In This Grand Primordial Mess


Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.

School Visit

rehearsalYesterday afternoon I stopped by Columbia Secondary School, where I taught and advised from 2011 until last June. I stayed for a few hours, talked with many people, and dropped by a vocal rehearsal of In the Heights (pictured here). I had a chance to hear about philosophy classes, the musical, students’ college applications, and much more. I miss the school but do not regret leaving to write my book; so far it has been one of my best years. There was something moving, though, about seeing my former students in their senior year (and some in their sophomore and seventh-grade years), arrayed with new choices, ideas, and dilemmas.

I spoke with colleagues about their philosophy classes and heard about the little changes they have made to the courses. That’s the great thing about leaving a school or other place: not only does life go on without  you, but it takes new and interesting forms. It would have done so anyway, but my absence catapults things a bit, I think. The changes are subtle and make complete sense; as I listened to my colleagues, I thought, “But of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” But that’s the point: I didn’t, and they did.

There is a paradox of home: in some cases, when you leave it, you become more part of it, as though the absence were a kind of dwelling.

Time and Happiness Again

What do people want: more money or more time? Who is happier: those who want money, or those who want time? Do these questions mean the same things to different people? Do they mean the same thing to the same person at different times? Do we know what we’re doing when we rate our own happiness?

A few weeks ago I commented on a study by Hal E. Hershfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea, “People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier” (Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 7, no. 7 [2016], 697-706; see also the authors’ NYT article). I saw possible problems with it but did not have time to read it closely. My criticism was a bit caustic and uninformed; I ended up disliking and deleting the post. I regret the tone but not the critical impulse.

Now looking at the actual study again, I find it both stronger and weaker than I previously thought.

It is stronger in its versatility. The authors considered many possibilities; they were continually revising and refining their hypotheses and tests.

But that’s also a problem. The paper’s seven studies go in somewhat different directions; in my reading, they don’t point together to a conclusion.

Here they are:

Study 1a: 1,301 participants (1,226 in the final sample) were recruited through Mechanical Turk and asked about their preference for time or money. They were also asked to rate their happiness and life satisfaction. The order of these questions was balanced among the participants (I missed this point the first time around).

More people chose money than time, but those who chose time reported greater happiness than those who chose money. The difference does not seem great to me, regardless of statistical significance (M = 4.65, SD = 1.32 vs. M = 4.18, SD = 1.38), but I may be wrong here.

Study 1b: The authors do not describe this in detail, but they claim to have replicated the results of 1a while controlling for materialism. Participants (N = 1,021) were again recruited through Mechanical Turk.

Study 2: This time, 535 participants were recruited in the train station of a major East Coast city and offered a Granola bar to complete the survey. 429 actually did complete it. They reported substantially higher income than the participants in 1a and 1b; also, a majority (55%) chose time over money, unlike the MTurk participants, who tended to choose money over time. (Did the train station setting affect this in any way, I wonder?) Those who chose time were again happier, by their own rating, than those who chose money (M = 5.28, SD = 0.93 vs. M = 4.91, SD = 1.10).

Study 3a: This time, the researchers sought to find out why people preferred what they did.  So they recruited participants through  MTurk, asked them which they preferred (time or money), asked them to explain why, and then asked  them to rate their happiness. This time, the order of the questions was fixed.  They saw a split between using the resource to cover needs and using it to cover wants, as well as a split between using the resource for others and using it for  oneself. Something curious appears here: participants indicated whether they wanted more time in their days or in their lives. While the desire for more time (generally) correlated with happiness, the desire for more time in one’s day did not, nor did the desire for more time in one’s life. I wonder what this means.

Study 3b: This time, 1,000 participants were recruited through Qualtrics for a nationally representative sample. 943 ended up participating. As in most of the previous studies, the majority indicated a preference for more money over more time, but those who chose time rated themselves as happier. In addition, the ones who indicated that they  would spend the resource on wants were happier , by their own rating, than those who said they would spend it on needs; those who said they would spend it on others were happier than those who said they would spend it on themselves. There were some additional findings. (One interesting detail: The Qualtrics participants were on average 15-2o years older than the MTurk and train station participants; also, a much lower percentage were employed.)

