Turning Our Attention Toward Interesting Things

This blog has been slow lately for two reasons: first, I have been unusually busy with school; second, I am in the midst of my happiest teaching year yet. Why is it going so well, and what does this say about the possibilities in the teaching profession?

First, I teach at a wonderful school–but this kind of thing can happen at many schools, under the right conditions. These include curriculum, which I’ll bring up later.

Aside from that, perhaps the most important factor is that I have time to think—and lots to do with the thinking. I teach part-time; thus, there are days in the week when I am planning lessons and correcting student work but not running around. Last year, I also taught part-time but had an enormous challenge: 270 students and three new philosophy courses that I had designed. It took all I could do just to keep up with the grading, and I was generally exhausted. This year, other teachers took over the ninth-grade philosophy course. I provide them with the materials, but they teach the classes. I teach the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Reading the students’ work is a delight (as it was last year).

These great conditions come at a cost: the half-time salary. If I were teaching full-time, I would have more classes, more assigned duties, and less room for the intellectual and creative work. I would also be better off financially. Weighing the two options, I would rather have less money and more intellectual space—but it’s sad that I have to choose. Teaching should be treated as a thinking field. Teachers’ schedules should not be crammed and hectic, nor should every moment of the day be programmed.

That leads to another point: about collaboration. I have written on many occasions about our misconception of the term. In many districts around the country, there is something of a group work mandate for students and teachers alike. It is presumed that students and teachers should spend a great deal of time in small groups, working with others on a task. In reality, the best collaboration involves substantial independent work and thought. For example, when an editor and author work together, rarely do they sit down together at a table and revise a piece. Rather, the editor provides some suggestions, and the author thinks about them, determines which ones to accept, finds alternatives for the others, and revises the work. When scientists work together on a project, it often happens that each one works alone on a substantial branch of it. They come together for the intersections of their work.

This year, I have great collaboration without the group work. I attend very few meetings, since they do not fall within my official schedule. However, I am frequently in touch with colleagues and am alert to their work We have discussed many ways to join efforts. Also, I am the faculty adviser for the school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE—and have the honor of working with two outstanding editors-in-chief (both juniors) and a large and dedicated editorial board (sophomores, juniors, and seniors). This, too, involves a great deal of independent work and just a few meetings. The meetings are all the more fruitful because there’s so much  to bring to them.

This suggests to me that “collaboration” should be reconceived. It is essential to education and most fields, but it should involve and not drive out solitary thought. The practice of thinking alone should have honor, not stigma. (That’s the subject of my book, Republic of Noise.) I would go even farther: a certain kind of solitary thought inspires collaboration, and vice versa. If you strike the right relation between the two, you allow for an abundance of ideas and accomplishments.

The other difference from last year is that I am doing more things of my own outside of school. I don’t have enough time for substantial writing (I would need to take some time off again from teaching in order to write my next book). Nor do I have enough time for books that I choose to read; I already have so much to read for my teaching. On the other hand, I have been giving talks, participating in projects, and taking some classes. All of this feeds my teaching but is distinct from it; it is not “professional development,” but rather the development of something internal.

The moral of this, if such there be, is that teachers need room for their own lives and interests, even if they devote most of their time to school. Schools and policymakers should recognize that those outside pursuits enrich lives and translate into better teaching. Studying a language out of interest is much more important than attending some professional development workshop on how to scaffold a complex text. In truth, if you are studying a language, you are probably developing insights on “scaffolding” that no workshop could give you.

That leads to the final point. Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

I recognize that what makes me thrive is not what will make every teacher thrive. Yet most teachers would agree, I think, that the work should be less frazzling, with a focus on the intellect, imagination, and spirit. In addition, most would agree that a teacher’s intellectual and spiritual life affects that of the students. Lifting the quality of life for teachers–“life” in the rich sense of the word–serves not only the teachers themselves, but the students, the school, and the endeavor.

Clearly it would be expensive to do some of the things I recommend here. But some of it could be done at no extra cost—by turning our attention toward interesting things and defending them against encroachments. It is not that simple, and yet it is.

