I really like Frederick Buechner’s ideas when he said religion is, “the area of human experience where people come upon Mystery (Reality beneath the realities of everyday life) as a summons to pilgrimage.” As a kid I went to Catholic school in Los Angeles, I remember the priests and nuns speaking of the mystery of faith. As a grown man, I am stilled awed by this deep sense of mystery in life, in the universe, in my heart, and in my relationships. This sense of mystery inspires me and challenges me and stirs within me a search for meaning and truth. I like Buechner’s idea that this awareness is a “summons to pilgrimage.” When I think of a pilgrim, I think of the English pilgrims who sailed to the New World, I think of the Muslims’ call to journey to Mecca, and I think of a pilgrimage as a metaphor for life and action. I am on a journey of birth, growth, decline, and death. This is so mysterious to me! My sense of purpose, religiously and spiritually, is trying to strike a balance between my own selfish desires and my calling to be a person for and with others. Religion helps me focus on what’s truly important in life and provides sign posts along the way. Lord knows I get thrown off balance easily and the wisdom of religion helps me be alert and aware to the sorrows and joys of being alive.
I love reading, art, and the philosophy of ideas, but so often I find myself reading a difficult text and being confused by the text’s language. This is especially true when I try to interpret poetry. Language can be ambiguous and easily misunderstood. I often find that I need to reread challenging texts multiple times and study the explicit and implicit meaning of the words the author has chosen. I have heard artists say that they don’t want to explain their artwork because they want the viewer, listener, or reader to construct their own meaning. The more experience I have the better I become at reasoning and analysis. Often when I misinterpret a writer it is because I do not have enough knowledge to fully understand the context and purpose of the material. I know I get it wrong sometimes but, for me, that’s the fun of exploring and being curious about life.
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis brings universal values to the forefront. I remember in college debating with my roommates about morality and ethics, and one of my friends saying that everything is relative. He had learned about Einstein’s theory of relativity and was quick to apply this notion of relativity to all human endeavors. Nothing is right or wrong was his position; it merely depends on your perspective. If your culture believes in cannibalism then who are we to judge? I like that Lewis is reminding us that there are universal values. These values are absolute and are beyond culture and perspective. Justice, courage, moderation, and foresight are all values that are universal regardless of time or place. Lewis writes about experiencing the sublime in nature. Nature is terrible and grand and beautiful with or without a human there to observe it. Humans are not the end all and be all of meaning. Life is full of wonder, and I like the idea of the Tao as an expression of this mystery. Lewis argues that it is the duty of the elders to initiate young ones to be aware the sublime. Once that bedrock is in place reason will come.
In the Book of Genesis, Jacob is a mamma’s boy and is the second son but is his mamma’s favorite son. Jacob is smart, but he reminds me of the serpent who tricks people. Jacob, with the help of his mother, tricks Esau and Isaac into giving Jacob what should rightfully go to Esau. Jacob dresses like Esau and gets his father, who is blind, to give Jacob a blessing of wealth that should have gone to Esau. Jacob reminds me a little bit of King David or a CEO who knows how to outwit others. Jacob also takes on Laban, who is crafty, and outwits him by escaping Laban’s camp and taking with him wealth and wives after being in his service for many years. Later Jacob knows he did wrong to Esau and makes peace with him.
I love the story of Jacob’s spiritual development. Jacob has a vision of a ladder and God and angels ascending and descending. God promises him land and a tribe of people. When Jacob awakes he is terrified and anoints the land and calls the place of his vision: the House of God. Later Jacob wrestles with an angel all night and in the morning the angel renames Jacob, Israel and the angel says, “for if thou hast been strong against God, how much more shalt thou prevail against men?” Genesis 32:28 And Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and my soul has been saved.” Genesis 32:30 Jacob is transformed after this encounter and gives Esau a great gift and says to Esau, “if I have found favor in thy eyes, receive a little present at my hands: for I have seen thy face, as if I should have seen the countenance of God.” Genesis 33:10 To me, this is the heart of Christianity. Jacob sees the face of God in others. I believe that is the transformation Jesus was asking his followers to make.
It is interesting that we are reading C.S.Lewis and the Book of Genesis alongside All the King’s Men. I see both character’s as free agents, free to choose between good and evil, however, I see them stuck in a corrupt, fallen world and no matter how good their intentions are, they become trapped in the machine of politics. To advance his agenda, Willie chooses to break the rules. Jack Burden is a sad character. He seems lost. The conversation he has with Anne Stanton reveals his resentments and loss of faith in life and in others.
