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. (Update: I thought the podcast was going to expire on July 28, but it appears that it will be up for another year.)

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 Privacy of Speaking One on One

Lately I joined Facebook in order to do specific things. I had joined before, a few years ago, then quit because I didn’t like it. This time around, I was bewildered all over again by the prevalence of group updates—the practice of telling a large group about life events, major and minor. I couldn’t keep up with these conversations and didn’t want to join them. I miss the old-fashioned practice of speaking with an individual.

Online group communication can be a boon at times. For instance, someone with a medical emergency could keep her friends posted without having to write individually to each one. A medium like Facebook can be useful for announcements as well–of events, special occasions, and so on. The problem lies not in individuals’ use of Facebook or any other online medium, but rather in the general drift away from private association. I am uneasy with the ubiquitous group conversation and the pressure to surrender private conversations to the group.

The problem is not restricted to the internet. In many situations, individual conversations are subject to interruption and curtailment, and people are not staunch about defending them. There’s a general assumption that a conversation belongs to anyone—that it is up for grabs. When people interrupt, they are often not conscious of interrupting, or don’t see the interruption as a problem. Thus, most conversations don’t last long.

Growing up, I saw and heard excessive quotation of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” (especially the first two lines). I don’t hear it quoted any more. It isn’t in the air.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The poem is stark no matter what the times, but today it stands out so severely against everything we are asked to do. The repetition of “Unmoved” in the second stanza seems defiant now, and it’s a defiance I miss, even though I have it to an extent. We are supposed to move along with things, to be responsive to as many people and events as possible. To stay “unmoved” in the face of demands is to shirk one’s unwritten obligation. But it may be a way of keeping a greater obligation.

And what comes next? “I’ve known her — from an ample nation —Choose One —” Who gets to do that today—except when choosing a spouse? It is possible, of course, to meet with particular friends, but it’s challenging, given people’s complicated schedules and tendency to do things in groups. The problem is not new, but it has taken on new forms. A Yale professor remarked to me recently that he doesn’t see students talking to each other one on one any more. He used to see them on the lawn, on benches, in dining halls. Now he sees four, five, six students talking with each other or walking through campus together.

Is that all terrible? Of course not. But some of it is terrible.

Granted, there’s something terrible on either end. The poem is not sweet. Even in my childhood, I got a chill from the last two lines: “Then — close the Valves of her attention — Like Stone —” (where “Like Stone” sounds like stone clapping, and the dash aftwarwards, like an unknown). Even then, there was something disturbing about the poem: a suggestion that an intimate friendship required hostility of a kind. (I loved Julie Harris’s rendition in The Belle of Amherst—I think she brought this out.)

But that hostility can be a kind of protection, an enshrinement. The poem has a subtlety and surprise: the “Society” of the first line is the “One” in the final stanza. This One is a society, in that the soul can associate with it as it could not with a pausing chariot or kneeling emperor.

It takes courage to lift one person above the “whatever”—to meet with one person, to write to one person, to listen to one person. It takes the willingness to shut others out for a stretch. There is solitude in this.

I am not talking about limiting one’s entire company to one person; that is dangerous and confining. Nor am I saying that all meetings should be one on one. There are no mandates or policy prescriptions here. I am talking about the simple practice of spending time with an individual—and having strength and room for such a meeting.

Dickinson’s poem suggests an absoluteness of attention that people in any era might find terrifying. It goes a bit beyond what I am describing here–but is part of it all the same. There is a stalk of such staunchness even in a dialogue over coffee.

To speak to a particular person as one would speak to no one else; to notice things about the other that others may notice too, but not in the same way; to hear stories take shape, stories that belong to the two, because they come out of the listening and telling—this is the privacy that I defend.

Note: Just after posting this piece, I added what is now the penultimate paragraph.

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.

What Is Joy, and What Is Joy in Learning?

This morning I read a piece by Annie Murphy Paul titled “Fostering Joy, at School and at Work.” She begins by describing the efforts of Menlo Innovations to create a joyous workplace (a great success, according to the CEO). Unsatisfied with the unscientific nature of this report, Paul then turns to research by the Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä on the subject of joy in schools. They conclude that (a) “teacher-centric” instruction does not foster joy (in their words, “the joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches”), whereas student-centered instruction does; (b) students are more joyous when allowed to work at their own pace and make certain choices about how they learn; (c) play is a source of joy; and (d) so are collaboration and sharing. Before taking apart these findings (which hold some truth but are highly problematic), let us consider what joy is.

