Monthly Archives: March 2016


On page 55 of _Teaching to Transgress_ bell hooks explains how Paulo Friere’s writing influenced her thinking. He showed her how to think about herself as a subject, rather than an object, in the social and political environment. I think this point is an important reminder for all of us, especially as the American political process ramps up to another presidential election, but generally as well.

The media throws buckets of rhetoric at us about how the government and the economy leave us unprepared for retirement, or doesn’t pay us enough to live the American Dream. Take a look at the previous sentences, and you’ll notice that we are the object of that sentence. As objects, we have no agency: we can’t act. The government and the economy act on us. It’s possible to talk about religions and schools in the same manner: they do things to us, and our ability to change these processes is beyond our control. However, it’s not true. It takes away our rights and responsibilities, and it diminishes our roles as the leaders of our lives.

bell hooks’ point is that we ought to be the subjects of our social and political lives, not the objects of them. We ought to be active in shaping the world in which we want to live. Writers like N. N. Taleb, and Mr. Money Mustache also urge us to take active roles in our financial, social, and political lives. In other words, there’s always something you can do to influence your situation, whether it’s talking to someone, finding a job, leaving a job, moving to another place, finding a shelter or social service — there’s something you can do.

There’s a saying I repeat to myself when someone gets angry at my job: “Don’t go away mad, just go away.” However, this isn’t just a cynical quip: it shows that we have options. Getting mad at a situation doesn’t typically solve a problem: it just gets you upset. However, leaving a frustrating situation — temporarily or permanently — is a valid solution. You are a subject in this situation. Don’t let someone else take that from you: don’t let them make you an object they control.

A caveat to temper this sentiment is necessary: I understand that many situations are complicated, and this post reduces most situations to a simple binary distinction of subject and object. However, this subject/object distinction is a useful heuristic that lets us take back control when we feel powerless. If you don’t like your religious or spiritual situation, you can change it, like Scott of Skeptic Meditations did. If you don’t like your work situation, you can change it like Mr. Money Mustache or Jacob Fisker did. This heuristic doesn’t apply to all situations, but it applies to most situations you’ll find yourself in: if you think creatively, there’s usually something you can do to help yourself.

Religions as Social Contracts

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I had an interesting thought: what if religions are a type of social contract, like monarchy, democracy, or socialism? Thinking about religion in this way requires us to temporarily ignore theological issues and divine powers, and focus on the interactions of people following a particular religion. This doesn’t mean that the supernatural or divine isn’t important to religion; it does mean that there is more than one meaningful way to think about religion. Religions do more for people than simply show us God, Liberation, or The Way. Religions offer us ways of relating to people, as well as the world around us, and that’s what I want to explore in this post.

Thinking about religions as social contracts helps explain many of the metaphysical and supernatural aspects of religion in a sociological context. When viewed in this light, religions use a similar organizing principle as the concept of Rule by Divine Right does, which many ancient and medieval monarchies have leveraged to hold power over their subjects. The Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe critically examined these types of government, concluding that the subjects gave their assent to the rulers, rather than the rulers deriving their power from a divine source. Religious followers work under a similar system, giving authority to a person who represents the religion’s power or right to lead these people. The type of social organization that a particular religious group forms can change: for example, a community meditation group behaves differently than a Hindu monastery or a Catholic cathedral.

As with any other form of leadership, organization, or governance, it’s possible for abuse or manipulation to occur. However, if religious followers are members of social contract, they are empowered to change their situation, rather than simply accept the abuse of power. It may not be easy to break with a religious tradition and change one’s ways in a situation like this, but it’s a justifiable option. This is why it’s important to look at religions as social organizations: for example, it’s possible for someone to maintain their faith or beliefs and deny that church representatives have the authority to act in certain ways. In fact, this sociological model of religion explains most sectarian splits that occur in the histories of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. There’s an entire branch of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School dedicated to the sociology of religion.

I think it’s important that we think about religion in this way, because we don’t have to abandon a religion to make a change in our religious beliefs. In other words, the ways that we practice our religious beliefs are malleable. The movement for allowing female priests in the Catholic church is an example of this. Not all of our religious tenets are theological: some are social contracts, and we should renegotiate these contracts if we don’t like the terms of the agreement.

Integrating theological issues into this social contract model of religion complicates the picture, but it can be done. Entire careers have been spent on this project, and I think it’s outside the scope of a single blog post. But what do you think? Is this idea useful in thinking about religions?

What is Education?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about education as a tool. I can do different things depending on how it’s used. For example, preventing certain people from accessing education can prevent them from improving their social situation. To get a better handle on what education is, and what it can do, I’ve been reading a couple good books.

