The Humanity and Humanness of Apology

fort-tryon-1Every once in a while, a piece pops up about the “right” and “wrong” ways to apologize. A new one, by Jane E. Brody, appeared today in the New York Times and followed the same pattern. I have copied my comment below (with a few minor edits, which I have indicated in bold). While the article makes some good points, its dogma gets in the way. After the block quote, I will explain where Brody’s argument becomes too rigid.

This article contains one essential piece of wisdom: that apologies should be sincere, unfettered, and brief. Beyond that, though, the author went too far in putting forth a formula.

In Jewish law [I said “tradition,” but it’s actually law, with qualifications], one is supposed to ask three times for forgiveness; if one does not, one has not done one’s part. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes of this in Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 2:9-10. According to some, though, a person should ask for forgiveness only twice, since the third request would oblige the other person to forgive. In any case, the act of asking opens the door. At the same time, one should not view those “three times” as foolproof. This is a human gesture.

But what if you do not know exactly what you did wrong? Should you avoid “I’m sorry if” and force an interpretation onto the situation? Or should you instead offer a preliminary, tentative, qualified apology, with the understanding that you will make it more concrete when you understand more? An apology should be truthful; if you do not know the truth, are you supposed to pretend? Is it not better to show your uncertainty?

Moreover, we are all fallible, as are our apologies. A slightly misworded apology should not be cause for a sneer. (“She said ‘if.’ Ha! That shows what kind of person she is.”)

In short, while there are right and wrong forms of apology, an overly strict formula can actually stand in the way of right action and feeling. [I would revise this last sentence but am letting it stand, since I make my points below.]

Brody begins by distinguishing easy apologies from difficult ones–and suggesting that in the latter case, the wording makes a great difference: “Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship.”

But she then goes on to describe an apology that, according to the psychologist and author Harriet Lerner, she (Brody) performed perfectly. The result, too, was perfect. Homemade jam and friendship.

So what do the rest of us mortals do wrong? She loses no time in getting to our errors.

First, she says that the apology should be brief, sincere, and unfettered. When people qualify their apologies or focus on the other person’s feelings, they are avoiding their own responsibility. There’s no disputing this, except that sometimes we don’t know exactly where we went wrong or how the  other person felt. Ideally an apology is “unfettered,” but not all circumstances are ideal.

Second, according to Brody and Lerner, a request for forgiveness should not be part of the apology. I find that restrictive and incorrect. In asking for forgiveness, I can show humility and acknowledge the mutuality of the situation. I have hurt you, and I am now also hurt by this rift. Of course a request for forgiveness should not be pushy–but if you do not include it, it may be unclear what you actually want. The other person may think no reply is needed.

The offended party, she says, does not have to forgive (that is true); he or she can do something relaxing instead. She quotes Lerner: “There is no one path to healing … There are many roads to letting go of corrosive emotions without forgiving, like therapy, meditation, medication, even swimming.” Granted, but isn’t forgiveness preferable, when possible? If you have received an apology and are capable of forgiving, is it just as good to go to a spa?

But all of this seems tangential to an essential point that Brody does not make: Whenever possible, an apology should involve face-to-face conversation or some other human dialogue. Maybe a letter initiates it. Maybe a long, involved conversation is unnecessary. Maybe it takes thirty seconds to make up. But the people should have a chance to hear and see each other. If they cannot meet in person, they can approximate the meeting in the mind and heart.

This is especially important in our internet-driven era, where many conversations take place by email, texting, or other “messaging.” It is as difficult to convey your intent by email as it is to understand someone else’s. Face-to-face conversation, or even a phone call, can turn misunderstandings to mist.

In the absence of conversation, a letter can become an impossible performance, especially if you are supposed to say everything just right, and especially when expert after expert lays out the “dos and don’ts,” essentially encouraging the offended party to judge and dismiss the apologizer. Get those words right, says Brody, or you may cause lasting pain. And then it’s your fault!

That, in my view, goes against the very spirit of apology, which involves recognizing oneself and another as human.

Note: I made some minor revisions to this piece after posting it–and edited it again later. The substance remains unchanged.

A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

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

Are Meetings Dominated by Three Talkers?

loud-talkerIn my work experience, the most satisfying meetings have been the ones with substance and purpose, led by a wise moderator. While I do not take such meetings for granted, I would not call them rare exceptions to a grim human rule.

