“Sweet Little 78” and Back in Class Again

Aronowitz

As readers of this blog might remember, Peggy and I have just moved to Westport, Connecticut. In an earlier posting, I explained that we’re here largely to be near our four grandchildren. My daughter, Maggie, our son-in-law, Kerry, along with Eva (9 yrs.), Oscar (7), Orlando (5), and Markandeya (3) live at 69 Clinton Avenue. Peggy and I are now located at 33 Clinton. It’s a 10-minute walk between our two houses.

And so far, it’s working out just fine. We’re pretty well moved into our new digs which are quite a bit smaller than what we became used to in Berea, Kentucky. But we’re finding comfort in the down-sizing. After all small is beautiful.

33 Clinton

Along those lines, however, I do find myself missing the small-town atmosphere that we got so comfortable with in Berea. Forty-five years in Kentucky definitely turned me into a country mouse. Here in Westport, a virtual suburb of New York City, things are quite different. The pace if faster; the traffic is heavier; the prices are higher.

But with Westport and that proximity to NYC come a lot of benefits. For instance, our new location has a wonderful Playhouse. Just this weekend, Peggy and I took in “Man of La Mancha” that had been performing there to rave reviews. The reviews were well-deserved. We came away truly inspired.

And then there’s a nine-week course I have enrolled in and am attending each Saturday in the heart of Manhattan. That’s what I want to tell you about here. As Chuck Berry might say, at sweet 78, I’m back in class again.

The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” The sessions are taught by Stanley Aronowitz (pictured above), an emeritus professor of sociology, cultural studies, and urban education at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Stanley is a widely-published authority on critical theory. Peggy and I had met him years ago (around 1990) at the Socialist Scholars Conference at CUNY. His work on Paulo Freire and our friendship with Paulo were our connecting points.

My primary purpose in attending Stanley’s class is to deepen my understanding of critical theory, which lies at the basis of my related book The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: Seeing Through Alternative Fact and Fake News.

True, my book addresses what is called “critical thinking” here in the United States. But the latter’s exclusive emphasis on logic and detecting fallacies is a far cry from critical theory as understood in the rest of the world. There it is profoundly informed by Marxism and the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm – all members of the so-called Frankfurt School.

Just as my book does, the Frankfurt School emphasized the structural causes of the way we think: capitalism, its ideology, and the ways thinking is influenced by capitalism’s history, colonial practices, and associated understandings of violence, terrorism and other obfuscations. As I explain in my book, I picked up almost everything I know of that kind of critical thinking from the liberation theologians I’ve studied with in Rome, Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, and Israel. Liberation theology is deeply influenced by the Frankfurt School.

So, my first purpose in attending was to learn more about critical theory unfiltered through theology. My secondary purpose was to meet other leftists, to find out what they’re up to in the NYC area, and to possibly join them in their efforts at creating a world with room for everyone.

The Aronowitz class meets Saturday afternoons from 12:00-2:00 at The People’s Forum on 320 East 37th Street. Getting there has me taking the 10:08 train from Westport to Grand Central Station. That reaches its destination about 11:30. Then I walk a mile and a quarter down 42nd Street to Broadway, and then to East 37th. On the way, I pass the New York City Library and thousands of very interesting-looking people.

The first meeting drew about 30 people. Though extremely interesting, it frustrated my purpose of getting to know people. Stanley didn’t have us introduce ourselves. So, I came away with only the vaguest notions of who was there. They were of all ages, though slightly tilted towards my own cohort. Mostly men, though about a third were women.

For homework, Stanley assigned a very difficult reading from Adorno’s Critical Models. It was an 18-page essay called “Progress.” It turned out to be one of the most abstract pieces I’ve ever read. I found it kind of exciting though. It made me feel like I was in graduate school again – reading something very serious. However, Aronowitz was right: “You have to read it about three times to get what Adorno’s saying.”

Well, I did that. It took me about half-an-hour to read each page. And later (even though it wasn’t part of the assignment) I wrote a 1000-word essay of response. It’s the kind of essay I always wanted my students at Berea to produce after readings I assigned there.

In any case, Stanley’s second class had about half the number of attendees as the first. Our actual class size is 12 students. (Stanley said the class size-difference is normal.) As it turns out, most of them (largely 50 yrs. and older) are Aronowitz groupies. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who hasn’t taken a previous class with him. The others are all Marxists more or less (I guess I fall into that category as well) – all very smart and well-read.

