Behind and Ahead: A Conference and a Forum

At the end of June I took part in the PLATO conference in Seattle, along with three students from my school. Ron Gunczler, founding co-editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE, presented along with his co-editor-in-chief, Nicholas Pape, who Skyped in. (Both are now heading off to college.) Kelly Clevenson, now co-editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE, helped with technology and took part in discussions. I gave a presentation as well, in a session with Carl Rosin.

The atmosphere was inspiring and congenial; people came from around the world to present their work and discuss ideas with others. Jonathan Kozol gave the keynote address to a rapt audience. We met Alessia Marabini, whose students won second place in the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; Lizzy Lewis, who spread the word about the contest; Mark Balawender, PLATO’s communications director; and many others. (Here’s the one photo I have so far; here’s the program with abstracts and bios.)

Looking ahead: On September 25 and 26, I will speak at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s 2015 Education Forum, along with a noble multitude: Louise Cowan, Diane Ravitch, Andrew Delbanco, William Deresiewicz, Elizabeth Samet, Dan Russ, Matthew Crawford, and Ben Olguín. The forum will address the nature and urgency of liberal education as described in Donald Cowan’s essay “The Spirit of Liberal Learning” (in his book Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age). Here’s a quote that struck me today:

For genuine learning to take place, instruction must be incomplete, working by synecdoche, leaving gaps that demand completion, transferring the responsibility for learning to the student. The failure that attends education by visual aids is precisely an over-specification and over-control that terminate an insight outside the imagination and seek to imprint it directly on the viewer.

Visual aids themselves are not themselves the problem here (at least not necessarily). It’s the act of interfering with imagination–filling in every possible gap, explaining concepts and meanings from start to finish, and leaving nothing to the individual mind–that deadens and flattens curricula. None of this is necessary; it is possible to teach clearly while leaving enough open that students have a chance to think. How much to tell explicitly, and how much to leave open? That will vary from subject to subject, level to level, class to class, teacher to teacher, and lesson to lesson–but teaching consists in the pursuit of the correct ratio.

It is an honor to participate in these events and discussions.

To See the Possibility of Good

I have been sorting through my things–lugging out bag after bag of garbage, and coming upon letters, books, poems, and other items I didn’t remember I had. I have not done this so thoroughly in a long time. It takes patience but refreshes my spirits (and makes my desk and drawers perusable again).

I have been noticing how important it is to perceive the good, or at least the possibility of good–in those around me and in life itself. This does not mean giving up one’s critical faculties; in fact, it requires looking more carefully than usual. Some of the letters I have saved for years have this quality of perception. Someone saw something good in me, or in someone else, or in something else; whatever the source of good, the perceiving was good in itself.

You can see good in someone without ignoring his or her flaws. Sometimes you have to call others on their errors or weaknesses–but if you do so with openness to the good, the criticism should not harm, unless it is taken in the wrong way. A mean-spirited critique (for instance, a spiteful review of a performance) shuts off possibilities, while a generous one keeps them open.

Of course it is difficult to be open to the good. We have preferences, instincts, and limited time. There are books I will not read to the end (and absolutely detest), albums I will not give a second chance, dishes I will not taste a second time, people I will not befriend. Still, I try to think of at least some of this in terms of my own limitations. I can’t do everything and would not want to try; I’d rather have more time for a few things. In addition, sometimes a harsh judgment can help me take a direction; I will find my way to good writing when I know what to pass over.

For a teacher, it is especially important to see good in the students and their efforts–and to resist the extremes of unmitigated applause and criticism. Some call this the “growth mindset”–focusing on helping students improve and helping them think in terms of progress–but there’s more to it. It has something to do with letting oneself see things and people in the first place. This can happen within the subject matter; you learn about others as you see them tackle an electrical circuit or interpret a passage of Emerson.

There is societal pressure to mark oneself and others with likes and dislikes, tally them up, and arrive at final numbers. Supposedly this speeds up the human processing. I am not sure why we have to go so fast, unless we are in some kind of danger (and even then, some caution is in order). As I sort through my things, I find myself grateful to those who took me slowly and kindly–and invited me into their interest in something else.

Have We Given Up on Conversation?

The other day, on the train, I was sitting next to two teenage girls who were talking with such shrieks in their voices that I thought, “why so loud?” Then I glanced over and saw that both were wearing earphones and had music playing. That is, they were talking over the music playing into their ears. They probably had no idea how loud they were.

Then I transferred to an express train and witnessed the same thing, all over again, with different teenagers. I suppose this is a trend.

But my complaint here is not about teenagers or technology. On a much larger scale we are giving up conversation: letting it be interrupted, drowned out, and compromised. Technology has something to do with it, but we ourselves are to blame for not defending our conversations more staunchly. The wish for a conversation can come across even as an affront: “I don’t mean to be rude, but I would like to talk with you.” For the sake of clarity and focus, I will consider one-on-one conversations only.

First of all, why are conversations important? They allow for more than the “exchange” of ideas, information, feelings, and experiences; through a conversation, you take another into yourself and are changed as a result. You hear things coming from a mind different from your own; not only the words but the gestures play a part. Nothing like this is possible in group discussions, which have their own purposes and possibilities.

The kind of conversation I describe above used to be a staple of my life. It is now a rarity. Why?

First, we have given in to the interruption. I remember the common practice (and etiquette) of returning to a conversation after it has been interrupted, of picking up right where it left off. Today that is considered not polite but brazen; one is expected to honor the interruption and let the conversation go. Broken off in mid-sentence? Oh, well! You would be a fool to resist that.

Second, we have come to exalt the group over the pair. Suppose you are in conversation with someone, and someone else comes along and joins in. Of course, even in the best of circumstances, one should be as gracious as possible: welcome the third person into the discussion for a little while, change the topic accordingly, and so on. Graciousness is one thing—but what I see today is indifference. Group discussions take over because no one acknowledges a loss in this. The group (or dreaded “team”) is the ultimate formation; few go against it or defend anything outside it.

Third, we are too nervous and jumpy to focus on dialogue. We think we might be missing out on some important email or other update. People can go only so long before checking their handheld devices. This is the issue that people often emphasize, but it’s part of a larger phenomenon.

Fourth, we distrust the desire for a true connection. The person who wants to be our friend must be lacking a “life.” The “normal” person is scattered, well-connected, and casual—and sophisticated enough to distrust the concept of sincerity. If there’s no such thing as a “good person” (or, for that matter, an “interesting person”), then those offering or seeking individual attention can be blithely dismissed.

Oh, lighten up! some will say. Have a bit of a sense of humor. It isn’t that bad if you can laugh. True, but the best wit comes from relation, from laughing with another about something or laughing at oneself with another. Take away the relation, and what wit is left? Some slapstick, maybe; some puns; some political humor; but not the deeply funny, not the convulsion of the soul.

What is the cause of all of this? There are many, but I would blame our acquiescence first and foremost. We do not protect our conversations. It’s easier and more stylish to let them slip away.

I say “we,” but I am divided. I both participate in this and resist it, as many others likely do. The challenge, then, is to gather up the resistance: to dare to speak with another person, just one, for a stretch of time.

The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

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.


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