Why Imagination Matters

poets walk park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

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

Rush and Lack: The Common Core’s Foreseeable Fall

In 2011, 45 states had signed on to the Common Core State Standards; by the fall of 2016, only 20 states were still planning to use the Common Core-aligned assessments. While only a few states have officially revoked the Common Core, the general support has visibly and audibly crumbled.

What went wrong here? Much has already been said about the great expense, the swell of resistance to excessive testing, the longstanding resentment of federal mandates in education, the confusion around implementation, and much more. I will highlight the effects of rush and curricular lack.

I was briefly involved with the development of the CCSS. In 2009 I served on the English Language Arts Work Team; in this role, I proposed titles for the list of suggested books, reviewed drafts of the standards, and provided commentary here and there. I was not part of insider discussion, nor did I commit to supporting the standards in my writing. (In fact I stated outright that I would need to retain the freedom to say whatever I wanted about the standards; this was never contested.) I supported aspects of the standards in principle but was wary of possible corruptions, all of which came true.

First of all, states were rushed and pressured, through President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, into adopting the standards. (I admire President Obama but consider this one of his biggest presidential mistakes.) The problem with such rush is that it strips you of the ability to act wisely. In 2010 I wrote an op-ed,”The Problem with ‘Race to the Top’ Is the Race,” for the Washington Post; I stand by those words today. The third paragraph reads,

Indeed, we should be willing to shake things up to improve the schools. All depends on what we shake and how. We may well be shaking up the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way. There is great danger in the rush of Race to the Top. To compete for funds, states must embrace reforms that haven’t been fully tested, reforms rife with problems, reforms in which they may not even believe. In other words, thoughtfulness and integrity are pushed aside. This is deadly for education.

Second, the whole initiative was conducted backwards. You can’t have standards until you establish what you are going to teach. Standards outline the abstract skills–but those abstractions mean little out of context, especially in English language arts. I do not mean that there should have been a national curriculum; that probably would have been dreadful. Rather, any standards should have been grounded in an understanding of the subject matter that would be taught over the K-12 years.

If you do not ground the standards in subject matter, then your tests, too, will be ungrounded; instead of testing what the students have learned, they will test generic skills. Schools will have to scramble to figure out what might be on the test and how to approach it.

How do you establish subject matter for an entire country? Well, perhaps you don’t–but you can start by publishing a few model curricula as examples. By “curriculum” I do not mean the typical mess of lengthy descriptions, unit plans, lesson plans, and so on, but rather a clear and simple outline of the content and sequence of instruction.

How did this curricular lack come about? I imagine that the Common Core leaders realized that a national curriculum would be politically doomed. So instead of putting forth a curriculum, they simply stated, within the standards, that a curriculum was necessary. Curriculum proponents frequently quoted those words–but unfortunately (as Robert Pondiscio has noted) it isn’t enough to say “you gotta have curriculum, folks.” People have wildly different understandings of–and experience with–the word, concept, and practice.

This equivocation led to a big mess regarding nonfiction. The standards stated that by grade 12, 70 percent of students’ reading in school should be “informational.” The standards clarified that this applied to the students’ reading across the subjects, not in English class–but English teachers were receiving the message, from many directions, that they should include much more “informational text” in their classes.

When the type of text (here “informational”) precedes its very substance, something has gone awry. Why not focus on choosing excellent texts for students–fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, according to the content of the courses? Why the pressure to include more “informational” text per se? (Not all nonfiction is “informational”; I would not call Mill’s On Liberty “informational text,” for instance, but that does not diminish its value.)

There were certainly political reasons for the emphasis on “informational text.” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” which called for education reform that would serve national security. This conspicuously  included greater emphasis on “informational text.” In Forum, no, 5 (2012), I joined Rosanna Warren, Lee Oser, David Bromwich, John C. Briggs, Robert Alter, Helaine Smith, and others in challenging the assumptions and recommendations of this report.

The standards’ two problems–rush and curricular lack–go together. The standards’ glaring flaws were not worked out prior to their implementation; thus states, districts, and schools had to bear the brunt of the confusion. Here we are, with a lesson learned and unlearned again and again: Like subject matter itself, education policy requires careful thought, open dissent, and dialogue.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it. I later changed “dissension” (in the last sentence) to “dissent.”

