Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

the pressure to conform ~

research evolution

I’ve always been insatiably, even dangerously curious. As a child (a pink-cheeked blonde, whose mother too often made her wear pastels…), I took apart lamps, rewiring them (and only rarely shocked myself). I slept with a taxidermied squirrel, because it was real (lumpy, though).

I followed bugs to wherever they were going, and read anything in the house. Including the medical encyclopædia, sometimes. I watched the cook wring a chicken’s neck, and then asked her why it jumped around afterwards. I looked up EVERYTHING, long before the Google folks were gleams on the horizon.

Knowledge — and the research it required — was my ocean, and I immersed myself in it as much as I could. Reading up on every new fancy, from bees to dollhouses to China to Việtnamese history to tea. I still do.

People on the outside of academia — the university, higher research, ‘academe,’ as we academics like to call ourselves :) — think we get to do pretty much what we want. Allow me to gently disabuse you of this notion. The cartoon is far more accurate. And this is scary.academia books

Knowledge begins with curiousity. But for the past several years, both liberals and conservatives have — sometimes quietly & subtly, sometimes loudly and with great fanfare — influenced what academics research. Certainly grant funders — primarily the government and large private corporations — have agendas. And note: an agenda is not the same, necessarily, as bias. I used to tell my students: the American Cancer Society has an agenda about smoking: it causes cancer. So their research publishings are under that agenda. It does NOT mean they’re biased, as their studies are medical double-blind, primarily. The KKK, however, has both an agenda — to bleach America back to its ‘original’ purity (I always wonder when this fable began: how can anyone pretend the Indians weren’t here first??) — and bias: there is no viable research (of the double-blind type) that supports a return to white supremacy. There was never any argument for white supremacy in the first place.

So how do we break free from this cycle, and why is it important?

Question EverythingWe have to realise — like the Buddha once said — that skepticism is good: Question everything. And that means being skeptical even of the agendas of those who hold power over us. Once, many years ago, I had a professor I knew wouldn’t agree w/ my politics. So I wrote the draft of my paper to please him. It sucked (to put it mildly). Well-written (just being honest! :) ), but lackluster. No passion, no real point, other than the grade. I got a B. Would I have received an A had I stuck to my principles? Maybe not. But I would have LEARNED something. I would have made the paper work for ME.

Years later, on the other hand, I walked into another professor’s office, insisting that we find a way to make what seemed to me pretty useless class assignments (at least for a poet) into something I could use. He worked w/ me, to give him credit. And the result was a large body of scholarship I ended up using in significant ways, not to mention the cachet it gave me in my career.

These are anecdotal, I realise. But here’s my point: what we do for the furthering of our own knowledge, what calls to us in the dulcet tones of seductive curiousity? It will feed us, grow us, and even heal us. That’s good for everyone.

a relatively restrained rant about education ‘reform’ ~

letter to bill gatesMy grandson is only a week old. I can’t expect him to do much of anything yet. Eat, eliminate, emote. That’s about it.

No amount of trying on my part will enable him to do what even a one-month-old can. And people would think I was nuts if I asked him to walk. :)

But that is, as Ms. Watson makes very clear, what we’re doing every day with our ersatz ‘standards’ of education. Children aren’t cars. Heck, even cars have idiosyncracies! Even a new one is not like another kind of car. So: are all our kids… VWs? Priuses? What about a kid who might be a Ferrari? Or…a Tata (look it up).

Children of 8 cannot do a dumbed-down version of what a student of 18 can do. Can both work w/ numbers? Sure. But you can’t just say an 8-year-old can do a different version of calculus. It doesn’t work that way. Nor can an 8-year-old look at history the same way a 18-year-old can.

No one would suggest that we tell the gruesomest details of the Holocaust to an 8-year-old. Or that an 8-year-old even read Anne Frank, which is silent on what comes after. Children have different maturity levels, as well as focus capabilities. Brain-based research on how we learn discusses these different focus windows — significantly shorter for  8-year-olds than 18-year-olds. And different for boys and girls, even of the same ages. And different for kids who’ve been fed and kids who haven’t… Learning is not the cookie cutter application of information.

