Eraser, Mirror, Compass: Back to School (service; 120826)

Eraser, Mirror, Compass: Back to School
Service celebrated at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, on 26 August 2012
Rev. Chip Roush

OPENING WORDS
“The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own.”

Approximately two hundred years later,  I do not think that the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing would mind if we alter his words to include, not just children, but each other, such that religious education would be understood “not to impose religion…in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience,” “not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs.” “In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.”

I expect that some of us are grieving this morning, experiencing the sharp pang of a new loss, or the dull ache of a familiar sorrow. Some of us are anxious—about work, about health issues, about a loved one, or ourselves. Some are angry, some are resentful, some are sleepy and some are practically bubbling with joy to be here this morning.

Let us honor our human emotions. Rather than rejecting or denying them, let us embrace our feelings, and allow them to inform our time together, as we attempt to look inquiringly and steadily at what we’re doing with our time on earth. May we touch those inward springs of Life, evolving through and among us, to help us awaken and cherish these precious moments.

So may we be.

OPENING HYMN
Shortly before the time that Channing was preaching in New England, Mother Ann Lee was also speaking, leading the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.

They believed in the equality of the sexes; and their worship services, which involved ecstatic dance, earned them the name, “Shaking Quakers,” which was soon shortened to “Shakers.” The Shakers’ theology included pacifism and celibacy, along with hard work and an uncomplicated lifestyle. They truly believed that it is a gift to live simply.

Our opening hymn is #16, ’Tis a Gift to Be Simple Let’s sing it through twice. {singing}

BACK TO SCHOOL RITUAL
Would the children and youth—everyone under 18—please come forward?

This ritual is adapted from one originally celebrated at First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts; it was designed there by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Mikelson and the Rev. Jory Agate.

Chip:
Things change.
We change.
Our lives never stand still.

Kristin:
There is always something new.
We are always making transitions,
from one thing to another,
one age to another,
one experience to another,

Chip:
one stage of life to another,
one place to another,
one school to another,

Kristin:
one project to another,
one home to another,
one challenge to another.

We call these changes transitions.

Chip:
Some transitions are small,
But some are big,
And some are very, very big.

Kristin:
For example,
We have children in this church
Who have begun preschool or kindergarten this year.
Now that is very, very big.

Chip:
Who has started Preschool or Kindergarten?
Stand up so people can see you.

You are starting your schooling this year.
That is a big step, a very important transition.
Congratulations. We wish you well.

Kristin:
In preschool and kindergarten you will learn a lot of new things.
You will explore, discover, count, categorize, color,
figure out how the world works, and how you fit into to it.
You will be filled with questions and search for answers.
And sometimes you might even make a few mistakes.
Well, that’s all right. We all make mistakes.

Chip:
Everyone here has made some mistakes.
How many here have made mistakes?
See, we all make mistakes.
Actually, mistakes are very special things.
Because when you make a mistake,
You always, always learn something new.
You can try again with your new knowledge.

Kristin:
So to remind you how good and important mistakes are,
We want to give you a special gift
To take with you to kindergarten.
Here for each of you is an eraser
So you can erase mistakes and try again.

Chip:
So, don’t worry about your mistakes.
In fact, make lots of them.

Kristin:
Just keep your eraser handy,
And good luck in Preschool or Kindergarten.

Both:
Remember, we love you and we are proud of you.

Chip:
Some of you, who have already been in Kindergarten,
may have made enough mistakes
that you need a new eraser.
This is a good thing,
because we can learn from our mistakes.

Kristin:
Who here is four years old, or five years old,
or six or seven or eight or nine years old?
We have erasers for all of you.
{distribute erasers}

Both:
Remember, we love you and we are proud of you.

Kristin:
Another big transition often occurs in middle school,
or in the middle grades.
Do we have here any who are older than 9, but not yet in high school?
If you are, please stand up.

Chip:
These ages, 10-13 or 14, are often a big change, a big transition.
At that time of life, it seems like the big questions are:
Who we are and do we fit in?
How are we different from our peers?

Kristin:
What group do I belong to?
What group don’t I belong to?
How do the places I fit in shape my identity?

