Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

Archive for the tag “Humanity”

Gracefully Honest

In this blog I will talk about honesty – something I think many well-intentioned people struggle with. This is because sometimes it seems like lying is the right thing to do – and in some rare cases, it is. To paraphrase Sam Harris, when Nazis came looking for Anne Frank and her family, anyone lying about them not being hidden in the building was certainly doing the right thing.

That said, in all but the most extreme cases, people choose dishonesty for misguided reasons. This happens because sometimes the truth hurts. In fact, sometimes, truth is used as a weapon.

The confusion is, in part, because while honesty can be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it always is. Honesty must be wielded virtuously, which is not automatic. In fact on its own, honesty is not a virtue.

Honesty is not a virtue

In classical antiquity, there are the four cardinal virtues. In brief, here they are (these definitions are mine – for more formal details, check this link):

  • Prudence: The ability to judge the appropriateness of a possible course of action.
  • Courage: The strength to act in the presence of fear.
  • Temperance: The exercise of restraint in feeding an appetite.
  • Justice: The purest form of fairness, in a righteous sense.

So honesty is not a cardinal virtue. Now over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have added more virtues to the cardinal four. Of these there are three that I think are moral necessities. These are “love”, “charity” and “kindness”.

Still, on it’s own, honesty is not there. This is because honesty can be used morally (specifically in the context of love, charity and kindness), but it can also inflict pain – intentionally or not. Let’s have a look at that second situation first – the “brutal” honesty.

Brutal honesty

“I am going to be brutally honest with you.”

How many times have you encountered that sentiment? How many times have you said it? Let’s stop to consider what it prefaces: that the person is about to lay some bit of perspective on you that they know is going to hurt.

This is usually justified by the idea that you are deluded somehow, and need to “snap” out of it. Or you need a “hard” dose of reality. Or any other number of violent paradigm shifts the perpetrator feels they are uniquely prepared to impose. Because, after all, the world is full of people willing to coddle you, creating the need for someone righteous enough to tell you the truth, even though it will hurt.

This is bullshit.

This “brutal” honesty is really an attempted behaviour modification through punishment. The shock it is expected to impose is designed to somehow shine light on a deficiency in perception, so that you cease your persistence in pursuing some vision. A vision which, according to the person with the flashlight, is a fantasy. It tends to come from a place of anger and – make no mistake – is meant to make you suffer for whatever pain your apparent delusion has been causing them.

People who use this phrase like to project pride in their willingness to use it. You may hear them boast such claims as “Hey, I call it like I see it”, or “I’m a straight-shooter”. It comes with admonishments like “The truth hurts”, or “If you want to hear the truth then you don’t want to be around me”. They may be offering honest assessments, but they are nested in dishonest motivation, even though the motivation is sitting right there in the phrase. Brutal is not a nice word.

Definition of brutal

“Brutal.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brutal. Accessed Mar. 2017.

Check out that definition. There is nothing in there that speaks to any kind of morality or good intention, and certainly nothing virtuous. Even the entry about brutal truth contains no compassion. Accurate? Yes. But unpleasantly and incisively so.

So then someone who prefaces the delivery of truth with “I am going to be brutally honest” is – by their own admission – embarking on a non-virtuous wielding of honesty as a weapon to deliver misery. I propose that in the vast majority of situations, the fundamental reason for this is that even though they are using the word, they are not being honest about their own motivation – the desire to be brutal.

But I don’t want to be brutal!

It’s okay – I know. This notion of brutal honesty leads to a concern from good people who don’t want to be brutal. There is a perception that if the truth is brutal, or perhaps unsavoury, then a lie would be better. Keep in mind though that lies come with a heightened anxiety of their being discovered. This often leads to uncomfortable situations, where additional and more elaborate lies are needed to maintain the facade of truth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to be honest and virtuous. I call it “graceful honesty”.

Honesty with grace

First, let’s have a look at the definition of grace, so that you can understand why I chose that word. Grace has many meanings, so I have highlighted the ones I am applying in this context:

Definition of grace

“Grace.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grace. Accessed Mar. 2017.

Recall earlier, when I spoke about the three virtues of “love”, “charity” and “kindness”. In many ways, the word grace encapsulates these, and so I choose it to describe the type of honesty I mean.

First, be honest with yourself

Graceful honesty isn’t difficult, but it does require some practice if you are not in the habit. The key to it is when you find yourself either tempted to be dishonest, or about to be brutally honest, you stop and spend some time being honest with yourself first. If your motivations are virtuous, then there will be a way to communicate honestly with grace. Conversely, if your intentions are nefarious, then hopefully you will be honest with yourself about that and choose some other course, having recognized the toxicity of your initial instinct. The key then, is to use self-reflection to uncover and put words to your motivation. I don’t want to use too many specific examples here, because it is easy to make arguments about the inaccuracy of an example as it applies to yourself, and then decide the concept is flawed, but I’ll indulge in one in the hope that it will be a good springboard.

Dinner at Kelly’s

Suppose you have been invited to dinner at your friend Kelly’s house, and you just don’t feel like going. The likelihood is that if you decide not to go, you will fabricate an excuse. Further, the excuse probably has a half-life greater than a few hours. What I mean by that is that it’s probably a concocted scenario that will likely be referred to at a later date. For example, you may claim “my kid is sick”, which you can bet Kelly will ask about in the next day or two, and may even ask your child. In this case you will have to remember the excuse so that you don’t accidentally contradict it later, and you may even have to recruit your family to perpetuate the dishonesty – something they are more likely to forget about, since they are not vested in the lie. Result? Anxiety.