The Secret to Education

rainydayThe Secret to Education … that One Thing that will Change Everything … the Great and Shocking Truth … one by one, I reject these titles, until I finally pick the first, just for fun.

It is a dim and rainy day (photo taken just now); before I take off for New Haven, where I will be spending the afternoon and evening, I thought I would put together some thoughts on teaching.

I taught for approximately nine years in New York City public schools: first at a middle school in Boro Park Brooklyn (for three years), then at an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn (for one year), and then, for the last five years, at Columbia Secondary School, where I served first as curriculum adviser, then as philosophy teacher and coordinator.

In addition, I taught for several years in other contexts. I taught first-year Russian at Yale for a year (as a graduate student), second- and third-year Russian at Trinity College in Hartford for a year (as a Mellon Fellow), and literature for six consecutive summers at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (This is ongoing.) Finally, I taught English in Kyrgyzstan for a summer and taught elementary enrichment summer school on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

So, after all this time (which pales in comparison to many teachers’ experience), what would I say that our schools need? I say emphatically that there is no one answer. None! I have no secret, no great solution.

Or rather, if there is one thing schools need, it’s good judgment: the ability to recognize good curricula and practices and apply them discerningly.

One truth presents itself again and again: teaching requires focused, quiet thought, which the school systems do not emphasize or honor. Yes, teachers need to collaborate, but to do so well, they also need to think about the subject on their own. This has little room in the school day; if you want time for quiet thought or focused study, you have to find it on your own.

Nor is “more time” the answer; there has to be a strong understanding of what that time is for. A teacher’s work must be perceived as intellectual. For that to happen, there must be more time for intellectual life overall. That will not come overnight, nor will any one reform bring it closer.

With all my skepticism, I do have a few ideas. They are not mass solutions, but they could set an example for many.

I would start with a good curriculum: that is, not a script, not a pacing calendar, but an outline of the concepts, works, and problems to be studied, along with the major assignments and projects. I would find schools willing to adopt the curriculum and education schools willing to base their program on it. This curriculum is not meant to be constricting; rather, it builds flexibility, as it gives everyone a working base.

Prospective teachers would begin by studying the actual subject matter of the curriculum (before thinking about how to teach it). They would learn it backwards and forwards, pose questions about it,  give presentations about it, and attend lectures and seminars. They would study their own subject matter and another subject (and possibly a third). Those already familiar with the subject matter would study it at a higher level.

The following year, they would translate the curriculum into lesson plans, practice giving lessons, and serve as student teachers at participating schools. They would not have to reinvent the wheel year after year; if lesson plans already exist, they might review them and modify them for their own teaching. They would develop more than one way to teach a given topic and would anticipate student questions and errors.

Then, when they entered a school, they would be well prepared to teach not only the subject but the actual curriculum itself. They could put their efforts into their new responsibilities.

Of course there are problems: what  if there aren’t enough education programs or schools? What if some district mandate comes along and topples  the curriculum that was constructed with such care?

Any number of things can go wrong; this is no magic solution. Still, I see promise in (a) having prospective teachers focus first on subject matter, then on curriculum and pedagogy and (b) having schools and education programs work with a shared curriculum. To some extent, this is the approach of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center and (in a different way) the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Such an approach takes time, but this is precisely the right kind of taking of time: going far into subject matter and figuring out how to bring it to students.

The Blessing of Slight Neglect

Almost a year ago, I commented on William Faulkner’s Nobel speech. I focused on how the sprawl of our lives–the pressure to be available around the clock, the leveling and spreading of our intentions–tends to break down our sense of sanctity (broadly defined),* and how, without a sense of sanctity, we lose touch with what he calls the “old verities.” Today I would like to comment on a different aspect of his speech: the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” I begin, though, with a change of direction. Last week, I started a post along these lines and ended up dissatisfied with it. I realized that there was great danger in implementing Faulkner’s words in a literal way.

From Faulkner’s speech:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

One could nod vigorously and say, yes, we have forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, and that’s part of the problem in education today. We look at social, political, economic problems–but not the problems each of us carries in our private minds: problems of love, loyalty, hate, betrayal, and their limitless combinations. Therefore, it seems that we should turn our attention again to these problems.

