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]


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Gordon’s Tweets

  • RT @onewheeljoe: A3 Almost all of the challenges I have encountered I handle by giving the student an alternative. When students have voice… 43 minutes ago
  • RT @danahmaloney: The Pope: “There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make th… 48 minutes ago
  • @CathEdToday Newman’s Ideas of a University inform my daily teaching practice. 58 minutes ago
  • RT @CathEdToday: “A great memory does not make a mind any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.” CARDINAL JOHN HENRY NEWMAN ht… 1 hour ago
  • RT @ziwe: if you're arguing whether the children are in cages or windowless rooms, you've lost the plot 1 hour ago

RSS Good Questions

  • Guided Discovery Lesson Plan: Cubbies November 9, 2015
    This lesson introduces students to the their classroom cubbies. The lesson allows the class as a whole to determine what is the appropriate use of a cubby and how to best care for them. What is a Guided Discovery? It is a student-centered … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Guided Discovery Lesson Plan: Freeze Signal November 6, 2015
    The Freeze Signal is used to communicate to students that they should suddenly stop what they are doing and pay attention to the teacher.  I consider it an important safety measure.  Personally, I use a singing bowl, but I have seen teachers use … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • What is this Maker Movement? February 12, 2015
    I am a maker.  At least I think I am.  I sew. I blog. I cook. I bind books. I built a deck with my dad. Is that what people mean when they talk about ‘making?’ When I hear people … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Let the Planning Begin – Tools for Success August 13, 2013
    Procrastination finally comes to an end. Today I begin the work of plotting out the first few days (and weeks) of school. While the students are out shopping for school supplies (which induce panic attacks in me), I pull out … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Story Starters August 9, 2013
    This is a first for me.  I have been contacted by SmileMakers to preview one of their products, of my own choosing.  As an avid writing teacher, and a writer myself, I chose to review their Story Starter Word Cubes. … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Teachers Love Tech August 3, 2013
    My love for tech begins at a personal level.  I plan my life (and my lessons) on iCalendar. I create invites, worksheets, game handouts and more with Word and/or Pages.  All of my music comes from the web (check out … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Math Game: Hangmath October 8, 2011
    What is it? Hangmath is paper and pencil game similar to Hangman.  Players take turns creating two-digit addition problems, which the other player guesses. Rationale: Hangmath reinforces place value concepts because the Magical Minds must ask questions about the digits … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Studying Systems October 7, 2011
    SYSTEM: a set of connected things or parts that form a complex whole. The Magical Minds are investigating different kinds of systems.  We started by looking at smaller systems, things we could find in the classroom. We began to expand … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Reading: Understanding Genre Help Us Make Predictions October 6, 2011
    Today we began to think about how to use what we know about genre to make predictions about our books. To illustrate this point we compared nonfiction and fiction books. We already know that nonfiction books are full of information, … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz
  • Math Game: Foreheaded (place value) October 5, 2011
    What is it? In this game each player receives a mystery three-digit number, which they place on their forehead.  Using a guide sheet (below), players take turns guessing the digits in their numbers. Rationale: This game allows the Magical Minds … Continue reading →
    Erin Mahollitz

%d bloggers like this: