Sunday, September 27, 2015

What the Pope Can Teach Us about Education

Given how the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. has dominated the headlines this past week, I would be remiss if I didn't make a few comments about what I learned from his visit (and yes, even those who are not Catholic can learn something from the great religious leaders of the world, no matter what their faith tradition).  But before I begin, let me stipulate that I have a number of theological differences with Pope Francis.  Much as I respect him, I wish he would take a bold stand and modify the church's ban on contraception-- for one thing, Jesus himself never said anything about this subject; and most Catholics in western countries simply ignore the ban.  But more important, the lack of access to birth control is one of the main reasons for extreme poverty, especially in the third world.  Given that the pope genuinely cares about the poor, it would be humane for him to address the issue of family planning.  Of course, I understand that he probably won't.  But that doesn't stop me from wishing he would.

Theology aside, what I found the most impressive about his visit was his consistently courteous tone.  Even when he waded into the proverbial "hot button" issues, he did so with civility.  He did not shout, he did not scold, he did not condemn.  He gave his views, he represented church teachings, but he did so in a way that did not castigate those who might disagree.  That is something to be praised, and it's also something all too rare these days.  We hear too many political figures lashing out at their opponents, name-calling and slinging insults; we hear too many religious figures sitting in judgment, claiming that only their interpretations are correct and anyone else is deserving of scorn.  The pope chose neither of those styles.  He defended his (and the church's) beliefs, but he did so in a way that was neither judgmental nor scornful.

And he modeled tolerance in a very personal way:  he joined with faith leaders from other traditions, including Jews, Protestants, Hindus, and Muslims, in a service to remember those who died on September 11, 2001.  He didn't have to.  He could have taken a hard line (as some other religious leaders might have) and said that since he does not agree with those other faiths, he would refrain from praying with them.  He could have said, as some popes said centuries ago, that members of other faiths are in error and must be converted by any means necessary.  But he didn't do that either.  And since he holds the traditional view that women must not be priests or lead the service, he could have refused to be on the stage with women prayer-leaders.  But once again, his tone was one of inclusiveness.  And many of us found that very refreshing.

As an educator, I was especially pleased by what the pope did, because I know that tone matters.  Yes, the Catholic Church has its rules, and Pope Francis did not advocate breaking them.  But he taught about those rules in a way that said "Even if you disagree with me, we can still be kind to each other, and we can still seek common ground."  I have been in classrooms where I saw teachers ridicule students who were slow, or harshly correct students who got things wrong.  Agreed, there are students who are exasperating, students who don't work as hard as they should.  But mocking them is probably not the best way to inspire them to change their behavior.  Whether in a house of worship or in a classroom (or in congress, for that matter), those who hold authority need to do so in a way that is neither imperious nor unkind.  I am not suggesting that we all should join hands and sing "Kumbaya"-- believe me, there are times when students can try anyone's patience, and when they absolutely need to be corrected, or held accountable for what they did wrong.  But as the pope demonstrated, you can adhere to the rules in a way that doesn't make the other person feel invalidated, and you can state what you think is wrong in a way that doesn't make the other person feel stupid.

In the end, those of us who differ with this pope on issues of theology will probably continue to do so. But I hope we can conduct those disagreements the way he did-- with a willingness to listen, and a willingness to discuss our differences courteously. For the best rule, it seems to me, is the Golden Rule: treat others the way you would like them to treat you. That is what I saw from this pope, and I hope I continue to see it long after he has returned home.     

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Some Reflections about the Ten Days of Repentance

In my experience, the most difficult words to say are "I'm sorry" or "I was wrong." For some reason, there's a human tendency (call it pride, perhaps, or ego) that makes us avoid taking responsibility for the rude or harsh or unkind things we've said.  Even if deep down, we know we made a mistake, we tend to defend it. We try to find an excuse, or insist it wasn't our fault; we claim we were victims of circumstance.  Of course, it wasn't anything we did:  "mistakes were made," but nobody knows who made them.  Or, it was the other person's reaction that caused the problem.  But it certainly wasn't us.

You can see this behavior in all walks of life:  politicians who, when caught making a factual error, either double down and keep repeating it, or insist their opponent is the one who is wrong; people in relationships who are so eager to blame the other person, and so unwilling to look at their own role in how things are going; students who come up with a millions good reasons why their term paper (which they knew about all semester) is late.  I admit I'm as guilty of making excuses or defending my mistakes as anyone else.  But at this time of the year, I tend to think about it a little more.  After all, it's the Ten Days of Repentance, and that's something I take very seriously.

