“The mountains skipped like rams”

dallas moon

This is my last post (for the time being) on the topic of moving on. (You may read the introduction, first post, and second post at your convenience.)

Some of the most entrenched human conflicts and misunderstandings have to do with differing relationships to time; one person wants to look forward, while another wants to stand still or look backward. Not only individuals, but groups and cultures can come into conflict in this way.

Too often the two sides do not see or think on each other’s terms. Each tends to put the other down. The one who wishes to remember sees the other as dismissive and unreflective; the one who wishes to move on sees the other as self-indulgent and stagnant. To make things even trickier, sometimes they are right in their judgments.

It is no accident, then, that religions ritualize both memory and progress. Judaism has specific times for mourning and repentance; while not erasing an individual’s own rhythms and timings, it offers a strong counterpoint and guide. Mourning takes its own time in a person, but within the rhythms of shiva, the initial mourning period, the year of saying Kaddish, the yahrzeit, Yizkor, and other remembrances, it has both a place and a boundary. A person may not conform to this structure entirely, but it is there all the same.

So, too, with repentance. While we typically associate repentance with the period from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, it has a place throughout the year, at limited times. In ancient times, Rosh Hodesh, the holiday of the new lunar month, had a sin-offering among the sacrifices; today this is mentioned in the Torah reading during the Rosh Hodesh service.

The literature about this sin-offering reveals some surprises. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b), the moon was unhappy about being diminished by God. After some argument, God promised to atone; this is why there is a he-goat offering “for the Lord” on Rosh Hodesh. Thus, according to this and other commentaries, there is divine atonement every month. Therefore this is also an opportunity for humans to atone. (Of course atonement is possible every day–but every month there is a special time.)

But atonement (in Hebrew teshuvah, or return) does not proceed in linear fashion; in the Litukei Halachot, Rebbe Nosson of Breslov’s interpretation and reworking of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, it is posited that the reason we “skip” parts of the service on Rosh Hodesh is that repentance, too, skips backward and forward:

Rosh Chodesh itself is a time for the beginning of repentance, since the Holy One Himself said “bring me atonement,” and from then on repentance disseminated into the entire created world. For our Holy Rabbi wrote that everyone thinks of repentance on Rosh Chodesh. This is why we say the “half Hallel”, that is, we ‘skip’ parts of Hallel, since those doing Teshuva don’t ascend in a steady way, from step to step, but skip and jump over several steps… this is why the reading of the Torah on Rosh Chodesh skips back and forth. It hints at this theme of repentance which is central to Rosh Chodesh, because those doing Teshuva do not move in a straight line, but sometimes go backwards, and then forwards again.

“Skipping” can be found in the very words of Psalm 114, which is part of the Hallel service.

I love those images and rhythms of the Jordan turning backward, the mountains skipping like rams, the hills like young sheep. The psalm has thrilled me ever since I began to sing and understand it.

But now I understand it in a different way. If this turning and skipping has anything to do with teshuvah–within the liturgy, if not within the psalm itself–then it illustrates how we ourselves go back and forth during our lives, how these changes of direction may signify great moments. Each of us may be at times the skipping mountain or hill, the Jordan turning backward, or else these things standing still or rushing ahead.

I take these texts as poetry, not literal teachings–but it’s poetry that opens up the understanding. If our “skipping” and changes of direction have to do with our own striving and reckoning, then there’s room for generosity and forgiveness in all directions. Those impatient to move on can look kindly on those standing still, and vice versa, at least some of the time. At the very least, we can consider that those who differ from us in their motions and directions may be doing their own kind of good.

This doesn’t solve any problems. Nonetheless, I delight in thinking that we all have times of skipping and turning, changing our currents, shaking up our landscapes, and standing still. Although (as a friend and colleague remarked to me today) adults forget the joy of skipping, we actually skip abundantly without knowing it. Viewed from far away, or from inside, our lives might look like the shaking of sheep and hills.


I took the photo last night (around 4 a.m.) in Dallas, through the window.

Thanks to Rabbi Adam Roffman for introducing me and others to the passages from the Talmud and Likutei Halachot. The interpretations here are my own (and subject to leaps, skips, and turns).

