The Recursive Muffin

Jan 6

A former NBTSC camper has just posted a brief complaint in my blogshed. They were disappointed by the political and religious ambience of the camp, and of course it is impossible to please everyone in that regard, and the attempt would be self-defeating.  But I am intrigued by the final piece of the post:

"It didn’t seem that anyone had any particularly strong moral or religious convictions, either. Especially the staff."

I’ve had the pleasure of being on the staff of NBTSC for five years(?) now,  and count a number of the other staffers among my dearest friends.  It is my sense that it is a community of people with fairly intense political, ethical, and spiritual convictions.  So where does the perception above come from?  I suppose it is possible that the author’s generic phrasing is simply a shorthand for “these folks don’t go to the same church as me.”  But that would be boring, and there is another possibility that I want to consider.

As a child, my church community included two activists of enormous stature and experience: William Huntington and Fay Honey Knopp.  Both of them died when I was a teenager, and before I had any understanding of the extent of their life projects.  When I realized the opportunity that I had missed, I resented them—and the rest of the community—for not having been more forthright about the strength of conviction these people had, and the lives they had accordingly led.  But quite honestly, even if I _had_ been told how awesome Honey and Bill were when I was a kid, I’m not sure I would have had the courage or wherewithal to ask them any intelligent questions.

I think about them a lot when I am in a teaching role.  I have, on many occasions, been around adults who proselytized or pushed obvious political agendas while working with young people.  This bothers me a great deal, and one of the attractions of unschooling, for me, is its rejection of that kind of pedagogy.  At the same time, one does not want to “hide one’s light under a bushel”: I do, in fact, have a lot of thoughts about politics and morality and religion, and a lot of life experience to give substance to my thoughts.  A pedagogical approach that is so quietist that no one has any opportunity to talk to me about those things is probably just as bad as proselytizing.  Maybe worse.

But even between peers, it is difficult to find the happy medium between preaching and saying nothing at all: across a power differential, it is very much more difficult.  In my roles as a teacher (including NBTSC, Walden, and Pacem), I have usually tried to do three things, with varying levels of success: (a) teach from a “neutral” viewpoint, rather than my own beliefs, insofar as this is possible to do meaningfully, (b) mention that I have strong convictions myself, and (c) discuss those convictions whenever I am asked to.

I’m very ambivalent about this technique, if you’d call it that, but it has a certain ethical appeal for me: I feel like students and campers have a real opportunity to talk to me about my personal convictions, and at the same time, I feel like I’m not forcing things down anyone’s throats.  Sounds nice on paper.  

However.  In five or six years of teaching and staffing at camp, I can count on one hand the number of times that any student or camper has asked me about my personal convictions, with the sole exception of questions about whether Quakers have dietary restrictions.  (We don’t.)  Every year at Walden, I tell my life story.  I talk about working with Evangelical Christians in the inner city, and with armed revolutionaries in rural Mexico.  And then the students ask me what my favorite music is.  Every year.

On the one hand, this is a good corrective to my ego: my life and times aren’t all that interesting to young people, nor should they be.  The young should not be slavishly focused on what the old folks were doing and thinking; they’ll hear enough of that anyway.

On the other hand, I wish I could convey to the original author that he or she is, no doubt, always surrounded by people with strong convictions.  They just aren’t asking.


  1. recursivemuffin posted this