Monday, August 17, 2020

Recognize and evaluate assumptions

 How do I recognize and evaluate my own assumptions?

This is a question which I believe has always been important but is becoming important in a new way now. Having worked in education now for so many years, the importance of critical thinking has continued to receive more attention. However, critical thinking in public conversation seems to be highjacked by a tendency to ignore our own assumptions and to devalue the thinking of others. This is sadly not accomplished by reasoned arguments but by emotional reactions and even attacks on the other's person or character. Unfortunately, this may be partly due to the social media phenomenon which moves us away from personal relationships and accountability where people would value the relationship as much as the content of the conversation.

Now, in order to evaluate my assumptions and the assumptions of others, we must learn to ask good questions. Here is one to begin with. Is critical thinking important? And, if true, is a growing ability to think critically necessary for everyone in a society? I don't want to make this assumption without a way to back it up, but I have found no valid rational for answering these in the negative. Certainly there are differing values about education and beliefs about what type of education is important and who should be educated. But if a community values education for its members, and not simply a process of indoctrination and behavior modification, then critical thinking is an essential ingredient of that process. The elements of education would be to develop an understanding about how we learn, what is valuable to know or do and why those are valuable for the individual as well as the community. The product would then be a member of that community who understands the values of that community and is able to contribute in meaningful ways to improve and even to lead that community through its internal and external struggles and successes.

If we take a look at a particular example, we can see a deep divide between critical thinking and non-critical thinking in relation to assumptions. This example is taken from the Smithsonian Institution in its recent "guidelines for talking about race". You can read more in the Newsweek article, but I will not post the "guidelines" here. Go to My comments will deal with the "guidelines" themselves and not the article about the guidelines by Marina Watts. Note that these were later removed from the display.

After reading the content, my first questions should be "What are my assumptions about this information? and How do these assumptions impact how I read and interpret this information?" Only after doing this, can I begin to ask questions such as "What assumptions does this information make? Are these valid assumptions, providing proof of their validity? Why or why not?"

In a brief examination of my assumptions, I must recognize several things. First, I come from a background of European immigrants to the US around 1900 who worked hard to make a living and did not depend on a government or system to supply what they did not earn themselves. I also must recognize that my constant and intense exposure to the Bible has set a standard for my thinking about life which is not common to the majority of those in the US, although a biblical perspective has had a major impact on the structure of American society and government over the last 400 years. I must also recognize that my experiences and education, living extensive periods in 4 countries, an intercultural marriage, work in ministry and education and much more, gives me a different view of life than many of my peers with a European ancestry. I recognize that I am opposed to ideas which set one system of values above another simply because they come from a group that is different than me. I am also opposed to the idea that the "rightness" or "wrongness" of any set of values makes that people group of less or more value. Finally, I am strongly in favor of the idea that when a group holds a particular set of values, those must still be questioned and never assumed to be "right". This is because I believe in a God who provides absolute standards against which all human values can be evaluated, not for the advantage of one group over another but for the blessing and benefit of all.

But now I will also need to evaluate the assumptions of the authors of these "guidelines" and possibly the assumptions of those in the Smithsonian Institute who allowed the publication of these "guidelines". I hope I am not too critical here, so I encourage you to evaluate my perspectives and share yours! We cannot learn and grow in our understanding if we are unwilling to consider other perspectives - especially of those who disagree with us!

Let me first examine the title. It reads "Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States". So, the information which follows is ASSUMED to be authoritative and somewhat complete on the topic. In addition, since it is provided by the Smithsonian Institution, the reader would ASSUME that it is not only authoritative but historically accurate and based on quality testing and peer-review, otherwise it would have no place in an institution of such quality. But we can see from a cursory reading of the information that this is not the case, nor is any proof or reference to academic studies provided for our consideration. 

Actually, the title is quite confusing when we ask ourselves a simple question such as "Is the color of one's skin a major determining factor of their values and culture?" A simple study will show that values are determined by the family background, education, social structure and language of each person, not their skin color. We must also recognize that many values shift over time for both individuals and people groups. Further complicating the issue is the increasing multiculturalism and cross-cultural relationships within our society. If a person has a French father and Indian mother, their values will be different than a peer with a Nigerian father and German mother. Which of these 2 people is white? How has their "whiteness" impacted their values and culture? "Whiteness", if there is such a thing, has no significance here at all.

Another problem with this title is the phrase "in the United States". We would ASSUME that the author knows at least something about people of European ancestry currently living in the United States. But this is not evident in the document. The first clue is that the designation of "white culture" is used in place of a more descriptive and precise term such as "European culture". This would at least provide a distinction between the more individualistic values of western society from the more collectivist values of African, Asian or Middle Eastern societies. But, of course, there are varying degrees of so called "whiteness" in all of these societies and significant differences in values between each of the European countries (many of which do not match these "guidelines").

So, we already have many reasons to doubt the validity of the content. But when we take a look at the content itself, we begin to wonder "How could this serve to significantly describe any group based on color? and How could this provide a foundational context for talking about race?" The only possibility is if these guidelines somehow transcend skin color to describe a group of people (whether caucasian or not) and classify these values in a category called "whiteness". This begins to lose all meaning because it is really not about color at all but something else entirely. Another follow-up question might be "What is the motivation or agenda behind providing such misleading information?" Let me provide just one observation.

