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Is Your Learning Style Paranoid?: What’s New Can Be You

October 5, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

In a supermarket the other day I noticed an attractive young woman and then, with a shock, her right hand. With a mix of fascination and anxiety I saw that the hand was a stump with a thumb and, where her pinkie should have been, a middle finger opposing her thumb like a pincer.

Intellectually I wasn’t startled at all: birth defects happen all the time.  Every pregnancy is a fabulous storm of genetic information shaping the growing fetus. Not surprisingly, messages occasionally get misdelivered, mutated, or scrambled. Such variability makes evolution possible. In every family of puppies or kiddies, the individuals have a different mix of traits. You may recall the famous Russian ethologist who mated the tamest individuals from different litters of Siberian foxes and eventually produced two different animals: the usual ferocious fox and new foxes tame as a lapdog, with juvenile (neotenic) physical and behavioral traits.

Some genetic variations turn out to be adaptive, some crippling or even fatal: some more or less irrelevant. What surprised me in the supermarket was the fascination and twinge of anxiety I felt at the sight of the young woman’s peculiar hand. Unless she wanted to be a pianist, the mutation presented no serious obstacle to an effective life. Yet its strangeness had an uncanny quality, and I could see why the woman casually kept the hand covered around strangers.

What’s going on here?

We’re psychosomatic(link is external) creatures. We generate our conception of reality by combining feedback from our bodies, parents, and cultures. In learning particular rules and facts (The stove is hot, don’t touch it) we’re also developing categories that enable us to judge new things by relating them to what’s already familiar (hot, cold; pleasure, pain, etc). In thewisdom of slang we learn by “absorbing” or rejecting new anomalies that don’t fit what we already know. The more you can absorb, the wider we say your knowledge of the world—your experience—is.

Meanwhile back in the supermarket, there I am puzzled by the fascination and anxiety the unusual hand stirred in me. Fascination is an emergency response to something unexpectedly new. Confronted by a potentially good or dangerous anomaly, fascination focuses and concentrates your attention.

Attractive people promise more life. Movie “stars” or pumped up body “builders” invite hero-worship—transference. They look more or less like other humans, but their exceptional features have the quality of fetishes. Like money, religious symbols, or the flag, their beauty or strength has power we identify with.

At root, the power we imagine in positive anomalies seems to offer more life, and more life means less insecurity, less danger, less death. Attractive young people signal fertility, a long life ahead of them. Idealizing them, we can attribute all sorts of talents and virtues to them.  In a supermarket this is especially pronounced. The store is a temple of symbolic immortality. You gaze at blood-red animal cuts, fun sweets, and lively packaging. Everything is “king size” or “super.” Mr Clean will wash away dirt, disease, and death.  In panting color the magazine rack presents “out of this world” hair styles and invincible new cars. In the freezers food is imperishable, and in the pharmacy life can be rescued from decay.

In such a fantasy world a birth defect is jarring. Since we’re highstrung, vulnerable animals, with radars always scanning the horizon for threats, we’re apt to feel—hello—anxiety.

Anomalies show that the world is bigger and stranger than “our” reality. Even anomalies that promise more life rattle us, but in that case we interpret our response as positive “wonder” or as the kids say, “awesome.” By contrast, anomalies that threaten to limit or impair life remind us that our bodies are fragile and impermanent. They arouse associations with injury, futility, and death. And such a response is especially disturbing because often it’s a gut response, not a conscious judgment that allows us to feel smart and masterful.

As Michael Polanyi(link is external) reminds us, never mind Freud, most of the time we don’t know why we react as we do.  A strange face may strike you as appealing or repellent. You recognize the new visage as a gestalt:(link is external) you don’t analyze lips, chin, eyes, and other features to assemble your concept. Like the uncanny answer to a riddle, the face clicks into awareness, often making a positive or negative impression. You’ve unwittingly processed the information before you come up with a conscious account of the face. You know more than you can say.

