Category Archives: Education

Delusions

For the past few months I’ve been writing about identity and perspective. My primary goal during this process has been to answer the following question:

Along the way, I’ve considered various delusions that we humans believe about ourselves and each other … and I’ve found many of these within myself. It’s been a pretty worthwhile experience, but recently I was amazed by a passage from the Hebrew prophecy found in Isaiah. It is perhaps the most profound answer to my question.

Reading Isaiah 44:13-20 is a humbling experience. Here is an excerpt:

This passage is a profound metaphor for the lies that we tell ourselves.

The man in the story worships something that is temporary, a wooden idol. Something that he himself created. Alone in his own world, the man has convinced himself that he is in the presence of greatness. This thing then becomes the object of his worship.

I love the first line, “No one recalls.” It reminds the reader that the man in the story has not been afforded the same perspective that makes his delusion obvious.

Then I wonder, how many lies have we told ourselves? The first that comes to mind is my Facebook page. When I look at it, do I not believe what I see? In my heart, I know that I am more complex than this one page, but on a daily basis I put that knowledge aside and believe the lie that I have created for myself and others. I literally give of my time and energy to supporting that “Facebook me” that sustains this limited identity.

We humans create many amazing things. We also often like to convince other people that these things are important … sometimes we even convince ourselves. Then we unwittingly begin, ever so slowly, to sacrifice our “selves” to the thing that we have created. Some major examples that come to mind are empires, corporations, religions, and nations. Each one of these entities is created and buttressed by the energy of human work, but many still believe that their individual lives are less important than the entity being sustained.

To these we give our time, our money, our creativity, and our lives.

Finally, it seems that the difficulty of my favorite question is that it inserts doubt into our enlightenment notions of human reason. As humans, we often employ our own reason to save ourselves from delusion. This endeavor, I believe, has had limited success. This is because I have found that every such human attempt toward salvation or enlightenment (even this blog) can itself become a new object of worship and delusion. So here is my desire: To find those humans who are pointing their lives toward something that is not made, discovered or achieved by men. That, to me, is the Christian walk. It is not to sustain a structure or to defend an ideology. It is to follow a path that no human could (or would) have ever devised.

As I mentioned earlier, the oposite of delusion is perspective. Without something outside of the human experience, we will never see ourselves properly and we will be perennially stuck like gerbils on an exercise wheel. Perspective allows us to first see the wheel (the ideology, culture, addiction) that was created by men and then to leave the wheel entirely. This is the beginning of a journey of faith.

Many people would say that, as a Christian, I fit the description of the deluded man I described above. They say that I worship something that has been created by men … not dissimilar from the example in Isaiah 44. They say that the Bible is simply paper and ink and that I’m defending an idol. I can’t say that they’re wrong and I’m right. I can only say that the more I search for even a glimpse of eternal perspective the more I am drawn back to my Christian faith. This faith is not easy, or white, or  American, or something for which I feel personally responsible.

It is difficult and uncertain and leads me to constantly see myself in a new light.

At this point, that’s the only conclusion I can think to give this post. I will continue to interrogate my delusions and I hope to continue to learn more about my perspective on myself and others. All the while, I’ll be personally seeking the Truth that opens my eyes to the man-made objects that I continue to worship each day. Giving them up may seem irrational, but they are the exercise wheel and I would like to soon step off.

Amen.

This post is a part of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

A is for Agricultural Urbanism

Tricycle Gardens is a local organization that has taken to transforming parking lots and empty space into beautiful, collaborative, and interactive green space. Dhiru Thadani would describe their work as specifically: Community Gardens, Allotment Gardens, and Container Gardens. I usually describe them as fun for everyone. Here are some examples:

This is the first post in my, “Cataloguing Richmond,” series saved in “RVA.”

Savage Faces, Human Places

I’ve been thinking about the word “savage” for about a month now. What does it mean? Who uses it? What purpose does it serve in society? At this point, I think I’m about ready to move on.

