Friday, October 17, 2014

Kerouac then Me

Every cat in Kyoto
    can see through the fog.

We are the cats
    here is Kyoto
Ours is the fog

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A LePort Teacher's Weekend at Stanford

This weekend I drove up from Huntington Beach back to Palo Alto to work as a coach at the Challenge Success fall conference. It's a long drive, and I must admit it was somewhat surreal being back on Stanford's campus for the two days of the conference. Stanford is the kind of place that exists in a bubble, mostly out of time. The inside of the School of Education building, in particular, looks almost exactly as it did when I first arrived at Stanford in 2009, and it probably looked the same in 1979. My sense of awkward familiarity was aided, of course, by the presence of my picture on the "current doctoral students" wall and my still-extant mailbox in the basement (it even had mail in it). Since I'm technically "on leave" I shouldn't have been surprised, but I've become so invested in my new job at LePort that it's hard to remember that part of my identity which is, still, Paul Franz, Stanford PhD Student.

This dual identity was particularly in play while coaching. It is my Stanford background, not my teaching background, that brought me to Challenge Success. Being a teacher has made me a much better coach and facilitator, but it's my connection to educational research and best practice that makes me a quality - and indeed even minimally qualified - coach for CS sessions.

Challenge Success is a non-profit co-founded by Denise Pope, Madeline Levine, and Jim Lobdell. It grew out of what was at the time a very small but poignant strain of research which suggested that "successful" students around the country were actually stressed-out, unhealthy, and unhappy, and furthermore often engaged in manipulation and cheating. Denise's Doing School is an excellent ethnographic study that chronicles the problem. The goal of CS is to address this issue by coaching schools through a process which will help them implement research-based practices to reduce student stress and increase overall well being. At its core, this implies a culture shift away from a strict, zero-sum mentality in which success equals GPA and elite college enrollment to a more holistic view which includes honoring balance and non-academic (or non-traditional academic) achievements.

The suite of policy changes which Challenge Success schools have implemented over the past 10 years is expansive. For example, schools have switched to block schedules or added late days, implemented policies limiting homework, moved towards more authentic or project-based assessments, set aside more time for faculty collaboration (because it's not only successful students that can be over-stressed), started regular parent education programs, and countless other efforts.

It's truly inspiring to be even a small part of a conversation at a school trying to make radical cultural or structural change. The school I coached last year has been trying very hard to implement a test calendar and associated policies, and is now looking to start a series of regular teacher-to-teacher observations with a particular lens on how homework assignments are used in class, all in an effort to increase the quality of homework while decreasing its quantity. My new school this year already plans to pilot a block schedule, but their larger goals are deeply cultural: they want to take on the zero-sum culture of success that they feel has harmed their school community and taken the joy out of learning for their students.

Part of what is so effective about Challenge Success is that, as a coach, it is not my job to advocate wholesale restructuring on day one. Coaching is a process of gently guiding teams towards solutions that will most address their particular contexts, and which will have the largest impact while still remaining feasible in implementation. Tackling a deep-seated school culture problem starts with minor reforms, and with building a community of parents, teachers, students, and administrators who can work together to reach larger goals in the long term. Ultimately, it is the commitment of schools and the stakeholders therein (and, indeed, all of the stakeholders therein) that leads to the success of reform efforts.

As you might imagine, participating in this kind of conference required a pretty significant mind-shift for me after my first month teaching 8th graders. I was amused by how similar running a discussion with administrators, teachers, parents, and students was to running one of my literature discussions, but the content is so different, and the objectives so differently scaled. In my class, I'm trying to make a deep impact on each and every one of 13 students. As a coach, I'm trying to facilitate a process which will impact potentially hundreds (or thousands) of students, and many hundreds (or thousands) of adults, but my particular impact on any one person is immeasurably small. Both kinds of efforts - deep and narrow, and shallow and broad - are important, I think, and they are equally difficult to do well, but the concern with the individual that lies at the heart of teaching simply can't express itself in the same way in the coaching environment.

I'm satisfied that I get to experience both. I'm particularly satisfied because, after spending the weekend talking to people from schools other than LePort, I have an even deeper appreciation for how special my new employer is. Almost every significant, research-based solution that Challenge Success advocates is already in effect at LePort. We use a block schedule. Teachers have time to prepare and to plan, and are engaged in a culture of near-constant observation, feedback, and growth. Homework is minimal and always purposeful, and students have an hour-long homework period at the end of the day after classes are completed. Parent communication and education is one of LePort's greatest strengths. Above all, an emphasis on allowing each student to define their own success - rather than holding every student to the exact same, externally determined standard - is one of our core tenets. I may be the only person who has any kind of intimate knowledge of both Challenge Success and LePort, and it strikes me how much they share for two organizations with no contact. Then again, I likely wouldn't have ended up at LePort if it didn't embody the philosophies and employ the policies that I came to hold dear in my time at Stanford and with CS.

After even a month at LePort it has become easy for me to take for granted that LePort is how a school runs, but returning to the outside world - and returning, in particular, to Stanford at a conference attended by many of the best independent and public schools in California - I was reminded that, if LePort is not wholly unique, it's close. Even most elite schools still carry with them, at the end of the day, the legacy of "this is how education is done" and "this is what success means." I'm fortunate to teach somewhere that doesn't need to attend a Challenge Success conference because they got it right from the start.