The text of Psalm 114 (in Hebrew and English) can be found on the Mechon Mamre website.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

Why Imagination Matters

poets walk park

Our schools have vacillated between adulating and dismissing imagination; neither attitude suffices. Imagination involves forming things in the mind; education cannot do without it. Yet to employ it well, one must understand it correctly and combine it with actual learning.

In his bracing book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explores the origins and consequences of our schools’ emphasis on “natural” creativity and imagination at the expense of concrete learning. He points to the destructive effects of this trend, both in the United States and in France (which moved from a common curriculum to a child-centered mode of instruction). In addition, he offers wise commentary on standardized tests, the teaching profession, and the Common Core initiative.

An admirer of Hirsch’s work and of Core Knowledge schools, I object to just one aspect of his argument: By opposing creativity and imagination to specific training and instruction, he limits both. Recognizing this possible pitfall, he acknowledges that a school with a strong curriculum can still encourage imagination—but he does not treat the latter as vital and endangered. Imagination, in his view, has been overemphasized; the necessary corrective lies in specific, sequenced instruction.

He writes (on p. 119): “I am not, of course, suggesting that it would be a good idea to adopt the in-Adam’s-fall-we-sinned-all point of view. Imagination can certainly be a positive virtue when directed to life-enhancing goals. But the idea that imagination is always positive and life-enhancing is an uncritical assumption that has crept into our discourse from the pantheistic effusions of the romantic period.” I dispute nothing in this statement but the emphasis (and the take on Romanticism–but that’s another subject). I would proclaim: “Imagination has been wrested apart from subject matter and thus distorted—but properly understood, it permeates all intellectual domains.”

What is imagination? It is not the same as total freedom of thought; it has strictures and structures. To imagine something is to form an image of it. Every subject requires imagination: To understand mathematics, you must be able to form the abstract principles in your mind and carry them in different directions; to understand a poem, you must perceive patterns, cadences, allusions, and subtleties. To interpret a work of literature, you must notice something essential about it (on your own, without any overt highlighting by the author or editor); to interpret a historical event, you may transport yourself temporarily to its setting.

Civic life, too, relies on imagination; to participate in dialogue, you must perceive possibility in others; to make informed decisions, you must not only know their history but anticipate their possible consequences. Imagination forms the private counterpart of public life; to participate in the world, you must be able to step back and think on your own, as David Bromwich argues in his essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” (and elsewhere).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the cultivation of the imagination. The uneducated mind, the prisoner in the cave, accepts the appearances of things (as manipulated by others); once embarked upon education, it slowly, painfully moves toward vision of true form. People are quick to dismiss Plato’s idealism as obsolete—but say what you will, it contains the idea of educating oneself into imagination, which could inform many a policy and school.

Schools and school systems have grievously misconstrued imagination; drawing on Romantic tendencies, as Hirsch explains, they have regarded it as “natural” and therefore good from the start. If imagination is best when unhampered and untouched, if it is indeed a process of nature, then, according to these schools, children should be encouraged to write about whatever pleases them, to read books of their own choice, and to create wonderful art (wonderful because it is theirs). Some years ago I taught at a school where we were told not to write on students’ work but instead to affix a post-it with two compliments and two suggestions–so as not to interfere with the students’ own voice.

This is silly, of course. Serious imaginative work—in music, mathematics, engineering, architecture, and elsewhere—requires knowledge, discipline, self-criticism, and guidance from others. You do not learn to play piano if your teacher keeps telling you, “Brilliant, Brilliant!” (or even, in growth-mindset parlance, “How hard you worked on that!”). To accomplish something significant, you need to know what you are doing; to know, you must learn. Mindset aside, you must be immersed in the material and striving for understanding and fluency. You must listen closely; you must acknowledge and correct errors.

Learning draws on imagination and vice versa; a strong curriculum is inherently imaginative if taught and studied properly. Students learn concrete things so that they can think about them, carry them in the mind, assemble them in interesting ways, and create new things from them. On their own, in class, and in faculty meetings, teachers probe and interpret the material they present. This intellectual life has both inherent and practical value; the student not only comes to see the possibilities of each subject but lives out such possibilities in the world.

