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Category Archives: Culture & Society

The unexamined life is still worth living, say the trees

Sometimes I wake up feeling something afraid. Not even the routine of setting out breakfast for anyone, or putting in another load of laundry to draw me into a sense of purpose. Not even dark-eyed juncos blown about the yard, or a newspaper in the yellow box to read.

It’s after the holidays, before back to work, and I am trying to pull myself together after a night of dreaming class was about to start and I had no lesson plan, the wrong text, and expectations were high. And an understanding that I am on my own, the main architect of how I use the rest of my time here on Earth.

My response to these feelings in the winter dark has been to sleep in until my head aches, then suit up, slip a coffee card in my zip pocket and my notebook in my backpack, and run out the door. The rhythm is good for the brain or something. Duh–using the body to move, work, and build makes one feel better. How could something that should be so obvious, as it is basic animal instinct, have to be chosen, even scheduled as part of one’s day?

I jog up the hill between swishing evergreens, backpack catching the rhythm and swinging side to side. I slow at the top to a walk. I realize I have not been attentive to my surroundings, and so look into the shrubs and trees of front landscaping as I pass downhill.

The thought comes from a grove of firs: “I produce, I reproduce, I die. This is the sum of existence.”

The birds say, “I consume, I reproduce, I die.”

In theory, if a person is in somehow rhythm with those aims, one will be happy. Yes, I mean it. For some species, without consciousness, culture, or conscience, the pinnacle of success is to do that well, given a certain amount of chance and randomness of environment, luck and unluckiness. Consciousness, culture, and conscience are all just layers that can support such aims, and any apparent contradictions are illusory. If existential anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior are also part of our culture, these too are part of the big picture of a successful..if not species, but, say, set of genes replicating over evolutionary time.

Yes, this is woman searching for meaning, although I have not yet read the book. I was okay with it being salvation from sin and communion with the Creator, but I’d like to go more basic now, to a creature, grounded meaning for existence. If I am frustrated in this, that’s okay, and I’ll fall back on creaturely, humanist  basics–eat, work, love, as I know these are fundamentally healthy and satisfying and will push me toward the more socially and morally acceptable contributions to the propagation of this set of genes. Some of which are shared by the house sparrows and goldeneye ducks outside the coffee shop window, and the evergreens. So there is a backup plan.

 

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Labor that may or may not deliver

Meanwhile in attempts to lift poor children from having little or no opportunity to go to that kind of place, or any college, to grow up educated and provide a decent living for their families, Bill Gates and other business entrepreneurs (a.k.a. social entrepreneurs), in partnership with the federal government, have launched their attempt to education everyone with “twentieth century skills,” ready for the work force.

Good, but why does that have to mean, among other things, less reading of fiction in favor of more extraction of meaning from informational text? Why limit the finer opportunities still available to those whose brain functions have not been culled by stress and poverty, who possess the desire and ability to long for deeper connection, more  far-reaching vision, a deeper understanding and expression through the arts and literature. Let’s not dumb down the culture in making it a more egalitarian one, elevate jobs and “productivity” over education in the best sense of the word.

And what about the obvious conflict of interest in having the owners of the tech corporations provide the software and classroom supplies and pedagogical philosophy for these children’s education experiences? We need workers, they say—this is the twentieth century as we envisioned it, so let us help you fit into the future we are creating, and all of us will be better off. If something has to go, let it be anything that makes workers question how we already know we should be doing things. You know, growing the economy, competing with other market powers, preserving the American way of life. Which is democracy in the sense that those with the power to sway the majority (those with  twenty-first century skills–not cumulative up to the twenty-first, but the latest set and open to re-training) can do so efficiently by means of a database so comprehensive and powerful that it allows media and “educational” products to be created that cater to each and every individual learning style.  And the part of democracy that allows us all to choose from fifty kinds of breakfast cereal in the aisles of the local supermarket and either traditional or “Simply” ripple chips, all produced by a few central manufacturing facilities staffed by twenty-first century workers. We can help students learn so effectively the practical skills they need to be “productinve members of a global democratic society” that the neural pathways needed to understand 1984, Brave New World, the MaddAdam trilogy, Animal Farm, The Hunger Games, and That Hideous Strength will be unnecessary and therefore atrophy.

