How Can You Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open with students? What do the students need? You can’t answer such questions solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness of feeling, will plan our classes or vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend you’ve already done it.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom. …

 

This blog was just published by BATS (Bad Ass Teachers) Blogspot. If you’d like to read the whole piece, please click on this link to go to their site.

The Moment That Is Summer

Did you grow up with a longing for summer? Even if you have no connection, as an adult, to the education system, summer can remind you what it was like to be a child, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if you’re a teacher and don’t teach summer school or don’t have to work a second job (or maybe even if you do), or you’re a student, you can have free time once again.

 

The longing for summer is, for me, a longing for renewal. This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.

 

This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains (or if it doesn’t rain). This is it. I actually hear my own life speaking to me.

 

When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. A big desire was to visit beautiful places, to see an ocean, a mountain, or forest. I meditated every day. I also took classes or read books about whatever interested me, or whatever would reveal something new about the world that my students and I faced, whether it was quantum physics, writing, mindfulness, neuroscience, philosophy, history, and karate. I wanted to learn something meaningful and feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. We all need this, so we can renew our ability see beauty even in winter; so even when there is too much to do, or life seems frightening, we can know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.

 

Summer can allow us to let go of last year so we can greet this year as something welcome and alive—so we can learn to find this very moment as unique and enticing. All seasons can do this for us. They provide a natural rhythm to life, if we can feel it. They provide a teaching. This very moment and this earth that we walk on—they sustains us, and are never separate, never distant.

 

In the high school philosophy class I taught, we often read a book by Jeremy Hayward called Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science, Awareness in an Enchanted World. It is a book written by a Buddhist teacher and quantum physicist to his daughter, to help her perceive the enchanted nature of the world, and not just the corrupt and threatening one many of us humans are taught to imagine and thus help create. He mentions a Navajo concept of Ho’zho, or beauty: “Beauty before me, beauty around me, beauty ahead of me.” (p. 16) We can walk the earth with beauty. Likewise, Japanese Buddhists have a term, sho shin or first, beginner’s mind. When we let go of the distractions, delusions and fear, and see the world in sho shin, the world is full, alive, and fresh. We see the world and other people more directly and clearly.

 

So summer is not just a time to let go, relax, and prepare for a new year. It is a time to invest in the only sure investment—into our mind and heart and how they (or it) reveal the world to us.

 

The Most Important Lesson A Teacher Teaches

One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm and clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.

 

In this way you model the …

 

This blog, with an embedded story, was published on Friday by OTV (Open Thought Vortex): A Literary Magazine for Open Hearts and Minds. Please click on this link to read the rest of the post.

 

 

The Most Important Lesson

An Analysis of the News, Thoughts On A Gloomy Administration, and A Review of My Book

Three different pieces for you:

The first piece is a review of an article giving a detailed history of how a manufactured crisis in education and the undermining of American literacy might have led to the Republican administration. The second is an announcement of one of my blogs being published by the Good Men Project. The third is a link to a review of my book by Dr. Dave Lehman.

 

*Many people have said to me “I don’t understand the avid supporters of this President and his administration and can’t talk with them.” These Republican supporters “do not listen to facts,” and seem to be condoning the undermining of their own freedom, rights, and economic position. Many theories have been brought forth to explain this behavior: the fact of a tribalization of the news, so each group only listens to its own brand of news. The racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny inherent in our culture. Blaming the leftists and liberals for not listening to these people (and daring to have a different perspective). Not speaking the language and mythology of the right wing.

However, there is another interesting viewpoint: Did a long history of politically and economically manufactured crises, both in education and throughout our culture, cause increasing insecurity and illiteracy, and decreasing critical thinking, and thus lead to the new Republican administration?

An article in Salon.com by Henry Giroux raises this issue very cogently. It is called: Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump. At first, I thought the article was another attack on public education, blaming schools and teachers for the US political crisis. Not so.

Diane Ravitch, in her book Reign of Error, and Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, first provided me with this analysis. Starting with the Reagan years, public schools have been under attack, sometimes by the Federal government itself, often by private economic interests and the politicians who supported them, certainly in many media. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all of this was later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning of the attack.

