The Adventure of Virtual Education

The transition to virtual education is a new adventure for students, parents, and teachers.  Adventures are difficult and risky.  But that’s their allure.  If it was easy, it wouldn’t be inspiring.  Adventures also involve uncertainty.  This calls for curiosity and creativity.

On the first day of class I asked my students in Zoom how they were feeling.  Some reported anxiety.  But a couple said it might be fun to learn this way.  Let’s build on student’s youthful energy and squeeze something zesty out of our anxiety. 

One teacher explained to me that she feels like an explorer in virtual space.  There are new tools to master.  Old ideas must be reorganized and re-evaluated.  What was once taken for granted is now up for grabs.

Conservative souls will always resist change.  But nimble spirits enjoy the unprecedented and unimagined.  Dynamic minds are ready to adapt.  We find joy in riding the waves of change.  This is the genius of the artist, entrepreneur, and explorer. 

Education is dynamism. It is an art of transformation that cultivates change and nourishes development.  Random change is not good.  It must be guided. Some truths remain perennial.  But evergreen truth is not a fence or a prison.  Redwoods thrive because they bend in the storm.  New growth adapts to new soil.

Boredom and complacency are deadly diseases.  They ruin businesses, marriages, and classrooms.  Repetition dulls the senses.  Bored teachers are, well… boring. 

Most teachers enjoy new challenges.  We are thrilled by each year’s fresh crop of students.  Even though we’ve walked these trails before, new students help us see old terrain with fresh eyes.  Each step takes us somewhere else.

The idea of education as adventure is an old one.  Plato described education as a journey.  It leads us out of darkness and toward the light.  To learn is to wander beyond the familiar.  It takes patience and tenacity to explore, invent, and discover.  It takes courage to leave old habits behind and blaze new trails. 

Alfred North Whitehead celebrated education as adventure.  In his book, The Aims of Education, he insisted that educators embrace the fresh and the new.  He said, “knowledge does not keep any better than fish.”  He described education as an act of the contagious imagination.  The metaphor of passing a torch shows how this works.  Civilization depends upon the torch passers who spread the light.  We also need better torches and new ways to enlighten. 

This process occurs in the service of life.  Whitehead said, “Education is discipline for the adventure of life.”  We might simply say, education is adventure and life. He describes the history of the world as an adventure motivated by “zest.”  Zest can mean both energy and flavor.  A life without zest is dull and tasteless.

Each human culture is a unique adventure of the human spirit.  Art, science, and religion are so many different ways of making meaning and finding flavor.  Whitehead warned that when a civilization loses its taste for adventure, it begins to decay.

There is danger in any journey.  Adventures are unpredictable.  Sometimes we fail to arrive at our anticipated destination.  But even failure can be enlightening.  After all, Columbus got lost on his way to India.

The word “adventure” is related to a word that means to happen or occur.  Philosophers use the word “adventitious” to mean accidental or unintentional.  And for Christians “advent” signifies a time of hope for the birth of something new and wonderful.  Education as adventure is open to the unintended.  It is hopeful about the future.  It courageously embraces the birthing process.

This brings us back to the current transformation.  No one could have imagined the strange birth of online learning from out of a pandemic. Difficulties remain, especially the digital divide. But problems are opportunities.  Let’s set our creative imaginations free.  Let’s stop dreaming of the way things used to be.  Stop complaining about the need to get back to normal. 

The old normal wasn’t perfect.  Why go back, when we can move forward? Let’s cook up something zesty and nutritious.  Learn to bend with the wind.  Find joy in transformation.  And embrace the fact that history will view us as pioneers who explored the great frontier of virtual education.

Wisdom and Courage, Hygiene and Hope

Fresno Bee, August 16, 2020

This is a frustrating fall.

The back-to-school season is usually an optimistic time full of new ideas, new projects and new friends. But this year students are stuck at home. Football is canceled. There is unemployment and social unrest. Our leaders fail to inspire. And the pandemic rages on.

We need courage and wisdom to persevere. In times of crisis, philosophical insight provides consolation. The world’s wisdom traditions share a common message of moderation and self-control.

It helps to have a realistic view of the universe and our place within it. The Buddha taught that life is full of suffering. The Greeks said, “all men are mortal.” This means we should abandon wishful thinking. There is no miracle cure for the human condition. Even the best of us has feet of clay. Great empires collapse. Life includes loss. And nothing lasts forever.

Our current troubles are not unique. History shows that corruption and incompetence are commonplace. Thousands of years ago, Plato described the social and political world as a ship of fools. Selfish and ignorant people struggle for power. Virtuous people are thrown overboard. This has always been true. Our present struggles are par for the course.

But some stability can be found, even in a storm. Hygiene provides a key. The word “hygiene” comes from a Greek word linked to health, harmony, and balance.

