It All Adds Up…in the End…of Days

“An eye for an eye.” “Turn the other cheek.” Both essential wisdoms, yet they contradict.

One critical aspect of education is understanding nuance. Context and circumstances often dictate a need for a particular response; hence, the need for ethics based education (not to be confused with politics or religious based education). By integrating the systems that sustain cultures, by teaching the tenants that allowed societies to flourish, students can learn how the environment shapes individuals, communities, and civilizations.

One does not need to believe in God (or the gods) as a prerequisite for learning history and theology. In fact, by understanding the frameworks of earlier peoples, students may draw parallels to current events and contemporary times; thus, making learning relevant and highlighting the notion that history tends to repeat itself lest we learn the lessons of the past to prevent catastrophes previously foretold. Teaching ethics seems like good practice.

The Bible is a familiar book and often becomes the default for moral guidance (i.e. ethics). It does not need to be the sole work for “ethical enlightenment” (nor is it a definitively moral book), but it’s interesting to interpret and study.

For instance, Rabbi Dr. Henry Hasson, a physician and religious leader from Brooklyn, elucidates upon one key aspect of the story of Noah’s ark and the destruction of the world via flood. “The midrash [commentary for the Old Testament] explains that all the prior generations [to Noah and his ark] were corrupt…They committed many crimes including adultery. However, looking at the [Hebrew] verses carefully, it is ‘hamas’ (not to be confused with the current use of the term) that the generation of the flood engaged in that became unacceptable. We are taught that ‘hamas’ means theft. When they started robbing each other God decided that they must be destroyed. Even though technically adultery is a more severe crime than theft, a crime for which one must give up one’s life rather than commit adultery, it was the theft that was the last straw. God tolerated everything, even the most severe crime of adultery and idol worship as long as the people were living in harmony. Once they began to steal from each other and fight amongst themselves God no longer tolerated the crimes.” In other words, God is willing to suppress his ego as long as the mission—in this case, world peace—is accomplished. That’s a hefty endorsement for team work and a critical viewpoint to present: One’s individual needs (feelings) are not greater than the whole—even when the slighted individual is God.

Indeed, religious teachings contain a myriad of lessons to be discovered and discussed. And we should explore them; not for the sake of strict adherence to strictures, but rather to internalize the spirit of the law, to search for meaning amidst the madness, to find beauty in the mundane routines of life, to connect with ourselves and with our fellow man. With the underlying intention of elevating the entire community—for indeed we are only as strong as our weakest link—we may truly usher in an age of success.

To do this we need context—not memorization of historical facts, and not blind loyalty to the doctrine of the day—but comprehensive evaluation of events, common practice, cultural lore, and the workings and structures of society that influence the development of belief systems. An honest journey into this field will undoubtedly dismantle erroneous long-held beliefs: that tribal organizations were primitive and needed to be civilized or that Patriarchs were inherently evil, for example. Certainly, there were evil-doers among them. Surely, certain tribes did not have a version of equity/parity. But it was not every one and it was not all the time. Honest pursuit allows us to examine pathological systems; King Leopold, Joseph Idi Amin, and the currently polarizing (and subsequently deteriorating) two-party system of the USA.

What worked? When? Why? Which circumstances allowed certain nations to flourish, while other peoples with similar values and systems did not endure? We must employ the study of ethics to observe, recognize patterns, hypothesize, and conduct research and experiments to determine/confirm the results. Then we may take implementable action to place ourselves upon a more sustainable path. This is true data analysis—something DOE claims to value, but like most else, does not practice with any sense of integrity or efficacy.

But it should. For, in an increasingly hostile world that makes less and less sense, logic is an imperative. As basic reasoning abilities erode in the face of emotions and subjective truths, there is another bastion of hope: mathematics. Math is a window to truth, an entry point to understanding objective reality, because as much as I may want 1 + 1 = 3, it cannot.

Interestingly, with the decline of test scores in both reading and mathematics, the DOE has made a push to integrate the two subjects—because failing one is not enough. Rather than allow students to strengthen these two languages (yes, numbers are a language) in their respective subject classes, recent textbooks have been issuing complex word problems for young scholars to demonstrate their mathematical prowess. The conundrum is that when students are already struggling with literacy skills, their reading proficiency is compromised and their ability to decode, decipher, and determine the question is undermined. Rather than frustrate students with convoluted word problems, we should be encouraging mathematics to be taught in simple numeric terms so students do not allocate brainpower to untangling what the word problem is asking, but rather can use their working memory to engage an increasingly complex mathematical reasoning.

