Belonging and Apartness in Intellectual Pursuit

Last Friday, Annie Murphy Paul wrote about how learners need a sense of intellectual belonging—how, if they feel excluded by (or inferior to) their peers and role models, their learning may be constricted. I would like to propose a complementary truth: that students also need room and strength to be apart. Just how apartness and belonging should be combined in education, I do not know; I doubt that there is a perfect formula. But both have an important place, and one can fortify the other.

Much depends, of course, on what one means by “belonging.” One kind of belonging might stimulate learning; the other might limit it. It is necessary, for instance, to belong to the work itself. You are more closely joined to your music if you practice it, and to a book if you read it. But that is not only essential kind of belonging. Any member of an educational institution should be treated as a true member. If a student is admitted to a college, then as far as the college is concerned, that student belongs there. It is not right to admit a word to the sentence and then put it in parentheses—especially if that word is a person, and the sentence is a school.

In addition, teachers and students should show appropriate collegiality. If, for instance, students meet in a study group, they should announce the time and location so that all those interested may attend. If faculty have traditions of doing certain things together, then they should make sure that all are invited.

But here the matter gets tricky. It is possible for a group to become cloying—for students and faculty to spend too much time together and consult each other on minute things. There can even be too much niceness, leaving no room for healthy friction. Or else the disagreements and antagonisms come up in gossip, where rumors rise up and jagged shadows rule.

To find yourself in an intellectual (or artistic) endeavor, you need to resist the immediate collegial pull. The person who goes to the library or spends time working on a theorem may have a stronger sense of belonging (to the field itself) than those who take their meals together, attend events together, and consult each other on every mental step. Far from depending on the latest whisper, she sets her mind on sturdier things.

To speak your mind without fear, you cannot be drowning in acceptance; you must know disapproval, even rejection. Those who expect the sympathetic nods of colleagues will be thrown off when their colleagues are not nodding or smiling; they will ask themselves “what did I do wrong?” (often a deadly question). Good ideas are not consistently popular; anyone with an independent mind will fall out of favor with the group at some point. There is no shame in this; it may be a sign that the person is finding his way.

Moreover, people are not always nice. Sometimes you end up in a class with a snarly professor and grade-grubbing classmates. Or you might find yourself in a setting where nothing is blatantly wrong, but something feels amiss—where you don’t feel exactly at ease, even though no one is rejecting you. What do you do? Go look for a more cordial place? You may find something amiss there, too. It’s good to learn to hold your own in such situations; they will come and go.

What about those you admire? Should they be within your reach? Annie Murphy Paul suggests that it can be damaging to choose role models whose accomplishments are far beyond yours. Choose people closer to your range, she advises. I am not at all sure of this. One can lose oneself in the work of an intensely admired person. For a stretch of time, comparisons disappear. When they reappear, so do ideas and yearnings. The student knows what to strive for, or grasps a part of it.

Yet certain kinds of belonging do make a difference in learning. It is painful to be ignored or rejected by peers and teachers. There are places where one feels in one’s element and thrives on account of this. Yet anyone who wishes to enter a field should prepare for a bit of loneliness in it—not too much, of course, but a bit. I do mean loneliness, not just aloneness or solitude. Comfort and company are not always present, nor would things be better if they were.

How does one find the right combination of apartness and collegiality? One knows it when one finds it, but it can also shift. As much as a person longs for an intellectual home, it is a contradiction in terms. Intellect requires some homesickness, some conception of absent things. It also needs conversation, rapport, encouragement—but not to the point where their absence seems a calamity. The loss of a friend is sad, sometimes terribly so; the loss of approval or applause, just part of one’s work.

Big Change Coming Down the Pike, District Leaders Say

Templeton, NY—At a convocation of 10,000 public school teachers, district officials announced that a big change was coming down the pike. “Don’t think for a second that you can keep on doing things the same old way as before,” said Chancellor Mike Peremena. “It didn’t work then, and it isn’t gonna work now. If you try to resist, you’ll get knocked flat on your butt, just wait and see.”

