Pride and Precipice

A splendid collection of essays has just come out in the fifth issue of FORUM: A Publication of the ALSCW. Edited by Rosanna Warren and Lee Oser, the issue bears the title “What Is Education? A Response to the Council on Foreign Relations Report, ‘U.S. Education Reform and National Security'” and includes contributions by David Bromwich, James Engell, Rachel Hadas, Virgil Nemoianu, Helaine L. Smith, Elizabeth D. Samet, myself, and others. I am honored to be part of this, not only because of the  topic, but also because of the caliber of the other essays. They lift the overall conversation.

The CFR report, the work of a task force headed by Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice, maintains that we must reform education in order to address a national security crisis. They propose that schools, curriculum, and assessments be restructured for the sake of national security. Such a proposal would be laughable if the task force leaders didn’t have so much clout. That’s why a response is needed: this is no joke. (See also Diane Ravitch’s response in the New York Review of Books.)

The FORUM contributors do not constitute a collective. Each one speaks independently. There are common concerns without a position statement or platform. I have dreamed of this: to speak alone and with others. I have longed for a public forum of this kind.

I have also dreamed of being pushed a bit–of being challenged to refine my thoughts. This collection of essays does that as well.

But I also recognize that there’s no need to be afraid of a modest contribution. To say something as well as one can at a given moment, about something that matters–there’s glory for you, as Humpty Dumpty would say.

Much needs to be said. Whatever the needs of national security, we should try to educate beyond these needs. As soon as education subordinates itself to a limited  goal or demand,  it is lost.

The Eensy, Weensy Spider in the Universal Crisis

When reciting Robert Frost’s poem “One Step Backward Taken,” I am strongly reminded of the children’s song “The Eensy, Weensy Spider” (or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”). I do not think this association is accidental or mine alone. Rather, it figures in the play of Frost’s poem. I have not read this observation anywhere, but I imagine that it has been made many times.

Here is the poem:

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.

According to Jay Parini (on p. 360 of Robert Frost: A Life), Frost wrote this poem in 1945, in recollection of his experience of a flood in 1927. Traveling by train across Arizona on his way back to Amherst, he saw a bridge washed out; in Parini’s words, a car on one bank was “edging backward carefully each time a slice of earth fell away.”

It is also usefully tempting to hear, in the final two lines, a suggestion of “up came the sun and dried up all the rain, so …” (“…the eensy weensy spider went up the spout again”). Even the rhythms are compatible: one could superimpose one on another and hear a counterpoint there.

If this is so, then this “universal crisis” could be something as tiny as a spider on a dirt mound in the rain (or as large as a world falling apart). That may be part of its universality: you can find such crises everywhere, in spiders and in men.

Here is a counterpoint of large against small and of shape against shape. Not only does one hear the nursery song playing against the poem, but one also hears various parts of the poem playing against each other.

Consider the poem’s structure, first of all. In terms of rhyme, it consists of three couplets, AA, BB, and CC, followed by the interweaving DEDE FGFG. Thus it consists of two parts: the first six lines, and then the next eight, an inversion of a sonnet. One would expect, then, a volta, or turning point, around the seventh line. Instead, it occurs at line 10, “But with one step backward taken.” This leads the reader to hear the first nine lines as one part, and the next five lines as the other. The two parts interlock, since the “-aken” rhyme ending occurs in both.

So one can think of the poem in terms of two parts: the crisis, and the stepping backward from it. But there are more ways of breaking it down.

Look at sentences. The first six lines comprise one sentence and describe the scene, but the seventh line belongs to the description as well. Then, in the eighth line, the poem turns to the speaker’s experience, “I felt my standpoint shaken.” One could thus see the first seven lines as the first part of the poem, and the next seven lines as the second.

The various divisions of the poem play against each other in the mind–maybe a little like capes caking off in various ways. There is also the subtle wit of the line “bumped heads together dully,” which brings something comic and human into the natural scene. Maybe we are dealing in part with a crisis of bumbling fools.

In any case, what’s remarkable about this poem is the way it sets rhythm against rhythm, shape against shape, meaning against meaning. The poem raises the possibility that it is dealing with something enormous on the one hand and something minuscule on the other. It’s the play of the two that makes this so much fun.

Of course, there’s serious meaning in this too. It has to do with stepping back when everything seems to be falling away. Maybe it has also to do with detaching oneself from the supposed urgency of the moment. But there’s quite a bit of jest in the poem, as I hear it, and hints of paradox, too.

At one (or more) of his readings, Frost commented on the title of the poem. (I have a recording of one such reading; I don’t know when or where it took place.) He said that he had originally given it the title “I Felt My Standpoint Shaken.” (My guess is that he did no such thing, but it doesn’t matter here; the whole story is told in jest.) A few people approached him and asked, “So, you mean you’ve been reading Karl Marx too?” Then he changed the title to “One Step Backward Taken”; a few people asked him, “You think we ought to back out on the bomb, don’t you?” At a reading at Dartmouth College (according to Frost, in this same story), a student spoke up and said,“Why don’t you call it ‘Bumped Heads Together Dully’?” (Roars of laughter from the audience.)

