Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

Adelphi invocation

We begin this commemoration with a small admission of truth. Every human being in this amphitheater has known failure, has known defeat and experienced moments of humiliation. The truth is that no one achieves even the slightest measure of success without slogging through the morass of insecurity, uncertainty, panic, and self-doubt. This is how human beings are built; this is how great human beings are built.

The joy of this moment was years in the making. The academic success each of you celebrates is all-the-more sweet when you reflect just how hard you had to strive, how far you had to traverse, how much you had to sacrifice. You are surrounded by family and friends who stood by you, encouraged and helped you, and even got out of your way when you hit your stride.

May the Divine Reality, called upon by many names:

The Great Spirit,

The Father in Heaven,

The Holy One Blessed Be He,



The Dao,

One All Pervading Spirit,

and Brahmah,

Lead us from ignorance to Knowledge
and from darkness to light;
Move us from the fear of failure to the celebration of life.
To our Adelphi Graduates from all of the faculty and administration who have gathered here for your commencement:
May the ideals you have come to believe become the truths you live.
May kindness, justice and mercy be your friends.
And with your new knowledge and your new degrees, may you bring blessing to this world.



My TEDx Talk

TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

God for the Rest of Us #1

Many of us are seeking a God we can believe in without discarding all of the amazing knowledge that we use in this unprecedented age of human advancement. Evolution is a fact and the Big Bang Theory is a fact. Computers, quantum physics and genocide are all facts of life. With all of this information and the rush of new ideas and concepts that we rely upon daily, what is a God for the rest of us?

#1 God of the Bible

Torah presents God as the Parent God, intervening in history, granting favor to the obedient, and lending a miracle or two to His children, the Israelites. This God has to present principles by which people can live without resorting to violence and mayhem first. This God sets down laws that are derived from the principles. He rewards good behavior and he punishes bad behavior. Like any parent, God of the Torah loses his patience with His children quite a number of times.

In the middle part of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Hosea presents the image of God as the husband and Israel as His unfaithful, whoring wife. The prophet preaches that the relationship between God and Israel is not father and child but instead, husband and wife. This is not an equal relationship though because women were still property in significant ways and the husband was the final authority. Song of Songs softens the “authority and property” model with the erotic love poetry of two lovers. Rabbi Akiba, in his argument on why Song of Songs should be in the Bible, suggests we read Song of Songs as God the groom and Israel the bride.

The Book of Esther, in which God makes no appearance, presents the greatest challenge to those who want to believe in God. God is not in the story and He is not even in the wings. Through their own courage and tenacity, Esther and Mordechai save themselves. The Silent God, the God who does not answer, will haunt every person who finds themselves in harm’s way throughout the millennia. They will pray for rescue and salvation, and there will be no divine intervention.

The God who answers this dilemma of silence in the Book of Job offers no comfort. “You know not what I do. Even if you did know, you could never understand,” explains God in the whirlwind in a long piece of poetic prose in the last chapters.

The Bible gives us four major images: God the parent, God the husband, God the Silent and God who cannot be known. Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims embrace God the Parent and at times, God the husband. Atheists point to God the Silent and God who cannot be known and respond, “What’s the point then?”

If you are not Orthodox or Atheist, the search for a God for the rest of us must continue to look elsewhere.

Philosophy of Learning – Memorization

לְקַיֵּם – (to uphold, establish, preserve) memorization and recollection.

Parallel to the development of Greek philosophy is the exploration of how human beings learn. The Greek poet Simonides is credited as the inventor of mnemonics, any learning device that aids in the retention of knowledge. Using mnemonics one trains the brain to retain information that a person acquires. For the use of knowledge, memorizing for a test is not enough, retrieving the memories later and in different contexts is the necessary second element. Mnemonic devices help a person recover the information from their memory. The spelling of the word “tomorrow” is a lesson from the primary grades accessed using a simple mnemonic to remember one “m” and two “r’s” in the word:  tom-or-row, which are three simple, common words.

As the body of knowledge grew, more elaborate forms of retention were developed such as “memory palaces” where the person would create an imaginary building with rooms. In each room the person would tag books or objects with individual facts, concepts, or ideas. By perusing the room later, the fact finder would go to the object and retrieve the tagged information. Spelling Bee contestants use a sophisticated form of this palace memory complete with Latin roots, rules for spelling grammar and of course, reams of words.

