Whose responsibility is it?

February 25, 2012

Prompted or inspired by Edmundson, several of you in your last writing responses talked about how little true or real education is taking place right here at Berry; how, instead, so many, faculty included, are so focused on job training and credentials, that perhaps collectively we are circumventing or otherwise avoiding the hard work and, for lack of a better word, messiness of real education. Many of you very wisely determined, then, that a big part of the responsibility for education is your own, a determination supported by — and screamed for — by Wayne Booth.

With these thoughts in mind, I’d love to hear more from the class on these questions:

  • How much of your education — the real kind, the kind that enables you to be, do and pursue good, to distinguish Reason from rubbish — is your own responsibility, and how much of it is someone else’s, like the professor or the College or whoever? What does this look like in everyday college life?
  • And when hardship comes, as it inevitably will, what is the best or at least a good response? What will you do with difficulty? What should you do? What do you surrender or avoid when you cut and run, or deny or repress the hardship, difficulty or challenge?

I am extremely interested in your thoughts on these ideas. You guys are a special group, and becoming more special every day. I can see it in your writing. So keep straining toward the light.

Deadline: Before you leave for Spring Break.


Two more student essays: Chelsea’s and Micah’s

February 13, 2012

Chelsea: The Truth Will Set Me Free

Booth presented a lot of really interesting arguments about education and freedom. He explains that college is not necessarily the best place to really learn because it’s so based on vocational training and social climbing. Part of learning is understanding people’s meanings, finding out what other people believe and how they live their lives based on those beliefs. This understanding is hard to achieve in school, but I’ve done a lot of real learning outside of school. One of the places that has been the most educational for me is the Dominican Republic (DR).

I have spent the last four summers traveling to the DR on mission trips. While there I have learned more Spanish and confidence in speaking it than in all of my years of Spanish classes in school. I’ve also learned more about people than in any psychology class and more about God than in any religion class. People who lived in nothing more than shacks invited me into their homes to share their scarce food with them. They offered me the best that they had simply to shower love and blessing on me. They served me like no others have served me before, and in being served I learned what it really means to be a servant. I sat in the floor of an orphanage and held a tiny boy named Joan whose body was so broken and his mind was so trapped but I learned from that quiet thirty minutes more about God’s strength and His overwhelming love for His children than I have learned in my entire life up to this point. I can’t even explain how much I have learned and freed my mind, to use Booth’s definition, from spending only two weeks in a village and never even entering a classroom or opening a textbook.

The Dominican Republic and her people also taught me a lot about truth. Just like Plato illustrated in his allegory of the cave, it’s often a lot easier to live with lies than with truth. He talks about the man who was able to escape the cave, experience reality, and then returned only to find his fellow prisoners trying to kill him for telling them the uncomfortable truth that the place they lived was only a shadow of the real world.

This scenario is really applicable in today’s culture, and I’ve experienced it first hand in the DR. It would be so much easier to live our comfortable lives in the U.S. than to realize that there are destitute and starving people living in the dirt, that there are people who throw their children in the garbage (literally) because they have disabilities. It would be easier to ignore the fact that young women are sold into the sex trade every day, and that men come specifically to places like the Dominican Republic to participate in it.

The problem is, once we learn truths about the brokenness of the world, it’s impossible to go on ignoring them. When we learn hard truths it’s difficult to share them with others because people don’t want to have to feel responsible for truth, to learn things that disturb their perfect lives.

I don’t want to live a comfortable life. I don’t want to hide from truth just because it’s hard to handle sometimes. I want to “attack my ignorance” like Malcolm X. He spent time reading and learning other people’s beliefs and truths about the world so he could figure out what it meant and reconstruct those truths in his life in order to find freedom. I too spend time reading, listening, and watching so that I can learn and walk in the truth I discover. I want to know the things other people don’t necessarily want to know, things that are painful and hard and beautiful and incomprehensible. I want to know why people believe and behave the way they do. I want to know God and follow His way. I want to experience His reality and then bring others out from their caves of lies no matter how difficult it is. I want to be truly free – the way God created us to be.

