Monday, August 27, 2012

Establishing a Point A : How Do We Value What We Value

I indicated that I was taking a new tack in methods.  Not the core of what we do but, rather, the content with which we work.

A priori, we begin from the notion that as teachers we must create citizens of our democracy.  That’s Dewey.  Heck, that’s Aristotle (minus the women and slaves, of course).  And I am not suggesting that these should blue or red citizens, liberals or conservatives, democrats or republicans (although, I am not shy about revealing my own ideas, and I say the same to my students--as long as their ideas are not hateful or hurtful).  However, we are colleagues in a University classroom, and what we can do (and say) in our space is different from what they can do or say in the classrooms where they will be teaching.  So, although the ideas we will discuss in my class are not exclusive to the University classroom, the way in which we talk about them might be.  (It is my practice NOT to teach methods like a “let’s pretend” of a high school class.)

So much of what teachers must do is provoke their students.  They must give them things to think about—texts and questions about texts and tasks.  That is hard in our increasingly scripted, increasingly canned curriculum world.  Too bad, I tell them.  You have to find things to read and questions to ask and ways to connect those to the content you are required to teach.  If you don’t want to do that, please do not teach.  Throughout the semester, I will suggest to them that in many ways I am the anti-model of teaching.  I swear and spit and rant (okay, I don’t spit, I whine).  But in terms of how to treat students, I congratulate myself on being an excellent role model.  And the thing I do best is make them think hard about stuff.  (Although, in the past few semester, I fear I have gone a little soft.) I make them read provocative articles.  I challenge them to explain themselves and define themselves and challenge themselves.  And, I hope I create a safe and entertaining space for all this fun.  Good teachers do these things, and I intend that they all be good teachers.

As I noted previously, for Fall this means our theme is Ethics/Virtue/Wisdom.  Although these are murky terms, we'll work them  together.  And we’ll try to come up with a congenial definition of some or all of these terms.  The one thing I do know is this—I think we have lost track of these notions.  And, whether or not it should be so, it falls to teachers and schools to teach and/or cultivate them.  In the ELA classroom the vehicle for teaching and learning about these notions is text, however we choose to define that word.  So, this semester we will use the texts we study in order to examine these ideas.  My job will be to show students how to teach literature with an eye to any theme.  That is, to fill my students' quivers with instructional arrows and not just ways to teach but the theories that undergird why we should teach in certain ways.  And as a class, we will apply these theories and practices to our first text, Huck Finn. 

Among the topics we'll discuss is this prickly one:  Where do we get our beliefs and values? Conventional wisdom suggests that the society in which we live shapes our system of belief … our ideology. After all we are, by nature, social critters. Of course, there are exceptions—think about that American kid who bought into Al Qaeda stuff, or the Amish kid who moves out of the community to join the “English”—those are extremes. But what about the Jew who converts to Christianity, the Democrat who becomes a Republican … changing what we think or believe makes us human. Indeed, in one of those centuries BC, Socrates urged us to challenge our own accepted moral opinions—never to stop. 

Thoughtful beliefs—not the kneejerk bullshit of beliefs that are unexamined and maintained because “that is how it has been always” or “that is what X says”—are the result of the transaction (a word that defines so much of what I do as an academic, a teacher, and a learner)between what we might call “received traditions”—that is, the beliefs, values, morals, of the cultural group/s to which we belong—and our very own personal views based on our individual experiences. That’s how you can have, in the same family (and is there a more influential cultural group than one’s family?), my conservative father, my incredibly liberal aunt, and my libertarian uncle. They all grew up in the same household, but as their lives unfolded, each found that their beliefs took difference courses. Do they share a set of fundamental ideals? Yup. But how those ideals are realized, the best way to achieve them? There they are very different. 

In the battle of ethicists—or people who debate from where we get our ethical views—there are those who privilege the community and those who do the individual. How do our moral or ethical  understandings come down to us? Through laws? Through RELIGION? Through cultural/social taboos?