On a personal note, I also took heart from a conversation I had in passing with Denise during the busy conference day. Often I felt somewhat out of place, this weekend, because I was no longer a researcher. Wandering around Stanford, it was easy to get caught up in Stanford's culture of success: high-quality, impactful, well-funded research leading to a tenure-track position at an elite institution. That's a path I've put aside, and however much I am satisfied with my choice, a part of me still wants to paint my decision to leave Stanford as a failure on my part, instead of as a healthy response to an untenable emotional situation. When I ran into Denise she sent me the message I needed to hear, surrounded as I was by the Academy writ large. In so many words, her message was that success isn't just about a degree from a prestigious university. She asked me how I felt about teaching, and I told her that I was having a blast, and loving it every day. "Good," she said, "I always knew you would. I'm so happy you found your place." I replied, with a smile, "Me too."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Flatter Me

A kindness, they would seem,
Your gentle words,
Convincing yet conniving.
I do not doubt you have no scheme,
and yet your speech
Is wholly undermining.
Perhaps I believe too little in myself?
Or perhaps you flatter me
Unto utter catastrophe.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why I Am Not a Baha'i

Introduction

One of Bertrand Russell’s most famous essays is entitled “Why I Am Not a Christian.” This controversial piece was written at a time when atheism was strongly frowned upon, and it served, along with other important pieces of Russell’s moral philosophy, as a part of the court case which prevented him from taking a mathematics position at City College of New York later in his career. Because of his atheism and perceived moral turpitude, Russell was found unfit to teach the young people of New York. The litany of charges against him in that case read much like those leveraged against Socrates in Athens: corrupting the youth, profaning the divine, and making the weaker argument the stronger. At their heart, however, they were principally concerned with his irreligious philosophies and ethics.

I hardly expect such tumultuous fallout from this humble essay. I am no Bertrand Russell, either in wit or clarity of prose, and I cast nowhere near so wide a net. It is, however, in a similar spirit that I embark upon writing this essay. Russell wrote his famous critique of Christianity in a very Christian world, surrounded by Christian leaders and friends. Again, I am not as prominent as Russell – nor would I want to be – but it is the case that a great many of my friends over the past few years have been Baha’is. I spent eight years in a relationship and four years married to a Baha’i. I have attended feasts and devotionals, observed junior youth groups, and read some – though not all – Baha’i texts. I would venture that I know as much about the Faith as any non-Baha’i you would care to name, not only in its words, but in its deeds. I have experienced it first hand for nearly a decade.

My wife and I are currently going through a divorce. This has not soured me on the Faith, but it has given me the opportunity to write this essay. While married, I think I was afraid to clearly and comprehensively express to her or to anyone else my reservations about the Faith, and my reasons for never fully embracing it. The issues I will raise in this essay are mostly not new ones to me; they have been, by and large, the very same reasons which prevented me from becoming a Baha’i from the beginning. Some of those reasons have, of course, changed as I have learned, while some have gone away and others have arisen. I am not so stuck in my ways of thinking that my views of the Faith have not evolved with time. However, the core of my opposition to the Faith is and has always been the same.

Before I discuss what that core is, and how it manifests itself, I feel I should clarify that I do not despise the Faith. In fact, I find it mostly quite honorable, respectable, and even inspiring. My many Baha’i friends are among the best people I have ever met. Ethically, intellectually, and even spiritually I feel that I share so much with them that it is little wonder I have found writing an essay like this so difficult. And yet, in the ebb and flow of day-to-day life surrounded by Baha’is, I have never found an outlet to express myself and my non-Baha’i-ness. I have too often defined myself in the negative, as what I was not, rather than in the positive. Though this essay takes the negative as its title, its objective is to make clear that my rejection of the Faith is not a deficiency. It may even be a strength.

I know that most of the Baha’i community accepts me for who I am, but there is always an edge of discomfort in that acceptance. When I have attended feast, for example, my presence has always felt deeply awkward to me. There is no room in the core of Baha’i community practice for the non-Baha’i to express his non-Baha’i-ness. The prayers feel pointed and ministerial, and there is no opportunity for the non-Baha’i to participate without embracing the texts and prayers of the Faith. During the social portion of feast, meanwhile, I have always felt like I was a curiosity, the strange non-Baha’i surrounded by the faithful. It does not help that Baha’is call non Baha’is “seekers,” implying that Baha’is are, in some sense, “finders.” So, at feast most of all, I was defined in the negative. I do not reject the label of seeker – I am honored to be ever-seeking in my life, as learning is one of my greatest passions – however, I do reject the implication that what I am meant to find is the Faith.

I suspect a Baha’i would argue that feast is not really meant for non-Baha’is, and that I’d feel more comfortable at a devotional. I disagree. The devotional, in my experience, is essentially a toned-down feast, in which prayers from the Faith accompany readings from other texts and sources. I have never seen a devotional which was not bookended and punctuated by Baha’i texts and prayers. The Faith forms the context for all of its activities, defining all that is not the Faith in the negative. If I read Whitman at a devotional, what is most striking is not what Whitman says, but who Whitman is. Or rather, who and what Whitman is not. Any reader of Song of Myself will recognize the peculiar irony at play here: Whitman considers himself a member of any and every religion, but the feeling does not to me seem to be mutual. Perhaps more to the point, Whitman considers his work as true as any religious revelation, and the feeling in this case is certainly not mutual. Whitman, to the Baha’i Faith, is not a messenger of God, and so his poetry, however great, can never be of equivalent value to the writings of the prophets.

As with Whitman, so it goes with me. I am not a Baha’i. I do not wish to be a Baha’i. I am not a seeker, and my lack of faith is not, to me, a weakness or a flaw. Quite the opposite. Like Russell, I believe that the morality of the logician and skeptic is all the more firm precisely because it does not derive from faith. I strive to be ethical not because I am commanded by a higher power to be, but because I have decided to be. I am not without my own kind of faith and my own breed of spirituality, but I find my own beliefs incompatible with those of the Baha’i Faith. I reject its metaphysical teachings, its presentation of its own history, and its vision for the future of humanity.

