A Belief-Imposed Learning Disability And An Administration Unethical At Its Core

One question too rarely asked in education is: What relation is there between ethical behavior and learning? Or is there a meaningful relationship? Does unethical behavior interfere with learning? Of course, from this comes the question of “whose ethics” or “what is ethics?”

 

A similar question arises in politics. It can be argued that the heart of ethical behavior for a politician is to serve the interests of his or her constituents. And, if this is true, does the ethical behavior of politicians depend on their willingness and ability to educate themselves about issues, take on new positions—in other words, to be empathic and subsume their own personal interests to that of those they serve?

 

I am not a professional ethicist but I recognize that all of us ask ethical questions all the time. Every time we consider which action to take, or we ask “should I think long term or short?” Or “should I think only of my self-interest or other people’s?” Or we try to figure out which actions will create the best possible life for us—these are all ethical questions. Ethics is often defined as a system of, or principles of, morals, or the way we decide what is moral. Moral usually refers to what is right versus wrong, good versus bad, socially acceptable versus unacceptable. Today, ethical and moral are often used synonymously.

 

Ethics and morals thus have to do with how we act, especially how we act in relation with others. And we relate differently to people according to what we think we know or don’t know about them. We relate to our parents differently than our friends, to our lovers or close friends differently than acquaintances. We relate differently with those we assume agree with us versus those we think disagree with us.

 

When we think someone agrees with us, we assume we understand their point of view. However, how often have you assumed someone agrees with you and then been proven wrong? Corradi Fiumara, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, points out that when “perceiving one’s own mirror image in others, it then becomes difficult to accept others as ‘real’ persons.” We can easily reduce the other to an image of our self. In a like manner, when someone disagrees with us, or we assume they do, we often reduce them to “not-us” or in opposition to us, and refuse to see them or hear what they have to say. We label them as opponents or enemies and we lose the sense of them as full living beings. We see them merely as an idea, our idea.

 

In either case, we have to be careful with our assumptions or we jeopardize our ability to learn⏤to learn who others truly are, or learn from them and their viewpoint. We remain closed-in. In order to learn from others, we must allow ourselves to change and take in something new. We can’t hear what we don’t listen to. We can’t listen without making ourselves vulnerable. We can’t be vulnerable to other beings without recognizing they are like us, but not us. That we know some things about them, yet don’t know so much more. Only when we realize that we don’t know can we begin to know others.

 

The philosopher Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” The self arises in relationship. There is no “I” without a ‘you’. ‘I’ come to exist in relation to something or someone. There is no understanding of self without an understanding of other, and vice versa. To relate with others, we need an understanding of who the other is. We need to let them in.

 

Thus, to act ethically, we must be drawn beyond our already assumed answers, beyond what we think is true or untrue, like and dislike, beyond our old images of who we are. If our inner voice is drowned out by past understandings and beliefs, we can’t hear anything new and can’t hear or see what is happening, what we are involved in, now.

 

The same has to do with learning material in a classroom. If we don’t sometimes question what we think and believe, it’s difficult to know what we don’t know. If we think we already know the material, we won’t listen to it or see it. If we think we can’t listen, we won’t. If we feel threatened, we turn away. We can’t learn anything. And we can’t act ethically.

 

One problem with our political system now is that we have politicians who not only don’t listen to others, they have an ideology that says they should not listen to others. What does not mirror back to them their own self-interest is mirrored as evil and threatening, or as a lie, as something not-to-be-heard. They believe in egoism, and probably agree with the philosopher Ayn Rand that only by being selfish will the good of the whole be served. They believe that only by being selfish can you be rational— and think it is the height of irrationality to be compassionate, or altruistic.

 

In this way they refuse, as Lisbeth Lipari says in her wonderful book Listening, Thinking, Being: Towards An Ethic of Attunement, to listen for others, so as to hear the otherness, the reality, of others. That other people (and species) are feeling beings, alive, valuable, both like them and different. They cannot conceive or feel that others can live or think in a way beyond what they imagine and believe. All they listen to are the internally pre-recorded announcements of what they have already assumed as true. And thus, they fail to understand themselves as beings reaching beyond what they imagine and believe, beyond what they already have known.

 

They do not recognize that who they are is shaped in relation to how they understand, feel for, and relate to others. To usurp, dismiss, ignore the humanity of others is to undermine their understanding of their own humanity and ability to learn about and from others. Thus, they have a self-imposed or belief-imposed learning disability. And if ‘I’ only arises with a ‘you,’ then we are born with and out of an ethical concern. The belief-imposed disability thus creates an ethical disability. This administration, as is clear to so many, is unethical not just about one policy or another, but at its core.

 

**I recommend Lisbeth Lipari’s book to educators, to anyone interested in language, compassion, learning.

 

“Who Am I?” Ironies About Self

There are many ironies about feeling good about yourself and knowing who you are. For example, you might think of your identity as who you are. You might think the more you stand out, the more you are you. Yet, the more you stand out, the more lonely you might feel. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, what my skills were, how I was unique, and thought that the more unique I was, the more others would like or love me. Yet, the root of ‘identity’ is ‘idem,’ meaning ‘same’ or like others. And one definition of self, in psychology, is how we see ourselves from the point of view of others. To be different, to stand out, you must be connected. To be unique, you must be unique in relation to something or someone(s). The philosopher Martin Buber said there is no ‘I’ without others. I agree.

