Expect Resistance

In the last week or so, there’s been a story going on in Vermont that, I’m told, has stirred a bit of national debate. Vermont Public Radio even dedicated over an hour of virtually uninterrupted discussion to it yesterday (including a re-run of the show in the evening), which was when I was told that its become a national story.

Last week, Middlebury College’s American Enterprise club (which is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute) invited a political scientist named Dr. Charles Murray to speak at the college. They reasoned that, with all of the conversations about how President Trump was elected because of the grievances of the country’s white males, it would be interesting to bring to campus the author of a recently published book about class divisions within that white demographic. However, the author of said book has been accused of “using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to the fight against racism and intolerance in all its forms and a recognized leader when it comes to keeping data on both local and national hate mongers. Due to the author’s designation (not to mention the published words that led to said designation), a sizable number of students and professors at Middlebury College challenged whether he should even be invited to campus, let alone given a stage and a microphone from which to disseminate his ideas.

It sounds as if reasonable efforts were made by the college to address the grievances of the protestors. The Political Science department that sponsored the invitation fully intended to prepare their students to understand the controversies surrounding Dr. Murray and to help them develop the skills to challenge the man’s ideas in public. It seems they even disseminated pamphlets on every chair in the auditorium to help the students speak their mind during the event, and when the President of the College introduced him, she stated that she “profoundly disagreed” with the man.

The Political Science department also prepared one of their colleagues to serve as a moderator during the talk, giving her specific instructions to challenge the speaker to his face.

Staff members throughout the college discussed the controversy in their classrooms in the week leading up the event and redesigned their syllabuses to give their students time before and after the visit to process their ideas and their feelings surrounding Dr. Murray’s talk.

On the day of the event, the protestors planned and staged an organize response. Just as Dr. Murray began to speak, students throughout the auditorium stood up in unison, turned their backs, and began to chant, and not in a “Hey hey, ho ho, Dr. Murray’s got to go”  kind of way (though some kind of similar chant did occur later), but rather, in a monotonous, considered, and dead-eyed kind of way, the product of what must have been at least half a dozen planning sessions in the days and hours leading up the event, including at least one or two full on rehearsals (please note that I’m making assumptions here).

Dr. Murray eventually left the stage. He and the moderator tried to continue the discussion in another room, sharing it with the audience via livestream, but the protestors began to act a little more chaotic at that point. It seems they may not have imagined that the event’s planners would develop a tactical response to their coordinated protest, and so, as will happen with a crowd, a lot of people had a lot of different ideas on what to do next .

The end result was that after the interview was finished, the college tried to escort Dr. Murray, the faculty moderator, and some others to an awaiting car, but the protestors wouldn’t let them pass, and push literally came to shove before Dr. Murray and the others could get into the car and drive away. In the scrum, the moderator was injured enough to go to the hospital and come out with a neck brace. And Dr. Murray, who is an elderly man, told the Boston Globe that he feared for his life.

It became a national story for the same reason Milo Yiannopoulos became a story when Berkley protesters prevented him from speaking on campus: the students of a highly reputable liberal college forcefully prevented a conservative voice from finding a safe space on their campus. It’s a story rife with irony, due to liberal stances regarding the sanctity of education and the sanctity of free speech.

If you believe that education is, first and foremost, about the development of a student’s critical thinking skills (as most liberals ultimately do), then why shield them from the real world’s marketplace of ideas, which includes millions of ideas that they will find offensive?

If you believe(as most liberals seem to) that words and ideas are the only things that should change the world (rather than, say, guns and money), then why respond violently when faced with words and ideas that offend you?

Both sides of the issue had strong points. I’m an absolutist when it comes to free speech, which means I completely believe Dr. Murray  had the right to speak, but it also means that I believe the protestors had the right to respond with whatever words they saw fit. In addition, Middlebury College has the right to invite whomever it wants to its campus, and the students of Middlebury College have the right to disagree with the college’s decisions.

With that being said, one of the guests made an interesting point. He is a sociology professor who was invited onto the radio show to defend the protestors. When the show’s moderator asked him some question that implied that every viewpoint deserves equal access, the professor remarked that the college already doesn’t provide equal access to all viewpoints because not everyone has the same amount of money to invite speakers to campus, and hence some voices are never heard simply because of differences in economic class.

This is the same as the argument behind campaign finance reform. If money = speech, then those who have more money have more speech; and if in a democracy, speech = the right to vote, then more money means more votes.

I don’t know a ton about the inner budgeting processes of private Vermont colleges, but what I’ve seen makes me think that the Political Science department at Middlebury College probably receives better funding than its Sociology department, if only because political science majors probably make more money than their sociology counterparts (which goes for those of both types who later go on to teach at a college). [But again, I’m making a lot of assumptions here].

According to the representatives on the radio, one of the things the protestors would have preferred about the event was for someone else to be standing on the stage who had equal footing with Dr. Murray, someone who was there with every endorsement of the college to challenge Dr. Murray’s ideas and teach the students some of his or her own — to stage the evening not as a moderated lecture, followed by questions (challenging or not), but as a debate between equals, and challenging all the way.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and what went down went down.

But what intrigues me about it is that — at least in the way its become a national story — it’s all about the concept of a safe space.

Conservatives claim that liberal colleges no longer provide a safe space for the expression of conservative ideas; liberals, meanwhile, claim that conservative speech offends them, and they ought to have the right to protect and defend themselves from any more violence (spoken or otherwise) coming at them from conservative quarters.

In other words: Conservatives want colleges to be a safe space, while liberals want the individual mind to be a safe space.

I agree with both of them. The trouble is that, for many liberals, college is where the mind first meets the road. They’re no longer protected by their parents or guardians, and they have to negotiate whatever comes at them on their own. That’s the whole point of thing.