Giroux points out how the supposed reform movement led by elements of both major political parties called for “teaching to the test,” increased “accountability” (or decreased flexibility, creativity, and freedom for teachers to meet the individual needs of students), national standardization, corporate-produced tests and lesson plans, and the weakening of unions—all leading to “a frontal assault on the imagination of students” and the attempt to create corporate “pedagogies of repression.” Even in universities, knowledge has been increasingly viewed as a commodity, where the “culture of business” has become “the business of education.” Of course, many teachers are doing their best to fight this deformation of education.

The Republican administration, says Giroux, is now engaged in a frontal attack on thoughtfulness and compassion. Everyone and everything is valued mainly as a commodity and a source of profit. At the same time, Republicans provide their oppressed supporters with the illusion that those who impose “misery and suffering on their lives” are actually their liberators. What blinds them to the reality of their situation is what binds them together. (Newspeak, “consciously to induce unconsciousness,” 1984?)

You might want to read the whole article.

 

*In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real…

This blog post was originally published here five weeks ago and was just re-published, in an edited form, by the Good Men Project. Here is a link you can use to read the rest of the piece.

 

*Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding principal of the Lehman Alternative Community School, in Ithaca, N. Y., where I taught for 27 wonderful years, wrote a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The review was published in the National School Reform Faculty, Connections. Here is a link. (Thank you Dr. Dave.)

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris

**Thank you to Jill Swenson who sent me the Salon.com article.

 

 

Snippets of A Gloomy Day: Hoping to Hear He’s Been Impeached

In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real.

 

This is one legacy of all the fake news we’ve been witnessing. And it is truly frightening. If all facts are opinions, mere statements of likes and dislikes, or arbitrary, with no basis in truth, then how can I trust in anything people say? How do I know even what words mean to you? A word’s meaning is a fact of language.

 

While some people can’t stand to watch the news, others fear turning it off. They are afraid of what they might miss. Watching the news has become like guarding your home from attack, or guarding your prized possession, your sanity, so it won’t be stolen.

 

I notice a little of both in me. The President is in the news so frequently that it is difficult to hear about anything else. Part of me likes this, because I’m waiting to hear the latest stupidity, the latest revelation of possibly treasonous acts, of obstruction of justice, of him using his position to make money for the family businesses, etc.—What I am waiting to hear is that he has been kicked out of office.

 

But his possible crimes and misdemeanors blind us to other equally disturbing actions, like on health care for women, the environment, undermining the separation of state and religion, undermining voting rightsfree speech and controls on Wall Street and bankers. Trump might be the first President to use his own impeachment to distract voters from even worse actions he is party too, if there are such.

 

His narcissism is so deep it is contagious. It is like he is subconsciously trying to give all of America the anxiety and disordered thinking that lies at the root of his psyche. What a generous man.

 

One of his biggest gifts is to comedians. He has revived the profession. President Obama was, by comparison, so boringly dependable and literate, so normal. Now, comedians are swamped with material, helping us laugh at what we would otherwise cry about. They have become heroes. They are able to say things that otherwise couldn’t be said on a public stage.

 

Life before Trump felt relatively predictable to many people. No more. He has awakened us to the fundamentally unpredictable and unknowable nature of reality.

 

The Republicans are re-shaping America’s expectations. Before Trump, people wanted health care that was reasonably priced and comprehensive. Now, many will settle for insurance that is cheap but covers almost nothing, or costs less than double their rent or mortgage. Republicans are trying to pit men against women, the young and healthy against the old or those burdened with pre-existing conditions. Make America Great Again seems to mean make health care another vehicle of redistributing wealth—or of making life so expensive that only the wealthy will have the energy or resources to participate meaningfully in politics.

 

Republican politicians and their supporters have been saying for years that they want to reduce the size of government. Is it possible that all along, their strategy was to make government so intractable and toxic, so lacking in compassion that even Democrats would come to hate it and let whatever controls there are left on the wolves of greed be dismantled?

 

And in all of this, FB and other social media have become the place to share information on petitions, letter-writing campaigns, Town Hall meetings and other demonstrations. But it can be shocking to see information on government crimes and lies, on a possible loss of health care coverage for millions, alongside cute cats and our best friend’s latest vacation. The extent of his destruction alone makes it difficult enough to accept; the camouflage of “fake news,” lies, and distractions, of saying one thing one minute and another in the next, makes speech seem meaningless and facts difficult to discern. Hoping for the best and “liking” posts on FB is just a beginning.