The pandemic has given us a simple recipe for staying healthy. Keep your hands clean. Keep your face covered. And stay away from other people. This routine is also a useful metaphor for living well.

Physical health matters. Wash your hands, get some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. But “keeping your hands clean” is also a moral idea. The Bible links cleans hands to a pure heart. The Stoics said that it’s better to have clean hands than full ones.

Masking is another moral metaphor. A mask is a sign of modesty. Modest people keep themselves appropriately concealed. It is especially important to cover your mouth. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t let your lips flap and your tongue wag. In fact, it is best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. In the Taoist tradition, a sage is pictured as someone who speaks without moving her lips.

Social distancing is also healthy and wise. A virus can infect you. But so too can dumb ideas and bad habits. Solitude is a source of enlightenment. Solitude is not loneliness. Lonely people remain obsessed with other people. But you are not alone when you are one with the universe. You don’t have to be a monk to understand that it is often better to mind your own business.

Wisdom involves knowing who and what to ignore. It also demands that we pay attention. Compassion, love, and justice are crucial. But human beings have limited capacities and even love must be balanced with self-preservation. Be kind to strangers. But you can’t save everyone. And the world won’t change overnight.

Sometimes, when things are really going badly, it is wise to abandon ship. Loyalty is important. But it can be an anchor that holds you down.

Speaking of anchors, another lesson must be considered — the lesson of hope. Anchors are symbols of hope. Wisdom reminds us that the present crisis won’t last forever. But it’s not clear that we’ll ever return to “normal.” Hope is not an anchor that preserves the normal. It is also a sail that leads beyond the horizon.

A wise hope recognizes that the future is up to us. There are no utopias. But you can improve your own life. The Stoics teach you to focus on mastering your own attitude and effort. Progress depends upon energy and intention. No one else can live your life. To excel at anything, you have to practice. So stop blaming others and cursing the wind. In order to get anywhere you have to get to work.

These kinds of lessons are not taught in the formal school curriculum. But these are the kinds of lessons we need these days. The crisis in our republic is real. The ship of fools is foundering. We all need wisdom to help us ride this storm.

God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

Nuclear war remains immoral, 75 years after Hiroshima

Abolish War with Atom Bomb Image

Fresno Bee, August 2, 2020

The unique immorality of nuclear weapons remains apparent 75 years after they were first used in war. On Aug. 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by a single bomb. Nagasaki was incinerated three days later. 150,000 died in Hiroshima, 80,000 in Nagasaki. Most were noncombatants.

Nuclear weapons have such a terrible moral stigma that they have never been used again. But nuclear deterrent strategy rests upon a sinister paradox. Deterrence means we threaten to use these immoral weapons in hope of preventing their use.

Ethicists have routinely criticized this devil’s bargain, often condemning the mere possession of nukes. In a speech in Hiroshima last year, Pope Francis said, “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.”

The immorality of nuclear weapons transcends the question of who is right or wrong in a war. Japan was at fault in attacking the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. But the laws of war provide noncombatants with immunity from deliberate attack.

Today, we possess nuclear weapons that are many times more powerful than“Fat Man” or “Little Boy,” the bombs used against Japan. Typical American nuclear weapons such as the B83 bomb are 80 times more powerful.

As destructive power increased, people saw the moral madness of nuclear war. In the 1940s, Albert Einstein urged America to get the bomb before Germany. But in 1955, he signed a manifesto opposing nuclear war, which asked, “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?” In a speech at the UN in 1961, President Kennedy said something similar. “Mankind must put an end to war — or war will put an end to mankind.”

Attempts have been made to ban nuclear weapons. The UN recently sponsored a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by more than 80 nations. But the U.S. and other nuclear states have not signed on.

Critics claim the treaty is a pipe dream lacking effective enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. Critics seem to suggest that there is no practical solution other than deterrence.

At one point it seemed that deterrence could coexist with deescalation. After the Cold War ended, there was hope for slow disarmament. But the Trump administration has reversed course, accusing nations such as Russia, North Korea and Iran of nuclear malfeasance. The U.S. now plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal and resume nuclear testing. The last U.S. nuclear test was conducted in 1992. 40 years after the end of the Cold War, a new nuclear arms race seems about to unfold.

The madness of all of this is found in the Cold War phrase “mutually assured destruction.” People have forgotten what this means. But it captures the point of deterrence. To deter a nuclear attack, you threaten to annihilate the enemy in retaliation. The enemy will, of course, threaten the same thing. If the nuclear fuse is ever lit, a chain reaction unfolds, and we all end up dead.

This perverse strategy has worked so far. Nuclear-armed nations have not used their weapons. But the moral logic of the strategy is deeply troubling. It depends upon our willingness to deliberately kill tens of millions of innocent people.