I feel sorry for Willie because he seems to begin from a pure innocent place. He genuinely wants to help people. He wants to break up the corruption. The narrative shows Willie’s fall from grace. He slowly begins to become a part of the corrupt machine. He thinks he is a savior but his methods become corrupt. For example, when Willie wants to use his political influence to help a man who has murdered another man, he shows he is no better than all the other politicians.
What character issues matter most to me as an educator? I would love for my students to be passionate about justice, courage, moderation, and foresight. I truly believe these are universal values regardless of time and place. All over the world, since the beginning of civilization, people have been wrestling with how to apply this wisdom to their lives. I know I fail, big time, to live out these values, but I am glad that I am aware and try to apply, for better or for worse, the lessons of this wisdom to my life.
I believe the “Ten Commandments” flows from the Tao. My understanding of the Tao comes from the ancient Chinese religion: Taoism. The Tao is the uncarved block; it is Lightness and Darkness; it is Nature. Chapters 1-19 in the Book of Exodus tell how Moses helped free his people from slavery. The people witness what C.S. Lewis calls the Sublime. God shows the Israelites and the Egyptians the power and terror of Nature. The pharaoh king’s power seems insignificant in comparison to God’s power. The will of the pharaoh pales in comparison to the will of God. All of these events humble the people of Israel and prepare them for when it comes time to submit to God’s laws. By the time God provides laws for the Israelites to follow, they have no doubt that these laws are sacred, and they are warned that there will be suffering if they break the laws. Does the Tao or God’s Law apply to us today? The Capitol building in Washington D.C. has monuments to the great lawgivers of history. A statue of Moses in the Capitol building shows that the framers of the Constitution recognize Moses’ contribution to law, order, and civilization. Certainly the problems the ancient Israelites were wrestling with are problems that every society must wrestle with at some point. The ancients knew that killing fellow humans lead to suffering, therefore it was vital that this warning is codified, and that the following generations are aware of this important wisdom. These ancient laws provided guidance for future generations; the same way our modern laws reflect ancient Judeo ethics. It was interesting to read that God told Moses to choses people who show good judgment to be the leaders of the Israelites. This is so true, now more than ever!
In All the King’s Men, Willie Stark says, “I’m not a lawyer. I know some law. In fact, I know a lot of law. And I made some money out of the law. But I’m not a lawyer. That’s why I can see what the law is like. It’s like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks in the bed and a cold night. There ain’t ever enough blanket to cover the case, no matter how much pulling and hauling, and somebody is always going to nigh catch pneumonia. Hell, the law is like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy, but it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone’s to the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind. The best you can do is do something and then make up some law to fit and by the time the time the law gets on the books you would have done something different.” Willie believes the system is corrupt and chooses to exploit the system by being corrupt, as well. Willie reminds me of a dictator or a king or a Richard Nixon who believes their position makes them above the law. Willie believes that might makes right. Whoever has the power gets to dictate the terms. Hugh Miller, on the other hand, resigns his position as Attorney General because Willie’s actions violate Hugh’s integrity. Hugh Miller knows the law has been broken and refuses to be complicit in the crime.
What is the Tao by which I live? One of my favorite life lessons is from Huckleberry Finn where Huck helps his friend Jim, who is a slave, escape the South. Huck Finn knows that the Southern ethic is that slavery is lawful and proper and those that aid slaves in their escape will burn in hell. After much soul-searching Huck Finn decides that he will help his friend escape even if it means he’ll go to hell. I love Huckleberry Finn’s moral quest and spiritual journey that allows him to come to this realization. Huck Finn knows in his heart that slavery is wrong even though the law of the land says slavery is right. I hope I can have the courage of Huck Finn when I am going through an ordeal and am experiencing an ethical tug-of-war between right and wrong. This is a life lesson that I would like to pass on to my students. It takes courage and wisdom to do what you believe is good.
I am fascinated by Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Einstein, and Darwin. Their ideas have had a profound influence on modern thinking. I love that they question the old way of thinking and challenge the old way of seeing the world, yet they have not changed my view that there is transcendental significance to existence. I believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I believe there is a truth greater than human understanding and I do not believe science can reduce this truth and boil it down to basic elements. Truth with a capital T is a form beyond sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. It will never be fully measured. Truth has infinite dimensions, infinite speed, infinite time, and infinite intelligence. My subjective reality is flawed but I am aware of an objective truth beyond my limited capacity and human society; this Truth informs my evolution. I do not believe moral behavior depends on the consequence of ones actions. I think the highest form of ethical behavior is to be good regardless of the consequences. Machiavelli would think otherwise. He would argue that might makes right; only the powerful survive, the ends justify the means. Certainly this behavior can be observed throughout history. I like Martin Luther King’s ideas about the arc of justice. He says, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Yes! That is what I believe.