Asked by a teacher just what the change entailed, Peremena guffawed. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” he said. “Yeah, I bet you’d like to know. That way you can get busy obstructing it. All I can tell you is, there’s no way around it this time. You may think you’ve got a way out, but that’s your own delusion, which’ll burst before you know it. It’ll burst in your sleep. It’ll burst in the middle of your formal observation.”

“Does it have to do with the tests?” another teacher asked.

It always has to do with the tests,” he snapped, “but there’s much more to it. You can be sure of that. Don’t think for a second that you can get away with your Sudoku, your naps in the teachers’ lounge. There’ll be test prep, all right, but it won’t be easy. No more rocking chairs and Facebook and bubble gum.”

”What if we’ve been doing good work?” a voice from the back of the hall asked. “Why do we automatically have to change, if we’ve been teaching well?”

Peremena roared a long roar. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that line,” he said at last, wiping his nose. “Every single teacher thinks she’s God’s gift to the classroom, apparently. Well, look at the results. If you were all so special, would we see these dismal results?”

“No, but our school—”

“Your school nothing. Your school… Ask your principal about your school. If your principal says anything good about your school, just send ’em to me. We’ll fix the situation.”

At this point Deputy Chancellor Marcy Verandering stepped up to the podium. “Let’s give Mr. Peremena a big round of applause for being here today,” she said. “You’re a generous guy, Mike. You gave us your precious time. And now I’d like to finish off by clarifying a few details.” The room clicked into hush.

“Nobody here likes change,” she began. “Most of you will fight it tooth and nail. You’ll insist that your current practices are good and right. You’ll defend the status quo. But a special few of you will turn into change agents. You’ll give up your old ways. You’ll do whatever needs to be done for the kids. Let’s have no ambiguity here. The change agents are the heroes.”

A commotion had started up in the back of the room. People were exclaiming and whirling around. “Good God,” said Verandering, “what is going on here?”

In strode a tall, blond, young-looking man. He walked down the aisle and up the steps to the stage. He nudged Verandering aside, cleared his throat, and began.

“Thank you, Ms. Verandering,” he said, “for introducing the change. It was my idea, as you know, and I’m the one who funded it. As of this moment, you and Mr. Peremena are fired.”

“But I supported this change from the very start—”

“That’s the problem. If you think you support it, you aren’t really taking it in. This is the type of change that scares people out of their breeches. The true change agent admits to being scared.”

“But wait,” pleaded Verandering, clutching the rail of the steps. “Wasn’t it just a mandate about items to be posted on every classroom wall?”

“You’re clearly a change resister, because you snitched.”

“That wasn’t my—”

“That’s what they always say. You snitched. Goodbye.” To the audience: “Your walls must be updated by tomorrow. They must have a success symbol, a learning strategy, three graphic organizers, the Common Core standards, exemplary work from every student, and a class roster with test scores. And evidence of technology. All of this must be on the wall by 8 a.m.”

“But that’s nothing new,” an elderly teacher ventured.

“Of course it’s new! Who says it isn’t new? It’s new as new can get. You’re the one who isn’t new. Let’s see the new you. Let’s see how you take to change. We’ll come by your rooms tomorrow morning. You had better be ready and perfect. Your strongholds and defenses are gone. A big, huge change is coming down the pike! You had better embrace it before you sleep. Good night.”

“Goe, and catche a falling starre….”

The summer after eighth grade, I read most of a poetry anthology for my required summer reading. I was supposed to pick out a few favorites; I remember choosing John Donne’s “Song: Goe, and catche a falling starre.” I didn’t understand much of it, but it beguiled me. Today it is still one of my favorite poems, and it still beguiles me, though I understand it much better. I will comment a little on it now. This isn’t a thorough analysis, just a look at a few things that fascinate me.

