Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. My writing was influenced by it. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book still has great meaning for me; I have brought in passages to my students over the years. (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, and details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?”

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything, but I found the conversation puzzling. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t accept: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal of the meaning. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with their instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was amiss. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text. The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself.

Yet if people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further in a variety of ways.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of culture. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

CONTRARIWISE and the Humanities

CONTRARIWISE appears in a video by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture! The video–about the future of the humanities–features interviews with three Hiett Prize winners: Mark Oppenheimer, James E. McWilliams, and myself. A lovely segment is devoted to CONTRARIWISE. There are also some glimpses of the Summer Institute in action. Thanks to the Dallas Institute and the producer, Judy Kelly, and congratulations to all involved!

Dylan Thomas and Deuteronomy

I have been thinking that Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” may have echoes of Deuteronomy. If I am not imagining things, these echoes affect the meaning of the last line, “After the first death, there is no other.”

In particular, the last line draws on the possible meanings of Deuteronomy 4:39, in the Dhouay-Rheims translation, “Know therefore this day, and think in thy heart that the Lord he is God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath, and there is no other.” In Hebrew, the final phrase, “there is no other,” consists of two words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. The meanings of this phrase could easily make a book.

But let us backtrack. What is going on in this poem? The syntax may be puzzling at first, but then it comes clear: its  main clause (“Never … shall I let pray the shadow of a sound…”) envelops a long subordinate clause “until the mankind making…”

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

The subordinate clause is about the end of the world, where God “tells with silence the last light breaking” etc., and the speaker must again cross into the Promised Land, “the round / Zion of the water bead / And the synagogue of the ear of corn.”

The main clause is about the refusal to mourn: “Never … Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound / Or sow my salt seed / In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn / The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his last speeches to the Israelites, who are to enter the Promised Land without him. He reminds them of their history and of the commandments, warns them against idolatry, promises them restoration if they repent, and dies at the end of the book.

Thomas’s poem continues:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

This reference to blasphemy echoes Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 4:15: “Keep therefore your souls carefully. You saw not any similitude in the day that the Lord God spoke to you in Horeb from the midst of the fire.” And then in verses 16-19:

16 Lest perhaps being deceived you might make you a graven similitude, or image of male or female,
17 The similitude of any beasts, that are upon the earth, or of birds, that fly under heaven, 
18 Or of creeping things, that move on the earth, or of fishes, that abide in the waters under the earth: 

19 Lest perhaps lifting up thy eyes to heaven, thou see the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven, and being deceived by error thou adore and serve them, which the Lord thy God created for the service of all the nations, that are under heaven.

To mourn anyone other than the first is similar to serving anyone other than God; but why is this, and who is the first? It could be the first of all mortals, but it could also be that first death, that first profound loss, that any of us encounters in our life. Not the first that we see, necessarily, but rather the first that we know. It may be “sorrow’s springs” in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.”

Why is that first loss sacred? It is the ancestor; every other loss joins it. The lineage is in the brilliant lines, “Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,”

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,

To mourn a later loss–as though it were the first–is to prop up a false god, to become vulgar, to kill. It is blasphemy and bad poetry. The true mourning lies in the respect.

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Then we arrive at the last three lines (which follow “the dark veins of her mother”):

Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Like the inscrutable God, the first death holds all death; nothing can compare to it.

What does this mean? I have only skated over the surface–but the last line seems to echo two verses of Deuteronomy: 4:39 (quoted earlier) and 34:10, “And there arose no more a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face….”

Back to the two Hebrew words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. They can mean “There is no other” or “There is nothing else.” In Deuteronomy, they describe God: there is no other God, or everything is God. (There is also a sense in which it applies to Moses; as 34:10 makes clear, there never would be another.) In the poem, the meaning is also double, triple, or more: there is no other death comparable to the first, and that death is all of humanity.

Or, even more simply: a loss is incomparable and unredeemable; it is the first because it has no copies, and in that sense it is also the last. It is and can only be “deep with the first dead.”

Any death at all, any death taken to heart, is the first. No death after it is death. There is hope in this–after all, death comes only once–but there is also unmitigable grief. The first is the only one, and there is nothing beside it.

But joy is in here too, in the singularity. I refuse to mourn a girl crassly, I refuse the pomp of multiple elegies–because there is only one death, and with it only one mourning.

Note: If there is a previous analysis of a relation between this poem and Deuteronomy, I would be interested in reading it.

