Teaching and learning require love and play

Play learning

Fresno Bee, August 21, 2022

The headlines talk of failing schools, teacher shortages and lost students. There are controversies about religion, race, gender and sexuality in the schools. In the background is anxiety about violence. Education has become a battleground.

One solution is to simply ban controversy. In Texas, a school district removed controversial books from the library, including “Anne Frank” and the Bible. In Wisconsin, a school board banned flags, badges and slogans, including Pride flags, Black Lives Matters banners, and We Back the Badge signs. And here in Fresno, Bullard High School is planning to ban cell phones. An article in The Bee connected the cellphone ban to the controversy about racist photos taken on phones at Bullard High last year.

Schools have become a breeding ground for controversy. But let’s not turn schools into spiritless places where burned out teachers and disengaged kids go through the motions of education. That old Pink Floyd video comes to mind, in which students plod into a meat grinder.

We are so focused on controversy that we often miss the good news. So here’s a bit of good news. A recent study by Paul E. Peterson and M. Danish Shakeel concludes that kids are learning more now than they did 50 years ago. They analyzed data stretching back to 1971 that shows improvement since then in math and reading. This echoes the fact that IQ scores have also improved over time.

Their study notes that this improvement is true across demographic categories. The researchers admit that COVID was a recent setback. But they conclude, “Contrary to what you may have heard, average student achievement has been increasing for half a century.”

And yet the prevailing image is demoralizing. Perhaps we are too focused on nitpicking diminishing returns. As things generally improve, you start to freak out about small setbacks and minor blips. But all of this nitpicking can be disheartening.

It might help to remind ourselves that kids are innately curious and that teachers love to help them learn. The culture war approach to school misunderstands teaching and learning. War destroys things. It doesn’t build them up. Teaching and learning come from a place of love, empathy, creativity and play.

This is an ancient truth about teaching and learning. Socrates thought love was the guiding spirit of education. He challenged his students to think about difficult things. And he chastised them when they went astray. But he also loved them and believed that his students had the potential to improve.

Teaching and learning require a playful spirit. Mechanical and compulsory training may work for animals and for human beings forced to master monotonous tasks. But human beings learn the best and highest things through play and exploration. Plato thought that we are most fully human when we are free and at play.

Only humans engage in sports, games, drama, storytelling, art, and music. These are all forms of play. They require practice and discipline — but they are supposed to be fun. Scientific exploration and philosophical speculation are similar. They are ways of playing with concepts, ideas, and with the world itself.

Play involves intense concentration focused on activities we love for their own sake. Genuine play is not done in order to produce some external result or because some coach forces us to do it. Rather, authentic play is self-motivated and free. We play with ideas and explore the world because we are curious and because exploration and creativity are enjoyable. Playing and learning are ends-in-themselves. We do these things because we love them.

That’s the key to teaching and learning. Teachers love teaching because they enjoy playing with ideas and sharing their love of learning with their students. And students learn best when they fall in love with a subject that inspires their curiosity and their innate desire to explore.

The good news is that kids are learning better now than they were a half century ago. Of course, there is more work to be done. But let’s stop freaking out and turning schools into battlefields. It’s impossible to learn or teach in a war zone. Education occurs best under conditions of peace, when playful and curious spirits are given the freedom to question, create, and think.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article264669234.html#storylink=cpy

Americans Disagree About the Afterlife

That’s why we need religious liberty…

Fresno Bee, November 28, 2021

Most Americans believe there is life after death. A recent survey from the Pew Center reports more than 80% of Americans believe in some form of afterlife. Sixty-one percent believe in traditional accounts of heaven or hell. Others believe in some alternative, such as reincarnation. Only 17% do not believe in an afterlife.

The headline for this report focuses on political differences. Republicans are more likely to believe in a traditional idea of heaven and hell than Democrats. Our polarization seems to extend beyond this world.

One disagreement concerns who gets into heaven. A third of Americans believe that the path to heaven is through “one true faith” (a belief that is more common among Republicans). But many Americans are open-minded about this. A majority of us think that believers of “many religions” can gain eternal life.

Of course, opinion polls are not theology. These questions run deep and the answers are shrouded in mystery. These are things to ponder in the glow of firelight on cold and foggy winter nights. Even the theologians disagree. Some claim the “narrow gate” to heaven is reserved for believers. Others believe in “universal salvation,” which is the idea that everyone goes to heaven.

And what part of you will survive? Some say your body will be resurrected. Others think the soul lives on. Others suggest that even though you die, it is the memory of you that lives on in the mind of God.