Why not start with the most peculiar moment in the poem: the first four lines of the final stanza? The poem is presumably “about” the impossibility of finding a woman who is both “true, and faire.” But what a strange twist!

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet,

In other words, “If you find such a woman, let me know… then again, don’t bother to tell me; it isn’t worth your trouble or mine.” There’s something mischievous about this change of mind, and humorous, too, despite the bitters. What role does it play in the rest of the poem? Let’s look at the first stanza.

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
aaGet with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
aaOr who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
aaOr to keep off envies stinging,
aaaaAnd finde
aaaaWhat winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

Much has been said about the assemblage of images and suggestions here. They seem like a rather arbitrary collection of impossibilities, until one looks closer and sees how well orchestrated they are. Each impossibility is of a different kind: physical, sexual, philosophical, theological, mythological, emotional, or, finally, intellectual and spiritual. (These are rough characterizations; each impossibility holds more, of course.) The elusive last three lines, with their playfulness and prolonged trope, make one wonder what kind of “winde” is at stake. Is it a wind that propels sails? Is it false knowledge, false rumor? Is the implication that an honest mind needs something other than wind for advancement (something more substantial), or is it that an honest mind cannot advance, because of the ways of the world?

The second stanza seems to answer the implicit question: it proposes that someone “borne to strange sights” take a voyage until old age and then return with a verdict.

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
aaThings invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
aaTill age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell mee
All strange wonders that befell thee,
aaaaAnd sweare
aaaaNo where
Lives a woman true, and faire.

This voyage appears as a complement to the impossible marvels of the first stanza. The traveler may “ride ten thousand daies and nights,” see “strange wonders,” and yet come back with snow-white hairs to tell of nothing: there is no “true and faire” woman to be found. The parallel with the “winde” and the “honest minde” of the first stanza suggests that the travel itself will bring no advancement of mind. In other words, the juxtaposition of “And finde / What winde / Serves to advance an honest minde” with “And sweare / No where / Lives a woman true, and faire” leads one to associate the “winde” with the travel, and the speaker’s own “honest minde” with the outcome. The “honest minde” cannot move forward because there is nothing simultaneously enticing and trustworthy–in particular, no woman with both beauty and truth.

Or is something else keeping the “honest minde” in its place? Now we come to those four lines that I quoted at the outset. Is it possible that the world-weary mind keeps itself from advancing–because as soon as it considers a possibility, it turns back on itself? Is this gesture “Yet doe not” the crux of the poem?

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet.

It seems so, as the speaker sees through the illusion that deceives the traveler (and for that reason, he won’t even go next door). The traveler may think he has found a woman “true, and faire”–but the speaker knows better.

Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
aaaaYet shee
aaaaWill bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Look at the play of “true” and “false” and the numbers one, two, three (and the implicit zero). There’s also a hidden “first” in the combination of “last” and “false”; so one can also hear “first, next, last” in jumbled order (though “last” appears here in the sense of “endure”). This, and the play of true and false in this and the previous stanza, gives a sense of card-and-number tricks (not entirely unlike those in Alexander Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades“).

What does all of this mean? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the “honest minde” isn’t honest at all–that its act of turning back on itself is a sign of falsity. That doesn’t seem to be Donne’s intent, nor would I go so far beyond his intent. No, this mind is honest but reduced to itself, set against the falsity of woman (and, in a larger sense, the world and its wonders). It need not venture out; after all, if it does, it knows what it will find. Still it conveys this in an adventurous way.

The implicit conundrum is this: to advance, a mind must be somewhat naive, for the mind that considers things rightly has already made its voyages. Yet it goes ahead and sings of them, thus voyaging anyway.

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

Literature Courses and the Common Core

Will the Common Core State Standards push schools to emphasize “informational” over literary text, even in English class? Many educators worry that they will. The CCSS document states that, by grade 12, the proportion of informational to literary text in the curriculum should be 70 to 30—just like the ratio in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework. Granted, this ratio applies to the entire curriculum, not specifically to English Language Arts. Yet English teachers in many districts have been told to include more “informational text” in their courses.