 

I think we are re-creating what it means to participate in governing, despite the administration trying to stop us. We are learning not to ignore the difficult, and how to muster in ourselves the strength, compassion and persistence needed to resist Mr. Trump and create a new political reality.

The Place of Wildess and Wonder in Critical Thinking

*This blog was first published by Gillian Judson’s website, Education That Inspires. http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/2017/04/26/the-place-of-wildness-and-wonder-in-critical-thinking/

 

What is critical thinking? One element of critical thinking that most everyone agrees on is “higher order thinking,” which includes evaluating the appropriateness of evidence, the truth of propositions, and the soundness of arguments. But is this enough? I think you need to add imagination, mindfulness and empathy, and to think of critical thinking as a process enabling you to deeply engage in what you study and test your answers. How many times do you think you have the right answer, and then a minute, day or year later, you realize how wrong you were?

 

‘Critical’ comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, able to discern, and ‘krinein’, to sift, judge, or separate. To separate, as in analyze or break down into component parts. But ‘discern’ also means to perceive or understand what is not immediately obvious or what might be beyond your previous viewpoint. It means to perceive, as much as possible, the whole or what’s real or true.

 

To analyze or mentally break what was originally whole into its component parts, you can easily conceive a dichotomy between the parts and the whole. However, to perceive the whole, you need to include the parts. To see the forest, you include all the trees. To perceive the parts, the whole always remains, as context or background. It is like the figure-ground principle of optical illusions, as in the vase-faces illusion. The lines of the faces and the lines drawing the vase are both always present, yet you only see one at a time. What you perceive changes from one to the other depending on your point of focus.

 

So, to clearly understand what you perceive or think about requires a process that lets the reality you contemplate BE whatever it is, as much as is possible. When you try to understand something, you use words to form concepts. This abstracts your experience from the perceived reality. You can then get lost in your abstraction. You might even love your abstraction; it is your creation. Words are wondrous but can be the subtlest of blindfolds and distractions.

 

To think clearly and critically requires constant monitoring, so you can mindfully shift perspectives, from abstraction to original perception— or from one theory to another, from thoughts to feelings, from object contemplated to the experience of contemplating. This allows you to engage more fully with whatever you focus on. You feel as well as think about whatever subject your mind touches, so it takes on a three-dimensional quality otherwise hard to see.

 

Your mind becomes the act of contemplating. You enter a place, or more accurately, the world becomes a place full of life, wildness, even wonder. It pulsates. The imagination flows from that place. Imagination is how mind transforms into time and language, into questions, and possibilities. Love and relationships are born in that place.

 

How Do You Utilize Imagination in Critical Thinking and Enter a Place of Wonder?

 

Begin by taking breaks from intellectual study to let your mind quiet and integrate material. Practice mindfulness meditation, sit by a waterfall, or take a nap and dream. Did you ever wake up from a dream and have an insight appear to you?

 

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you answer this question, which frequently came up in my high school class on the history of human ideas: “Why did early humans create so much art?” Or maybe, “Why did they do any art?” Students often reply, “They did it because it was fun.” But that answer needs to be questioned further.

 

Students need to place themselves in the world of ancient humans by visualizing, for example, a world of few humans and many wild, animal species, no cell phones and no buildings. This requires not only imagination but also empathy. According to the psychologist Paul Ekman, empathy can come in different forms. There is a cognitive form, being able to read another person’s feelings, for example. There is also feeling along with others, and caring. Without immersing themselves as much as possible in the world they study, and adding empathy for the subject studied and the subject studying, understanding will be limited. When you use a process of critical contemplation, employing empathy and mindfulness, you allow whatever you perceive to be itself.

 

One form of art created by early humans was extensive wall paintings in caves in southern Europe, Africa, Australia and other places. In France, for example, some of the caves were extremely difficult and possibly dangerous to access. Access involved crawling though long, narrow tunnels.

