The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
– the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*
On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility
Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.
One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**
But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! – expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.
So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Continue reading →
I’ve been edublog silent for a long time now, but buzz about the Flipped Classroom actually hit me human-to-human instead of via the interwebs. Teachers in my school are experimenting with it way out here in this Texan colony that is northern Singapore.
When it comes to social studies, though, I have a hard time seeing how assigning at-home readings for extension in class – a pretty traditional approach in history classrooms, in my experience – is not already “flipped.”
I did toy with the idea of flipping my classroom over the summer, though, was briefly active on the FC Ning, and played with podcasting and vodcasting content as homework during the first quarter of this school year. The experience left me with
concerns that students read even less than many already do, possibly undercutting their readiness for college and adulthood generally, which expects advanced reading skills (but I could be wrong here; when I was in high school, I never read assigned hw because I wanted to read more interesting things like sci-fi and — if you laugh at the next one, you haven’t read the research — ’70s-era Marvel Comics);
hard-won appreciation for how time-consuming the creation of quality podcasts or vodcasts is, and relatedly –
ditto for how sadistic and morale-killing, good intentions aside, a poorly made teacher podcast or video can be.
I’ll add that students have overall volunteered their appreciation for image-enhanced podcasts. Last September, walking home from school after classes all day on Chinese philosophies, enjoying a thinker’s high about Confucius and the gonzo Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (“Jesus doing stand-up comedy” is the best hook I can come up with), I sat under a tree and tried to share that high with my students in a talk into my iPhone voice recorder — the first 12 minutes on Confucianism, the last 12 on Taoism. I went home, slapped some images on top of the audio in Garageband (and took a photo from my 16th floor apartment of the very tree under which those thoughts found voice), and that was that:
Another similar “walk and talk” into that machine about “what goodness means” to a Hindu, a Hebrew monotheist, and a traditional Chinese person for my ninth-graders:
These got good feedback (“It’s interesting” is a nice review of homework, as is “it helped things make sense”). Occasionally students have emailed me special requests on topics we’ve covered in units since those efforts. I’m pretty convinced I’m more interesting talking into my iPhone than trying to deliver the same ideas live in front of the class. I’m less distracted by the clowns and corpses, more focused on the ideas, and less inhibited in letting my own impassioned interest come out.
But man, editing images in in Garageband takes a lot of time, and that time is just not available. I keep thinking I should go minimalist and do audio-only podcasts, and gauge student response. If still good, that’s much easier to pull off. Another option I’ve considered is having students collaborate with me by finding images for the audio lectures, and making them edit them into AV podcasts. Yet another possibility is to assign a crowdsourced transcript of the lecture by having each student transcribe, say, one minute of the audio lecture. 30 students could do 30 minutes and slap it all together on a Google Doc or wiki. That would provide a text that could replace the boring textbook.
But this semester my interests have changed. I want my students to have time to sit under trees too.
(Next to) No Homework: The Sweet Spot?
My current experiment involves not so much flipping homework as (almost) ending it. I’m using document-based lessons in which all readinganddiscussion is done in class, and the only homework is a reflective blog post about the day’s content on a team blog — which student team-members read and comment on with corrections, extensions, challenges, etc. I like this so far, for several reasons:
it ensures all have actually done the reading and received the input (never a certainty with homework assignments)
it ensures, moreover, that more students have actually understood the deeper implications of the readings, through the discussions clarifying the concepts and understandings following our read-alouds (we’re currently reading 3,000-year-old Western Zhou Dynasty passages from the Confucian Five Classics that bring out the teachings of Confucianism more powerfully than any textbook summary can, but that require close reading and clarification. So we read, stop, ask, and discuss; read, stop, ask, and discuss)
it eliminates the “I read it last night but forgot most of it after waking up” that is as true for many adults as it is for students. We read and annotate based on front-loaded questions/reading purposes, take a couple of minutes to gather our impressions, and launch into talks with it all fresh in memory
it makes the student peer-teaching via comments on the team blog more reliable (they read it and discussed it with the teacher’s guidance in class, so odds are at least two in a five-person team comprehended the finer points of the lesson and can reinforce them in blog comments by catching and addressing misunderstandings in their peers’ posts)
The short version: we read homework in class, discuss it in class, clarify and debate it in class — then briefly write about it at home. Hopefully this leads to less homework and deeper learning at the same time — and above all, to less aversion to school because of all that homework.
