Thinking 101

Thinking101by Deana Chadwell    2/15/14
In the early 60’s John McCormick would stand in front of my literature class, his long, boney fingers tented in front of him, his head bowed in thought. Then he’d lift his gaze, look around the class and begin that day’s discussion about the nature of man. I’d never before thought of the possibility that we could all have some traits in common. I was fascinated, and that fascination has formed my life.

His classes were tough. The “nature of man” was the basis for analyzing all the literature we read – and we read a great deal. He assigned us books to read on our own according to the score we earned on a vocabulary quiz, and, I think, from what he knew of us personally. He assigned me to read Dreiser – Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy – the lead character of the latter reminded me, most uncomfortably, of my ultra-driven, social climbing father. But always the discussions in McCormick’s classes were filled with intense, philosophical questions. I had to THINK in his presence.[pullquote]Probing too deeply into philosophical questions is not encouraged in very many classrooms – what if the discussion veers into God territory? What if the class begins to see that there is truth, that man is not essentially good?[/pullquote]

I may never have learned how to do that without him – I can think of no other teacher, even through grad school, who had such an effect on me. I was mad at him half the time because he pushed so hard, but he opened for me the world of abstract thinking. He also set me off on a career that’s lasted a lifetime. I was a college sophomore art student when I recognized an odd thinking practice – every time I learned something new I pictured myself in front of my class, a la McCormick, explaining, in his articulate way, whatever it was I was trying to process. I switched majors and have been teaching ever since.

Not only have I been teaching, but I’ve had embedded in my mind for nearly 40 years the goal of doing for my students what he did for me. I never worried about whether or not my students felt rebellious about my expectations or befuddled about our discussions. I’d been there; I knew that eventually it would all settle out in their minds. I remember standing in my kitchen ten years after leaving high school, and a light switched on in my head, “Oh!” I thought, (picture a face-palm here) “That’s what McCormick meant!”

In a way it was always he who taught my classes—like I was wearing a WWMD bracelet—what would McCormick do? It was his voice that drove me to the Bible – his merciless questions and the time he assigned me to read Luke, John, Acts and all the Pauline epistles for one book report. It was his standards and his goals that formed my curricula. Instead of his voice, it was mine asking, “What is the nature of man?”

I’ve been awhile getting to my point: very few grown-ups open such profound discussions with our young people.

Probing too deeply into philosophical questions is not encouraged in very many classrooms – what if the discussion veers into God territory? What if the class begins to see that there is truth, that man is not essentially good? We can’t have that. Even back in the 60’s when I sat amazed in McCormick’s lit class he was always getting in trouble. Parents accused him of being Christian, being Communist, of expecting too much. He rocked our boats and not everyone appreciated that.

School literary curricula is now geared to 1) promote multiculturalism, and 2) appeal to the baser instincts of students, i.e. involve elicit sex and drug use, foul language and criminal acts. The truly great classics are no longer presented to our students. Gone by the wayside – even in college – are Dickens and Harper Lee and Shakespeare. If the work is adequately communist it is still taught – Sinclair and Steinbeck come to mind. Common Core is even pre-empting much of that by demanding that students read much more non-fiction. (Keep in mind here that non-fiction doesn’t mean true; it means it isn’t fiction – that’s all. Much of what sits in the non-fiction stacks is not provable one way or the other, but our children aren’t likely to be taught that.)

Even our churches push kids off into youth groups where they spend most of their time playing “trust” games and strumming guitars. We can’t have them asking any embarrassing questions, really thinking about things. What if we don’t know the answers? What if they ask if believing in Christ saved us then how is it we can lose our salvation? What if they want to know what happens to the heathen? What if they ask about sex? (McCormick told us it was, with the right person, as close to heaven as we can get on earth. Shocking. But we knew he was, amazingly, telling us the truth and that was all we wanted.)

