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.

The Privacy of Teaching and the So-Called Status Quo

Today few people think of teaching in terms of the private thought it involves. They the very idea of privacy with distrust. Teachers’ work should be open to all observers at all times, according to the general sentiment; teachers should not object to having visitors walk in and out, having video cameras installed in classrooms, and so on. Yet even if we did all of these things–made the classroom a continual open house with the camera running–an aspect of teaching would remain firmly private, simply because there is no audience for it. Within this privacy, the teacher and the teaching may be going through great changes, yet on the surface, and in the judgment of most, they remain part of the “status quo.” The conception of the “status quo” is flawed in that it mistakes a superficial reality for the whole.

After any lesson, my mind streams with thoughts: was this a good way to present Kant? Did certain passages deserve more attention? What do I make of a particular student’s comments? How will I adjust tomorrow’s lesson?  Most important of all: how can I prepare my lessons with full mind and spirit, making the most of my intellect and judgment, but bringing out the students’ ideas? Some of these thoughts come up in conversation with others, but most do not. They do not fit into regular conversation, faculty or team meetings, education policy discussion, or anywhere else. They may get translated now and then into generic terms (student-centered teaching, teacher-centered teaching, etc.), but those terms are limiting and misleading. The important internal deliberation–over subject matter and the minute events of the day–resist facile terminology and quick summation.

There are also numerous situations where a teacher is torn between two goods and must privately make a decision, as it is impossible to consult someone about each of them. For example: we all want to give our students more resources. The Stanford-based talk show Philosophy Talk has a great website–with lots of informed and enjoyable discussions. Recently one of the show’s hosts posted a piece on the philosophy of humor. Good light reading material, except that it begins with a joke about a skeleton walking into a bar. “X walks into a bar” is a standard joke opening (and this joke is innocent enough), but all the same, mentioning a bar is an unspoken no-no, or at best an iffy matter, in K-12 teaching. So, a teacher might well decide, “Interesting post, but not for distribution.” In a given week, a teacher may have a dozen minor dilemmas of this sort. She will usually take the safer option, but not without questioning and occasional regret.

That in itself raises larger questions: How do I, as a teacher, present my subject matter in a way that is safe but not sterile? How do I show what it means to live without fear in the world–while taking all appropriate caution for my students’ sake? This leads to another great area of privacy: the teacher’s own life. A teacher can neglect her life for a while–many do, under the work pressure–but cannot keep that up indefinitely and still teach well. A teacher must have room and time to be with friends, form relationships, pursue interests, help others, clean the apartment, eat, exercise, read, and think. Those things do not come up in the classroom, yet they influence a teacher’s actions and bearing. A teacher who lives fully will show that fullness without divulging it. The students will pick up on that life. Similarly, students pick up on strain and trouble. Beyond that, a teacher does not live for the students or for teaching alone; a life has its own meaning and dignity.

Within each of these privacies, teachers and teaching can undergo great changes, often against a backdrop of a “status quo.” This year, I have been able to revise some of my lessons in ways that were not possible before; previously my energy was going into the rush and churn of each day. Because my teaching load is manageable now, and because I am teaching the Ethics course for the third consecutive year, I can refine it and make it more responsive to the students, without abandoning its substance. This is a source of joy, and I am grateful for the opportunity. Yet an outsider might look at the situation and perceive “status quo.” There are policymakers who believe in switching teachers around every few years so that they never teach the same subject or grade for very long. On the surface, such policy promotes change–but it prevents or ignores transformation. Transformation may happen slowly and may be difficult to perceive. (For more on this topic, you may read the talk I gave at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.)

This is part of the reason why I blog less frequently lately. My emphasis is changing. By definition, the private truths and struggles of teaching have no place in the regular discourse; unfortunately, the discourse disparages the very privacy. I cannot live without the privacy, yet I also yearn for a forum where I do not have to be quite so enclosed, where there’s more acceptance of internal life and its role in everything. Some of these thoughts will find their way into my second book, which is not autobiographical or primarily about education. (I will say more about it when the time is right.)