An apology for the convoluted nature of my sentences, and how they go on and on, and have too many clauses. I’ve been told the “Ten Ways You Can …”, say, “Fight the Machine” format is so much more effective, but I haven’t mastered that twenty-first century communication style yet.

This existence of seems so contrived—since when in these thousands of years does one wake and not have to go about making a living? Making in the sense of obtaining food, shelter, and cultural context and materials from teh ecosystem. All aI have to do is create—to write, sew, paint, create and maintain human bonds, and that mainly based on the compulsion of angst about this modern life: what is it? What does it mean? Why are things not fair and I have this free time while others are laboring to the point of exhaustion for bread for their children and something to hide from the drunken consort? Why is it considered more valuable to go into database architecture, or game design, which pay a lot of trade tokens, than being a parent, home maker, friend of neighbors in the community, or teacher? In the division of labor, some make money doing work that is of dubious historic or spiritual value, so that others can do the important, though unpaid, work.

 

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Guest post by the amazing E.J.

High school it stupid and a waste of time. It’s so dumb, you can skip it every day and still get A’s. The only reason W (community college, Running Start program)  is better, is because you don’t have to go to classes eight hours a day. It’s crazy that some people don’t go there, because school is a dumb system, with dumb classes, and dumb administration. There are some gem teachers, but not enough to make it worthwhile. That’s enough and I’m going back to my lair.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2018 in Culture & Society

 

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Catholic priest washes the dishes, then kicks off the party

I went to the local country church as a kid, the one nearest to our home, though not the denomination of either of my parents. Not really a denomination at all, only an amalgamation of other failing ones, leftover liberals from when the conservatives took a stand on biblical infallibility and split, or leftover conservatives from when the liberals took a stand in on women’s rights and split–a kind of catch-all: the United Church of Canada. My parents wanted to join whatever was local, as long as it wasn’t too weird or conservative, and the United Church was only a few kilometers away, less if you tool the train tracks. They believed one should connect with the community, like it or not, and expect some hospitality at least.

It was pretty close by road, and even closer by train tracks. The tracks route was quieter, cleaner, and prettier—one could admire undulating fields, streams, and forest thickets full of birds as the level track cut through or bridged over, inhaling the heady mixture of fir tree, blossoms, and tar. You could walk on the rails or keep an awkward short stepped pace on the massive wood ties, interspersed by a leaping gait that took two, or even three ties at a time. Timothy grass swishing, grasshoppers and crickets singing, the thickets alongside full of birds, crows announcing the loner on the tracks with unknown intent. Once I saw a mother skunk tailing three or four kits, making me extra attentive at that spot from then on.

For the church youth there was Tyro (meaning novice or recruit) for the boys, and for us, CGIT–Canadian Girls In Training. The adult women did the kitchen work and had the real control, and the men moved the chairs and tables–but not the piano, by God–that was donated by so-and-so and to move it was an act of social affront as well as likely to make it lose its tuning. The older men drank, danced, and played cards, but not at church events. No, drinking and dancing were not the Protestant Way, however amalgamated and liberalized.

Then I got invited to my Catholic friend’s church in town. I’d have to go to Mass, she said (she showed me what to say and do as I received the wafer–I was nervous to get it right). Then we could go to the youth dance. The idea that a church would hot such a thing was golden–I was crazy about dances, shy as I was/. I loved music, wantes to move to it, and let it carry me to…BOYS. Tough I would not see my greatest crushes there, there would be boys. I had a great time, developed a fifteen-minute crush, and concluded that although Catholics had some weird habits in church, they knew how to party.

This was confirmed when I found out in college at a Catholic wedding that not only did they use real wine for the Eucharist, they brought it out at parties, too. But that was nothing to my first experience at a Sabbath meal in Israel.

