Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.

Wending Its Way to Readers

mindovermemesWhen you write a book, there’s great excitement and anticipation around its publication. Who will read it? How will they respond to it? Then come the book events. Then the reviews–maybe many, maybe few. A few responses from friends. Then a few interviews. Then the wait. Sometimes a long silence.

My book events–in Dallas, Budapest, Szolnok, and New York–were dreamy and lively. I couldn’t have wished for better. They come back as happy memories. The responsible reviews were encouraging too. (A few Goodreads reviews were irresponsible in that their authors showed no signs of having read the book or knowing what it was about.) But overall, the book went under the radar.

People have so much to read, they are so bombarded with stuff, that they don’t rush to read your book unless they have a particular interest in it or have been hearing about it from everyone. That is why so many publishers and publicists compete to create “buzz” around a book even before it is published.

My book opposes buzz, though; that’s part of its point. It is about thinking carefully about what you want to say and saying it on your own terms, in your own time. It is about questioning those catchwords and phrases–“the team,” “creativity,” “the good fit,” “toxic people,” and others–that do so much damage when thrown about carelessly.  It is about recognizing that we don’t have the last word about the people around us, the ways to lead life, or the meaning of a text.

So it was a delight to be interviewed by Marci Mazzarotto at the New Books Network. She is an Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. We had an unrushed, enjoyable conversation about the book and its ideas. The podcast appeared online today.

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A good interview brings out some new aspect of a book or author, or at least something that hasn’t been emphasized yet. In this case, we talked about the presence or absence of empathy in language. For instance, when people write others off as “toxic,” they often haven’t taken the trouble to speak with them, learn who they are, or address the particular problem at hand. To call someone “toxic” is to say, “I don’t have to bother with you.”

Empathy is a tricky matter. It can bring its own illusions. But as a rejection of over-certainty about others, it is good. As an acknowledgment that others cannot be summed up, that they have lives and thoughts of their own, it can help us out of many errors.

The book was written well before COVID-19 appeared, but today I notice various ways of writing off the disease–not by calling it or its victims “toxic,” but by somehow describing those affected in a way that separates them. It’s tempting to believe that the virus comes just to the old, the sick, the faraway–as though anyone could escape any of those states with just a bit of willpower. It is easy to trick yourself into this kind of thinking, even in mild forms, until you know someone who has been ill.

When I reread the book now, I see that it says important things that hold up over time. There are a few superfluous sentences and phrases that I would cut today, but they don’t overwhelm the text. In any case, it is wending its way to readers, and I have thoughts for the next book.

Don’t Take This Advice

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I see all kinds of advice online about how to handle the coronavirus isolation. Some articles tell you to get in touch with more people, to do more things in Zoom groups, to join more clubs. Others tell you how to say “no” to invitations and claim some space for yourself. What they all have in common is an assumption that people need to be told how to lead their lives.

Why this barrage of advice? Adulthood is full of laws, rules, and limitations, so shouldn’t people be able to make the most of what freedom they have? Why hand it over to those eager advice-givers who don’t know a thing about you?

In particular, isn’t it each person’s prerogative to find the combination of aloneness and company, of solitude and companionship, that suits him or her? Each person is different in this matter. The divisions do not fall along introvert/extravert lines; many self-described introverts may find themselves lonely, whereas many self-described extraverts may need a break from others. It has more to do with your existing obligations and with what you actually want.

An example: If you teach online, you have built-in, daily online contact with others-not only with your students, but also with your colleagues and others. So you may not be eager for Zoom chats in your free time. In addition, if you have things that you need to do on your own, with minimal distractions, then you might also want to limit your online social activity. On top of that, if you actually enjoy doing things alone, or offline, or both, there’s yet another reason not to leap into every virtual club or happy hour.

But there are other considerations too, including where and how you may be needed. If you are part of an organization that is turning toward online events, then you may be expected, and may expect yourself, to contribute something. That means that even more of your time is already allotted online–so the free time is even scarcer and matters even more.