Instead, consider this. You really do value your friendship with Kelly. You also don’t feel like going. Before choosing to be dishonest, you can spend some time in honest self-reflection. Why don’t you want to go? Be super analytical about that. You may discover that you actually do want to go, or you will confirm that you don’t. If you truthfully don’t want to go, you will now be better able to put into words what the real reason is, which will of necessity consist of the factors that are outweighing your legitimate desire to spend time with Kelly.

If you tell Kelly exactly that reason, and if Kelly is a good human, she will understand, because you have been fully honest and presented the reason in full context of how you struggled with the decision. She will appreciate the conflict, and understand the conclusion, even if she is disappointed.

But wait you say! I know Kelly! She would never understand! She would just be insulted! Well, I’m not foolish. I know this is also a possibility. But here’s the thing: this is only the current state of your relationship because of a history of implicit dishonesty about motivation. Which means there is room for more honesty – on her part and on yours. See, if at the core you both value each other and the friendship, then you mean no insult, and so how can she be insulted? And the core is all that actually matters – because it is impossible that either of you wants the other to be upset. That core exists, and honesty will land you there. Graceful honesty.

Graceful honesty doesn’t mean everyone is happy

In the example above, Kelly is probably going to be disappointed. You might also. That may seem contrary to virtue, but it isn’t. Not if you were honest about the factors that outweighed your desire to go. Disappointment isn’t a monster to be avoided at all costs. It’s a natural consequence of not being able to implement more than one choice at a time.

One of the great contributors to dishonesty is a desire to keep everyone happy – or at least not miserable. But it’s a trap. Lying by definition creates a false narrative. Perpetuating this to maintain a state of happiness, in fact maintains a state of delusion. One from which the participants (barring tragedy) must eventually emerge, and who’s discovery is unlikely to legitimize the illusion of peace they were enjoying. Put simply, the lie just sets everyone up for a bigger fall.

But life isn’t about being happy all the time! We all know this. We all experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment. For the most part we don’t let these things impact the zoomed-out graph of our lives. Yet we find ourselves willing to skirt honesty with others to somehow shield them from these normal experiences.

Have you ever said something to someone in anger that you later regret? I’m betting you have. I’m betting some if it was pretty damn poisonous, and required a lot of apology, replete with the sentiment “I didn’t mean it”. But is that really true? More specifically, does “I didn’t mean it” mean the same thing as “it wasn’t true”?

My experience tells me that what we are really trying to say is “I regret using honesty to hurt you – it isn’t consistent with how I feel about you.” This can be about something you’ve been holding in for a while, or it can be about an emotion that was real in that moment, instigated by the anger. For example, “I hate you!” during an argument isn’t totally untrue, just imprecise: it really means “I hate this feeling I’m having right now that you are causing”, and it is 100% true. It is also 100% forgivable, because it is 100% understandable.

If you think about this for a while, you will see that the real mistake is not being honest earlier, when graceful honesty would have worked: “I love you, and I’m in it for the long haul, but I do get irritated when you don’t put the cap on the toothpaste. I do not equate this behaviour with you, and my irritation is therefore not aimed at you, but the behaviour.”

That last quote is wordy and annoying, I know. But it’s the idea I am trying to communicate, not a recipe for how to tell your husband to put the damn cap on the toothpaste. Very often we don’t disclose little irritants like that because we are concerned it will be taken as criticism of a loved one we don’t want to hurt, as opposed to observation of a behaviour that is independent of the reasons we care about the person exhibiting it. Graceful honesty would disclose all of that, and keep the barbs from growing onto a club that could be wielded in anger.

See, hiding the truth is silly. We are all in this reality together. We should share it. All of it.

Honesty is the sharing of reality.

Think about it. How can honesty be anything else? But as I said earlier, to do it with grace requires a deeper searching of our own motives than we normally do. So the next time you feel like a lie is warranted (or if you are tempted to inflict pain with truth), ask yourself why. What is motivating you? Who are you trying to protect? Who are you trying to help? When you feel the truth needs to be hidden, put away the issue whose truth is troubling you for a moment and look at the feeling itself – it will be the source of the honesty you should embrace. The reality you should share. It is the only way to build and maintain relationships that have value.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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Open-Mindedness

Recently I have been thinking a lot about why so many people seem inconvincible of certain things which I hold to be true. And while I could certainly make a list of some of these things, that is not the intention of this blog entry. Instead, I have been reflecting on open-mindedness and wanted to share.

Many people – myself included – often enter into discourse with someone of a differing opinion with the intention of convincing them to change their mind. For example, maybe your friend Paul thinks all trees in your neighborhood that are taller than 12 feet should be pruned to 12 feet or less, so as not to obstruct anyone’s view of the lakefront. You know that he’s clearly wrong! You get into a discussion. Only it’s not really a discussion – it’s an argument each of you is trying to win. Maybe out of frustration you start incorporating personal attacks. Maybe you get so angry at Paul’s refusal to capitulate, as well as the horrible things he is saying about you, that it ends your friendship. Maybe in the middle of the night, Paul prunes all of your tall trees. Maybe the next night you erect a 30 foot statue on your lawn directly in Paul’s line of sight to the lake … and so on.

It’s sad, and you don’t even like the statue, but what choice is there? Paul must be taught a lesson.