We were living as a family in student housing, and a rabbi would periodically set up tables in tents in the quad and hold a celebratory mean, complete with plenty of sweet wine, he being a heavy partaker. We left early with our children when it became a little too raucous, though I’m sure the dancing would have been a lot of fun for college students, and led to a deepening of community ties and maybe late night conversations about what God required of them, anyway.

So I was pleased that my husband and I were invited to our current Catholic friends’ fiftieth birthday party, with mass beforehand. Sure, I had Protestant, even evangelical, friends who enjoyed a wine or a beer on occasion, but they never could bring themselves to incorporate this into their services, or even potlucks, except for a little red wine in the sauce and real vanilla in some of the cookies. A shame, living this double life. So, not even because I enjoy a drink–I generally don’t / makes me sleepy and I prefer coffee. But I like seeing people willing, as the Bible teaches, to use wine and strong drink to make the heart merry, to comfort or relax the stressed, and especially, render us more willing to dance.

The priest, who had given the sermon in the church across the road from the hall just before the party, gave the blessing, and then went to wash the dishes. There was a dance instructor, and we danced, though this was the beginning of my mate’s yet undiagnosed illness, and he was not up to many sets. I had a lovely time, met some new folks, and went home  tired and cheerful instead of frustrated and disappointed, which has been a frequent result to my regular daytime church visits over the years. I say to the pastors, priests, and rabbis out there, if you can’t give an intellectually and spiritually challenging sermon and help people connect deeply over coffee, prayer, or discussion, then throw a foot-stompin’ hoe-down, with biblical refreshments served.

 

 

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Social evolution can proceed if it causes the genes (and memes) that carry its seeds to replicate better than the competition

Did you know that the biological definition of the “female” of a species is the one which produces relatively few nutrient-rich, low-mobility gametes (sex cells), and the “male” is the one which produces abundant, highly mobile but fragile ones? In human meiosis, the process by which a stem cell divides into gametes, each with only a half set of chromosomes, only one of the ova daughter cells survives of the four, and contains a disproportionate quantity of resources. All four male gametes normally survive in the production of sperm. The way eggs and sperm carry the genetic material of the parent is pretty much identical, except that the egg always carries an X chromosome, and the sperm may carry either X or Y, and which determines the chromosomal sex of the offspring.

In some species, sex switches depending on need. I don’t mean gender roles or behaviors, I mean the ability to produce a different kind of sex cell. Since we are used to thinking of male and female as genetically determined because we know about X and Y-chromosomes in humans, that seems strange, but in those species, sex changes occur if there aren’t enough of one or the other kind of gamete for fertilization to occur (the male gamete finds and fuses with the nutrient-rich female gamete). The fact that this dimorphism is so common across species means it has been successful in many environments too.

Another strategy that is common and therefore must work well in certain conditions is hermaphrodism, where one organism can produce both eggs and sperm, but cross-fertilization is still preferable for the variety of offspring characteristics that result. Variety being a kind of insurance that sets of genes will confer fitness in a variety of conditions. Many plants are hermaphroditic, as are earthworms, ensuring their ability to produce offspring even without contact with the gametes of a different organism, and to combine gametes of any other individual, without any “opposite sex.”

I started thinking about these things when reading a blog I came across which featured a seemingly endless series of posts, back and forth about gender roles, the usual interesting, controversial, socially and culturally constructed viewpoints debated, variously labelled “left,” “conservative,” “moronic,” and so on. There was an utter absence of consideration of biology and biological evolution. All the participants were extremely sharp, sarcastic, opinionated, strong-willed, and funny (except, apparently, for one, who kept being accused of being a troll because he kept posting polite, neutral questions). But all they did was rip apart social norms from previous eras or other societies on the grounds that–this was not spoken but seemed to be implied–they were inherently inferior because we are now enlightened and have a voice and can rise up and right the wrongs… no, that’s not quite it. I think the word that fits perfectly to describe what they objected to was the fact that these norms were primitive. Yes, this is the right word; it means, merely, “closer to the earlier form.” So what our blogger and her commenters were engaged in, in trying to shake off the primitive, was trying to generate evolutionary pressure. Evolutionary pressure often does cause change, a lot or a little, but not always — it can also cause extinction.