I may break up this piece later and turn it into more of a series … for now, here’s where I’ve landed:

According to the Wiktionary entry, the word originated in the “Latin silvaticus (‘wild’; literally, ‘of the woods’)” then moved through late Latin and French to English and eventually became the word “savage” as we know it today. The first thing I notice is that the word has always had an implicit vantage built into it. This unspoken perspective is the place from which savagery was determined. “Of the woods” can be read as “not from the city” or at the very least, “not of us.”

My first question quickly emerged, “From where is this word spoken?”

A few weeks ago, my Richmond Perspectives class discussed the relationship between the Native American Chief Powhatan and the English settler/invader John Smith. One of my handouts that week included the following insight on an entry in John Smith’s journal:

“‘Powhatan carried himself so proudly, yet discretely, in his savage manner, as made us all admire his natural gifts,’ Smith wrote, ‘considering his education.’ Majestic, mighty, and prideful Powhatan may well have been, but, in Smith’s eyes, he was still, and ever would be, a savage” (The River Where America Began, 77). 
 

This quote moved me to wonder about Smith and the British perspective at the time. Was there something particularly savage about Powhatan or had Smith simply decided that every person he encountered would be savage? Clearly, thousands of Native Americans believed Powhatan to be an effective leader, but Smith couldn’t see past his seventeenth-century English perspective of the “New World.” From this vantage, the entire territory, Powhatan’s chiefdom and beyond, was “savage” before it was even encountered.

There was something within John Smith’s mind that prevented him from developing an appreciation for the powerful leader with which he dealt. I’ve landed on three posible explanations for this: 1. Smith came here believing that every inhabitant was inferior, 2. Smith was legitimately shocked by Powhatan’s physical appearance or behavior and lastly, 3. Smith was afraid of Powhatan and used words such as “savage” to demean him and minimize his power.

When I read this quote with my students, I asked them what thought in particular about the word savage. I was actually surprised to hear that they use the world all the time. To them, “savage” is a joke to make fun of friends when they’re not acting proper or just to make fun of someone in general. One mentioned that the projects in Richmond are savage. Another joked that it’s savage when you pick up food off the ground and eat it. I think this conversation actually filled the rest of class and I left that day with a lot to think about.

My history class had just launched itself into the twenty-first century.

When I first started writing this post, I realized the topic was making connections to all sorts of other ideas and semi-related thoughts. This post is the first paragraph of that original piece and I’ll publish the rest in segments. I’m also starting a new page titled, “Power,” where I’ll store these and others because I think perspective and “savagery” are linked to how we position ourselves in relation to each other … identity is a powerful thing.

This post is this first of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.

Performing the Vantage

My last post described the classroom as a vantage from which we learn about the world. Tonight, I don’t think I’ll be able to go to sleep if I don’t write about my next thought: Performing the Vantage. I want to talk about how we can perform this theoretical space and what that might mean for my work.

First of all, I have to admit that some days I feel a little crazy. At first this was a little unsettling, but now I’m totally comfortable with the fact that some days I learn more than I teach. These are the days that I feel like Ben Stiller as Tony in the legendary movie “Heavyweights.” To the right is a scene from this movie where Stiller is certainly “performing the vantage.” but it doesn’t help the fact that he’s emotionally unstable. His character understands the idea of the mountaintop experience, but doesn’t realize that it takes more than just a mountaintop to inspire change. It’s not what happens on the mountaintop, it’s how life on the ground is transformed as a result. So performing the vantage can’t become more important than building relationships with the people in our lives. Then, when the moment is right, speak as if you are looking out over the vast open spaces and share your wonder and amazement with the people around you.