But they’re also kids, and they’re gonna screw up once in a while, and sometimes when they do, someone’s going to get hurt and come out of the hospital wearing a neck brace. That’s what happens when kids screw up.

What’s important is what happens next. How do the adults around them model  what they could have done instead?

It sounds to me like both the protestors (staff and students) and the event planners (staff and students) handled the pre-game perfectly. They discussed the controversy with each other in a rational manner, and when they saw they would never persuade the other to do exactly what they wanted, they made plans for a potential conflict. The protestors considered the situation and decided a combination of “simultaneous dialogue” (i.e., using their numbers to speak over Dr. Murray) and general protests would be best. The event planners anticipated the protestors’ moves (to some extent) and reacted accordingly, hiring outside security and preparing alternative ways for Dr. Murray’s speech to continue (retiring to a quieter room and broadcasting his words to the audience via livestream).

This is where character and leadership comes in. The Middlebury protestors, like the Berkley protestors before them, are trying to convince the media that “outside agitators” started the violence. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I suspect in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. I’m sure at least one Middlebury student partook in the violence, as I’m sure at least one person who is not a student at Middlebury partook in the violence.

Regardless, the protestors claim this because they want to believe that they have character, that Middlebury students wouldn’t resort to violence when they find themselves as part of mob. Again, this may or may not be true.

But it provides the college with an opportunity to have the students practice the art of remaining an individual when standing in the middle of a mob, and then the art of leading that mob to achieve positive ends in a positive way. What should a Middlebury student have done when the protest grew beyond its planning committee’s control?

With the Internet and social media, mobs move too fast for anyone to control them. That’s how you get the Arab Spring. That’s how you get Ferguson.

I think liberals everywhere would agree that the Arab Spring and Ferguson definitely needed to happen. And that more of them need to and will happen in the future.

But how can tomorrow’s liberal leaders thrive in such an incredibly dynamic environment, where for every organized march on Washington, there’s three dozen half-organized, mob-overrun affairs?

The next generation must be able to navigate the grassroots world they’re moving into, a world where even the President of the United States bypasses traditional channels of communication in favor of Twitter. It may be true that, unless you’ve got millions of dollars (not necessarily your own), you can’t stand at a podium and have a microphone all to yourself; but its also true that for a few dozen bucks a month, you can stand with your smart phone and have a microphone the size of the Internet.

But in that world, how does someone lead when everyone is talking at once?

That’s what our youth activists need to learn, and that’s what our colleges need to teach them (interestingly, the sociology professor who was invited to defend the protestors on the radio dedicates at least part of his research to “exploring how anarchists organize online”).

Should Dr. Murray have been invited to speak on Middlebury’s campus? Should the protestors have been able to outshout him? Those questions are beside the point.

The question is: what should they have done next? The event planners planned to face resistance. In the future, youth activists should plan to face it too.

On The Mind, Body, & (Not So Much) on the Soul.

A couple of nights ago, I was doing some creative writing around the concept of democracy. This wasn’t for a blog post, but for something else I’m working on.

So that’s the first thing. Stick a pin it.

The second thing is that, earlier today, I was talking with two of my students about the problems we face as a world, global problems such as climate change, poverty, disease, war and other forms of systemic violence, etc. After we differentiated between global problems and more localized problems, I asked the students to choose one problem that we could focus on. They selected “equal access to personal growth” and “equal rights.”

I then asked each of them to design their own superheroes, ones who could take on the global problem of equality. Each student had to decide not only on a name and superpower,  but also on a costume, weapon, motto, attitude, and day job (i.e., Clark Kent being a reporter).

One of the students called out her superpower right away: “I want to give people empathy.”

Boom. Done. Yes. Go. Run with that.

My other student had a more difficult time. Part of his hesitation may have been because he seemed to be feeling a little more down today than usual, but the other part was because these are really serious problems and there are no easy answers.

He finally said, after some back and forth,”I think my superhero would be considered a super villain.” His idea was that he would make everybody become part of a hive mind. His weapon would be that he would open his mouth and these little bugs would come flying out; the bugs would crawl into everyone’s brain and hook them into the hive mind.

He said that this would solve the problem because everyone in the world would pull together and strive for the exact same thing (in this case, equal rights and equal access). No one would stand in the way. No one would be the enemy. There’d be no racists, no sexists, no classists, etc., and hence no racism, no sexism, no classism, etc.

But he was hesitant because he thought this would be seen as a bad thing. We tend to believe in the sanctity of the individual, and he recognized that this superpower would rob people of their individuality by forcing them into the hive mind. Even though the hive mind would be striving for something good, the theft of their individuality would be seen as too much of an evil for the end goal to be worth it, and thus his super hero would be seen as a super villain.

So that’s the second thing.

The third thing is another class I’m teaching. I’ve spoken about this one before: my class on the Philosophy of Death. The students’ homework is to write a 500-word essay about the difference between the mind and the soul. Their answers have to come from them directly; this is not a research paper. As a class, they’d already agreed that there is a difference between the mind and the soul, but because class ended just as we came to that conclusion, I asked them to take their idea a little deeper in the form of a short essay. We’d then discuss their answers in class. I have to facilitate that discussion in just a few hours, and I’m wondering myself what my own answer would be.

So those are the three things: democracy, theories of mind, and the difference between the mind and the soul. Now let’s get on with it.

First, I don’t think I really believe in the mind, or at least, not in the mind per se. I think the mind is more like an ephemeral document, a record of a discussion written in fading ink.