Yes, but how? The worst thing–and the thing likeliest to happen–if someone were to present this argument to education policymakers–would be for schools to mandate daily attention to the “old verities.” Teachers would be required to write an “old verity” on the board every day. When reading a work of literature, students would have to identify the “old verity” that it addressed. This is deadly and counter to Faulkner’s meaning–for he is speaking of fiction and poetry, not of dogma. (The links in the previous sentence point to the etymology of these words, which is interesting in terms of the “kneading” and “piling.”)

Something would likewise be forced and false about addressing “old verities” through so-called “informational text” (heavily touted in schools, even in English class). It cannot be done. Philosophy and history can tackle the central human problems–but to do so, they cannot rely on abstractions and information alone; they need insight and form as well. Insight and form belong to fiction and poetry, which in turn rely on a certain concealment, or a complex kind of revelation. That is, to see truths of this kind, you must also have room in your imagination for the unseen.

A passage from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote sheds some light on this. (Note: These texts are among the shorter readings in the Epic course at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I am currently teaching. The past two weeks have been filled with the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and other works–all of these read in their entirety–and we will finish next week with Moby-Dick.) Here’s Ortega y Gasset:

There are things which, when revealed openly, succumb or lose their value and, on the other hand, reach their fullness when they are hidden or overlooked. Some men refuse to recognize the depth of something because they demand that the profound should manifest itself in the same way as the superficial. Not accepting the fact that there may be several kinds of clarity, they pay exclusive attention to the clarity peculiar to surfaces. They do not realize that to be hidden beneath the surface, merely appearing through it, throbbing underneath it, is essential to depth.

Maybe there’s a blessing in having Faulkner’s “old verities,” the problems of the human heart, overlooked in schools. Maybe a certain kind of overlooking is the best kind of honor. I think we can honor them through curriculum and general bearing, without pounding themes and messages into the students’ heads. Give students room to hear the works, to wade through them, to feel their pull and counter-pull. Show, through selection, intonation and gesture, that something worthwhile is there.

I think of these lines from the beginning of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover:

The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

One can go barefoot as a reader, too–and this means reading and interpreting in an unfettered way. Yes, one analyzes what one reads, often in great detail and depth, but one does not try to map everything onto a specific external meaning, method, or theory. One allows the literature its life, not all of which can be explained in external or technical terms. (Some of the most inspiring criticism is fiction of its own kind.) When one does this, when one enters literature with heart–in the Hebrew sense of “lev,” not our current sentimental sense–one will confront those verities willy-nilly.

There is a focus and clarity that comes from not fretting over what we are going to get from a given thing. Unfortunately, schools have been trained into a “customer service” mode. They are supposed to deliver a product to the students–who, for their part, are supposed to expect one. There is partial good to this; one does want students to learn and do concrete things. But one can accomplish this with recognition that it is not the whole.

Beyond this, I have started to think that certain kinds of “neglect”–not extreme or irresponsible kinds, but the kinds that let things hide just a little–may hold more good than we know. In the same way that a poem or essay revises itself when one steps away from it, so we, too, may take shape when others are not looking. We get to putter around and think things through. The neglect must be slight, though, and not self-justified. A world shrivels when it asserts that the things it ignores don’t exist.


*Sanctity: the quality or state of being holy, very important, or valuable (Merriam-Webster); I would add: the quality or state of being set apart from other things. (In the earlier post on Faulkner’s speech, I didn’t use the word at all; rather, I used terms that conveyed a similar meaning.)

Note: I made some edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

District Leader Calls for Inhumanities

Rhino Falls, Wisconsin—Citing a global trend toward ruthless school and workplace practices, Superintendent Mark Sequor called on for a steep increase in the inhumanities throughout the K–12 grades. “It’s time we not only caught up with Singapore and China, but showed them who’s who,” he told an assembly of 10,000. “Our kids think they have lots of meaningless tests? They should see the tests the kids in Korea take. Our kids think they have too much homework? Compared to other kids, they’re on permanent vacation.”

To catch up with the rest of the world, says Sequor, the schools need an inhumanities emphasis even more than a STEM emphasis. “STEM might still give you a few stargazers,” he explained; “whereas a course in inhumanities will keep every child on task.”