They laugh—but maybe “Bumped Heads Together Dully” really is the most fitting title. When I read a lesson plan for the teaching of this poem, I had to take one step backward to save myself from going. I have seen and criticized many a “strategy” lesson (I find the emphasis on “strategies” distracting and downright stupid), but this one takes the cake. Here, the teacher presents the poem in order to illustrate the “think-aloud” strategy. He or she “thinks aloud” (or, rather, blunders) through the poem, relating it to the unit’s overarching theme of “transitions and change,” and then puts the students in groups (for a “socially constructed learning environment”) to practice “think-alouds” with song lyrics. No more Frost; the point here is the strategy. No more thinking, either, but there wasn’t much to begin with. (I don’t fault the teacher entirely; she is doing what she was taught to do.)

Whole capes caked off in slices, indeed.

Note: I made some changes to this piece after its initial posting.

Self-Doubt in a Culture of Certainty

I wouldn’t call my current state an intellectual crisis, though it might be. A crisis implies a dilemma, where one no longer believes in one’s former way of living and thinking yet hesitates before the alternatives. For me, something quieter is going on. I see the possibility of another level of thinking and writing but have not reached it yet. So I question many a sentence of that I have written, many a concept that I have embraced. At this point, I don’t reject my former ideas but see a need to sharpen them. (The sharpening may lead to the discarding of some.)

Such periods of transition can be exhilarating and upsetting at the same time—exhilarating because of the new understandings, upsetting because of the embarrassment. For me, the mix is bitterer than it has to be, because I have taken a culture of certainty a bit too much to heart. We live in a world where people brandish their views (or the views of a group) and lash at those who disagree. Once they say their say, they stand by it. If they waver at all, then they’re perceived as weak. I see through most of this, but some of it gets to me anyway, as it seeps into everyday life.

To think well, you need some removal from that environment. You need room to consider whether you might be wrong—or whether you might have used a word carelessly or failed to consider a possibility. None of that is weakness, unless it turns into self-indulgence. The self-criticism, or assessment of one’s thoughts and words, needs both sustenance and defense.

It’s difficult to find a place for uncertainty. As a teacher, one often has to act more certain than one is. I don’t mean that one pretends to know things one doesn’t know, or states things as fact that are open to question. (I do that sometimes without meaning to do so; the words slip out of me, and I catch them.) Rather, one has to present the material in a coherent manner, and that often involves simplifications. I often walk out of class asking myself questions about the lesson I just presented or about statements I made. It is good to do this, if I then have time to think through those questions and read carefully. Often there’s insufficient time; I have to rush to the next class, correct hundreds of homework assignments, attend meetings, and catch up with paperwork.

So the time left in the day for thinking is scarce, and one must take good care to guard it. It is all too easy to get into an online discussion or argument where neither side is looking to be enriched and where little ultimately gets said. It is easy, also, to sound wiser than one is when in an ephemeral setting—to be a vanishing frog croaking over a vanishing marsh. How much effort I have put, at times, into blog comments that were later forgotten (as far as I know) by all involved!

Also, it is not just a matter of thinking over what one has said. One must read a great deal (of carefully chosen books) in order to think well. The books that help me think better are those with discernment and wit; those that go far beyond the slipshod; those that jolt me wisely, not cheaply; those that hold beauty. I have commented recently on one such book; I have more thoughts about it but will let them work in my mind. Other books have been on my mind too. In order to read such books, one must set aside protected time for them.

I speak in terms of protection because interruptions and temptations are many. In particular, one is tempted (or I have been tempted) to seek the “quick fix” of blogging and other online writing. I don’t take this to extremes—and I put thought into what I do post online—yet I know the satisfaction of getting responses (however few), including those that don’t challenge me. In subtle ways one can shortchange one’s intellectual life for a short-lived kick, a sense that one’s words reach someone. I want to do more than reach someone. I want to get to the bone of things worth saying—and say them in that bony yet graceful way. I want to say it in a book, because then it’s less likely to be read in a rush. (People do read books for quick “takeaways,” but it’s possible to make clear that your book is not of that sort.)

That’s the other side of it. At some point uncertainty must come to an end; one must lay out that sentence. That must not happen too soon, but it must happen. If holds back for fear of saying something incorrect or incomplete, then the fools (including one’s own internal fools) will have their way. Blaise Pascal said, “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.”  This applies to the writer as it does to to the person choosing whether or not to believe in God. One must say something, if that is what one has set out to do. But learning when to say it and when to hold back–learning how long to work on something before putting it forward–takes staunchness, vigilance, and a strong sense of measure.

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”

“A Way to Think for Myself As If Under Their Eyes”

This is the last of a series of comments on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I expected to write two more—but then I thought it would be more interesting to choose and comment on one favorite part of the book. So I chose the fourth chapter, “Reflection, Morality, and Tradition,” where Bromwich defends and represents a tradition of liberal thought by interpreting and reflecting on Edmund Burke, David Hume, Joseph Butler, John Stuart Mill, and others.

