Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Question "Why?"

In a separate Aikdio discussion group thread, someone asks first about the prevalence of bowing in this martial arts practice, and later about some traditions surrounding the handling of the hakama, the pleated pants worn over the training gi.

The questions were honest. Some of the responses seemed unusual, or at least telling. It is amazing how much we do routinely or simply accept and integrate into our own thought and practice without the slightest bit of examination. But then the novice, the child, or some other beginner's mind, looks at you and asks "Why?" The single word from outside yourself is an opportunity to re-examine your situation. It's a wake-up call, or it's a nuisance---that's up to you.

My reply to the thread follows. It's written for Aikido, but look deeper: The same might be said of religion, politics, business negotiations, and even relations in our own homes.

My thoughts are these:

Aikido transcends rituals, symbols, and cultural decorations.

An instructor may skillfully use rituals, symbols, and decorations---such as bowing, testing, wearing gi and hakama, folding a senior's hakama, clapping, ringing bells, burning incense, and so forth---to help students find Aikido, to point to Aikido.

When the student achieves a certain understanding, though, the student sees Aikido's principles everywhere. Consider this passage from the Art of Peace: "Do not fail to learn from the pure voice of an ever-flowing mountain stream splashing over the rocks." What sees the principles in the stream at that moment is not concerned with whether or not the attached body is wearing a hakama.

With that understanding, though, the student should neither desire nor have an aversion to bowing---or to any other of the rituals, symbols, or cultural decorations. If a student begins with this understanding, even if incomplete, he or she can learn the techniques of the physical practice from anyone, even those who have not attained the same understanding.

Try to never lose the question "Why?" Constant re-examination is at the root of engaged life.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What is Worth Learning?

I said something at the dinner table the other night that made me very unpopular: "In retrospect, nothing I learned in school actually mattered." This I absent-mindedly said in front of my wife, a college-trained teacher, and my daughter whom she homeschools.

When I taught mathematics, and for that matter when I was a student, kids would ask, "When are we ever going to use this stuff?" The teacher might answer that learning how to think, or learning how to examine and to solve problems, is what is really important. But do people actually need to learn how to think? Would we fail to think if we were not taught?

We presume that all people must be exposed to and understand all things that constitute someone's idea of a basic education. Why is this so?

Today we spend so much time looking for better ways to teach those things that have been known for hundreds or even thousands of years. At a local community college, I was chastised for my reluctance to teach students to rely upon graphing calculators in their understanding algebra---the same material found codified in the early ninth century or earlier.

We struggle to hold off death, and then we struggle to retain our youth and vitality. Still, the time between life beginning and life ending is a breath in the universe's time.

Medicine advances by leaps and bounds, but it was not long ago that bleeding people with leaches and studying the bumps on your head were the best practices of the day. How many years from today will it be until today's medicine is considered horribly primitive?

We discover ancient religious rituals and declare them barbaric, yet we rarely examine our own, and still we go to war over our beliefs.

We implicitly assume that we are more intelligent, knowledgeable, or sophisticated, than societies past, yet today we still do not know how the Pyramids of Giza were built, and we gaze with wonder on Roman and Mayan ruins alike. When we ask, "How could such civilizations have accomplished so much without all that we know today?" what are we implying about ourselves?

Jerry Springer, Oprah, Dr. Phil, and others, highlight the spectacular interpersonal problems faced by the everyman. In spite of civilization's accomplishments, still we cannot even understand each other, nor in some cases do we even understand ourselves.

It is said that the study of history is important, for those who do not study history are destined to repeat it. Yet from even just from one day to the next, how many people's paths change on having lived, examined, and understood, the day before?

Even such wisdom is rediscovered and rehashed again and again. The Book of Ecclesiastes (perhaps recorded as early as 250 BCE) proclaims there is nothing new under the sun, all is vanity.

If we could begin again tomorrow, how would we reshape our lives and learning? What would we teach, what would we want to learn, and what would we practice? How would we live if when the sun next rose all would be different?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Passing Judgment: Seeing Things as They Are

Reporters state that, after a round of late night video games with a friend, a young man returns home. He finds a gun and kills his parents and siblings. He returns to his friend's house and they continue with their games.