So, I’m having fun here in Westport. The three classes I’ve attended so far have been dynamite.

Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll share the essay I mentioned above.

My Interview on Rob Kall’s “Bottom-Up” Podcast/Radio Program

Two weeks ago, Rob Kall posted an interview with me on OpEdNews. It centered on my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news. I had great fun doing the show. Here it is.

Press Release: The Critical Thinking Manual Progressive Teachers Have Been Waiting For: My New Book

Magic Glasses Cover

Mike Rivage-Seul has just published the book progressive teachers have been waiting for to ground their post-secondary courses on critical thinking. Available on April 17th from Peter Lang Publishing, the book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Rivage-Seul is an emeritus professor of peace and social justice studies at Berea College in Kentucky, where he taught for more than 40 years. He publishes a monthly column in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

His approach to critical thinking – to education itself – should be familiar to progressives. It starts from the position that the purpose of such process is not primarily to interpret the world, but to change it. Therefore, critical thinking and education should not be neutral. It should equip students with the tools they need for social activism.

Magic Glasses summarizes what Rivage-Seul considers the most important insights he gathered over his years of travel and study throughout Europe and especially in the Global South – specifically in Brazil, Nicaragua, Cuba, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and India, as well as in Israel-Palestine.

“As you can tell by the title,” Mike says, “The Magic Glasses could hardly be timelier. The concept comes from the great comedian and social activist, Dick Gregory. He spoke of critical thinking as functioning like a set of spectacles. They confer special insight enabling their wearers to see things quite differently from what is considered ‘normal.’

“However, Gregory warns that the glasses come with three rules. The first is that once you put them on, you can never take them off. The second says that once you put them on, you can never see things the way everybody else does, but only as they truly are. And the third is that you can never force anyone else to wear them.”

In other words, Rivage-Seul’s book might be a dangerous read. For instance, he echoes Global South scholars by seeing sinister intent in the Declaration of Independence’s celebrated statement that “All men are created equal.” With those same scholars, he refers to World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War,” and sees the United States as currently occupying the same global position that Adolph Hitler aspired to attain – with similar effect.

“I’ve been wearing Gregory’s magic glasses for years,” Mike says. “They’ve shaped my all my teaching and have often got students mad at me – at least at first. And you should read some of the comments my newspaper columns get! It’s all because I constantly apply the ten rules for critical thinking that my book explains.”

Those rules include: (1) Reject Neutrality, (2) Reflect Systemically, (3) Select Market (as the root of political differences), (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (8) Quadra-sect Violence, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

As a result of employing those guidelines, Rivage-Seul understands U.S. history, terrorism, the renewed nuclear arms race, world hunger, trade agreements, immigration, Black Lives Matter, and other hot button issues in ways that end up being 180 degrees opposed to the mainstream.

“I’m in good company though,” Mike observes. “I’m trying to channel the spirit of the world’s great critical thinkers. Think about it. None – not Jesus, the Buddha, not Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Helen Keller – was neutral. They weren’t worried about ‘balance’ or offending anyone. For them, speaking truth to power and living with the results were all that mattered.

“I’m hoping that my book falls into that tradition.”

That social activist tradition is indeed developed in The Magic Glasses. And each point is illustrated with movie clips from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and even with the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

In sum, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking represents and attempt to supply secondary and post-secondary teachers with a complete syllabus for a course on critical thinking that will help students radically revision their world in ways that inevitably challenge all of their preconceptions.

As such, Rivage-Seul’s book on critical thinking is not only the one progressives have been waiting for, it’s a page-turner as well. As Rob Kall, the editor-in-chief of OpEdNews puts it in his endorsement:

“I love this book. It’s brilliantly written by a very wise man who’s been serially enriched by spending time with some of the world’s greatest visionaries. And he shares what he learned from his conversations with them. The book is addictively readable. I started to skim the book to see if it was worth putting my time into and found I couldn’t stop reading. Michael Rivage-Seul brings sparkling vivacity to the potentially dry topic of critical thinking. As one who has interviewed hundreds of visionaries, I found this book to offer new perspectives and ways of seeing-which is what building critical thinking skills is all about. This book offers so much more than what its title, at first glance suggests. Have a taste and you, will like me, find yourself wanting to consume all the courses of this delicious meal.”