To connect it to what I said earlier: the mind is the product of a democracy. The inputs — the voters — are all the parts of my physical body getting a say in whatever it is that my body does next. My Vision department (and make no mistake, the experience of vision is the result of a large consortium of cells in your body, much like the formal recommendation of the State department are the results of thousands of individual people passing their ideas up the chain to the Secretary of State) — anyway, my Vision department reports that such and such a thing is the most important aspect of the world to be aware of at the moment, but my Hearing department suggests something else. My Touch department can’t agree where to focus, so all of the various stakeholders shout out their own reports (itch in elbow!, pressure in jaw!, ache in neck!). My Taste and Smell departments, who often caucus together, continue to do so, and for the moment, they both remain silent. Meanwhile, messengers from the Memory Banks and anxious clerks from my Neuroses division constantly interrupt the conversation, and paranoia leaking negative messages from somewhere deep in my Intelligence agency.

Finally, miraculously, a decision gets made: enough votes are cast by all the stakeholders to focus on….whatever…say this, do that, veg out, etc., and then an action is taken in the world (actually, the real process is that, usually, an action is taken in the world, and then someone reports back on that action, leaving the congress to ask, “How can we rationalize that?”)

Anyway, the mind is not the process of that democratic moment (not the rationalization), nor is it the action taken in the world. It is, instead, like the law itself, something that seems to have more spirit than body, and like the law itself, powerless to stop anyone or anything that has the ability to act.

That’s why we have heart attacks, why we get cancer, why we say things that are hurtful when we know it is wrong to say them, and why we don’t get up and go to the gym. It’s because there’s no one really in control.

The law can say that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” but that won’t stop some citizens of a state from preventing people of color from reaching the voting booth on any given voting day in any given district, whether through armed guards at the door or through “voter I.D.” laws that disenfranchise citizens who are not able to, for whatever reason, satisfy the list of onerous requirements developed by that state in congress.

Because the law, as itself, has no power, much as the mind, as itself, has no power. Power is reserved to the people, just as it is reserved to your sensory neurons and motor neurons,  your muscles and bones.

So I don’t believe in the mind. Instead, I believe in the body’s attention and intention, created by the body and enacted by the body.

If the mind exists, it is only in the spirit of the law.

Both of my students had interesting superpower-driven solutions to the problems of equal rights and equal access. Both of them understood that the problems require people to change their minds. My first student wanted to give people a sense of empathy, to make them connect with other people’s minds, to understand, intimately, their interests and experiences, and to share, if only for a few moments, their subjectivity.

My second student wanted to take control of everyone’s mind — not in a greedy way, mind you (pun!), but in a way that forces everyone’s mind to act in concert, to act in union.

To return to my metaphor: both students wanted to add more inputs to the process of an individual’s democracy. My first wanted everyone to honestly and respectfully consider the subjective interests of the other before reaching any decision; my second wanted to insert a kind of dictatorial overlord over the congress, an overlord that is not an individual, but rather, the consensus of the all. 

I think both of their answers are terrific. Hers because, yes, of course empathy is the answer to the problems of equality, and we should all be mad that we didn’t see it sooner. And his because, essentially, his superpower (to spit out bugs that go into people’s ears and change their minds) is a metaphor for persuasive argument, which yes, of course, is the only ethical way to change people’s minds, since violence and compulsion enact the tyranny of one over the other.

But even (for arguments sake) we agree that all of that is true, where does “the mind as democracy leave us in regards to the soul?

I’m not sure. And for the moment, I’m okay with that.

(For a different but related take on all of this, see Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained).

An Open Letter to My Advisory

This is the narrative evaluation for all of my advisory students for this past quarter. I usually write individualized evaluations (you all belong to a highly individualized school, after all), but because of our day-to-day conversations, I think all of you know what I would write about your individual strengths and challenges, and we can discuss those with your parents/guardians at your Learning Plan meetings.

Instead, I’m giving our advisory a group evaluation.

We’ve gotten away from our identity as an advisory this year. The reasons are obvious. With only eleven students in our program, separating into two different advisories can sometimes feel unwarranted. I work just as closely with the students in Stuart’s advisory as I do with you, and vice-versa for Stuart.

But the fact remains, we are an advisory. That advisory includes four students who come to school every day and one student who has yet to make it to school this year (though that student is working with me online). It also includes students who have come and gone over the years, students who have graduated, transferred to other schools, or even dropped out. If you’re still in contact with me on even a semi-regular basis (and yes, Facebook counts), then you are still part of my advisory, and I will always be here for you.

What does it mean to be a part of our advisory? Let me set the scene. A few weeks ago, some of our members (but not all) were sitting down in the new cafe for the last block of the day. We were joined by a couple of students and a staff member from the Therapeutic program, all of whom were waiting for a meeting to take place after school. I was working on my laptop, designing a new template for our Learning Plans. Two of our members were documenting their work for their Phase Level Expectations; another was helping me build the Learning Plan, serving as a sounding board for my ideas and asking insightful questions as to how the plan would be used.

There was a vibe in the room that afternoon. Even the people who weren’t part of our advisory could feel it. It was a relaxed vibe, but also productive. We were all making forward momentum on something. There was also a kind of joyousness to it. Everyone was friendly to one another, and when one of us needed help on something, someone else provided it without allowing themselves to get distracted from their own work. I loved it. But it wasn’t just me. Everyone in the room could feel it.

Even if you weren’t in the room that afternoon, you know that scene. As a current or former member of our advisory, you’ve taken part and contributed to that vibe, and you know how good it feels.

That’s what it means to be a member of our advisory. It means forward momentum, accompanied by a joyous commitment to support one another.