 

So does neuroscience. When not occupied or engaged in a task, psychologist Mathew Lieberman says our brains turn to social concerns. Whether it’s integrating previous experiences with others or planning for future ones, a good part of our mental space, when alone, is thinking about others. The neurologist James Austin talks about the natural discursive quality of mind: we are often talking with ourselves, engaged in an “inner” conversation, when not in conversation with others. Our sense of self changes depending on the situation, who we are with or who we imagine we are with. The part of the brain that oversees social-emotional concerns, thinking and planning, the prefrontal cortex, is also the part of the brain that takes the longest to develop in each of us. It is an area highly developed in humans compared to other species. Humans were able to survive by developing not only a large brain but a social one. The larger our social groups, the larger our brains needed to be.

 

And whether you realize it or not, relationships, especially loving ones, are one of the greatest sources of happiness. These are most satisfying when you feel genuine, when you don’t have to “put up a front” or be someone you aren’t. You feel best with others who can see or hear you. You can be spontaneous and feel loved or appreciated no matter what. This is one element of what might attract you to someone. What makes the person attractive is a combination of their uniqueness and their ability to see or hear your uniqueness. What makes me most myself is what makes me able to hear others, or to be, to some degree, selfless.

 

One element of being “in flow” or fully, joyfully, engaged in a task, is that “you” are forgotten. You don’t think of the past or future or what others might say about you. You are focused entirely on what you are doing. You are focused on, filled by, one moment of life. Every one of us knows how wonderful such moments are and how destructive concerns of self image, failure or success can be. Yet, you need a sense of self to even step off a curb and cross a street.

 

A Zen Master named Dogen said, “…to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things….” Think about this. It is not just about “forgetting” but enlightening. When you are most empty of your expectations, worries, you are most able to take in “all things,” to appreciate others, to feel and enjoy what you experience. To be most full, you must be most empty. To study the self is to study how I am others, and others are me.

 

Feeling “off” or discontented, or that you are missing something, is feeling there is an intermediary or a distance between yourself and now, between awareness and the object of awareness. Feeling fully alive, “on,” is feeling there is no boundary, that you can deal with whatever comes up, that whatever arises can teach you something. It is feeling this very moment, in fact, all of your life, is worth living, not something to distance from or deny. Feeling “on” is enjoying the ironies of self.

 

Teaching With Questions: Should I Tell the Truth?

Should you always try to tell the truth? Such essential moral questions liven up a class. Imagine student engagement and responses when you ask this question in a classroom.

 

One student, let’s call him Dylan, responds: “What is the truth?”

Can you say more? I’m not sure if  you are diverting us from the question or saying the question can’t be answered.

Dylan: “Ok; maybe it’s a diversion. But I also mean it. My truth is not always your truth.”

Then you’re asking an awfully big question. For now, let’s refer to your own truth.  Can you know what that is?

Another student, Carlotta, jumps in: “He’s asking about lies. You know your own lies.”

Dylan: “But what’s a lie? Sometimes I don’t know when I’m lying. What’s a lie isn’t any easier to know then what’s true.”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student, Sage, replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is opposite of the truth.”

Carlotta: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale.”

I agree. I think they depend on each other. By ‘truth,’ in this case, do we mean something we think of as real?  If so, why not tell the truth?

 

Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.

 

What happens if you don’t tell the truth?

Dylan: “Nothing happens, unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Carlotta: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

Sage: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”

 

When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being; it’s a relationship. Speech is not just self-expression. And it’s always in a context, in a situation. When you speak, you create both a sense of whom you’re speaking to and a sense of who’s speaking. Without that sense of yourself and of the other person, you can’t say anything. Even when you’re out in the woods, by yourself, and you scream just to scream, you have others in mind that you’re screaming at—or for. Words emerge from formulating yourself in a particular situation. So, if you lie, what are you saying about yourself?

 

Part of the central teaching in Buddhism is the Eight-Fold Path to ending suffering. The steps in the path are right view, thought or intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. These are divided into three categories: wisdom/understanding, ethics, and meditation. Speech follows intent or thought and is the first step under ethics. Ethics has to do with how you act, how you live your life, how you influence others. In Buddhism, it is made clear that how you speak influences not only others but yourself. There is not only an ethical component to speech, but a way towards awakening, enlightenment or, in modern terms, mental health. I think this is a tremendously useful approach. Depending on your intention, for example, whether you lie to help others or you do it to advance yourself at the cost of others, when speech is a lie, suffering is the result.

 

How do you suffer when you lie? Sage and Carlotta said it. When you lie, you create a fictional self that is weak, “off” or wrong, lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? Does the lie make it easier to hurt both yourself and others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community?

 

So, what kind of speech leads to the end of suffering? To answer that question, you must feel what’s true in yourself. Speech that recognizes what’s true in you and others leads to the end of suffering. When you’re open and fully acknowledge who you are, how does that feel? And what else ends suffering? How does it feel when you’re kind? When I’m open and kind, I feel strong, because I feel capable of taking in whatever I’m facing. As I format how I relate to others, I form how I feel about my own life. So the speech that ends suffering is kind and open, compassionate and loving. I think that such speech is also what turns a cold classroom into a welcoming community.