thinking about sawdust

The Yakima Herald-Republic published this story a few days ago (on Sept 4): Immigration Issues Resurface on Some State Ballots by Julie Silverman (AP).  The bill in Oregon would limit high school students there to two years in ESL classes. The sponsor of the bill, Bill Sizemore, is quoted as saying (in Julie Silverman’s words) that

“schools warehouse their students in ESL courses for longer than necessary to keep federal and state money flowing.”

That caught me. Not because it’s at all unusual but because it’s so common. That suspicion, that belief is almost the mantra of fiscal conservatives: that money is being wasted, that government organizations are too greedy. And the article doesn’t mention any actual evidence that Sizemore provided for his assertion (though that could be because news articles often don’t go into that much detail).

Anyway, I am sure that money is very often to some extent being wasted and that school administrators sometimes make decisions for the wrong reasons (i.e., solely to protect or to increase funding). But isn’t it a bit simplistic to assume that that is the case almost all the time? Isn’t that belief more of an excuse to remove funding (and thereby to save on taxes given to the government) than it is an actual evidence-based fear? Or, isn’t it more of a simple impatience — in this case, an impatience with how long it takes to learn a new language, impatience with the cost and effort to help immigrants succeed? — than it is an actual concern to speed up the mainstreaming of non-English-fluent immigrants?

That then got me thinking about how — at least, in my opinion — some fiscal liberals don’t look closely enough (or at all?) at issues of inefficiency or waste of government funds. My parents, who are visiting us right now, are very fiscally conservative, and so I’ve heard that side of things all my life — and which is why it’s not hard for me to believe that organizations are very good at holding onto and increasing funding once they get it, even if their programs aren’t that helpful, needed, or efficient. I am, though, not of the belief that government involvement, by definition, is a bad thing. I think human nature is such that “free” (as in unrestrained) anything (as in free enterprise) is never a good thing. Human nature can’t be relied upon to do the right thing without some external help / restraint, in other words.

But, anyway, then all THAT got me thinking about how we all have perceptual blind spots. We all — or most of us — know human nature well enough to suspect other people’s or other organizations’ faults. Then I thought maybe I should take a positive view of this impasse (which is one of my usual ways of viewing problems): fiscal conservatives are helpful in that they are good at pointing out, “Look, ya’ll are wasting money. You need to be more efficient.” And fiscal liberals are helpful in that they are good at pointing out, “Look, ya’ll need to give it more time, to trust that these efforts (that cost money) actually do help society and individuals.” (Though both ought to supply evidence, as well.)

Then I heard the biblical line in my head:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7),

and I remembered how clear Jesus is in that passage that judging at all is always bad:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Now there’s discussion as to what he means by “judging” because, of course, an individual or a society can never totally do away with some form of judging. “Discriminate,” for example, is only a bad word by connotation, not be denotation. Sometimes you have to discriminate between what food or lifestyle choices are good for you and which are bad. You have to discriminate, to judge between whether this person, being tried for murder, is guilty or not guilty.

But whatever he meant, he’s got at least to mean judging without sufficient evidence or judging when your perception is not clear enough to judge correctly. In both cases, good judgment is not possible. In the first case, there is no basis for judgment, and in the second case, the one doing the judging is unfit or incapable. The first is a logical barrier, the second is a psychological (or spiritual) barrier.

So when I try to teach student writers how to write/think clearly and fairly, to think critically, I can teach them the former (the need for evidence, etc) quite explicitly: “Here’s how you need to do it, here are some ways to do it.” But the latter — the psychological / spiritual element — is harder to teach. It’s more implicit, more intangible.  They need to learn to be aware of their own biases in order to see more clearly and more truly what is really going on in a situation, a controversial issue, in order to write well about it. That lesson hopefully does come out, though, when students learn to explore the whole issues, all sides. It does just seem harder.

Anyway… this is all just to say that that line about schools “warehous[ing]” their students in ESL courses for longer than necessary to keep federal and state money flowing” frustrated me and made me want to remind all of us that there’s always more to the issue that our simple biases perceive. And we all have those biases. And well all always need to look deeper and wider and longer at any issue or question.

The whole Gospel passage goes like this:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5 TNIV)

It’s not just that we have biases (sawdust) that’s the problem. It’s that our biases block our sight (the sawdust is in our eyes, not just on our clothes or our hair).  So the trick is to get the sawdust out of our eyes, and to get it out of our eyes before we can write a good argument paper.  Heheh, maybe I’m formulating “The Gospel according to A Writing Teacher.”

I’ve always been, though, someone who sees the “other side” pretty easily — maybe too easily, in that sometimes I think I don’t “judge” when I need to — but I think it’ll make me a better writing teacher. I hope so, at least.


2 thoughts on “thinking about sawdust

  1. I have always enjoyed that passage. I think of it often when I meet angry verging on violent “Christians” who think they have a right to instruct me about the “evils” of my “lifestyle”.

    I also think you have a very valid point about the relationship between fiscal liberals and conservatives. My father is a Republican simply because he is a fiscal conservative. Having him in my life has helped me to think about financial issues from both sides. Accountability and evidence are really lacking in the world today it seems.

    Referring back to “fringe”, I certainly meant something more like evangelical fundamentalist. Even that is not really the best description I suppose. All I know is that I don’t want anyone of any religious faith trying to impose that faith on the nation through litigation or political maneuvering.

  2. Hi, Julie.
    My parents are pretty much conservatives only in fiscal matters, too. I mean, they are social conservatives as well, but not politically. I mean, they’re socially conservative, but they don’t want laws made based on those views. They’re more libertarian that way.

    Back to “fringe,” yeah, I’m sure you meant something like “fundamentalist.” I guess I just wanted to play with the way “fringe” was being used there, though. :)

    I’d LIKE to have a “theocracy” (or even a “theacracy”) but only if it were really the creator of the universe doing the ruling. But since theocracy is always human beings interpreting the deity and doing the ruling, no way.

    Our ability to interpret ANYthing is just too flawed. Hence, we need diversity — the only way we can continually guard against “sawdust-in-the-eye” disease.


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