Micah: Unnatural skills

Wayne Booth proposes four “R’s” that are vital to the liberation of the mind.  He states that in order to be actually, intellectually free to make any choice, we must first be informed and educated, otherwise our choice exists only as illusion; unless a liberal education in its literal sense makes us analytical and critical enough to think well, we can only pursue causes and passions based on our whims.  Booth identifies the tenants to a liberating education as Recovery of meaning, Rejection of falsehood, Representation of ideas, and Revolution of thinking.

Recovery is not the first facet of education by mistake.  It is foundational to the pursuit of intellectual, intangible liberty, and it is the aspect of education most susceptible to attack, in my generation even more so than in Booth’s.

In order to free our minds to make intelligent decisions, we must be able to understand what our choices are.  In a world where wars are fought to win minds, we must be able to perceive, to identify with and truly comprehend the causes we are being called to.  What Booth calls the “recovery of meaning” I understand to be the development of the skill called “listening”.  When a man presents an argument, when a cause calls for our support, when a movement makes its intentions known, we are only equipped and freed to invest and devote ourselves if we have cultivated the skill of taking in and understanding what we are being taught.

I use words such as “development” and “cultivate” because this skill does not grow naturally.  Rather, as Booth points out, the natural man tends to understand intimately just how much of an imbecile his neighbor is.  Each of us must fight against the tendency to understand our own selves (ideas, thoughts, emotions, etc.) as the noblest and wisest selves against which the rest of our race ought to compare itself.  That tendency appears within us subtly.  Rarely are we possessed of such arrogance to give words to the notion that others probably exist in some lesser, smaller sense, but the self-centered inclination is still there.  That is why Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is so readily embraced in word and so rarely enacted in deed.

That is why in this season of political campaigning it is so easy to find people entirely eager to demonize and blame all of our national ills on a contrary political opinion and its adherents.  This willingness to cast aside ideas as worthless without truly investing in and comprehending them must be combatted in order to win freedom.  That training of the mind to understand, that combat against our natural tendency towards immediate dismissal is what Malcolm X referenced as “attacking your ignorance” by seeking understanding.

In Booth’s society, and frightfully more so in ours, the recovery of meaning, intentional understanding, is cast away as a remnant from a backward educational past as opposed to the hope for mental liberation.  Our age of massive, overwhelming waves of information referred to often as “the internet” wipes away the immediacy of our need to truly comprehend and seek meaning.  There is so much information available, so much quantity, that the most natural thing to do is to withdraw entirely and passively drink from the infinitely wide and insipidly shallow streams of information.  Acceptance without question leads to the simultaneous adherence to contrary systems of thought that Booth describes and that George Orwell called “double-think”.

The recovery of the meaning of messages saves us from the intellectual bondage of ignorance.  From that recovery flows the concept of rejecting those concepts discovered to be disjoint from reality.  Then when the dross is rejected, the representation of a more perfect and useful thought resurrects the originally recovered message.  Finally, when these three skills are honed enough, a completely new revolution of thought becomes possible.  But all must begin with recovery.

Works Cited

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Gospel of John
  • “There is a War Going on for Your Mind” by The Flobots (song)
  • What’s Supposed to be Going on Here? By Wayne Booth

Recovering some student essay ideas

February 10, 2012

Below are three super duper essays from the last round of responses, those addressing or reacting to Booth and Plato and the rarity and difficulty of true or real education. In order, Taylor’s, Abbey’s and Erin’s:

Taylor:

If Booth were to see the extent to which today’s education is engrossed by technology, I think he would be even more horrified than he was in 1967. In addition to the continued practice of “sage on the stage” in many lecture classes, a practice that does not develop any of the skills that Booth argues are part of an education, today’s students are subjected to more and easier access to “misinformation” than was available in 1967. Instead of searching for an internet article, which may be filled with incorrect information just by its own account, students often accept what a third party has posted on blogs or Facebook as truth. So not only are students getting information through a long set of intermediaries, the final information viewed has most likely undergone more distortion from the original authors intent than Booth could have ever imagined or experienced in the 1960s.

Often times, individuals are just filled with information today, and more frequently, the information is watered-down so greatly that it has little to no meaning that the reader could hope to draw from it. For example, searching for a definition online does not require any questioning from the researcher as to whether the idea being studying is correct or not, because the answer is easily presented in few words and as though it is fact. Moreover, the educational system commonly does not ask students to study the validity of how a theory was conceptualized; the emphasis is placed on just knowing what the author says. Therefore, today’s education lacks an emphasis on “rejection” and “renewing”, while it supports a weak version of “recovery”.

