Some Reflections on a 1st Full Year of Teaching (College-level Politics)

Not quite done with the semester yet, but feeling close enough to begin reflecting on what went right, what went wrong, and what if anything can be done about it for next year.  My mind is at a place where I’m thinking about how there are a few big choices to make in approaching class.  One choice is how formal, serious, professional, and dedicated you are going to be.  Another is how much you are going to try to get the students involved, and (especially in larger classes) which students to focus on.  But these are sort of uninteresting questions and our answers for them I think are more driven by how much we care about the job and how much energy we have to expend during class time.  To a certain extent, you are who are you are.  But maybe the other biggest choice you have to make, and which is more interesting as far as these choices go, is whether you want to teach details or big picture ideas.

It is so difficult to make the right decision on this last one.  Even now I find myself unsure of where I come down.  The details, it is easier to argue, are definitely important, and for a variety of reasons.  One is they are the dots that we use to connect in order to understand the bigger ideas.  So you need details, like historical events, to understand things on a deep level, even though details themselves can be incredibly dull and shallow.  In terms of impressing people (i.e. potential employers), familiarity with details I’m sure is better during most job interviews than having penetrating insights about this or that, or mastery of the ins-and-outs of complex theoretical or interpretational questions.  If you have facts and details, no one can dismiss that form of intelligence, whereas these days everybody has their own weird personal theories about things.  Having the facts right quickly distinguishes you from the harebrained, whereas having big-picture ideas associates you with them, especially to those who are weak on thinking about the big picture (or have their own precious harebrained ideas to protect).

The problem with stopping at details is that memorization of facts is no substitute for judgment.  And if you don’t have the big picture ideas right, you won’t be able to accomplish much even with a Jeopardy!-contestant level stock of information.  Big picture ideas give you the tools to build a useful framework in which to organize and interpret the facts that you are laudably familiar with.  But though this sounds nice in theory, there are several barriers to teaching big picture ideas in the classroom.

I’ll just name a couple of these barriers, still being unsure myself of what the final conclusion on this should be.  One barrier is that students can fake it more easily with understanding big picture ideas.  If you get a fact wrong, then it’s simply wrong and you lose the points.  Students know this and take getting facts right (relatively) seriously.  Their efforts in thinking about things on a deeper level, though, are tougher to gauge.  For example, you might want them to think about some causal relationship or some ethical argument.  Does a separation of government powers do more for securing individual rights in society than does a unification of government powers?  To what extent should property rights be respected in society?  Tough questions like these promise incredibly intellectual growth if they are engaged with properly, guided by an instructor, and with a great deal of effort over an extended period of time.  They can also be quickly answered off the top of the head, and it can be very difficult to determine whether students did the former or the latter.

Another barrier is students’ prior experience with a detail-focused instructor or a big picture-focused instructor.  If going beyond details is entirely new, then it is going to be an uphill climb which certainly won’t be completed in any obviously satisfying way within the time constraints of a single semester.  Lastly, big picture ideas and ideological world views can appear very similar.  So going theoretical without triggering ideological defense mechanisms among the students can be a real challenge.  Indeed, students will want you to send ideological cues so that can decide whether to “go along with you” as you structure a conversation on a theoretical question.

Where I am at now is with a desire to increase both details and the big picture ideas at the same time in the years ahead.  Some of my difficulties this year, I am happy to admit, are just my own limitations in both of these categories.  Perhaps these things work themselves out as you gain experience and are occasionally reflective of what needs to be worked on.  At this point, I’m still thinking “all of the above.”

Recovery Days in Iraq, 2003

When on deployment, the day-to-day routine can be roughly divided into mission days and recovery days.  You either have a formal mission handed down through the chain of command, or you have the day to maximize your mission readiness in anticipation of whatever the next mission is.

