The Age of Answer-Mongers

Over two decades ago, in the introduction to I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, Wendy Kaminer remarked: “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

While I don’t agree with all of Kaminer’s points in the book, I have seen the phenomenon she describes. I generally find self-help books glib, misleading, and unenlightening. (There are exceptions, but the genre as a whole rubs me the wrong way.) For instance, the self-help guru Louise Hay claims that illnesses are caused by negative patterns of thinking; change your thinking, and you will get well. What a dangerous oversimplification, and how unfair to the seriously ill!

I have known the pressure to provide prescriptions. My book was criticized (in an otherwise appreciative review) for not doing so; I have seen other books receive similar rebukes. What if the book was never meant to be prescriptive? Many, it seems, regard such books as bookshelf parasites: taking up space but not doing their job, which is to tell the readers exactly what to do and how to lead their lives.

So I was dubious from the start when I saw Tara Parker-Pope’s article “Divorcing a Narcissist” (about Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Free of You? How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family). The article contains an interview and a link to a “book club” discussion (to which I contributed a comment). While I recognize that narcissists exist and can do great harm, I suspect that many with narcissistic traits are not narcissists per se. There’s a big difference between having traits of extraversion and being an extravert; the same goes for narcissists, paranoiacs, and many other types. Moreover, some traits are temporary; a person can experience paranoia in a period of intense stress and worry without being a paranoid type.

Yet many of the comments burst with epiphany: “OMG—yes! That’s my husband exactly!” Oddly, each “exactly” differs from the next; the commenters describe a variety of painful relationships, with little in common among them. There is nothing wrong with considering the possibility that a loved (or not-so-loved) one has narcissistic traits–but why rush to call him or her a narcissist? Something else (worse, better, comparable, or incomparable) may be going on. In addition, very few commenters admit to defects of their own (beyond putting up with the narcissist for too long). It seems that the book—or at least its underlying concept—invites the willing to a mass finger-pointing party.

I don’t plan to read the whole book—I have too much else to read—but I did read the beginning, just to gauge my impressions. Dr. McBride cautions right away against loose use of the term “narcissist,” noting out that narcissism is comorbid (i.e., coexists) with other disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Hystrionic Personality Disorder. She then provides the nine traits listed in the DSM. So far, the approach seems reasonable. (Incidentally, the status of NPD in the DSM has not been stable; at one point it seemed that NPD would disappear from DSM-5.)

The mischief arises when she goes on to describe how the traits might play out in life. Each of her descriptions could apply to someone who wasn’t necessarily narcissistic but rather snobbish, controlling, entitled, vain, or hyper-competitive. They leave too much room for the kind of loose diagnosis that the author warns against. For example:

5. Has a sense of entitlement and expects automatic compliance of others.  Example: Marcy felt she was entitled to pay less and demand more from the law firm she had retained. She refused to talk with the paralegals, always demanding to speak with “the attorney I am paying so much money to.” If her hysterical demands were not met instantly, Marcy would threaten to change attorneys. Her favorite saying to her friends and family was “I will demand attention and be heard immediately, and if you don’t believe me, just watch.” Marcy’s lawyer dumped her right before the proceedings began.

Marcy may be a narcissist, but she also may not be. From this description, we do not know. Even the attitude “I will demand attention and be heard immediately” sounds like a clumsy version of what children are often encouraged to do. Certainly Wendy is going about it inappropriately, but she’s not alone in trying to get through and be heard. In some contexts, such aggressiveness is common.

In another example, the author describes someone who keeps the family waiting while she dresses up for going out; when she finally emerges, she expects them to exclaim how gorgeous she looks. A great deal of that could be cultural, not pathological; in some cultures (including U.S. and European), women are expected (or expect themselves) to take “forever” dressing up.

Then the author comes to this blistering statement:

These nine traits describe why narcissists cannot love. They place primary importance on “what you can do for me” and expend a lot of energy on appearances. In a relationship with a narcissist, you will eventually realize that this person does not see the real you. You are the person’s object to be manipulated for his or her own goals and needs.

Egad—how did we land here? The author has moved from a cautious beginning (not everyone with narcissistic traits is a narcissist) to a full-blown conclusion (the narcissist cannot love). Aware of possible objections, the author then asks, “Is your partner a narcissist?” and offers eighteen questions to help the reader decide. (“As you go through this list,” she advises, “put a check mark next to any question you answer yes. The more questions you check, the more likely it is that your partner falls somewhere on the narcissism spectrum—maybe even has a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder.”) In this way, the author ends up not only condoning but even facilitating sloppy diagnosis.

Very well (or not). But why does this have popular appeal? If someone has a self-serving spouse, what does it matter whether this person is a narcissist? If the relationship has gone bad, that’s enough reason to take some kind of action. The spouse may actually be loving—many difficult and troubled people are—but if the love doesn’t come through, that’s a setup for a miserable marriage.

Suppose the author is correct that a full-blown narcissist cannot see the “real you.” Does the person rushing to diagnose the spouse really see the “real diagnosing other”? To see the other, one must stay open to uncertainties and surprises. Sometimes, even with those uncertainties and surprises, it’s clear that two people must go separate ways. It is possible to leave someone unpackaged.