There are different ways, also, of being in touch with others online. Some people prefer video conversation or text chat; others (like myself) prefer audio or email. Some prefer quick, immediate chats; others like to take time between messages. So there are many ways to do these things, not just one–and if there seems to be a trend toward one, well, no one has to be part of the trend, especially not in free time.

So, my advice is, don’t worry about all the advice that the world is giving you, unless you sorely need it! Look at your own obligations and wishes, and make your own choices, where choices are possible.

But then each of us has times when we need advice–and if that is true for you, just disregard this advice against taking advice! Advice, though, has built-in limitations. If it comes from a stranger, it lacks insight into your particular situation. If it comes from someone who knows you, it lacks objectivity. Still, every so often, a gem of advice comes along, objective or not. We know it by its truth. There are pieces of advice that I have carried with me for years.

But I think that good advice comes from wisdom, which in turn comes from learning, listening, and discerning over time. Good advice is not formulaic; it takes into account the many possibilities and uncertainties surrounding another person. But when it needs to be strong, it is.

So the upshot is: Do what you want and need. Take advice, don’t take advice. Have fun with the taking and not taking. When the time comes, give some careful advice of your own, keeping in mind that it might not be right.

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I took these photos yesterday by the Tisza and the Zagyva.

The Lantern Bearers

IMG_1903An extraordinary essay by Megan Craig, “The Courage to Be Alone” (NYT, May 1, 2020), is about much more than its title suggests: not only the courage to be alone, but also the hidden light and joy in people’s ordinary lives. She describes taking a walk through the woods with her youngest daughter, and talking both with her and apart from her, listening and not listening, being quiet and being pulled back into conversation. She hopes that these walks will stay with her daughter and one day give her strength. They are not just about being present for each other, or for nature, or for anything; rather, they are about glimpses along the way, those sudden streams of words, or the sight of a flower on the path, incomplete, unfinished, and never fully known. She writes:

Suddenly I am reminded of William James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in which he writes about the difficulty of being present to another person’s life. James uses a Robert Louis Stevenson story of young boys who form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of participation. From the outside they look just like anyone else hurrying by in the cold night. But when they meet one another, they lift the edge of their coats to reveal a hot burning light hanging from a belt loop. I have always loved the image of these kids hiding fire, their faces momentarily illuminated to one another in lamplight, triumphant in their allegiance to the game.

Her references to William James and Emmanuel Lévinas–as well as songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and September 67–demand time and patience, since to understand them, you need to go read and listen to them (again, if you already have). In a sense, this time and patience is the point of it all: being willing to listen to someone else, even to oneself, without looking at the watch and rushing off to the next thing. But this listening will always be flawed, even at its best; there is always something that we miss, not just in the details, but at the center of it all. So part of the “courage to be alone” has to do with understanding the imperfection, resisting the temptation to sum up others, or an encounter, or the world at large, in our minds. “And now,” asks James, “what is the result of all these considerations and quotations?” (His essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” quotes Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, and others.) He replies:

It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.

I have been painting the smaller room of my new place (not the room pictured here, which I will leave as is). I am not an experienced painter–I have painted before, but not in a long time–but I have been finding my way into it. It’s a small enough room that I can give it several coats without trouble. I start to work out a technique and a rhythm. And now I understand what friends over time were trying to convey when talking about their home remodeling projects. When you are alone with the materials and your place, you get to test things out, make mistakes, try again. It’s exciting when you finally get it right, but even the errors have their fun when they aren’t disastrous.

I have been exploring the new neighborhood on bike and on foot–looking at walls, through empty buildings, down streets.

It is not just their beauty that excites me, but the thought of getting to know them little by little over time, seeing them through the seasons, and sometimes not fully noticing them. There is something reciprocal in this. In giving time to a person or place, in letting the acquaintance be imperfect, I, too, am given time; I too, have a chance to be known and unknown and unfinished. So we meet like lantern bearers.

