This is the tenth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.
CHAPTER FIVE: DIGNITY IN EDUCATION (Part 2)
Girls and Bullying
Thanks to books like Queen Bees and Wannabes (on which the film Mean Girls was based) and Odd Girl Out, we now recognize that bullying is an equal opportunity activity–girls do it, too–and that it comes in subtler forms than the extortion of lunch money under penalty of a bloody nose. Suze Rutherford travels all over North America giving workshops to school administrators and teachers entitled “Unmasking Rankism: Changing the Tolerance of Disrespect in Our Schools” and “Odd Girl Out: The Ways Girls Bully.” She does this under the auspices of YES (Youth Empowering Systems) of Sebastopol, California.
Operation Respect is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating safe, caring, and respectful environments for children. Founded by folksinger Peter Yarrow of the group Peter, Paul, and Mary, it distributes educational resources designed to reduce the emotional and physical cruelty some children inflict on others through ridicule, bullying, and violence.
When kids are asked in class if they have ever been humiliated in public, typically all hands go up. The students are surprised to learn they are not alone, that the problem is universal. Operation Respect has developed a curriculum for schools to train teachers how to convince children of the hurtfulness of certain behaviors. It is already being used in twelve thousand American schools and camps. Peter Yarrow’s song “Don’t Laugh at Me” serves as Operation Respect’s anthem.
One-Upmanship and Elitism in Academia
When I was in college, a book called One-Upmanship was circulating that defined the practice of keeping one step ahead of others by appearing to have better information, connections, possessions, or experience. As it turned out, that little book provided a more accurate model of higher education than did the college catalog. One-Upmanship was to academics what Machiavelli’s The Prince was to politicians–a survival guide.
Although knowledge was worshipped, the business of passing it along was often profaned. For many students and professors the primary satisfaction lay not in the learning and teaching but rather in ranking the abilities and contributions of others and honing their skills at targeting the dignity of presumed inferiors. As one stung by the disdain of fellow students, I never suspected that even the brightest were ill-served by this snobbish atmosphere.
Recently, I came across some remarks by Alexandre Grothendieck, a German-born French mathematician who came of age in the mid-twentieth century–and whose impact on mathematics is compared to that of Einstein’s on physics. Listen to his lament:
Mathematics became a way to gain power, and the elite mathematicians of the day became smug, feared figures who used that power to discourage and disdain when it served their interests.
The competitive, snobbish attitudes of the upper crust of the mathematical world contrasts with the service to the mathematical community of writing clear and complete expositions that make fundamental ideas widely accessible. The mathematical community lost this sense of service as personal aggrandizement and the development of an exclusionary elite became the order of the day.
Grothendieck argues that such an atmosphere stifles creativity and renewal.He believes that innocent, childlike inquisitiveness gives birth to the creative impulse and he mourns the way it is trampled on by the desire for power and prestige. He traces his own creative capacity to “the naÃ¯ve, avid curiosity of the child… who has no fear of being once again wrong, of looking like an idiot, of not being serious, of not doing things like everyone else.”
Creative elites often cultivate an air of superiority and mystery, and resist sharing their knowledge and wisdom. I remember my shock when I read in the preface to a well-known mathematics text the author’s promise to give away the trade secrets in his field, and my growing amazement and gratitude as I discovered he was actually keeping his word. Much science and mathematics teaching is needlessly obscure, with obfuscation serving the purpose of limiting membership in the “guild.” Similarly, some spiritual teachers have been known to substitute mystification for clarification, thereby ensuring that their students do not become a threat to their authority.
Elitism comes in a variety of flavors. A brief description of polar opposites–Princeton, where I did my graduate work in physics, and Columbia, where I had my first teaching job–illustrates this.
Princeton had an Old World feel. Einstein had died just months before I got there and his spirit hung over the place. The professors behaved like gentlemen, and research into big, timeless questions set the tone. Academic robes were required at dinner in the graduate college.
In contrast, Columbia was imbued with the manic, competitive energy of New York City. The professors vied openly with each other and research focused on more concrete issues of immediate consequence to physics and careers.
At departmental lunches, Columbia professors would make “futures” bets on one another’s chances for a Nobel Prize: “$10,000 now for half your Nobel winnings if you get it”–that kind of thing. One battle-scarred professor summed up his feelings about a lifetime of racing for-the-roses research with a quote from Genghis Kahn: “It is not enough for you to succeed; your colleagues must fail.” I admired him for daring to put into words what was in fact a common attitude.
At Princeton, the competitiveness was no less intense, despite being more discreet. In the oak-paneled tearoom, colleagues spoke reverently of the mysteries of the universe, but an undercurrent of one-upmanship lurked behind the pleasantries. If you asked a question, you had to be prepared for a condescending put-down like, “Oh, that’s trivial,” followed by a breezy snow job that left you more confused than ever.