“I Contemplate a Tree”

buber tree 2On Wednesday I took two of my classes across the street to Morningside Park in order to look at trees. We had been reading the tree passage in Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which begins with the declaration, “I contemplate a tree.” The speaker first accepts the tree as a picture, “a rigid pillar in a flood of light,” then feels its movement, then observes it as a species, then perceives it as an expression of physical and chemical laws, and then “dissolves” it into a number. “Throughout all of this,” he writes, ” “the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.”

Then comes a shift: “But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.”

I told my students that we could not replicate what Buber described in the passage–that the sheer effort to replicate it would defeat  the purpose. I asked them nonetheless to pay attention to what happened.

It was imperfect, of course, because we had little time and had to stay together. One or two students moved a little apart from the group; others clustered together and moved close to the tree of their choice. I saw them fingering the needles, observing the crinkles of the bark, noticing a long worm on the ground.

I had to keep an eye on everyone and everything, so I could not focus on a tree–but as I looked around, I was struck by each tree’s insistent form. Some were bare and gnarled; others showered you with color. Some had leaves falling from them as we watched; others stood warm and firm with their needles and cones. Some had berries or nuts; others, nothing but trunk and branches. Yet these had more than appeared at first glance. You could follow the lines in their bark as though listening to a story.

For my students, too, this was imperfect. Street noises and other distractions made it difficult for them to focus. All the same, they appreciated taking a few minutes to look at a tree; it was something they didn’t get to do very often.

On the way back to school, I thought of taking a picture of one of the trees. It seemed to go against the spirit of our outing, so I didn’t. Later in the day, I returned and took a shot. This set off a stream of thoughts about the nature of pictures and other mementos.

When you take a picture of something, you are turning it into a possession of sorts–something you “have” and can pull out at will. In one discussion of Buber, a student spoke of the satisfaction of Polaroid cameras–of seeing that tangible object emerge from the camera soon after the photo is taken. So, in the taking of a photo, there is some wish or effort to possess what is not really yours–to claim what cannot be claimed, to hold what cannot be held.

Yet it is also possible, when taking or looking at a photograph, to see it as a hint of something else–not as an object or possession, but as a reminder of something not possessed or contained. (Much of the early controversy over religious icons had to do with these different ways of regarding a picture.)

There is still a third possibility: the photograph can be a work of art and can take on its own life and limitlessness. It is then no longer merely a representation of something else. Buber writes about the creation of art:

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the “internal” things, not as a figment of the “imagination,” but as what is present. Tested for its objectivity, the form is not “there” at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation; it acts on me as I act on it.

To “actualize” a form, as Buber describes, one must allow oneself the confrontation–yet this cannot happen through effort of will alone. Is there a way, then, to make it possible, or does it just happen? In other words, can Buber’s words be “applied” to life and to ethics, or are they for contemplation only?

I believe that they can be applied, if one defines “applied” cautiously. Buber’s words cannot in themselves take us to the You–but they can make us aware of our tendency to claim and circumscribe things. (Buber stresses that we cannot survive without the It–but that the It cannot involve our whole being.)

So I take a picture, but with slight regret. First, my picture is far from a work of art, so it does not exist at that level. Second, it reminds me of the outing but leaves out almost everything. Third, while on the outing I resisted taking the picture, but later I caved in–so the picture is both removal and compromise. Yet it is pretty: the branches, leaves, and texture, the sense of something more.

Whenever I take a picture, I have ambivalence of this kind; it is usually wound into a tight thought, but it is present all the same. Here, the thought unravels. To “apply” Buber, then, is not to encounter a tree fully, nor to stop taking pictures, but to come closer to knowing one’s intentions.

The Privacy of Teaching and the So-Called Status Quo

Today few people think of teaching in terms of the private thought it involves. They the very idea of privacy with distrust. Teachers’ work should be open to all observers at all times, according to the general sentiment; teachers should not object to having visitors walk in and out, having video cameras installed in classrooms, and so on. Yet even if we did all of these things–made the classroom a continual open house with the camera running–an aspect of teaching would remain firmly private, simply because there is no audience for it. Within this privacy, the teacher and the teaching may be going through great changes, yet on the surface, and in the judgment of most, they remain part of the “status quo.” The conception of the “status quo” is flawed in that it mistakes a superficial reality for the whole.

After any lesson, my mind streams with thoughts: was this a good way to present Kant? Did certain passages deserve more attention? What do I make of a particular student’s comments? How will I adjust tomorrow’s lesson?  Most important of all: how can I prepare my lessons with full mind and spirit, making the most of my intellect and judgment, but bringing out the students’ ideas? Some of these thoughts come up in conversation with others, but most do not. They do not fit into regular conversation, faculty or team meetings, education policy discussion, or anywhere else. They may get translated now and then into generic terms (student-centered teaching, teacher-centered teaching, etc.), but those terms are limiting and misleading. The important internal deliberation–over subject matter and the minute events of the day–resist facile terminology and quick summation.