The Danger of False Confession

In the seventh chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Napoleon orders all the animals to assemble in the yard. He is wearing his two medals and surrounded by nine huge dogs. He lets out a whimper, and the dogs immediately seize four pigs and drag them forward. The pigs then confess to collaborating with Snowball. The dogs kill them on the spot. Then come more confessions: from the hens, a goose, several sheep, and more–until there is a pile of bloody corpses on the ground. The allegory is obvious and disturbing, but even more disturbing is the draft horse Boxer’s comment on the events.

I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. The solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings.

Up to that point, there were two implicit possibilities: either those who confessed had actually done what they said they had done, or they confessed for some other reason (for instance, to get the whole thing over with). But Boxer suggests that there is only one possible truth: that everyone is guilty (except for Napoleon and the dogs, one must suppose). The only solution, then, is to work harder. What Boxer doesn’t know, and what the reader knows, is that in assuming guilt, he has renounced all hope of a clear view of the situation.

Consider, now, by contrast, the Book of Job. (This seems a far-flung comparison, but it will make sense.) One of the most remarkable things about Job is that he does not confess to things he hasn’t done. He stays not only faithful to God, but clear in his mind.From Job 27.1-8:

[1] Moreover Job continued his parable, and said,
[2] As God liveth, who hath taken away my judgment; and the Almighty, who hath vexed my soul;
[3] All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;
[4] My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.
[5] God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.
[6] My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live.
[7] Let mine enemy be as the wicked, and he that riseth up against me as the unrighteous.
[8] For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?

At the end, in chapter 42, he repents, but that is at a different level. It remains true that he committed no sin, and his holding fast to this truth was essential to his ultimate restoration.

Treacherous confession comes in at least two forms: refusing to admit to a wrong you have committed, and confessing to a wrong you have not committed. (There are still more, but these are the two I will discuss.) Sometimes the latter treachery is worse because of its very seduction. False confession can feel good. It brings forgiveness, perhaps, or swift punishment, or at least some kind of resolution. The price is your mind and soul. If, like Boxer, you convince yourself that you are guilty of just about anything, then it’s no longer possible to choose the good or even to understand what it is. You labor away, but that gets you nowhere. You have only the comfort of thinking that you need to work harder.

To return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, which inspired this post: the careless use of “we”  confuses one’s relationship to the world–and, with that, one’s intellectual and artistic life. Among other things, it prevents one from criticizing anything except oneself, and strips even that of its integrity. (This last observation is mine, not Bromwich’s, but I build it from various arguments in the book.)

In the first chapter, Bromwich discusses a series of events at Yale Law School (drawing primarily on a report published in the New Republic by a law student, Jeff Rosen). In 1990, a white female law school student was raped by two black men in New Haven; soon afterward, ten black law students found hate mail in their mailboxes.

The dean of the law school issued a public memorandum stating that the letters pointed to the racism of the associated institutions. A newly formed Committee on Diversity called for a one-day boycott of classes and decided that the day should be devoted to sensitivity workshops run by the New York organization Project Reach. (Attendance, I take it, was voluntary but strongly encouraged.) The dean urged faculty members to take part.

There is more to these events and to Bromwich’s analysis than I am conveying here. But he points out that “the professional insulation of the academy, and the consequent weakening of good sense, alone lent plausibility to certain developments in the law school case.” The Diversity Committee, the dean, and the students (and participating faculty) chose to focus on the hateful action of an unidentified person, presumably white, who could be anyone and thus, in some twisted sense, was everyone. (Hence the sensitivity workshops.) In the meantime, Bromwich notes, there were real political battles being fought in the outside world: “David Duke and other racists of an admitted virulence were inching closer to power in contests for state or national office.” Instead of putting their efforts into fighting blatant racists, the students chose to go on a hunt for the invisible racist within the law school, the racist who resides in each of us. Among them, there was likely a Boxer who resolved to work harder.

