Tag Archives: Vera Brittain

Bored with Thinking

Many years ago I read a paragraph in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth that was the single most helpful piece of advice I ever received concerning teaching. Brittain writes thattestament of youth

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

The idea of thinking and learning as being intimately connected to the desire to think and learn has driven my pedagogy for a long time, but perhaps even more important in this passage is Brittain’s claim that wanting to think and learn is a moral issue. In our contemporary world, learning is often understood in terms of processing information and then applying it, usually with a view to becoming a more and more efficient and productive member of society. But how might the cultivation of thought and learning be transformed if we paid close attention to the moral aspects of these foundational human activities?arendt

Hannah Arendt once said that “every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them children.” We all know that part of the process of civilizing these little barbarians is equipping them with values and with a moral compass, as well as providing training in how to use these moral tools. If thinking well and being committed to lifetime learning is part of being a moral human being, then muddled and sloppy thinking, as well as the attitude that no further learning is necessary, are moral failings of the same order as lying, cheating, and stealing. We live in a world in which we are in danger of—if we have not already arrived at—cognitive immorality. Not because of the immoral contents of our thoughts, but rather because of our collective unwillingness to commit to the hard work of thinking clearly, work that takes the sort of time and commitment that modern human beings are often loathe to engage with.

I began thinking anew about the moral features of thinking and learning after listening to an interview that Krista Tippett did on her On Being radio program with Maria Popova.brain pickings

Maria Popova: Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age

Popova is a bit of social media phenomenon; she is most notable for Brain Pickings, a popular blog that began as a weekly email to seven of her friends. Now a website, Twitter feed and weekly digest, Brain Pickings covers a wide variety of cultural topics: history, current events, and images and texts from the past. In the introduction to their conversation, Tippett called Popova a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova observes that

As a culture, we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. We’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. The true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else.

I can think of no better contemporary example of this than our current political cycle. The sense I get is not so much that candidates and voters are incapable of thinking. Rather, there appears to be general agreement with violetViolet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, who once quipped that “All this thinking is overrated.” Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders telling us “I will do this” should be enough—why insist on an explanation or account of how this will be done? Most of us remember being told on a middle or high school mathematics exam to “show your work”—no shortcuts allowed, in other words. How then have we come collectively to a place where we cannot be bothered to “show our work” when it comes to some of the most important decisions we will make in the next several years?

During my childhood and adolescent years I was occasionally told, particularly by family members and people who attended our church, that “you think too much.” A corollary was often that “things really aren’t that complicated.” The truth, of course, is that there are very few times in life where more thought is unnecessary, and things really are that complicated. There is a strong tendency in human nature to want things simplified; even more, there is a strong desire to move from premise to conclusion without having to do any of the nasty and time-consuming work in between. Part of moral and cognitive maturity is to move forward with intelligence and conviction through a very complicated and messy world. We would like everything to be reducible to a bumper sticker or sound bite but, as jamesWilliam James reminds us, “Nature is not bound to satisfy our presuppositions. In the great boarding house of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean.”

The moral aspects of teaching often begin with resisting the temptation to deliver a product, to give the customer what she wants. Sometimes, Maria Popova suggests, what people want is the last thing they should get.

Giving people what they want isn’t nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need. There’s always a shortcut available, a way to be a little more ironic, cheaper, more instantly understandable. There’s the chance to play into our desire to be entertained and distracted regardless of the cost. Most of all, there’s the temptation to encourage people to be selfish, afraid, and angry. Or you can dig in, take your time, and invest in a process that helps people see what they truly need.t and f

I try to focus on the importance of “digging in” every time I’m in the classroom. But observing myself outside of the classroom, I find that I have a lot of work to do. I spend time on Twitter, even though communicating in 120 characters or less is hardly an example of in-depth discourse. I quickly block or unfriend Facebook people who clearly hold political views that are radically different from mine. I bristle when someone challenges me in the “Comments” section of this blog. If I am going to call for moral maturity in thinking and learning, that maturation process begins with me.

Being Uncomfortable

Final exams begin next week, so I’m getting ready for the next round of reading surprising things that my students have learned. One of the things I learned shortly after becoming a college professor twenty years ago was that there is a certain sort of black humor that teachers find particularly entertaining. Contributions used to be anonymously tacked onto bulletin boards in faculty break rooms; now, they tend to spread like a virus on Facebook and other social media outlets. images[2]For lack of a more genteel title, this sort of humor can be called “Stupid Things My Students Say (and write).” Especially during finals week, teachers love sharing the outrageously awful and pitifully humorous mistakes that students make as they meld various items from lectures and readings over the semester into unique and bizarre new facts. Sometimes such mistakes involve just one wrong word or name, such as when one of my students told me on the midterm exam that a central event in the images[3]Epic of Gilgamesh is when

Gilgamesh and Enkidu went on a quest to kill the great monster Hammurabi.

