Thursday, January 22, 2015

Humility and Education, Part II

A key point in my intellectual and academic development arrived many years ago, several years removed from graduate school.  I was, as they say, "burned out."  I still remember how depressed I felt in the summer of 1980 as I spent day after day on the 4th floor of PLC at the University of Oregon, reading 1,000 pages or more of books that I believed I needed to master to be a decent historian.  I had no plan opening the books, other than to learn everything in them.  I took no notes.  And of course I remember very little of their content.  I do remember how much I hated the whole thing.  But I believed that such discipline was necessary to master my subjects, my fields.  A scholar should be master of her or his subjects.
Some years later, the blessed day arrived when it occurred to me that knowledge is like an ocean.  It's so large that it might as well be infinite, and every little droplet or bit or ecosystem is connected to countless other complicated systems.  But every little piece of it is also endlessly fascinating.  The closer you look, the more you realize that. It's a pleasure to dip into it, even if--or maybe because--you constantly run up against limitations of intellect and time.

Learning undertaken with a deeper appreciation of the immensity of the subject and my own (human and personal) limitations has been much more enjoyable.  When mastery is out of the question, the mind is free to explore, secure in the knowledge that one's knowledge is always incomplete and subject to revision.  I believe that this approach also helps with my teaching, as I can sincerely assure my students that I may or may know much more about a subject than they do, but that both of us really know very little and are both in the same boat, so to speak.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Humility and Education

Our American Identities cluster had a fine meeting the other day.
 The half dozen or so people who teach the cluster's sophomore inquiry classes are trying to discern what we have in common in our teaching approaches.

One of our faculty explained that the key requirement of her class is for students to identify what they hold sacred.  She is using the term, I should hasten to add, in the secular sense.  All of us have certain beliefs or assumptions that we hold sacred, and it drives us nuts when others do not share these assumptions.  For my friend, Carrie, it's the sacredness of being there for your family, immediate and extended (that, and having the salt and pepper shakers properly aligned with each other, at home or camping, doesn't matter).  For many Libertarians, like my wild Uncle John, it's the concept of self reliance and shrinking government.

Problem is, when we bump up against people with other assumptions, we tend to keep repeating our beliefs rather than examining them and other people's more closely, let alone considering that our sacred beliefs are bound to be incomplete, that they should be, in a very real sense, contingent and open to revision, even as they guide us.

Reinhold Niebuhr years ago pointed out that devout Christians should be particularly sensitive to the limitations of the human mind, that every Christian should rest assured that some of her or his dearest beliefs and assumptions about God are bound to be wrong--we just don't know which ones.

Humility, then, is a great virtue in intellectual and religious life, alike.  But we do not seem to be predisposed to it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Your One Wild and Precious Life

2014 was a difficult year in that it began with two friends battling cancer that proved fatal and ended with two more friends making the same struggle.

Many people have observed that Americans tend to deny death.  We live a long time, have a lot of resources at our disposal to stave off death, and many of us are pretty advanced in years before we witness the death of someone close to us.

This might have something to do with the fact that Americans often take a long time to grow up and that we are so resistant to limits.  Death is a great limiter.  No amount of money or privilege can stop it.  But we pretend otherwise for decades.

Bill and Bee Jai died way too soon.  They still had a lot to do and a great deal to offer the rest of us.  Death surprised them and broke the hearts of those who love them.

Hitting my mid-fifties depressed me for several years.  It hit me that my life was likely more than half over, and that many of the dreams that I had assumed I'd get to some day would instead die on the vine.  Losing these close friends has prompted me to realize that understanding that we don't have all the time in the world is in fact a gift.  Appearances to the contrary, our days are indeed numbered, and the number may be much lower than we assume.  Rather than moving from the distraction and boredom that so often characterizes living like life will never end to feeling sorry for ourselves because it will, in fact end, we could instead move forward, with purpose and gratitude.