Hirsch objects, commendably, to the trivialization of curriculum and imagination alike: for instance, the reduction of literature instruction to “balanced literacy” (where students practice reading strategies on an array of books that vary widely in quality). Conducted in the name of student interest, creativity, initiative, and so forth, such programs can end up glorifying a void.

Without strong curricula, creative and imaginative initiatives will lack meaning, especially for disadvantaged students who rely on school for fundamentals. You cannot learn subjects incidentally; while you may gain insights from a creative algebra project, it cannot replace a well-planned algebra course.

But imagination belongs at the forefront of education, not on the edges; it allows us to live and work for something more than surface appearance, hits, ratings, reactive tweets, and prefabricated success. Imagination reminds us that there is more to a person, subject, or problem than may appear at first. It enables public, social, private, economic, intellectual, and artistic life. Without it, we fall prey to shallow judgment (our own and others’); within it, we have room to learn and form.


Photo credit: I took this picture yesterday in Poets’ Walk Park in Red Hook, NY.

The Millefoglie of Success

graduation 2017

Yesterday the fourth graduating class of Columbia Secondary School did what a graduating class is supposed to do: graduate. Heralded with cheers, a mini-orchestra, thoughtful speeches, and a gathering on the steps of the Low Library, the students passed from one stage of life to the next. Yet I sensed that many of them had already done this internally; while relieved to graduate, they had already entered college in their minds and plans. For others, the ceremony may have held some sadness; maybe they had no family there, or they knew they would miss their friends. Still others went into the ceremony with great pride. Most of them, I imagine, had layers and mixtures of these and other emotions.

Success is not understood simply; maybe it is like a millefoglie in motion, with the “thousand” layers sometimes coming together in elegant pastry, sometimes flying past each other, sometimes jumbling in a heap. Any given moment holds more possibilities than can be grasped. Even out on the steps, congratulating and saying goodbye to students, I felt and sensed changing mixtures of elation, pride, affection, melancholy, distance, memory, dignity, hilarity, impatience, restfulness, and more, inside and outside myself. Yet all together they made up something beautiful.

It is a CONTRARIWISE piece from two years ago that brings the millefoglie to mind: “Carpe Diem” by Andrea Sarro, Margherita Pelliconi, Giulia Dall’Olio, Maria Sole Venturi, and Giovanni Mastropasqua. They write that “the millefoglie for dessert is the future, because we have different paths to take as the different pastry layers.” I would add that within each of us there are many simultaneous paths, making for a complex pastry indeed, hard to imagine in time, even less on a plate.

Yesterday, to my great honor, I found that a Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, had referred to my article “The Cult of Success” in his moving summer sendoff piece “The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder,” which explores the nature of success and wonder through the examples of a mathematician (Grigori Perelman), two musicians (Joshua Bell and Chance the Rapper), and a rabbi (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). The piece is rich with references; at one point Rabbi Ruben paraphrases Pirkei Avot 4.1, which “urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others.”

I found myself thinking about the Pirkei Avot passage long afterward. We often juxtapose external and internal success; external success, we realize, often distracts us from what matters. But the passage reminds me that it is we who define external success. We decide whom we will call wise, wealthy, and honorable; those definitions and designations affect those around us. “Societal views” are not just handed to us; we shape them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

As I remember members of this graduating class–whom I taught for two years, and for whom I wrote many college recommendations–I think of their kind and appreciative words for others, spoken many times over time. Seeing the good in others is no meager act or capacity; it influences everything. To see the good, you must also acknowledge that you do not see everything, that what you see and know literally is only a glimpse. The good, after all, comes in glimmers; the cynical dismiss it as illusion, but the courageous see through to its form.


Images: I took the first photo yesterday (June 22) after the Columbia Secondary School graduation ceremony and the second photo on May 30 on Eurovelo 11.