One of the most reliable sources of such humor is when a student innocently creates a wonderful anachronism, such as when one of my colleague’s students suggested thatThe_Murder_Of_Agamemnon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14994[1]

Agamemnon expected his wife Clytemnestra to act like a good Christian wife, but she didn’t.

And then there are the times that a student, scrambling to fill in the lines of a blue book with words when he or she doesn’t have a clue about what to write, just makes shit up, as in these responses reported  by a colleague to a prompt on the final exam to summarize what imagesLZZD9UTDAristotle has to say about happiness:

People attain happiness through being happy – overall, it is not the wealth or pleasure or power, it is the state at which they are happy to achieve happiness.


Aristotle believed that in order for humans to achieve happiness, he or she must practice happiness in order to achieve happiness.

As a Facebook commenter exclaimed, imagesE102E0KD“Holy tautology, Batman!” But as a matter of fact, after many years of introducing students to Aristotle’s ethics, that last one isn’t bad . . .

Then there is a related game that professors play called “Things My Students Say Trying to Get Their Grade Changed.” This one isn’t so much funny as just disheartening—teachers share these stories and chuckle about them because if we didn’t we would bang our heads on our desks in frustration. The latest came yesterday on a Facebook post from a colleague reporting that she just received an email from a student who says that she “is uncomfortable with the idea of receiving a C.” I must admit that I have received very few emails or communications of this sort over the years from my students. M3[1]That’s probably because I often include the following story from my favorite professor during my Master’s program. Dr. H said that when he was a young and clueless undergraduate, he once received a “C” on a paper. Armed with all of his best arguments as to why this grade was a gross injustice, he marched to the offending professor’s office to make his case for a higher grade. Before Dr. H even opened his mouth, his professor snatched the paper out of his hand, crossed out the “C” with a red magic marker, replaced it with a “D”, and as he handed the paper back asked “Would you care to try for an ‘F’?” Perhaps it is when my students realize that I think this story is sort of cool that they decide not to challenge a grade in this class.

When my colleague reported that her student was uncomfortable with the grade she had earned, I was reminded of a text I had not thought of for a long time. In her powerful and moving memoir Testament_of_Youth_Book_Cover[1]Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain gets to the heart and truth of the learning process more directly than any author I am aware of:

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

This insight, along with Simone Weil’s observation that

5395352874_4919fa8d03_z[1]The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade

has been the basis of my “teaching philosophy” for many years. I often tell my students early in the semester that I consider each new class to be like a rubber band. My job is to see how far I can stretch the rubber band before it snaps.elastic-rubber-band-stretch-top-chef-masters-science-png[1]

Around this time last year I held eleven one-hour oral final exams with the juniors and seniors who were part of my honors colloquium entitled “Beauty and Violence” this last semester. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, and I cannot recall a class in which the students worked harder, struggled more mightily with new and challenging ideas, and embraced being uncomfortable more than in this one. The issues at hand were of the highest stakes imaginable—it is possible to have an honest faith in the middle of world that challenges just about every one of the traditional ideas we have inherited about God?—and students expressed frequently in class, in writing and on-line just how paradigm-shattering yet strangely attractive the semester’s work was. During her oral exam, one of my students simply said “This class really messed me up—in a good way!” I told Jeanne that evening that this phrase would be a part of all of my course syllabi from now on. Each syllabus used to say “My job is not to tell you what to think. My job is to get you to think.” Now it will simply say “My job is to mess you up—in a good way.”  Did I ever mention that I have the greatest job in the world?BeUncomfortable[1]


images[3]I got into a bad habit a few years ago that I thought I had broken. Over the past several years I have had a dozen or so letters to the editor published by our local city newspaper, usually in response to someone else’s letter to the editor that annoyed the hell out of me. I read the paper on-line, and soon discovered that it is possible to comment on any letter or article immediately, with postings collecting underneath the letter on the screen. Such discussions often go in directions vastly different from what the original letter suggests. The philosopher and teacher in me wants to jump into such discussions, especially when they involve important issues that mean a lot to me. With the recent addition of Facebook-logo-ICON-02[1]Facebook into my life, lately I’ve been finding it hard to resist the temptation.

