Archive for the 'education' Category

Who built what

September 7, 2014

I am thinking about President Obama’s line about “You didn’t build that,” and how some people are happy to believe in their exceptionalism.

I wrote a comment somewhere on the PBS NewsHour website recently about my (public) high school’s record of sending students on to college; most of our graduating class did not go on to college, of those who did, most went to community college, of those who went to four-year colleges, most went to state schools … a handful of us went out of state to private four-year schools.

My high school did not have a great reputation, apparently.  My point in my comment was that I discovered, when I attended Yale College, Harvard Law School, and Yale Graduate School, that I had actually gotten a pretty good education at Dumont High School.

And I wasn’t the only one.  I had competition for graduating as valedictorian, and there were also students who were smart and learned a lot but didn’t bother dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s when it came to following teacher directions (such as underlining the questions  —  or was it the answers?  —  we were supposed to copy out in our science lab reports), so maybe didn’t get great grades but were plenty well-educated.  I hope they got good college educations, too, wherever they ended up, if indeed they went on to college, regardless of the reputation of those institutions, as well.

After I got into Yale and decided to go there, I called the local alumna who had interviewed me (I think she must have been an alum of a graduate program) to let her know.  And she said, “Oh, they weren’t going to take you, they didn’t like your high school, but I told them you were different.”

Which was disconcerting to hear, and gave me something of a concern about how well I was prepared and how well I would do at Yale.

As my residential college dean at Yale told me when a bunch of us were discussing who joins Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, students who feel they have something to prove often end up with the external indicia of success at college.  That would probably include me.

But I never internalized the experience of getting into Yale as the result of an interview as being that I was somehow special.  I found that my high school preparation was fine, in some ways better than those who had gone to private schools or to public schools with better reputations.  I took the interviewer’s remarks to mean that Yale would have rejected me for specious reasons and that she had redressed their bias, not that I really was different.  Because, as I said, I didn’t think I stuck out in my high school (except for the hair, maybe).

What I did come away with was less tolerance for the inadequacies of people in positions of power and influence  —  I suspect our system(s) for promotion to such positions are as flawed as the one I was told about concerning college admissions, and if the people who attain their positions think their success reflects their exceptionalness, let them demonstrate such exceptionalness in their discharge of their duties.  I am working on finding another attitude, but at the moment I still have trouble believing the systems work as advertized and that the people selected are better than many others who are not.  I am perfectly willing to believe that they possess other skills that contributed to their success, just not the ones they are claiming.

God, the imagination, and books

September 4, 2013

Some people are open and some people aren’t.  Some people even make an art of not being open.  They always hold something back, behind fear, behind, vanity, behind pride.

Being open allows us to see ourselves from multiple perspectives, not just the way we would like to think we are.  We allow ourselves to see the secondary consequences of our attitudes and behaviors on others and we adjust our attitudes and behavior  accordingly.  If we refuse to look at the negative impacts we have on others, we close ourselves off from not only them but from ourselves.

I suspect meditation helps get around that by being a way to put aside the carapace, albeit only temporarily.  Some people do, in contrast, make their entire life a living prayer — they are always open.

When we are open, we can perceive through other than our monkey minds.  What we perceive includes what some people label “God.”  It is not perceived through our imaginations, which are part of our monkey minds.

Willy was a very open person, whether or not he believed in God.  He was kind and generous.  He also had that quality I associate with men of being ready, willing, and able to defend his turf, however.  But he knew that sometimes the most helpful technique is to allow the other person’s energy to become their own undoing, that deflecting that energy can be key.  To me he demonstrated that a person can be a conduit (for the forces of the universe) without being conscious of it.

A close friend of his shared with me that he considered Willy a mystic.  I liked hearing that.  It gave me a way of understanding his sitting cross-legged at the kitchen table to eat, for example.  Or drinking directly from sink faucets.  He was so fastidious about other manners that these behaviors called out for interpretation.

We can teach intellectual ideas through others.  We can disseminate them in books.  These may provide touchstones for others as they try to gain a sense of themselves and of life, analogous to consulting with a village elder, but they also present a hazard, namely encouraging people to believe that the development of the person is, or can be, had through the intellect.  The intellect is a helpful interface between experience and communication, but the significant things a person needs to go through in order to develop into the person they have the potential to be will not be experienced through reading or through learning in a classroom.

