The revolutionary act of reading

An old post I thought I’d republish

I’ve been reading ever since I remember. I could read before I entered kindergarten, and I’m told I read to the other kids in my class. I read the backs of shampoo bottles, I read before bedtime, I read on long car trips, even as my father admonished me to get my nose out of a book and “look at the beautiful scenery.” I was a weird kid, and at times, books were my only friends.

I was trading book recommendations with one of my new professors this semester who kindly obliged my interest, but said offhand, “I doubt you’ll have much time for extra reading this semester.” “Lady,” I thought, “you sure don’t know me yet.” Today I checked out two books from the library by the new guy I’m supposed to do a seminar on in her class weeks from now — Dan P. McAdams. I like to get to know my theorists. I also grabbed a stack of other things, some of which I probably won’t get around to before they’re due, but I’ll get around to at least a few. Reading is to me what swimming is to fish.

I spent a good portion of my childhood perusing the secondhand books at The Librairie, a tiny bookshop in the French Quarter, a block from my grandparents’ house. I brought in old books for trade, and white-haired, red-suspendered Fred tallied up my credits and marked the total on a bookmark. I knew the shelves by heart, and spotted new arrivals instantly. When Faber in Fahrenheit 451 said, “Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land?” maybe it was the smoke from Fred’s pipe that had saturated the pages, but I knew precisely what he was talking about.

So no wonder it broke my heart when @johntspencer tweeted today that one of his students told him:

“I’ve never been to a book store. The only book stores around here are adult ones.”

It’s not like me to go to the verge of tears over a tweet, but I can’t imagine the poverty of a life that isn’t saturated with and surrounded by books.

I don’t know how to make it happen, but I envision two things:

An organization of book buddies (like Big Brothers and Big Sisters) that collects gift cards, used bookstore credits, and just plain donations, and takes kids who wouldn’t get the chance otherwise to the store to pick out their own books, and

A group of booklovers who take the time out to hang with kids and their respective stacks of books on a Saturday afternoon and model a love of reading. Imagine all those fingers moving across the page, and whispers of help with difficult words. How many adults do we know who lament that they simply don’t have the time to read? Let’s make the time, and let’s share it.

Create a culture of reading for pleasure. Forget about the stereotype of the weird loner kid who always has his or her nose in a book; let’s make reading a communal act. It requires no special tools, no money as long as you have a library card, and no special class or socioeconomic standing. The joys of reading are theoretically available to just about everyone. Let’s make it so.

Education of Empire versus Education of Creation

While in many ways I consider the desacralization of educational institutions a good thing, I also feel as though we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater, losing millennia of universal Wisdom along with contentious doctrinal teachings.

One such piece of Wisdom is the distinction between “empire” and “creation,” which Wes Howard-Brook discusses in his Tikkun Online piece about the Vatican’s recent smackdowns of its nuns. This duality has gone by other names — Matthew Fox talks of fall/redemption theology and creation theology, for instance — but the concepts are so useful outside of a theological context that I prefer the names with the least religious connotations: empire and creation.

Let’s start with empire and creation in a theological context, and then move on to their educational implications.

Religion of Empire

When we speak of religion of empire, we are referring to both its origins and its mindset. It is important to note that much of modern Christianity, stemming from Roman Catholicism, is heavily influenced by the culture of the Roman Empire, which predominated in the days and years after Jesus’ death. The Romans, to put it briefly, were in the business of conquest, and, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out in The Wisdom Jesus, they placed an emphasis on uniformity, order, and authority.

When religious organizations and clergy speak in terms of divine authority, doctrine, dogma, thou shalts and thou shalt nots, they are invoking the ghosts of the Roman Empire. The institution of the Church may not be known for its nimbleness — it took 350 years for it to pardon Galileo — but it is notable for its longevity and the power it continues to wield.

The empire state of mind is one that is clearly intended to serve the preservation of the hierarchy. We know that the Divine, if we believe in one, isn’t going anywhere, regardless of the rise or fall of the Catholic Church, so the attachment to this particular institution seems a bit misplaced.

Religion of Creation

What preceded a theology of empire was the theology of creation that the historical Jesus preached and made manifest through his works. When we talk about a theology of creation, it’s important to note we’re not talking about Creationism. Put simply, we’re talking about that which creates and supports life. And when we talk about supporting life, we’re not talking about mere physical survival, in the sense that pro-life advocates in the abortion debate use the word. We’re talking about thriving. And that goes for everyone. This respect for vibrancy flows naturally into a sense of community, concern for social justice, and care for the environment. It’s about creating heaven here on earth.

It sounds like a simple enough choice, but creation is a risky path. Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy who loved everyone, healed the sick, and fed the hungry and, because he was divinely ordained to do so, saved us all by dying on a cross. His repeated challenges to authorities and hierarchies were what really made him remarkable and put him on the path to Golgotha.

This message is embedded in the parables if you can look past the filters of empire. Take, for example, the well-worn Parable of the Talents.

