“And comes that other fall we name the fall”

What can I say about my professor John Hollander, who died on Saturday?

He was a brilliant teacher and poet, and he was kind to me.

I thought of commenting on Robert Frost’s sonnet “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” which I hear in Hollander’s voice, as he recited it. But that would invite the wrong meanings–something about his “oversound” and how “probably it never would be lost.” No, that won’t do.

“The Oven-Bird” and Hollander’s commentary are a different matter. They fit the day precisely by not fitting. The mismatch makes good angles in the mind.

Still, I don’t want to comment on either one right now. I’ll let them stand as they are.

I have tried in the past to describe his teaching; I don’t think I achieved an approximation. There was no one like him at the time, and there are fewer now.

To Promote College Readiness, Congress Abolishes Speeches

talkAfter hours of snappy debate, both houses of Congress approved a bill that will forever prohibit speeches, monologues, lectures, books on tape, and other forms of communication in which a single person speaks for more than two minutes at a time.

“We are up against a crisis of epic proportions,” said Representative Frank Megalogos, D-MI. “Today’s graduating seniors are woefully unprepared for any sort of college or career, and why? The reason is simple. They have not been cognitively engaged. Someone has been talking at them, all these years, and they have just been sitting back. This has got to change, folks!” He looked at his watch and halted.

“Now, turn and talk to your neighbor about what I just said!” he shouted. “Come on, I want to hear voices! Talk, talk, talk!” The people in the room dutifully generated a buzz.

According to members of Congress, the key factor in student success is teacher quality, which essentially amounts to teacher disappearance. “Effective teachers are so good, you barely notice them,” said Senator Maria Vidrio. “You never hear them speaking. You never see them at the front of the room. They make the students do the bulk of the work, which means the students are twice as cognitively engaged as they would otherwise be.  A great teacher doesn’t even have to know much about the subject, because it isn’t her knowledge that matters. What good is a whole bunch of knowledge, if the kids just take it in passively?” Aware that she might have gone on too long, Vidrio caught herself and yelled full force, “Now, turn and talk! Turn and talk!”

Asked how a ban on speeches could possibly be compatible with the First Amendment, Megalogos let out a long, bitter laugh. “The very question proves the sad state of American cognitive development,” he answered. “There is a world of difference between freedom of speech and freedom to deliver a speech. People can still say whatever they want. They just have to keep it short. This shouldn’t be startling. The same rule applies everywhere. It’s what people want. Even my best friends expect me to keep my emails to a sentence or less. Some of my family members don’t want to hear from me at all.”

What was to be done about existing plays, recordings, and other works in which someone speaks at length? “Obviously, we’re not going to get rid of classic films like A Free Soul,” said Representative Murgatroyd Barrymore, who denies any relation to the actor Lionel Barrymore, who gave an outrageously long monologue in the film. “Instead, we’ll re-edit them with frequent commercial and activity breaks. That way, American consumers can continue to enjoy these old greats while benefiting from maximum cognitive engagement.”

What about religious services? “No one is exempt,” Barrymore replied. “Every single religious ritual out there has got to break it up. No more sermons of any kind. No more long prayers, long songs, long anything.”

Isn’t listening a form of cognitive engagement? “No, not at all,” replied Vidrio, who had been turning and talking for a good portion of our interview. “Listening is just plain zero-like. Sometimes we’ve got to do a little of it, but the less of it the better. We’re only cognitively engaged when we’re doing something. Research has shown that we learn the most when teaching others, especially in a noisy room.”

Not everyone shares the majority’s enthusiasm over this new bill. “I hate noisy classes,” said Wilky Roman, a high school senior in Wichita, Kansas. “I can’t think when everyone’s talking at once. I have to take a bathroom break, just to get my thoughts together, and then I get in trouble for taking so many breaks.”

“The kid is just making excuses,” said Megalogos. “Anyone who needs time alone is just being lazy. We’re in a fast-paced collaborative world, and if you don’t like it, the best thing you can do is change. Bring yourself up to speed. Give in to the noise.”

