Remembering Bonnie Zawacki, Part II

In Part I, I passed along to you Bonnie Klein’s recollections of herself as a college student; Bonnie Zawacki, studying causal attribution with me at Westminster College.  The two of us—Bonnie and I—talked about building a new lens, a lens that allowed us to see our own lives in a new way.  Bonnie remembered the surprise she felt when she discovered the categories she had created in trying to give a structure to her experience.  That was our common work in class.bonnie college grad pic0001[1]

I warned you that there was a dark side, too and I’d like to turn to that dark side today.  In the previous post, we considered what it would mean to “lower the threshold of perception.”  We looked at Albert’s day in school and why he says “Fine,” when his mother asks him how things went that day.  For Albert to have some data, with which he could answer his mother’s question, he will have to lower the threshold of perception that prevents him from “noticing” the bullying, the dreary Spanish class, and the daunting lunchtime.[1]

Shifting now from Albert back to Bonnie Zawacki, we see that Bonnie takes the Political Behavior class, a part of which involves lowering the threshold of perception so that she sees a lot of things she has not seen and formulates these new data into categories.  As categories, they seem much larger and more permanent.  Because they are all made up of failures, they may seem more menacing as well.  What is Bonnie supposed to do with those new structures?

Here’s the way Bonnie Zawacki put it:

If the purpose of [this] course is to make us aware that we can move our thresholds up and down, 1) is this reasonable[?] and 2) why don’t you aid us in raising them if you’re going to teach us to lower them?  HUH?[2]

Then, later:

My threshold had indeed been lowered: I was sensitive to social manipulation, saw the alienating character of institutions, and understood that the methods and demands of those institutions were not always or necessarily in my best interest.  But then the course was ending.  I couldn’t go back to my ignorance (didn’t want to go back) but I didn’t know a way to protect myself from the hits my lowered threshold permitted and the “HUH?” at the end of that question makes me remember that I had been taking some hits, though I couldn’t possibly remember what they were.  It appears I felt left on my own to deal with my sensitivities.

Bonnie discovered some questions in her notes that she apparently wrote there rather than asking them of me.  Here’s one: “How much do you intend to lead our morals, or are you just trying to make us think?”  The underlined words were underlined in her notebook.

free the studentsQuestions and comments like these point out the dark side of teaching a class like this in the way I had chosen to teach it.  My goal was to open students’ eyes to a little of what they routinely ignored.  I wanted to give them choices where before they had seen no occasion for choice.  The picture to the left shows a lot of dialogue balloons and no dialogue.  That happened a lot at the beginning of the term.

Remember that “nothing at all had happened” in Albert’s school day and that everything, therefore, was “fine.”  I wanted to help them build, out of all the frictions they had been taught to explain away, stable prominent categories of persons or character traits or institutional practices or lapses of judgment or systemic characteristics that kept them from reaching the goals they were aware of pursuing.  That leaves the questions Bonnie asked: “OK, I build these structures.  Now what?”

There isn’t any adequate “now what” that I am aware of.  There are two ways of resolving the dilemma this approach provides.  Both resolutions are worse than the dilemma, it seems to me.  The first way is that I provide the answers to the question, “Now what?”  There were ten other students in Political Behavior the year Bonnie took it.  They represent a substantial segment of the bright, highly motivates, highly individualistic students that a good liberal arts college will collect.  So to Becky, I would say, “I see that you have devised some interesting and troubling problems as a result of your journal work.  Here is what you should do to resolve them.”  And to Amy, “Well, Amy, that is really troubling.  Clearly you are going to have to make some changes.  Here’s how you should begin.”

Are you bothered yet?  I am, and I didn’t even get down the page to Dave.