As any of you who have Jewish friends know, the Ten Days of Repentance are the period from Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). During that time, we are supposed to try to make amends with those we have wronged.  But while that may sound easy enough, it's not.  For one thing, some of the people we've wronged may no longer want to talk to us.  Others are holding onto their anger, even as we are trying to let ours go.  And then there's the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this post:  while we may know an apology is in order, we can't bring ourselves to say the words.   

I struggle with that sometimes.  I've had disagreements or arguments with people I cared about, verbal exchanges that seemed so important at the time, yet so trivial and stupid when I looked back on them later on.  But even though I knew I should have apologized for my part in the dispute, I didn't.  Often, I wished I had; but still, I remained silent.  Perhaps that has happened to you too:  you allowed a friendship to be lost, or a relationship to be damaged by being unable to humble yourself and admit that maybe you said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

So, for me, the Ten Days of Repentance provides an opportunity:  it's a good reason for getting back in contact with someone I may have upset.  It creates the possibility that someone I spoke harshly to, even unintentionally, will forgive me and we can get back into communication again. Of course, it comes with a risk:  just because I am ready to make amends, the other person may not want to hear it.  But still, during this holy season, I have to at least make a sincere effort.  And that's what I'm trying to do.

I always tell my students that communication is the most powerful thing we've got.  I also tell them that communication is constitutive:  it calls something into being that wasn't there before, just by our putting it into language and speaking it.  What I am trying to speak during the Ten Days of Repentance is my sincere apology for anything harsh or judgmental or dismissive I may have said; I am trying to call into being the possibility that I will communicate more effectively and with more kindness in the upcoming year.  For those who have been reading my blog, whether we have agreed or disagreed, I extend my thanks for your presence in my life; and whether you observe the Ten Days of Repentance or not, I pray that this new year will give you many reasons to be encouraged, and few reasons to be regretful. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Harm that Stereotypes Can Cause

Like many in the social media universe, I was offended by what happened to Ahmed Mohamed.  If you haven't been following the story, he's a fourteen year old high school freshman, and like many kids his age, he loves to tinker. Sometimes, he tries to repair things around his house, and sometimes he tries his hand at inventing.  The other day, he made his own clock.  It wasn't aesthetically beautiful, but it worked and he was proud of it.  So he brought it to school to show his engineering teacher.  He wanted to impress the teacher with what he had managed to do.  And that's where things went wrong.

It should be noted that Ahmed lives in Irving, Texas, where the mayor, Beth Van Duyne, has become a favorite on conservative talk shows for making inflammatory remarks against Islam, and promising to fight against "Sharia Law" in Texas. As fact-checkers and journalists have pointed out, there have been no efforts by any local Muslims to impose Sharia Law; but the facts don't matter to those who fear or dislike Muslims.  So, Mayor Van Duyne became a media darling for her promise to stand up to the mythical threat of creeping Sharia.  (Truth be told, most Muslim immigrants in Irving and in many other cities, including Quincy, MA where I live, have assimilated quite well:  they are happy to be in the US, they want their kids to attend good schools, they become citizens, they work hard, and while some are religious, others are not.  And yes, Muslims use Islamic religious law in their mosque; but that's similar to how Catholics utilize church teachings about taking communion or Jews follow Biblically-based dietary laws.  In the workplace or at school or in most other places, the vast majority of Muslims are fine about America's separation of church and state; and they understand that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of worship to all.  Thus, while Ahmed Mohamed's sisters dress in traditional head-coverings, not all Muslim women do; and Ahmed dresses like a typical American teenager, in fact.)  But back to the story of his invention.

When he showed his home-made clock to his teacher, he was told not to show it to anyone else.  This was not the response Ahmed had expected-- after all, he wanted his teacher to be proud of his ingenuity. But then, another teacher saw his invention... and the next thing Ahmed knew, he was being handed over to the police and asked why he had built a bomb.  The police held him in a room for more than an hour, refusing his requests to call his parents (which, I am told by lawyer friends of mine is not legal-- as a minor, he had the right to have a parent present if the police needed to question him).  The police kept wanting him to admit he had built a bomb; in fact, his principal told him he would be expelled if he didn't admit he had built a bomb.  He kept trying to explain it was not a bomb-- it was a clock-- but they wouldn't believe him. And then they handcuffed him and arrested him for "building a hoax bomb."  He was also suspended from school for three days.

Since that happened, the charges against him were dropped, but the police, as well as the principal and the mayor, have defended what happened, saying they were simply following protocol and trying to keep the school safe.  But like many on social media, I cannot help but wonder: if a young man named John Smith, rather than Ahmed Mohamed, built a home-made clock, would the outcome have been different?  Ahmed's father wonders too-- was it really necessary to interrogate his fourteen year old son for over an hour like a criminal, handcuff and arrest him (humiliating him in front of other students), and take him to the police station?  Ahmed wasn't rude, he wasn't combative-- he just kept trying to explain that he had built a clock. As his father noted, his son is a good kid, with a good reputation, and his love for tinkering is well-known.  Yet the assumption was that he must be a terrorist of some kind.