Chip:
We know we are different from our friends and other students,
But we wonder how, and is it okay to be different?

Kristin:
I think the most important thing to remember
In these middle grades is to be true to your inner self,
To get acquainted with who you are, what you value,
And hold fast to that.

Chip:
We may want to be *part* of a crowd,
but we don’t want to be completely defined by the crowd.

Kristin:
We want to give you a gift, too
As you go through these ages,
To help remind you of who you are, and what is most important,
We give you the gift of a mirror.
So you can look at yourself once in a while.

Chip:
Remember that each of you is special and wonderful.
How many adults sometimes forget about yourself,
And who you are, and what is most important?
See, everyone needs some reminding

Kristin:
To look deeply at yourself and what you value,
We all need to look in the mirror and see ourselves.
So keep you mirrors handy,
Look at yourself once in a while,

Both:
And remember, we love you and we are proud of you.

Chip:
After middle school comes high school.
Do we have anyone here who will be in high school this year?
Please stand up.

Kristin:
High school is a very big step,
A very, very big transition.
In high school we move toward maturity.
More and more we have to find our own way in the world,
Not necessarily the ways chosen by our family, teachers or peers.

Chip:
That’s not always easy. Finding our own way can be a challenge.
And, once in a while, we might even get lost.
Feeling a little lost is pretty common
At the beginning of high school.

Kristin:
But you know being lost can be a gift too.
For often when we lose our way is when we find a different path,
An unexpected path,
And yet, a path our soul was meant to be on.

Chip:
How many adults here today
Have made new discoveries about themselves
From being lost?
So our first gift to you is to tell you to “get lost.”

Kristin:
Our second gift, though, is to give you a tool
So you will always know how to find your way home,
To your family,
To your faith community who cherishes you,
And to your own true self, that which is holy and sacred.
We give you the gift of a compass.

Chip:
Keep it close to you.
Pull it out when you don’t want to be lost anymore,
When you need to be grounded in the community
Which will always embrace you.

Both:
We love you and we are proud of you.

Chip:
We all go through transitions.
Some are big, some are small,
Some are easy, some are hard.
Some seem almost impossible.

Kristin:
Some are exciting and joyful,
Some are painful and frightening.
We change cities and homes,
We change jobs and activities,

Chip:
We change commitments,
We even change our minds,
We all go through transitions.

On this Sunday morning,
We pause to recognize our transitions,
And to give thanks for a place
Where our transitions make a difference.

Spiritual life is always transition.

Kristin:
Beloved community is community in transition,
Made up of people whose lives are in transition.
So, don’t forget,
Keep your erasers handy,

Chip:
And, most of all, remember that
the First Unitarian Church of Hobart is a place
where you are loved and people are proud of you.

 

READING
Gary Matthews was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1929. He now teaches philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This is excerpted from his book, “The Philosophy of Childhood.”

It was 1963 when I first connected philosophy with childhood. Our family cat, Fluffy, had contracted fleas. I announced that I would have to take Fluffy to the basement to fumigate her. Our older daughter, Sarah, then four years old, asked if she could watch…From her perch at the head of the stairs, Sarah watched this primitive ritual with great interest.

“Daddy,” she asked after a while, “how did Fluffy get fleas?” “Oh,” I replied nonchalantly, “she must have been playing with another cat; fleas must have jumped off the other cat onto Fluffy.” Sarah reflected. “How did that cat get fleas?” she asked. [After I’d answered, “yet another cat,” she paused.] “But Daddy…it can’t go on and on like that forever!”

At the time of this incident I was teaching philosophy at the University of Minnesota. One of the standard topics…was the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. That argument depends upon ruling out an infinite regress of causes, so as to prove the existence of the First Cause, which, St. Thomas Aquinas assures us with surprising aplomb, we all call “God.” I can remember thinking, “Here I am trying to teach my university students the argument for a First Cause, and my four-year-old daughter comes up, on her own, with an argument for a First Flea!”

…[My thesis is] that some children naturally raise questions, make comments, and even engage in reasoning that professional philosophers can recognize as philosophical…My informal research suggests that such spontaneous excursions into philosophy are not at all unusual for children between the ages of three and seven; in somewhat older children, though, even eight- and nine-year-olds, they become rare, or at least rarely reported. My hypothesis is that, once children become well settled into school, they learn that only “useful” questioning is expected of them.