In the Book of Samuel, David sees Bathsheba bathing and arranges to sleep with her even though he knows she is married. Kingship has gone to his head, and he thinks he is above God’s Law. To make matters worse, once he finds out she is pregnant king David arranges to have her husband placed on the front lines of battle, so he will be killed. Bathsheba’s husband is killed and David marries Bathsheba. I remember reading this story as a kid and loving how David outwits Goliath but them feeling annoyed that the hero does such a terrible thing to Uriah. How could such a brave person in battle be such a despicable coward at home? As a consequence to David’s infidelity, the child David and Bathsheba conceived while Bathsheba was married to another man gets sick and dies. God says to David, “For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing in the sight of all Israel, and in the sight of the sun.” (Samuel 12:12) When David’s child get sick, David humbles himself before God. This is so true about human nature. When humans feel they are on top of the world is when they often become arrogant and commit hubris. I love the ancient Greek words of wisdom to help keep them aware of the pitfalls of arrogant behavior: know thyself and remember you are mortal. Was David’s behavior only wrong because of the consequences? Even if David and Bathsheba had no negative consequences to their actions, I believe it was wrong. How do I know? Because I’ve done bad things without experiencing negative consequences. I am in a process of becoming and hopefully that process will bend toward the arc of justice.
As a consequence of Cass Mastern’s affair with Annabelle Trice, Annabelle’s husband commits suicide. Annabelle’s guilt overwhelms her and she becomes paranoid that all her servants know the truth about the infidelity and suicide. She sells one of her slaves, who is married, knowing the slave will be sold into prostitution. Cass becomes overwhelmed with guilt and chooses unsuccessfully to try and save the slave from the consequences of his actions. Cass then seeks redemption. He becomes religious, frees his slaves, and enlists in the army with a death wish. Jack Burden “could not put down the facts about Cass Mastern’s world because he did not know Cass Mastern….Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibrations ripple to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.” Cass Mastern learned this valuable life lesson; Jack Burden did not. Jack Burden acts as if the world is a disjointed, meaningless void. Cass Mastern’s world is one of redemption while Jack Burden’s world is one of moral bankruptcy. Is Jack Burden capable of guilt, reflection, and redemption? This remains to be seen. As a historian Jack must rely on facts to prove the validity of his research. Cass Mastern’s story, however, is more than factual information. The facts are not enough; one must be able to evaluate the facts and reflect. Cass Mastern confronts truth’s antithesis: seduction. Seduction leads to the downfall of Cass Mastern but when all is said and done, Cass sees the truth and atones for falling into the trap of seduction.
I like that C.S. Lewis refers to magic in his essay on morality. The human dream is connected to an invisible web; the web vibrates with energy and is simultaneously beautiful and terrible. The mystery will never end and that is why life is so meaningful.
Jack Burden concludes that ambition, love, fear, and money are motives that cause people to break the rules. Jack decides money is Judge Irwin’s Achilles heel. He believes if he digs deep enough he will find evidence of Judge Irwin’s corruptibility. Jack starts the search with his father and asks him if Judge Irwin ever needed money. His father wants nothing to do with the investigation. Ann Stanton reveals no information, as well. Finally, Adam Stanton reveals that he overheard that the judge needed money. Jack concludes that if the judge needed money, he would borrow it. Jack finally discovers that in exchange for the judge’s complicity over a corrupt government deal the judge would be given a plush corporate job. As a result, a man named Mortimer L. Littlepaugh would lose his job. Mortimer tries to be a whistle blower but is shut down by the corrupt system. In despair, Mortimer commits suicide and mails a letter to his sister detailing the corruption. Jack Burden eventually finds the elderly sister and bribes her with money to reveal the scandal and hand over her brother’s letter.
In the Prophecy of Amos, God says to Amos, “Behold the days come, saith the Lord, and I will send forth a famine into the land: not a famine of bread, nor a thirst of water, but of hearing the word of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11) God is telling Amos to tell his people that they will no longer be the chosen people if they continue their misconduct. God will no longer be present in their hearts if they continue down the path of greed, lust, and pride. The world the Israelites will experience will be a world absent of God. This reminds me of Jesus’ keen observation when he is tempted by the devil because he has been fasting for forty days, and he says to the devil, “It is written, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Humans need more than bread and water. Faith, hope, and love is as vital to human needs as bread and water. Society only works if it is based on justice. When those in power exploit and corrupt the people, God’s law is ignored. Amos prophesizes a world absent of God’s mercy.
