Anger Endangered

Last spring, in political philosophy class, my students and I discussed Hannah Arendt’s assertion that “behavior has replaced action as the foremost mode of human relationship.” After analyzing it in context, we considered whether it held true today. A few students commented on the pressure to be pleasant all the time. One student defended this state of things; he thought good behavior had benefits for all. Others saw a loss. There was little room, they said, for emotions and thoughts that stood out, such as anger.

What is anger? It is a reaction against some kind of wrong or injustice. At its best, it helps sort good from bad, right from wrong. Yet it often turns into violence or muffles itself into vague hints. It is not easy to get anger right.

A few decades ago, “anger management” was in the air—but something more like anger wisdom is in order.  We have, on the one hand, a workplace of niceness (where people join a “team” and get along), and on the other, a cyberspace of insults and dismissals. Anger has been bent out of shape, yet its literature has verve.

In Book 4, Chapter 5, of his Nicomachean Ethics (translated by W. D. Ross), Aristotle writes:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis writes that when Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883) first started learning Mussar (a tradition of practical wisdom in Orthodox Judaism), “he became angry at the world but remained at peace within himself. As he studied further, he also became angry with himself.  Finally, he evolved to judging others favorably.” (I will read the original source as soon as I can.)

Both Aristotle and Rabbi Salanter see anger not as emotion alone but as emotion combined with reason. Anger can go right or wrong, depending on how one directs it. To use it properly, one needs  full education. The right use of anger can be the  project (or one of many projects) of a lifetime. One might begin with anger at the world, like Rabbi Salanter, or with anger at oneself; either stance is provisional. Ultimately one comes to see human fallibility.  Anger becomes less necessary overall. It doesn’t disappear; instead, it reserves itself for the most appropriate occasions. The remainder turns into empathy.

For anger to do good, a few conditions must be met. (These are my own thoughts on the matter; I hope to develop them over time.)

First, the angry person must identify the cause of the anger and decide whether it’s worth a fuss. If not, the  person should drop it altogether. If so, he or she should bring it up in appropriate circumstances.

Example: Say you are going with a friend to a concert, and the friend meets you late, making you both late for the performance. If this is a unique occurrence, it might be worth letting go; if it happens more than twice, it is worth mentioning.

Second, the person must be able to articulate the reason for the anger–clearly, calmly, and promptly. Vagueness and evasion do no good.

Example: Your co-volunteer in the public garden has been short with you lately–and when you finally get up the nerve to ask whether something’s wrong, he says, “never mind; it’s fine.” If it’s fine, then fine; that should be the end of it. But if it isn’t fine, then different words are in order. For instance: “Recently I have been showing up at 9, which is when our shift starts, and then working by myself for at least an hour until you show up. This isn’t working for me; let’s figure out a better arrangement.”

Third, the angry person should be willing to listen to the recipient of the anger. Otherwise what is the point of expressing it at all? To get it out of one’s system? Possibly–but people are not liver cleansers. The real point is to lift the level of justice, even slightly. That takes more than one person.

Anger-wise, I am far from perfect; I can tip away from or into it. I try, though, to approach it strongly and give it proper form. Like many, I fear being rude, but that’s like the fear of playing out of tune. Ultimately you have to play out your thoughts. Kindness can be true and clear.

 

Note: I added to this piece after its initial posting.

The Cult of the Spiffy Solution

Just as the world is made up of two kinds of people–those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not–so it is divided into those who want spiffy solutions to complex human problems and those who do not.

Why, in our era of self-help, TED, and aggressive innovation, would anyone not want a quick solution to a persistent human problem? Why would anyone cringe at the assertion, “One tiny change can revolutionize your life”? Well, some do.

Perhaps we suspect that the assertion is false, and perhaps we wouldn’t even want it to be true. The first possibility is a little easier to explain, so I will tackle it first.

People who propose some seemingly simple solution are often trying to sell it. That is, their solution comes with a book, a program, a product. They not only divulge the solution but take on the role of master coach. This tends to interfere with their ability to criticize their own solution. They have a great stake in promoting it, and they get attention, praise, and money for doing so.

A case in point (one of many examples): Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, claims that we can change our body chemistry and our behaviors just by changing our posture (that is, by adopting “power poses“). She cites her own research and the research of others in support of this theory.

Her TED talk is listed as one of the most popular of all time. It is already media, but the media lapped it up, in a typical gesture of self-potation. In this talk, she claims that a change of posture–adopted right now–can change the trajectory of your life. She begins: “So I want to start by offering you a free no-tech life hack, and all it requires of you is this: that you change your posture for two minutes.” She ends:

So I want to ask you first, you know, both to try power posing, and also I want to ask you to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life.

Share the science! Yet when Eva Ranehill and others attempted to replicate her research, they found that power poses had no effect on hormonal levels or any of the behavioral tasks. (They did effect people’s self-reported feelings of power.)