The chapter (like the book) demonstrates a liberal tradition. It is the very discussion of Burke, Mill, and others—with intriguing interpretations of specific passages—that takes me into the tradition as it can be. I often find myself slowing down to read a passage again and think about its meaning. I enjoy this greatly.

This tradition of liberal thought has a place for the person who thinks and acts alone; in fact, group thinking has no place in it. It involves both “an irreducible respect” for oneself and a perspective on one’s existence. It can serve posterity because it is not bound by a need for immediate approval. It has what Hume calls “general utility”—which Bromwich distinguishes from the “reductive utilitarianism” that has taken over much of our educational discourse.

Bromwich’s distinction between “general utility” and “reductive utilitarianism” is immensely important. In education policy I see a general attitude of reductive utilitarianism: the insistence that schools should serve the demands of the moment and show immediate, crude results. “General utility,” by contrast, is not shrill or ephemeral. It involves a perception of something beyond our immediate circumstances, something reaching far back and far ahead. But at the same time it does not involve bowing to some imaginary standard set by others. Instead, it requires integrity of thought.

Such thought is far removed from “narrow self-regard” or what Burke calls “speculation”—the reliance on one’s own “private stock of reason.” It likewise does not come from excessive attention to the latest word. “Utter privacy and utter contemporary-mindedness have the same disadvantages,” Bromwich writes when discussing Burke. “But the latter condition may have the wider appeal. Many people have thought some time or other that it might be attractive to try to live entirely for the present moment. And in a crisis of authority, a new government may test its credit by putting this idea into practice.”

Bromwich quotes a memorable passage from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which Burke imagines the consequences of total disregard for ancestors and posterity. “By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions,” Burke writes, “the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.” (The quotation in the book is substantially longer; I regret abridging it here.)

Burke is not simply calling for preservation of cultural monuments, Bromwich points out. His argument is this: when we imagine we have the right to destroy things that others have held dear, we imagine future generations doing the same to our things. “It is a gesture of contempt,” Bromwich comments, “in which self-contempt must always be deeply involved.”

Later in the chapter, Bromwich distills the idea as follows: “A maxim Burke seems always on the point of formulating is that no generation has the right to act as if it were the last generation on earth. (It may be a corollary that no generation has a right to think as if it were the first generation on earth.)” A person does not avoid those errors by submitting to the needs of the collective. To the contrary; the errors themselves are products of group sentiment and group selfishness. “What we are witnessing here is an inversion of American individualism,” writes Bromwich. “Groups have become the contenders. And yet the groups retain the traits of the old egocentric bargainers on whom they are modeled.”

What is self-respect, then? Bromwich sheds some light on this when discussing Mill. Many readers of Mill, according to Bromwich, assume that he defends free speech mainly because restriction of speech shrinks the free market of ideas. Bromwich shows that Mill sees much more at stake: in particular, moral and intellectual courage. If one does not enter into dialogue, if one shuts oneself off from opposing or contrasting views, then one’s opinion, writes Mill, “will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

This willingness to consider other views is not the same as deference to fashion or clamor. It requires an understanding of the origins of these views; it requires some distance from the noise. One cannot consider every view that comes along; one must make choices. But at the very least, one must allow the various views to exist and be expressed. This very tolerance comes from self-respect, since it helps ensure that we live in relation with the past, present, and future, not closed off in self-certainty or self-admiration. Insofar as we tolerate, we may be tolerated too.

As usual, there is much more to the chapter than I am conveying. As I was reading it, it opened up a place for me, but also reminded me that that place has long existed and that I have things to do in it. A liberal tradition does exist, as much as it seems to have been shouted out. It is not escape or retreat, but a vivid and demanding way of thinking.

On the surface, this way of thinking seems unequal and unfair. It sometimes involves giving one’s best to those who are unwilling to receive or return the gesture (such as students disrupting or ignoring a lesson). It may involve receiving things that one can never repay—from books, from teachers, from parents. But all of these seeming unfairnesses allow for a greater distribution over time. Bromwich quotes the moral philosopher Annette Baier, who writes of “the asymmetry of care”—that is, “an extended version of morality in which there are more who are cared about than there are doing the caring.” I see more promise in this than in the benign but pat concept of “paying it forward.” After all, there’s no “it” and no “payment” here, and the gesture is not only in a forward direction.

Nor do the guides of the past disappear. Bromwich writes of a relation “to persons not only whom I do not know but whom I cannot know. If liberal education adds up,” the chapter ends, “it shows me a way to think for myself as if under their eyes, or at their half-acknowledged promptings. In doing so it suggests a way to act for something beyond myself.”

So does this book.

For an index to the nine pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here. I have revised a few of them since their initial posting.

Tradition Without a Last Word

In yesterday’s comments on the second chapter of David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, I ended with a conundrum: “When a school lacks such a tradition [of literary study], and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it.” Three paragraphs into the third chapter, Bromwich brings up a similar but more complex problem:

But a difficult paradox holds together the idea of a nonrestrictive tradition. Before it can be reformed intelligently, it must be known adequately; and yet, unless one recognizes that it can be reformed, one will come to know it only as a matter of rote—with the result that the knowledge of a tradition will seem as unimaginative a business as the knowledge of an alphabet or catechism.

