The Forum (BBC World Service): Panel on Solitude

In April I took part in a panel discussion on solitude, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li and host Bridget Kendall, on BBC World Service’s program The Forum. The podcast expires in a week, so listen to it now!

Also, you may be interested Melvyn Bragg’s recent discussion on the philosophy of solitude, also on BBC. (Because my streaming is spotty, I haven’t listened to it yet, but I hope to do so soon. It looks promising.)

Finally, you may enjoy the recently posted samples from my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE.

The Blessing of Slight Neglect

Almost a year ago, I commented on William Faulkner’s Nobel speech. I focused on how the sprawl of our lives–the pressure to be available around the clock, the leveling and spreading of our intentions–tends to break down our sense of sanctity (broadly defined),* and how, without a sense of sanctity, we lose touch with what he calls the “old verities.” Today I would like to comment on a different aspect of his speech: the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” I begin, though, with a change of direction. Last week, I started a post along these lines and ended up dissatisfied with it. I realized that there was great danger in implementing Faulkner’s words in a literal way.

From Faulkner’s speech:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

One could nod vigorously and say, yes, we have forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, and that’s part of the problem in education today. We look at social, political, economic problems–but not the problems each of us carries in our private minds: problems of love, loyalty, hate, betrayal, and their limitless combinations. Therefore, it seems that we should turn our attention again to these problems.

Yes, but how? The worst thing–and the thing likeliest to happen–if someone were to present this argument to education policymakers–would be for schools to mandate daily attention to the “old verities.” Teachers would be required to write an “old verity” on the board every day. When reading a work of literature, students would have to identify the “old verity” that it addressed. This is deadly and counter to Faulkner’s meaning–for he is speaking of fiction and poetry, not of dogma. (The links in the previous sentence point to the etymology of these words, which is interesting in terms of the “kneading” and “piling.”)

Something would likewise be forced and false about addressing “old verities” through so-called “informational text” (heavily touted in schools, even in English class). It cannot be done. Philosophy and history can tackle the central human problems–but to do so, they cannot rely on abstractions and information alone; they need insight and form as well. Insight and form belong to fiction and poetry, which in turn rely on a certain concealment, or a complex kind of revelation. That is, to see truths of this kind, you must also have room in your imagination for the unseen.

A passage from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote sheds some light on this. (Note: These texts are among the shorter readings in the Epic course at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I am currently teaching. The past two weeks have been filled with the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and other works–all of these read in their entirety–and we will finish next week with Moby-Dick.) Here’s Ortega y Gasset:

There are things which, when revealed openly, succumb or lose their value and, on the other hand, reach their fullness when they are hidden or overlooked. Some men refuse to recognize the depth of something because they demand that the profound should manifest itself in the same way as the superficial. Not accepting the fact that there may be several kinds of clarity, they pay exclusive attention to the clarity peculiar to surfaces. They do not realize that to be hidden beneath the surface, merely appearing through it, throbbing underneath it, is essential to depth.

Maybe there’s a blessing in having Faulkner’s “old verities,” the problems of the human heart, overlooked in schools. Maybe a certain kind of overlooking is the best kind of honor. I think we can honor them through curriculum and general bearing, without pounding themes and messages into the students’ heads. Give students room to hear the works, to wade through them, to feel their pull and counter-pull. Show, through selection, intonation and gesture, that something worthwhile is there.

I think of these lines from the beginning of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover:

The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

One can go barefoot as a reader, too–and this means reading and interpreting in an unfettered way. Yes, one analyzes what one reads, often in great detail and depth, but one does not try to map everything onto a specific external meaning, method, or theory. One allows the literature its life, not all of which can be explained in external or technical terms. (Some of the most inspiring criticism is fiction of its own kind.) When one does this, when one enters literature with heart–in the Hebrew sense of “lev,” not our current sentimental sense–one will confront those verities willy-nilly.

There is a focus and clarity that comes from not fretting over what we are going to get from a given thing. Unfortunately, schools have been trained into a “customer service” mode. They are supposed to deliver a product to the students–who, for their part, are supposed to expect one. There is partial good to this; one does want students to learn and do concrete things. But one can accomplish this with recognition that it is not the whole.

Beyond this, I have started to think that certain kinds of “neglect”–not extreme or irresponsible kinds, but the kinds that let things hide just a little–may hold more good than we know. In the same way that a poem or essay revises itself when one steps away from it, so we, too, may take shape when others are not looking. We get to putter around and think things through. The neglect must be slight, though, and not self-justified. A world shrivels when it asserts that the things it ignores don’t exist.