Okay fine, I know that we live in a post-9/11 world and people are skittish about potential threats.  But based on what reporters learned about the story, this did not seem to be a threat at all.  One wonders if the suspicion about Muslims that can be heard on so many talk shows, and the remarks of the mayor against Sharia Law, played a role in creating an environment where a kid named Ahmed who built a clock was suddenly perceived as someone dangerous.  The story has a semi-happy ending:  in addition to getting lots of support on social media for what does seem like a total over-reaction by the school and the police, Ahmed has received an invitation to attend a special evening for inventors to be held at the White House; he also received invitations to tour Facebook headquarters, visit MIT and visit Harvard.  But I still can't ignore the fact that this young man was treated with such contempt by adults who should have known better. I hope he will be able to forgive those who thought he deserved to be arrested, adults who saw him as someone to be feared, rather than as a creative young man with a bright future.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What Do We Mean When We Say "Religious Freedom"?

When I was a kid growing up in a suburb of Boston, Catholics were the majority faith in the city, and Protestants dominated the rest of the state.  It was back in the days when there was still prayer in the public schools (it was always Christian prayer), and when Christian kids observed their holidays in the classroom, while everyone else's holidays were generally ignored.  If you know me personally, you know that while I am proud to be Jewish, I am not opposed to the practice of Christianity; and you know I respect other people's beliefs, even if I don't agree with them.  But growing up in a time when Christianity was imposed on everyone, even those of us who didn't want to hear about it, was often difficult.  My French teacher wanted me to learn the Rosary.  (I did, and I suppose it will come in handy if I am ever at death's door in MontrĂ©al and need someone to pray for me.)  One of my elementary school teacher began classes with a mandatory reading, often a long reading, from the New Testament.  Day after day, there were reminders that Christianity was the dominant ideology.  

So what should I have done?  Walk out? Refuse to listen? Complain to the principal?  I was one of only about ten Jewish kids in the school, as I recall.  I was also young, and it was an era when disobeying the teachers could lead to expulsion.  So I was advised not to make a scene and to be polite about it.  I followed that advice, but I never forgot how powerless I felt each time my teachers imposed their religious beliefs on me. 

Fast forward to today.  Kim Davis, the Rowan County (KY) clerk who had refused to give marriage licenses to gay people received a hero's welcome when she was released from prison-- a sentence she could have avoided by obeying the law and respecting the ruling of the Supreme Court.  Again, she has every right to her beliefs, and I can respect them, whether I agree or not.  In fact, in her personal life, she has the right to go to any church, say any prayer, and believe that all gay people will burn in hell.  But in her job description, she took an oath to uphold the law, and not just the laws she likes.  Yet there she was, just like the people of my childhood, imposing her beliefs on everyone else-- refusing to issue the licenses because she personally opposes gay marriage.  She claimed she didn't have to obey the law because it violated her religious freedom.  That, by the way, is the same rationale my teachers used when they gave New Testament bible readings in my public school class-- they had freedom of worship.  Even years after the Supreme Court ruled (in 1962) that "captive audience prayer" is no longer legal, many public schools, most of which are in the "bible belt," have ignored that ruling and continue to have sectarian prayer because of what they call their "religious freedom."   

And today, I saw Republican Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, the man who had recently told ABC's George Stephanopolous that Kim Davis had every right to disobey any law she felt was unjust, the man who had said the Supreme Court is NOT the final authority.  He turned her release from jail into a political and religious pep rally, encouraging the crowd to basically commit acts of sedition.  He agreed with what Ms. Davis had done, and asserted yet again that "God's law" takes precedence over the constitution-- a puzzling claim for someone who wants to be president and who must swear to defend the constitution.  Many of Ms. Davis's supporters were far too gleeful about her willingness to disobey the law.  I understand that they believe gay marriage is wrong, and I understand they are upset that America is, as they see it, far too secular. But we don't live in a theocracy.  And we don't get to pick and choose which laws we obey. 

While I respect Kim Davis for her commitment to her faith, she does NOT have the right to impose her beliefs on others, and her followers should not be cheering about what she did.  As an elected official, her duty is clear:  she was not elected as a pastor, nor as a defender of evangelical Christianity in a secular world. She was elected to uphold the law.  Shame on Mr. Huckabee for pandering to the ultra-conservatives in Kentucky, and shame on the members of the crowd who think that they don't have to respect the beliefs of those in the minority.  As someone who knows first-hand what it feels like to be subjected to intolerance, I know nothing good can come of refusing to treat others as equals.  