Old School in Hungary: Part 6

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It has become more difficult, just within the past few days, to talk about these Old School discussions, since something has changed in the classroom. From “The Forked Tongue” onward, they have become more urgent. As if the story were happening around us and with us and by us.

Last week, because I was giving entrance exams Monday through Thursday and because we had a long weekend, one section had one class with me; the other had none. This week we resumed our rhythm, and students had lots to say.

One student asked, “Why is this writing competition destroying friendships and even breaking the school apart?” Another student suggested that the privilege of a private audience with the visiting writer was too extreme; only one person could receive that privilege, but to the boys it meant everything. Maybe, he suggested, the school could have given the honor to a small group of students instead of just one. They would all get to meet with the visiting writer.

Another student found it strange that Mr. Ramsey made the initial selections. (For the Hemingway contest, he chooses three and sends them to Hemingway, who selects the winner.) How many manuscripts might have been ignored just because Mr. Ramsey didn’t happen to like them? Was it right to give students the impression that their work was being read and considered by Hemingway (or whoever it happened to be)?

Some students picked up on the ironies at work: Bill White telling the narrator that it was his (Bill’s) story that he had written, not his own–and the narrator replying that if it had been Bill’s, Bill would have written it. They noticed that George Kellogg knew that the writing didn’t seem like the narrator’s; one student explained how George rationalized this discrepancy.

A student suggested that the narrator, by copying and submitting someone else’s story–a story that seemed to be about his life–has broken an unwritten and unspoken rule at the school: that you don’t actually reveal yourself in your writing. Until now, the boys have not been revealing themselves; now he has. The unfairness goes beyond winning the contest. He has taken a shortcut to something he wouldn’t otherwise have dared to do, and this upsets the other boys for reasons they don’t know how to articulate.

But all those different insights are only part of what has been happening. It isn’t uniform at all; one class is much livelier than the other (though the quieter class comes up with beautiful ideas). Besides all of this, at least two things are happening at once. One is that the students are considering Old School as a story. How, they asked, did everything happen so fast just now–with the narrator winning the contest and then immediately getting caught and expelled? And how can it be that there are still many pages to go? (“I smell a twist,” one student told me.)

The other part is that we see these questions of truth, fairness, and justice coming up in the discussions themselves. A student brought up things he had said months ago that he realized had come across wrong. He felt so bad that it had come across as rude. I saw my own mistake after unfairly giving a student a 4 out of 5 on a multiple-choice quiz–and my even greater mistake in making this known to the class. In Hungary, grades are usually a public matter, but all the same, that doesn’t justify announcing them all the time. His answers, as it turned out, made sense when he explained them; in addition, he had been participating energetically and thoughtfully from the very beginning. I apologized and changed the grade–but it still stings in my mind. Even calling on people, and recognizing when they need some room to be quiet, can be a tricky matter. Some students are reading and thinking ahead, whereas others need a little more time to take in what we read last week.

One of the sections hasn’t gotten to the narrator’s expulsion yet–or at least we will be discussing it tomorrow–but with the other section, we spent a long time with Mr. Ramsey’s goodbye.

Here one says something, he said. It’s not the end of the world, be game, you’ll work things out … but for all I know you won’t work things out. How should I know? He patted his pockets for the Gitanes, put one in his mouth, and offered another to me. When I hesitated he stuck the pack in my shirt pocket and stepped down onto the platform and walked away, two long sweat stains darkening the back of his jacket. I was glad to see him go; several minutes remained before departure time and I’d worried he might stand vigil outside, watching me through the window and giving sad little nods whenever our eyes met.

Why, I asked, did the narrator not want Mr. Ramsey to wait? For some this was a difficult question; they themselves would have preferred to have their former teacher (now more of a friend) stay until the train departed. But then a student pointed out, “He hasn’t had any time alone yet, he hasn’t had time to process any of this.” And then we talked about the last paragraph (where he makes his way to the smoking car with his copy of In Our Time, a gift from his classmate Purcell), and how different it is from the other time that we saw the narrator on the train (with a copy of The Fountainhead). At that time he felt full of himself and sure of himself, at least in the uppermost registers; now nothing is certain, and he has been brought down low.

