The Ubiquitous Team

Humans enjoy (and sometimes suffer from) a richness of relations. We first form bonds with family members, then start to make friends of different kinds. As we get older, we join groups, collaborate with others, and participate in many kinds of associations. Throughout all of this, solitude allows us to make sense of our relationships, come back to ourselves, and regather our strength and thoughts. Often relations change or break; often they renew themselves in different forms.

Today the concept of the “team” has overtaken all other associations. Just about every group gets called a “team”; and relations outside of teams get short shrift. It is even common to address people as “team.” The problem is not with teams or teamwork but with their ubiquity: the insistence that everyone be part of a team and the suggestion that any resistance at all to the team is a show of personal selfishness or weakness.

The team is just one form of association. Its role is to work toward a concrete goal in a tightly coordinated manner. For instance, if you are an athletic team, your goal is to score more points than the opposing team. You work together toward that end. No single athlete’s brilliance matters unless it contributes to that goal. Likewise, if you are working with others on fundraising (for instance) and have a specific target to achieve, then those contributing to the achievement of the goal are acting as team members.

But there are many forms of collaboration and association that are not quite team-like. A musical ensemble, for instance, is not typically called a “team” (though this is changing as the “team” denomination spreads over onto everything). Although musicians work tightly together, there is a soul to what they do, a kind of solitude to each contribution. Also, the goal is somewhat concrete but not only concrete. A concert goes beyond attaining a goal.

In addition, many associations benefit from the differences and divergences of the members. The work may not be tightly coordinated at all. For instance, in a college English department, the faculty may have different areas of specialty and different approaches to literature. Insofar as they can engage in dialogue, insofar as they have enough common ground, and insofar as the students benefit from their differences, it is good for their efforts not to be too strictly defined and pieced together. As the economist John Jewkes noted in 1958, overemphasis on teamwork can diminish not only individuals, but dialogue between them.

Beyond that, the richest personal and professional associations are often not group relationships, but one-on-one collaborations, friendships, and partnerships. Rarely can a group attain the understanding, rapport, and sympathy that exists between two. When the team is treated as the pinnacle of relations, even personal conversation, even original ideas get subordinated to the team. There is subtle pressure to include others in conversation at all times, to avoid saying things that stand out, to give others credit for one’s own work, and to reserve one’s highest praises for the team.

Teams and teamwork are not bad in themselves; they have an important place in daily life. Most of us have situations where we need to work tightly with others and where our own thoughts and wishes must recede for a while. Yet there is also work that we do better alone or with select others–and work that isn’t quite teamwork. Also, we must not always be working; there must be room and time for thought, exploration, rest, and laughter.

Learning to serve a larger endeavor is also valuable–but there are times not to do so, and many ways of doing so. It is at least as important to diverge from the group–when such divergence is genuine–and to question group assumptions. This may interfere with “teamwork” in the sort run but may actually enrich the work and the relations. As far as I know, we only get one life on earth. It would be a shame to waste it by flattening oneself.

So, without disparaging the team in itself, without dismissing its specific value, I resist its ubiquity with all my heart and soul. There are many more ways to be with oneself and others.

Sleep and Work

When you are running raw and ragged from early morning until late at night, getting four or five hours of sleep per night, a full night of rest brings surprising clarity and strength. Thoughts arrange and complete themselves, emotions settle, and even the face loses its streaks and strains. So it is ironic that, feeling rested, I had a temptation to stay home from synagogue and get work done. (Yes, I do write and work on Shabbat–but going to shul is one of my unbreakable rituals.) I thought: I could catch up with grading, prepare for the many events this week, clean up my place, and so forth–a tempting and reasonable array. Then I realized that the very urge came from a rested state, and the rested state is nothing to take for granted. So I will trek to shul and honor this rest for a few hours more.

It has been an eventful few weeks–with the release of the second issue of CONTRARIWISE, the end of the marking period (I have about a hundred tests to grade this weekend), and more. My article “You Are Embarked: How a Philosophy Curriculum Took Shape and Took Off” just appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of American Educator. I have many ideas for blog posts, articles, stories, and so forth–and hope to complete some of them soon.

A Legal Metaphor in Sonnet 30?

Recently I stumbled on commentary that stated blithely that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”) was filled with legal metaphor: that the word “sessions” acted as a metaphor for court sessions, “summon” for the act of summoning to court, and so on down the line. I found this strange, since I did not hear a legal metaphor in the opening lines at all. I looked up the words in the OED and found that both “session” and “summon” were used as both legal and non-legal terms in Shakespeare’s time and earlier (and even in Shakespeare’s own work).

