Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

When is the student ready?

Lisa Marie's picture

            In Ruth Ozeki’s Eco-novel All Over Creation, education, learning, or in other words, “consciousness-raising”, occur in different ways for several characters as the story unfolds. Frank Perdue, a janitor from the Midwest inadvertently gets involved with a radical environmental activist group, the Seeds of Resistance, and spends much of this time feeling skeptical about their work; feeling that people were not “ready to have their consciousness raised quite yet” (86). This statement begs the question: what does it take for people’s “consciousness to be raised”? Who is ready and how do they become ready? How much latitude in conversation and dialogue can there be for the maximum amount of learning to take place?  Can there be productive dialogue between two people who hold different perspectives or who are not ready to have their consciousness raised? In order to answer these questions, I will look at how learning takes place in All Over Creation—specifically for Frank and the individuals who the Seeds of Resistance reaches out too, and will conclude by bringing in The Lives of Animals and Radical Presence, other texts that touch on these questions.

            Frank Perdue is introduced to the readers as a janitor at McDonalds who meets the environmental activist group, the Seeds of Resistance when they come by the fast food joint to acquire French Fry oil for the Winnebago. Frank begins his time with the Seeds of Resistance knowing little about their work and the environmental issues they confront. As the novel progresses, Frank becomes a very active and invested member of the group. In one of the first conversations between Frank and Geek, Frank asks “Cool, you do all that [splicing] stuff right here, right?” “No Frank, we’re against that,” replies Geek” (53). Shortly after this initial conversation, Frank gets involved with one of his first Seeds of Resistance protests, which takes place at Thrifty Foods.  Frank is doubtful that this tactic will work as he feels that “the people are not ready to get their consciousness raised” (86). A little while after the Thirfty Foods event, Frank explains why he is interested in getting involved with the Seeds of Resistance group. “… the part about the corporations and total domination and stuff totally sucks. But you gotta understand it’s the protesting that really turns me on. Doing the actions. And I like you guys. So if you say something is worth fighting, I’ll go along with it. But for me, I don’t really care what I eat ya know? Like these fries taste great, and I figure I’m going to die anyway. Sooner or later (126). Here, Frank is beginning to get deeply involved in the actions of the Seeds of Resistance, but his heart and interests are not invested in what the group stands for.

            When the group travels to San Francisco, though, Frank feels more in tune with what they are doing. “Frank was wary at first—but within minutes he felt very welcome” (255). While the Seeds of Resistance visited this city, it was Frank who is chosen and steps up to dress up as Mr. Potato Head and throw a Tofu Crème pie at the CEO of Cynaco. Later on, Frank makes seed bombs at the Teach-in at the Fuller’s Farm and Geek comments, “glad to see you’re enjoying gardening” (291). Finally, at the end of the novel, when Frank writes a letter to his daughter, Tibet, he says, “suddenly I understood why I am doing all of these political actions. It’s because I gotta make sure there is still some nature for you when you grow up, in case you decide to dig it too” (416). Through the novel, the readers watch as Frank Perdue grows from enjoying asphalt and skating to gaining greater interest in political actions and finally a genuine passion in preserving and fighting for the environment. It’s likely that when Frank first encountered the Winnebago and Seeds of Resistance in the McDonald’s parking lot, he was not expecting to get his “consciousness raised”. But throughout the story, he gains a greater awareness of environmental issues, and he changes as a person. Frank’s powerful words about the importance of preserving the earth that conclude the novel are a testament to how much he learns and changes in the course of the story.

            The themes of teaching and education are also prevalent in All Over Creation through the ways in which The Seeds of Resistance try to disseminate information and get others involved in their cause. One of the first major events the Seeds of Resistance pull off is a protest in the grocery store Thrifty Foods. Unsuspecting customers shop for their groceries as the group performs a show in the store. The act features the group blaring a reggae version of “Here Comes Santa Clause” while someone is dressed up as Mr. Potato Head warning customers about purchasing poisoned potatoes and that “approximately sixty to seventy percent of processed foods contain some form of genetically modified version of corn or soy” (92). The Seeds of Resistance later try to take people by surprise by dressing up as Daisy the Dairy Cow and speak to parents and children at a school in Liberty Falls, Idaho about the milk they drink. One of the final actions the group puts on is a teach-in at the Fuller Farm.  This event involves 120 participants rallying, gardening, and learning about research on American GMOs, gene splicing, and composting.

             The final and culminating event that the Seeds of Resistance holds includes people from neighboring cities who seemed to have wanted to participate in the group’s cause. The other events they held, however, were executed in a way that caught unsuspecting people off guard—at the grocery store or at the school, for example. The story does not elaborate much on how people reacted to these events, so we as readers do not know whether or not they were “ready to have their consciousness raised” but it’s likely that they were not expecting to “have their consciousness raised”. Do people have to be “ready” or taken by surprise to learn something new, gain a greater awareness, or become passionately invested in a certain cause? Looking at Frank and how much he developed through the book—between relationships, and the knowledge of ecologically unsound practices he learned by spending time with the Seeds of Resistance changed his attitude of the earth—making him more interested in “reporting from the front and fighting for the earth” (416). The Seeds of Resistance may be interacting with people who want to and do not want to have their consciousness raised, but regardless they are making a statement with their actions—one that could get anyone (interested or not) in thinking about a particular issue. But can the Seeds of Resistance engage in a “productive dialogue” with someone who is “not ready to have their consciousness raised” and has little interest in hearing about what they are fighting for? 