God tells Amos to tell the Israelites that they no longer are a holy people. God says, “I hate and have rejected your festivities: and I will not receive the odour of your assemblies. And if you offer me holocausts, and your gifts, I will not receive them: neither will I regard the vows of your fat beasts. Take away from me the tumult of thy songs: and I will not hear the canticles of thy harp.” (Amos 5:21-23) Worship is meaningless if the people are exploiting and corrupting others. God says to the Israelites to get their house in order; they no longer are acting like people of God.
Spirit plays a huge part in education. How is spirit a causal factor in education? In my view, keeping students and staff aware of the importance of school spirit is the most important task the principal must execute. In my school, my principal frames a culture of positivity, trust, and teamwork. These core values create a vibrant energy that informs the behavior and actions of teachers and students. Teachers know that the principal trusts us to be autonomous professionals; this motivates me to work even harder knowing I am free to take ownership of my classroom and be creative with my lesson planning. My principal frames a culture of positivity and teamwork. This school spirit brings colleagues together to brainstorm and collaborate without fear of being judged for making a mistake. Spirit is vital in a school and has the potential to generate massive growth and improvement.
What prophetic word would you say to your learning community? I would say that spirit matters. When a community loses its spirit, the physical world suffers.
Moral Wisdom in Action
I am intrigued by Carol Dweck findings on the differences between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. The central moral issue is the importance of teaching kids the power of believing they can improve. I will be studying the research behind teaching students the power of the words, “not yet.” When students are given a difficult problem to deal with, some students show they can cope with the challenge. These students will often say, “I love a challenge!” They have a growth mindset. Other students find a difficult problem to be tragic and view the difficulty as a judgement on their intelligence. These kids have a fixed mindset and have not grasped the power of yet. Fixed mindset students are gripped in the tyranny of now. When faced with difficulty, they are more likely to give up and run from the difficulty. In one study, students’ brains were measured to monitor the electrical activity of their brains. Fixed mindset students showed no activity in the brain, while the growth mindset brains were on fire with electrical activity.
Are we raising kids to be obsessed with the now instead of the yet? Are we raising kids that don’t know how to dream big dreams? Are we raising kids that are carrying the need for constant validation? Managers in the work place have noted that they are seeing employees who can’t get through the day without an award. Dweck stresses the importance of praising wisely. Don’t praise intelligence; instead praise process, effort, focus, perseverance, and improvement. As a result this will create kids who are hardy and resilient. At University of Washington a math game was given to students that rewarded and gave points for effort, strategy, and process rather that getting the answer right. The words yet or not yet gives kids greater confidence and gives them a path into the future. The power of “yet” creates persistence. The good news is teachers can change a student’s mind set. Every time a student pushes out of his or her comfort zone and learns something new and difficult, the brain forms new pathways and connections. The brain gets smarter.
Teaching all kids the power of a growth mindset creates equality. In the U.S. certain groups statistically under perform on state tests. When educators create a growth mindset, equality happens. In Harlem, after one year of learning about growth mindset, a Kindergarten class achieved 95th percentile on the state test. In the Bronx a 4th grade class became the number one class on the state math test after learning about a growth mindset. A class of Native American students living on a reservation in Seattle went from the bottom to the top on the state standardized tests outperforming affluent schools. All of this happened because the meaning of effort and difficulty was transformed in their minds. Before effort and difficulty made them feel dumb and made them feel like giving up. Now these students know that effort and difficulty means that they are getting smarter.
Teaching that abilities are based on a growth mindset becomes a basic human right for all children. All children should live in places that nurtures a growth mindset and teaches the power of yet.
Religion and Schools
In Taking Religion Seriously, Nord and Haynes stress the importance of teaching religion in the classroom. I like that they ask teachers to remain neutral when teaching religion; they also stress the importance of making religion relevant to 21stcentury learners. I am in a unique situation because I teach ancient civilization, and the birth of the world’s major religions is a big part of my curriculum. Interestingly, my team of five 6th grade social studies teachers decided to skip chapter 1 which explains human evolution from apes. Although I have no problem teaching evolution, my team felt the subject was too controversial of an issue and didn’t want to deal with upset parents. The curriculum covers Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome. Last year we were able to study how Hinduism and Buddhism influenced ancient Indian culture and continues to influence societies all around the world today. In addition, we studied the influence of Taoism and Confucianism on Chinese culture. Next year we would like to add ancient Egypt and the rise of Judaism and ancient Rome and the rise of Christianity to the scope and sequence. When we study world religions, I always ask kids to try to apply some of the religious teachings to their lives. It is fascinating to read 6th graders’ reflections on Karma and Dharma and how it affects them in their lives today. I have never had parents question the teaching of religion in the classroom. I love teaching the subject and am happy students get to learn about the teachings of the Buddha and Lao Tzu and Confucius. It would be great to be able to fit the teachings of Moses and Jesus into next year’s plan. Alas, time is always a factor!