Then I read something that mentioned Edward Hubler’s idea, developed in The Sense of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, that Shakespeare is using “quasi-legal” vocabulary here. This idea strikes me as fruitful. I will take Hubler’s book out of the library soon and report on what it says, but for now, I propose that in Sonnet 30 Shakespeare uses “sessions” and “summon” both as legal terms and as non-legal terms–in the same instance–and that this contradiction is the very meaning of the poem.

Here is the sonnet in full:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Listen to the first two lines: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….” The repeated “s” gives a sense of silence; the words “sweet” and “silent” immediately create an uncourtlike atmosphere. There’s a sharp contradiction between “sessions” (in the legal sense) and “sweet silent thought”–so one is pushed to think of these sessions instead as times of sitting. The “up” of “summon up” corroborates this: one can “summon up” thoughts, but one doesn’t typically “summon up” someone to court. So far, any legal metaphor, if present at all, is questionable and hidden.

The next four lines likewise lack any kind of legal metaphor; in addition, they lack any reference to detailed reckoning, claiming, or counting (except perhaps in the phrase “dear time’s waste”). Instead, they describe a more general woe:

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

“Death’s dateless night” is an important phrase here, and one that’s easy to overlook; the night of death is dateless because it ultimately doesn’t matter when a death happens; once gone, the friend cannot be brought back. But there is something hopeful about the act of “drowning” an eye “unused to flow”; there seems to be some kind of renewal, however painful, some sense that the “precious friends” are just hidden, not entirely gone.

Then, in the next six lines, something shifts markedly. Metaphors of accounts and reckoning enter full force, making one reinterpret the initial “sessions” and “summon”:

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.

Legal and financial images are pounding down: cancelled, expense, grievances, account, pay. Yet even here, there is subtle word-play and contradiction: “grieve at grievances” has two senses of “grieve,” and “account” means both “tally” and “tale.” (The verb “tell” makes this “account” into a tale, but then “pay” turns it into a tally.) Also, what is going on with the strange “fore-bemoanèd moan”? “Fore-bemoanèd” means “moaned previously,” but why would it be a moan that was previously moaned? I see this as layers of thought on thought–not a precise accounting, in other words, but a dreamy one.

So, even in the references to reckoning and accounting, there are suggestions that the things to be counted cannot be, and that counting is not the point here. Then we come to the last lines:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

The meaning is clear on the surface: the thoughts of a friend redeem all of the losses and end the sorrows. But it is interesting that the entire sonnet contains only two references to thought: “thought” in the first line and “think” in the thirteenth. The sonnet comes around full circle to the “sessions of sweet silent thought”–which are emphatically different from court sessions. Along the way, it has danced with other kinds of sessions, but they do not prevail.

In that sense, Sonnet 30 is about the difference between material reckoning–the kind that takes place in court–and silent thought, which follows different laws and carries different wealth.

More after I read what Hubler has to say about this sonnet.

Balanced Literacy Does Not Equal Joy

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is bringing Balanced Literacy back to low-performing schools. Part of her rationale is that students need to experience the joy of curling up with a book. But what does Balanced Literacy have to do with that? If curling up with a book (or joy, for that matter) is the goal, why not simply allot time during the week to independent reading and allow students to read, without subjecting them to canned strategies, “turn-and-talk” activities, or group work? Have actual instruction in class and actual reading during reading time.

Furthermore, the association of Balanced Literacy with joy is fallacious.

First of all, Balanced Literacy opposes direct, whole-class instruction, which can be both productive and inspiring. There is such a thing as good literature instruction (good literature and good instruction). It is not some “rote,” “mind-numbing” ordeal where a teacher forces the children to work painstakingly through a boring text. It can have interesting topics, sustained class discussion, attention to beautiful, thought-provoking passages, and more. Under Balanced Literacy, unfortunately, the focus of a lesson is not on literature itself (since the children are supposed to pick their own books), but on strategies. Yes, they have “shared reading” here and there, but the focus is still on a strategy. If you ask me, few things are duller than those strategies, especially in their generic form.

Second, Balanced Literacy subjects even independent reading to processes and strategies. This detracts from the independence of it. When reading independently, students should be at liberty to read a book far above their level or below–and not have to do anything in particular with it afterward. Independent reading should not be streamlined; a student should not have to “make an inference” just because everyone else in the room is dutifully making inferences. A student should be able to take in the book’s language, story, characters without having to fill out a “mind map”  or “character chart.”