Deterrence also depends upon the rationality, competence and goodwill of those who control the nuclear buttons. But rationality is often in short supply. During the past 75 years, we have witnessed profound failures of leadership and morally suspect uses of force.

In his 1961 speech, President Kennedy warned that nuclear weapons are like the sword of Damocles, hanging over our heads on a slender thread. The fragility of that thread becomes apparent when we consider the extent to which policy is guided by instinct, resentment and wishful thinking rather than by rational calculation.

I have no idea how we might disentangle the vicious web of deterrence or blunt the nuclear sword. But the first step is sober moral reflection. We might begin by reflecting on the horror of Hiroshima as Pope Francis did last year when he said, “Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering.”

MEMORIAL TREE PLANTING

There will be a ceremonial tree planting in the Fresno State Peace Garden to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, cosponsored by the Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley, Fresno State’s Ethics Center and the Japanese American Citizens League. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the event on Aug. 6 at 8 a.m. is invitation-only but will be streamed on Facebook at FresnoEthicsCenter.

Nonviolence and Naked Power

Nonviolence exposes the brutality of naked power.  By responding to violence with courage and grace, nonviolence provokes the conscience and inspires solidarity. 

When organized and mobilized, nonviolence can change the world, as it has in many cases.  I discuss this in my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.  Nonviolence has been used to overthrow colonial regimes, to oust oppressive governments, and to transform unjust social conditions.  Some of the strategies of nonviolence are quite forceful, involving marches, boycotts, and protests. 

But there is also the startlingly subtle power of unarmored, unclothed vulnerability.  We’ve seen this in recent protests in Portland, Oregon.  One lasting image is of Christopher David calmly withstanding the assault of security forces who beat him with batons and sprayed gas in his face.  There has also been a “wall of moms” who turned out in yellow shirts to challenge the brutality of federal authorities.  And then there was the so-called “Naked Athena,” a woman who danced nude in front of the camouflaged troops.

These techniques have a history. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. included terrifying images of police beating unarmed people. One famous image is of John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee being beaten by cops in Alabama. This image changed minds. Lewis himself went on to become a Congressman and an influential advocate of racial justice and nonviolence. Lewis died last week.

John Lewis beaten by police in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965)

Images such as these demand that we pick sides.  Violence muddies the waters, making moral judgment more difficult.  When fists fly on both sides, it becomes hard to tell who is right and who is wrong.  But nonviolence is edifying and enlightening.  When armed forces assault vulnerable and exposed bodies, clarity dawns.  When bullies beat and gas defenseless people, moral judgment crystalizes.

By exposing themselves to violence, these activists enact what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.”  Havel demonstrated how simple acts of defiance were used in resistance to Soviet-backed totalitarianism.  In the background of his account is the parable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The act of pointing out that the emperor is in fact naked exposes the false reality of the power structure.  It soon dawns on us that what we are seeing is a mere show of power, camouflaging its cruelty beneath titles, insignia, flags, and guns.  And once naked power is revealed as such, it appears as flaccid, shameful, shriveled, and puny. 

Guns, gas, and truncheons can do real damage.  But when they are exposed in their pathetic nakedness, they lose their legitimacy.  They can kill us but they can’t convince us.  They can harm us but they cannot dominate our thinking.  They can enforce conformity but they cannot destroy the spirit of liberty.

Which brings me back to the Naked Athena who exposed her body and did so while dancing.  This brave woman transfigured vulnerability into strength, power, and grace.  She revealed a moment of beauty and freedom in the face of brutality.  She thereby transformed the power structure.  The unclothed body is typically seen as a symbol of vulnerability.  Consider the cruelty of forced nudity, as seen in images of naked bodies that come from the Holocaust or from the techniques of torture employed by American forces in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. 

But in affirming her nakedness, the Naked Athena forces us to choose sides.  On the one hand, we have guns and uniforms.  On the other, we have vulnerable human bodies—mothers, dancers, and unarmored men.  Which side are you on?

The advocates of nonviolence have always been on the side of the vulnerable.  Jesus offered praise for those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited the sick.  The Catholic priest John Dear explains, “we come into this world as a vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless baby, and we live in that same vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless state.  In our vulnerable humanity is the power of nonviolence, compassion, and love.”

It is our shared vulnerability that unites us.  The forces of domination want to create unity through violence.  But the advocates of nonviolence aspire to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”  The recently departed icon of nonviolence, Representative John Lewis put it this way: “We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect all of us.”

When brutality is unleashed upon “the least of these,” as Jesus would put it, we see the shame of violence.  This opens the door toward solidarity.  It pricks the conscience.  And in moments such as these the nakedness of power lies indicted before the power of nakedness.