10
Aug
11

Discerning Wisdom, Reb Saunders style

Yesterday’s entry featured a picture of illustrator Barry Moser (beside his “Moby Dick” illustration), whose Pennyroyal Press “Frankenstein” illustrations have led several classes of my students in Brit Lit to name that novel as a favorite. Photograph of American artist Barry Moser, by Cara MoserAs questions about compassion and justice arise for them, students refer to the text and to Moser’s artwork. As Moser told me on Saturday at The Glen in Santa Fe, the book is “not a great novel, but it’s a great myth”.

Among the book’s mythic qualities may be its ageless wisdom, which calls for acts of attention. It would be wise for Victor to pay attention to his creature, to have empathy, to discern one like himself in the hideous face of the daemon. We too ought to consider the obstacles and prejudices that keep us from caring for the people (and created things) around us, and acting justly toward them. Treasuring wisdom and acting with discernment are twin virtues; practicing one without the other is a useless exercise.

Here is Pascal: “Justice.–As custom determines what is agreeable, so also does it determine justice.” (Pensees #309)

File:Blaise Pascal 2.jpg

I have been wondering if it is a teacher’s role to model the enactment of social justice, as a new book seems to argue, or rather to model what it looks like for us to think things through, then act on our beliefs. Is the learning objective for a student to act as we would have her act, or to use discernment, even if it means she will act contrary to our desires?

How do we live out global justice if Pascal is correct, and its definition truly changes with custom – with time and place?   Because the multiple narrators of “Frankenstein” allow us to feel with various characters, we can see that their sense of justice depends upon “custom”: Victor, the Daemon, and the aptly named Justine each see a view of justice determined by custom. The Daemon, for instance, self-taught and observant, understands justice in a way that contrasts with the society’s definition of it.

While I do believe we can teach in order to help students become active participants in democracy, teaching for “justice” may be an incomplete objective. If understanding justice may be said to be a kind of wisdom, then discerning whose definition of justice prevails or is most true is a complementary (and necessary) skill. Reading Plato, Pascal, and the prophets on “justice” would raise thought-provoking questions about who determines what is just – revelation? the State? the individual? the oppressed? the majority? the wealthy? – and it requires us all individually to evaluate competing alternatives and draw conclusions about how we will live, and whose justice we will work toward. This sounds like democratic citizenship.

I get a sense that if disagreements about how to practice our justice become too heated, with one person’s justice another one’s injustice, teachers hoping for a peaceful and serenely wise interpretive community could feel threatened. Of all people, we are the ones who need to model risk-taking for our students, providing an environment where their questioning of established wisdom is allowed, for it is only through the practice of such negotiations of meaning that they can construct a system of beliefs and understandings that will enable them to move out into the world and act in accordance with their beliefs. It seems like we have two choices as teachers: to establish a classroom which instructs people in selected virtues, and then expects our selected virtues to be lived out in the room and in life; or we participate as co-learners, practicing reading texts of all kinds together, encouraging vigorous yet civil discussion and discernment between multiple viewpoints. In the first scenario we must trust in ourselves to select and instruct carefully, building an environment which privileges those with the same views. The alternative trusts the students, the democratic process. Which takes more faith?

I feel like the character Reb Saunders in “The Chosen”, who shares as his source of wisdom the same Hebrew Scriptures as Mr. Malter, yet while Malter preaches the need for leaders to establish their own Jewish state after WWII, Saunders places faith in God to establish such a state through a Messiah – even if it means waiting patiently while suffering. Both men pray for justice, but they disagree about how to enact it.

For them, the conversation is over. For us, it must begin every day. Our skill must be in keeping the dialogue open, in valuing the exchange. Our options are not really that limited; it does not have to be all action (as if we were Macbeth) not all inaction (as if we were Prufrock). A balance requires patience for student inquiry to unfold in its own time, and appropriate intervention to help keep the conversation productive. As we exercise discernment about what to say and when, students will learn that we value an environment that permits inquiry, invites risk-taking, and shares decision-making. We model discernment, based on a belief that such an environment contributes to growth in individual responsibility.

If we teach students to practice discernment, we (and they) can choose almost any interesting text and will find that students employ it to engage in compelling discussions. The best texts offer examples of thinking and feeling individuals trying to make sense of the world in which they find themselves. As students struggle with identifying whose voice has authority (a character’s, author’s, teacher’s, or peer’s), they negotiate wisdom. The art of such discernment goes hand in hand with the arts of attention and the hope of living wise and caring lives.

[Illustrations: Pascal portrait 17th C. anonymous; Barry Moser credit: Cara Moser]

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1 Response to “Discerning Wisdom, Reb Saunders style”


  1. August 11, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic information I was looking for this information for my mission.


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