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Habits of Mind, Habits of Mine

I’m participating in Plymouth State University’s Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC), and this post is a response to the following prompt: “Write (and share if you feel comfortable doing so) a self-assessment on your own development of the Habits of Mind. Pay particular attention to the signposts on the benchmarks for the level of achievement you believe you have attained. How do you demonstrate that level of achievement? What behaviors do you exhibit for each of the signposts?

First, a warning: I am going to begin by accentuating the negative, but, I hope, keep the positive waiting in the wings to be brought on at the end in a glorious finale. We’ll see. At the very least, this will be something of a journey.

Second, another warning: There will be adult language and situations! I am not a children’s program!

Enough preface and dilly-dally. Let’s begin.

My first response to the Habits of Mind is: I did not create or assent to this rubric, so why should I assess myself by it? Further, I think: Let’s accept for the moment that these criteria are useful within the context of General Education courses at our university. (I have no problem accepting that.) How do we know that these criteria are useful beyond that context?

Beware universalism. We are working during a time when we ought to be especially aware that universal impulses have led to genocide, racism, and imperialism. If we want to account for racism in our institutions, if we want to decolonize our practices, then we must not universalize. To universalize is to mistake the status quo for the eternal. To universalize is to mistake the dominant power for the only power. To universalize is to mistake.

Which is not to say that I think these Habits necessarily derive or profit from racism, etc., but rather that I recognize in such universalizing tendencies the impulses of the colonist. “Do you have a flag? No flag, no country! You can’t have one. That’s the rules. (That I’ve just made up.)”

(“Do you have a habit? No habit, no mind! That’s the rules.”)

Consider, for instance, the assumption behind the Habits of Mind that such things as “multiple perspectives”, “respectful dialogue”, and “mutual understandings” are positive goals that should be the outcome of our work. To many of us, the value of those goals may seem self-evident and beyond argument. Who, after all, wants to promote narrow perspectives, disrespectful dialogue, and mutual misunderstanding? And yet it is the self-evident nature of those goals that makes me pause, just as I pause whenever anyone these days advocates for civility in discourse. I wonder what is the motivation behind this, what power it serves.

Perhaps this is on my mind because I just read what seems to me an excellent essay, “Illiberalism Isn’t to Blame for the Death of Good-Faith Debate” by Lilli Loofbourow. How might the Habits of Mind take the ideas of that essay into account?

(“Why must they?” I hear you ask. Perhaps they don’t. We shall see.)

Or, to put it differently: Are the Habits of Mind written from the perspective of the dominant culture? And is that perspective one that encourages the dominant culture to continue to dominate?

Let’s get less abstract.

How might an oppressed person respond to the idea that it is the height of civilization to be able to have a respectful dialogue of mutual understanding with their oppressor?

Let’s get even less abstract:

Should I, as a (white) teacher of the Habits of Mind, encourage a Black student to have a respectful dialogue with a KKK member?

Or, even more personally:

Should I, as a queer teacher of the Habits of Mind, seek to develop a mutual understanding with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church?

Perhaps your answer is, “Yes! Develop a mutual understanding with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose motto is God Hates Fags, because then you will have the opportunity to open their minds and perhaps they will no longer be hateful!”

To which my response is: “What planet are you from?!?”

Also: You are not assuming a mutual understanding if you think that my job is to convince the Westboro Baptist Church of my humanity. That is a one-way understanding in which the Westboro Baptist Church member moves more toward my position and I do not move toward theirs.

Unless you actually do think that I should move, at least a little bit, toward their understanding. Which would mean I better understand why they think I am an abomination in the sight of God who ought to be beaten or killed, and I better understand why my funeral should be desecrated by their presence and their hateful signs and their hateful shouts and their hateful existence. Which would mean I learn, to some degree, to understand and even see the value in the position of people who want me dead.

If you actually believe that, then I invite you to go jump in a lake of fire.

So, alas, I have limits. I limit the lengths to which I will go for mutual understanding, for respectful dialogue, for multiple perspectives on a topic. There are topics about which I do not believe we ought to utter civil words. There are many topics I simply don’t believe are debatable, or at least that I will not debate. I will not debate my own humanity, I will not debate my own right to be free of violence, my own right to live. Or yours.

Thus, I can not ascend to the full height of the Summit of the Habits of Mind. But that’s okay, because even if the views are not quite as spectacular, there’s more oxygen down here.

I wonder, though, what am I willing to seek out multiple perspectives about? When do I accept mutual dialogue and respectful understandings? (Or was it respectful dialogue and mutual understandings? If I were at a summit and had less oxygen, I would probably know.) Am I just a closed-minded little hypocrite? Am I doomed to arrogantly wander through the halls of my own certainty?

No, I think the terms of this conversation are wrong, and so I reject them.

