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.


“The Fate of the Sentence”

I knew I liked Martha Kolln. She was quoted in a Washington Post article about those who are worried that a deterioration of the sentence (due to text messaging, etc) will lead soon to a general lessening of critical thinking ability (and presumably the fall of western civilization!). Anyway, she says something like, “I’m more optimistic” and “I’d need more evidence.” I cheered her, because that’s exactly what i was thinking.

Oh, and then the article ends this way:

Wilson Follett, writing in Atlantic magazine, offered proof [of the deterioration of the sentence]. In an essay titled “Death of the Sentence,” fiction writer and literary critic Follett wrote, “To deal with the organization of thought in words is of necessity to deal with the sentence.”

In all languages, he added, “it has been the great continuum.”

The sentence, he declared, “is a structure inherently faithful to the pattern of consciousness.” It is “an instrument inevitable and perfect for the expression of thought.”

But, wrote Follett, the sentence is under attack. “To what stage of vagueness, confusion, or sheer lunacy must the English sentence be pushed to evoke any noticeable volume of outcry?”

Follett’s essay appeared in Atlantic’s October issue. Of 1937.

At the time, he was not concerned about millions of text-messagers and e-mailers killing the sentence. He was worried about highbrow writers — such as John Dos Passos and Harvard University’s Bernard DeVoto — using long, looping sentences that did not adhere to the strict grammatical and punctuation rules of the day.

Back then there was concern that sentences were too complex; today, that sentences are not complex enough. And that’s the way it.

I love it.

start off with the answer?

I was just skimming this post of mine from last year about the pedagogical and cognitive limitations of PowerPoint presentations. The research suggested that

the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digest in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time.

I concluded with this note:

Professor Sweller also says that it’s better to teach by presenting an already-solved problem rather than asking students to work out the problems themselves. That seems counter-intuitive. But he says that “Looking at an already solved problem reduces the working memory load and allows you to learn. It means the next time you come across a problem like that, you have a better chance at solving it.

Now that makes me wonder if that’s the same reason we in the west prefer essays which state their theses right at the beginning and paragraphs which start off with topic sentences. We like easier reading. If we valued complexity and/or put more emphasis on the needs of the writer as opposed to the needs of the reader, we would probably have evolved a rhetoric, like some non-western rhetorics, which makes the reader’s brain work harder, which circles around the thesis, only getting to it much later (or not explicitly at all).

Does Professor Sweller’s observation also mean that deductive explanations will work better in classrooms than inductive ones?

Project Ijtihad against the order of discourse

I just came from my Rhetorical Tradition class and from our discussion of Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse.” And I was just reading about Irshad Manji and her Project Ijtihad (the Muslim tradition of critical thinking). Great stuff. Wow, I am so impressed and inspired by Irshad Manji. I’m glad there are people out there who can lead these kind of movements. I am certainly too introverted to do so. But I can write and teach and think (and pray), and I can support Project Ijtihad. And I can say “amen!” to her demonstration that living “thoughtful and faithful at the same time” is not only not a contradiction but an ideal.

Anyway, it’s all such an example of “the order of discourse.” Religions, especially the more powerful ones, are a prime way discourse is controlled. When a religion felt safe from the threat of other beliefs — say, Christianity in Europe in the Middle Ages and Islam in the middle east in the Middle Ages (though, for Europe it was the “middle” ages, while in the mid East, it was a great age)… Anyway, when a religion feels unthreatened, diversity and traditions of critical or independent thinking thrive. Dante, for example, can freely and easily say that there are anonymous Christians (though Chris Anderson says that’s his phrase, not Dante’s), that paganism leads to or sets up Christianity, that anything good or beautiful or noble or right is Christ even if Christ is not apparent there. But it’s harder for Christians to say those things today, if/when they feel threatened by the successes of paganism or non-Christian religions. During those times — when religions feel “safe,” — they have control over the broader “order of discourse,” and so they feel they can allow more diversity of thought within that broader control. It’s control, it’s still the “will to truth,” but it’s also a place of thought.

Anyway, obviously religions and politics and sexualities and cultures are all mixing and rubbing shoulders now. So each feels more threatened. And so each tries to tighten up their control of discourse.

Maybe it’s all a theological problem. If we all had more faith in GOD to control the universe, perhaps we could be less afraid of each other’s power, perhaps we could love each other more, and that love would translate to a freer flow of discourse. And a freer discourse means more truth, I think… though there’s that word “truth” again — a very loaded word.