I finished School recently. It’s a book about the history of school in America, from the late 1700’s to the early 2000’s. Given the broad time span and general topic, the book can only cover so much. The topics it highlights are race issues as they interacted with education in America and popular topics in educational theory and practice that ebbed and flowed in American society.

I picked up the book as a primer for another book about education, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. I figure, if I plan to read about transgressing the educational system, then I ought to understand a bit more about what I would transgress. Like a good Jazz musician or criminal knows: to break the rules, you need to understand them first.

One of the most surprising themes of School is the correlation between American society’s move from an agrarian economy to an industrialized one and the increasingly complex educational system that followed the economic shift. As the industrial revolution changed America from a nation of farmers into a nation of engineers, business people, and manufacturers, the need for skilled labor grew proportionately. The government relied on the education system to provide the foundational training for those workers. Curricula and longer school attendance were required as the economy grew increasingly complex, and today, we have a society where a Bachelor’s degree is required to be a secretary, and a Master’s degree is required for some entry-level positions in college administration. The idea that education is simply a tool job training is an important, if limiting, awareness of what education can do for us, although I’d like to think that education is more than simply a vocational preparatory tool.

Racism in America is a painful part of our history that we’re still trying to understand as a society. Ironically, racism in American education is an issue that wasn’t taught to me in school. Of course, we learned about segregation and integration of schools as these issues related to the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and ’60’s, but the larger issue of discrimination against Hispanic and Latino students in the West, as well as 19th Century discrimination against immigrant families, wasn’t covered.

Racism and sexism in American education occurred, and likely still occur, when specific groups of people are prevented or discouraged from accessing parts of the educational system. In the ’60’s, Hispanic students in Texas were told they couldn’t go to college by high school teachers and administrators, even though there were no laws preventing them from going. They were discouraged from taking college prep. courses in order to get to college. School claims that white people felt threatened by integrating Hispanic and Black students into the higher education system.

It’s interesting and sad that empowered people in society use education as a tool to maintain their position of influence. Even in the Information Age, it’s possible to keep less privileged people from accessing educational information by restricting access through requiring more working hours in low-wage jobs or limiting access to computers and smart phones by emphasizing other purchases, such as cable television hardware and service or fancy cars.

The lesson that disenfranchised people draw from this restriction on education and information is that education is power. However, bell hooks notes in Teaching to Transgress that she felt integrated schools and universities used education as a tool to homogenize and indoctrinate students with regards to societal norms and expectations. In her segregated school, hooks found education to be a tool of freedom. Thomas Jefferson saw education as a tool to develop an informed and active democratic populace, and at its best, that is what education can achieve, but education can serve different purposes, depending on who’s doing the teaching. In light of hooks’ anecdote, education seems to be something more complex. Education can be oppressive in some situations and empowering in others.

One of the first courses I took in graduate school was a survey on the literary trope of the self-taught person. We read the stories of Ibn Hayy and Robinson Crusoe, as well as similar stories from several other cultures. One important theme of these stories is that the protagonist is an autodidact, a person who is self-taught. An autodidact is different from someone who leaves the school system with the vocational skills of an auto mechanic, computer programmer, college admissions counselor, or a accountant. Autodidacts use education as a tool to patch holes in their understandings of the world, or open up new territory in their understandings of the world: hooks describes liberating education as “self-actualizing”, a term which I associate with Maszlow’s hierarchy of human needs. Viewing education in the light of stories like Crusoe or Ibn Hayy, where the protagonist uses education as a means to thrive in their environments, self-actualization and liberation are appropriate descriptions of what education can do for someone.

The catch is that these stories are about people who lived alone. Crusoe and Ibn Hayy didn’t have any family to support, or a job beyond surviving. This leaves a lot of time for learning that most folks don’t have. Moreover, these guys wanted to learn. Many people just don’t have a dedication to education like these storybook characters do.

While the idea of an autodidact is thrilling to someone who likes learning. I expect that many people don’t feel like they can teach themselves whatever they want to learn, or even find a teacher who can help them with this. Many things stand in the way of being an autodidact: money, transportation, responsibilities to your family or job, etc. However, with the tools available on the Internet, I believe that it is possible to teach yourself just about anything: Code Academy, Khan Academy, and DuoLingo are just a few of the many free educational resources available to anyone with an internet connection — and if you have a library card, you have internet access. As a student, you have to supply the desire and discipline to learn, which is no small feat, but if you have that, then the tools are out there.

The benefits of education are more than just intellectual. I think this point is often misrepresented by proponents of education. If you read blogs by people like Mr. Money Mustache or the Mad Fientist, you can quickly learn how to save and earn lots of money. By learning how to repair bikes, cars, and houses, you can maintain your possessions. By learning to write and speak well, you can persuade folks to see your side of issues that you care about. In other words, education can help you achieve results on things that matter to you.