There’s No Such Thing as a “Thinker”

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People who call others “thinkers” may not mean it as a compliment; the term can suggest someone too intellectual and removed, too intense, no fun. Worse still if this “thinker” is a woman. Doubleplusunfun.

But come now, who isn’t a thinker? Everyone thinks, even those who live by the mantra “don’t think.” Most of us think in handfuls of ways; no one’s thought is just this or that, just analytical, just relational, just artistic, just mechanical, just oino-tragical, just pastoral-litotic. When you tell others what kind of thinkers they are, it’s as though you wanted to repair your stone wall, to secure your territory in the neighborhood. You, esteemed neighbor, have a theoretical mind. I am practical. (Or vice versa.) Stay away from me, you and your thinking, and I, newly intact, will thrive.

There is nothing scarier than recognizing that the egghead or electrician across the street may think like you at times–and even harbor a sense of humor. Your mental egg shudders at the idea (yes, idea!). Eggheads are supposed to be just eggheads; electricians, just electricians. If they dare be more than that, then who are you?

We know our own minds from the inside, and other people’s from the outside; that in itself breeds judgments. D. H. Lawrence is having none of it; his “Pomegranates” begins:

You tell me I am wrong.
Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?
I am not wrong.

There is more than one way to read “You tell me I am wrong.” It could mean, “You tell me I am mistaken in my thoughts, statements, or actions.” Or else it could mean, “You tell me I myself am awry.” In the latter case, “I am not wrong” is much more than defense; it’s the basic assertion of the soul.

Here’s the etymology of “wrong” (courtesy of the beloved Online Etymology Dictionary, which I visit almost daily):

late Old English, “twisted, crooked, wry,” from Old Norse rangr, earlier *vrangr “crooked, wry, wrong,” from Proto-Germanic *wrang- (source also of Danish vrang “crooked, wrong,” Middle Dutch wranc, Dutch wrang “sour, bitter,” literally “that which distorts the mouth”), from *wrengh-, nasalized variant of *wergh- “to turn,” from PIE root *wer- (2) “to turn, bend.”

“I am not wrong”–that is, “my being is not bent”–this declaration opens up, over the course of the poem, into a rebuke and revelation. The speaker takes the reader to task:

Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?
Do you prefer to look on the plain side?”

The poem holds a paradox: on the one hand, the speaker is “not wrong”; on the other, he is broken. Yet the two ends come together; he alone dares to look at the fissure, in geography, in himself, in the “glittering, compact drops of dawn.”

So it is with “thinkers.” The people who call us this or that have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet knowing oneself requires knowing one’s flaws; “I am not wrong” does not mean “Everything I do or say is right and good.”

In that light, and in a different mood from “Pomegranates,” a piece by Louis Phillips caught my eye yesterday and tickled my mind. “How to Recognize an Intellectual” plays with the reader from the outset:

PERSONS are frequently kept awake at night by questions they cannot answer. Can I pay the rent this month is one such question. Or, just where is Nicaragua? But one question that probably bothers men and women more than any other is: Am I an intellectual?

I won’t give the rest away–but through deft silliness he takes “thinkers” to task, from the inside, while poking fun at those who poke fun at them.

So, the next time I am called a “thinker,” I will reply, “And a good thing, too; if I weren’t one, could I possibly tie my shoes, choose a good tomato, or turn this assertion of yours into a question?”

 

I took the photo in Szolnok yesterday. More recently, I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Thoughts on Sacrifice

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Often, when I think about a topic, it grows so vast in my mind that a blog post seems futile. How do you say something about sacrifice in a few words? The meaning of sacrifice has changed over millennia; Hebrew has various words for it, none of which translates easily into a modern language. Psalm 51 seems profoundly modern in its reflection on sacrifice–but if you read it carefully, from start to finish, you find that it does not say what it seems at first to say.

יז  אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח;    וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. 17 O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.
יח  כִּי, לֹא-תַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה;    עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה. 18 For Thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it; Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.
יט  זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים,    רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה–    אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.
19 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

It seems, on hasty reading, that the psalmist sees no more meaning in burnt-offering–and believes God sees no meaning in them–but instead has turned to offerings of the spirit. But at the end of the psalm, he expresses longing for restoration of the temple offerings.

What is this offering of broken spirit, then? In some way it is provisional; it is what the psalmist has. The offering does not consist in victimhood; according to Stephen Geller, whose wonderful course on the Psalms I took two years ago, this “broken spirit” has to do with intense introspection, with seeing the divide between what God wants and who one is at the moment. The “broken spirit” comes out of seeing.

Jumping now into rash generalization, I find that sacrifice overall has to do with seeing. Or rather, seeing is essential to it. I had grown up thinking of sacrifice as some kind of painful generosity or relinquishment; if you gave more than was comfortable, you were truly sacrificing. Now I see it differently. Sacrifice entails giving what is right; to know what is right, you must listen and perceive. Sacrifice–whether religious or secular–is not necessarily extravagant or painful; it comes with a sense of timing, proportion, and devotion. By giving the right thing in the right way, you make the giving sacred.

