Throughout college and seminary I had to write “reflection papers” – reflecting on a particular topic, reading or discussion. Some of my peers and colleagues consider this the equivalent of “dumbing down” but I assure you Wellesley College was not a place that advocated the dumbing down of anything and I didn’t turn down a scholarship to Harvard Divinity School because I wanted to slack off. Reflection papers are hard work if you take them seriously.
The ability to memorize facts or remember formulas may be considered a sign of intelligence but it doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom. When I studied statistics our final exam was an open-book test, you didn’t need to memorize any formulas. And still, it took six years before a single student aced that exam. Memorizing a formula will do no good unless you know when and how to apply it. Perhaps this is why so many people hate simple word problems – they haven’t really been used in a way that teaches us to think. You have 3 apples and I give you 1 — you don’t need to memorize that 3+1=4 but you do need to understand that when I give you an additional one, you need to add, and you need to know how to add. It’s not a question of memorizing the formula but of knowing which formula to use (e.g. addition instead of subtraction) and how to apply the formula.
We see the same problem in everyday writing and it has been repetitively joked about on social media for some time. There are so many people who don’t recognize their grammatical mistakes because they’re not able to understand the difference. (Do you recognize the there, their, they’re paradigm?) My friend, Becky, an English professor, might tell me that “there” is an adverb, pronoun, adjective or noun, that “their” is possessive, and that “they’re” is a contraction of they are. (She didn’t actually tell me this, I looked it up on the internet because I was never taught grammar and don’t know the rules. This is also obvious with my use of commas, but that’s another story!) Although I don’t know the grammatical rules, I do have some understanding of how to apply them. I understand that “there” is a general place, that “their” refers to something owned by more than one person, and that “they’re” means they are. I can’t tell you what the rules are and I don’t know the technical terminology but I know how to think about what I mean, analyze the usage, and apply the correct word (usually 😉 ).
As a teacher myself, I know that I have failed if I have done nothing more than to provide technical information. To paraphrase from one of my favorite quotes about education – I know that my students will forget much of what I tell them, they will remember more if I show it to them, but they will truly learn if I involve them in it by means of an activity.
A couple of my FB friends have recently posted an image of a box of crayons with the following quote:
Everyone is born creative. Everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the “creative bug” is just a wee voice telling you, “I’d like my crayons back, please.” — Hugh McLeod
Instead of trying to fill empty minds with empty facts, we might do well to force those minds to become involved, let them keep their crayons, inspire them to learn, analyze, create, reflect on the information, rather than just memorize and repeat it.
Reflection papers were a way to do this. Here are your crayons and here is the topic. I’m not going to tell you what you need to know or show you where the important parts are. Instead, I want you to go and engage with it, wrestle with it, figure out what it means (in its own context, in your context, and in a larger context).
Does any of this matter for our future? Yes, because history is doomed to repeat itself, not necessarily because we don’t remember but because we don’t understand, we don’t know how to analyze, interpret and apply the lessons to our current situation. Until we learn that, we will continue to repeat the mistakes of history over and over and over again. And what’s worse, we will continue to raise generations who will become mere automatons rather than thinking individuals – the dumbing down of our entire world.
Best graduation photo ever! I had just graduated from Wellesley in 1990 and the rebel in me, reacting to the media frenzy that surrounded our graduation, wore a sign on my back proclaiming that I was among those the press had labeled “just a pack of whining, unshaven, radical feminist spinster tartlets.” This small group of women graduating from Wellesley in 1990 had started the “Mommy Wars” (according to the international press, anyway).
Aside from the internal politics of how our commencement speaker was chosen, the issue being raised was not, as the media would have you believe, that we opposed Barbara Bush’s decision to drop out of college, marry and raise a family. The issue of concern was the question of how many women graduating from college (even Wellesley) in 1990 would have the economic stability to be able to choose to abandon their education, give up a career, stay home to raise a family without a job outside the home and still maintain that level of security.
In any case, Barbara invited her friend, Raisa Gorbachev to speak as well, and while the president of the college invited Hilary Clinton to speak two years later, still (after playing on both sides of the political fence) she wasn’t chosen for the coveted position of Secretary of Education. Our graduation was a media circus but we had a glorious day nonetheless.
And this is my graduation picture. This picture depicts a very special moment that day. One of my dearest friends, Maryann, had just given me a monogrammed pendant as a graduation gift. Engraved on the back were the words “You are enough.” along with the date. These words came from a poem entitled “You Are Enough!: A Woman Seminarian’s Story” by Nancy Ore that was published in Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Womanguides. It is a poem about women being told throughout our lives that we are not enough, that whatever we do is not enough. From our parents to our spouses to our children, there is an underlying message that simply being who we are is not enough. And then there are the pastors who tell us that all of our work in the church is not enough unless we internalize all the guilt of humanity over the starving of children in the world. And the counselors who tell us that our only hope for sanity is to struggle with our demons, integrate our childhood traumas, stop crying, “clarify our poetic symbols” and not feel that we are not enough. While all those around us tell us we are not enough, we are also being told that we truly are not enough if we accept this. What hope is there?
The woman in the poem gives up and waits for death. When it comes, she finds herself “locked in deep blue pocket tomb.” But then, the voice comes to her saying “YOU ARE ENOUGH … naked, crying, bleeding, nameless, starving, sinful, YOU ARE ENOUGH.”
The poem ends with a resurrection image but for Maryann and for me and I suspect for countless other women who struggle with these messages everyday, it is this voice telling us that we are enough, no matter what, that helps us not give up. No matter if you are naked, if you are crying, if you are bleeding, if you are nameless, if you are starving, if you are sinful – YOU ARE ENOUGH!
My friends, YOU ARE ENOUGH! Listen to the voice.
P.S. — As each of Maryann’s sisters turned 50, she gave each of them a similar monogrammed pendant with the same words engraved on the back. And three years later, as Maryann was graduating, her sisters invited me to participate in presenting one to her as well. Unfortunately, one sister (the one who may have been deemed the most successful according to the world’s standards) did not survive long, she heard the words but still felt she could never be enough and she gave up. I must believe that for Sue Ellen:
And the third day
she sat up
asked for milk and crackers
took ritual bath with angels
dressed herself with wings
and flew away.
And again the voice came to her to reassure her of what she hadn’t been able to understand before — “YOU ARE ENOUGH!”