Saturday, January 2, 2016

Roots around Rock: Ideals vs. Norms:

Thoughts on Teaching toward Ideals in a Less-Than Ideal World

Part I: The  Understood Tensions inTeaching Ideals
[Click on highlighted words in this post for support links.]

The instructional philosophy and program of any school is based on a set of assumptions. Some call these assumptions a worldview for they do, indeed, determine how we interpret the world around us. An important characteristic of one’s worldview is determining whether it is shaped by fixed ideals or changing norms. Teaching from a foundation of ideals is to some too idealistic—too out-dated, to out of touch with reality, too authoritative, too non-inclusive—to be included in the 21st Century classroom. But if guiding principles and ideals cannot be taught in a school setting, what hope is there beyond its walls? Ideals are standards of expectation toward which individuals or societies can strive; they are not meant to govern, per se, but to guide. 

Ideals do not replace reality; they inspire us to improve upon it. Self-governance, for example, is an ideal which requires the reality of law enforcement, but this fact does not make reality more important than the ideals that help shape it; it merely reflects the interdependence of the two terms. Ideals that have no effect upon reality are no more attractive than reality which does not reflect ideals.

Just as there is interdependence between ideals and reality, ideals themselves cannot properly function in isolation. The quality of mercy, for instance, means little without the reality of justice. It is the natural tension between the two ideals that makes each effective. There is similar tension between our founder’s ideals of equality and freedom. Most free people consider it self-evident that “all men are created equal,” and such equality is best seen in the equal disbursement of freedom. Within the context of liberty, however, comes the freedom to excel, to “build a better mousetrap,” so to speak. Excelling is a competitive process that implies doing something BETTER than—not equal to—the other guy.

Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of equally-created people in their pursuit of happiness means little without the freedom to excel—which is to rise above "sameness" with those in the same pursuit. Freedom also allows people to rest in that pursuit—and to be content with the way things are or to reach different conclusions regarding similar things: 

In other words, one can build a better mousetrap if he chooses; or rally for the rights of mice as PETA chooses; or build a kingdom and a fortune with a mouse as Disney did. Three very different paths, freely chosen, with very unequal outcomes, and there is room for all three perspectives in the principled pluralism of a constitutional republic. 

[Note: This does not mean that PETA's cry for animal rights is morally equal to causes like Right to Life. It simply means that, constitutionally speaking, PETA activists are free to equate themselves with rats so long as they treat people who disagree with them humanely.] 

The understood tension between freedom and equality is better understood when equality is seen as the ideal of providing a level playing field rather than manipulating an equal score. To whatever extent equality guarantees outcomes each individual’s freedom to excel is proportionately diminished. Schools are wise to teach the importance of equal opportunity in conjunction with each person’s freedom to excel. There is a similar relationship between individual and corporate effort. Even though doing one’s best is an individual responsibility, achieving excellence is rarely done in isolation; it is more attainable with the help of parents, teachers, and peers; and it is more sustainable in the context of community and complementary skill sets.

It is the tension between valued ideals that makes them difficult to teach and emulate, but the task is also hard because ideals are not comfortable. Ideals do not exist to conform to man’s nature but to transform it. Formative ideals must naturally be harder than the nature they hope to transform. There’s the rub. 

Striving toward individual or collective ideals implies friction, effort and yielding, falling down and getting up and starting all over again. There is after all, that continuous clash between ideals and the realities of resistance. But just because just causes sometimes fail does not mean justice will not more often prevail; just because exceptions to a rule may sometimes be in order does not mean order itself should not be preserved; and just because students may see brokenness in and around themselves each day should not dim their hopes of a better tomorrow and purpose for embracing it.

The process of teaching ideals begins with an understanding of human nature. Left to his own devises is man basically good at heart ?... or is man's nature prone toward depravity changed only by divine intervention? The answer determines one's worldview.

