Walking Miracles

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe that people have souls and those who do not. An ancient example of this dichotomy is Socrates who believed the soul is immortal and Lucretius who believed that people are just a collection of atoms and nothing more.

Socrates: “Is not what we call death a freeing and separation of the soul from the body?” Phaedo.

Lucretius: “Must we not grant that mind and soul consist of a corporeal nature?” On the Nature of Things Book III

If we do not have souls, then we certainly are pure material as Lucretius says. Among the materialists are those who believe that if we collect enough data about a person, we can always know what the best decision would be in each moment. “Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.” (Financial Times) In this world, science and technology reign supreme. Picture a digital assistant who is always there to recommend the best decision. With enough computing power and enough data, we could always know the right thing to do, and we could know the future. It would be like having an electronic conscience. But this world would be a tyranny of our own creation.

As a Christian headmaster, I believe that human beings and their actions are more than just a collection of data and atoms. It is the grace of God in the soul of a human being that enables great acts of sacrifice and giving. It is the grace of God that breaks through into our everyday lives to give us the power to do the right thing. It is the grace of God that helps our children do the good, hard thing. It is the grace of God that makes us into something the data cannot predict. As a soul and a body joined together, human beings are walking miracles. As Christians we are walking miracles even more, for Paul in Romans 6:13b-14 says, “…but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” We are not people who do what we want, and because we are not enslaved to our wants, we are truly free, and we are not predictable!

During teacher prayer this morning, I reminded our teachers of these things and that God is in our classrooms, the Holy Spirit is in the hearts of God’s children, and that God does wonderful and miraculous things. We need to live like it, teach like it, and talk like it.

Tyranny of the Experts

I am really excited about this post, for I have had it rolling around in my head for several days, and it is the product of one of my favorite things. I love to connect seemingly unconnected things and then investigate them together or apply the reasoning from the one to the other.

An erstwhile pastor, I had occasion to meet from time to time with a man who represented seminaries outside the U.S. He was a passionate man; I enjoyed him, and I have always enjoyed learning about other cultures. He was South American. I will never forget when he expressed how Mexican churches felt about the visiting mission teams from the U.S. He recalled a meeting with Mexican pastors who bemoaned the well-intentioned efforts of U.S. mission groups. The Mexican pastors claimed that their churches felt violated, dehumanized.

Flash Forward about ten years…

Dr. William Easterly of New York University has written a book, The Tyranny of Experts, about how foreign aid tramples on the rights of the poor. Wow! Is this not what my friend had talked about? I have not read the book yet, but I have read this review and an interview from Christianity Today.com. You can read these and more by following the links on his blog.

In one of the more interesting exchanges in the interview, Easterly claims “that the idea we can have a purely technical approach to resolving the problems of poverty without any moral implications is an illusion.”

So, I began to mull things over. Is there an admitted moral component in the effort to close the achievement gap in education?

Easterly claims that, in error, we treat the served as inert matter—people to be acted upon. This rang a bell, for it is the general, pedagogical, modus operandi for low socio-economic schools. Schools are driven to do whatever they can to get the content into the child’s head—whether the child wants it or not. This is a very undignifying practice for both the teacher and the student. What to do with a student who does not want to learn is for another post, but our desire to deliver and be accountable for delivering something that the recipient does not want seems to be a dehumanizing endeavor. It reminds me a bit of nation-building in a nation that does not want to be built.

In summary, our pedagogy might be successful in improving test results, but it is a pedagogy that has a deleterious effect on our students, their preparation for life-long learning, and their appreciation for the academic disciplines (these are part of the moral component). If we are dehumanizing the overseas poor in our efforts to help them, I bet we are doing the same thing to the poor here. I would love to take Easterly’s reasoning and apply it in the U.S. to the way we educate the poor. I wonder if I would find the same thing the Mexican pastors found, the same thing Easterly has found.

I keep a running list of “Things I Am Interested In.” This is on it.

On the Importance of Memorization as a Tool of Understanding

Since first teaching logic in middle school, I have used the following working definition of reasoning and have found it quite helpful. “Using knowledge one has to discover new, previously unknown knowledge.” It comes from Martin Cothran’s Traditional Logic I. Some progressive pedagogies place a heavy emphasis on understanding before memorization and sometimes to the exclusion of it. I disagree with this emphasis, for understanding is the fruit of reason, and reason cannot be conducted if there is not pre-existing knowledge in the mind. One must have memorized facts to reason to thorough understanding.

There is a difference between reading an argument on a page or experiencing it as an experiment and owning it in one’s mind. Comprehend might be a better word—grasp a truth with the mind. So long as we do not require our students to memorize the basics, we prevent them from truly owning understanding, for all their facts are “borrowed.” I see this in the children of poverty with whom I have worked. They are required to memorize very little, so in the learning process, they must do more than the child who has memorized facts. They must reason and hold information in working memory, recalling it from a page or an experience instead of from their own long term memory. This requires intensive effort—the very kind of effort that socio-economically disadvantaged students struggle to give.

You Need Words

One of the greatest academic challenges for children in poverty is a deficiency of words. It is really hard to teach without words and even harder to understand without them. When I think about the importance of words and teaching socioeconomically disadvantaged children, Frederick Douglass almost always comes to my mind. In particular, I recall a wonderful article entitled “Freedom through Education” (Pages 14-15) in The College, the magazine of St. John’s College.

“The speeches he found in his first book, The Columbian Orator, gave him the means to articulate his own thoughts. ‘The more I [Douglass] read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance.’ He had discovered the power of naming.”

Many socioeconomically disadvantaged children have a deficiency of words. You need words to teach math. You need words to think (the naming Douglass refers to), and you need to think in order to understand. These children do not have anyone speaking to them intelligently at home. They do not have the required reading of good books at home. So when I talk to them about probability, it is like trying to hang a coat on a wall where there are no coat-hooks. All my words fall to the floor and very few stick. So few stick, that no sense can be made of what does. It feels like my words do not grab hold of any concept in their head. “Use manipulatives!” you say. I do. I lined up a row of markers when I encountered a student who did not know what “before” or “after” meant. He still could not tell me which marker came before another. You can play with counting chips all day, but if the vocabulary/concept for what is happening physically is not in the brain, then the concept stays on the table, for the default way of life for these kids is a word-deprived one. Every chip experiment is a brand new world as long as their “thoughts die away for lack of utterance.”