But I gotta get back to campus, so I’ll have leave the word “truth” there at the end, hanging. :-)

What’s ijtihad?
Ijtihad (pronounced “ij-tee-had”) is Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking. In the early centuries of Islam, thanks to the spirit of ijtihad, 135 schools of thought thrived. Inspired by ijtihad, Muslims gave the world inventions from the astrolabe to the university. So much of what we consider “western” pop culture came from Muslims: the guitar, mocha coffee, even the ultra-Spanish expression “Ole!” (which has its root in the Arabic word for God, “Allah”).

What happened to ijtihad?

Toward the end of the 11th century, the “gates of ijtihad” were closed for entirely political reasons. During this time, the Muslim empire from Iraq in the east to Spain in the west was going through a series of internal upheavals. Dissident denominations were popping up and declaring their own runaway governments, which posed a threat to the main Muslim leader — the caliph.

Based in Baghdad, the caliph cracked down and closed ranks. Remember those 135 schools of thought mentioned above? They were deliberately reduced to five pretty conservative schools of thought. This led to a rigid reading of the Quran as well as to a series of legal opinions — fatwas — that scholars could no longer overturn or even question, but could now only imitate.

To this very day, imitation of medieval norms has trumped innovation in Islam. It’s time to renew ijtihad to update Islam for the 21st century. That’s why I and other reform-minded Muslims have created Project Ijtihad.

What’s the mission of Project Ijtihad?

Project Ijtihad is a charitable initiative to promote the spirit of Ijtihad, Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent. We support a positive vision of Islam that embraces diversity of choices, expression and spirituality. To achieve this, Project Ijtihad will help build the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies.

Reform-minded Muslims already exist in spades. Our goal is to bring them out of the shadows. They need to know that Islam gives them the permission to be thoughtful and faithful at the same time. Because they’re not alone, they can have such faith without fear.

Why are you involving non-Muslims?

Progressive non-Muslims are crucial partners in our mission. When non-Muslims work with reform-minded Muslims, they’re sending notice that moderates and fundamentalists are no longer the only voices that count in Islam. When non-Muslims recognize reform-minded Muslims, they’re spurring a healthy competition of ideas and interpretations. Above all, they’re affirming that reform-minded Muslims are as authentic as the mainstream, and quite possibly more constructive.

Some worry that involving non-Muslims is a recipe for “illegitimacy.” We respectfully disagree. If reform is to mean anything, it must involve transcending the petty tribalism that has calcified all religions in God’s expansive name.

What’s Project Ijtihad doing to achieve its mission so far?

We’re sparking taboo-busting debates both online and in person. For example, can a Muslim woman marry a non-Muslim man? It’s a hot 21st century issue, as more Muslims are born in the West or migrate there, then encounter people of other religions and fall in love. Muslim parents and imams routinely tell their children that Islam forbids marriage to non-Muslims. But that’s not necessarily true.

One progressive imam has written a clear, concise defense of inter-faith marriage from an Islamic perspective. It’s become such a popular download — and source of discussion — that I’ve had to get the blessing translated into several languages to keep up with demand. Young Muslim women in Western Europe feel especially empowered by the blessing, as their emails tell me.

Isn’t ijtihad restricted to theologians and academics?

According to the Nawawi Foundation, in Islamic history “even the common people were required to perform their own type of ijtihad by striving to discern the competence of individual scholars and selecting the best to follow, a principle emphatically asserted by the majority of Sunni and Shi’i scholars and their schools.” Read the entire paper here.

Let me be clear: ours is not a call for the legal practise of ijtihad to be popularized. It’s a call for the spirit of ijtihad to be broadened. We believe that anything less is a form of elitism that cements a pattern of submissiveness among today’s Muslims — a submissiveness not to God but to God’s self-appointed ambassadors. This stops peace-loving Muslims from speaking up even as extremists take over.

How can I get involved?

If you’d like to join our confidential mailing list, or if you have translation, technology, and other concrete skills to volunteer, please contact Project Ijtihad’s coordinator, Raquel Evita Saraswati, at

Finally, if you can contribute any amount of money, we’re grateful. In the U.S. and Canada, your donation is tax deductible.

Please use the secure online donation form above or send your check to our mailing address: PO Box 990624, Boston, MA, USA 02199.

Salaam and thank you,
Irshad Manji, founder, Project Ijtihad