Cosmic-Centrism: South Africa’s a Good Place to Start (15th in a series on critical thinking)

 

Easwaran

In this series, I’ve been tracing my own growth in terms of Ken Wilber’s stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, world-centrism, and cosmic-centrism. I’ve been arguing that each stage has its own “alternative facts.” What I believed to be factual as a child, I no longer accept — in any field, faith included. The highest stages of critical thinking are achieved, I believe, by those who accept the alternative facts of mystics and sages across the globe. Their facts receive virtually no recognition from the world at large. Yet, they are truest of all.

The studies and travel I’ve recalled so far in this series had taken me from Chicago and various places in the United States to Europe where I spent five years traveling widely. Then I moved to Appalachia, and from there journeyed to Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.  Each step of the way, my awareness expanded. By my 50s, I had pretty much gone beyond ethnocentrism.

Then by 1997 (at the age of 57), I gingerly entered the next phase of Wilber’s growth hierarchy, cosmic-centrism. The door opened that Christmas, when my wife, Peggy, gave me the gift of three books by an Indian teacher of meditation, Eknath Easwaran.

The most important of the three was simply entitled Meditation. The book explained how to meditate and outlined Easwaran’s “Eight Point Program” for spiritual transformation. The points included (1) meditation, (2) spiritual reading, (3) repetition of a mantram, (4) slowing down, (5) one-pointed attention, (6) training of the senses, (7) putting the needs of others first, and (8) association with others on the same path.

As a former priest, I was familiar with such spirituality. After being introduced to meditation during my “spiritual year” in 1960, I meditated every day for the next dozen years or so. Then I stopped. I thought I would never go back.

But after reading Meditation, I decided to perform the experiment Easwaran recommends there. He challenged his readers to try the eight-point program for a month. He said, if no important changes occur in your life as a result, drop the practice. But if significant personal transformation happens, that’s another story.

Suffice it to say that I tried for a month, and now nearly 20 years later, I’m able to report that I’ve never missed a day of meditation. Soon I was meditating twice a day. In short, I had been re-introduced into spiritual practice, but this time under the guidance of a Hindu. However, Easwaran insisted that his recommended practices had nothing to do with switching one’s religion or even with adopting any religion at all.

In other words, meditation had introduced me into the realm of mysticism common to Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslim Sufis, and subscribers to other faiths.

Easwaran described mysticism, wherever it appears, as founded on the following convictions: (1) there is a divine spark resident in the heart of every human being, (2) that spark can be realized, i.e. made real in one’s life, (3) in fact it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) those who recognize the divine spark within them inevitably see it in every other human being and in all of creation, and (5) they act accordingly.

Those are the principles of cosmic-centrism.

South Africa

In 2012, during my wife’s sabbatical in Cape Town, South Africa, my eyes started opening to the divine in nature – especially in the ancient rock formations in the southern Cape. As Dean Perini points out in his Pathways of the Sun, many of them have been “enhanced” by the Koi-Koi and San people indigenous to this area. The enhancements (for instance, sharpening features in rocks which resemble human faces) serve the same purpose as the completely human fabrications in places like Tikal, Stonehenge, and (perhaps) Easter Island.  They position the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to keep track of equinoxes and solstices. All of those heavenly bodies and seasons influence our own bodies (70% water) as surely as they do the ocean tides and the seasons. So it was important to the Koi-Koi and San to mark the precise moments of the annual celestial events for purposes of celebrations, rituals, and feasts.

Near Cape Town, we lived in Llandudno near the location’s great “Mother Rock.” Like so many other mountains, rocks, sacred wells and springs in that area, it exuded extraordinary cleansing energy. My wife and I often made our evening meditation before that Rock, and on occasion in a nearby sacred cave.

They say that the human story began in South Africa 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. So in the presence of ocean, sacred caves, and holy rocks, we attempted to reconnect with the roots of it all and with the animals and ancient peoples who in their harmony with nature’s processes seem much wiser than we post-moderns are proving to be.

We were entering cosmic space, where the principle of the unity of all creation shapes critical thinking.

(Next week: Learning from spiritual masters in India)

My Experience in Cuba (13th in a series on critical thinking)

Cuba

My first trip to Cuba took place in 1997. Berea College sent me there as a delegate with The Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a Cuban specialist from our college spent a month on the island teaching a January Short Term course for Berea students. It focused on “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” Years later, I attended a two-week Conference of Radical Philosophers in Havana. Then there were those trips I earlier referenced with students from the Latin American Studies Program I taught with in Costa Rica. My wife and I also co-taught a summer semester course in Cuba three years ago – just before President Obama began lifting travel restrictions for Americans.