Not for centuries but for millennia, intelligence and competence have been judged on the amount of knowledge a person could digest and regurgitate. Chinese bureaucrats had to pass incredibly detailed exams of memorized lists to attain a post. As recorded in the Talmud, rabbinic students had to be able to identify any verse in the Hebrew Scriptures by the first three words in a verse, which is the convention used in the Talmudic and Midrashic texts when quoting a biblical verse. These mental athletes had intimate access to vast reams of information.

We are living in a time of exploding information expansion. In the sciences we double our knowledge every two years, which means that by the time a science major reaches his third year of college, half of what he learned the first two years is out of date. Nonetheless, the need for quick recall of data or its storage site is still critical. Students have to memorize more and more while jettisoning what has become invalid or irrelevant.

Search engines are not a substitute for memorization and recollection. “I will just google it” is a vast improvement over reference sections of libraries; however, the task of looking up data is not on par with knowing the material, retrieving it from memory, and manipulating the points of data to address a new issue or problem. Using internet search engines is not a substitute for memory.

Memorizing is tedious. Whether one is using flash cards or flipping the page back and forth or scrolling up and down, memorization takes time and concentration. Memorization and recollection are primary goals of homework. Homework is boring because one is learning to retain the material that will be manipulated in new ways in the next chapter, whether one is studying history or biology or reading good fiction. The previous chapters’ information inform the next chapter and the next chapter reinforces the chapters that came before.

Be forewarned – if we do not practice our memory after all of the effort to retain it, the information will fade and become irretrievable. The condescending retort “I have forgotten more in my lifetime than you will ever learn” is both a jab and a lament.

Philosophy of Learning – Practice Wisdom

לַעֲשׂוֹת – (to do, to make) learn by doing, practice wisdom

The imprecise world of Social Work science places a heavy emphasis on continuous reflection upon past experience. In their terminology this constant review with a supervisor of the past week’s sessions is called “practice wisdom” and it is a necessary component in the Social Work field. Every discipline and almost every job has practice wisdom, learning to do what cannot be taught in the classroom. Even the janitor learns how to wield a broom and mop to reach the tightest corners – this is practice wisdom too.

The peculiar nature of practice wisdom is that it is untestable. In the U.S.A. system of Social Work licensing, a social worker cannot advance to supervisor or higher without a Master’s Degree and a licensing test for the LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). For many states the LCSW is taken at a computer center and it is multiple choice. Professors warn their students to take the test as close to finishing the Master’s Degree as possible. The warning is because the test only covers what is taught in school and the candidate can be easily tripped up by practice wisdom that tends to deviate from classroom study. Imagine failing a test because you know too much rather than too little.

Practice Wisdom is often described as learning by doing. This is not the haphazard method of experimenting but the application of known knowledge to confirm its soundness and to continue forward. Practice wisdom is act, review, correct, and then act again.

Long time drivers use practice wisdom when they are focused on their driving. They anticipate probable behaviors of other vehicles and even identify potential problems ahead before they approach too close. A new driver is still far too aware of pedals on the floor, three mirrors, on-going and on-coming traffic, and turn signals to be able to see some of the involved traffic patterns. By definition bad drivers do not recognize traffic patterns or usual driver behaviors, learning nothing about their own defensive driving. A good driver is not about the number of hours behind the wheel but the number of hours in the driver’s seat focused on driving.

The difference between repetition and practice wisdom is the use of focus and formal review. In the famous or infamous text “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, one of the outstanding examples is of the wealthy businessman who stayed home on Saturday nights reviewing and identifying every mistake made during the last week as a painful but necessary ritual. Dale Carnegie was describing a man who used practice wisdom to attain success in his business.

No one likes to review their mistakes. None enjoy having another examine their work, looking for weaknesses and offering suggestions of different methods that lead to better outcomes. Criticism, even constructive criticism, is uncomfortable and yet practice wisdom is the commodity we use to gain promotion, attract better clients and write better. College degrees are a great foundation but practice wisdom is the method of advancement.

Philosophy of Learning – Practice

לִשְׁמֹר – (to keep, to guard, to observe) to practice or practice with repetition

Baseball or violin, the mantra a student hears from the first lesson is “practice, practice, practice.” What can be acquired by all of the other methods of learning is temporary unless the student practices the knowledge. Third graders memorize lists of vocabulary and take spelling tests while reciting their multiplication and division tables. Successful students of foreign languages learn from the get-go that the only way to conquer the material is to practice the vocabulary and the grammar every day. When studying for a quiz in a foreign language, students who study one hour the night before will do worse on the test than those who study ten minutes every day for six days before the quiz. The repetition of the material over time trains the mind, making a qualitative difference in the knowledge mastered and retained.