Joy is not the same as cheer, happiness, or even enjoyment. It does not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter. It is a happiness that goes beyond regular happiness; it has to do with a quality of perception—of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard. When you suddenly see the solution to a geometry problem, you are also seen, in a way, because your mind has come forward in a way that was not possible before. When you listen to a piece of music that moves you, it is as though the music heard you as well. Joy has a kind of limitlessness (as in “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and stricture (as in Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?”). One thing is clear about joy: when it comes, it marks our lives. It is not to be dismissed.

So, let us look at the first of the research conclusions cited by Paul: that “teacher-centric” learning does not foster joy. My personal experience contradicts this flat out: some of my greatest joy in school (K-12, college, and grad school) happened when I was listening to a teacher or professor who had insights into the subject. The listening was not passive; to the contrary, it woke up my mind. Likewise, as a teacher, I have known those moments when students are listening raptly—not necessarily because of something I have done, but because the subject itself is so interesting.

Of course, students need a chance to engage in dialogue as well. I am not advocating for one-way discussion. Nor do I consider a lecture necessarily “teacher-centric”; it may be the most “student-centered” thing the students have encountered all day, in that it gives them something interesting to think about. Or rather, maybe it is subject-centered. Whatever it is, there is no need to rush to put it down. Take a closer look at it first. Consider the great freedom of listening–and the great gift of something to listen to.

Working at one’s own pace—yes, there may be joy in finding one’s own velocity and rhythm. But in the higher grades, this normally occupies the realm of homework. In the classroom, one is discussing the material—and such discussion can meet several levels at once. In a discussion of a literary work, for instance, some students may be figuring it out for the first time, whereas others may be rereading it and noticing new things. The class comes together in discussion—but outside of class the students may indeed work at their own speed and in their own manner (yet  are expected to complete assignments on time).

(I can already hear someone objecting that the researchers focused on early elementary school. Yes—and that is how they should present their findings. They should make clear that their research does not comment on “joy” in general—in school or anywhere else. Onward.)

As for play, it is immensely important—but play, like anything else, can be well or ill conceived. There is play that leads to amusement, and play that leads to joy. (Amusement is not a bad thing, but it is not joy.) Also, play does not always bear the obvious marks of a game, although it can. There is play in considering an untried possibility or taking an argument to its logical conclusion. There is play in questioning someone’s assumptions or taking apart an overused phrase. My students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is full of play of different kinds—and it’s also intellectually serious. An academic essay can be filled with play in that the author turns the subject this way and that. If you are immersed in a subject, it becomes difficult not to play with it. Play is the work of the intellect. So, I would say that when there is no play in a classroom, something is very wrong, and joy is probably absent—but this doesn’t mean that students should be playing “algebra badminton” (whatever that is—I just made that up) every day.

As for the researchers’ last point—about collaboration and sharing—yes, those can be rewarding things. But did the researchers consider how much joy can also come from working alone, or, even better, having a combination of solitude and collaboration? As long as I can remember, I have loved to sing with others, but I don’t think that would have had meaning if I didn’t also sing alone, in private. It is there that one comes to know the song. If you have ever gone out into the woods to sing—or even sang quietly while walking to the subway—then you know what it is like. It seems sometimes that the song must be solitary in order to exist at all. I am only touching on this subject, which I have discussed at length elsewhere; in any case, sharing and collaboration are only a part of joy.

Joy is not always happy. The other day I experienced joy when reading “Winky” by George Saunders. The ending was so unsettling and perfect, so beautiful in its botching of a plan, that I cried “yes,” in not so many words. Maybe joy is a kind of wordless “yes.”

 

Note: I made a few minor edits after the initial posting.

A Dream of Uncertainty

Yesterday I sat for a while on a bench in Riverside Park, listening to the water and the wind (and traffic). I had a chance to sort through the many events and conversations of the week. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting time: my students’ philosophy journal received a great review, a paperback edition of my book just came out, and my classes have been lively. More exciting events lie ahead—and, as usual, I have piles of homework to grade and a backlog of errands and duties.

In the midst of this, I have a slight ache, which goes back to the subject of my book. It has been a long time since I heard someone praise—or even acknowledge—singularity and independent thought. (The one recent exception was Susannah Heschel, who gave a wonderful lecture yesterday about her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his relationship with Rabbi Marshall Meyer (1930-1993). One thing she said that struck me is that we have a responsibility to let ourselves be uncertain.