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

Questions of Community

There are several related idols in contemporary culture: the group, the team, and the community. Each one has a different character, and each one has benefits and dangers.

I have discussed the pitfalls of group work on numerous occasions–most recently, in an interview with The Guardian (UK). I do not mean that group work is necessarily bad; it is just overemphasized. Thinking on one’s own–or participating in a whole-class lesson–gets short shrift.

In addition, I have discussed problems with the concept of a team. Teams have their place (many places, actually), but not every group or association is a team, nor should it be. Much important work is done by individuals and can be shortchanged by a team.

In relation to the above, I have also examined how collaboration differs from group work, and how belonging and apartness combine in education.

Today I will look at a somewhat touchier subject: community. Community, as I understand it, is an association of individuals with a loose common bond, be it geography, a common interest or attitude, or some other common characteristic. To many, community is an automatic good; what could possibly be wrong with having something in common with many others and, on account of this commonality, being part of a larger whole?

Indeed, there is much to be said for it; many of us have longed to be part of a community of some kind and have rejoiced when we found one. But the word can be misused.

For one thing, as David Bromwich points out in Politics by Other Means (1992), it can be invoked manipulatively, for ideological ends. (Sometimes the “community” invoked might not even exist as such.)

Or the word might be invoked in reference to the most popular activities or views–and not in reference to the outliers. In my experience, “Support your community” rarely means, “Support the individuals within it.” Instead, it seems to mean, “Support those things that the majority supports, those things that draw a crowd.” I do not mean that the things that draw a crowd are unworthy–but a true community should have room for more. A genuine community, as I understand it, would honor its minorities, dissidents, independent thinkers, and others who don’t fit the group. There are circles within circles; the largest subcircle is not the whole (unless it is, of course).

I am likewise wary of communities where the members, because of the very nature of the bond, conceal important thoughts by choice or necessity–for instance, a “supportive community of writers” where everyone is supposed to praise everyone else. There must be room for genuine criticism; support should not be equated with applause.

Or take a workplace. Is that and can it be a community? It depends; at various jobs, I have become friends with my co-workers. Sometimes the entire staff has bonded. But no matter how warm the workplace, one must remember that at some level, it is a job. There is work to be done. Friendship and fellowship can form within it–but that should not be the expectation.

All of these pitfalls can be addressed with careful use of the word. There are different kinds of community, each with its offerings and restrictions. If one knows what one means by the word, one can avoid being deceived by it. But there is still another danger.

Belonging to a group is meaningful only if some true fellowship exists in it. Fellowship between two may be the best and strongest kind. As Emerson writes in his essay “Clubs” (the ninth chapter of Society and Solitude), “Discourse, when it rises highest and searches deepest, when it lifts us into that mood out of which thoughts come that remain as stars in our firmament, is between two.” Yet a community often interferes with the fellowship of two (or with solitude, for that matter); the individuals come under pressure to include others in their group, to level out their conversation, to accept the common denominator. If a community can make room for friendship and idiosyncrasy, if it does not try to smooth everyone down, if it recognizes that some affinities will run deeper than others, then it can be strong.

 

Mourning: Together or Alone?

Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering two pieces: “Grief in the Digital Age” by Elise Italiano (Acculturated, August 1, 2014), and “The Problem with Collective Grief” by Arnon Grunberg (New York Times, June 21, 2014). I would not say that they contradict each other; they are on different tracks. Yet in combination they raise a question: are private and communal forms of mourning at odds with each other? (I separate mourning from grief; mourning includes ritual expressions of loss, whereas grief consists of the raw emotion.)

Elise Italiano explores how “status updates,” “selfies,” and other digital communications affect both private and communal grief—for instance, at Ground Zero, where one is surrounded by people sending tweets, talking on cell phones, and taking pictures of themselves. She finds this phenomenon profoundly isolating—as it separates people not only from each other, but also from solitude.

Arnon Grunberg describes the Dutch fervor over the downed Malaysian airplane (193 of those killed were Dutch). He perceives the calls for collective mourning as nationalist in essence and responds, “The sad thing about mourning is that it really is quite unshareable, that it involves an extremely individual emotion. People have the right not to show their emotions and not to share them, even when it comes to soccer and calamity.”

