Friday, January 21, 2011

Tiger Mother Meets Oprah?

Cross-posted from Social Issues:

I’m guessing Amy Chua isn’t gonna show up on the Oprah Winfrey Network?? Or is she?

Is anybody watching OWN? I’m not because I don’t have cable or satellite dish (I moved to a new state several months ago and decided to live without it for a while). I’m not a huge TV watcher so I can’t say that I really miss anything, but I’ve been curious about this new network that sprang into life with the new year. Is it possible to create and inhabit what a New York Times media critic called a “no cynicism zone”?

I’ve been trying to think about Amy Chua in an Oprah-like way, sans “mean-spiritedness” (the same mean-spiritedness that Oprah has banned from the new network and from her programming in general). But it isn’t Oprah that’s really helped me. It’s a mental habit borrowed from rhetorician Peter Elbow described (and prescribed) in a book called Embracing Contraries. Elbow considers the wisdom of practicing “methodological belief” (interpretation through the assumption that the person speaking has good reasons, good motivations and good intentions for what s/he is saying) before employing “methodological doubt” (the Descartes-inspired critical stance that the contents of consciousness -– my own and any other’s intuition and claims -- must be subject to scrutiny). These two habits of mind, practiced together and in the recommended sequence, yield a richness of understanding that just isn’t available with either belief or doubt.

But my colleague Amy Shuffleton, talking about Amy Chua in an earlier post on Social Issues, reminded me that in practice it’s not belief before doubt; it’s belief and doubt and belief and doubt and belief and doubt … practiced in a complementary rhythm. The trick is not to get stuck in belief or doubt.

It seems to me that the Oprah Network could get caught in a broken record of belief, the mirror image of the MSNBC/Fox differently-directed revolving doors of doubt. If Amy Chua’s makes it to OWN, it will be a signal that Oprah and her network team realize that mean-spiritedness and cynicism are not the same thing as doubt. And that doubt and belief can walk hand in hand. Richness of understanding is the result.

I’ll have to get my satellite dish hooked up to watch it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teachers, grief and growth

(Cross-posted from Social Issues Blog)

When Jared Loughner killed Christina Green in Arizona last Saturday, he disturbed the lives of other children across the country as well, raising questions about the world “out there.” But the children at Mesa Verde Elementary School, the ones who will not see Christina again, are more than disturbed ( Their parents and their teachers face the nearly insurmountable challenge of helping them to make sense out of this event, and to reconstruct their world as safe enough to move about, sleep at night, trust the other, and think about something other than the possibility that someone might shoot them.

A new rhetorical battle royale has broken out between the adults who think that nasty political rhetoric framed this attack and those who think that Jared was mentally deranged and unaffected by that rhetoric. They are both right and both wrong – as is so often the case in life’s interesting moments. Jared Loughner is mentally ill; his asocial and antisocial behavior is definitive of mental illness. And the use of targets and gun metaphors by political and media figures makes certain things imaginable, especially to the mentally ill.

But the teachers at Mesa Verde and elsewhere are dealing with a different issue. What is the right emotional tone in the classroom now? What does one say – and not say? How can I comfort this child without alarming that one? Where do we draw the line on self-absorption, encouraging students to live through their pain and their questions?

As a mother of now grown children, I appreciated both facets of President Obama’s address at the memorial service at the University of Arizona: healing eloquence and choking silence. He framed a vision for bringing us together with his words and made us feel the unspeakability of it all with one long telling minute near the end of the speech when he simply could not continue.

As a teacher educator, I’m left wondering how we ready our aspirants for moments like this. How do we teach future teachers to value both words and silence? How do we enable and encourage them to be present to tragedy in the lives of their students without being felled by it? How do future teachers learn to respond – always as educators – so that their students grow in mind and heart and action?

Today I have ideas but no concrete answers to these questions -- except to say this: teacher education must always remain education. Technical training, though necessary, is not a sufficient basis for becoming an educator. The Mesa Verde teachers responding to Christina Green’s friends and schoolmates this week will draw on more than “professional development.” They will do with their students just what President Obama called on all Americans to do: “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” This is growth; this is education.