Supposedly “research shows” otherwise. According to Susan Cain, “there’s research out of the Kellogg School recently that showed that in your typical meeting, you have three people doing 70 percent of the talking.”

Now, I have been to meetings where I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but this figure makes little sense. What is a “typical” meeting? How could one possibly arrive at a specific percentage, given the variety of meeting sizes, atmospheres, structures, purposes, and contexts? In addition, why assume (out of context) that this is an undesirable state of things? Should everyone be talking at a meeting?

Cain’s statement has been quoted on Fortune.com and the Campus Technology website, neither of which provides a research source. Fortunately the Quiet Ambassadors brochure does: “Leigh Thompson, J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management.” That is the entire citation. There’s no reference to a particular work.

I looked up Thompson’s statements on this subject. In her book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), on p. 128, she claims that in a four-person group, two people do 62 percent of the talking; in a six-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking, and in an eight-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking. (She gives the same figures in a Fortune.com article and approximates them on the Kellogg School of Management website.) She implies that as the group size increases, the main talkers make up a smaller percentage of it.

This is a far cry from saying that in a “typical meeting,” three people do 70 percent of the talking. But even her statement seems dubious. Where do her figures come from? In the endnotes to Creative Conspiracy, she cites M. E. Shaw, Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small-Group Behavior, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 170. The title suggests that the research (which was conducted over 35 years ago) pertains specifically to small groups, not meetings overall. In fact, these small groups may have lacked a moderator; I will look into this when I get a chance.

I support structuring meetings so that those who wish to speak can do so. But why make a weak case for this? Why throw around misleading figures and statements?

This is not an isolated instance. Again and again, I see figures used out of context. Cain has asserted repeatedly that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert.” This was based on a small and vague study (of 91 teachers of unspecified subjects and grade levels). Others have claimed (see the article’s bar chart) that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraverted personalities, a statement needing strong qualification. These figures suggest a dire situation where the extraverts run the show and the introverts (although supposedly making up 50 percent of the general population)* get overlooked and ignored. Statement after statement, figure after figure misrepresents the research, which itself has limited implications.

One can promote thoughtful discourse in the workplace without resorting to flashy figures. The moderator–in many cases, the manager–can set the tone by ensuring, first of all, that the meeting is about something. Then she can lead the discussion, drawing out contrasting ideas and helping to reconcile and synthesize them. Over time, she can relax her role, as others will take part in leading. But when she needs to step in, she can do so.

This takes not just skill but a keen understanding of the relation between topic and form, and an alertness to those present (and absent). Some discussions will be swift, others lengthy; some require only two contrasting views, whereas others benefit from subtleties and variations.

The quality of a discussion has little to do with the number or proportion of people talking; a discussion with just two conversants might cover what people want to say, while a discussion with twenty voices might end up going nowhere. If the tenor of the discussion is thoughtful, and if the moderator and others guide it well, the meeting will not come to ruin, nor will people be shouted down. But above all, there should be something worth talking about, and the participants should take it up with intelligence, ear, and candor.

 

*The percentage of introverts depends largely on how you define and test introversion, how you distribute the data, and where you draw the line.

Image credit: Doug Savage, “Loud Talker.”

Note: I made some additions and edits to this piece after posting it–and made additional edits later.

The Benefits of Complex Mindsets

hesse-steppenwolfIn a 2015 commentary in Education Week, Carol Dweck acknowledges that she and her colleagues may have oversimplified “growth mindset” and ignored the mixtures of mindset in all of  us:

My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance toward our message to educators. Maybe we originally put too much emphasis on sheer effort. Maybe we made the development of a growth mindset sound too easy. Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.

I commend her for this acknowledgment and would take it a step further. I suggest that the concept of “growth mindset” is inherently limiting: that while we benefit from the awareness that we can improve, we actually employ, in all our work, a mixture of fixity and growth. Growth mindset does not exist as a discrete phenomenon, nor would we be better off if it did.

Before explaining this, let me clarify that I am not dismissing the importance of openness to improvement in oneself and others. When we see humans as fixed, we are likelier to demean or overpraise them. So-and-so is “so amazing” or utterly beyond hope. I know what it’s like to have someone latch onto something I said in a difficult moment, and remind me of it again and again over the years, as though that utterance encapsulated me. I also know what it means to expect myself to perform brilliantly–not just well, but brilliantly–and to disparage myself when I did not.

