Public Privacy

heart-on-a-platterWe have been worn thin by publicity, especially in the internet era. Private life, as it was once known and protected, has ceased to exist, except for those who protect it defiantly. On the one hand, this “openness” brings people out of isolation; they can now speak of their experiences in ways they could not before. I remember when it was considered shameful to bring up family problems or divorce; children often felt that they could not tell anyone what was happening at home. (That still might be the case—but there’s more of a sense that it’s good to speak up.) Also, people went through personal tragedy without knowing that others had been through similar things. Today it is easier in some ways to find support, and this is good.

But the spillage of personal life carries dangers. It has become the new norm to put your heart on webcam, as it were—so if you wish to be more reserved, you are on your own. Also, the boundaries are unclear and can vary widely from situation to situation. A normal disclosure in one context could easily be “too much information” in another; with no ill intention, people can intrude on each other with their words, or can appear rude and standoffish for holding back. This confusion of boundaries can hurt friendships, working relationships, and family bonds.

This “public privacy” cripples discourse as well. (Hannah Arendt, writing more than half a century ago, describes this as the submersion of the private and public spheres in the social sphere.) Newspaper op-eds, radio shows, and other media and formats are now filled with intensely personal stories, which you are not supposed to challenge. If you try to do so—and few dare—you risk being written off as heartless. It’s personal, after all.

Moreover, to share your private life is to shed your guilt—or so goes the belief. In his essay “How Publicity Makes People Real” (in Moral Imagination), David Bromwich discusses how this “broadcast intimacy”—through which people seek some kind of public expiation—prompts people to disclose things to the masses that they would not tell their own families. The success of this process, he writes, “depends on the puzzling fact that the irrevocable passage from depth to surface can be experienced as a relief.”

I was stunned by a recent New York Times piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The author writes from the deathbed, it seems; she says, “I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.” She explains that she was diagnosed in 2015 with ovarian cancer and had to give up her plans and projects. She proceeds to describe her wonderful husband, Jason, and to express hope that the right reader will find him and start a new life with him once she (Rosenthal) is gone.

The problem lies not with publishing a farewell to her husband, or writing about cancer and impending death. All of this can be done with grace (and even privacy). Rather, this excruciating context makes it difficult for anyone to question her gesture of offering her husband up. That gesture, as I see it, should not be protected from criticism; any thoughtful and civil response should have a place.

I find her gesture troubling, not only in itself but in combination with a detail in the piece. She mentions that in her most recent memoir (written before her diagnosis), she invited her readers to suggest matching tattoos (that they would actually get). She thought this would be a great way for reader and author to bond. She ended up taking a suggestion from a 62-year-old librarian; the two went to get tattoos together.

I responded with the following comment:

You write: “In my most recent memoir (written entirely before my diagnosis), I invited readers to send in suggestions for matching tattoos, the idea being that author and reader would be bonded by ink.”

That, to me, goes against the bond between reader and text, a bond that can strengthen, weaken, release, or otherwise change over time. The reader does not have to be on display; he or she can think, dispute, laugh and cry in private. The author, likewise, needs no permanent token of the reader’s devotion; to write and publish something is to trust that readers will arrive.

I find privacy missing from this piece overall–not because you write about a personal experience (which many writers do, even those who tend toward privacy), but because you seem to try here, as before, to bond with a reader in the flesh.

Not all bonds have to be in the flesh; not all have to be known, seen, etched, or advertised.

That said, I recognize the pain and grief that you are facing.

At this point there are 1,124 comments. The overwhelming majority speak of being in tears over the piece, finding it the most beautiful thing they have every read, etc. There are only a few outliers—and some of them got snappy comments in response. Some people even said that only a heartless person would read the piece without crying.

My point here is not that Rosenthal did something wrong. There is more than one view of the matter. Many took her piece as an act of love and courage; there’s much here that the readers cannot see or know. Nor is the problem (as I see it) with her piece in particular. The problem is more general: Such excruciating revelations call for only one kind of response. You are supposed to join in the chorus of sympathy or be a brute.

Because pieces like this are so common, because it has become the norm to put not only oneself but one’s loved ones “out there,” public discussion has lost some of its verve, diversity, and questioning. (Of course many other factors have affected discussion as well.)

Personal stories are essential; they have beauty, they can help both the teller and the hearer, and they can transcend the particular situation. But there are stories and stories; a story should not be protected and praised because it’s personal, and people should not be afraid of questioning and criticizing a story’s content, premises, or style.