We tend to associate morality and religion—and the 10 commandments are the big Judeo-Christian ones, although not the biggest-- which, it turns out, shows up in many many religions—the “do unto others …” Some thinkers suggest that by placing morality in the realm of religion—and suggesting morals come to us from a “ higher authority” we can escape our role in asserting them (“it’s not my fault, Moses—or better, EVE--did it.”) The problem with using religion as the basis for moral behavior is pretty clear—there are a lot of them, and often the details are where contradictions arise.  Plus, not everyone believes.  So the question is, "Is there something other than religion that might undergird our moral choices or the moral code by which we choose to live?

;Well there’s the age old question of our inherent nature—are we good guys (a la Locke) or bad (a la Hobbes). And there is a whole slew of geneticists who think our DNA might have a role in our moral inclinations. Note that both of these theories take responsibility from the actors. What are some of the implications of these notions of our being hard-wired as moral or “im”?

So, are we products of our DNA or our social and cultural environment (AKA nature or nurture)? Are we Tabula Rasa (although how we understand that term is not precisely what was meant).  For Locke in “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born "blank.” That said, he emphasized that the individual is free to author the content of one’s character. He believed that one’s basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be altered. Thus Locke believes in a free, self-authored mind combined with an immutable human nature.

This notion of tabula rasa undergirds the sociological view that we are born into a social milieu, and the forces that act on us are many: parents, teachers, peers, media, all of whom have their own ideological issues. Sociologists, thus, discount the idea of any kind of “human nature” and aver that these various forces are far more influential than any genetic predisposition.

So, you can say:  Don’t blame me, my genes made me this way OR Don’t blame me, blame society, it made me this way (OR, you can blame original sin … Eve made me this way)

What makes moral and ethic questions so problematic is that there are so many different beliefs and practices. And, those beliefs and practices seem to change willy-nilly over time. Different cultures believe differently. Different tribes. Different periods of history. But even the same culture can believe differently—think about people you know who have beliefs that differ from yours on topics as significant as abortion, guns, the death penalty, the NCAA ruling against Penn State.  Of course, you think you are right. And those who think differently, think they are right. But when it comes to so many moral or ethical issues, how do we prove who is?

There is a whole bunch of philosophers who need there to be an absolute right moral way. These Universalist or Absolutists stand in contradistinction to the Relativists who embrace the chaos of the variety of ethical beliefs and practices. Can you think of dangers here with RELATIVISM AND ABSOLUTISM?  Well, if one group thinks they have the absolute, they can impose their moral, ethical beliefs on a group with less power (can you say COLONIALISM / MORAL Imperialism)  

Or, if anything goes, can a culture that decides to sacrifice babies to their particular god go ahead and do it?

Are there some absolutes? Absolutists say there are, and we can prove them--we just haven’t yet. And they use the idea of the flat world or the idea of the earth at the center. These were beliefs that were entrenched—until a way of proving them wrong was discovered.
So ABOLUTISTS claim that there are core moral values—foundational ones that allow societies to exist and function. RELATIVISTS would ask … and how do you decide which ones? They believe the only moral absolute is that we don’t interfere with other cultures.

All this hurts my head.  But this is the Philosophical Thinking that I must encourage in my students--and they must in theirs.  What is the role of “ PHILOSOPHICAL THINKING” ?

In 5th century BC Greece, it meant questioning traditional answers, not accepting them without examination. And why then? Well, too much free time. The slave culture (all the big names owned’em), meant the rich dudes sat around and talked about shit. Philosophy was social and communal. Indeed, Plato was not a fan of the ancient “book,” b/c it was antithetical to the idea of ideas that evolve from this communal kibitzing. He had not imagined a world of multiple editions (bite me MLA Handbook). Socrates, as noted above, loved the search for knowledge. And he believed that through questioning and discussion we could arrive at moral knowledge.