 

Students decided to research, in groups, various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, tools, other species populating the world at that time, and theories of the origin of language. A group of five or six studied the paintings in detail and then reproduced the art on the walls of a rarely used stairwell of the school. One day, when the work was complete, this group had the other students form a line and one by one enter the stairwell. It felt like we were entering a cave. The only sound was the music of a flute. The only light source was a series of small lanterns placed near the painted walls. When we had all entered and sat down on the floor, I led the students in a visualized journey into what being in the caves might have been like. Then the student-artists discussed the paintings.

 

We created the activity together. I bet most still remember the experience. It enabled the class to feel engaged and develop a more in-depth perspective. They could then analyze evidence, evaluate theories and derive their own conclusions.

 

This type of activity is not limited to a history class. In an English class, you could imaginatively journey into situations depicted in a novel. Or in a science class you could journey though a cell or the orbits of electrons. Or outside of class you could journey into the mind of a friend that you had an argument with. Critical thinking is not just logic or problem solving. It requires imagination and honoring the pulsating life of whatever you study.

 

*Photo is from the wall of the “cave” painted by students at LACS.

Crossing the Divides

Our country is divided not only in terms of which presidential candidate we supported or which policies we support, but on a much more fundamental level. We differ on what it means to be a human being. We differ in our root beliefs, our understanding of the human mind, the self, and reality. It is a difference in the way of thinking and speaking with others, in activities we engage in, in our view of what a democracy is. It is not simply a matter of income, class or color, although I think income inequity and racism are central causes and indications of division. It is spiritual, intellectual and emotional. It is not a divide between one religion and another, or religious versus secular, but runs right through all such groupings. The differing sides all feel that the other, or one of the others, threatens the world itself. This makes extreme actions appear possible or even necessary.

 

Karen Armstrong, author, religious scholar, and former nun, provides an important perspective on one issue dividing our land. In 2005, talking about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, she said it is wrong to even speak of conducting a war on terrorism, because it is really a religious war, one form of fundamentalism versus another. Fundamentalism is a desire to return to the fundamental values, the original state of a religion. It interprets religious doctrine literally and calls for strict adherence to such doctrine. Truth is solid, fixed, and absolute and tolerance of the “other” can be considered sin. In our world today, there is a “mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism.” She said, “We are creatures who seek transcendence… We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Thus, religion has always had a place in human affairs and even the appearance of assaulting religion can have dire consequences.

 

But, she says, there is “good” religion and “bad.” “Bad” suffocates the sacred and the search for meaning and truth in dogma and rules. “Good” religion is compassion and the experience of dethroning the ego at the center of your world and finding another person or something bigger than your self there. This good religion is not anti-intellectual; it recognizes that understanding deep truths is a matter of feeling, imagination, as well as rationality. For example, some religions consider experience, rational analysis, and wisdom essential to religion. The Dalai Lama, for example, said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

 

Religion is not usually a consciously chosen belief. It can be foundational to one’s sense of self, culture and reality. To threaten religion is to threaten the world itself. Bad religion considers any statement, factual or otherwise, that is contrary to their religious position not only an untruth or lie, but dangerous. This can include science. Armstrong also argues that especially in nations like the US, where there is so much violent imagery in the media and entertainment, the reaction against secularism can be violent. “Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more rigid and absolute.” And when religion is threatened, fundamentalist membership and action increases and bad religion replaces good.

 

George Lakoff, in his wonderful book, The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, provides another way to frame the divide in our nation. In America, we often use the metaphor of the nation as a family. Yet, Republicans and Democrats have a very different notion of the nature of that family, or what should be that nature. The Republicans think of the nation as needing to conform to a “strict father” model. The Democrats think of needing a “nurturant parent” model. This is, of course, a simplification of both the reality and Lakoff’s analysis, but it provides a general overview of the theory.

 

The strict father family thinks of the world “as a dangerous place…because there is evil out there in the world.” It is competitive, there is absolute right and wrong, and children, when “bad,” are born bad. So a strict father is needed to protect and teach the children. Children need to be obedient and learn discipline, and be punished when disobedient. Without discipline, the world would go to hell. If you are wealthy, it means you are disciplined. Reality dictates that if you work for your own selfish motives and success, everyone will benefit. If you try to help someone else, be compassionate, and try to nurture others, you interfere with his or her own self-discipline, and undermine self-interest. According to this reasoning, the rich are good, the poor are bad. These metaphors and beliefs translate into domestic and foreign policies that maximize the value of the rich pursuing their self-interest.