According to underground reports, a number of rebels have gathered in the Shenandoah Caverns to indulge in the outlawed practice of listening. Speakers, actors, and musicians will perform; discussion will follow. The schedule is booked for the next five years but may lead to multiple arrests.

Grand Opening: Common Core Hardware Store!

toolboxIn response to the overwhelming demand for “tools” that “unpack” the Common Core State Standards, two enterprising educators have announced the soon-to-open Common Core Hardware Store in Brooklyn. The store will celebrate its grand opening on Monday, August 19, just in time for teachers, administrators, parents, and students to purchase the tools they desperately need for raising test scores over the coming year. Additional branches will follow.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time,” said Marcy Plinth, one of the two founders. “One day, at sunrise, I was hammering a nail into a wall. I began thinking, ‘What if I were reading an informational text about how to hammer a nail into a wall? Wouldn’t that take a lot longer than just nailing the thing?’ Then kerbling—the idea for a tool came to me. I called my buddy Joe Rosette right away. He said, ‘Why stop with a tool? Why not have a store?’ So we went for it. Don’t let anyone else tell you that they’ve got tools, because ours are the only ones you can actually feel and hold.”

These tools resemble regular hardware tools, with a few key differences.

The CC Hammer weighs twice as much as a regular hammer. Its purpose is to make a loud and sudden sound in the event of non-alignment. A principal or coach should carry one into every classroom. “Initially you can expect a lot of banging in a school,” said Plinth, “but that should die down, once the classrooms get aligned with you-know-what.”

The CC Wrench looks like a regular stainless steel wrench but is actually a teacher evaluation tool. “This is for obstructionists—you know, status quo types—who are trying to throw a wrench in the system,” said Rosette. “We say, ‘go ahead, have a wrench, give it a throw.’ Then it automatically rates them ineffective and tweets the info to all the major news outlets.”

The CC Power Drill is designed to drill students in critical thinking. When you turn it on, it initially makes a whirring noise, but as it warms up, it starts to emit phrases: for instance, “I am justifying my point with the following textual evidence,” “Although you make a valid claim, you have not addressed my second counterclaim,” and so on. Dentists, cabinet-makers, sergeants, and low-inferencers are all encouraged to use this drill, so that the entire American public can align with its mental processes.

The CC Plumb Bob measures the depth and complexity of a text to the nearest one-thousandth of a fathom. “You won’t get anything more accurate than that,” said an advertiser who requested anonymity. “We’ve got The Tempest at 5.143 fathoms, Antigone at 2.112, and A Guide to Indoor Plumbing at 8.003. Why, I just sold the plumbing book to three districts after they tried this tool.”

What about math? The CC Bucket helps you draw circles—not any old circles, but circles in service of the Common Core Standards. “We’ve got different ones, actually, for different standards,” explained Plinth. “This one over here is for HSG-GPE.A.1: ‘Derive the equation of a circle of given center and radius using the Pythagorean Theorem; complete the square to find the center and radius of a circle given by an equation.’”

Why use a bucket for that? “Well, it says ‘a circle of given center and radius,’ and we’ve given you the center and radius,” she explained, pointing to a dot and line on the bucket’s base.

As for tools that “unpack” the standards, Plinth and Rosette have commissioned Jack the Unpacker: A CC Robot. “You give Jack the standards in the form of a suitcase with a latch,” said Herb Blink, one of the lead engineers, “and he unpacks them before your eyes. Before long, you’ve learned how to do it yourself.” (A matching Unpac-Man game is supposedly in the works.)

While pre-orders for the individual tools have been trickling in, no item has attracted as much attention as the CC Toolbox. “With the CC Toolbox, you’ve got everything right there,” gushed an excited pre-customer, who plans to spend the night outside the store before the grand opening. “I mean, I’ve got to have a toolbox to carry around. It makes me feel successful.” Child-size and Barbie-size toolboxes will soon become available, according to industry rumors.