I actually believe that if I pretended that I was on a mountain these moments would be more significant. In some ways, this is how I trick myself into believing that I’m not just in any other room … that this room is somehow more conducive to learning. Of course, every class will require a different level of discipline and correction. Some will never reach the moment of wonder when the mountaintop can be reached, but I have been thankful for these moments in the past two weeks and I look forward to improving my ability to notice them in the future. The more I notice these moments, the more I will be able to capitalize on their emotional impact.

What are some potential shortfalls to this perspective? In my post, “A Vantage,” I compared teaching to Mufasa showing Simba his kingdom. This metaphor helps me to further explain the potential shortfalls of performing this vantage in the classroom:

Mountaintop Shortfall #1: Basically, they might not believe that you’re Mufasa. They might not believe that you have any right to show them the kingdom. They might believe that you don’t have anything of worth to give them. They might not appreciate you. They might forsake their inheritance.

Mountaintop Shortfall #2: You might not believe that they are Simba. You might not truly believe that they deserve to inherit the kingdom that you have seen. You might hope they drop out so you don’t have to put up with them any longer. You might forget that you were once Simba.

Mountaintop Shortfall #3: The classroom lingers on the mountaintop for too long. We were not meant to settle into our vantage. Instead, it is meant to be the underlying goal that we reach it every day in order to remind ourselves why we’re there. From the ground we learn how to work; from the vantage we are reminded of its ultimate purpose.

I have experienced all of these shortfalls in just two weeks of class … and I’ve also seen the positive results of the vantage. I suppose those are the moments that I “live for.” I am a beginner to this whole teaching thing so I’m just trying to understand what its all about. As I read in Teaching with Love and Logic, “Great teachers are experimenters.”

Base camp here we come.

A Vantage

This week I have been teaching my high school students about imagination, appreciation, curiosity and innovation. The joys of alternative education 🙂 During this time, I’ve made some (albeit naive) teacher observations and formulated some theories to help myself improve and better understand what I’m doing. The most valuable lesson so far is this: The classroom is a vantage. From this vantage, we see the world for its order and structure. As Mufasa took Simba to the mountaintop, so do we teachers take our students to the classroom to make sense of the world in which they live.

From the vantage of Pride Rock, Mufasa shared with Simba the details of his kingdom: Places to go and places to avoid. At the same time, he is also sharing the weight of the responsibility of the kingdom (which I see as knowledge, adulthood, and the unknown future).  In this moment, he is imparting an understanding of life from the mountaintop because that is where the chaos of life begins to make sense. That is the place of perspective. Without the context of perspective we will hardly understand the significance of the information we retain.

One important point is that a mountaintop is positioned far away from life on the ground below. That’s not a bad thing! I think the “ivory tower” critique of education sometimes directs us to teach a more “realistic” education. But this is a mistake. Instead of making our education realistic, we believe that education must be detached from reality in order to prepare students for the abstract and unpredictable future. Is the future reality? No. We can only speculate how our students will use the information we teach them and we must give them the ability to make connections on their own. The ability to imagine the future and prepare for its challenges.

This capacity for imagination is becoming a subject of discussion as a skill that can (and should) be taught. In a PBS Newshour production, “Conversation: Imagination in Education,” Jeffrey Brown interviewed the director of the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, Scott Noppe-Brandon. Brown asked, “What would [imagination in education] look like? What would be an example of putting imagination into the skill set and into the curriculum?” To this question, Mr. Noppe-Brandon responded,

“It’s taking issues like, ‘How do you get kids to notice deeply? How do you get them to attend to details and information in front of them? How do you get them to notice patterns and make connections and be reflective and tolerate ambiguity? Elements like that that combined over time start to build that cognitive capacity for imaginative thinking.” Imagine how differently we would teach if we believed this … the excitement in our voices as we say, “Look out over this world of information and conquer it with your mind.”

In my attempt to teach this concept to my students, I landed on the following formula:

Imagination + Creativity + Knowledge + Appreciation + Hard Work = Innovation.