Carol Jago’s piece “What English Classes Should Look Like in the Common Core Era” (The Answer Sheet, Washington Post, January 10, 2013) offers a refreshing view of the matter. She begins by clarifying this matter of “informational text.” No, English teachers are not supposed to stop teaching poetry, drama, or fiction. Instead, they should teach more of all of this, as well as literary nonfiction; students should get used to reading a lot. They should read attentively at home, so that they can take part in lively class discussion:

To reverse this trend [toward heavy entertainment media use in place of reading--DS] we need to make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day. They need to be spaces where anyone who didn’t do the homework reading feels left out. … I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.

In addition, according to Jago, students should read history books and write research papers for history class. They should not only become adept at reading different kinds of texts, but also come to understand why these texts are worth reading.

I applaud these ideas, yet I have some qualms as well. First, if the point is to introduce students to compelling literature, then shouldn’t curriculum and courses take precedence over standards? A curriculum specifies the actual literature; standards do not. A curriculum need not be uniform across schools, districts, and states—but it holds more meaning and coherence than generic standards do.

One standard reads: “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.” That is fine and well—but it matters a great deal what the text is. Ambiguities and uncertainties in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge are quite different from those in James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” yet here they are treated as one and the same. A student’s “growth” in relation to this standard could be uneven, yet he might be learning a great deal.

Second, the standards bring a spate of new assessments that we have not yet seen or tried. What happens if the tests conflict with good curricula? Will teachers come under pressure to defer to the tests? Will the technology companies start hawking software that supposedly helps students boost their scores? Will teachers be expected to use it? Teachers are understantably anxious about the new assessments; much will ride on them, yet we do not know to what degree they will reflect the contents of a literature or history course. The sample test items available for scrutiny (for example, a “task” regarding Ovid’s “Daedalus and Icarus,” from his Metamorphoses) offer little if any assurance; the Ovid passage is full of meaning and suggestion, yet the multiple-choice question does it poor justice.

Third, how will schools foster the sort of environment that Jago envisions (and that I support), where students come to class eager to discuss the texts? Many students will do this right away. Others will resist at first but will eventually come around. Still others will resist for a long time—maybe all the way through school. Jago suggests that the students who come to class unprepared, or unwilling to participate, will recognize that they have excluded themselves from something exciting. This is possible when the course has integrity: when the works selected for the course are inherently compelling and combine in an interesting way, when the teacher takes students into these works with verve and care, and when neither the standards nor the assessments distract from the  daily practice of delving into the texts. Students must care about more than their grade and test score; they must take interest in what they are learning, or at least glimpse something of importance in it.

In essence, Jago is talking about cultivating an intellectual environment. This comes when the teachers’ and students’ attention is not continually deflected toward peripheral things. It matters much more what John Stuart Mill says about the danger of squelching unpopular views, than how much On Liberty counts toward the “informational text” ratio, or even (after a certain point) the “growth” that students supposedly show or do not show on a test of reading skills. Of course students should be learning things that are testable (as well as things that are not), but will these tests capture what they have learned in a good class? If not, will we all be expected to set aside our better judgment and bow to the test?

Standards, too, can distract when held up too high. What standard can hold a candle to the following passage from Mill? What standard approximates a discussion of it?

But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?

The answer: none. Standards can serve as reminders and gauges; they can help us see areas of excess or deficiency. But the substance of the courses must come first; students should be reading a given work not because it meets grade-band complexity criteria, not because it is “informational text,” not (primarily) because the reading of it will help them address standards X, Y, and Z, but because it is worth reading and pondering, and because this reading and pondering will help them think on their own. Any standards, any tests should be subordinate to this principle; the Common Core can help direct our efforts but is not our ultimate guide.

