Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ethics and Education: Dreaming of a better way

Why are there not more higher education conferences that bring together instructors across disciplines to discuss the ethics of education? How do we overcome our cynicism to make this possible?

Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Roger and I attended the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference, held this year at Haverford College. The theme was "Exploring Right Relationships."

From the moment of the plenary address Friday morning, on justice, given by Sarah Willie-LeBreton, I knew I had arrived at the right place. How do we bring as many people as possible to the table?

The Haverford campus is exceptionally beautiful: but why not a place
 like this for every student in the United States? 

The Haverford campus is especially beautiful, breathtakingly so. But part of me wonders: all this privilege for 1,200 students? I am glad those who attend the college can do so--I know some of these students--but I echo a question that ran through the conference: how do we promote the best sort of education, one that like Haverford's addresses the whole person? Instead of constant budget cuts and degrading facilities, lack of staff and resources, why not envision a United States dotted every few miles with such beautiful campuses as Haverford's serving K-12, not to mention college students? In the age of the one-room schoolhouse, the modern high school with multiple classrooms, a library, science labs, art rooms, stages, gyms and showers must have seemed as much a dream, if not more so. And yet at one time, we managed that leap forward. We are so much richer a country now: if we wanted to do, we could leap forward again. Yet all I hear are the voices shouting this down. 

Conversations at the conference offered hope. Every session I attended was excellent, but three stand out. Philosophy professor Laura J. Rediehs led a workshop based on an essay she wrote that the won a 2012 Carnegie foundation award answering the question: What is the  biggest problem facing the world today?

She wrote that our problems stem from using economics rather than ethics as the primary basis for decision making. She invited all of us into a discussion about how to bring ethics back into first place, especially in education, where getting a good job currently seems to be the only rationale for going to college.  

Her essay can be found here: https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/articles_papers_reports/0139. The other essays that won along with hers were also good, I thought. I am planning now to use these essays in a course I will teach later in the summer. 

Julie Meadows, who shared a session with me, spoke of people advancing in academe by tearing other people down. Why is the academic world so cynical? Why can't we build on the foundation of each other's work, she asked? Having done my share of tearing down, I am thinking about what she had to say: certainly we need to hold each other to rigorous standards, but can we find more creative and supportive ways to do so?

Jeffrey Dudiak talked about getting beyond modernist perceptions of Quakerism that permeate both liberal and orthodox Friends to arrive at a wisdom that bridges our divides. 

I found the conference's meetings for worship Spirit-led and Spirit-suffused. Being in such a love-saturated environment helped me to recognize what a routinely cynical world I inhabit--so routine that it seems "normal" to constantly puncture everything. But it is deranged to live this way, so quick to knock down everything, a symptom, I think, of our profound fear of hope--and  I am part of the problem. My hope--and I will have hope, foolish as it sounds, is that some of spirit of possibility, of realistic sincerity, of a way forward that dreams of abundance for everyone, can be infused into this weary world. 

Yet I want to raise the question: how do we get beyond the cynicism that permeates our discourse? 

Monday, June 2, 2014

In Bruges: A Quakerly movie

At a critical point in Martin McDonagh's 2008 comedy In Bruges, one of the hit men lays down his gun.  It's a moment of complete surrender and the culmination of a transformation: this man refuses to participate in the cycle of "kill or be killed" that has defined his life.

Two hitmen are sent to Bruges. The city is a character.

Beneath its comic surface--and it can appreciated merely as a funny movie--In Bruges emerges as profoundly spiritual.  

The plot jumps into motion when the "boss" sends two Irish hit men, one remarkably dense, to Bruges, in Belgium, to escape after a hit gone awry. Bruges during the Christmas season enwraps the twosome in a magical setting of canals and churches. Repeatedly referred to as a "fairytale city," Bruges becomes a place where a fairytale--or more precisely, parable--will be enacted, one that raises profound questions about life and death, guilt and innocence, hell and redemption. The Bruges setting, a medieval city replete with churches and Christian artwork that the killers "kill" time viewing, becomes a part of the film's religious mediation. The much maligned Western tradition has riches to offer us, and, literally, a new perspective, if only we have eyes to see. 

In In Bruges, paintings become part of the story. This is Bosch's Last Judgment, which our "heroes" talk about. Western civilization has a tradition to offer us. Not by accident is the movie set at Christmastime. 

I don't want to provide spoilers or give away what makes the movie compelling, as I hope people will watch it. It is worth seeing if only for the lovely Bruges, the scenes set within the jarring context of a diminished language that fails to blind us to its beauty.

In a particularly Christlike sequence, one person dies to save another--an other who some might say has no right to live. We die for other people, the movie says, not because of the past--the past is never worth dying for--but for the sake of a future we cannot see and which may never come to be.  

Though far better, this movie reminded me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both are whimsical comedies in fairytale settings, where scenery evokes far more than it says. But Budapest sadly lacks Bruges humanity. Bruges, like Budapest, comes from a male perspective--women in Bruges are sex objects (pregnant, prostitutes, or sexually available young women)--but unlike in Budapest, they are not held up to ridicule or cruelty. Ironic, though the movie is about hitmen, we never see casual killing in Bruges. In Budapest we do, when a group of prison guards are murdered without a second thought, though as part of madcap, "light-hearted" prison break caper. Budapest, too, though named for a city, exists in a location out of place and time, an ephemeral moral limbo. 

Women are sex objects in In Bruges, but are not humiliated.

 Bruges, in contrast, is located precisely in history. It reflects on life and death--and suggests, through the rich medieval paintings it shows, that Bruges offers a the perceptive viewer an entree into the West's long meditation on meaning--and even, subversively, hints at the reality of hell.

But it is not a movie about fire and brimstone--it is a movie about hope.