Reality

One of the first essays I assigned as a brand new Instructor at the University of Rhode Island many years ago was the question: “What Is Real?” The students were allowed to take the question wherever they wanted and provide reasonable answers to the question. It was one of my first thought exercises in the spirit of Robert Hutchins’ admonition: the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers.

Be that as it may, there is a genuine problem out there in our world that has seldom, if ever, been addressed in a direct manner. It surfaced recently in a comic I like to check out each day as a young girl staring at her iPhone told her parents who were captivated by a fireworks display that “Snapshot” had shown a much more thrilling event recently. She was completely bored by the real thing. Think about that: reality is boring because it fails to measure up to make-believe.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that is essential for humans to develop in a healthy manner — the ability to separate reality from illusion. At birth we know only hunger and crave the pleasure that comes from satisfying that hunger and the quick response to our other immediate needs — including love from our parents. We spend the rest of our lives wishing we were back in the womb where it was safe and all our needs were immediately satisfied. But life hits us squarely in the buttocks and we grow painfully into adulthood. In the process we occasionally retreat into our own heads and find it a safe place to retreat to when things in the real world become too threatening. It’s called becoming an adult. But a large part of growing up involves the realization that we cannot remain within our own heads and become healthy, mature adults at the same time.

The point is that as we grow older we are also supposed to also grow more certain about what is real and what is make-believe. And frightening as reality can be at times (especially these times!) we must prefer it to an imaginary world in which we are all-powerful and in complete control — like the world of electronic toys. We already know these toys are addictive: they release quantities of dopamine into the brain, just as does gambling or alcohol. But I speak here of a deeper problem. For many who engage with these toys reality becomes hard, too hard, and they retreat into a make-believe world which seems safer but which can entrap them for the remainder of their lives. Reality shrinks and the world of make-believe becomes larger and it becomes OUR world. It’s called “delusion,” or eventually “psychosis.”

Many of us are aware that our feckless leader lives in such a world. It is disturbing to say the least. But it pales in contrast to the fact that he is joined in that make-believe world by growing numbers of people who find reality simply too hard to deal with in a direct and honest manner. Thus do games, and, indeed, the world of entertainment as a whole, draw us to them and the imaginary world becomes the real world, a world in which we are at the center and a world that bends to our every wish. The problem is that this is not the real world. The real world is one of pain and struggle with a blend of heroism, love, sympathy for others and, we would hope, a sincere wish to belong with others to a world we share but cannot bring utterly under our control.

One must wonder where this will eventually lead us all, given the genuine need to address real problems and suggest real solutions. There is much to do and there are problems waiting to be addressed. We start in the wrong direction if we take in hand an electronic toy that leads us to believe that it is all very simple and problems that arise can be solved by pushing an icon.

In answer to my own question, then, I would say reality is what we experience daily; it is a struggle tempered by occasional beauty, a remarkable number of good people, and those few who are close to us whom we love. It involves frustration at times, but it also rewards heroic efforts — or even the slightest effort — to do the right thing. We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we can certainly address those closest to us which allow us to make small inroads into solutions that will help make the world a better place. The real world, not an imaginary one.

Like It Is

In a recent interview on E.S.P.N. a very articulate black N.B.A. athlete was dismayed by the fact that “a majority” of Americans had spoken and it is now more clear than it ever was that racism is the order of the day. I paraphrase, of course, but his resentment over the fact that a “majority” of Americans had exhibited their racism struck me as a bit out of order.

I realize that those in a minority in this country have just been slapped in the face, and very hard at that. I can understand their anger and frustration even though I do not share their minority status. I can only imagine what it must feel like today to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country after Trump’s victory. But let’s set the record straight. We got in this mess because we confused facts with factions — not to say outright lies. And the fact is that almost half of the eligible voters in this country didn’t even vote. And of those voting Hillary Clinton won the majority of those votes. Thus, to say as this man did, that this election proves that a majority of Americans have exhibited their racism is simply not true.

It is possible that a majority of Americans are, in fact, prejudiced against blacks and minorities. But this election didn’t show us much of anything except for the fact that there are a great many people in this country — hardly a majority — who are proud of their prejudice and racism and were eager to support a bigot who is openly biased against any and all who are different from himself. But we knew that going in.

Our disappointment must be over this fact and this fact alone, because it doesn’t help heal the wounds to cast aspersions against a majority of Americans who may, in fact, have few or no prejudices against minorities. We simply don’t know how or what “the majority” of Americans feel about much of anything. Since a great many don’t bother to vote and of those voting voted against the bigot, the claims are cloudy at best. Thus, we must remain focused on what we do know: racism is a problem and it must be addressed. This election was a wake-up call, but it did not prove that a majority of Americans are bigots.