District Implements New Showdown Curriculum

stradanoPlutus, MD—In order to prepare students for an increasingly noisy, polarized, and confrontational world, the Plutus Independent School District has implemented a curriculum in Shouting and Showdown. “Research has shown that an alarming number of students aren’t able to hold their own in a room full of vociferous people,” said Superintendent Alma Grom. “We are obligated to prepare them to do just that.”

The first component of the program, “Turn and Talk,” is already familiar to most educators. “Students should not be sitting passively during a lesson,” said Grom. “Every few minutes, they should be required to get into quick dialogue with their neighbors. Research has shown that they retain more this way. There are other benefits too: first of all, they get used to a buzzing atmosphere in the room, and second, they realize that their teachers are supposed to keep them active. Any teacher who asks them to listen to something for more than three minutes is committing a deep injustice against them. It’s essential that they know that.”

The second component, “Group Alignment,” involves having students choose a platform and group in each subject—and, preferably, across the subjects. “In this world, you can’t get anywhere if you aren’t aligned with a group,” Local Instructional Superintendent Giselle Dutard explained. “Alone, you’re nobody. What’s more, a political stance gives students an inroad into the academics and even a career.” In math class, for instances, students could join the Abstractionists or the Practicalists. They would have opportunities in each lesson to argue with the other side. “It really fascinates me how much of this high-level subject matter really comes down to social and political issues,” said Dutard. “It’s great that the children are getting a head start.”

After selecting their group, students would adopt and learn a set of “Talking Points,” the program’s third component. “In this kind of scenario, there’s no mixing and matching,” said Sylvia Derecha, a high school student. “Once you’ve picked your group, you’ve got to accept the platform. If you don’t, you’re shirking your responsibilities.” In a ninth-grade English class, for instance, if you choose the “Social Context” group, then you automatically agree with the following platform:

  1. All literature is based on a social context.
  2. All literature comments politically on that social context.
  3. Literature that comments correctly is good; literature that comments incorrectly is bad.
  4. The only correct literature and commentary is that which supports social justice.
  5. Literature instruction that downplays social justice is automatically elitist.
  6. Students should never have to bear with elitist instruction, as it is an insult to their very personhood.
  7. Anyone who disagrees with the above points is on the enemy’s side.

The platform of the “Aesthetic Primacy” group is equally uncompromising:

  1. Literature is entirely independent of social context; it creates its own world.
  2. Literature should never be taken as political commentary.
  3. Literature can be evaluated and interpreted only for its aesthetic qualities.
  4. The only valuable literary criticism focuses exclusively on the aesthetic qualities of the text.
  5. Literature instruction that downplays aesthetic qualities is social propaganda.
  6. Students should never be subjected to social propaganda, as it is an insult to their very personhood.
  7. Anyone who disagrees with the above points is on the enemy’s side.

Students begin by memorizing the Talking Points. Once they are confident that they know them, they put them in their own words and give them their own creative touches, sometimes dancing to them or putting them in multimedia slideshows.

Still, the Talking Points are nothing, said Grom, unless students get to say them loud and clear. “Every classroom in every school has ‘Shoutdown Friday’ about the very lessons that the students have been learning,” she told us. “That’s the final piece of the puzzle. The kids get to argue with their opposing teams, and boy does it get lively. What motivation! What real-world preparation! It gives me the shivers just to think about it.”

Not all students are thrilled with the new curriculum. “Sometimes I like to sit quietly and think,” said Bernice Bloom, a seventh grader. “I don’t get to do that any more.”

“A lot of students are still clinging to passive activity,” Dutard responded, when we relayed the student’s comments. “Of course they would like to sit and think. It’s easy. They don’t have to do anything. Unfortunately, too many teachers have been encouraging this kind of passivity. We’re changing all of that. Some teachers and students are resisting, but they’ll come around.”

Another student, Julian Mill, said that he didn’t agree fully with any of the platforms and didn’t see why he should.

