Sunday, September 23, 2007

Wise Woman...

Just a short post this time. Here's something else to fling into the "aims of education" pot. In her author's note to the 1962 edition of her novel, WISE BLOOD, Flannery O'Connor says: "Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is NOT able to do? (emphasis mine) I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will but many wills conflicting in one man." Is an educated person one who can read and recognize these words? One who can read and understand them well enough to dismiss them because they are not easily understood? One who can understand them well enough to arrive at a possible meaning? One who, though he does not understand them to start with, is so determined to understand that he will read them again and again, in pursuit of that meaning? (Actually, it would be interesting to hear what people think they do mean...)


FSJL said...

Leaving aside the question of whether we can truly speak of free will (or whether it is just an illusion), I think that the author's point (and I confess to having read nothing of her's) is that our understandings and actions are complex things that don't arise from single, simple motivations and desires. 'I am large, I contain multitudes' old Walt said, and that is true for each one of us. said...

Flannery O'Connor is a woman whose thoughts on subjects I have always trusted as being very wise.
Teaches can lead, but it must be the student's intrinsic motivation that will determine the outcome.
Here's something I wrote about her
Flannery O'Connor

clarabella said...

I shall have to send Dr. Johnson to visit you! Believe me, against my better judgment, for I am neglecting house and home, I am exercising my conative faculty (two of the examiners who read my PhD thesis assumed I'd meant to write cognitive; Larry Breiner knew the word – or if he didn't, looked it up) quite freely and writing these posts... I think you are right about what Flannery O'Connor means. I think she may also mean that we choose in a sort of top-down and bottom-up way – which is how some people think. (My PhD thesis again.) In other words, we choose by identifying the things, directions, paths that we can't elect, and so isolating or narrowing down the things that are possible choices for us. Hence the many wills: the will that elects the things we can choose; the one that identifies the things we cannot choose; the one that sets up the hierarchy according to which we make the selection; the one that does the ultimate choosing from that rating.

clarabella said...

I don't know about that intrinsic motivation part. I didn't have the intrinsic motivation – still don't – for so many things. (Comes of being a very sick puppy!) I think one of the biggest challenges a teacher has is helping to create that motivation. To put it in terms of Fragano's students, how to make a student see that dressing like a prisoner is a fad, whereas, say, the creation of music as a strategy of survival IS part of his culture, and is therefore deserving of his attention, his celebration and his serious study. I got to go iron and clean and wash, but I look forward to reading your piece on Flannery.


FSJL said...

Pam: I'd buy Sam Johnson a drink (or several) and join in his toast 'to the next uprising of the Negroes in the West Indies'. Philosophically, I'm not a Berkeleyan, I subscribe to a weak version of determinism.

To a large extent, we can't make choices because of a variety of constraints (some of which are invisible to us). Our motivations, though, are never simple, nor can we say that there's one simple purpose for our actions.

You're right, I think about hierarchies of choices (and even hierarchies of hierarchies). Human beings are not simple.

clarabella said...

You and I may agree – though arriving at it from different directions, I suspect – on the matter of "weak determinism". Indeed, as I get older, the fact of multiple versions of Stepfordism (as in the movie) accounting for how human beings behave appears increasingly reasonable. We are obese (I'm a fat girl myself, so I have license to speak) because we can no longer choose not to eat. We are sad since we lack exercise, and our obesity complicates our sadness. We are therefore both obese and sad, and unable to choose not to be either. I could go on. However, probably only by the grace of God, it seems that we can and do choose, and many a sad fat person has done his bit to alter the world. You say that "we can't MAKE choices" and I'm guessing that you mean we can't order or engineer the circumstances within which we choose, since we are unaware of some constraints and have no control over others... I have to agree with that. However, isn't there a contradiction in your also saying that, "Our motivations... are never simple"? Motivations have to give rise to actions, don't they? If not, they're hardly 'motiv-ations' – 'ations' of some other kind, perhaps. And action implies choice, doesn't it, if only between that and inaction? All that having been said, to wrench the argument back to teaching and learning: I think it's possible, necessary, indeed crucial, for ALL of us to have reasonings like these. It's a big part of what education is about. And it's why Walter Rodney was such a dangerous man. He truly believed that all human beings were fully, resonantly human, capable of talking about themselves, other folks, and the nature of things. I don't think many intellectuals, black, white or any other colour, truly believe that. Perhaps that is one reason for our lack of success in teaching?

FSJL said...

Motivations certainly give rise to actions. The problem for me is that our motivations don't arise simply from conclusions we draw about the world, but from givens that we often don't examine. And since those givens are determinative (sometimes excessively so -- I had a student say 'You can't take a black man's car from him', and I thought 'that's a very odd thing to say') they constrain what we can choose to do.

