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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Call me "Mister Difficult"

As part of a course for ministerial training called "Learning Theologically Together", I was directed to investigate my personal preferred "learning style"  by answering a battery of questionnaires by different learning theorists. The results were surprising.

This is not going to end well...
 According to the Honey and Mumford questionnaire, which categorizes learners as either Activist, Reflective, Theorist, or Pragmatist, I have no strong preferences for any learning style, with only a slight, borderline preference for Activism, so slight as to hardly matter.

The NC State University learning style assessment, on the other hand, rates learners along four axes--Active/Reflective, Sensory/Intuitive, Visual/Verbal, and Sequential/Global. This contradicts any hope that I'm actually an Activist learner, as I'm right in the middle between active and reflective on this scale. Likewise, I'm right in the middle of Visual/Verbal and of Sequential/Global.

There is one sharp spike, however: I'm right at the end of the Sensory/Intuitive, suggesting a very high preference for Intuition. Yes, intuition.

What can all this mean? Am I a perfectly balanced learner with the added bonus of the magical powers of intuition? Am I hopelessly self-contradictory? An utter people-pleaser who never expresses a preference? Or am I just lousy at answering such questionnaires with any degree of personal insight?

One thing I think Learning Style analysis does suggest is that human beings can be complex. And that there may be dangers at relying to heavily on such invented categories. First, knowing what your learning style is may lead to a kind of deterministic view that says, in essence, "I can only learn in this way, so if I don't learn it's because the course was not geared to my style." Thus, the individual learners agency to learn new ways to learn can be subtly undermined.

Yes, Virginia, there is a sanity clause...

Second, we may forget that fine, comprehensive, engaged learning was going on long before theorists undertook systematic studies of how people learn. Shakespeare, for example, never got past grammar school, but learned a thing or two about writing poems and plays that have had academics busy for centuries. How did he manage? Was he Activist? Global? Reflective? On thing was for sure--he was highly motivated by fame and money. And probably women.

Which leads me to conclude that your learning style, while interesting and useful to a point, may not matter at all, as long as you want to learn badly enough. If that desire is keen enough, people always find a way to learn.

I'm reminded of a key scene in the excellent TV series The Wire, shot in and about my hometown of Baltimore. A young African-American boy asks for help from an older brother with his math homework. Both of them are in the drug trade. The older brother points out that's it's a simple addition problem that's the same as keeping "the count"--the number of vials of crack, and the total of money they hold. These numbers, obviously, have to equal out. He asks his younger brother why is it he can't do a math problem, but he can keep the count right.

The younger brother says, "You get the count wrong, they f*** you up." Meaning, he gets beaten up by the drug bosses.

Do you feel motivated, punk?

Now, I'm not suggesting that corporal punishment be used to motivate people to learn. Merely that if a learner finds the motivation, the learning will follow. For theology students, motivation should not be hard to find.

Bottom line: you gotta want it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Govinda and the Heartbreak of the Bentley

One of the singular joys of living in greater metro Adelaide is its multicultural mix. There are something like 143 discrete ethnic groups speaking something like 152 different languages and dialects. In the course of my week, I happen to meet a lot of people newly immigrated from the Indian subcontinent. This is because I no longer own or use a car of my very own.

My wife Susan and I share one, and as she has the longer commute, she generally drives. I like to walk, bike, and take the bus. Occasionally, when pressed by weather or time, I take a cab. The cab industry in Adelaide is staffed almost exclusively by young men from that region, all of them here to work and study in an environment that one must assume is preferable to where they came from. They are quiet, courteous almost to the point of courtliness, efficient and pleasant in their provision of rides for people fortunate enough to be able to grab a cab once in a while.

Often we get to talking. Since I've been teaching tertiary, I ask them about what they're studying and where, and what they hope to achieve. We generally need to get past some slight disbelief on their part that I'm actually interested.

Govinda was a very quiet cabby, but then it may have been one of those days when I didn't feel much like talking. At one point, he shifted his mobile phone from his pocket to the hands-free caddy on the dash. His mobile phone screen-saver/wallpaper thingy was this:

If you've googled your way to this page searching for this shiny logo, you are a jerk, and part of the problem.
It is of course the Bentley logo, sign of the world's priciest hand-built car, and symbol not just of wealth but of aristocracy itself. A Bentley is beyond the avaricious dreams of even the most comfortably-off.

