Saturday, November 18, 2006

Learning to think.

This is a rough piece I wrote a few weeks was sort of a late-night insomnia session. It's not polished, but I wanted to get it out there before I forgot all about it.

Learning to Think

The strangest memories come into your mind at night when you’re heading toward sleep. Tonight I found myself thinking about some of the people in my early life who taught me how to think.

In eighth grade, I attended a fundamentalist Christian school, and we got a new and different teacher. For one thing, he was male. For another thing, he was from outside the church’s little community. I think he was a Christian, and I know he was at least a religious person, but he wasn’t part of the fundamentalist evangelical group of teachers I’d always had. Mr. French was my homeroom and history teacher that year.

I was lucky to have many good teachers in my school years, but Mr. French looms large. He talked to all of us like we were adults, which was a heady and novel feeling for a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. (I vividly remember sitting in the cafeteria talking with him about the 1984 presidential primaries, and this fabulous feeling of being listened to and respected for what I had to say—which couldn’t have been all that profound.) He had a tremendous sense of humor, which was also a new thing in a teacher. More importantly for me, he was the very first teacher I had who showed me the glimmering of a new idea: that I could listen and assess everything that was told and taught to me, and that I could question it.

I was a very serious and…I don’t want to say gullible...child, but I definitely took the voice of authority as truth. And elementary education, and religious elementary education in particular, is all about learning to follow rules, to trust in authority, to believe what you’re told. Mr. French was the first person I remember in my entire life who punctured that bubble for me, and encouraged the questioning and skepticism I was already starting to feel.

A year or two after that, our church hired a support minister for the first time. This was a unique hire, because David Byer was a backsliding sinner from way back. Brought up in the Mennonite Church, he married and put his family through a lot of miserable years of wild living. His kids were roughly my age, and around the time we all entered adolescence, he came back into the fold, pulled his life together, and entered the ministry at our church. I believe he had some formal education, but I think he was also working on more seminary education while he worked at the church.

David became our youth group Sunday School teacher. This was around 1985-86…I was in tenth grade. One of the prevailing issues in the Mennonite Church at that time was the Reagan administration’s military build-up, the arms race, our attitudes toward the Soviet Union, and how a peace church should respond to all that. David had a unique perspective because he’d grown up in Canada and saw the United States more critically than many of us were raised to.

As I was still attending the fundamentalist school, I was hearing a lot of hyper-patriotic, hyper-conservative stuff in Bible class and chapel. The religious right was flexing its muscle for the first time, and there was a quasi-religious belief in Reagan and the U.S. and our military that seems familiar now but I think was a new thing then. New to me at 15 and 16 years old, anyway.

Sitting on uncomfortable folding chairs in the church library, David challenged all of us to look at the things we were hearing in school and on the news, and again, to question the things that so many people around us took as Truth—the ultimate rightness of the U.S., no matter what our actions, the glory of our military power, and the supreme evil of our enemy. What were the reasons for this attitude? What could be the benefit of making everyone believe in it? And what would be the result if people chose not to believe it?

It wasn’t very long before David backslid once again…his job and marriage dissolved, and a lot of people were hurt by his betrayal. But I always appreciated the perspective he gave me at a time when I really needed it. Like Mr. French, he saw the world I lived in from the point of view of an outsider. As an outsider, he was perfectly positioned to help me see my world in a new light. I’ve always felt like an outsider in my own life. Both of these men helped me see the value in that, and helped me to think critically about what passed for truth all around me.

A couple more years passed, and I ended up at a small liberal-arts college…an insulated community with its own set of truths and rules. As a freshman history major, I landed on day one in European History 115 with Dr. Bill Hartel. I will never forget those afternoons hunched over a desk with the fall light pouring through the window, and this feeling of absolute giddiness as I learned things I hadn’t known before, and looked at the things I already knew in a whole new way. I remember it so clearly because it was the first time I’d ever felt that way in a classroom.

Dr. Hartel was all about making connections, cause and effect. He taught European history backwards…we started in the present-day, which was the beginnings of the collapse of the Soviet Union at that point in time, and worked our way backwards through that semester and the next. I learned to read critically, and even though many of our texts were biased toward his own left-leaning point of view, he was able to help us see through the bias in everything we read. He was one of the professors who taught me, at age 18, how to read. Really read.

Again, Dr. Hartel was an outsider…an elderly holdover from the radical sixties, right down to his sandals and his bicycle. Sporting a tank-top and shorts most of the year, he was a complete anomaly on our buttoned-down preppy campus. And his classes were scary—but I remember the feeling of exhilaration after closing my blue-book and walking out of a final exam, and knowing I had not only given him what he wanted but woven a lot of my own thoughts and conclusions into the exam essays, and done it well. Which was probably what he wanted even more.

I had Dr. Hartel for several more classes, including American Foreign Relations, which was a semester full of knocking down accepted truths, and although we didn’t part well, I have always remembered him with tremendous respect, as I think just about every history major from that time does. He passed away a few years after I left college, and now has a program in his name that provides mini-grants for students who want to pursue activist causes.

It's interesting that it was primarily male teachers who taught me how to think. I had so many wonderful female teachers, and learned so much from them, but these three men are the ones who taught me to question, and thus, to think.