Debates about the afterlife are ancient. Socrates said death was either a dreamless sleep or a journey to another world where good is rewarded and evil is punished. In either case, a good person has nothing to fear in death. If death is a dreamless sleep, then we won’t suffer from being dead. And if the religious stories about the afterlife are true, good people will be rewarded.

Plato believed in reincarnation. He suggested that the virtues we develop in this life help us choose our next life wisely. Plato’s elaborate scheme of transmigrating souls was rejected by materialistic philosophers such as Epicurus. Epicurus taught that death really is the end. He suggested that we should stop worrying about the afterlife and focus on happiness in this life.

Christianity rejected Epicurean philosophy by insisting on the importance of resurrection and the idea of divine judgment. One worry is that without the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, we may lack the motivation to be good. There is also the need for consolation in the face of suffering and evil.

Some good people suffer and die miserable deaths. And some evil people get away with murder. The universe does not seem fair if good folks go unrewarded and evil people don’t get punished. Immortality and divine judgment appear to resolve this discrepancy.

As we ponder these issues, it might help to know that Americans have often disagreed about them. One famous disagreement is that between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson most likely did not believe in personal immortality. Jefferson was a materialist and a deist who was sympathetic to Epicurean philosophy. He seemed to believe that personality was situated in the brain and that the soul disappeared at death. Jefferson also suggested in a letter to Adams that Plato’s account of immortality was “nonsense” produced by Plato’s “foggy mind.”

But Adams believed otherwise. His belief in the immortality of the soul was central to his religious faith. In a letter to Jefferson, Adams said, “If I did not believe in a future state I should believe in no God.” In another letter, Adams said, “A future state will set all right. Without the supposition of a future state, I can make nothing of this universe, but a chaos.”

And so it goes. Adams believed that the afterlife gives meaning to this life. Jefferson thought such ideas were nonsensical.

This leads us, in conclusion, to the need for religious liberty and freedom of thought. Great minds disagree about immortality. And so do we. These questions are not answerable in this life. This means that we should be free to disagree. At some point, we will each confront this mystery directly. In the meantime, let’s leave each alone to ponder the imponderable.

Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

Memorial Day and the Ethics of Memory

Fresno Bee May 30, 2021

For Memorial Day, consider a fitting tribute to the dead: Unity in America

Memorial Day began after the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. You would think that remembering the dead would help us find common ground. But memory can polarize.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a Memorial Day mainstay. Delivered during the war, the speech was both a memorial and an exhortation. He called on Americans to complete the task for which the heroes of Gettysburg had died, to preserve the Union so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

But there are difficulties. What about the rebel soldiers who died at Gettysburg? Should they be memorialized as well? This question lingers as we reconsider schools and military bases named for Confederate soldiers. The nation continues to struggle with how we remember the American legacy of slavery, segregation and war.

One obvious solution would be to stop naming buildings after people. A recent debate about school naming in Fresno shows us the problem. Maybe we should name schools after concepts instead of people. How about schools named “Liberty,” “Independence,” “Imagination,” or “Kindness”?

Memorials, including our use of names, are ultimately expressions of value. They make an assertion about what the living hold dear. Do the dead care about these memorials? I doubt it.

When Socrates was asked whether he wanted his body buried or burned, he shrugged. He joked, “do whatever you want with me—if you can catch me.”

Since he would no longer be there, it didn’t matter to him what happened to his corpse. He asked his friends to make sure his debts were paid and his sons were educated. He was indifferent to the rest.

This indifference opens the door to significant questions about how and why we memorialize the dead. The dead are no longer here to enjoy their memorials. Some people believe that ghosts haunt the cemeteries. But I doubt the dead care how we honor them. From the vantage point of eternity, our memorials must seem unimportant.

Eternal values transcend our petty squabbles about names and monuments. Names are powerful symbols. A school named for Abraham Lincoln means something different than a school named for Robert E. Lee. But those symbols have meaning for us. Our memorial tributes are for the living. The dead have moved on.

Decoration Day began as a day to bring color and life into the cemeteries of the Civil War. It also functioned to heal a divided nation. Flowers decorated both Union and Confederate graves. Lilacs and roses were preferred, in the colors of red, white and blue.

This memorial process aimed to build unity. Despite the war, the Civil War dead were all, in a sense, Americans. Death can bring us together, if we let it. Our differences fade away in the face of eternal sleep. Mourning widows and grieving comrades share something in common that transcends party, color or creed.