Most of us advance in our careers by expanding and deepening our skill sets. Writers have to write every day just as soldiers need to drill every day. Supervisors learn basic management skills and when they are mastered, these employees advance to the level of director. Practice is a long, laborious process that requires hundreds or thousands of hours. There are no shortcuts to becoming a master chef.

Some people are blessed with a tremendous amount of natural talent. However, all of that talent is only potential knowledge or art. The great talents of this world had to actualize their gifts with same rigor and drive as those with lesser gifts. Some claim that with great natural ability comes greater responsibility to fulfill the potential. The strongest can run faster but only if they rise to practice at that high level and maintain their regimen. The Julliard School is not for artistically talented students; the school is for talented students who match their potential with the drive and commitment to learn the depth of their gifts. The drive to practice or the lack of drive, often levels the playing field of potential success.

Practice is boring. When a student complains that school is boring (baring institutional dysfunction), the student is complaining that he or she does not want to learn by practicing. Fortitude is a necessary component of learning by practicing. Everyone whines about practicing, it is natural and healthy to acknowledge what is not fun. The successful ones still complain but then go back to work.

Knowledge does not come cheap nor do the valuable kernels come easily. Human knowledge is vast and fascinating but all of this understanding is inaccessible to any person who cannot sit down and practice.

Philosophy of Learning – Teaching

לְלַמֵּד – (to teach) teaching

For as large as a role teaching plays in the history, the present, and in the future of humanity, the word itself as few synonyms. One can instruct, educate and coach. Most of the other possibilities bring other ideas and concepts into the definition of teaching such as imbue, infuse, impress upon, implant and instill. Some hope to broaden a student’s horizons or open their minds or even beat some sense into them. With these diffusion of ideas of the nature of teaching, teaching is a method of learning is hard to assay. The regional colloquialism “I’m gonna learn that boy somethin’” conveys more self-righteous indignation and anger than love of learning. (For non-native American English readers, the deliberate misuse of teach/learn is a statement of emphasis.) To understand the method called teaching, one does not need all of these ornaments. Teaching, which in its core definition of transmitting knowledge to those who do not have the knowledge, is one of the most potent and enduring methods of learning.

As every instructor of teachers has warned me: “You may think you know but until you have to teach it, you really don’t know the material.” Preparing a lesson plan is not a simple task of jotting down a quick outline and rushing off to class. The facts and the points of argument have to be verified as correct and in context. Point by point have to be confirmed as flowing in a comprehensible order. Then the plan has to be evaluated for clarity, reasonableness, goals, and after all of this due diligence, the teacher has to ask if the plan has a good chance of succeeding.

To teach one has to learn the material again. This time the student has to focus closely, determine the hierarchy of information points and the strength of connection between the points. The teacher has to be ready to address such questions as “why are igneous rocks important?” and “when am I ever going to use quadratic equations in real life?” Who, what, when, why and how may be points that a journalist ticks off when writing an article but for the teacher, these questions define the totality of the lesson. As a mere student, one gets to ask the question, but as a teacher/student, one has to ask and answer these questions in a thorough and convincing manner.

The best of teachers have lesson plans that fail. A teacher looks into the faces of students and notes the look of profound boredom and the furrowed brow of incomprehension. There are skills of classroom management and behavior modification processes, but teaching is still an art. No one is born a teacher, every teacher has to practice. There is more than one way to teach a concept, a fact or a process and there is no easy way to determine the best method to teach that lesson.

Learning and teaching go hand in hand when one commits to passing down knowledge. The two methods of learning become a dance of informing, deflating, and confirming each other. For some there is no higher calling than teaching and in terrible contrast, teaching is one of the most denigrated and underpaid professions in the United States. Is it a wonder why the nation worries that our education system is failing?

Philosophy of Learning – Book Learning

Book learning, a term I often hear spoken with a whiff of condescension, is a necessary but incomplete method of gaining knowledge. The AP (Advanced Placement) exams lean most heavily on this method, the more that the students have read, the better they should be able to answer the expansive questions on the test. In the debates over education across the world, the arguments for those who demand extensive testing are concentrating on book learning and dispensing with most of the other forms for gaining knowledge. Anyone who has studied at a trade school, be it auto mechanic or medical school, has experienced the vast gulf of difference between reading about a subject and confronting the task in the field. From this corrosive and unproductive debate between the perceptions of the method versus its necessary but shared place amongst the other methods of learning, the definition and goals of book learning are distorted, all for the sake of winning an argument.