But as soon as I look beyond those extreme examples, I see a more complex picture. In particular, I see how a degree of “fixity,” mixed with “growth” and other attitudes, could help a person accomplish good things. Moreover, there is some fixity inherent in any growth.

First, from elementary school onward, we decide where to direct our efforts. Yes, we all have to do our schoolwork, but beyond that, when faced with many possibilities, which ones do we select? Some–not all–of our decisions will take our abilities into account. If I must choose between gymnastics and a musical instrument, and if I love both but am much better at one, I will probably choose that one.

Now, I might choose to continue pursuing both, or to fight my limitations and pursue the less “natural” course–but even there, I will take my abilities into account. No matter what the ultimate choice, it involves a degree of “fixed mindset”: the acknowledgment that we have more ease with certain pursuits than with others. (This does not mean that, in choosing them, we avoid challenge; to the contrary, we may open ourselves to higher levels of challenge.)

Second, even within a chosen field we employ “fixed mindset” when choosing direction. Suppose I am working on a poem, and it is not coming out right. I could try and try to improve it, or I could scrap it and start a new one. Both choices have a place. Sometimes a poem has some promising elements but needs work; sometimes it is flawed from the start. The ability to say “this is going nowhere”  actually allows me to try something else. Something similar could be said for a scientific theory or pedagogical approach. Giving up is not always wrong; it can allow for an opening.

Third, as I have mentioned before, a “fixed mindset” may come from a sharp vision of excellence. When we see ourselves falling short of it, we may question our work and withdraw for a while. Within measure, this can actually do good. I see where I am, and I see where I want to be; the gulf tempts me to give up. I think of giving up, wrestle a bit with the temptation, go to sleep, wake up, and continue onward. Everything is informed by the vision and the questioning. If I had not thought of giving up, if I had not struggled a little  with the temptation, my continuation would have less meaning.

My point here is not to glorify “fixed mindset” (God forbid) but to suggest that we work with a mixture of growth and fixity and other things. The challenge is to find the right mixture. I remember a novel I loved as a teenager:  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Here  the saxophonist Pablo is rearranging the pieces of Harry Haller’s (the protagonist and narrator’s) personality:

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. For a while he let this lively and yet orderly world go through its evolutions before my enraptured eyes in play and strife, making treaties and fighting battles, wooing, marrying, and multiplying. It was indeed a crowded stage, a moving breathless drama.

Then he swiftly sweeps the pieces into a heap and starts over with a new formation.

Although somewhat quaint, the image of Pablo and the pieces evokes a wisdom that I miss: the wisdom that we are made of many elements, that we carry vast combinations, and that, instead of pushing ourselves into one “mindset” or another, we can make the most of the mixture.

 

Note: Please see my two previous posts on this topic: “The Fixed Mindset of ‘Growth Mindset’” and “Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

growth-mindset-cheerJesse Singal  posted a new piece (on the original URL) correcting his previous assertions about “growth mindset.” He acknowledges that he relied too much on a BuzzFeed article by Tom Chivers instead of doing his research. He discusses some of the research that he overlooked and encourages us to read Carol Dweck’s new post defending her theory.

I commend him for the self-correction but think he went overboard in replacing the article. (Granted, he didn’t delete the original; he links to the JPEG of it. Still, it’s effectively gone; it doesn’t appear in his archive.) The reasons for questioning “growth mindset” (as both a serious theory and a fad) go far beyond the momentary or trivial. His mode of questioning may have been limited, but it was a start.

What is the real problem here? Dweck, by her account, has conducted the research carefully, conscientiously, and skeptically; unfortunately, she says, the theory has been misunderstood and misapplied by teachers. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) But the theory rests on a dichotomous proposition: that there is such a thing as “growth mindset” as opposed to “fixed mindset,” and that people have one or the other. I propose that people have a mixture of both–and that, rather than driving everything we do, they accompany or follow other drivers.

As I said yesterday, it makes sense (as a teacher, student, or anyone else) to focus on one’s capacity for improvement rather than exclusively on static achievement. But (as I also said) the latter has a place as well. It matters to do something well, period, regardless of how much we have “grown”  toward it. I want my poem to be good. Yes, I want my poetry to grow as well, but if the individual poems do not move, intrigue, provoke, or delight, I don’t care a whit about the growth. A person needs a combination of “growth” and “fixed” mindsets.

