(This is based on an entirely true story, but given the limits of memory and the need to make it accessible to an international audience here the names have been Anglicized and the events simplified in places and embellished in others. If you happen to know any of the kids in question you can ask them freely and they can set you straight on some of the details here.)
Coming back to school after the Christmas break, the first class of the calendar year for class 9B, at 9:00 Monday morning, was religious education with yours truly. We had been debating questions no less weighty than the meaning of life and death, and who gets to say whether or not other people get to live or die in cases of euthanasia and abortion. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them; that’s just too heavy a subject to throw at kids the very first thing after their Christmas holidays. And in all honesty I wasn’t 100 % in sync with academic routines myself, so I thought I’d try to make more of a lightweight game out of the lesson.
The kids in the B class are some of my favorites to teach in that, even in such early morning classes, they tend to be active participants without any intellectual pretensions but with strong maturity for their age, regularly coming up with interesting, outside-of-the-box ideas. So I decided to have them debate a completely random topic just for the sake of practicing informal debating techniques.
I swung my arm towards the middle of the group, counting 6 students on one side and 8 on the other. “OK, we’re going to divide into two teams from here, but Oscar, you come over to this other side.” They cooperatively went into motion to form the groups I designated. “As a matter of fact, Oscar, why don’t you take charge of this team? Your task is to put together an argument to convince the others that there really is a Santa Claus.” A slight groan and roll of their eyes. “And Sandra, you can take charge of this team and together you can argue the case that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.” A bit of a bobbing of heads and mildly pained expressions from that side. “This won’t affect your grades, but one of the skills you really need to develop is to be able to argue a position even if you don’t actually believe in it. So this is as good a subject to practice on as any.”
“So are you trying to teach us to be hypocrites?” Jonny asked.
The kid is sharp. I tried to give him an approving look as I replied, “No, it’s more that in order to think through your own position thoroughly it helps to be able to understand what the rational objections and opposing views might be. If you can’t but yourself in the other guys shoes, so to speak, you won’t be able to think through your own beliefs carefully and critically.” He didn’t look completely convinced, but he saw enough consenting nods around the room where he decided to let it go at that.
“So is 5 minutes enough to put together your opening arguments?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Oscar said, speaking for the rest.
I set to work on logging some basic information in at the teacher’s desktop terminal, and looking up a few funny Santa Claus articles to pass around after the debate. Oscar took his group out into the hallway to plan their strategy. After a bit more than 5 minutes I called them back together. I didn’t have a coin with me to flip to decide who would go first, but after limited discussion we agreed to put the pro-Santa side up first. The sort of looked around at each other nervously and Oscar finally spoke out, “Well, we have a few different ideas. What do you actually mean by Santa ‘being real’?”
“Ah, good question,” I replied. “That’s something where you guys get to define your own terms as to the position you are defending in your opening argument. So you tell us what you think it means for Santa to be real.”
By way of background, they would have had plenty of cultural material to draw on. There was the Finnish film that came out a few years ago to provide an alternative cultural context for the myth. There is the national broadcasting network’s Santa Claus hotline on the morning of Christmas Eve each year, for kids to call and speak with the man himself on the air before he takes off to start making his deliveries. There are the abundant sources within Finnish literature to draw on. And then there are the various imported cultural reinforcements of these perceptions, ranging from the original 19th century poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore to Tim Allen’s take on the matter in the 90s. And then there is the classic clipping from the New York Sun of 1897 which made famous the expression, Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. The question was, which material could they build the best argument on?
Apparently Oscar and Nick had the idea of working from the perspective of trusting the factuality of video documentation and the like, but Edith had the idea of working more from an idealistic perspective, more related to the reply to Virginia: “It’s like Santa is this ideal figure that takes on human form whenever someone puts on the suit and properly steps into the role.”
Not everyone had a clear picture of what she was talking about, so I tried to help her flesh out the idea a bit. “Remember at the Christmas concert you all sang John Lennon’s ‘So this is Christmas’?” There was a general round of nodding and eyes rolling painfully at the memory of so many changing voices looking for the pitch in the sing-along where the regular pianist had called in sick. It didn’t make it any easier for them when I tried to hum and scat the first few bars. “So you all recognize that song as the same one that the former front man of the Beatles wrote then?” Again, general nodding. “Well what is it that makes what you sang that night the same as what came from Lennon? There wasn’t anything there that actually physically came from him. There wasn’t any sheet music in his handwriting. But you still are willing to say that it really was his song that you were singing. Could Santa Claus be real in the same sort of way that that song is real and recognizable no matter who sings it?”