Willy had that sense, too, I think.  He was continually frustrated by new hires who thought of life as a problem set and he had little patience for academia.  He fled college (with his degree) in three years and went into the Peace Corps.  He finished his dissertation while working full time, in large part because he much preferred working and solving real problems;  even with the added demands of working, working at a job gave him more energy for his dissertation than remaining a full-time graduate student would have.  In primary school he had experimented with focusing on the niceties necessary to gain complete approval in academia, and he reported to me that he had found the rewards hollow.

I think this blog is my compromise.  I’ve got people in my life who want me to write, and I what I really want to do is to walk.  I think writing is in some way inherently misleading, but the snippets that are blog posts perhaps come closest to those momentary understandings we become privy to through interfacing with the universe through prayer and meditation.

Live accounts

July 15, 2013

My son’s university no longer sends out paper tuition bills — we have to look at the bill online.  So I thought this meant that when there were new bookkeeping entries to be made, such as financial aid awarded or portions of that aid declined, it could be updated.  Well, apparently it can’t, apparently it’s just like a one-time printing of a paper bill.  The only efficiency seems to be in the means of the initial delivery of the information.  I was surprised.  It’s not a live account, just electronic paper.

Finding one’s voice

April 12, 2013

I’ve been accusing other people of needing to find theirs, so chances are it’s on my to-do list.

I had a friend whose vocal chords were damaged during thyroid surgery and had to leave her field of teaching.  Her reinvention of herself is an interesting tangible illustration of this.  She became an education liaison for a large scientific project.  On the other hand, even after many years, she seemed to feel her mood state had not recovered from the surgery, despite the medication to replace the thyroid hormones.  She found her voice again and yet she didn’t.

My first serious boyfriend expressed his concern repeatedly that I would succumb to what he perceived as family pressure to go into science.  I think he thought I’d lose myself and my voice if I did that.  (He is a musician and works as a literary editor in that field, I think.)  A teacher of mine pressured me to break up with him (stupid of me to accede to that), having pressured me to sign up for his classes and more.  In turn, a math teacher tried to rescue me from that teacher and pull me into the math/science world.

I think ultimately I pushed it all away but only after being shaped by the disciplines and personalities.  I don’t think I pushed it away on purpose, rather, this is in effect what seems to have happened if I look at it in retrospect.

Where does that leave me in terms of finding, and maybe describing, my “voice”?  For sure, especially at my age, I’m a little past letting everyone else tell me where it is to be found.  Sometimes I think finding it is a matter of pausing and observing what I tend towards once I put aside all the clamoring requests and dutiful tending to administrative, and other, responsibilities.  And that I guess I’d characterize as seeing things without as many common assumptions as most people seem to harbor, kind of like a voice of reminding that there are other possibilities.

Healthy energy infusion

October 22, 2012

When I read about programs to help young poor single mothers with advice and instruction and positive outcomes (a recent one is Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday column “Cuddle Your Kid!”) I sometimes wonder whether anyone has ever tried infusing positive energy into the homes and families in ways that don’t directly target apparent deficits in child-rearing.   I’m curious whether specific instruction is what accounts for outcomes or whether it is largely the compassionate interaction and its infusion of healthy energy or whether, of course, it is both.

High school diploma as proxy

July 22, 2012

I was mowing my lawn and wondering if one is supposed to mow it in a drought.  I’ve got patches of scorched grass, but I think there are other factors involved, such as the absence of the pear tree, of the kids’ old clubhouse (which Jordan took down this summer), and of some limbs and branches of a neighbor’s tree that came down during last October’s snow storm.  I understand that we are supposed to raise the blades of the mower, but I’m not sure either Jordan or I know how to do that on the mower we have.

But then I got to thinking about a topic more amenable to my talents: the significance of having to fight for one’s high school diploma.

The problem of students dropping out of school and not earning a diploma often seems to be treated as if getting that diploma is somehow the goal itself; while staying in school and learning enough to receive a diploma are important, I think the inclusion they reflect is also important.  Students who struggle to stay in school and earn a high school diploma are generally marginalized by mainstream society in broader ways.  The award of a diploma does indicate learning and the acquisition of knowledge, and maybe study habits and socialization, but I think it also just reflects the student’s acceptance by society: people accepted them enough to teach them and listen to their answers and not find an excuse to show them the door.