There are also numerous situations where a teacher is torn between two goods and must privately make a decision, as it is impossible to consult someone about each of them. For example: we all want to give our students more resources. The Stanford-based talk show Philosophy Talk has a great website–with lots of informed and enjoyable discussions. Recently one of the show’s hosts posted a piece on the philosophy of humor. Good light reading material, except that it begins with a joke about a skeleton walking into a bar. “X walks into a bar” is a standard joke opening (and this joke is innocent enough), but all the same, mentioning a bar is an unspoken no-no, or at best an iffy matter, in K-12 teaching. So, a teacher might well decide, “Interesting post, but not for distribution.” In a given week, a teacher may have a dozen minor dilemmas of this sort. She will usually take the safer option, but not without questioning and occasional regret.

That in itself raises larger questions: How do I, as a teacher, present my subject matter in a way that is safe but not sterile? How do I show what it means to live without fear in the world–while taking all appropriate caution for my students’ sake? This leads to another great area of privacy: the teacher’s own life. A teacher can neglect her life for a while–many do, under the work pressure–but cannot keep that up indefinitely and still teach well. A teacher must have room and time to be with friends, form relationships, pursue interests, help others, clean the apartment, eat, exercise, read, and think. Those things do not come up in the classroom, yet they influence a teacher’s actions and bearing. A teacher who lives fully will show that fullness without divulging it. The students will pick up on that life. Similarly, students pick up on strain and trouble. Beyond that, a teacher does not live for the students or for teaching alone; a life has its own meaning and dignity.

Within each of these privacies, teachers and teaching can undergo great changes, often against a backdrop of a “status quo.” This year, I have been able to revise some of my lessons in ways that were not possible before; previously my energy was going into the rush and churn of each day. Because my teaching load is manageable now, and because I am teaching the Ethics course for the third consecutive year, I can refine it and make it more responsive to the students, without abandoning its substance. This is a source of joy, and I am grateful for the opportunity. Yet an outsider might look at the situation and perceive “status quo.” There are policymakers who believe in switching teachers around every few years so that they never teach the same subject or grade for very long. On the surface, such policy promotes change–but it prevents or ignores transformation. Transformation may happen slowly and may be difficult to perceive. (For more on this topic, you may read the talk I gave at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.)

This is part of the reason why I blog less frequently lately. My emphasis is changing. By definition, the private truths and struggles of teaching have no place in the regular discourse; unfortunately, the discourse disparages the very privacy. I cannot live without the privacy, yet I also yearn for a forum where I do not have to be quite so enclosed, where there’s more acceptance of internal life and its role in everything. Some of these thoughts will find their way into my second book, which is not autobiographical or primarily about education. (I will say more about it when the time is right.)

(Note: I made some minor edits to this piece after posting it.)

Two Kinds of Writers

In 1920, the humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote in Vanity Fair,

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

In the spirit of this quote, I hope there are not two kinds of writers: those who like to discuss the writing process and those who do not. Both kinds, in my view, would be rather irritating, though I’d be a little more receptive to the second. There’s a time and place for discussing the writing process, and an eternity for not doing so.

Problems with discussing the writing process? There’s so much variety that one cannot draw any conclusions about a “right” way. What’s more, the “process” discussions tend to ignore substance. There are writers who revise constantly and those whose first draft is almost always their last. There are those who adhere to a strict routine and those who write whenever the ideas strike them. There are those who suffer terribly from writer’s block and those who have never known it. There are those who insist on writing in pen, or with the trusty Remington, or through dictation. In the end, I don’t care what they do, if the writing is good.

Yet staying mum is problematic too. There are writers who hold themselves above describing what they actually do; they insinuate that their work is mystical and untouchable, and that any mention of process is the mark of a lesser talent. Or they refrain from discussing it lest they expose a weakness–an embarrassing first draft, for instance, or an abundance of unfinished work. Silence is golden, but gold can be the ornament of a snob.

The ideal would be to talk about it sometimes but not all the time. Just how much would depend on the person’s judgment and circumstances. If you have been invited to speak to young people about your writing process, and have agreed to do so, then a secretive attitude is out of place. However, if you are at a tea party where people are going on about how they love “workshopping” their work (and you don’t particularly love doing that), then you have every right to maintain a happy hush.

I revise a lot. One thing I enjoy about having a blog is that I can come back and change things later. (When I do, I indicate this in a note at the end of the post, unless the changes are too minor to mention.) I rethink things continually; months or years later, I may see a better way of putting them. This is true for my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. This morning I made some revisions to an old poem, “Jackrabbit.” It’s one of my favorites (of my older pieces), but the original version and even a later version had some strained parts. The current version will rest as is.

Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined doubts,
senses, untasted dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the wild
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I changed three words (and fixed a formatting glitch) after the initial posting.

Our Unwitting Teachers

Ninth grade was a tumultuous year for me. Too much to go into here–but many ups and downs. In the spring, I discovered that I enjoyed running track. Though bad at sports overall, I had good endurance; I was one of the few in the school who could run a full mile, at a good pace, without stopping. (Later I brought it up to three.) Through running, I got to know a few students outside of my usual circles. They chose to run with me because they trusted that I wouldn’t stop halfway through. As we were running, we had short-winded conversations about all kinds of things.

One day I was running with a girl had lost a family member a few years before. We were talking (inasmuch as we could) about life, and she said, “I want to experience everything–both the good and the bad.” Given what she had been through, this moved me and stayed on my mind afterward. I thought about how everything we go through can contribute to who we are; all of it, taken properly, can be a gift, no matter how difficult it seems at the time. I thought, also, of the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I had just read in class.

A month or two later, toward the end of the year, I decided to tell her that her words had helped me. I asked whether she had a few minutes to talk. She agreed and went with me to the “fountain room,” a luminous little meeting room with French windows and doors, in a corner of the hallway near the drinking fountain. I told her what I have said just here. She looked surprised and happy but didn’t say very much.

Later, when she signed my yearbook, she wrote: “You have been a source of knowledge about myself this year. Your talent and persistence has inspired me and helped me be calm and level headed. You told me that I helped you–well, telling me that made me cry that night in bed, because just earlier I had been chastising myself for being insensitive and unresponsive to so many people that were sensitive and yet very far away from me. I am so glad that I was able to do something for you. You deserve happiness an if I was able to help you attain that end, then I am happy.”

We were each other’s unwitting teachers. At the time, I wondered just how much people held back from each other, how many good things they could say to each other if they dared. Years later, it seemed to me that such inhibitions might have a place, that they might make room for the understood, the understated, and things that don’t go easily into words.

Now I see it in both ways. There are many who have taught and helped me and probably do not know it. Maybe it is a shame that they do not know it; maybe it is for the better. Sometimes the one seems true, sometimes the other, but I never know for certain which one holds.

I suspect that we tend to hold back from telling people what they taught us; thus, people have little idea how much they bring to others. Yet there’s no way to delimit “how much” these teachers bring; the students themselves do not know. So, speaking and holding back can both be wrong. But there is no wrong in perceiving one’s teachers: seeing a chance comment burst into an offering, or hearing a cadence that brings a change of heart. There must be good in witnessing these things without trying to capture them, without trying to say exactly how much or what they mean.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

CONTRARIWISE Contests Galore

itsmyowninventionThroughout my teaching experience, there have been many surprises, many sources of wonder, but nothing quite like CONTRARIWISE, my students’ philosophy journal. It arose out of an assignment about Plato a year ago; the first issue, which came out in February, received a great review and many appreciative comments from readers. We had a glorious celebration in May; a week later, four students took part in an interview with Mark Balawender of PLATO. (If you aren’t sure what the fuss is all about, see the samples on the website.) But that was only the beginning. Now my students have announced an international contest and two national contests, as well as an open call.

Here is the international contest:

Your favorite cultural dish* is now its own nation. Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? You may refer to the ingredients, cooking utensils, eating utensils, human participants, or other aspects of the food’s preparation and consumption. Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences—”anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as ‘secretary of state.’” This can be a story, an essay, an epic poem written in the style of Beowulf, words set to a popular song (bonus points if it’s a song we don’t know and have to look up, and it becomes one of our favorite songs of all time), or anything, really.

Secondary school students are lucky to have these contests! When I bring up the international contest with adults, I often get the reaction: “What would I do with that?” followed by days of conversation about fondue, various pastas, etc., and what they could be as nations. (A recent comment: “We’re still thinking about the eggplant.”) Alas, we adults may muse to our hearts’ content but may not enter. That is just as well; I wrote a piece about the realm of flan, was proud of it at first, but then realized how contained it was and how much more possibility the contest held.

But that isn’t all. Here’s the first of the national contests:

Write a piece about how mathematics and philosophy are related. It could be a theorem with a variety of proofs, a comparison of a philosophical and a mathematical problem, a mathematical solution to an ethical issue such as adoption, or a poem about how to treat your x. You may use any format you wish, including pictures, and you may invoke higher dimensions.