On his new blog Statistical Thinking, the Frank Harrell names one of the problems in the field of statistics:

Subject matter experts (e.g., clinical researchers and epidemiologists) try to avoid statistical complexity by “dumbing down” the problem using dichotomization, and statisticians, always trying to be helpful, fail to argue the case that dichotomization of continuous or ordinal variables is almost never an appropriate way to view or analyze data.

I wonder whether he would say that “growth mindset” theory suffers from dichotomization; I have not yet seen this particular question addressed, but everything in my experience and knowledge tells me that mindsets are complex and that the complexity can be productive.

Beyond that, the very focus on mindset seems to miss something. In a calculus class, I do not want the professor to talk about mindset. I want her to talk about the actual problems. Now, it does make a difference if she implicitly recognizes that students can improve, that their performance on the test is not an ultimate statement about them. She can convey this in all sorts of subtle ways. But my own mindset will be much more vigorous and hopeful if the professor focuses on the subject.

Some students may benefit from explicit instruction in mental habits and attitudes. Others pick up on all sorts of implicit suggestions and cues. So yes, schools should carefully consider what messages they are sending. But they should also exercise caution in implementing psychological theories that at best approximate the truth or bring out one aspect of it.

Dweck states that her early optimism over school implementation faded when she saw how poorly teachers and parents understood growth mindset:

Although we were originally optimistic about teachers’ ability to readily apply growth mindset in their classrooms, we began to learn things that tempered this optimism. We began to see and accumulate research evidence that the growth mindset concept was poorly understood by many parents and educators and that adults might not know how to pass a growth mindset on to children, even when they reported holding it for themselves.

I do not think she meant this, but it’s easy to take her words to mean, “those benighted teachers and parents fail to understand our scholarship.” She does imply, in any case, that the problems with implementation are at least partly due to teachers’ and parents’ misunderstandings of the concept. She points to a survey suggesting that teachers have little confidence in their ability to teach growth mindset in the classroom.

But what if this misunderstanding and lack of confidence came from the very weaknesses and limitations of the theory? What if it were true that mindsets cannot be so easily divided, and that we benefit from their combination? Perhaps teachers and parents are picking up on this possibility; perhaps this intuition, or something like it, was behind Singal’s original post.

I leave off with the question: Are mindsets really packageable?

Image credit: YouTube video: “Growth Mindset Cheer!

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

Update: In an Education Week article (and perhaps elsewhere as well), Dweck acknowledges that we have mixtures of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. But does she consider that the very mixture of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets may play a beneficial role in our lives? This came up in the comments; I will dedicate a separate piece to the question within the next few days.

The Fixed Mindset of “Growth Mindset”

growth_mindset_poster_0Jesse Singal strikes again. In his most recent article, he explains that the “growth mindset” theory (and raging fad) has “staggeringly little evidence” to support it. The actual research underlying it appears incomplete and flawed.

Carol Dweck coined, investigated, and popularized the theory of “growth mindset”: namely, that those who value improvement and persistence tend to be the ones who ultimately excel, while those with “fixed mindset,” who expect themselves to succeed right away, tend to quit at the first sign of failure. Schools have seized on this, telling teachers not to praise students for their talent or even their accomplishments, but rather for their growth. Supposedly, if students start thinking in terms of growth, they will set themselves on a path of continued improvement.

There is some obvious truth to this. You don’t do a student (or anyone) a favor by continually saying “you’re so smart” or “you play beautifully.” On the other hand, if you force yourself into growth-mindset lingo (“You’ve grown so much since your last recital; your staccato is much more precise than before”), you don’t help anyone either. This kind of dogmatism becomes a fixed mindset of its own.

In addition, if you devote school resources to the cultivation of “growth mindset,” you may take away from other things, such as literature, mathematics, music, and so on. In addition, attempts to incorporate “growth mindset” in the curriculum can lead to rigid and limited interpretations of the subject at hand.

For example, the 2016 study “Even Einstein Struggled” (conducted by researchers at Teachers College and the University of Washington) compared ninth- and tenth-grade students who read “struggle stories” of scientists with students who read “achievement stories.” It found that those who read struggle stories, especially low-performing students, saw a greater increase in their grades (which were based on “classwork, homework, quizzes, projects, and tests”) than those who read achievement stories. In addition, it found that students who read the struggle stories felt more connected to the scientists than students who read the achievement stories.

