Monday, July 7, 2014

Are You a Hedgehog?

Professor Andrew Lamas introduced himself as "Andy" at the beginning of class today, and the first thing he asked us to do was to write a word or phrase on the chalkboard related to social justice. After we took our seats again, he said, "There is something very radical about what we just did," and went on to point out that he began his lecture with us, with our opinions and our ideas. Andy told us to look at the way the classroom was set up, pointedly moving to the right side of the room as he did so. It was a normal classroom, with the chairs in rows facing the front. He pointed out that the positioning of the chairs showed that the frontwhere the teacher stoodwas the focus of the room. And here's what the room told us: Andy was the source of knowledge, and we were empty vessels to be filled with new ideas—we weren't part of the teaching, no one could learn anything from us. He told us that this was not true, and had us push our tables to the side of the room to sit in a circle on the floor. 

It was the best first lesson I had ever seen.

Next, he introduced two people to speak to us: Reverend Dr. John Gilmore and Tina Fragoso. John went first, showing us Qigong exercises and then teaching us a new way of understanding the concept of "now." Tina was next, explaining her experiences as a Native American in the United States, and telling us historically about the struggles of the Lenape tribe. Through them, we received new perspectives already, in the first part of class. 

Andy told us about Isaiah Berlin's idea of "hedgehog" and "fox" thinkers: hedgehogs are people who know one big thing, and foxes know many things (hedgehogs aren't stupid, though, they see the most important thing, and ignore everything else). After a fifteen minute break (I spent part of it talking to Sarah, a teaching fellow), our professor wrote an Aristotle quote on the board: "One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time." Andy used this to start his lecture on contradiction, about how Aristotle claims that you can have one thing or the other, but Andy added that in a social justice context, contradictions are inescapable. For example, in seeking justice, we can create inequalities or ignore the needs of one group, which is against our aims. On a new topic, he gave the example of the poor maid who works as a domestic worker for a rich family to introduce the idea that those with power know less about those without it than those without power know about those with it (sorry about the confusing phrasing). Andy drew the parallel that in our class, he had the power, but we had the knowledge about how our society really is. Next, we watched a few videos: a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a clip from Best in Show, Pete Seeger's national anthem and poem, and part of a Rod Man comedy routine. As a class, we analyzed the comedy clips. The Monty Python clip was about a king taking power in a land of peasants, and Andy pointed out that every place in the world that has a name used to have another name, and that this is a story that has happened all over the world. The Best in Show clip showed that two characters had a relationship based entirely on material things. The juxtaposition of the two clips gave a deeper meaning: the king was doing to the peasant what the people in the couple were doing to each other; the king only wanted information from the peasant, and was treating him like an object, and the couple saw each other as just another thing that they could own. My favorite video was last, a video made by an ex-student, a ballerina. It had a voice-over about the treatment of women in ballet, and the video was a well-choreographed dance in which a male dancer was holding a bow and "playing" her like an upright bass. 

We went and got lunch at the Houston Market, then returned for discussions in small groups. The teaching fellow leading our group, Wanda, was really cool. She introduced herself, telling us that she came from a bad neighborhood in New York, and told us about some of her experiences growing up, which I found really interesting. We talked about Candide, part of the required reading for the class, and my group-mates made a bunch of intelligent points that I hadn't thought about. The conversation moved into social justice issues, and Wanda told us about the difference between charity and partnership, and that the biggest problem for her was a lack of compassion and that so many people don't care about the struggles of others. Our discussions ended too soon, and we were led to a Penn bookstore where we bought our three course books: Earth Democracy, Ways of Seeing, and Crack Capitalism. We need to finish the first book by Thursday. 

The Quadrangle
The room where our
orientation was held
We had a break for dinner, then we were brought to a new lecture hall at Penn where we received our official orientation from Eli, the Director of Penn Summer Programs, and a few other Penn people. It was mostly very basic information and rules. 

After orientation, our RCs (resident counselors) gave us a tour of the Home Area, a reasonably large part of Philadelphia that we can't leave on our own, for our safety. Then we were back at our rooms again. The first day is over, and I feel as though I've had a week of Social Justice classes, probably because we've already done so much. It's very strange...all I know is that I am dying to see what Andy has in store for us tomorrow.

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