This is important, because winning a diploma against a backdrop of hostility I don’t think will guarantee future success in the job market or in further education.  I think bound up with a diploma needs to be social acceptance in order for the achievement to bear fruit.  So I think the contributing factors of teachers’, administrators’, and the community’s attitude towards the student are important, and not just the attitude of the student, in terms of predicting long-term success.  Ostracism is a problem, and I think the obtainment of a high school diploma is to some extent a proxy for whether the student has been accepted as an insider or excluded as an outsider.


July 8, 2012

I was reading today’s Daily Meditation from Father Richard Rohr, and he was talking about his lineage, how he comes to know what he understands and teaches, I guess I’d put it as.

He has started with the natural world, the “‘Bible’ of Nature and Creation” (attributing some of that to his Franciscan training) as a source for his understanding.

I’ve thought about Fr. Rohr’s lineage myself before, only my thoughts went more along the lines of, while I was reading his The Naked Now, “Oh, he sounds like one of those monks who has reincarnated in the West.”  There’s a book about that, called Reborn in the West: The Reincarnation Masters, I once read.

But I think it’s a lot more helpful for Father Richard to be able to explain what he knows and understands in terms of his training and influences in his particular life, because, after all, his audience is not a bunch of people who believe in reincarnation or are looking for a teacher with a pedigree in Eastern religions.

I guess where I come out in all this is that within him, whether through vertical forces (lineage in the sense of previous incarnations) or horizontal ones (lineage in the sense of education and training), East has managed to meet West.  Which I personally think is a wonderful thing.

My only real discomfort is not about lineage but about the prominence of the messenger in relationship to the message.  I suspect we humans demand a charismatic teacher to get our attention and to motivate us, and that a well-run school that employs technology well could be an effective way to reach people, but I worry nonetheless.  Father Richard writes about Jesus’ respect for and embrace of the poor and suffering, and about reading the Bible as biased towards the downtrodden, but to my way of thinking, this misses the point a little: there’s not enough room in us to understand the universe as well as we can if we have too much other stuff going on, that the “physics” of spiritual understanding require clearing out the self, and that most of us seem to do more through suffering (in some combination with love) than through other means.  Suffering and love, on the one hand, and education, on the other, are very different mediums, it seems to me.

I agree with so much of what Father Richard seems to understand, and I am grateful for his guidance and help through his books and his writings on line — I get a lot of benefit out of them.  And he has his calling, I have mine, there’s no particular reason they should be the same thing.  Mine is about promoting self-awareness, if I had to reduce it to one issue.  I think everybody plays and everybody needs to go through what they need to go through in order to develop their own self-awareness, I think what we learn from teachers can give us a road map or sign posts to look for (or clarification after the fact), but it can’t substitute for the experience itself.  Maybe the Living School for Action and Contemplation will do both, foster the experience while setting out some guidance.

Finally, I notice what looks to me as if Father Richard feels a calling that mirrors in some way his own training (a school), while I feel one that seems to mirror mine (random people in situ).  I don’t know what that means.

I should also note that Father Rohr has a lot more of qualities I strive for myself (pacing myself, staying in the moment, for example), so I am mindful that I don’t have it all down myself, and that along multiple axes, he has developed further than I have.  But I still want to say, “I see potholes!  Please be careful!”


June 27, 2012

I started realizing how different my own experience of someone with a sterling reputation can be from the apparent norm, when my older son’s elementary school teacher, who had such a reputation (including for warmth and kindness, intelligence and creativity, dedication to teaching and interest in her students beyond the usual), insisted that he too begin his autobiography at birth and include information about all his “firsts” (words, steps, smile, teeth, etc.) and name and describe those around him during his infancy.  My son, whom we adopted as a toddler, had no idea what to write, since we don’t have that information (we don’t even know when he was born) and much of that time he spent ill and without parents in a hospital and then in an orphanage.

I went to speak to the teacher after school.  We were on friendly terms, she liked Jonas, I expected we would work something out together.  I explained the matter.  She said he should make up the information.  I was puzzled.  Couldn’t he just start the autobiography at whatever point he first had information?  Just include what he and we knew?  Maybe even just start the account at a slightly later point in his life than his birth?

No, he had to include all the information listed in the worksheet and make up what he didn’t know.

I was truly amazed at what she was asking Jonas to do — both asking him to relive something he might not be ready to think about and think about without some sort of support, and also at what I considered dubious ethics of making up something that purports to be fact in an autobiographical account.

Since that episode I have heard worse stories about other teachers and family situations, but for me this one sticks out now not as much for its content as for its lesson about what may lie behind a reputation.