 

Democrats and progressives are likely to believe in a more gender-neutral parent model. Any gender is equally responsible for, and capable of, raising children. Children are born basically “good” or full of potential and can be nurtured to be better. You need empathy, so you can know better what your child needs. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. You need a sense of responsibility and commitment, not only for your family but your community, country, and world. You want your child to be fulfilled in life, happy. You value freedom, fairness, service, cooperation, and trust.

 

To speak across this great divide, you must use language that reflects the values others hold dear and does not threaten their religion. To tell another person they are just wrong or their ideas are evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the person you are talking to.

 

These are just two different perspectives out of many. We’re multidimensional and complex beings. Progressives can be closeted conservatives and conservatives can be closeted progressives. So instead of just attacking those who disagree with you, use the language and metaphors that they value in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered. According to Lakoff, the Republican and conservative message is that Democrats, liberals and progressives are weak, angry, and softhearted, so be sincere, respectful, calm, and hold your ground. Re-frame any story anyone tries to use against you in order to illustrate that your point of view and your values show you, too, love your country. You, too, want security, opportunity, and freedom, just as they do. You agree more than you disagree. The road to the freedom and stability that conservatives’ value highly must merge with the road to equity and compassion you value highly.

 

*You might find this recent post on the election by George Lakoff extremely useful.

Do You Want A New Chief of Education Whose Aim Is to Dismantle Public Schools?

Betsy DeVos is Mr. Trump’s choice to be the Secretary of Education. She is in favor of “choice,” meaning she favors vouchers and charter schools. A voucher system means public funds are used to pay for students to attend religious or possibly private or charter schools instead of public ones. This means we might soon have a chief of education who wants to dismantle public education. I oppose this nomination.

 

Why is it a bad idea to privatize public education? Is this nomination a culmination of recent moves made by wealthy private interests to undermine public schools? If you’d like a short historical review and analysis from earlier blogs, read on.

 

For the last 30 years or more there have been waves of attacks on public schools in the US. These attacks go along with a larger war on the concept and institutions of democracy. How? One of the functions of public schools is to educate all students to be able to understand and meaningfully participate in a democratic government. It is to “level the playing field” so people who put in the effort can create a good life. Are we now purposely creating “separate and (certainly not) equal?”

 

Diane Ravitch argues in her book Reign of Error that different corporations, working with political institutions and individual politicians, have been leading an effort to undermine public schools by undermining teachers and teacher unions. They have been attacking the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system (or a water, health, or other system).

 

The strategy calls for publicizing often inaccurate and deceptive information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor, white and people of color, was diminishing. The A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning.

 

With the fomenting of decreasing trust in teachers and public schools, there was also increasing pressure to turn to private companies to create assessments, curriculum, and even to decide who would be allowed to teach our children. In 2001, President Bush supported and signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This was a “noteworthy” achievement. It increased the number of standardized tests that our students had to take which made us the most tested nation in the world. Then came President Obama’s Race To The Top legislation in 2009. Amongst other things, this set the stage for the Common Core, and mandated that test scores be used in teacher evaluations, and encouraged the closing of public schools whose students “underperform” on test scores. The result was that some of those dire claims about the education of our children began to come true.

 

Once most of the country was fooled into thinking of public education as facing a large scale crisis, there were increasing calls to privatize schools and create privately run, publicly funded, charter schools, and vouchers. From 2003-4 to 2013-14, for example, the number of students enrolled in charter schools rose from 1,6 million to 2.5 million. This number continues to rise. With charter schools, public money is transferred from teachers and administrators, who are mostly in the middle or lower class, to corporate investors. In the case of cities like NYC, hedge fund managers, whose primary goal is fast profits, have taken over several charter schools.