As Mary Oliver puts it:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Yo Ghana: Last Year and Next

Yo Ghana! in 2014 and 2015: Exchanges for Transformation

2014 has been an inspiring year for us. We are now working with 16 schools in Ghana and 18 in the U.S., from second graders through graduate students. Fellow board member Brando Akoto and I spent September visiting the Ghana schools. Since school started in the fall we have facilitated the exchange of more than 2,300 letters. We added two new board members: Dr. Eric Ananga, a Lecturer at the University of Education, Winneba, and Harriette Jackson-Vimegnon, the Assistant Principal of Beaumont Middle School in Northeast Portland. Both are passionate about education and opportunity for our children. Thanks to the efforts of co-founder Elizabeth Fosler-Jones, the FRANK Creative Group donated to us a state-of-the-art website:

Most important of all, we have a better sense of our mission. At a summer board retreat we arrived at the term “transformative exchanges” to describe what we do best. I am repeatedly struck while visiting schools in both Ghana and Oregon at how vulnerable our students are. Those in Ghana often feel or believe that their schools and lives are “less than” those in the U.S. We tell them that their new friends need them not just to learn what Ghana and Africa are really like, but also for inspiration and encouragement. Many of our Oregon classrooms are populated by a lot of students who are struggling with school and life.  We tell them that their friends in Ghana need to learn that not everyone in America lives in a mansion, that their lives in fact are much more similar than they might have thought, and that simply receiving a thoughtful and warm letter from a student in the U.S. is an act of respect in a world of staggering inequalities of status as well as wealth.

In fact part of what Brando and I learned in Ghana is that relationships are more important than financial support. Again and again we found that our Ghanaian hosts insisted on giving us the best accommodations and meals that they could while expecting little in return—except our friendship. Don’t get me wrong, all of the schools we work with have acute needs. But we learned that the best way to meet those needs is slowly, through partnerships in which local schools and communities lead. Our goal is not to send over a wad of cash to plunk down a new computer lab and then move on, but rather to augment and stimulate local initiatives, including ones in which students in both places collaborate to serve students less fortunate than themselves. We are in it for the long haul.

That said, we can make good use of monies donated to us.  Projects for 2015 include helping schools to: create a plan for how to pay its teachers while serving many students from impoverished homes; finish classrooms so that kindergarten students are taught in groups of 50 rather than 90; make books available for students to use during and after school; expand student access to computers and other technologies.

Our plans for the coming year also include establishing and measuring desired outcomes for the letter writing in both sets of schools, to further refine what exactly we are trying to do and how well we are doing it, a task made easier by the fact that our board already features academics who do that sort of research. We will also be having a dinner in the Spring to celebrate the dedication of our teachers in Oregon and to raise a bit of money for our projects in Ghana.

More important than money or expertise or research, though, are deepening the roughly 1,000 friendships that we’ve helped to get started.  We are an all-volunteer organization in which relationships, not money, are the driving force. The teachers and administrators in Oregon and Ghana get nothing tangible from Yo Ghana! except for maybe a shirt and certainly a whole lot more work. Mr. Nantogma has worked so feverishly at organizing more than 100 writers at his senior high school that the staff and students now call him “Mr. Yo Ghana!”  Ms. Julia in North Portland is routinely at work several hours after her students leave school, but she somehow makes time for Yo Ghana!  Mr. Brew in Sampa not only insisted on feeding us three times a day and taking us to the town’s chief, he painted our logo on the side of his school.  When we return to Ghana we’ll be paying our own way to fly there and to get around—but also relying again on the hospitality of friends.

And that, I think, speaks to our ultimate goal, that twenty years from now the paint may have faded from the side of Mr. Brew’s school, but that the friendships it signifies will endure and spread, that a generation of people in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest will have grown up thinking of each other as cherished friends rather than exotic or mysterious strangers, that thousands of students and hundreds of teachers will have learned not just about each other, but to care for each other.

I’ll close with the words of a student at a school in Northern Ghana that is mostly Muslim: “If we choose to, we can make the world a smaller place.”

Let’s do that.

