Monday, September 25, 2006

The Road to Redemption

Yesterday marks the start of the third week since my fall. I’m making some progress, small steps but definitely discernible to me. There is less pain when I stand and when I use the crutches it is as a second option now rather than a way to propel me because the left leg can’t bear weight. Actually, it can. Saturday night we had friends over for dinner. I felt unnatural and uncomfortable at first (one of the derivative problems is that I’m sitting so much that my tailbone hurts) so I spend more time than I’d like focusing on my own pain and I have to alter my posture in the wheelchair and that looks weird to others – “can I help you with something?” But we all seemed to adjust into our normal pace after a while and we had a nice dinner and good talk and then caught a few minutes of the third quarter with MSU putting a pasting on Notre Dame. (They are getting their just desserts since having been so highly rated before the season started.) Normal stuff, nothing exceptional to it at all, except in the way it gave me assurance that I and my family will get through this set back ok, not too much the worse for wear.

Some time last week, I had begun to ask myself how I might turn the accident into a strength and if so, how would I go about doing that? A couple of months ago I had posed a query to a philosopher of education friend of mine on use of the term “authentic” and whether it was appropriately used in the contexts in which I was reading it. (For example, Ken Bain uses the expression freely in his book about the best teachers.) The way this term has been used affected me much in the same way as I reacted the first time it was pointed out to me that many in the Midwest will ask, “Where’s it at?” rather than the better sounding to my ears, “Where is it?” In this case the gnawing question is: precisely who determines whether an activity aimed at promoting or assessing learning is authentic? Is it the learner? The teacher? How can a third party affirm or deny that an activity is authentic when the teacher does otherwise?

By coincidence, my friend’s belated response to this question arrived last week and he suggested looking at the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor. Almost immediately after getting this message from my friend, I dutifully do a Google Search on Charles Taylor. I find this WowEssays site on Taylor, not exactly the definitive source on the subject that I was looking for, but readable, as well as this book review by Michael Novak. While the second piece gives me more of a sense about what Taylor is really writing, it is the first piece that seems to more directly relate to my question about turning the accident into a strength. My take away message is clear to me – I’m spending too much time thinking about myself, wallowing in it so to speak. Sure, the writer should write about what he knows, what he is intimately acquainted with, where he is more likely to penetrate deeper. But Taylor seems to say that reality requires human interaction --- other people are a critical piece to the puzzle. Does the introspection ultimately lead outward? If not, it represents a shallow form of existence.

I’ve had some unusual dreams since the accident, I think partly induced by the pain medication. Armed with some of these “visions” and looking to the accident to signify something, I had a brief encounter with the question of whether this is my “opportunity” to embrace religion. I’m not comfortable with the question. So I ultimately dismiss it. Aferwards, I rationalize, perhaps a little more than rationalize, that embracing religion now would be giving in, defeatist, untrue to my self. If anything, I’ve been for reason and intelligent argument (and I've been a tacit atheist for years.) Whether I’m right about what I say is a different matter, but this entire blog is for reasoned argument. Now I’m having a bit of a tough time because of the accident. Do I throw that all away during a time of need and embrace something because the situation seems beyond me? That doesn’t seem right to me.

Then, on Saturday, I start to think about Ross Levy, a classmate from back in Bayside (Junior High and High School), not a particularly good friend, but somebody whom I played basketball with and hung out with a bit, along with some other kids. In previous posts I’ve characterized myself as a math nerd, and I was, but I also played a fair amount of stickball, basketball, and other ball (I was on the tennis team). I hung out with a different group of guys for that. Ross was one of those, a little squirrelly looking, but actually a pretty good basketball player. I remember in gym class watching him outplay somebody else who looked more athletic and was on the team. Ross was a fooler that way.

Ross wrote something in my high school yearbook that was a little different from the rest – let the warmth continue. I don’t know why he wrote that, but maybe he saw it as my essence. And maybe it is. What about becoming a champion for human warmth? It was a value that was quite important when I was growing up, something my parents really embraced, something codified in the Yiddish expression, “Be a mensch.” What if I could become an advocate for human warmth in teaching as the core value, whether with or without technology, an approach that both would be a tonic for the current alienation and nihilism and would bring me back to my roots?

So I began poking around in my recollections, looking for a way to define human warmth; it’s easy to know when you see it, but is there a way to communicate about it with our students in a way that they get the picture. I thought about having those students do team projects and invariably before the fact some of the students openly saying they didn’t like to work in teams, because they didn’t like slacker teammates to get credit for their own good efforts. While I understood the lament, I’ve never been comfortable with the students making that point. Might we get past all of that with an embrace of human warmth?

This is a case where mental pictures are better than textbook definitions. I thought about visiting my parents in their old age and infirmity where I’d just sit and hold their hand and then occasionally take the back side of my hand and place it along their cheek, so they literally could feel the human warmth, and watch the sense of comfort and joy that would appear in their face when I did that, evidence to me that it wasn’t so usual a feeling for them at that point in their lives.

Then I thought about the film, The Apartment, with Jack Lemon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred McMurray. The Jack Lemon character goes through a transformation in the film – from an over ambitious corporate climber to someone who genuinely cares about another who is down and out, and it is this notion of personal transformation that would be good for our students to confront –do they see themselves at all in the Lemon role pre-transformation, is such a personal transformation needed, and can it happen without the dire circumstances that underlie the story in the movie? I was surprised when I did the search on it that The Apartment had won 5 Academy Awards. I wonder how students today would react to that film.

I don’t yet have a plan of attack for how to project human warmth in teaching. I only know that nowadays we are prone toward over indulgence. So it has to be there, and it has to be real enough, but it has to be done in a light way, paprika yes, sour cream no. In other words, a big yes for thougthful and senitive response to others, especially when they are struggling, but a big no to throughtless sentimentality. That makes things worse. Let’s see if we can make a bit of progress on this front. Any suggestions on how to proceed would be appreciated.

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