“I Want to Starve Them of This Credit”

School is closed until next week, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and rereading David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I will be posting some commentary as I go along. I will be sparing, as my commentary cannot and should not stand in for the book. If you intend to read the book, please do so before reading these posts.

The book argues that and that both the right and the left (I’m simplifying here) have subordinated independent thought to group thinking in the name of “culture.” It proceeds to defend this thesis in a beautiful and uncompromising way.

I don’t always know why a book affects me. Here, I can see several reasons and something beyond them. First, the author has a refreshingly fierce (and humane) understanding of solitude. This book is closer to my Republic of Noise than any of the contemporary books I read for research. I am not boasting of any equality here; to the contrary, I know that Bromwich’s book would have informed and sharpened mine, had I read it a few years ago or earlier.

That leads to the second point: this book was published when I was a graduate student at Yale and in some ways unhappy. My unhappiness had various sources, one of which was the “professionalism” I saw around me, the kind that Bromwich lambastes in this book. People latched onto the latest theory as though it were their ticket to a career. I’d bring up a literary work, and the response would often be, “Have you read so-and-so’s article?” A young professor told me once, with a slight hint of condescension, that “close textual analysis” was my forte, as though that were quaint or narrow. (In his preface, Bromwich writes, “By 1990, it was possible for a senior editor of an established journal of literary history to admonish a young scholar who had submitted an article for publication: ‘You stick too close to the text.’”) I rebelled against these trends but didn’t fully understand them. This book would have helped me understand, and it would have given me hope.

There’s much more. The book calls me to hone my thinking, to use words more precisely, and to trust myself to stand alone. I say this not in self-disparagement. To some degree, these are already my strengths. But it’s easy to take one’s own strengths for granted instead of developing them to the fullest. I am not exaggerating when I say that reading this book led me to something like the final words of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo“: “you must change your life.” Now, life has plenty of “archaic torso” mirages: often, things that seem life-changing do not prove so. Or rather, it is the will that fails, not the work of art. Can I live up to what I am learning here? We shall see.

So, on to the preface. The more Bromwich thought about his topic, and the more comments and criticisms he received from others, the stauncher he became. This passage is wonderful: “I have been told often by members of both camps [roughly, of the static right and insular left--DS] that my reactions are too negative. Calm reflection has made them more so. Both cultures are deeply sick, and it would be a good thing to rid ourselves of both.” Yes, indeed.

Such ridding must start with a resuscitation of language, which requires some initial asphyxiation. Bromwich points to the corruption of three concepts: culture, community, and professionalism. Each one can be used in an honorable or perverted sense–but the perverted sense, having won for now, flashes booty of the honorable sense just for prestige. Bromwich writes:

The reader is well warned concerning my prejudices, for, in the course of this book, they oblige me to use in a pejorative sense certain words that need not be pejorative. Culture is one of these. A great confusion now prevails between culture as social identity and culture as tacit knowledge acquired by choice and affinity. If I could use the word and be sure that people would understand the second meaning, it would appear in the following chapters frequently and without blame. At present, however, most people have in view the first meaning of culture; they use the word in the hope of borrowing a reflected prestige from the second. I want to starve them of this credit. I therefore write against the idea of culture and speak of it, in its likely current meaning, as an institutional lie.

If one could starve careless or corrupt word-users of the credit they have borrowed, and starve the corrupted words themselves, it would be like feeding on death, that feeds on men. It’s as worthy a deed as slaying Eurymachus and all of Penelope’s suitors. I’m all for it–until a part of me gets slain or at least badly stung in the bargain. That happens right after the preface, in the book’s epigraph:

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.”

–Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Wait, I used “we” carefully! I even brought up its problems, on the fourth page of my book, and got slammed by a reader for doing so! Doesn’t that exculpate me?

My impulse is to justify my “we.” But I know that the impulse is wrong. It’s impossible, when writing about a societal tendency, to avoid all “we”–even Bromwich uses it–but if I were to write the book again, I’d starve “we” (and myself) of its credit.

This is invigorating, not disheartening. More soon.

Note: I made a few edits after the initial posting. For an index to the nine pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

Down to a Handful of Poems

I rarely mention my poetry on this blog; in fact, I think this is the first time. It seems inappropriate and distasteful to do so. When people ask me, “are you a poet,” I hesitate and say, “well, no.” A poet, after all, has poems to show, and not just poems from a decade ago.