But that’s not all. The gut reaction to an anomaly is usually characterized bymoral aggression. You “fight” a “bad cold”; genetic variations are birth “defects” or  “abnormalities.” The fear is that otherwise the anomaly will contaminate or infect you.  In the wisdom of slang, what’s surprising threatens to “freak you out.”  Much of the time an anomaly may be harmless or even beneficial, but as in paranoia, we feel it has a menacing quality. If you misjudge an anomaly, you may be using it as a scapegoat, blaming it for faults that really lie elsewhere. It is easy to scapegoat immigrants and other races, for example, exaggerating superficial differences. Gut-level self-defense can turn them into abnormalities. Your hostility may be scarcely conscious yet it pumps up the nervous system’s emergency chemistry as well as righteous self-esteem.

It’s useful to see that the negative, even evil associations we attribute to some anomalies are delusions. They’re grounded in our nervous systems and the false categories culture has taught us. Our reactions are prejudiced, based not on evidence but on limitations in the way we’re built. In a classic experiment monkeys panicked when shown the severed head of a monkey. The severed noggin was actually harmless, but the monkey subjects weren’t assessing the evidence, their shock was instinctual. They reacted as you and I react when terrorists behead a human captive.

Civilization means living arrangements that allow strangers to live together. And the awkward truth is that other people are always anomalies. Civilized imaginations have to keep getting used to anomalies. One way is to think of them as variations or exceptions rather than defects, or as a new opening to be explored . Ultimately tolerance comes from recognizing that though we often cling to cherished categories like a child’s safety blanket, reality is variations in motion, not a polished rock.

Prejudice isn’t just about racism or hating broccoli. It’s what happens when your gut reaction to the strangeness of being alive starts to panic. Think of the common cold that stuffs your head with moldy dishrags and spills sand into your windpipe and lungs. What causes that misery isn’t the cold virus—the anomaly—but your immune system’s overreaction.

Luckily we’re singularly adaptable animals. We can play, experiment, and teach each other what’s good for you and what gives you poison ivy. We can share our curiosity and discoveries—which you and i are doing right now. Yes, some anomalies are really hard to get used to, such as the kind of rogue asteroid that made the dinosaurs late for breakfast.  Closer to home are the surprises that you meet in your local immortality emporium, between Mr Clean and the can opener with the lifetime guarantee: a surprise that helps you wonder who we are.

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Resources used in this essay:

Michael Polanyi: The Tacit Dimension

Ernest Becker: Escape from Evil

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“All Roads Lead to Becker”: An Interview with Bill Bornschein

July 22, 2015

Bill Bornschein is a long-time supporter of the Ernest Becker Foundation who teaches religion and philosophy at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky. He graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts and experiences with us regarding teaching Ernest Becker’s work at a high-school level. This is the first in a series of EBF interviews with secondary school teachers about their approaches to Becker conducted by EBF team member Christa Masson. quote-1

So let’s start with my favorite question to ask- how were you first introduced to Becker?

It was maybe 10 years ago and I was in my local independent video store, Wild and Woolly Video. Wild and Woolly was an amazing place. I noticed the cover of [Flight From Death] and watched the film. I was blown away. One of my favorite things to say about Becker is that “all roads lead to Becker”, which means that various things I’ve read in psychology, philosophy, theology, sociology, you know, all these different areas – he synthesizes them so beautifully. I think I picked up on that right away. Having seen the film I immediately went out and read the book, The Denial of Death, and devoured it. I think the experience that a lot of people have with Becker is this recognition like “Yes, this is it”.

Becker touches on so many topics, what aspects of his work that resonated with you the most?

The work with Kierkegaard and Freud. Contextualizing the two of them in terms with one another was very interesting to me. The thing I like about Becker is that he is so interdisciplinary. If I’m teaching a philosophy class, we can talk about the philosopher Kierkegaard, or if it’s a psychology class we can hit Freud and Rank. If it’s an art class, or something with an art angle, we can get into Otto Rank’s work on the artist … Becker is an amazing platform with which to delve into diverse disciplines.

You mentioned to me earlier that you currently teach a couple of classes and work Becker into the curriculum. How you do this?