Study 4a: This was the first of two manipulation checks. Participants were recruited through MTurk and assigned randomly to one of three conditions: a “wanting time” condition, in which they were instructed to write about why they wanted more time, a “wanting money” condition (likewise with a writing task), and a control condition, for which they had to write down 10 facts. Then they were asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were to indicate which they would rather have, more time or more money.

Those in the “want time” condition (randomly assigned) tended to indicate a preference for more time;  those in the “want money” condition, for more money. The difference in happiness was marginal across the groups, but those in the “want time” condition were slightly happier by their own rating than those in the “want money” condition.

Study 4b: This was the last of the studies and the second manipulation check. This time, participants (again recruited through MTurk) were assigned randomly to a happy condition (instructed to write about why they were happy), an unhappy condition (instructed to write about why they were unhappy), and a control condition (without a writing task). They were then asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were asked questions about their resource preference. Those in the happy condition reported greater happiness (and a greater preference for time) than those in the unhappy condition.

There are some details I have left out for brevity’s sake:  for instance, the researchers included some questions about subjective and objective income and controlled for these.  But this is the gist.

Now for some thoughts:

First of all, these seem like pre-study experiments rather than complete studies, in that they deal with different populations, questions, and methodologies. It is good that the researchers were refining their questions and analyses along the way, but in the process they may have come up with explanations that they did not rigorously test. For instance, the relation between an emphasis on wants (rather than needs) and happiness seems hypothetical, even if it makes intuitive sense. There’s a flipside: people can drive themselves into a tizzy by thinking about things they want but don’t have.

Second—and this concerns me more—studies 4a and 4b suggest that participants’ preferences and happiness ratings can be manipulated by something as simple as a writing task. It’s possible that most people want more money and more time; what they think they want at a given moment may have a lot to do with what’s going on around them.

Also, I suspect that the MTurk participants, especially those completing surveys for the money, might be a financially stressed bunch. That could influence the findings considerably.

In addition, money and time are not easily separable. That is my greatest qualm. I wonder how many participants thought: “Well, I’d like to have both, but I think the money would allow me to buy more time, so I’ll choose money.”

Who, then, would choose time? Maybe people who have something important in their lives. People may desire money for all sorts of things—leisure, power, luxury, relief from debt, etc.—but those who wish for more time probably have something in the works that they enjoy or value. That in itself could explain why they rate their happiness a little higher than the others do.

But then, how accurate is my assessment of my happiness? How accurate is it ever? It can fluctuate throughout the day;  moreover, it can grow (or shrink) in retrospect. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Virgil, Aeneid); in the translation of Robert Fagles, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.”

Anger Endangered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Endings and Unendings

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

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

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

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

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


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



The CONTRARIWISE Jousting Tournament (and Other Memories)

This poster stands out as one of my favorite CONTRARIWISE memories of 2014.jousting miniature The students will tell the full story at some point. It has to do with a syllogism treasure hunt.

Another favorite memory is of the morning the books arrived. Still another is of the journal’s first review. Then came our spectacular celebration in May, and then the students’ first interview.

But those are the obvious things. I also think back on the reading, editing, announcements, deliberation, decisions, and planning; the jokes, laughter, and pizza; and all the other work behind the scenes. (The jokes and laughter are part of the work; without them, CONTRARIWISE would not be what it is.)

Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see which pieces the editors-in-chief select as winners of the International Contest.

Final edits, layout, and proofreading are underway; the journal should go to press by the end of January, and we should have the books by late February or early March!