For stretches, in the past, I was writing many poems. I considered many of them fine. Now I consider just a few of them worth preserving. I continue to write poems, but slowly–and most of what comes out does not hit its mark. One or two recent ones, such as “The Speech,” keep me hopeful.

I did some housecleaning this morning on the poetry section of my website, removing the poems I thought flawed or flimsy, and keeping only the strong or reasonably interesting ones. I am now down to a handful.

But what makes a poem good? Three things, I’d say. It must not be banal. It must have nothing extraneous. And whatever its form and essence and soul is, it must carry that out to the end, beyond what seems obvious at the outset. That’s just the beginning. There’s much more, of course, but it’s difficult to put the rest into maxims.

Can a poem have feeling? Yes, but the feeling should be as taut as possible, without sentimentality. Sentimentality and feeling are not the same. Consider Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s“–full of emotion but also masterful and wry.

Can a poem be about something in real life? It depends on what is meant by “about.” If it’s a one-to-one mapping, it’s probably going to fall short. The outside thing ends up limiting the poem and, oddly, forcing a lie. But if the poem is “about” something in the sense of playing around it, turning it into something else, it can keep its integrity. (I learned this from John Hollander, who talked about “about” in his courses.)

There are no other rules except: train your ear and know your poetry. A faulty ear takes a poem off course, and a poem without knowledge of poetry is usually stunted, though there will be exceptions now and then.

I hope I have a few more poems in me. Even the attempts are instructive; I am learning more from them than I used to learn. And while I used to be inordinately proud of some of my poems, now I am more grateful to have encountered outstanding poems by others. There are many more waiting.

A Book Club for Overlooked Masterpieces

Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven is one of the richest and most thougthful blogs I have encountered. I love reading her pieces on Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova, Czesław Miłosz, and others. So, it was an honor to see that one of my recent pieces had inspired her to listen to a recording of Tomas Venclova reading his own poetry.

Today, when I visited her blog, I read a post that answered some questions that have been on my mind: How does one draw attention to a book one loves, a book that has been in some way overlooked, and how does one give such a book to others?

Cynthia Haven and Tobias Wolff have found a way to do just that. They created a book club devoted not to the book of the moment, but to overlooked masterpieces. It’s called “Another Look” and will debut on November 12, at Stanford University, with a discussion of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I was so happy to read this news that I trekked out to the local bookstore in Park Slope (about two neighborhoods away from me) to purchase Maxwell’s novel, which I have not read. I rarely have room for book recommendations; I read slowly and am severely backlogged. But this was something too special to pass over.

I hadn’t been out since the storm, except to get coffee, so this was my first stretch of the legs in several days, in the midst of tourist-like residents who were taking photos of fallen branches. Fortunately that was the extent of the damage, from what I could tell, in this part of Brooklyn.

The bookstore didn’t have the novel on its own, but it did have a volume of Maxwell’s later novels and stories, which I gratefully seized (and purchased). I came home and read two of Maxwell’s short stories: “The Man Who Had No Friends and Didn’t Want Any” and “A Fable Begotten of an Echo of a Line of Verse by W. B. Yeats.” Now I know I have a treasure in my hands, or many treasures.

I will read So Long, See You Tomorrow by November 12 so that I can imagine the book discussion. What a great thing for Wolff, Haven, and the other participants to do.

Wolff’s own stories need no recommendation from me–but if anyone wishes for a place to start, I recommend his collection In the Garden of the North American MartyrsHis novel, Old School, has been on my mind a great deal lately. I commented on it recently and may say more about it soon.

What Is Dialogue in the Classroom?

I intend to write more about David Bromwich’s splendid Politics by Other Means after reading it again. I have stacks of books waiting for me, but they will have to wait a little longer; this book is calling to be reread, and reread it I will. My commentary of the other day seems cursory to me; my thoughts have been writhing and growing, but they need grounding again.

In the meantime, I would like to return to the passage on conversation (on p. 132 of the book). Bromwich argues here that the study of our past is essential to true reflective discourse in the classroom and elsewhere. In his recent book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco makes a seemingly similar point about classroom dialogue: that it is made possible by a study of common texts, a core curriculum, within a community of students and teachers. The subtle difference between their arguments can be traced, I believe, to different conceptions of dialogue or conversation.