In the first category, rugged individualism, it is said that in white culture "individuals [are] assumed to be in control of their environment, 'you get what you deserve'". I would recognize that no one is fully in control of their own environment, even if they think they are. Our skin color has no influence on the actual control of our environment, but this is not really what is being communicated here. So what is the author trying to communicate? I believe the statement has more to do with how one interacts with their environment and the responsibility they might, or might not "own" in order to change their circumstances. If you feel you have no control over your level of education, your job prospects, your relationships, your personal contribution to society, then you are less likely to try to change it, believing that your actions will have no impact on the outcome. If you feel that your actions do have some impact or that the more effort you put into changing your circumstances, the more likely they are to change, then you are more likely to try. We can also examine the statement "you get what you deserve" and try to think of what other options there are to this perspective. Here are a few: "You don't get what you deserve. You get what you don't deserve. You don't get what you don't deserve". None of these statements are always true for any group of people or for any individual. There are statements that could be shown to be more true, such as "Many people get what they earn but few get what they deserve." Is this closer to a "white" assumption, as described by the author? I don't think so - this assumption still has nothing to do with the color of one's skin but rather on their family background and their perception of reality.

But all this begs the question, "What is the purpose of providing such misleading information?" This is much harder to evaluate without knowing the author, their background and their personal values. Without that information, we can easily move to more dangerous and uncertain conclusions. But I believe I am safe in assuming that there is a serious misunderstanding of how multiple cultures and value systems have contributed to American society and how all of us, from every background, have benefited from this blending and exchange of cultural ideas. We learn the most from those who are most different from us. It is not clear to me if the author is judging "white culture" as bad or good and maybe that is not the purpose of these "guidelines". However, I am making the assumption that whatever the author assumes "white culture" to be, its values are ASSUMED to be different than the values that are held by every "non-white culture" - whatever that means!

I might make some further assumptions in the form of questions, and these are a bit more disturbing. Who is the intended audience for these guidelines and why? Is it possible that the intent in these guidelines is to divide and alienate people of one skin color from another? Is it possible that the color of one's skin is so important that there are people who would reject the values others hold simply because they have a different skin color? What is the purpose of promoting any division between groups within a society except to gain political power or material advantage?

What are your assumptions regarding these "guidelines"? How does your background and experience influence those assumptions? Are you willing to evaluate your assumptions as they relate to this information? Why do you believe (or not believe) that this process of critical thinking is important in developing an understanding of our world and how we interact in our society?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Connecting faith and life

I few posts back I wrote about "Real Value in Christian education" and mentioned several aspects of a Christ-centered education that provide unique and powerful connections between life and learning. We can now look more closely at the first of these connections:
  1. Christ-centered education connects faith to life (God's law is central to all learning and to all decisions because I know He desires what is best in the long term.)
First, it would be helpful to have a clear understanding of what is meant by "faith" and by "life". Faith, in particular, is a difficult term these days. It can refer to a set of beliefs about God or about anything else. It can also mean that you "trust" something or someone in the sense that you believe it will happen or that person will be true to their promise. This is the context of the Greek word πίστις (pístis), which can also be translated as "belief", "faithfulness", or "trust". Webster's definition is 1 a : devotion to duty or a person : LOYALTY b : the quality of keeping one's promises. 2 a : belief and trust in and loyalty to God b : belief in the doctrines of a religion c : firm belief even in the absence of proof d : complete confidence. This is not quite the same as Mark Twain's comment that "Faith is believing what you know ain't so".

But, as I read the Bible, I see a deeper context for understanding faith. First, real faith always results in action. This is what led Abram to leave his home for a land that God had promised and even to risk everything to obey God's direction to sacrifice his son. This is faith that sees beyond the material and the short-term for something much bigger. Of course there were serious problems and mistakes along the way because those people who tried to live by faith did not always accomplish this. But God was gracious and provided what was needed, sometimes at the last moment. God is faithful even when we are not. In this sense, faith is the living out of our beliefs in our daily activities and relationships.

There is another aspect of faith that is connected to the word "fear". When we fear that something will go wrong or we will get hurt, this is also a "confidence" that our actions or the actions of others will have a certain consequence. Therefore, it is wise to avoid those situations or people who will cause damage because we have a healthy fear of them. So, when we read in the Proverbs that "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom", we can be confident that God is always able to do what He says He will do. Sometimes this is a promise for our good and at other times it is assurance that those who do evil, who are unjust, unmerciful or mock God's name, image or character, will receive appropriate punishment from Him. Faith in God, much more than faith in man, directs us to do what is right in God's eyes and is also a blessing to us and to others. This faith comes from a righteous "fear of God" and overrules any "fear of man" because we know that God always has the greater power and will judge men by their motives as well as by their words and actions.

When we define "life", we must mean more than life in the physical sense. Animals and plants are alive, and may have a certain sense of satisfaction from living, but they don't contemplate or celebrate life in a spiritual dimension. Life should be more than survival, but rather a joyful, purposeful state of mind and heart, a knowledge and appreciation of growth in every area while in community with others who share that knowledge and appreciation.

This leads us to Isaiah 55, a rich example of the connection between faith in God and life in the context of learning.
Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance.
This is also the message of the Gospel: God is calling us out of our pain, our alienation, our confusion, our sin, into a full and deep understanding of Him and His truth. This truth stands in sharp contrast to the voices of our culture and the conflicting voices of our own soul about who we are. It is only in the recognition of His truth (as made clear in Scripture) that we can understand that His grace reaches even to us, who live so far from that truth.

Here we see that God's intention is for our good and our blessing. But it is not for us alone. We are blessed fully when we are also a channel of blessing for others. This can be seen in the 10 Commandments or "10 Words" which God has provided for us and are also summarized in Matthew: Love God and your neighbor. You can read more about how the 10 Words are a foundation for blessing on my post and I would also suggest Dennis Prager's book or video for an introduction to further study.

God's Law is not restrictive in a harmful sense but provides boundaries and direction in life in order to guide and stimulate our growth and our reinvestment into His Creation and every aspect of life and relationship. When these boundaries and truths graciously underpin the context of learning, they provide meaning and purpose in the learning process, leading us to a life of blessing and productivity with an eternal purpose.