On the Existence of God and the Afterlife

One of the centerpieces of Russell’s argument against Christianity is, of course, his rejection of the Christian God and afterlife. I will not rehash thousands of years of arguments for or against God in this essay. Suffice to say there have been countless attempts to prove or disprove God, and an ingenious demonstration by Kant that to prove or disprove metaphysical arguments is impossible. I will side with Kant here. There can be no proof or disproof of God’s existence. The same can be said of the afterlife, the soul, or any metaphysical thing.

In my experience, Baha’is do not all agree about how important the metaphysical teachings of the Faith are. All Baha’is certainly believe in God, and Baha’u’llah explicitly lays out a vision for what the afterlife more or less is. Nevertheless, I have known Baha’is who simply do not care about the afterlife, reasoning that they’ll see when they get there, while I’ve known others to whom it is at the core of how they interpret the rest of the writings of the Faith.

For my part, I do not believe in the afterlife, nor do I believe in God – at least in the sense in which God is portrayed within the Faith. As in many religions, God is decreed “unknowable” by Baha’u’llah, but is subsequently given a gender – male – and various human attributes and qualities like mercy, bounty, knowledge, sight, and so on. I can forgive this inconsistency as poetic license, but it bothers me the same in the Baha’i Faith as it does in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. God is viewed, in the Faith, as a creator and organizer of human lives. I have heard several Baha’is say that God does not give people more than they can handle, and that our difficulties are meant to be opportunities to grow. This, to me, has always seemed a twisted and heartless logic, and it cuts me to the quick. My father committed suicide at 54 years old because of depression, alcoholism, and borderline personality disorder. Surely God could have given him a little less, rather than leading him to a lonely and desperate death?

Of course, faith of any kind responds to such arguments with cries of “it’s all part of God’s plan” and “he’s in a better place,” or else “he brought it on himself with his wickedness.” To which I can only respond that, in order to believe those rebuttals one must already have faith in the metaphysical teachings of the religion (or, in the latter case, one must be especially crass and willfully ignorant of the complexities of alcoholism). The logic is circular: if you believe in an all-merciful, all-powerful, all-knowing God, then it is easy and necessary to rationalize any apparent injustice in the world as a part of some bigger plan. If, however, you do not believe that God – if there is a God – plays an active role in the day to day life of every human, it’s much easier to understand why bad things happen: because people sometimes do bad things. Or else, sometimes bad things just happen on their own. All the more reason, to my mind, to try to create good and to celebrate when we succeed.

Again, my purpose here is not to argue about whether God exists. I have my reasons for doubting in the existence of an omniscience and omnipotent deity, but faith has its own reasons, and logic, as Kant says, cannot decide either way. My purpose, here, is to express that non-belief is not a weakness or a lack, and to highlight that my non-belief makes it impossible for me to be a Baha’i. However accepting the Faith is, my metaphysical beliefs are incompatible with the teachings of the Faith, and ultimately participation in any religion is, in large part, a matter of faith in the metaphysical teachings.

Affirmation or Negation of Life?

One of my principal objections to the metaphysical teachings of monotheistic religions is that they inspire fatalism. It is true that Baha’is work hard to make the world a better place, but when the plan is God’s and not humanity’s, does that not undercut the process? Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy is instructive here. In any religion where the metaphysics are fundamentally concerned with death – and the internal logic of the Baha’i Faith does point inevitably towards preparing oneself for the afterlife – the whole ethos of the truly faithful becomes necrotic. Nietzsche calls Christianity “Apollonian,” in contrast to the “Dionysian” pagan practices that it replaced. The Apollonian way of being, he argues, is hardly a way of being at all. It negates life, because it is concerned first and foremost with the grim logic of preparing oneself to die. The Dionysian way, by contrast, celebrates life and the pleasures thereof. It is not, in my reading, indulgent and self-serving, but rather it is profoundly spiritual in its celebration of the very fact of physical, emotional, and intellectual being.

I have heard Baha’is say, “we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” I think this maxim misunderstands the counterfactual. The Dionysian argument is not that we are physical beings having a spiritual experience; it is that it is impossible to separate the physical being from the spiritual being. We have to be both, and neither has precedence.

The Baha’i Faith is a good deal more in-the-world than many religions of the past. Monasticism is frowned upon, as is asceticism. However, the Faith still looks with some derision upon pleasure in general and sexuality in particular. The ideal marriage in the Baha’i Faith produces children and involves sex, no doubt, but sex is treated with an Apollonian severity in the writings. It is a kind of sacred duty, another form of reverence and worship, a prayer. Sex is meant primarily – perhaps exclusively – to bring a couple closer together and closer to God, and to produce children. Sex is also not to be experienced outside of marriage. In the most literal readings of the Baha’i writings, even kissing and hugging – and any other physical contact of any kind – is limited to the bonds of marriage.

To me this is a profound negation of a fundamental human drive. Sexuality should be celebrated, not shunned and treated with guilt and shame. It should be the ultimate Dionysian pursuit. In so being, the spirit is exalted as much as the body. To treat sex with overmuch austerity and reverence is to rob it of its magic and its humanity. And not just its humanity, its animalism. It is far too easy, in the Apollonian logic of religious morality, to forget that human beings are not so different from the apes, dogs, horses, cats, and rodents that we consider lesser beings. We, after all, have an afterlife to live for! So goes the Apollonian way of thinking. But we are also animals, and not so far removed from our mammalian brethren. We have animal needs and animal desires. What makes us exceptional is not that we have the ability to control and deny those desires, but rather that we can appreciate them, celebrate them, and play with them. To the Apollonian, sex – and life in general – is a grim, sacred duty. To the Dionysian, sex – and life in general – is the most wondrous art of living.

I am not a hedonist. I believe in moderation, self-control, and the value of delayed gratification. As I said earlier, ethics are deeply important to me. However, I cannot be a Baha’i because the purpose of my life is, tautologically perhaps, my life. I do not know and cannot know what will happen to me when I die – and I have heard many Baha’is say the same – but even more to the point I do not particularly care – something I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Baha’i say. While I live, I wish to live, and to live well. Again I follow Russell (and Nietzsche) in the belief that preoccupation – or any occupation – with a life beyond this one is a colossal, Apollonian waste of time.