Hopefully, my students will begin to value the ideas in their minds, appreciate the ideas of others and make connections between the two and reality. Reality is  not always the sort of place where people develop the capacity for creativity and imagination. That’s why we have the classroom. The classroom is a vantage. Every other hour of the day is enough reality for now.

Singing from Whiteness

*Warning, this post is about race … including white people.

The other day I was driving through Tyler listening to some country music on a local station tryna get in touch with my white roots. As I listened, Eric Church’s incredibly catchy song, “Homeboy,”  came on. If you haven’t heard it, the first verse of the song reads,

“You were too bad for a little square town
with your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground
Heard you cussed out momma, pushed daddy around
You tore off in his car
Here you are runnin’ these dirty old streets
Tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth
Got the hood here snow, but you cant fool me, we both know who you are”

“Hip-hop hat?” “Pants on the ground”? “Fake gold on your teeth?” As I tapped my thumbs on my steering wheel, I wondered to myself, “What is he even talking about?” And the the name of the song is “Homeboy”? Anyone who’s seen Antoine Dodson’s intruder speech (and the requisite autotuned followup) doesn’t have to check Urban Dictionary to know that “homeboy” isn’t really the most white thing you could call someone. So I started thinking about race and how people of different races refer to the other. In other words, how do white people say “stuff Black people do” without really having to say it for fear of sounding racist.

Since I usually write about actual spaces, in honor of Church’s song, I want to get a little more academic and talk about rhetorical spaces. The song constructs two spaces in particular: White (rural) spaces and Black (urban) spaces.

First, I want to talk about the rhetorical space of whiteness as the location from which Church is singing.  Basically, Whiteness is the space from which white people often (albeit unknowingly) speak and operate. Whiteness is often compared to a black hole in the sense that you can feel the power of its influence on society, but cannot often determine its characteristics. The blog, “Stuff White People Like” is important regardless of it’s limitations because of its noteworthy purpose: To essentialize Whiteness. When I first saw the blog four years ago it was the first of its kind. Honestly, I don’t think I had even heard the phrase, “White people _____,” in any context. Lots of white people object to the blog (i.e. “I’m not like that” or “That’s just hipsters, not white people!”), but I think that’s partially the point: There are no essential characteristics to a race. It’s also just plain funny.

The objections from white people are interesting because it seems the majority is uncomfortable being “pinned down.” Of course, this is minor in comparison to the experience of African Americans as essentialized minorities. In this world, there are a multitude of examples of Blackness: Stereotypes associated with the black race. These represent the rhetorical space of Blackness. In his song, Church is pretty blunt about his references to Blackness. The song is just full of references such as the ones listed above. As far as I can tell, the song is written about a white guy performing Blackness … basically some guy’s younger brother gets too good for the comfortable, white country lifestyle. Then he starts to cuss, become more physically violent, rebel, become more likely to be thrown in jail, feel entitled, and waste money.

But isn’t that a strange leap? What is it about a tattoo and gold on someone’s teeth that makes them more violent? The reason is this: Blackness, in contrast to Whiteness, is a very defined rhetorical construct.

As a the minority population, black people have often been associated with each other by members of the majority.  In other words, for centuries members of the Black Diaspora have been saying, “Hey, I’m not really like that” or “I’ve never seen a black person that actually actually acts like that.” But many white people don’t usually get the chance to feel “called out” for their Whiteness in the same way. If you are white and you’ve been called out for, say, drinking so much milk, you may feel angry thinking about the experience. I usually just laugh. Unlike Blackness, Whiteness is relatively undefined and uninterrogated AND it isn’t historically associated with political oppression. Blackness, in stark contrast, has been constructed over the years with clear political and economic motivations.

The best description I ever heard basically said that Whiteness is an elusive center. It’s relatively undefined and often subtly powerful. In operating from the elusive position of Whiteness, Eric Church seems to be making two statements at the same time. The explicit statement is that there is value in the country life and honoring your family. It’s true: We shouldn’t mock our families or disobey our parents. The implicit statement, however, is that city life is morally inferior and that urban culture or Blackness will lead you down a self-destructive path. There’s a few problems. The first is that rural life is not a white experience. The second is that the WSJ recently reported that city life is in many ways healthier.