The Parable of the Talents: A Modern Retelling

Imagine, for a moment, the reality show The Apprentice, except that three teams are competing instead of two. Mr. Trump calls the teams to the boardroom. To the team that was most successful on the previous challenge, he gives $5,000, to the next team, $2,000, and to the third team, $1,000. Mr. Trump sends the teams away to work on the challenge, and later calls them back to the boardroom.

The first team reports that they have doubled Mr. Trump’s money, as does the second. “Well done,” says Mr. Trump. But the project manager from the third team reports, “Mr. Trump, we knew you to be a hard man, accumulating wealth you haven’t earned. We were afraid, so we sat on the money. Here is your $1,000 back.”

Without deliberation, Mr. Trump tells the project manager of the third team, “You’re fired.”

The reason I cast Mr. Trump in the starring role of the merchant is that it makes it much easier to see the error that religion of empire makes in its interpretation. The merchant is typically interpreted to be a stand-in for God, and the parable an exhortation to make the most of the gifts and talents bestowed upon you.

But if you smiled a little at this act of civil disobedience, of refusing to further enrich a man of questionable hair and questionable ethics, then you’ve caught a glimpse of creation.

From Theology to Education

Many of the elements of traditional education are easily recognized as elements of empire: neatly arranged desks, expert lecturer, and assessment through extensive use of standardized tests. After all, what did Roman legions organize themselves behind? Tall poles called standards.

The current emphasis on job-readiness, with an additional focus on STEM jobs that benefit military and corporate interests, is a clear indicator that empire has claimed education as its tool. The humanities — and note the “human” in humanities — are viewed as second-class subjects, except when we find ways to place the arts in service of the empire. Likewise, we eliminate all physical activity from schools, save sports programs. That Jerry Sandusky was permitted to do terrible things to children for so long without being reported is emblematic of empire.

We openly lament students’ inability to think critically while secretly prizing it. The ability to bow to authority and follow rules is necessary to uphold empires, so we teach students to think just critically enough to serve our goals, but not so much that their questioning is disruptive to the aims of the empire.

Even gifted education, which I’ve often considered a bastion of vibrancy and creation, has been overtaken by a philosophy of talent development that reeks of service to the empire.

The Parable of the Talents may prod us to do our very best with what we are given, but the question we must dare to ask is this: for whom?

If our children refuse to learn in the environments we’ve provided, if they are unmotivated by any of the carrots and sticks we come up with, how do we choose to interpret that?

Do we see it as a wicked refusal to live up to their potential, or a righteous protest against the empire?

From Empire to Creation

An education of creation does not ask the question of whether its students have lived up to the minimum standards of society. It does not ask whether we are leaving any children behind. It asks, instead, whether they are flourishing.

The Finnish education system has recently been held up as a model of success, but if we make the mistake of looking only to their practices and techniques, and do not ground our philosophy solidly in an ethic of creation, our efforts will fail. That the Finns provide free education to everyone, that private schools are rare, that teachers must have Masters degrees, that play is important; these are outgrowths of an ethic of creation that affirms the equity of all children and a desire to see each of them thrive.

I’ve seen increased discussion in the education community of the trappings of creation: transformative education, engagement, the reintroduction of play, the implementation of zero-grading policies, and so on.

But our educational ethos matters a great deal. In a system that is overwhelmingly empire-based, those who openly operate from of an ethic of creation risk being marginalized or cast out, and their tools risk being turned to the ends of empire.

The real tragedy of the Parable of the Talents is not that the last team does not serve its master, nor that they are cast out of the boardroom, but that, as William Herzog points out, we aren’t all taking a stand together.


Thanks to my friend and childhood pastor Father Ben for opening my eyes to this alternate interpretation of the Parable of the Talents.

Gifted Education, We Have a Problem

Take a moment and call to mind the gifted advocates you know, the parents of gifted kids, the gifted parents of kids, the kids themselves. The professionals who specialize in and work with gifted kids. Notice anything unusual about them?

Actually, notice anything that’s not unusual about them?

My hunch is that just about everyone you could think of was consistent with a particular demographic — probably white, probably middle class or better, and, if an adult, probably a college graduate or better, and not a first-generation one at that.

If people accuse gifted advocates of elitism, can you really blame them?

Growing up gifted, I was surrounded by people of far less natural ability who had access to private tutors, opportunities, and connections I didn’t have. They could afford to sign their kids up for extracurriculars, camps, programs, and expensive academies. I attended parochial schools K-12, sure, but my parents bought my clothes at Walmart, Salvation Army thrift stores, and garage sales, not at Esprit and Guess.

I was lucky: I got a world-class high school education from a public magnet. Anyone who scored well enough on the tests could get in. The demographics were not nearly proportional to those of the general population in the area, making the school’s admissions policies controversial, but it was a start. There were plenty kids of color, and many kids qualified for free or reduced-cost school lunches.

But when I look at the gifted advocacy movement, those kids largely don’t appear on the radar. Sure, there’s research on those populations, but our involvement doesn’t go much further. We hold up kids who overcome adversity as exemplars of giftedness, but did we help them in any way to get there? Do we have any right at all to lay claims on their accomplishments?