I strongly doubt that Jesus would think Mike Huckabee did a good thing by encouraging the crowd to break the law; and I strongly doubt that making the country even more polarized is what a presidential candidate ought to do.  The answer to this contentious issue does not lie in name-calling or in acts of sedition.  "Religious freedom" should not be code words for "my way is right and I am going to impose it on you."  I am sorry Kim Davis doesn't like the Supreme Court's ruling.  But her response seems more about being stubborn and less about being religious.  That may sound harsh, and I don't mean to seem judgmental.  But I guess I get a little sensitive when I see anyone stubbornly imposing their beliefs on others and claiming that's an example of "religious freedom."  Trust me:  it's not.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A New Semester and the Meaning of a College Education

A few days ago, a college freshman from Duke University wrote an impassioned opinion piece about why he refused to read something his professor had assigned:  he said the particular assignment (a memoir by Alison Bechdel called "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic") violated his Christian beliefs.  The book in question has been described by critics as "a fresh and brilliantly told memoir," and adjectives like "powerful" and "engrossing" were used as well.  That said, the book is not without controversy:  it is about the author's reflections on her childhood, growing up with a closeted gay father who owned a funeral home-- and Bechdel is very frank about her father's, and later, her own, sexuality.  I understand it's not a book everyone would find appealing; but the professor had every right to assign it, and I find it odd that the student would not even read it.

Please don't misunderstand me.  I am not against other people's religious beliefs, and I am not against religion.  But part of going to college, it seems to me, is to be exposed to new ideas and new experiences.  Over the years, I've assigned students readings from a wide range of sources, from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal and everything in between.  I've assigned readings I personally disagreed with, and readings I personally loved.  I see my role as promoting critical thinking-- the ability to analyze and evaluate the ideas that are being presented.  I want students to learn to think for themselves, to form their own opinions, to challenge what they've always been told, to consider varying perspectives and seek to understand why people feel so differently (and so passionately) about certain issues.

But my role is NOT to protect my students from "dangerous" ideas or to shield them from perspectives they might not like.  Far too often, our culture seems to promote "confirmation bias"-- seeking only those sources that agree with what we already believe.  So my conservative friends nearly always quote Fox News or Rush Limbaugh when they are debating online, while my liberal friends generally respond with something Rachel Maddow or Bernie Sanders said.  Talking points fly through the air, memes get repeated (even if the quotes are taken out of context or the person never actually said it).  That is not education.  That is public relations:  making "your side" look like the only sane choice, while playing up the flaws in the competition.

I've heard some conservative pundits claim that most professors instill a "liberal bias" in their students, or worse yet, that colleges encourage students to be anti-American.  It's a myth, but it's one I frequently encounter.  Because I live in Massachusetts, a blue state, many of my students may indeed have liberal views, especially on social issues.  But not all of them do.  While many of the students I encounter could be classified as center-left,  I have also had students who are center-right:  some who are pro-life, some who oppose gay marriage, even some who thought the war in Iraq was necessary.  And yes, I've had students whose parents vote for Republicans.  (One of my best students worked on the Romney campaign in 2012.  He and I had some great debates about politics, but the tone was always respectful, and although we differed on who would be the best president, when it came to his final exam, he got the "A" he deserved.) 

And that's my point:  all I ever ask of my students is that they have good reasons for their responses; that they read the materials I assign (whether they personally like those materials or not); and that they make up their own mind whether the points in each article or chapter are persuasive.  I have never penalized a student for disagreeing with me, and I don't expect them to always see things my way.  As long as students can demonstrate that they understood the readings, all will be well.  And if they didn't like a certain reading, as long as they can explain why not (without resorting to insult or name-calling), then I've done my job.

I feel sorry for the Duke student who could not even allow himself to read what Alison Bechdel wrote. I feel sorry for any student whose views are so rigid that they cannot even expose themselves to other beliefs.  Reading something does not mean accepting or believing it.  For example, when I was in college, I had to read the works of Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist theologians in my world religion class; but even though I did not agree with those readings, I would never have told my professor that as a Jew, I refused to even read them.  I worry that our culture has become so closed-minded that people, students included, see no benefit to learning other views or experiencing the world through someone else's eyes.

As a new semester begins, I hope that my students will find my classes challenging, thought-provoking, and interesting.  And yes, I know that some students will be in my classes because for them, college is a means to an end-- a place to acquire the skills to get a good job.  But I hope they will realize there's much more to a good education than that:  college really is an adventure, and along the way, students can encounter ideas and perspectives they might never have thought about before.  In fact, I believe the truly educated students are the ones who have mastered critical thinking, the ones who are able to make intelligent decisions and think for themselves. I hope that my classes will provide many opportunities for that kind of education to take place.  Welcome to the new semester!