Ateliers philosophiques et artistiques


On the website of the Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi, there is a lovely article about my two weeks of teaching at the school. Besides describing my classes, it mentions some of the school events during my stay, some student honors and accomplishments (including publication in CONTRARIWISE), and more. My gratitude goes to everyone at the school–Dr. Nimet Küçük, M. Alexandre Abellan, students, teachers, and staff–and to everyone involved with CONTRARIWISE.

“How Was It?”

When I come back from a trip–or anything, really–and people ask, “How was it?” I don’t know what to say. “Rich, beautiful, fantastic,” etc.–those are generic words, but if I go into too much detail, I might try anyone’s patience, including my own. Moreover, the most important parts are often the most difficult to sum up. So I put together a slideshow–just a fraction of the photos I took, but a hint of the three weeks. To avoid big downloads and crashes, I put it on YouTube. (I adjusted and re-uploaded it several times; this is the final version.)

Also, I made a short video playlist of musicians I heard on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. I find myself listening to these songs again and again.

Speaking of “How was it?” yesterday I saw a delightful performance of The Government Inspector, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s play. The acting, stage set, directing, and the text itself combined into a performance that was part social satire, part panorama of human vice, and part utter silliness and play. I was grateful that that last part, the silliness and play, did not get short shrift; to me, it was the greatest part of all. Afterward there was a discussion with the director, Jesse Berger; the Russian scholar and author Emil A. Draitser; and several members of the cast.

Gogol’s play and the adaptation have the same basic plot: Residents of a small provincial town learn of the imminent arrival of a revizor, or government inspector. They scramble to cover up the town’s far-reaching corruption. In the meantime, Khlestakov, a self-indulgent, imaginative, unsuspecting dandy, has been staying at the inn for a week; once his presence is noted, people assume he is the revizor himself. This plays out hilariously–and in this production, everyone is having fun. But there’s also a sad irony: while believing they are covering up their foibles, the townspeople actually reveal one vice after another, particularly obsequiousness. What seems like concealment unravels into disclosure.

But this does not sum up the play, the adaptation, or the performance; as I was watching, I noticed that each scene, and many moments within the scenes, come across as pictures, po-gogolevski. The wordless scene at the end–the famous “nemaia stsena”–still shifts and staggers in my mind.

This actually brings me back to my trip. The four lessons I taught in Istanbul (to four sections of eleventh-graders) were about the relation between concealment and disclosure in specific works of art, music, and literature: a Degas painting, a Verlaine poem, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, a passage from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Chekhov’s story “Home.” This play would have been a great addition to that syllabus, had there been time for it. In that sense, the study continues.

So my reply to “How was it?” is “Was? No, is.”

Music, Theatre, and Goodbye

The visit to Istanbul concluded like a story: Before attending a student performance at the school, I took a walk, and found some of my favorite musicians again. (I had not seen them since the one time on May 19.) This time I asked them their names so that I could look them up and listen to more of their music. They are Fali Talebi and Sherko Hoseini, originally from Iran. I requested the song I heard them play last week (by humming the melody); when they played it today, many people gathered around and began singing along. (You can hear the crowd faintly in the video below.)

I kept the video clips to two minutes, because of my upload limits–but here’s a second clip with most of Fali’s solo, and here’s another song they played.

I got back to the school just in time for a joyous theatrical performance by the preparatory class. Proud parents were taking photos and videos.

And here are a few classroom and Café Philo photos from the previous days.

This is more of a photo album than a blog post, but as you can see, it will take a while to absorb everything that happened in these two weeks.

As for the musician I heard on my first and third days, my first favorite, I did not see him again, and I still do not know his name. I stopped in the Mephisto book and record store to ask about him. A store clerk told me that he has been playing on the street, and only the street, for the past twenty years; he has no formal recordings. He often plays the songs of Âşık Veysel–so I got a CD and booklet of  Âşık Veysel’s work. The “aşık” (minstrel) has a long tradition in Anatolian culture; Âşık Veysel is among the most renowned. Through this booklet and CD, I will learn something about the musician I heard; through the musician I heard, I will start to learn about the Anatolian minstrels.

Update: The song that Sherko and Fali played is “Ta Bahare Delneshin,” an old Persian song. Sherko kindly sent me the lyrics and a link to another recording.