In general, what I hear all around me is “Go Team.” People are praised insofar as they serve the team; teams are praised insofar as they are teams. (G. K. Chesterton would have had a field day with this phenomenon.) The word “community” likewise comes in hardened dogmatic form (as David Bromwich notes in his 1992 book Politics by Other Means). As it is commonly invoked, the “community” doesn’t make allowances for those who don’t fit its strictures or who make a regular practice of walking away.

I am not deploring the concepts of team and community; my complaint is that they have been taken too far. There is too little room for the counterpart, which could be called solitude. Solitude and company (or community, or collaboration, or friendship) exist in complex relation. Solitude, like community, can be understood crassly. It is not just time alone, or space apart. It is part of the mind, soul, and sinews. (Yes, there’s solitude even in dusting the furniture—the private glimpse of the shining wood and the specks flying up in the air.)

My students recently read part of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There’s a passage (in the final chapter) where the sight of a man and woman coming together on the street and entering a taxicab sets off a stream of thoughts about how our creative work requires the coming together of the male and female in our minds. In this very passage, there’s solitude (the stream of thought) and company (the man and woman entering the taxicab). Who could separate them? What would the stream of thought be without the encounter, or vice versa?

My most important projects have had a combination of solitude and collaboration. The philosophy journal could not have existed without the individuals who worked on it. Yes, we had to bring the many efforts together, but without the singularity of the contributions, there wouldn’t have been much to bring. The wit, thoughtfulness, and beauty did not come from a team. At the same time, we spent much time meeting and deliberating over matters of many sizes.

My book, which was largely a solitary effort, involved some collaboration as well. I sent individual chapters to scholars and others who had special knowledge of the subject. Whenever I quoted texts, I did so with care—taking the larger context of the work into account, tracking down first editions for the bibliography, and so on. Beyond that, many of the ideas in the book were inspired by people who had influenced me along the way: teachers, students, mentors, friends, and family members.

All of this is obvious yet difficult to describe. Solitude is not completely solitude, nor company completely company. The problem I see around me is a sealing of terminology. People speak of “the team” as though that’s all that existed and mattered. There’s little recognition that it’s only a part. The same can be said for invocations of community; the community would be a great thing, were it allowed to be a little less than great.

This brings me to the title of the post: “A Dream of Uncertainty.” I long for a language that questions itself, that recognizes its own indefinite edges. I long for a community that does not pretend to be everything, to include everyone, or to be more glorious than it is. Uncertainty allows for an opening—a way of existing with things that go beyond us, that slip away from us, that hum a song beyond our understanding.

Teaching in Vastness

I am ambivalent about Parker J. Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, but I return to it as I assemble thoughts on teaching. I treasure passages in this book and admire its durability overall. Palmer makes a vitally important argument: that good teaching comes from the teacher’s identity and integrity. There is no single “successful” pedagogical style; one teacher may teach through lecture and another through dialogue, but if both are deeply connected to the subject and aware of themselves and their students, they can both do powerful work.

A teacher, says Palmer, works on the border between the public and the private—“dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, and ridicule” (18). To ward off this danger, according to Palmer, we tend to disconnect—and this disconnectedness hurts education and those involved in it.

All true—but when I read Palmer’s words, and continue to read, I get restless for something more. (He recognizes the danger of sounding pat–but falls into that trap repeatedly.) Yes, identity and integrity are essential to teaching, but there’s something beyond both of them. To have identity and integrity, you must go into something larger than yourself. To hold up at the intersection between public and private, you must be aware of something beyond public and private, something that transcends the two.

Or maybe this is not necessary for all; I have no way of knowing. What is it, though? What is this space or sound or presence that can shape a teacher’s work?

Every day in the classroom, I run up against my own imperfections: I make a mistake, misunderstand something that a student said, get slighly irritated, answer a question too quickly, or find myself combating something internal—an area of ignorance, an excess, a sadness, even a rampant joy. In the moment, there’s nothing much that I can do beyond using my best judgment, which is far from perfect. Then, later, when I sort through the events of the day, something else happens.

I don’t just “reflect” on what went right or wrong. That’s an important (and much touted) part of teaching, but only a part. Reflections, after all, must be informed—and where does that form come from? First, it comes from immersion in subjects—any subjects. I learn as much about teaching philosophy when immersed in Russian or Hebrew as I do when reading Machiavelli. Learning to consider the sounds, shapes, roots, and different meanings of words—learning their tones, weights, and connections—all of helps the teaching. Also, when I study anything beautiful or important, I find out, all over again, what education means and how it happens. That said, there are special reasons to immerse myself in the specific subject I teach—to read and reread Machiavelli, Locke, etc. I find out, over and over again, that there’s far more than I presented or even suggested in the lesson. New lesson plans light up in my mind.

