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Big Questions and Deep Questions

In Christian Education on January 29, 2017 at 8:15 pm

Here is the studio version of a speech I made at an educational event, Learning Revolution.

Big Questions from Abbotsford Christian School on Vimeo.

In this inspiring “RevIt Up” talk, Trent DeJong describes one way in which a Learning Revolution may come about if educators would consider “deep questions” with their students. With examples from his own experience and a clever sense of humour, Trent is sure to make you think about how we can authentically engage the next generation of students.

 

Why I teach 1984.

In Books, Movies and Television on January 28, 2017 at 6:54 pm

I feel vindicated.

I have been asked countless times, “Do you still teach that?  I read it when I was in school.”  This past week George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, topped Amazon’s bestseller list.  There is so much that recommends it.  One of the reasons everyone should read Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it is a relevant warning.  It is so masterfully articulated that the terms Orwellian, Big Brother and double-think evoke and almost visceral response in those who’ve read it.  Consequently, these terms are powerful weapons against the abuse of power.

This week, Kellyanne Conway was accused of double-think when she used the phrase “alternative facts” in defence of President Trump’s press secretary’s assertion that 500 000 is greater than 1.8 million.

One of the reasons I am so committed to teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four every year, is to explore with students the necessary conditions that make double-think possible.  These conditions are, apparently, present in our “post truth” culture right now–as is evidenced by the phrase, “alternative fact.”

What are these conditions?

[Spoiler Alert]

One of the main ones is articulated by O’Brian in Part 3 of the novel.  O’Brian’s task is to “cure” Winston from his mistaken view of reality.  Winston’s error?  A belief in objective reality.  In a very early session, Winston objects to O’Brian’s assertion that “we, The Party, control . . . all memories.”  Winston challenges, “It is outside oneself.  How can you control memory?”  Winston is appealing to the existence of an external reality.  O’Brian counters,

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external.  Reality exists in the human mind and no where else.  Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes . . . only in the mind of the Party.  . . .  Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is the truth.”

(Sound familiar?)

Winston has a hard time understanding this; he argues that the Party doesn’t control the climate or gravity.  O’Brian’s response:

We control matter, because we control the mind.  Reality is inside the skull. . . .  There is nothing we could not do.  Invisibility, levitation–anything.  I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to.  . . .   You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature.  We make the laws of Nature.

O’Brian is simply saying that reality or truth isn’t a thing in itself, it is defined by human minds.   Consequently, if one controls human minds, then one controls reality.

For this conclusion to be true, O’Brian’s first premise must be true.  Is reality defined by human minds or is Winston right, does reality or truth exist outside the skull?

Human beings have always believed that reality or truth exist outside the human–the Ancient Greeks called it the kosmos, Taoists and Buddhists think of it as a transcendent truth, the Jews and Muslims understand it to be in a transcendent God, Christians find it in the person of Jesus Christ  (this is another majority view held by all religions).

Recently, within the last 150 years or so, something changed in our culture–in the West.  We broke with the rest of humanity and began to consider the possibility that the universe might be made up of just material.  This meant that there is no God or gods or transcendent truth.  Objective reality had not place to live but in matter.

All this has lead to a different way of talking about truth.  Truth and fact used to mean different things.  You used to be able to call all sorts of things true, not just things like,

  • water is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom
  • the Battle of Hastings was in 1066
  • 2+2=4

but sentiments could also fall under the heading of “truth”:

  • the waterfall is sublime
  • the Parthenon is beautiful
  • courage is better than cowardice

In a world of only matter, truth is reduced to fact.  The rest of what used to be truth has to find a different place to live–it did.  It took up residence in individual human minds.  The truths in the second list are now “just” opinions–or are said to be merely subjective.

We’ve been going along quite happily so far with our separation of fact and opinion, but it couldn’t last.  As Orwell warned, without an external objective reality, rational facts will eventually go the way of rational sentiments.  If the truth is in the mind, then the, so called, facts have no more chance than did true sentiments.  This is how O’Brian can state with confidence that 2+2=5 if Big Brother says it does.

This is what happened this past week on Meet The Press.  It was officially declared by a representative of the President of the United States of America that 500 000 was greater than 1.8 million.

When we separated the mind from the world outside the mind, the first casualty was the loss of true sentiments, but it was only a matter of time till the facts themselves fell victim to the denial of objective reality.

The only way to get back to reality is to recover the pre-modern idea of objective truth. Objective truth, not only links reason to reality, but grounds sentiment as well. This is expressed in The Abolition of Man, where C. S. Lewis argues that emotions are not “in themselves contrary to reason” (19).   Some sentiments are reasonable or unreasonable only as they conform, or fail to conform, to something else–to some external standard.  He said that “a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can only lead to ruin” for it “has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship” (“Poison” 80-81).

It is appropriate to be alarmed by the “double-speak” coming from the White House this past week, but we oughtn’t be surprised–Orwell warned us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that this was coming.  It has apparently arrived.