I wish this was hyperbole. Sadly, it is not. And the conclusion is clearly suboptimal.

Well … let me construct a basis for discussion with some (hopefully) fair assumptions. In doing so I’m going to have to use a little bit of math terminology, and it occurs to me that some people might not know precisely what I mean, or even be put-off by some of my more mathematical references. If you think this might be the case, I ask you to bear with me. The concepts and symbols I use are the best way for me to illustrate my point, and I’ve included here a bit of a math lesson, in case it is not something you’ve encountered in your life – it will clarify some of the words and concepts I use for the rest of this article. Of course, if you feel there’s no need for you to read this section, by all means scroll past it and keep reading (I won’t feel bad).


Some Math concepts

Sets
Mathematicians like to talk about collections of values that are somehow related, and when they do, they use the word set. We use curly brackets to list the objects (known as elements) of a set. So for example the set F=\{apple, orange, banana, kiwi, peach, nectarine\} is a set I have named F, and just so you know, it is the set containing all the fruits I might bring to work with me in my lunch. A subset of a set S is another set that only contains elements from S. So for example M=\{apple, kiwi\} is the set of fruits I brought to work in my lunch on Monday, and is a subset of F. On the other hand, A=\{apple, pineapple, banana\} is not a subset of F.

A Little Bit of Algebra (Apologies to the Arithmophobic)
Consider this simple algebra equation:
\displaystyle 3x+4y=7
The x and y are understood to be symbolic of numbers, but the use of symbols mean that they vary – which is to say, they are variable. The equation is a statement. In this particular statement,
x = 1, y=1
would be a valid solution (i.e., the equation becomes true), since
3\times 1 + 4\times 1=7.
So would
x = 5, y=-2,
since
3\times 5 + 4\times (-2)=7.
However
x = 5, y=2
would not be a solution (i.e., the equation becomes false), since
3\times 5 + 4\times 2=23,
which is not 7.

Statements
In math and philosophy, a statement is a sentence that must either be true or false (but not both, and not maybe). Very often the truth value (i.e., “true” or “false”) of the statement depends on values for variables contained in the statement. The algebra equation above is a statement. Another example is the statement “I like cheese”, which contains two variables: “I”, and “cheese”. If the “I” refers to “Rich Dlin” (i.e., it is me speaking and not you), and the “cheese” refers to “Havarti”, then the statement is true. If the “I” is “Rich Dlin”, and the “cheese” is “Cambozola”, the statement (I promise you) is false. Notice that if the “cheese” were to refer to “gingerbread cookie” the statement would be nonsense, since “gingerbread cookie” is not a cheese – even though it is true that I like gingerbread cookies, it is irrelevant in the context of this statement. A mathematician would say “gingerbread cookie” is not an element of the set of all cheeses. Going back to the algebra example, {(1,1),(3,-2)} is a subset of the set of solutions to the equation given. The actual set has an infinite number of solutions in it, but that’s more than I need to talk about here. What I will say is that the truth value of the statement “Three times John’s favorite number plus four times Gail’s favorite number will yield seven” is:

True if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) belongs to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7,

False if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) does not belong to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7, and

Nonsense if, for example, John claims his favorite number is “cinnamon“. Be on the lookout for nonsense – it is surprisingly common.



The Assumptions

Ok. Welcome back. Here are the assumptions I was talking about:

All questions have a right answer
… when the answer is justified properly with a well framed statement.
The truth value of the statement may be subject to variables that change which answer is correct, but with a fixed set of values for the variables, there is a right answer. For example, the question “Should all trees taller than 12 feet in our neighborhood be pruned?” could be answered “Yes”, justified with the statement “It is unacceptable for some trees in our neighborhood to block sight lines to the lakefront”. Note that here the answer to the question is “yes” if the statement is true, and “no” if the statement is false, and may reasonably depend on whether or not the tree is also so wide, or part of a grove, as to make it impossible for a resident to see the lakefront from a different angle standing on the same property. It may also depend on whether 12 feet is a reasonable height with respect to whether or not sight lines get blocked. In this case these variables need to be introduced into the statement, or else agreed upon as not being variable.

The right answer may well not be knowable
 … even with the variable values fixed – which doesn’t mean there is no right answer!
As an example, consider the question “How many humans are alive on Earth right now?”

  • The number changes many times in a short span of time. So the truth value of the answer depends on what time it is indexed to.
  • The answer is subject to a definition of “alive”, and the answers to whether or not some organisms are living humans are in dispute.
  • “On” Earth needs to be defined. If I am in an airplane, am I on Earth? What if I am in low orbit?
  • However there is an answer, if we fix the variables.
  • There is currently no way, even with the variables fixed, to know the answer.

Knowing the truth is inherently valuable.
This is a big one. Many people demonstrate by their behavior that they do not adhere to this assumption. A simple example is the person who refuses to go to the doctor about a problem because they are afraid of what they might find out. In some ways, not wanting to know the truth is a human quality, especially in situations where a false belief has spawned an entire tree of values and beliefs we have been living by. If the root belief is false, what happens to the tree?

When it Comes to Truth, What We Want Doesn’t Matter
So with these assumptions, my position is that for any belief I hold, I am either right or wrong, and that I may not be able to tell. So then what am I to make of someone who disagrees? Can I immediately conclude that they are wrong? Clearly not. However I freely admit I want them to be wrong, so that I don’t have to be. After all, being wrong has some negative implications. On a fairly benign end it means I have been somehow deluded, which injures my pride. On an extreme end it may mean I have to discard an entire tree of conclusions that were premised on my error, leaving behind a buzzing hive of uncomfortable questions and observations about my previous behavior. But if the root belief is actually wrong, what choice do I really have? Since it is rooted in falsehood, the whole tree is an illusion anyway.