And parents? I’m not in most homes, so I don’t really know why philosophical, biblical, moral discussions don’t seem to be happening anymore. I do know that in 3 decades in high school classrooms I witnessed a steep decline in the background knowledge of my students. There was a time when, if a piece of literature contained a biblical reference, half the class would recognize it and could explain it. Time was we could discuss the moral choices of characters in novels and be pretty much in agreement that bad was bad and good was good – not a deep thought but one that became more and more difficult for my students to grasp as years went by.[pullquote]We are constructed with a big hole in our souls that needs to be filled, hopefully with truth, but if not with truth, then with lies. It will be filled. When it isn’t then a driving need for a way to numb the empty feeling.[/pullquote]

Parents are too busy making a living, which is getting ever harder to do. They are distracted about their divorce, worried about the mortgage, no longer sure they know which way is up. They, too, went to our vapid public schools. Who knows what has caused it, but I do know that intellectually challenging conversation is not something most students are used to.

I also know that when I gave my students the opportunity for such discussion – regardless of the level of the class – they jumped on it. Human beings are built to ask “Why?” We are constructed with a big hole in our souls that needs to be filled, hopefully with truth, but if not with truth, then with lies. It will be filled. When it isn’t then a driving need for a way to numb the empty feeling. Drugs, alcohol, sex. Teachers shy away from such Big Question discussions; I know that from decades of group planning sessions. Wisdom doesn’t see to be on the agenda, but wisdom is what our children need.

Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We need to do for our children what John McCormick did for me. Let’s start asking the Big Questions and start searching in earnest for the answers so that we have something really useful to teach.
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Deana Chadwell blogs at ASingleWindow.com. • (3604 views)

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Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I’m blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing — and more keeps popping up — needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation.
I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.

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17 Responses to Thinking 101

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That’s a great essay, Deana. You seem to track right alongside Allan Bloom and his book, “The Closing of the American Mind.”

    I see a sequel to this that lists all the reasons we have turned away from wisdom. Much of it is the disdain the Left has for Western Civilization. Part of it is a shrinking from excellence (the opposite of what John McCormick was reaching for) because “equality” trumps the disparity caused by nurturing minds….a practice that will inevitably show and nurture a gap between the gifted/motivated and the rest.

    The unionization has hurt, of course. And just the fact that, according to Thomas Sowell, that the teaching profession now has such low standards that it becomes the path for employment for the less talented (the lowest common denominator) or those who do not wish to push themselves. Mediocrity is now built into the process.

    It surely doesn’t sound as if you or McCormick were mediocre teachers. I have a couple teachers who had some of his traits. I knew a few teachers who would push a little. But generally the education system, looking back, was filled with some good teacher who basically ground away in the existing system which left little room or motivation for going the extra mile. Still, I remember Mr. Bidwell (literature), Mrs. Anderson (language), and Mrs. Irons (mathematics) who were inspirations and who rewarded and pushed for excellence. Some people seem to be of an ebullient spirit that does not easily grind down.

  2. Allan Bloom’s book is wonderful — he is so right. And we forget that teachers — and pastors — must compete with constant, world-class entertainment available on every phone! Lordy. And along those lines we also have to remember that good teaching is 9/10ths theater; a huge personality is necessary.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      And along those lines we also have to remember that good teaching is 9/10ths theater; a huge personality is necessary.

      Let me not discount the value of engaging and inspirational teachers. But in my view, much of the educational process is inherently about eating your vegetables combined with a learning environment that is structured and disciplined.

      Trying to make everything fun (competing with the iPods and entertainment culture) is a natural reaction but is probably a mistake. Inevitably, most of what we need to learn isn’t going to be “fun” in the usual sense. It’s work, and should be thought of as such. And I don’t think the personality of the teacher, although it can be a big positive, is a substitute for that. Give me a dull teacher any day of the week but one who has a good curriculum and can keep order.

      Of course, I found aspects of learning fun. But it was fun combined with drudgery. That’s just the process. And learning the discipline of doing somewhat unpleasant tasks could be one of the most vital skills that a teacher can pass onto his or her students.

      Still, I did appreciate the gregarious and enthusiastic nature of Don Bidwell in high school for literature, particularly Shakespeare. There is a place for that, and is much needed. However, this was an elective class.

      And perhaps I should give more credit to that old bitty, my second grade teacher, who used to walk over to the side of my desk and give my ear a good twist when I was misbehaving.

  3. ronlsb says:

    Well stated thoughts about wisdom and learning. If only more of us would act on it!

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, my response seems to have disappeared due to a computer glitch. I’ll try to recreate it.