In his book, Bromwich is talking mainly about higher education, yet the paradox of curriculum and tradition applies to K–12 education as well. The problem is this: in the loudest diatribes of the right and the left, tradition is either upheld as an authority or bashed as an authority. Bromwich defends tradition not as an authority but as a context for thoughtful discourse, solitude, independent thought, and self-knowledge. Unfortunately such an idea of tradition has been losing ground in higher education; instead, universities have been rewarding specialized and marginal knowledge in the name of professionalism. If you have a niche, you are marketable. Your work may not be understood by your colleagues, but that’s part of the point.

At the same time, many academics have come to see their institutions as microcosms of society; thus they attach great political importance to their choices within the classroom. The outside society, in the meantime, has lost much of its former nerve for informed discourse, so it relegates this formerly public activity to closed institutions. Thus, in a twisted way, the most virulent academic opponents of authoritative tradition have an entrenched authority of their own.

Like the book as a whole, the chapter is subtle and intricate; a summary does it poor justice. But I would like to take on this idea of tradition versus authority and suggest that, while no tradition should have ultimate authority, a certain kind of authority may be necessary for an open and changing tradition.

At the start of the chapter, Bromwich distinguishes between “the traditional study of the humanities” and “the study of tradition in the humanities.” The two concepts, he observes, are too often confused and mixed together. “Attacks on the first,” he writes, “tend to shade into attacks on the second, without understanding the very different challenge this entails. At the same time, defenses of the second often try to cover the first as well.”

The confusion he describes has grown worse. People on the right and left attack “traditional schools” (which of course house traditional pedagogy and traditional curriculum) as though they even existed and were all of a kind. The very word “traditional” carries negative connotations. Many proponents of free-market education use it with disdain today, implying that some thuggish gang of recalcitrant teachers has been thwarting rapid change and “results.” Many progressives distrust it too; they hold that traditional things impede the creativity and initiative of the child. So, when defending tradition, one ends up defending, willy-nilly, both traditional pedagogy (if there is such a thing) and traditional curriculum. In fact, under current conditions they are often of a piece.

The reason is this: to read anything of substance, you have to be willing to quiet down and listen—not only to the teacher, but to the book itself. I mean “listen” in the sense of taking the words, sounds, patterns, structures, and ideas into your mind, making sense of them, raising questions, following those questions as far as they will go, and reading again. So, for a little while at least, the book or the teacher has to become the authority—in that you will shut up for that short stretch of time to hear what it or he or she has to say.

It is temporary authority, yes. But it is still authority. If a student does not believe that he has anything to learn from a book or teacher, then he might as well keep on talking and talking and talking. For me, that has been the most dispiriting aspect of being a teacher: that some students will not stop talking, during class, about matters that have nothing to do with class. They see neither the subject matter nor the teacher as an authority. Most of my students over the years have not done this, but a few have. Such talk, when it persists, can ruin a lesson. The common “strategies” go against the grain of what I am trying to do. Keep them busy at every moment, some advise. Hold them accountable for every step. Never leave them without something to do, something that will have consequences for them. I reject this as an overall approach (though I have to use aspects of it for survival). It is unfair to the students who come in prepared and willing to learn. Not only that, but it shortchanges the subject matter.

So a certain sense of authority, a certain kind of respect, is essential even for intelligent questioning of authority. To question authority well, you have to know what it is. To know what it is, you have to pay attention to it. To pay attention to it, you must give it temporary authority (which may seem like a lot of authority to some).

There’s even more reason to uphold a certain kind of authority. I wish I could take one of Bromwich’s courses. I wish I had done so long ago. I would do this not just to be in the midst of the thoughts and insights of peers, but primarily to hear what he had to say, to read the books he had chosen for the course, and to sense the effect on class discussions and my own thinking. A professor brings something to the students’ own thinking that wouldn’t be there otherwise—and so, in a different way and at a different level, does the schoolteacher. Our best teachers’ words and gestures stay with us, even after we begin questioning aspects of what they say. They have a lasting authority of a kind.

But Bromwich is criticizing a different kind of authority–a rigid, closed world, be it a “culture of assent” (that clings to a “canon”) or a “culture of suspicion” (that rejects anything suggestive of a canon). Both have a set of “socializing codes.” Neither one is tradition as it should be. “Traditions are made of something more,” Bromwich writes. “They offer, in fact, a kind of solitude, and a kind of company.”

Yes–and the solitude and company require a sense of measure:  a sense of when to listen and when to speak, when to question and when to hold back from questioning. This is not a question of propriety; it does not follow absolute rules, except for basic ones. The proportions come with time, and they are not fixed. They require, at the outset, a willingness to defer (in some ways) to something that one does not yet know. I don’t think Bromwich would disagree. This is, indeed, an aspect of the paradox that he brings up at the start of the chapter.

