Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Response to Hitchens, Maher, and Other Gadflys

I think I once thought I was an atheist. I never thought I was a free agent independent of religion, or that I had heroically created my own moral system or had surmounted a corrupt and dated ideology. And I never believed it was my duty to raze anyone else's creed or venerated beliefs (probably why I was so bemused by Sinead O'Conner's misguided attempt to single-handedly assail the faith of one billion Catholics). Most of all, I was often dismayed when my sense of reality was invalidated by those of faith - their world view did not allow the possibility of mine. It never occurred to me that my refusal to believe somehow abrogated anyone else's belief; they were free to pursue the potential of their reality uninhibited by my reasoning, and I, like them, had the right to be incorrect ultimately.
Now, years later, I listen to liberal intellectuals assail the concept of religion, as if they stand alone, above it, beyond it, better than it, and unobliged to it. I find this postulation akin to what I call the "Howard Stern Conjecture" - i.e., people like Howard Stern prove that a free nation is great by his very existence. As if an entity is great only if it is assailed for no redeeming purpose other than to assail it. So, once a nation or faith establishes itself, it is only actualized when it is attacked and it survives. And the attacker, like the effete artist who disdains the majority unartistic, fails to realize the provenance of his own right to defile and defame. But to what purpose do we maim and injure consecrated faith?
Perhaps, as all those who build and knock over straw men know, the fun is simply being smarter than, righter than everyone else. They deny this vanity, pointing instead to the abstracted excesses of human interpretation of divine auspices meant to provide inner peace not manifested offence. They can overlook eons of time and multitudes of humans living divinely guided lives, finding purpose and peace acquiescing their own desires and motives (not their intellect)to a larger, connected consciousness.
But the narcissism of these critics feeds on the proposition that the larger the belief, the more the adherents, the holier the cow, the greater their victory against it, and consequently, the greater their amour propre. I think they believe they are pioneers - brave patriots suffering the prosecution of a petty society, like those who marched in Alabama, or who stood in front of tanks in Tiananman Square. In reality, they are not enlightened or brave, just having a good time that only a impudent teenager can, feeding off and aspersing his parents pretending he owes nothing and is free of their influence. Whether or not they mature to return to the fountainhead and become their parents, they cannot logically dismiss the influence of their upbringing, nor can they claim they have independently become anything.
So either they evolve and surpass the rest of us, or they have simply created themselves, replacing our God with their existence. And since they probably wouldn't care to be deities who deny and defile deities, they most likely relent to the former proposition - they have become enlightened, and have freed themselves from the oppressive shackles of our realities standing alone, reified owing nothing to anyone but their own inception, their own sense of virtue. Standing alone at the center of their universe, wanting then to displace our epicenters as well.
Most importantly, they reject morals or ethics that find their genesis in religion, once again citing the preposterous deformities mankind has made in the name of faith. Any reference to the reverently lived life of the faithful is dismissed pedantically over cocktails and the incestuous prattle of enamoured minions dancing about their feet. The universe is explored daily, gaily without the benefit of any design or destination other than the fruit of whim, or some temporal goal reflecting a base desire. Relativity replaces religion, as it is more fun, and far less constricting, leaving no trail to be examined or confronted.
They would tell us that we need to create our own reality our own human ethics and values. What they don't say is that if we do, they will still be smarter than us, and therefore still able to correct and humiliate us. For once we reject that which is part of us, we are one step closer to accepting that which is of them.
But my fundamental issue with these Illuminati is that they need to deny my inner sense of purpose, my inner sense to submit to a higher purpose that is free of my human desires and will, something with a virtuous valence. I can trust this path as it is contrary to those things I know to be weak in myself. I cant trust this path as it is independent of the cultural pragmatism individuals build as they congregate. I can also independently confront the apparitions others construct on their paths knowing that their construction is theirs, not of my creator. My faith is mine, it comforts me, guides me, and challenges me. I do not care to replace it with the capricious twaddle of bored, phrenic prophets who worship at the the alter of their own cynicism.

