmann, Arendt realizes, knows he’s good at the transportation that results in the millions of deaths in concentration camps. But while he acknowledges his prowess at this ‘job,’ he appears never to question the impact of this efficacy: how it makes possible the relocation of millions of death camp internees, and their subsequent murder. He is proud of his prowess, while at the same time blind to its deadly consequences.

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critical thinking

courtesy Google

In today’s hindsight, we can’t imagine such blindness. Until we look at terms like ‘collateral damage,’ and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians as recently as Afghanistan and Iraq. Too few Americans question such losses, assuming the death of non-combatants (not women, children, a bridal party) is an acceptable price to pay… For what? Oil? Most Americans — like most Germans — have only the vaguest, ‘patriotic’ ideas of why recent wars have been fought.

Yesterday, Oklahoma passed another income tax cut. What, you’re wondering, does this have to do w/ Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism, and critical thinking?

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teaching research, or, why some folks hate universities

research tiles

courtesy Google

For several years, I taught research to college students. At a research university, no less. I taught ag majors, English majors, business majors, music majors, phys ed majors, design majors, art majors, history and econ and chemistry and engineering and anything-you-can-think-of majors. As well as the undeclared.

I loved it.

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research 2

courtesy Google

Research is at the heart of the democratic process, I honestly believe. Research and a free flow of information, that is. And it’s why many many neo-cons (and religious conservatives) don’t want their children to attend public universities.

George W Bush, for instance, hired well over 100 alumni from evangelical Pat Robertson’s Regent University —  a bottom tier law school — for positions with the US Justice Dept. While it’s not unusual to stack the appointment deck w/ friends (Bill Clinton did so, for instance), it IS unusual to select them from a none-too-swift university (Clinton’s were pretty much all top tier schools). But Robertson’s college promises a ‘Christian’ education, based on the ‘infallible’ text of the Bible. Given founder Pat Robertson’s strong beliefs on the subordination of women, the hell-bound nature of gays, creationism, and other controversial evangelical positions, it’s hard to reconcile the appointment of US Justice employees who hold those truths (instead of the Constitution, when they conflict) to be self-evident.

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research 3

courtesy Google

When I taught research at university, my students researched their own chosen topics. Which often meant they researched hot-button topics: abortion, capital punishment, immigration…the usual deep questions. :) Once, a student asked if he could ‘research’ God, as in: is there one? I tried HARD to dissuade him, but it was his passion, and even though he initially took an Incomplete in the class, he did finally finish, w/ a sound research paper. His topic had migrated from ‘Is there a God?’ to something like ‘Credibility in the Christian Church.’

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What I saw, over the many years I taught, was that students had no idea what constituted an authoritative source. When they would want to use a religious text (the Bible usually, in Oklahoma), I would remind them that other religions could then use their texts: the Muslim Qu’ran, the Hindu Bhagavadgita, the Bahá’í Kitáb-i-Aqdas (that one drove them NUTS). Because religious texts are, at least in the university, considered literary texts — like Edith Head’s mythology anthologies.

global warming research Pie Chart 2

courtesy Popular Science

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This kind of thinking persists in politics today, and is perhaps the single most problematic of anti-research mindsets: if it’s my religion, it’s RIGHT. And I should be allowed to use it as substantive, evidentiary proof for my beliefs. Except that faith is, by definition, a BELIEF, not a fact. Hence the problem a friend’s family member had w/ the scientific support for global warming.

This man, whom we shall call D, said that there were thousands of reputable scientists who don’t believe in global warming. His family member (a friend of mine) and I begged to differ. No, we responded, that’s not true. And we showed him sources like this recent one from Popular Science.

He responded w/ a source that noted 10,000 degreed professionals don’t believe that climate change has any relation to human sources. He said, These folks have degrees; don’t they count? And no, they don’t. Sorry. They were business majors, vets, history majors. He then asked Don’t you know about history? You have a doctorate! I do know about history, but NOT as much a history Ph.D. And I certainly don’t know as much about any science — despite being a total science nerd, and reading it for FUN — as a Ph.D. science professional.

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buddha silhouette

courtesy Google

This is what research teaches us. And yes, it DOES have to do w/ beginner’s heart. Because faith and science aren’t the same thing. Which is one reason I’m a Buddhist, not a Christian. Christianity asks that I accept certain world-shaping assumptions as fact — that I believe them. Buddhism, on the other hand, from its very beginnings, asks that I test the tenets of Buddhism in my own life. (The Buddha said that himself, just FYI.)

