some thoughts on a Saturday morning


    which started with the book I am reading.  It is by David Kirp, who is at the Goldman School of Public Policy at Cal Berkeley, and bears the title Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future.  I am well overdue to review it (for another site), which is why I am currently reading it.  A couple of things jumped off the pages for me.

    First, the structure of the book is around five themes Kirp believes that together can make a huge difference in getting the best results for all our children.  These are

    1.  Give new parents strong support

    2.  Provide high-quality early education

    3.  Link schools and communities to improve what both offer children

    4.  Provide mentors to youngsters who need a stable, caring adult in their lives

    5.  Give kids a nest egg that helps pay for college or kick-start a career

    Some of these fall outside the traditional bounds of what we think of when we consider education.  What I like about the approach is that it recognizes that what happens in school does not happen in isolation.  For some of our children they have all of these in families, churches, community already.  For increasing numbers of Americans one or more of these are missing, and that exacerbates the difficulties they will face.

    Let me quote from page 5, in the introduction, to illustrate in part the nature of our difficulties:  

    Although the United States is the richest nation in the world, a 2009 study of thirty countries that belong to the organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (essentially the richest countries in the world) reports that the child poverty rate in this country is twice the OECD average.  We spend a third less than the OECD average on young children; we rank near the bottom when it comes to infant mortality and child mortality; and the average educational achievement of an American youngster is seventh worse, behind the Slovak Republic.

    Of course, our average is pulled down by the increasing number of our young people in or near poverty, and that is not ameliorated by our failure to provide them the services and support of other nations.

    I began pondering this . . . .

    Before I became a teacher, I spent 20 years in data processing, as it was then called.  While I was very good at programming computers and debugging the problems in programs written by others, my real strength was in systems analysis.  That domain requires an ability to think beyond the immediate problem or focus, and to see things in a larger context.

    The field of systems thinking was originally developed in biological science, by Ludwig von Bertalanffy.  We have been at best inconsistent in applying the insights possible from systems thinking, and especially poor in applying what we have been able to learn from the subset of systems thinking known as chaos theory.  Too often in education, too often in politics and policy in general, our thinking is linear, looking for “simple” cause and effect.   Thus we try an approach to school instruction, some test scores go up, and we have a tendency to brag about our positive effect, while ignoring several things.  First, correlation is not necessarily causation, and our “improvement” in test scores may be totally independent of the actions we took.  Next, we ignore other impacts of the choices we make, such as turning kids off to learning, losing the ability to develop ways of learning and doing that are not so easily measured by tests.  Further, we so obsess about “cheating” that we interfere with the normal human tendency of cooperation, itself a skill we need to better develop (as recent events in our national and state legislatures should make clear).  As a culture we are so focused upon ranking, and upon winning, that we forget that such an approach creates far more losers than winners, and has the effect of telling large numbers of people that we are viewing them as failures.

    I am often asked to read and write about books on education, as I am doing in this case.   I try to come to the task with an open mind, although I acknowledge that I read at least somewhat through the lens of my own experience and knowledge.  Still, I hope that I remain open to other ways of perceiving, and have often found my own thinking challenged and sometimes changed by what I encounter.  In other words, I acknowledge that I am still learning.  If I am an effective teacher in the classroom, it is in large part because I pay attention to my students, and learn from them perhaps far more than any content which I may help them learn.

    This year is a particular kind of journey for me, as I contemplate seriously leaving the classroom after this year.  In the process of such contemplation and consideration of alternatives, I am able to step back and look at my own teaching from a somewhat different perspective.

    Similarly, as I explore my thinking through writing, I am able to reflect upon how I write, about what I write.

    Put together, along with seriously reexamining how I relate in person as well as online, what decisions I make about finances, time, energy, I am in effect rethinking my own life.

    Sometimes part of the problem for such a task is to determine what if any specific goal we intend to aim for.   I am discovering that I cannot claim a specific life goal.  From moment to moment, or at least year to year, the goals I seek can change, as the circumstances in which I find myself change, as my knowledge and understanding change.   I do not fully understand the complete system in which I operate, I lack the computing power if you will to model all the possibilities.  Thus I must remain somewhat flexible, even as I try to find some core that ties it all together, although my understanding of that core can also change.