There’s still another kind of immersion. When I go through the events of the day, I find myself in a silent, private dialogue—not with myself, really, or with God (I don’t claim such direct access), but with something a little beyond myself. I am able to sort out not only the practical aspects of what I did that day, not only the ethical aspects, but something else, something that puts the events in their proper place, a place I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Without this, I would lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

For example, last week, in one of my classes, I found myself telling my students about a dream in which one of the assistant principals appeared. (The subject came up because had just popped in the classroom a moment earlier, and a student had mentioned having a dream about him.) My dream was strange and brief, with no embarrassing events. It wasn’t too far off topic, since we were discussing Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which is filled with dreams of a kind.  Still, I felt a bit off kilter after telling it. I didn’t know whether I had done the right or wrong thing.

From a practical standpoint, it was a bit of a digression, but it didn’t do any harm. From an ethical standpoint, it was mostly harmless, though it feels “gossipy” to tell about a dream that involves a colleague, even though the person isn’t really involved at all. That said, there was nothing gossipy about the dream, in which I was the conductor of a mostly empty train, and he was giving me driving advice (I think).

But there’s something else to reckon with, beyond practical and ethical matters. I recognized, as I went into rumbling thought, that I was feeling unwell on that day and that my gauges were a little off. I also saw that I was starting, in general, to relax around my students and tell them stories now and then—and figuring out when and when not to do so. There would never be a final, fixed answer, but I was finding my way. This meant that there would be errors, or semi-errors, or things that seemed like errors. It is an important question, when and when not to tell a story, since we are made of stories. I loved the stories that my teachers and professors told me over the years. They didn’t distract from the subject; rather, they made things more vivid overall.

How is this different from “identity and integrity”? It differs from them only insofar as it is their source. I find, again and again, that I am up against immensity, or maybe not up against it at all, but walking and thinking in it—and that this is the honor of teaching. Those running the system ask us to show results, to show that the students have moved from point A to point D. That is a reasonable request, if put in its proper place. Palmer would add that a teacher should teach from the self–a self that inhabits the subject. Yes, I grant that as well. But there is something beyond the self, an invisible teacher without lessons, maybe, who shakes me out of my limited senses and points out signs of life.

Turning Our Attention Toward Interesting Things

This blog has been slow lately for two reasons: first, I have been unusually busy with school; second, I am in the midst of my happiest teaching year yet. Why is it going so well, and what does this say about the possibilities in the teaching profession?

First, I teach at a wonderful school–but this kind of thing can happen at many schools, under the right conditions. These include curriculum, which I’ll bring up later.

Aside from that, perhaps the most important factor is that I have time to think—and lots to do with the thinking. I teach part-time; thus, there are days in the week when I am planning lessons and correcting student work but not running around. Last year, I also taught part-time but had an enormous challenge: 270 students and three new philosophy courses that I had designed. It took all I could do just to keep up with the grading, and I was generally exhausted. This year, other teachers took over the ninth-grade philosophy course. I provide them with the materials, but they teach the classes. I teach “only” the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Teaching them for the second time in a row is a delight; they are more solid and more flexible at once. The students have been doing inspiring work; reading their homework is a treat (as it was last year).

These great conditions come at a cost: the half-time salary. If I were teaching full-time, I would have more classes, more assigned duties, and less room for the intellectual and creative work. I would also be better off financially. Weighing the two options, I would rather have less money and more intellectual space—but it’s sad that I have to choose. Teaching should be treated as a thinking field. Teachers’ schedules should not be crammed and hectic, nor should every moment of the day be programmed.

That leads to another point: about collaboration. I have written on many occasions about our misconception of the term. In many districts around the country, there is something of a group work mandate for students and teachers alike. It is presumed that students and teachers should spend a great deal of time in small groups, working with others on a task. In reality, the best collaboration involves substantial independent work and thought. For example, when an editor and author work together, rarely do they sit down together at a table and revise a piece. Rather, the editor provides some suggestions, and the author thinks about them, determines which ones to accept, finds alternatives for the others, and revises the work. When scientists work together on a project, it often happens that each one works alone on a substantial branch of it. They come together for the intersections of their work.