A Sounder Conception of Change

In discussions of education and culture, characterizations of change often veer into crassness. It is common to speak of a battle of change versus the status quo, as though Good were finally girding its loins for the great confrontation with Evil. According to such rhetoric, those who do not embrace change will eventually be beaten by it, so everyone should jump aboard the big New Change. Thus Chris Hughes, owner of The New Republic, has stated that the magazine had to choose whether “to embrace the future or slide towards irrelevance, which is something I refuse to allow”; thus Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor, writes in Lessons of Hope (p. 72 et passim) that true “change agents” in schools must fight resistance from defenders of the “status quo.”

In fact, change and status quo are in continual interaction; to effect good change, one must consider carefully what to preserve. A sound conception of change would allow for sound courses of action; instead of pitting change against stasis, we would recognize the role of both.

What most disturbs me in change rhetoric is its blunt conformism. You are either for change or against it; there is nothing in between. I don’t know who decided that change required abdication of thought and judgment, but whoever did so wasn’t thinking carefully (or sought to manipulate others). To confront the fallacy, let us first consider what change is and then address two common misconceptions of it.

Change is alteration, variation, mutation; it can be slow or rapid, chaotic or organized. I will focus here on intentional change. As rational beings, we are capable of choosing to effect a change. Much change lies out of our control; it happens to us willy-nilly (like aging) or comes out of coincidence (an overheard melody, for instance). What interests me here is the change we bring about through our own will, in our individual actions or on a larger scale. (Rarely is a change entirely the result of our own intent and effort; that is a separate matter.) The usual language surrounding intentional change embeds two misconceptions: it portrays the proposed change as (a) part of a large and inevitable movement and (b) absolutely opposed to the old ways.

One common line is that change is happening anyway, whether we like it or not, so we must go along with it. If magazines are turning into “vertically integrated media companies,” then what would any savvy publication do but conform? In fact, no good change results from abdication of judgment. Any change “in the air” can be pursued or interpreted in myriad ways. A magazine such as The New Republic could develop an online presence while retaining its quality and readability. It takes imagination and good judgment to bring this about, but these qualities have been found in humans before. A flashy, distracting layout is not the inevitable mark of the encroaching Future. Insofar as the future always lies ahead of us, we are at liberty to shape it.

Another mistaken notion is that a “change agent” must differ markedly, in word and action, from those who guard the “status quo.” According to Klein, a principal who acts as a “change agent” must disrupt the current teaching practices and push new methods and models. Are we sure that these new methods and models make sense and serve our students well? Are we sure that such changes will not prove superficial? Often the most profound educational change involves a mixture of preservation and alteration.

This year I am teaching my tenth-grade ethics course for the third time; because its structure and content are stable, I can make significant and subtle adjustments. Had a change agent pushed for a drastic pedagogical change in my classroom (for instance, student-led small-group discussion in almost every lesson), many of the subtler changes would not have been possible, nor would I have been able to exercise judgment as I do now.

In literary, philosophical, and religious works, one finds an understanding of change that could inform public discussion. My students are now reading Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. The protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, finds himself in a mid-life rut, a kind of contemporary Inferno. As a student pointed out, it is as though he were surrounded by dead people and struggling for his own life. Yet his ultimate change comes not from any financial windfall, job offer, or change of scene, but from an opening of the soul. (I will say more about that in another post.)

Some would protest that Tommy Wilhelm’s transformation has a place in fiction but not in real life and certainly not in policy. (“Come back when you have a Tommy Wilhelm model for the classroom.”) But policy is the work of individuals with a mind and a conscience. We use our intelligence, after all, to determine what is correct, good, just, and beautiful; the soul (defined in secular or religious terms) responds to these qualities. If we act without mind or soul, we are not acting at all; we are merely yapping in unison.

As I look at the mulberry tree outside, I think about its bareness. It is the same tree, with the same structure, that abounded in yellow a month ago. The change in the tree has meaning because of what has not changed. In the tree and elsewhere, the interaction of change and stasis is as complex as our perception admits. If our language of change reflected this truth, we could work toward wise policies and avert great damage.

