Monday, November 03, 2014

How well does my dad's morality hold up?

This happened a week or two ago,  but definitely on the weekend.  I went for a walk, nothing surprising there.  Inadvertently, I broke with my routine slightly.  I forgot to bring my keys and my wallet.  Therefore I didn't lock the front door.  When I'm going for a walk during the work week, I always lock the house on my way out as nobody else is home.  I take my wallet along with my keys, partly in case I want to stop for a coffee en route, and partly because if I put my wallet on top of my keys I feel more certain that the keys won't accidentally fall out of my pocket.  This time, however, I spaced out on the normal routine.  It only occurred to me after I had gone a couple of blocks.  Then I asked myself whether I should return home to get the keys and wallet.  I decided against doing that.  I'm somebody with a strong sense of inertia.  I needed the walk and was afraid that if I returned home prematurely I'd stay there the rest of the afternoon and wouldn't get the walk in.  I assured myself that either my wife or my son would be home on my return from the full walk, so I wouldn't be locked out of the house.  On this I subsequently was proven correct.

Something unusual happened as I was walking north on Duncan near Kirby where the County Market is.  There was a man standing near the driveway, not moving much if at all, casting an odd figure.  He was heavy set and a little bit hunched over.  As I got closer I saw he had a cardboard sign.  It said, "Will work for food."  When I'm walking outside I've got my iPhone in my left pocket and listen to Spotify or Pandora with my Bose earbuds that are plugged into the phone.  I can still hear street noise this way, but to talk to somebody I have to take the earbuds out of my ears.  In this case, I just walked by the guy without saying a word.  I'd have given him twenty bucks then and there if I had my wallet, a bit of me is still a bleeding heart, but I didn't.  What else was there to do?

My path has me go to the outside of the McDonald's that is west of the bank on the corner and north of the County Market.  I often sit on the stone benches for a couple of minutes, sometimes changing the music I'm listening to and then checking email.  If the arthritis is bothering me, this gives a little break from that. Once done I return on the route I came.  The guy was still there on the return trip.  Like before, I walked past him and didn't say a word.  I should add here by means of explanation, that I make a point of waving or saying hello when I see other people walking in the opposite direction.  Most of them do likewise.  But with this guy I just walk past him without any acknowledgement whatsoever.  It has bothered me ever since.

On occasion when driving around Champaign you see other people whom you assume are homeless or, if not that, then certainly out of work.  One spot where I've seen this multiple times is on the exit ramp off I-74 heading toward Prospect.  Another place I've seen this is in the shopping mall where the Barnes and Noble and Bed, Bath, and Beyond are located.  I've never opened my window to give these people a few bucks.  My visceral reaction at the time is discomfort, not empathy.

Some years ago there was a Black guy who hung around Campustown, usually I'd see him on Daniels Street near the Espresso.  When you'd walk buy him, he'd be sitting on the sidewalk leaning up against a storefront, he would invariably say, "Spare anything?"  Early on in observing this, I'd give him a buck each time I walked by.  After a few years I "learned" to adjust my route to avoid him.

At around Christmas time I'd make a donation to the Men's shelter, which at the time was located in the basement of the McKinley Foundation.  My reasons for doing this was that the guy who ran the shelter had performed our wedding, so this was done primarily out of gratitude to him.  After several years of making such donations, I stopped.  It wasn't a conscious decision to stop.  It was more not remembering to do it.  Subsequently, the McKinley Foundation building got converted to student housing.  If there is still a Men's shelter in town I don't know where it is located.

Nowadays it seems most solicitations for giving come over the phone and then some by email too.  Given the high volume of these requests, this has become for me a certain variant of spam.  Once in a while a friend or relative is doing something as part of a fundraiser - for example, my sister does a walk in Manhattan to raise money for diabetes research - my dad was a severe diabetic.  For that I give something.  Likewise I give when the neighbor kid knocks on the door and is selling something.  But the frequency of this seems to be increasing.  That bothers me.  I care not about the causes for the fund raising.  I just don't want to be thought of as a bad neighbor.

The only time in the last few years where I have given a lot, and in a case where the money wasn't solicited at all, was to my mother's care giver who was struggling to keep her home, which had an underwater mortgage.  She had done such yeoman's service in tending to my mom, I felt this giving was an imperative.  Before I wrote the check I asked my wife about it.  She supported me in doing it.