To repeat, those experiences gave me the chance to examine a culture and system of political economy attempting mightily to implement Marx’s critical theory. The efforts have continued for more than 50 years, even in the face of fierce and often terroristic opposition from the most powerful country in the world, located not 90 miles from Cuba’s shores.  Despite those impediments, and since 1959 Cuba has largely succeeded in providing for itself what human beings care most about.

(And here, I’m sorry to say, my time on the island has made evident the real “fake news” and analysis into which Americans have been indoctrinated for more than 50 years. For I am about to present a series of “alternative facts” that illustrate the need for critical thinking beyond the Propaganda Model Noam Chomsky exposed in Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions.)

So what do human beings really care about? Most would probably say that they care about their health and that of their families. Education would also be important. They want safety in the streets. They even desire some years of retirement toward the end of their lives. Most also care about the well-being of the planet they’d like to leave to their grandchildren.

In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – my trips to Cuba show that Marx’s critical theory has guided Cuba to provide a way of life that far outstrips even the United States. That’s right. Consider the following:

* Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.

* Health care and medicine are free.

* Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
* 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
* Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels!)
* Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
* Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
* Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
* Streets are generally safe in Cuba
* Gun violence is virtually non-existent.

But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.

Of course, there’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.

And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as:

* Health insurance
* Medicines
* Home mortgages or rent
* Electricity and water
* School supplies and uniforms
* College tuition and debt
* Credit card interest
* Insurances: home, auto, life
* Taxes: federal, state, sales
* Unsubsidized food costs

The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Global South countries.

None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.

To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba is embracing reforms that include:

* A reduction of the government bureaucracy.
* Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
* Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy (see below).
* Connecting wages with productivity.
* Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
* Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
* Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
* Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a Cuban friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
* Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax.”
* Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.

And don’t think that after the implementation of Obama’s new strategy for overthrowing Cuba’s government, that the island is about to descend to the levels of other countries in the former colonial world. Yes, the island has opened itself to capitalist investment, but it’s been doing that with European countries at least since 1989. But the opening is taking place on Cuba’s own terms – tightly controlled by government regulation. At the same time, Cuba is vastly expanding its already strong cooperative sector, while reducing its state-run monopolies. Fostering cooperatives means that workers collectively own the enterprises that employ them. They receive the same kind of aid from the Cuban government as that extended to capitalist enterprises in the United States and elsewhere in the Neo-liberal world. In Cuba, the aid takes the form, for instance, of tax breaks, subsidies, holidays for workers, vacations, etc. The idea is to have co-ops enter into competition not only with other cooperatives, but with private sector concerns on a level playing field.

The hoped-for response from workers isn’t hard to imagine. All of us prefer being our own bosses and controlling our own workdays, rather than taking orders from Starbucks in Seattle.

As I write, my wife, Peggy is in Cuba for three weeks with another class of Berea College students. It will be interesting to hear her report when she returns.

(Next week: Zimbabwe)

My Study of Liberation Theology in Brazil (10th in a series on critical thinking)

Dom Helder

My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.

Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes?  They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.

All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.

At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.

While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!

Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?

I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”

So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.

I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.

I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.

To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).

As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.

Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.

Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)

None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.

Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.

I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.

To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.

I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.

(Next week: Nicaragua!)

My Journey towards World-Centric Consciousness Continues (9th in a series on critical thinking)

Berea College

 (In this series, I’ve been trying to explain my approach to “critical thinking” in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I addressed the fake news first, showing how it’s really an old problem well-addressed by Chomsky in the mid-80s in his “Necessary Illusions.” The question of alternative facts was suggested even longer ago by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Currently, I’m tracing my own experience with alternative facts, showing how my own set of convictions has changed from childhood, through my education in preparation for entry into the priesthood, and later during my graduate studies in Rome. This week, let me tell you about changes in consciousness that took place after I left the priesthood, working first for the Christian Appalachian Project, then teaching my first few years at Berea College, and via my first sabbatical in Brazil in 1984.The changes, I’m alleging, brought me through development stages identified by Ken Wilber as egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism. This week I continue my description of my evolving world-centric understanding. The hope is that my story might help you reflect on your own similar development as a critical thinker.)