In a Slate article, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung criticize the overall lack of suspicion around Cuddy’s theory and others like it. While not blaming Cuddy herself (or any particular reporter or media outlet), they warn against fuzzy acceptance of so-called “science” (which may be no more than a popular theory that feels good and has some basis in anecdote). Gelman (of whom I am becoming a cautious and questioning fan) is even funnier and more caustic in his own blog post on the subject.

There is every reason to doubt the “power pose” theory and others of its ilk. It’s good to have good posture; this is no innovation. One can strive for good posture, and enjoy its benefits, without pretending that it will catapult every one of us to power.

Now I come to the second point: I wouldn’t even want this thing to be true. Granted, what I want to be true shouldn’t affect what I think is true. Yet it often does; I must always be vigilant about the spill of preference into perception. The question then is: What accounts for the difference between those who want the “power pose” theory to be true and those who don’t?

I don’t want it to be true because I don’t want to be reduced to a success cartoon. Suppose power posing did change hormonal levels and increase risk-taking. Suppose those changes led to power positions, power lunches, power dates. All that power would get boring, and the substance would seep away. I would go on a long search for someone not entirely self-assured and an occupation that did not require constant flashes of confidence.

I don’t mean that others want to become auto-CEOs; I don’t fully understand the allure of the quick “scientific” fix. It seems to skip over two challenges: understanding science itself (at least enough to evaluate the research) and dealing with the complexities of life. Maybe there is relief in that.

My preference matters only in that it leads me to question the notion of power as ceaseless good. Even in a job interview, one does not want to project power from start to finish; a wise employer (for a worthy job) would rather see a competent, thoughtful person. If we are tilting toward a culture of “power impressions,” maybe it’s time to take a few decades, or even a century, to correct that tilt. That one century could change a life.

 

(Update: For some uproarious evening reading, see “NO TRUMP!: A Statistical Exercise in Priming,” which Gelman co-wrote with Jonathan Falk.)

To Gather Around a Book

red book

(Gathered around C. G. Jung’s Red Book: Dr. Larry Allums, Dr. Joan Arbery, and I. Thanks to the Dallas Institute for the photo.)

This summer, for the sixth time, I had the joy and honor of serving on the faculty of the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (It was my fifth summer as full faculty member; in my initial, “junior faculty” year in 2011, I mainly observed but also gave some morning remarks and an afternoon lecture.) What makes this Summer Institute stand out, or one of many things, is its focus on literature itself. We alternate between epic (in even-numbered years) and tragedy and comedy (in odd-numbered years); in epic summers, we read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Moby-Dick, Mwindo, Monkey, parts of Popol Vuh and Paradise Lost, and numerous poems, essays, speeches, and other works–all of this in three weeks. Jennifer Dubin’s article “Promethean Summer” (American Educator, Spring 2014) describes the program vividly.

Although the reading is intense and the course very short, we have room to discuss the works in depth–precisely because of the focus. I cherish the substance of the course (the works themselves), the practice of coming together over literature, and the beautiful concentration. I hope to continue on the faculty for many more years.

Now I have turned my attention to my book, as well as college recommendations and two papers for the ALSCW Conference (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers). The book’s working title (which may change) is Take Away the Takeaway (the title of the talk I gave in April at TEDx Upper West Side, the video of which should be available sometime this month).

I know that I will miss my school this year, but it is a privilege to be able to focus on writing (and one or two other big things, including a course I will take this year in advanced cantillation). Focus and stretches of time are some of the greater goods of life; to some degree they can be found in any given moment, but they also depend on the structures of our days. For years I have been building this structure; now I get to live in it for a while. I hope to do it justice.

Gratitude, Cultivated and Wild

fort tryon park july 2016

I dislike the gratitude of platitudes. I sympathize with those who resist obligatory gratitude; I resist it too, or at least I have in the past. The perfunctory thank-you card fulfills a duty but may lack some spark. Yet raw, unbidden gratitude has its problems too; it depends too much on momentary passions. It’s easy to pour gratitude into one thing or person and ignore another; this turns into self-will and self-satisfaction, a far and whooping cry from gratitude at its best. So, over time, I have come to favor a mixture of the cultivated and the wild. True gratitude, at once genuine and responsible, does exist.

The photo above (which I took yesterday evening in Fort Tryon Park) has more of the cultivated; the one below (which I took in June), more of the wild. Or maybe that is an illusion; maybe they both contain both in similar proportions. In any case, when I walk there, I sense intense gratitude of many kinds around me. People come to pause, to take things in. They walk their dogs, run up the steep hills, bring easel and paint, take pictures, recline on a lawn or bench, engage in a fencing match, or just walk empty-handed and think. The park has its troubles; there have been robberies and other crimes. Walking there too late or too early is not wise. All the same, it is a magnificent place, and the regulars, staff, and volunteers help protect it.

On another note: the short film “The Tale of Four,” directed by Gabourey Sidibe, is filming in my building, just down the hall from me. The premise is promising (it’s based on Nina Simone’s “Four Women“), and I look forward to the film.

fort tryon park june 2016

Why the Teacher Diary?