Knowledge is indeed power, and some, afraid of losing their edge, are loath to share it.
Despite their different styles, the scientific goal at both Princeton and Columbia was the same: to build models that accounted for the physical evidence, that predicted something new, and that suggested experiments that could be performed to confirm or disprove the theory. Fortunately, among the faculty in both departments there were some whose aim was to help you become the best scientist you could possibly be.
Apprenticing with them was an exacting but exhilarating experience. I can’t imagine a better way to absorb the mysteries of any field than working alongside a generous master.
Two recent stories, personal e-mail communications sent to me in October 2005, illustrate what can be done when professors indulge themselves at the expense of their students. The first, from a second year journalism student, demonstrates the common strategy of going over the head of the offending party. The second shows that in many cases, rankism need only be pointed out in order for it to be cured.
From the journalism student:
In my school, one professor stands out as the most feared writing teacher. He hates excuses.”Better never than late” is his favorite saying.
In a class last semester, he started off as tough and harsh as ever. But gradually he began criticizing students personally–rather than just critiquing their work–and rambling on about the stupidity of other professors. The class was dismayed, but because he was shielded by his prestige and position and because he had control of his students’ grades, no one dared to confront him.
Finally, a group of three classmates decided to speak to the department chair, who immediately arranged a meeting between the professor and a few of his peers. The faculty members first acknowledged the offending teacher’s years of accomplishment and service, but then made it clear that a growing number of people found his behavior abusive. The following week, the professor apologized to his classes and his behavior improved markedly, as did his mood.
Because the chair and faculty approached their colleague with respect, he responded in a positive way. They managed to get relief for the students, correct the errant professor, and strengthen the entire department.
Now the second e-mail:
One of my professors had an extremely bad habit. During classroom discussions, when a student was trying to present an idea or ask a question, he’d often cut them off midsentence and give us his view of things. At first, we didn’t really perceive this as a problem. His knowledge of the subject was vast and his speaking style almost addictive. Listening to him was such a pleasure you’d almost forget that he wasn’t listening to you. But eventually we realized that we weren’t getting as much as we ought to from the sessions.
Finally, three of us went to the professor’s office and explained the situation to him. I’m convinced that our approach was responsible for our success. We began by emphasizing our immense respect for him and made clear that we didn’t think he was interrupting us on purpose, but that it was affecting us adversely. The look of embarrassment that passed over his face was awful to behold. He genuinely did not realize what he’d been doing. Classroom discussions immediately improved.
As an invisible ailment, rankism is easy to miss. But once identified it can sometimes be cured by nothing more than the offending party’s basic sense of decency.
Society pays a terrible price for sponsoring institutions that force students to sacrifice their dignity in order to learn. Tragically, our schools merely reflect societal practices that force the same choice on everyone. The indignities of schooling in the early years keep many from acquiring even the basics and most from realizing their full potential.
Once established, the right to dignity will be as empowering in education as the right to vote is in governance.
Educating a Population of Model Builders
Thomas Jefferson realized that government of, by, and for the people required a literate citizenry. He called for “the enlightenment of the people,” which, in his time, meant literacy, to be achieved via compulsory, universal primary education. In the nineteenth century, secondary education became the rule, followed in the twentieth by a great expansion of college education. Even at this level, however, the focus has been on learning to use existing models, not discovering new ones.
In today’s world, the ability to use models is no longer enough. To thrive in a world of perpetually changing ideas and beliefs, we need to cultivate our innate human talent for building models. This calls for a change in the orientation of education at every level as well as enhanced opportunities for education extending through adulthood. Lifelong learning will be the rule, not the exception, and a dignitarian society will make it accessible to all, regardless of one’s ability to pay. New learning formats, which effectively challenge the presupposition that more learning means more schooling, are apt to become omnipresent as we move further into the digital age.
But can the elusive skills of innovation, discovery, and creativity that lie at the heart of model building be successfully taught? To borrow Jefferson’s inclusive language, is the enlightenment of the people–in the modern sense of educating a society of model builders–a realistic goal?
In medieval Europe, it was primarily priests who could read and write; literacy was deemed beyond the reach of ordinary folk. Today, enlightenment–in the sense of having the capability for revelatory insights needed in model building–is likewise held by many to be an esoteric faculty gifted to or attainable by only a chosen few. To establish a dignitarian society irreversibly, we have to do for enlightenment what universal primary education did for literacy: demystify the process and teach it to all.
Demystifying Enlightenment–Jefferson Redux
Live your life as if there are no miracles and everything is a miracle. –Albert Einstein
Although the experience of enlightenment has acquired a rarefied mystique in both East and West, the form relevant to twenty-first-century model builders is neither esoteric nor uncommon. In seeking to understand this phenomenon we can draw upon the inquiring traditions.