After returning to the United States, with my doctoral degree in hand, I spent a “year of discernment” to decide whether or not to remain a Columban priest. Working as a priest for The Christian Appalachian Project in the foothills of Kentucky’s Cumberland mountains gave me first-hand experience of the poverty I had read about in Michael Harrington’s The Other America. It also introduced me to Berea College, where I would eventually spend the next 40 years teaching. Berea had been founded by Christian abolitionists in 1855. It retained its commitment to inter-racial justice, to the Appalachian region, and gradually accepted a revised and remarkably open understanding of Christian faith.

Those commitments required me to teach a first-year General Studies course called “Issues and Values.” And that meant learning about black history, women’s liberation, world religions, the environmental crisis, and the issue of world hunger. Faculty development seminars helped prepare us to teach texts including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The Seneca Falls Resolutions,” the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. The course was life-changing for my students – and for me.

Even more so was a two semester Great Books course, “Religious and Historical Perspectives” (RH&P) which I began teaching my third year at Berea. Required of all sophomores, the course had a dozen or so sections staffed by professors recruited from across the curriculum. The unspoken rule among them seemed to be “Never admit that you don’t know everything.” This put me at a considerable disadvantage. For the truth is, though I had taken innumerable courses in (mostly Church) history, I still didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t see the pattern. To me, history was quite boring; it seemed like one damn thing after another – most of which I couldn’t remember.

All of that changed with RH&P. Like “Issues and Values,” the course centralized faculty development seminars in which colleagues from the fields of history, English, sociology, economics, biology, physics, religion, and political science spent the first three weeks of our summer vacations reading, studying, and discussing topics like the medieval period, the scientific revolution, Marxism, apocalyptic literature, and evolution. That prepared us to teach our students primary sources including the Bible and authors like Hesiod, Homer, Tacitus, Cicero, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Kant, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Swift, Mary Shelly, Einstein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was the best educational experience of my life. For the first time, I found myself understanding history and its patterns. In particular, my study of Marx and “The Communist Manifesto” made even clearer to me the ethnocentrism of my previous education. I began to realize that I had spent my life studying the rationalizers and defenders of the elite capitalist establishment. I had been taught to despise the philosophers and historians of the working class like Marx himself. My long years in the classroom had given me an understanding of the world alien to my own class roots.

I was gaining distance from my ethnocentrism. As I later would put it in my Ten Rules of Critical Thinking, I finally saw the value of respecting history. I was already nearly 30.

Brazil

My insights from R&HP were deepened when in 1983-84 (at the age of 43) I took my first sabbatical and traveled to Brazil. My studies there did wonders for my personal growth and unfolding understanding of facts, truth and critical thinking as essentially relative to one’s stage of personal development.

My chosen task in Brazil had been to pursue post-doctoral studies in the field of liberation theology, which had become a central interest of mine. In Rome I had been introduced to the topic. It was part of what had begun broadening my horizons there.  I discovered it to be a strain of discourse about God as imagined by impoverished Christians in the former European colonies especially in Latin America, but also in Africa and South Asia. Liberation theology emerged from peasants, factory workers, students and housewives who found in the Bible a reflection of their own lives and an inspiration to work for social change. In the stories of the ancient Hebrews they saw people enslaved and colonized as they had been. They discovered in the Book of Exodus a God whose concern was to liberate such slaves and install them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Similarly, in Jesus the exploited found a champion who promised them a place in this-worldly Kingdom of God, where everything would be turned upside-down. The poor would become solvent, while the rich would be dethroned; the first would be last, while the last would be first. For liberation theologians, the Kingdom of God is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Moreover, in Jesus Latin America’s beggars, street people, women, peasants, factory workers, and students recognized a kindred spirit. Like them, he was poor and born under a cruel colonizing power. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, brown-skinned and a friend of prostitutes and sinners. He was homeless at birth and an immigrant in Egypt in his early years. Later he became an enemy of the state. He experienced constant surveillance, and was considered a terrorist. Jesus finished, like so many of Brazil’s poor during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a victim of torture and capital punishment.

As we’ll see next week, liberation theology profoundly changed the “facts” of my spirituality. Joined with what I had learned about Appalachia and western history, it readied for even more profound transformations in consciousness that yet awaited me. My Third World travels had just begun. They would provide the catalyst.

(Next week: I sit at the feet of the liberation theologians I had been reading for years.)