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.

 

Compassion and the Social Implications of a Growth Mindset

One of the “in” concepts in education today is “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, a researcher and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, first introduced the term to many people. A growth mindset is opposite a fixed or stagnant one, one that says your intelligence or ability to learn or emotional nature is set and irreversible. Instead, a growth mindset says effort pays off. You can change; you can improve your intellectual abilities. It pays off not only in education but also business, relationships, sports. I agree with this perspective. And it’s not new.

 

When I studied psychology in the 1960s, I was told that brain cells do not regenerate and by the time you’re a young adult, the brain is set. Since then, neuroscience has shown that new brain cells can be produced (neurogenesis) and that new pathways in the brain are constantly being formed (neuroplasticity). Most teachers I know have been applying some version of this mindset since they began teaching. In fact, how could anyone be a good teacher without such a mindset? Maybe I’m being simplistic, but without believing in the possibility of intellectual growth, how can you believe in learning? Learning is change. Good teachers know that their attitude and assumptions about how well a student can learn will influence how well they do learn from you. Developing such an attitude in students is crucial to learning.

 

Dweck cites research to show that a growth mindset not only leads to an increase in learning, but an increase in compassion and a decrease in aggressive behavior and depression. Why is that?

 

To have a fixed mindset is not very different than believing in a fixed ego. According to Mathieu Ricard, such a view of ego has three characteristics. Firstly, you imagine you perceive the world as it is and that your perception is the only correct perception. Those who oppose you are just wrong. Secondly, you project onto the world attributes that aren’t there, attributes like goodness, beauty, ugliness, and these attributes are fixed, constant, unchanging and distinct, separable from the socio-historical context that supplied the label, which gets us to the third characteristic. You try to deny that you and others can change in meaningful ways. It is all genetics, out of your control. Your heroes are exceptional, superhuman. Successful people are born that way. God or nature favored them. Dweck described the fixed mindset as saying, “effort is for those with deficiencies.” (42) Thirdly, you think of everything you see as standing on its own, separate instead of as part of an interconnecting network. But life means change. Breathing is change. Learning is change. And there is no isolating of anything in the universe from the universe. A fixed mindset requires constant vigilance to ignore much of life and what is happening around you and to perceive instead your idea of what is or should be there. It requires ignoring empathy and compassion both for what others might actually be feeling, as well as for your own thoughts and emotions.

 

Depression can share these characteristics with a fixed mindset. Depression is not just depressed feeling; it is a depressed ability to take in, be open to, new information, experiences and viewpoints. You don’t recognize a difference between sadness, or feeling down as a natural response to events in the world, something everyone sometimes feels, and identifying yourself as a depressed person. You cut yourself off, feel stuck and unable to change. You can mentally lock yourself in a box built out of your own ideas about yourself and the world. Instead of being present and open, you are absent from the life that exists beyond the limited boundary of your box.

 

One way to end depression is to practice compassion. Compassion is empathy with extra benefits. You step out of your box and look around you. You treat yourself and others with more kindness and patience. Compassion can include the cognitive ability to discern what another feels as well as emotional resonance, empathetic caring and openness to what another person feels. Then there’s a readiness to act to reduce the suffering of another being almost as if the suffering was your own. You recognize you are two different beings but what you share is at least as important as how you are different. Compassion is the ultimate growth mindset in that you know and feel the other person can change and you commit yourself to work to help spur that change.

 

Compassion also means you realize that how you treat others is how you treat yourself. By being open to another person, your state of mind and heart become openness, caring, kindness. When you close yourself to another, you are closed off.  Whether you act on it or not, when you carry anger, the world comes back to you as angry. You suffer your anger. When you carry hate, you depersonalize others and turn them into merely ideas. Carrying hate can rob you of power and control by depriving you of perspective. You feel a world dominated by hatred. When you are compassionate and kind, the world feels compassionate; you, as well as those around you, get the benefits. Thus, one way to free yourself from a fixed mindset or depression, and expand your ability to think clearly and critically, is to practice empathy and compassion.

 

A fixed mindset is a distorted way of looking at other people and the world. Such a viewpoint can have disastrous social and political consequences. A growth mindset, on the other hand, has tremendous social as well as educational benefits. It realizes you cannot isolate yourself from the welfare of others or imagine those who are successful are somehow more deserving, by nature, than anyone else. Success is due to your care and effort as well as the cultural environment and how social/political institutions are structured. These institutions can change. A growth mindset can spur individual people, and those collections of people in large groups called governments, to work for the welfare of all.

 

“True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Without Empathy and Feeling, Thinking Suffers

All too often, people forget or fail to understand how feeling, particularly feeling empathy, is necessary for clear thinking. Empathy aids thinking in two ways. It allows you to more fully understand a person or phenomena, as in “putting yourself in the shoes of another.” And to think clearly, you must think with less bias and distortion from your own likes and dislikes; empathy can actually counteract this distortion.