Prophets, Infallibility, and Cultural Context

One of the most troubling aspects of the Baha’i Faith is its insistence that its prophet, Baha’u’llah, is totally infallible. He is, allegedly, the prophet for the modern age, and his teachings are meant to last the next thousand years, at which point we’ll be ready for the next prophet, presumably. He is the most recent in a series of prophets, which include Jesus, Zoroaster, Muhammad, and strangely enough the Buddha, among others (more on this later; the Buddha’s metaphysical teachings run so contrary to the Faith that his inclusion as a prophet has always struck me as very odd). These prior prophets were the prophets for their time and place, and were necessary for the continued and eternal spiritual growth of humanity. Baha’u’llah, for the first time, provides a teaching which is truly meant to encompass the entire world and to apply to people from any and every cultural background.

Of course, the Baha’i Faith arose in Persia in the 19th century. Baha’u’llah himself grew up in an Islamic family, and it is striking how much more like Islam than, say, Hinduism, the moral teachings of the Faith are. Baha’is deny the importance of the cultural context of Baha’u’llah’s life, because they have to in order to accept the logic of his infallibility. God, the story goes, speaks directly to us through Baha’u’llah, and so we cannot doubt anything that he has written, even though we clearly must interpret it as times and cultures change.

One cannot help but wonder whether God might not have waited a few decades. The world has changed drastically between Baha’u’llah’s time and today, and as a scholar with some interest in cultural histories and anthropology, it strikes me that much of the Baha’i Faith’s teachings seem particularly attuned not to the modern world, but to the 19th century Persia in which it was born. For example, the Faith’s writings teach that those guilty of arson should be burned to death, that thieves should be marked in some permanent or semi-permanent way, and that men are allowed to take multiple wives. In most modern cultures, all three of these teachings are considered woefully anachronistic. In the context of 19th century Persia, they make sense, because they reflect the moral and ethical codes of a traditionalist Muslim society. However, the Universal House of Justice – in charge of all issues of interpretation in the Faith – has chosen not to reject these teachings off hand, or to interpret them as anachronisms. Rather, they must accept the infallibility of Baha’u’llah, and so they teach that the barbaric penalties for arson or theft are for a future state of civilization. Similarly, they explain away the allowance for multiple wives by stating that Baha’u’llah’s stipulation that you must treat and love multiple wives equally implies that you can actually only have one wife, after all. One wonders why Baha’u’llah didn’t say so in the first place.

Of course, my explanation for why Baha’u’llah didn’t say so in the first place is that he was a man, very much shaped by his cultural and historical context, as we all are. He may have had tremendous insight and vision, and may have been extremely spiritually attuned. But I reject that he or any other human is fundamentally divine (or more divine than any other, anyway), and thus I am capable of disbelieving parts of his teachings. Whatever wisdom Baha’u’llah shared with humanity, his teachings are but one source of wisdom that I would consult were I to try to construct an understanding of human life. It is true that Baha’is are encouraged to read and study texts from beyond the Faith (though as I recall Baha’u’llah strongly discourages them from reading Voltaire, which always seemed a strangely specific and spiteful bit of censorship), but with an eye towards seeing how those texts fit with the Faith, and not on their own terms. A true Baha’i may doubt the Faith, but fundamentally cannot remain a Baha’i if those doubts are not eventually assuaged. A true Baha’i may read Spinoza or Hume or Plato or Nietzsche, but fundamentally cannot take seriously their skepticism while remaining a Baha’i.

Each of those philosophers – and every book and religion – has a cultural context which helps us understand the how and the why of their importance. The Baha’i Faith says that this is true of every thinker, every religion, and every text ever written except for the revelations of Baha’u’llah. This exceptionalism is problematic to me, because it is present in countless works of philosophy and theology. The idea that everyone but you has a certain quality is usually a sign of self-delusion. And so, as I believe when I read Descartes (who argues that no one gets it like he does), I also believe that the writings of the Baha’i Faith are not, actually, eternal and de-contextual. This does not mean they are worthless – far from it, the rich context of any book is a part of its appeal – but that I think they are primarily the result of their time and place and not divine revelation means that I could never be a Baha’i.

Internal Hypocrisies

Rejection of the importance of the cultural and historical context in which the Faith arose is but one of the inherently illogical teachings which prevents me from being a Baha’i. There are three others I wish to discuss, here, because they are frustrating contradictions that I have found it difficult to get many Baha’is to even acknowledge, let alone explain. I offer them in the hopes that perhaps a dialogue is possible.

The first is the Faith’s teaching that religion and science should be in harmony. In principle this is a great idea, but in practice I have found that members of the Faith only follow this teaching so far as it is convenient. As soon as “science” expands to include history, anthropology, psychology, and other social sciences the Faith stops being so accepting of scientific reasoning and the scientific process. For example, the Faith actively rejects academic efforts to study the origins of the religion. Juan Cole – a former Baha’i who left the Faith under threat of excommunication for his research – published a book about the Islamic origins of Baha’u’llah’s teachings based on unprecedented access to primary source documents and correspondence between the members of Baha’u’llah’s family. These primary source documents told a very different story than the official story of the “Covenant Breakers” which the Universal House of Justice tells today.

My purpose here is not to discuss the merits of Dr. Cole’s research, or to rehash the history of the Faith. Rather, the point is that, faced with scientific research which challenged doctrine, the Faith’s response was not the scientifically rigorous one – dialogue based upon evidence – but rather it was outright excommunication. If Dr. Cole’s research was truly wrong, surely a scientifically minded religious leadership would refute it in scientific terms. However, the Faith chose not live up to its belief in the harmony of religion and science in this case. In my experience, this large-scale example plays out at a small scale frequently. The Faith believes in science until science contradicts the teachings of the Faith. Just as Baha’is should read widely without ever questioning the Baha’i writings, Baha’is should study science and operate scientifically… until doing so challenges the writings.