Now, let’s look at this from another angle for a moment. There is (or can be) virtue in recognizing subtle wrongs in yourself, or the potential for wrongs. Most of us have felt hatred, anger, jealousy, prejudice, excessive admiration, misplaced desire, and more. Most of us have judged others unfairly at some time, or restrained ugly impulses. It is important to recognize these things. But it matters how we respond. Each of us is tasked with choosing what to do–that is, locating and acting on the good or the beautiful, or not, as the case may be. There is such a thing as transcending something petty or ugly. Faults and foibles are universal, but there is a vast difference between leaving hate mail in someone’s mailbox and not doing so (and not even considering it).

This brings me back to the word “we” (see an earlier piece). I am not confessing falsely when I say that I have used it in a slippery way. When criticizing a social, educational, or other tendency, I have sometimes softened the accusation by saying “we”–thereby implying that I, too, take part in the problem. And indeed sometimes I do. For instance, I find many online discussions distracting and dissipating but get involved in them anyway (not very often, of late). On the other hand, I am not on Facebook or Twitter, don’t do much Web surfing, rarely use a cell phone, and spend a lot of time reading books. This is a relatively trivial example, but it illustrates the point. If I see a problem with online and digital distractions, I do no one a favor by suggesting, beyond the point of truth, that the problem is mine.

It is difficult to find the right use of “we.” It is a worthy challenge. There’s more at stake than may appear at first.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

The Homework Conundrum

Unlike Alfie Kohn and others, I believe that homework has meaning and carries benefits. This is partly because I teach at the high school level. You can’t discuss Plato if you haven’t read Plato, and the only time to read Plato is outside of class. If you read Plato in class, then there’s no time to discuss it. It’s as simple as that. The subject matter in high school demands independent work.

It does in elementary school as well, though not quite as much. Children do need to read books at home, sometimes for school. There isn’t enough time in the school day for all of their reading. They need to practice math problems, a language, a musical instrument. If they are writing a report, they need to go to the library to look up information. At the same time, they need free time—time for play, exploration, thinking, and being with their family and friends.

Now, back to high school. The homework volume doubles and triples for an unfortunate reason: if you give students a reading assignment without a writing assignment, many will interpret this as no homework at all. So you pair reading assignments with questions. There’s the conundrum: to help ensure that the homework gets done, you end up doubling it.

This means more work for teachers as well as students. I have 259 students in all, and I carry large stacks of homework home. I find it important to read and comment on homework (and enjoy doing so) but sympathize with students’ complaint that it takes a lot of time. What can we do about this—in general, throughout our schools?

Students shouldn’t have to write for every subject every night. It makes sense that they should read on some days and write on others. But they have to treat the reading as a serious assignment, even though it doesn’t result in a concrete product right away.

For this to happen, we have to stop treating concrete products as the be-all and end-all of education. Yes, education should result in good work, but students should learn to hold things in their minds, to work without immediate results. They should develop integrity as students, pondering the material even when there’s nothing to turn in.

Students don’t develop these habits overnight. The best way to help them get there is to set a good example. That means showing them, in class, how to take interesting things into the mind, to make sense of them, to question them, to ponder them again. If I am introducing my students to Blaise Pascal, I expect them to remember what I tell them—and to bring it up in class discussion or on an exam. But I expect still more: they should be willing to enter Pascal’s Pensées (or the short selection we will be reading this week), puzzle through it, recognize its argument and its subtleties, and carry some of it with them.

It takes a long time to build such practice. An individual teacher can encourage it, but it is really the work of a school and of many schools. The life of the mind is almost a lost concept; we need to revive it. It begins with a strong foundation in elementary and middle school—not only in math and reading, but in literature, history, science, music, art, and drama. Students should memorize and recite poems from a young age, so that they develop an ear and a repertoire. They should learn to work through math problems that require skillful framing. In addition, they should learn to persist with things that they do not fully understand: sentence structures that bewilder them at first, terminology that seems out of reach, or melodies and harmonies that seem at first too complex to sing.

