Writing as a slave or as a free man

Writing, Write, Fountain Pen, Ink, Scribe, Handwriting

Perhaps one of the timeless questions I get from my students is, “What do you expect from this paper/assignment/etc.?” The question is justified by a mentality that is partly formed by an educational system in which the new gods are “outcomes” and “assessments.” Be that as it may, it also witnesses to the attitude of a slave, who writes and thinks the way his master tells him.

After all, when you are a student, it is very difficult to write otherwise. You are not fully yourself, you are still in the process of finding who you will be at the end of this education, and so you expect to write as you are told. I actually remember that even if I thought I was a free man, I was not so during my schooling years, and my writing changed the moment I felt I had full responsibility for deciding to say  something. At that moment, regardless of the quality of the writing, I started to do so like a free man, not like a slave. 

I often tell my students that they should write as professionals. That they should not think of my expectation, but rather they should think of what is to be said regarding a certain topic and to serve their audience by clarifying their ideas on the topic. In fact, there is something interesting about this difference, being free and being a slave in writing: when you write as a free man, you become a servant to others (unless you are the slave of your own ego); when you write as a slave, you don’t serve anyone, not even oneself, because you deny yourself before the power of the master.

Writing like a free man is not saying whatever comes to your mind, but manifesting yourself freely as a member of a body of people: recognizing that writing makes sense only as long as it serves the good of another.

A good scene from La vita è bella about the art of serving:

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I can choose to become the slave of another: false sense of freedom. Out of freedom, I can act as that which I am called to be: a servant of any other.

Parenting, Socrates, and the self

Toward the end of Socrates’ speech during his trial, he addresses his accusers saying,

this much I ask from them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody…”

This is a model of parenting that is very foreign to our day and age. Socrates asks his accusers to treat his children the way he has treated them. He ended up in prison mainly because of the way in which he treated his accusers, making them feel embarrassed in public, often before their own students. Socrates says something even more outrageous to our modern sensibilities: tell your students that they are nobody, especially when they think they are somebody.

Imagine a parent telling his or her children that they are nobody. In today’s world, this is easily interpreted as psychological abuse; we would say that the parent does not allow his or her children to be themselves. In fact, Socrates’ attitude seems to be completely opposed to the desire to manifest one’s own individuality.

There’s a beautiful song in what I thought a beautiful movie, The Greatest Showman, that speaks of manifesting one’s individuality. The following video is quite moving, for it shows someone who feels as if she came out of the oppression you experience when you don’t feel welcome for who you are.

The shout, “THIS IS ME,” and Socrates’ “my children are nobody” seem to be so foreign. But this is so only at a superficial level. Socrates wants his children to be reminded that they are nobody whenever they believe they are somebody. For human beings, this usually happens when we fall in love with what the world has made us to be and we consider this product of our era as our true self. In fact, Socrates’ philosophy is a call for each one of us to find ourselves: our true selves. For this, one needs to be reminded first that whatever he considers himself to be is a nobody created by the world around him: the ideas he has ingurgitated, the fears that formed him, the praises that he received. Socrates only says that we need to remember that all of those things are not us, but are the nobodies that they created. Give them up, and the true self will shine, he seems to say. It is most likely that we would not need to shout to the world that “this is me” when we truly find it.

Student tears

kindergarten.png

Source: http://www.reusableart.com/schoolroom.html.

 

I think I see tears in her eyes.

She’s probably in her late thirties, and she participates in the Convocation for freshmen at her college.

I don’t think I have seen her before. She may be in one of my classes in the future. Or, who knows, she may have taken philosophy some other place. Still, I can’t get over the fact that I think I saw tears in her eyes. At Convocation…

Perhaps it is her first experience in college. It’s not easy to come back to school after so many years. It’s not easy to see that everyone around you is truly dedicated to you, especially after years in which you may have dedicated yourself to others.

Perhaps she has had a difficult life, trying to navigate having a family and having a desire to pursue an education. Or she may have come to school with no such desire, but rather out of a need for a better job.

It does not matter.

Here, now, I think I see tears in her eyes.

I know there will be moments during this semester when I may no longer find resources for dedication–students’ lack of care and of interest, regardless of the reasons one may have for it (being overwhelmed, not loving the field of study etc), is a good friend with despondency. And the semester is long; such things always happen. But I need to remember these tears. I cannot become passive in the presence of these tears.

