A Mistake Is Something From Which You Learn Nothing

Note: Due to issues with WordPress, some of you may not have received this post. So here it is again.

“A mistake is something from which you learn nothing,” says one of my best mentors for teaching, Keith King. “If you didn’t learn anything from a mistake, why did you bother to make it?”

The common measure for failing schools, and the cause of great hand-wringing over educational policy, is low test scores. Lost when the conversation stays at this level, are questions about adaptive learning (as opposed to training). How can schools help kids learn how to learn? How can schools prepare kids for a future of presently unforeseeable challenges/opportunities? How can schools prepare kids to be comfortable in situations where they do NOT know what to do, or in situations where the solution to a problem requires a wholly unusual response — in other words, to be unanxious in the face of the unknown?

Adaptability and creativity are the marks of highly functioning human systems: families, organizations, communities, polities, cultures. Rigidity and rote responses are the mark of deadness. There is no discovery without mistakes. Teachers need to be able to– and be allowed to– teach students how to make “mistakes” in such a way that they aren’t really mistakes at all, but opportunities to learn.

Theologically speaking, God is always doing something new. We are in tune with that ever renewing, ever life-creating God, when we are able to discern what is being born, and to respond accordingly, with deep and joyful freedom. Our mistakes need not be fearsome ogres.


Parker Palmer on Creative Tension

Parker Palmer

We’ve been reflecting on the role of tension in society. On one hand, tension has the power and potential for good when it is held creatively in a healthy society; on the other hand, tension can lead to violence in a society that, for any number of reasons (material want, or historical enmity between competing groups, for example) is less resilient. Tension means that there is some kind of conflict. Conflict can drive adaptive responses that lead to growth and learning, or it can lead to levels of inflicted pain on others, that cycle through generations.

Parker Palmer– author, educator, and activist– has this to say about creative tension:

“In the end, the challenge faced by adherents of every tradition of faith or reason is the same one we face in our public lives: to let the stranger– and things we find strange– be who and what they are, allowing them to open us to the vexing and enlivening mysteries we find within and around us. Whether our Ultimate Reality is God or Reason, fear constantly tempts us to try to tame it and contain it within the boundaries of our comfort zones. Doing so dishonors the Ultimate, diminishes the scope of our lives, and keeps us from developing a key habit of the heart that democracy requires.”

— from Healing the Heart of Democracy (p. 150)

via Parker J. Palmer.

Rep. John Lewis and the Power of Non-violence

Rep. John Lewis

The following excerpt is from an interview between Paul Brandeis Raushenbush of HuffPost Religion, and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). The occasion is the release of Rep. Lewis’ new book about his experiences in the Civil Rights movement, and what lessons those experiences might have for us today.

Non-violence as a way for transformation works by raising the tension in a society high enough to provoke the society to make adaptive change, without raising the tension so high as to paralyze people. Violent action by those seeking change becomes an excuse for those in authority to respond likewise, and the possibility for change diminishes. Attack and counter-attack become a distraction, taking away the focused attention needed to overcome problems.

One way to understand the saving power of Christ is to see the Cross as God’s great refusal to participate in cycles of vengeance. This divine grace is offered, then, to us: as saving power over death, and as the way to the reconciliation of the whole world, here and now.

I have nothing but respect for the discipline and power of those who can practice non-violence in the face of great injustice. It is hard for me to imagine the deep and active trust in God that such practice involves. The tensions and anxieties in our society are increasing. What is the creative potential of that tension? What new life might come from societal forces that are in opposition today? Tension is not necessarily bad: the Way of Jesus is not to give us certainty, but rather to give us the openness to let new ways of life emerge. Non-violence is a practice of this Way.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush:What prompted you to release this book right now?

Rep. John Lewis: It felt like the time was right to inspire another generation of individuals to come together and help move society along. Sometimes I feel that we are losing our way as a nation and this book may be able to point people towards another way of doing things.

We have traveled this path before. In another time, a coalition of people of conscience came together and used these lessons, steps, and methods to move society to a better place. We can get there! We have to have faith, and move with deliberate speed. But with love, action and perseverance we can get there — never give up, never give in, never give out.

Across That Bridge reads like a testimony meant to help other people to remember that we can make a way.

When I was growing up my mother, father and grandparents would sing in the church about making a way when there was no way, not getting lost in a sea of despair, and to be hopeful and grounded. Those of use who came through the early days of the movement were grounded in our faith, grounded in our beliefs that somehow and someway we would have a victory, that we would overcome, that we would be able to redeem society and create what Dr. King called the beloved community.