Here is a hard truth: What we want has nothing to do with what is true. I want there to be peace in the Middle East. But there is not peace in the Middle East, and no amount of wishing on my part, no matter how fervent, can alter the truth value of this or any other statement. On the other hand, what is true can and should definitely impact what I want. What we all want.

Ok. Here is another statement that is tautologically true: In the set of things I hold to be true, some might be false. And from a probability perspective, I am also comfortable saying that in the set of things I hold to be true, some are true, and some are false. I want to say “most are true and some are false”, but I am honestly not sure I have a reasonable argument to claim that, so we’ll leave it there as a desire more than a fact.

Shades of Gray
Now I will focus on statements where the truth depends on fixing values for the variables in the statement., which to me is the core of the shades of gray argument: In cases where there is a continuum of possibilities between true and false, almost everything in the set of things I hold to be true lies somewhere within the boundaries of the continuum, rather than on one of the ends.

Here a philosopher or mathematician might (and should!) argue that there can be no continuum between true and false, since those are binary options. My response is that I am talking about a sphere of reasonable answers centered on the truth, where anything outside the sphere is easily demonstrated to be false (or worse, nonsense), but things get a little more touchy inside the sphere. This is a consequence of my point about the truth of a statement depending on fixing values for variables the statement depends upon. To elaborate on this, I am going to define something called an assumption set.

Assumption Set
Suppose a statement depends on a set of variables. For example, consider the statement “Running is good for you.” The truth of this is not absolute. It depends on some variables:

  • How much running (the quantity of the running)?
  • How intense (the quality of the running)?
  • What preconditions do you have that running would exacerbate (e.g, bad knees, asthma, heart problems)?
  • Where do you plan to do your running (road, track, beach)?
  • and many more.

So before we could discuss whether the statement is true, we would have to fix values for these variables. I call these fixed values the assumption set. So for example an assumption set for this statement could be
R=\{45 minutes per day, at 80\% of maximum heart rate, \{sensitive to sunlight, plantar fasciitis\}, track\}.
Notice that one of the elements (the preconditions) in this assumption set is itself a set – that’s completely acceptable. On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be a reasonable one – which is to say, the elements of the set have a probability associated with them that makes them not unexpected in the context of discussing the claim that “Running is good for you.”
Another assumption set could be
S=\{15 hours per day, at 120\% of maximum heart rate, \{multiple hip replacements, torn Achilles tendon\}, Interstate Highways\}.
On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be very unreasonable – which is to say, it is highly improbable that this would be an assumption set on which the claim “Running is good for you” would be a relevant discussion.

Reasonable Answers (Approximately True?)
A reasonable answer to a question can be defined as a statement that is true when evaluated with a plausible assumption set. That is to say, the assumption set is comprised of elements that have probabilities high enough that if we observed them we would not be surprised. In situations where the variables are in constant flux, the approximate truth value of a statement may be argued as the one that holds given the most likely assumption set. In cases like this, we may generalize a statement as true, while being willing to challenge it in the face of a game-changing assumption set. We maybe won’t talk about who gets to define “plausible”, even though there are times when that becomes the most relevant thing.

Arguing(?) With an Open Mind
Here I have chosen to use the word “arguing”, even though in truth I prefer the word “discussing”. That’s because most people seem to think that discussions between people in disagreement need to be arguments. I disagree. Remember the assumption that we are not right about everything? And remember the assumption that knowing the truth is inherently valuable? These two should premise every discussion we enter into. So when discussing the answers to questions, or the truth about statements, we need to do our best to remember that what we are trying to do is get as close to the center of the sphere as possible, because that is a good thing to do, and because we may not be there yet.

Of course, we all think we are closer than an opponent. If not, we wouldn’t be having the discussion in the first place. But keeping in mind that if two people are in disagreement, one of them must be wrong, a productive conversation is one where at the end of it the parties have converged on something they both hold to be as close to true as they can see getting. When this happens, the world gets a win. I’ll list some techniques for true open-mindedness.

Discussing With an Open Mind

  1. Remember that you might be wrong.
    Put another way, be willing to change your mind, or adjust the approximate truth of what you believe.
    See, you believe that you are probably right. You may even believe that you are certainly right (although for the truly reflective, certainty is a pretty difficult thing to attain). But your opponent has the same thoughts. Both of you probably have many reasons for these. And they probably have a lot to do with assumption sets, and which one of you is applying the most plausible set. Sometimes the discussion is not about the truth of the statement but on the plausibility of the assumption set. Keep that in mind. Yours may be the less plausible. Or maybe both assumption sets are equally plausible, in which case the statement can be split into two (or more) more detailed statements that include some of the differing assumptions explicitly. But keep in mind that emotional attachment to an assumption set can and will blind you to the plausibility of an alternate set, and ultimately cause you to refute a statement with unreasonable (even fanatical) obstinacy.
  2. Have higher expectations for yourself than you do for your opponent.
    This means you need to challenge yourself to inspect the assumptions and claims of yourself and your opponent objectively, even if they are not doing the same thing. When you do this – and do it out loud – they hear that. Look at elements of the assumption sets and objectively evaluate their probability. Also evaluate whether they change the truth value of the statement or not. And be prepared to evaluate whether or not they render the statement as nonsense – this happens surprisingly often but it’s not obvious until it is isolated. Discussing things this way models a behavior that is necessary for the two of you to converge on a conclusion you both agree with. And if you are consistent with it, your opponent will often adopt the same style, if only because they think this is the way to convince you they are right.
  3. Thank your opponent, regardless of the outcome.
    I don’t mean this as a politeness. I mean this in the most sincere sense. Any opportunity we get to reflect on our set of beliefs is valuable. Sometimes your opponent and you will converge. Sometimes you will not, and they leave the exchange completely unmoved, perhaps even claiming “victory”. This is sad, since the only true victory would be a convergence of opinion, but ultimately it is not relevant to your own experience. Make it so that if you have moved on a topic, it is because you discovered something you were not considering, or were considering incorrectly, and now you are closer to the center of the sphere of truth. If you do not move, make it because you were not presented with any strong evidence that you needed to. In either case your beliefs will have been strengthened in some way, either because you changed to something as a result of new insight, or because you were challenged in some way, and it was unsuccessful. For this you have your opponent to thank.

