Tag Archives: magic

Links: Teacher movies, teaching philosophy, etc.

1. This post about teacher movies makes a valuable point about education and how we talk about it in general terms but this makes little rhetorical sense, since education (maybe more than almost any broad aspect of our lives) is irreducibly a matter of what particular individuals learn, how individuals come to understand the world of ideas and facts but only through the framework of their own perspectives:

It would be a huge step forward if we could conceive of the people in our education system—students, teachers, families, administrators—as human rather than cartoonish media representations or, perhaps worse, mere data points. Policies not only have human consequences but they are also implemented by humans—invariably flawed, often self-seeking, sometimes incompetent humans.   It’s humans all the way down.  The language we use should reflect this and not carelessly cede ground to abstractions like “African-American males” or “the lowest-third percentile” or even “teachers unions.”  This is an acknowledgment that idealized categories, run amok, can in fact short-circuit the hard work of ensuring each individual student, in their individual family context, neighborhood, and cultural background, receives a high-quality education.

And the fact that while education is a system, learning is a particular, even private, matter, is the reason that any new educational system that attempts to treat students as indistinguishable, like Common Core (in which “common” is used to mean that every student learns the same things, in the same ways), is doomed to irrelevance.

2. Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions for the year 2014.

3. New Year’s traditions as religious/magical.

4. A compelling text by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Myth of Western Civilization.”

5. Dan Savage’s review of Sarah Palin’s Christmas book. (Via The Dish).

6. Jason Silva and awe.

7. The Scottish tradition of Hogmanay.

8. Miguel de Unamuno on consciousness.

9. An article suggesting reading on tablets is different from reading on paper, vis-a-vis getting engaged in narrative.

10. The New York Times editorializes about Finnish education. Interesting link here to Finland’s curriculum, including philosophy education:

Philosophical thinking deals with reality as a whole, its diverse perception and human activity in it. The special nature of philosophy lies in its way of structuring problems conceptually, rationally and through discussion. Upper secondary school studies in philosophy will support students’ individual development and promote the general learning and thinking skills that they will need in a changing and complex society. The theoretical themes studied in philosophy are necessary to form an understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary culture.
The practical significance of philosophy is based on the fact that students will learn to structure questions about values, norms and meanings in conceptual terms. Studies in philosophy will help them to perceive the significance that different types of skills and knowledge hold for individuals and society. To counterbalance the specialised skills and knowledge, studies in philosophy will also teach students to grasp broader conceptual systems and relationships. It will help them to see the ways in which the conceptions of reality, values and norms held in different branches of science and schools of thought may form consistent systems or contradict each other. Philosophy will develop judgement.
Philosophy instruction will promote development of creative and independent thinking. Philosophy will provide students with plenty of scope to form their own personal views. As they delve deeper into basic philosophical questions — to which there are no simple solutions — they will learn to formulate and justify their own views and, at the same time, to respect other reasoned views. Group deliberations on complicated questions will develop students’ ability
to trust their own individual opportunities to resolve even the most difficult problems. Studies in philosophy will support students’ growth into active, responsible and tolerant citizens.

Disenchanting Santa

An Illinois winter

An Illinois winter

As I was writing the previous post, it started becoming this post, and it seemed best to separate them. But this post does build on the idea of outgrowing the belief in magic that fiction may require.

As I’ve grown up, I don’t really feel a need to believe in magic — I don’t often feel enchanted, and I don’t feel like the loss of magic is a bad thing. I read something this week that said children pass through a developmental stage of thinking magically, and I’ve been pondering this idea as I’ve been thinking about Christmas and how much the stories around Christmas (the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth, but also the stories of Santa, Frosty, the Grinch, etc.) require magic. I don’t know, I guess, why we need to believe in magic. I don’t want to disillusion the children I know — perhaps I’m a little bitter about having been disillusioned about the holiday years ago.

In my memory, there’s this connection: The Christmas Eve I was 9, as I was carrying the garbage to our farm’s burn barrel (I was trying to be good so that I deserved our family’s holiday celebration), I got the idea that I should ask for a Bible for Christmas. Somehow I was going to become A Good Person by asking for a Bible and living by it (whatever that actually meant, I’m not sure, and I probably wasn’t sure at the time. My family wasn’t particularly religious, and maybe I just had an impulse toward purity or self-control or something. I was 9 — what did I know?). I somehow made this into a test of the Divine: my last-minute request would be fulfilled, if Santa, and by extension, God, were real enough to read my mind, as they must be able to, if indeed they are Santa and God. But I didn’t get a Bible. Unwrapped under the tree the next day — the first Christmas in the apartment we had moved into after my parents’ divorce — were a baseball bat and helmet that I recognized as having come from a store’s going-out-of-business sale months earlier. I knew right away that these things couldn’t have come from Santa, but I questioned my mother about this later that day (even then, I was intense — obsessive — enough to need an answer. I have never been one to privately hold a doubt that could be shared publicly.) My poor mother, who was trying to do the best she could that first Christmas, on a reduced income and without parenting help, admitted that she was the source of the gifts from Santa.