So, this semester I will make my students question and discuss. And I doubt we will arrive at consensus on all that matters in terms of morals and values and ethics. BUT, I believe we can arrive at consensus on some key values or ethical ideas that we all embrace and, I would argue, we are obligated to teach. Does that mean some of the values that are important to me or to them as individuals might not be on our “must teach” list? Yup. That’s called compromise. 

 In preparation for our first class this week, I created two survey-type documents about values.  The first was a series of statements about a list of social values I gleaned from a text by Frances Fowler.  It had a Likert scale to assess the students' sense of the significance of these values. 
I introduced the survey with this header:

As I have mentioned in my pre-class emails, our focus this semester will be challenging issues of morals, values, ethics, and/or virtues.  In preparation for our work, I have been reading  Frances Fowler’s stuff on educational policy.  One of her foci is ideology—and that’s another murky term.  For Fowler, ideological beliefs are deeply held and connect to our notions of human nature and our perceptions of reality.  And, like morals or values, ideologies often clash.

Fowler asserts that we must have a sense of our own ideological positions.  The “survey” below, which uses what is called a Likert Scale (the 0-5), asks you to think about some of the hot topics that undergird major ethical issues that challenge us in the present.

And the issues I presented were as follows:

Simply by virtue of their birth, all people have the right to a life of dignity. The measure of any institution if the degree to which it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. All persons—in their diversity in terms if gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual preference, ability—are worthy and due of dignity

As social beings, all people have the right and duty to participate in society and seek together the common good and well-being of all. We must work in solidarity with all people to ensure liberty,  justice and dignity for all.

Every person has a fundamental right to life and all those things needed for human dignity. In turn, we have a responsibility to each other and to the larger society to ensure that these rights are preserved and protected for all. And, when any person or groups rights are threatened by unjust policies, procedures, or actions, we are responsible to challenge the forces that post such threats

As members of a society, we are obliged to care for the least among us—A those most vulnerable.

All work has inherent dignity. Every person has a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to advocate for their working conditions, and to economic initiative.  An economy must serve people, not the other way around.

We are the keepers of our fellow humans and we should do unto them as we would have them do to us. And note, in the global society our fellows are all humans, not just those in our immediate space.

As caretakers of the planet and of the weak, we must be excellent stewards of all creation.

In the second assignment, I asked them to prioritize these seven items—one the Most and seven Least important.  And today, all 22 of my students (finally)  submitted their completed “tests.”  I see these as a kind of pre-test, and I have no idea what to make of the results.  I know only that I am kinda frightened by them.  And, I have been trying to figure out why.  Now, I am not a methodologist, and there are places where I feel like the results from these two assessments of the same values seem funky. For example, in prioritizing these seven values, here’s how the students in my class break down.  After each value—just the heading--I note the number of students who ranked it MOST Important.


I was a bit surprised that not a single person placed Caring for the Poor at number one.  At the opposite end, four students said this was the LEAST  important, and that did disturb me.  Here’s the full line on that value:

1 was 0 students
2 was 1 student
3 was 5 students
4 was 6 students
5 was 3 students
6 was 3 students
7 was 4 students

In my class of 22 pre-service teachers almost half placed caring for the poor and vulnerable in the bottom.  As I look at the list, I can see that each of these values has value (ha), so prioritizing is a challenge.  And, it will be the discussion of how they made their choices that will be interesting, I think (I hope).

Another result that surprised me was about the Dignity of Work.  Only one student designated this, “Most Important.”  10 students considered it “Least Important.”  The rest shook out thusly:

1 / 1
2 / 3
3 / 3
4 / 0
5 / 3
6 / 2
7 / 10

Here, too, the discussion will, I hope, clarify how the students perceive not just these two, but all the questions in the survey.  This survey will be the topic of some of our first class discussion (as both noun and, I hope, modifier!)  I made WORDLs of their responses, and I will share them here once I print them.

1 comment:

  1. "For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong." H.L. Mencken