[This space has been quiet because I've been fact-checking and otherwise researching my Unsucky Gilgamesh chaptersso far (which I hope to publish as a book when finished) and, since school started two weeks ago, writing for my students. The below is one such piece for my History of China students. There's no reason other students -- whether in school or out, and regardless of ability to pay the high tuition of the private school I work for -- should be excluded from the fun. Call it a Do It Yourself form of Open Courseware. I enjoyed writing it because I enjoy trying to make sense of that deep, rich ocean called Chinese history. So I hope some of you enjoy reading it. Any mistakes are my own, and I'd love to hear your corrections or other pushbacks.]
First, to set the mood: A 2-minute clip from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Mickey’s (played by Allen) Jewish parents are freaking out because he has found Jesus Christ and converted to the Catholic faith. It ends with one of my favorite comic lines in film history:
–It’s also a line I think China’s religious sages would find wiser than most of what they hear coming from the West about these questions.
And here we go:
~ ~ ~
Of Confucius, Holy Clowns, and Holy Murderers:
Some Advantages of Chinese Religious Atheism
(offscreen in the bathroom)
Of course there's a God, you idiot!
You don't believe in God?
But if there's a God, then why is there so much
evil in the world? Just on a simplistic level...
Why were there Nazis?
(offscreen in the bathroom)
Tell him, Max.
How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?
I don't know how the can opener works.
Hannah and Her Sisters
I. Why Today’s Students, Particularly, Should Care
Why should anybody today care about knowing ancient Chinese religion? A few sentences can make the case:
First, anyone who is East Asian — Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Vietnamese — should care because their family life and personality are very likely molded by the ideas that arise in the Warring States Period.
There’s a 2,500-year-old reason East Asian airports are safe.
Even people who are not East Asian have good reason to learn it: it’s no secret that the 21st Century is shaping up to be the Century of China (and, yes, India), so odds are that anybody with a future will cross paths with East Asia either socially, romantically, or professionally. So they should know what a different world they’re entering when they do, and thus be able to navigate that world with better success, be it at the business dinner or the girl-friend’s parent’s dinner.
A third reason, of course, is that it’s simply good mental traveling to learn about all this.
Point blank: when we talk about East Asia, we’re talking about Confucius, the man most religious studies scholars agree is by far the most influential “religious” figure and moral philosopher of all time — more than Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed. One in four people on the planet today is Chinese; from the beginning of history to today, China’s population has always been larger than that of Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and the Americas. And China’s people — plus, later, those of Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore — have lived the core Confucian values since 200 years before Jesus until today. (And they live them seven days a week, not just on the Sabbath.)
Even Christianized Asians live Confucian lives as their daily norm: family values, respect for elders and authorities, humility and a distaste for vulgarity and boasting, a gentle distaste for conflict, the importance of “face” and, glaringly obvious at SAS, of education — all of those things go back to Confucius.
So understanding Confucius is understanding most of East Asia today — from family life to social attitudes to manners and etiquette and sexual norms. (And to understand Confucius, the Shujing we read from last week will take you a long way.)
Second, Confucius is not a teacher about religion and life after death; on the contrary, his focus is the good life on earth, and how to live it wisely, happily, and graciously. When asked about who made the universe, where we go after we die, and the other Ten Thousand Unknowable Things, Confucius said:
To know when you know something, and to know when you don’t know something: that is wisdom.
He knew humans don’t know about the Unknowable, so he advised it best to pay attention to ritual and ceremony, yes, but to keep a clean distance from questions that can’t be answered — and from people who claim they know the answers. He thought those people dangerous to social order, and their superstitious claims dangerous to individual intelligence.
The Analects, the major collection of Confucius’ alleged sayings as recorded by his students, is a refreshingly easy book to read. Nothing in it is hard to believe except that its common sense and rationalism, which arrived in the West only during the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment a short 500 years ago, rose in China a very long two thousand, five hundred years ago.
III. A Holy Clown: Zhuangzi and the Tao
Zhuangzi dreaming he's a butterfly dreaming he's Zhuangzi dreaming...
And while Confucius does have a sense of humor in places, it’s one that at most makes you smile a little as you read. Like practically every other religion or philosophy, laughter and a sense of humor seem somehow against the rules. Confucius is serious this way too. But his “opponents,” the Daoists? They give us laughs by the belly-full, while all the while discussing the same subjects the more sober religions talk about. Reading the great Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second great sage, is like reading Jesus doing stand-up comedy. You can’t help but love the guy. He’s a hoot, and he’s also as deep as they come (in my book, anybody who insists there’s nothing unholy about laughter, that it’s every bit as sacred as all the more depressing emotions we usually find glooming up houses of worship, is wise by definition. Why shouldn’t laughter and play count among the holy things? What’s more heavenly than that?).