The inhumanities, Sequor continued, are at the heart of the Race to the Top competition, which awards funding to districts that race into flawed reforms without really thinking them through. “The whole point here is to get ahead, not to succumb to lazy thoughts,” he explained, “and so, by embracing the inhumanities, we’re really going the extra mile—faster than anyone else, I’ll add.”

Telos Elementary, a model school in Rhino City, allows visitors to witness its inhumanities curriculum in action. The day is filled with rapid and strictly timed activities, where students from kindergarten on up must turn and talk, repeat, rotate, move to the next station, repeat, summarize, and get in line. “We can’t let them get dreamy,” said Holly Vide, the school’s inhumanities coach. “We need to have everyone engaged. Also, in the workplace, they’ll be switched from task to task or even fired, so we need to prepare them for that reality.”

By second grade, students are already learning to cheer over their data. “You’ve got to get into their heads that the statistics are what count, so to speak,” Vide said. “The biggest thing in their world should be that graph at the front of the room, showing their rise or fall in scores. This mindset will prepare them well for high school, where they have spend months preparing for the SAT. They learn to live for the score. That’s called achievement.”

In middle school, students refine their social ostracism skills. “Group work helps everyone spot the non-team-players,” said Sequor. “For this reason, it’s important to have group work in every class. Once you’ve spotted the non-team-players, you can exclude them and get on with your project.” The excluded students will receive low grades for classroom collaboration. “This is an important red flag for colleges and employers,” he said, “and it allows us to boost our credibility. If our team players are doing well, and we’re doing due diligence in classifying our non-team-players, then we’ll keep our good ratings.”

Once students enter high school, they are expected to do everything, he said. “Every high school student, in order to have a fighting chance in life, must have top grades, top test scores, leadership credentials, an array of extracurriculars, athletic prizes, community service hours, and at least ten things that go above and beyond what everyone else is doing. Can you be a person of integrity and character and do all of this?” he asked with a rhetorical flourish. “Of course not. That’s part of the point. Integrity and character are relics of medievalism. I think it was the medieval writer Flannery O’Connor who said something about how integrity lies in what one cannot do. We live in a ‘can-do’ era. A ‘can’t-do’ attitude is simply out of bounds.”

According to some critics, it’s the “can’t-do attitude” that makes room for thiings like reading, pondering, or playing an instrument. “No one who does anything substantial or interesting can do everything,” said Brian Emerson, a professor of English and an opponent of the inhumanities movement. “There must be areas of ‘no’ and failure.”

“That’s a quaint idea,” responded Sequor, “but it amounts to a bunch of fluff. Substantial and interesting things? Those are subjective terms. We have to take a hard look at the era and go where it goes.”

The era was not available for comment, but one of its representatives repeated its recent press statement that “following is leading.” We would have mulled over the words, but a whistle blew, and everyone scurried on to the next task.


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

A Common Core Lesson Gone Wrong

I have seen many lessons that purport to implement the Common Core but botch the subject matter in the process. I ask: is this due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line within the Common Core itself, or something else altogether? A lesson on Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (commonly known as “The Daffodils”) serves as a good test case here. The lesson left me queasy; that’s a sign that my stomach is working well, so I am hopeful.

The main problem with this lesson (featured in video on the front page of LearnZillion.com) is that it has little or nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poem. You could take the same lesson, adjust only a few words, and slap it on any of a thousand poems. Second, it gives bad advice: it states that when tackling a difficult poem, one should proceed one stanza at a time, summarize the stanza in one’s own words, and write that summary on a sticky note. (No, no, no!)

The lesson begins: “What happens if you get stuck when you start reading a difficult poem?” The answer: “In this lesson, you will learn to analyze each section of a poem by rereading and restating in your own words.”

I question the premise that this is a helpful activity. Poetry is worth reading because it makes singular use of language; it cannot be translated into prose. Restating a stanza in your own words takes you away from the language of the poem itself. Yes, some poems have complex constructions that need to be teased apart, but that does not have to involve restatement; or when it does, one can restate the specific construction, not an entire stanza. To restate a stanza is to stop it at the border and say, “You may not cross over into my mind with your own goods; you must exchange them for mine.”