I recently came upon my first published education op-ed, “Learning from Parents.” It appeared in the New York Teacher in March 2007 (the spring of my second year of teaching) under the pseudonym “Otter.” The editor had encouraged me to use a pseudonym, not because my piece was in any way incendiary but because this was common practice for the “New Teacher Diaries” section, in which my piece appeared.

I am grateful for that first start. I soon decided, though, that I  did not want a pseudonym and did not want to be a teacher diarist. Now and then I do write about something that happened in the classroom or in my teaching life. But I stay away from the teacher diary formulas.

I know of no other profession that expects its members to write public diaries about  why they entered the profession, why they left, what makes it so hard, what makes it  so wonderful, etc. I think of musicians, writers, actors, dancers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, translators, scholars, rabbis, priests, and others; if they keep diaries, it is by individual choice. Only teachers have a ready forum and a set of prefabricated formulas for tales of classroom life.

Now, some teacher diaries offer insights that no study or report could approximate. They abound with wit and truth. But to have your teacher-diary published, you need only do the following, or something similar:

  1. Provide a standard title, e.g., “What No One Told Me About Teaching”;
  2. Make a vague reference to research (e.g., “Research tells us that 50 percent of teachers leave within the first five years”);
  3. Tell a classroom anecdote that connects to the title (this is the “diary” part);
  4. Offer a few bulleted takeaways;
  5. Include the title in the final sentence (e.g., “What no one told me about teaching is that it has to be learned.”)

The same goes for pieces titled “Why I Am Leaving My Teaching Job,” “Why I Am Not Leaving My Teaching Job,” “My Advice to Teacher Newbies,” etc. Why the demand for such pieces? I don’t know the answer but have a few thoughts.

First, there’s a genuine need for insights into the classroom. Although we all supposedly know the classroom (having spent a chunk  of our lives in one), we don’t understand what teachers do until (a) we become teachers or (b) we listen to them.  There’s a need for this information.

Second, education has been subjected to some unhealthy mystification. The “great teacher” and “bad teacher” are continually pitted against each other in pseudo-eschatological combat; it’s refreshing to hear from an actual person now and then.

Third, teachers welcome an outlet for thoughts. The school day is full of rush with little room for steady thought. A teacher diary assignment can offer an opportunity to assemble experiences and ideas.

All that said, I sense something less benign at work here as well. There’s something subtly condescending about the teacher diary format. It suggests (to the teacher and the world), “You, teacher, are best suited to writing from the first person, about your own experiences, because that’s what you know best.” In other words: stay in your little sphere of self; do not dare to speak about a field or idea.

As a result, the teacher diary often wraps itself in the coy gauze of “me and my own.” Many such pieces go “viral” now and then; few have lasting quality. Of  all the teacher diaries I have read over the years, maybe five have stayed with me. This has more to do with the mini-genre and its expectations than with the writers.

I would advise any ambivalent teacher-diarist: Do not confine yourself to this format. If it suits you, work with it, but be ready to break away. There is power in speech that finds its own form and in silence that comes from dropping the unneeded.

 

 

Endings and Unendings

Graduation goodbyes can be tricky. This afternoon I spoke with an alumna who attended the Philosophy Roundtable last  night and returned again today for the International Celebration. We talked about two simultaneous truths. On the one hand, there’s no such thing as goodbye, at least for the living, because there’s always a chance (big or small) that we will cross paths again. On the other hand, to diminish  a goodbye is to diminish everything. At times we must leave a person, place, practice, or idea behind. This allows us not only to go forward but to gather up the meaning of the past.

In the languages I know, there is more than one word for goodbye. The more casual the expression, the less final the goodbye; the more formal, the more final. (In English, we have “see ya” on the one hand and “farewell” on the other.) This suggests to me that farewells contain something serious and unpopular. That does not automatically make them truer than their casual counterparts–but they need to be heard with full ear.

Should a high school treat graduation as a “goodbye” or as a “poka” (Russian for “while” or “later”)? Some might argue for a balance of the two, but they don’t balance. The goodbye is heavier and needs its weight. How do you say, “Goodbye; you’re welcome to come back” without taking away from the goodbye? To do this, you must acknowledge that the goodbye could be final. This might mean, “Goodbye–if forever, best wishes to you; and if not forever, likewise all the best.”

The needs of school and students may diverge here, though. A school needs its alumni; they offer continuity and wisdom (and, at private schools, financial support). When students return to speak of their experience, the school gains a sense of meaning. Yet a school needs a sense of departure as well; while students leave, the school continues on and must turn its attention toward the ones who are there. Alumni, for their part, need a combination of departure and return, which varies from person to person and changes over time.

So in schools and individual students, there is need for both return and departure, for “see you later” and “farewell.” Schools may pull toward the former and students toward the latter, but in any case they are distinct goodbyes, each with its form and meaning.

 

Note: I added to this piece after the initial posting.

 

 

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 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 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!

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.

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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