The second troubling teaching of the Faith is its utter rejection of homosexuality. This owes to the very narrow view of sexuality in general discussed earlier – it is a sacred duty performed to produce children and nothing more – but is particularly troubling in a religion which states that all humans are equal. A homosexual Baha’i cannot get married, and must live an entirely chaste life. Shogi Effendi, one of the “guardians” of the Faith after Baha’u’llah’s death, argued that homosexuality was a disease and a choice, an attitude that many modern Baha’is still hold. They claim not to judge people for their homosexuality, but they nevertheless reject the overwhelming scientific evidence that homosexuality is not a choice or a disease because their religious leaders say so.

Given that homosexuality is not a choice or a disease, it stands to reason that homosexuals – or any transgendered people, for that matter – are second class citizens in a Baha’i world. They may be treated with equal respect and subject to the same laws as other people, but they are barred forever from romantic love, child-rearing, and sexual activity. The Faith may argue that sexuality is a material excess which takes us further from God, but it places a very high spiritual value on child-rearing. How can meaningful equality exist in a society where one of its most sacred functions is forbidden for an entire class of people?

The final troubling and hypocritical teaching of the Faith is its claim that men and women are equal, whilst denying women the opportunity to hold the highest offices in the Faith. The Universal House of Justice, by decree of Baha’u’llah, will never have a female member. These nine men are the ultimate source for resolving disputes and interpreting the Faith, and for some reason it is vitally important that they have penises. If they didn’t have penises, God would be very upset. I don’t mean to sound crass; the point is that this prescription is patently absurd unless you consider it from the perspective of the historical context in which the Faith came to be.

The inequality of men and women in the teachings of the Faith crop up in other places, as well. For example, the teachings on divorce assume that husbands will always make more money than their wives. Baha’i divorce, like Baha’i marriage, is a joyless, Apollonian, and arduous affair in which the man is responsible for economically providing for his wife for one year. Of course, I understand why this provision was necessary to protect the largely oppressed women of 19th century Persia. But the Faith teaches that the writings are eternally true, and not just contextually true. It assumes that men support women financially, and that a woman would never be the primary earner in a marriage.

One of the most important pieces of philosophical work in the 20th century was Derrida’s work on deconstruction. Any text, it turns out, will turn out to be internally inconsistent if you pull at it hard enough. It is perhaps uncharitable to attack the Baha’i Faith for what I consider to be internal inconsistencies in its teachings when such inconsistencies are an inevitable outcome of argumentation itself. However, the point here is that, while some texts are happy to make an argument without aspiring to universal, eternal truth, religious texts by their very nature have more at stake. There is a certain lack of humility which surrounds any “revelation,” and thus it seems to me that we should hold such works to a higher standard. Surely God, of all authors, would be able to avoid the trap of internal inconsistency? That He cannot suggests either that human language simply cannot express His will – the position I expect a Baha’i would take – or that the authors of revelations are, no matter how spiritual, ultimately as human as the rest of us.

The Baha’i Misreading – or Non-reading – of Buddhism

I mentioned earlier that the Baha’i Faith teaches that Buddha was a divine messenger, just like Baha’u’llah, but for a particular time and place. All religions, the Faith argues, come from the same fundamental source, and teach the same fundamental spiritual lessons. I think this argument is quite convincing for the Abrahamic religions of the West. After all, there is a logical progression from Judaism to Christianity to Islam to the Baha’i Faith. In each case, the founders of these religions were deeply aware of, and in fact were raised in, worlds in which the predecessor religion was dominant. Incorporating Eastern religions like Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism into the same paradigm is a sticky problem, however, because the fundamental assumptions about the nature of epistemology and metaphysical being are different.

Among the Eastern religions which the Faith teaches are part of the same human trajectory towards greater spiritual awareness, I am most familiar with Buddhism. To say that Buddhism and the Baha’i Faith are fundamentally the same is, I think, intellectually dishonest. Many of the core teachings of Buddhism directly contradict the core teachings of the Baha’i Faith, and only a highly selective and self-serving reading of Buddhism allows Baha’is to claim otherwise.

On the issue of metaphysics, in particular, Buddhism is quite clear. In contrast to Baha’u’llah, Buddha does not claim to be a divine being. He is not a messenger of God or a prophet. He is enlightened, but enlightenment is the result of a personal spiritual journey whose purpose is to escape the cycle of rebirth that brings suffering to our souls. There is, in Buddhism, no creator God who has organized the universe or who intervenes in human affairs. There is no necessary progression of humanity as a whole; rather, spiritual progression is individual (and, indeed, that individual progression, and individuality itself, is an illusion). What’s more, there is no afterlife in the Baha’i sense, but rather reincarnation in which the soul returns to the earth.

Even the practice of Buddhism runs contrary to the Baha’i Faith. Buddhist meditation is fundamentally a different kind of exercise than Baha’i prayer. Monasticism is considered a higher calling in Buddhism, and it is entirely acceptable and even desirable that a young Buddhist choose to spend his life pursuing enlightenment in a monastery. The Faith looks on such practices with disdain, because it believes that the highest calling of any religious person is service to the world, and that spiritual progress is impossible without service. The Baha’i Faith may claim to respect Buddhism, but if the fundamental forms of spiritual practice are not only different, but contradictory, how can it be said that the religions come from the same source?

Furthermore, intellectually Buddhism is built upon a Socratic and experiential basis. There is no requirement that Buddhists accept Buddha into their heart, or that they believe his teaching is infallible. Faith, in the Western sense of the word, is essentially absent from Eastern religions generally. There is something like faith in Buddhism, but it does not have the fatalistic resignation that faith in the West does. It’s more empirical, and derives from a logical and linguistic structure which is far more holistic and less discrete than what we’re used to in the West.

