Monday, March 17, 2008

Judgment better than "godly"?

Yesterday in the (Lancaster, PA) Sunday News, columnist Dona Fisher wrote a column about her close encounter with a traffic cop who stopped her for zooming along on a country road that had a 25 mph speed limit. In response to this "sin," she asked "why do godly people do ungodly things?" I found this question in this context incongruous.

I don't know Dona Fisher. I presume she is a "godly person" (she writes a weekly column called "Matters of Faith"), but I'm not sure I consider speeding on a country road an "ungodly" act. It may certainly be unwise or unsafe or illegal, but "ungodly."?? Fisher's view of what counts as "godly" or moral is revealing. I'm quoting at length here:

"It is unfortunate that our courts are filled with people who have broken laws. Even though laws are set for people to be wise in their actions, they lack the power to make people obedient. So how can our behavior and conduct be controlled?

God's laws never change. We need a fixed authority in whom we can follow in obedience. Those professionals God has placed over us have made the rules for us to follow. Laws are rules that take away our personal freedom and are enforced by a controlling authority and meant to be obeyed."

As an educator working in a public institution, I find this rendering of laws, obedience and morality more than a little problematic. As a citizen in a society where "those professionals" are sometimes less than professional (not to mention downright racist, sexist, homophobic or simply inconsiderate and ungodly), I am frightened at a formulation of "goodness" that removes intelligence from the picture.

But this raises a question for educators and parents that is never fully "fixed," never finally resolved: How do I teach my students/children to question when questioning is appropriate, to obey when obeying is appropriate, to resist when resisting is appropriate, to challenge when challenging is appropriate? I teach them judgment -- informed, intelligent, compassionate judgment; that's the answer. And in careful judgment, the smart and the good coexist.

We'll leave just how to do that for another day -- or many other days. For now, let me say just this: judgment is a practice and any practice is learned by having many opportunities to try it (preferably in "safe" conditions), to undergo the consequences of my try, and to connect the dots between my trying and my undergoing. But I can't (usually) do it alone; someone needs to help me see where I have neglected some important information or moved too hastily or failed to consider all perspectives. It helps to have a coach in any practice. Judgment is no exception.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mounting a Protest

There is a fragile spirit of student activism rising up as surely as the crocuses of spring poke through in my garden. I don't know whether to thank George Bush for a misbegotten war or Barack Obama for his calculated and eloquent message of youth's possibilities, but it's popping up and taking some pretty interesting shapes. On my campus (and on more than a dozen campuses around the country), a revival of the sixties phenomenon Students for a Democratic Society is planning a Walk Out Against the War for March 20th, the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. I think it's swell. I hope lots and lots of students walk out of class – even when, especially when, they will miss something "important" – to attend the teach-in on the quad. I hope there will be a counter-protest, something that seems likely based on nasty opinion pieces in the student newspaper. I hope that any student who has a strong opinion will find a way to express that opinion without judging or demeaning any one else. They will do that if we teach them how – if we ourselves refrain from judging or demeaning. This is, of course, easier said than done.

It matters how we view the war in Iraq. Whatever your position on its original wisdom or current status, you must acknowledge that when young Americans and even younger Iraqis are in danger, that we are bound to consider carefully next steps. Careful consideration takes dialogue across difference. "Dialogue" suggests speaking and listening. Listening means hearing and wrestling with the position articulated by another.

Adults (faculty members, student affairs personnel) can model the kind of dialogue – speaking and listening – about the protest itself that we hope students can demonstrate with respect to the war issue. And university personnel seem to be doing just that. The administration and faculty union have taken a joint position that encourages free speech while reminding students that any action taken has consequences – and that it's within an instructor's rights to hold students accountable for class absence. This is a wonderful lesson in responsibility, the ability to respond in a fitting way in complicated circumstances. Young people will develop responsibility when they have the chance to practice it. This is one such chance. Whether or not an individual student walks out is not the critical element. The fact that they are confronted with this choice is a good thing. They may not succeed admirably in their decision-making, but I am quite sure they will learn something important, especially if the adults around them are listening carefully and responding thoughtfully.