Monday, May 30, 2011

My Favorite Verse in The Qur'an

"When the sun
(with its spacious light)
Is folded up;
When the stars
Fall, losing their lustre;
When the mountains vanish
(like a mirage);
When the she-camels,
Ten months with young,
Are left untended;
When the wild beasts
Are herded together
(In human habitation);
When the oceans
Boil over with a swell;
When the souls
Are sorted out,
(Being joined, like with like);
When the female (infant),
Buried alive, is questioned -
For what crime
She was killed;
When the Scrolls
Are laid open;
When the sky
Is unveiled,
When the Blazing Fire
Is kindled to fierce heat;
And when the Garden
Is brought near;
(Then) shall each soul know
What it has put forward."
S.81, A. 1-14

I was profoundly touched when I read this Sura, having stumbled on it late one evening a few years ago. I think I was lost in the lyricism of the Sura (as I often was) when I passed over "for what crime was she killed", and I realized how pertinent the verse was, for me anyway. I had always known that the Prophet (PBUH) had prohibited female infanticide, but I read so much more into this verse. As an American Muslim, I often overhear comments regarding the degradation of women in Islam, and it always brings me back here to the Al-Takweer (The Rolling), Sura 81.
I am concerned with what my soul has put forward, particularly in my treatment of women throughout my life. I have not murdered any newborns, but I have not always been very decent to the women in my life.
I never believed that a woman existed to serve me, but I am sure I haven't had a healthy attitude towards many of them either. I suppose there was always an ugliness inside me that was born of my own inadequacies as a human, let alone a man. I am not sure I always thought I deserved the respect, friendship, or even love of a woman, and I often turned that doubt into a proactive disrespect. Once again, its genesis wasn't a sense of masculine superiority, quite the oposite, a singular self-loathing.
As an adult, I laughed at jokes cashed at female expense, even told a few. I shrugged it off as harmless while I watched those stereotypical attitudes "man"ifest themselves to the detriment of a few good women. I never believed I was better than anyone, let alone a class of humans that large - I just never let anyone know I didn't.
In my youth, I dallied harmlessly, so I figured, with women in different countries, from different circumstances. Despite my poor self-esteem, I allowed myself the fantasy that they were with me genuinely and that their time with me was as fun and superficial as my affections. I lament those days, and honestly wonder how a world can come to call a woman like that a "whore" and someone like me a "rogue." A terrible hypocritical reality that still makes me feel unclean, and culpable for a world of sins. Now, as I teach young children, I look out at the girls - sisters and daughters, I am deeply ashamed for ever having taken any woman for granted, in anyway.
I am also deeply ashamed at the way I have raised my own daughters at times. I loved them and still do, but I was not always kind and loving, at least outwardly. I didn't hold them and hug them as I should have, and I often bullied them uglily when I was angry with them. I pray they know that my failures were not that of a man, or that their lack of affection from me was not their due as females. Just one weak human not knowing how to interact lovingly with those around him.
So yes, I have not buried any babies in the sand, literally at least. But I have not fulfilled my duty as a human to the women who grew up around me, and my faith and my God know this. So no, my soul had not put forward that which it should have, but I am working on it, and I am so grateful for the women who have forgiven me and have allowed me the chance to learn and develop. I ask forgiveness for these sins and those I have perpetrated against the women in my past - a rude comment, careless embrace, neglected advocacy. Most of all, I am thankful for this Sura, reminding me that Allah has a better concept of me, for my potential.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Planting Seeds