Zhuangzi had no patience for the Confucians. He was an individualist and an escapist, believing the wisest reaction to suffering is not to try to “fix the problem,” but instead to flow with it, “like water — seeking the path of least resistance.” You can’t fix human society any more than you can fix an earthquake or a drought. You fix your own mind’s way of reacting to things, stop freaking out when life is hard, slow down and enjoy it, and don’t get caught up chasing gold and honors. It’s all a fool’s errand to him. He prefers to go fishing and tell good, deep, playful stories. Your favorite weird uncle. (And one of my five favorite human beings in history.)
IV. A Tangent: Connections to Greece
These might help, if you remember the basics about Greece from other classes:
Greek and Chinese philosophy share a sort of “philosophical relay race” pattern: Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle. In China, Confucianism has a similar threesome: Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi.
Socrates, like Confucius, never wrote his philosophy down. We know Socrates through the writings of Plato, yet Plato took Socrates’ ideas into areas Socrates may not have agreed with. Similarly, Mencius studied under Confucius’ grandson, so there’s a Socrates-Plato/Confucius-Mencius pattern there.
Aristotle studied under Plato, but ended up arguing against his master. Xunzi similarly argues against Mencius concerning, above all, human nature. As Ebrey explains, Mencius thought human nature was essentially good, but a bad environment can corrupt it (thus the importance of a model king). Xunzi says this is naive, that human nature is prone to stupidity and vice, and thus needs education. (Not the kind of education in today’s world, which more and more seems to teach that education is simply a means for getting a job and making a lot of money, which is what success means. Confucians taught that the pleasures of an educated life are themselves the wealth, and the success. The gold is in the mind, not the bank.)
Xunzi is also interesting as the first flat-out atheist in Chinese philosophy. Confucius was not, mind you, an atheist. He said “We can’t know about God, Gods, and before and after life.” That’s an agnostic position: “a-” means “not,” and “gnostic” means “knowledge” — so Confucius is agnostic. Xunzi is different. He says, flat out, no gods are out there, as plain as an atheist can put it. But he continues with a totally interesting argument: “Even though all of this religious belief is superstitious nonsense, we should continue and support it.” Why? Because first, rituals are beautiful. They add pleasing colors to our days. And second, they’re useful. People need an outlet for fears of death and frustrations with life, so let them pray away, even though it’s totally pointless. You AP Lit people might think of Aristotle’s argument that Greek Tragedy was healthy because it was “cathartic” — it let people drain out all of their fear and horror at the dark sides of life. Xunzi seems to think religion is a similarly useful form of “mental hygiene.”
And then there’s Laozi, Daoism’s “Old Master.” Laozi wrote the Dao de Jing (“The Classic of the Way”), and it’s so deep, mysterious, and paradoxical that I pretty much refuse to even try to teach it to high schoolers. Deer in headlights gazes is all I’ve seen each time I’ve had students read it. So taste it if you’re curious, but we won’t focus on it in class much, if at all. We’ll focus on Zhuangzi instead.
V. Holy Murderers
There’s one final “So what?”, and I’ll close with it: it’s tantalizing to wonder what Jesus and Mohammed would have thought about Confucius. I picture them totally approving of his morality: he argues, like they do, that greed and the fever for gold are vulgar and the “root of all evil.” He also argues that we should love our neighbors and treat everyone well. Confucius, too, would approve of the moral teachings of Jesus and Mohammed — at least their social ones. But Confucius probably would have drawn the line at believing their claims to “know” about beginnings and endings, heavens and hells, spirits and demons. One can only imagine how interesting their conversations would be if they had the chance to debate these things. And while that’s impossible, of course, somehow it still points to something I notice every time I pass through airports in the Middle East, the West, and in China: pretty much everywhere but China, soldiers patrol airports looking for suicide bombers — and they obviously do it for good reason. Muslims, Jews, and Christians have been fighting for thousands of years because of their conflicting knowledge-claims based on their ancient religious texts.
Confucian countries are free of all of these strange things because in their culture, they know, thanks to Confucius, that they are Those Who Cannot Know Some Answers and, knowing they can’t know these things, they have no such Knowledge to Kill For. In their airports, instead of soldiers patrolling for Those Who Do, you more often see just a bunch of families, parents leading the kids, the kids leading their suitcases stuffed with textbooks, cramming that education day and night to please their parents — people who don’t know what any Creator of the Universe thinks, but who do know this: family is important, and education is important.
And it’s all because of a guy who read the Shujing during the Warring States Period 500 years before Jesus, thought it was wise, taught it to students, and left teachings that, 2,500 years later, have worked for more than half of the world.