His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Probably His Holiness will not mind if I quote extensively from his most recent book and then hope that you will read the book. It is partly a memoir of his experiences with friends rooted in the various faiths, and more importantly an analysis of the human roots of those faiths. Can we agree that all faiths have human roots regardless of their aspirations? Maybe not, those are my words. Here are some of his. Page 109, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, Doubleday Religion:

“It is my conviction that compassion, the natural capacity of the human heart to feel concern for and connection with another being – constitutes a basic aspect of our nature shared by all human beings, as well as being the foundation of our happiness*. In this respect, there is not an iota of difference between a believer and a nonbeliever and between people of one race or another.”

May I insert another personal opinion before continuing. The above statement resonates strongly with me because of the basic logic of my background in studies of genetics and evolution. Not to quote some considerable evidence for the genetic importance of communal welfare. And contrary to the perversions of some subsets of the overall biological reality, for example “survival of the fittest” to suit preferences of some individuals and groups that are ignorant of the overall realities of life. It seems logical to me that Homo sapiens’ (we are all of the same species) selective advantage, that gave rise to our spectacular success on this earth, had to do primarily with a natural capacity to feel concern for and connection with other beings. I mean the difference between us and those that are no longer present on this earth. Probably it would be best for us if we don’t forget that reality, because we cannot survive on this earth without the well-being* of this living earth. Oh, oops, I was quoting religion, not science-based digressions:

“One can identify three broadly distinct approaches within this process. One is the theistic approach where the concept of God underpins the ethical teachings that foster man’s emulation of God’s own compassion. A second is the nontheistic religious approach, such as that of Buddhism, that invokes the laws of causality (cause and effect) and the fundamental equality of all beings in their basic aspirations for happiness* as the grounding of ethics. The third belongs to the secular or nonreligious approach, whereby no religious concepts are evoked but, rather, recognition of the primacy of compassion may be underpinned by common sense, shared common experience and scientific findings that demonstrate our deep dependence on others’ kindness.”

“. . . at the heart of all the world’s religions is a vision of human life that transcends the boundaries of an individual’s physical existence as an embodied, finite, and temporal being. A meaningful life, in all the faith traditions, is one that is lived with an awareness of a . . . “ dimension above the mundane.**

On page 114: “What we find in the teachings of the world religions is a vision of ethics that moves beyond the limited reciprocity of the Golden Rule to an exhortation to universal compassion.”

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*For American readers, I am sorry that the word happiness has been used as a traditional translation of the concept of welfare and well-being that I assume must be the original meaning of the Buddha’s statement in the Pali language. The American idea of happiness does not fit a concept of universal well being. For one thing, happiness is a human emotion, or at most an emotion of higher vertebrates, and we are talking about the welfare of all sentient beings, most of which are not higher vertebrates. For another, happiness has some especially negative connotations (shoot it up, buy it up, eat it up and you will be happy) in American English that are not part of its use in this context. One other interpretation of the concept that I heard from Sharon Salzberg is “well-being,” which is not as pretty a term but clearly must be more accurate, because every living thing has a need for well-being, and the intent is for the welfare of all living things.

** Mundane means ordinary or perhaps boring, but it also has another meaning: “matters of this world,” that is probably more to the point of this quote (per your friendly Microsoft computer dictionary).

Toxic Tolerance

My friend Ivy could have told me. She was raised in the black community during segregation. Her teachers assumed that she was competent and expected her to demonstrate that competence. She has been striving (against odds in the school systems) to give that gift to her students for all of her teaching career. I on the other hand, like most idealistic do-gooders had to learn for myself about the devastating consequences of our low expectations of our youth and other members of our communities.

Low expectations usually are hidden behind a mask of tolerance. In California, where I was raised, tolerance is automatically viewed as “a good thing,” but really, does that mean it’s OK for anyone to do anything they want to do? Of course not; that would be dumb, and so the ethical person will avoid the easy knee-jerk idea of tolerance and face up to the obligation of us ALL to think about what sorts of things we do and do not want to tolerate in our children, our families, our schools and our communities. Sometimes intolerance, as intolerance of bad behaviors, is a good thing; sometimes tolerance is a bad thing when it is used to deprive our children of the resources they need to succeed.

I learned the hard way what Ivy could have told me. I accepted a teaching position that took me from “tolerant” California to “intolerant” South Carolina shortly after enforced integration. I expected my college freshman students to EARN their grades. I believed (and I still believe) that every one of them could do so, given the necessary resources. I tried to make the resources available. It was a hard time for us all.

Meantime, while I and my college students were struggling with our expectations, this segregated town had bit the bullet and built a fine new integrated showplace school for the early grades, to which they had transferred the best teachers in the community. Black and white children learning to read and write together, equally. And the next year the star student from my own class, an education major I’ll call Sue, went to do her student teaching with the star third-grade teacher in the showplace elementary school.

The third grade was learning to write sentences. Verbs and nouns. Subjects and objects. The star teacher explained the lesson to all the students, and then she gave the homework assignment:

“Write five sentences using the word flow.” And bring them back to class tomorrow.

Remember, the South Carolina accents. Most of the little black students returned the next day with sentences that used the word “floor,” while most of the little white students came back with sentences that used the word “flow.” No surprise here. Life is full of misunderstandings, and that is a GOOD thing to learn. So Sue went home that night and wrote up a lesson plan to explain the difference between flow and floor. Sue viewed this misunderstanding a golden opportunity to teach the students to enjoy the differences among human kind AND the difference between a noun and a verb.

