Sunday, October 08, 2006

Stretching It

My physical therapist has prescribed certain exercises for me to rehab my left leg. I do quadriceps squeezes – 15 in a row, hold for a count of 3 and then release for a count of 3 – and leg lifts, up, 2, 3, down, 2, 3, rest, 2, 3, and again, repeated 14 more times. There was pain with the leg lifts at the beginning. Now there is a less. Doing these exercises, I’m well within myself. I can see the leg getting stronger as a consequence.

I have one other type of exercise, one that I really don’t like, but it’s obviously necessary. The brace I’m wearing has a hinge at the knee. The hinge can be locked, more stability for me, or left open, so the leg can flex at the knee. One can set the maximum angle of flex. When I started that was 45 degrees. Now I’m up to 60 degrees. Getting there hurts and I do it in small steps. Then tendons, which were what got repaired surgically, get a real stretch, and likewise for other muscles around the knee. Unfortunately, it hurts, especially at the beginning. So I shied away from this exercise for while. But I can see the flexing of the leg is the crucial ability that I need to return to function as a normal person (drive a car, go to work, sit in a regular chair, etc.). So now I’m “stretching myself” to stretch my tendons and muscles. In this sense, I’m a highly motivated learner. Progress feeds that motivation. Today I was able to get into my Aztek and drive a bit. Eurkea!!

It occurred to me to use this idea as a metaphor for other learning. And then I thought I had come almost full circle, because when I started to teach Economics, back in the fall of 1980, I thought my role as teacher was to get the students to really stretch in their thinking. But in the main they didn’t share that perception, at least not with the economic modeling, and I was likely not sufficiently gentle with them to get them to do it willingly. My physical therapist adjusts the exercise according to whether I have a lot of pain or not. But as I said, I’m a motivated learner in this regard and he can see my progress. Being gentle in the role of teacher is harder to do if there is a perception that the students aren’t trying.

I thought that might offer the theme for this piece, but I don’t’ have a lot to say on that issue now. I’ll come back to it in a later post when I’ve got more to contribute on the question. I do think there is an important concern about whether, as we let our students drive their own learning, we are properly encouraging our students to stretch themselves. But I’ll set that aside. Here I want to talk on a more personal note, about stretching myself intellectually, and identifying the pain points in the process.

I held off writing this post for almost a week, because I didn’t know in what dimension I could focus that would get at my own issues and say something of value. In the past, I’ve written about stretching it with the writing and I didn’t want to offer up the same old thing this time around. Then this morning, after reading what I thought was an awful column by David Brooks about why the Mets won’t win the World Series (I’m a Yankee fan, enough of a reason to feel grumpy today) and then taking a walk around the park, using only one crutch instead of two and hence enabling me to go more than twice as far as I was able to the last time I took a walk, it occurred to me that I had found my theme.

And that theme is attributable to the same David Brooks, whom on the News Hour last Friday made what I thought was an insightful and telling comment about the Mark Foley case. Namely that the case has the potential to be political dynamite because what happened with Foley, if it were thought to be a commonplace or even had potential to be a commonplace, would strike terror into all parents who have teenage kids, who when not at school may very well be IM-ing with folks like Foley, apparently respectable but with an unsavory, indeed frightening hidden side. And, this feeling of wanting to protect our children from such solicitation is not, in essence, of the Religious Right but rather a natural instinct as parents. In that sense, it’s universal.

It occurred to me during my walk that these feelings as a parent are at odds with my views as an educator and advocate for online learning, where I’m on record as encouraging students to publish their work openly on the Web and equally to get instructors to make their course open by showcasing student work. and if I wanted to stretch myself, I’d have to reconcile my views. Self-contradictions hurt (for example, has my view about DOPA changed in light of Foley?) and I for one have the ability to compartmentalize my life in such a way that the self-contradictions are not so readily apparent. (I’m sure this is ordinary adult behavior, especially among baby boomers like me who as young adults lived according to a different ethic than they live today, and who at present likely need less rather than more stress in their lives.) Let’s deliberately experience the hurt now and see where it takes us.

I should note now that neither of my boys (12 and 14) does IM or email at present, and I have certainly not encouraged them in this direction, though the younger one has been lobbying me and my wife for a laptop of his own (so he doesn’t have to share the home computer) and I had to get the older one a Gmail account (any email account would have done ok) as a condition for him to participate in the Marching Band at school (but I didn’t understand why this requirement was there). Also, let me report that at our old house where we did dialup and used Earthlink (especially when the Campus dialup was busy) I set up those parental controls to block access to content for the kids, but I found that clunky and hard to work with, impeding my own account on the computer. Perhaps I need to look at that sort of thing again. Right now, however, I don’t view it as the solution.

You might ask, the solution to what? The answer, of course, is to provide a safe and comfortable environment for the family. Let the kids learn about the hard realities, but let that happen later when they have matured a bit and have better coping skills. Innocence lost can’t be regained. And when those hard realities come too early, they can create wounds; wounds that don’t heal quickly; wounds that leave big scars. The kids have their own issues to deal with; mostly about dealing with other kids. They are not leading a completely sheltered existence. What is wrong with buffering their world from some of the more egregious forms of abuse?

Of course there is a substantial age difference between my own kids and the kids I taught in my Campus Honors class last spring, a four or five year age difference, maybe more. And sure enough, the kids I taught were not mine. I worried about whether they learned economics. I didn’t worry about their social life and possible awkward experiences they may have had, though some of them wore their emotions on their sleeve more than I would have, one explaining he had a fight with his girlfriend the night before and consequently hadn’t gotten any sleep.

The boundaries between these kids and mine are there, certainly, but the boundaries are fuzzy. I would not know where to draw the line if I had to. Perhaps there is some solace in the observation that being open about their academic work is an unlikely path into their personal life. Facebook offers a more ready route for that purpose, one reason the students themselves have embraced that environment. But this seems to me like rationalization, not strong argument.

The University does protect the students from themselves, particularly with their (excessive) drinking. I couldn’t imagine otherwise. Perhaps the University has some responsibility to protect these kids from more overt threats of solicitation and predation, some of which are online. Sure the University is for the free exchange of ideas. That is the mantra, the bread and butter. But what about loco parentis? Isn’t that an obligation too?

So one side of me, driven by a concern for my own children’s welfare, sees a certain logic in DOPA, although it clearly would be better if the kids had more common sense themselves. But, often, they don’t. That’s the reality. And the question is what to do then.

I got that argument out. It’s an argument that part of me can see. But it’s not an argument I can entirely embrace. It’s an argument that is rooted fundamentally in despair, running away from one’s fears. We live that way sometimes, I admit. Given a choice, however, we should not let it be a permanent condition. We need an alternative that offers hope, personal growth and social value. Having the virtual equivalent of gated communities doesn’t do that. Openness does.

And sensing that, one might think at this point in the essay I’d entirely reject an attempt to make a hermetic environment online and instead embrace openness without reservation. But as I sit here typing this document, my left leg is flexed in a more normal pose, yet one that is still painful for me. I feel the hurt as well as see the promise of my improved mobility in the future. Stretching it means there is both.

We talk in ideological terms about these issues, a purity that belies the underlying ambiguity. I would like to advocate for an approach, yet recognize the ambiguity as well, an admission that an alternative is possible. It is my usual style to make some arguments on both sides. But with that, I normally do take a side. It’s just that in this case I take a different one as parent than I do as educator.


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