If one can use the theory of evolution (change) by natural selection, it should be true that attempts to change social norms only work if new points of view result in higher rates of replication and transmission in the populations in which their views are prevalent, and/or causes other populations with competing (more primitive) views to have a lower reproductive or survival rate. This is both a social (memes) and a biological (genetic) process (social being a subcategory of biological).

Examples of other kinds of social constructs that have been adaptive (read: generating more offspring over the long term and/or out competing other constructs in any given environment): Patriarchical societies where the female steps back to allow a man to go through the door first. Or where man hold the door for women and children. The males getting to sit in the front seats of the car. The idea of the sacredness of virginity. Polygamy, monogamy, matriarchy, monarchy, egalitarianism, infanticide, nuclear families, baptism, literature, mythology, neckties, tattoos, suicide, gender fluidity, and so on. Such traditions result from evolutionary processes such as natural selection, but also a complex mixture of chance, luck, and natural disasters — not all behaviors and social constructs that arise would increase fitness on a level playing field–some are pretty random and persist for random reasons. Evolution doesn’t even lead to anything “superior”–there is no superior in the way we like to think of it–a combination of power over nature, power over inferior races and species, or, as many less “primitive” societies prefer, peace and goodwill, advanced intellect, civilization, and ecological sustainability. Superiority is a relative social idea, while evolutionary fitness, possession of better adaptation, and has to do with replicability under a variety of conditions.

My daughter was commenting today on how strange it was that so many young people seem to think that because gender is a social construct, it must be eradicated. I said that going out to coffee for a chat was also a social construct, so maybe we should eradicate that, too. Social constructs are neutral, as are genetic variations, The proof is in the putting, and we are part of the putters, and can’t get outside the construct in order to objectively judge it. Am I making sense?

Disclaimer: This was an experiment.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2018 in Culture & Society, Ideas

 

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The long way, home, or not, I don’t know

I’ve been spouting off a lot about evolution by natural selection, and interpreting everything I can through that lens–social behavior, religion, crime, politics, everything. Sounds a bit fanatical to be always on about it, but I’m going to try to explain why, because I’m not done. But I want it to be known that even if I become satisfied that evolution does explain everything, including what Dawkins called the God Delusion, I still plan to try to build a bridge back to faith. It will have to be using completely different materials, though. Faith itself will also mean something different. And it will be a rough road. What’s hard is that I can’t, and don’t want, to take anyone with me. I know this blog is just a curiosity, a hobby, and any of my traditionally faithful friends and family won’t even be reading it, let alone be led astray. If they knew my path, they would pity me and lovingly pray for me. Like I did for my young professor at the graduate unseminary, when he admitted that the more he studied the Hebrew Scriptures and understood how the process of interpretation, canonization, and Bible politics works, the less faith he had in its divinity and so-called infallibility. He seemed melancholy, so I tried to comfort him–comfort him!–with some pablum of an assurance that I was sure he’d figure it out, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit! He must have begun to feel very lonely at that evangelical school, as he came and went on his motorcycle. Wanting to teach and be honest, but knowing what he had begun to know, and being around so many who he just couldn’t be honest with, for so many reasons. Such as getting asked to move on, after the leaders’ prayer meeting in which God led the admin on who was called to the school’s ministry and who not. Such as, in case he undermined that faith that, even though he was losing it, still seemed precious, in a fragile way, in others. Not to be challenged before its time. And a humble man wouldn’t assume he was in the right, enlightened and needing to disillusion everyone else, anyway.

