Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Homogeneous Grouping and “The Resentment That Never Sleeps”

December 11, 2020 Comments off

Earlier this week, Thomas Edsall wrote an op ed article titled “The Resentment That Never Sleeps“. Like all of Edsall’s articles, this one was chock full of statistics, quotes from economists and political scientists, and informed experts all of whom were expressing their belief that “rising anxiety and declining social status” among white non-college graduates led to the election and sustained support for Donald Trump. One quote from the article stood out: 

“Hierarchal ranking, the status classification of different groups — the well-educated and the less-well educated, white people and Black people, the straight and L.G.B.T.Q. communities — has the effect of consolidating and seeming to legitimize existing inequalities in resources and power.”

As a Boomer who attended, worked in, and led public schools from 1953-2011 I believe the political divides Mr. Edsall describes are a consequence of homogeneous grouping in public education, a practice that was particularly and explicitly prevalent in the 50s, 60s and early 70s and persists in more subtle ways today. While the “ability grouping” of students is presumably based on legitimate factors– test scores and grades– and presumably changeable over time, the practical reality is that once a child is labelled as “gifted” or “high ability” they are treated differently than their cohorts who see themselves (and are often seen by teachers) as “un-gifted” or “low ability”. Much of the resentment Mr. Edsall describes is rooted in the messages those “incapable” students receive day in and day out for years while they witness the “gifted and talented” students attaining scholarships and prizes at commencement ceremonies and the sustained praise of teachers and other authority figures throughout their school years. 

Because my father was transferred across the country when I was growing up, I gained a unique perspective on how this kind of grouping impacts students. In grades 1 through 3 I attended elementary school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Because I was read to as a child and, as the oldest sibling, read to my younger brother and sisters, I was a good reader and consequently was placed in the “advanced” reading group, which meant I was also in the advanced math group.

At the end of third grade, our family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the mid-1950s, Tulsa’s 4th grade was identical to West Chester’s 3rd grade and so I breezed through all my school work. At the conclusion of 5th grade, our elementary school launched a program for “gifted and talented” students, one that I qualified for based on my grades, some tests I took, and an interview I had with the person who was overseeing the program. I still have fond memories of 6th grade, the first and only year I was “gifted and talented”. Our class was small and we got to go on field trips to museums, to work on projects that interested us, and read whatever we wanted. Some of my friends from 5th grade who were not in my class chided me and my classmates on the playground as being stuck up, though I don’t recall acting any differently. 

As sixth grade came to an end and it was time to register for junior high, my father announced we were moving back to West Chester, PA. I was thrilled with the idea of reuniting with some of my friends I knew from elementary school and eager to join my classmates at the shiny new Junior High in the brochure my father got from the realtor. On the first day of school, I went to homeroom where we were grouped alphabetically, and received my schedule which showed that I was assigned to section 7-12 for my classes in history, geography, mathematics, science, reading, shop, PE and English. I quickly discovered that 7-12 was a far cry from the “gifted and talented” group in Oklahoma. There were 35 of us in the group and some of my classmates struggled to read and solve math problems and a few were completely disinterested in school. I also noted that my friends from the top reading group in 3rd grade were not in my section: they were in 7-1 or 7-2 and when I compared notes with them I found that they were moving through the books faster than we were. I did well, making the honor roll, playing on the JV football team, and acting in the school plays, but I was not nearly as engaged academically. And for that year, and the five years that followed, I was part of “the second tier” of students; a group who might go to college but who just as easily might go to work. Those of us in the second tier were never explicitly told we were “ungifted and untalented”, but it was clear that we were not as smart as the “gifted” kids in the top two sections.

Having gone from “gifted and talented” to “second tier” in one year and witnessed the academic skill of many of my “second tier” cohorts I came to appreciate the absurdity of labelling students at an early age and holding fast to those labels throughout a student’s career. I also came to sense the resentment that “second tier” children feel towards their “gifted” age cohorts, and can understand how that resentment can persist into adulthood.  

Given my personal experience, I am not surprised to note that when Democrats run candidates from the “gifted” sections they have paid the price… Al Gore, John Kerry and Hilary Clinton all evoke the resentment “second tier” students felt toward the kids who had all the advantages and received the adoration of teachers. Donald Trump, on the other hand, tapped into the resentment of the 75% of “ungifted and untalented” students to win his election in 2020 and now the GOP sees the obvious: that if they capitalize on this resentment they can ensure that they stay in power… and if they do not play to the resentment they will be put out of office in the “safe districts” they created.

In the end, if we want to end the resentment that drives authoritarianism, we should honor the gifts and talents of everyone. It will take a while to get the fruits of that approach to teaching and learning, but it will be worthwhile. 

1843 Essay Arguing the Against the Value of Mindfulness in a Pandemic Misses on Several Levels

December 4, 2020 Comments off

As one who has practiced mindfulness mediation for 15+ years, the title of Catherine Nixey’s 1843 essay, “Mindfulness is Useless in a Pandemic“, got my attention. After reading her essay, it is evident that her understanding of mindfulness is shaky and her perspective is, consequently, skewed.