Give me one student tear out of love for education, and millions of teachers will come back to life.

 

The train to Auschwitz and the free shepherd


Mrs. Magda Brown, speaking to my students at the Illinois Holocaust Museum

“I thought that the entire world was in the boxcar. I could not understand how there was a free man, shepherding his flock.” These words are Mrs. Magda Brown’s; she was 17 when the event she recollects took place. The train that was shipping her to Auschwitz-Birkenau was just crossing the beautiful Carpathian mountains into Poland–or into what used to be Poland. The young teenager Magda had been standing the whole time since the departure from Budapest. The trains were filled with people who were scared, hungry and thirsty, having no idea where they were taken, and being treated without any consideration for their humanity. When she, by chance, reached the small window of the boxcar, she saw the beauty of nature and a lonely shepherd; and she was shocked. How could someone be free since it felt as if the entire world was captive in the trains that were marching to Auschwitz?

Whenever I listen to Mrs. Magda Brown’s story about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor, a novel aspect touches me (see her website, Magda Brown, here). I think I have heard her speak six times, but it is only this sixth time that the episode with the free man in the mountains stayed with me. She may have not mentioned it before, or I may have been so touched by her description of what it means to fully concentrate on only one thought, “If I could just have a drop of water,” that I may have missed it. But now, on the occasion of a new visit with students at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, this image touched me.

One may ask the question why the world did not stop when such atrocities took place. But there is also something else that Mrs. Brown’s words inspire: how many times are we unaware of the trains of despair that pass by us? How many times am I unaware of the trains that take my brethren to their dooms, while actually believing that I am a good shepherd?

We are all contemporaries, but we each live into such different worlds, and we rarely fully participate in the life of another, be it for joy or pain. However, that shepherd, taking care freely of his flock in the Carpathian mountains, belonged to the same reality in which thousands of people were treated like cattle and sent to Auschwitz. He belonged to the same reality in which other thousands were sent in similar boxcars to Siberia.

Of course, one can hardly believe that we can take upon ourselves all the pains of the world. But we can take upon ourselves to do that which we can. Perhaps to take care of the sheep on the mountains. Perhaps to bake bread in a bakery over night. Perhaps to dedicate all energy to educate the youth that “Genocide doesn’t happen suddenly,” as Magda Brown often says in her speeches (and I use here the words from her website). “It builds gradually and we need to learn from our own mistakes. With my testimony, I hope I can bring a face–something human–to anyone who listens to me, so they can see and learn.”

May we all be free shepherds.

Words do matter: why "objective testing" is a harmful expression

 

 

I recently heard in two different situations the expression “objective testing,” referring to tests which can be easily assessed by anyone as long as that person is in possession of an answer sheet. In other words, tests which include true/false, multiple choice, or other such “click the answer” questions.

I have to admit that I was puzzled when I heard this expression for the first time. First, I did not know what it meant–and I was not the only one. Another faculty, who also did her schooling on a different continent, was confused as well. Second, if there are “objective” tests, then it must be that there are “not-objective” ones as well, or perhaps subjective tests. So the question may be, what does “objective” mean in this context?

One may reasonably imply that such tests show with precision whether students know the material or not. However, many people working in higher education agree that using “objective” tests rather results in students studying how to pass the test, regardless of whether they understand the material or not. No one asks you for reasons why you chose “a,” “b,” “c,” or “d” in an “objective” test. This is why we speak of people who perform well on tests and people who do not. Thus, objective tests may show how much students are prepared to take a test, and not how much they understand the content of the course. Just consider this example: students may easily recognize that a certain clause is the definition of a concept, but have no idea what that definition actually means.

But if such tests do not “objectively” assess the understanding of students, they are called “objective” for a different reason: they imply that the grading is objective, that the instructor cannot bring into the process his or her subjectivity. Other tests, then, such as essays, for example, are not objective. It is actually a slap on the face of the faculty, even if it is not intended as such.

The phrase “objective testing” is a very harmful one, one that suggests that the instructors can be accused of subjectivity in grading. It is a culture that produces complaints and the transformation of education in “justification for the grade.” It is also a culture that produces “test-takers,” because it is easier and less problematic for both the providers of education and their clients (and I use notions from economic transactions on purpose) to just learn how to take tests. Students study for tests, and instructors don’t need to spend time reading essays, commenting on them, and justifying grades.