 

Secondly, these schools, as Diane Ravitch points out, “…are deregulated and free from most state laws… This freedom allows charter schools to establish their own disciplinary policies and their own admission rules.” Unlike public schools, which must take any and every student who comes to their door, charter schools can screen for the most advantaged students. Despite this screening, charter schools are no more successful then public schools. And, when adjusted for the economic situation of students, statistics show they often do worse. Charter and other privately run schools can hire uncertified teachers who are not unionized, not as well trained, and who can be paid less. The public sector can now be drained of funds and left to educate the most disadvantaged students with fewer resources.

 

Public schools were further undermined over this same time period by federal, state, and local cuts to educational budgets, including cuts in teaching staff. In 35 states, for example, the funding in 2012-2013 was below 2008 levels. At the same time, there was an increase in spending on standardized testing. I don’t think it’s smart to try to increase the performance of schools by decreasing the number of teachers teaching. During this time, however, there were increasing outcries against the common core tests. From 2013 until today, more and more parents have helped their children opt out of standardized tests, and the resistance to teacher evaluations based on those tests has expanded. And soon, we will have new policies by Betsy DeVos that we might want to oppose.

 

Proponents of “choice” argue their policies will benefit all students and increase equity by forcing competition in the education market. However, this approach treats our children as commodities, sources of money, (as exemplified by speaking of “value-added” to students by schools) and conceptualizes the purpose of education as meeting the needs of employers, not meeting the needs and dreams of students.

 

If our society truly wanted to create an equitable educational system it would begin by investing more money in schools where the need was greatest. It would treat teachers with the respect they deserve and need in order to creatively and compassionately meet the educational needs of students. It would do a better job of treating students as whole people with emotional, social, and health needs as well as intellectual ones. It would do any of these things before it would spend one nickel on corporate created standardized tests, charter schools or vouchers. So, is the corporate “reform” agenda part of a larger move in our country to undermine not only public education, but the power of the public in general? I hope not. But, I think, that is the result.

 

**A few links  and resources:

For a chart on vouchers and school choice, provided by Steve Singer, BadAss Teachers:

To sign a petition against Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, go to this link. For information on her connection to the religious right, read this article by Jeff Bryant.

Diane Ravitch blog.

Do You Agree “There Are No Such Things As Facts?”

A week ago, on the NPR Diane Rehms Show, I heard a beautiful example of a self-refuting statement spoken live on the radio. I didn’t realize what I was hearing right away, although the quote certainly caught my attention. The show was a panel discussion answering the question, “How are journalists rethinking their role under a Trump presidency?” The guests included 5 professional news editors, columnists, and reporters including James Fallows (The Atlantic), and Scottie Nell Hughes (RightAlerts.com & former D. Trump surrogate).

 

During the program, James Fallows said a lie was when you knew the truth, yet repeated a falsehood for a personal motive. He said there was clear evidence the apparent President-elect lied on several occasions. Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump “booster,” was asked for her response to this. Her reply was “There are no such things as facts.” She used Mr. Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the last election to explain her viewpoint. She says, [I edited the text to make it more comprehensible] “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet [about illegal voters, was taken] … [by] a certain crowd, a large part of the population, …[as the] truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, …his supporters, … believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say [his statements] are lies, and there’s no facts to back …up his claims.”

 

Think about this statement. And ask everyone you know, your students and friends, to think about this statement. Discuss it in your classroom or place of work. What could she possibly mean by this? It is of immense importance. Is she saying that because a large part of the population believes what Mr. Trump says and supports him, therefore his statements are true? And, therefore, there are no lies for him to be called to account for?

 

I think it is true those who believe in Mr. Trump take his words as truth. But is a truth or a fact decided by a popularity contest or vote count? Certainly popularity will influence whether or how well a truth will be perceived, and there is a social dimension to any truth. But how does her way of speaking of ‘facts’ make any sense—and how would a fact differ from an opinion? Or is everything somehow an opinion?

 

Mr. Fallows’ point that a truth is opposite a lie provides one way to answer these questions. If Scottie Hughes thinks there are no facts, she must think there are no truths and no lies. How do you know what’s a lie if there is no truth? A fact is by definition something known to be true, something based on evidence that you could demonstrate repeatedly. Likewise, ‘truth’ is from a root meaning ‘faithfulness’ (treowth), as in faithful to reality. It is real. If there are no truths, there are also no accurate or faithful definitions of words. You would never know if the sound you heard in your mind or uttered by another person is a word, nor what it meant. Nor would you know what you wanted to say. Therefore, you could never speak. When you opened your mouth, just noise would emerge.