But the researchers do not consider the possibility that a “struggle story” may be intellectually interesting or illuminating. Students may connect with it not just because they can “relate” to struggle, but because they want to see how a scientist actually solved a problem. In other words, the “struggle” may be less important here than the actual problem and the scientist’s way of tackling it.

The Wright brothers are a case in point. In his illuminating (and wonderfully unfaddish) book How We Reason, Philip Johnson-Laird argues that it was not simply persistence that eventually brought the Wright brothers to success, but their particular way of reasoning through errors. In other words, “grit” and “growth mindset” may be symptoms rather than causes of such persistence and eventual success.

Another problem with the “growth mindset” is that it gets awfully silly awfully fast. You start seeing posters with “growth mindset praises.” A mantra arises that you should never call a person smart. NYC Educator comments:

I don’t freely call people smart. I really say that to very few kids. But if I say it, it means I’ve noticed something very special in them. Kids who think fast, who come back immediately, who aren’t afraid to say directly what’s on their mind, and who have clever, creative or impressive things on said minds really impress me. I have to tell them how smart they are. I never know whether or not anyone else has told them, whether anyone else has even noticed, and I think they need to know.

I don’t tell students they are smart, but I have told them when I thought they did something especially well (another “growth mindset” no-no). I wouldn’t do that all the time; that would give my praise too much weight. But I wouldn’t abandon it either.

I think of the times when someone has recognized my work–for its quality, not its growth. Some of these praises were pivotal in my life; they helped me see that my work could affect people. I didn’t stop working because of that. Yet I also needed people who could point out flaws. Over time, I became able to do much of this for myself–recognize when I was (or wasn’t) doing something well, and identify what I could do better.

Also, there are things I simply am not good at (like improv comedy). Sure, I can “grow” in them, but is the slow crawl toward mediocrity worth my while? It may actually help me, in some circumstances, to utter the forbidden phrase “I’m just not good at this.”

Like many ideas in education, growth mindset theory expresses a partial truth. It is neither revolution nor royalty; it deserves neither chants nor a crown. On the other hand, the “takeaway” is not that we should get rid of all vestiges of growth mindset. Take away its dogma and buzzwords, but give it a modest place among other principles.

Image credit: HR Zone.

Note: After posting this piece, I made a few minor edits to it and added two sentences to the end. Also, I was not joking about “growth mindset” chants; see the video.

Update: After making the latest edits, I saw a new post by Jesse Singal. I respond to it in a new post here.

Forms of Not Listening

youre_not_listeningIn my previous post, I discussed the intense activity of listening–but what are the dangers and losses of not listening? Before addressing this question, one must identify the various kinds of “not listening.”

There’s “not listening” where you willfully plug your ears. There’s also the kind to which I am prone: where your mind wanders, and you lose track of what the person is saying. Often a person’s word will trigger a thought, which in turn triggers another thought; before I know it, I have gone far away in my mind. Usually I catch myself quickly, but sometimes not.

There is also the kind where the words go “in one ear and  out the other”–that is, where you make no attempt to assemble or remember them.

But the kind I will focus on today is perhaps more insidious than the others: where you decide, in advance, that you know what the person is going to say, what the piece is going to sound like, etc. When you listen, you hear what you have already set out to hear; you exclude what does not fit. This includes listening to silence; you cut it to your own prefabricated interpretation and ignore the range of possibilities.

Anyone is capable of this kind of error; what’s more, we often commit it unawares. It is all too easy to fit a person’s words (or lack of words) into our existing models. This is the essence of prejudice; we sum others up and shut out what doesn’t fit our summations. Or, if we are listening to a piece of music, we shut out its uniqueness, or the particularities of the performance; it becomes “just another” Romantic work or what have you.

The danger lies not only in the reduction of others, but in the accompanying hubris. To listen badly in this way is to place oneself above listening: it isn’t worth my time, the non-listener thinks, because I already know what it will bring or else don’t need to know.

Now, some of this is inevitable; we have to filter the sounds and speech that come at us. We can’t take it all in; sometimes we have to make quick sense of it and proceed from there. Also, to listen to something well, we must shut out other things; the very act of selection requires not listening to everything. Still, we can recognize the incompleteness of the gesture, the existence of something more.

Listening to silence, or near-silence, challenges everything in us; we rush to make sense of “nothing.” We are terrified of the expanse of “nothing”–the possibility that it could mean thousands of things. I think of–and question–the ending of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (the first novel in The Alexandria Quartet):

Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water. I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter unanswered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?