As a fan of flat-brim hats, Mike Jordans and doing “The Jerk,” I happen to disagree with the notion that urban culture instills rage or disrespect. In fact, I’ve seen people do some pretty dumb things in Topsiders. Maybe I’ll write an autobiographical counter to Church’s song titled, “Frat boy.” That way, I could engage the ethos of the song which is “Family first” without falling into the pitfalls of race. At this point, I think it’s always important to ask yourself, “What are we trying to say?” As a member of the majority, I think a new kind of thoughtfulness (not merely political correctness) would be appreciated.

 
Works (loosely) cited:
McKerrow, Raymie E. “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis.”
Nakayama, Thomas K. and Robert L. Krizek. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.”
Also, if you’re interested, here is a link the lyrics to the song I referenced

That Which is Built

When I was young, people taught me history from a book. This history was often a history of nations and political places (e.g. Texas, Germany, the South) and we usually discussed history as a distant idea with little relevance to our lives. I believe this omission is common practice, but in many ways it prevented me from fully appreciating the legacy of history and what Faulkner famously stated is “never dead … not even past.” Additionally, I’ve come to realize that the political history I was taught was difficult to interact with because politics themselves are abstract. I began to realize that the national history seems irrelevant because it seems to only indirectly relates to one’s personal life. I believe that we should rediscover the value in local, applied history that engages the mind on many different levels. Furthermore, I have realized that in studying the physical structures of a society one can develop a deeper understanding of the politics and power of the past.

This is my manifesto for studying that which is built.

Consider the legacy of segregation in America. While there has not been a law mandating segregation for decades, the reality of segregation today is difficult to deny. This legacy lives on in both the tangible structures and the intangible social divisions that locked themselves into the urban landscape years ago.

In my hometown, Jim Crow told black residents to live north of the railroad tracks and white residents of course lived to the south. This one simple policy, coupled with latent racism, has transformed my city into an oblong egg shape as more and more businesses and people move farther south. While they may claim they are moving towards new regions, they are also moving farther away from the historically black and historically poor northern region of the city. Implicit within this movement to the south is the stigmatization of those neighborhoods to the north and their residents. This stigmatization is no longer written in law, but it lingers in the streets named after MLK, the local HBCU Texas College, the Salvation Army and other similar signifiers of race and class. The power of stigma prevents many developers and individuals from imagining a profitable future for the spaces to the north of downtown Tyler. It’s a mental block, but it is directly informed by the physical environment.

This is because the built environment makes statements about the relative significance of a place. On the surface, buildings teach the observer about an area and the people who live there. On a deeper level, buildings teach the scholar about the society that has shaped that place and transformed it’s potential. Greg Dickinson further describes the way buildings “speak” to us in his article “Memories For Sale: Nostalgia and the Construction of Identity in Old Pasadena.” Dickinson writes, “Places are often constructed to make claims about a society. As time passes, these places become rhetorical artifacts that can maintain rhetorical and memorial significance. (Dickinson, 4). This rhetorical significance is powerful and shapes the way we experience places whether or not we are aware. There are many structures that obviously make claims about a society (e.g. Confederate monuments in Richmond) and others that are more subtle such as bike lanes and sidewalks for those who cannot afford to drive. There are also “absences” in many cities where significant places have been destroyed and memories have been lost (I will discuss memory places more at a later time).

As a student, I was not made fully aware of the rhetorical and historical nature of places until an independent study on the rhetoric of highway battles with Dr. Kevin Kuswa. As a spatial thinker, this lesson illuminated my view of the American city and activated my brain to think of history and society in three-dimensions. I believe that it is necessary to teach our students about the built environment because we will begin to realize how significant history is to our individual cities and lives. It helps to answer questions such as, “Why does everyone in my neighborhood look the same?” and “Why aren’t the roads in our neighborhood paved?” The city becomes the classroom and the students become active participants in both learning about the general history and more significantly about themselves and their place in society on a local and national level.