I believe she also said that Santa may not be an actually existing person, but that I could think of Santa as the spirit of generosity. It’s a nice thought as far as it goes, but it’s hard to be satisfied with an abstraction substituted for a being of simple magic.

And I don’t even know why I have held onto this story for, well, 30 years now. Was I really that devastated — I mean, was this the single biggest moment of disillusionment in my life? I admit that I’ve led a pretty lucky life, if finding out about Santa is my biggest let-down. Am I trotting out this story as an explanation for why I still don’t feel I can trust in magic or, for that matter, God? I seldom find that such facile tales can be a complete explanation.

And yet, just now as I write this, I’m realizing what I couldn’t have understood at age 9 — that maybe finding out that Santa wasn’t real only months after finding out that my stable family life wasn’t real, either, was just a bit too much for me to take.

I have never really thought about this in this way before. My parents’ divorce was amicable, was relatively easy, and there was never any abuse or loud fighting — there was no need to be upset. Yet maybe I was upset but couldn’t quite admit it.

Of course, I was a weird kid at that age — I started reading “1984” the next year, because the next year was THE 1984, and I must’ve heard about Orwell’s book in the news or from a teacher or something, and wanted to prove that I could read such an adult book. (I didn’t read more than about a hundred pages, which is probably for the best — I didn’t need to find out about rat-torture when I was 10.) But with the divorce, and the move, and the new school, new friends, and then new world-without-Santa that year, I was probably under a lot of what I would now call stress and then didn’t know what to call it at all.

And again, I hesitate to pinpoint one moment in my past, one story, as determinative, mostly because to do so is bullshit. (One of my high school students, having recently read my blog piece about the Grinch, said she liked the Grinch’s backstory that’s in the Jim Carrey movie but not in the Seuss original. I generally find “backstory” worthless — let’s not oversimplify every character’s  action to a simple cause-and-effect from a childhood trauma.) There are many reasons — or no reasons at all — why a person is who he is and does what he does: biology, genetics, social influences, unconscious learning, etc.

But for some reason, I have been thinking a lot lately about this finding-out-about-Santa moment, and the part of who I am that I have access to is my past, and this past (faulty though I know memory to be) is something I can and do re-evaluate and continue to learn from over time. I don’t tell the story above to be maudlin, though I acknowledge that it may strike some readers that way. I guess I want to explain to myself why I’m not keen on Santa or on “Christmas magic,” and maybe this explanation above does hold insight.

Most of the year, of course, I don’t think too much about magic. I dismiss magic or Divine Will — these are not useful explanations. When others tell ghost stories, I remind myself that identifying something as a ghost is merely a subjective jump-to-conclusion after some unverifiable experience. I prefer evidence and reason and even non-answers (open questions) to bullshit answers.

Maybe my lack of faith is connected to my lack of desire to read fiction. Maybe not. Most of the time, I don’t value either faith or fiction. And even an explanation about my past is itself just a story, perhaps useful and perhaps not. But I feel a need to summarize at this point in the post — or, rather, I feel a need to reach out to some higher truth, some insight that feels right. Maybe none is forthcoming now. Perhaps later.

Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!: Metaphysical Implications of “Frosty the Snowman”

“Frosty the Snowman” cartoon was broadcast on CBS last night. Though I’ve watched this cartoon many times before, I watched it last night partly to experience that holiday tradition, and partly because I wanted to see Prof. Hinkle say the line — “Busy! Busy! Busy!” (though it sounds more like “Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!”) — that is one of the many cultural references in the two-person culture that my wife and I have semi-consciously created for ourselves. I didn’t remember that the full line was “I’ve got to get busy writing — busy, busy, busy!” (or however one punctuates a three-word repetition — which, digression: I saw a t-shirt message — “Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma. Punctuation saves lives.” — in a catalog yesterday whose message resonated for ol’ English teacher me). So, while Hinkle is doing punishment writing for Santa, and I will not be, I may introduce the longer quotation into my home-culture.

But here’s the other thing about that show: it’s narratively absurd, and this never bothered me as a kid, but I think that’s because I was more a believer in the whole of Christmas magic than I tend to be now. Now, I’ve long had some trouble with the part where little beskirted Karen (her cold knees!), the titular suscitated snowman, and a problem-solving, communicative magician’s rabbit get on a refrigerated rail car headed north (I noticed last night that the reefer car is the only car between the engine and the caboose, which inefficiency could explain why the ticket agent tried to charge the trio $3000.04 for a ticket to the north pole, which, also inefficiently, routed through Saskatchewan, Hudson Bay, Nome, and the Yukon, which map-path drawing started to give me a headache). I’ve also wondered how far north they got before they decided to jump off the train because Karen was, if memory serves (I somehow skipped this moment last night), getting cold in the reefer car, a pragmatic gesture that throws the other absurdities into relief.