The first 100 customers to arrive at Common Core Hardware will receive a free CC Magnifying Glass, an indispensable tool for anything that requires close reading or exaggeration.

Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations—or, if she does, she is to keep them brief. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are constantly oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.

Free Will and Education Reform

George Henry Hall: The PomegranateThe question of free will bursts into question upon question. What does it mean to have free will? To what degree do we exercise it? How can we know? For all the swarms of ideas on the subject, there seems to be agreement—among philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and others—that whatever freedom we might have, we do not control other people or the outcomes of our actions (and if we could, it would be unwise). What a refreshing thought—and what a far cry from today’s education reform, which insists on our ability to control others’ results!

Literature from ancient Greek drama to contemporary psychology warns about illusions of control. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (in Robert Fagles’ translation), the Chorus sings, “And neither by singeing flesh / nor tipping cups of wine / nor shedding burning tears can you / enchant away the rigid Fury.” Rabbi Hanina states in the Gemara of Berachot (33b) of the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (There are numerous interpretations  of this statement.) In recent centuries, literary, philosophical, psychological, religious, and sociological writings have emphasized the futility (or danger) of trying to control others.

Yet much of education reform assumes we can and should control others–in particular, their measurable achievement. This assumption is profoundly wrong. To rate teachers on their students’ test performance is to distort the educational endeavor. Teachers influence students (and their influence is great); they do not cause students to do well or poorly. (It’s one thing to analyze the results; it’s another to convert them by formula into a rating.)

“Very well,” someone might respond, “so you’ve admitted that teachers influence students. Are you saying this influence doesn’t matter?” Of course it matters; it gives meaning to the work and helps teachers heed the alarm clock in the mornings. Still, whenever the student steps out to do something—take a test, give a presentation, or read further on the subject—this is the student’s action, not the teacher’s. The student has the credit and the dignity (or should).

“In that case, teachers might as well throw up their hands,” another might say. “If they aren’t held accountable for results, why should they bother trying?”

When you think you might influence (but not control) your students, there is all the more reason to try. You get to share in something that is not your own, something that goes beyond you. When a student does well, you have the honor of contributing to it in some way; when a student does poorly or runs into difficulties, you have sorrow and the self-questioning. Honor and sorrow and self-questioning and responsibility inspire me a great deal more than the publication of teachers’ “value-added ratings” in the newspaper.

It is not just that they inspire me more; it’s that they serve as better guides. I don’t know, and have no way of knowing, how great my influence will be or what form it will take (beyond concrete and immediate learning). That is all the more reason to put thought and effort into my lessons: I am participating in something partly knowable, partly mysterious, but in any case larger than myself. If I had wanted a predictable effect on things, I would have become a chocolatier, a producer of delight and cavities. Even then, my results would not have been uniform.

Yes, of course I want concrete learning to come out of my lessons; of course I want to see evidence of it. Even so, I do not make it happen, nor do I set its limits. Even less do I control what comes out of that learning.

Many economists would disagree. A 2011 study (by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff) concludes that teachers affect not only students’ performance on tests, but also their college attendance and future earnings.  Granted, they say “affect,” not “cause,” but then they extrapolate: “Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

I think of D. H. Lawrence’s  “Pomegranate”: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?”

I respect these scholars and acknowledge the care that went into the study. Still, its projections assume minimal variation among students, little that could interfere with their earnings, and little room for them to choose their directions in life. Presumably, if teachers could “increase” students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 (a projection based on limited data), then we could boost the economy just by replacing the low-ranking teachers. We could replace our way to a better world.

But what if the students’ lifetime income didn’t increase as expected? What if these students faced layoffs, job changes, and life difficulties, or chose professions that didn’t pay especially well? What could one replace then, for better outcomes? Perhaps one could give each of their choices a value-added rating (in terms of how much income it produced) and demand that they make lucrative life choices. Someone would have to chase after them and make sure they did so.