Scientific research culminates in the “eureka” of discovery. Artists describe their creative breakthroughs in remarkably similar language. Political transformation often originates in the emergence of a new personal identity, becoming the basis for a revised group consensus. (As the modern women’s movement has taught us,”The personal is political.”) Religious practices aim variously for emptiness, illumination, clarity, synthesis, self-realization, transcendence, or union with God.
In each of these arenas, protracted immersion in mundane details can lead to epiphanies. Although these may feel like bolts from the blue, they are usually preceded by a long period of drudgery. Typically we spend months, years, or even decades investigating something, pursuing a question, or applying ourselves to an endeavor. For what seems an eternity, we make one mistake after another, experience failure upon failure. Without this groundwork, breakthroughs rarely happen. It is only when we are steeped in the material and its contradictions–often feeling confused and hopeless–that resolution occurs in a revelatory insight wherein an old, collapsing model is superseded by a better one.
Depending on the context, “better” can mean more useful, effective, accurate, comprehensive, beautiful, elegant, or loving. Convincing others that what we’ve come upon is indeed better may take longer still, sometimes even beyond our own lifetime.
From this perspective, the experience of enlightenment–whether in a scientific, artistic, political, or spiritual context–is seen as a movement of mind that lasts but an instant rather than a sublime state that, once attained, becomes our blissful abode forever. In the framework of model building, enlightenment is the exhilarating experience of a fresh perception breaking the stranglehold of habit. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel laureate in literature, said this of narrative description: “[It] demands intense observation, so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous.” The differences in enlightenment as experienced in various fields pale in comparison with the deep similarities common to them all–a sense of blinders having been removed, of clear sight at last, of ecstatic revelation.
The experience of enlightenment can be thought of as a leap across a precipice from one foothold to another, except that it’s unintentional and unpredictable. For a period after landing we may feel elated, but it’s a mistake to confuse this afterglow with enlightenment itself. The latter is not the condition into which we have vaulted; rather, it is the leap that took us there.
That moments of enlightenment can’t be anticipated accounts for part of our fascination with them, but it also makes the experience vulnerable to mystification. History has seen many claimants to the titles of sage, genius, maestro, saint, or master. Transfixed by such figures, mesmerized by the aura of celebrity and mystery that envelops them, we often fail to notice that, like ourselves, they are ordinary human beings. When they’re not having an epiphany–which is most of the time–they’re much the same as everyone else. What sets them apart is a readier ability to rise above habit and see things freshly, thereby opening themselves to multiple enlightenment experiences.
Interestingly, virtually none of those who genuinely exhibit this talent lay claim to being enlightened. Albert Einstein poked fun at what he viewed as the popular misrepresentation of his abilities with the wry observation, “I am no Einstein.” Innumerable saints have said as much. Fortunately, the reticence and humility of those who establish a capacity for recurrent enlightenment experiences do not prevent, and may even help, them impart this key talent to students and followers.
Whether using it will result in a student hitting a first jackpot or the teacher hitting a second or third one–of that, alas, no one can be certain.
Students and seekers often collude in their own infantilization by maintaining habits of deference that lull them into believing that a creative breakthrough is something quite beyond them. Such dependent relationships with revered authority figures reflect a desire for a parent whose love is constant, whose wisdom is infallible, and on whom we can always rely. They may also come to serve as an excuse for not assuming responsibility ourselves: “How could I ever compete with the Master?”
The best teachers, like the best parents, freely transmit their knowledge, skills, and passion for truth-seeking to their charges without leaving them starry-eyed.As with so many of the most precious gifts in life, the best we can do to thank such benefactors is to pass what we’ve learned from them on to someone else.
An experience of enlightenment may come while arranging a bouquet for the dinner table or painting one destined for the Louvre, in a never-repeated phrase spoken to a friend or one that will be quoted for centuries, during an ascent of Mt. Everest or a walk in the park. Some breakthroughs get the Nobel Prize, some an acknowledging nod from a companion or a stranger. Others still are met only with inner recognition. But all involve breaking a habit and provide us with a new way of beholding the outer world or our inner selves.
In religious traditions, teachers impart the most profound truths (often amounting to metatruths–that is, truths about truth-seeking itself, or truth-seeking strategies) to students through what is aptly called “transmission of mind.” The phrase captures the transfer of model-building skills, regardless of the field of inquiry. There were times during my physics training when I felt I was experiencing a transmission of mind from my professor, John Wheeler, merely by hanging out with him and observing closely as he tackled problems. Sometimes he’d pass on something he attributed to one of his mentors, Niels Bohr.
Transmissions of mind often have a lineage, but they include more grandmothers and schoolteachers than Nobel laureates.
In the twenty-first century, as more and more people realize their model-building potential, the capacity for, and experience of, enlightenment will spread throughout the world, much as reading and writing did in the twentieth.
[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]