Don’t Fear the Reaper

Darth CheneyWhile the psycho-pathologies of our President have become frighteningly evident over the last few years, those of the man “who decides what the Decider decides” are still very much cloaked from public view, presumably in an undisclosed location. Susan Douglas explains in Is Cheney Evil or Just a Weasel?, that when we liken Dick Cheney to evil itself (or dress him up in a black robe with a light sabre), we affirm his power as a bully, instead of undermining it.

With profuse apologies to Blue Oyster Cult.

The Last Magician

I was going to save commentary for this Jeff Jacoby column for the next Wisdom of Doubt post — which I anticipate will be on scriptural literalness — but it’s gotten some buzz today so I will do a short take on it and elaborate later.

Jacoby speaks of a “religious fundamentalist” who wanted to teach at Cambridge University. The would-be teacher believed the world began about six thousand years ago. Yet Cambridge named the guy to the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. WTF, you say? Relax; this happened in 1688. The teacher was Sir Isaac Newton.

I don’t have much to add to James Kirchick’s comment.

Not for nothing did John Maynard Keynes remark, upon examining Newton’s large collection of papers relating to alchemy, that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians…” Indeed, the logical conclusion of Jacoby’s argument is that university physics departments should teach students how to convert lead into gold.

The scientific revolution began in the 16th century, but even in Newton’s time science was not exactly science yet. Newton lived in a time suspended between pre-modern and modern thought, between mythos and logos. Human consciousness was moving away from a world of mystical revelation, but hadn’t yet fully entered the Age of Reason. Nor was Newton a true fundamentalist as we understand the word today. Fundamentalism wouldn’t be “invented” for a couple more centuries.

What I found most annoying about Jacoby’s column is his implication that if fundamentalists and creationists are shut out of teaching science, this is only because people are prejudiced against religion.

… the National Science Education Standards issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 classified religion with “myths,” “mystical inspiration,” and “superstition” — all of them quite incompatible with scientific study. Michael Dini, a biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, made headlines in 2003 over his policy of denying letters of recommendation for any graduate student who could not “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin. Science and religion, he said in an interview at the time, “shouldn’t overlap.”

But such considerations didn’t keep Cambridge from hiring the theology- and Bible-drenched individual described above.

As far as education is concerned, science and religion shouldn’t overlap. Science classes are for teaching science. Math classes are for teaching math. History classes are for teaching history. If I signed up for a language class, and found that most of the class time would be spent teaching me to dance, or draw, or some other thing beside language, I would be highly annoyed. Some disciplines do overlap — science and math do, at many points. But I say this as a person with a deep regard for both science and religion: it does neither any good to mix them up. I wouldn’t ask Richard Dawkins to teach theology, for example.

If a biology graduate student cannot “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin, then he should not be awarded with a degree. Biology is what it is; it is not whatever Jeff Jacoby wants it to be. If a language major cannot conjugate verbs, he or she shouldn’t get a degree. If a math major can’t do algebra, he should not get a degree. If an English major doesn’t know Shakespeare from spinach, he should not get a degree. Exactly what’s so outrageous about that is beyond me.

In fact, I intend to argue in the next WOD that biblical literalism of the sort Jacoby approves is killing religion. This argument will lean heavily on Joseph Campbell. Stay tuned.

Selling Our Children

A Daily Kos diarist named teacherken discusses a new book by Linda Perlstein, Tested, on the massive ripoff known as No Child Left Behind:

… in a discussion about how companies are profiting from No Child Left Behind, Perlstein recounts [elementary school principal Ernestine] McKnight’s experience at attending a presentation at a principals’ conference of a vendor who had been brought into her school during the 2005-2006 year using the success of Tyler Heights in its promotion. She was furious because they were implying they were responsible for the success in 2004-2005:

    Like these guys had anything to do with third-grade math proficiency jumping 24 points? Fourth-grade reading jumping 49? p. 195

She was too polite to make a public scene, even when the vendors pointed her out to the audience. This anecdote is presented at the end of a section where Perlstein has explored the costs of NCLB in transfers of funds to the private sector, starting with the gross costs in the billions, tracing through the connections of individuals like Neil Bush and people who had helped promote in implement NCLB in the government like Sandy Kress and Gene Hickok to the individual consultants and firms McKnight had had to hire under pressure from the school system. Thus the elements of distortion and possible corruption are placed in a context beyond that of the mere numbers of dollars.

