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Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Quotations

The following is part of a class assignment. Quotes are pulled from Ordinary Ressurections by Jonathon Kozol.

“Liberals may think that they can contradict a stereotype,” he notes,” by
walking off into a neighborhood where they do not belong” and may believe
they’ll “be protected” by their ideologies or sentimental loyalties. “It
doesn’t work like that,” he says, “and you’d be unwise to believe it.” (p.167)

There is a famous story in mathematical circles concerning the death of Pythagoras. It is said there was an uprising against his mysterious cult, but that the venerated leader escaped the original attack only to be cut down later, due to his refusal to cross a bean field. It seems amidst their reverence for number and theorems, the Pythagoreans harbored beliefs in the most extraordinary of things. Because of its passing resemblance to human sex organs, the legume was deemed indecent. Pythagoras, according to this legend, was killed because of his steadfast refusal to be touched by such “vile” plants.

Nowadays, our intellectual elites, our modern-day Pythagoreans, are sometimes slain because of where they are afraid not to go. For fear of appearing racist or bigoted, they disregard stereotypes with celebrated flair. With the kind of passionate ignorance of reality that stems from early sequestering within the walls of the Ivory Tower, they literally and metaphorically walk where they do not belong.

Yet they should take note of one of mathematics less superstitious methodologies- the field of logic. It is one thing to say that not all group members fit a stereotype, and another entirely to say that none do. Behind every cultural stereotype lies a probabilistic heuristic that has proven true enough to survive. Our protection comes not from naively ignoring those stereotypes, but from being able to see past them.

He doesn’t just “sustain” the difficulties of existence. He steers around
them in inventive ways that give him the defense he needs…He never seems like
someone who’s agreed to be defeated. (p. 236)

There is much talk of the “resilience” of children among those schooled in the social and psychological sciences. The term conjures images of the downtrodden, of those who are forever being peeled from the tread of society’s boot. We marvel at how these young people are able to persevere in spite of such a relentless attack. In reality, we give them too much credit, and at the same time not enough. We are right to be surprised by their ability to rise up after being hit by such continuous volleys. No human could be expected to “sustain” those difficulties. Yet while we overestimate their recovery strategies, we underestimate their ability to avoid the attacks altogether. Their “resilience” comes not from standing strong before life’s frontal assault, but from their keen awareness of the likely places of ambush and the ingenuity to escape around the danger. In so much as they manage to avoid the obstacles, they demonstrate their ability to play outside the rules. They employ strategies that boggle our minds, because for all our well-meaning ideologies and good intentions, these children are the ones actually playing the game. We are merely spectators.

I know nothing of theology; but it occurs to me that modest hesitations-normal
ones, like those in ordinary conversations- may allow a bit more space than a
relentless speaking style does for people in a congregation who may feel the
world has tried to clip their wings and that the powers and the principalities
of their society might actually prefer it if they didn’t fly too high. (p.246)

Regardless of the chosen medium, a true artist knows that there is as much power placed in what is not said as in what is. The blank patch of canvas, the silent rest signs of a great composer, the soft pause of a seasoned orator- these are the nothings and nowheres that make the lasting impressions. In that little white spot, the artist invites the audience to fill in the blank- to insert a piece of themselves into the work. This is a lesson of which we as educators would do well to take heed. People are willing to be lead, but will steadfastly refuse to be pushed. We must remember that each lesson belongs not just to us as teachers, but the students as well. In order for our artwork to be remembered through the passing of time, we must not be afraid to put brushes in the hands of our audience.

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