Nick looked over at Oscar and back at Edith and said, “OK, we’ll go with that argument.”
Jonny’s body language made it quite clear that he had a problem with that. “That’s impossible to disprove then!” he proclaimed.
“Not necessarily,” I commented, wanting now to be fair in the sense of being an equal opportunity offender to both sides. “I mean the whole idea of ‘Joulupukki’ has actually changed a lot in the time I’ve lived in Finland. How many of you read the ‘Miina ja Manu’ books when you were younger?”
“I still read them,” Robbie piped in.
“So you remember the one about Christmas Eve?”
“Sure, of course,” came many voices.
“I remember when I first came to Finland and started learning the language I was surprised by how different the image of Joulupukki there was from the image of Santa Claus that I grew up with. It has the big guy in a runnerless, more traditional Laplandic sled, being pulled by just one reindeer, which didn’t actually do any flying. So from there you could argue that there isn’t really such a consistent idea of Santa Claus for the actor to step into even.”
Sandra turned towards Oscar’s group and said with aplomb, “OK, yeah, what Huisjen said.” I’m not supposed to let her get away with those sorts of protocol violations, but I couldn’t help joining in with the giggles that went around.
“But what does this have to do with learning about religion and stuff?” I heard Dustin muttering.
“Well it could sort of relate to the different ways people believe in God,” Missy quietly said in reply.
I didn’t actually have that in mind when we started the class, but it was interesting to see how things had moved from there. We were getting close to the bell ringing, so I tried to steer towards some summary points that wouldn’t kill the conversation. “You remember the icon of St. Nicolas that we saw in the Orthodox Church that we went to visit a couple months ago?” Strong nods of assent on that. “Well he was clearly a real guy, and he had a strong reputation for kindness to children. Somehow a bunch of different legends took off from there and people sort of adapted these legends to their own cultures and needs. Digging out the different levels of ‘real’ from there can be an interesting challenge, if you’re into such puzzles. Obviously it’s scientifically impossible for all of the legends to be true [passing around a few copies of this article] but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to them.”
The bell rang while I was giving that spiel, so I waved them out from there with a “see you next time.”
Pretty much all of these kids have just last summer been confirmed into the religious identity that they were baptized into as babies. They are all more or less still in the process of deciding what they actually believe about religious matters. There is a delicate balance question as to how far I can, as a teacher, go in either reinforcing or questioning such beliefs. I consider it to be a small victory though whenever they start to actively discuss such matters among themselves in such a way that would indicate serious thought about the matter.
How much of what we believe, and how many of the standards that we set for ourselves and each other, have arisen from generation after generation of adaptation and embellishment of traditions and legends, resulting in rather inconsistent and incoherent positions that we pass on to others in less and less coherent forms? When we dig down through all of the myths and legends looking for the “truth” underneath, what are we really hoping to find? What are we afraid of finding? What might we be willing to accept as true regardless of how disconcerting it may be for us to start with?
At some point within the class I tried and failed to bring in the question of Žižek’s chicken joke from one of the videos I had watched on line over the holidays. It basically goes like this: A man goes to his psychiatrist and says to him, “Doctor, I’m still afraid of being a piece of grain, and being eaten by this giant chicken!” The doctor says to him, “Now Fred, we’ve been through all this, and you know that you’re not a piece of grain and that you’re too big for any chicken to swallow.” “Yes,” Fred replies, “I know that and you know that, but does the chicken know that?”
From there Žižek goes into the question of worrying about synchronizing our public behavior with what we assume other people believe, and how in some ways this becomes inevitable for us. One classic example of this is the question of true belief in Santa Claus: parents don’t want to forsake the tradition for fear of cruelly disillusioning their children, and children will deny that they are naïve enough to believe in Santa, but they don’t want to raise the issue for fear of disappointing their parents. Nor is this sort of interaction limited to the young, the religious, the consumerist or the communist; it seems to be everywhere.
But in pointing this out Žižek is not suggesting that we drop all culturally conditioned unbelievable beliefs, but rather that we look for “a better chicken”: a less harmful set of illusions to interact with each other on the basis of. And the more credible our “chickens” are, the healthier our interactions on these bases are likely to be.
Now I realize that this level of philosophical discussion might be a little much even for very bright 15-year-olds, but I’d still be willing to bet that the kids of class 9B will probably end up with “better chickens” than many of you. Or might that just be one leg of my own chicken?