Yesterday, at the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, there was an eleventh-grade award ceremony in commemoration of Atatürk’s birthday. For part of the philosophy award, I presented copies of CONTRARIWISE (a journal of philosophy by students of Columbia Secondary School in New York City) to Selin Tunalı, whose essay “What Is a Human Being?” won honorable mention in the journal’s international contest.

More photos of this ceremony will soon appear on the CONTRARIWISE website. You can purchase a copy of the fourth issue through the website or at the journal’s upcoming celebration at Book Culture at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 27. I will still be out of the country, but CONTRARIWISE will be vivid in my thoughts.

For three consecutive years, a student from the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi has won an award in the CONTRARIWISE International Contest. The past winners are İdil Ertem (for her poem “The Organization of Manti”) and Beliz Ürkmez (for her piece “Birth and Death”).

This year the editors-in-chief, editorial board, and Professor Terranova produced CONTRARIWISE without me; I left Columbia Secondary School at the end of June 2016 to write my second book. It is thanks to CONTRARIWISE that I am in Istanbul right now; through the international contest (created by the founding editors-in-chief), I began corresponding with Dr. Nimet Küçük, the philosophy teacher at Sainte Pulchérie. We then met twice in person in NYC. She and the school’s director, M. Abellan, invited me to the school for a short-term teaching residency; when I saw that it would be possible this spring, we began planning.

I am glad to have another week here! The visit has been beautiful and enlightening; I have been teaching, visiting classes, attending school events, and exploring Istanbul, all with the help and support of Nimet, other teachers, and the director. I am moved by their hospitality and impressed with what I have seen of the school. It has a compelling combination of formality and spirit, discipline and initiative, and learning and questioning. I have attended a math class on vectors, a music class on Debussy, and a French class where students were working on projects. I have taught two lessons so far (to four sections comprising the entire eleventh grade) and have seen the students’ great attention and participation.

The school hosts a theatre series performed by professional actors; this evening I will see Occident by Rémi De Vos, and tomorrow Yılın En İyi Kadın Oyuncusu (“The Best Actress of the Year”) by Seyyar Sahne.

This second photo (which I took on my first day here) shows a side alley and cat; I do not know whether I will find them again. Everywhere there are hilly, winding streets and alleys, each one different from the others. Even people who have lived here all their lives discover new places on their familiar walks. I look forward to many more walks over the coming week.

istanbul cat 1

Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity

The other day I related the complexity of Leviticus 13 (which I had read, i.e., chanted, on the previous Shabbat) to the complexity of the human condition. In my mind, at the time, it was all complexity, complexity of complexities. In this complexity I found beauty. Now I see, at the same time, a logical and structural simplicity.

Leviticus 13, which forms part of the Torah portion Tazria, describes the diagnosis, treatment, and ritual purification of people with various skin disorders, which may or may not be “nega tzaraat,” or “the plague of [leprosy]” (it is commonly translated as “leprosy,” but we don’t know what the disease actually was).

As I discussed before, these verses present special challenges for the readers. Words and phrases repeat many times, but within different grammatical structures (and thus with different trope, or melody). It does not work to associate a phrase with a melody. You have to learn both trope and text in a different way.

Today we have our last cantillation class. We were supposed to bring some pedagogical materials that we use when teaching cantillation to others. (Most of the students are preparing to be cantors.) Since I have never taught anyone else how to leyn, I thought about how I might go about learning Tazria, if I were to do it again.

Then it came to me. In the earlier part of chapter 13, in many of the verses, the first part of the verse has to do with the symptoms and general diagnosis; the second, with the action or treatment (and sometimes the reason as well). The two parts are divided by a melodic phrase called etnachta, which indicates a pause analogous to our semicolon. (It appears under its corresponding syllable and looks somewhat like a curved caret.)

So there you have it: symptoms and diagnosis in the first half, and treatment or action in the second.