What happens, though, is not a discussion. The battle lines get drawn instantly on every possible issue between conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, all protected by the anonymity of a screen name. So “X” calls the writer of the letter under consideration a “bleeding heart” because she is calling for additional funding to be allocated for environmental issues, “Y” calls “X” a “typical Republican moron” because all he/she cares about is his bank account, “X” responds that “Y” must be a Head_up_ass_liberal_zoom3-300x287[1]“liberal with his head up his ass” because global warming is only a theory, several other posters get involved within five minutes, and we’re off the races.

At this point I should either click on the sports section or turn the computer off. Instead, I take at least 30 seconds to craft the “post to end all posts” on this topic, in response to which all other contributors to the discussion will, after a moment of respectful e-silence, fall over each other in their gratitude for having been shown the light. What happens instead is that “X” and “Y” (as well as many others) turn on me for all sorts of unexpected reasons. I must be more of a liberal with his head up his ass than “Y” is (“X”), my ideas will never work because I sound like an Ivory_Tower[1]“ivory tower pointy headed intellectual” (“Y”). Or even worse, sometimes the discussion goes on as if my post had never occurred. It’s bad enough to be e-trashed on a discussion forum; it’s far worse to be e-ignored. So now I really should turn the computer off, read something, write something, take a walk, talk to a human being—anything but continue participating. But of course I have to respond (if I’ve been misunderstood and insulted) or post even more eloquently and pointedly (if I’ve been ignored). And throughout the morning I find myself frequently returning to the website to see who has posted, what they’ve said, and spending more time contributing to a discussion that never was a discussion in the first place. It’s like driving by a bad accident on the highway—I have to look.

Why am I doing this? I’d like to believe that my participation in such “discussions” is a well-intentioned but misplaced instance of my teaching vocation in action. All teachers want to facilitate the opening of closed minds, the establishment of the life-long process of learning. Now I know that the participants in these “discussions” are not my students, but I have in the back of my mind the glimmer of hope that if a person is interested enough to participate, that person might also be interested in learning something, in broadening horizons, in realizing that even the most obvious “no brainer” sort of “truth” might be wrong. Vera-Brittain-002[1]And I’m accustomed to encountering resistance from my experiences in the classroom. As Vera Brittain writes, “most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.”dav_soc[1] I fully realize that defensiveness is a natural reaction to having one’s most treasured assumptions challenged, so I expect resistance. Learning and opening up hurts—that’s why they killed Socrates, right? Richard Rorty says it nicely: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making theRorty11[1] things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless.” So I try not to do that. But I’ve never been so frustrated in my life, to the point that a couple of weeks ago in the middle of a typically rigid and inflexible discussion I posted “If there’s any one who regularly posts here who has ever, even once, changed their opinion on an important issue because of something someone posted here, please post and let me know!” And no one ever did.

But guess what? If anyone else had posted that challenge, I would not have answered it either. Because I’ve never learned anything new or changed my mind about anything from participating. Well I guess I’ve learned one thing—I’m just as rigid, inflexible, and intolerant as everyone else who participates. I can account for that partially because of the format; dueling sound bites and bumper sticker slogans, wrapped in anonymity, seldom lead to anything but arguing and e-yelling. But there’s more to it. When I step from behind my self-righteous “facilitator of lifetime learning” teacher screen, I’m just another worried, insecure human being who is scared to death that he might not have all the answers. That’s who is typing the contributions to these forums on my computer, not someone who has “seen the light” and wants to help others see it too. As I accuse others of being unable to listenhc[1], to think, to deliberate, to imagine that they might be wrong, I realize that there’s no place inside of me where I even for a moment suspect that I might be able to learn something from an extreme pro-lifer, from a hard core conservative Republican, from a person whose religious beliefs include the Earth being created 6000 years ago, from someone who is convinced that global warming is a hoaxEVOLUTION[1] and natural selection is “just a theory,” or from someone who thinks that the solution to gun violence is more guns and who believes that the bombings in Boston last week would not have happened if those watching the race had been packing firearms. Who died and made me God, so sure that the value of another’s opinion is directly proportional to how closely it matches up to mine?

So it would be best for me to stay away from such forums—they don’t offer many opportunities for growth. But the first word in the monastic rule has come to mean a great deal to me is “Listen.”  Perhaps a good post-Lenten exercise for me would be to spend forty days reading the comments on letters to the editor carefully and never saying anything. Just e-listen. I don’t think I can do it.