So I am not completely callous in this regard.  But I've opted to turn a deaf ear to much of it.  And part of what bothers me is that it is uncomfortably close in consequence to what Tea Party types argue.  The poor are not deserving because they don't try hard enough.  I know this is not true.  Yet I can understand why one wants to believe it is true.  For if it were true then one need not feel guilty about not being charitable to the poor. 

I have those guilt feelings.  In my head, the ideal solution to the problem is that much of what we consider to be private charitable giving should instead be public programs financed by tax dollars.  People like me would pay more in tax, which we would understand is our obligation.  A good chunk of these asks for "worthy causes" would go away.  But we are far from that ideal and the issue of what to do given that I find vexing.  This is the set up for the rest of the stuff I write below.

* * * * *

My dad passed away more than fifteen years ago.  Much of him is in me in some form.  And some of that is my dad's ethical outlook, reflected not in any formal training or religious observance. but rather in the ordinary give and take of daily life.

I will focus on two ideas, dare I call them principles, that have served as a guide for me but leave some questions unresolved that I want to broach here.  They come from different junctures of my time with my dad.

The first comes from when I was a kid and my dad would play street football with me and my friends on a Saturday afternoon.  I've written about this before.  The game was association football, a variant of touch football that had only one down per side, allowed for forward laterals, and only required one hand to touch.  We kids were of different ages and different skills.  When a younger or less skilled player was at quarterback, my dad would invariably say, "Give him a chance."  In other words, if you were on defense then don't rush the passer and make a tag before the play has really started.  I have taken "Give him a chance" as an imperative as an adult, most recently applying it to my teaching in one form or another.

The second comes from when I was a working adult and my parents had moved to Century Village West, a very large condominium community for retirees, most of whom are Jewish.  We referred to the men who lived there as AKs, my dad included.  This bit of philosophy is how the world seems from the perspective of an AK.  My dad divided the adult non-retired population into two groups.  Most were in the first group, SHs.  (My dad would say the SH word out in long form.  I'm using initials here only because I'd prefer not to write an expletive repeatedly in this post.)  These people were SHs because they cared about themselves only and were quite willing to screw others for personal benefit.  The much smaller group were human beings (or in Yiddish mensches).  When I would visit my parents in Century Village I would completely surrender myself to their rhythms and ways of doing things, the only way I knew that we'd all get along.  Being a mensch meant you did whatever it took to get along.  In this case the ethical imploration was, don't be an SH.

To implement either of these ideas in practice, one needs a certain amount of sensitivity as means to perceive the need.  Armed with such sensitivity, give-him-a-chance and don't-be-an-SH have some bite for identifying and then supplying the response that is required.  Absent that sensitivity, you can have the good intentions but remain ineffective, as a host of opportunities slip through one's fingers.

When you give cash for a cause you really have no idea of what happens to the money thereafter.  You give while trusting that it will be put to good use.  But you don't know and life is too short for you to try to monitor the situation to determine otherwise.  So I've come to conclude that much of the giving one does should be in kind and done in the context of work.  Then the needed sensitivity arises as part and parcel of doing the job.  I relish working in a collegial environment.  When I was a campus administrator, I could express the give-him-a-chance type of collegiality particularly with junior colleagues, who might not have been plugged into the people network fully and needed some point of entry to take the next step up.  Providing that was a very little thing.  It didn't require much in the way of effort nor did it create any recognition for me whatsoever apart from the person who was being introduced to the group. For the rest, it just seemed part of the natural order.

Likewise, helping a student in a class I'm teaching, one who is evidently struggling but who would not seek out help on his own accord, is no big deal.  And afterwards, at least in some instances, one can see the kid's trajectory in the class change from a borderline pass to becoming a reasonable performer.  Here I want to point out that I limit offering such help to students who come to class most of the time.  For those who don't come after the first week or two, it remains sink or swim for them.  I am aware they are struggling too, but just as with the homeless whom I don't give cash to, I don't open my figurative window to the students who stop coming to class.  Does this make sense?  I can see arguments for and against. I've only reached a tentative conclusion.  For now, the kids who don't show up in class are out.

