The Clockwork and Grace of Learning

A recent Atlantic article, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will,” reports on a growing expectation that neuroscience will explain “all human behavior… through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.” Some of the most brilliant people in the world now believe that human actions are fundamentally determined by brain structure. It is an old ambition, given new plausibility by improvements in brain scan technology.  Neurologist Sam Harris argues that we should accept that brains are fate and give up traditional notions of freedom and responsibility. This will be a better, more tolerant world, Harris says, and we will discover the “levers we can pull as a society to encourage people to be the best version of themselves they can be.”

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It makes a difference, of course, whether you imagine yourself as one who is pulling the levers or one whose levers are being pulled. The same article describes another set of studies in which psychologists have been finding that when we believe the world around us to be beyond our control, it is more difficult to be the best version of ourselves – we care less about others and we give up difficult tasks more easily. These studies suggest that positive thinking truly is powerful. Simply believing you can be better seems to matter a great deal. Hence the article’s subtitle: “But We Are Better Off Believing in (Free Will) Anyway.”

Together, these two strains of thinking – call them “determinism” and “optimism” – raise questions that are as practical and human as they are scientific: What is our place in the world? What difference can we really make? Do we need to lie to ourselves to be good? These are fundamental questions of life and work.

In my work, I spend a lot of time with students, mostly children of immigrant farmworkers, who are learning to read. Watching new readers stumble on the oddities of the English language is a reminder of just how difficult (and mysterious) it is to learn. The stakes in these classrooms are deceptively high. Reading opens up opportunities for good readers to make discoveries and learn on their own. On the other hand, poor readers tend to need more guidance and supervision, often on into adulthood. After just a couple of years falling behind, children face determinism in a very personal way. “Does my effort matter? Am I stupid? Am I a failure?”

For educators, it is often money that most obviously shapes student futures. Year after year, it is the kids who arrive in the beat up, rusty van who fall behind the children from the new SUV. And if it isn’t reading that is the obstacle, it might be algebra, or leaving home for college. Every year, I am saddened to learn that some of our best students return home early, overwhelmed by the big, prestigious schools they were accepted to with such fanfare a few months earlier. Dark as it is, a vision of life that says this was destined by economics and genes promises some relief from that disappointment. I don’t believe it, but determinism has its appeal sometimes.

On the other hand, even at my most optimistic, I can’t quite believe that students freely create their own destiny either. Children come to school with disadvantages that they did not choose. No amount of wishing can change that.

In the end, much of what matters most to us in education is beyond our control. The outcomes we plan and work for often appear in ways that are surprising, defying generalization. They appear as something like grace.

Even when they cannot be replicated (or even understood), moments of grace are worth celebrating. In our small town, we have taken to doing that by decorating our public transit vans. The sides of the vans are covered with huge pictures of students who have achieved great things through education. We especially love underdog stories. Yesenia Calderon failed a lot of spelling tests on her way to medical school. Jorge Maldonado learned English as a high school student.  Now he teaches history at the same school he attended. We share these stories simply because they are wonderful. They are a reminder that grace is a fact in the world.

Grace is not just a fact, however.  It is also a responsibility.  Remembering this implies an entirely different perspective on patterns in brains and in society, in schoolyards and in classrooms – as different as hope is from prediction.  The quest for an understanding of people as predictable machines will continue, nurtured by the hope to make people better. But in my work, I find hope not through certainty or control, but in a deep mystery: As we give, we receive. In being grace to others, we find grace ourselves.

 

David Franz is from Shafter, CA, long ago a student of mine who went on to get his PhD in sociology at the University of Virginia. One of the stories I have told in the Visions of Vocation, David decided to go home, returning to his people and place, taking up a vocation in service to the community in which his family has lived for generations. I asked him to respond to the Atlantic essay, given his studies and life, entering into the complexity of sociology and politics, of economics and history, as he has for the sake of Shafter.
-Steve Garber

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