 

*Sanctity: the quality or state of being holy, very important, or valuable (Merriam-Webster); I would add: the quality or state of being set apart from other things. (In the earlier post on Faulkner’s speech, I didn’t use the word at all; rather, I used terms that conveyed a similar meaning.)

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

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

A Philosophy Journal Celebration with a Song

Major GeneralThe CONTRARIWISE reading and celebration–at Word Up Community Bookshop in Washington Heights, NYC–is just over two weeks away! CONTRARIWISE is my students’ philosophy journal; on May 18, from 3 to 5 p.m., we are celebrating the release of the inaugural issue. There will be readings, signings, refreshments, and philosophical surprises. In addition, the journal has a song! I wrote the lyrics and will sing the verse. The audience–or as many as are game–will come in for the chorus.

It is to be sung to the tune of the Major General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance. If you plan to come to the event, you may want to practice the chorus in advance. Here it is:

This is the very model of a journal of philosophy.
There’s room in it for football chants and hints of anthroposophy.
It teems with letters, poems, essays, dialogues, and hidden jokes,
traversing space and time just like a spaceship full of giddy folks.
It has a piece on lying, in particular Pinocchio;
it’s very very humble with a bit of braggadocio.
There’s even Folly writing to the wailing man who lost his nose…

Lost his nose? … lost his nose? .. Got it!

and visions of utopia where nobody gets frosty toes!
Chorus: and visions of utopia where nobody gets frosty toes (3x)

It shows a lot of deference when poking fun at Socrates,
and when discussing medicine it calls upon Hippocrates.
In short I can hypothesize, with certainty, that possibly
this is the very model of a journal of philosophy!

Chorus: In short we can hypothesize, with certainty, that possibly
this is the very model of a journal of philosophy!

 

Note: The drawing is from the program of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s children’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, 1884.

Solitude of Time

The subject of solitude seems trickier and trickier, the more I think about it–and more and more important. Yet it is important only in relation to things that require it. There is no sense in pursuing or defending solitude for its own sake. Also, it is possible (and even common) to seek solitude for the wrong reasons–such as escape and self-defense. They are “wrong” insofar as they involve closing off the mind and the experience. To make things even more perplexing, it is possible to seek  solitude for “right” and “wrong” reasons at the same time.

But what is this solitude? In his treatise De vita solitaria (On the Solitary Life), Petrarch posits three kinds of solitude: solitude of place, solitude of time, and solitude of the mind. For a long time, it was the third that interested me the most; recently, I have been thinking about solitude of time.

Solitude of time comes in many forms. There is solitude of chronos, the procession of time; solitude of kairos, the right moment for things, and solitude that combines the two.

We often think of time as a material possession: “I have time” or “I have no time.” When viewed as such, it seems closely related to money; a wealthy person has leisure time, whereas a poor person must work.

But it is possible to view time not as possession, but as vastness and structure. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of the “architecture of time“–in particular, Shabbat, which opens up an infinity of time. “The higher goal of spiritual living,” he writes, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” He makes clear that he does not disparage information-gathering for a higher good: “What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

It is easy to forget the difficulty and unpopularity of Heschel’s words. They come from solitude; they demand solitude. They ask us to set aside our trinket-gathering, if only for a little while.

The artist Karen Kaapcke (who happens to be a parent at my school) articulates something similar (albeit quite differently) on her “Drawing 50 Blog“–her project, beginning on her 50th birthday, of drawing a self-portrait every day for a year. “This is surprising to me,” she writes–”the path of these drawings is less about me, my 51st year, how do I look as I age – and more about what living as a draftsperson, being-in-the-world as a draftsperson, means. And so, I am finding that sometimes the drawings, while starting with myself, do not have the sense of being about only myself, but a connection to a state that might be, almost, universal.”

There is something solitary about recognizing time. That recognition can take different forms–but one is alone in it. On the day that my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in boxes, I had come to school just for that occasion (I had no classes on that day). But even when the boxes were within feet of me, I knew it wasn’t time to open the first one; that had to wait for the editors-in-chief. That was a short wait–but I remember the utter clarity of it.

The right time is not always “now.” (The hermit in Tolstoy’s story “The Three Questions is wrong.) The right time is now only when one recognizes that it is now.  Sometimes the right time is “not yet”; that very stretch of time between “not now” and “now” is solitary.