Bromwich, it seems, perceives conversation as essentially an exchange between two (two people in the room, or a person with a book, or a person’s understanding of the present with a study of the past). There may be more conversants, but any conversation starts with the two. He does not state this outright; rather, it is evident in the focus and attention he expects of the conversation. Here’s the passage from which I quoted the other day:

Above all, conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before. This may mean a different way of living, of thinking, of being. But for a citizen of modern America, the largest, almost the only unimaginable difference, is between the new which we inhabit and the old which we have never seen enough of to forget. It is because the distance between our lives and those of the past seems to be so commanding a fact—greater than the difference that separates us from any alien culture today—that I have kept coming back to the arts and habits associated with the study of the past.

Such study is by necessity solitary and concerted, much of the time; while such study involves questioning and argument, it also requires listening and absorption.

Delbanco, likewise, draws attention to the importance of studying the past. But he places less emphasis on the discipline that this requires, and more on the enrichment it brings:

Seen in this long view, the distinctive American contribution [to liberal education] has been the attempt to democratize it, to deploy it on behalf of the cardinal American principle that all persons, regardless of origin, have the right to pursue happiness—and that “getting to know,” in Matthew Arnold’s much-quoted phrase, “the best which has been thought and said in the world” is helpful to that pursuit. This view of what it means to be educated is often caricatured as snobbish and narrow, beholden to the old and wary of the new; but in fact it is neither, as Arnold makes clear by the (seldom quoted) phrase with which he completes his point: “and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” In other words, knowledge of the past helps us to think critically about the present.

On the surface, Bromwich’s and Delbanco’s arguments seem nearly identical—but as they play out in the two books, one sees the differences between them. Delbanco seems just a little less wary of group activity, group work, group consensus, and the intrusion of sociological methods than Bromwich.

In the final chapter, Delbanco discusses, with some skepticism, so-called innovations in higher education. His skepticism seems to vanish when he describes the interactive physics classroom:

Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, having discovered that his students were doing more memorizing than thinking, shifted from the hour-long lecture to shorter periods of exposition alternated with ten-minute periods during which student breakout groups work collaboratively on an assigned problem. Students then report their results through an electronic feedback system, which tells the professor how well they have grasped the point he has just explained. If a significant number haven’t understood it, he returns to it for further discussion before moving on. It’s a way of restoring a dialogic dimension, even in a large class, to the monologic lecture.

Whatever one thinks of Mazur’s approach as described here (and physicists and physics students may be in a better position to judge it than I), it is not a way of restoring a dialogic dimension. Ten-minute periods of small-group work will likely destroy any semblance of dialogue, and the electronic feedback system provides statistics (the percentage of students that got the right answer), not lines of reasoning. True, it is difficult to have a dialogue with more than one or two students in a lecture class–but I would gain much more from a single conversation between professor and student, or from a lecture, than from group activity of this sort.

Contrast this with a peculiarly beautiful passage in Bromwich’s book (I say “peculiarly” because its meaning does not open up at once):

To a teacher who has mattered (as to parents and to certain friends), one has, by definition, a kind of debt that can never be paid back. The consolation is that the teacher has his or her debts, too; and so the source of the debt recedes, back to the beginning of time. As Kierkegaard pointed out in The Case of the Contemporary Disciple, the only way to achieve the illusion of escape from such a debt, without falling into vain pretense or despair, is so to intensify the aspect of the teacher which has mattered most that student and teacher come to seem identical for moments at a time. One then thinks of each as a transparent medium for the other. This is not accurate, of course—not how things could ever look to an intelligent and properly detached observer. It is merely the inward—the psychological, rather than the socialized—way for the disciple to unload the weight of a debt.

If I think of the aspect of a teacher that has mattered most to me, it has to do with the inward. It might be the teacher’s way of speaking about a particular poem (John Hollander speaking about Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” for example), or a question that the teacher asked, or an insight or wise remark that I remembered, or the trust I felt when approaching the teacher with an idea, question, or problem. It has nothing to do with rapid group work or the appearance of interaction. It has everything to do with a shimmering and elusive conversation, something that does not leave me.

