Tag Archives: autobiography

Why I Blog, Updated

From a set of questions asked by an education student via my Contact form. Why not share?

1. Why did you start “Beyond School”?

I assigned blogging to my ninth graders, and figured I should experience it with them. Then it worked its magic on me and made me the daily writer (the recent disappearance into reading and researching Chinese history and culture notwithstanding) I’d always fantasized about being.

2. How do you choose the topics you blog about?

It varies. Ideas are itches that want scratching. Mostly prompted by where the head’s at, and daily issues in teaching and learning in schools. Sometimes it’s just sharing something I think other readers would benefit from. But I’ve strayed from that many times to go personal and philosophical, just because I want to express things before I die. Short version: I began blogging about technology for learning; I’ve transitioned into expressing my own life-learning through technology. From tools-fetish to the meaningful.

3. What audience are you writing to/for? (Or who are you writing to?)

Myself, my ideal reader, and thoughtful students out there who want more meat than what’s served at schools.

4. What are you hoping to gain from blogging about these different education topics?

Sometimes resolution to problems I’m trying to work out — my “think-alouds” were just me blogging about “I’m teaching a, and wonder how I can do it effectively,” and following the inktrail until I reach areas that I otherwise probably wouldn’t reach without the prolonged focus that comes with prolonged writing.

Sometimes simple truth and beauty.

Sometimes to change a few people’s worldviews.

Almost always to inspire.

And to be inspired by reader comments, have my own worldview changed by the good challenges in those conversations.

5. What do you hope your readers will gain from reading your blog?

Pleasure, inspiration, hope, righteous subversion.

My Travelers Map, updated

New countries visited since my last map update in ’07:

Australia, Nov. 2009: Learning Technology 2009 Keynote Speech.

India, Feb., 2010. — School Trip with 20 wonderful freshmen. Tamil Nadu was full of wonderful people. Some video:

Taiwan, Mar, 2010. — Felt so close to China I wanted to swim the Straight. God, I love China.

create your own visited country map
or write about it on the open travel guide

Looks like I’ll add Hungary soon, if all goes as planned.

How Modern People Read

Nothing like seeing a friend from three decades ago, when you were a new and very green adult in the world, to stir up the mind.

John and I also talked a bit about Gilgamesh today. Me talking about Gilgamesh is nothing new. I do that with anybody and everybody who’ll listen. But talking about it to the guy who knew you way back when when you so naively embarked on a conscious search for “Truth” — especially when that same guy joined you, and with exactly the same naivete — that is something new.

It’s like our 20-year old selves were sitting on that beach with us two 47-year-olds all day.

False Starts in the Search for Truth

That 20-year-old me was such a lousy seeker for Truth. He read all the Old Books devotedly — the Greek, the Hebrew, the Vedic, the Christian, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Taoist, the Gnostic, the Transcendental, “Yak yak yak.” He read them all, underlined passages, filled margins with scribbles, exclamation points, interrobangs. He started (and rarely finished) journals devoted to only copying the choicest of those words of Wisdom — quotes only. The Things to Remember. These were the words of Wisdom and Truth, and they were going to teach him Truth and Wisdom, by god. If he read them real closely to be sure he understood, then he’d find Truth and Wisdom. And life would be better because he’d have those things.

All I could do today while thinking about him was laugh at him.

Because I think I know now that that’s exactly the wrong way to read the Old Books.

If I had read Gilgamesh back then, when I was him, I would have been expecting it to teach me too. Another Old Book that was supposed to be Wise. That’s not how I read it now, thank goodness.

How Moderns Read

Anyway, I sat there on that beach wishing I had my iPod so I could record  what I was trying to aphoristically sum up about what I know about reading now — and wish I’d known well before 20, at your age, my students. I didn’t want this little stab at something essential to slip away. It went something like this:

It’s not what we learn from the Old Books. It’s what we see in them.

That mental shift in relation to reading, I want to say, comes close to a definition of the modern reader. A traditional reader gives up his authority to the author. A modern reader takes that authority back. Copernicus did it to Aristotle and Ptolemy, for example — he doubted their scientific authority based on his own observations. Voltaire and Nietzsche did it to the religious authority of popes, preachers, and the Bible.

A modern reader, in a nutshell, doesn’t read on his knees.

The scary thing? It seems that a large number of Americans are not modern readers at all.

And the sad thing? They all went to American schools — which doesn’t speak well about American education.

Beach-Side Thoughts on History, to My Students

pattaya beach, Thailand

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