Another fault I find with word problems is that they can be  subjectively manipulated and misused by well-meaning and compassionate adults who redirect the conversation from logical reasoning to a discussion broaching various “sensitivities”—a worthwhile discussion to have, but not at the expense of acquiring the necessary skills of logic and reasoning. The Annenberg Learner presented a fascinating course on neuroscience and the classroom and touched on this exact point.

Indeed, “students from different cultural and social backgrounds may well interpret the same classroom exercises in very different ways. For example, in a second-grade math class, a student was confused over the correct answer to a problem about whether a six-foot-wide car could park in a seven-foot-wide garage. No, it could not, she explained, because the driver would not be able to open the car door. Clearly, although this student’s initial response was labeled incorrect, she had indeed solved the math problem correctly but had gone beyond to consider the personal perspective of the driver. While a simple example and one that was quickly resolved, it nonetheless illustrates that this student was considering not simply numbers but practical, personal concerns in solving her math problems” (Annenberg Learner).

This is a valid point and a useful conversation when such moments propel the discussion further. How much space would we need to open the doors? What would be the new dimensions of the garage? Meaningful real world application of essential, foundational skills. Excellent!

This is the epitome of practical critical-thinking, reasoning, and decision-making. However, given the stated DOE missives related to identifying bias and oppression, I have misgivings as to whether these moments would be used for an enriching pursuit of mathematical enlightenment, or if they would serve as the basis to redirect the curriculum. The first, would be an exercise in ethics; the second, politics.

Judging by the current test scores, which indicate a majority of kids cannot read nor reason mathematically on an agreed upon level of competency, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that standard, skills-based content is being ousted for political agendas. But kids need foundational skills. We all do, particularly given our current social ecosystem which summarily “cancels” people for expressing views deemed unpopular by a specific subset of the population.

Unfortunately, rather than engaging in dialogue with the offensive party in an effort to allow him to flesh out his argument (and subsequently challenge the views with facts, logic, and reasoning) people are simply de-platformed. By removing one side of the conversation and silencing information, no matter how preposterous, we inhibit people’s abilities to evaluate and analyze. (I’m curious to see how Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover will change the metaverse. I do hope it restores the practice of hardy debates and a search for the truth—as opposed to “disappearing” anyone who dissents—Stalin anyone?— and satisfying a need to be Right.)

If people do not encounter good ideas, strongly substantiated ideas, theoretically sound but impractical ideas, they won’t know how to distinguish between what is useful and what is not, what is valid and what is not, what is accurate and what is not. A strong mathematics program allows students to stay rooted in fact, so they can look objectively at reality, and extrapolate meaning from the numbers. However this only works if they understand numbers and how to use them. We should not be obfuscating the process by incorporating complex word salads that do not increase the complexity of the problem, but only the language used to express the problem. (The need for direct literacy instruction will be addressed in a subsequent post, btw.)

Enter speech and a fantastically informative podcast from Drs. Andrew Huberman and Erich Jarvis). Humans are wired for verbal communication. We have the hardware and the software. Our muscles and brain are reflexively wired to produce sound—crying out in pain, grunting in satisfaction—and the structure of our social orders naturally evolve to produce organized spoken language. This is the difference between semantic communication (words with meaning) and affective communication (sounds of emotional expression). If I stub my toe, I will vocalize the discomfort whether or not another person can hear me; however, in order to communicate words with meaning, one needs an audience to hear and correctly interpret the language.

The ability to convey ideas, emotions, and information is therefore essential to the longevity of a community and for the passing of culture and knowledge from one generation to the next—I don’t remember where I first encountered the idea, but imagine the ways that progress would be hindered if each subsequent generation had to learn how to generate, transfer, and transform fire from scratch, because that knowledge and experience was not able to be communicated. Language is wildly important, and several great thinkers have noted that the emergence of spoken language (distinct from innate vocalizations) was essentially the first technological-cultural revolution.

