Saturday, April 24, 2010

It All Goes Back to High School

Here are three things you should not do, simultaneously, if you want to keep a sunny disposition: read political blogs; attend online graduate classes; and be married to someone who teaches college-level writing classes.

When I look at the writing skills of my fellow students in online classes, and my wife reads selections from her students' papers, I grimace and think, "Why don't people know how to write?" But when I look past the lousy grammar and sentence structure, and really examine the content of what's being said, the actual question is, "Why don't people know how to think?"

When I include the blogs (left and right) that I sometimes read (some of which are written perfectly competently; they're just insane), it's even worse.

When I say they don't know how to think, I don't mean that I disagree with their arguments. I mean that they are inept at laying out their arguments and, worse, perhaps incapable of forming a coherent argument.

And it all goes back to high school. Maybe even middle school. Because it's not a natural skill, like speaking, or walking. You have to learn how to think. You have to learn how to form a coherent, logical argument. You have to learn what a main idea is, and what a supporting argument is, and the varieties of different ways one can support an argument: emotionally, factually, persausively, and so on. This is supposed to be part of your education. You learn the skills and you practice the skills. You read the arguments of others and you deconstruct them, to see how they built their argument, and why it works. You learn how to look under the hood, or look behind the curtain. You learn the tricks so that you can use the tricks and--much more importantly--so that you can avoid being fooled by them when other people use them.

Or you don't. In which case, you end up thinking Glenn Beck is the savior of American Democracy.

I got into an argument, years ago, with a former theatre colleague who was an unreconstructed hippie and proud Leftist. I was telling him about an interdisciplinary, high school curriculum unit I was designing on the idea of utopia. The history section of the unit focused on the Cold War, and included essays from both the Right and the Left. The essays disagreed on pretty much everything, and it made the kids crazy, because they were used to reading textbooks. But we pushed them to read everything, come up with an opinion, and defend it. We didn't care what opinion they ended up with, as long as they could support it. My friend was very upset. He felt that it was his job to push a Left agenda with his students--hard--to counter what he felt was the larger culture's Rightward drift. I argued that it didn't serve the students, even if he was successful: all he would have done is sway them from Right to Left on the force of his personality or argument, leaving them open to swing right back again on the force of the next teacher. His job, I argued, was to get them to think independently, regardless of what opinion they ended up with, even if they ended up disagreeing with him.

He was unmoved.

Our fear that children will reach conclusions we disagree with keeps us from allowing them to engage in real independent, critical thought. So we give them textbooks that have ready-made, pre-digested conclusions, and then give them multiple-choice tests to see if they have accurately remembered those conclusions. And we leave them open to cultural and political vultures and con-men, who tell them what is cool, or what is right--what they should wear and what they should think. We raise them to be sheep--ready for the shearing--easy to manipulate and bamboozle and con.

And maybe that's good for the economy--I don't know. Maybe we need to raise easily gulled fools to keep people buying ten tens of shit that they don't need. But it's going to be the death of our democracy. Because if we raise generation upon generation of voters who laugh at people who ask questions, and revere people who come with easy answers, then it won't take long before people start asking why we need to bother with a Congress or a Court at all.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Narrow Place

Apologies to the 3.5 people who read this. I haven't posted anything here in a long time. Blame other social networking media, and grad school. And life.

Anyway, here it is, Passover. And as usual, I get irritated by the literalists--both the historical literalists who insist on believeing that the Exodus must have happened, as written, in historical time, for it to have any meaning, and the ritual literalists, who insist on leading the seder as though every page must be read out loud, in order, as is, for the evening to have any meaning. I reject both points of view.

I've participated in discussions, at my congregation, about the historical truth of the story, and everyone at the table got completely hung up on the topic. To them, the idea that maybe, just maybe, there were no Israelites enslaved in Egypt--the fact that no archeological evidence had turned up yet to confirm this--was terribly threatening to them. Like the story had no meaning unless it was literally, historically true.

And this is a Reform congregation.

To me, the story might actually have MORE meaning if it's not true. I mean, think about it--why would our ancestors have chosen, on purpose, to make this story of enslavement and redemption their founding myth? Who does that? Every other ancient culture that I know of saw itself as descended from gods or heroes. The Jews saw themselves as descended from slaves. Why? What does that say about us, as a people?

For me, as a writer and a former English major and English teacher, the fact that something may be poetry does not mean that it isn't true. There is truth in poetry--sometimes greater truth than we find in history.

What does the poetry of Exodus tell us?

Let's start with crossing the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds, or whatever it was. Does it matter whether the sea was really parted? Not to me. What matters to me is the imagery of something enormous being crossed by the Israelites, and then being closed behind them. It means that true freedom requies a boundary-crossing in a way that does not allow for backsliding and return. We know the Israelites bicker and complain constantly--that they are terrified of freedom and, in the face of each crisis, beg to return to Egypt. It's important that the door behind them has been closed, and that the only way forward for them is forward. If the oppressed peoples we've known of had been able to truly close the door on old chapters of their history, they might have been more able to move forward into freedom, rather than backsliding into tyranny, as so many of them have.

How about 40 years in the desert? What does it mean that the slave generation had to live out in the wilderness and die there, and that only their children--the ones born in the open spaces of freedom--were ready not only to understand the commandments given unto them, but also to live them, and make a new nation for themselves? How many peoples throughout history have had the benefit of "40 years in the desert" between tyranny and freedom? How many have had the luxury of not having a new potential tyrant, in their nation or in a neighboring country, breathing down their necks and waiting for them to fail? We, in America, had that luxury, only because most of the rest of the world was separated from us by two oceans that took a long time to cross. In fact, we had worked out quite a lot of what it meant to self-govern long before our revolution took place. Who else has been so lucky?

What about the giving of the law and the building of the calf? Huge. Someone once made what he thought was a nasty joke about Jews, saying, "Only the Jews would come up with the idea that laws = freedom." But I didn't find it nasty. I said, "You're damned right. Because laws DO equal freedom. Without law, all you have is chaos, and chaos leads straight to tyranny. If you don't have some laws or principels that allow you to self-govern, it won't take long for you to turn to some strong man and say, 'govern us.'"

None of these issues ever seem to get talked about by the literalists. Nothing that could teach us how to live, how to understand ourselves. Just facts.

And the literalist seders don't help us learn from our story, either. Instead, we get page after page of psalms extolling the power of God. And that's fine, to some extent. Maybe, for some people, that's fine in its entirety. That's the only lesson to be drawn.

But not for me. That's all I'm saying. To me, the Torah--the Bible--is not a book that you are simply supposed to swallow, whole, without reflection, and say, "I believe." From where I sit, my heritage and culture teach me to wrestle with the book, to argue with it, and to learn from it--constantly. And the only way to do that is to let the words and images resonate with you--to let them bounce around and reflect off things and work on you in different ways.

Like a poem.