 

To say “there are no facts” is equivalent to saying, “it is a fact that there are no facts.” By speaking these words you nullify the “fact” that you spoke. Therefore, can anything you say be other than meaningless gibberish? Or is Scottie Nell Hughes really saying that only what is in opposition to her statements is meaningless gibberish?

 

*P. S. Scottie Hughes’ viewpoint did not arise out of a vacuum and is not entirely new, only new in the blatant way it has been applied to the electoral process. It is part of a battle over the nature of the human mind, or what it means to be human, that has been waged for over a hundred years and maybe forever. A few years ago, students in one of my classes argued, “there is no such thing as truth.” When asked what they meant by truth, they responded with: “A truth is permanent, unchanging, absolute, like ‘God’s truth.’“ And: “Since I can know truth only through my own experience, and we all have different experiences, how can there be one truth?” This and other discussions on the topic showed me how important it is to discuss with students the meanings of words like truth, fact, and opinion, not just to voice diverse viewpoints but to analyze and question them.

 

It is easy for people to think that truth should exist in isolation from the minds of all those who perceive and understand it, like they might think the objects of the world exist in isolation from other objects. But isn’t a truth, like a fact, like a word, interdependent with the situation, context and mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears? To borrow an example from the philosopher Ken Wilber, the word ‘bark’ depends on the the context of the sentence and the ability of the speaker and listener to speak the language. (“The dog barks every morning,” versus “the bark of the tree.”) Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception itself a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we… experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” He thinks the world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two, and never separate. If he is correct, meaning his reasoning is logical, comprehensive, and based on demonstrably accurate information, then each mind influences the way a world is perceived, yet there are still truthful and not truthful statements, and facts.

 

**Terry Gross recorded a Fresh Air episode relevant to this topic on 12/7, interviewing Dean Baquet, executive editor of the NY Times. You might find it interesting.

Compassionate Critical Thinking, A Book Worth Owning and Sharing

Here’s a review of my book that cheered me up a little during a tough week.

I sat down with this book, very excited to finally have a copy in my hands to read. I was looking forward to feeling inspired by it as I read it quickly over the weekend, and to feel appreciation for the teacher who decided to share his work.

Two weeks later, I am still very excited to have it, but it is not a book I want to skim through for vague inspiration. Rather, I am awed by what an amazing treasure of detailed information this is! I wonder what the world would be like if these lessons could be offered to every school child. I went to a Quaker high school where every day started with a short period of silence for the whole school. This book takes that kernel of an idea and brings it into the rest of the school day.

I will go further and say this is a wonderful handbook for an ongoing mindfulness or meditation discussion group for adults. The wisdom Ira Rabois writes about is not superficial or difficult to understand, but instead the book offers topics, questions and reference reading on being a human being in this world. His students were so lucky to have a teacher who was able to approach their education with this respect and sensitivity, and the publication of this book brings this opportunity to the rest of us as well.

While it is clear that Rabois has a strong background in Buddhist teachings, what he is able to get across in this book is not limited by a particular philosophy or religion. Rather, he offers a detailed plan to study the human mind in all its fullness and frailty, all its potential and confusion. This book has found a permanent place on my nightstand with a couple other books (such as a book on Lojong) that I refer to again and again for guidance as problems come up.

If high school teachers are interested in helping students develop compassionate critical thinking, they would probably be most successful reading this book first, applying its questions and ideas to their own lives, allowing a first-person understanding of this information to be the basis of their teaching style. If a school has staff development days, even a small amount of time shared reading and discussing this book would be of great benefit to teachers and students alike.

I only wish that the table of contents had listed the Lesson Plans. The vast amount of information presented is not just a single line of knowledge, but rather is also a reference guide for approaching specific concerns as they arise in a classroom, or in one’s own life. For example, It would be helpful to be able to easily find out that “Anger” is discussed in Lesson 14, or that a lesson plan to study the “Geography of the Brain” is Lesson 8.

Definitely a book worth owning and sharing with others. Thank you Ira for being able to articulate and gather together so much wisdom in this form! I am deeply grateful to have it in my life.