All of this runs directly contrary not only to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, but to its meta-teaching that all religions come from the same source and believe in the same God. Interpreting Buddhism as a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion requires disregarding the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. Believing that Buddha is a divine messenger means ignoring Buddha’s own claims that he is not one. The first “Long Discourse” of the Buddha lays out “What the Teaching is Not,” and, in so many words, what it is not is the Baha’i Faith. To say that it is requires a troubling degree of literary, intellectual, and cultural imperialism.

Unity or Hegemony?

This brings me to perhaps the most difficult of my problems with the Faith: its emphasis on unity. Unity is a problematic word because, while it sounds like a good thing in principle, in practice, it has often been the cause of great evil. Consensus can ensure that everyone has the stake in a decision, or it can cow people into refusing to voice dissent. Unity has been used as an excuse for war, genocide, excommunication, torture, and imperialism throughout human history. The idea of religious unity, in particular, has a more than troubled past.

It’s impossible to answer whether the Baha’i Faith will be as hegemonic as Christianity has been, as the Faith is a fraction of a fraction of the size of even the smallest of major world religions (let alone the behemoth that is Christianity). However, its emphasis on unity has troubled me even in my smaller-scale dealings with the Faith and its members. While Baha’is respect members of other faiths – and agnostics like me – I think my keen sense of non-Baha’i-ness in all Baha’i gatherings comes particularly from the unity that Baha’is manifest with each other. In many ways that unity is admirable: Baha’is have a strongly humanitarian sense of purpose and an admirable moral strength. However, I have also noticed their extremely insular jargon – the non-Baha’i will have to learn what ATC and LSA and JYG mean, and why Baha’is “consult” so much – and the distinct lack of non-Baha’is in many of their networks. Among my own group of Baha’i friends I know of almost none, myself excluded, who are not Baha’is. Baha’is may have friends from work, of course, or school, but ultimately they surround themselves first and foremost with other Baha’is.* My own inclusion in a group of Baha’i friends had nothing to do with my virtues as a person, and everything to do with my wife being a Baha’i.

* The exception being the young people who Baha’is recruit to participate in their “core activities.” Baha’is are happy to make use of non-Baha’is in the spiritual curriculum that makes up the Junior Youth Program, either as students in the program or as facilitators. What is striking to me about this program, however, is its cynical targeting of what Baha’is call “receptive” neighborhoods. In practice, “receptive” is code for poor and minority. The Baha’i Faith systematically – and quite intentionally – tries to recruit children from lower socio-economic and ethnic minority backgrounds to become its students and, later, field-workers. They profess no missionary intent, but their curriculum is essentially a Baha’i recruitment pitch, they have explicit goals from the National Spiritual Assembly and House of Justice for how many new Baha’is they hope to recruit, and they celebrate vociferously whenever a participant in the junior youth program signs a declaration card and becomes a full-fledged Baha’i. A missionary by any other name still evangelizes.

Unity can lead to dangerously insular ways of thinking and speaking. As with any group of like-minded people, Baha’is have developed a shared language and a great many shared assumptions about how the world works, how they interact with each other, and what they are trying to accomplish. Clarity of purpose is admirable, but diversity and dissent are admirable too. However much the Faith claims to value diversity, it is brutally vindictive against internal dissenters, labeling them “covenant breakers” and expelling them from the Faith. I would never be allowed to be a Baha’i in the first place because I do not accept core parts of the teaching. Ironically, if I were, somehow, to become a Baha’i and express these same reservations, I would be subject to excommunication, loss of voting rights within the Faith, and would likely lose all of my Baha’i friends. So can I truly be said to be in union with any of my current Baha’i friends? I think not. I believe it is only because I have respected and tolerated the Faith enough to not voice my concerns – however legitimate I believe they are – that I have not alienated the Baha’i community.

For my part, I don’t believe that objections to the faith need be fatal to my friendships with members of the Faith. However, I am frustrated that I am still the non-Baha’i, the “seeker,” the unbeliever. I will, in the Baha’i community, always be a second class citizen, as will any non-Baha’i, whether they are Christian, Buddhist, Agnostic, or anything else. Unity and hegemony are impossible to disentangle, and a religion which claims to value diversity, but which puts unity at its core, will always be forced to live in a paradoxical state of, on the one hand, seeming tolerance, but on the other, fundamentally judgmental discrimination.

For this reason I fear a Baha’i world, even as I respect their vision and foresight in trying to establish a world order which is not based primarily upon greed, political power, and economic gain. I worry that a non-Baha’i in a Baha’i world would face persecution and second-class citizenship (at the least, she would not be eligible to vote in Baha’i elections, which would de facto make her politically second-class). I worry that unity will be an easy excuse for exclusion, excommunication, and squelching of dissent. That Baha’is are explicitly forbidden by the teachings of the Faith from protesting against their government or from breaking even the most unjust of civil laws is deeply worrying to me, because it utterly removes ethical agency from the individual and installs it in the House of Justice. The world the Baha’is imagine is, at its core, a theocratic one, not a democratic one. At the top of its pyramid is a counsel of 9 men who will dictate fundamentalist law which will, in the literal words of Baha’u’llah, have the power to disenfranchise, execute, or dismember violators, and which will treat unbelievers with token respect but will forbid them from playing any meaningful role in the governance of society. I cannot know these things for certain, of course, but it is hard for me not to read the teachings of the Faith in a way that does not lead to this conclusion: a global Baha’i society would be a fascist society, and a society in which I would want no part.