If that was the goal, then our method must be one of love, one of peace, and that’s why I believe so deeply in the philosophy and discipline of non-violence. For me it is one of those immutable principles that you cannot deviate from.

via World Religion News, Religious Views, Spirituality – HuffPost Religion.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Karl Marx’s phrase “religion is the opium of the people” suggests a numbing effect for religious practice, rather than a quickening effect. Too often in modern Western society this is true: religion is for those who want to go to sleep.

Rev. Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” contains a passage (quoted at length below) in which he talks about “fostering tension” in a community. This is the opposite of the narcotic effect: to raise tension is to raise discomfort. To raise discomfort, to raise tension, is one of the marks of authentic religious practice and expression. It is nothing less than the prophetic voice of religion, canonized in the Hebrew Scriptures in such figures as Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos.

Society does not change unless creative tension is brought to crisis. Rev. Dr. King knew this. While an edgy American populace continues under the delusion that a different election result will bring about “change we can believe in,” or “renewal,” or whatever slogan catches on, the truth is spoken more clearly in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” New life– more fair, more just, more compassionate, more hopeful– is the province of a religion that calls insistently for people to wake up.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

via Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].

Distraction, Avoidance, and Deeper Reflection

Today’s headlines include the names Peter King and Muammar Qaddafi; the country of Japan; and the state of  Wisconsin.

Public theology is sometimes about exploring  theological perspectives on a particular story. We’ve done that in the last six months with events such as the “Ground Zero” mosque, the deposing of Mubarak, and the report of President Obama’s Debt Commission.

Other times, public theology is about stepping back from the headlines to reflect on longer-term trends and to ask, “What are we missing?”

Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, points out that groups of people– as small as families and as big as nations– can avoid much-needed learning and growing, by engaging in distraction. The very definition of distraction is to shift our attention from one thing to another, without probing or going deeper. The benefit is that we don’t have to be accountable. The cost is that we miss opportunities for growth.

So what are we missing, with our distracted hop from headline to headline? Or, to put it differently, what deeper reflections do the headlines call us to?

Here are a couple:

1. With regard to the collective bargaining rights of public service employees: the larger question here has to do with our economic life as a whole, and specifically, the increasing gap between the very wealthy, and the rest. This is one uncomfortable but unavoidable context within which all questions of economic fairness are placed, in 2011 post-crash/recession realities. One contentious difference that then is revealed, is the difference between those who see a role for government in narrowing the wealth gap, and those who don’t. And within that difference is the further distinction between those who believe government has a moral obligation to the lesser well-off, and those who don’t.

2. With regard to Muslims in America and their potential radicalization: the larger questions have to do with religious plurality and how we will deal with those identified as “the other”; the foreign policy questions of who is the enemy and what is the nature of their threat; and the context of the ever-present adrenaline arousal of fear and anxiety in American society.

An Adult Conversation

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission, hope their final report will start an 'adult conversation' about the national debt. But members of Congress might have too much to lose politically to back the report.

The final report from the debt commission is out. (Previous posts on the debt commission here, here, and here.)

Marks of maturity (requirements for an “adult conversation”) include the ability to defer short-term gratification in exchange for greater rewards in the long-term; and the related ability to make sacrifices and give of oneself, for the benefit of others. (Healthy parenting would be a prime example of this kind of sacrifice, where we give up certain things for ourselves in order to meet the needs of our children.)

I don’t think our political life can support or sustain the “adult conversation” that Simpson and Bowles are hoping for.

If that’s true, and if projections of fiscal ruin are true, then to avert disaster, leadership on this question (and by “leadership” in this context I mean both the ability to support and sustain an “adult conversation,” and the will to take appropriate action) will need to come from somewhere other than the political arena.

via Why Obama’s latest bid to control national debt might not change anything – CSMonitor.com.

What Makes This News Good?


In this Aug. 19, 2009, file photo, a shopper leaves a Gap store in Palo Alto, Calif. Gap will open 100 of its stores nationwide on Thanksgiving Day rather than waiting for Black Friday. Paul Sakuma/AP/file

The Christian Science Monitor reports that more stores are opening “on Thanksgiving Day, rather than waiting for Black Friday.” So let me get this straight: the day that we have set aside to remember what we have received, is now becoming just another day to see what we can get?

I’m exaggerating, of course. But still, I am prompted to wonder: where, in our society, do we reflect on our values and test, critically, our assumptions and standard operating procedures? Where do we ask, “What are we missing here?”