As is so vividly depicted in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the question of man's nature is answered by the this unfolding reality: human behavior is only as "good" as his sense that authority exists to which he will someday give an account. The story proves that the ability to exercise "good judgment" individually requires an authoritative sense of right and wrong and the belief that collective accountability to that authority will someday be restored. 

Golding's tale [see film here] reveals that, when shared ideals and expectations erode, behavior devolves to each man doing what is right in his own eyes. "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die" becomes the existential law of the island [which is a symbol of earth] as fewer and fewer boys believe that someone will save them. Lost is a hope of rescue (salvation), and equally lost is the notion that the boys will ever give an account of their actions on the island. 
As hope fades, the unifying call of the conch shell soon gives way to fear followed by bravado and  tribal chants to do away with Ralph and "Piggy" who dare hold to forgotten moral codes as they  speak out against wrong behavior. A society that stops calling things "wrong" may suppress feelings of guilt in the short term, but in the long term, guilt-free depravity removes the foundation upon which individual freedom and corporate governance function. The last scene of Lord of the Flies is an excellent illustration of this truth.

Teaching toward ideals is not about survivalism or a vain attempt to build a Utopian society. Nor should it breed judgmental eyes or nose-lifting elitism. Just as one can embrace ideals without becoming a blind ideologue, one can strive to develop principled good judgment without becoming the earthly judge of those choose not to agree with it. This approach echos the old maxim of etiquette: The truest test of manners is how one treats those who lack them. 

A balanced approach to teaching of and toward ideals does not mean teachers must be neutral, always claiming the middle ground or forever straddling every fence as if they hold no personal beliefs; balance does not mean they must teach that all belief systems are equal, for indeed, history proves they are not. Ideas have consequences for better or worse, and it is the long-term effect of an idea on the future of an organization or civilization that should determine its merit in the present. It is a selfless and noble worldview that can project unintended consequences of "change" beyond a lifetime to the next generation.

Part II: Are we talking about Ideas or Ideals? What is the difference?

Here it may be helpful to point out the difference between ideas and ideals. Both words are derived from the Greek root, ídein ‘to see. Its first use is seen in Plato's writing  where the root word ideo is used to mean the “archetypal form of something,” the standard to strive for, which implies objective meaning beyond one’s own thoughts. Applying the root meaning “to see,” it is as if an idea is a spark in the mind (or the light bulb a cartoonist might draw over an inventor’s head) whereas an ideal is a beacon, a lighthouse in the distance that guides.

In modern usage, the word idea more often refers to a subjective notion or creative thought originating in one’s mind.  Ideas are far more subjective, spontaneous, and innumerable than ideals.  Ideas may be good or bad, and therefore, shared ideas require collective scrutiny. The more people an idea affects, the more inclusive the dialogue should be. Ideas are wonderful part of being created in the image of God. Ideas fuel inventiveness, ingenuity, creativity, problems solving, etc. 

The story of mankind cannot be told without understanding the many ideas that have come and gone through the centuries. During such discussions participants should not confuse a genuine respect for one's right to share and idea (or hold an opinion) with a pretense of equal respect for all ideas or opinions. Credibility must be earned. Sound ideas gain acceptance through merit, and in that sense they become more like ideals if they stand the test of time. For this reason, students must understand that the ideal of “free speech” does not guarantee the non-existent right of "equal acceptance of all ideas." This is not to say that acceptance or public opinion alone determines the merit of an idea. What may be popular is not always right, and what is right may not always be popular. A balanced approach to teaching ideals equips students to take a stand and to practice principled pluralism with others. Understanding these terms is essential to teaching toward ideals in a less than ideal world.

Part III: The Importance of Teaching toward Ideals Rather Than Norms

As previously mentioned, formative ideals must be harder than the nature they hope to transform.

Ideals inspire standards which hold true over long periods of time. It is the static nature of ideals that causes them to fall in and out of favor—particularly within cultures that thrive on constant change whose very economies depend upon planned obsolesence in everything from fashion to durable goods.

