A Second Buddhist/Marxist Retreat?

Is anyone interested in getting together in person to discuss questions of the relationship of marxist and buddhist thought and practice? Maybe with attention to how we might respond to the current crises?

If you’re interested, post a comment here or email me at wtompepper@cox.net

At the moment, I have no plans for date or location. If there is any interest, we can try to arrange a time and place that will work for all participants. Also, participants will decide on texts and topics.

Our first try included only two participants, but I found it very productive. There’s something about meeting in person that can’t be reproduced in online discussion.

As far as I know, there are no other left-leaning Buddhists in the state of Connecticut, so I’d love the chance to get together with anyone from anywhere who shares this particular, apparently somewhat rare, political and philosophical position.

Summer Begins (with a shameless plug)

As we end the school year with a heat wave here in CT, I thought I’d remind anyone still reading that my book Indispensable Goods is a perfect graduation gift for anyone getting out of college in this dismal time and uncertain what to do next: https://faithfulbuddhist.wordpress.com/indispensable-goods

And just in case anyone is interested in getting beyond the fictions of the mainstream press, here’s an interesting account of Biden’s economic policy: https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/1979-in-reverse

Winding Down

I’ve been slow about writing on this blog lately and am considering letting it just fade away.  Partly this is because I have limited energy these days and want to devote what I have left to other projects, primarily Imaginary Relations and the novel I’m working on. 

This blog hasn’t really been explicitly “Buddhist” for some time, so the page called “A Blog for Buddhist Who Can Handle the Truth!” seems irrelevant and frankly a bit silly.  I mean, I meant it to be silly, meant it as a joke, but it turns out there are really no Buddhists in the English-speaking world willing to risk thought.  I should have known this back when I started the blog, as I had already enough experience with x-buddhism (to borrow Glenn Wallis’s term) to know better.  But I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake.

I’ve mostly lost interest in the public discourse of Buddhism, and no longer engage with it in any way, although I do still consider myself a practicing Shin Buddhist. 

Lately, I’ve been concerned with the failure of education in American society. I mean education in the broadest sense, not simply the ineptitude of most teachers, or the troubling inherent racism and classism of our system of educational “districts.”  These are problems, of course, but I’m more concerned that even at its best our educational institution fails to educate in any meaningful sense of the term.  Or worse, it actively functions to prevent true education from taking place. 

In short, we have generally failed to even consider what we mean by education, and what its purpose might be for our world and our children, not to mention ourselves as adults who have never been truly educated. 

I’m not one of those who argue, citing a gross misreading of Paulo Freire, that we should stop making our kids memorize and take tests and write papers, and have them do more fun and engaging things like watch YouTube videos and play games in class.  Over the years, in too many Writing Programs meetings, I’ve heard this absurd version of Freire’s theory far too often: “banking education” is when you have to commit something to memory, and “problem posing education” is when students have fun and are self-directed.  But that’s a recipe for exactly what goes on today in too many public-school classrooms: teachers who know nothing about the subject they are hired to teach simply push responsibility onto the students. 

A teacher ought to offer to teach something.  If I don’t know more than you about chemistry, I am useless to you as a teacher.  And self-directed learning is a silly Romantic ideal, which sounds good until you realize how very much knowledge about the world already exists, and how much time we would each waste if we had to figure out in some “self-directed” way how to produce vaccines or microchips or solar panels.  Most of education just does need to be the teacher sharing existing knowledge with students who don’t yet have it.  To do anything else, to expect them to even come up with the important questions on their own (at least at an early age) is to fail in our responsibility and to handicap children.  We have an obligation to share with them what we already know, and allow them to start from where we are.  Too many “radical” educators today buy into the foolish idea of anamnesis, and use it to excuse not doing their job.

So why is this Romantic idea so popular?  I would argue it is because of what I have called “ontological collapse.”  There is a tendency to forget that there are two kinds of knowledge in the world: knowledge of mind-independent reality, and knowledge of mind-dependent reality. The former refers to things like physics and chemistry and engineering, which are not up to us.  The latter refers to things like art and ideology and architecture, which are up to us.  We can decide what kinds of buildings we want to live in, but the properties of the materials out of which we will build them are things we need to learn, and are not a matter of choice. 

When we hear claims that we need to let students guide their own education, that sounds compelling, but it sounds so compelling because we are only thinking about things like humanities and ethics.  To let them guide their own learning about math is to waste their time—most people will never come up with geometry or calculus on their own, and will be deprived of useful knowledge that they could have had access to.  Most people will never spontaneously discover the existence of viruses, either, and so will never understand how vaccines work and why they ought to get vaccinated. Those who advocate the kind of “open classroom” I was subjected to in the 1970s are mistakenly assuming that the only goal of education, the only thing it does, is to inculcate ideology. It does this much of the time, and how it does this is something we ought to become more aware of and change. But educating is more than just producing ideology…or it ought to be.

The problem is that the “banking” model of education is too often applied in subjects like social studies and language arts, where students need to be encouraged to question more.  And the teaching in the sciences and math is not directive enough to help those without natural abilities and the advantage of parents at home instructing them in these subjects. 

And some of the most important tools for our education are never taught at all.  Philosophy, and particularly the study of informal logic and practical argument, are never done at all in any way.  Most college graduates have no idea how to correctly reason from evidence to a conclusion.  This robs them of true agency, and I believe it is the greatest cause of the horrible state our world is currently in.

I’ll end these rambling random thoughts with an illustration of what I mean by true education. 

Richard Feynman is famously supposed to said something like “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”  Many people take this as a mere humorous quip, but I think it is (even if he didn’t actually say it) a statement of the kind of thinking we ought to be teaching, but which our obsession with STEM fields tries very hard to prevent. 

What might he have meant by this?  Well, I take him to mean that our understanding of the physical world is as Evelyn Fox Keller describes it: our models neither mirror nor correspond to reality, but give us the ability to intervene (on this, see my post on why we can’t think about truth, two posts back).   The point is that our models can’t be “understood” because they are full of aporia and contradictions, and if you don’t know that they are you haven’t really grasped them at all. 

However, when science (or math, or history, or economics) are taught in our educational institutions, all the way from grammar school to graduate school, they are taught as if there is a final mirror of reality we should convince students to accept. This is a lie.  And when students admit they cannot understand certain things, when they are aware of those aporia and contradictions, they are told they are bad students, and consigned to a life of low-paying manual labor jobs.  Those who succeed in our system tend to be the most intellectually limited.  Perhaps this is why so often the high-school valedictorian goes off to the ivy league and can’t cut it?  She had been trained to avoid real thought…and now needs to find a discipline, and professors, who are equally eager to avoid thought.  They exist, even at Yale and Stanford, of course…but she doesn’t know to look for them and doesn’t do well. 

What we need is not less rigorous training in science and math, but more intelligent training. We need to teach the current models, but also to teach the gaps and limits of those models. We need to make explicit the underlying assumptions on which those models are based, not least the assumptions, as Keller points out, about what kinds of interventions in the world we want to make.

Until we do this, until we make explicit our assumptions and intentions, we are not educating anyone at all.  And failing to educate our children in this was robs them of potential agency, and leaves them unlikely to ever get beyond the lives of quiet desperation most people live today.  It also robs them of the agency they will need to fix the disastrous mistakes of those who came before them.  I may not live to see the coming climate apocalypse at its worst, but my children might.

That said, I am increasingly aware I am addressing nobody.  So I expect to post rarely in the future, and devote my time to my own feeble attempts to truly educate myself and those around me.