Note: I revised this piece on November 20.

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


Student Shows 23 Percent Growth in Finding Central Idea

The classrooms were all aflutter on Student Growth Day at the High School for Innovation and Social Metrics in New York City. In addition to receiving a standards-based instructional lesson, each student was to learn his or her profits or losses with respect to the second Reading Standard for Informational Text in the Common Core State Standards:

Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

“I predict about 10 percent growth for me, and about 15 percent for the class,” said sophomore Alan Prorok. “That’s because one day I had a net loss when I got the standard wrong and answered the question I thought was being asked, not the question that was being asked.”

“The way to get a good bar graph in this school is to follow all the directions within the time limits,” added his classmate Sandra Zakon. “My growth should be really good this quarter.”

“Don’t rub it in,” retorted Alan, as the teacher, Stu Merritt, put up the first bar graph display.

“Freddy,” Mr. Merritt said, “the first bar graph is yours, and I want you to stand up and take ownership of it.” Freddy dutifully stood up in the back of the room and brushed his dark bangs from his eyes.

“Take a look at this, class,” Mr. Merritt continued. “Last week, when we were reading Aristotle, I asked you to identify the central idea of the passage. Freddy not only provided the central idea—remember what it was, scholars?”

“Something about how it’s good to have a middle class,” a student ventured.

“Exactly right. Freddy here identified this central idea. Then he took it one step further, which is something he failed to do most of the time in the last quarter. He actually showed how this idea is shaped and refined by specific details. For this reason, his bar graph is showing 23 percent growth. Let’s give Freddy a round of applause!”

The hooting, stomping, and cheering that followed would have led a passer-by to think that the teacher had announced a pizza party. Mr. Merritt gave a hand signal; the room fell silent instantly.

“Now Freddy,” he said, when we go on to our next text, your task is going to be to do everything you did before, but also to identify how the central idea emerges. Are you prepared to meet that goal?”

“Yes, I am, Mr. Merritt,” Freddy replied.

“Do you predict growth for yourself in the next quarter?”

“Yes, I do, Mr. Merritt,” Freddy replied.

“That’s great, Freddy. You may sit down now. Alan, please stand up.” He proceeded to the next bar graph, which showed a loss of five percent. Alan’s eyes filled with tears.

“Now Alan, you have opportunities for growth in the future. Let’s take a look at why you showed a loss this time. I want you to take ownership of it. Remember when we were reading Plato, and you identified the central idea as—as what? Can you remember?”

“That the just man is happier than the unjust man.”

“That’s right. That really was a central idea. Now, this time, with the Aristotle, you identified an idea that I’d say was close to central but not quite. You said the central idea was that virtue is found in the mean.”

“I don’t see how that isn’t a central idea,” said Alan, his voice trembling.

“Alan, what is the title of the Aristotle book?”

Politics.”

“That’s right. Now, is the book about politics?”

“Yes.”

“Is it, in the same way, about the mean?”

“No, but—“

“No ‘buts’ here. You see the point. The idea of the mean is very important, but it doesn’t quite count as central. Do you follow me now?”

“Yes, but I still don’t—“

“That’s just fine. When you’re in doubt about it, just follow the TTT strategy. Who remembers the TTT strategy? What is it, class?”

“Title! Topic Sentence! Turn-and-talk!”

“That’s right. If you’re unsure of the central idea, look at the title. If you’re still unsure, look for the topic sentence. If you’re still unsure, turn and talk during group success time. Sit down, Alan. Marisa, it’s your turn.”

After class, Mr. Merritt told  us that the teachers had to do the same thing in their meetings. “We all get growth charts and have to account for our profits and losses,” he said. “And those come directly from the students’ profits and losses. So it’s essential for the students to know why they’re growing or not, so that we can all grow next time.”

The school’s next step, he said, was to show growth in real time. “At a professional development session last spring,” he said, “they showed us the new technology, and it just looked like the coolest thing. You’re in the middle of teaching a strategy, you have them implement it, and you see those bars get taller on the spot. If they don’t, you give them a minute of student success time so that they can talk in groups and figure out where they went wrong.”

Asked about how this focus on growth affected discussion of Aristotle, Mr. Merritt shook his head. “A lot of people think it’s about the Aristotle,” he said, “but it isn’t. It’s about student progress, which is displayed on these charts. The Aristotle is just a text with respect to which the kids generate data that then provides the basis for these charts.”

“Well put,” said a well-dressed personage who had just entered the room. “I can see, Mr. Merritt, that you’ve done your homework. You will show growth in the professionalism category, if not across the board.”

“Lists of Names Do Not Think”

Quite a week it has been: with the ninth graders, looking at the exchange between Teiresias and Creon in Antigone; with the tenth graders, concluding our discussion of Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals and starting to read Buber’s I and Thou; and with the eleventh graders, finishing up the unit on Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes and beginning a discussion of Hobbes’ Leviathan or, rather, an excerpt from it. That, and the election, and the city’s slow recovery from the storm, with some heavy losses (I and those I know are fine)—all of this has made for a tumultuous week on the one hand and a contemplative one on the other.