Timing in speech and music–a sense of tempo, rhythm, cadence, pause–is another way of recognizing time, of grasping the intersection between the stream and the moment. One knows when the timing is right, yet such timing is entirely singular, never to be repeated exactly. Even if it were repeated exactly, it might not be right the second time.

Time is not just a segment or line; it has dimension. Solitude lets you see into the dimension. One could reword a line from Zarathustra’s Roundelay, to say “Die Zeit ist tief” instead of “Die Welt ist tief”–but they  mean something similar, since it is the deep midnight speaking here. (It is part of the answer to the question posed in the first two lines: “O Mensch! Gib acht! / Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?”

There are times when possessible time dries up and crumbles, and the true time opens up. But we always return to the illusion of possessible time. (We must, in order to “do” anything with time.) Is it that simple, though? Does time divide up like that, into the illusory and the real? Or is it necessary to “grab” time in order to see past the grabbing? I think the latter: “material” time can lead to “matterless” time, as long as we allow this to happen.  For example, a person can get things done by a certain time in order to have a stretch of doing nothing. Also, the completed things, once done, are there for good, even if they decay materially.

Why is the solitude of time important? When one finds it, one is no longer subject (entirely) to group demands and rush. One has to meet certain demands, but one also stands outside them. It’s like having a mansion that costs no money and isn’t in the least bit gaudy.

 P.S. Those interested in solitude may wish to tune in to The Forum (BBC World Service) this weekend.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it.

What Would Become of Walter Mitty and Fern?

There’s a new medical term for excessive daydreaming: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. This is not a joke; research into this possible condition has been in progress for thirty years or so. Although it has yet to be recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has conferences and articles in its name.Some supporters of the new diagnosis wax exuberant over the supposed clarity it brings to the ADHD question (since it overlaps with what has been known as ADHD).

Before discussing the problems with such a diagnosis, I will give it its due. “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo” (SCT) is the term for a cluster of symptoms: daydreaming, mental fog, confusion, frequent staring, and others. Researchers have been looking into the possibility that this cluster exists apart from ADHD. If this were so, and if treatment were found for the condition, many children and adults could be spared the pain and risks of misdiagnosis–and might have access to effective treatment. For those whose condition prevents them from functioning from day to day, this could be a godsend (or a science-send).

So, why fret over this? I worry for Walter Mitty, the protagonist of James Thurber’s story and the film based on it (the one starring Danny Kaye; I was unable to bring myself to see the more recent one). Walter Mitty would have been diagnosed with SCT, and then we would not have had him. There would be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” Mitty would be “on task.”

In fact, many a wandering mind would be herded back onto the task at hand. But maybe some of those wanderings are more interesting than the task. Maybe we attach too much value to task performance. (I bring this up–in relation to solitude, not SCT–on BBC World Service’s program The Forum.)

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way–as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think. Fortunately my teachers let me be; today, I would be considered off-task.

The daydreamer may actually be highly attentive–absorbed in the matter at hand and unwilling or unable to move on to the next thing. The one who stares into space may be listening closely to something.

Granted, some people’s daydreaming and other SCT-associated symptoms prevent them from doing what they themselves want to do. But when it comes to diagnosing children, it is adults who decide whether there’s a problem. They might not see the rewards of daydreaming; they might only see the low grade on the homework assignment. “Why didn’t you start each paragraph with a topic sentence? Why do you have only one supporting detail here instead of two?” Wandering minds such as Mitty, Tristram Shandy, and many an actual person would get faulted, diagnosed, and fixed. The world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

I do not mean to romanticize a serious condition–but I suspect that if SCT had been a diagnosis in Fern’s day, and if Dr. Dorian had not been so wise, Fern might well have ended up on medication.

CONTRARIWISE Is Here!

contrariwiseMy students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in big boxes on Friday, and it is beautiful! It has 128 pages of dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary, art, and more—on philosophical topics ranging from time to tyranny. (My students’ work has previously appeared on the Core Knowledge Blog and GothamSchools.)

The editors-in-chief (both juniors at the school) defined the journal, insofar as it can be defined. They made creative and editorial decisions, wrote commentary, held contests, solicited work, recruited the cover artist (also a student at our school), examined the proofs, and did more than I can enumerate. The fourteen-member editorial board assisted with the selection and editing of pieces, attended meetings, offered ideas, contributed work, and helped spread the word about the journal. The twenty-five contributors (or thirty, if one counts the honorable mentions) gave us rich material. I provided guidance and support.