    I found it interesting that you talked of the trashy modern “literature” taught in schools after earlier referencing Sister Carrie. We had that in high school, and I recall that it had been considered shocking when it came out due to Carrie’s relationships with Drouet and Hurstwood, even though it also pointed out that bad moral choices could lead to harsh consequences (such as Hurstwood’s ultimate richly deserved fate). Defining deviancy down, anyone?

    There were certainly some teachers who influenced me. One was my 6th grade teacher (my last year in Greece), whose name I regrettably don’t recall after 50 years), who sparked our interest in the Greek myths and classical culture in a way that hadn’t really happened up to then. She also had a play version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” that I assume she wrote, in which I played one of the swindlers, named Trink. (I recall a few bits from it, including our initial introduction to the court, “Trink and Dooley, the weavers of Oom.”) Even more important was my geometry teacher, Mr. Straley, who also introduced us to computer programming — in which I later made my career. (He didn’t like having homework done on both sides of the paper, and I didn’t want to use more than 1 sheet, so no matter how many proofs we were assigned, I always fit them onto a single sheet. He once placed one on the overhead projector, and even with that effective magnification it was effectively too small print to read.)

    As for learning to think, and especially skepticism, that no doubt came from many influences, some of them in class (such as Paine’s “The Age of Reason” in 11th grade English). I also recall that Mr. Pike, my 11th grade English teacher, gave me a good grade for my paper on Moby Dick when I argued there was no deep meaning because Melville (in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale”) couldn’t make up his mind (or Ishmael’s mind, if you prefer) whether it symbolized good or evil. He thought I made my case well.

  5. Glenn Fairman says:

    I had a chance to meet Bloom before he passed on. He was the Straussian nemesis of my graduate Professor Harry Jaffa. When Leo Strauss died, his disciples spread to the four winds and were given the moniker: East Coast and West Coast. The West Coast brand, headed by Jaffa, were supposedly natural law advocates who believed in the existence of Foundationalist Absolutes, while The East Coast acolytes led by Bloom were Classical Rationalists who were accused of harboring a secret esoteric teaching that owed not a little bit of homage to Socrates and Nietzsche. To this day I am puzzled by the animus and the dissension that arose from Strauss’ subtle teachings. In political philosophy, these men are giants among dwarves.

    We all need a mentor to help us mine the intellectual gold and to separate the dross of the world from what is valuable. This is never a linear project. Often the teaching comes together years later in gestalt fashion. The Straussians never taught me what to think, only the value of thinking. Moreover, they taught me that philosophy was not dead or had been reduced to physics, science, or identity politics. They taught me that truth exists and that the human heart, when fully awakened, begins a search from doxa to episteme: opinion to knowledge. It is a sojourn that will never end in the temporal world, and will continue apace in the kingdom that is to come.

    Another outstanding article from a writer who has hit her stride.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That’s some interesting history on Bloom. I know him only from his book.

      We all need a mentor to help us mine the intellectual gold and to separate the dross of the world from what is valuable. This is never a linear project. Often the teaching comes together years later in gestalt fashion.

      I think that’s quite true. And surely the students who had Deana as a teacher were fortunate indeed.

      I was generally a good student in school simply because I was motivated to do well one of the things I could put under my control. I wasn’t much of an athlete, nor was I student body president material. But I could study hard and I was motivated to not just get A’s (which I hardly could say was the only grade I got) but to be the best in the class.

      But there’s always someone smarter than you…several others, actually. My “mentors” in high school were somewhat the Catholic kids who transferred over from their Catholic middle school to high school. I gravitated toward them, as they were the better students (to put it mildly) and, well, they were pretty decent people. Just in order to sort of stay in that clique, I worked damn hard.

      And aside from a terrific literature teacher, I don’t think my mind came alive until after high school, until…well…the Clintons came onto the scene. They were sort of my anti-mentors. I was never what you’d call politically aware. But their scumbagness caught my attention (perhaps even more than Reagan did at the time) and I started listening to Rush Limbaugh. He was very good at skewering these fiends.

      And, well, a mind not used is a mind that is withered and undeveloped. And much of mine was. I read Rush’s books and began to read many others. Book knowledge can go only so far. But hopefully I’ve avoided many of the intellectual traps of political solipsism by, this time, being mentored in a positive way by a good Catholic chap who will remain nameless (as I don’t want to embarras him), but he knows who he is.