I remember feeling something like a sharp, tender shock that this was his self-selected emblem, his talisman. Not his home, not family, friends, wife, kids, himself even--this brand was his aim. Govinda, remember, is an immigrant cab-driver in Adelaide. It's good to aim for high goals, of course, but the odds that Govinda might ever achieve a Bentley (or anything remotely like it) in this social milieu, are nothing less than astronomical.

Living the branded life is not a new phenomenon. Identifying ourselves with where we shop, what we consume, is one of the well-documented ways in what hegemonic corporate power colonises our minds and identities through the production of ideal stories (ideologies) about what is normal, natural, and right. For example, I am "brand loyal" to LL Bean, a US sportswear and outdoor gear retailer. It's based in Maine and its whole ethos screams white-bread, Normal Rockwell, "Our Town", conservative Northeastern republican elites. Doctors, lawyers, accountants who salmon fish or duck hunt, have cabins on lakes in Maine, who invest wisely.
This is a powerful Yankee mythology.
Most of the clothing and gear now, be it duck-shooting gumboots or fly rods, button-down Oxford cloth shirts or good, honest chinos, are made in "developing countries" whose labour laws and salary expectations are, shall we say, not quite what we would be willing to work for . Which is precisely what makes this "lifestyle" affordable to a mug like me, who was (and always will be, I guess) a working-class Catholic boy from Baltimore city. The stuff is as cheap as K-mart, but you can still feel that lifetime guarantee quality.) Having LL Bean gear allows me the cache of Harvard or Yale, without the trouble and expense of having gone there.

There's no such thing as a Malaysian-built Bentley, however. The walls to owning a Bentley are high precisely to keep the majority out. It's not affordable on purpose, and there will be no outsourcing of the manufacture of Bentleys without them losing their brand identity, which is the very thing that makes them desirable to Govinda.

Plus which, just in terms of resources, if everybody drove a Bentley, the world would have to be depleted.

Of course, I blame Top Gear for this. The world's most watched show is, in effect, car porn for the aspirational classes. Each and every episode features high-end examples of automotive engineering as far out of the reach of those watching it as Jenna Jameson is to the average middle-aged man who "boxes the Jesuit" to her tantalizingly splayed image. And like its fleshy equivalent, car porn can be addictive, especially when you tootle around each week in the company Commodore or Falcon.

Yes, it is ALL this guy's fault.
What makes Top Gear particularly teeth-grindingly painful, is that it hosted by a meat-faced bully, climate-change denier, and all-around laddy oik, one Jeremy Clarkson. Come to think of it, he's just vain enough to Google himself on a regular basis, so there's every chance there's a lawyer's letter in the post for that last crack. This is made more likely by the fact that the show has made him richer than a drug lord, so much so that he now owns something like half the Isle of Wight.

Whether its drugs or porn of the flesh or car varieties, there's always someone willing to shill to the unsuspecting, take their cut, and say they're just "giving people what they want".

And in every addiction brokered by the Clarksons of the world, the addict loses his sense of reality. Govinda might as well have a picture of the space shuttle to aim for. Certainly the guy's allowed to dream, but this carrot he hangs before him as he drives the car-less around this small city, tells of a colonial enslavement to values of Western elites, of a consciousness not just false, but intentionally deluded by a system that wants him to aspire to such luxury items, the better to keep him producing.

It's a bit like our insanely bi-focal attitude toward drugs. Drugs that keep you producing? Hell, you can have as many of them as you want--Zoloft, Xanax, Prozec, Efexor, you name it, we'll write you a prescription and even figure out a way to discount them. But the other drugs, the drugs that make you want to stay in bed until 12 and learn to play the sitar, HELL NO, boy. Not only are they illegal, but in some countries, you can do hard time for a nickel bag of grass. And once that happens, you're basically screwed for life.

From the viewpoint of utilitarian economics, it's good that Govinda drives every day with the pleasant impossible dream of the Bentley before him, even if all he ever drives is a Toyota. A productive man is good for society. But you can't help think (well I can't) that there is something more than a little sad in beavering away your whole life for something you won't get. And that somewhere inside him, Govinda must be aware that he's setting himself up for heartbreak, self-loathing, and a sense of failure in the dream of the Bentley.

Why grieve for what's not possible?