How to Spot Real Open-Mindedness
Many people claim to be open-minded. It may be true, or it may be a trick (some people say it so that when you fail to convince them of something it will prove they were right). True open-mindedness doesn’t mean you are ready to believe anything. It means you are willing to change your mind when presented with evidence that objectively compels you to do so. If you know of (or are) someone who has changed their mind in the moment, during rational discourse, but who was fairly slow to do so, they are probably the type of person I am describing. This goes back to my point that we are probably not right about everything we believe. Which means mind-changing can occur. Which means if you’ve seen it occur, it occurred in someone with an open mind.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Our Schooling System is Broken

It has been a while since my last blog – it was never my intention to go so long between posts but you know … sometimes life hands you other things. In any case I plan to start writing again more frequently, starting with a subject that has been on my mind for a while now: Education.

See, I am thinking our system might be broken. Scratch that – I know it’s broken, and in many ways. But I am talking about a fundamental issue, which is the assumption that performance in a school system with a standardized curriculum is a key measure of personal value. I will try to explain, starting with some background for context.

I Am a Teacher

It’s true. I am a teacher. A very happy one at that. I love my job. I teach high school math in Ontario, Canada, and have been doing that for about 15 years. Prior to that I worked as a software developer for about 10 years. When people ask me what I do for a living (something other adults seem to have a deep need to know upon meeting each other), the conversation always goes roughly the same way:

Other Adult: “So Rich, what do you do for a living?”
Rich: “I’m a teacher.”
OA: “Oh? Nice. What do you teach?”
(Rich’s note: There may or may not be a “joke” here by OA along the lines of “Oh yeah? You know what they say: ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ hahahahaha”)
Rich (being honest, even though it’s not what they meant): “Kids.”
OA: “Oh, haha. But seriously, what subject?”
Rich (with an inward eye-roll – here it comes): “I teach high school math.”
OA: “Oh god. I hate math. I remember I used to be so good at it until grade 8 when I had Ms. Heffernan. She hated me! And she was so terrible to the kids. She made me hate math. I never understood anything in math after that. I am so bad at math! The other day I tried to help my 7 year-old with her homework and I couldn’t even understand what they were doing. Do you tutor? I think I may need to hire you to help little Kelly with her math. Math is so confusing. I keep telling her she doesn’t need it anyway. I mean, I run a multi-million dollar business and I never use any of the math they tried to teach me in high school. Why don’t you guys start teaching useful stuff like understanding financial statements and investing? I had to learn all that stuff on my own. I don’t see why math is so important. I am really successful and I was never any good at it thanks to Ms. Heffernan …..”
Rich: “I apologize on behalf of all my brethren. Please carry on with your successful math-free life. Yes, I’d be happy to help Kelly, but honestly she probably doesn’t need any help. She’s 7. She will conquer.”

You get the point. But as I said, I seriously love my job. For many reasons. But perhaps the main one is that it keeps me connected to the fluidity of humanity. I keep getting older, but my students do not. They are the same age every year. And because I spend a large number of hours each day immersed in their culture, it forces me to keep my thinking current, so that I can continue to effectively communicate. In this way I feel less like some sort of flotsam floating on the river of time and more like a beaver dam of sorts, constantly filtering new water on it’s way downstream, being shored up with new materials as each generation passes through. I am like a connection between the past and the future, and the older I get, the larger the gap I am privileged to span. And in any case, young people are perpetually awesome. It brings a faith in humanity I’m not sure I could get in other ways to see firsthand the caretakers of the future.

School Is Not Really About Education

I can hear your thoughts.

Um, what? Isn’t school by definition about education?

Well, yeah. Granted it’s supposed to be. But it isn’t. All you have to do is talk to almost any adult existing in Western society today about it and they will tell you (often with great relish, as though they are solving world hunger), they never use a single thing they learned in school in their day-to-day lives. Which is of course false. But mostly true. If you went to school in Canada you probably at some point had to know things like what year Champlain landed in Quebec (1608, in case you’re stumped – I just Googled it). I can say with a fair amount of confidence that whether or not you have that tidbit of info available in your memory banks is not affecting your life in any measurable way. You probably also had to know the quadratic formula at some point. I don’t have to Google that one. It’s x=\frac{-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}. Nifty, isn’t it? Sorry if I scared you.

Here. Check out these definitions of “education”. I Googled it.