In two paragraphs near the middle of the piece, Ms. Nixey acknowledges her lack of clarity about mindfulness:

It isn’t always clear quite what mindfulness is. Despite its promise of mental clarity, its own origins are decidedly foggy. It seems to be a translation of a Buddhist term, sati, which itself is tricky to define – its meaning lies somewhere between memory and consciousness. The English version is neither a very good translation nor a particularly helpful word. The longer you think about it, the stranger the word “mindful” seems: that puzzling “-ful” feels odd when talking about emptying your thoughts. (And is its opposite “mindlessness”?)

If the definition of mindfulness is elusive, the practice is even more so. Its aim is to empty your mind by using your mind; to liberate it by restraining it. It is a puzzling and paradoxical thing, the mental equivalent of climbing up a ladder and removing it at the same time.

While I am not a Dharma teacher, as an avid student of Thich Nhat Hanh I will offer some clarity for Ms. Nixey. First: YES! The Mindlessness IS the opposite of Mindfulness.

The meditative teachings of the east focus on breathing because it is the ultimate example of mindlessness. We seldom think about our breathing. It is a part of our autonomic system that we take for granted yet we cannot live without. When I began to observe breathing while meditating, I began to notice that it varied depending on my state of mind and my physical state. Before I practiced meditation it was obvious that I breathed harder when I ran  or performed physical labor.  It was a revelation when I discovered that my breathing patterns changed when I was sitting still and thinking about the prompts of the meditation leader, more of a revelation when I discovered that my breathing patterns changed when I was sitting still and thinking about whatever came into my mind. But the practical revelation came when I discovered I could use my breathing to control my thinking. When I was confronted with a crisis at work or in a family situation and my mind was racing I could calm it by calming my breath which I now noticed was taken out of its normal, measured pattern because of my overactive mind.

As I read about Buddhism and other eastern traditions, practiced yoga, and attended meetings and retreats with other practitioners, I came to appreciate how much time I spent being mindless and how frequently that mindlessness led to problems. I daresay that every reader of this post has experienced driving from work and arriving home with no clear memory of the trip…. or been traveling with a companion who observes something that does not dent our consciousness. Since practicing mindfulness I find myself observing the many times I do repetitive tasks without paying attention to them— mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, making coffee, walking to the end of the driveway to get the mail.

Ms. Nixey is also right in her observation that mindfulness is a puzzling and paradoxical thing, the mental equivalent of climbing up a ladder and removing it at the same time. But  the value of mindfulness is that it helps us navigate the puzzling and paradoxical world we live in by becoming aware of the most damaging autonomic system of our bodies: our minds. After I began to appreciate how my breathing was linked to my thinking, I began to appreciate how my THINKING was linked to the information I took in and how I processed that information. I was using my thinking to climb up a ladder and simultaneously witnessing how that ladder might be leaning against the wrong building or that some of the rungs of that ladder were missing. I found myself appreciating the bumper sticker that reads: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.

After completing the essay, I came to the conclusion that Ms. Nixey’s thinking about the value of mindfulness is skewed by her belief that everyone shares her lifestyle and thinks the way she does. There are millions of Americans who don’t go out for meals at the restaurants she describes or travel the way she does…. and those millions do not feel a loss of yearning— they never HAD that level of yearning for future trips or dinners on the town. Their future was clouded by overdue rent checks, empty cupboards, and anger about the past and their prospects for the future.

Ms. Nixey’s concluding paragraphs actually work against her premise that mindfulness is of no value in a pandemic:

Philosophers and Silicon Valley mindfulness gurus are advocates for the present partly because they tend to have rather a nice one (Seneca was one of the richest men in Rome and regularly threw dinner parties for 1,000 guests). For most people, daily life is more dreary. Would it be so very bad to be absent when stacking the dishwasher, to imagine yourself swimming in the sea off Croatia instead?

When the present is crushing – when lives and economies are being ruined – our imagination offers us a welcome escape. The mind, as Milton put it, is its own place: it can make a hell of heaven, or a heaven of hell. Perhaps we should let it.

As one who loves to plan trips and does the dishes, I find that during the pandemic I’ve had to put my “planning mind” on hold and appreciate the joys of getting every dish wiped clean and placed carefully in the dishwasher or drying rack. I find myself despairing when I think about the late winter camping trips I have on hold to the Southwest and a reprise of our trip from Jasper to Glacier knowing that neither may come to pass. But I can make myself feel a sense of satisfaction for a job well done every time I wash the dishes.

Ms. Nixey’s quote from Milton is spot on… and it echoes a line from one the practice songs from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s primary monastery in France:

“The realm of the mind is mine, I can choose. I can choose where I want to be. 

Both heaven and hell I know equally well; the choice is up to me”.

Mindfulness will help us choose our perspective: do we want to make ourselves suffer or do we want to accept the world as it is? During the pandemic, the ability to make that choice is more valuable than ever.

Thanksgiving Wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut… and Thanksgiving to My Parents

November 26, 2020 Comments off

A Facebook friend posted this wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut, who clearly understood that the competition implicit in public education works against the well being of children… and create a constant sense of ill-being that is hard to shake as an adult: 

“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.”

If only we could emphasize the enjoyment that comes from mastering a skill, from learning how something works, to look at things from a different perspective instead of trying to “win”…. On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful my parents accepted my decent but unexceptional schoolwork, valued the work ethic I developed under their guidance, laughed appreciatively at my jokes— even the bad ones, and patted me on the back every time I did a little better on something than I did the day before. 

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