      Much of wisdom comes from simply unlearning a lot of the preconceptions one has. I was never an ideologue. I didn’t usually have strong opinions about things, so I didn’t have to climb out of a deep zealous hole of indoctrinated Leftism as so many other conservatives have had to (such as David Horowitz). That was indeed a head start. So I was able to simply apply my mind and sort through the best of the best without much, if any, internal intellectual or emotional cognative dissonance.

      The rest is history. Now I’ve started a website which hopes to contain the best, most relevant, and most approachable conservative views in the world. Always shooting to be #1. And with the present company, why not?

  6. Glenn Fairman says:

    If one is curious. Bloom’s translation of the Republic (and commentary) is seminal. One can also find Bloom’s and Jaffa’s “Shakespeare’s Politics.” For a real treat, read Bloom’s collection of monographs entitled “Giants and Dwarves.”

  7. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    ” I do know that in 3 decades in high school classrooms I witnessed a steep decline in the background knowledge of my students. There was a time when, if a piece of literature contained a biblical reference, half the class would recognize it and could explain it.”

    This is due, in large part, to the anti-Christian, multicultural agenda of the followers of the Frankfurt school, among others.

    We have not only lost a common religious language, but we are quickly losing the common English heritage which is so important as a cultural glue for the country. Our opponents on the Left are intentionally trying to Balkanize the country as they know that it will weaken it.

    As an example of a group which has not yet given up its culture you only have to look at the Chinese. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of aphorisms which have arisen through their history. And any half-educated Chinese will know what another Chinese is speaking about when a particular aphorism is used.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Yes, it probably isn’t just a loss of Biblical knowledge. I doubt there’s as much knowledge of Shakespeare as there used to be, and of course many people aren’t allowed to read Huckleberry Finn because of its “racist” language (which was normal for the time, but no matter). I assume that no one ever considers Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus (though we did have his book Victory in 12th grade) as even legitimate. And according to John McWhorter, poetry has been virtually absent from English courses (worthwhile stuff, anyway) for a few decades now.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        If one looks into Bartlett’s or other books of quotations, one will find Shakespeare is responsible for more common sayings in English than even the King James’ Bible. These have been our heritage for 400 years.

        The present day separatists are immeasurably worse than the Southern secessionists. These modern insurrectionists don’t want to leave the country, rather they want to separate the country from its history, culture and heritage.

  8. Timothy Lane says:

    I was just on Mark Steyn’s website and noticed his article comparing Michael Mann to Trofim Lysenko. He also pointed out others who compared it to the struggle between Galileo and certain Church advocates of the Ptolemaic theory, whom he had parodied mercilessly in his comparison of the two competing cosmological theories (ignoring the variants conceived by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, even though the latter was in fact right). I found myself wondering how many students (or adults) would truly understand all those references.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I am afraid, not many.

      As an example of how one can make history interesting to the non-historian, I always thought it was fascinating how Brahe had a “silver” nose. Such things can arouse interest and stick with you.

  9. Glenn Fairman says:

    they would be as infrequent as hen’s teeth.

    As far as Mann and Lysenko, when one understands that in the name of accumulating power for the humanist earthly city, the advocates of AGW must be ascendant. Then, everything falls into place. Why else would scientists falsify data, but to serve the interests of the State Religion? By what logic does a significant cooling trend in the earth’ climate translate to theories of Carbon based heat building up? But if we can make a thing a looming crisis, we can use emotion and fear to trump science with venal politics.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Isaac Asimov once had an article on the subject of “scientific sin”, and provided several possible examples, including the inventor of Greek fire, finally concluding with Fritz Haber for his development of poison gas (in particular, noting the popularity of Karel Capek’s RUR, which came out right after the Great War, and thus suggesting that Haber crystallized the idea of science and technology as dangerous as well as useful). But I would say that the greatest scientific sin is to prostitute science for the sake of politics, as many liberal scientists have done. Mann is a very bad offender, but there have been others; I once read that Hans Bethe, when his anti-SDI arguments were shown to be overblown, argued that it needed to be stopped anyway so it didn’t matter if his science was off. Science and politics don’t mix; the former will always be sacrificed to the latter when they do.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Why else would scientists falsify data, but to serve the interests of the State Religion?.

      Glenn, it is statements such as this that put you on the cutting edge of relevancy.

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