Norms are collective patterns of behavior and societal tolerances. They are shaped by trends and the shifting winds of politics, pop-culture and public opinion. Norms are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, but they tend to absorb absolutes and dissolve differences—to blend the black and white to gray. Norms seek an ever broader way and embrace the exchange of “new for old” on the assumption that change itself is naturally toward what is good. Little thought is given to the burden of proof incumbent upon change or the unintended consequences that come by failing to meet that burden.

Norms are therefore in constant flux as opposed to the steadfast nature of ideals. Perhaps this tension between norms and ideals is to be expected in a democracy in which public opinion and the power of majorities carry so many issues of the day. Ironically, however, the more tolerant a society becomes to constant change the less tolerant that society is toward those who hold to changeless ideals. Some call this phenomenon “reverse intolerance" or "unprincipled pluralism.” It is more often exhibited in cynicism based on the false premise that an “open mind” is superior to a firm belief. As a natural result, fewer and fewer firm beliefs are tolerated and therefore, over time, they are silenced or less frequently expressed. 

The ever-broader nature of cultural norms eventually prompts observers to ask, “If anything goes, what stays?” Over time—sometimes decades, sometimes centuries—it is the fluid, ever-dissolving, ever-absorbing nature of norms that brings them to a saturation point. It is then that a lost society stares deep in the cloudy saturated solution of norms and sees that on forgotten fibers deep inside crystals have formed, hard as rock. These crystals take on new value though they are as old as time; they are the ideals that were dissolved and forgotten in the swirl and heat and fluidity of time and change. The stability of a community rests in its ability to separate enduring ideals from swirling, temporal norms and ask: “How then should we live?”  

The Latin term for "the way things are" is status quo. In Western culture those two words are almost always used in the pegorative sense. Progressive attitudes assume that change for change sake is for the better.

In change-driven cultures, norms gradually assume the formative role of ideals. The rightness of a norm is proven by its acceptance into normality. In this sense, "rightness" does not mean righteous but alright. Something frowned upon a generation ago suddenly becomes alright, which is counterfeit to the word’s root meaning. Profanity, vulgarity, immodesty, lascivious grinding on a dance floor, and countless other behaviors once considered “taboo” steadily slither into common practice under the mantra of “Everybody’s doing it so it must be alright,” and with no more rationale than that, norms change, and behavior that was considered disgraceful or illegal for centuries is suddenly on parade.

In this sense norms are like thermometers, accepting and reflecting external changes as the new reality. Ideals are quite the opposite; they function as a thermostat, pressing toward a mark in hopes of influencing reality to a better end. 
Cultures shaped by norms rather than ideals tend to accommodate regrettable behavior rather than abstaining from it.…

The line schools draw between instructing toward ideals while writing policy and creating a school culture that recognizes the realities of human nature is an important matter for each district to decide. It is highly recommended, however, that ideals and not norms be used to set the guiding standards. Norms do not point where we should be going as a society, they merely confirm the direction we are headed, which history confirms is a never-ending cycle of “waxing worse” with time.

How should we then live and instruct so that enduring ideals can both appeal to conscience and help shape consensus? By teaching and modeling a human condition that surpasses our longing to belong and our need to feel normal. Such needs stem from an even deeper yearning: the hope of being unconditionally loved. These needs are compelling and should affect human interaction at all levels. But there is an unintended consequence of normalization, even in matters pertaining to unconditional love —the most important of all ideals. In a society that settles for coexistence, the higher ideal of unconditional love is substituted with mere tolerance. Worse yet, if the process of changing norms (aka, “the new normal”) becomes political or coercive, what begins as a plea for acceptance—whatever the issue may be—often becomes a demand for equal status of unequal things. The shift from acceptance to legislated or imposed approval unwittingly negates the beauty of unconditional love by imposing conditions. In other words, even when the concept of tolerance becomes a norm (noble as it may sound), it falls sadly short of a much more valuable commodity: the ideal of unconditional love.