This passage has puzzled me for years. Yes, everything depends on our interpretation of the silence around us–but is it correct to interpret it according to our own “needs and desires”? Is it right to expect others to do so? The narrator hints at something beyond these words: that a reply would be false at this time, and that time itself has a role to play. But that differs from interpreting the silence according to one’s needs and desires. The narrator’s own expression has flaws (which propel us into the second book of the Quartet).

To listen to silence is to know that one does not know what it is. To box up silence is to presume oneself above it, folding the flaps and tying the strings. Pride consists in packaging the infinite.

Image credit: “you’re not listening”  by Jesslee Cuizon.

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

Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?

danny-practicing-torah-reading

One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”

Jackrabbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Update-Ish Sort of Post

I try not to make this blog too update-y, but once in a while an update or two is in order. Here are a few bundled together in one post.

The other day I bit the bullet and set up a Facebook author page. One disagreeable thing about Facebook is that it’s set up for people to judge you by how many “likes” you have. Oh, sure, now they’ve added various emoticons, so that you can personalize your “liking.” But the effect is the same. It’s one big jostle for popularity. But I wanted a place for updates, separate from the blog. So there you have it, likes or no likes. (The three likes I did receive are worth thousands as far as I am concerned.)

Next, I have announced this already (and deleted the former announcement): my TEDx talk “Take Away the Takeaway” is up on YouTube. I have been getting great responses by email. Ironically, one of the first commenters on YouTube wrote (within an hour or so of the posting), “Not many views for a 6 million subscriber channel…” Someone pointed out that it had just been posted, and he replied, “obviously, but still after 3+ hours only 100 views.” Is this supposed to pass for discourse? What irks me is not what he said–which was just silly–but the structure that sets people up to think and speak that way.

As a teacher, I continually emphasized the difference between popularity and quality. I encouraged students to consider views on their own merits, to withhold snap judgments about a text, and to hear each other out. But much of our culture pushes in the opposite direction.

in-the-heightsWait–this was supposed to be an update-ish post. My other two updates have to do with my former school. On February 4 and 5, a huge cast at Columbia Secondary School will be performing In the Heights. Year after year, the performances have been beautiful and rousing; this one promises to stand on its own. Here’s the show synopsis from the Rodgers and Hammerstein website:

IN THE HEIGHTS tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind. IN THE HEIGHTS is the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

Finally, the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE is now in production and will appear this spring! The editors have done a superb job of taking over all the responsibilities, shaping the fourth issue, and seeing the journal into the future. I have been uninvolved, except to answer a question once in a great while,  but have been eagerly awaiting the new volume.

Speaking of Columbia Secondary School, I will be returning in early March (and possibly a second time) to lead a philosophy roundtable. More on that as the date approaches. For now, that’s it for the updates.

The Wobbly Words of Morning

morning-snow-1This morning I went walking in Fort Tryon Park and saw a long ribbon of snow. It seems to have fallen off the top of the bench but stayed intact, even sagging.

I thought, as I walked, about how, when you wake up from dreams, the words don’t fall into place immediately. They wobble for a little while. I wondered whether that might be part of the role of dreams: to detach us, even momentarily, from the utilitarian function of words. If, for a few minutes each morning, we lack ready-made phrases, maybe we can think about things in a different way. I was thinking about a book I had just finished rereading. Eleven years had passed between the first reading and now. As I walked up the hill (before this photo–this was on the way down), it occurred to me that I did not have to say anything about the book. I could keep my thoughts to myself until I wanted to say something. In the meantime, the world would do just fine without my review.

Day after day, we are urged to cast our instant reactions in words and numbers. To withhold an opinion is to risk offending the automated deities. morning-snow-2But look beyond all that clatter and chatter, and there is the possibility of silence. I don’t mean that silence is always better. Each of us makes distinct choices about when and when not to speak. The point is that one can choose.

So I walked past these benches and this near-infinite tree, whose branches stretch into smaller branches, which stretch into brushes of twigs. I heard my boots crunching in the snow. Up here, I was all alone. But there were ski tracks, dog tracks, footprints from earlier, maybe from yesterday. In my mind, these turned into sounds of gliding, crunching, and frisking.

The sun came up, the snow fell in ribbons, and phrases shone on the ground. I returned home and revised my twelfth chapter.