I was part of an armored combat engineer unit based in Baghdad in the early stages of the post-9/11 Iraq War.  Our missions were quite varied.  We picked up from the ground and transported scattered enemy munitions (including mortars and RPGs) from blasted supply points around our area.  We resupplied 40+ local elementary schools with desks and other supplies for the kids (though sometimes having rocks thrown at us by the kids during these deliveries).  We organized work crews to clean out and restore the broken down canal system.  I could go on and on.  But when we didn’t have an “outside the wire” mission, that often meant that we had a recovery day instead.

iraq chicken laundry

During a recovery day, soldiers are basically expected to conduct maintenance on themselves and their equipment.  These days can be pretty great, and looking back, it is amazing how excited I would be just to spend all day doing chores.  First of all, this included catching up on personal hygiene and laundry.  Early on, showers and laundry were done with water stored in a big common “water buffalo” maintained by unit headquarters.  Just a large green camo-colored tank filled with water for all to share, unsafe to drink but safe to clean with.  Small brown containers were used for bringing the water from the buffalo back to your living area.  If you planned ahead, you filled up your smaller brown containers in advance of your recovery time, strategically setting them either in the sun or shade to get the temperature right.  That way, you could ideally have good temperature water to wash your clothes with.  And after washing your clothes, you could use the water left in those brown containers to dump over your (minimally soaped-up) body for a shower.  (Showering first was dangerous because the brown containers were very heavy when completely full.  Wouldn’t want to drop one on your head or toe, or both.)  And if you were a vehicle driver like myself, you typically preceded these chores with early morning vehicle maintenance, to ensure constant unit readiness and to take advantage of the morning’s relative coolness.

After hanging your clothes up on a line, the afternoon-to-evening was time for weapons (generally rifle) maintenance, reading and writing letters, working out, playing card games, or what-have-you.  The idea was to stay busy and preoccupied.  For a while I had a chicken that we had picked up from an Iraqi marketplace, sort of a pet.  There were also small lizards crawling around that you could stick on a block of ice, watch them turn into little frozen statues, and then put them back in the sun.  After a few seconds they would slowly defrost and begin crawling away.  (Seems cruel now, but seemed a quasi-scientific, life-of-the-mind sort of thing at the time.)  As the sun went down in the evenings, a low-rolling, streaking cloud of hundreds-if-not-thousands of bats would fly right over our living area.  All chaotically darting this way or that, turning on a dime mid-air, zigging and zagging.  This amorphous collective thing was mesmerizing.  They weren’t a threat — they never landed or came near any of us.  Which isn’t to say some wouldn’t come close, within just several feet.  In fact, their nearness inspired my curiosity so much that I acquired (I don’t remember where) a butterfly net and would waive it through the just-out-reach cloud of bats, hoping to catch one, if only for a moment.  I’m grateful that I failed, but it was a lot of fun.

On the Resurrection

Whether you believe or reject the claim of the Resurrection of Jesus, there seems to be on either side a single key consideration.  For believers, there is an account of the Resurrection given in the Bible.  For doubters, this is an account of a miracle, and miracles do not occur.  Those are the main competing considerations.  There are others, but these are the most important ones.

It is with no pleasure that I judge the doubters to have the stronger of these considerations.  So, a few thoughts on what makes the biblical account weak.  One is that the Bible cannot be the evidence for its own authority.  However, it isn’t clear what a more valid alternative would be.  It makes sense that the evidence for the Bible’s authority has been incorporated into the Bible itself.  Why would any serious person exclude it?  Another thought is that those who are giving the reports of the Resurrection in the Bible are themselves believers.  Well, here is another case of “well, what do you expect?”  If you had personal testimony to the Resurrection, wouldn’t you be more likely than others to count yourself a believer?  So, that the Bible claims to provide the source evidence for its own authority actually isn’t that unreasonable.  Still, isn’t it possible that the early Christians were all lying, or at least deluded?  Yes of course that is possible.  They themselves do seem to have believed, insofar as many became martyrs for their faith.  So the martyrs at least were not Machiavellian liars — if they lied, they believed their own lies to a certain extent.  Why do martyrs sacrifice their lives on behalf of claims that deep down they might know are not true?  Something becomes muddled deep down between what is true and not true.  There are swarms of maybes swirling around our hearts.  We seek out patterns, dots that we can connect in order to make sense not just of everything we believe to be physically true, but also everything that we feel.  Emotional responses have a truth to themselves.  In intense pleasure we find truth, at least a moral truth.  In happiness we find truth.  In love we find truth.  There is also truth in extreme pain.  The dots we connect reveal how all of these emotional and moral truths relate to the physical, historical and mathematical truths.  We can recall here the second temptation of Jesus in the desert, where the devil tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the top of a temple to see if angels will rescue him.  The temptation is to see your emotional truth as greater than your physical truth, and to set at odds these things rather than harmonize them.  Jesus of course resists the temptation.  The challenge to doubters of the Resurrection, who doubt because miracles are impossible, is the same problem in reverse.  Is it not an affront to truth itself to see one half of truth–physical truth–as boundlessly superior than the other half–emotional truth?  Is there not something more honest in saying as Jesus did from the top of the temple that “It is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test,'” than to say “certainly if I throw myself down, no one will save me?”