But you can break it down still further. Within the first half, the symptoms are sometimes grouped in phrases; these phrases are separated by a zakef katon, a trope that indicates something like a strong comma–not quite an etnachta, but closer than many of the other disjunctives, or melodic separators. (It appears above the syllable and looks like a colon.) In fact, sometimes this zakef katon separates specific symptoms from a more general diagnosis. In the second part of the verse, the zakef katon may separate two possible actions.

I am not doing justice to the topic of parsing; there’s much more to it than this, both within these verses and in general. I am just looking at a particular relation between structure and meaning. When you consider it in this way, everything falls into place–if not in this particular way, then in other ways.

Take, for example, Leviticus 13:2 (I have set the etnachta phrase in blue and the zakef katon phrases in green; the quoted text is courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

ב אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּֽהֲנִֽים׃

“When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”

Up through “bright spot,” you see a description of the symptoms; in the next phrase, the larger condition (the plague of leprosy); and after “leprosy,” the possible actions: bringing him to Aaron the priest (pause) or to one of his sons.

You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read this verse. He announces the verse numbers in English as he goes along, so just listen for “two” (and continue listening after that, of course).

Of course this is not the pattern throughout; but once you see how it works, you can find other patterns too. Many Biblical verses have a kind of semantic symmetry; once you see the relation between the two main parts, you can see other relations as well.

If I were teaching this portion (to myself or anyone else), I would encourage the person to think in terms of the logical patterns and their meaning: in this case, in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment or action. We would start with this pattern and then find some of the others. We would parse a few verses systematically and completely, for the practice and understanding–but other verses we would view in terms of cadence, movement, symmetry, and meaning.

The portion still requires hours of practice (for me, at least), but it’s much easier when I not only see the smaller and larger structures at once but relate them to the narration.

This leads to a subject that might seem off-topic at first: “growth mindset.” In a group of previous posts, I questioned the assertion (now widely popularized) that people have either a “fixed mindset” (an assumption that their abilities are fixed) or a “growth mindset” (a belief that they can improve) and that a “growth mindset” is conducive to success, while a “fixed mindset” is not. I argue that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets.

After stumbling over this reading last Saturday, I was definitely not in “growth mindset.” I felt terrible. I thought it was the worst I had ever done (even though it was the longest and trickiest portion I had tried to learn in a short time). My disappointment was unreachable; people’s kind and encouraging words barely grazed my skin. But I had no doubt that I wanted to persist with cantillation. Also, I knew I wanted to figure out what went wrong. So as soon as the distress passed, I went back to the verses. That is when I saw the pattern.

Someone might say, “But with a total ‘growth mindset,’ you can skip over the distress altogether; that way, you’ll be more productive.” The distress has an important place, though; it comes from longing. When I am discouraged by my own performance (in the sense of carrying out a form), it’s because it matters to me to do well. The mattering carries me forward.

That brings out another possible meaning of the portion and the next one. Sarah Krinsky, a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, gave a magnificent D’var Torah (commentary, interpretation, sermon) on the purification process for the leprous person. Once the priest has pronounced him unclean, his clothes must be torn, he must let his hair loose, and he must cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). On the one hand, this seems like humiliation; why should the person be forced to cast such stigma on himself? On the other, it can be taken as a statement of truth and a call for help and compassion. The person does not stay “unclean” forever.

My discouragement was much like a cry of “Unclean, unclean.” I knew I had not done well. By seeing and feeling this, without mitigation or immediate “positive thinking,” I could then proceed to do better.

I am glad for human complexity and structures of simplicity; I am grateful for cadence and mattering.

Note: I revised this piece in several stages after posting it. For much more on trope and how it works, I recommend Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page book Chanting the Hebrew Bible.

The Folly of Followership

no followerIn a New York Times article from yesterday, Susan Cain argues that college admissions offices are overemphasizing “leadership” and should give more attention to “followership.” (She also gives a nod to teamwork and independent thought.) In the comments, people spoke up against this concept of “followership”; to many, including me, it poses as the next bad Big Idea. Instead of seeking “leaders,” “followers,” “team players,” or “solo thinkers,” colleges should seek young people with intellectual accomplishment, promise, and interest. The challenge is to identify them properly; the concept of “followership” will not help.