Now all depends on how we approach the ending. I think we will finish the book in four more lessons and then take an additional lesson to discuss not only the whole book, but the discussions and the whole endeavor. This has been something out of the usual, and the students more than lived up to it. We have been building something together. I will miss it when it is over, but I don’t think it will go away.

 

This is the sixth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I made a few minor changes (for clarity) to this piece after posting it.

Tradeoffs and Givebacks

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The cliché “nothing is free” is not entirely true. Many things come to us, good, bad, and mixed, through no doing of our own; we don’t have to pay for (or pay our way out of) everything that comes our way. Still, more things come at a cost than we may immediately realize. I want a president who understands the cost and value of things–not only the monetary cost and value, but also that which goes beyond money.

It was snowing when I got up this morning; I think this was the second snow of the winter here in Szolnok. Maybe the third. We often talk about how winters aren’t as snowy as they used to be. But to have snowy winters, we have to stop heating the planet so much. Fewer cars, lower heat, less wasteful consumption. The effects aren’t immediate and direct–we might have blizzards next year–but they’re there.

Similar things can be said for healthcare. In the U.S., the contenders for the Democratic presidential candidacy have been debating how to reform or overhaul the health care system. But no matter what policy the next president puts into action, it will have severe costs. People often point to Canada as an example of a large country with universal health care. But the Canadian system is struggling: it has enough resources emergency services, but not nearly enough for chronic conditions. Many patients have to wait months, even years, for their appointments. Moreover, the actual quality of care is often mediocre. Canada’s accomplishment is great, but it does not meet everyone’s needs by a long shot.

If I were naive, I would praise the medical system here in Hungary. Everyone has access to health care; those who are employed pay a monthly fee for a health plan that covers just about everything, and those who are unemployed can get free care. In addition, if you want better care and want an appointment right away, you can pay private doctors at reasonable rates. (A recent doctor’s appointment cost me about $20.) But the catch is that doctors make miserable money. Many are leaving Hungary.

To institute any kind of universal health care in the U.S., one would have to change the medical profession and medical schools: make it easier and less expensive to become a doctor, reduce doctors’ salaries, and more. It would take years to make this shift, and many doctors and patients would resist it. For a long time, there would probably be two or three tiers of doctors and medical services. Something like this would still be worthwhile (in my opinion), but it won’t be great for everyone.

Education: another area where very little is free. I love teaching here in Hungary. The environment is calm (yet lively too). Teachers are regarded as professionals; outside of the classroom, we are mostly in charge of our own time. Faculty meetings are held not weekly, but as needed; smaller meetings occur when we call them. Often we just work things out with our colleagues in spare minutes in the teachers’ room, where most of us have our desks. Many of us stay late after school, but there’s no pressure to stay late, no suggestion that those who do so are better than the others. But the pay is low. My salary (on the higher end, because of my degrees and teaching experience) comes to about $12,000 per year.

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In New York City, whenever a pay raise for teachers has been on the table, I have heard talk of “givebacks.” These might include lengthening the school day and school year, increasing the number of mandatory meetings, increasing teachers’ duties outside the classroom (teachers had to monitor hallways and the cafeteria, among other things), increasing the pedagogical mandates (at many schools, lessons have to follow specified formats), mandating the regular refreshing of hallway bulletin boards (a hefty task, especially since they, like the lessons, must follow specified formats), and mandating regular contact with parents. (Here in Hungary, it’s the homeroom teacher who contacts parents if necessary; subject teachers are not expected to do so.)

The result of all this? Teachers’ salaries in New York are quite good (especially when you consider the retirement benefits and pensions, none of which I reaped, incidentally, since I left twice to write two books and was officially part-time for my last five years of teaching there). If you stay in the system a long time, you can not only afford the cost of living in New York City, but even raise a family, buy an apartment, go on nice vacations, and retire comfortably. But the school day (in many cases) is so stressful and pounding from start to finish, that even energetic people in their twenties get worn out. Even at a wonderful school, you feel the pressure of the system.