Last week a student told me that she had struggled with a passage from the Book of Job. She read it slowly, again and again, and started to glean its meaning. That’s what should happen on a larger scale. When students take the reading that seriously, there’s no need to check up on them every day—and they arrive at greater, not lesser, understanding.

But it is all too easy to cave in to the cultural demand for immediate rewards and punishments. Turn in your homework, and you get two points. Don’t turn it in, and you get a zero. Kids understand that language, and it makes sense that they would. It isn’t bad as a starting point; it can help them get on track. It should not be the end goal.

Homework should have meaning, but meaning does not arise in a vacuuum. It comes with the subject matter, with cultural values and habits, and with persistent teaching.

Yearning and Return in Education

It’s already an old joke that the good old days of nostalgia are long gone: that once upon a time it was honorable to look back longingly at the past, but no longer. There’s truth in it; in education discussion I often hear people fault others for harking back to a golden age that never was. Bad, bad, they say; we must stay grounded in facts. Mr. Gradgrind (from Dickens’ Hard Times) works his way into many an argument.

It is dangerous, of course, to paint the past as golden, but there are reasons why we yearn for the past sometimes. We shouldn’t be so quick to push such yearning away. For me, the fall is usually a time of yearning. I find room and urge to take walks, watch the leaves leap and sweep over the sidewalk, and assemble past autumns in my mind. Details work their way in as well: a ribbon on the ground, a cat surveying the neighborhood, or the color of a coat.

As a teacher, I return to the classroom and see the students a little older and taller, excited to tackle books that I first read in high school, and I remember my own teachers and the way they spoke. The beginning of the school year comes with reminiscence. There’s a ceremonial feeling to it, even amidst the confusion of rooms and schedules; when you address each class for the first time, you remember layers of first days.

I remember a high school assembly at the start of my ninth-grade year. The teachers were seated on the stage. One of them, I knew, had gone through a divorce; I wrote in my diary (which I no longer have) that I saw a look of pathos on her face. In retrospect, I doubt it was pathos (I discovered later that she had irrepressible wit), but the word “pathos” was part of that day for me.

Part of the point of education is to learn to select what is good, to bring it into one’s life, and to pass it on; this requires knowledge, discernment, and feeling. Memory helps us make such selections. Those works that come back to us many times over the years, or that suddenly open up on the second or third reading, have a little more to them, in our minds, than the ones we read and forget. With the memory comes a bit of longing. I think back on the Southern Literature course I took in high school, and the advanced verse writing seminar in college; I have often wished to return to those rooms, and have carried a hint of them into my teaching.

By this I don’t mean that people should rely on their memories for guidance. What I hold dear from my high school years may not have been quite as I remember it, nor is it necessarily good for every student. Still, I carry something of the spirit of it, and must do so; it is precisely through holding my past that I can play with it in the present, even transform it.

Andrew Delbanco understands this well. His extraordinarily thoughtful book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012) looks back to earlier eras not to portray them as perfect, but to capture their meaning and wisdom. His book resists alarmism and paeans to good old days, but still looks back with nostalgia—wise, temperate nostalgia. I wouldn’t do his book justice with a short quotation here; I hope to write more about it another time.

The literary works that make their way into our memory, the ones that follow us around, contain this treasuring and pondering of the past. What would Job’s lamentations be without this treasuring and pondering? What would Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” be without it? How can a student or a teacher approach this literature without understanding what it means to think back, sometimes with sadness or rage, sometimes with wistfulness or wit?  Why the cultural pressure to regard the past with a cold eye and move on?

Many young people understand the importance of looking back and yearning. They need adults who understand it too and who can help them make sense of the past. They need to find that promising terrain between sentimentality and dismissiveness. Through literature, they learn to store language in memory; through history, they learn to guard against memory’s distortions.

The point is not to live in the past, but rather to hold it, turn it, contemplate it, change one’s mind about it, reconsider it again, forgive it, and sometimes, when necessary, leave it behind.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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