I have thought a lot lately about seeds, particularly planting them. Not in a literal sense, but in a figurative, grateful way. When you teach for a living it is hard sometimes to recognize your value and the difference you make. I didn't realize this difficulty until someone asked me why I had taken up woodworking. I hadn't thought about it until that point - why woodworking? The answer came surprisingly easy, because I could see the result! It was a peculiar pleasure to put forth effort and see an immediate result. It was also clear to me that my profession did not always offer such rapid and clear feedback. This of course put me on a path to examine the fruits of my labor, the effects of a lifetime of unseen work.
I sat one afternoon and mused on my impact on the world. I knew that it was generally accepted that as a teacher, I made a difference, but how? I started to recall the feedback I received from students who had returned or who I had bumped into (physically and virtually) through the years. One very odd and poignant pattern emerged: If I could have recalled every word uttered to that student, the thing that stuck with her would not have been on my top 100 anticipated aphorisms. You never know how one word, one gentle admonition, one encouragement can impact a life. You would have to know where that human "is" at the moment of interchange to understand how your intended gesture is not only conceptualized at the moment, but incubated for later reflection as well. Students have quoted me saying things I honestly don't think I said - and I never contradict them.
Sadly, I suppose, there are also negative contributions we make to their development that we probably never hear about. I do hear about the negative impact of other teachers all the time. I am not sure we can ever be sure what we say is received and stored with the same effect as we desire, but I am sure that I can do a better job reaching more students than I currently do. My goal is to make sure there are no invisible students in any of my classes.
This past January, I was invited to deliver the keynote address at an ESL conference in Amman, Jordan. It took me a long time to develop the speech that was to be on motivating learning and learners. I didn't procrastinate, it just didn't crystallize until hours before my speech. I ended up talking about "knuckleheads, the choir, and those in the middle." It was well received.
My premise was that these were the three types of students in a classroom, and motivation was different for each group. All three are challenging, and need a distinct approach. I began with the choir - those eager students who always have their hands up, ready to participate, hanging on every word. The danger with this group is to eventually take them for granted and to ignore them for the sake of the others. How do you keep them motivated when you are constantly looking past their frenetically waved hands to the other students? I suggest that you connect with them outside of class, acknowledging them in the hallways, at lunch, in public. They can make great peer teachers if you can shift their goals from your attention to the welfare of their classmates. And finally, I think you need to find creative ways to give them the attention they desire: a note after class, asking them to assist you with some basic classroom chores, emailing if appropriate, nominating them for recognition, etc. It is truly a shame when we marginalize these students in our attempts at egalitarian education.
In my hours of contemplation, I am often most concerned for the middle group of students who escape my detection when I am about my business of teaching. They are invisible by design - they want to escape detection. They will quietly, happily let me ramble on forever mistakenly thinking everyone is on the same page. Not long ago, I decided that I would "penetrate the gloom of their anonymity!" Their silence and withdrawn affect hurt them in the long run. Yes, they weren't put on the spot and embarrassed, but they were also never challenged and rewarded. It is my contention that we have to pull them up into the sun and engage them. For after all, many of these students don't stay in the middle, they either slide in with the knuckleheads or step up to the choir. I find I have a say in this valence.
I began to recognize and interact with all of these students, from calling role to gently teasing and encouraging them. I also worked hard to reward them and to support them when they took risks. I learned everything I could about them to help them relate their world and interests to my subject matter. My few successes here were my most rewarding.
I saved the knuckleheads for last, probably because I had much more expertise there, being a CRK (contrite reformed knucklehead) myself. I also told the audience that success with this group was seldom actualized at the moment, that the best you can hope to do is plant seeds with these students that will take root later and blossom. Not a great answer for a frustrated teacher here and now. I have found that often, these students need to be challenged creatively. I have also found that I could disarm them very effectively by interacting with them graciously outside fo the classroom, one-on-one. The classroom was their battlefield, they were naked and vulnerable outside it. Most importantly, I have vowed never to give up on these students, despite the poor feedback I receive in the lifetime of my relationship with them. I have learned this lesson from the few teachers who never gave up on me - I wish I could tell them now, what those small, kind gestures eventually taught me - perhaps I will.
So, I am now in the business of "seeing" my students and planting seeds. Not always rewarding at the moment, but my soul knows the eventual reward for my efforts, and God's grace that I have always felt when things worked well comforts me in my new found patience.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Leadership Axiom #2

You Cannot be Better than the System You are in!
When I used to visit potential work sites, I focused on what would be "beneath" me (terrible choice of words), i.e., those I would supervise. Now I look above! I have learned that without the support of my supervisors, and more importantly, a logical system, I cannot achieve much. I don't need to have a great relationship with those I report to, but I do need to have an honest, consistent working relationship with these decision makers and decision supporters.
Too often, I think, we focus on our personal, idiographic relationships with our supervisors. Hindsight has shown me this is not a necessary antecedent to a good working relationship. I have had a supervisor that I did not respect personally, but she supported our mutual goals and decisions unilaterally. She didn't always make sure I got credit for what I had accomplished, but she never left me hanging in the wind, thrown under a bus (sorry, passive aggressive memories of my first graduate professor who worshipped Orwell and railed against the literary use of "prepackaged phrases"). We accomplished a lot together, and that was really all that mattered.
I have also worked in environments with a great deal of good people, but they were connected by capricious, self-serving systems. Virtue and valor acquiesced to the navigation of the labile vagaries of a corrupt enterprise. Many eventually retreated into their own spheres of efficacy, and removed themselves from much of the surrounding environment. Others battled hopelessly against a sea of ambiguity, eventually giving up, feeling beaten up and betrayed by nothing. I was one of these combatants - however, I would flee the battlefield (change jobs) before the inevitable surrender.
After contemplating these phenomena for several years, I have settled on a new concept, a new focus: Heroic Systems vs Heroic Individuals. I realized that the most productive periods in my life have been when I worked actively and enthusiastically within a healthy, consistent system. My efforts were magnified by those of other and vice versa. No matter how difficult things became, the unity of the group gave me solace that we would survive and eventually accomplish our goals (i.e., then can kill us but they can't eat us). I no longer want to be a hero or a martyr, just another caring, committed individual who improves the lives of other by creating the right system.
This system is demanding though - it loathes ego (especially my kind), often disdains personal recognition, and requires a great deal of acquiescence. Academic Freedom is often one of its first causalities, or I should say the self-serving perversion of Academic Freedom. In order to build a good system, a heroic one, individuals have to give up selfish, discordant, mercurial "rights." We all have to sit together and decide what is best for the system and act accordingly. I have learned from quality control concepts that a group of individuals reacting immediately to variation in a process actually create more variation than if they had let the process run unabated. It amazes me to this day that professionals who acknowledge the rigorous discipline of their own fields, ironically posit that they should be able to act independently in their classrooms, and that that course is best for students. Very incongruent, if not hypocritical.
This has been a hard lesson for me, as building and then imposing a communally developed system on myself is difficult. But I have seen the virtue of consistency and transparency, particularly when working with at-risk and underpresented students. Time and time again, they have told me they just want to "know the rules, and to have them consistently applied." I was shocked when I first heard these complaints, many aimed at more liberal colleagues. The students didn't respect or trust inconsistent treatment, even if it was temporarily favorable to them.
So, I am no longer longing to tilt at windmills, battling the evil empires I find myself in. I am no longer the lone hero, sacrificing for the benefit of my poor, downtrodden students. I am responsible to help build a consistent, equitable system that serves us all. And although this may not be as fun on a daily basis, I am sure it will be far more rewarding on graduation days when I see more familiar faces beaming broadly as they climb up the stage, reveling in their own achievement and loving the system that helped them achieve it.