Third, joy in learning (or reading) is a complex thing. It often comes slowly, from making sense of something obscure or difficult, or finding one’s way into a text or problem. It can be found in dialogue and listening, too. There can be every bit as much joy in a whole-class discussion (or lecture, for that matter) as in an hour with a book. Associating joy with Balanced Literacy is simply misleading.

The CONTRARIWISE Jousting Tournament (and Other Memories)

This poster stands out as one of my favorite CONTRARIWISE memories of 2014.jousting miniature The students will tell the full story at some point. It has to do with a syllogism treasure hunt.

Another favorite memory is of the morning the books arrived. Still another is of the journal’s first review. Then came our spectacular celebration in May, and then the students’ first interview.

But those are the obvious things. I also think back on the reading, editing, announcements, deliberation, decisions, and planning; the jokes, laughter, and pizza; and all the other work behind the scenes. (The jokes and laughter are part of the work; without them, CONTRARIWISE would not be what it is.)

Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see which pieces the editors-in-chief select as winners of the International Contest.

Final edits, layout, and proofreading are underway; the journal should go to press by the end of January, and we should have the books by late February or early March!

“The Remedy Is the Poem Itself”

First, a happy 2015 to everyone! This promises to be a glorious year for CONTRARIWISE. It is also the year of the Class of 2015. At my school, many members of this class have been involved with CONTRARIWISE, philosophy roundtables, and honors projects in philosophy, so I will be both sad and immensely proud to see them move on. Some have already been admitted to colleges (Columbia, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Smith, SUNY Binghamton, and elsewhere); others have a few months of waiting in store. Those months will go by quickly, though, and CONTRARIWISE will come out in the meantime!

The year has also started out with great sadness; one of my former students lives in Shanghai, so when I read the news of the stampede, it was not remote as such news often can be. (I trust that she is unharmed—but she must have been affected in any case.)

I am returning today to an idea from yesterday: the idea that the “successful” teacher is one who looks inward. What bothers me is not the idea of looking inward, but rather the subordination of this to some kind of success on the job. In other words, inner life should not and cannot be mandated, and those who live it must do so on their own terms. It certainly may take place on the job and may have benefits for the job—but ultimately it is not for the job. Soul-searching as a job requirement will be stultified. To have meaning, it must be at liberty to go beyond others’ demands. It will find more of a home in poetry than in any teacher manual (since poetry by nature goes beyond others’ expectations).

When listening to a recorded lecture this morning, I was introduced to a passage from The Principles of Art by Robin George Collingwood:

The artist must prophesy not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but in the sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need them is that no community knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community altogether deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death. For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness.

There is a lot to interpret in this passage, but I will focus on these two statements: “no community knows its own heart” and “the remedy is the poem itself.” Why does no community know its own heart? Well, it is virtually impossible to have heart as a group. Yes, there are approximations, but they are often galvanized by one person’s action—in this case, a poem. Why is the poem the remedy? It’s not that it makes us feel better. Rather, it offers full life and a release from compromises, lies, half-measures, and what Collingwood calls “the corruption of consciousness.”

To prophesy,  then, is to tell not the future, but the present; to tell it as no one else is telling it. Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” (which I read after being moved by David Bromwich’s description in Moral Imagination) has prophetic momentum; we go with Betty on a journey that we ourselves take but do not always recognize. It is the story of a mother searching high and low for her “idiot boy,” whom she has sent off in the night for medicine for their neighbor, who is very sick. Her hope and worry and near-despair are so great that even nature seems to come to a stop (except for the owls):

She listens, but she cannot hear
The foot of horse, the voice of man;
The streams with softest sound are flowing,
The grass you almost hear it growing,
You hear it now, if e’er you can.

The owlets through the long blue night
Are shouting to each other still:
Fond lovers! yet not quite hob nob,
They lengthen out the tremulous sob,
That echoes far from hill to hill.

It would be difficult to read this poem without some soul-searching (where the soul itself goes searching). But this is not the kind that bends to any job. It goes beyond employment. A job, no matter how important or meaningful, must not be confused with a life. No book on pedagogy comes close to “the tremulous sob, / That echoes far from hill to hill.” Unless Wordsworth is included in the curriculum, few will see the poem as relevant to anything at school. But in a sense it is relevant to everything: it is a poem of life and death, sanity and insanity, health and illness, childhood and adulthood, humans and nature—all of this in chillingly beautiful verse. It is worth living beyond the job, even for this poem alone.

