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Team Reflections on our three books

Please comment on the three books below before we leave for the NSILC.  This could be a one sentence statement that links the book to the LIUBLC canon we are trying to build or a longer more reflective piece raising issues and ideas.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherin Boo

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

Washington Center’s Pre-Institute Readings can be found here at:


7 comments on “Team Reflections on our three books

  1. Jibarosoy
    July 3, 2012

    From our June 5 Team Meeting:

    Discussion of LIUBLC book recommendations and NSLIC readings

    We had a lively and productive discussion of the readings. We derived some themes from our book selections that could serve as a guide for structuring our learning communities program. We defined some ideas from our three books that might indicate what we want our students to get out of an LIU Brooklyn education. We came up with four themes in our initial discussion:

    1. The concept of upward mobility is a trap. It has to be de-mythologized. Many if not most of our students pursue higher education for vocational reasons, to move upwards. While education does provide opportunities for social mobility, overall, class structures are persistent and inequality between the classes is increasing. We have to contextualize the role that education plays in a market capitalist society.
    2. The world is interconnected. What happens on Wall Street is felt in the slums of Mumbai. There is no escaping our problems and any solutions will require the participation and cooperation of other states from around the world. Even the practical, careerist goals of many of our students may not be realizable in a world of increasing global connection and global warming.

    3. We are always social agents. We make decisions all the time, even if those decisions don’t always get us what we want. The residents of the Annawadi slum in Mumbai make it clear that they are not mere objects of larger forces. They strive, decide, and move to improve their condition. And yet, most of the time, they find themselves repeatedly thrown backwards. Our students need to know how to decipher the conditions under which they can make history and those conditions that create changes that are not of their choosing.

    4. Our students are also often anxious about achieving their goals and about the stresses of their life situation. They are often too anxious to permit themselves any reflection about the larger world or to engage in civic participation. We think that we should explore different modalities to help students become less anxious and prepare them for reflection. Some suggested we experiment with meditation and/or yoga sessions.

    • Larry Banks
      July 5, 2012

      All 3 of the books that we have chosen create a dire picture of the world around us. Many of our students come to us from a world that is wracked with fear and stress. Because these tensions that are not likely to alleviate themselves in the foreseeable future, it may be extremely important as teachers to help students see to the core of issues around us and develop coping skills for stress and fear. In this I see “The Search for Meaning” and it’s prime tenet of choosing a meaning for our lives to be very useful in this urban community of low-lying but acute stress.

      Meditation, yoga, tai chi and a myriad of other modalities can be great tools to help us manage stress and fear. But I believe that first, it is important to understand the neurobiological mechanism of fear and stress and impact on the mind-body system. To me this would seem to be essential training a and development for students of all ages.

  2. Jibarosoy
    July 3, 2012

    At our June 19th Team Meeting we agreed to the following:

    We agreed to review what we intended with our original themes: FACING OURSELVES, FACING OTHERS, AND FACING NATURE. The current books do fit these themes but we are still looking for something what will expose students to transformative ways of thinking and looking at the world.

  3. Jibarosoy
    July 3, 2012

    I think our three books do a very good job of addressing the three themes of our canon. The Boo book obviously takes us to the unstable and precarious journey all of have to travel in facing others in an unequal and unpredictable globalized world.
    The Frankl book is about how we face ourselves. It is about what we are made of, what we find important, how our circumstances shape us, and what we are willing to die for.

    In the McKibben book, we are asked to face nature and what we have done to jeopardize the delicate harmony between us and nature. He makes us realize both how self-destructive we have been and how we have it in us to make the changes necessary to address the current crisis.

  4. Jibarosoy
    July 3, 2012

    I also find that these three books offer very useful lessons for how we conceptualize and implement our learning communities program.

    The Frankl book reminds us that we have choices to make every day and that we elevate ourselves and launch a greater freedom by paying attention to what is meaningful. We should strive to establish the greater meaning of our learning communities project. What are we trying to accomplish besides the practical matter of improving retention and learning?

    The Boo book makes clear that a great deal of our personal suffering and life success is channeled by the social structures we have established. This means we have to be careful and mindful about the organizational structures we are establishing for learning communities. We will make some mistakes as we move forward with this experiment, but some will be greater mistakes than others. The Frankl insight comes into play here. The larger social world outside LIU has its problems. We have to cobble together a teaching and organizational structure that successfully conveys to our students both the fluid and shifting nature of contemporary economic opportunities and the importance of becoming a critical and skilled interrogator of that impermanent world.

    The McKibben book reminds us of the destructive power of human agency. We have pushed the earth into a crisis from which we may not be able to overcome. And yet, he also explains how it is our supreme ability to focus, analyze, change, and move forward that will provide the basis for a recovery and heal. What this means for our project I’m not sure. But I think some of the solutions he suggests have relevance. LIU is also in a crisis, mostly of our own doing. We can reverse and reestablish a harmony between our mission as an institution of second chances and the more competitive and threatening environment. The LIUBLC will provide one effort towards addressing the crisis. We must have more. A rejuvenation of the Liberal Arts is possible and necessary. We should also develop a Center for the Public Humanities.

    These and a whole lot more can help us find new ways to sustain our university. Like McKibben, the paths we take will probably require that we rediscover the connections and goals we share with our local community and the students who attend our classes. We may also find that our future can be protected best by solutions that don’t require radical new programs or expenditures. We may be able to improve and succeed by formalizing what we already do best. Students come to LIU because they want our smaller classes and enjoy our sense of institutional community. Improving our teaching, learning, and student progress may simply require a more systematic development of those unique features of how we have long done things here.