A woman reads the news story about the murders. "It's the video games!" she posts widely to the community. In her own testament, she cites her long standing campaign against mind-numbing, violent video games and their affect upon our children. "Something must be done!" she proclaims as part of her rant.

Who has committed the greater sin, the young man or the woman?

If you decide one way or another, then perhaps your own sin is greater than either of theirs.

Consider: What stories did you create to fill in the missing details before passing judgment over either? Did you rely upon preformulated absolutes or ideals? Law or religious dogma? Did they lead you to see things that were not necessarily there?

This is not meant to belittle tragedy, but rather to call attention to our own selves and our thinking. We continuously encounter joy, suffering, and other states, but how much of that perception is created in our own minds? How often do we see things precisely as they are?

How much of our lives are created this way? How does this affect us and those around us?

Friday, February 8, 2008

"In my opinion, ..."

Regarding the content of a college course, an incensed parent responds to a request by another parent asking to please not make waves for the rest of us:

My son is 20 years old. He was previously homeschooled, but this has nothing to do with that fact. What he encountered was inappropriate at any age. My son thought it was "wierd", and if I would have been a student in that class at 40 something years old, I WOULD HAVE BEEN UNCOMFORTABLE WITH IT. I understand what you are saying in your email, however, wrong is wrong, and I think this professor was wrong! He's trying to pass along his own strange ideas, in my opinion, and perhaps he was looking to see what responses he got. There's a lot of wierd people in this world. Complacency is wrong in my opinion! I have not done anything about it yet, but I won't even mention that my son was homeschooled. That has nothing to do with it, and he is 20! Wrong is wrong, and I won't ignore it!

What immediately precedes that posting provides context:

Homeschooling parents, like others, sometimes find that their children are ready for advanced teaching before the traditional age. Whether it is because the parents cannot provide this teaching on their own, whether it is because the parents want to reintroduce their children to institutional learning, whether the parents want to put their children on a path toward a college degree, or for whatever other reason, one might imagine that there are obstacles for children, whether below the traditional age or not or with proper documentation or not, to reenter the mainstream.
We are fortunate that there are colleges and universities locally that are amenable to such situations, and we are aware that such opportunities may be fragile, especially if issues of legal liability are exposed. Thus there is the request not to make waves, and thus there is this response.

Keep in mind that to judge the author and then allow that judgment to affect you would be to act as the author. This is not to say, though, that there is not something here to be examined.

  • Does information offend, or are recipients of the information offended?
  • Does it matter whether or not the delivery of the information was intended to offend the recipient?
  • Does the absence of controversy necessarily imply that a correct understanding has been reached? Is the popular view always correct?
  • Are there circumstances wherein controversy can be skillfully used to create understanding?
  • Why do people attend college? Why do teachers teach? Need those objectives align?
  • What is the intended purpose of academic tenure?

I remember the day when I clearly knew that I should not become a college professor. My mentor in the university was uncommonly good to his students. A grey-beard with a pipe dangling from his mouth were markings that paled in comparison to his continual support to the ideals of academic excellence, academic honesty / integrity, and to the academic tradition itself. He was a stalwart against attacks on the university system of transmission as well as a champion of the students and fellow workers.

This professor allowed me to hang out with him in his office and to use that office while he was teaching. One day while I sat alone at his desk, the door slammed open and this tenured, full professor stormed in. He threw his attache case down and continued an uninterrupted stream of curses started sometime before. When he calmed down enough to be intelligible, the story emerged:

In the beginning of the year, this professor released a fully detailed syllabus that includes the dates of all course exams as well as the policies surrounding taking and missing exams. A week or two before one such exam, a young student approached the 60-something professor and explained matter-of-factly that he would be away on a cruise during that particular week and would thus be missing the exam. The student wanted to know what alternative arrangements the professor could make for him. The professor explained what you might imagine: The schedule and the policies were clear and published; it's the student's responsibility to meet those requirements.

We can assume both that the student was a bit more arrogant and that the professor was a bit more cantankerous; nevertheless, the exchange took a drastic turn for the worse when the student spoke these words to the professor:

I pay your salary!