Book learning is not just reading books, which is a descriptor, not a definition. One can read a hundred books and learn nothing. How many Junior High students have been forced to read Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and left the class the class with the context that young people fall in love and parents hate that they do? Learning to read a book is a process of development of identifying patterns and relations, of placing facts within frameworks and useful contexts.

There are different processes of development for fiction and for non-fiction. Reading a journal article for a science discipline is a different form of skills than reading a book on the same subject, even by the same author. Articles and books have different functions. In non-fiction these different processes give us the tools to follow arguments, evaluate the evidence, and form conclusions about the validity of the arguments or the experiments presented. Knowledge in non-fiction book learning is an acceptance that the facts fit the conclusion or a rejection of the same. This statement is true for every human endeavor that falls under non-fiction from abortion to zoology and it is the definition of scholarship.

Fiction is not a different set of learning processes but a different set of applications. A lot of mythology about the prowess and potency of understanding literature is offered up as definitions of knowledge through the study of fiction. Symbolism and insight, morals and consequences, are tools for telling a story that are elevated to a level of factual points of knowledge. Literacy is an oft repeated word that appears to have no concise meaning but is the agenda of testing or the rejection of testing. What is this form of knowledge called literacy?

The cynic labels literacy as brainwashing. Not a particularly helpful definition but at least it sets a boundary at one extreme. Masters in the field are applauded as erudite, extremely well-informed, a boundary at the other extreme. Between these boundaries are culture, discipline, information, history, empathy, logic and scholarship.

Book learning is only useful if first, it leads to more book learning and second, it informs other methods of learning. Like the great librarians before Google, book learning teaches us how to search for more book learning. The knowledge sought may be fiction or non-fiction, and facts or advice, and insight or theory. A good book learner will read a Wikipedia article with keen skepticism and leap with gusto into the sources cited at the bottom of the article. Book learning is not facts and figures although facts and figures are its tools. Ultimately, book learning is about learning how to teach oneself.

Philosophy of Learning 4 (active listening)

  1. לִשְׁמֹֽעַ – (to hear) active listening

Active Listening is often reduced from a method of learning to a technique for success in business and diplomacy. Psychology textbooks teach active listening as a tool for diagnosing patients. More than one popular “success in business” text blithely offers this method as a skill. However, in the Eastern understanding of active listening, the Chinese character for the phenomenon captures the complexity that the West so often dismisses as mere technique or skill.

Active Listening Chinese

The symbol above is a sophisticated combination of characters. The senses of the eyes and the ears are both employed as the mind focuses and the heart analyses the conversation. The U.S. Department of State teaches this Chinese lesson explaining that to listen, the diplomat must use both ears, watch and maintain eye contact, give undivided attention and be empathic.

Ideally one is listening to a monologue more than participating in a back and forth. When I am conducting a eulogy interview, I ask an open ended question such as “Tell me about your loved one,” which is the colloquially correct way to ask, “Teach me about your loved one.” The words may issue forth in a monotone but the face and the body will often with emotion, whether it is a furrowed brow of pain or gesticulating arms of excitement.

Active listening is the opposite of asking questions to elicit answers. While psychologists may be correct that active listening is a technique for discovering the issue or the trauma, the method offers so much more to learn. When questions are asked, they are open ended ones or requests for clarification, or in my personal language, “Tell me more.”

This type of learning may also be the most ancient, the oral tradition of passing down knowledge. Unlike all the other forms of learning, this form is first and foremost aural. Learning is comprehending words spoken and words not spoken; silence has the power to teach in this method. The absence of words, the people, events, and issues not mentioned are powerful lessons.

The point about active listening is that it is not about you, the listener. Active listening is not a conversation after all; it is receiving, organizing and analyzing. When I start a discussion of a eulogy, I put away my pen and paper. I will write it down later in the car soon after I depart the house of mourning. The writing afterward is the analysis and synthesis of the teaching, in this case of learning the events, circumstances and essence of one person whose life is now complete. One gains the knowledge of relationships, of human success and folly, of history and philosophy.

This is knowledge that novelists attempt to capture in words and this is their most powerful method for capturing the emotional turmoil of their characters. They listen.