After this, the speaker makes a few generic statements about the poem: “The poet William Wordsworth used lots of imagery in his poem ‘Daffodils.’ Imagery is the use of vivid language that describes something so well that readers see the images playing in their minds like a movie.” Well, that isn’t quite right, but let’s leave that aside. It gets worse: “When we see images in our mind as we read, we can visualize to help us understand the poet’s words.” Maybe—but images can also be puzzling, even confounding. They do not make things pat for us, nor do they have to do with sight alone. “Visualization” is a much-abused concept; I see no need to invoke it. “Imagination” is more to the point.

The speaker then addresses the common assumption that poems are easy to understand because they are short. She counters that they take a great deal of concentration. (This is a good point—but it’s still generic.) She goes on to say that  readers often focus on what they don’t understand, rather than what they do. Instead, she says, they should focus on what they do understand. (This is not necessarily so.) From here, she explains the process of summarizing, which culminates in a sticky note. Along the way, she makes passing mention of the imagery in the first stanza—but otherwise does nothing to bring out the poem itself.

What would I do instead? I would have the students take in the language of the poem—without turning it into anything else. Have them listen to it several times, and maybe, on the third time, make note of things they found striking. Some might point to “I wandered lonely as a cloud”; others, to “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” Some might be drawn to the lines, “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.” Many, I think, would find something in the final stanza, maybe in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” After they had brought up specific things that struck them, we could start to look at how the poem fits together as a whole, listening to it again along the way. In particular, we would look at the shift to the “inward eye” in the final stanza.

Now I will return to the initial question: are the flaws of this lesson (and many others like it) due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line in the Common Core itself, or something else? I would say all three.

The lesson seems to target a standard along the lines of CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.” Some might interpret this as a call for strategy instruction: for instruction on ways to approach texts in general. Yet the same standard, a few grade levels higher, calls for attention to specific texts. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.4 reads: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.” Thus it seems likely that the author of this lesson misinterpreted the standard.

Yet the ELA standards themselves are worded generically and thus encourage generic approaches to literature. Granted, they call for attention to the specifics of the text, but they mention no texts except as examples, in passing. I am not suggesting that there should be a national literature curriculum; the chances are too great that it would turn out mediocre. My point is that the Common Core ELA standards are removed from the subject matter itself. This, in my view, is their main fault line. Because of this, they should be taken down a few notches; they should be secondary to curriculum. Even that isn’t a solution; the curricula must be good.

There seems to be still another problem: a tendency, stretching far beyond the Common Core, to avoid the subject matter, whether out of fear, ignorance, or deference to mandates. The author of the Wordsworth lesson takes pains to say that poems are difficult, that this poem is difficult, and that there are specific procedures one can follow in order to make sense of a difficult poem. Yet “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is not, at the surface level, a difficult poem. One can quickly grasp what is going on, until the final stanza. The challenge lies in the subtleties, which must be met on their own terms.

These problems have no quick solution, but they don’t have to mire us. The first step, as I have said elsewhere, is to insist on teaching important, compelling, beautiful, lasting things. Yes, this requires that we exercise discernment; but what else is education for? By exercising discernment, we help students do the same.  I do not mean that the curriculum should be up to every individual teacher, or even every individual school. I mean that listening to literature, reading it, thinking about it, discussing it should be part of the schools’ practices and among their highest priorities. There should be faculty meetings about works of literature, mathematical proofs, historical eras—the subject matter itself, not instructional strategies. Schools with this kind of intellectual culture could stand strong against the winds of nothing, which do great damage through their emptiness.

Three updates:

1. It turns out that this lesson is one in a series of seven. The others are at least as distracting and misleading. See comments below.
2. Joanne Jacobs blogged about this post. There have been interesting responses. Update: Diane Ravitch blogged about it as well.
3. LearnZillion no longer features this lesson on the front page. Instead, it features an array of lessons that, like this one, emphasize a skill over a work of literature. Some go into the literary work more than others–but from what I can see, all of them stick to formula and refrain from the idiosyncrasy and flexibility that literature demands.