This is an idealised portrait. Govinda the starving ascetic would not have looked so flash.
But there's a deeper irony at play here, ironic enough to think the Gods may be mocking us. "Govinda" is the best friend of Prince Siddhartha Gautama (later The Buddha). Like Siddhartha, Govinda undertakes the quest for enlightenment by first practising asceticism, the renouncing of all material comfort, as a means of purification. This Govinda probably hasn't read the story (or maybe he has!). This Govinda is on a different path.

I, of course, the privileged, white, western, educated man, who up until recently had amassed not inconsiderable material wealth, am the one who is radically "down-sizing" in an attempt to focus on the genuine use and purpose of what's left of my life, by entering a kind of exclusive priesthood. I, of course, have read the story, and taught it many times.

A big house in the country and rare, expensive cars, and LL Bean clothing won't avail if you're spiritually empty and morally bankrupt
So of course, I see the Bentley as an emblem of everything that's sending the world spinning into chaos, having already reached a state of being materially sated, and felt sick. Govinda, the struggling immigrant, sees all the luxury around him, knows only his hunger, and wants to take a big bite.Certainly, he has a right to want what he wants, but I wish I hadn't just paid him (plus an extra large tip) and let him go. I wish I had said to him, "Mate I've been there, and if you're dead inside, no car in the world will make you feel better."

The world is moving toward a weird kind of justice. In the west, in the wake of the GFC, urban man is trying to "go green", down-size, make do with less, seek quality over quantity, live lightly on the planet, while the thronging billions in China and India and everywhere else, having endured such want for so long, want their big homes, and air-conditioning and Mercs now, thank you very much.

We're passing each other on the material ladder, and not speaking to each other with travellers' advice about where each other is headed.

I know, I know. Such advice is easy for me to say now. And white guilt and late repentance are the mark of the privileged. But I'm more interested in a story of a young Indian man, dazzled with the druggy lure of western luxury, driving a cab, to pay for study, to get a job. to buy a Bentley. The energy, psychic and physical he will waste in its vain pursuit, and the heartbreak when he realises he cannot, will not, will NEVER have it.

An old ad in the states, in promoting a college fund charity, said "A mind is a terrible thing to waste". I'm reminded of that now.

And not one mind: billions. I just find that unutterably sad.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Looking for manchester in Manchester

Never would I have expected that becoming a “man of the cloth” would begin so literally.

For the past few days, my travel and re-settlement to study has been dominated by cloth. I have lugged and shepherded my 30 kilo suitcase, mostly clothing, halfway across the world to an under-furnished student flat, where the most pressing necessity is more cloth.

Linens: towels, bedsheets, duvet, pillowslips, tea-towels and the like. Imagine for a moment trying to live without them.

I have become a walking excuse for cotton, wool, polyester, spandex (don’t ask), and silk to associate and breed and find employment.

The fact that the site of this cloth-gathering should be Manchester is just too apt. Manchester’s textile mills were one of the chief engines of the British industrial revolution. Many people now even call household linens “manchester” the way we call facial tissues “Kleenex”. Manchester is the home of mass-produced cloth. The region’s wet climate was ideal for growing cotton and the north’s rich sheep grazing areas were nearby—a perfect storm for the production of a global cloth industry which has only been eclipsed recently by China’s mass industrialization and low labour costs.

One is tempted to imagine cloth-capped Victorian workers at looms, pumping an array of pedals like a crazed organist, while the shuttle flies through the warp and weft back and forth, darting like a hare in a covert. I once saw a traditional loom in Scotland weaving tartan, and marvelled how the flashes of colour banked up like sediment with each crack of the loom-frame. How the weaver knew how to get the complex pattern to emerge through a seemingly endless knitting-together of individual strands, over-and-under-and-over-and-under, never one strand out of place.
rather like this...

But the only place cloth is made like this anymore—labour-intensive, highly skilled—exists only in theme-park exhibitions or the ashrams of hardcore hippy devotees of “ye olde crafts”. Most of the world’s cloth is now made in Chinese factories on a staggering and highly-mechanized scale, in the new “post-industrial’ revolution made possible by globalised trade and capital seeking the cheapest means of production.

Fun fact: the Chinese city of Datang now produces 90% of all the socks in the world. Read that again.