It's the complexity of our motives, I think, that gives us the sense that we are truly making choices, even when we aren't.

You're right about Rodney -- though my reëxamination of the Groundings emphasised to me how young he was when he taught at UWI, and how naïve he was (both in the sense of really not understanding some things, and in the sense of being more hopeful of human beings than he should have been).

I don't want to claim to be an unsuccessful teacher -- my evaluations are quite good -- but to express frustration at the inability of some people to see what's staring them in the face. Oddly, I find that students have a harder time dealing with concrete facts that are alien to them (the Queen doesn't actually run England, after all, but they seem to think so even after doing a unit on British politics! I need to give my voice a more tony blare, perhaps) than with theory that I thought would be too dry for them and too alien (yesterday and tomorrow I'm teaching Mencius in political theory, and they got -- or seemed to get -- his positive conception of human nature and explanation of how it can be led astray).

clarabella said...

Hi Fragano:
I'm going to do a post shortly that draws on some ideas I got many years ago from a book called ADDICTION AND GRACE. In some ways, it supports your contention that we are all far less free, far less involved in exercising our conative powers than we suppose. I'm with Rodney on both the naiveté and the hope for human beings. Without hope, we might all just as well go drink a Jones cocktail and die. Also, jaded cynical with-it people now irritate me, and writers who are jaded and cynical strike me as less and less relevant, quite apart from the dubious value of what they have to say. I'm sure you are a good teacher – the fact that you are hanging in here for this chat suggests that. As for the students believing that the Queen runs England... We still have to find out a lot more about how the folks who've grown up on wire and celluloid grasp what comes into their brains in this not-actual, virtual way. We don't know enough about this, and, worse, we don't know that we are ignorant. Until we do understand more about those precesses, and the styles of knowing that have grown up 'around' them, we're going to be hampered in our classroom efforts. Happy Thanksgiving!

FSJL said...


I am struck by the fact that my fellow students at STETHS in 1969 knew who the president of France was, while my students at Clark Atlanta today seem not to want to know or care.

It may be that France is something that hasn't impinged on their lives, or that their lives as lived so far have been lived within narrow confines (but surely no narrower that youths in St Elizabeth and Westmoreland in the 1960s), but it worries me.

It bothers me that I'm the first person who's exposed my students to Aimé Cesaire (getting a student to do a presentation on him as part of a comparative politics class), while those students eagerly assert a black identity without -- it seems to me -- understanding what that entails.

It bothers me that at an orientation session at another institution (where I've taught part time over the past few years), the entire academic staff was dismissed as 'academic overachievers' as if, somehow, there was something not quite decent about wanting to learn. And that, you see, is what is rubbing at me. Many of my students seem to have no desire to learn, just to get a degree. At 20 or 21 their minds are already made up, they know enough about the world already. Perhaps that's just being young (and perhaps you'll tell me that I was just like that at that age!), but it doesn't betoken well for the future.

It bothers me that the majority of the young people I teach have not learned to construct a simple declarative sentence (and, since most of them want to go into the business of words as lawyers that is, as we say, problematic). I couldn't ask my undergraduates to carry out an exercise my university teachers asked of me: sent and answer your own question. When I make them write term papers, they come to me begging me to give them topics to write on. I give them topics, and they come back with fascinating statements (the Roma of Romania came under psychical attack; 'from whom?' I asked the hapless youth who'd written that 'Dracula?') that demonstrate that they're making an effort but don't have the basic tools that I had at their age. Given that my primary education in England was haphazard, and that my secondary education was at rural high schools in Jamaica, while they are in the richest country in the world, to say that this bothers me would be a major understatement.

Still, I do my best, and hope that I can get some of them to see that the world is a complex and marvellous place in which they can act.

Sorry for the long rants, but mi get well bex wit di foolishness I have to deal with.

Walk good,

clarabella said...