It is a treat to return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means and put together some thoughts on the second chapter, in which he examines the incoherent conservatism of George F. Will and William Bennett (as examples of a larger tendency). As I discuss this chapter—perhaps the most difficult to discuss, and the one that has challenged me the most—I will keep this question in mind: If a primary purpose of education is to teach people to think critically, knowledgeably, and independently, to what extent does a core curriculum serve that end?

According to Bromwich, both Will and Bennett see education and religion as a way of rescuing a dying culture. (I am using the present tense for convenience; the book was published twenty years ago.) They believe in cultural transmission—that is, the “imitative (not inventive) continuity of a tradition,” which “involves the pouring of a contained substance into a new container.” Will considers himself an intellectual descendant of Burke—but, unlike Burke, champions both tradition and the free market. “Burke himself disdained any tactic that would have appeared at once to defend an existing order and to favor the instrumentalities of rapid change,” Bromwich observes. By contrast, Will and Bennett share an incoherent philosophy and “a shallow idea of tradition.”  In addition, Will and Bennett distrust some aspect of historical consciousness—in particular, the idea that we are to some degree formed by history and must study history in order to understand ourselves.

To a degree, Bromwich sympathizes with them. Like them, he worries that a sense of the past is vanishing from curricula and culture. Yet he favors the great old books (and great newer ones) not because they constitute “cultural capital” but rather because “their good derives from their peculiar power to make us think, and the right use of that power is to reform, and not to console, the culture and society in which we are at home.” By contrast, Bennett in particular seems distrustful of the whole enterprise of “critical thinking.” (I will return to that in a moment.)

This chapter gave me a good shaking. As one who has defended “classical” curriculum and has not overtly challenged the idea of cultural capital (though I have argued repeatedly that a good curriculum encourages critical and independent thought), I am incited to sort out my ideas in a way I haven’t before.  When I began writing about education, I received a warm welcome from curriculum advocates, both conservative and liberal. Like them, I saw a lot of fads interfering with good education: for instance, an insistence on group work at the expense of focused instruction and discussion; on student choice of books at the expense of a literature curriculum; and on so-called “21st century skills” at the expense of those skills that are not of the moment or tailored to the current market.

I continue to criticize these fads. But my rationale has been mixed and perhaps incoherent. On the one hand, I have argued (like Will and Bennett) for cultural preservation. On the other, I have recognized that there is no fixed culture to preserve. Any great work of literature or art takes on new life in the mind of the reader, viewer, or listener. I have taught Antigone for four years and read it many times since age thirteen; I am still surprised by the play and still consider myself an advanced beginner with it. In addition, just as a work of literature (or literary nonfiction) sharpens the reader’s thinking, so it becomes sharper in the reader’s understanding. Consider this happening over time, and you have not only a single reader, but many, each with thoughts and responses, which then start responding to each other and influencing the course of life around them. In no way can this be collected as a set and handed down.

Yet I think I understand Bennett when, in his 1986 speech “In Defense of the Common Culture” (quoted in this chapter), he complains that colleges are “listing their objectives as teaching such skills as reading, critical thinking, and awareness of other points of view.” Bromwich takes this to mean that Bennett actually opposes the teaching of critical thinking. I may be giving Bennett far too much credit, but I interpret his words otherwise.

Bennett may have meant (in which case I agree) that critical thinking minus the substance is bunk. For good critical thinking to occur in school, students must be reading and thinking about something worthy. (Or perhaps it’s the word “worthy” that should be emphasized.) Take out that crucial condition, and you may end up with a lot of “media literacy” courses where students comment on commercials and TV programs, courses that celebrate the students’ opinions, and courses that treat literature as a sociological enterprise, with representatives from every walk of life. These are real dangers—and often realities—in institutions that proclaim their main goals as “critical thinking, awareness of multiple perspectives,” and so on. You have to dare to name works of literature that deserve attentive study.

But is that a fixed, invariable canon? Of course not. Teachers and professors will base some selections on their own affinities. In a highly educated world, such selections could be based almost entirely on affinity. But when the pull is in the other direction—away from reading, away from sustained thought—a curriculum based on “affinity” could easily encourage such rationales as “I never got into Homer, so I am not going to impose the Iliad on the kids.” Or: “Sorry, my students just can’t relate to those British poets like Donne and Blake. I’m going to bring them something closer to their experience.” It takes a great deal of attention to relate to something that isn’t immediately about you; it also takes works that call you across, the works that teach your mind such crossing.

Still, as I read the chapter, I found myself increasingly averse to the pretentious tone of Will’s and Bennett’s pronouncements. Public-quasi-intellectuals can get away with an awful lot of hollowness; the mere hint of learnedness impresses people. Here I am especially self-critical, as I  I think back on some of my more grandiose writing. Bromwich’s book eschews such grandiosity by sticking to close analysis of a few situations and texts. He criticizes Will for “studding” his text with “the names of learned authorities, whom Will brings forward much as an arriviste displays silverware, to dazzle, stagger, oppress, and sicken the visitor to his study, his emporium.”