As proposed by Booth, I agree that individuals have a tendency to reject or dilute ideas “into simpler, ready-made categories of old ideas”. Contrary to Booth’s idea that individuals dodge true recovery because of ignorance or a lack of desire to acknowledge and correct contradictions, I feel the main reason for morphing innovative ideas into something they were never intended to be is to avoid conflict- whether the conflict is with an entity outside of the individual or an internal conflict.

For example, learning a new truth that causes one to discover the way they lived their life until this point was wrong, would not only require them to admit their error, but it would involve changing their life and beliefs in order to correct the contradiction. I do not think individuals resist addressing the contradiction necessarily out of laziness or a disinterest in living rightly; it is a mechanism to avoid the fear of admitting they are wrong and betraying beliefs they were accustom to.

Accepting this new truth for its actual meaning could place a strain on the relationships held by the individual, such as finding out the group religion they practice is incorrect. This would mean removing themselves from a comfortable support system and causing unrest in their community. Since ignorance is difficult to break and the process of enlightenment is troublesome to start due to the fear of deviating from one’s way of thinking, education should prove to individuals that it is right and natural to leave the comfortability of mindless conformity while it instills the processes of recovering meaning and deciphering truth.

The idea that many individuals are reluctant to embark upon true education relates to Plato’s idea that it is easier to live with falsehoods than with truth. Again, I do not feel all individuals refuse to make “the rough ascent” because of a lack of motivation to achieve education or ignorance, but because of a fear of finding answers completely different than what they had relied on previously. This distress is the deterrent from actual learning. I see this fear still binding individuals from seeking truth in today’s western society as it becomes increasingly secular. Without regarding one organized religion as higher than another, I feel that those who claim to be atheist are fearful of discovering a strong, uncontrollable power that may find fault with them and would rather remain comfortable under the illusion that humans are the strongest force that can affect this universe.

Abbey:

Wayne C. Booth identifies the four “R”s of a liberal education as recovery of meaning, rejection of whatever is false, also called critical thinking, renewing what is worthwhile, and revolutionizing thought by establishing truly new ideas. Booth believes that the four “R”s are significant because they liberate our minds and force us to evaluate what is true for ourselves. According to Booth, true education allows men to “apply their minds,” and to decide for themselves what to “call good or true or beautiful.”

Three of the four elements Booth describes involve some method of evaluating already existing information; only the final element involves the creation of truly unique ideas. Therefore, the purpose of education is just as much to evaluate already established information as it is to create new ideas. This dual emphasis alludes to education’s crucial role not simply to teach concepts but to encourage individuals to determine truth for themselves.

Using Plato’s scenario of the cave, the four “R”s of education force us out of the cave and into the light, even though the process is painful and uncomfortable. Though the pain of the process is undesirable, it is an essential step in reaching true understanding. It is impossible to enter from the darkness to the light without the adjustment of our eyes, in a literal sense, but also the refining of our definition of truth. This is where Plato’s comment that “it is often easier to live with falsehoods than with truth,” ties in.

It is, often if not always, easier and safer to stay in the dark rather than venturing into the light.  If a man never leaves the cave and never experiences true education, he will not actually know that anything but the shadows exist.  He may continue to live in ignorance, but he never reaches his true potential. I think to an extent we all choose to live in falsehoods rather than facing the truth; certainly it is much for comfortable and without a doubt more safe. But to reference C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia, just because something is safe does not always mean that it is good.

In my personal experience, living in ignorance to the suffering in the world certainly would lead to a much safer and more comfortable future. However, through my opportunities to travel both to India and to Peru, along my reading of the book A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseni and various other contributing elements, I feel as though in some way I have stepped out of the cave. I can no longer deny the reality of suffering in the world, and I feel a conviction to contribute to the well-being of others. Post-college, my plans include potentially moving to the Middle East, a decision that could easily place me in uncomfortable or even dangerous situations.

These plans are, not surprisingly, terrifying to my parents, who raised me in private school in a suburb of Atlanta protecting and nurturing me the best way they knew how. However, in my eyes, if I now choose to continue on with my life without concerning myself with the wellbeing of the thousands of humans who are suffering, I would be stepping back into the cave. However, this time I no longer have the excuse of ignorance but am consciously choosing comfort over sacrifice.