That was the moment in a nutshell. It's the classic "the customer is always right" mentality, now appearing in academia. The professor would eventually have to do the expected paperwork and answer to the department chair, who had been contacted by the parents, before the professor was eventually found in the right, receiving an apology from the student.

Consider that this was a calculus class, the professor a mathematician. Except for occasional disputes regarding who claims title to different theorems' proofs, there is not much that would be considered controversial or offensive in pure mathematics---and that is particularly true in basic calculus, a topic that is well trodden. But even here, an arbitrary student made the argument, and that argument was supported to some extent by the student's parents. And this argument did not even surround the content of the class.

It's still inconceivable to me that this happened at all. Imagine how much more this situation could have erupted had this actually been a controversial course filled with thought and opinion---even more so had the course explored social mores.

How did we come to this?

"I believe this, and I am offended that you do not. You are wrong! See things my way, or else!" is the argument. A service-based economy and a litigious society give life to every threat are among the problems.

What are possible solutions?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My House is Having a Bad Yard Day

Yesterday afternoon, I took to my car and headed away to run some errands. As I rounded the bend leading to the main thoroughfare, an SUV was pointed toward me, but stopped with the driver taking a picture of the house to his left. We passed each other slowly, then in my rear view mirror I saw the car advance and stop again.

The next house would be mine.

I turned around to follow him down toward the cul-de-sac. By the time I came back around the bend, the driver had passed my house, but the pattern continued: stop, click, advance; stop, click, advance, ...

The cul-de-sac ends in a loop around a small, grassy island where the neighborhood kids like to play. Presumably for the convenience of his photography, the driver entered the circle to the left, traveling clockwise. I entered to the right, traveling counter-clockwise, blocking him between a click and an advance.

There was the driver in a shirt bearing some company logo, his digital camera, and a clipboard all visible. I challenged him politely, “What are you up to here?” Nervously but directly, he answered that he was in the area photographing houses for a real estate database. He explained that the company already had notified the police that they would be in the area, he offered a brochure, and so forth, probably wondering what this territorial resident's next step would be... I thanked him and told him that that wouldn't be necessary; in fact, I really just wanted to see how he would respond.

Years and years ago, I worked as a private investigator for an agency. I knew the general rules and courtesies, such as informing the police that you would be in the area on business for when the nosy neighbors inevitably called about the weirdo sitting in the car outside your house. I knew that, whether his story was true or not, his documents would probably back his story. More importantly, though, I knew the fellow had every right to be there, taking a picture of every house on the block if that's what he wanted to do.

So, we may as well presume the story is true. Ask then what it means to have a private entity with a picture of every house in your region available with the click of a mouse?

Most people live at least subconsciously aware of certain risks and probabilities and make their decisions accordingly. Everybody living this way creates some state of equilibrium in the larger society.

Presumably, no one really has an interest in my house unless I intend to sell it or if someone is looking into moving into the neighborhood. There's not much traffic given that we're on a quiet cul-de-sac. We know many of the neighbors and we take note of strangers. It's generally safe for the kids to go down the block and play, generally safe to leave the bicycles up against the house, generally safe to leave the doors unlocked while you're around, and so forth. That's the character of the neighborhood, and it's fairly easy to determine by spending some time observing.

We might live differently if this was a high-traffic road through road with strangers constantly coming and going.

Somewhere out there will be a snapshot record of our entire neighborhood on a February afternoon. Virtually speaking, our quiet cul-de-sac just became a high traffic thoroughfare without our knowledge...

Who might have an interest in such information? Home buyers, of course, but who else? How about criminals, wanting to canvas the neighborhood (look at how those bushes cover that view from the street...)? Salesmen (at last check, these houses might need new roofs or windows...)? Government (is that an unlicensed improvement on that house?)? Really, there are no limits. As information becomes so readily available, and as it can be more easily associated ad correlated with other information, our lives become more and more open to everyone for any purpose.

If you knew today that someone would be taking a photo of your house for some database, how might you prepare? If you knew that such a photo already existed, how might you change your way of living?

I might have at least tidied up the yard...