I would be indulging in false confession if I said that I did the very same thing as Will. But I have overdone my quoting at times; what’s more, I have sometimes quoted people in arrays, as though the assemblage itself could make a point. “Plainly Will does think in lists of names,” says Bromwich, “but lists of names do not think.” I will keep that in mind for my future writing; it has bearing on curriculum as well. Lists of books do not think, either, unless the person doing the listing has thought carefully about the selection and arrangement. At that point, it’s no longer a list. (I have thought carefully about the selection and arrangement of my philosophy curriculum—but to someone unfamiliar with the works, it’s just an impressive-looking list.)

A core curriculum (that is, one that provides a foundation for further study and thought) must be thought through and shaped by the people who teach it. It may indeed start as a list (as when the novice literature instructor receives a syllabus), but once the teacher has pondered it, arranged it, and fine-tuned it, it is already something else. From there, the teacher may alter it even more, but with a stronger sense of what it is in the first place.

Give me a list of skills and a list of books, and I will find much more life in the latter—but that’s because my mind starts playing with it (if I am familiar with the books). That’s what policymakers often forget about curriculum. It can’t just be implemented. The teacher must know it well enough to become its interpreter and creator. This requires study. Study of what? Of these and other works that another teacher, likewise, has studied closely and interpreted. This is tradition in the best sense of the word.

There’s the conundrum. When a school lacks such a tradition, and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it. With a great deal of caution and doubt, I’d say it can, if it is good.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting  it; on November 20, I made a few additional changes to the final paragraph.

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


The Danger of False Confession

In the seventh chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Napoleon orders all the animals to assemble in the yard. He is wearing his two medals and surrounded by nine huge dogs. He lets out a whimper, and the dogs immediately seize four pigs and drag them forward. The pigs then confess to collaborating with Snowball. The dogs kill them on the spot. Then come more confessions: from the hens, a goose, several sheep, and more–until there is a pile of bloody corpses on the ground. The allegory is obvious and disturbing, but even more disturbing is the draft horse Boxer’s comment on the events.

I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. The solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings.

Up to that point, there were two implicit possibilities: either those who confessed had actually done what they said they had done, or they confessed for some other reason (for instance, to get the whole thing over with). But Boxer suggests that there is only one possible truth: that everyone is guilty (except for Napoleon and the dogs, one must suppose). The only solution, then, is to work harder. What Boxer doesn’t know, and what the reader knows, is that in assuming guilt, he has renounced all hope of a clear view of the situation.

Consider, now, by contrast, the Book of Job. (This seems a far-flung comparison, but it will make sense.) One of the most remarkable things about Job is that he does not confess to things he hasn’t done. He stays not only faithful to God, but clear in his mind.From Job 27.1-8:

[1] Moreover Job continued his parable, and said,
[2] As God liveth, who hath taken away my judgment; and the Almighty, who hath vexed my soul;
[3] All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;
[4] My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.
[5] God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.
[6] My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live.
[7] Let mine enemy be as the wicked, and he that riseth up against me as the unrighteous.
[8] For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?

At the end, in chapter 42, he repents, but that is at a different level. It remains true that he committed no sin, and his holding fast to this truth was essential to his ultimate restoration.

Treacherous confession comes in at least two forms: refusing to admit to a wrong you have committed, and confessing to a wrong you have not committed. (There are still more, but these are the two I will discuss.) Sometimes the latter treachery is worse because of its very seduction. False confession can feel good. It brings forgiveness, perhaps, or swift punishment, or at least some kind of resolution. The price is your mind and soul. If, like Boxer, you convince yourself that you are guilty of just about anything, then it’s no longer possible to choose the good or even to understand what it is. You labor away, but that gets you nowhere. You have only the comfort of thinking that you need to work harder.

To return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, which inspired this post: the careless use of “we”  confuses one’s relationship to the world–and, with that, one’s intellectual and artistic life. Among other things, it prevents one from criticizing anything except oneself, and strips even that of its integrity. (This last observation is mine, not Bromwich’s, but I build it from various arguments in the book.)

In the first chapter, Bromwich discusses a series of events at Yale Law School (drawing primarily on a report published in the New Republic by a law student, Jeff Rosen). In 1990, a white female law school student was raped by two black men in New Haven; soon afterward, ten black law students found hate mail in their mailboxes.

The dean of the law school issued a public memorandum stating that the letters pointed to the racism of the associated institutions. A newly formed Committee on Diversity called for a one-day boycott of classes and decided that the day should be devoted to sensitivity workshops run by the New York organization Project Reach. (Attendance, I take it, was voluntary but strongly encouraged.) The dean urged faculty members to take part.