    I begin to think that part if not most of what is wrong with our politics and our policy is that we are too unwilling to bring that kind of flexibility to those processes, that we are unwilling to acknowledge that our understanding of the environment in which we operate is incomplete, that we can still not account for all the factors that create the uncertainties in that system:  we so much want a direct Newtonian cause and effect that we can predict and upon which we can depend, so much so that we are prone to ignore important information that would inform us how erroneous and incomplete our thinking might be.

    Sobering thoughts, certainly on a personal level, and very much so for our society, eh?  I am in my mid 60s, and I joke that I still have not decided what to be when I grow up.   No, I am not Peter Pan saying I will never grow up, although I am glad that I can still have a childlike delight in discovering things.  I know I have followed many paths that have not been as productive or beneficial as I may have thought when I began my journeys upon them.   But then, like Edison said about his failures at finding the right material for the filament of the incandescent bulb, at least I have learned some things that are not right.  Or as a wise elder Quaker lady once said to Parker Palmer, while she had never experienced “way opening” she had experienced enough “way closing” to convince her to try a different path.  

    At times I consider what lays before me, before us as a nation and a society, before the world, and I can sense the incredible depression and despair that can overwhelm me, that can lead us to give up hope and turn inward.  I have twice seriously considered becoming a Monk, first as an Episcopalian, then as an Orthodox Christian whose spiritual father was the abbot of an ancient monastery on Mount Athos.   I remember what one of my friends on Athos told me, that there were many gifted men on Holy Mountain who could accomplish much by the world’s standards, but whose calling was to hold up the entire world in prayer.  I read the words of the remarkable man known as Thomas Merton, who in his religious life was Father Louis, who while apart from the world remained intimately connected and concerned, via reading, via correspondence, from the occasional visitor, and most of all in that loving concern we call prayer.

    I know I cannot save the world.  That is not what I mean.  That is not my responsibility, and certainly is not within my capabilities.  

    I also know I cannot be apart from the world, even though I often experience myself as in the world but not completely – – –  I have on occasion written about how I understand that I really don’t “belong” anywhere, even in my own classroom among students about whom I care deeply.  

    I think, I work, I watch, I listen, I write, I read.  Sometimes I just sit in silence, or listen with attentiveness –  to the purring of a cat curled up next to me, to the birds and insects as the sun rises or sets, to a piece of music heard for the first time or one I thought I knew well in which I hear something different, something I had not previously recognized.  

    Some will think writing like this is self serving, others arrogant.  I acknowledge that i benefit from writing it out, and benefit even more when something I write connects with someone else –  it reminds me forcefully that I am part of something very much vaster than the limits of my own perception.  Perhaps that is why I have so valued the time I have spent being a teacher, because that too connects me with things beyond myself.

    What is our responsibility to ourselves?  What is our responsibility to others?

    Should we even phrase it as ‘responsibility’?

    How do I take the limits off my heart, so that it can expand and include, rather than close itself off?

    Justin Martyr wrote about  Christian love as being like a candle – when it lit another candle it was not itself diminished.

    I remember a parable told by an elderly Quaker woman named Anna Curtis, at the Meeting on Rutherford Place in Manhattan, in the summer of 1964.  She told of a nobleman who loved his people, so he built them a magnificent house of worship.  But he provided no windows, no means of illuminating the interior except this –  he would send each family candles, and if all came to the service with their candles lit, there would be sufficient light for the worship service.   Anna Curtis told us that we were those candles, that we not only had to come to Meeting but light our interiors, so that there would be enough light for us to worship, to share – and by implication to fully see and appreciate one another.

    Light is important to Quakers.  Instead of saying that we will pray for you, we say that we will hold you in the Light.  

    And perhaps that is the point of this meandering set of words and thoughts – to understand my need to have my own candle lit, to be attentive, to recognize when I am closing my heart and thus my mind and my soul.

    It is to have enough light to see beyond the immediate focus in front of my nose,  to be able to recognize that there is far more that is interconnected, to understand that i cannot fully understand it.  That does not mean that I use that lack of complete understanding to refrain from action.   It should endow me with enough humility to recognize that how I act might turn out to be wrong, but that if hearts and souls remain open, no permanent damage will be done – we learn from making honest mistakes – if we are willing to admit we are wrong.

    That is an important lesson for the classroom, for any kind of learning, for if we are afraid of making mistakes we will remain either paralyzed or continuing down a path even as we know it is unproductive.

    Learning how to make mistakes –  what an important lesson to learn, not only for the classroom, but for life as well.

    Just a few thoughts on a Saturday morning.


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