The price of certainty

When Liz and I were expecting our first and only child, a friend’s enthusiastic pitch sold us on birthing class and method far to the left, even, of Lamaze, which was itself a humanistic (if still solidly patriarchal) alternative to a purely medical approach to childbirth. Organic, woman-centered, patient, trusting of nature. We were on board.

Ultimately, we did not follow that path. Things got rocky and we erred on the side of safety, pain management, and sterilized modern technology. But I would never call the class a waste entirely or a scam. Our teacher — deeply committed but not the best with words — shared with us a lot of eye-opening and valid information. It was all concentrated in one area of the curriculum: a scathing, amply supported critique of how every other way of doing it will mess you and your child up.

I saw the same dynamic years later at a private school where, when reduced to its essence, the meat of the curriculum was an itemized indictment of everything wrong with public schools and their models, passed along to the kids as if that lucid and hip critique alone proved that they were at the right place now.

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Be for something, they say, not just against. It is not that simple. To me, a vetted and substantiated “against” is practically a prerequisite for any good “for.” That expansion/contraction, generative/critical, for/against dialectical rhythm seems to me the essence of creativity and critical thought. I am not a someone who is afraid of negativity. I don’t think of it is poison, sour grapes, or the last smirk of the cynic. I can hardly imagine meaning and progress without it

The problem is when people have a good critique, a clear vision of something wrong, an “against” based on some hard-earned truths, but then rush prematurely to certainty, to authority and — this most of all — to market.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

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