The “Old Verities” and the Lamentation Sprawl

In his prize acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in 1950, William Faulkner spoke of a pervasive fear that was taking hold of writers and reducing them to mediocrity: a fear of being blown up in nuclear war. Consumed by this, writers were forgetting “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” the only things worth writing about. He continued:

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

We live today not under the immediate threat of nuclear war, but under other threats: in particular, the threat of spiritual and intellectual sprawl. Our intentions, desires, efforts, loves, treasures have no special time and place; they get spread out throughout the day and night and year. Supposedly, the more we get done (no matter what the time), the better. It is as though there were no more seasons. It is common to answer a work-related email at 11 p.m. In fact, one receives kudos for making oneself available around the clock. One grows addicted, even, to the illusion of availability: it’s exhausting but somehow satisfying too. If I am available all the time, then so are others, or so it seems for a while.

In this sprawl of unending availability and accessibility, it’s difficult to make anything matter. Things get flattened because they’re “always there”—and when you look around, they seem to be nowhere. With respect to the classroom, one hears the refrain that students don’t need to learn things because they can “always” look them up. Not only is this false—one must have a store of working knowledge in order to make sense of texts, etc.—but it robs us of a sense of treasure. When I memorize a poem (or even the conjugation of a verb), I am taking time with it and giving it a place in my mind. I “produce” something—ultimately, the recitation of the poem, and a greater understanding of it—but I hold something as well.

Today we are caught up in production without treasuring and holding.

To stop treasuring things is to stop grieving them, to take up residence in a lamentation sprawl. You can’t grieve what you have never missed. This is why Faulkner says of the writer, “Until he [commits himself to the old verities], he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

What does it take to gather oneself up from this sprawl, in education and in life? How does one honor the “old verities”? This may take, among other things, a willingness to set certain activities and roles apart from others, certain times and seasons apart from others, certain works, certain people apart from others. Leon Wieseltier writes in Kaddish:

In Chicago: Kaddish on the road. A lovely little shul near the lake, with the separation of the women from the men cleverly accomplished by a row of plants. I say the kaddish and stroll along the silver shore. I am delighted to have done my duty. Tonight the fulfillment of my obligation does not oppress me. It refreshes me. It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.

“Doing your duty” is not the same as caving in to every demand that comes your way, or pursuing any particular work without pause. It is different from that; it involves refraining from work just as it involves working; it involves refraining from giving to others just as it involves giving. It involves giving dignity to things.

What does it mean to “do one’s duty” in education? It means to devote oneself, in a structured way, to things that matter—and having the courage to say that they matter. A curriculum should not just consist of “complex” texts; who cares how complex a text is, if it has no beauty or importance? No, a school should dare to teach what is beautiful and important, even if there is disagreement over the selections, and even if the selections change over time.

Beyond that, “doing one’s duty” involves a sense of humanity. In the classroom, we approach the “old verities” obliquely, through the subject matter—but we also encounter them directly, in subtle ways. It takes courage to show interest in a subject when others do not; it takes honor to make good judgments about the direction of a discussion. In all of these things we are fallible; that’s where compassion and pity come into play. The “old verities” surround and fill us all the time; we need only be alert to them.

The greatest threat to the “old verities” is a crass version of utilitarianism: an insistent focus on results, usually short-term results that can be assessed quickly by an outsider. Results are important (sometimes immensely so), but it matters what they are and what they mean. One must continually choose from an array of actions, each carrying possible results. These are choices of conscience, even soul; without a sense of conscience, soul, or something worth holding up, one ends up without choices, as they all seem more or less on a level, without height, texture, or abyss.

The Key to Creativity?

One must walk through much of life alone, but one also draws on the wisdom, experience, and practical assistance of others. Books (including literary, religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts) address many of our persistent questions. Their guidance has a place;  we would be stranded and parched without it. We seek out books not only for insight, but for help.

But if there’s a futile quest for assistance, it’s the quest for a “key” to creativity–some some way of life, some practice that others package up and that (supposedly) will release our creative powers. When I read articles about how to become more creative, I ask: why don’t people allow creativity its idiosyncrasy, and why do they covet creativity in the first place?

The answer to the second question seems obvious. Who wouldn’t want to make something original, something that involves both imagination and skill? Who wouldn’t want to write a truly good poem, song, or play, or invent a needed (or utterly useless but amusing) device, or give a memorable speech? Who wouldn’t want to do this day after day? It sounds like the happiest possible life–making a contribution to art, literature, technology, and other fields.