Here is the second:

You are a knight or samurai (who strictly adheres to your society’s honor code) during the fall of feudalism in your nation. This time period can be any time after your chosen government begins to stop following the codes of chivalry or bushido. In 3,000 or fewer words, write a piece critiquing the government and explaining how you feel and what should be done about it. This could be in the form of a letter to be sent to your government, a poem to be nailed on the gates of a church…the format can be as creative as the piece itself. Just let us know what you intend the knight to do with his work at the top of your first page. Be sure to research your chosen nation!

The words of Khadijah McCarthy, a CONTRARIWISE contributor who participated in the PLATO interview, seem especially apt here:

There has to be a degree of eccentricity to the questions that we ask because we are not looking for your basic responses. We need philosophers who can transgress those boundaries and get people to come in and say I want to take a philosophy class and request it in schools around the world and around the nation. We do our best to really make people think. And the questions that they asked me, and I when I looked at them at face value, I thought, “I really don’t know how I am going to answer this.” … I think the best questions are the ones where you don’t know how you’re going to answer them. You’re going to have to formulate them and test them. So pretty much you’re a scientist, a philosopher…everything is wrapped up in one.

I can’t wait to see what comes in.

 

Image: Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, illus. John Tenniel, chapter 8, “It’s My Own Invention.”

Questions of Community

There are several related idols in contemporary culture: the group, the team, and the community. Each one has a different character, and each one has benefits and dangers.

I have discussed the pitfalls of group work on numerous occasions–most recently, in an interview with The Guardian (UK). I do not mean that group work is necessarily bad; it is just overemphasized. Thinking on one’s own–or participating in a whole-class lesson–gets short shrift.

In addition, I have discussed problems with the concept of a team. Teams have their place (many places, actually), but not every group or association is a team, nor should it be. Much important work is done by individuals and can be shortchanged by a team.

In relation to the above, I have also examined how collaboration differs from group work, and how belonging and apartness combine in education.

Today I will look at a somewhat touchier subject: community. Community, as I understand it, is an association of individuals with a loose common bond, be it geography, a common interest or attitude, or some other common characteristic. To many, community is an automatic good; what could possibly be wrong with having something in common with many others and, on account of this commonality, being part of a larger whole?

Indeed, there is much to be said for it; many of us have longed to be part of a community of some kind and have rejoiced when we found one. But the word can be misused.

For one thing, as David Bromwich points out in Politics by Other Means (1992), it can be invoked manipulatively, for ideological ends. (Sometimes the “community” invoked might not even exist as such.)

Or the word might be invoked in reference to the most popular activities or views–and not in reference to the outliers. In my experience, “Support your community” rarely means, “Support the individuals within it.” Instead, it seems to mean, “Support those things that the majority supports, those things that draw a crowd.” I do not mean that the things that draw a crowd are unworthy–but a true community should have room for more. A genuine community, as I understand it, would honor its minorities, dissidents, independent thinkers, and others who don’t fit the group. There are circles within circles; the largest subcircle is not the whole (unless it is, of course).

I am likewise wary of communities where the members, because of the very nature of the bond, conceal important thoughts by choice or necessity–for instance, a “supportive community of writers” where everyone is supposed to praise everyone else. There must be room for genuine criticism; support should not be equated with applause.

Or take a workplace. Is that and can it be a community? It depends; at various jobs, I have become friends with my co-workers. Sometimes the entire staff has bonded. But no matter how warm the workplace, one must remember that at some level, it is a job. There is work to be done. Friendship and fellowship can form within it–but that should not be the expectation.

All of these pitfalls can be addressed with careful use of the word. There are different kinds of community, each with its offerings and restrictions. If one knows what one means by the word, one can avoid being deceived by it. But there is still another danger.

Belonging to a group is meaningful only if some true fellowship exists in it. Fellowship between two may be the best and strongest kind. As Emerson writes in his essay “Clubs” (the ninth chapter of Society and Solitude), “Discourse, when it rises highest and searches deepest, when it lifts us into that mood out of which thoughts come that remain as stars in our firmament, is between two.” Yet a community often interferes with the fellowship of two (or with solitude, for that matter); the individuals come under pressure to include others in their group, to level out their conversation, to accept the common denominator. If a community can make room for friendship and idiosyncrasy, if it does not try to smooth everyone down, if it recognizes that some affinities will run deeper than others, then it can be strong.

 

The First CONTRARIWISE Interview

Last May, Mark Balawender, communications director for PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), interviewed the CONTRARIWISE co-editors-in-chief and two contributors. His wonderful piece was published today on the PLATO website.

CONTRARIWISE is my school’s philosophy journal. The inaugural issue, released last February, received a lovely review from Cynthia Haven. The second issue will feature an international contest!

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