There is reason to be wary of genres and platforms that encourage unanimous mass responses. Literature at its best, no matter what its content or form, helps us speak and think on our own.

So Now You’re Rating My Self-Knowledge?

Jesse Singal is one of my favorite journalists. He’s a powerful writer: intelligent, probing, daring, nuanced, and skilled. But today one of his New York Magazine articles (which he co-wrote with Ashley Wu) made my blood boil. Singal and Wu invite the readers to test their own self-knowledge: first, by rating themselves on the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience); and second, by taking a personality test, which will presumably show them how correct or incorrect their self-assessment was. I reject the premise that the personality test has the last word or better say–or, more generally, that some outside instrument can set the terms for my self-knowledge.

Singal and Wu vastly overstate the test’s capacity to inform us about ourselves. Toward the middle of the piece, they write: “So: How good a grasp do you think you have on your own personality, in Big Five terms? In the below test, you can find out.” At the end, they claim, “In other words, a test like this turns what can sometimes be guesswork about who you are into something a bit more scientific and concrete.”

I have copied my response below, with some minor edits and added links.

A comment on “Can You Predict Your Scores on an Important Personality Test?” by Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu

I protest the underlying assumption of this article: that the Big Five model and its accompanying personality tests hold some truth about us that we may or may not “get right.” According to your argument here, how “well we do” at guessing our test results speak to how well we know ourselves.

No, no, no! I acknowledge that our own self-knowledge may be limited, flawed, and distorted–but I reject any personality test as an arbiter of truth.

Why? First of all, as you yourself note, psychologists have based these categories on tendencies and general correlations. And tendencies are just that–tendencies. They are somewhat forced, first of all, by our vocabulary; second of all, they don’t hold for everyone; third, within an individual there may be great variation from context to context and day to day.

I recognize that this test offers a “sliding scale” for each of these traits–but I question whether they really exist on a “sliding scale.” If I am sometimes agreeable, sometimes not, this does not make me, say, 70% agreeable. My instances of disagreeableness may be key to my personality. What matters here is where and why they occur. They may have to do with an actual situation.

In The Long Shadow of Temperament (one of the wisest psychology books I have read), Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman question the Western tendency to define personality in terms of categories. “It is not clear,” they write, “why American and European social scientists maintain a preference for broad psychological properties for individuals that ignore the contexts in which they act.” In Moral Imagination, David Bromwich points to the importance of resisting this tendency. “The force of the idea of moral imagination,” he writes, “is to deny that we can ever know ourselves sufficiently to settle on a named identity that prescribes our conduct or affiliations.”

Why does this matter? Because everything human is at stake here: self-knowledge, knowledge of others, knowledge of the world, dialogue, and language itself.

P.S. In a demonstration of “openness to experience,” I went ahead and took this test. It was not enlightening. For too many of the questions, the response in my mind was, “It depends.” I mean “strongly depends,” not just “sort of depends.” So in many cases I entered a 3, which to me did not represent the situation. Or else the lack of breakdown–for instance, of types of conscientiousness–distorted my responses by averaging them out. (On the other hand, without trying, I scored extremely high on “openness.”) I view such tests with extreme skepticism and caution. (Yet this is not because I am a “cautious” type overall. Skeptical, maybe.) If such tests are bad at telling who I am, they are even worse at telling how well I know myself.

Note: I added a paragraph to the beginning of this piece after posting it. Also I changed “theory” to “model” (stay tuned for more on this).


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. I wrote about this (again in 2010) in my op-ed “Curriculum Should Precede Assessments” on the Core Knowledge blog.

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 Remedy Is the Poem Itself”

First, a happy 2015 to everyone! This promises to be a glorious year for CONTRARIWISE. It is also the year of the Class of 2015. At my school, many members of this class have been involved with CONTRARIWISE, philosophy roundtables, and honors projects in philosophy, so I will be both sad and immensely proud to see them move on. Some have already been admitted to colleges (Columbia, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Smith, SUNY Binghamton, and elsewhere); others have a few months of waiting in store. Those months will go by quickly, though, and CONTRARIWISE will come out in the meantime!

The year has also started out with great sadness; one of my former students lives in Shanghai, so when I read the news of the stampede, it was not remote as such news often can be. (I trust that she is unharmed—but she must have been affected in any case.)