            In some ways the Seeds of Resistance’s approach to shaping the world is similar to that of Elizabeth Costello’s who uses more extreme language, phrases, and metaphors to get people thinking about animal rights. At the beginning of one of her speeches, Costello states “I will take it that you have conceded me the rhetorical power to evoke these horrors [against animals] and bring them home to you with adequate force, and leave it at that, reminding you only that the horrors I here omit are nevertheless at the center of this lecture” (19). Costello then compares the abuses against animals to human deaths at the concentration camp of the Third Reich. Many people disagree with and are frustrated by Costello’s words—especially her son’s wife, Norma, and the Philosophy Professor Thomas O’Hearne whom she debates. What do these two individuals have to learn from speaking with and hearing from Costello? If they begin conversations with her already in disagreement, does this mean that they are not ready to have their “consciousness raised”? Can these individuals engage in a productive dialogue with Costello if they disagree with much of what she says?

            These questions posed throughout this essay are difficult to answer, and in some ways after looking closely at these two texts, I have more questions than I did before I began writing. There is one final text that is relevant in looking at the ideas of hosting a “productive dialogue” and “raising an individual’s consciousness”.  In Radical Presence by Mary Rose O’Reilly, she cites Jesuit spiritual teacher Jean-Pierre Caussade in stating, “when we are thirsty we do not read a book about thirst, we take a long drink” (6). “To teach is to create a space”, so that individuals can indulge in this long drink. These types of spaces are created in All Over Creation and The Lives of Animals—the Seeds of Resistance and Elizabeth Costello create teaching spaces, though they are not always desired by all the parties who enter them.  Later in the text, O’Reilly brings up the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive” (16). So in response to some of my questions, perhaps people may not feel that they are “ready to have their consciousness raised” when in fact they are and that is when the true teacher or learning moment arrives. One other poignant statement O’Reilly makes is that teachers should “be listening people into existence” (29). In order to have a truly productive dialogue, people need to be listening to one another on this deep level—listening other individual’s ideas and thoughts into existence. When this happens, people may be ready to hear what someone else has to say, or ready for the teacher and learning moment. 


Anne Dalke's picture

questioning the idea of justice

some (rather extensive!) notes from our talking today.

We reviewed the three papers you’ve written so far.  You described the first one as a description of “all the good things about home,” one that “left off taking risks and feeling uncomfortable”--and the second one, about “classrooms as homeplaces,” as going further in thinking about ways in which such spaces might invite and encourage uncertainty. Your third paper, asking “when the student is ready” to have her consciousness raised, goes furthest in its exploration of the possibilities that might be “created in teaching spaces not desired by the parties who enter them,” in spaces where people might be “listened into existence.”

Describing your writing overall, you said that you have moved from the “rigid” form of writing that you had learned in sociology—writing from data to make a claim—to “a different mentality,” being more open about the writing, putting all your thoughts down on paper, even if, @ first, you lacked evidence to back them up. You described yourself as now “writing backwards”: beginning with the idea or question you wanted to explore, and then seeking the evidence you needed to develop your thought, rather than the other way around. We also talked a little bit about the dynamics of your classroom participation: getting so caught up in what you might say that you are unable to listen to others’ speaking….

You proposed that, for your last paper, you might “question the idea of justice.” This project could take its start with Michael Zier’s observation, on our first trip to Camden, that he “didn’t like justice” (or was it social justice?) as an organizing idea:  and why was that? “what is it? who determines it?” We agreed that you could pursue this question with help from any range of authors we have read—Cole, Ghose, Coetzee, Burke—though I suggested that you “dig into” one of them, rather than trying to survey all relevant texts. One question that came up in our brainstorming is how humancentric  traditional conceptions of justice are: certainly Elizabeth Costello queries this presumption, in The Lives of Animals; and Ghosh does, too, in The Hungry Tide, when he juxtaposes the habitat and needs of the tigers with those of the villagers.

Must justice always come at an expense? you asked. Must Pia, for example, intervene in and have an impact on the environment in order to save it? Do people always end up doing more harm than good? Focusing on their good intentions, rather than on their possible impact? Is justice always determined by a dominant group? And if so, does their “doing justice” always perpetuate their dominant social position?

Some possible additional texts to assist in your thinking might include
John Humbach, "Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships." Human Rights in Philosophy and Practice, Ed. Burton Leiser and Tom Campell. August 27, 2001, 1-18.

  • "nobody is counting. In right relationships it is not tit-for-tat but the members' mutual and effective commitments to one another...." Even Aristotle weighs in here: "it is plainly impossible to pronounce with complete accuracy upon such a subject-matter as human action. For where the thing to be measured is indefinite the rule must be indefinite..."
  • rules must of necessity be written to provide for the general case, the most usual kind of case. Because of the infinite nuance of life, however, rules (and, hence, the rights they prescribe) often do not work well to meet the particularized, context-specific moral challenges that later arise. Indeed, one might say...the clumsy stiffness of abstract rules and rights almost always miss the moral mark."

And then maybe something like Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Belknap, 2006), which looks at the three “unsolved problems” of her title as all involving great asymmetries of power, capacity & moral rationality…..What would it mean, she asks, to begin not with equality or reciprocity, but starting instead with a search for social good…? And what (I add) if the good were not simply “social”….?

This is a huge topic, and you’ll have to figure out some way to narrow it. Remember to keep your “eco-lens” in place, as you think about whether environmentalism is principally a question of social justice (allowing the poor to have as much claim on the fruits of nature as the powerful), or whether justice requires shifting attention away from humans towards the rights of plants, animals and wild habitats….

I look forward to seeing where you end up....