There is more to these events and to Bromwich’s analysis than I am conveying here. But he points out that “the professional insulation of the academy, and the consequent weakening of good sense, alone lent plausibility to certain developments in the law school case.” The Diversity Committee, the dean, and the students (and participating faculty) chose to focus on the hateful action of an unidentified person, presumably white, who could be anyone and thus, in some twisted sense, was everyone. (Hence the sensitivity workshops.) In the meantime, Bromwich notes, there were real political battles being fought in the outside world: “David Duke and other racists of an admitted virulence were inching closer to power in contests for state or national office.” Instead of putting their efforts into fighting blatant racists, the students chose to go on a hunt for the invisible racist within the law school, the racist who resides in each of us. Among them, there was likely a Boxer who resolved to work harder.

Now, let’s look at this from another angle for a moment. There is (or can be) virtue in recognizing subtle wrongs in yourself, or the potential for wrongs. Most of us have felt hatred, anger, jealousy, prejudice, excessive admiration, misplaced desire, and more. Most of us have judged others unfairly at some time, or restrained ugly impulses. It is important to recognize these things. But it matters how we respond. Each of us is tasked with choosing what to do–that is, locating and acting on the good or the beautiful, or not, as the case may be. There is such a thing as transcending something petty or ugly. Faults and foibles are universal, but there is a vast difference between leaving hate mail in someone’s mailbox and not doing so (and not even considering it).

This brings me back to the word “we” (see an earlier piece). I am not confessing falsely when I say that I have used it in a slippery way. When criticizing a social, educational, or other tendency, I have sometimes softened the accusation by saying “we”–thereby implying that I, too, take part in the problem. And indeed sometimes I do. For instance, I find many online discussions distracting and dissipating but get involved in them anyway (not very often, of late). On the other hand, I am not on Facebook or Twitter, don’t do much Web surfing, rarely use a cell phone, and spend a lot of time reading books. This is a relatively trivial example, but it illustrates the point. If I see a problem with online and digital distractions, I do no one a favor by suggesting, beyond the point of truth, that the problem is mine.

It is difficult to find the right use of “we.” It is a worthy challenge. There’s more at stake than may appear at first.

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


Squaring the Circle

Since the summer, I have been obsessed with the problem of squaring the circle—that is, finding the square whose area is equal to that of a given circle, with no tools other than a straight edge and compass.

I took interest in the problem when reading the ending of Dante’s Paradiso (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):

 

 

As the geometer intently seeks
to square the circle, but he cannot reach,
through thought on thought, the principle he needs,

so I searched that strange sight; I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it—

and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already—like
a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

I, too, had difficulty reaching the principle—and it was precisely the principle that I needed to find. The difficulty lies in determining what the problem exactly is.

No one has found a way to square the circle with compass and straight edge alone; in fact, I believe it has been proved that it can’t be done. Yet I kept on trying, thinking that I would learn something from the attempt.

Yesterday morning, something close to a solution came to me—not a solution, mind you, but something that points in the direction of one. It’s probably old hat—or ancient hat—but it’s interesting, all the same.

We will consider the circle with radius r=1, since expanding or shrinking it (and the square) is then a trivial matter.

We know that if the circle has radius 1, its area is π. Thus, for a square to have that area, it must have sides of length √π. But how do you find length √π? There’s the puzzle.

When the square and circle have the same area, the ratio of the circle’s circumference to the square’s perimeter is a constant, 2π divided by 4√π ; that is, π/2 divided by √π; that is, √π/2.

In other words, the ratio of one-quarter of the circle’s circumference t0 one side of the square will always be √π/2 when the square and circle have the same area.

You could consider the ratio in terms of this figure:

|AO| is equal in length to the side of the square  (√π when the circle has radius 1); |OP| is one-quarter of the circle’s circumference (1/4 *  2π =  π/2), which you can measure with a string. (I know you’re only supposed to use a straight edge and compass, but this exception will prove helpful.)

Now, the ratio of |OP| to |AO| is equal to the ratio of|BC| to |AB|, where |BC| = √π = |AO|, and |AB| = 2. We already established this ratio a few paragraphs up.

(Again, the ratio of one-quarter of the circle’s circumference to the square’s side must be √π/2.)

So now the challenge is to tweak the figure until |AO|=|BC| (while keeping points A, P, and C on a single line and A, O, and B on a single line). When we get the two segments to equal length (without changing |OP| or |AB|), we have brought both |AO| and |BC| to √π. Now, you must do this by trial and error, by shifting the OP segment. If |BC| is greater than |AO|, then move OP closer to BC; if it is smaller than |AO|, then move OP closer to A. Your adjustments will be smaller and smaller until you either make |AO| and |BC| equal or come as close as you wish. The next step would be to find a mathematical way of doing this.

Once you have made |AO| and |BC| as close to equal as you wish, you then make AO the side of your square, which you superimpose on a circle of radius 1 (so that both have a common center). You will see that the square is mostly, but not entirely, contained within the circle. It will look like the first of the two figures above.

Although this is not a satisfactory solution, it results in a close approximation and seems to be on the right track.

Update (on a tangent, so to speak): The angle in the figure is the inverse tangent of √π/2, or 41.54822621257918513… Its common logarithm (1.6185524875…) is tantalizingly close to the golden ratio, but not close enough for the trumpets to sound.

Note: This is a reposting of a piece that originally appeared on October 19.

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