JOYS & SORROWS
We’ll talk a little more about how tragic it is that our schools so-often train the spontaneous philosophy *out* of our children—and, let us first honor the necessity of those useful questions. In particular, let us embrace one of the *most* useful questions:  “how are you?”     {joys & sorrows}

MEDITATION > PRAYER
Let us embark on a time of meditation. Please take a second to shift around, and get comfortable in your seat. You might choose to sit up tall, with your spine straight; many prefer to sit with their feet flat on the floor…If it helps you, you can close, or soften, your eyes…

Let us take two deep breaths together… {breaths}

And let us become aware of our knees…perhaps they are hot and sweaty, maybe they are achy, or stiff…just notice that we have knees, and that they are connected to our thighs…

pay attention to how your thighs and sitting bones support your weight, as you sit there…

and, moving up, into your trunk, notice your spine…and your shoulders…and move back into your body, becoming aware of your breathing…notice how your lungs move, and your diaphragm expands and contracts…

without forcing anything, just be aware of how your body breathes for you…pulling in oxygen and moving it about your body…feel your heartbeat, the Life pulsing through you… and let us open to that Life… Let us listen to the sounds of Life, in and around us,

as we inhabit a few moments of shared awareness…
{silence}

We call to the maker of the tree of knowledge,
to the source of our reason and intellect;

as our ancestors have for millennia,
we speak the names
of those who symbolize learning and education—-
Cerridwen, Ganesh, Saraswati, Thoth;

we honor the complementary impulses
to appreciate what we have,
and to ask “what if”;

both emboldened and humbled
in the face of such powerful concepts,
we affirm our gratitude to be alive this day,
and as well as we are;
we speak aloud our gladness
to be gathered among these good people;

we lift up those joys & sorrows just mentioned,
and those which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts;

we desire comfort and support for all those affected by the shootings in New York City;  we again decry the scourge of gun violence in our United States, and the epidemic of poverty, illness and isolation that leads to such behaviors;

we appreciate the dangerous work of our police, and we desire sufficient training for all those who are granted the use of deadly force;

we note the death-—and honor the life-—of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong;

we desire that the political conventions  go smoothly and safely; and that the delegates and politicians therein find the courage, compassion and creativity to present their very best ideas for our citizens, our government and our world;

we give thanks for our mental faculties—including our memory and our ability to reason; we appreciate the ways that these faculties improve our lives;
we lift up the liberation that comes with education; we desire wider, deeper learning and greater freedom for all of our human cousins;

We desire enough food, and shelter, and peace of mind for all beings this day; we pledge ourselves in pursuit of this goal.
Praise for living.
So may we be.

FOR THE CHILD IN EACH OF US
{Tibili: The Little Boy Who Didn’t Want to Go to School}
{ by Marie Léonard; illus. by Andrée Prigent }

SECOND READING
Gloria Watkins was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952. Using names from her mother and grandmother, she publishes her books and poetry under the pen name, bell hooks. Focusing on the interconnectivity of race, class and gender, she hopes to move feminism from its “ivory tower” academic language to the power of its grassroots beginnings. This is from her 1994 book, “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom”

Almost all our teachers at Booker T. Washington were black women. They were committed to nurturing intellect so that we could become scholars, thinkers, cultural workers-—black folks who used our minds…

To fulfill that mission, my teachers made sure they “knew” us. They knew our parents, our economic status, where we worshipped, what our homes were like, and how we were treated in the family…

Attending school then was sheer joy. I loved being a student. I loved learning. School was the place of ecstasy-—pleasure and danger. To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure.

But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could…reinvent myself.

School changed utterly with racial integration. Gone was the messianic zeal to transform our minds and beings…Knowledge was suddenly about information only. It had no relation to how one lived…[Later,] when I entered my first undergraduate classroom to teach, I relied on the example of those inspired black women teachers in my grade school…But there seemed to be no interest…in discussing the role of excitement in education.