Speaking of pressure of the system (and a wonderful school), it was painful to read a recent article about my former school, the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering. According to the article, Harlem parents and others have been complaining that the school’s demographics do not reflect those of the neighborhood. While true, this criticism does not take the school’s purpose and nature into account. Columbia Secondary School makes an extraordinary commitment both to high standards and to diversity. Its enrollment is 60% African American and Hispanic; many students come from immigrant families. Moreover, the school makes a point of admitting academically promising students from the neighborhood. But since the neighborhood is historically low-performing, the school faces a dilemma. If it were to relax its admission requirements–for instance, not looking at students attendance records any more–the overall quality would go down and the general stress would go up. If, on the other hand, the school were to rely entirely on test scores for admission (instead of its current combination of interviews, essays, scores, grades, and attendance records), then the student body would represent the neighborhood even less (since the neighborhood’s average test scores are extremely low). I love the school and know that it will hold its own–but I wish it were being honored, not berated.

Yes, many things come at a cost; to set and implement a policy, or even to make life decisions, one has to understand what the cost is and what it means. And why do I have time to write this today? We have no school; it’s a “ski weekend” for those who wish to take off to the mountains. For me, it’s a chance to catch up with some translating, get ready for synagogue tomorrow (practice the leyning in particular), and, yes, write a blog post and maybe more. The cost in this case? Not much on the surface. But if you look closely, each of these things was chosen over something else. I could go on with explanations and examples. But I think the idea is clear.

 

 

Simplify (Once or Twice)

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In Walden, Thoreau wrote: “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.” Emerson is said to have commented, “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed” (or something along those lines). I haven’t been able to verify this yet, but I see his purported point. Then again, it’s possible to simplify once and then simplify all over again.

Like many, I often comment on how much I have to do, but actually I am trying to keep some simplicity. It’s good not to be frazzled. With possessions, I am no ascetic, but I can live contentedly with books, CDs, clothes, a few kitchen supplies, some furniture, a few special items, a laptop with internet connection, a couple of musical instruments, and my bicycle. As far as a home goes, it doesn’t have to be big; if it has room for these things and me, and a cat, and guests now and then, that’s enough.

I am buying an apartment here in Szolnok–a beautiful little place, cozy rather than spacious. This summer I will sort out some belongings. Some things will stay in storage in NYC. Some things will move over here.  Some things will go (to charity if possible).

But back to Thoreau: pooh-pooh him all you like (because his mom supposedly did his laundry while he lived out in the woods and wrote about self-sufficiency); call him out, if you like, on the redundancy of “simplify, simplify”–but admit that he’s right about the “chopping sea of civilized life” and the principle of living by “dead reckoning.” A bit of simplicity is not surrender; it’s a staple. Like rice, it allows for feasts, fasting, and thousands of spices and sauces.

I took the photo this week while biking just past my current apartment.

Old School in Hungary: Part 5

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Whenever I go into the classroom to teach Tobias Wolff’s Old School, I am in for surprises. Sometimes the class is lively, sometimes slow and contemplative, but in both cases it can take unexpected turns. Most of the students disliked Ayn Rand (the character) and readily explained why the narrator changes his view of her writing after hearing her speak. One student, though, resisted this line of thinking. If he had loved her writing before, she argued, shouldn’t he still love it now? Shouldn’t he be able to separate the writing from the person?

These questions brought us back again and again to the passage on pp. 92-93, where the narrator admits to something complex. He acknowledges that he has his own personal reasons for rejecting her writing, reasons that have more to do with his own shame and self-pity than with the writing itself.

The self-pity I felt at this betrayal [by Ayn Rand’s characters Dominique and Roark, who wouldn’t have shown up in the sickroom while he was sick–DS] dressed itself up as fierce affection for Grandjohn and Patty, who had done all this for me. I found myself defending them against Dominique and Roark as if they, not I, had turned up their noses at these loyal, goodhearted bores.