Conclusion

In this essay, I have tried to explain why, despite eight years in close contact with members of the Baha’i Faith, I have found it impossible to embrace the religion. It is not meant as an outright condemnation of the Faith, per se, but I also know that it will likely come across as inflammatory to any Baha’i who reads it. That is not my intent, but I fear it is an inevitable outcome of writing frankly about so touchy a subject. The reality is that my objections to the Faith are not easily assuaged. They cut the heart of what it means to be a person, what life is for, and how we ought, therefore, to live. I reject the Baha’i vision for the future of mankind, and I reject its metaphysics. I believe that the Faith has a role to play in humanity’s future – as do all religions – but I cannot accept its idealized vision of a “united” and wholly Baha’i world.

In truth, the future of humanity a hundred or a thousand years from now is not a major concern for me. Humanity will be what it will be, and the Baha’i Faith, if it is to play an important role in that future, will have to address its internal inconsistencies in one way or another. My objective here is not so long-term or so cosmic as to try to define humanity’s future or that of the Faith. Rather, mine is a more local concern: I wish to express what I have felt, for eight years, has been inexpressible for me. I would hope that, perhaps, it can be a source of dialogue, because despite its barbed appearance it is not written out of malice. I am still the man who married a Baha’i, who has welcomed Baha’is into his home and his life, and who counts among his closest friends several members of the Faith. Nothing about this essay changes that, because very little in this essay is new to me. I have had these reservations as I have met, befriended, and grown close to my Baha’i friends. I remain the open-minded person I always have been. Indeed, I suspect a closed-minded person would never have gotten close enough to the Faith to write this essay in the first place.

To end on a positive note, I offer a piece of poetry from Walt Whitman, who of all poets and thinkers probably best expresses my own spiritual beliefs:

All truths wait in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,
The insignificant is as big to me as any,
(What is less or more than a touch?)

Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,
Only what nobody denies is so.)

A minute and a drop of me settle my brain,
I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps,
And a compend of compends is the meat of a man or woman,
And a summit and flower there is the feeling they have for each other,
And they are to branch boundlessly out of that lesson until it becomes omnific,
And until one and all shall delight us, and we them.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Heroes

Yes, I know. It's a little tacky to talk about who one's heroes are. Thing is, today was my first day working at LePort Schools, and at one point we were each asked to name a personal hero, and to explain why said person was a hero. I actually found this a challenging question to respond to, however, because I have a great many heroes. Or perhaps the better word is idols. Or mentors. Or maybe a mix of the two.

You see, I'm not entirely sure what a "hero" is. It's a Greek idea, and like many Greek ideas I think it's gotten both too puffed up and too trivialized in translation over time and space and through the linguistic wringer that is English. The Greek idea of a hero was mythical, magical even, and very strange. Achilleus, Heracles, Antigone... these were heroes. I don't know if they were supposed to inspire us to greatness or to warn us against hubris or what.

So maybe the better words are idols and mentors. I have a mix in my own life. There are artists and thinkers who I idolize, whose work has left enough of a mark that I have had the chance to get to know that work, and be inspired by it. I also have mentors, who are influences of another kind. They have all inspired me on a more personal level, as teachers, friends, employers, or family members.

I could only name one hero today, but there were a lot of names dancing around in my head. So here are my heroes, or rather, my idols and mentors.

Idols

Walt Whitman

I selected Walt Whitman as my hero today, because I think no writer has been more influential for me. Whitman's Song of Myself remains my favorite poem, essay, or writing of any kind. No less than three of the most important moments of my life have been punctuated by reading the poem in its entirety (twice aloud). I have read portions of it at weddings and at funerals, and for a time carried one of its more memorable cantos in my wallet.

What is it that I love about Song of Myself - and, really, the whole of Leaves of Grass - in all its incessant and meandering glory? I love its spirit, its body, and its sound. It is a poem not only about poetry, but about why human beings write poetry in the first place, and maybe even why writing poetry isn't particularly necessary. It's a poem about love, and death, and sex, and independence. It's lewd and wildly inappropriate. It's political (abolitionist, in particular), but deeply impolitic about it. It celebrates contradictions and impossibilities. Above all, though, it's a poem that asks the reader to live without it, to compose his own songs and live his own life. I return to Song of Myself, from time to time, to remind myself to celebrate and sing myself. But it would be a deep misapprehension of Whitman to study him overmuch.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Like Whitman, Beethoven was a rebel. Whitman was at least partially responsible for what we now call "free verse," and Beethoven was at least partially responsible for what we call romanticism. He personalized and emotionalized music to a degree that was essentially unheard of prior to his work. His symphonies radically transformed the very structure of the symphony (there is a vast formal and structural difference between symphonies written before and after Beethoven).

Beethoven inspires me, though, not because he was a passionate musician, but because his passion was so precisely measured and expressed. He was a master of composition, even after he lost his hearing, and however wild his music was - especially for its time* - it never feels out of control to me. Contrary to the popularized Hollywood renditions of Beethoven which paint him as a mad genius, who translates his anger and lust and frustration to the score feverishly and slavishly, I believe Beethoven was more a master of music than a slave to it. Passion is admirable, but excellence requires mastery of that passion. I idolize this, above all, about Beethoven.

* This cannot be overstated. These days Beethoven seems rousing, but expected. In his own day his music was truly shocking. The length of the Third Symphony alone, not to mention its harmonic and formal curiosities, would have struck any contemporary listener as bizarre.

Thelonious Monk

Speaking of rebels, Thelonious Monk was a musical rebel. In many ways, he's a contemporary version of Beethoven: a true master of his craft whose rule-breaking was always more measured than it sounded. My idolization of Monk, however, is much narrower. I appreciate him, primarily, as a pianist. I do not sound like him, when I play piano, but he is nevertheless my greatest inspiration as a pianist, and especially as an accompanist. If you listen to recordings of Monk playing, what you'll find is that he is an exceptionally soloist, yes, but also an exceptionally good listener and accompanist. Not every one who played with him knew how to play with him, but those who did - Charlie Rouse, for example - play off of and with him in a way that most epitomizes, to me, what jazz is all about.