Despite that wonderful afternoon, our advisory has had some challenges this year (not the least of which was the loss of one of our former members to a gunshot wound — but I don’t want to talk about that right now). Outside of that tragedy, our biggest challenge has been in creating cohesion and connectedness as a group.

As you know, we have a new student who has not joined us at school this year because they suffer from severe anxiety. As I mentioned above, I am working with this student online. I’ve also sat with this student’s parent a number of times and am working closely with an entire team of people to help the student join us on a semi-regular basis in the Spring. In addition, some of you have emailed this student, introducing yourself and trying to make them feel welcome at our school, and I think that is just awesome.

But I wonder if all of us could be doing more? If we were a connected advisory, we would have made our attempts to reach out to this student a regular thing. We would have sent them packages in the mail to let them know we haven’t forgotten them. We’d think of them less as the student who doesn’t show up and more as a member of our advisory who can’t come to school because they’ve been sick for a long time. We should be — and we can be — doing more to help this student connect with our school in the same way that rest of us have, to feel like this is truly a place where they can feel safe and supported as they figure out how to pursue their passion.

But that’s not the only place where we’ve had challenges. We have another new student who is part of our advisory, and this new student, while making strong bonds with the members of the staff, has yet to make strong bonds among the members of the student body. When I think back to our original three members — the first three students our school ever had — I remember that two of them arrived as best friends and the third arrived as someone they kind of knew but weren’t really friends with. Within weeks, all three of them were best friends. Those connections happened because the two who were already best friends made a concerted effort to bring the third student into the fold. They made plans for after school. They ate lunch together. They worked at becoming friends. That’s what I would like to see for every new student who joins our advisory. There’s no reason any single member of our advisory should feel like they don’t have any peers whom they can trust.

For the rest of this year, I’d like us to make a commitment to one another. Every other day, we are scheduled to spend the last block as an advisory. We often blow this off, choosing instead to stay with the rest of our classmates in a single room; again, because our program is so small, this feels natural, and it’s also helped us forge connections with the other members of our program. But doing so has done us a disservice as an advisory.

We need to use this dedicated time to check in as a group. When it’s the eight, nine, or ten of us all in the same room, it’s easy for one or two of us to separate off and spend the time essentially alone. This is not good. So let’s make a commitment to each other to meet as an advisory and use that time to not only check in as a group, but to offer whatever kind of support is immediately needed.

Let’s also use this time to expand our concept of our advisory. I mentioned above that every student I’m still in contact with is part of our advisory. That group includes world travelers, successful professionals, and college students. Let’s use part of our advisory time to become pen-pals with these people. They’re out in the world doing real things: paying bills, getting jobs, working on initiatives, figuring out their next steps. Let’s not only seek them out for advice, but also offer our support.

Let’s also use our advisory time to do community service as a group, whether doing activities that support the wider community of Poultney or the Rutland region, or activities that benefit our school (did someone say “yearbook” or “dinner and auction”?).

By doing these activities together, by connecting with ALL of our members, by being there for one another on a regular and committed basis, we will develop the cohesion and connectedness that we all want in our advisory.

So that’s it. That’s our evaluation. Now let’s get to work.

 

 

They Can’t Revoke Your Soul For Tryin’

My students decided they wanted to know more about the soul.  They came up with a list of questions, including what is the soul?, how could the soul exist?, is the soul permanent?, and all sorts of other questions. One of my students even wanted to compare the concept of the soul to the more new-agey concept of energy (a brilliant question, I think, when asked in earnest).

They also agreed that we do not want to be multicultural tourists in the class; rather, we want to wrestle with the questions. But at the same time, we don’t just want to riff off the top of our heads about the definition of the soul. We actually — all of us — want to learn something.

The Hindu (Vedanta) Concept of the Soul

Yes, this is about to happen.

There is a thing called an atman and a thing called a brahman. That’s pretty much what I know about the Hindu concept of the soul.

Both the atman and the brahman make up the soul. The Hindus are not the only ones to have divided the soul into parts (St. Augustine does it, as does Freud, as do a lot of other people), but the Hindus are the ones who connect the individual soul to an infinite soul, not as one to an other, but as one and only. The soul we each have, the atman, is like our individual soul, our heart, but the soul we all share is the brahman, which is like the music made by all of our hearts beating together, not as one but as many, the music we make, the melody, bass line, and percussion, moving as one in song.

I read the Bhagavad Gita in college. In it, Krishna stops time just before a major battle to help Prince Arjuna make a decision. Arjuna is dithering because the men he is about to fight are his family members and loved ones. He knows it is his duty is to go into battle, but how can he kill people he loves?

I don’t remember a lot of the book.  But that’s not important. Sure, it’s one of the most sacred texts in all of Hindu literature, but by this point, there’s been so many thousands of years of dissection and analysis that anything I’d even be able to add to the discussion would always already be besides the point.

That’s okay. Because I’m not trying to teach the Bhagavad Gita right now.

What I’m trying to teach is that it says there is a sense of duty that each soul has — and by soul, I’m talking about the atman, the individual-ness of us. In some sense, the duty of every individual is to turn to face God (Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as a god with faces on all sides, whose core shines with the light of a thousand suns; having faces on all sides allows all of us to face him individually), but each individual, as an individual, turns to God in a way that is unique to their atman; it is the duty of each of us to find and know and do our atman.

Are you a dancer? Then dance your way to God. A reader? Read your way to God. A warrior? A prince? A priest? A queen? Act as a queen should act, regardless of whether there’s a crown on your head.

But remember, you are not the queen (even if you do have a crown). You are a subject of God, with all of the gifts and rights of any subject worth their salt; we are to God as the roots are to their leaves, all as one.

The goal, however, is to cut down the tree and separate into the flowing robes of the infinite.