Unconditional love is not undiscerning nor is it blind to things that are wrong; it is the ability to see what is unacceptable while at the same time seeing through it with the hope that grace may abound.

Ideals, in the truest sense, transcend norms. They are not just lofty words or feel-good maxims. They are not stepping stones conveniently placed along some garden walk. Stepping stones have a purpose, but they are typically put in place by man for the paths of his own choosing.
 Ideals are immovable boulders deep in the ground, exposed over time in the grip of roots…and forever bound through the ages. 
They line the rugged, narrow path from where we are to where we know we ought to be as taught in Ancient Words proven true through centuries. They guide mankind away from the short-cuts of mere coexistence toward the time-tested principles, purposes, and behaviors that perpetuate life itself and nurture the best of relationship and stewardship intended for earth as it can only be imagined in an “ideal” world. That is the heart of the kind of “community” that transcends geography and is built instead on the common ground of shared ideals.

The rise and fall of all civilizations is the story of man’s struggle to strive toward ideals that are seemingly beyond his grasp and his regrettable acceptance of human nature’s norms that are so readily within his reach. It is through striving—with all the help made known to man—striving toward our highest ideals (even if not attaining them) that individuals, homes, communities, and civilizations have the faintest hope of reflecting their intended purposes on earth.

Ideally, parents understand their lead role in the training and education of their children, and ideally they can find a school partner that understands and supports that role in a context where formative, enduring ideals have more influence than ever-changing norms. The most important choices of life depend on knowing that difference, but even when the parents and school agree on the importance of including ideals in the educational process some important questions remain:

Who decides which ideals are expected of mankind? Is it pop culture, political activists, the legislature and/or the courts that decide which ideals are relevant and which are passé? Or is there a higher authorship/authority/authoritative source for such things? Is the world in which we live the product of random chance—just part of a galactic box of BBs spilled? Is man the master of his own fate or is there One whose Word has set the ideals and provided the plan for all who fall short of them? Is it not this same authority to whom each individual will someday give an account?

Some educators and school systems claim that such questions may have a place in religion but not in education. This assumption, however, requires a separation of learning from life itself—separating science from conscience, facts from faith, theory from wonder and wonder from belief. Educating in a vacuum that leaves God and faith out of the equation not only compartmentalizes personal existence but also elevates the study of created things above the mere mention of a Creator. Ultimately such a “faith-free” education promises students that they can gain a full understanding of “the whole world” while giving no thought to things that transcend this world.

Based on most state-required “hours of instruction,” the average student spends over 15,000 hours under the influence and supervision of school teachers during his/her K-12 education. The quantity of time at home may be greater than the time spent at school, and ideally the influence of the home is even more compelling, but imagine the educational advantage of having the school and home on the same page. Imagine students not needing to compartmentalize the lessons of life. Imagine a school setting that purposefully integrates learning with life, science with conscience, facts with faith, theory with wonder, and wonder with belief. 
At the time of this writing, the Pledge of Allegiance is still said in public schools, but there is a difference between being “one nation under God” and being a nation that strives toward His ideals. It is true that this nation and the whole world is “under God” for He cannot be expelled from any place, but His role as our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend has been banned by law from the curriculum, lesson plans, celebrations, and student-teacher relationships of state-run schools. Imagine a place where the opposite is true.

Parents do have a choice in education.

Imagine an education in which the pressures of conformity to ever-changing norms is evaluated in the context that we are in but not of this world. Imagine a place where the norm, if you will, is caring for this world but knowing our purpose in it is to love God and others while holding fast to the unchanging, transformative Biblical ideals shared by the school, home, and church.
The school that is rooted in such shared ideals becomes more than a school; it becomes a community that partners with the home in teaching young people not only how to make a living  but also how to live.

Originally printed for CCS in booklet form in 2013
© Tom Kapanka, 2010, 2013

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