What Gates, Duncan, and many other ‘reformers’ seem to believe is what Paolo Freire labels the banking concept of learning. You have this empty piggy bank of a kid in front of you, and you just deposit the coins of what you know into his/her brainbank. If only it were that simple… (And even THAT model would have to contend w/ retention… banks do go BROKE.)bank closed

Learning is constructed. From what we learn previously, from input, from raw data that is NOT knowledge. From application of theories. From critical thinking. And the ability of an 8-year-old to think critically is not nearly as developed as that of a 16-year-old. Or an 18-year-old. Common Core (and its proponents) would like us to believe that all we have to do to prepare a child for college is give that child dumbed-down college prep curriculum (written not by the teacher of the student in front of him/her, but by ‘experts’).

Right. If you honestly believe that, I have a cannon that’s worth $250,000 I’d like to sell you for 1/3 its value…

And this is about beginner’s heart how?

When we ask our children to do the impossible, we doom them to failure. WE are the reason our children drop out of schools, voting with their feet against schools that require them to sit impossibly still, learn things that far too often seem unrelated to their lives. Last year, on the average, one in four (yep — 1/4 of) American high schoolers did not graduate. And given the way my state defines ‘drop-out,’ I’m skeptical the number isn’t significantly higher (certainly it’s 60% in many urban schools). We only measure those students who begin HS. If we lose a student earlier — and many drop out in 8th grade — s/he is NOT counted as student for graduation metrics.

question markWhat can we do?  As teachers, as parents, as good citizens, as people who believe in social justice (life without a diploma is a sentence, for most students…)?

I don’t know — I only have questions. And one of them is this: who really believes that treating 8-year-olds like short 18-year-olds is a good idea?

that was then, but this is beginner’s heart ~

artist ~ Craig Mahoney

artist ~ Craig Mahoney

This picture, by Craig Mahoney, reminds me that children don’t need to learn beginner’s heart. (Not to mention that Bill Watterson is a genius. :) )

Beginner’s heart is a large part imagination — the ability to think that a tiger can talk, can feel, can play a prank with you. The ability to envision killer snowmen, alternate dimensions. Space travel from a box. Children have imagination in spades.

Beginner’s heart grows from (and into) love. Think of the love this cartoon triggers. How many of us don’t LOVE Calvin & Hobbes?? And how can you not feel the love in this picture? Mahoney does a bang-up job of bringing Calvin & Hobbes into the present, complete w/ their deep (and believable) friendship.

Beginner’s heart also requires a strong sense of humour. I can’t think of a cartoon strip I still re-read. My family is into its third set of C&H books — the others (literally) read to tatters. Because every single page is funny. Full of wit, sometimes even poignancy. But always w/ a gentle hand, and strong sense of the absurd. Totally necessary as we walk the beginner’s path…

Children are gurus of humour — what’s funnier than two boys doing dead squirrel imitations? Complete w/ roadkill rigour mortis??

I rest my case. Children, beginner’s heart, Calvin & Hobbes. At any age.

surfaces ~

unicorn narwhaleI love this cartoon. It seems the perfect argument for skepticism. Of course, Buddhists have warned about illusion for centuries. There is, for instance, no meaningful separation between me and you, although you sit at your desk and I at mine. At least according to Buddhism. Think of your arm, for instance: it’s you, right? But if tragedy befalls, and you should lose your arm, do you lose ‘you’?

And if I lose both my arms, my legs? And what about a heart transplant? Or a clone? Is a clone — exactly like me — ‘me’? What is this whole ‘me’ thing, anyway? Am I the narwhal I appear, or the unicorn pedaling grumpily out of sight?

Physics, with its  discussion of science fiction’s beloved Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, tells us that only in the observation/measurement of something does it really exist. Kind of what Buddhists say: we make the outside world ‘real’ through our belief in it, our sensory ‘measurements.’ We label the carbon life forms that comprise me by name. But when I change my name, I don’t really change. And even though all my cells are replaced completely every so many years, I’m still ‘me.’

Some religions believe in a soul. Others, in a divine life force. Buddhists believe in ‘Buddha nature.’ But it’s not unique to the individual — each living entity (animal, vegetable, maybe even mineral) possesses it. And it’s no more visible than the unicorn. And just as hard to believe in, for many. :)

Personally? I kind of like this explanation of narwhals. The disgruntled look on the unicorn’s face is classic. And it reminds me: there’s so little I should take at face value. I need to look for the unicorn. Just beneath the surface ~

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