To order a copy by mail, please write a check for $10 to Columbia Secondary School and mail it to CONTRARIWISE, c/o Diana Senechal, Columbia Secondary School, 425 W. 123rd St., New York, NY 10027. (The price includes packaging and first-class postage; if you purchase a copy in person, it’s only $5.) Proceeds help us cover printing costs and other expenses. The first issue was funded by donations from generous individuals; the second will rely primarily on sales. Thus, by purchasing a copy, you are not only treating yourself to a wonderful journal but also helping it continue.

This inaugural issue was five months in the making, and here it is. I am honored to have witnessed my students’ inspiration, care, and wit throughout the project—and thrilled to hold and read the book.

Update #1: CONTRARIWISE has a lovely mention on Columbia Secondary School’s Facebook page–as well as a Facebook listing for its May event. We are working on a possible April event as well. See the CONTRARIWISE website for information.

Update #2: CONTRARIWISE has received its first review–on Cynthia Haven’s outstanding blog The Book Haven!

Where There Are Frogs, There’s Hope

frog2My eleventh-grade students are about to begin reading Aristophanes’ Frogs (having finished Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics). In honor of the occasion, I thought I would get some frog masks. I went to the huge costume store near Union Square with low hopes, since I have been disappointed there before. I was disappointed again.

Real costume stores are rare. In their place, you find stores with costumes taken directly from TV shows and movies. Instead of dressing up like a frog, children have only the option of dressing up as the Disney version of Kermit (not even the Sesame Street version). Instead of being a princess, they must be Princess Leia. Instead of dressing as a monster, they must be a specific one from Monsters University. There are hardly any robes, eyeballs, robes that stand alone.

It is not a problem to have costumes for fictional, dramatic, mythological characters; what bothers me is that they’re already defined by a TV show or film. Kids know exactly how they’re supposed to look as these characters; there’s little room for invention or eccentricity. It would be one thing if a store had a few such costumes; now, nearly all of the costumes are based on characters from big-budget movies.

In short, the store had no frog masks. It did have a rubber Kermit mask (in the Disney section, of course). Determined to have something to bring in, I got it. “All sales are final,” said the person at the register. I regretted my purchase right then but went ahead with it.

I went home in a somewhat gloomy mood, thinking about the demise of costume stores and all that comes with them.

As I walked from the train station to my place, I saw a big 99-cent store. “Oh well,” I thought. “I might as well stop in there. For all I know, they have frog masks.” I even thought of making frog masks from construction paper–but am not too good at that kind of thing, and know they would fall apart right away.

The store didn’t have frog masks, exactly, but it had seven adorable frog caps (with no relation to Disney). I snatched them all up. We will have frogs today.

In the Airport Security Line, Some Get to Wear Their Shoes

This is not a satire.

I am in the St. Louis airport, about to head home after giving a talk and taking part in a lively panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. It was a great occasion for a number of reasons–but this post is not about that.

When I stood in the security line at the airport just a few minutes ago, a Transportation Security Administration officer told the man in front of me that he was approved for “pre-check” and could go through a special line where he didn’t have to remove his shoes, take out his liquids, etc.

The man asked why he had been approved for pre-check. He had never heard of such a thing. The TSA officer didn’t have an answer for him.

A few minutes later, I looked it up, and sure enough, the TSA is rolling out a pre-check program, to which you supposedly have to apply. That has been going on since 2011. But there’s more, according to the Chicago Tribune:

In a little-noticed proposal, the Department of Homeland Security says that it plans to upgrade to its new Secure Flight System, which pre-screens all passengers. … TSA says that the new Secure Flight would be used to send non-members who are tagged as low-risk passengers through the Pre-Check lines, even if they aren’t members.

According to Government Security News, the TSA has awarded IBM a “bridge contract” for this program.

Is the program already being deployed, then? Will the “low-risk” passengers be separated by privilege from the “we-don’t-have-enough-data-on-them-yet” passengers?

The Key to Creativity?

One must walk through much of life alone, but one also draws on the wisdom, experience, and practical assistance of others. Books (including literary, religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts) address many of our persistent questions. Their guidance has a place;  we would be stranded and parched without it. We seek out books not only for insight, but for help.

But if there’s a futile quest for assistance, it’s the quest for a “key” to creativity–some some way of life, some practice that others package up and that (supposedly) will release our creative powers. When I read articles about how to become more creative, I ask: why don’t people allow creativity its idiosyncrasy, and why do they covet creativity in the first place?

