Posts Tagged ‘John Wooden’

A Few Thoughts on Virtue and Vice

May 17, 2014
Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Many vices have corresponding virtues. Consider the following pairs of adjectives.

Confident/Cocky
Trusting/Gullible
Audacious/Impudent
Candid/Indiscreet
Gallant/Foolhardy
Deliberate/Dithering

In each of the above examples, there is a point where excess converts virtue into vice.

Consider the Wooden Paradox from basketball coach John Wooden: Be quick but don’t hurry. In other words, give maximum effort without losing control. Expedience is good; reckless haste is not. Thus we excel by straining a virtue to the edge of the border where it becomes its corresponding vice.

Controlling our appetites is a key to maximizing virtues without rendering them vices. As philosopher Phillipa Foot* notes, “Virtues belong to the will” (13).

For example, there is virtue in Hamlet’s impulse to redress his father’s murder; however, the mindless barbarism of Hamlet’s hunger for retribution obliterates a guiltless family—Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes. Enraged recklessness is the vice which transforms Hamlet’s valor into senseless carnage.

To his credit, Hamlet is aware of such folly. That’s why he salutes Horatio’s staid and sober equanimity:

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee

It is not good enough simply to act upon justifiable impulses because, as Foot notes, “almost any desire can lead a man to act unjustly” (9). Like Hamlet’s ill-fated quest for justice, much death, loss, and destruction is perpetrated in the name of love, charity, temperance, and security. Alexander Pope warns us to be wary because

The same ambition can destroy or save,
And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.

It is difficult to discern the corresponding virtues for “moral failings such as pride, vanity, worldliness and avarice” which “harm both their possessor and others” (Foot 3). Pride is a fundamental flaw bred in the bone of humanity. Excessive self-satisfaction puffs us up; it distends the ego and smothers benevolence. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Before destruction the heart of man is haughty (Proverbs 18:12)

Whether we credit our existence to God or evolution, there is no such thing as a self-made man.

Let’s imagine a man who comes into the world with a massive endowment of skill and will who also happens to be born at that right time and place to garner great fortune and esteem during his lifetime. Shouldn’t this man be immensely grateful for his fortuitous circumstances? Why does pride so often trump modesty in the solipsistic hearts of the fortunate?

Compassion and humility are the best antidotes to our capacious appetites and our rampant self-love.

*All Philippa Foot quotations from Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy

by Richard W. Bray

Some Friendly Advice for Young Teachers in a World Poisoned by Power-Mad Bureaucrats and Clueless Billionaires

July 29, 2012

After I transferred from a junior high school to an elementary school, my former colleague Dave* asked how I liked working with my new colleague Walter*. (Both Dave and Walter were veteran teachers with decades of experience.) I reported how impressed I was by Walter’s remarkable patience and equanimity in response to a roomful of unruly kids. Dave smiled and said, “He wasn’t always that way.”

Years ago I heard former United States Secretary of Education (and raging hypocrite) Bill Bennett on CSPAN saying that the the best way to ensure quality schools in this country is to “hire good principals and allow them to do their job.” Oddly, Bennett and several other self–identified conservatives support intrusive (and blatantly unconstitutional) laws like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which inject the blunt, debilitating power of the federal government into the quotidian workings of local public schools across the county.

Before NCLB, for example, wise principals would often place a few of the more emotionally needy students at a particular grade level in the classroom of a more capable veteran teacher like Walter. (This practice is particularly advisable when one or more of Walter’s grade–level colleagues are newbies.) Such sagacious principals would constantly praise teachers like Walter for taking on this extra burden, and they would also grant Walter a little extra leeway as far as end–of–the–year test scores were concerned.

Today, however, thanks to an ill-conceived reform movement forced down our throats by ignorant billionaires and power-mad federal bureaucrats, principals no longer have such discretionary latitude. And experienced teachers like Walter who hope to hang onto their jobs would say this to a principal who wants to overload their classrooms with “challenging” students: “I’d like to help you, but the Secretary of Education wants to publish my students’ test scores in the paper and then punish me if those numbers don’t go up every year from now until the end of my career.” This is just one of many unintended consequences which result when education policy is devised by people like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan who don’t know shit from shinola about teaching.

Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden toiled at his craft for several years before suddenly winning ten championships during his final twelve seasons. When somebody asked him what happened he said, “I finally learned how to relax.”

It took me a while to figure out how to relax in the classroom. Watching teachers like Walter helped me learn that getting upset and raising my voice in response to unruly students only increases the rancor. It is actually more effective for a teacher to stop talking in mid-sentence and wait for the students to lower their voices than it is for him to try to overpower an entire classroom with displays of stentorian prowess.

The best advice I can give to young teachers is to relax, take your time, and learn from your mistakes. And don’t get into power struggles with your students. Never go to work in the morning full of vengeance over something that occurred the previous day thinking, “I’m gonna get that kid.” (Let it go, and never forget who the grownup is.) Endeavor always to treat all your students with kindness and respect under all circumstances knowing full well that this is a superhuman ideal, impossible to live up to.

A little respect goes a long way. I learned a lot on the occasions when I substitute taught at a “camp” school—camp is a euphemism for prison. Once when a student remained standing as I was preparing to start a lesson, I said in a firm but friendly voice, “Sir, would you please sit down.” He melted into his seat and turned to the kid next to him and said in a tone of bemused disbelief, “He called me sir.”

And as much as possible, try not to be too grumpy. It’s not always easy, but do your best. (And for all of you out there who would like to have a positive impact on America and her future, here’s something you can do to reduce teacher grumpiness—invite a teacher to bed some time. The world will be a better place for your kind work.)

* Not their real names

by Richard W. Bray