So, they’re in a forest where numerous animals are somehow decorating for Christmas and awaiting Santa’s arrival. It didn’t used to bother me that the animals were apparently practicing Christians — what denomination? — or maybe they’re secularly celebrating, but the rabbit, under Frosty’s direction, seeks out the woodland creatures, explains that the little girl needs them to build a fire so she can warm up, and so the woodland creatures pile sticks and rub two together until they get a fire going. So far so good, although last night I wondered why, if the animals had mastered communication and fire-production, why they hadn’t moved into bungalows in the city. Are they perhaps hippie animals who have renounced industrial society, and this works for them (as opposed to human hippies) because these critters haven’t evolved out of their all-weather hides and ability to survive on bark?

Anyway, this works for a while, and Karen ostensibly warms up, until Hinkle shows up and Frosty has to “bellywhollop” (if I correctly recall the term Jimmy Durante used) with Karen on his shoulders to escape, which leads them to an apparently poorly managed (since it is still stocked, on X-mas eve, with Mr. Poinsett’s flowers, about to be deeply discounted)  greenhouse, wherein Frosty melts. Hinkle has shut the door on them, but he had not barred or even locked the door, so either the greenhouse is so poorly managed that its doors are inescapable, or Frosty and Karen forget to leave. Now, earlier, Karen has explained to the traffic cop that Frosty, being newly animated, is ignorant of worldly ways, and so perhaps she should have been cognizant that she should have opened the door to let Frosty out?  Just now it’s occurring to me that perhaps Karen, in her selfish desire to be warm, could be convicted of snowmanslaughter through willful indifference?

But then, there’s the Santa ex machina who, upon the instructions of the rabbit (because Santa “speaks rabbit,” we are informed), turns up to rescue Frosty, punish Hinkle (by threatening to never bring the professor another gift — a surprisingly unforgiving action, I thought, from a Christian figure), and return little Karen to the roof of some house (even if its her own house, how’s she supposed to get down, I wondered as I watched). This business about Santa being real always feels like a cop-out, since one of the central tenets of Christianity (correct me if I’m wrong) is faith, is believing in things that cannot be directly experienced, that cannot be seen, and so Santa showing up sorta renders faith moot.

Even in the beginning of “Frosty,” the kids make a point about adults not believing in the magic that kids can see (the adults who do see the snowman leading a parade through town seem to faint (or concussively run into other shoppers, or make themselves mute by swallowing their own whistle)), leaving Prof. Hinkle as the one adult who agrees to have seen the magic of Frosty’s animation. Hinkle, however, tells the kids he will admit to seeing nothing, as he wants to keep the hat now that it seems to be the agent of Frosty’s animation. (I keep saying “animation” because, in some sense, Frosty is like Frankenstein’s monster, in that both are mere matter that becomes alive. However, Frosty seems to be composed entirely of rolled snow, unlike the differentiated tissues that were used for Frankenstein’s monster — how about Frosty-stein? (This thought too occurred to me last night as I watched. Maybe this all says more about me than about the show.)) Of course, Hinkle has a problem: if his hat really is magic, and he uses it in his future performances, how will he expect his audience to accept his illusions as mere illusions? The way the townsfolk respond to Frosty, I’d also expect them to react irrationally to any true magic they saw.

There’s the moral issue of ownership of the hat, which ownership is conferred (by Justice Santa) on those who would promote the continued existence of the personality of Frosty (which, combined with the human-like consciousnesses of the animals, seems to imply a vegetarian or vegan morality?), rather than on the fact that Hinkle has not fully abandoned his ownership rights.

But maybe the larger issue is the one of magic vs. faith. The children believe in magic, which the adults (besides Hinkle — who is perhaps a kind of prophet, doomed to repeat his tale of witnessing magic to a hostile, unbelieving public for the rest of his days?) deny, and yet the children indicate no religious understanding of the holiday, and Santa shows up to prove himself real. How are we to understand the implications of these narrative antics?

And where is reality here?  Does the story of “Frosty the Snowman” take place in a world where magic is real, and Santa is real, but only kids can accept magic, no adult believes in magic, so that we could speculate that perhaps adults undergo some sort of “forgetting” procedure? Or are we to understand that the adult world is the real one, and that once our POV character Karen leaves the normalcy of the classroom, with its bossy teacher, dismissal times and inept magician, she imagines or hallucinates the whole thing; Frosty’s animation, the rabbit’s intelligence, and even Santa’s existence are all some kind of break with reality that Karen experiences, perhaps as a result of a head injury sustained in the snow play the kids engage in after leaving the classroom. That Frosty and all were some kind of dream world actually would explain one of the first strangely unreal sightings: the visible rising and even throbbing of the thermometer, which Frosty explains confusedly as causing the rising of the temperature that motivates him toward the north pole. What we can deduce is that one group of the humans in this story, either the adults or the children, is not acknowledging the same reality as the other group of humans. (It could be argued that adults trying to get children to acknowledge and accept the reality that the adults perceive is the purpose of schooling.)

Sure, this is just a goofy cartoon, produced by some poor bastard of a writer who had to turn a three-minute song into a 20-minute cartoon. I’ll also concede that I appreciate fiction that’s not entirely realistic, which fiction I tend to write myself. But any artwork, any human creation (I’d argue), is based upon certain philosophical assumptions and it’s kinda fun to explore these, no?