This reminded me of the article about NCLB in the current issue of Harper’s. I checked to see if it is online yet. Sorta; in PDF form. There’s always interesting stuff in Harper’s but they do make it hard to share it online. The article, “The Big Enchilada,” is by Jonathan Kozol. Here’s a chunk of it, at least (emphasis added).

The next and more ambitious stage in the introduction of the private market and its values into public schools did not become possible until the voucher advocates made the well-timed marketing decision to renounce the terminology of “vouchers” and to forgo temporarily their efforts to assume the outright ownership of schools. They settled instead for the management of schools that technically remained within the public sector. Newly created corporations, which characteristically adopted such academically impressive names as “Nobel Learning” or “Edison Schools,” began convincing officials in minority districts– first Miami, later Chicago, then Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many other cities–to contract with them to operate at first a few, then larger numbers, of their schools. At present, forty-one Philadelphia public schools are being run by Edison and another profit-making firm, along with a handful of nonprofit private groups. Almost simultaneously, as states were pressured to test and measure children more relentlessly, to institute the same “goal-setting” mechanisms that are used in private industry, the testing affiliates of some of our largest textbook publishers, as well as the major test-prep companies (The Princeton Review and Kaplan, for example), began to move into our public schools, primarily in urban areas. By 2005, the schools were generating $2.8 billion a year for the testing industry.

In both these areas–testing services and the management of schools–the encroachment of the private sector on public education has been mightily assisted by provisions that the Bush Administration managed to insert into the No Child Left Behind Act. Among the various “sanctions” that this highly controversial law imposes upon low performing schools are two provisions that have opened up these schools to interventions by private corporations on a scale that we have never before seen in the United States. The first of these provisions stipulates that if a school receiving federal funds under what is known as “Title I,” the nation’s largest program of assistance for low-income students, fails to raise its test scores by a fixed percentage within three years, it must then use a portion of its funds to purchase what the government describes as “supplemental services.” These services must be provided outside of the normal school day and, among other options, by a so called third-party provider.

Although such “services” are defined somewhat ambiguously, most low-income districts have interpreted the term to mean that they must force these schools to institute test-preparation regimens geared explicitly toward raising scores on state exams. Increasingly, too, schools have been pressured into contracts with private corporations that provide these services. Meanwhile, the test-prep companies are actively promoting their success in raising scores to principals who live in terror of the more alarming second stage of federal sanctions they will otherwise incur.

If, despite their expensive test-prep programs, low-performing schools fail to pump up test scores fast enough to meet specific goals within five years, school boards are obliged to shut them down and dismiss their faculties and principals. Such schools will then be either operated directly by the state or reconstituted under an “alternative governance arrangement.”

Although the provider of such “governance” might be a nonprofit corporation (one that operates a chain of semi-private charter schools, for instance), it is the profit-making firms, with their superb promotional machinery, that are best positioned to obtain these valuable contracts. It is this prospect–and the even more appealing notion that companies that start by managing these schools might at some future point achieve the right, through changes in state laws, to own the schools as well–that helps explain why EMOs like Edison, which has yet to tum a profit, nonetheless attract vast sums of venture capital. The “big enchilada” represented by the corporate invasion of public schools, even if it takes place only in progressive stages, is sufficiently enticing to investors to keep the money flowing in anticipation of a time when private corporations will not merely nibble at the edges of the public system but will devour it altogether.