Langston Hughes

I actually knew fairly little about Hughes until fairly recently, when I read his autobiography, The Big Sea. I knew, of course, that he was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and I had read, as a student, A Dream Deferred. Through his autobiography I came to appreciate more about Hughes, the man and poet, and not just the symbol he has come to be in the traditional curriculum.

I'll leave you to read The Big Sea, yourself. What I most appreciated about the book, and about Hughes, was his commitment to the joy of life. Like Whitman and Beethoven, he celebrates and sings his own odes to the joy of simply being. He is as masterful a wordsmith as any poet, and even his most biting and political poetry has a metrical and rhythmic levity. So, Hughes too is political without being politic, as much concerned with the everyday working man or woman as with the seeming greatness of leaders and decision makers. He shows and indeed lives the silently dignified life of a real person with real troubles and real celebrations.

Mentors

All of the above idols are dead poets and musicians. They give shape to the way I live my life: the humanistic content which on some level defines who I am, how I read, and what I believe. And yet, while I have pretensions to being a musician and a poet, at heart I increasingly feel that I truly am a teacher (even when I was streaming, I was really being a teacher). With that in mind, these mentors are most responsible for teaching me how to learn and how to teach.

Denise Pope

Denise is a researcher and lecturer at Stanford who co-founded Challenge Success, an organization I have been fortunate to work with over the past couple of years. In contrast to many researchers, Denise is primarily focused on using her expertise as a researcher to make a positive impact on education writ large. Challenge Success, in particular, is inspiring because it focuses on a massive systemic issue in our education system which too often gets swept under the rug by more popular celebrated causes. That issue is, in short, how we define success. Too many students (and parents, and educators, and educational institutions) see success narrowly in terms of grades and matriculation records. As a result, students increasingly live unbalanced lives. They spend too much time doing homework, they burn-out and get sick, they don't get enough sleep, they cheat. Denise's book Doing School, chronicles this phenomenon by following a handful of exceptional students, hand-picked by the administration of her partner school. The results are staggering, because these exceptional students are living, by and large, unhealthy and unfulfilled lives.

In my work with Denise, she has shown me what it is to be an ethical and balanced leader who lives what she preaches. Like any Stanford faculty member, she faces a barrage of emails and requests for attention, but she remains ever graceful in the face of such potential stressors. Perhaps most inspiring to me is her position: Senior Lecturer. I suspect she could be a Professor, if she so chose, but it seems to me that the priorities of a full professor are misaligned with her priorities as an educational leader (and as a mother). I suppose it is no accident that she was one of the first people to call me when I went on leave from Stanford to offer me encouragement, and she was one of the first to applaud my decision to find a teaching job when I did so. After all, she taught me the value of using academic knowledge to do good in the world.

Todd Kelly

Todd was my piano teacher growing up, and was of course a huge influence on my musical style. He let me start out learning how to improvise and play jazz, rather than drilling classical theory and technique into me. His own unique style as a composer and musician - I'd say he's a mix between George Winston and Ethan Iverson, an odd couple if there ever was one - certainly rubbed off on me.

But Todd was more than a piano teacher, and was as much an influence on me as an educator as he was on my musical development. I spent more time learning with and from him than any other teacher in my life, and I think a great deal of my own pedagogy derives from the way that he taught me. He treated me like an intellectual and musical equal long before I actually was one, and in so doing pushed me to be a better pianist and better musician. Our frank conversations about what I hoped to get out of music, and how much I was willing to put it taught me how to be self-reflective and metacognitive, and how to set goals for myself. Our co-compositions taught me the value of creative collaboration, a value which I have always sought to impart on my own students.

Sam Reynolds

There are teachers and mentors with whom I've spent much more time than Sam. I've only met Sam in person once, and spoken to him a handful of other times. My chief interaction with him was through a pre-recorded online course of his I took back when I had just graduated from St. John's and still had no idea what I wanted to do (I hadn't even decided on education as a field, yet). Nevertheless, Sam's influence on me is significant.

Sam Reynolds is a professional astrologer who, like me, came from a philosophy background which imparted upon him the value of scientific skepticism. Through practicing and studying astrology, however, he found sufficient evidence to make it his career. This post isn't the place for me to defend my astrological practice (I don't say belief, because I do more than believe in astrology, I practice it), but I would be remiss if I didn't include Sam as a mentor for me precisely because of the way that Sam teaches and practices astrology. Without, to my knowledge, ever studying educational theory, Sam gets pedagogy and curriculum. His course had one of the better curricula I've ever encountered in any class I've taken (and that includes classes at Stanford).

It's also worth noting that Sam is as intellectual a person as I've ever met. He's well-educated and well-read, incredibly wise, with a biting wit befitting a Scorpio. What Sam has taught me, then, besides a thing or two about how to read a chart, is how to stand up for what you believe even when it's unpopular. He brings to bear his education and intellect in defense of what he does and who he is, but he is never malevolent about it. Nor does he brook the malevolence of others. He is, as any good teacher should be, a model professional thinker and communicator.

Sharon Sikora (or "Mom")

My mom is a teacher, and so it should come as no surprise that she's been a tremendous influence on my own growth as an educator. I won't go into mushy details here about the ways in which she inspires me, but suffice to say she is as excellent a teacher as you will ever find. She has modeled, throughout my life, everything that I value in an educator: she believes in and respects her students, knows her content, designs excellent curriculum and assessments, knows how to think about technology (she neither fears nor worships it, but rather uses it as a tool), and communicates well with her colleagues. She, also, has tried to balance her career as a teacher and educator with her life as a mother and wife. Those who know me and my family will know that this has been no small task, and yet it was a task she performed - and continues to perform - with optimism and joy, in spite of all that has happened.