Reincarnation is a part of this, too. How (who, what) we get reincarnated (as) has to do with the way we live up to our duty. The Hindus call this dharma.

Dharma is what puts the ethics in our actions. It’s like the universal law, telling us exactly what we should do. But it’s also like a river: the more you move when and where you’re supposed to move, and how you’re supposed to, the better off you’ll be; the more you fight against dharma, the worse off you’ll be.

That’s one of the ways Hinduism differs from Taoism. Taoism wants you to surrender to the flow, while Hinduism wants you do more than that — it wants you to be more like a whitewater river guide who has been trained in the ways of the river and experienced it over and over again until you understand the best way to get yourself out of the river safely; Taoism, on the other hand, just wants you to close your eyes and jump in.

To use the tree metaphor again, dharma is the way the roots channel their energy up through the trunk of the tree and out onto the farthest reaches of the highest leaves, where it finally comes into contact with the sun. If you ignore your dharma and keep channeling your energy around and around near the base of the tree, you’ll grow stunted, ensuring that when the tree dies, all of your energy will just goes back into the ground, to try once again to go home.

Follow your dharma, and you’ll know exactly which way to go.

But that’s all argument from metaphor. How to philosophize that argument?

I’ll leave that one for my students.

My Current Problem with Death

I teach a class in the Philosophy of Death.

Let’s talk about the ridiculousness of that for a moment, shall we?

First, the details. This class meets twice a week for 45 minutes. I have four students in it — the youngest is fourteen; the next youngest is seventeen; and the last two are eighteen. All four of them are engaged participants in every single class. They take  diligent notes, and even discuss passionately with me the structure of those notes, wanting to make sure that what they’re writing down is what I’m trying to get across. I shit you not. The class ends at 12:00pm, lunch time, and every single class, at least two if not all four students choose to stay in their seats and continue our discussion (including a student whose hunger knows no bounds).

These incredible young students come to class every week and expect me — me! — to teach them about the Philosophy of Death.

That’s ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.

What do I know of death?

I’ll tell you what I know of death. One of my students died this year. He was nineteen years old. The young man was no saint, and he died in the company of known criminals, of a gunshot wound, shot in the early hours of the morning in a parked car with his friends, on a dare, with a stolen gun, obtained from a house where the homeowner was assaulted during the robbery, by one of the kids sitting in the car, where my student dared his killer to shoot him, and the shooter did.

I was this boy’s teacher at the last school he attended before dropping out. I was his last formal advisor. He was going down this path before he met me. And he continued down it after me. If anything, I only stalled him for a while and tried to put a smile on his face. I’m not sure I should have tried anything more. I did of course, but not by the end. By the end I only wanted him to know that I still cared. But this isn’t about me. It’s about death.

My great-grandmother’s death is the first one I remember. I remember it in part because my mother often tells the story of how I behaved at the funeral, but it’s not just the story I remember; it’s a visual. We’re seated near the front of the chapel, the priest is just a few yards from us, on my right, and up high, and he’s saying something, and then my eyes go incredibly blurry and I turn my head to the left, looking down and away from the priest, and then my shoulders are shaking, and my breath is coming and going in sobs, and my mother puts her arm around my shoulder and squeezes me tight, except now I’m making such a commotion that she has to take me out the side door of the chapel while the service is still going. In the story, my mother asked me if I understood what the priest was saying, and then she says she could just tell: I understood every word. I was four or five years old.

I really only have one memory of my great-grandmother, but even this could be based on a photograph I’ve seen: she’s seated on a folding chair in the middle of a shaded, sloping lawn. We’re at my family’s summer cabin, and she’s sitting alone up on the grass. Her feet are crossed at the ankles. She’s wearing what appears to be a thin bathrobe over eighty-year-old raggedy bones, but she’s someone who is always nice to me, and her bones don’t scare me. I can feel myself approaching her from her right. I can’t see her face, but I can see that bathrobe and the bones in her arm, her hand lowering to the ground near my head, moving towards me, welcoming me in.

When I was in my twenties, my best friend’s mother died. My memories of her are as strong as my memories of my own mother. I’d known her almost as long, and felt from her almost as much love. She wasn’t a daily presence in my life, especially not by the time I was in my twenties and living in a completely different state, but her son was my best friend and my brother, and so I was in contact with the spirit of her on almost a daily basis. Her death changed him (and changed me) for the better. In her death, she offered with such grace and love her life’s final lesson: this is what courage and dignity looks like.

There have been other deaths in my life. Friends. Family members. Acquaintances. Celebrities. No more than most others, and significantly less than some.

So what do I know of death, and what qualifies me to teach philosophy on the subject? I mean, I’m using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as my guide, for God’s sake! — and when I say “as my guide,” I should say that what I’m teaching my students is the Encyclopedia; I’m teaching them its entry.

I know, I know. Lame.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you don’t just want to look at one source, and if you do, you sure as hell don’t want it to be an encyclopedia. That’s a rookie move.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you want to check out all the weird shit from Asia and Africa and South America; and you want to see what the Egyptians had to say about it — after all, if anyone made an art form of death, it was the Egyptians, the first dead people anyone decides to teach us about, in the sense that elementary school teachers seem to not show us pictures of George Washington’s grave or discuss the Colonialists’ burial rituals; they do, however, show us the pyramids and tell us they’re built as monuments to death and filled with kings and queens who have been mummified by priests, a process which could be considered totally creepy (hence, the Mummy as a monster), but is discussed more for its novelty than its sense (or lack thereof) of humanity.

But you also want to make sure it’s a philosophy class, and not just a class for a multicultural tourist. True, it’s a high school class and not a college class, so you don’t have to get too deep on the philosophy side of things, but you ought to reveal some of the major questions around the topic.