It is impossible to live a truly good life in ignorance. Living in ignorance is not really living at all. While the man chained in his fetters in the dark cave may be satisfied and breathing, a truly good or meaningful life involves the risk confronting the truth. Booth’s four “R”s, recovery, rejection, renewing, and revolutionizing, are significant elements of both a true liberal education and an “examined life.” However, these four elements are preceded by recognition. The first step in stepping out of the cave is recognizing that the light exists.

Erin:

Technology is aiding the process of education. Just for this class we are posting thoughts on a blog, gathering articles from e-reserves, and here I am typing and rearranging my thoughts with speed and ease. The internet provides masses of information and makes research easy and efficient. However, I feel certain that Booth would be unhappy with the effect technology has had on my generation.

While I try to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge at my disposal, I am also barraged and distracted by the many options. I grow easily overwhelmed with the absurd amount of articles I must filter through for a paper, or I simply discard many sources that could be valuable texts for my research because I do not have the time to give each source its due. This inundation of information has altered our mindsets. Not only do we believe that we can easily look up a fact or story, we approach learning as a sort of scavenger hunt. I suppose I should speak for myself, but I can also attest to many of my peers adopting a similar mindset.

Last semester in English 102, we wrote mediation papers on a controversial issue. These papers were composed of many different facets: background, context, presentation of each side, a proposal for a solution, and finally a practical compromise. This was one of the heftier research projects I have tackled, and I was grateful for the tips and pointers our professor gave us. However, in light of our current discussion, the method and final product of this endeavor attest to the new mindset technology has given us. It was impossible to pursue the truth with liberating abandon or to benefit from the process of research without constant distraction from guidelines, deadlines, outlines, and rubrics.

This example could also display how our education can distract us from learning, but I’d like to concentrate on how it illustrates the role of technology. We had requirements for the number of sources we used on each section, the type of source, the format of citation, and the position of the source. We had to check and double check the credibility of articles we used as well as confirming that the version we read was as close to the original as possible and not secondhand, summarized, or quoted. Besides this, we had to present our information in an unbiased, objective perspective, ensuring fairness to both sides of our issue. All this was demanding, infuriating, and intense.

I cannot see any other way of learning to research or properly documenting a paper. All this headache and hassle is necessary to get to the bottom of the mountains of information available to the average college student. I learned so much from this English class. I can efficiently maneuver various databases, websites, and files. I can cite in three different formats. I can synthesize information and present it in a readable fashion.

While I can see the good in technology, and I appreciate its’ presence, this anecdote would probably infuriate Booth. The product of this research was anything but liberating. It was constantly driven by the need to locate tidbits of presupposed information. I developed a conclusion with very little research in mind, and I strove to find information to support it. I was required to make the best case for both sides of my issue, even if one side had an inferior argument.

Because of the assignment, I approached the paper determined to weed out irrelevant information and save what was helpful to me. This method must be employed to some degree simply because of the ridiculous amount of information available. Technology makes this pick-and-choose method necessary and hinders the pursuit of meaning and truth that Booth values.

This concept links interestingly to our reading of Plato. His illustration of men imprisoned in a cave and duped by shadow and illusion represents a lack of knowledge and a lack of contact with reality. I think that his picture applies conversely to a world overrun with information, instead of sorely lacking it. This flood of information and ideas could just as easily blind a seeker of truth as the darkness of ignorance.


Attacking our ignorance!

February 9, 2012

As I mentioned in class, reading your essays the past few days has been epiphanic, or what the French call jouissance, a word with no English translation but is something like profound enjoyment. Great stuff. I share a few highlights here, then I ask you to share one takeaway from the course so far, and your definition, at least for now, of “education.

Micah said: “The massive, overwhelming waves of information wipe away the immediacy of our need to truly comprehend. . . . The natural thing is to withdraw and passively drink from the infinitely wide and insipidly shallow streams of information.”

Abbey Bridges said: “It is impossible to live a truly good life in ignorance without taking the risk that is confronting the truth.” Mark Harris spoke quite a bit about this today.