Depends on the particular course. For example, this spring I taught a theology and a psychology course. Towards the end of the year I showed the film and broadly talked about these things. Nothing too adventurous there. But first semester I ran a Socratic seminar, which is a particular discussion technique where the goal is not breadth but depth. Instead of doing an overview of Becker, we would take a couple of paragraphs from Denial of Death or Escape From Evil, and then have an in-depth discussion that doesn’t get into the theoretical stuff but really gets to the heart of the existential. That’s something I’m interested in developing and it turns out that next year we are required to teach a sacraments course. One of those is the last rites, or anointing of the sick, so I’ll be working Becker there in a different kind of context. When I do it in philosophy or psychology I don’t usually get into the religious side of things- but that will be unavoidable in a sacraments class. I think I’ll do what I’ve always done- which is locate religion in terms of mythology- break it down structurally and logically. I think Becker, along with a defrocked Catholic priest called Matthew Fox, will breathe some life into it.

quote-2So that was the first time you had done the Socratic seminar?  How did the students respond?

Generally, they like Socratic seminar because it’s a really dynamic technique. But, there was only one session on Becker and I think that’s actually the key to engaging people with Becker. You’ve got to do so on an existential level where it really hits home, because once you strike that spark, they know how to research, they know how to think… but you’ve got to get them interested first. Part of my philosophy in presenting Becker in all my classes is that I realize it’s going to be an initial exposure. My thought is that they’re going to go to college and there’s a chance they’re going to hear about it again and think “oh, yeah, Becker, that guy Bornschein was always going on about” and maybe they’ll take a more in-depth look at it. That’s the same with any of the contemporary thinkers that I throw out there- it’s giving [the students] the initial exposure so that the next time around it will take on a bit.

Are there ways that work better than others to engage students with Becker?

One of the best things to do is go to cemeteries and basically provide different rituals and exercises to do. We would take one day and go to Cave Hill Cemetery, which is Louisville’s great historic cemetery where Col. Sanders is buried and all the Louisville luminaries. We go there and do a series of exercises and then later in the week we go to Potter’s Field, where people who can’t afford to be buried are taken. On our campus, there is a cemetery for the Xaverian brothers and I’ll have class out there. I get them thinking in different physical settings, getting them out of the classroom.

How have your students responded to Becker?

You get all kinds of reactions to Becker. I mean you get some students who thank you and come back 10 years later to say that “the class meant so much”, but the story that I take heart from is the final temptation of the Buddha. Basically, the devil says “okay, you win, Buddha, you’ve figured it all out… but you know that what you’ve achieved is so far beyond the common man, your words will be twisted.” And the Buddha responds as he touches the earth, “the earth as my witness, some will understand”. I figure if Becker had the wherewithal to put it out there, then as a teacher, I can have the wherewithal to put it out there too. Maybe not everybody’s going to get it but that’s okay. There’s a synergistic power to this stuff.

quote-3Why did you choose to bring Becker into your work and not just keep it as a work that defines part of your own ideology?

I don’t want to sound like I’m a stark raving true believer or whatever, but I do believe that if you really engage these ideas I don’t know how you can not share them. It’s almost like the early Christians and the good news- except it’s the bad news. Bad news that’s not all that bad. Yeah- I could not not talk about it.

What led you to be a teacher? Did you jump straight into teaching high school?

I come from a family of educators and I think I naturally fell into it. When I was a freshman at University of Louisville, I took a course called “Western Religion and Sexism” and there was this one book called The Great Mother– it was a Jungian style discussion of the archetype. That’s where I got really interested in the study of religion. They didn’t have a degree program so I went to Xavier University in Cincinnati and [studied with] Paul Knitter who was into comparative world religions. I got my undergrad there and my masters at University of Chicago. I came back and got a job at Baden High School in Hamilton, Ohio. I taught there for 5 years and then moved to Louisville and the last 30 years or so I’ve been teaching at St. Xavier, all the time continuing to read and think and philosophize.

If you were going to offer any advice to young educators or those just starting to teach Becker, would there be anything in particular you’d want to tell them?