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Buddhism  has no quarrel with science. The Dalai Lama himself is a science nerd, of sorts, talking about new research in physics and research on the mind when he gives Dharma talks. I love that — it’s a total 180 from many conservative Christian religious leaders.

All of this is why many people in the news trash talk education as having a liberal agenda. Taught to think truly critically, you will question assumptions. And you’ll note that faith is NOT the same as science. But that doesn’t mean you won’t still have faith, in many things, including religion. I believe in love — I can’t ‘prove it,’ however. And I don’t have to ‘believe’ in gravity: it’s a fact. I also don’t oversimplify the complexities of evolution to support the beautiful parable that is the Old Testament — I know we didn’t ‘descend from monkeys'; that’s not what evolution says.

I miss teaching. But most of all, I miss watching minds expand under the influence of logic, knowledge, and critical inquiry. It’s a beautiful sight!

 

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random and more random

random

Google image, colour added by author

Today is one of those days when I don’t think. Really (and don’t tell me you don’t have those days). It was all I could do figure out breakfast (cappuccino and left-over chicken; don’t judge me).

So today’s post is totally random — and really? That’s perfect beginner’s heart, if you consider: how one thing links to another, the way my teacher reminded me that we are all part of everything. Even physics says this: molecules don’t have a precise threshold, a line over which they cannot cross. It’s just that the molecular line is soooo much smaller; we can’t see it. But it’s still ‘blurry,’ for lack of a better word. My atoms bounce out into the air, and the atoms that make up air bounce into me. On a verrry tiny level. :)

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spider web 2

courtesy National Geographic

And everyone who ever breathed in and out is still here, as well. My dearly and deeply missed old ladies, my parents. Gandhi and St. Francis and the Buddha. Beth who was in a class I taught, and killed herself. An unknown woman from the Middle Ages, who died in a smoke-filled hut at 18, in childbirth.

Extinct birds and mammals and even the dinosaurs — all of them still present, on an elemental scale, in the very air I breathe. Part of the random (but unique!) collection of atoms and molecules that comprise each of us. We are as connected — each animate and inanimate piece, forever — as my thumb and fingers. Ostensibly independent, but irretrievably part of a whole.

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rust

courtesy Google

So for me, the most random of images (but also — paradoxically — the least) is that of the web I believe connects everyone to everything to everytime. As random as a man lost in the Fukishima tsunami, who finally melted into the ocean, and then the droplets of seawater swept up into the wind,  dropped as rain on Oklahoma. But also as connected as a story of one life makes that life to my own. As connected as iron (Fe) and oxygen (O): rust (FeO). When the iron and the air connect, they marry — into that lovely colour, rust. Visible connection.

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I know — it’s a stretch of physics (my husband reminds me of this when I go all metaphorical), but it’s my world view. :) And on a day when it started off looking like rain, and hatched into blue skies and birds singing, it suits me just fine.

 

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time and distance

words

courtesy Google

I’m working (hard) on a chapbook manuscript. Which is to say, I’m going over work I did — some of it a while ago — line by line, word by word, space by line break by punctuation mark.

I hate it.

But it’s become the metaphor of my week: revision. Or, if you prefer, re-framing. Because that’s what writing allows us to do: reframe our stories.  Revise and thus reframe our lives. Even fiction is, always, at least a foggy window into the writer.

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revision

courtesy Google

My publisher said I need to work on ‘sequencing.’ For those of you who don’t do poetry, that’s which poem follows which, and the underlying ‘why.’ I’m pretty good at that for others, not so much myself. Kind of the way we can always give advice to someone else, but often would no more do that ourselves than … well, you know.

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It’s taken time for me to disengage from each poem enough to query it. Time, in this case, = distance. At least a bit of objectivity. The newer pieces still seem better than the older ones, because what you’ve recently written is like that. The same way the actions of my recent past are far more difficult to evaluate clearly: I have neither time passed nor distance.

book pile

courtesy Google

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But as I try to figure out why I wrote each poem — which helps me figure out the whole ‘sequencing’ thing — I’m learning how to look more closely at even the trivia of my everyday life. I’m better able see the whole picture: not just the overflowing box of books in the living room, but why it’s been so important, lately, to clear out junk (even beloved junk, like poetry books from my dissertation, and old fiction). Why it only really feels like spring when we put the table umbrella up over the deck table. Why I don’t work harder on ‘real’ exercise… :)

All of this is by way of saying that once you start revising/ asking ‘why’…? Well, you’re doomed. Your life begins to unfurl like a skein of impossibly tangled but beautiful ribbon. And when you start following it, it leads everywhere. It may just take a little time to get your bearings.

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