The answer to the second question seems obvious. Who wouldn’t want to make something original, something that involves both imagination and skill? Who wouldn’t want to write a truly good poem, song, or play, or invent a needed (or utterly useless but amusing) device, or give a memorable speech? Who wouldn’t want to do this day after day? It sounds like the happiest possible life–making a contribution to art, literature, technology, and other fields.

But it is not entirely happy. If you think differently from others, if you see untried possibilities in the material before you, then you may find yourself questioning what other people take for granted. You may never feel that you “fit in.” Now, fitting in is not the most important thing in the world, but outsiderness takes courage and some sacrifice. You grow used to seeing things differently and verging, moment by moment, on offending others, hurting their feelings, and losing your place among them. (This sense of outsiderness is especially acute in a culture of group thinking and group “likes.”)

Moreover, a creative life takes time and work. You don’t just go around bubbling with ideas; you have to sit down and pull them off. This means setting aside blocks of time–time that could be spent with others, or at work, or in relaxation. If you have a job on top of that, and a family, you may end up with no time for pastimes and insufficient time for anything else. You may be continually torn between necessary things.

In addition, such a life has disappointments. One has ideas that don’t pan out or that, when brought to completion, are not as brilliant as they seemed. One comes to see flaws in one’s own work; very little of it ultimately seems good, even if others praise it. (In addition, good work often goes unrecognized.)

Now, many people involved in creative work (including myself) have accepted the demands and letdowns of such a life. They would not give it up permanently for anything (almost). I say “almost” because generalizations of this kind tend to prove false at some point.

That leads to the first question: why don’t people want to allow creativity its idiosyncrasy? In each person it takes a different form, and each person practices it in a different way. There are certainly good habits (such as regular practice), and conditions that can make those habits fruitful. But where one person may work best in a dim light, with no sound, another may prefer brightness and music in the room. One may work regularly, in the mornings; another may snatch time whenever it comes. Moreover, there are probably as many kinds of creativity as there are personalities; the creation of a sonnet is profoundly different from the creation of an advertisement, even though both work within constraints of time and space.

Thus I was puzzled last month to see a New York Times article suggesting that the buzz of a cafe can boost creativity. It cites a study in which subjects brainstormed product ideas with varying levels of background noise. Now, why would anyone equate “brainstorming” (especially of ideas for products) with creativity overall? Certain kinds of ideas may come more easily when there is a background hum–but that does not apply to all ideas, nor is idea generation the whole of creativity. Some writers spend part of their writing time in a cafe, among others, and part of it alone. Some prefer to spend all of their writing time alone (but take in conversations and sounds when out on a walk).

Granted, one can learn interesting things from such studies, if one puts them in proper perspective. Annie Murphy Paul cites and discusses a study (originally published in Creativity Research Journal) suggesting that those who show creativity are marked (in the interpretation of cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman) by “a tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, engagement, openness to experience, and self-expression.” Paul speculates that these qualities may account for the “flaky artist” stereotype. An artist (or other seriously creative person) may be inherently “flaky” in that he or she works flexibly with a range of possibilities and projects.

Yes, I can see how that could be so. But an artist also needs a counterbalance to the flakiness in order to do anything well. The proportion of spontaneity and discipline will vary from person to person and from field to field. Some focus intensely on one project or idea at a time (but may toy with thousands of possibilities within it). Others may test out divergent projects until one takes hold. Some may stick to one medium throughout their lives; others may experiment wildly. Some may work assiduously on a project (and not touch any others) until it is complete; others may prefer to move back and forth between projects.

Where do creative ideas come from? Recently I wrote an essay about how a good curriculum can stimulate creativity by combining and juxtaposing works and ideas in interesting ways. I emphasized, though, that such a curriculum does not “produce” creativity (such as the student’s piece cited in the article), nor does creative work “result” directly from it. Creativity does not lend itself to mass production.

It’s difficult not to be intrigued by creativity. (I wouldn’t be reading articles about creativity if I were uninterested in the subject.) Many of us many have a speck of Dr. Faustus in us; we may want a secular devil, unaffiliated with hell, to sell us creative brilliance. or at least a sliver of it, in appealing wrapping. It would be a tantalizing offer. (This may explain why people don’t allow creativity its idiosyncrasy: they may hope to acquire it somehow.) There may even be something in such an offer–a helpful suggestion or insight, for instance. Artists (and other “creative” people) have a great deal in common–temperament, habits, interests, even pain–and can offer each other advice and understanding. Beyond these shared attributes, though, their distinctive trait is their ability, even when learning from others, to find their own way.

Note: I revised this piece (for flow and clarity) after posting it.

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