Well, I guess the first words I’d say would be “thank you”. And I’d suggest to them that they have a good lay of the land in terms of dealing with these issues. I know at the high school level, there have been people that have gotten in trouble because parents are upset with the issues dealt with. You also need to know your students. I always let my kids know where the book is going, not necessarily if we’re doing the Socratic seminar, but if we’re watching the film or going into more depth on Becker, I always try to be sensitive. If you show the film, have it in a situation where they can immediately write down their reactions, hot off the press. Whatever you do with it, they have the raw material. But I always let kids know where we’re going and let them opt out. That’s one way of avoiding that political problem. I have an incredible amount of freedom where I teach; I’ve been there enough that they give me some slack, but you really have to know your situation and your ability to relate to kids. It’s not something I’d go into flippantly. I don’t want to sound discouraging but you need to be aware of what you’re doing. The other thing I’d say is: obviously you can get to Becker from so many different sources. From psychology, from sociology… you could do historical analysis, you could do any kind of social science, so I never worry about presenting Becker in its entirety. I will take pieces and try to spark interest and ultimately leave it up to them to follow up. That’s what I can do where I’m at. I tell them if I have my druthers, I’d teach a whole course on Becker and we’d buy The Denial of Death, but I don’t have that freedom. I make inroads where I can. *to access more of Bill’s recommendations and a list of exercises to perform at a cemetery, visit http://ernestbecker.org/approaching-becker-across-a-high-school-curriculum.html

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EBF Fall Conference: A Party and A Program, Oct. 5-7

September 5, 2012

Check our website for the newest update on the October Conference: This October 5-7 will be a monumental weekend for the work of Ernest Becker, Neil Elgee and for The Ernest Becker Foundation. We’ve got a terrific lineup of events for our lucky EBF members and we hope you’ll all attend the festivities!

www.ernestbecker.org

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Lethal Inspection

March 31, 2011

"The Cephlapod" Cory Foster

One of my favorite television programs is an animated series called Futurama. It follows the life of a late-20’s slacker named Fry who finds himself unintentionally and cryogenically frozen in 2001 and then reanimated in 3001 (how’s that for an immortality project?). While trying to acclimate to life 1,000 years in the future, he befriends all manner of alien, mutant and robot life forms and actually winds up feeling quite comfortable in his new surroundings. The humor of the show is successful using its future setting as a vehicle for the satire of our world back here in the 2000’s. The characters in the show deal with largely the same problems that we do. Corrupt government, rampant commercialization and intolerance are all covered. I was, therefore, not surprised when the most recent season featured an episode covering the concept of mortality salience and the denial thereof, but I did chuckle to myself at the serendipity of its co-occurrence with the initiation of this blog.

The protagonist of this particular episode (“Lethal Inspection”) was Fry’s best friend, a bending robot named, appropriately, Bender. We learn through dialogue in the story that all robots in the 3000’s are equipped with a backup chip when built, so that if anything destructive befalls their bodies, they can simply be reinstalled in another body. Bender comes to find out that he is defective, in that he is missing this essential chip. This effectively makes him mortal. His reaction is one of rage and violence, and he vows to take revenge on the assembly line inspector whose responsibility it was to make sure that Bender was built to industry standards. He travels through North America on a frantic search for this “Inspector 5,” and eventually winds up in Tijuana, where he was built. I won’t give away the ending, but it is somewhat bittersweet.

Bender gets examined in "Lethal Inspection"

I found this to be a very Becker-centric episode of Futurama, for obvious reasons. It seems ideas about existential dread are certainly out there in the wider world, but it’s unclear how much they affect any of the viewership. Were most people in such denial that this episode did not register in the forefront of their minds? Did they react in some subconscious way, as in the various TMT experiments? I would be interested to see if there was a spike in violence or altruism after the airing.

Many of the writers on the show are Ivy League educated, mostly from Harvard, and their erudition shows. However, it was most interesting to see them tackle a softer science (psychology), instead of their standbys of physics and mathematics. When Bender asks the humans in his workplace how they deal with their mortality, they reply with “violent outbursts,” “general sluttiness” and “thanks to denial, I’m immortal!” One wonders whether they had used Denial of Death as an inspiration here.  We in the EBF know that Becker’s Denial is as likely to be denied in the Ivies as anywhere. Later, we see Bender reacting to his newfound mortality in a single-minded violent pursuit of revenge, and as he begins to accept his fate, there is a profound sadness apparent in a being that is supposed to be cold and unfeeling. The spirit of Becker was very apparent through the story and I can only hope that among the viewers several were sufficiently interested to investigate further.

For a transcript of this episode, visit: The Infosphere