No Child Left Behind, with its draconian emphasis on high-stakes testing as the sole determinant of failure or success within a given school, was signed into law in 2002. The warning period for the first wave of low performing schools is now coming to an end. Thousands of schools that exclusively serve black and Hispanic children have failed to meet their federally mandated goals.

All of these schools, under the stipulations of No Child Left Behind, will soon be ripe for picking by private corporations. Progressive citizens who say they believe in public education, as well as the erstwhile liberal Democratic leadership in the U.S. House and Senate, have failed to recognize and confront this looming crisis. Meanwhile, the richly funded and well-oiled juggernaut of privatization continues to move forward, carving out increasingly large pieces of the public system. If those of us who profess to value public schools and the principle of democratic access they uphold cannot find the courage or the motivation to fight in their defense, we may soon wake up to find that they have been replaced by wholly owned subsidiaries of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart. Some $490 billion (4 percent of GNP) is spent on education yearly in the United States. It will be an act of social suicide if liberals blithely continue to dismiss the opportunities this vast amount of money represents for corporate predation.

At Daily Kos, Teacherken writes,

Schools in which students arrive at school with strong language skills, from upper middle class backgrounds, do not have to worry so much about their scores. In fact, unless they are designated as a Title I school (with a significant number of economically poor students) they have little to fear from the sanctions of failing to make AYP.

This isn’t just about allowing Neil Bush and others in the private sector education industry to make tons of money. It could lead to outright corporate takeover of schools teaching mostly minority and immigrant children. No doubt those children will be well-prepared for “careers” in the food service, custodial and retail sectors.

Be Here Now

Leonard Jacobson, Journey Into Now:

Most humans are living in a state of unconsciousness. Even though our eyes are open and we appear to be awake as we walk and talk and live our lives, in truth we are not awake.

We are lost in the mind, which is a world of the remembered past and the imagined future. It is a world of thought, memory and imagination. It is a world of opinion, idea, concept, and belief. It gives us a sense of a life outside of the present moment. It gives us a sense of ourselves outside of the present moment. And that is the great illusion.

In truth, there is no life outside the present moment. In truth you do not and cannot exist outside the present moment. The world of the human thinking mind is an illusory world and yet everyone believes that it is real. It is as if we have fallen asleep and the life we are living is a kind of dream, from which we must awaken.

To awaken spiritually or to become enlightened is to awaken out of the past and future world of the mind into the truth and reality of the present moment.

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now:

Until my thirtieth year, I lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression…

One night, not long after my twenty-ninth birthday, I woke in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train – everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point of continuing to live wit this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two?” If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection what happened after that.

I was awakened by the chirping of a bird outside the window. I had never heard such a sound before…The first light of dawn was filtering through the curtains. Without any thought, I felt, I knew, that there is infinitely more to light than we realize. That soft luminosity filtering through the curtains was love itself. Tears came into my eyes. I got up and walked around the room. I recognized the room, and yet I knew that I had never truly seen it before. Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence. I picked up things, a pencil, and empty bottle, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of it all.

That day I walked around the city in utter amazement at the miracle of life on the earth, as if I had just been born into this world.

For the next five months, I lived in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss. After that, it diminished somewhat in intensity, or perhaps it just seemed to because it became my natural state. I could still function in the world, although I realized that nothing I ever did could possibly add anything to what I already had.

I knew…that something profoundly significant had happened to me, but I didn’t understand it at all. It wasn’t until several years later, after I had read spiritual texts and spent time with spiritual teachers, that I realized that what everybody was looking for had already happened to me. I understood that the intense pressure of suffering that night must have forced my consciousness to withdraw from its identification with the unhappy and deeply fearful self [or ego], which is ultimately a fiction of the mind….

What on earth do these two passages have to do with the typical subjects found on this blog? Everything, as I’ll try to show.