Decoration Day poem by Henry Peterson suggested that the fallen of the Civil War were “foes for a day but brothers for all time.” Peterson continued, “we all do need forgiveness, every one.” And, “in the realm of sorrow all are friends.”

Death is a great leveler and equalizer. So too is grief and mourning.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address proclaimed that the living must be dedicated to the “unfinished work” of those who fought and died. But Lincoln’s vision was broader than a battlefield. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a month before he was assassinated, Lincoln called for malice toward none and charity toward all, while asking the nation to care for the widows, the orphans and the wounded warriors.

The work of compassion and justice is a tribute to the fallen. We honor the dead by loving the living and creating ways to eliminate ignorance, injustice, hatred and fear.

The Civil War reminds us of the danger of polarization. Today our nation is divided, but not hopelessly so. A fitting tribute to the dead would seek to overcome the differences that divide us. We are all Americans, after all. And one day every one of us will be on the receiving end of the lilacs and the roses.

On Motherly Love

Motherly love is neglected in ethics.  The Golden Rule speaks of brotherly love.  It says, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  But we might also say: “love your neighbor as a mother loves her children.” 

Brotherly love creates solidarity and respect.  Motherly love is a more active process of nurture and care.  A mother’s love is specific.  It concerns itself with your unique well-being.  Brotherly love spreads widely and grows thin.  Motherly love is intense: it responds to your needs and encourages you to fulfill your potential.  Brotherly love is universal and abstract.  Motherly love is for real people with concrete needs.

Motherly love involves labor. To live well is to participate in the labor of mothering: to give birth, to nurture, and to care.  We all do this.  The poet is a mother.  So too is the musician, scientist, and farmer.  Anyone who gestates, nurtures, and grows things is a mother.

Patriarchal metaphors confuse us.  We speak of founding fathers.  We imagine an artist imposing his will on the world.  We see the farmer as inserting his seed and extracting the fruit.  But art, politics, and agriculture require nurturing care.

We also conceive of God as a father who begets a son.  This patriarchal metaphor limits our imagination.  Divine creativity is not masculine imposition.  Rather, it is an unfolding from within.  It makes sense to say that God gives birth to the world. 

A hidden account of the importance of motherly love can be found in ancient philosophy.

When Pythagoras descended into a cave seeking wisdom, he was nurtured there by his mother.  She was the only person he communicated with from his dark retreat.  When he emerged from his cave, he began teaching about reincarnation.  This symbolic re-birth—the emergence from a cave—shows up Plato’s allegory of the cave as well as in the Christian Easter story. 

Pythagoras’s theory of reincarnation allowed that he had once been a woman.  So it is no surprise that he brought women into his school.  His wife, Theano, and his daughter, Damo, were among his most important disciples. 

Socrates also spoke of mothering.   He described himself as a midwife who helps others give birth to the wisdom that is within them.  That process is guided by love, conceived in motherly terms. 

The source of Socratic midwifery was a mystical woman named Diotima.  She taught Socrates the mysteries of motherly love.  Diotima said, “All of us are pregnant, Socrates, both in body and in soul, and, as soon as we come to a certain age, we naturally desire to give birth.”

These ideas gestated and evolved for centuries until Plotinus offered a grand synthesis.  He invoked female energies in his theology.  The god of love, Eros, is the child of Aphrodite.  Thus the creative energy of the universe comes from the goddess.  And in one pregnant passage, Plotinus suggests that Aphrodite is identical with the cosmos itself, which is a process of the unfolding of motherly love.

These metaphors are fascinating.  But we must be careful.  In a patriarchal world, women are often reduced to their capacity to be mothers.  A deeper vision of the power of motherly love calls patriarchy into question.  The ancient thinkers hinted that mothering was fundamental.  This vision empowered women as it did in the Pythagorean school.  And it is inclusive: it is for women and men, poets and philosophers.

Contemporary authors have also made this point.  Hannah Arendt focused on “natality” as “the capacity to begin something anew.”  And Nel Noddings calls our attention to what she calls “the maternal factor.”  Patriarchy ignores the amazing organic capacity of the female body.  The life of the species flows through mother’s bodies.  But motherly love is not merely about bodies: natality and maternity are spiritual metaphors.

Mothering is the compassionate heart of ethics.  It is available to every human being who has been mothered and cared for.  Brotherly love is fine.  But a higher love models itself on a mother’s love for her children. This is a love that is careful, graceful, and nurturing.  Motherly love is fundamental.  It may even be the pregnant power of the universe itself.