The All and Nothing of Teaching

My blood sizzled when I recently came upon Martin Haberman’s essay “When Teachers Face Themselves.” Martin Haberman has had considerable impact on teacher preparation and recruitment around the country. (His foundation developed, among other things, the Star Teacher Pre-Screener, of which I am critical; see my commentary in Republic of Noise.)

He begins by acknowledging that teachers are subject to constant scrutiny and judgment:

Teaching is a difficult, complex activity and it is to be expected that reasonable people will be engulfed by feelings of self doubt. “Why am I emotionally drained and physically exhausted?” “Can I really keep doing this?” “I need more time and energy for my own kids and family.” Teachers’ anxiety results from the fact that their work and personal behaviors are constantly being judged: by administrators, by their students, by parents, by other members of the school staff and by test scores. Having one’s behavior under constant scrutiny and evaluation inevitably creates pressures. These pressures generate some degree of anxiety in anyone who assumes the role of teacher.

He then goes on to distinguish between successful teachers, who can look inward, and unsuccessful teachers, who cannot:

The reason some teachers can function successfully in these highly judgmental situations while others cannot is that effective teachers have the willingness and ability to recognize and deal with their own emotions. By facing themselves they reach higher levels of self understanding. Greater self awareness leads them to understand what makes them anxious and angry. Knowing and being able to predict what makes them angry enables them to redirect impulsive negative behavior into positive responses.

This part strikes me as presumptuous. Yes, it is true that teachers who look inward are better equipped to solve daily problems than those who do not. But he assumes that it is the defective teachers who criticize the conditions and larger picture, whereas the effective teachers function well “under even under the most debilitating conditions of work” (as he says just a little later). He assumes, from the start, that the teacher who feels stress is deficient in some way. He states outright that teaching conditions simply are what they are and that good teachers work within them. He assumes that if you examine yourself and face your anger effectively, the stress of teaching will not take a toll. He disregards the possibility that introspection of this kind can make your work even more taxing, as you end up pondering problems, humbling yourself, admitting to your faults (even when they involved no “impulsive negative behavior” or anything close) and thinking about your work all around the clock.

But even those are not my main objection. Running through his argument is an assumption that teachers deserve nothing but must give fully of themselves. He does not consider that you can be a highly dedicated teacher, you can love your work, yet you might ask at some point, “when do I get to live as myself again?”

I have never had a job that I loved as deeply as teaching. Yet as a teacher I miss some basic things sorely. One of these is friendship. Over time, it has become more and more difficult to get together with friends; I almost always have something due the next day, have my mind on school, and can’t handle the complex process of finding a time to meet. (In New York City, it is not uncommon to make a phone appointment for the purpose of setting a time to get together: “Give me a call next Thursday, and then we can work out a plan.”) From my perspective, I have made many efforts to stay in touch, but the very problem lies in that phrase “staying in touch.” Friendship has a rhythm. Once the rhythm is broken down, it can be difficult to revive.

Friendships within the school are guarded and limited. Some colleagues may be potential friends, but you are usually in too much of a rush to say more than a quick hello. Students cannot be your friends; in fact, your responsibility is to build respectful and bounded rapport with them within the work you undertake together. As for parents, you may feel affinity toward them, but there’s a boundary, for understandable reasons.

I also miss the freedom of expression and reception that I had before becoming a teacher. I didn’t have to worry about what would happen if students came upon my writing and music (or, for that matter, favorite books and records). There’s no offensive material in there,  but it hasn’t been pre-screened for teenagers,  either. As a teacher, I have come to pre-screen everything I say and do, sometimes without realizing it. I rarely read a book that I am not planning to include in a lesson. I miss reading Philip Roth, for instance, or watching Godard films.

On the other hand, there are things I could not have done except as a teacher. CONTRARIWISE may be the most rewarding project of my life. I see the students taking off with it, defining it, making it more than I originally imagined, yet I help see this through and work on it day after day. The philosophy teaching itself has been an extraordinary experience: writing a curriculum, putting it into practice, dealing with many challenges, and seeing it take shape and grow in meaning. The Philosophy Roundtables have been delightful and moving. The last one (about the philosophy of humor) was one of my favorites, but each one carries a distinct memory.

So, there are no regrets, and I am in no rush, but I am starting to look beyond teaching. No situation is perfect, but certain combinations work better than others. This has nothing to do with bitterness, frustration, or inability to reach goals. It has more to do with wanting to do certain things that don’t fit in the teaching persona. What Haberman fails to acknowledge is that this persona cloaks a life; the thicker the introspection, the greater the weight of the cloth.