Even more, you want to make sure it’s an engaging class. You want the kids to experience philosophy in action. You want them to criticize what you’re trying to teach them and doubt the ideas you put on the board. You want them to scrutinize the language you use and to document your logic while not accepting its dogma. You want them to point out your lesson’s flaws and double-check its facts, even the most basic ones, such as what philosopher said what when. You want them to disagree with each other, challenge each other to define their terms. You want them to discover moments of both clarity and confusion and feel a passionate compulsion to express any questions or doubts.

But you’ve only got so much time in the day. And you have other classes, and other responsibilities, not least of which are your responsibilities as both a father and husband. As a whole person, and not just a teacher, you can’t just be studying death all day. So as a teacher, you have to make choices.

As a teacher, I have to make choices. Should I choose to put my effort into engaging my students each week with 90 minutes of active philosophizing, or should I help them develop a slightly deeper understanding than they may already have about some of humanity’s most cherished ideas?

To do the latter would be to invest a lot of energy into my own education, and would become an almost all-consuming project. It wouldn’t take into account my need to teach a class on women’s studies, a class on academic writing, and a class in which I must lead four young adventurers on an original and yet more-than-improvised campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. It would also mean neglecting many of my responsibilities beyond the classroom.

To do the former, however, to provide my students with the experience of philosophy, all I have to do is spend at least one or two extra hours a week really studying the topic, and then just try to teach the students whatever I learned the week before. Because the information will be so new me, I won’t really know what I’m talking about, which might sound bad, but that will give my students ample opportunity to criticize and question, and then watch and listen as I wrestle out loud with their implications.

With two hours of studying outside of the classroom, I’ll  definitely know at least little more than they do. And of course, I’ll already possess an undergraduate background in Continental philosophy, which means not everything I read will be exactly new to me. That background should also allow me to put up reasonable (or at least time-wasting) defenses on any of the arguments I haven’t fully researched or understood, which again, sounds bad, but will force the students to penetrate to the heart of an idea from more than one angle.

Two hours a week studying the philosophy of death? I can do that in my sleep. Literally. I can lay down at the end of the day with any text even tangentially related to the topic and study it as I fall asleep. Right now, on my own time and out of my own sense of interest, I’m already reading the King James Version of the New Testament, the book most responsible for what America’s dominant culture thinks about death. If I can support that by also reading some more analytically sound thoughts on death, I should be fine.

But I don’t want to read a whole book on death, per se, so articles it’ll have to be. But how to distinguish a reputable article from another? How to find an article or series of articles that will give me enough scope of philosophy’s take on the subject while also making sure I don’t get bogged down in any academic squabbling about details?

The Stanford Encyclopedia. I’ll start there. But shit, have you ever tried to read that thing? They don’t just give you a short entry on something. They break that shit down, take on various theories, reveal various biases on the part of the authors, etc. I’ve only got one to two hours a week, man! I can’t just knock out the Stanford Encyclopedia and move on to the next article. If I’m going teach anything about it, I’ve got to think that shit over. I’ve got to read it slow and re-read certain sections, make sure I understand the logic.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Which means, for the past three weeks. I’ve been teaching my students what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Death.

Unfortunately, I’m only about halfway through it, and it’s starting to get old. The entry basically explores the philosophy around two central questions: What is death, and does it harm us? While those questions are interesting (I guess), they’re also not very exciting — or at least, the way they’re discussed by an old white man is not exciting.

I want to show my students more than what an old white man seems to think.

For that, I’m going to need something that comes from the darker cultures (in every sense of that word), something I can pull up from the moist wet soil of the Earth, a cultural philosophy of death that was once buried and forgotten but has now been returned to us, alive and vital.

I don’t want to talk about the Egyptians, unless it’s the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military junta, the deaths of people in the streets. Nor do I want to talk about the Indians, unless its the rituals of the telephone operators when they go home at night, contrasted with the rituals of the farmers in the south. I don’t want to talk about the west Africans, or the Aztecs, or the Incas; not the Navajo, those stand-ins for the peaceful Indians, nor the Apache, the Spartans of North America. The Inuit is a possibility; northeastern Russia as well. Japan and China would be little more than a cliche, a blind-eyed choice that excludes the Koreas, Vietnam, and all the other cultures to the south, each with their own rich heritage.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, alone, could be its own nine-week class.

How to choose? And how to figure out the reasons to choose? I’ve only got one to two hours a week, one to two sleepy hours, and at least a portion of those two hours must remain committed to reading something analytical, if only to exercise the analytical skills I need to successfully teach the class for ninety minutes a week.

But wait a second! Don’t I work at a democratic school?! At a democratic school, the teacher doesn’t have to be the one who makes the choice. I only have to present the options as openly as possible to my students, and let them decide. I’m confident I’ll be able to take it from there.

But then it strikes me — What if I’m going about this all wrong? Shouldn’t a class on the Philosophy of Death consider more than just the human community?  Shouldn’t it embrace the entire community of life? It could explore if animals mourn, for example. Enough videos on YouTube prove that other species process the loss of loved ones, so why not use the class to explore that? Why not bring up some environmental and ecological questions about death? I could pose the question of death from the point of view of climate change and political terror, as the death of humanity as we know it, and the potential extinction of all life on Earth.

So many questions. So many possibilities. And only so much time to figure it all out. That’s my current problem with death.

My New Learning Plan

Yesterday, I spent about an hour working on something called a Learning Plan. At the school where I work, we use Learning Plans to record where each student stands in relation to their education.

A good education doesn’t just happen to a person. Education and learning are activities to be worked on. A student has to want an education, and they have to be willing to put some effort into it (incidental learning is all well and good, but incidental learning should not be a goal; active and engaged learning should be the goal).