I admire both books and am grateful for their existence. I do not wish to suggest that Delbanco favors group thinking; that would be incorrect and unfair. We all have to find our way through “innovations” and decide slowly what to make of them. Some are too recent to allow for definitive judgment. But this subtle difference between the two books is not trivial. In college and elsewhere, conversation often takes place in a group setting, but it cannot be subordinated to the group. It must retain the soleness and attention of a person alone with a book: a mind enlivened and fortified, tasked with living up to what it has learned.

For an index to the nine pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

District Embraces Conversation Starters

In Phluaros County, New York, all schools have received a mandate to include “conversation starters” in their curriculum, professional development, and power phrases.

“In our globalized world, people have to sound like they know what they’re talking about,” said Phluaros schools chancellor Michelle Papotage, as we hurried down the halls of Chouchou Elementary School. “The best way to do this is to have an aggressive strategy for starting or entering a conversation.”

Phrases like “Please show me the data” and “I’d like to see a bar graph” (associated with Accountable Talk®) will serve students well in academic conversations, she explained, whereas “Cool shirt!” and “Awesome iPad!” come in handy everywhere. For interruptions, students may choose the soft entry, “I can so totally relate to what you’re saying,” or the hard entry, “Hey! How does my hair look?”

“If students learn these, then they will never be at a loss for conversation,” said deputy chancellor Victor Poshly, pointing to the “starter phrases” posted all around a classroom. “That’s how it should be. Having nothing to say, or don’t knowing how to get started saying it, is the beginning of a downward spiral to nowhere.”

Teachers, too, would be required to learn “conversation starters” in training sessions. Often this would occur in the context of icebreaker activities. For instance, they might be put in groups and instructed to share about a deeply personal experience. One of them would say “I’d like to share about X,” and another one would then jump on the keyword “X” and say, “Wow, X reminds me of Z,” and so on.

Principals, for their part, would greet parents and others with the phrase “The district empowers us to support achievement, which is our primary goal.” The parent who tried to make sense of those words would end up befuddled; to respond successfully, she would have to utter a similar statement, such as “Achievement is our priority as well.”

When asked how students and others would sustain conversation once it was started, Papotage and Poshly burst into guffaws. “That’s not part of the 21st century playbook,” said Papotage.

“The point is not to keep a conversation going—” added Poshly.

“—Gotta keep ’em moving on, moving on,”  interrupted Papotage. “Hey, have you seen my iPhone anywhere? I thought I had it in my pocket.”

“Awesome energy in this district. These kids are gonna grab the bull by the horns,” said Poshly.

The classroom walls featured not only “starter phrases” but “turn-and-talk” tips: “1. Be quick. 2. Say what comes to your head. 3. Get a good buzz going in the room! 4. Stop when time is called.” Poshly explained that “turn and talk” was now part of every lesson. “We want them to get into the habit of quick talk, about anything, without hesitation, any time,” he explained. “That’s going to lead them to success in college and the workplace. And success is—”

At that moment a little girl entered the classroom. “Is it time for art yet?” she asked.

“You just came in here without permission, and you interrupted our conversation,” said Papotage. “I will make sure your teacher gives you extra credit—”

“Only if you do the same thing over again, with a little bit of pizzazz,” added Poshly. “Say, ‘Hey! I’m the awesomest student around! Is it time for art yet?’ Now go out the door, come back in, and say just that.”

Confused, the girl left out the room and came back in. “Hey, I’m the awesomest student…” she said hesitantly.

“Super-cool. Sorry, I’ve got to catch my next appointment. Hey, it was awesome meeting you,” Poshly said to me and to the girl at once.

“Where’s the exit?” I asked. But Poshly was already gone, and the girl shrugged her shoulders.

Papotage, having found her iPhone, was cutting off a conversation in order to take another call.

David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means

Every once in a while I read a book that both meets and lifts my intellectual yearning. David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking is such a book.

Bromwich shows how both the static right of American politics and the self-contained left of American higher education, both the “culture of assent” and the “culture of suspicion,” reinforce group thinking and impede thoughtful intellectual discourse. First published twenty years ago, the book gives more insight into the problems of education today than many a recent work I have read.

It is Bromwich’s careful and discerning argument that distinguishes this book from most. He makes illuminating distinctions between seemingly similar assertions. He disassembles and examines many oft-bandied catch phrases and terms (such as “values” and “mass culture”). It is easy enough to say that the right and left are insular and misguided; it’s another matter to explain how. Bromwich’s explanation unsettled me in the best of ways, as it made me reconsider some of my own assumptions.