 

To think, you need relevant information and ways to organize, “view,” and explain that information. But information remains just random words unless you connect to it. You need feeling to derive meaning and you need to “put yourself in another person’s shoes” in order to understand what standing in their shoes is like. You can’t understand a time in history unless you imaginatively, with feeling, put yourself there. In a similar way, you can’t really understand a mathematical formula or scientific theory unless you can use it and conceptualize the consequences of applying it. And to do that, you need to think from the perspective on the world that the formula or theory implies. If you are to answer questions and solve problems regarding the world around you, you need to “open to” others and your world, as well as see the world from their perspective. You need this “felt relationship.”

 

This “felt relationship” is empathy and compassion (and imagination). Psychologist Paul Ekman describes three forms of empathy. There’s “cognitive empathy” or an ability to read the mental state and emotional expression of another person. Then there’s “feeling with” or care for, the other. A sociopath might be able to read emotion but not feel for the other. Compassion takes this further, to the point where caring and feeling propel action. Compassion is the felt awareness of interdependence with others and caring enough to act in response to that felt awareness.

 

James Austin, a clinical neurologist and Zen meditator, discusses how, when you practice empathy and compassion, you use more “selfless” pathways in the brain. This provides a natural counter-balance to the distortion of likes and dislikes. When you perceive a blackberry bush, for example, you need to see it both from its’ position relative to you (which uses dorsal, top-down brain pathways) and see the bush itself in relation to other bushes and trees (ventral, bottom-up pathways). This ventral pathway asks “What is it?” or “What does it mean?” in comparison to the dorsal asking, “How does it relate to me?” Even at this basic level of perception, you need both perspectives.

 

We need to value, “feel for,” both perspectives. But much of our society teaches only the value of “self-knowing.” Self is defined only as what distinguishes and separates us from others. The result, according to many researchers, is a one-sided and isolated sense and concept of self and increasing narcissism. Even President Obama, in several speeches, warned that our society is developing an empathy deficit disorder. This one-sided knowing, and intellectual and emotional attachment to a concept of an isolated sense of self, leads people to defensively react to any appearance of a threat, even one not to the bodily self and world, but only to the concept of a separated self. This can undermine the sense of society as a relationship of all its members. It is one reason why schools must include not just an education in reasoning and memory, but feeling and empathy. When the conceptual framework of a culture devalues empathy and an understanding of the role of feeling, we’re in trouble.

 

Many students come to class and argue that empathy and compassion don’t really exist. They say that humans act compassionately only out of self-interest. Some teachers argue the same. Acting with compassion and empathy is in your self-interest. It helps immune response and improves emotional well-being. According to James Austin, it also leads to more effortless learning, especially when sustained attention is required. But all of these goodies are undermined if the outwardly appearing act of compassion or altruism is done with self-interest in mind. The intention to act with the other’s welfare in mind is what leads to the positive rewards.

 

So, what can schools do? Teachers can model empathy. Mathieu Ricard, biologist, author, and Buddhist monk, cites a great deal of research to show that when teachers practice and act with empathy and compassion and establish a personal relationship with students, student learning improves, violence and absenteeism goes down.

 

Teachers need to point out that when you disagree with others, it’s easy to think your viewpoint is the “right” one. You might look down on your “opponents” and think you know something they don’t. If only they knew what you knew, they would “repent.” In Aristotelian logic, something is either true or false. It can’t be both. So, if this “other” view is correct, that means your view is incorrect. And most people I know don’t like being “wrong” or being looked down upon.

 

You can directly develop compassion through meditation practices. You can also start by mindfully noticing your thoughts and the story you are creating in your mind. Realize that as you are thinking of your “opponent,” she or he is thinking of you. Your viewpoint of this person, or of whatever question you are discussing, no matter how deep, can never encompass the reality of the person or question. So, hold your viewpoints with some lightness or humor and this will leave room for others to enter.

 

When you feel an emotional response to what another person says, or you are unclear about what was actually said, ask: “Can you repeat what you said and clarify what you meant? What was your line of reasoning?” One of the most valuable lessons hopefully taught in a class is how to learn, understand, and change. When you face a viewpoint that is different from your own, take it as an opportunity to learn, not a threat.

 

So, when you run into what you perceive as a threatening idea, or when you don’t understand someone, take a breath. Notice what you’re feeling. Breathe in the sense that this is another person you are speaking with, not a lifeless concept. Feel the fact that the person might be feeling something just like you; you feel you have the correct view, she might feel the same. Maybe he is feeling scared or defensive. As you breathe out relax, look at the other person, and only then begin to speak. Empathy and feeling will contribute to clear thinking. And you and the other person will then meet.