The response of the star teacher was:

“Don’t bother, they can’t understand it anyhow.”

Is this tolerance or toxic low expectations or is it intentional racist discrimination? Does it matter? The damage was done to the students no matter the good or bad intentions of the teacher.

And it wasn’t until about three weeks later that I realized the same damage had been done to me in the same way. My tolerant white California culture had been doing the same thing to me — all of my life — because I started out as a pretty little girl instead of a rugged little man. Very few people recognized any need to give me resources beyond shorthand and typing, because there woulod be no place for me in the culture to do anything more than maybe secretarial work, nursing, teaching other people’s children to have low expectations of their own competence and depriving them of the resources they need to compete in our American cultural milieux.

It took me 20 extra years to understand that my culture’s low expectations of me were simply a lazy lie and to go for a PhD in science. Which took me to the South Carolina college where one of my freshman students could not write any words at all. For all of his 18 years he had been guessing true-false questions and passed through as a “kindness” without ever being required to write a sentence in a test. He believed himself to be stupid and incompetent – which he was NOT. I hate that more than anything else, when I hear people who clearly believe the lie and there is nothing we can say now to change their own perpetuation of the lie they have been taught about themselves..

And where I learned HOW I too had been handicapped by low expectations.

We have obligations to our neighbors, students, children and friends, and even if we don’t care about them, we have an obligation to the community that we require for our own survival. One of these is to know the difference between nurturing competence and toxic tolerance.

Right On Prof. Bacevich

Andrew BacevichI had this very nice little one-minute video to show you, from Democracy Now (Monday May 11), and this podcast server claims that it will upload videos, but my experience is that it will NOT upload videos, even if I made them all by myself and hold the copyright.

However, the words are so right and so related to what I have been saying the past three days, that I know they will jump right off the page into your brain:

“I think we Americans should be skeptical of this notion that the most powerful man in the world, so called, can solve our problems. He’s not as powerful as we imagine, as he’s celebrated in the media, and quite frankly, looking to the President to fix things is a way of letting ourselves collectively off the hook, of offloading our responsibility onto Washington DC, and again . . . I don’t think Washington DC is going to solve the problems that beset the country. The solutions, if there are any, have to come from within, and in that sense there is an urgent need for citizens to take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship.”

The responsibilities of citizenship are at least two-fold:

1. Study the issues. Don’t expect someone to do something that is impossible just because you want it. Propose solutions that will or might work. If you holler loud enough a lot of people will listen, but nothing will happen unless you know what you are talking about. The powers that be will pat you on the head, smile, and go home and tell jokes about you.

2. Consider what is best for the country — not only what you want. We can’t have everything. Make choices that represent your commitment to the community of man.

Science and Evolution

I had lunch today with a friend who told me about the university professors up north.  They can’t wait for winter, she told me, when they can actually SEE their words of wisdom emerge from their mouths in a frosty puff of air.

Been there, done that.  Scientists can be very irritating, pompous, puffed up and egotistical.

Fortunately for us all, there is a method that tends to rein in the scientific ego.  More importantly, this method draws a sharp, strict line between the scientific opinions of scientists and their personal opinions.  This of course involves the scientific method, and specifically the part that requires publication in a refereed journal.  Refereed means other scientists evaluate the paper before it can be published.

Basic scientists (I’m not talking about technology here) — science requires that people who engage in research must publish that research before their efforts are recognized as valid.  That’s not like getting a poem published, or a letter to the editor.  It requires that the article be reviewed by other scientists who do the same kind of work.  Competitors.  The reviewers read the research very carefully, looking for mistakes, misinterpretations, or inappropriate use of data.  This is for the benefit of the author and of the reviewers and for the progress of scientific knowledge.  If any bad science or mistaken opinions make it through the review process, everyone would be embarrassed.  It has happened – and they were.

This system, believe me, is tough, but I have made it through a few times as you can see by Google or PubMed.

And my point is?  Besides blowing hot air.

My point is, when you are trying to evaluate conflicting claims about things that are scientific, public debates usually are not very useful.  It’s already been debated firmly and politely, and I will say wonderfully collaboratively,  in the review process.  If you want to go to the trouble to understand the scientists’ results, and you want to discuss these results with the scientist, most scientists are located in universities.  Their job is education.  If you are genuinely well informed and if you have an original idea or an important question, scientists are usually accessible by email.

If you have been hearing someone in Austin ranting and raving over the past few weeks, and trying to debate important issues that we all should be working together to solve for the benefit of the community, you can be pretty sure there is some kind of Misdirect going on.  Look them up on google and PubMed, and check out their record of publication in peer reviewed journals before you decide whether or not their opinion is equally as well informed as that of the scientists.

This advice applies only to peer reviewed science published in scientific journals.  Other methods of inquiry, other than science, do not use the scientific method, and many do not enforce a peer review system.

Then you will still need to decide which is more important, the short-term power of the loud stump speech or the long term power of raising up a generation of students who are competent and competitive because they know the difference between science and other things and they know how to use the scientific method to evaluate fact-based reality.

Because when nearly all the published, peer-reviewed biologists agree on something — it’s not “just” a theory.