Both are right. Grief and mourning are highly personal, but there’s nothing intrusive about establishing a place or time for mourning. To the contrary: such places and times allow the private mourning its own stretch.

Take a place like Ground Zero. If cell phones and other digital devices were not permitted at all, then there would be fewer distractions—and both solitude and companionship would be possible in a way that they are not now. (Visitors are not supposed to make or receive cell phone calls inside the museum itself—but they are allowed to take pictures with their cell phones.) True, people would object to such a prohibition; many feel that they have the right to use their devices. But the loss of such a right would be outweighed by the increase of respect.

Something similar can be said for times of mourning. On one level, mourning cannot be timed. It comes when it comes, and goes when it goes. On the other, a person participating in ritual mourning need not display or force private emotion. The ritual mourning makes room for the private mourning, even if the two do not coincide.

Collective mourning can be constricting and oppressive when it lays claim to private emotions. But when it does not lay such claim, it dignifies the privacy. To mourn with others in a time and place—even if my mourning is out of sync with theirs—is to set aside the distractions and dishonorings, together, for a while.

Much of what we mourn is not recognized. I may mourn someone who is not a family member, or someone still alive but gone from my life, or something as seemingly mundane as a misunderstanding. All of these relate in some way to death, but they may not get a funeral, or I may not have an official place in them. The formal mourning makes a possibility for those (people and mournings) that have no place.

If I step into formal mourning, even clumsily, then I participate in something beyond my own impulsive sadness. I learn history; I temper my urges. If I accomplish this, the impulsive sadness takes its time and shape but also remembers others.

If I can mourn in an allotted room, on an allotted day, then I can carry such a room into other days, or such a day into other rooms.

Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core–that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different–so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value–but instead, they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy–of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument–nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites–because you could focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.

The Privacy of Speaking One on One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solitude of Time

The subject of solitude seems trickier and trickier, the more I think about it–and more and more important. Yet it is important only in relation to things that require it. There is no sense in pursuing or defending solitude for its own sake. Also, it is possible (and even common) to seek solitude for the wrong reasons–such as escape and self-defense. They are “wrong” insofar as they involve closing off the mind and the experience. To make things even more perplexing, it is possible to seek  solitude for “right” and “wrong” reasons at the same time.

But what is this solitude? In his treatise De vita solitaria (On the Solitary Life), Petrarch posits three kinds of solitude: solitude of place, solitude of time, and solitude of the mind. For a long time, it was the third that interested me the most; recently, I have been thinking about solitude of time.

Solitude of time comes in many forms. There is solitude of chronos, the procession of time; solitude of kairos, the right moment for things, and solitude that combines the two.

We often think of time as a material possession: “I have time” or “I have no time.” When viewed as such, it seems closely related to money; a wealthy person has leisure time, whereas a poor person must work.

But it is possible to view time not as possession, but as vastness and structure. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of the “architecture of time“–in particular, Shabbat, which opens up an infinity of time. “The higher goal of spiritual living,” he writes, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” He makes clear that he does not disparage information-gathering for a higher good: “What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

It is easy to forget the difficulty and unpopularity of Heschel’s words. They come from solitude; they demand solitude. They ask us to set aside our trinket-gathering, if only for a little while.

The artist Karen Kaapcke (who happens to be a parent at my school) articulates something similar (albeit quite differently) on her “Drawing 50 Blog“–her project, beginning on her 50th birthday, of drawing a self-portrait every day for a year. “This is surprising to me,” she writes–“the path of these drawings is less about me, my 51st year, how do I look as I age – and more about what living as a draftsperson, being-in-the-world as a draftsperson, means. And so, I am finding that sometimes the drawings, while starting with myself, do not have the sense of being about only myself, but a connection to a state that might be, almost, universal.”

There is something solitary about recognizing time. That recognition can take different forms–but one is alone in it. On the day that my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in boxes, I had come to school just for that occasion (I had no classes on that day). But even when the boxes were within feet of me, I knew it wasn’t time to open the first one; that had to wait for the editors-in-chief. That was a short wait–but I remember the utter clarity of it.