Is faith above ethics?

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a challenging read, but gripping when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.  The main thesis has something to do with faith being the greatest passion of human beings, that faith reaches beyond rational ethical doctrines, and that modern society is wrong to think that it can go beyond faith.  The faith exemplar is the biblical Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham’s faith leads him to comply with God’s command, except that God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last second.

Kierkegaard tries all sorts of psychological tricks to get us on board with his thesis.  He asserts repeatedly that he cannot understand Abraham, because Abraham is superior to him by virtue of his faith.  The implication is that if we think we understand Abraham, we are wrong, because not even Kierkegaard understands Abraham.  He asserts that if faith is not beyond ethics, then faith is nothing.  And if faith is nothing, then the story of Abraham is pointless.  So if we want to believe that faith is something special and that the story of Abraham is something special, then we must follow and agree with Kierkegaard that faith is above ethics.  Resorting to tricks like these raises red flags.  It suggests that the author knows something about the weakness of his thesis when it is presented straight and sober.

Another challenge is we are dealing with an analysis of stories, stories that explicitly defy the parameters of regular experience.  Why should we care about a world where God commands human beings to do unethical things, when we live in a world where God is silent?  Can faith be understood to be beyond ethics without the Abraham story?  If it can’t, and the Abraham story is pure fantasy, then who cares about Kierkegaard’s argument that faith is above and beyond rational ethics?

Nevertheless, I admit that there seems to be something important in this writing.  Is it possible that God might want mankind to go beyond ethics?  The idea itself creates fear and trembling.  Obviously, any attempt to go beyond ethics could very likely amount to falling below ethics.  But isn’t it an attractive idea that the universal rules of ethics are too clunky and cumbersome for the full color and vibrancy of the human spirit to emerge?  Not that we should be allowed to cheat the ethical rules, but that there are available extraordinary purposes in life that demand we hate ourselves, that we hate those we are expected to love, and concentrate our love in something higher?  For Kierkegaard, this seems to be in part what the Abraham story is suggesting (and echoed in Luke 14).  And this higher purpose is that we love only God and serve Him, setting aside our rational ethical obligations to our nation, our family, and ourselves.

I am aware of the semantical pitfalls in this presentation.  If a thing is contrary to what God wants of us, how could it be called ethical in the first place?  Kierkegaard works around this by distinguishing the universal from the absolute.  It seems just as well to say that one can think of a lower ethics and a higher ethics.  The lower ethics involve calculation, and include those rules that were everyone to live by, the world would be harmonious and just.  The higher ethics call on us not only to be compatible with a world that might be just, but to suspend all worldly calculation in service to God.

But there is a final piece to this, in order to account for the emphatic distinction Kierkegaard makes between Abraham, who is described as a knight of faith, and those others who are praised but would be better described as tragic heroes.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to sacrifice in order to save a nation.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to calculate and act for the sake of the outcome.  So what is faith, and why is it higher?  Faith is a personal, not a public or civic, virtue.  It is faith to believe that regardless of the immediate consequences, and regardless of public opinion, that God keeps His promises to those that trust, love, and serve Him.  Also, that these promises are kept in this world, not exclusively or primarily in the afterlife.  God promised Abraham Isaac in this world, and though God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in this world, Abraham continues to believe that in obeying God, he will still have Isaac in this world, because this is God’s promise to him for his faith.  Abraham thus lets go of everything as it appears in the world, and in so doing proves his faith.