Perhaps the Overwhelming Majority Is Right

In Apologetics on January 26, 2017 at 5:53 am

In his article called “Only A Minority Is Right,” J. H. McKenna Ph.D. argues against religious truth.

His argument is based on the diversity of religious belief.  First there was polytheism, then their was monotheism along with “several sects and denominations of monotheism,” then there came “other new religions” and “several thousand denominations and new religions.”  This story tells, according to McKenna, that “there is no uniformity in religion and no majority religious opinion” (italics mine).   His point is that, “In religion, your view is inevitably a minority view.”

McKenna concludes: everybody, or almost everybody, is wrong. You can’t, therefore, look to religion for truth.

But what if there were uniformity in religion? Would that be a source of truth?  What if there is a majority religious opinion?

There is.

Billions and billions of people for millennia, regardless of other more particular religious claims, have held to a single belief.

That belief: There is something and/or someone beyond the physical world, something bigger than we are–the transcendent.

Until recently, all religions have held that, out there somewhere, there are gods or a spiritual force or God.

Now, in Western societies, we have floated the idea that we–that is, human beings–are god or that nothing is.

It is only recently that this alternative has been proposed, and it’s been catching on because the conditions are currently just right for us to believe such a thing.  Growth in the belief of human autonomy may or may not continue.  Right now, the number of atheists and agnostics numbers in the low, very low, hundreds of millions.  This up against the billions and billions of human beings in a wide variety of circumstances and conditions that have all  believed in a transcendent reality.

Perhaps this much agreement across so may centuries and cultures might be, at least considered, a source of truth.  I thought I picked up in the article, that McKenna suggests that this sort of unity in religious belief might carry some weight.

McKenna has missed this unity in human thought, present since humans started thinking, but he’s not wrong in his call for dialogue and respect between the more particular beliefs about the transcendent reality.  Not because most of us are wrong, but because we all look at reality through very particular cultural lenses.  It’s always a good thing to try to reduce the tint a little.  We have much to gain from meaningful dialogue with other places and with other times.

I Invented Twitter in 1990

In Uncategorized on January 16, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Most people think Twitter began in 2006, but a form of it existed in my grade 7 classroom long before that.  I didn’t call it Twitter, I called it “Notion Notes.”

Early in my career, I was a grade seven teacher.  Besides having fun learning all that Science and English, we also did fun things for their own sake.  The kids loved it and so did I.

In it’s simplest form, a Notion Note is when students each write something on a little piece of paper, small enough it could hold more than 144 characters, and then I would read them out loud one by one.

The idea was that the students would play with words and ideas and there’d be some benefit from instant “publication.”  Very quickly a whole bunch of rituals grew around this simple activity.

  • The paper must be newsprint, symbolizing the temporality of notions.
  • When a Notion Note had been created it must be folded once and held up between the middle and fore fingers until it was collected.
  • They were read from a seated position.
  • After each notion was read, it was torn four times and sprinkled from aloft into the large garbage can, again symbolizing the temporality of a notion.
  • Once a Notion Note was turned in, it belonged to the community rather than the author–one couldn’t publically state, “That one’s mine.”
  • If a Notion caught my fancy through originality, profundity, sincerity or wit, it was deemed a “Classic” and placed ceremoniously into my breast pocket.  This is obviously correlative to the “favouriting” of Tweets.
  • At the end of the year, I would type up and post all of the classic notion notes of the year, and celebrate them.  This is obviously pretty much the same thing as “re-tweeting.”

Students got into this.  It became the goal to either get a laugh from their classmates or to get their notion note into that breast pocket and make the Classic list.  They began to have a notion note page in their binder where they’d write down possible submissions.  If they came across a quote while reading, they’d write it down.  A funny idea or humourous question they had in response to something in Social Studies got written down too.  Students also used Notion Notes as a way of disseminating famous quotes.

Notion Notes would sometimes talk directly to me, or interact with a Notion Note from the previous week.  Sometimes they’d begin to develop themes over several weeks. These are like the reply option in Twitter.

Here are some classics from 1993:

I think zits are those little bugs that crawl in your underwear at night.

This pen doesn’t work.

If pencils had erasers on both ends, we’d get better grades.

Count to 5 . . . You are not 5 seconds older.

What’s the difference between a duck?  Both of it’s legs are the same.

Author Unknown must be very talented.

Nobody notices what I do, until I don’t do it.

As the fish swims through the sea,/The bird swoops down and goes tweet.

There it was.  The first tweet, staring me right in the face.

Too bad I was too short sighted to convert Notion Notes into an app–the problem was, no one knew about apps in 1990, and I missed my chance.

Vanessa Otero’s Media Chart

In Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on January 7, 2017 at 8:52 am

I found Vanessa Otero’s Complex vs, Clickbait, Liberal vs. Conservative Media Chart to be quite helpful.

Vanessa Otero’s Complex vs. Clickbait, Liberal vs. Conservative Media Chart