Of course, that’s difficult, and there lies the book’s appeal. Divorces require toughness and resolve; if the parties let themselves waver, they will. Diagnosis offers certainty, which propels action. Yet certainty about another person (and even about oneself) creates its own harm. The greatest challenge is to take action in the absence of simple answers: to keep an open soul but move forward in one’s life.

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

The Emptiness of Customer Satisfaction

This morning I read two contrasting pieces:  Maria Popova’s wise commentary on Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s New York Times article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” The one posits that true leisure allows one to participate in the mystery of reality; the other, that a brutal workplace can generate solutions and answers, albeit with great human costs (or that a supposedly innovative workplace has taken too great a toll on its employees’ lives). It seems that the two articles describe two opposing approaches to life. What is the nature of the difference, and why has the latter become dominant?

Popova quotes Pieper: “In leisure, there is … something of the serenity of “not-being-able-to-grasp,” of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will.” In contrast, Kantor and Streitfeld quote Amazon’s top recruiter, Susan Harker: “This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy. … When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.” (Yes–but  many people seem to want to make it work. That is perplexing.)

On the surface, these incompatible world views seem to differ primarily over agency. To enjoy leisure, one must give up control, at least for a while. To be productive on Amazon’s terms, one must never give up control; one must be constantly generating ideas, improving on them, acting on them, and assessing their results. (On the other hand, one must submit to the company’s principles and practices.) There’s something refreshing about the “Amazon way”; to those who like intellectual challenge and frank exchange, it may promise welcome relief from lives of mediocrity. There seems to be more at stake here, though.

The principles of control and receptivity are not always incompatible. A musician, for instance, must work diligently to improve but must also have the capacity to listen fully. A cabinet-maker should have an appreciation of wood as well as the skill of working with it. A person learning a language must be willing both to practice verbs and to step into the unknown: to be surrounded with unfamiliar sounds, words, phrases, and tones.

What is it, then, about work at Amazon that makes it absolutely opposed to leisure? It isn’t so much the striving for excellence as the striving for empty excellence. The highest value, according to Amazon’s own “leadership principles,” is customer satisfaction and trust: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”

This means that Amazon does everything to keep the customers coming back. It does not matter what the product is, as long as the customer comes back for more of it. It does not matter how long and hard the employees have to work, as long as the data point to customer engagement. Kantor and Streitfeld write,

In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. … But in its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. “The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,” said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer.

Do more and more what? Improve at what? If customer service is the primary goal, yet the customers are not individuals but masses, then the point of work becomes to raise the numbers, period. If it were not for our culture of rush–of getting things quickly with as little human interaction as possible–Amazon would lose to the bookstore, record store, and corner store. Amazon replaces those things because people want the swiftness and convenience. So the employees are serving swiftness and convenience, which create a need for more of the same.

Why would someone choose to serve swiftness and convenience as goods in themselves? Why give one’s life to a job that has no substance, no meaning, beyond doing more and more for the customer? Another of Popova’s quotes of Pieper may offer a clue:

The code of life in the High Middle Ages [held] that it was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work’s-sake arose from nothing other than idleness. There is a curious connection in the fact that the restlessness of a self-destructive work-fanaticism should take its rise form the absence of a will to accomplish something.

Pieper explains, “Idleness, for the older code of behavior, meant especially this: that the human being had given up on the very responsibility that comes with his dignity.” It is the opposite of leisure, which involves a deep sense of responsibility. Those who feel idle are the very ones who want to be productive for the sake of being productive. Productivity becomes a source of identity, a stamp of being. (In the Amazon context, productivity means not only packing boxes but generating ideas for packing more boxes.) Where the work lacks inherent meaning, “workaholism” expresses and exacerbates emptiness.

My point is not that “those people” who work at Amazon lack a sense of meaning or self. The danger of emptiness is present for everyone. Our sense of leisure has been corrupted. How  many of us spend an hour poking around on the computer? This “poking around” is not contemplative or productive; it’s idle in that it does not require a full response to anything at all. So, after an hour or more of that, it’s natural to want to “get something done”–where any accomplishment at all seems preferable to that indeterminate state. On a larger scale, where people lack concrete things they want to do, they will seize  on opportunities to get things done (for the sake of getting things done).

Leisure requires a willingness to be ridiculous or useless in others’ eyes. It’s full of comedy; when you let yourself into leisure, you see how the world plays. It’s lonely in that few will join you in it. It’s also open and loyal; you can enter it anywhere and never get turned away except by your own doing. That’s what makes it difficult. It takes courage to live for more than satisfaction (or even dissatisfaction); it takes vision to work (or not work) at something beyond the job.

Review or Negative Commercial?

Yesterday, when reading a New York Times review of Ricki and the Flash (starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, and others), I noticed an embedded video: not a trailer, but the most disparaging “takeaways” of the review, read over actual film footage. It came across as a negative commercial.

Who initiated this format, and why? It may be an old phenomenon; I rarely read reviews, so I wouldn’t know. I am disappointed that the New York Times (and A. O. Scott, the reviewer) would agree to such a thing. The full print review has a little more dimension; it makes the film seem interesting if not absolutely worth seeing. The video flattens the film from the get-go.

If we live in an era of takeaways, it’s an era worth resisting; publications and individuals could push for robust expression. Instead, we’re getting articles that look like ads, ads that pose as articles, and videos that tell us what to think.

My response to this video can be distilled into three brief takeaways: Why? Argh. Why?

Have We Given Up on Conversation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

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