Here is a consequence of this emphasis on “objective” testing: I could start wondering why I spend hours reading papers, entering into dialogue with students on these papers, and commenting on them so that students would hopefully read these comments and perhaps write better next time. Can’t I just use a scantron, an “objective test,” and thus have peace of mind? Wouldn’t I have more time to write my own papers, to read books? “Objectively” speaking, wouldn’t it be rational for me to choose an “objective” test instead of opening myself to the potential criticism of students who may perceive me “unfair” when grading papers because I do not use “objective testing”?

But really, this is not a claim that what is called “objective” testing is not valuable. Different situations may call for different solutions. The problem comes with calling such testing “objective,” as if other tests are just “second-class citizens” in the world of testing.
Words do matter. In this case, the use of the expression “objective testing” may just be a symptom of the potential (and I say “potential” because I want to remain optimist) transformation of our education system into a factory that produces uniformity, lack of thinking, and an army of “objective-test-takers.”

Teaching suffering and forgiveness – the world of the living dead


Photo taken at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, IL, by Amy Svob, one of my students.

 I read last night a post that really struck a chord with me. Let me just say that when I uttered some words after reading it, I sounded as if I had a cold. It is about teaching the Holocaust, and you can read it here.

The post touched me so much because the feeling expressed there is very familiar. I teach a class on suffering and forgiveness. We spend seven weeks on the Holocaust, and seven weeks on communist persecution. The first time I taught it, I was a mess. I don’t think that I had a day without tears. Not in class, but preparing for it. I have taught it again several times, but the crying diminished–perhaps a defense mechanism, as my good friend and colleague Monica suggests, or perhaps an acceptance of that painful presence, an assimilation of it, as another friend calls it. Nevertheless, every semester that I begin a new section of this course, I do it with fear. To me, it is a trip that someone takes into hell, and there is no way to know how you come out of there. To make things even more complicated, I do not do it alone, but with my students.

I remember every single student who has taken these courses. I remember their papers in a detailed way. This is because we enter together into a different world: the world of the living dead. There is a certain atmosphere that takes birth in these classes, and I always think it is because of a presence that comes from beyond the encounter between students and teacher. The millions of voices that need to be heard are there with you. And they have a life that is palpable, even if they are no longer physically present. The millions that perished in the Holocaust. The millions that perished in the Siberian Gulag and in the communist dungeons. Their pain and their suffering are somehow very alive. Even more, they require your presence; they need to be heard. If you truly offer your presence, you discover that they were already in your heart and they cry from there to be heard.

Suffering and Forgiveness. I truly think that teaching on the Holocaust and the communist persecution is a journey within one’s soul.

P.S. A video with Mrs. Magda Brown, a Holocaust survivor, who visited my class the first time I taught it. 

 

So that philosophy is not a massage to a wooden leg

While teaching philosophy as a course in general education (so not to students who are majoring or minoring in philosophy), I have often experienced a situation in which the responsibility for the students who were in front of me conflicted with the responsibility I felt toward my own field of study. If I really bring down to earth the philosophy of Plato, Descartes, or Kierkegaard, somehow it feels that I betray these philosophers, that I diminish them to something that they are not. Even more, it feels as if I betray my field. If, on the contrary, I speak of the same philosophers as I think one ought to speak of them if one were to remain faithful to them, students are completely lost and experience nothing of the beauty of a thinker. So I often say things about philosophers that I would never utter in the company of my peers, because these claims would demonstrate a lack of scholarly accuracy.

So what am I to do, divided so between these two responsibilities?

The answer may be connected with how we understand truth, whether it is always expressed in a statement or whether it is born in the relationship between two human beings.  At times, to be truthful to another human being one needs to avoid “true statements.” Suppose my son were three years old and he would ask me how he got into his mom’s belly. If I told him the truth, I would completely misunderstand the relationship I have with him. And I would destroy his soul. Being loyal to the truth of our relationship, I must tell him a different story. I would do so because I would be focused on him, on the person that is presented to me at a certain moment, and not on an “object,” the “truth about the engendering of children.” I would be focused on his becoming, on his wellness, and on the possibility of giving birth to Truth (Beauty) in our midst.