Working With The UN in Jordan

I hadn't worked with international aid agencies since my days in Yemen, some twenty plus years ago. While there, I interacted with several international entities, and my experiences weren’t very positive. As a matter of fact, If it had been for these respected groups, I never would have worked internationally again.
I was living in an Eritrean refugee camp, teaching English, helping another Peace Corps Volunteer build a school, and doing some medical work (mostly rehydration therapy). One agency had put the camp doctor into a difficult position with the local Yemenis, and he was eventually arrested and deported leaving me to do healthcare (I had a medical book). They then had the wonderful idea of buying the refugees a refrigerated truck so that these fishermen could catch fish and take them to market. The agency never coordinated with the Yemeni government, and the truck never got licensed. It sat in the middle of the camp for the two years I was there as a defacto jungle gym for the kids.
The second group I had to work with was more vexing however. The office in the capital was staffed by some European party animals that interacted mostly at expat parties. They seldom visited the camp, and occasionally sent some directive that was ignored. One such order was that I was to remove myself from the camp, as I did not have their clearance. The elders told me to just wait, and that the folks in the main office would soon forget - they did, probably the effects of alcohol and drugs. It really left a bad taste in my mouth watching these esteemed agencies ignore or manipulate the refugees they pretended to serve. I chalked it up to my naiveté and went about my business.
It would be a few decades before my faith in international aid agencies would be restored. It happened when I visited two Palestinian refugee camps; one in Jerusalem, one in Jordan.
Working with a US philanthropic organization, I contacted officials in Jerusalem and Amman offering to provide their schools with free educational resources. I was amazed at the cooperation I received, and at the level of caring and expertise of the people I worked with. Yeah, the bureaucracy was probably as convoluted as those I had previously experienced, but this organization - The United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) knew how to put the right people "on the ground" where it counted. From the lower level administration to the supervisors and most of the local teachers, I worked with some of the most committed and talented people I have ever met.
The situation in Palestine and Jordan is not pleasant, and the conditions these people work in are far from ideal. Yet their positive nature and real desire to help students transcends their circumstances. At every school and site I visited, I met scores of teachers and administrators I would be proud to work with anywhere. I didn't see the prevalent dissatisfaction and disaffection I experience in so many schools here in the US, nor did I see the self-serving ideologies that have developed amongst the teacher groups here in America. I did see people making very meager salaries, doing a great deal of work, focusing on the welfare of their students. Very humbling indeed.
I worked with a few key administrators who were fantastic. They were very passionate about their work, and I could see the effect their enthusiasm had on the teachers they worked with. Most importantly, they treated the teachers with dignity and respect, something I have not always enjoyed from my superiors. I have had many long discussions about teaching and philosophy with these folks and have been very amazed. Despite the fact that they are grossly under compensated, God got it right when he put them into their roles!
Before you protest, I am not romanticizing these educators, administrators, or the organization either. There were some who were detached, unhappy, maybe even a bit dissident. There might have been a few administrators that weren’t always helpful, but that was the exception not the rule. The difference is that they didn't come to infect the larger groups - they were ignored and minimized. The worst experience I had doing hundreds of hours of workshops was silence from a handful of teachers. My typical experience was working with excited, intelligent, and informed educators who were willing to process their experiences and entertain new possibilities to improve their pedagogy. An ideal place for someone like me.
I can't express my respect for these teachers and supervisors, nor my admiration for the work they do facing bleak circumstances. I can say that I am very proud to be associated with them, and that I pray that my two daughters find these kind of leaders as they continue their education.