This year, I have great collaboration without the group work. I attend very few meetings, since they do not fall within my official schedule. However, I am frequently in touch with colleagues and am alert to their work We have discussed many ways to join efforts. Also, I am the faculty adviser for the school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE—and have the honor of working with two outstanding editors-in-chief (both juniors) and a large and dedicated editorial board (sophomores, juniors, and seniors). This, too, involves a great deal of independent work and just a few meetings. The meetings are all the more fruitful because there’s so much  to bring to them.

This suggests to me that “collaboration” should be reconceived. It is essential to education and most fields, but it should involve and not drive out solitary thought. The practice of thinking alone should have honor, not stigma. (That’s the subject of my book, Republic of Noise.) I would go even farther: a certain kind of solitary thought inspires collaboration, and vice versa. If you strike the right relation between the two, you allow for an abundance of ideas and accomplishments.

The other difference from last year is that I am doing more things of my own outside of school. I don’t have enough time for substantial writing (I would need to take some time off again from teaching in order to write my next book). Nor do I have enough time for books that I choose to read; I already have so much to read for my teaching. On the other hand, I have been giving talks, participating in projects, and taking some classes. All of this feeds my teaching but is distinct from it; it is not “professional development,” but rather the development of something internal.

The moral of this, if such there be, is that teachers need room for their own lives and interests, even if they devote most of their time to school. Schools and policymakers should recognize that those outside pursuits enrich lives and translate into better teaching. Studying a language out of interest is much more important than attending some professional development workshop on how to scaffold a complex text. In truth, if you are studying a language, you are probably developing insights on “scaffolding” that no workshop could give you.

That leads to the final point. Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

I recognize that what makes me thrive is not what will make every teacher thrive. Yet most teachers would agree, I think, that the work should be less frazzling, with a focus on the intellect, imagination, and spirit. In addition, most would agree that a teacher’s intellectual and spiritual life affects that of the students. Lifting the quality of life for teachers–“life” in the rich sense of the word–serves not only the teachers themselves, but the students, the school, and the endeavor.

Clearly it would be expensive to do some of the things I recommend here. But some of it could be done at no extra cost—by turning our attention toward interesting things and defending them against encroachments. It is not that simple, and yet it is.

A Different Way of Being with Others

Lately I have seen slews of articles about the need to teach “social-emotional” and so-called “non-cognitive” skills in school. According to many educators and theorists, schools should emphasize teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, communication, and all sorts of other social things. These arguments (or the ones I have seen) evade an essential point: that schools should give students a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

Many schools respond by making more room for social interaction. But such social interaction has the same pitfalls as regular teen interaction, unless it is elevated in some way—that is, founded on something compelling, such as a work of literature or a piece of music. In that case, the students come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions.

I dimly remember my eighth-grade English class, at a school I entered that year. Aside from a year in the Netherlands (when I was in sixth grade), it was the first time I was happy in school. We read The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie, and much more. Through the discussions, I came to know my classmates, and they me, in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial. There was still peer pressure and ostracism. Still, regular social life took second or third place to this other way of associating, which allowed strong friendships to form.

Some insist that group work in the classroom achieves the same end: it gives students a structure for their socializing. But group work often degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on. Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone). I have said this many times before, but it still needs to be said. Group work in itself has no inherent good. I know the sinking feeling of being asked to “turn and talk,” or to pick up my things and go join a group to fill out some chart. Why not stay put and think for a few minutes? Why not discuss a question in full forum?

Proponents of group work often assume that the students are better off without the teacher. If  a teacher leads a discussion, that’s fine, they say, but it’s even better if the students take charge. I am not at all opposed to student-led discussion; rather, I find that it requires long-term preparation. A teacher, having perspective on a subject, can draw out ideas that students might not recognize as worthy. She can help raise the level of the dialogue. Once they have seen this happen (many times), they understand what it is. It has little or nothing to do with “Accountable Talk” or other formulaic kinds of discussion. It has a great deal to do with listening closely (to the comments and the subject matter) and giving the ideas honor, direction, and perspective.

What about the idea of the school as a “team”? Well, teamwork has its place, but again, it is not transcendent or even good in itself. Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. The solitary and communal aspects of learning are closely related; they find their shape through the endeavor itself. Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

There is no denying the social aspect of schools. If coming together in a building and a room were not important, then there would be little need for schools in the first place. One could rely on computerized instruction, tutoring, and other services. Still, schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Belonging and Apartness in Intellectual Pursuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So does this book.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 143 other followers