Lies to Children

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“We cannot teach children the danger of telling lies to men without realizing, on the man’s part, the danger of telling lies to children. A single untruth on the part of the master will destroy the results of his education.”

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them as steps to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

As an educator, one of the subtle behind-the-scenes choices I have to make each time I’m faced with creating a new course, opening a new teaching blog, or opening a dialog with a new bunch of students is the mode the information will be delivered in; where to start, what angles to push, how to make sure things are simple enough to be understood yet complex enough to carry what I’m really trying to say. It’s a delicate dance… too simplified, and the inherent risk is getting trapped in easy to remember soundbytes devoid of actual content; too complicated, you’re opened up for accusations of elitism or at best met with glazed expressions and repeated checking of clocks on cell phones.

One of my personal issues with this dance, when it comes to Vodou the way I was brought to it and the way I teach it, is that in our populist American culture there’s an overriding tendency to disseminate and absorb information by the simplest and smallest byte. Fast Food Education, if you will; we want it simple, easy to grasp. Knowledge McNuggets with your choice of dipping sauce. (No, Rick and Morty fans… it’s not Szechuan).  Vodou is such a complicated topic, especially for those who are first coming to it, but the vast majority of people drawn to the Tradition these days seem bent on turning to mass market paperbacks that promise voodoo-hoodoo-pathways to quick power without any grasp of a) understanding, b) facts, c) authors that have the right knowledge, d) authors who have authority or initiatory training to discuss what they’re trying to teach as though they do, e) sheer make-believe, or f)….. where things are just f’ed up beyond all recognition.

That societal bent comes with a range of fascinating knee-jerk reactions when challenged, too… I think it was probably about two years ago now if not a little bit more, but I remember clearly an instance of being flat out told by a student that the corpus of information carried by Vodou had to be fake, because to them “there is no way illiterate Black peasants could put together something so complicated”. There’s a HUGE amount to unpack in that sentence when it comes to it’s own speaker’s biases, but at the same time I think his complaint is an exemplar of the mindset we’re talking about… to him, “religion” was a simple topic, and when faced with reality and the cultural/linguistic/practical complexities of the topic, he shut down and placed the blame upon “the other” because any other direction would have led inwards and forced an examination of his own shortcomings.

I know we’d all love to poke fun at the guy who said that, but when we look at people as a whole, it’s not really a far fetched thing… sadly, it’s more common than we pay attention to.

Here’s a great example…. I assume that most folks in our popular culture, you included, are at least passingly familiar with the belief that negative energy in a space can be tidied up by burning Sage, a process known often as “Smudging” with Sage. It’s a big component of New Age practice, new American witchcraft practice, and most folks’ beginning stages of exploration into “magic”.

We’re taught in book after book, website and facebook group, that Smudging is a Native American practice; however, nowhere in those pop-pulp books or in the work of the online insta-teachers do we see an examination of Sage’s natural range, growth in different climate zones, the local Tribes or polities that could have had access to the plant, and out of those which Tribes used Sage in a ritual cleansing context, whether it originated with one particular ethnic group and spread via cross-cultural means like trade or war, what time periods in which regions it featured…. instead, the knowledge mcnugget extends only so far as “the people who were here first did this, so we’re right in just naming them as one big group”.

Or worse… “You dont need to know that”.

Even if you were to ask, without snark or sarcasm, which tribes the practice comes from, with this one topic you’re guaranteed to be dismissed with a wave or a reiteration of being told it’s “Native”. I wouldn’t recommend expanding your questions into issues of past vs. present representations of native cultures and native wisdom, appropriation, or honoring the current population of Native Americans who’s knowledge is being passed in such a manner…. that’ll just get you chased out of your convention, class, or online “study group”.

Two things are at play there; the same kneejerk reaction of “it cant POSSIBLY be that complex, peasants do it” and that overriding tendency to simplify, in this case turning wildly different ethnic groups, cultures, peoples, and histories into a massive block of “Native American” without caring or understanding what that means.

Ima tell you right now, Vodou is just about as many pitfalls and complexities as the above example. There’s no way to say otherwise. We’re gonna do our best though.

My job as an educator is more than just passing on information; ideally, my hope is that my students will surpass me. In a blog setting, of course, we’re more limited in what we can really do as teachers and as students, especially in our lil’ area of study here, but if I have my way and get my wish, you as the reader here will, over time, be able to build a foundation of information that can be carried to any Vodou house or temple with a well reasoned understanding, a critical eye, and well-honed critical thinking skills.It may be mine, it may not; that’s less important than being able to be an insider to the tradition who can actually teach what it’s like to go from outsider to insider as well as teaching the how.