To begin with, Cain frames the problem incorrectly. It isn’t that admissions offices have come to emphasize leadership above all else. Rather, when looking over thousands of applications, they seek qualities that stand out. Leadership is one of them; knowing this, students emphasize their leadership roles, often to excess. But leadership takes many forms; when writing college recommendations, I have sometimes emphasized a student’s intellectual leadership in the classroom or outside. Some students lead through their work; to write an outstanding essay (that goes beyond any “rubric” into the subject itself) is to exercise leadership.

One problem is that students face pressure to stand out in some way. They have no guarantee that their desired colleges will single them out. Even outstanding grades and test scores are no guarantee; many students are now entering college with two years of calculus, or with experience in a biomedical lab, or something else beyond the usual school curriculum. Some worry about whether they will have a chance if, say, they choose to play in a youth orchestra instead of enrolling in the intensive calculus course that their peers are taking.

As a result of such pressure (as Cain duly notes), students begin shaping their resumes for the sake of being seen. This is nothing new; I remember such a tendency in graduate school. I was often told that I should attend this or that conference because it would look good on the resume; that was one of the reasons that I decided not to go into academia. But it is especially painful to see teenagers under such pressure. A possible solution would be to limit the number of applications per student and to limit the Common App itself. Also, colleges could send clearer messages to students about what they seek.

But “followership”–even understood subtly–is misleading and potentially harmful. Cain quotes Robert Kelley, who in 1988 listed some qualities of good followers, including dedication to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” But as you read on, you see that what he describes is not so much “followership” as “a life of integrity outside of leadership.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the key to being an effective follower is the ability to think for oneself—to exercise control and independence and to work without close supervision.” (It’s paradoxical because “follower” is the wrong word and concept. He’s really talking about people who, in the workplace, occupy positions other than those at the top–but who contribute thoughtfully, independently, and honorably to the larger endeavor.)

Many commenters on Cain’s article brought up problems with the leader-follower dichotomy. It can be limiting and patronizing; it casts even solo thinkers as “followers” (just because they aren’t “leaders” on paper), and it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. I would add that it’s geared toward a kind of workplace (often but not always corporate) that practices social engineering. Many firms try to engineer success by combining personalities effectively: by identifying employees as “types” (leaders, followers, introverts, extraverts, and whatever it might be) and then adjusting the staff proportions. This trend is neither necessary nor universal. There are other ways to work and lead one’s life.

Are professional orchestra musicians “followers”? Not quite. True, they follow the directions of the conductor. But for music to occur, each musician must have excellence, soul, and a musical life. It isn’t just a matter of coming to rehearsal and doing what the conductor says and shows. Each member of the orchestra is dedicated to music; this includes hours of solo practice, chamber music, teaching, and much more. All of this contributes to the orchestra’s work and performance. Without each member’s independent musicianship, the orchestra would turn mediocre.

Is a professor (other than department chair) a “follower”? No–even those who teach the standard courses bring their own thoughts, research, and questions into the classroom. On their own, they conduct research in areas of interest. As they advance, they may teach more courses of their choosing or branch into new areas. Many professors I know perceive “leadership” positions as an encumbrance; they would not want to be department chairs, even less administrators. There is plenty of leadership in what they do.

Even in corporate settings, the “leader/follower”opposition fails to characterize the situation at hand. Many outspoken editors, software engineers, and others help shape the company’s work and direction, even though they are not formally “leaders.” Sometimes it is those in lower positions who exercise the intellectual leadership of a company.

Most of us, in our everyday lives and work, combine leading, following, participation, and independent action. We may tend toward one or the other; different projects may bring different qualities out of us. As Helen Vendler notes in a memorable essay (which Cain cites but misinterprets), a young poet or artist may have less-than-stellar grades; her talent and excellence may show not through all-around achievement, but through a special brilliance and intensity. So instead of crudely categorizing ourselves and others, we can instead look at what we do, say, choose, think, and desire, and how this changes over time.

Back to college admissions: I doubt that many admissions officers swoon over hollow tokens of leadership. Still, there are ways to strengthen and dignify the application process. Typecasting is not one.

