Saturday, June 7, 2008

Inside Out

My sister, in addition to doing the Great Books Master's program at St. John's College, works for an education nonprofit called the Touchstones Discussion Project.

Originally designed to bring discussion-based learning into prisons (and now looking to offer discussion-based learning everywhere that'll try it), Touchstones discussions begin with a short text, a few paragraphs carved from a piece of canonical literature. The discussion leader reads the text to the group. Everyone reads again on their own. Each person asks the group a single question. The leader chooses an idea around which to start the discussion. And she opens it up to the group.

No limits. No raised hands. No out of bounds. Just freeflowing discussion.

Giuls and her colleagues are in the process of making an instructional video for future Touchstones discussion leaders. They needed some rookies to participate in a filmed discussion. She figured I'd be a troublemaking enough participant. So she invited me down.

Given last night's meeting in Baltimore with Steve, geography cooperated, and, despite some heat and a little sleepiness, I rolled into the classroom ready to go this morning.

The text they gave us was a translation (from 17th century English) a short essay by Francis Bacon called About Revenge.

The reading was fascinating. The group was fully engaged. The discussion leader led beautifully. And, while I had about five million things I wanted to say, the fact that everyone else kept blowing me away with their observations made me want to listen even more than I wanted to talk.

We talked about public vs. private revenge. We talked about punishment, about rehabilitation. We talked about the evolutionary origins of vengeful feelings, the evolutionary origins of the forgiveness instinct, and how they might affect one another. And, most excitingly for me, we talked about this (from the translation, not the original):

No person hurts another just to hurt him. Rather, it is done for his profit or his pleasure or his honor or for some other reason. Why should I, then, be angry with someone for loving himself better than he loves me? Isn't that person just like a thorn or briar that scratches me because it can't do anything else?

The Brown-educated moral relativist in me did gleeful cartwheels when I first heard the leader read that. And not just because I love moral relativism (and love it so much I think I might marry it). More so because, last Thursday, as I the kitten and I were digging through the stacks of Bob Doss texts I have piled up in my office, I came upon a few sentences Bob had transcribed, a brilliantly simple thought from Edward Atkinson, a long time colleague of Bob's:

If you knew how I felt inside, you would not act that way outside.

But, then, most likely, if I knew how you felt inside, I would not mind so much the way you act outside.

Why don't we try turning ourselves inside out?

So there it is. Empathy. Understanding. That all important WHY.

I brought it up in halfway through the discussion this morning, and the riffs it inspired were incredible. When they make the video and send it around, I'll post it up. For now, you'll have to take my word for it.

Thank you Touchstones. Good to have a day back in school.

Note: Word from Touchstones veterans is that the About Revenge text is about 100 times more amazing when taught in prisons.


Johanna Anderson said...

Is the Dawkins talk "A Militant's Call to Arms"?

Jake de Grazia said...

I think he calls it "a militant atheist's call to arms." Dawkins is not afraid to do a little exaggeration when he wants to get people's attention.