Definition of Education
Side note: Google is so cool. I’m 48. I have existed both with and without Google. I had to assimilate the use of Google as a verb into a lexicon that did not previously have it established that way. Your kids didn’t. They have to establish the word googol as a noun referring to the number 10^{100} into a lexicon that likely does not have it established that way.

See? The very first definition says I am wrong. School is about education, literally by definition. Oh, but check out definition number 2! Now that is a good one. Education is an enlightening experience! The thing is, in many cases, and for many people, school isn’t enlightening. In many cases, school is an exercise in conformity and alignment. It’s a system which simultaneously (and somewhat arbitrarily) defines success (um, I think I mean worth) and then provides measures for individuals to evaluate their success (yeah, I definitely mean worth).

Performance of Curriculum is a False Measure of Worth

Ok. So when you were a kid, around the age of 5, your parents sent you off to school. And almost immediately, you started to get report cards. They aren’t cards anymore. In many cases they aren’t even paper. But still called report cards. A figurative card summarizing your score on a number of predetermined criteria for success. And make no mistake – from that very first report card on, kids are sent the message that they must perform according to standards so that they get good report cards. I’m going to stay away from the early years, since that’s not my area of expertise, and fast forward to high school, which is. Let’s look at an example. This is based on a real person, whose name I’ve changed. Yes it’s anecdotal. It’s not meant as proof, only to demonstrate my point.

Sally is a young lady in grade 9 who has never particularly had an interest in math – at least in how it’s presented at school. She really doesn’t care about direct vs. partial variation, or the sum of the exterior angles of a polygon, or about how doubling the radius affects the volume of a sphere. But Sally goes to school, in a system which has not only determined that these things are important, they are also mandatory. So she has no choice but to engage in attempts to learn about these things, despite the fact that she is actually incapable of being interested in them. Sally is awesome, by the way. A genuinely caring human with deep empathy, intense loyalty, and a great sense of humour. Sally is also depressed, because she feels worthless. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t figure out how substituting 2r for r into the formula V=\frac{4}{3}\pi r^3 causes the volume to increase by a factor of 8. In a test designed to determine if Sally can do these things, her performance was dismal. Her mark on that test was a 58%. The class average was 85%. When the teacher returned the test, she made comments like “Well, I know that I taught about exterior angles, but it is clear that some of you did not learn it.” When Sally brought the test home to show her parents (who, incidentally, knew that Sally had the test coming up, hired a tutor to help her prepare, and then asked if she had gotten it back each day after school starting the day after it had been written until the day a week later when it was returned), her parents were frustrated and disappointed. Sally has been conditioned to believe that her ability to understand direct and partial variation is critical. Because it is mandatory, her inability to care or comprehend is forcibly highlighted. And subsequently, her performance is recorded for posterity on her report card. Sally’s final grade in math ends up being 61%. Her parents are disappointed. Sally is devastated. She believes there is something fundamentally wrong with her, because she legitimately can not measure up to the standards set in a system she has no choice but to be engaged in.

Breaking Down the Process

Let’s have a look at this situation of Sally’s, and the number of places where the system went wrong.

First off, the concepts Sally has to learn have honestly been arbitrarily determined. See, someone, somewhere, decided that Calculus is an important prerequisite subject for many university and college programs. And to learn Calculus (a grade 12 subject in Ontario), you arguably have to start with concepts like direct and partial variation in earlier grades. And because grade 9 is truly too early to know if programs that require Calculus are in your future, this pre-calculus material is incorporated into the curriculum for pretty much everybody.

Second, math is mandatory. In Ontario high school is a 4-year program, and you must have a minimum of 3 math credits to earn a high school diploma. All of this has nothing – and everything – to do with Sally. Next comes the process. Sally’s teacher created quite possibly an amazing series of lessons on these topics. Sally just doesn’t have the wiring for them, so even though the teacher may be phenomenal, it will have a marginal impact on Sally’s ability to synthesize the material. Sally used to ask questions in class. Now she doesn’t, because she learned that even when she asked, it didn’t help. Sally is deeply empathic – she has seen firsthand the good intentions and effort of her teachers in the past. She can read facial expressions and body language. She has seen her teachers answer her questions and try to help her and seen how much they believe the answers and help are working, so she has pretended that it was, since that was easier than admitting that it wasn’t, because it meant burdening herself with her inadequacy instead of her teachers.

Third, Sally has been conditioned to believe that it is all being done so that she can get high grades. Because ultimately her success is defined by her report card. And because pretty much everyone is telling her that you don’t need this stuff in life anyway. You just need to learn it to get high grades so you can be successful. Which means the only purpose to learning this stuff is the test you will eventually write on it. This is exacerbated by the well-intentioned parents who put so much emphasis on the test – both before and after. You’ve heard the question “When am I ever going to use this?” Well the answer for most kids is “Next week, when you are tested on it.”

See? It’s all artificial. Sally is a high-worth kid, forced into a situation she isn’t wired for, and told that her worth is defined by her performance in that situation. It’s incredibly sad to watch.