Note: I made a minor edit (to avoid word repetition) after the initial posting.

A Sounder Conception of Change

In discussions of education and culture, characterizations of change often veer into crassness. It is common to speak of a battle of change versus the status quo, as though Good were finally girding its loins for the great confrontation with Evil. According to such rhetoric, those who do not embrace change will eventually be beaten by it, so everyone should jump aboard the big New Change. Thus Chris Hughes, owner of The New Republic, has stated that the magazine had to choose whether “to embrace the future or slide towards irrelevance, which is something I refuse to allow”; thus Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor, writes in Lessons of Hope (p. 72 et passim) that true “change agents” in schools must fight resistance from defenders of the “status quo.”

In fact, change and status quo are in continual interaction; to effect good change, one must consider carefully what to preserve. A sound conception of change would allow for sound courses of action; instead of pitting change against stasis, we would recognize the role of both.

What most disturbs me in change rhetoric is its blunt conformism. You are either for change or against it; there is nothing in between. I don’t know who decided that change required abdication of thought and judgment, but whoever did so wasn’t thinking carefully (or sought to manipulate others). To confront the fallacy, let us first consider what change is and then address two common misconceptions of it.

Change is alteration, variation, mutation; it can be slow or rapid, chaotic or organized. I will focus here on intentional change. As rational beings, we are capable of choosing to effect a change. Much change lies out of our control; it happens to us willy-nilly (like aging) or comes out of coincidence (an overheard melody, for instance). What interests me here is the change we bring about through our own will, in our individual actions or on a larger scale. (Rarely is a change entirely the result of our own intent and effort; that is a separate matter.) The usual language surrounding intentional change embeds two misconceptions: it portrays the proposed change as (a) part of a large and inevitable movement and (b) absolutely opposed to the old ways.

One common line is that change is happening anyway, whether we like it or not, so we must go along with it. If magazines are turning into “vertically integrated media companies,” then what would any savvy publication do but conform? In fact, no good change results from abdication of judgment. Any change “in the air” can be pursued or interpreted in myriad ways. A magazine such as The New Republic could develop an online presence while retaining its quality and readability. It takes imagination and good judgment to bring this about, but these qualities have been found in humans before. A flashy, distracting layout is not the inevitable mark of the encroaching Future. Insofar as the future always lies ahead of us, we are at liberty to shape it.

Another mistaken notion is that a “change agent” must differ markedly, in word and action, from those who guard the “status quo.” According to Klein, a principal who acts as a “change agent” must disrupt the current teaching practices and push new methods and models. Are we sure that these new methods and models make sense and serve our students well? Are we sure that such changes will not prove superficial? Often the most profound educational change involves a mixture of preservation and alteration.

This year I am teaching my tenth-grade ethics course for the third time; because its structure and content are stable, I can make significant and subtle adjustments. Had a change agent pushed for a drastic pedagogical change in my classroom (for instance, student-led small-group discussion in almost every lesson), many of the subtler changes would not have been possible, nor would I have been able to exercise judgment as I do now.

In literary, philosophical, and religious works, one finds an understanding of change that could inform public discussion. My students are now reading Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. The protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, finds himself in a mid-life rut, a kind of contemporary Inferno. As a student pointed out, it is as though he were surrounded by dead people and struggling for his own life. Yet his ultimate change comes not from any financial windfall, job offer, or change of scene, but from an opening of the soul. (I will say more about that in another post.)

Some would protest that Tommy Wilhelm’s transformation has a place in fiction but not in real life and certainly not in policy. (“Come back when you have a Tommy Wilhelm model for the classroom.”) But policy is the work of individuals with a mind and a conscience. We use our intelligence, after all, to determine what is correct, good, just, and beautiful; the soul (defined in secular or religious terms) responds to these qualities. If we act without mind or soul, we are not acting at all; we are merely yapping in unison.

As I look at the mulberry tree outside, I think about its bareness. It is the same tree, with the same structure, that abounded in yellow a month ago. The change in the tree has meaning because of what has not changed. In the tree and elsewhere, the interaction of change and stasis is as complex as our perception admits. If our language of change reflected this truth, we could work toward wise policies and avert great damage.

The CONTRARIWISE National Contest Winners

The CONTRARIWISE editors-in-chief have announced the winners of the two national contests! Please read the announcement itself. Congratulations to the authors and to CONTRARIWISE!

The winners of the International Contest will be announced in January.

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.

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