He distinguishes between (a) studying tradition in order to adopt a set of pre-established views and (b) studying tradition in order to think about it independently and take part in conversation about it. He shows how George F. Will and other self-proclaimed conservatives not only differ fundamentally from Edmund Burke, whom they regard as a predecessor, but do not merit the claimed inheritance.

He shows the deep problems (not just the immediately obvious ones) with the trend toward teaching mass culture in literature departments–which occurs in a larger context of “professionalization.” The one who “specializes” in mass culture has the triple advantage of supposedly relating to the people, being unassailable by colleagues, and having a claim to a “marginal” field.

I was fascinated by his commentary on Burke and Mill (and Hume and Butler) and by his analyses of literary study and the change it has undergone. I bring these up in the same sentence because some of the dangers of which Burke and Mill warned became the reality of the literary academy. As it replaced the study of literature with the study of theory, the literary academy lost both its “historical imagination” and the experience needed for attentive reading.

One of Bromwich’s most intriguing observations occurs on p. 130, when he writes, “Dependence and group-narcissism are the paralysis of genuine scholarship; but scholars, like citizens, to whom that seems a healthy state of things will always invoke the argument of growing solitude.” (He then quotes Nietzsche to provide the source and original context of the phrase “growing solitude”). Indeed, those who welcome group thinking tend to be the very ones who suggest that there’s too much solitude. Solitude, Bromwich suggests, is in part a discipline of the mind: the ability to work without regard for popularity or immediate approval.

Occasionally I find myself disagreeing with Bromwich or disputing his reasoning–but that’s a sign of a book that has me thinking along with it, replying to it, questioning it. Something would be wrong–and counter to the book’s spirit–if I accepted everything in it without question. For instance, Bromwich objects to the conformism inherent in the phrase “we need,” but I see room for this phrase, provided one uses it judiciously. Bromwich is right, but I’d qualify his point.

One of my favorite passages is in the third chapter, where Bromwich states that “conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before.” Reading the book was a conversation of this kind, a conversation I have longed for. I had just been remarking how rare the art of conversation has become–how frequently and unabashedly people interrupt each other, switch topics, or reduce an exchange of ideas to “whatever.” Politics by Other Means invites the reader to the best kind of conversation, the kind that transforms at least one of the participants. I hope to continue this conversation by reading the book again.

Note: I posted this commentary on Amazon and Goodreads as well as here. Also, in the fourth paragraph, I changed “neoconservatives” to “self-proclaimed conservatives,” since Bromwich does not use the former term in reference to George F. Will.

For an index to the nine pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

Puttering, Responsibility, and Beauty

In a recent satirical piece, I described an imaginary movie called “Won’t Quiet Down” (a dark spoof on “Won’t Back Down”), in which two disaffected students launch a “student trigger”: namely, they talk nonstop in class until the school, weary of efforts to “engage” them, converts itself into a computer lab without teachers. This was not a commentary on my own students, though some of them do get chatty. Rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek look at the consequences of distractedness and disruption in schools and beyond. It was also a parody of propaganda films, so the message was intentionally crass. But it had a serious element.

Incessant talk runs into serious trouble. It can’t honor things, because there’s no “sacred space” for them (to quote someone with whom I spoke recently). There’s no sense of a time for quieting down and listening. Thus, there’s little room for taking anything serious in. Instead, people vie to be heard—but no one’s listening anyway, so no one gets heard. This is an exaggerated representation, of course, but it’s largely accurate.

The problem is not just that people talk, talk, and talk. (Nor is it a problem of extraverts versus introverts, as many who qualify as introverts have a great propensity for chatter.) It’s that there’s so much rush, so much overload of work and information, that people don’t even have a chance to ruminate, to sift through experiences, to read books for pleasure and interest, or to test out ideas. I have discussed this in my book and elsewhere; I see it as one of the primary problems of education.