My niece graduated from, and now works at, another Christian college, which is now trying to strike an impossible balance between loving and accepting all people while asking them not to engage in relations outside of heterosexual marriage. It’s tough to hold together a school like that. Half of your critics say you’re too liberal, and the other half, too conservative, she said. How can you even be honest with yourself? They’d got over some conservative hurdles–my niece said that they affirmed that gifted and called women should be teaching and preaching along with (gifted and called) men. I told her, that’s very liberal, because it’s reinterpreting Scripture, going against specific apostolic instructions because they don’t feel true today, and so you can’t then say that gay marriage is unbiblical in the next breath (which this college does). You have to be honest and admit that you are evolving due to adaptation to the current environment. Women are not expected to sign an agreement to cover their heads while at the school, men keep their hair short, and Americans cut out the part about obeying the King centuries ago. So why draw the line here? Was it really about Scriptures, or something else? Maybe just part of the gene pool, that part that has driven the population explosion so far and doesn’t yet acknowledge the population tipping point, that can’t abide a non-reproductive kind of love.

Today in our semi-weekly math study hall, someone brought up Elton John, his music being the focus, t first. Someone hadn’t heard of him. The first student was aghast. I pitched in the he was Sir Elton John, even. From another part of the room came a quiet, “I hate him. He’s gay.”

“Whoa, I said, you hate him, just like that?”

“Yup.” Another student, though also raised a conservative Christian, also took issue, saying you shouldn’t be so quick to judge, should give people a little room. The hater said a few other things, but because he his speech is impeded by a birth condition, I couldn’t understand it all.

“That’s a bit harsh. Maybe you should learn a bit more before you hate people,” I said. I asked, “Do you think he’s talented?”

“No. he can’t be.” He was looking scornful and shaking his head.

“Well, I guess that’s not the conversation we need to have right now,” I said, and went back to helping him with how to use the Distance Formula to prove lines congruent. People were quiet. I think that student’s openness showed something up in its rawness, partly by being so in contrast with his amiable nature, in a way that wouldn’t have happened if it had been uttered by someone already known to be redneck, and proud of it.

So some of the sweetest people are homophobes, that’s for sure, just due to their imprinting. Because this guy is incredibly sweet, funny, loved by all. And tough. The one who, when we were talking about aches and pains, said, briefly, ” I don’t even think about pain–I just suck it up.” I hadn’t even been aware, hadn’t thought, about all the pain he experiences daily, especially with the physio he has to have just to keep his muscles flexible and his spasticity under control.

I wouldn’t even start to try to persuade him. If at some point a real issue develops, say with a new gay student, that will be really difficult for us here, maybe. But maybe not–friendship and proximity has a way of melting hard hearts, doesn’t it?

 

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School Managers Versus Visionaries – A Teacher’s Perspective

Two things that helped me get centered as a teacher-person this week. One was hearing a CBC radio piece about fidget toys–those little spinners kids are bringing into classrooms all over. On the one hand, the sellers were claiming they helped students focus and de-stress, even could mitigate the effects of hyperactivity, ADHD, even autism. But there wasn’t any science yet on that, it was noted. Most teachers disapproved of the gadgets, and were confiscating them right and left. One interviews said she thought they were “kind of ridiculous.” A school psychologist said, basically, that all items brought into the classroom for the purpose of supporting student learning ought to be part of a carefully crafted and documented plan created by the team of education professionals. That struck me as ridiculous, that a kid couldn’t even bring a cool little toy to class because was unauthorized. It spoke to me of a culture of micromanagement, especially promoted by those with a agenda crafted away from classrooms, away from daily contact with individual human personalities. Like teachers and others are in some kind of tug-of war for the students’ attention so all of their other interests must be snuffed, especially if they take the form of something that can’t be easily turned into a gradable essay, science activity, or math assessment.