David Peterson del Mar,  Yo Ghana President and Gofer

Christians and X-Mas

I've recently been reading Philip Yancey, who could perhaps be best described as an Evangelical Christian who irritates a lot of Evangelical Christians.  Yancey argues that Christians' primary responsibility is to manifest God's love rather than trying to force their moral code on unbelievers.  He in fact suggests that Christianity does best in situations in which professing Christians are not in control of the government or culture.

I believe that this sheds some light on why Christians' determination to turn "X-Mas" back into "Christmas" are misguided.  Every December Christians often come across as "Pharisees and hypocrites," self-righteous and legalistic bullies who hector and lecture defenseless check-out clerks who wish them "Happy Holidays."  The rest of the year many of us focus on denouncing abortion and same-sex relationships--two issues which (conveniently) don't much affect the straight men who run most Christian organizations.  What if we instead focused on the much more difficult task Yancey speaks of, the endless and exhilarating work of seeking to reflect and embody God's love to a broken world?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Our Debt to Our Ancestors

I'm at the Oregon Coast for a few days to rest and recharge. After spending September in Ghana, I returned to my teaching duties about 12 hours later, and it's been a wild 11 weeks.

While riding the bus to Tillamook I passed near where my maternal grandmother spent her early years. She dropped out of school after fourth grade because her parents couldn't afford the books for fifth grade. Plus, like many impoverished African parents today, they needed her to go out and earn money. While working as a domestic servant in a house in Netarts she met a young man who grew up on the land shown in the photograph, above. His parents rented the poor farmland, and his father, too, had a drinking and an income problem that drove him out of school at a young age. So they fell in love, got married, and worked and worked and worked to give their children (and therefore their grandchildren, like me, and all those who came after) a better life than what they had.

In Ghana I meet a lot of people who probably would have gotten along well with my grandparents, students and adults who are very earnest and serious and hard working, who are fighting steep odds to create a better life not just for themselves, but for the generations who come after--and their neighbors and their nation. Of course there's always the danger that those who come later, with much easier lives, take the prosperity that they won for us lightly. Easy come, easy go.

That would be a travesty. A very small proportion of the world enjoys the sort of choices and advantages that my grandparents passed along to me. Most or even all of the people reading this are probably in the same boat. So, then, the question becomes: what are we going to do with those choices and advantages?

Some 80 years after my grandmother's death, I am grateful to her. Will anyone be grateful to me, to us, 80 years after we are gone? Will we give them a reason to remember us, and to remember us with gratitude?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Why I Love Teaching at PSU

This photograph of Portland State University always makes me chuckle, as it is so generic, could describe most any small-town college campus.

My PSU is much grittier than this.  I have a little office in Cramer Hall, which looks like it was designed to survive a nuclear attack.  Let's just say it's short on charm.  The ground floor of our Student Union does not exude luxury.  We still have a lot of wooden desks that are bolted to the floor.  When I am teaching 3.5 hour classes, I am always thankful to be standing up rather than sitting down in such classrooms.

A very small percentage of the students live on campus.  Most of them seem to be always coming or going, not just hanging out.  They are coming to and from work, or rushing home to pick up their kids from daycare, maybe caring for an elderly parent.

It's the students who make PSU beautiful.

For starters, they are truly diverse.  Even a small class is apt to have students from several different countries.  Unlike certain colleges which will remain unnamed, PSU is not dominated by white students from privileged backgrounds who are trying to outdo each other in being more radical and sensitive than thou--not that there's anything wrong with that.  Rather, at PSU you find thoughtful students who are Mormons, Muslims, radical feminists, evangelical Christians, evangelical atheists, Socialists and Libertarians and everyone in between, and, of course, the guy who believes that hemp is the solution to every problem.  They usually listen to and respect each other.

And there are so many amazing stories, from the young woman who was a pregnant gang member at fifteen and is now headed off to law school to the guy who dropped out of high school and almost drank himself to death for years and is now getting an education to help others avoid those choices to the innumerable mothers and fathers who are somehow going to school and working one or two or three jobs and raising children and volunteering in their communities and turning in amazing papers and thank you at the end of the term.

Thank you for the inspiration.