Teachers and students have little time to think. They scamper from one thing to the next. During the week, I am on a gerbil wheel; I can think of little more than the things I have to get done for the next hour and next day. Over the weekend, I have hundreds of assignments and tests to correct. (I really mean hundreds, since I have about 260 students, whom I teach twice a week.) I love teaching philosophy; at its best, it’s illuminating. Listening to my students discuss the Book of Job, Pascal’s Wager, and Kant’s categorical imperative has given me hope. These kids are reading and pondering the texts and analyzing them keenly.

But what I don’t have, and what they probably don’t have, is time to putter around. (Today’s an exception. I am intentionally puttering today, since I need it badly. I don’t teach on Fridays, and last night I was at school until late for a glorious Hispanic cultural evening.)

Most of my good ideas come out of puttering. I love to mull over lesson planning: I read the text, think about it, think about different ways to present it and things to pull out of it, think about how my students might respond to it, and start to shape the lesson from there. I putter when coming up with ideas for writing and when revising existing pieces; they take various shapes in my mind, and I seize the one  that seems best. Puttering allows me to reread books, listen to music, memorize a poem, work on a math problem, and so forth; and each of these activities can expand into something more.

Of course, you can’t spend your whole life puttering. You must also be able to pull things together under pressure. I like deadlines and performances for that very reason. Sometimes they bring things out that would not have been brought out otherwise; at the very least, they can help you get things done.

But I long to take my time with things, including lesson planning. I consider this a staple, not a luxury. Yet our society seems to treat it as either a vice or an afterthought. As a culture we place more value on doing, doing, doing than on thinking; more value on certainty than on uncertainty; more value on saying something than on taking something in; and more value on results of any kind than on slow and soulful labors.

Throughout the school system, throughout the country, from what I have seen and heard, teachers strain under unreasonable workloads, as do students. Not only do teachers have large classes and many of them, but their “prep” time during the day comes to little, if anything. In urban districts, a quiet place to work is a rarity; teachers often share classrooms and may not even have a desk. As for students, they are in class every minute of the school day except for lunch. They stay after school for electives and sports. Then, when they get home, they have several hours of homework. Students with college aspirations must build resumes and portfolios; in many cases, they must show not only their academic ability and interest, but their ability to lead a club, initiate a project, and speak on video. On top of it all, they have many digital distractions.

I do not recommend eliminating homework or extracurriculars (or, for that matter, technology), but something has to give. How is it that in high school I took Latin, Greek, French, history, physics, math, and English (sometimes two English courses at once), practiced cello for two or three hours a day, sang in the school choruses, participated in sports, and still had time to take long walks, see friends, and write stories and poems? Part of it is that the school trusted us with free periods during the day, so our schedules were not packed. Some of our frenzy today comes from a perceived need to fill everyone’s schedule, to make everyone accountable for every moment.

If we want to relieve some of this pressure and live more sanely, we need to move from accountability (where you must give moment-to-moment account of your actions, on someone else’s terms) to responsibility (where you honor your conscience and duties, relying primarily on an internal guide). Accountability has its place, but as a way of life it will squeeze the best out of us and drive us to exhaustion. Responsibility is much more difficult to build and sustain, but it allows for tranquility, though it puts us to serious tests.

But building responsibility—in society as a whole—is a complicated matter. It involves strengthening one’s solitude and learning not to give in to every passing craving or demand. It also requires having something to live up to, something worth the responsibility, something beautiful to carry as though it were our own.

Note: On March 5, 2013, I deleted the original first paragraph, as it was about the blog, not about puttering.

Principals, Do You Know Your Power Words?

My satirical pieces are often mistaken for true stories. But here’s a true story that I would have mistaken for satire, had I not read it in the Dallas Morning News.

Mike Miles, the new Dallas schools superintendent, has directed principals to use “power words” and “acknowledgment phrases” when speaking with parents and others. The Dallas ISD has even printed a booklet of “power phrases and remarks.”

For instance, a principal might say, “We are all about improving student performance and the quality of instruction; that is the expectation.”

The “acknowledgment phrases” include “It depends,” “That’s true,” or “Actually, I disagree.” Principals are encouraged to use them to preface one of 13 statements, such as “Our work will be professional, equitable, rigorous and student-focused.”

The reporter, Matthew Haag, discovered that the Dallas ISD had paid consultant Merrie Spaeth, of Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, Inc., to help craft these words and statements. Spaeth, Miles, and DISD communications chief Jennifer Sprague collaborated on the project.