Gee, conditions for textile workers sure have improved in 150 years...
To the south, Shengzhou is the necktie capitol. Another is the underwear city, another the sweater city. You get the idea--this remarkable specialisation, one city for each drawer in your wardrobe, reflects the economies of scale and intense concentration that have helped turn China into a garment behemoth.

The world needs cloth: it has a thousand and one applications—furniture covering, auto upholstery, curtains, veils, flags of emerging nations, cheese muslin, bandages. Look around where you’re reading this now and count it up.

And of course, it can be cut to fit and adorn the body; we literally embody clothing.

As intricate as the weaving of cloth is, cutting and fitting a man’s suit must be one of the last craftsman-ly arts. Apprenticeships must be served, masters emulated, in this complex work of human hands. The cutting and fitting of a jacket alone takes years of devoted labour.

Back when I was making money, I used to travel for work a great deal, and decided I should have a suit cut by a real Chinese tailor. So into a Hong Kong bespoke tailors’ shop I sauntered one day, in search of that cut-to-your-body authenticity. I was colonialism made flesh.

I did not deal with the master tailor right away, oh gracious no. Benny, the shop assistant would take the several-dozen measurements of every possible plane, angle, curve, and line of the geometry of my form, such as it was.

But this, he assured me, was purely technical, just a matter of “measuring twice and cutting once”, just a matter of getting certain numbers right. The suit really began, he said, with the cloth.

I told him what I was looking for—a navy blue, tropical-weight, fine wool. He led me directly to a bolt of super-140s Patek Phillippe. He stroked it, I remember, as you would the soft thigh of your beloved. He praised its quality, found in its micro-fine merino fibers and its fine “hand”, assuring me of its durability and travel-worthiness. Saying this, he scrunched up a handful of the deep navy material, and closed his fist tightly around it until his knuckles whitened. He opened his hand and the material exploded from it, back into it original form, like a coiled spring, and not a single ghost of a wrinkle.

I had to have this cloth for my first ever bespoke suit.

A dying art...

I came back a few days later for Benny to fit his rough cut. Out it came from behind the shop curtain, inside out, a curious patch-work of the planes and angles he had measured, sizing material sticking out from the seams like lettuce from a sandwich.

“My master will come now and complete the fiting”, he said. And sure enough, Master Lee (for it was his shop), emerged imperiously from behind the curtain, himself dressed like a Don at a gang funeral, flashes of tasteful gold jewellery accenting the deep black of his suit. Mr. Lee walked around me putting in the odd pin, making a swipe or two with a finely-chiseled piece of tailor’s chalk, as Benny danced attendance. Their conversation was quiet but incessant as they coiled around, assessing both Benny’s rough-hewing of the suit, and how Mr. Lee would now shape the end product.

Ten years later, that suit is now in the bag I lug to Manchester, in search, for a while, of yet more cloth to furnish the necessities of what life I am about to have there.

Shakespeare said, through Hamlet, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” It is said he got this expression from the common talk of Warwickshire hedge-trimmers, encapsulating neatly both master and apprentice craftsmanship and the place of human creativity within creation itself.

It's for us to shape what nature gives

Cloth, rough-hewn, then shaped by the master to exquisite fineness, made my suit. Human culture taking the rough gifts of creation, cotton or wool, refines a thing so difficult and essential as cloth itself.

It’s tempting too, to recognise how woven together all creation is. DNA’s double-helix looks like nothing so much as the way wool or cotton fibres are twisted together, transforming the raw material of molecules into the thoughts that can sit here and think of them. Brain cells, molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles are likewise bits of matter (or is it energy?) woven together into the fabric of both world and mind, the fabric of creation.

The fabric of creation—not merely a cloth, not even the best cloth. Maybe a tapestry, the supremely artful weaving together of a framed pattern whose beauty is beyond mere function for a mind ready to apprehend it.

For myself (like Francis Bacon), I had rather foolishly believe in every fable, myth, demi-god or fairy-tale from all the crack-pot religions from the dawn of time, than to believe that this universal frame, this tapestry of creation, is without a Mind.

Nor to believe that the creation which our minds apprehend , so complex in its weaving, so elegant in its composition and beauty, is not co-created by our minds. He rough-hews it, we shape the ends.

So into this city of cloth I go, with cloth, in search of cloth, to weave and cut and shape what beauty and use is in my power to effect as a “man of the cloth.”

And I, too, will wait for "my master to come, and complete the fitting".