CONTRARIWISE and the Humanities

CONTRARIWISE appears in a video by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture! The video–about the future of the humanities–features interviews with three Hiett Prize winners: Mark Oppenheimer, James E. McWilliams, and myself. A lovely segment is devoted to CONTRARIWISE. There are also some glimpses of the Summer Institute in action. Thanks to the Dallas Institute and the producer, Judy Kelly, and congratulations to all involved!

“I Contemplate a Tree”

buber tree 2On Wednesday I took two of my classes across the street to Morningside Park in order to look at trees. We had been reading the tree passage in Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which begins with the declaration, “I contemplate a tree.” The speaker first accepts the tree as a picture, “a rigid pillar in a flood of light,” then feels its movement, then observes it as a species, then perceives it as an expression of physical and chemical laws, and then “dissolves” it into a number. “Throughout all of this,” he writes, ” “the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.”

Then comes a shift: “But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.”

I told my students that we could not replicate what Buber described in the passage–that the sheer effort to replicate it would defeat  the purpose. I asked them nonetheless to pay attention to what happened.

It was imperfect, of course, because we had little time and had to stay together. One or two students moved a little apart from the group; others clustered together and moved close to the tree of their choice. I saw them fingering the needles, observing the crinkles of the bark, noticing a long worm on the ground.

I had to keep an eye on everyone and everything, so I could not focus on a tree–but as I looked around, I was struck by each tree’s insistent form. Some were bare and gnarled; others showered you with color. Some had leaves falling from them as we watched; others stood warm and firm with their needles and cones. Some had berries or nuts; others, nothing but trunk and branches. Yet these had more than appeared at first glance. You could follow the lines in their bark as though listening to a story.

For my students, too, this was imperfect. Street noises and other distractions made it difficult for them to focus. All the same, they appreciated taking a few minutes to look at a tree; it was something they didn’t get to do very often.

On the way back to school, I thought of taking a picture of one of the trees. It seemed to go against the spirit of our outing, so I didn’t. Later in the day, I returned and took a shot. This set off a stream of thoughts about the nature of pictures and other mementos.

When you take a picture of something, you are turning it into a possession of sorts–something you “have” and can pull out at will. In one discussion of Buber, a student spoke of the satisfaction of Polaroid cameras–of seeing that tangible object emerge from the camera soon after the photo is taken. So, in the taking of a photo, there is some wish or effort to possess what is not really yours–to claim what cannot be claimed, to hold what cannot be held.

Yet it is also possible, when taking or looking at a photograph, to see it as a hint of something else–not as an object or possession, but as a reminder of something not possessed or contained. (Much of the early controversy over religious icons had to do with these different ways of regarding a picture.)

There is still a third possibility: the photograph can be a work of art and can take on its own life and limitlessness. It is then no longer merely a representation of something else. Buber writes about the creation of art:

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the “internal” things, not as a figment of the “imagination,” but as what is present. Tested for its objectivity, the form is not “there” at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation; it acts on me as I act on it.

To “actualize” a form, as Buber describes, one must allow oneself the confrontation–yet this cannot happen through effort of will alone. Is there a way, then, to make it possible, or does it just happen? In other words, can Buber’s words be “applied” to life and to ethics, or are they for contemplation only?

I believe that they can be applied, if one defines “applied” cautiously. Buber’s words cannot in themselves take us to the You–but they can make us aware of our tendency to claim and circumscribe things. (Buber stresses that we cannot survive without the It–but that the It cannot involve our whole being.)

So I take a picture, but with slight regret. First, my picture is far from a work of art, so it does not exist at that level. Second, it reminds me of the outing but leaves out almost everything. Third, while on the outing I resisted taking the picture, but later I caved in–so the picture is both removal and compromise. Yet it is pretty: the branches, leaves, and texture, the sense of something more.

Whenever I take a picture, I have ambivalence of this kind; it is usually wound into a tight thought, but it is present all the same. Here, the thought unravels. To “apply” Buber, then, is not to encounter a tree fully, nor to stop taking pictures, but to come closer to knowing one’s intentions.

The Privacy of Teaching and the So-Called Status Quo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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