Religion in the Curriculum
Religion should play a more important role in social studies instruction. Today, in an ever changing world, religion is more important than ever to know about. My social studies curriculum has religion as part of its core content, but some teachers may be reluctant to teach religion because the United States Constitution codifies the separation of church and state. Americans seems to be confused; they may ask: Is it okay for my child to learn about religion? The concept of the separation of church and state is misunderstood. Most educators agree that in order to understand history students need to understand how various religions have impacted societies. Without studying religion how can a student understand the crusades, religious persecution, the formation of Pakistan and India, the election of John F. Kennedy, 9/11, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute? Religion is in the textbooks, but social studies teachers avoid it. The challenge is getting teachers to teach it. There is national confusion over the role of religion in public schools. Although it may be controversial, it is necessary to teach about religion if society wishes to maintain religious tolerance. (Passe and Wilcox, 2009)
This course, Moral Issues in Education, has sparked reflection on the novel All the King’s Men, on the writing of C.S. Lewis, on the Bible, on religion in the classroom and on the morality and ethics of education. Education is a moral and ethical pursuit. This is probably why I got into teaching in the first place. I love literature and I love the moral and ethical questions authors ask in great literature.
Robert Penn Warren creates flawed characters that can’t get it right. Life can feel like this. No matter how hard I try, there is always a moral flaw that trips me up. It does take a tremendous amount of will power to stay on the right path. It is so easy to get thrown off the path of right action. We want to do good but have so many tendencies that move us to do bad. I remember a religion teacher telling me that humans are mostly good with tendencies to do evil. I am sure there are some people that believe humans are mostly evil with tendencies to do good. The way I see it—I want to lean toward the good knowing I can’t always be there. Guilt is an interesting feeling with regards to morality and ethics. What kind of guilt is good guilt and what kind of guilt is bad guilt? Shouldn’t Willie and Jack felt more guilt over their actions? Judge Irwin’s suicide was so tragic. He was a good man but his guilt led him to take his own life.
C.S. Lewis asks us to preserve our humanity and not lose it to progress, technology, and social advances that are supposed to make our life easier. I have an optimistic vision of the future and do not think humans will ever become drones to the machine. I think human spirituality is as inseparable to us as the head is to the body. Will C.S. Lewis’ Christianity be preserved? Yes and no. The values of Christianity I believe are universal and will never die. Although the hierarchy and power of the Church will surely change. The abolition of man is a scary thought. I read about artificial intelligence and heard experts say that this technology could be very dangerous to our existence. I guess it would be like letting a dictator take over for us and make decision for us so we wouldn’t have to do the hard work of thinking.
It was really nice to be able to go back to the Bible and look at passages I haven’t read in a long time. I need to open up my Bible more often. The books in the Bible contain some of the greatest words ever written—so much wisdom. During my reflections on the scripture, I was struck by how human the Bible is. The people that inhabit the Bible are so flawed, just like me. I can relate to Adam, Eve, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, and Paul. Their problems are my problems. I truly believe Jesus message is the most radical and revolutionary message in the Bible. He asks us to love our enemies! Wow! This is not easy. Talk about raising the bar.
As I get ready to return to the classroom and meet my students I want to remember Christ’s message. Forgiveness is at the heart of love and our relationships are only sustainable if we have the capacity to forgive each other. Yes, I want to raise the bar and ask students to work hard, but more importantly I want my classroom to be a place of grace and mercy and compassion. So much of the stories we read repeat these themes. It seems every act of education is a moral action—the way teachers greet students in the morning, the way teachers interact with colleagues, the way teachers nurture student interaction, the way teachers have mercy on a student who desperately needs some mercy—all of these moments are choices. A teacher once told me that when all is said and done students will not necessarily remember what their teacher taught them, but they will never forget how you made them feel. I want my students leaving my classroom feeling good.
Dweck, Carol S. 2008. Mindset. New York: Ballantine Books
Holy Bible: Douay Rheims Version. 1989. Tan Books and Publishers: Rockford, Illinois.
Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. 2001 New York: Macmillan
Nord, W. A., & Haynes, C. C. 1998. Taking religion seriously across the curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the First Amendment Center.
Warren, Robert Penn. 1981. All the King’s Men. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.