To accomplish this, my school puts the student in charge of their own education. The school is there to provide resources — the time and the space to work on projects; the support of caring and curious adults who actively want to see them succeed; access to a network of community partners eager to collaborate with them on a mutually beneficial internship; material support in the way of computers, books, paper, and pencils; and, not the least, the opportunity to receive financial backing for well-researched investments in their future — but (and this is important) the school itself is not there to provide an education.

Only the students, themselves, can do that.

The Learning Plan is one resource we use to help them. The product of several conversations between the student and their advisor, the Learning Plan records the student’s long-term goals and short-term objectives.

It starts by asking them to identify their passion. This is a tough-ass task to accomplish. We use all kinds of tools to get at possible answers, but unless the student wants to seek their passion, coming up with the right answer is all but impossible.

So next we ask the student to consider their interests. They may not know their passion,  but they can almost always come up with something that fascinates them: sharks, battle-axes, tornadoes, etc. If they can’t come up with a detailed answer, they can come up with a broader genre: video games, science, blowing stuff up.

Between their passions and their interests, we can come up with a project or a class that has some real teeth to it in either an academic and/or skill-building sense, something that the student can enthusiastically say “Yes!” to (the best ideas come out of the student’s mouth, of course).

But that’s not the whole Learning Plan. Because a student can’t just come to my school, do whatever they want to do, and then graduate with a high school diploma. It’s not that easy.

As a school, we decided that it means something to earn our high school diploma, and it’s not the same thing as earning a diploma from one of the state-based high schools (and when I say “we decided as a school,” I mean “we” in the broadest sense because my school is completely democratic: staff and students have equal say in the way the school runs, provided they show up to make their voices heard). As a school, we decided that our diploma means the student has accomplished not only the development of basic or college-ready academic skills (which is what most diplomas signify), but that the student has also developed their social and emotional skills.

Every student who graduates from my school must accomplish a suite of over 100 different goals, spaced out over the lifetime of their career. These goals range from the development of their reading skills to the development of their ability to cope with adversity. They not only have to know how to write and do  algebra, they have to know how to build and maintain healthy relationships and understand and manage their moods.

The Learning Plan is where this progress gets recorded. It’s completed on a quarterly basis and attempts to stand true for a period of nine weeks. The students use the Learning Plan to record which specific goals they’re going to pursue and how that pursuit fits into the long-term development of their passion and/or interests.

(Sometimes, because of a failure of either time or imagination, the student and the advisor fail to succeed, and nine weeks pass with very little progress. That’s okay. We don’t penalize either the student or the advisor for that. Students do not “fail” or “stay back” at my school — we refuse to place a label on their progress — instead, students give and receive honest assessments of their work. Education isn’t a race with winners and losers; it’s a craft, requiring patience and discipline from both the apprentice and the master, and its method of assessment should respect and reflect the time and effort put into it.)

But the Learning Plan attempts to capture all of that, and to do so in a single document. That was my job yesterday afternoon. To imagine a bureaucratic form that could best entomb such a living and dynamic process.

We kid ourselves when we tell the students that the Learning Plan is a living document. It’s not. It both captures and kills a whole lot of effort on everybody’s part.

There’s a superstition among creative writers that says it’s bad luck to talk about your works in progress because telling someone your story tricks you into thinking you’ve written it.

The Learning Plan has that danger as well. It sometimes takes so much effort to create a Learning Plan that it saps all of the student’s inspiration and energy, and the rest of the nine weeks may pass with little to no movement. This sets them up to feel like a failure as they neglect to get any real work done.

But here’s the thing: When a person has a Learning Plan, they know what they’re supposed to do, which means they also know when they’re not doing it. This can be a lot for the teenage mind to handle, and it can lead to feelings of depression and guilt, which then can manifest in behavior that looks like anger or aggression. Make no mistake: It’s dangerous goddamn work putting effort into the education of an American teenager, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

Of course, one of the goals of the student and the advisor is to either avoid or learn to cope with such feelings and/or behaviors by making steady progress on an academic and/or social-emotional level.

But how can a bureaucratic form do that utterly humane and naturally chaotic process any real justice? It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you want to know exactly what direction a thing is moving, you can’t also know exactly where it is in space. A Learning Plan can show us where a student is right now, but it can’t show us how quickly they are moving.

That’s why my form needed to strike a balance between long-term goals and short-term objectives.  It can’t tell you how they got here or when they’ll get there, but it can tell you where they are right now.

What’s hilarious to me is that when all of this thinking is going on in my head, my students just see me with my feet up on a chair focused on my computer screen. If they actually come around to look at my screen (as they often do), they see some new form on Google Docs with spaces for things like “Name” and “Today’s Date,” and bulleted lists with placeholder text that reads “Select here and start typing.” It must look so friggin’ boring to them.

Little do they know that the Learning Plan I pursued in my twenties and thirties led me to a job where every day I get to utilize my passion for systems-thinking, further my drive to constantly extend my knowledge and comprehension, and act on my desire to make a difference in my community.

It may look boring to my students. But when it comes to my career, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Did I finish the form? I did. And then I assigned it to my students. The due date is Friday.

Seriously, doesn’t the completion of a form like that seem like a full time job, yet at the same time, so rewarding? As if it would take a lot of hard work and serious thinking to provide honest answers to its questions, but also and at the same, be totally worth it in the end?

But no, my students won’t see it that way. They’ll see it as homework. And homework is something you do at the last minute, if you do it at all.