Instead of the Habits of Mind (which are all very fine for what they do in their context, I’m sure), I would instead propose the Habit of Doubt. Or at least, the Wimple of Qualms.

Let me bring in a higher authority: the divine Taylor Mac, who said in one of the most compelling lectures I’ve ever seen (on YouTube), amidst a discussion of his mother’s interpretation of her Christian Science religion: “All philosophies have practitioners who take things to extremes; who leave no room for relativism, and my mom was one of those people. She was in it. She believed and preached like an authoritarian but not like an author. An author, who has authority, questions. They get their specialized knowledge through an admission of doubt and the practice of incorporating doubt into considerations. But my mom’s version of her religion didn’t work if you welcomed in doubt. To doubt or question would be tantamount to destroying her medication.”

Let me repeat the most important part for the folks in the back row: an admission of doubt and the practice of incorporating doubt into considerations.

The Habits of Mind include this idea, as all advocates of what tends to get called “critical thinking” do (the term critical thinking itself, though, has been emptied of meaning by constant repetition in a plethora of contexts). The Habits of Mind are big fans of questions. My disagreement is, then, perhaps not a disagreement. Perhaps what I want is a difference of priority, of emphasis. And it might be a personal response, a quirk or a quibble, not an argument. I emphasize the idea of doubt because I am given to doubt about nearly everything. (Except my belief that the Westboro Baptist Church, KKK, Nazis, and some others ought not to be argued with, ought never to be given a platform, and instead ought to be exiled. About this, I have no doubt.)

The problem, of course, will be clear if you’ve got as well-developed a habit of doubt as I have: Doubt is no less an abyss than mutual understanding and respectful dialogue and yadda yadda, because you could certainly doubt the idea that the Westboro Baptist Church etc. ought not to be given a platform, ought not to be argued with, ought to be exiled — and your doubt could then lead you into belief that you should consider, at least for the moment, that God Hates Fags. (Or was it Figs? Maybe God hates figs. That would make some sense, especially if he resented all the fig leaves put over the fun parts of religious statues. He should try figs with goat cheese, they’re better that way.)

We have gotten no farther than we were when we began, even though I promised something of a journey, even though I invoked the words of the divine Taylor Mac.

But, you see, I excerpted too little. I was not extravagant in quoting. I feared excess when what I should have feared is distortion. I did violence to the ideas by presenting them without their context. Ideally, you would now go watch that video I linked to. (It’s better than anything I say here, trust me! Here’s the link again.) But since you will probably not follow that link (once again, I’m draped in the habit of doubt!), here is more from the speech:

Remember authority? Not the kind where one person has power over another but the kind where one person has knowledge and experience in a field or subject because they’ve made a continuous commitment to learning about that subject. And you actually listen to what that person has to say and trust their authority; trust with an open mind towards learning more but trust. It seems to me our political problems lie somewhere in the confusion between the two definitions of authority. While trying to stop someone from having power over you, you decided nobody knows more than you.

Power. Knowledge. Experience. Listening. Trust.

What’s next is a ritual sacrifice of opinion. Theater will be a vaccination to the plague of opinions. Audiences, critics, and artists will make a commitment to perpetual consideration because we’ll convince them the theatre is a place that is a respite from decision-making. They will flock to plays and live performance in order to be free of opinion. As a result, audiences will get specific with description. They will learn to discuss art through consideration rather than likes and dislikes, agreement and disagreement. They’ll do this because artists, administrators, and producers will set the example and do it themselves.

A ritual sacrifice of opinion. Specific description. (Not generalities and universalisms!) Discussion via consideration rather than likes or dislikes.

A solution? I don’t know. (What was the question?) All I know is that I like this vision more than I like a lot of others. Does it have anything to do with the Habits of Mind? I have my doubts. But I am happier thinking about Taylor Mac than I am thinking about this other stuff.

Here, then, to end things, and to open this journey toward another journey — at the end of this post is a link to one of the funniest, most moving performances I know. (Also: It’s rather filthy! Beware! Enjoy!) Taylor Mac again, but younger, wrestling with complexities, and using performance both to convey complexities to the audience and, more importantly, to put that audience in the midst of complexities by unsettling the audience’s laughter, by giving them an experience that is greater than any moral he could have told to the stories.

Habits, questions, doubts. Experience.


Break your habits. Follow this link (to adult language and situations and laughter and beauty and humanity and god I love fags).

Image: Taylor Mac, via YouTube

One thought on “Habits of Mind, Habits of Mine

  1. Thank you for this! We are also engaged here at Keene State in conversations about dialogue and understanding. And I have said, more than once, that I am tired of being asked to consider the point of view of someone who believes I am part of some global Jewish/queer/radical feminist agenda.

    I know people can change – there are moving and compelling accounts. Perhaps I am not up to that task. I think mostly I am really tired and not sure that I should have to take that on. So thank you.

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