A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflection and Commentary on News from the Network, Vol. 4, No. 4

The Just Third Way: News from the Network, Vol. 4, No. 4

It has been over 30 years since I read How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler. Just as Michael Greaney and people in his network are now doing, I should reread it, since I tend to agree with Adler's assessment that it takes a minimum of three readings before a book (of substance) is truly understood. I seem to remember having done that long ago, but my memory needs refreshing, so I will add it to my pile. My father had recommended the book while I was in high school, and I recall it having had a strong influence on my awakening curiosity.

At Georgetown University, I remember one of my English professors criticizing another of my professors: "Dr. Slakey is dyslexic," the other professor warned. The point of our conference, I seem to remember, was politely but pointedly to somehow warn me that I needed to increase my reading rate. Dr. Slakey, one of my intellectual heroes, enjoyed teaching students how to perform highly detailed textual analysis; my other professor, I think, was suggesting that an overzealous attention to detail, a habit I had learned from Dr. Slakey, was hurting my grades.  Not that I cared.

Dr. Slakey was extremely fond of Cardinal Newman, who wrote in The Discipline of Mind:
I consider, then, that the position of our minds, as far as they are uncultivated, towards intellectual objects,—I mean of our minds, before they have been disciplined and formed by the action of our reason upon them,—is analogous to that of a blind man towards the objects of vision, at the moment when eyes are for the first time given to him by the skill of the operator. (http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/article9.html)
Cardinal Newman, who is most famous for The Idea of a University, rigorously examined the purposes of an education, which is a central question I have as an educator.  The disciplines and habits of Dr. Slakey and other thinkers were somewhat overwhelming. Until my senior year, I felt like the blind man who can suddenly see but needs to learn how to differentiate color, texture, dimension, contrast, etc.  My rate increased, along with better comprehension, but only after the nerve cells in my brain, through practice, practice, and more practice, more fully myelinated.

After working with non-verbal middle school students last week, and reflecting on a chapter in Smart Moves, entitled "What goes wrong",  I made some connections between the highly autistic and highly academic, both of whom can be highly resistant to change.  For the non-verbal, highly autistic, any bit of external stimulation can quickly overload them.  Beautiful S scratches and strikes out when asked to identify words, pictures, objects, and numbers -- she appears almost perfectly formed, except for her ocular lock; her hands clutch but don't release, wring constantly, and cover her face.  I wonder what went wrong. For the highly academic, which Michael Greaney complains about in his blog post (see link above), overloaded with details, their chosen paradigm offers a safe haven, status, and wealth.  Why would someone with tenure risk questioning their deepest underlying assumptions?  Carla Hannaford, PhD., identifies stress as the root cause of most learning difficulties.  Instead of ADHD and other popular labels, Hannaford suggests a new label, SOSOH (Stressed Out Survival-Oriented Humans).  Stress is a common factor for both the highly autistic and highly academic and everyone in between.

The SOSOH condition, as described by Dr. Hannaford, a trained neurobiologist, provides a convenient lens for viewing problems in education today. As Michael Greaney noted, my father was meeting with leaders from a system of teaching colleges in Connecticut earlier this week; I assume that his purpose was to discuss the formation of Justice University, and to discuss their involvement in developing a curriculum for teaching justice in conjunction with developing the schools for the Harris Neck project. My strong recommendation would be that anyone developing curriculum for the new Harris Neck school district carefully review Dr. Hannaford's book Smart Moves, to systematically reduce stress in the learning environment.

There are numerous causes of the SOSOH condition.  Dr. Hannaford focuses on neurobiological factors and mismatched curriculum design factors.  Ruby Payne, in The Culture of Poverty, poignantly describes external barriers to learning.  I would add historical economic and social justice factors to the mix.  If the people who are designing the institutions of Harris Neck take into account the design factors my father wants to contribute, they can remove a major cause of SOSOH for their students.

An alliance with the Max Weissman's Great Books Academy would add rigor, infrastructure, and resources to the educational component.  With deep rooted anxiety about the direction of education in America, it makes sense to reconsider the purposes of education, and the future of the children who will be educated.