There are practical obstacles, to be sure, and financial ones are foremost. Education and opportunity do not come free, and professionals who work with gifted kids deserve to make a living doing so.

Still, it’s a shame we’re spending so much of our collective creativity and intelligence fending off claims of elitism instead of putting our talents to the task of creating accessible, scalable methods of gifted education and making our social circles a bit more permeable to encourage greater equity. Drawing in more perspectives would enrich us all.

A higher education

A small bat clings to the bulkhead outside my high school’s library. Soon, a Xerox of an encyclopedia page on bats is taped to the glass door beneath it. We ponder its arrival with our physics teacher. No one ever sees the bat move, but it changes positions once or twice. In a couple days, it disappears.

 

My classmates are bright and quirky, as are most of the faculty, who generally give us as much as we can handle. In our ninth grade Civics class we read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and some of the Federalist Papers. We memorize landmark Supreme Court decisions, volunteer with political campaigns. At 14, we know more about good citizenship and the foundations of our government than most American adults.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are prone to subversion, even mutiny. When we are required to attend the swearing in of an alumnus to the school board, some of my classmates walk out on the unmistakably Christian prayers. I do not, but I feel uncomfortable. My friends are Jewish, Hindu, Jain, Bah’ai, agnostic, atheist. After the event, I run into the favorite Catholic priest of my childhood. This time, I can barely look him in the eye.

In AP American History, two of us escape to the office to complain about a hostile substitute with a crazy haircut and a bright purple suit who overuses the word “apropos” and insists we debate with him. By the time lunch is over, he has been removed. It is we who are in charge of our educations, and we demand, if not to be challenged and respected, then to be left alone.

 

My physics teacher, Ira Nirenberg, is a skinny, balding, bearded vegan and animal rights activist. He is the faculty sponsor of the environmental club, and once or twice a year, he tries to introduce all his students to vegan hot dogs. He wears t-shirts and runners with his trousers, and the mental image I will always carry is of him jogging in a tight circle, his outstretched arm the radius, his downward-pointing finger the center. He is talking about electrons.

Nirenberg is my first science teacher there and my last. I have him for both Physical Science and AP Physics. He is also the founder of Physics Dress Up Day. I paint my face like a cat and carry around a small cardboard box on which I’ve written passages from The Dancing Wu Li Masters. As Schroedinger’s cat, I am simultaneously dead and not dead. A classmate from a different year dons a sombrero and serape and wraps pieces of a vacuum cleaner around himself. He has come as Pepe the Partial Vacuum.

The grand event on Physics Dressup Day is the scavenger hunt. Nirenberg takes the time to tape a Physics problem to the door of every classroom. He gives us the first problem, the solution of which is the room number of the next problem, and sends us solving.

Nirenberg spoils us by doing real science. Absentmindedly bouncing a superball on the lab table, he notices the bounce goes dead when the ball hits a piece of paper, and we wonder for a few minutes about the shock-absorbing properties of paper. When he receives some posters in cardboard mailing tubes, he puts “reduce, reuse, recycle” into action by inventing a challenge for us. We try to predict where to put the tube so that a ball bearing rolling off an angle ramp will fall in the opening of the tube.

Nirenberg hates memorization, hates what he calls “formula grunts.” He can’t stop us from memorizing the formulae for use on tests, but insists we derive them ourselves at least once.

We enter every endeavor this way, not knowing what the answers are. It is entirely up to us what we deduce and write in our lab reports, what we take our best fit curves to mean about the speed of a ball bearing rolling down the hallways. We are rewarded not so much for being right — he doesn’t know the answers either — but for how we think about the questions.

When I take my first college science course, freshman Chem at Duke University, the canned lab experiments depress me, and the lectures, memorized to the 12th decimal place by the famous Dr. Bonk, bore me. I stop attending Bonkistry altogether.

 

When I return to university after many years, the picture is still as bleak as a Vancouver winter. Sometimes, the sun breaks through and the teaching — and learning — are superb. We soak it up while it lasts.

Often, though, there is a succession of dreary days. My high school classmates would have been to the administration by now demanding an education, but no one has ever told my classmates at the university that they deserve one. Few complain. Many leave. The rest quietly accept what is offered, focus on survival, and commiserate outside the classroom.

I am too committed to finishing my degree to consider quitting, but in some courses I become the kind of student I don’t even recognize: bored, present in body only when my attendance is required, skipping sometimes when it isn’t. I do the bare minimum to get the grade I want, or settle for something slightly lower. I am too polite to text in class, but a couple times I sit in the back and hide a crossword puzzle in my binder.

I feel bad for these profs, whom I imagine being driven to drink by long sessions grading papers we couldn’t be bothered to put our hearts into and by the dearth of class participation. I get the sense from the way they talk in class that their expectations of us are low.

We do our best to live up to them.


Image of bat used under Creative Commons license from binux’s Flickr stream.

Ira Nirenberg is still kicking around. You can read his book, Living With Math, free from his website.