I think education works the same way. If I am “true” to philosophy, then I lose both philosophy and my students. Being “true” to philosophy, I would actually be true to myself. To an extent, I would worship me while believing I worship philosophy–I would be overwhelmed, completely structured by my idolatrous understanding of ideas. But philosophy in education is always focused on good life–and on the good life of another. It is the good life of the one who is presented before me as someone on the road of his or her perfection.

Plato would agree that “philosophy” can become at times, with a Romanian expression, a massage to a wooden leg. It may be professional, it may look good, but it would do nothing. But genuine philosophy is always directed toward good life–and not my life, but the life of the one who is presented to me as promise.

In fact, being faithful to the needs of others (but the needs of others who are on the way toward their perfection), one is faithful to philo-sophia as well, even if it may not look like it on first sight.

 

P.S. Philosophy: the plane tree in the desert that gives shade so that we can rest and continue our road toward us (see Plato’s Phaedrus).

Teachers, students, and their interdependence

Let me tell you a true story. A long time ago, when I was in high school, I really loved French. For some reason that I do not fully understand today, one of my favorite authors was Honoré de Balzac. One day during my sophomore year, our regular French teacher, a young lady with whom all of us boys were in love, had to miss class. She was replaced by another teacher from our school, professor Cornea. He was probably in his late 50s, and he had the reputation of a tough one. He came to class, threw the large register with our grades on his desk, and told all of us with what I then considered to be a despising attitude to get our notebooks and do some exercises from the textbook. He acted as if we were not worthy of his attention, as if we were all some rascals who, being in mathematics and physics (there are majors in high school in Romania), don’t understand the high value of French literature and language. He did not talk to us once during class, and he left in the same manner. A dead teacher, as I thought at that moment.

A couple of years after this episode, when I was about to become a senior, my mom thought I should take private lessons with a tutor in French. My love for the French language and culture had remained the same, and my dream was to go study in Paris (and perhaps meet Emil Cioran). My mom told me that she would speak with Professor Cornea, the one who was a sub a couple of years before. I implored my mom to not send me to him, telling her that he was a bad teacher, but my mom knew that he was the best teacher in town. “You’ll go to him because I know what a good teacher means.” And, where I am from (both temporally and geographically), if your mom tells you to do something, regardless of whether you want it or not, you do it. So I went. To my surprise, professor Cornea was completely different. He worked with us (there were two other students in my group) relentlessly and beyond the hour per week for which he was paid. Seeing my love for literature, he talked to me about books. He gave me Gabriel Liiceanu’s The Paltinis Diary, which strengthened my resolve to study philosophy. And he became not only my mentor, but also my friend. One day, I gave him something I wrote, some sort of “philosophical diary,” and he called me the next morning at 7:00 am to just tell me that he enjoyed it and that we need to talk. A phone call like that can make the year, not only the day, of a student in high school.

From time to time I wondered why there was this difference between the professor I met at school and the one at home, during private tutoring sessions. I did not have an answer before I started teaching myself. I then realized that if the professor who came in my classroom when I was a sophomore was dead, if there was no life in him as a professor, it was because I had murdered him. I and others like me, who may have perceived him as their enemy and may have had a complete lack of interest in their education. After years and years of encountering students who did not seem to care, professor Cornea may have become cynical. Slowly, the energy and life with which he probably began his teaching career faded away. At home, in the private sessions, he knew that I was there because I wanted to be there, because I cared, and my presupposed love for what I was to become nourished him and gave him the power to offer his best.We often forget that education is an encounter between two individuals who love a third: the student as he or she will be after the educational encounter. And in the absence of this care, which paradoxically nourishes both student and teacher, each one of them fades away and becomes in time the “murderer” of the other. If my experience with professor Cornea had remained the one I had that day at school, I may have completely missed encountering a person. And if it had repeated itself, he may have destroyed in me the love I had for French, in the same way in which we, students, may have destroyed in him the hope that his education was meaningful. When the love for the outcome of any educational encounter is absent, when the love for the new person about to be born in spirit is absent, students and teachers become people who extinguish the being of the other. Professor Cornea, who is no longer among us but who is always alive in my heart, taught me about the vulnerability we all have in the absence of care; he also taught me that the well being of each of us depends on the other, and that if I have a “bad student” or a “bad teacher” I need to first ask myself about the responsibility I have for it.

Professor Cornea often invited me for walks in the Fagaras country side, where we spent time discussing French literature and Romanian philosophy.