Excitement in higher education was viewed as potentially disruptive…To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to…encourage excitement was to transgress. Not only did it require movement beyond accepted boundaries, but excitement could not be generated without a full recognition of the fact that there could never be an absolute set agenda…Agendas had to be flexible, had to allow for spontaneous shifts in direction. Students had to be seen in their peculiarity as individuals…and interacted with according to their needs.

 

SERMON
A service about education…talk about preaching to the choir! How many of you work in a field related to education? How many have had at least some schooling beyond high school? How many are among the first generation in your family to have gone to college?

We know that education has many practical, measurable, reproducible benefits. With education comes lower birth rates, longer lifespans and reduced rates of poverty. Intelligence and education are also predictors of a higher-functioning society. It takes some intelligence to move beyond simple selfishness to enlightened self-interest, and an appreciation of the common good. And uneducated people are simply not equipped to puzzle through the complicated ethical dilemmas of our 21st century world.

Fortunately, we human beings are essentially learning machines. Learning is almost as natural to us as breathing.

It is often said that the universe is evolving through us—that we are the thumbs and the conscience of this 13.7 billion-year-old evolving universe. We are also the memory banks and the massively parallel reasoning centers of our universe.

To demonstrate just how much we are hardwired to learn and grow, at virtually every opportunity, here is a story from the book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. The authors, Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, write about the educational experiments of Indian physicist Sugata Mitra.

In 1999, Professor Mitra cut a hole in a brick wall, facing into an urban slum in New Delhi. He placed a computer and a track pad into the hole, connected it to the internet, and remotely monitored what happened.

Within minutes, some of the children from the slum had learned how to point and click; by the end of the day, they were surfing the web—-and, most importantly, they were teaching each other how to do it.

Mitra’s “hole in the wall” experiment has been reproduced a number of times, all over India and around the world, always with the same results: children learn quickly and they teach each other. Mitra then took the experiment further. On one of his hole-in-the-wall computers, he put some information on biotechnology written in English, and told a bunch of twelve year olds who did *not* speak any English that there was some difficult information on the device, that they probably would not understand, and he would be back in two months to test them on it.

When he returned, he asked what they understood. A young girl answered, “other than the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing.”

In fact, when he tested them, they scored about 30 percent—which *is* a failing grade, but for a bunch of kids with no formal instruction, in only two months, it sems pretty good.

Mitra then brought in some help. He recruited a slightly-older girl from the village to act as a tutor. She did not know any biotechnology, either, but Mitra instructed her to use the “grandmother method”: she was to stand behind the children and provide encouragement: “wow! that’s cool. that’s fantastic! Show me something else.”

This time, after another two months, the kids scored about 50%—as good as the high school students in the best schools in New Delhi.

Mitra now puts computers in schools, but he restricts the number of internet portals to one per every four students. One child at a computer can learn some things, but four children, discussing and debating, can learn much more. And they do it in a self-organizing, bottom-up, manner.

The point of this story is *not* that we do not need teachers. The point is, that even without teachers, without formal training, without the advantages of well-crafted textbooks and advanced pedagogies, we human beings soak up knowledge like a sponge.

And that, dear friends, is both a good thing and a dangerous thing. Education is a good thing because it can help us achieve longer, healthier, better lives. Education is a dangerous thing because it teaches us to question authority, to think for ourselves.

Education subverts the status quo, which can frighten those powerful people who would like things to remain as they are. For almost as long as there has been education the powerful elites have tried to limit the amount of that education and to squash those who got “too much” of it.

That was *one* of the causes of the Reformation. The Catholic Church used only Latin to print bibles and conduct services. Martin Luther translated the bible into German; and one of the heresies for which our religious ancestor, Jan Hus, was burned, was his insistence that the people should hear sermons preached in their own language.

Prior to our Civil War, very few slaves were allowed to learn to read. Eventually, once they were freed and formed their own schools, they found it extremely difficult to find sufficient books and other supplies.

In fact, this is really still the case. Many schools with predominantly African American student populations struggle today to find adequate materials.

Women, throughout history, have encountered obstacles preventing them from being educated. This is still true in many countries around the globe. In some places, girls must study in secret, lest they be beaten or worse.