It remains a mystery to me as to what determines the circle I draw for when people are inside the circle I'm sensitive to their needs but when they are outside it I am not.  People for whom everyone on the planet remains inside their circles are saints.  People for whom the only ones in their circles are themselves are SHs.  The rest of us are somewhere in between.  As an economist I can see the following question has merit, at least in its posing.  When is drawing the circle larger a mistake because it means those within the circle get less attention than they need?  It is a consideration in what I do even though I don't have a sharp answer to the question.

* * * * **

I still haven't finished Excellent Sheep.  I hope to do so in the next day or two  I got stuck, again.  This time it was in the chapter on courage, exemplified by the protagonist of the book Middlemarch and the life of its author, George Elliot.  Both followed their own inclinations and went against the tenets of the time rather than follow the herd.  They did this on the big choices in life and thereby served as exemplar for Deresiewicz as to what courage is all about.  The person makes the choices.  The person doesn't surrender these choices to others - parents or others in the community.  Indeed the person has to stop listening to these others so that the person can hear her own voice.

This is strong stuff, though not surprising in a book aimed at college students that accuses them in its title of denying their own voices so to please others.  Surprise or not, the question for me is whether it is good advice for these kids.  I'm not sure it is.  And as is my wont in reading something where my doubt is raised immediately with the reading, I start in search of counterexamples to see if I can poke a hole or two in the argument.

My first thought was about those few kids I see around campus who have odd colored hair - blue, or green, or a shade of red that is surely not natural, dyed that way so others will take notice and bring attention onto themselves.  Most of us have at least some of the "Look at me" in us.  Wouldn't this admonition to have courage create the inadvertent consequence of students doing variants on the loud hair color, which I hope does eventually wash out or fade out and is otherwise of no real consequence, rather than take on choices that are far more substantive but far less visible?

Then, a few days ago sitting in BIF drinking my coffee and eating my sweet roll, with my Kindle Fire out so I could try to read more of Excellent Sheep, I got distracted by the table next to me where what seemed like a job interview was being conducted.  You could cut the pretension with a knife.  It seemed so awkward to me - shameless selling of self.  Presumably this was an example of what Deresiewicz argues against.  I knew neither the kid nor the interviewer.  So I had no way of knowing how they are when not in interview mode.  But I have a student like that in my class, one of the kids who is struggling, and I have met him for office hours a couple of times to try to clear up his misunderstandings of some of the technical content in my class.  Those conversations have to proceed for a while till he gets out of putting-on-a-show mode and is relaxed enough to be himself and explain his points of misunderstanding.  Doing so doesn't make him seem like the best and the brightest, but it does make him seem more human and far less robotic.  Give a person like this encouragement to be courageous and I'm afraid you'd never get him to abandon his mask.

The most recent argument that's occurred to me is that such blunt advice to be courageous might turn some kids into SHs when they'd otherwise likely become decent human beings.  The part about not listening to others here is particularly troubling.  So I wondered whether human decency as an imperative should precede courage and the latter should flow out of the former, not vice versa.  Further, I wondered for the very bright but also very shy kid if the advice to be be courageous and follow your own voice would invariably result in self-inflicted wounds. because this would force large choices on the kid before the kid is ready for them, and there would be instances where the kid would have to argue against the path chosen to please others (friends and/or parents).  It seemed to me those times would end up tormenting the kid so as to fully unravel the benefits from making the choice.

In other words, given the goals Deresiewicz has articulated in Excellent Sheep, might it be that his argument is being wrecked by good intentions and would actually make more sense if he didn't feel the need to make the alternative path he'd like to see the students follow seem so heroic?  A retort to that question might be that in the absence of a heroic alternative, why would the students abandon the mercenary path they are currently on?  Isn't it necessary to paint the alternative path by appealing to the students' highest ideals?

My response is based on how Deresiewicz characterizes these kids at the beginning of the book.  They are not happy at all, because nothing they are doing feels real to them.    In my opinion they don't need ideals, which at first will feel just as unreal.  They need human warmth.  The need to receive it and they need to give it and see the consequences of that.  Preferably they do this a lot, before they make life decisions for which previously they had no basis in making.

In my view my dad's morality, schlock though it may be, is the ticket.  I wonder if anyone else who has read Excellent Sheep would agree.

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