Teaching in person

June 6, 2012

I have taught, college students and law students and Byzantine scholars.  I have tutored much younger students one-on-one.  For me, when the proverbial light goes on in a student, it’s such thrill.

I am thinking, both because of all the talk about and development of on-line teaching and because of my recent encounter with an attempt to teach in a book something that I think needs the safeguards of a direct physical interaction, that teaching in person is a very symbiotic experience.  How is that replicated through technology?

There are times when I am very glad to have been raised when I was, to have enjoyed a public school lower education that worked and private higher education that worked, too.  I had plenty of direct contact with teachers and plenty of teachers who took an interest in me — in my work but also in me, too.  (I also had some who were hostile, and a couple who took their interest in me perhaps further than appropriate, but teachers are (damaged) human beings, too.)  I had a lot of very talented teachers who put a tremendous amount of energy into what they did and who also understood their subject matter.

I worry that what my generation benefited from we are denying to future generations.  I wonder why teaching seems to be in danger of becoming a lost art.  John Silber (former president of Boston University and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate) (in)famously said it was about changes in the pool from which teachers are drawn (it was infamous because he said, as I recall it, something like that women used to have only three choices professionally, to become a teacher, a nurse, or a prostitute.)  It may also be about audience (students) and teaching materials, about the explosion of knowledge to transmit.  It could also be that education theory made deleterious changes in education from which the practice of education has never recovered, that it’s been one band-aid after another placed on a self-inflicted wound.

I think the apparent current trend of focusing on teachers could be a good one, but I think it needs to be done wisely.  With compassion, with understanding gleaned from experience in the classroom, with helpfulness and not judgment as a goal.  When I go for supervision in my own current line of work, I am looking for greater clarity, for someone on the outside to see what I can’t from the inside; I am thinking that sort of orientation might be helpful here, too.

What I am hoping is that focusing on the teaching relationship brings us again to emphasize that situation in which the spark of understanding is transmitted through the teacher-student dynamic — that’s what, I think, supports the engagement of both teacher and student.  This engagement in turn provides the energy for both to work harder at their respective tasks.  At least, that’s my sense of it, that it’s like an electrical circuit of a sort in which current needs to flow between the two participants.

Two different styles

April 10, 2012

This is to illustrate with a concrete example how one person’s worldview may be incompatible with another person’s reality, an issue I touched on in my previous post.

My example has nothing to do with David Brooks, though, or his worldview, as far as I know.  It has to do with someone I was good friends with, who explicitly declared her desire to help me navigate some school issues concerning my younger son.  She had been a teacher and had become a science education liaison at a high level.

Her approach was to become an expert on the framework of rules and regulations and statutory provisions with which the school was supposed to be complying.  We pored over print-outs and books.  The technique is to know the rules and insist on compliance and be very clear on where compliance by the school has been inadequate and insist that the school do what they’re supposed to or else (or else be summoned to a hearing, for example) — kind of confrontational, but I do know people who claim to have used it with good results.

But, in the middle of all this, my friend had to drop out of participating — illness and higher priorities at work.  And the confrontational technique requires more than one adult advocating on behalf of the student to work.  So, I switched on a dime to something like finessing, which I could do more on my own, with support mainly behind the scenes.  I tried to figure out myself what might help, what the school might be willing to do, and propose that more casually and broken down into specific ideas.  I had a lawyer, mostly in the background, who did things like make sure the paperwork I was sent was consistent with the agreements that the school, the district, and I had reached.  We limped through the end of that school year, and a new school was found for the summer and following years.

What this experience taught me, among other things, was that perfectly legitimate approaches won’t work without certain secondary and unarticulated factors being present, that not every approach is available to everyone or appropriate to every situation.  An analogy might be trying to use good cop/bad cop with only one cop.  More generally I learned that I “wasn’t in Kansas anymore,” that the world I had been taught existed did not obtain in the situations I was finding myself, and that one of the ways things were different was that nobody felt they had to follow the rules.  I could see that to try to make them follow the rules in some cases would be a Pyrrhic victory, if one at all, and that part of what I needed to do was to figure out other approaches and when to use which approach.  It was this sort of thing that reenforced my preference for asking for guidance from the universe to figure out what to do when, because I certainly couldn’t figure it out on my own and nobody in a body was collaborating enough with me to allow me to depend on another human being for help.