Terrorists in Afghanistan have thrown grenades into girls’ schools, have poisoned the schools’ drinking water, and thrown acid into the female students’ faces.

…And while we don’t necessarily have that kind of violence in our United States, education is still being limited and restricted.

Just a few months ago, the Texas Republican Party included as part of its platform the statement, “We oppose the teaching of…critical thinking skills… [because they] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Conversely, one of the things about which I am most proud, over the last year, is that this congregation donated a half-dozen books which I smuggled into Arizona so that the Hispanic, Latino and Latina students there could have easier access to the books which the state legislature had banned their schools from teaching.
Allow me to quote the late George Carlin: “There is a reason that education [stinks] … because the owners … The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things… don’t want an educated citizenry…. they want obedient workers… people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paper work and just dumb enough to passively accept the increasingly [bad] jobs with the lower pay the longer hours the reduced benefits the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it…”
And do you know *how* to create just-smart-enough workers who are still passive enough to accept their increasingly bad conditions? The really sophisticated elites do not rely on piecemeal laws and policies, like in Arizona and Texas. Rather, they undermine and degrade the entire educational system.

They decrease and restrict educational funding, every chance they get; and they attack and slander and delegitimize and disempower teachers’ unions.

So now, instead of bell hooks’ insistence (from our second reading) that students must be seen in their peculiarity as individuals, we have twenty or thirty or *forty* students in every classroom, so that virtually no student receives any kind of individualized attention.

And those in power pass quote—reforms—unquote like the so-called “No Child Left Behind” initiative, which even its former champion, once Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, now laments. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, two years ago, Ravitch wrote that the No Child Left Behind policies had resulted in schools where students “were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else… This was not my vision of good education.”

And in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine, Kristina Rizga writes that “an increasing proportion of lesson time is spent preparing students for tests, and the curriculum is being narrowed to what is on those tests—even though many researchers agree that cramming for multiple-choice…tests contributes very little to actual learning.”

Thus is our entire educational system reduced to teaching only “useful” questions—questions that are likely to be useful in running machines and doing paperwork and, most importantly, questions that are *not* likely to inspire students to question their place in the status quo.

 

There is still hope. There is hope to be found in one of the world’s very best national school systems. For over a decade now, the nation whose school system  has consistently been ranked as the best, or one of the best, is Finland.

According to an article in last December’s Atlantic magazine, Finland has *no* private schools, and virtually no standardized tests. Yet Finnish 15-year-olds have ranked at or near the top in testing by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in all three of its categories: reading, math and science, from the year 2000 forward.

Author Anu Partanen writes: “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

She continues, “in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country.”

Instead of standardized tests, Finnish educators “are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests [the teachers] create themselves.”

In other words, instead of muzzling the students’ natural thirst for learning, instead of constraining the teachers’ natural creativity, those human impulses are encouraged and empowered. Instead of using the educational system as a means to prop up and perpetuate societal hierarchies, the Finns deliberately created a system to create equality of access—-which allowed the students to thrive and excel.

And they did all that in approximately one generation, from a woeful educational system in the 1970s to the world’s best, less than thirty years later.

It can be done. The theory that Paolo Friere and bell hooks call “education as the practice of freedom” has been proven effective, over and over. The universe is always learning and evolving through us. If we get out of our own way, and encourage that natural process, there may be no limit to what we can accomplish, together.

So may we be.

 

OFFERING
If you would like to support one of the few religious traditions where you can hear ideas like that, please put some money into the baskets, as they come around.
{collection}

 

CLOSING HYMN
How many of you value the education you’ve received in your life? How many celebrate the power of education to subvert the status quo? How many are willing to teach or co-teach our children, at least one Sunday in RE this year? Please talk to me, or Kristin, or the RE Committee chair, Michele, if you would like to come and go with me to do this important work.

Please rise, in body or spirit, for our closing hymn, #1018, Come and Go with Me
{singing}

 

CLOSING WORDS
Sometime this week, may you recognize an idea, or an action, that occurs to you because your personal religious beliefs come not from arbitrary rules, but from your own awakened conscience—and may you be grateful, in that moment, that you attend the First Unitarian Church of Hobart.
So may we be.