There’s a catch, though: half-scripted dialogue doesn’t work. It has to be all scripted or not. Spaeth et al. should have come up with power phrases for the parents as well. Then principals and parents could have real meaningless conversations, such as the one that follows.

(The principal’s words below are all taken from the article, except for her last two sentences. The parent’s words are made up.)

Principal: “The superintendent’s plan brings stability and a clear direction to the district.”

Parent: “I agree. The superintendent is proactive and goal-oriented.”

Principal: “That’s true. Destination 2020 will take five to eight years to achieve, but we will make significant progress in one year.”

Parent: “I am proud to be a member of this achievement-centered team. My son will pitch his literacy growth action plan at the next goal-implementation assembly.”

Principal: “We are all a team at the school.”

Parent: “Indeed; the true team player sees accountability as a game-changer.”

Principal: “I have to learn more power phrases before I can continue this conversation. Good day.”

Parent: “We are all lifelong learners here. Good day.”

One could even use the “power word generator” (created by Daniel Lathrop of the Dallas Morning News) to keep the conversation going. When you don’t have to make sense, why stop, ever?

To Save Kids, District Adopts No-Sitdown Policy

One Monday morning, teachers at 100 public schools in Magnesia, Texas, walked into their classrooms to see no desks there. Some of them, thinking that they had lost their jobs, went to the principal’s office for an explanation. There they saw a consultant in a business suit, who informed them that they still had their jobs but would not be allowed to sit down any more. All teachers were directed to watch an informational video—standing up, of course—before the ringing of the first bell.

“We are here to serve the kids,” said schools chancellor Lewis Mensonge, who stars as himself in the video. “Sitting down does not serve the kids. It sends them the message that your own comfort comes first.”

“Desks are relics of the traditional model,” added his deputy Christine Lawaai, “which served only a small percentage of the kids. We live in an era of active engagement for every child. This means that teachers should be up on their feet and moving around, without exception.” The video showed a teacher striding swiftly around a classroom and peering over students’ shoulders as they wrote. “If this teacher sits down at any point,” she said, “at any point, then some child is being failed. Some child’s needs are not being met. And so we must enforce the rules with all available means.”

Video cameras would be installed in classrooms, and all classroom doors were to be kept open at all times. If a student caught a teacher sitting down, he or she was encouraged to take a picture with his or her cellphone—which the student could use in school for this purpose only. “We urge children to be proactive,” said Lawaai. “Their own education is at stake.” Children who took photos of a seated teacher would receive a laptop and other rewards.

The video then showed a meeting where Mensonge was presenting the new policy to a group of principals. “When are teachers supposed to grade work or plan lessons?” asked one visibly distressed principal.

“Look,” said Mensonge, “do you see me sitting back and reading policy papers, or writing up a speech? I bust my [bleep] every day, if you’ll forgive my language. I’m traveling around from school to school and from meeting to meeting, getting work done. The stuff you have to do sitting down is for the evenings and weekends, not for the school day, when there’s no time to lose. And quite frankly, if teachers aren’t prepared to give every one of their evenings and weekends to these essential tasks, then they shouldn’t be teaching. There are a million other outlets for their lackadaisical lifestyle. We won’t be footing the bill.”

“How will they have any energy left in the evenings, if they haven’t sat down all day?” asked another principal.

“You are clinging to old language and thinking,” Mensonge replied. “We are looking at a paradigm shift here. We need to start using our power words. If the teacher collapses from exhaustion, then she wasn’t fit to be a teacher in the first place. It’s painful at first to be tough,” he said with softened tone, “but once you do it, you see the real changes happening. You bring in a cadre of teachers who don’t tire. You see kids learning who never learned before. You wish you had done all of this from the start. That’s when the real pain comes.”

The first bell rang. Teachers proceeded to their classes and watched the children file in and take their seats. One teacher leaned against the whiteboard as she took attendance. A cell phone flashed; within minutes, security guards had arrived to escort her out.

In a phone interview, Mensonge said that teachers would soon be required to wait on students during lunch. “It’ll motivate the kids to succeed,” he said. “They’ll think to themselves, ‘I can do better than that. I can be better than that.’ And that’s what we want them to think.”