Maybe I react so to that management frame of mind because I’m not really able to get my head around it, have always had difficulty with the “management” part in some ways. Not that students are out of control in my classroom, but they are definitely out of my control, and mostly in their own. I don’t “run a tight ship” in that sense, though I think that there’s a pretty good culture aboard, and a sense that we all need to make this group thing work while each individual makes their own choices. Despite the fact that a few students have chosen not to respond positively to being trusted, I want to continue to extend that trust. In planning lessons, I assume that, like me, every student will find some part at least of what we are covering fascinating. If not, if something else, such as a spinning toy, is more engaging, surely I shouldn’t be annoyed and offended. Surely I should show sympathy with his or her fascination and delight, and give space (and guidance if necessary) while he or she figures out the appropriate place of such an object in the flow of the lesson. I might make an effort to discern the student’s real purpose in using it; I might try to co-opt it to replace something I had planned, or I might ask myself, is there any way I can teach in a more interesting way?

The second thing was a conversation with a mom who has a few of her older kids in our school for the first time, seeing how it goes, so she can juggle the home education of her younger ones and some health problems too. I ran into her at the grocery store, and she shared how tough it as for her son and daughter to “catch up” after a trip, and in the midst of extracurricular activities. I asked her how the school experience as going so far, and she shared that one of the unpleasant surprises was the typical “schoolishness” of it all, despite the fact that we served homeschoolers, and the fact that the principal and several staff had homeschooled their own children. All the stress, rush, and testing and all. Why did it have to be that way, she asked? Why couldn’t people just pool their money and create a school that did things differently?

That’s what schools are, though, I admitted. The more established they get, the more standardized, the less flexible and integrated with the rest of life. This push and pull between freedom and accountability is especially pronounced when homeschoolers and public schools get together. We get money for each enrolled child, and they get classes, a resource library, and certain consumable materials (non-religious only).  We have to log progress (as measured in various ways, currently pretty flexible at our school), and train them to do their part of the paperwork for the auditor, so we get to stay in operation. They get to graduate their kids with a school diploma, but the kids have to make the grade, and we decide what that is. Schools will always tend that way, I told this mom. But you’re the boss, the person ultimately responsible, and you don’t have to buy the whole package. Even the diploma (I was tempted to lower my voice) was not the be-all for every family, whether college-bound or not.

She and her spouse are very pro-active and purpose-driven parents, and their kids are lovely human beings. Not all our parents are taking it as such a privilege and opportunity to manage their children’s education in partnership with us. Some are using our school as a shelter, because there’s a high percentage of conservative Christian families with shared values and good manners, and small class sizes. Some just need a break from the kids a few days a week. Others choose us for their teens over five-day-a-week school so that on “home” days, they have free labor–babysitting, farm work, or working in the family store. Every time that sort of thing comes up, usually in the form of our concern that these students aren’t keeping up in academics, I’m torn. Such job experience and training in practical skills are valuable and hard to come by for young people these days. We do give school credit when possible, but the balance is tough, and who’s to say that getting a C or above in Geometry or American Government isn’t up there with keeping the milk flowing into the tank for daily pickup, learning house framing or interior finishing, or experience in business and customer service?

Often I feel it’s us that are out of touch, that schools are trying to keep up with a culture that has no understanding of the skills that it really takes to survive and prosper long term on this planet. We’re “teaching the standards,” but have no vision of our own. It’s all about being “college & career ready,” and that’s not a vision, any more than I have to dress warm today because it’s cold outside, or I have to strip and hose down the prisoner because he’s next in line and I’m on a schedule and on camera.

People good at organizing schools are management types who want a smoothly running machine that has good photo ops, and of course keeping their asses covered is always a priority. They are not prone to sustaining the purity of a beautiful vision. Where are the visionaries? Inside classrooms, and allowed to create something beautiful, hone it, tweak it, give it their all and then let it go beyond them and start again? In moms and dads who dream of their kids coming home and, in answer to “what did you learn today?” begin with a sparkle in their eye, a tell a story, then break if off to take it deeper, broader at hone, on a weekend, even? Or is it only for multi-billionaires who can afford to start their own schools, with the vision of lifting kids up out of the cycle of poverty and class struggle while gaining loyal, skilled workers for their market share in the global economy?

 

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