The Present and the Future

So here’s where we are now. Many kids and parents these day believe that high marks are critical. The perception is that material presented in school is not inherently valuable, but instead the value is that it is a vehicle to high marks. This means that kids will often do anything it takes to get the high marks. This includes cheating, but that’s not really what I am driving at. What I mean is that they develop strategies that focus on getting high marks, as opposed to learning. Cramming for tests, paying for courses in small private schools that guarantee (implicitly or explicitly) very high grades, or negotiating with teachers (even to the extent of aggressively bullying) after the fact are all standard operating procedure. What is so terrible is that Sally may be able to get high grades using any of these tactics. But Sally will also always know that she didn’t earn them. She will always know that she is not good at something that she should be good at if she is to be valuable. And if and when she manages to gets the high grades anyway, that sense of fraudulence will haunt her. I’ve seen it. It’s tragic. Sally has a great future if she can discover her true worth. The worth she was born with and the worth that her friends probably value more than anything she can do in a math class. But she may or may not discover it.

What I Do About It

I love people. And that includes the kids I teach. And I teach high level math, which is honestly not for everyone. I get a lot of kids coming through my classroom doors who are not there because they want to be, and who will not be able to draw the joy from studying math that I really, really do. I have constraints. I have to teach the material as it’s laid out by governmental process. I have to assign grades that reflect students’ performance against some pretty specific criteria. But within this I make sure that each and every kid I teach knows that I value them as a person. That I care about their story. That I see them not as a 2-dimensional projection of my consciousness, but as a multi-dimensional consciousness of their own, with a narrative as rich and intricate as mine. I make sure that they understand that any evaluation I do of their abilities in math is a tiny, tiny cog in the complex machinery of their existence, and has zero impact on my impressions of them as people, or on my estimation of their worth. I show them that it is totally acceptable to love and be passionate about math, without tying that love and passion to an evaluation. It’s not about the math. It’s about giving them permission to take joy out of abstractions, and to pursue the things that they were wired to do. I’m not always successful. Some kids are too preconditioned. But I will never stop trying.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Thoughts From a Dance Dad

Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.

Early Years

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My Little Ballerina (age 5)

My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.

At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.

As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.

Emerging Talents
1042Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.

From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.

Dance is a Language
This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been marisa-dancewatching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.

Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.

Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est une danceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one  😉 ).

Dance is Empowering
Okay. So obviously dance results in physical fitness. You can always spot a dancer by their muscle tone, posture and grace in simple movement. The importance of this can’t be underplayed. But the kind of empowerment I’m talking about here is more than that. I flying-marisaremember once at a dance recital there was a senior acro small group number about to start (see what I did there – Dance Dad knows the terminology). It was clear from the opening positions that one of the dancers was going to execute a crazy trick to start the dance. Before the music started there were hoots and hollers from the wings and from the audience, and one dancer’s voice from the wings rang out with “You GO girl!”. I was momentarily taken aback. I think maybe I had just read an article or watched a show where that phrase was called into question as demeaning to women. And then I looked around. The stage and venue was dense with strong, confident young women, certain of themselves and certain of their power. And the dancer who called it out numbered among them. I couldn’t see anything demeaning at that point about what she had said, but on a deeper level I realized just what dance had done for these kids. It showed them what inner strength, determination and dedication could do. And so naturally I began to think about the dancers I’ve taught in my math classroom and I had this moment of revelation. It is exactly that quality that has always made them stand out to me in that setting. Not that they all excel in math, because not all kids do. But that regardless of their abilities in math, there is always an inner strength and peace that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do, and I know how to commit to improving.” Where many students in high school still need the explicit motivation that our culture seems to thrive on too often, the dancers have internalized their motivation in the best way. I can’t say enough how important that is for success in life.

unsung-marisa

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Arts – Polish For the Soul

First off, a quick apology to anyone who follows me for my lack of blog posts. I have been writing them – but they are all sitting in my draft folder. However this one is special.

So this past weekend I went to New York City with my son for a quick trip. We had tickets to see the Sunday matinee show of Hamilton, and at the last minute when we were there we also decided to get tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof. I could probably write a small novel on how awesome it was to spend a weekend in NYC with my almost 19-year old son, but that’s not what this is about.

This is about Art.

In my 47 years on this planet I have learned one thing about humans – we tarnish. Or more specifically, our souls tarnish. It’s not a bad thing – in sterling silver, tarnish is just a natural result of exposure to air. It does nothing to diminish the silver underneath, nor does it change the essence of the silver in any way. What it does is make the shining core progressively less visible to the world. With tarnished silver there are two ways to reveal the shine – you can score the surface where the tarnish is and reveal shining silver underneath, or you can gently polish the tarnish for the same result. Scoring the surface leaves scars, but does not affect the shine. Polishing leaves no scars.

When it comes to humans, we are all born shiny. Like new silver, our souls gleam and light the world around us. You don’t have to be a philosopher to know this – just watch the faces of all the adults the next time you see a little girl on the subway singing made up lyrics about the ads on the walls. Her soul is bright and shiny and we love it. But as we get older our exposure to life adds layers of tarnish. I get that this sounds negative but it really is not. It’s natural. Our light does not dim – it just becomes more hidden. Personally, I’ve seen three things that can bring it out again.

The first is grief. Live long enough and you will get scored by grief – it’s inevitable. It hurts like hell. But something miraculous also occurs. Grief cuts through the tarnish. In the terrible grasp of grief, people return to that vulnerable state of openness and childlike trust. It doesn’t make it hurt less, but it does remind us how beautiful our soul is. It leaves us scarred, but not less wonderful. It also leaves a memory of that vulnerability that was our souls shining where the tarnish was removed. It’s not a scary vulnerability but a precious one. However the tarnish returns, and nobody should ever be subjected to grief as a means of therapy.

