Thursday, January 4, 2007

Dangerous Certainties

I ran across a pretty fascinating web site the other day which has a module called the World Question Center. The managers of the site have posed big-picture questions for a number of years and then archived the answers that various people—many of them deep thinkers—have submitted. It turns out that the question for 2006 was "What is your dangerous idea?" That, and some of the answers that were posted, got me thinking about dangerous ideas. If you were to ask me what is the most dangerous idea out there, I'd be inclined to answer that it's the certainty that what we believe to be true is, in fact, true.

Last night I was watching an episode of Friday Night Lights in which one of the players on a high school football team, Tim Riggins, is set up with a peer tutor, Landry Clarke, whose job it is to help this player pass his English course so he will continue to be eligible to play football. Riggins is a tutor's nightmare: he has been assigned to read Of Mice and Men and he basically refuses to do so. Landry, bending over backwards to be of help, winds up reading the book out loud to Tim as Tim goes through his workouts in the gym. By the time Landry is done with the book, it's clear that Tim is at least listening. He even makes a comment about it how hard it is that George has to kill his best friend in order to protect him. But when Landry tries to prep him for his oral test on the book by asking him how would relate the ideas in the book to his own life, Tim insists "I don't know." Landry, unbelieving, keeps asking, and Tim keeps insisting, with increasing anger and frustration, that he doesn't know. Landry eventually stalks off, convinced that Tim is a belligerent moron.

What Landry doesn't know is that Tim does in fact know—and feel–a great deal more than it is possible for him to say out loud. A major plot thread in the series has been about Tim and his best friend Jason Street, who was been seriously injured in a football game early in the season and is now confined to a wheelchair. During Jason's rehabilitation, Tim became involved with Jason's girlfriend, Lyla Garrity. Jason found out about it and the two former best friends are now attempting, not very successfully, to deal with the conflicts of love and betrayal. What we as the audience know is that the Steinbeck novel is hitting way too close to home for Tim. He isn't ready to talk about it, and even if he was, he wouldn't be able to tell Landry, as that would be an even further betrayal, an airing of dirty laundry that would expose the two people he loves most to more of the gossip and negativity that they are already drowning in. Landry has no way of knowing all of this. Since he doesn't know the back story and can't read Tim's mind, he comes to a reductive and inaccurate conclusion.

I came across another, more humorous, illustration of the danger of making these kind false assumptions a few days ago in a post by Mark Liberman on the Language Log blog. (The cartoon was originally posted by Robert Balder, on the Partially Clips site.) It features a mother reading to her child, and mis-reading the child's developmental levels in ways that only a mother could. The child is muttering what the mother assumes are nonsense syllables, but which are in fact the Latin names for the living for the animals in the storybook. The mother assures the child, "It's okay, your daddy and I will always love you and never give up on you."

The cartoon, in turn reminded me a poem by D.L. Klauck that was given out as model poem in a poetry workshop I took many years ago. It's a poem that struck me forcefully at that time. I'm the father of three sons and have had ample opportunity to reflect on the many ways in which we as parents can misread even those we are closest to:

Einstein’s Father

i tell him eat your dinner
he arranges it in unfamiliar patterns
assigns obscure names to common things
can’t recall days or months or seasons

prepares for school during holidays
has no talent for game or contest
stares for hours at nothing i can see

somedays he ties his shoes together
wonders why he falls down stairs
always bumps into walls and furnishings
catches his hands in closing doors
wears boots and gloves to bathe in
has trouble finding his way back home
loses patience with prayer and tradition

while i’ve tried raising him to be normal
still he collects sunlight in a leaded box
speaks to dark worlds in awkward tongues
lord knows ive suffered for his mistakes
but i don’t care what people think
i’m just concerned for the boy’s survival
i won’t be around to protect him forever

on my lap before he could walk
i’d imagine him becoming a great man
albert i’d say someday you’ll be famous
perhaps a composer or a skilled surgeon
everyone will hold you in highest esteem
your name as well known as goethe’s
though even a mason’s craft is honorable

the reasonable dream of any father
but now i’d gladly settle for a beggar
if he avoids becoming a criminal
if the dull madman in him remains dull
this graceless mindless boy
who lacks the imagination to be cautious
lacks the ignorance to be afraid

My school over the last several years has encouraged many of its teachers to participate in a professional development workshop based on the work of educational psychologist Mel Levine. His central message, as I take it, is that as educators we have to be more or less constantly on guard against making judgements about our students based on what is inevitably going to be incomplete information. In a typical passage, he says:

A lack of attention control may masquerade as laziness, a negative attitude, or just plain bad behavior. Yet these are struggling and confused students who want very much to succeed, to please themselves and win the respect of the adults in their lives. They need our sympathy and support at the same time that they need us to hold them accountable for working on their attention controls. When we sense that we're on their side and not accusing them of being bad or lazy, they often rise to the occasion and show steady improvement. Teachers, therefore, need to form strong alliances with these children rather than adversarial relationships. The same can be said for parents. (A Mind at a Time, 89)

And the same can be said, it might be added, for all of us. This is not the first time I've referenced Eric Sevareid: "One asks not only for the courage of his convictions, but for the courage of his doubts, in a world of dangerously passionate certainties." But his aspiration toward openmindedness, toward intellectual humility, and ultimately toward compassion, seems a worthwhile ambition with which to approach the new year.

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