This is a picture of the Pattaya Beach I wasn't at that I didn't take. Who needs a camera when you know there's a picture on Flickr?
So I’m somewhere in Thailand called Pattaya that I wouldn’t choose to come to except that John, my best friend from my “professional college student/Bohemian vagabond years” from age 20 to 34, is here — I wrote about him and those years of our knuckleheaded intellectual awakening in the In the Crumbling Temple of the Dead White Males post last year — and it’s the first time we’ve seen each other in 15 years, which is really cool. It was only a two-hour flight from Singapore to make this quick reunion. I’m pleasantly surprised we both made it this close to 50. And ditto that the conversations are as comfortable as if we just had coffee yesterday in 1994.
Anyway, this post isn’t about John. It’s about thoughts I had with him as we lounged on an empty stretch of beach away from the tourist-infested area.
John went the Ph.D. route and is now a philosophy and religious studies professor in the States. He’s a big Buddhism head, but he also teaches logic and critical thinking.
I watched a nice white cloud float across a nice azure sky, right up there above the palm fronds shot through with sunlight, and asked John with my own big teacher head, “So how do you teach critical thinking, anyway?”
The part of his answer that interested me most was: “The hardest part for me, and the most important part, is getting students to see in what they’re reading what the real issue is. Texts and writers often don’t make that clear.”
I said “hm” and watched more clouds, listened to the same surf’s voice here in Thailand that John and I heard under so many conversations in Los Angeles in the ’80s and Oregon in the ’90s. And I listened to some thoughts that I wish an interior monologue recorder would have recorded so I could play them to my history students (doesn’t it suck that our students get to hear so few of our many — for me practically constant — random thoughts about what we want them to learn, see, understand? That they can’t join us in interior dialogues?).
So I’m going to try to pull those thoughts back up. They’re pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to teach. It goes something like this:
You’re Learning Everything About European History Except What’s Important
I’ve tried to give you what we’ve called “the Big Picture” of how our species left Africa, populated Europe and Mesopotamia, started farming, made civilizations, spread those civilizations, got more complex, created institutions of politics and religions and economics and social organization and, as the Thais say, “Yak yak yak.” We’ve toured this pretty coherently, I think, in the first semester, all the way up to the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. I’ve tried to give you that coherent “Big Picture” framework because I never got it when I was in high school, and it took me way too long — into my 30s — to have it. That meant whenever I read or heard about a book or event or person from the past during the first decade-plus of my adulthood, I couldn’t “place it on the map,” give it a mental context — “Oh, that’s when the Reformation and the Age of Exploration and the Renaissance were going on all at once, so everybody was so confused with all the new knowledge when that happened” sort of thing.
Everything that happened before my life began, in other words, was something like an “historical orphan.” It had no relations with the other things going on around it when it was alive.
So I’ve tried really hard for the first half of our year together to make that story coherent, to make you see that A couldn’t have happened before B because B partly caused A, on and on. (I wrote about that a while back in Why History Isn’t Learned, and How Story Helps Change That.) I’ve tried really hard to give you that framework so you’re not the idiot I was for so many of my first college years.
And congratulations: Most of you, judging from your semester exam essays, seem to have got that hiStory in your heads.
But here’s the problem that I saw when reading those essays:
You Think “Western Civ” is About Learning “Western Civ.” It’s Not.
As John put it, you’ve read the text and understood it, but you don’t understand the issue.
And the issue, to put it in a nutshell, is this: Knowing all this stuff is worthless, if all you’ve done is learn it. You seem to think that we’re teaching you Western Civilization because gee, it’s a great civilization.
It’s not. Like all civilizations, it has its strengths and it has its flaws. Just because it’s part of the dominant culture today doesn’t make it good. Maybe the dominant culture today would be much better if certain aspects of Western Civilization were different — or even non-existent.
Most of your essays saddened me because they were so full of cheer-leading for the West. Civilizations, Western or Eastern, Northern or Southern, don’t need cheerleaders. They need critics.
So in the second semester, let’s up the game. You’re going to continue learning that Big Picture. But I hope you’re also going to start forming your opinions about it, embracing parts of it, rejecting others, arguing some parts are broken and need fixing, and proposing how, if you were in the position of power to fix it, you would go about doing that.
Because many of you, when I’m losing my last teeth and blogging through bifocals decades from now, may very well be in those positions of power. And I hope you’re exercising that power not with pom-poms, but with sharp-eyed solutions to the problems you’ll inherit.
Otherwise this future old man is screwed.
Jeez, That was Heavy
So I’m going to go get a massage now. That’s one of the beautiful things about Thai civilization. They understand that a trip to the massage parlor is just as important as a trip to the shopping mall. The West could learn from that.
Image by piwaen