“It’s survival,” said Dutard. “Out in the real world, if you don’t agree with a platform, you’re basically unequipped. People look you up and down and think, ‘Well, I can’t make sense of what he’s saying, so it isn’t worth listening to.’ Or else they figure you’re an enemy agent, trying to sow confusion.” But there was more to it still. “The platforms come from the consensus of the team,” she said, “so they’re obviously grounded in something. If you reject them, chances are you aren’t team-based; you’re just living in your own head.”

“The best life skill,” shouted Grom from the stage during a district convocation, “is the skill to say, ‘I’m right, and here’s the evidence.’ In today’s world, the team is the evidence. Let’s hear it for the power of the team! [Applause.] Our kids are getting it. Look at what they can do.” She pointed to a video of children arguing in an economics class. One group was yelling, “Spending is bad!” The other group countered, “No, hoarding is bad!” Then they clustered in teams over their bullet points to determine what to shout next.

Image credit: Giovanni Stradano, “Avari e prodighi” (1587).

“Through hollow lands and hilly lands….”

aengus2I met Aengus (then Thomas) last Thursday. At first he shrank away from me; I saw that he had only one eye. But when I put my hand inside the cage and began to stroke him, he cuddled up to my hand and purred, and rolled and purred some more.

I knew that I would give him a home, if someone else didn’t do so first; I spoke with the staff at Sean Casey Animal Rescue and explained that I couldn’t come back until Saturday but would come back then. When I returned on Saturday, I heard Aengus’s story. I may have a minor detail or two wrong, but most of this is correct.

Two months ago or more, he was hit by a car (at least it seems that was what happened). His right jaw, palate, and right eye were smashed, but he survived. Because he was feral, he wouldn’t let anyone near him, apparently. It was only after he had become weak and emaciated that someone found him curled up in a flower pot and took him to the animal rescue center.

The rescue staff took him to the veterinarian, who saw that he was too weak for surgery. So the veterinary staff force-fed him and gave him antibiotics until he was strong enough for the medical work (this took several weeks). It was a precarious situation: his injured eye had become severely infected, and his other eye was on the verge of infection.

At last he was ready; the vet removed the injured eye, performed surgery on the jaw, and reconstructed the palate. During his recovery at the veterinary hospital and back at the shelter, he became gentle and affectionate. Many people grew fond of him; I had a strange knowledge, as I took him home, that I was responsible not only toward him, but toward those who had saved his life and spent time with him day after day.

minnaloushe2I named him Aengus after the Yeats poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” My other cat, Minnaloushe, is named after the cat in his poem “The Cat and the Moon.” (My Minnaloushe is female; the cat in the poem is male.)

During this time, I was finishing George Kateb’s wonderful book Human Dignity and thinking about his acknowledgment of tensions: in particular, the tension between humans’ capacity to act as stewards of nature and their massive failure to do so. Aengus’s being reflects these two sides: he was almost killed by a human, and yet he lives and purrs, thanks to the dedication of the rescue staff, vet, and visitors.

To keep Minnaloushe and Aengus separate for the time being (except for now and then), and to make sure each one gets what he or she needs, I have worked out a complex system. At night, I have Minnaloushe in my bedroom, with door closed; Aengus gets to roam the apartment. When I am out of the house, or when Aengus is eating, Aengus stays in the study, with door closed, and Minnaloushe stays anywhere else. When I am home and not sleeping, and Aengus is not eating, I keep him in the study but leave the door ajar. Minnaloushe comes in now and then and rolls over on the floor. She stays about three feet away from him but seems relaxed at that distance. If she gets testy, I take her out of the room and play with her a bit. Tomorrow I return to teaching, so Aengus will stay alone in the study all day long (with food, water, and litter, of course).

Sometimes Aengus gives me a probing stare with his one eye. Often he rolls over and invites me to scratch his belly. Minnaloushe does similar things. She plays, and he doesn’t yet, but today he batted at a toy (once) for the first time.

This is a departure from my usual pieces about education, but it’s a worthy aberration. Long live Aengus and Minnaloushe, and Happy New Year to them and to you.


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