But does Abraham’s faith put him closer to God by leaving him willing to abandon rational ethics and sacrifice his son?  Are we all called by God to surpass our ethical inclinations?  Is it really not better to be a tragic hero, or even just a regular-old-good-person, than to have (this) faith?

Needing a (Way of) Life

Many of us have a sort of nagging restlessness that we’re frequently in need of escaping.  We need to be fully immersed in something, but nothing seems sufficiently appealing.  There is a deep trepidation that trying to immerse in the wrong thing will only intensify the restlessness, turning it into desperation.

Others of us are lucky enough to already be immersed.  We have a way of getting through the day that fully absorbs our attention and energies to a sufficiently satisfying degree.  We feel invested and are comfortable with the expected returns on that investment.  We don’t understand people that seem to feel so alienated from everything.  Why can’t they just live their life?  How difficult is it?

If we look at the different ways people immerse themselves, some patterns begin to emerge.  Some are very much into some sort of close-knit community, the members of which all have a thick sense of their common identity.  The group is strong, protective, and exclusive — maybe its just family, just friends (as in a fraternity or sorority), or some mixture of the two.  When these communities are big enough, functional, and healthy, they offer so many sources of stimulation and various social sensations that being actively in them can be fully immersing and satisfying.  Desperation only seeps in when too many of the members are too busy to congregate as a group.

An opposite way of experiencing immersion is through competition.  We see this sometimes with people who lose their community and instantly transition from a cooperative and loving posture to a competitive and hateful posture (as in bitter divorcees).  Competition is inherently stimulating, as you have to not only beat your opponents but also do so in a way that is viewed as legitimate.  The hate that is motivating the competition has to be channeled into virtues like focus, determination, perseverance without showing the vices of nastiness, weakness, and foolishness.  Executed correctly, though, hate for a person or group can be as fully immersive as thrivingly fraternal community.

I don’t know why we have this need for immersion, but we can see it everywhere.  Those lacking a community to join or oppose turn to other things.  Religious faith has unique qualities suitable for a deeply immersive experience.  Contemplation of an infinite being, with qualities of perfection exceeding human comprehension, to which we owe gratitude exceeding our capacity, from which we receive endless and unfailing love, can completely overwhelm the mind’s intellect and emotions.  And of course there are the immersive effects of drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, food, gaming, and all the other addictions we see people all around us completely absorbed in.

Perhaps becoming more aware of the need for immersion can help us understand our attachments and our anxieties.  Less clear is what the best form of immersion is — it certainly can’t be hate and competition.  If the answer is community, then most of us are dependent on others to provide it, and the good fortune that there will be chemistry between ourselves and that community — common tastes, sense of humor, interests, values, etc.  If the answer is faith (which happens to be my answer) and we aren’t faithful already, then the road to be travelled is perhaps just as difficult.  If the answer is addiction, then we have a lot of pain ahead of us, and we have essentially given up on the fullness that life seemed to promise us as children.

On enthusiasm for the Bible, for Trump, and other things

Behold, the power of belief is revealed, and there, thrown aside, is the truth.

The word enthusiasm represents to many people energy and passion.  It has a more extreme sense, indicating a sort of enflaming of the spirit or becoming filled with spirit, or filled with a god.  Enthusiasm in sound and meaning is related to inspiration, to be inspired, to receive something from outside of one’s self of meaning and importance.

Trump rallies during the recent election were overflowing with enthusiasm, or, as Trump and many witnesses and journalists described it, love.  Attendees often experienced a sort of euphoria.

The Bible describes Jesus’ version of campaign rallies as creating similar sensations.  People shed tears of joy in his presence, and fall to his feet.  Their pains washed away, and they felt whole.

In both cases, belief in the power of another to heal one’s self is essential.  Jesus heals no one that does not believe.  To feel the joy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, belief is primary.  And this belief is contagious.  Seeing is believing, and being in the company of others who are visibly transformed, even if but temporarily, can be very compelling.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to become enthusiastic?  One factor is whether the enthusiasm is sustainable.  An arthritic old woman attending a tent revival might feel healed in the moment but then shortly returned to her original misery.  Was the moment worth it?  It seems not.  More like a nasty tease.