But it is not entirely happy. If you think differently from others, if you see untried possibilities in the material before you, then you may find yourself questioning what other people take for granted. You may never feel that you “fit in.” Now, fitting in is not the most important thing in the world, but outsiderness takes courage and some sacrifice. You grow used to seeing things differently and verging, moment by moment, on offending others, hurting their feelings, and losing your place among them. (This sense of outsiderness is especially acute in a culture of group thinking and group “likes.”)

Moreover, a creative life takes time and work. You don’t just go around bubbling with ideas; you have to sit down and pull them off. This means setting aside blocks of time–time that could be spent with others, or at work, or in relaxation. If you have a job on top of that, and a family, you may end up with no time for pastimes and insufficient time for anything else. You may be continually torn between necessary things.

In addition, such a life has disappointments. One has ideas that don’t pan out or that, when brought to completion, are not as brilliant as they seemed. One comes to see flaws in one’s own work; very little of it ultimately seems good, even if others praise it. (In addition, good work often goes unrecognized.)

Now, many people involved in creative work (including myself) have accepted the demands and letdowns of such a life. They would not give it up permanently for anything (almost). I say “almost” because generalizations of this kind tend to prove false at some point.

That leads to the first question: why don’t people want to allow creativity its idiosyncrasy? In each person it takes a different form, and each person practices it in a different way. There are certainly good habits (such as regular practice), and conditions that can make those habits fruitful. But where one person may work best in a dim light, with no sound, another may prefer brightness and music in the room. One may work regularly, in the mornings; another may snatch time whenever it comes. Moreover, there are probably as many kinds of creativity as there are personalities; the creation of a sonnet is profoundly different from the creation of an advertisement, even though both work within constraints of time and space.

Thus I was puzzled last month to see a New York Times article suggesting that the buzz of a cafe can boost creativity. It cites a study in which subjects brainstormed product ideas with varying levels of background noise. Now, why would anyone equate “brainstorming” (especially of ideas for products) with creativity overall? Certain kinds of ideas may come more easily when there is a background hum–but that does not apply to all ideas, nor is idea generation the whole of creativity. Some writers spend part of their writing time in a cafe, among others, and part of it alone. Some prefer to spend all of their writing time alone (but take in conversations and sounds when out on a walk).

Granted, one can learn interesting things from such studies, if one puts them in proper perspective. Annie Murphy Paul cites and discusses a study (originally published in Creativity Research Journal) suggesting that those who show creativity are marked (in the interpretation of cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman) by “a tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, engagement, openness to experience, and self-expression.” Paul speculates that these qualities may account for the “flaky artist” stereotype. An artist (or other seriously creative person) may be inherently “flaky” in that he or she works flexibly with a range of possibilities and projects.

Yes, I can see how that could be so. But an artist also needs a counterbalance to the flakiness in order to do anything well. The proportion of spontaneity and discipline will vary from person to person and from field to field. Some focus intensely on one project or idea at a time (but may toy with thousands of possibilities within it). Others may test out divergent projects until one takes hold. Some may stick to one medium throughout their lives; others may experiment wildly. Some may work assiduously on a project (and not touch any others) until it is complete; others may prefer to move back and forth between projects.

Where do creative ideas come from? Recently I wrote an essay about how a good curriculum can stimulate creativity by combining and juxtaposing works and ideas in interesting ways. I emphasized, though, that such a curriculum does not “produce” creativity (such as the student’s piece cited in the article), nor does creative work “result” directly from it. Creativity does not lend itself to mass production.

It’s difficult not to be intrigued by creativity. (I wouldn’t be reading articles about creativity if I were uninterested in the subject.) Many of us many have a speck of Dr. Faustus in us; we may want a secular devil, unaffiliated with hell, to sell us creative brilliance. or at least a sliver of it, in appealing wrapping. It would be a tantalizing offer. (This may explain why people don’t allow creativity its idiosyncrasy: they may hope to acquire it somehow.) There may even be something in such an offer–a helpful suggestion or insight, for instance. Artists (and other “creative” people) have a great deal in common–temperament, habits, interests, even pain–and can offer each other advice and understanding. Beyond these shared attributes, though, their distinctive trait is their ability, even when learning from others, to find their own way.

Note: I revised this piece (for flow and clarity) after posting it.