There’s a point to all this rambling, and I promise you it addresses the title of this blog post. There’s an educator’s term I was introduced to through the work of Terry Pratchett (a favorite author of mine and a guy we’re gonna come back to time and again) in a book called The Science of Discworld, cowritten with the creator of this term, Jack Cohen.

Lies to Children revolves around the idea of parsing out information in pieces small and easy to digest, pieces that are true-ish…. but ultimately disproven by the next layer of information to be laid down on the foundation they created. Knowledge McNuggets, again, but this time the idea is each subsequent nugget overrides what was laid down by the previous nibble; each successive bite reveals a greater understanding, though it does so by passing on information that isnt *exactly* correct.

Remember grade school? Let’s talk grade school level science classes for a sec, by way of example. When we start studying the building blocks of life, typically we’re taught first that the body is made up of the Organs, and that the Organs are the smallest parts we need to think about. The next step is the Cell, the smallest parts of the body and the smallest parts the organs are made of. Then comes the organelles, the smallest parts of the cells, molecules in organic bonds, atoms, sub-atomic particles…. well; you get my meaning. The entirety of our educational system revolves around building successive layers of information by presenting almost-truths that are simple enough to understand, but then replacing the layers one at a time with the next order of complexity.

Basic Math is taught to the youngest, grappling with numbers representing quantity, by saying things like “This is 4 apples; you can take away one, two, three, or all four, but you cannot take 5 or more as there aren’t enough”. This makes sense to us, and it counts as “true”, but only until the idea of negative numbers and debt is introduced later.

On one hand, it makes education “easy” in a way; as long as points can be summed up in simple knowledge nuggets, we can say and see that learning is occurring. In theory, this should be a good thing… after all, it’s the foundation of our modern education system, so of course it has to be good, right? The lie-to-children methodology can reduce complex academic notions to a simpler format for basic understanding, and it’s basic understanding we’re after, right?

Well…. it has problems. One of the major issues is it creates the expectation that learning HAS happened in a way that could be considered ‘done’; after all, you graduated, got your diploma, and with any luck had a fairly decent grade point average. While those who want to specialize in higher levels of complexity can choose their direction and continue on, the majority are trained into an education system that leaves things in as simple to swallow pieces as are possible in whatever grade year we seek to examine.
That means we’ve also trained our populace into “knowing” that simple is good, complex issues can be made simple, and that simple is “good enough”.

Because all Native Americans burn sage, dontchaknow.

In a 2010 book “Teaching Bilingual/Bicultural Children”, Haroom Kharem and Genevieve Collura write that the lie-to-children method creates a disrespect for the truth; in their own words, they point out that rather than imparting truth to children, “a pedagogy of stupidification is promoted in which teachers imbue students with untruths and then wonder why education has problems. Sooner or later the fabrications we teach students will come to light and the respect educators expect from students will become disingenuous.”

We create a culture where specialists and educators have their authority naturally questioned and undermined, where complexity is dismissed, where the simple reigns over the complex.

As a Vodou priest, instructor, and frankly as a friend, this puts me in a delicate spot. I hate the idea of boiling things down to their basest tasteless essence in exchange for real knowledge, and while the idea of saying “well, that’s close enough’’ makes me gag, I also cant help but see the sheer volume of “How-To-Voo-Doo” books that are written by folks who arent initiates, arent priests, arent from the culture they’re writing about… all the while being lauded and praised by people who ALSO arent from the culture, priesthood, or religion, as having written amazing books and helping soooooooo much to understand the topic.

I try to avoid the lie-to-children approach as much as I can, for that main reason. If the books available, by their nature and by their authors’ natures, can’t make it past the lie, then a blog dedicated to correcting the misinformation out there so folks can actually learn the real practices has to, by it’s very nature, be against the concept. There are some places where that’s gonna be difficult, so I want to tell you in advance that I’ll try to annotate occasioal passages as “This is a LTC sitch” and then shortly explain why, but in the main, we’re gonna move full steam ahead with our info. If I have to make a knowledge mcnugget, I’ll try to make sure the sauce is handy, but I’ll let you know when that’s happened and try to get into the depth as quickly as possible.

For that reason, PLEASE don’t feel afraid to leave comments and questions! I reply, I don’t bite (much), and there’s really no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to learning about new religions and cultures. Sometimes I use comments as inspiration for further posts, especially when covering difficult or particularly complicated material. You may find that others have similar questions to yours, especially on days where my writing can get a lil’ obtuse; those are great for me as a reminder that I might have to reword something to make it clear instead of simplifying it into a nugget.