Is enthusiasm ever sustainable?  It would seem so, if it is manifested properly.  The enthusiasm can keep burning if the belief that ignited it avoids counterfactuals.  The arthritic woman cannot keep believing for very long when her hands continue aching.  She may cling to the belief out of desperation and stubbornness, but the enthusiasm will die out.  In contrast, believing in Trump is believing we are on our way to a better place.  This is a belief that is more shielded from counterfactuals.  It is easier to convince one self that things are on the path to getting better, and to dismiss as part of the journey anything that starts going wrong.  It is easier to convince oneself that the leader or prophet is well intentioned and of good character, even in the presence of counterfactual claims, so long as the leader keeps denying those claims in a manner that is plausible and projects confidence.

Is believing in Trump like believing in Jesus?  If we apply the same reasoning, belief in Trump has serious disadvantages to belief in Jesus.  The counterfactuals to Trump’s vision will continue mounting up, because the vision is one of how the physical world–specifically the United States of America– is going to change over the next few years.  He resort to the blame game to possibly get a second term of office, but unless Trump can truly deliver, there will be no second and third generation Trump believers.  Belief in Jesus, on the other hand, seems completely immune from worldly refutation.  The Bible frames Jesus’ teaching as a moral and spiritual guide, not as a political playbook for national restoration.  To the extent that the Bible can make people feel morally empowered and spiritually accommodated, this sort of religious enthusiasm can burn for centuries amidst any worldly condition or series of events.

Belief in Jesus does face serious challenges of its own, however.  Believing in Jesus requires some sort of positive assessment of the accounts of Jesus’ divinity and the miracles he performed in the world.  The challenge is stark in a world where miracles have been debunked and banished from the minds of many people as even remotely possible.  To the extent that belief and enthusiasm are contagious among attendees at a revival or political rally, so too are disbelief and cynicism easily spread throughout a gathering, community, or entire civilization.  Christianity’s threat is more from widespread cynicism regarding its reports of miracles than it is from failing to deliver on its promises, which are otherworldly.  Its thread of connection to this world, the historical factuality of Jesus’s recorded miracles, is the weakness, as are the in-coming facts of Trump’s developing record for turning his promised campaign dream into reality, as are the facts of the tent revivalist’s ability to actually have healed the sick.  The particular facts that undergird any particular form of enthusiasm–be they religious or political in nature– are always vulnerable to assault from counterfactuals.

Returning to the original question of whether enthusiasm is sustainable and therefore possibly good for the individual experiencing it, it would seem the strongest form of enthusiasm is that which is most immune from counterfactuals.  Miracles having occurred long ago seem to fit the bill here much more than present miracles as in any tent revival healing  (which can be immediately debunked) or short-term prophesying, which either comes true or it doesn’t (and usually doesn’t).  Can people absorb–not fully accept, but see, hear, and understand– the counterfactual to Christianity that miracles likely do not exist and continue to believe in the Bible?

To answer this, I think we need to leave the question of sustainability of enthusiasm to the side and address the larger question head on of whether enthusiasm itself is a good thing. Perhaps if we see that it is a good thing, that helps answer whether it is sustainable.  To the extent that enthusiasm is inherently at war with counterfactuals, would it not be better to drop enthusiasm altogether and live in a world fully immersed in the intellectual experience of sorting through all of the facts of the world and rising above our flawed opinions and prejudices to the ever-emerging establishment of human knowledge?

It’s not so easy to reflexively say yes when we bring back into focus all of the good that enthusiasm does for people.  To be made whole, to be healed, to be inspired — is it rational to abandon all these things, only in order to embrace perhaps an existential ideal of the noble struggle of the hyper-rational soul, sick, lame and wounded, refusing crutches, bandages, balms, or potions of any kind?

Is there a good enthusiasm, one that truly helps its host, but avoids the horror of those enthusiasms that cannot be restrained by anything?  A good enthusiasm that avoids turning factual reality into an illusion and running roughshod over everyone and everything that stands in its way?  A good enthusiasm that is self-aware of its loosed relationship with factual reality, while remaining loyal and respectful of that reality?