    • Facing ourselves, facing others, facing nature: Jose asks how these themes and the three books “expose students to transformative ways of thinking and looking at the world.” If we think of this question dialectically, the three categories need to be understood in relation to one another. I can’t begin to know the “self” if I don’t know the “other.” Likewise, I can’t understand nature unless I understand that I am both part of nature and yet, at the same time, a member of a species that has transformed and destroyed nature. On the one hand, we have harnessed nature in ways hitherto unimaginable that were once (and still are) hailed as “progress,” the consequences of which we are only now understanding. So on this hot day in July we can turn on the AC that is also contributing to carbon dioxide emissions causing climate change, hotter temperatures, and disastrous storms.

      McKibben, of course, makes clear just how dire those consequences are and how we can still address them if we take the necessary steps of cutting back on CO2 emissions by relying on solar rather than coal energy, planting trees instead of cutting them down, and many other small and large solutions. But he is also vehement in his critique of policymakers and corporations who have denied the scientific evidence, putting the planet in grave danger. Yes, our individual footprint matters and recycling is good thing to do but unless energy policy changes, my turning off the air conditioner won’t help much. (I just heard a British scientist tonight on NPR say that throughout the ’90s the correspondence between high and low temperatures annually was 1 to 1; starting in 2000, it was 2 to 1; this past year it has been 10 to 1!)

      Likewise, in Boo’s book, resourceful slum-dwellers reside next to an international airport and luxury hotels as India becomes wealthier and more powerful–it is now the 11th largest economy by its GDP. How can students understand what causes this extreme polarization of wealth (worldwide) if they don’t learn about world history and the history of capitalism? The IMF and the World Bank? The book should provoke students to ask why these Mumbai residents live in such abysmal conditions. (Or why the U.S. refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.)

      Frankl, whose “search for meaning” sometimes feels oppressive to me in its liberal foundations still resonates with the struggle, as Jose puts it, “to launch a greater freedom by paying attention to what is meaningful.” Frankl cautions that freedom “is not the last word…[but] the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness.” This reminds me of a term that the Russian philosopher of language Mikhail Bakhtin uses–“answerability”–as well as Engels’ famous remark that “freedom is the recognition of necessity.” Again, there is a dialectic at work that makes one term meaningful only in relation to the other. To be free means to take responsibility, to be capable of responding, of answering (for Bakhtin, the questions one’s own life poses). To quote his biographers Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist:

      “In Bakhtin, the difference between humans and other forms of life is a form of authorship, since the means by which a specific ratio of self-to-other responsibility is achieved in any given action – a deed being understood as an answer – comes about as the result of efforts by the self to shape a meaning out of the encounter between them. What the self is answerable to is the social environment; what the self is answerable for is the authorship of its responses. The self creates itself in crafting an architectonic relation between the unique locus of life activity and the constantly changing natural and social environment which surrounds it. This is the meaning of Bakhtin’s dictum that the self is an act of grace, a gift of the other.”

      Jose asks some very good questions about what we want the learning communities to achieve. What is their “greater meaning” beyond the practical goals of improving retention and learning? In one sense, those goals are enough, and they arguably go beyond the practical. But it we don’t think about the larger philosophical questions at the heart of what we do as educators, then we may be consigned to a mechanistic, soulless university. As I have been reading the articles in preparation for the Washington Institute, I find myself irritated at times by what seems like technocratic, scientistic ideas about education. As much as I agree with the basic tenet about the importance of teacher-research on how students learn, I question the ways in which it becomes institutionalized, too often, it seems at the expense of deep thought, substantive knowledge, and genuine critical analysis. How can the learning communities at LIU become a vibrant center for inquiry in which faculty and students work together to understand the contradictions of our time and become “answerable to…the social environment…[and] the authorship of [our own] responses”?

  5. William
    July 7, 2012

    I have read The Beautiful Forevers and am still reading eaarth and my overwhelming feeling is one of despair, followed by acute stress. As I read, I thought of our students and I wondered what impact these books could possibly have on their own stressful and challenging lives except to make them think, Wow, I thought I had it bad….

    Reading everyone’s posts, however, has provided useful insights about how these books can help launch action instead of fixation on the horrors of the human predicament we are all in. (Which I have to admit its hard for me to look away from.)

    I agree with Larry that stressful as our students’ lives are, they are not always willing to discuss it (or even have the opportunity in class to do so). These books provide an opportunity to look at the forces that bear down on our lives and–as Larry said– to become conscious of them. Consciousness is a necessary foundation for meaningful action, and coming to consciousness is not always pleasant.

    In Deborah and Jose’s comments, I saw that we can use the books to dispel myths–such as upward mobility–and to ponder the potential for change that comes from social agency–and the limits. One of the important issues raised by McKibben is how meaningful is social action if we pass the tipping point beyond which eaarth’s agency goes on a course inimical to human existence? Hardin’s ideas in “The Tragedy of the Commons” about what is a “right” in the context of limited resources and ecological disaster are relevant to this discussion.

    One possible sequence for teaching these books would be eaarth, The Beautiful Forevers, and Man’s Search for Meaning. Without a healthy planet, how will we sustain life and what impact will climate change have on the social order? Boo’s book looks at the upheaval of social order in a society with an ancient social order that no longer holds, just as McKibben looks at the human race’s ways of interacting with the planet that no longer hold.

    Frankel’s book is a good place to end because it provides guidelines for creating meaning out of dire situations. It focuses on the individual not only in relation to himself but others. It too dispels a myth: that there’s universal meaning and challenges everyone to identify specific conditions in his or her life out of which meaning and action can emerge.

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