As Jacobson wrote, most people spend most of their time living in their minds, or more specifically in their ego-mind. The thoughts running through our minds are always taking us somewhere away from the present moment – either to the past, or the future, or to some imaginary geography. When the mind is thinking its thoughts, the mental worlds they construct seem very real, and we easily get lost in them and feel separation from everything physically around us.

By contrast, when the mind is quiet, we can be fully here in the present, right here, right now. Not only that, but we feel a connection, a unity with everything around us. Our ego diminishes and we feel a part of the universe, one that is alive and all around us. There is no separation between us and the universe.

When we are present to the now, when the mind is quiet, the mind’s contents and structures are experienced as not having all that much substance or reality. We have our viewpoints and our beliefs and our agendas, but they no longer dominate us, and we are capable of setting them aside because they’re only mental creations. We can detach from them fairly easily. This lets us be skeptical or even dismissive of our mental creations, the healthy need for which, Maha has been writing about in the Wisdom of Doubt series.

With practice, this quiet deepens and we relax into it, and it becomes our normal way of being. The mind then becomes a servant, a tool to be used as needed, and put aside when it’s not, instead of something we get lost in, dominating us with its concepts, ideas, its rush of thoughts, and its bouncing between the remembered past and imaginary futures.

When our ego mind disengages, when we are still and fully aware in the present moment, we feel a unity with everything around us. We experience other people still attached to their egos and their viewpoints and their beliefs, with compassion, as people who have yet to awaken to this larger reality, that is nonetheless innate to all of us.

This is what Jesus meant when he said to turn the other cheek when your enemy strikes you. Don’t answer your enemy from the same level of consciousness as they inhabit. Go to a higher, more inclusive level of consciousness and respond to your enemy from there. This doesn’t mean be a masochist, it means don’t answer their provocation on the same level as it is given.

This most definitely relates to the political battles we face with the right. It’s very easy to be provoked and hooked emotionally by the attacks of the right, and this is part of their intention. It’s important to learn to stay centered in the present moment, while evaluating how to respond. Many times, no response is required at all, but on other occasions it is important to interact with what they’re saying, to set these people straight, to deflect or cancel their attack. To correct them.

While I personally am aggrieved at how the right is destroying this country and this planet, and while I have had scores of negative personal encounters with members of the right, culminating in a very painful firing from a job, I also understand the importance of not getting dragged into their drama. They are, after all, only playing out the programs in their minds, often as unconsciously as a player piano. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It’s important instead to be centered and to get busy creating the world to come. The one that is superseding their tiny, disintegrating world, which is an extension of the little self, the ego-mind. As Jacobson writes:

Because of our technological advances, we have become too destructive to continue living unconsciously upon this earth.

It’s my belief that out of the ashes of the destruction of the current order, a new human race is being born, one whose level of consciousness will be quite different from what created the current order based on fear, which is the basis for the ego. In another hundred or two hundred years, there are going to be a lot of enlightened people on this planet.

I personally believe George W Bush is unconscious and seriously deluded. He thinks he is doing the will of his Father in Heaven (truly a frightening thought given W’s narcissistic, sociopathic personality). However, consider that perhaps God / the universe / life itself really is using W, by forcing us, in a manner similar to Eckhart Tolle’s pressured awakening, to wake up. Childhood is ending, whether we want it to or not.

Both Tolle’s and Jacobson’s books cover similar terrain, but Tolle writes with a stark clarity befitting the kind of dramatic awakening he went through. I heard Ekhart Tolle speak, a few years ago. He walked into a hall filled to capacity with about 2000 people, and spoke, extemporaneously for close to three hours. Every single person in that hall was spellbound, hanging onto each word during the whole time. Tolle is an intense human being.

Jacobson, a relaxed Australian, by contrast offers a lot of practical guidance anyone can do to become more fully present, and to make this a permanent state. His book is much more recent than Tolle’s, and his work to some extent builds on Tolle’s foundation and yet makes it very practical. Jacobson offers workshops and retreats. Tolle, being an international star, is a bit harder to catch in person.