There’s More To Sex Ed Than Just Sex

How do you teach 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys not to objectify women?

I suspect the answer lies in empathy. You have to get them to understand what it feels like to become an object. That’s the only thing that would work. They’d have to step outside of their own lust and imagine being the unwilling object of that lust.

But you couldn’t approach something like that head on; they’d  laugh you out of the room. You couldn’t approach it from a perspective of media criticism either, because the concept would be too abstract for them to grasp it. You’d have to come at it on the sly, sneak it in under the cover of something else.

The something else couldn’t be academic, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones whose ignorant state of objectifying women could eventually lead to the criminal stage of assaulting them.

An easy answer is literature and film, since the best lessons are often communicated in the language of story — but again, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones who don’t read and who can’t sit still long enough to watch a whole movie.

So what is the hard answer? How do you teach 14, 15, and 16 year old boys not to objectify women?

Is it the kind of job that requires a woman to lead it, or maybe two women in tandem, or maybe a combination of the sexes, one to speak from the experience of the object and the other from the experience of the objectifier?

And if, for want of the students’ maturity, you can’t approach it head on, then how best to approach it?

Or maybe, in this instance, you just have to push past the maturity question and treat the subject as honestly as you’d treat math. Not by hiding it in something else, but by saying, straight up, “We’re going to talk about objectifying women,” and let the conversation go as it may, immaturity and all, until you finally get enough buy in on the seriousness of the topic that even a 14, 15, or 16-year-old boy will know enough to pay attention.

One out of every six women in America will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Nearly one in every two women will be the victim of some kind of sexual assault other than rape in her lifetime. Nearly 25% of rape perpetrators are under the age of 20.

This part of a young man’s education matters. And because it affects the way the person treats 50% of the world’s population, maybe it matters more than most other elements of their education.

If we’re to stop the violence on women, we need to do it by curing the systemic causes in our 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys. They are tomorrow’s college students and criminals, and they need to understand the difference between biological lust and the interpersonal violence that comes from sexual objectification.

It’s too important to leave out.

Freedom Isn’t Easy

I could tell you a lot of cool things about my school, but yesterday, the sheriff’s department escorted one of our students out of our school in handcuffs; and earlier this year, one of our former students (who had dropped out) was shot in the head while sitting in a parked car at two in the morning; and one of the people in the car when the gun went off was also a former student, and he went to prison soon after because, by being in the car that night, he violated his parole; and earlier last year, two other former students were accused (though not convicted) of stealing from their employers, with each incident independent from the other.

No matter how cool our school might be, the truth is that we attract some difficult kids, and while we try to provide them with every opportunity to take control of their education and, in the process, gain control of their lives, too many of them find the freedom too difficult to handle.

One of my students told me yesterday that they feel like they’re living in a role-playing game because even for the simplest of decisions, they sometimes roll a die to decide what they should do. When the student told me this, they were thinking of episodes in their life where they actually, physically rolled a six-sided die, but they were not connecting this anecdote to their immediate reality, wherein they were seated on the floor, consulting a new-age ripoff of Tarot cards for insight into their current predicament. They honestly didn’t see a connection between their inability to make simple decisions and their desire to seek out answers to life’s problems in a deck of commercially produced and professionally marketed cards.

Earlier in the class, for reasons I don’t need to go into, I found myself having to explain to this same student the market forces that lead to SPAM phone calls and emails, a conversation that resulted in the student returning a SPAM phone call they had received earlier in the day to demand an answer from the telemarketer as to how her company acquired the student’s phone number. The conversation did not go well; my student was being earnest and the telemarketer refused to budge from her script, leading me to have to provide explicit instructions as to how and why my student should simply hang up the phone, regardless of whether the telemarketer was done speaking on the other end.

All of which is to say that most of the students who come to my school have difficulty with the simplest things. It’s not that they are dumb — in fact, most of the kids I work with are incredibly bright — it’s that some simple but important things about living in society do not click into place for them like they do for you and me. They just don’t get it, and unfortunately, some of them never will.

We designed our school for one mission: to provide every student, regardless of their abilities, with the opportunity to be interested and engaged in their own education (including their social-emotional education). But so many of our students come to us without being interested or engaged in anything beyond their own drama, or what’s worse, their own trauma, which makes them unable to stay out of their own way.

Our tactic to overcome this is both simple and incredibly hard: We try to make them feel safe. At bottom, that means safe not just from something, but also to become something. The kids who come to us have rarely heard an encouraging word; they’ve been told they are worthless, and in some cases, they’ve been abandoned by their dearest family members, literally left alone in the world with no one to protect or care for them.

It’s no wonder they have trouble making decisions. They have zero self-confidence, and so they don’t trust themselves. Every decision they’ve ever made has led them to where they are now: kicked out of almost every school they’ve ever attended — some residential, some not, some institutional, some not — told that they don’t belong, told to get out, told that they’re a freak of some kind. Their parents, if they’re around, are rarely worth much, and what they are worth is often compounded with negative interest in their kids, which can often mean verbal, physical, or sometimes even sexual abuse, resulting in the child experiencing incredible pain and suffering at the hands of the people society tells them are supposed to love them more than anyone.

Why would they trust themselves? Why would they trust anyone?

And then we come along, offering these students with incredibly acute social-emotional needs a true progressive model of education — one that is student-centered and student-driven, where they’re asked not to do as they’re told but, instead, to do as they think they ought to.

What do we expect will happen? That they’ll all start singing kumbaya, and butterflies will descend from the heavens, and within days, they’ll each be as happy and as engaged as the students on a college brochure?