The second way is to forget what you learned about your own patterns of perception, categorization, and causal attribution.  Honestly, I suppose that was the most popular approach the students actually adopted, but I can’t see recommending it.  Let’s start with Becky again.  I say, “I see that you have uncovered some shortcomings in the way you attend to yourself and your social environment.  I thought that your discovery that you routinely attribute the flaws of your female friends to their oppressive environment and the flaws of your male friends to their inherent sexual nature explained quite a few of the journal entries you submitted.  It is problematic, though; I can see that.  So I recommend that you forget that this pattern of attributions is something you do and just go back to doing it in an unconscious way.”

free at lastMy hope was always that the students would take whatever of the new reality they found to be attractive and useful and pursue it to the best of their abilities.  They get all the benefits that way and become intimately acquainted with the mistakes they make and the consequences of those mistakes.  If there is another way to make a liberal arts education work[3], I don’t know what it is.

[1] It costs Albert a lot of energy to keep “not noticing” these events, by the way.  I don’t want to say he “represses” them because that gets me into a whole pattern of discourse I don’t want.  Imagine that Albert is the CIA and that he has “locally embedded spies” who notice all these things going one.  Albert needs to find a way to keep these spies from reporting their findings to headquarters.  He needs, in other words, to keep threatening them about what will happen if they do or keep rewarding them for their silence.  The cost of either of those will be high.  That is why it costs Albert to keep “not noticing.”

[2] Bonnie Klein, reading after all this time what she had written, admitted that that “HUH?” expressed some anger and frustration she was willing to share with her notebook, but not with her professor.

[3] They call them “the liberal arts” because they are the arts that are necessary if people are to exercise their freedom.  I think of them, myself, as “the liberating arts.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Remembering Bonnie Zawacki, Part II

  1. Bonnie Klein says:

    I’d like to add a little more on “the dark side” from my own experience teaching high school seniors in IB Theory of Knowledge.
    For my students, TOK is required, not elected, so I have a truly captive audience. We don’t do lens-building directly, but I teach them to see “issues” with knowledge: while our senses reveal the world to us, our physical limitations can cause us to see or hear things incorrectly; while language allows us to communicate with one another, it also causes us to misunderstand a large portion of that communication. By learning to recognize knowledge issues, students’ eyes are opened to “what they routinely ignored,” and most of the time that means they now have options about their knowledge they didn’t know they had before.
    Some students react to the material (and to me) with sarcasm and disbelief—like a failed comic who should get off the stage (to tweak a borrowed simile). These students don’t know how to respond to the possibilities this new way of looking at knowledge affords, and it upsets them to think that “everything” can be questioned. I tell them that the ability to analyze knowledge is one of the marks of an educated person, but that doesn’t quell the upset. Short of personal counseling, which is not really an option, much like your “now what” answers, I am still trying to find something to do for/with them.
    In fact, not long ago the name of the course was Problems of Knowledge. As I understand it, it was changed when its effect seemed to be that students left thinking no knowledge, belief, or experience was really knowable; the doubt was devastating to some. Was nothing to be trusted for what it appeared to be? Since then, the focus has been to show the value of the ways we learn things, not just their flaws.
    At the end of his Allegory of the Cave, Plato writes, “And they would say that his visit to the upper world had ruined his sight, and that the ascent was not worth even attempting. And if anyone tried to release them and lead them up, they would kill him if they could lay hands on him.” When we study this, I ask my students this question: Faced with such revolutionary new knowledge, is there any way to avoid feeling the anger and vitriol? Perhaps it’s a necessary part of turning one understanding into another.
    (As the leader-upper, though, I’d also like to know how not to be killed!)

    • hessd says:

      I may be the one person in the world who is most completely attuned to your dilemma, Bonnie. Even students who are dissatisfied with “the way things are” are sometimes not willing to see that things really “are not” that way, but are made to be that way. There is a loss of the certainty of how things are and that certainty is valued even if it shows that things are bad.

      But they you and I do something much worse. We imply that “things” could be otherwise, or at least that “the character of the students’ participation” in things could be otherwise. Now to the loss of the familiar, we add the responsibility for new thinking and new feeling and new action.

      A few seize on it and are grateful. Some find it unpersuasive. Most find it a pain in the ass and leave the questions behind them when they leave the classroom. Those are pretty good odds, I think.

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