Enter This Landscape

I recently came upon Cynthia Haven’s blog, The Book Haven—in particular, a post about the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with a quotation of my translation of his poem “Tu, Felix Austria” (one of my favorites of the translations and of his poems). I continue to read her blog with enjoyment and admiration.

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Not long afterward, Tomas (or Professor Venclova, as I called him at the time) invited me to translate his poems—not a coincidence, but a great honor. Throughout the project (which resulted in a book, Winter Dialogue, most of which later reappeared in slightly edited form in The Junction), I immersed myself in the original poems, through listening to recordings of them and poring over the Lithuanian. I also had Russian literal translations and Venclova’s notes to guide me along.

The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in “Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.

I bring this up because I have been repeatedly remembering the poem “Pašnekesys žiemą” (“Winter Dialogue”) and its opening lines:

Įženk į šį peizažą. Dar tamsu.
Anapus kopų gaudžia tuščias plentas.
Su jūromis kariauja kontinentas—
Nematomas, bet sklidinas balsų.
Praeivis arba angelas sniege
Paliko lengvą užpustytą brydę,
Ir kranto atspindys juosvam lange
Mums primena bevaisę Antarktidę.

In my translation (in The Junction), this reads:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes up arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

In the beginning, the landscape consists of sounds—the voices, the wailing. So, the invitation into the landscape is indeed an invitation into the poem’s sound, much like the invitation that I heard when I first read “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

I love remembering this poem and reciting it to myself. One of my favorite stanzas is the sixth (remember that this is a dialogue):

Po sunkiasvorio debesio tinklu
Tarytum žuvys blizga ankštos aikštės.
˶Ar tu atsimeni, ką sakė žvaigždės?”
˶Šis amžius išsiverčia be ženklų,
Tėra statistika.” ˶Mirties trauka
Sukausto žmogų, augalą ir daiktą,
Tačiau sudygsta grūdas ir auka,
Ir štai tada, manau, ne viskas baigta.”

And in English (the translation takes a few minor liberties):

Beneath the screen mesh of the weighty cloud,
The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing.
“Do you remember what the stars were saying?”
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”

How many people have room to enter a landscape of this kind? Even I don’t have that room in the way I once did. I am cluttered with obligations and concerns. A pile of tests to correct lies in front of me. Emails await my response. But at least I know what it means to enter something like this, and I can do so, up to a point. I know there is more to this poem than I can grasp–a history that I have not lived, a consciousness I have not known, a language that is not mine. All the same, when I listen to it, some of the barriers fall away. I understand something of it, beyond the aspects that I can analyze.

What worries me as a teacher (and what sometimes overwhelms me) is that many students don’t know how to still themselves to enter poetry. (I don’t mean this poem in particular, which probably requires adult understanding.) Many children and adults have a persistent need to make noise—not only out loud, but in themselves. I am not referring to my students in particular. I hear from teachers around the country (and even from professors) that students do not know how to quiet down, in part because adults don’t know, either, or don’t practice it.

I am not recommending that schools start including meditation in the school day, though some schools do. The quiet should come through the very attention to the subject, be it a poem, a math problem, or a historical document. But “should” is one matter; “does” is another. Quieting down takes practice, and given all the buzz around us, it may need a kind of practice in itself, even a simple kind.

Nor am I suggesting suggesting that we have all lost our focus and quiet (or that any of us has lost all of it). Nor do I blame technology for the problem. Technology, after all, gives us audio recordings. I can listen to many more recordings in Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages today than I could a few decades ago. It’s possible to listen to “Pašnekesys žiemą” (and other poems) by downloading the MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land” (for those interested, “Pašnekesys žiemą” begins around 56 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording).

Nor would I say that humanity has ever been fully focused. We need a mixture of focus and distractibility in our lives, and the relationship between them is intricate. Problems arise when we tip too far toward the one or the other, when we forget how to navigate between the two.

What would help, then? Maybe more poetry in the curriculum—where students memorized, recited, discussed, and (sometimes) wrote sonnets, villanelles, and other kinds of verse. This isn’t a fix (what is?), but it would help young people start to listen to language and form.  They would develop a tolerance for poems that they didn’t understand immediately. They would learn to hold things in their minds. Also, memorization is a gesture of a kind. It’s a way of saying, “This is important, and therefore I will preserve it.” Students may not agree immediately (or ever) that a given poem is important. But they will gain something from the gesture.

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