But how do you learn to give the right thing in the right way? Through rituals of sacrifice, you learn form; you learn the  importance of the details, the care that goes into the act. Beyond that, you learn through experience. Rash gifts sometimes crumble on delivery; well-considered gifts build and strengthen. But the lesson is not that we should always act in accordance with established custom. Sometimes the eccentricity is the sacrifice. Sometimes even the mistake holds a gift in it.

To give what you have, to give heedfully, both with and without reserve, on repeating occasions and in singular moments–does anyone get it completely right? I doubt it. But no one knows in full what another person brings: what thoughts, questions, and struggles accompany an act of giving or holding back. The outside action is essential, responsible, and judgeable, but only part of the sacrifice. The inside may be like D. H. Lawrence’s pomegranate, “dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”
 

Psalm 51 quotation courtesy of Mechon Mamre. The English translation is from the JPS (1917 edition).

I took the photo here in Szolnok last week.

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

 

Free Will and Education Reform

George Henry Hall: The PomegranateThe question of free will bursts into question upon question. What does it mean to have free will? To what degree do we exercise it? How can we know? For all the swarms of ideas on the subject, there seems to be agreement—among philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and others—that whatever freedom we might have, we do not control other people or the outcomes of our actions (and if we could, it would be unwise). What a refreshing thought—and what a far cry from today’s education reform, which insists on our ability to control others’ results!

Literature from ancient Greek drama to contemporary psychology warns about illusions of control. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (in Robert Fagles’ translation), the Chorus sings, “And neither by singeing flesh / nor tipping cups of wine / nor shedding burning tears can you / enchant away the rigid Fury.” Rabbi Hanina states in the Gemara of Berachot (33b) of the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (There are numerous interpretations  of this statement.) In recent centuries, literary, philosophical, psychological, religious, and sociological writings have emphasized the futility (or danger) of trying to control others.

Yet much of education reform assumes we can and should control others–in particular, their measurable achievement. This assumption is profoundly wrong. To rate teachers on their students’ test performance is to distort the educational endeavor. Teachers influence students (and their influence is great); they do not cause students to do well or poorly. (It’s one thing to analyze the results; it’s another to convert them by formula into a rating.)

“Very well,” someone might respond, “so you’ve admitted that teachers influence students. Are you saying this influence doesn’t matter?” Of course it matters; it gives meaning to the work and helps teachers heed the alarm clock in the mornings. Still, whenever the student steps out to do something—take a test, give a presentation, or read further on the subject—this is the student’s action, not the teacher’s. The student has the credit and the dignity (or should).

“In that case, teachers might as well throw up their hands,” another might say. “If they aren’t held accountable for results, why should they bother trying?”

When you think you might influence (but not control) your students, there is all the more reason to try. You get to share in something that is not your own, something that goes beyond you. When a student does well, you have the honor of contributing to it in some way; when a student does poorly or runs into difficulties, you have sorrow and the self-questioning. Honor and sorrow and self-questioning and responsibility inspire me a great deal more than the publication of teachers’ “value-added ratings” in the newspaper.

It is not just that they inspire me more; it’s that they serve as better guides. I don’t know, and have no way of knowing, how great my influence will be or what form it will take (beyond concrete and immediate learning). That is all the more reason to put thought and effort into my lessons: I am participating in something partly knowable, partly mysterious, but in any case larger than myself. If I had wanted a predictable effect on things, I would have become a chocolatier, a producer of delight and cavities. Even then, my results would not have been uniform.

Yes, of course I want concrete learning to come out of my lessons; of course I want to see evidence of it. Even so, I do not make it happen, nor do I set its limits. Even less do I control what comes out of that learning.

Many economists would disagree. A 2011 study (by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff) concludes that teachers affect not only students’ performance on tests, but also their college attendance and future earnings.  Granted, they say “affect,” not “cause,” but then they extrapolate: “Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

I think of D. H. Lawrence’s  “Pomegranate”: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?”

I respect these scholars and acknowledge the care that went into the study. Still, its projections assume minimal variation among students, little that could interfere with their earnings, and little room for them to choose their directions in life. Presumably, if teachers could “increase” students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 (a projection based on limited data), then we could boost the economy just by replacing the low-ranking teachers. We could replace our way to a better world.

But what if the students’ lifetime income didn’t increase as expected? What if these students faced layoffs, job changes, and life difficulties, or chose professions that didn’t pay especially well? What could one replace then, for better outcomes? Perhaps one could give each of their choices a value-added rating (in terms of how much income it produced) and demand that they make lucrative life choices. Someone would have to chase after them and make sure they did so.

What if illness and war and death got in the way? Well, one would have to replace those students who got sick or died, or who grieved the death of others. No room for mortality (or aging) in the picture, especially if it interferes with earnings.

We are left, then, with those select few who don’t age, fall ill, or die—and who, without fail, take actions that bring them more money.

We are down to no one—but there, in that world of none, we have attained prosperity!

Happy are those who do not inhabit that world.