What Drives Me
Back Then and Now

Education is critically important to me for a litany of reasons. The genesis of this drive occurred when my family moved from Pennsauken, NJ to Mt. Lebanon, PA. We moved between the time that I was in 5th and 6th grade. I was an above average student in a middle-class community until I found myself in the 19th best school system in the entire country and the wealthiest community in Western Pennsylvania. Mt. Lebanon taught me two things; I was dumb and poor. Both were singed into my psyche.

After getting my doctorate, I realized that I wasn’t dumb. Even so, the scar tissue remains, which was a blessing ironically. It sensitized me to others who face problems. Interestingly, the liberation of women is certainly near the top of what drives me.

All these issues morph together as they relate to my granddaughters in Myanmar. In my twilight years, I want to do all that I can for them especially, when it comes to education.

Additionally, over my nearly eight decades of my journey on the yellow brick road of life, things that once were seen by me appeared one way, but, in my twilight years, they are seen differently. Essentially, my Weltanschauung changed. This is an excellent example. I hated having to memorize 100-lines of poetry or prose each semester while in high school. I especially dreaded standing in front of Mrs. Davis the most to recite some stanza of a poem. She expected her English class to recite flawlessly passages that we picked to memorize. I didn’t like having her corrected me about what I had just spoken while I was trying to remember the next line of some passage.

Those few minutes before and after school standing in front of Mrs. Davis caused me fear and trembling. At the other end of my life, I cherish having memorized hundreds of lines. In addition, I am delighted to be able to recall many lines that I had first memorized six decades ago. A day does not end without me writing some quote or using it in my teaching.

However, beyond the issue of memorization, many of the lines memorized by me also changed over the years. Six decades ago, I loved Bobby Burns who was a great Scottish poet. My two favorite poems by Burns are Auld Lang Syne and To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church.

What fascinated me in high school about Auld Lang Syne was that I didn’t grasp most of the poem.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

What was with drinking kindness for auld lang syne? Today, at the other end of my life, I get Burns’ message.

The poem, To A Louse, if drinking kindness confused me, Burns paying tribute to headlice was even perplexing. However, now, I am fully aware of the meaning of his lyrics. Burns’ use of headlice was only to get his point across to his readers. He wanted to have us address the issue of seeing ourselves as others see us.

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

Last week, I was teaching a survey class, which addresses the major religions of the world. I love teaching any humanities class. However, dealing with world religions is more difficult since students will deal with a religion of their family and the community with whom they relate. When that occurs, their studying is less objective. It often is personal and often defensive. Therefore, I call their attention early to issues that aren’t personal. Essentially, they get a foretaste of some issues as they relate so some foreign religion before it becomes more personal.

Case in point. Last week, we dealt with Jainism, which is a spinoff of Hinduism. In a postscript to the assignment, I wanted them to watch a video on YouTube that was an early version of Michael Jackson singing, Ben. Dick Clark prefaces MJ singing Ben. That was my pedagogical means to make them wonder why I mentioned Ben? To be honest, I used that technique for years, and it never resonated with past students as a teaching event. It has never worked and didn’t this time either. Always anxious to teach creatively, I changed my methodology.

I mentioned the obvious. Each student was born into a particular religious group in society. If my classes were taught in Tokyo, Japan, rather than in the Chicago area, they wouldn’t have their religious belief that they do now. Thus, their religious mindset was totally derived being told what to believe by their parents or that of the community in which they live. None of them decided on a religion after studying them all and then deciding.

Again, I attempted to illustrate that truism by a personal example. I told them that Campbells are ethnically Scottish and therefore will be Christians and more likely Presbyterians. For example, I went to a Presbyterian church, went to a Presbyterian college, went to a Presbyterian graduate school, and then went to a Presbyterian post-graduate school…in what country? Scotland. Then I went to a Presbyterian graduate school for my doctorate. My point was that I followed the pattern of my group…almost precisely. If the student was a Muslim or a Southern Baptist, they would each have different preset beliefs. Therefore, we reflect the group from which we came. That is a given.

Jainism is a religion that appeared 2.5 millennia ago in India. Ahimsa is the theological essence of Jainism. Ahimsa means do no harm. Jains are told never to harm any living creature. Violating ahimsa is considered a cardinal sin for Jains. That was my reason for mentioning Ben.

Over the past two decades, when I would teach this survey class, nearly everyone mentioned that they hadn’t even heard of that religion. Also, students admired the fact that Jains were really into ahimsa. Students have seen value in that tenet of not harming any living thing without questioning anything related to ahimsa. That is precisely what Jains have done…repeated what had been told to them without even processing what they believed. Jains and my classes do the same dance…repeat theological beliefs without questioning them. Theological beliefs are de facto correct.

In one of the classes last week, I mentioned the bipolarity of theology and philosophy. My teaching illustration was John Locke. He built his philosophy on the notion of the tabula rasa. Essentially, Locke believed that we all come into this world with nothing in our brain. When a child is born, that infant has nothing, according to Locke, in its brain except for a white sheet of paper to be written upon by life.

Today, no one in the entire world buys the notion of the tabula rasa. In fact, Locke’s tabula rasa has around 20,000 different genes, which makes our human genome and predetermines things like IQ, color of skin, hair, and eyes, medical strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, etc., etc. Whether we are left or right-handed is predetermined. What we have before us is philosophy at one end of the pole and theology at the other end.

When a religion emerges, the new religion reflects the time, culture, the mindset of the locals, etc. Having said that, the new religion then enshrines all that religious beliefs about cultures, thoughts, beliefs, understanding of the world, etc. into its theology. The new religion views everything that they believe as the truth and completely inerrant.

Over time, religions almost never change anything that had been enshrined at its naissance. On those very rare occasions, when they do, the changes are made centuries after the fact or more often a millennium or more later. However, I want my students, all of whom are not Jains, to question everything and especially ahimsa. If students don’t question a religious belief of a religion about which hardly any of them had ever heard, they won’t see issues that need to be looked at in the religion with which they are familiar.

It is bad enough that ahimsa is sexist, the learned Jain theologians 2,500 ago added insult to injury. Why are males to be cautious around females? Answer: females cause sin. In another attempt at a teaching moment, I used another visual aid. Titian's painting, The Fall of Man. By the why, Titian wasn’t a Jain. He was an Italian painting during the Renaissance.

It was the fault of females.

Finally, after using Locke’s idea of a tabula rasa as a teaching moment, Locke also said, “…whatever I write, as soon as I discover it not to be true, my hand shall be the forwardest (he means first) to throw it into the fire.”

I want my students and my readers to question everything. I’m not here to tell you that one group is better than another, because they aren’t. However, I want you to think, ponder, wonder, ask questions, debate, etc.