What if illness and war and death got in the way? Well, one would have to replace those students who got sick or died, or who grieved the death of others. No room for mortality (or aging) in the picture, especially if it interferes with earnings.

We are left, then, with those select few who don’t age, fall ill, or die—and who, without fail, take actions that bring them more money.

We are down to no one—but there, in that world of none, we have attained prosperity!

Happy are those who do not inhabit that world.

The “Old Verities” and the Lamentation Sprawl

In his prize acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in 1950, William Faulkner spoke of a pervasive fear that was taking hold of writers and reducing them to mediocrity: a fear of being blown up in nuclear war. Consumed by this, writers were forgetting “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” the only things worth writing about. He continued:

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

We live today not under the immediate threat of nuclear war, but under other threats, in particular the threat of spiritual and intellectual sprawl. Our intentions, desires, efforts, loves, treasures have no special time and place; they get spread out throughout the day and night and year. Supposedly, the more we get done (no matter what the time), the better. It is as though there were no more seasons. It is common to answer a work-related email at 11 p.m. In fact, one receives kudos for making oneself available around the clock. One grows addicted, even, to the illusion of availability: it’s exhausting but somehow satisfying too. If I am available all the time, then so are others, or so it seems for a while.

In this sprawl of unending availability and accessibility, it’s difficult to make anything matter. Things get flattened because they’re “always there”—and when you look around, they seem to be nowhere. With respect to the classroom, one hears the refrain that students don’t need to learn things because they can “always” look them up. Not only is this false—one must have a store of working knowledge in order to make sense of texts, etc.—but it robs us of a sense of treasure. When I memorize a poem (or even the conjugation of a verb), I am taking time with it and giving it a place in my mind. I “produce” something—ultimately, the recitation of the poem, and a greater understanding of it—but I hold something as well.

Today we are caught up in production without treasuring and holding.

To stop treasuring things is to stop grieving them, to take up residence in a lamentation sprawl. You can’t grieve what you have never missed. This is why Faulkner says of the writer, “Until he [commits himself to the old verities], he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

What does it take to gather oneself up from this sprawl, in education and in our lives? How does one honor the “old verities”? This may take, among other things, a willingness to set certain activities and roles apart from others, certain times and seasons apart from others, certain works, certain people apart from others. Leon Wieseltier writes in Kaddish:

In Chicago: Kaddish on the road. A lovely little shul near the lake, with the separation of the women from the men cleverly accomplished by a row of plants. I say the kaddish and stroll along the silver shore. I am delighted to have done my duty. Tonight the fulfillment of my obligation does not oppress me. It refreshes me. It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.

“Doing one’s duty” is not the same as caving in to every demand that comes your way, or pursuing any particular work without pause. It is different from that; it involves refraining from work just as it involves working; it involves refraining from giving to others just as it involves giving. It involves giving dignity to things.

What does it mean to “do one’s duty” in education? It means to devote oneself, in a structured way, to things that matter—and having the courage to say that they matter. A curriculum should not just consist of “complex” texts; who cares how complex a text is, if it has no beauty or importance? No, a school should dare to teach what is beautiful and important, even if there is disagreement over the selections, and even if the selections change over time.

Beyond that, “doing one’s duty” involves a sense of humanity. In the classroom, we approach the “old verities” obliquely, through the subject matter—but we also encounter them directly, in subtle ways. It takes courage, for instance, to show interest in a subject when others do not; it takes honor to make good judgments about the direction of a discussion. In all of these things we are fallible; that’s where compassion and pity come into play. The “old verities” surround and fill us all the time; we need only be alert to them.

The greatest threat to the “old verities” is a crass version of utilitarianism: an insistent focus on results, usually short-term results that can be assessed quickly by an outsider. Results are important (sometimes immensely so), but it matters what they are and what they mean. One must continually choose from an array of actions, each carrying possible results. These are choices of conscience, even soul; without a sense of conscience, soul, or something worth holding up, one ends up without choices, as they all seem more or less on a level, without height, texture, or abyss.

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