Meagan said: “The enlightened caveman cannot force his comrades to believe the truth if they have no interest in knowing it.” (I love that she uses the term “comrades” in this context.)

Chelsea said: “living in the shadow of the real world — real here meaning destitution and true hunger in places like the Dominican Republic . . . people don’t want to feel responsible for truth. . . . I want to attack my ignorance.”

Erin said: “We approach learning as a sort of scavenger hunt.”

Taylor inferred: Isn’t Facebook a cave? Distortions, less-than-real, images and shadows, information through so many intermediaries. Oh, yes.

She also said that too often today’s modes of education lack emphasis on rejection and renewing, while only supporting a weak version of recovery.

Morgan Freeman said: “The walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on them.”

And finally, a point about Plato’s hellish cave. He isn’t counterposing truth with falsity so much as he is comparing reality with the less-than-real, the shadows and images of the real that the people in the cave prefer out of comfort and custom, just as the Morgan Freeman character in Shawshank Redemption articulates it. So it’s truth v. the mere projection of truth in the production of what is only an image or shadow. These images aren’t “untrue” as much as they are un-real, or not reality as lived, as encountered or even learned first-hand. This distinction is important.

Now your turn:

  • One takeaway
  • A definition of education

And I’d like you to incorporate your classmates’ responses in your posts as you go along. Deadline: noon on Monday, Feb. 13.


Jennie’s response to Romans 1: A model

February 6, 2012

Editor’s note: All of the responses were strong, but Jennie’s and Tara’s were especially so. With Jennie’s permission, I’m posting hers as a model. Her response is tight, with a theme introduced right up top, with specific examples given, and with references both to the text and to Stott’s commentary.

In the second part of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s wrath against mankind is discussed and analyzed; Paul establishes that those who suppress the truth about God, ignore God’s revelation, or pervert God’s glory will feel or be the object of this wrath. Specifically, this perversion of God’s glory refers to when one serves someone or something other than the Creator. One of the Ten Commandments is that “you shall have no other Gods before me;” in other words, we should not worship anything other than God or allow anything to keep us from worshipping God.

Today, however, our lives are full of idols that have allowed for worship directed at things other than God. Paul remarks in 1:25 that we exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and in The Message of the Romans, John R.W. Stott explains that we transferred our worship from the Creator to his created things. Some of these created things – these idols – are inanimate objects, like cars, jobs, and money; others are people who we look up to, like athletes and celebrities; still others are psychological or emotional things, like drugs, hate, and love. We place these idols at levels of great importance, and in a way, we really do worship them. When it comes to these modern idols, many Christians refuse to recognize them as such. But these idols have come to dominate one’s life so much that in many cases they have replaced or displaced the time and attention once spent in worship – whether in prayer, through Bible study, or in church attendance.

So how, exactly, do these modern idols come into being? It seems most logical that idols came into being to fill a void. When people first become involved with and then begin to worship an idol, the activity begins innocently enough. This activity, diversion, and attention are usually not anything that will cause pain or result in annoyance, but rather is something that makes one feel good. It is a means of escape from the less desirable aspects of life, and it is a search for the more pleasurable and fulfilling aspects of life, or so the deception suggests.

Take, for example, why alcoholic beverages are sometimes called “Spirits.” Wouldn’t it make sense that alcohol is being used to fill the void of spirituality, or to numb a person to the fact that his or her faith is weak or absent? Or, take a celebrity who seemingly has everything: more money than is possibly spendable, worldwide travel at the snap of a finger, the finest clothes on earth, mansions and toys galore – the idols of millions. How, then, does such a person turn to drugs and die in induced overdoses? Perhaps drugs are their idol, used to fill that spiritual void in a way that material things cannot.

It seems that mankind has a desire to worship something – anything – to fill this void that is undoubtedly within us all. Add time and tolerance to that need and before you know it, what one did or looked up to for pleasure has become almost an obsession. In other words, an idol has been created, nurtured, and developed into something comparable to that of God. Paul reminds us that God is supposed to be ever praised, and that this is the reason why Christians are either incapable of or adamantly against recognizing idols as idols. They simply cannot comprehend that something can be placed so high in one’s life that it becomes comparable to God’s relevance and holiness. We do not necessarily seek to idolize something, but the fact remains that we all do in one way or another.


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