The second is celebration. Weddings in particular are where I have seen peoples’ souls shine. Listen to wedding speeches from people who are truly in love – and even the speeches from their families and friends, and you’ll know what I mean.

The third, and to me the most significant in that it can be called upon at will, is art. I really do mean art in all forms (and as an aside, check out my other website where I feature my own drawings: Studio Dlin), but my focus here will be on theatre, and specifically on the shows my son and I saw this past weekend.

Saturday night was Fiddler on the Roof. This is a show I know very, very well. I actually have had the pleasure of performing the role of Tevye in it, and I love the show dearly. Anyone familiar with the show will know that Act 1 is loaded with warmth and humour, right up until the final scene. Act 2 is heavy, with not nearly as much laughter and with a lot of emotional, even painful moments. As you’d expect from Broadway, this cast and the production were outstanding. Because I know the play so well, and because I played Tevye, I was actually simultaneously performing the show in my head as it unfolded. I found myself in the story.

Tevye loves his daughters deeply and tenderly. I loved them too. Tevye loves his people and his town. I loved them too. Tevye suffers poverty with a smile and an honesty that is undeniably human, and I did too. In Matchmaker, his daughters discover how terrified they are of being committed for life to a marriage someone else chooses. I was terrified too. The townspeople suffer at the hands of an oppressive Tzar, and I suffered too. Tevye and his daughter Hodel say goodbye forever when she decides she must go live in Siberia when Perchik is arrested, and I was both father and daughter in that moment. Tevye then must say a much harsher goodbye to his daughter Chava when she decides to marry out of the faith, and his traditions force him (and to a slightly lesser extent his wife Golde) to treat Chava as dead. In that moment I was father, daughter, wife and husband. When all the Jews are forced to leave Anatevka at the end of Act 2, I was every one of them – even the Russian constable who had to inform them of the edict. I laughed, cried, danced in my seat and sang along (in my head!).

Sunday afternoon came and it was time for Hamilton. My son and I have both listened to the soundtrack many, many times. Being younger and possessed of both a greater quantity and quality of brain cells, my son knows the lyrics practically by heart. I also know them very well. Not by rote, like with Fiddler, but well enough to sing along and certainly well enough that I know the whole story as told in the play. From the moment the lights went down to the moment it was time to leave I was once again living the story. Just as it was with Fiddler, every scene placed me firmly in the hearts of the characters. When Hamilton’s mother died holding him I died with her, and I survived with him. When Hamilton, Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette are planning their glory, so was I. When Eliza was anxiously watching Alexander as he is trying to win over her father, I was all three sisters, I was Hamilton and I was Philip Schuyler. When Angelica told the story of falling for Alexander right before introducing him to her sister Eliza, I was all three of them. When Burr presented himself to Washington just before Hamilton arrived in the office I was Burr doing what he needed to do to get ahead, Washington carrying the burden of leadership and Hamilton with his burning desire for glory, not recognizing the real power that set him apart. I was Burr dismissed by Washington and Hamilton not knowing what Washington really wanted him for, and I was Washington seeing it all from the lens of maturity and wisdom and also knowing there’s no way to explain it to either Hamilton or Burr, and knowing that only life would teach them. I could go on.

And I will.

I was Samuel Seabury trying to defend a way of life I didn’t understand was an illusion, getting bullied by someone with more clarity and intelligence but not understanding what I was wrong about. I was King George, unable to see or comprehend a world outside the carefully constructed and preserved cocoon of royal privilege. I was an American soldier fighting for independence. I was Hercules Mulligan and I got knocked down and got the fuck back up again. I was a redcoat in a war decreed by my king, fighting across the sea away from my home. Fighting against people who were fighting for their home. I was Charles Lee, in over his head and not comprehending the stakes – only the glory of my title. I was the British soldier finally given permission by a superior officer to wave the white flag, and doing so with a weariness that permeated to my core.

I was Philip Hamilton showing off nervously for his imposing father, while honouring the lessons of his caring mother, and at the same time I was the father and the mother. I was Jefferson coming home, and Madison celebrating the return and the support of his like-minded friend. I agreed with Jefferson AND Hamilton, and felt both their passion. I was Washington knowing I had to step down, even if I knew that what was coming was not what I would have done. I was Maria Reynolds, so beaten down by cruelty that my principles were skewed to a place where any momentary relief from the reality of my life justified any means to get it. I was the asshole James Reynolds, and it sucked. I was Eliza realizing she’d been betrayed, and that sucked more.

I was George Eaker, cocky and arrogant, and Phillip Hamilton, the child-man. I was the shooter and the victim. And then I was the mother and the father, when my heart was thrown into a wood chipper as we watched Phillip die. I somehow continued to live, as they did. I was Burr campaigning, I was Hamilton supporting an enemy with principles over a friend without. I was Burr driven by frustration and rage, and I was Hamilton ultimately admitting defeat to the price his family had paid for his drive. I was Eliza for 50 years after that.

I was all of this and more, and all in two doses of 2 hours and 45 minutes (Hamilton and Fiddler have the same running time). In those moments my soul was shining thanks to the gentle polish of the performances, and it still is. And as I looked around the theatre after Hamilton it struck me. Hundreds of people had experienced the same thing. The same tarnished souls that had entered the theatre were all shining brightly as they left. The building glowed with it.

Now of course, just as sterling silver does, we will all tarnish again. But here is the beauty of art, and the point of this blog – the polish is always there. You just need to use it. Celebrate the arts. Partake. They are the real expression of our souls.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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