It hurts my heart to read what you write. But I am in deepest sympathy with your students. When we came here, fairly widespread employment practice was to find the least expensive person who could 'do the job' – not necessarily the best person, or a person well equipped, just someone who could 'manage', as we say in JA, and who would cost the least money. I'm not sure of the extent to which this has changed; I hope it has somewhat, but a lot of what I see out there makes me wonder. So when "the entire academic staff" at this other institution you mention are dismissed as overachievers (I note you don't identify the dismissers), it may well be 'true', given the dominant values of the world out there, given the fact that the aims of education today are to produce fodder. Remember? People able to do Mc-jobs and be induced to spend their tiny salaries as soon as they hit their eager palms. If the world does not value learning, why should your students learn? Don't know if you "grew with your Granny", to quote Lorna Goodison, but I think you may be leaving out important gaps in describing your education. Did your parents, your family, your English or rural Jamaican community, value learning? Did you grow among people who were articulate, regardless of their linguistic code of choice? Did you read the world well enough to know that you don't pick up a fallen electric wire or drive into a flooded gully? Finally, for I must go to bed soon, the world in which I grew, and indeed, I suspect, the one in which you grew, may not have been safe (Cold War and all that) but its decencies were manifest: honesty, civility, probity, fair dealing, respect for human life, simple goodness. Your students, many of them, can be excused for discounting these values. The world in which they are growing is a world Brother Bob has diagnosed well: "War in the East; War in the West" – a world where wars don't even need to pretend to be just. It's a surreal world in which they are constantly reminded that they must live in continual fear of their fellow human beings – and they can all remember the image of those planes flying into those towers! It's a world that abuses the planet and doesn't care. It's a world that well justifies the philosophy of "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die". Your students want a degree so they can get a job. They probably want to be lawyers, despite all the lawyer jokes, because that's a 'good' job? I think that they understand the runnings better than you and me. And I've no contempt for young people: I believe most of them come out well, despite us. Do, please, rant as long as you want. It is soul and spirit that we are wailing for here, and the keening deserves to go on late into the night...

FSJL said...


It hurts my heart too, otherwise I wouldn't be so enraged. Perhaps you're right, perhaps the young people I'm trying to shepherd into adulthood have the right view of the world. But I worry that it is so narrow, so US-centric, so 'poor us' that the world they'll shape will be a poorer, less human place simply because they won't know any better.

I didn't grow with my granny (though I did know both my grandmothers), which is probably just as well.

My father was a man with many faults -- mostly those of a limited education and an upbringing that was not intended to liberate him -- but he believed in learning, and he encouraged my habit of reading. He also didn't try to censor what I read, which is just as well. He believed that education was the way up, and he wanted his children to grow up cultured. He didn't exactly know how, which is no crime.

I learned that the world can be a difficult and dangerous place, but I also learned it was a place of possibilities.

I also grew up -- in Jamaica, at any rate -- in an environment in which wanting to learn was valued. I think that's important.

I don't know that I grew up in a better age, or that you did half a generation before me, but I do know that I was encouraged to use my capabilities, such as they were. I worry at young people who don't even try to imagine things.

clarabella said...

Repeat. We're on the same side in this. But when you teach, you start from where your students are. That's what I'm trying to figger out, that place where students now begin from. (BTW, if your students mean well, that well meaning will carry them far.) I was quite sure that you grew up in a world where education was valued. You don't comment on "the manifest decencies upon which we were all agreed", though, which I think is a big part of the equation. It's what's out there on the air that educates us, schools our spirits, as much as anything else – maybe more than. I guess zeitgeist is the word I may want here. I'm not implying that the age you or I grew up in was BETTER than any other. I'm saying that our mortality, impermanence, vulnerability were not so often or so vehemently thrust upon us. I'm saying we could still believe well of people, expect that morality and legality underpinned things. I have a brother who was murdered in 2004. Nobody I knew, and only one person I knew of, in all my growing up years, had suffered such a fate. Ask your students how many of them know people who've died violently, at their own or someone else's hands. I'd be interested to know. Images of violence weren't planted in our mind's eyes, ad nauseam. We didn't know so well that life is nasty brutish and short. So perhaps it's a protective mechanism, the fact that now students "don't even try to imagine things"... There are such ugly things for the young to stomach and still be idealists, still want to learn, still want to believe in anything. And you'd be surprised at where evil lives and flourishes, yea, verily, in those same ivory towers where learning purports to be nurtured. Believe me. I know.

FSJL said...

As I grow older, I find I've come to value decency more and more as the basis for all virtue.

I wonder sometimes at what standards the young people I teach have -- hip-hop, after all, teaches then that what they should want is bling, the consumption of expensive items, and exploitative sex. It teaches them that men are only valued for money, and women for sex. I find that depressing.

My students come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are trying to move out of poverty into the middle class, some want to ground themselves in 'the black experience' before entering the world of work, others are here because it's the only place they could get into. I have students whose lives are little different (if at all) from middle-class white Americans of the same age; I have students whose life experiences frighten me; I've had students who've tried to con me into believing that every misfortune in the world has fallen on them; and I've had students who've broken down in genuine tears because bad things have truly happened to them.

I've had students who would do well at the best institutions in the world, despite coming from deprived backgrounds; I've had students who are never going anywhere, despite being privileged. I don't think these are unique experiences, but the ones that really wound my heart are the ones who try but can't measure up because they arrive in my hands lacking so much that they need (or those who are trying, desperately, to fix problems that may be beyond fixing -- bright your men with felony convictions, for example -- who, regardless of their intelligence and qualifications, are going to find it next door to impossible to find work).

FSJL said...

For 'bright your men' in the previous comment please read 'bright young men'. Sorry!