The ability to convey ideas, emotions, and information is therefore essential to the longevity of a community and for the passing of culture and knowledge from one generation to the next—I don’t remember where I first encountered the idea, but imagine the ways that progress would be hindered if each subsequent generation had to learn how to generate, transfer, and transform fire from scratch, because that knowledge and experience was not able to be communicated. Language is wildly important, and several great thinkers have noted that the emergence of spoken language (distinct from innate vocalizations) was essentially the first technological-cultural revolution.

(Of note, researcher and dancer Dr. Erich Jarvis explains the fundamental connections between movement and speech in his riveting interview). It should not surprise one to learn that coordinating movement and coordinating speech follow the same process and pathways. That is, to learn set patterns, to gain fluency in those patterns, then to apply those patterns in improvised combinations. It’s standard operating procedure for every learning paradigm I can think of—mathematics, reading, painting, or playing the trumpet.)

Verbal communication is intricate and fascinating, relying not simply on volume, tone, word choice, but also on body language, prestige, and personal connection to the speakers and topics. Effective public speakers often use a combination of ethos, pathos, and logos to persuasively sway their listeners. It is the fluid overlapping of affective and semantic communication that highlights even more urgently the need for individuals to be able to isolate various components of a problem and evaluate the veracity of claims as they are presented.

For this reason, we should require speech classes in school. Students must be equipped with the knowledge to determine when someone is appealing to their emotions in order to elicit a passionate response (that may or may not be in their best interest). Students should learn how to sense when someone is relying on credentials or relationships to distract from the unsound ideas. Kids should be trained to compute whether facts and conclusions make sense—they need to look at both sides of the equation. It’s easy to see when something doesn’t add up.

At least it was. Now, less so. The more we dismiss people, disregard ideas, and silence opinion, the more we will inhibit our own capacity to reason. Returning to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands), if we no longer impose the demands of computational and critical thinking, the more those faculties will weaken. What replaces it? Bifurcated, divisive rhetoric that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The skill of scrutiny is developed in arts classes in the form of critiques (not to be confused with entitled and baseless opinions—a robust discussion in ethics and religious literature will crush that tendency—but rather, informed and well-reasoned observational analyses).

A true artist is first skillful. He must master color, form, perspective, and medium to convey not just an image, but also the emotions embodied therein. And so, artists, too, combine semantic and affective communication. Within this framework/interplay, an artist must understand shades. Burgundy, crimson, and pink are all iterations of the same color. However, they are not the same. Likewise with words. Relieved. Joyful. Empowered. They fall along the same spectrum of positive emotions but they are not interchangeable. Respect. Like. Appreciate. Again, they belong to the same family, but they cannot be substituted for one another.

Further, when one looks at a work of art, it is usually in some context—perhaps the timeline of the artist’s life, or as she is compared with other artists of the time. Perhaps a work of art is dissected in the context of history. These aspects (and others) contribute to the final presentation of a piece and allow a viewer to look more thoughtfully at intention and meaning, and debate whether an artist was successful in his portrayal.

It bears repeating that a true artist or craftsman is a master, one who is skillful in the fundamentals and utilizes his knowledge to create. This ability to generate something new and nuanced is in stark contrast to works of shock value—which I do not consider true artistry because of the inherent purpose. The pursuit of shock value presumes a lack of nuance/context because the audience is induced to react sharply, not to ponder intricacies. Shock value, like political clickbait, is designed to elicit a reaction and deliberately inhibit thought. It falls apart under scrutiny and serious analysis.

And yet, there is another angle. When prompted to discuss text messaging, Dr. Jarvis identified that texting is quick. It allows for rapid communication, context suppression, and shorthand. Perhaps this leads to our collective inability to interpret (the inverse of the SAID Principle—if you don’t use it, you lose it). Or perhaps we are writing our truest and most distilled thoughts; perhaps texting reveals our most authentic selves because we don’t have time for nuance. To ponder each possibility and its implication takes time, language, logic, and nuance.

While honesty is a virtue, so is temperance. In order to contend with a society that is increasingly quick to polarize and extirpate, we must insist that our kids learn how to thoughtfully moderate ideas and emotions via the essential and overlapping subjects of ethics, math, speech, and art.

Recommended readings and podcasts –

The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved by Robbins Burling

The Hidden Brain: Watch Your Mouth with Shankar Vedantam, Lera Boroditsky, and John McWhorter

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