So the narrator admits that at the time of turning away from Rand’s writing, he was blaming her for things he had done himself–for the scorn he had felt toward his grandfather and grandfather’s wife, “these loyal, goodhearted bores.”

In the next paragraph he continues this thought:

I blamed Ayn Rand for disregarding all this [that is, his family’s difficulties and struggles, and human struggles in general–DS]. And I no doubt blamed her even more because I had disregarded it myself–because for years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others, in the present case Ayn Rand.

But is that all there is to his criticism? In the next paragraph, he suggests otherwise. “This part of my reaction was personal and unreasoned,” he says. “But there was more. It had dawned on me that I didn’t really know anyone like Roark and Dominique.”

The student who raised the initial objection stayed staunch in her argument. “If Ayn Rand’s writing made him realize all of this,” she said, “then it must have had something.” This prompted a distinction that might not have come up otherwise. There’s no question that the narrator breaks with Ayn Rand’s writing here–partly for personal reasons, partly because he finds it lacking, and partly because he is now drawn to something else. This complex mixture of reasons cannot be summed up as a judgment against Rand’s attitudes and characters. It is that but also more. Moreover, Rand’s writing deserves some credit: after all, it was able to wake him up.

This week we read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in one lesson, and, in another, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29–all of them to help students understand allusions and references, but also for their own sake. Each of these pieces set off a discussion; “Indian Camp” had the students enthralled. As for the parable and sonnet, we read each of them carefully; then I asked the students what the two had in common. I finally asked them what they had to do with Old School (so far). The responses could fill several blog posts and more. But this is all for now.

 

This is the fifth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

The Fallacy of Growth Mindset

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Growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that your intelligence is malleable: that, through practice and strategic problem-solving, you can become not only more skilled, but smarter. According to Dweck, the opposite of growth mindset is fixed mindset (the belief that your abilities are fixed). Criticism of growth mindset has generally focused on the research. If students are exposed to the concept of growth mindset, do they perform better? Take on more challenges? Persist through failure? The jury is out–but all of this evades a basic philosophical problem: growth mindset has no ultimate superiority or autonomy. People not only have both mindsets, but need both. A world of pure growth mindset would be frenetic and absurd.

I devoted the ninth chapter of Mind over Memes to this topic; I discussed it many times on this blog. Here I will make my points briefly. Each of us has both potential and limitation; the one helps the other. To do one thing well, you have to let yourself not do certain other things. Even young people, capable of doing many things at once, need to set some limits. It should not be shameful, at some point, to say “I can’t.”

Ability itself has outer limits. Most of us can get a little better at just about anything. If I wanted to get a little better at tennis (to the point where I could hit the ball), I probably could. But it’s safe to say that I would never–and I really mean never–make it to Wimbledon, except as an audience member. The same is true even for things that I do well, such as languages. I am getting better at Hungarian by the week. I will get much better within the next few years. Yet I may never reach complete fluency: being able to say anything, accurately and expressively, on any topic within my knowledge.

But even if we could do anything and everything, we would not necessarily want to. There’s something to be said for rest. It is not necessarily lazy to lie down and sleep. It is not necessarily shameful to stop working and take a walk.

It is not a copout to work a job and consider it a job–to leave it at the end of the day. As  a teacher, I take my work home, but there’s a good argument for the contained work week. It allows you to do other things, whatever those may be.

It is not shameful to spend time with others and alone, to go through the many ups and downs of life, and to choose your attentions. But that requires letting yourself be “fixed” in some ways: admitting that you want something other than constant improvement, as important as this may be.

Growth mindset advocates have already admitted that people have a mixture of mindsets. (Are they even mindsets, I wonder?) But they have not acknowledged the possible virtues of the mixture. They have not yet acknowledged that growth mindset is anything but The Answer.

It is good to believe that one can improve, and to know how to do so. But it is also good to to allow for some focus, to acknowledge that we can’t all be everything, and (at some point) to call it a day.