Among the other comments in the interview I refer to were a number that expressed hope that we would, as a nation, come together. This is also a sentiment echoed in a recent blog post by my blogging buddy Keith. These were the comments that I found most encouraging. A result like the one so many of us feared and now are depressed by may well help to bring people together. To begin with, it is clear that racism and bigotry are huge problems in this country — though it remains unclear just how big they are. And they need to be addressed. They will not be addressed until they are recognized as serious problems. Such recognition has just been forced upon us. So let us hope that it does bring a bit of light that can now be shed on problems that have been thus far kept in the dark closet of despair.

A great many people stand to lose a great deal as a result of this election. It makes perfect sense that some, if not all, would resort to exaggeration and hyperbole to express their feelings. But, again, we have learned how easy it is to be mislead by feelings and what consequences face us when we do not attempt to separate fact from fiction and use our minds as well as our hearts to search out the best path to the truth and the resolution of difficulties.

In any event, now is indeed the time to come together and to open lines of communication with one another, to seek solutions to complex issues rather than to simply stand by and wring our hands and cry crocodile tears because things didn’t turn out as we had hoped. So let’s not resort to hyperbole and self-pity to make a point that will not withstand criticism. There are a number of scenarios that could evolve in the days to come and none of us knows which is the one that we will actually experience. Let us continue to hope that things cannot possibly be as bad as they seem and in fact that the test we now face will make this nation stronger, not weaker. History has shown that nations and people can do extraordinary things during hard times. And we are indeed facing hard times.

Sad To Say

I recently returned from a trip to Colorado to visit with my wife’s very sick sister and in trying to catch up with my emails and various items on the ‘net, I discovered this rather sad commentary on our sick educational system. It highlights the fact that an increasing number of Republican states are decimating the educational system by cutting off funds and trying to make life as difficult as possible for those who try to teach the kids. In this case Kansas is engaged in a series of cut-backs that are sending teachers to other states in an attempt to earn a living.

In the article, which underlines the fact that there are those in this country who would just as soon get rid of public education entirely, there is mention of the fact that Kansas is hiring unlicensed teachers to fill the spaces left by those who are moving out of state to find employment elsewhere. Strange to say, I tend to agree with this move, despite the fact that it smells of using “scabs” to fill the places of striking union workers. In this case, assuming that the replacement teachers are well educated, they might be an improvement over those with certification. In general, I have a rather low opinion of the entire certification process in this country, as some might recall from previous posts. I have seen a number of students leave the education department at my university because they regarded the required courses as “Mickey Mouse,” too easy and what they regarded as a waste of time. It’s a zero-sum game and for every “methods” course that those kids must take they miss out on the chance to take challenging courses that would make them better and wiser teachers. I had a teacher in the education department tell me at one point that one of my honor students was “too smart” to be a secondary school teacher and that she should find another field of study!

In the first year after I graduated from college I taught at a private secondary school in New York where none of the teachers had certification. The reputation of the school was (and still is) stellar and I found the teachers, without exception, to be excellent and dedicated to their task. They were all college graduates with majors in academic fields such as English, History, Biology, Foreign Language, and the like. They knew their stuff and they imparted it to their students with consummate skill — as far as I could see. In fact, none of the private schools in the East — and elsewhere as far as I know — require certification of their teachers. And yet they have well-earned reputations as excellent places to send the young. Indeed, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the requirement to certify teachers is a bit of a joke and certainly not the guarantee of excellence that it was supposed to be at the outset. And, as we all have discovered, Finland — which has the highest rated school system in the world — does not require that their teachers to be “certified.”

However, while I am sympathetic with the desire to circumvent the certification process, I most assuredly do not have any sympathy for those who would derail the entire public education system that has, until recently, provided this nation with most of its movers and shakers. Perhaps I am biased as I am also a product of the public education system through high school, as were my wife and two sons. There are serious problems in our public education system that have lowered it in comparison with other systems around the world. But the glutting of the schools, the increasing number of attempts to weaken the entire system until it breathes its last, is assuredly not the way to go. I would applaud any effort to eliminate the certification process and the schools of education that pretend that teaching is a science (when we all know it is an art). However, the answer is not to cut funding, but to increase it and attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession. It does appear that legislators like those in Kansas seek to cut off their noses to spite their faces.