Friday, July 28, 2006

a somewhat reduced Friday

My French class and my English circle were both missing a few members today. The French class took a while to gear up, as students took their sweet time arriving. About twenty minutes into the hour, we had our quorum, so I stopped the pronunciation drills I'd been doing with the two girls who'd come on time and started in on review. As it turned out, the review took the rest of the hour because the girls who had come late hadn't bothered to study. As a result, we covered no new material today.

In a sense, it's good that the class is only seven weeks long (well-- six weeks: I'm cancelling the class next week because many people can't show up). Every week, the students are given new material, but if they don't plan to internalize it, they're going to get behinder and behinder as time goes on. The sheer weight of the rattrapage (catching up) they'll have to do will push many of them to skip the class entirely. If the class lasted longer than six or seven weeks, we'd start to see the typical, hagwon-style attrition that afflicts so many of our other courses.

The English circle today focused on James Thurber's classic short "The Owl Who Was God," a story with perennial relevance. For those of you who don't know the story, it basically goes like this:

Some woodland creatures encounter an owl in the dead of night. The owl sees them and freaks them out with its ability to see so well. News spreads of the owl's supposed power and wisdom. Other animals test the owl; the owl hoots answers that confirm previous impressions of its power. One fox voices doubt about whether the owl can even see in the daytime; the True Believers drive the fox from their midst: they'll have none of this blasphemy about their resident sage. The animals send an invitation to the owl to be their leader; the owl accepts and appears before the creatures at high noon, dazzled by the sunlight. The animals misinterpret the owl's hesitancy as the dignity that accompanies omniscience, and one animal screams, "He's God!" The owl then blunders into things, and the animals gladly imitate the actions of their new god-leader. The owl then wanders onto a road despite warnings from a hawk that a truck is coming. The truck strikes and kills most of the creatures, including the owl. Thurber's moral: "You can fool too many of the people too much of the time."

[NB: the actual story is only about twice the length of the above summary.]

We talked about the story's meaning and how it might relate to things like cults of personality. We covered Dr. Hwang, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, the Aum Shinrikyo cult of Shoko Asahara, and Hitler. George Bush got a mention, too, of course, though I did point out that it would be hard to argue the man has truly built a cult of personality.

The discussion moved to religion (I couldn't keep away from one of my favorite topics) and we covered the Buddha's Four Noble Truths as well as some Christian precepts and the general issue of tolerance. I can't quite remember how we segued from personality cults to religion to tolerance, but the discussion of tolerance occupied the remaining 90 minutes of our time together.

It turns out that some of my students view tolerance as synonymous with agreement or acceptance. I told them that, yes, to some degree, tolerance implies acceptance, but it doesn't necessarily imply agreement. "I don't smoke," I said, "and I'd rather not sit next to a smoker in a restaurant or elsewhere. But if that person decides to smoke, I'm not going to demand that he put out his cigarette. Instead, I'll tolerate his smoking." In other words, there's a certain degree of acceptance that a fellow adult can make a free choice, but this doesn't imply wholehearted agreement with the choice to smoke.*

I got a surprising response when I shepherded the discussion of tolerance in the direction of two questions:

1. Can we be 100% tolerant?
2. Should we be 100% tolerant?

The students agreed that the answer to (1) is "no," because we're all human. We then turned to question (2)-- the question of whether absolute tolerance is, properly, an ideal-- and I gave my students the following exaggerated example:

Suppose you date some seemingly wonderful guy for a week. At the one-week mark, he suddenly confesses to you that, on the day he met you, he robbed a bank and killed five people-- among them an old woman and a child. Do you continue dating this guy?

And here was the surprise: one student actually hemmed and hawed over this example, and despite my best histrionic efforts at cajoling and browbeating and bullying her (you'll have to imagine the eye-bulging, body-torquing, hair-pulling show I put on), she couldn't bring herself to break up with the guy! She actually said she would feel some compassion for him and his situation, and would want to think about things before making any extreme moves.

I told the students that tolerance was often a subject in my church discussions about interreligious dialogue. Some of the Christians I've encountered rather heedlessly claim, in an unqualified manner, that "we should respect all other traditions." I usually counter this by asking, "So it's all right for your daughter to date a Satanist?" The bank robber example was supposed to be in the same vein: a seemingly obvious extreme case where it was clear that tolerance wouldn't be possible for most sane people. My student's response to the bank robber scenario floored me, and it floored her classmates, all of whom unhesitatingly declared they would dump the murdering bastard.

Would it surprise you to learn that today's left-field opinion came from the same girl I wrote about last week?

*I realize the issue is more complex than this. You have to understand that my students' English proficiency probably rates in the low-intermediate range, so this discussion wasn't about to get hyper-analytical concerning the possible overlap of the semantic fields of "agreement" and "acceptance."


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