Goddamn, it’s frustrating to work with teenagers 🙂

Of G.I. Joes and D&D

At the school where I work, students are required to end each quarter with a speech that reflects on their learning that quarter. But during a recent School Congress, the students proposed and passed a new law stating that one staff member had to give a speech reflecting on the quarter as well. And I drew the short straw. So, here is the speech I made a few nights ago in front of my students, their parent(s)/guardian(s), and some of the other staff members. I hope you enjoy it.

When I was a kid, I played a lot of G.I. Joes. For those of you who might not know, G.I. Joes were 3-inch tall action figures made from die-cast metal. Each figure had a name, a personality (detailed on the back of each box), and some kind of weapon or accessory. The conceit was that the G.I. Joes were a special service in the American military, kind of like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, but these guys were the elite of the elite. Their task was to defend the world against COBRA, a terrorist organization whose goal was to wrap around the entire world like a giant cobra.

Unlike most action figures at the time, which could (at most) move their arms at the shoulders and their legs at the waist, G.I. Joe action figures had joints in their necks, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, knees, and ankles, which meant you could pose them in almost any position you wanted. Not only were these elite soldiers, but they were also elite action figures!

Now, the way I used to “play” G.I. Joes was with a couple of my friends, Eric Goodwin (who I lost touch with back in middle school) and Adam Champion (who is still my best friend today). We’d usually spend at least an hour “setting up” the game, which meant figuring out exactly what the scenario was that day (maybe there was a kidnapping, maybe there was going to be an assasination attempt on a G.I. leader, maybe there was a raid on COBRA’s headquarters, whatever). We’d then take each of the action figures (which probably numbered close to 50) and themir assorted vehicles (which probably numbered more than a dozen) and place them around my bedroom or backyard, all in prepartion for the scenario.

This was the best part of the process, because we’d spend so much time trying to figure out where each character was, what they were doing, why there were doing it, and what they’d do once the action began.

Then, once everything was set up, we’d put the scenario into action. And about five or six minutes later, we were done. One hour of “set up.” Five minutes of “action.”

And that was how we played G.I. Joes.

Fast forward about a dozen or so years, and see me sitting in my boxer shorts at my computer in my tiny little home office, a window fan blowing on me, music playing from my little speakers, sweat pouring down my face and back. My wife is asleep upstairs. It’s about three in the morning in the middle of August, and there’s no relief, not from the heat, nor from the deadline for my creative thesis for graduate school.

And what am I typing away at so furiously? An anti-novel, a 360-page “set up” for a novel, but not a novel itself. I’m developing characters, giving them motivations, placing them in intriguing, highly-detailed settings, and surrounding them with a larger story having to do with the secession of Vermont from the United States.

But what am I not doing? I’m not writing the actual story of the secession. I’m hinting at it, imagining repercussions from its various stages, and predicting outcomes, but I’m not giving the reader any of that stuff. Instead, I’m spending hundreds of hours — HUNDREDS of hours — “setting up” a story, without giving any time to making the story “play out” for the reader. This is what I mean by an anti-novel: it’s all book, no story.

Fast forward again, to April of this year, when several students needed a staff member to play Dungeons & Dragons with them, and try to feel my excitement at the prospect of finally taking the time to play this really dorky game that I’d heard so much about but never had the wherewithal to actually play.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons is this kind of weird game where each player creates his or her own character by choosing a race (such as elves, gnomes, humans, halflings, etc.), and then giving it a class (such as wizard, fighter, bard, cleric, etc.). That character then becomes an “adventurer,” and gathered together with the other players, you all set out on some kind of quest.

The quest is run by the Dungeon Master, also known as the DM. The DM acts as the narrator for the quest. The DM also plays the roles of all the non-player characters in the story: from the innkeeper in the out-of-the way traveler’s lodge who can point the adventurers in the right direction or the evil wizard who is trying to open the magical gate that will set some hellish monster free.

So, this quarter, I got to play this game, Dungeons & Dragons, with Brandon, Damian, Dan, and Codi. We found a bunch of quests online that we could play, we printed them up, and then we got down to it. I was the Dungeon Master for our first quest, and I loved it. I was able to flex my fiction writing muscles a little bit as the students moved through the quest, making up descriptions and sound effects for all the various stages of the adventure. Unfortunately, all the characters got killed before they could finish the quest.

For our next quest, Dan took over as DM, and I created a character to join the others, a little gnomic bard named Wrenn Timbers. Over the next six weeks or so, our little band of adventurers completed two different quests, and with each success, our powers and abilities got stronger and stronger.

But now we’re at the end of the quarter, and our twice-weekly D&D game is going away (at least for a little while), and that makes me feel a little down. But our experiences this quarter have inspired me to try to build my own quest from scratch, and hopefully sometime this summer, our little band of adventurers will gather together once more to venture out into the wild to try to conquer the forces of evil.

What I love about Dungeons & Dragons is that, just like my G.I. Joes and just like the anti-novel I loved writing for graduate school, the process is all about setting up the scenario. It’s up to the DM to develop the world, create a series of potential plots, and put the various encounters in place, but then the DM takes step back and the characters take over.

The reason I’m talking about this though is because what I learned this quarter — or rather, what I was reminded of — is how important it is for me — how vital it is for me — to use my imagination in an active and creative way each day.

I mean, yes, I am an advisor here at LiHigh School, and I absolutely love my job, but in my heart, the thing I like to do most, the thing that makes me me, is to create wild and imaginative scenarios and then see how they play out. That might mean writing a fiction story, or designing a quest for D&D, or creating some kind of wild, school-based scenario where students can participate in a democratic system that gives them complete control of their own education — but whatever it is, it’s what I love to do, it’s what makes me me. And I want to thank Brandon, Codi, Damian, and Dan for helping me to remember that.

Thank you.