Image credit: I took this photo in Gill, Massachusetts.

Note: I made a few changes to the sixth and ninth paragraphs after posting this piece.

On Stopping Hate

rally-2Yesterday I attended the Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia to protest the desecration of Mount Carmel Cemetery and the recent wave of hate and violence against many individuals and groups. I do not often go to rallies, but this was too important to me. I took the train—brought work along and got a lot done—walked two miles in sun and breeze to Independence Mall, and joined with the hundreds who had come from near and far. I am glad I did and glad that there were so many people there. It was a great and affirming event.

As I listened to the speeches and songs (sung by wonderful choruses—including the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Student Choir and the Mainline Unity Choir), I asked myself whether it was possible to get rid of hate, and if not, what could be done to curb it. Hate, it seems, is part of our makeup; in some ways it functions to define us.

I hate a certain kind of syrupy prose, so it would be easy for me to hate a writer of syrupy prose. If pressed, I would claim that it was the writing I hated, not the person, but it’s all too easy for one to slip into the other. It’s not bad to hate certain syrupy prose; those antipathies spur better writing. If I see syrup in my own prose, I take out a spoon and scoop it out. Begone! But derision itself is harder to scoop; it slides past the object into a larger field.

So instead of stopping hatred, which will probably be with us forever, I would try to stop the slippage. People often speak in terms of hating the deed but not the perpetrator, or hating the sin but not the sinner. There’s much more to it, though; it also involves recognizing how little we know about another. But what does this take? It seems to have to do with halting oneself, seeing one’s own limits. It also requires some laws and safeguards.

It also has to do with recognizing what we have in common: first of all dignity, but also history, family, friends, yearnings, emotions, thoughts, questions, needs, duties, and more. It is no trifle to hold the door for someone or help someone carry a baby carriage down the stairs; this not only shows courtesy but allows both the giver and receiver of assistance to see something in the other.

How, then, do we build these parallel understandings: that we know little about others, and that we have much in common?

The first way is through spontaneous acts of kindness and courtesy–helping an elderly person across the street, welcoming someone to sit next to us (in response to the question “Is this seat taken?” and hundreds of other daily possibilities.

Another is through structured acts: volunteering, participating in events, visiting other countries and parts of the U.S., and reading opinions and perspectives that differ from our own.

Another is through building and enforcing laws that protect people’s rights, electing responsible and honorable leaders, and fostering civic education.

Another is through schools: teaching subject matter in all its glory, posing challenging questions, bringing students into dialogue and discussion, and creating an atmosphere where intellect and art are respected and cherished.

Another is through literature, history, and art, which have a way of surprising the soul and accompanying us through our lives.

Another is through mathematics and science, which have a common language across cultures and help us understand the relations between the abstract and concrete.

Another is through dialogue: learning from others, discussing easy and difficult questions, telling and hearing stories.

Another is through gathering and speaking against acts of hate: affirming that they are unacceptable and something else is possible.

Maybe all of this involves an internal gesture. It’s hard to describe, but it has to do, I think, with keeping oneself in check, recognizing that one is not the master of the universe or the arbiter of human nature. This sounds like an intellectual understanding, but it’s partly visceral too. It’s the dropping of hands, the halting of steps, the catching of impulse in an instant.

In his challenging and exhilarating book Human Dignity, George Kateb takes up the difficulty of dignity and proceeds to defend it. Human dignity, according to Kateb, has two aspects. It is founded, first, on “humanity’s partial discontinuity with nature”—that is, the special gifts and responsibilities of humans—and second, on the equal status of all humans. These two principles may be in conflict with each other—human dignity may have inherent contradictions—but it is better, he argues, to deal with the conflicts than to break dignity into pieces or dismiss it altogether.

Those ideas guide me when I stand against hate. It is not that I imagine that we will ever eradicate hatred from ourselves or others. Rather, I affirm something greater and more difficult: my responsibility to help build the world, and my profound equality with everyone. Along with that, I remember that what I see and know is just a speck of what exists.


Photo credit: Thanks to the kind person who took this picture.

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