The right time is not always “now.” (The hermit in Tolstoy’s story “The Three Questions is wrong.) The right time is now only when one recognizes that it is now.  Sometimes the right time is “not yet”; that very stretch of time between “not now” and “now” is solitary.

Timing in speech and music–a sense of tempo, rhythm, cadence, pause–is another way of recognizing time, of grasping the intersection between the stream and the moment. One knows when the timing is right, yet such timing is entirely singular, never to be repeated exactly. Even if it were repeated exactly, it might not be right the second time.

Time is not just a segment or line; it has dimension. Solitude lets you see into the dimension. One could reword a line from Zarathustra’s Roundelay, to say “Die Zeit ist tief” instead of “Die Welt ist tief”–but they  mean something similar, since it is the deep midnight speaking here. (It is part of the answer to the question posed in the first two lines: “O Mensch! Gib acht! / Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?”

There are times when possessible time dries up and crumbles, and the true time opens up. But we always return to the illusion of possessible time. (We must, in order to “do” anything with time.) Is it that simple, though? Does time divide up like that, into the illusory and the real? Or is it necessary to “grab” time in order to see past the grabbing? I think the latter: “material” time can lead to “matterless” time, as long as we allow this to happen.  For example, a person can get things done by a certain time in order to have a stretch of doing nothing. Also, the completed things, once done, are there for good, even if they decay materially.

Why is the solitude of time important? When one finds it, one is no longer subject (entirely) to group demands and rush. One has to meet certain demands, but one also stands outside them. It’s like having a mansion that costs no money and isn’t in the least bit gaudy.

 P.S. Those interested in solitude may wish to tune in to The Forum (BBC World Service) this weekend.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it.

What Would Become of Walter Mitty and Fern?

There’s a new medical term for excessive daydreaming: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. This is not a joke; research into this possible condition has been in progress for thirty years or so. Although it has yet to be recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has conferences and articles in its name.Some supporters of the new diagnosis wax exuberant over the supposed clarity it brings to the ADHD question (since it overlaps with what has been known as ADHD).

Before discussing the problems with such a diagnosis, I will give it its due. “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo” (SCT) is the term for a cluster of symptoms: daydreaming, mental fog, confusion, frequent staring, and others. Researchers have been looking into the possibility that this cluster exists apart from ADHD. If this were so, and if treatment were found for the condition, many children and adults could be spared the pain and risks of misdiagnosis–and might have access to effective treatment. For those whose condition prevents them from functioning from day to day, this could be a godsend (or a science-send).

So, why fret over this? I worry for Walter Mitty, the protagonist of James Thurber’s story and the film based on it (the one starring Danny Kaye; I was unable to bring myself to see the more recent one). Walter Mitty would have been diagnosed with SCT, and then we would not have had him. There would be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” Mitty would be “on task.”

In fact, many a wandering mind would be herded back onto the task at hand. But maybe some of those wanderings are more interesting than the task. Maybe we attach too much value to task performance. (I bring this up–in relation to solitude, not SCT–on BBC World Service’s program The Forum.)

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way–as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think. Fortunately my teachers let me be; today, I would be considered off-task.

The daydreamer may actually be highly attentive–absorbed in the matter at hand and unwilling or unable to move on to the next thing. The one who stares into space may be listening closely to something.

Granted, some people’s daydreaming and other SCT-associated symptoms prevent them from doing what they themselves want to do. But when it comes to diagnosing children, it is adults who decide whether there’s a problem. They might not see the rewards of daydreaming; they might only see the low grade on the homework assignment. “Why didn’t you start each paragraph with a topic sentence? Why do you have only one supporting detail here instead of two?” Wandering minds such as Mitty, Tristram Shandy, and many an actual person would get faulted, diagnosed, and fixed. The world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

I do not mean to romanticize a serious condition–but I suspect that if SCT had been a diagnosis in Fern’s day, and if Dr. Dorian had not been so wise, Fern might well have ended up on medication.

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