On Plans and the Future

On November 3, 1951, Robert LeRoy Shepherd wrote an opinion article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Freedom, Independence, Taxes and the Freeway.” I found this article 60 years after it was written and was struck by the candor of his voice and the content of his message: Plans for the future must respond to reality.

At the time it was written, the city was in the midst of a highway battle over the plans for the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (what is now a section of I-95). As was common practice at the time, Richmond politicians contracted large firms to develop plans for this expressway without significant input from the residents of the city. As a result, the thought of destroying the city for a highway divided citizens and outraged residents. Many conceded that the city fathers had already decided what would be best for Richmond, but fought to make their voices heard during the second public referendum of the highway plan.

Uncertainty filled the minds of Richmonders who were unsure whether their city would be completely transformed by this idea proffered by huge national planning firms and local politicians. The highway plan would result in the destruction of large sections of the city and would forever change the way people move throughout the region. On a more philosophical level, the plans for the highway also seemed to fundamentally question the legitimacy of the physical structure city. After 210 years of individuals shaping the built environment, an outside idea was being presented as more legitimate. At this moment of crisis in the battle for Richmond’s future, Shepherd wrote a philosophical piece that questioned the idea of a highway in Richmond and made a simple, yet compelling argument for democracy in the midst of the American highway era.

At this point in time, the Richmond Times-Dispatch was not new to articles and ads related to the expressway.  Leading up to the referendum on November there were dozens of references to the highway including political ads, cartoons, editorials, news articles, and opinion submissions. Many of these references simply recycled the same ideas and arguments for or against the highway plan. In these arguments it was too expensive or it was the ultimate solution to traffic, either not the will of the people or a well-developed plan vetted by studies and experts.

Amidst the banal arguments, Shepherd’s article called Richmonders to think critically about the process of planning a highway in the 50s. He was not enamored by the professional firms that planned the highway or their ideas for the future of Richmond. Instead, he writes, “Inflexible plans result in a fixation of mind. Steering them becomes an obsession kindred to a driver’s headlong dash above or over a freeway.” To Shepherd, politicians in Richmond were  trying to make the plan fit an unwilling populace. To Shepherd, the future was not so easy to predict.

While many framed the highways as American progress, Shepherd framed the highway plan as megalomania. He compares the politics to Alexander the Great, Caesar, Hitler, Hirohito, and the British Empire. The one thing in common was the concept of invasion and empire, but more philosophically the empires were imposed and forced on unprepared societies. The empires constantly developed their ability to transform the life of citizens in order to complete the assimilation of diverse societies. The highway was no exception. Plans for the city of Richmond were meticulously developed before being presented to the people of Richmond and expected to impress and amaze. The highway was an idea from the outside that was forced upon cities in America and unwilling to change or shift to fit the will of the people.

To Shepherd, these plans did not make sense in context because they weren’t democratic. “Taxes and plans?” writes Shepherd, “Yes.” In some instances it is wise to plan for the future and prepare for potential changes and developments, “But [while] some lead to the freedom of men, others lead to a fixation of mind and bondage just a binding as chains.” Today we are living the legacy of these plans and I believe we finally beginning to understand the captivity of which Shepherd spoke. While the highway seemed like an opportunity for growth, it has become a fundamental aspect of American life. What was once vehemently opposed has now become part of routine commutes and shopping trips.

Many people look at cities without any sort of historic lens or context, but a deeper understanding of the politics of a place will give us a better understanding of the place itself. As we continually struggle to recover our buried past we will likely find similar instances where democracy failed and voices were silenced. Uncovering these voices will further illuminate our nation’s past and present and allow us to begin to right our future.