No. What we expect to happen is what happened today. One student will be escorted from the building in handcuffs. Another will have such an emotional crisis that they will collapse to the ground shaking and in tears. Another will scream so loud on the drive to school that their driver will have an actual panic attack in the car and be unable to feel her hands and feet. Another will refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, choosing instead to physically wrestle with their teacher. Still others will actively avoid your best advice and refuse to work on the projects they need to exhibit publicly in just over two weeks.

Trying to give kids conscious and moral control over their freedom is a struggle. It’s a real struggle.

Thankfully, I’ve had enough days that were the complete opposite of yesterday to know that, with most kids, the struggle is worth it.

And so while I should expect days like today, I should also be ready to celebrate success whenever I can find it. Like the fact that yesterday two of my students donated their time to complete the duties of a staff member who had to leave early due to a family emergency. Or the fact that the day before, one of my students consulted with a professional in the student’s field of interest to verify the quality of their homework, and the student did so with only the most minimal of supports. Or the fact that, earlier in the week, another of my students, despite being incredibly tired and out of sorts and despite having a history of verbal diarrhea, found enough self-control to be respectful with their peers, their teachers, and the public for longer than I thought possible.

All of them did those things not because they were told to, but because, as free thinkers, it was what they thought they ought to do.

Some days are a struggle. But the struggle really is worth it.

A Serious Mistake

I had a moment with a student this week. It was early in the morning, and this student was not feeling up to it. I entered the classroom and already I could tell that something was wrong.

But for some reason, I didn’t do anything to help him. I was in my own head, feeling self-important as I entered the room and focused on my own agenda for how the next sixty minutes would go. While I saw him and knew something was wrong, I did not let that deter me from accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.

In my school, teachers share classrooms. While we are a one-to-one school, very few of our blocks are truly one-to-one. Even if we have one staff member assigned to one student, we often group students and staff together in the same space, even when they’re not working on the same subject. This allows the students and the staff to play off of each other in fruitful and often serendipitous ways.

So that morning, as I entered the classroom, I saw this student having a real problem, but he wasn’t my student for the next sixty minutes, so I passed him by and moved on to what I imagined my responsibilities were for that block, a combination of administrative obligations and student supervision (not teaching, per se, but supervision; my assigned student works independently that block). There were two other teachers in this shared space, so I assumed he was one of theirs, and hence, his problem was their problem.

About twenty minutes later, I noticed that the student was still sitting there, without any adult’s undivided attention, so I asked him, “Hey, who are you supposed to be with this block?” He looked up at me and said, “You.”

And then it hit me: he was absolutely right. It’s just that, until this day, he had worked side by side with the student who was working independently, and so I forgot he was assigned to me. And then, on this day, when it really mattered, I wasn’t there for him.

As soon as I realized my mistake, I immediately left behind every obligation I imagined I had and sat down with this student, made direct and clear eye contact with him, and asked him what was going on. Within moments, he had tears in his eyes, and for the next 30 minutes, we just talked. We didn’t talk about the problem directly (he doesn’t yet trust me enough for that), but we did talk about something else that was bothering him, and by helping him process that more minor problem, I believe I helped him talk about the real problem later on in the day with our school counselor (not to take anything away from the incredible skills of our school counselor, who is perhaps one of the most analytical and yet most present listeners I’ve ever met).

But that’s not the point. It’s not about the twenty minutes he and I spent together, having what I felt to be a meaningful conversation; it’s about the 35 minutes before that, when I told him with every fiber of my being that he didn’t matter (not enough for me to stop focusing on my goals anyway).

Unfortunately, at my school, there’s really only one thing our boss completely expects from us (most staff members have other obligations, but this is the big one), and that’s to be present with the kids we are assigned to. When a staff member is having an issue connecting with one of our kids, they can blame whoever does the schedule, but I’m the guy who does the schedule, so there’s no one left to blame but myself. In my capacity as the scheduler, I chose this student for this block; I knowingly committed myself to him; and that day, I forgot he was mine.

As I said, I didn’t solve my student’s underlying problem that day. And the truth is, I’ll never be able to. It’s a systemic problem that originates in the home, is diffused and exacerbated by society, and spilled onto the floor for everyone else to deal with. It’s the problem of being (or at least feeling like) an unwanted child.

Most of the students in my school have come to us as the last stop. There really isn’t anything after us except a bed in a state-run institution, and there’s not always enough beds. They’ve been told by almost every single adult they’ve ever interacted with that they’re not wanted. Many of them are in some kind of foster care, or living with non-parental relatives, or shuttled off into quasi- or state-paid-for apartments. They’ve been kicked out of every school they’ve ever attended, and sometimes they’ve even been kicked out of other schools like ours.

We are the last stop, and when they don’t make it with us, the next stop might not just be a state-run institution; it might actually be death.

I’m not trained to handle that kind of responsibility. But honestly, who is?

You might think, “Um….psychiatrists? psychologists?…you know…doctors?”

Okay, fine. But do you know how much doctors get paid? How much are you willing to pay in your taxes for some other kid’s education? Would it be enough to pay for a school full of doctors? And just one school or two? What about seven? What about 250? What about 98,271?

Until society decides to pay teachers like doctors (or pay doctors to be teachers), who are we willing to pay to be present with those kids whose next step might include a noose, or even worse, holding a loaded machine gun?

Me. That’s who.

You’re willing to pay me.

An adult who sometimes forgets what kid he’s assigned to. But also an adult who is willing, every single day, to sit down with any troubled young person and ask, with all my heart, “What’s going on?”

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.