I am returning today to an idea from yesterday: that the “successful” teacher is one who looks inward. What bothers me is not the idea of looking inward, but rather the subordination of this to some kind of success on the job. In other words, inner life should not and cannot be mandated, and those who live it must do so on their own terms. It certainly may take place on the job and may have benefits for the job—but ultimately it is not for the job. Soul-searching as a job requirement will be stultified. To have meaning, it must be at liberty to go beyond others’ demands. It will find more of a home in poetry than in any teacher manual (since poetry by nature goes beyond others’ expectations).

When listening to a recorded lecture this morning, I was introduced to a passage from The Principles of Art by Robin George Collingwood:

The artist must prophesy not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but in the sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need them is that no community knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community altogether deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death. For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness.

There is a lot to interpret in this passage, but I will focus on these two statements: “no community knows its own heart” and “the remedy is the poem itself.” Why does no community know its own heart? Well, it is virtually impossible to have heart as a group. Yes, there are approximations, but they are often galvanized by one person’s action—in this case, a poem. Why is the poem the remedy? It’s not that it makes us feel better. Rather, it offers full life and a release from compromises, lies, half-measures, and what Collingwood calls “the corruption of consciousness.”

To prophesy,  then, is to tell not the future, but the present; to tell it as no one else is telling it. Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” (which I read after being moved by David Bromwich’s description in Moral Imagination) has prophetic momentum; we go with Betty on a journey that we ourselves take but do not always recognize. It is the story of a mother searching high and low for her “idiot boy,” whom she has sent off in the night for medicine for their neighbor, who is very sick. Her hope and worry and near-despair are so great that even nature seems to come to a stop (except for the owls):

She listens, but she cannot hear
The foot of horse, the voice of man;
The streams with softest sound are flowing,
The grass you almost hear it growing,
You hear it now, if e’er you can.

The owlets through the long blue night
Are shouting to each other still:
Fond lovers! yet not quite hob nob,
They lengthen out the tremulous sob,
That echoes far from hill to hill.

It would be difficult to read this poem without some soul-searching (where the soul itself goes searching). But this is not the kind that bends to any job. It goes beyond employment. A job, no matter how important or meaningful, must not be confused with a life. No book on pedagogy comes close to “the tremulous sob, / That echoes far from hill to hill.” Unless Wordsworth is included in the curriculum, few will see the poem as relevant to anything at school. But in a sense it is relevant to everything: it is a poem of life and death, sanity and insanity, health and illness, childhood and adulthood, humans and nature—all of this in chillingly beautiful verse. It is worth living beyond the job, even for this poem alone.

Questions of Community

There are several related idols in contemporary culture: the group, the team, and the community. Each one has a different character, and each one has benefits and dangers.

I have discussed the pitfalls of group work on numerous occasions–most recently, in an interview with The Guardian (UK). I do not mean that group work is necessarily bad; it is just overemphasized. Thinking on one’s own–or participating in a whole-class lesson–gets short shrift.

In addition, I have discussed problems with the concept of a team. Teams have their place (many places, actually), but not every group or association is a team, nor should it be. Much important work is done by individuals and can be shortchanged by a team.

In relation to the above, I have also examined how collaboration differs from group work, and how belonging and apartness combine in education.

Today I will look at a somewhat touchier subject: community. Community, as I understand it, is an association of individuals with a loose common bond, be it geography, a common interest or attitude, or some other common characteristic. To many, community is an automatic good; what could possibly be wrong with having something in common with many others and, on account of this commonality, being part of a larger whole?

Indeed, there is much to be said for it; many of us have longed to be part of a community of some kind and have rejoiced when we found one. But the word can be misused.

For one thing, as David Bromwich points out in Politics by Other Means (1992), it can be invoked manipulatively, for ideological ends. (Sometimes the “community” invoked might not even exist as such.)

Or the word might be invoked in reference to the most popular activities or views–and not in reference to the outliers. In my experience, “Support your community” rarely means, “Support the individuals within it.” Instead, it seems to mean, “Support those things that the majority supports, those things that draw a crowd.” I do not mean that the things that draw a crowd are unworthy–but a true community should have room for more. A genuine community, as I understand it, would honor its minorities, dissidents, independent thinkers, and others who don’t fit the group. There are circles within circles; the largest subcircle is not the whole (unless it is, of course).

I am likewise wary of communities where the members, because of the very nature of the bond, conceal important thoughts by choice or necessity–for instance, a “supportive community of writers” where everyone is supposed to praise everyone else. There must be room for genuine criticism; support should not be equated with applause.

Or take a workplace. Is that and can it be a community? It depends; at various jobs, I have become friends with my co-workers. Sometimes the entire staff has bonded. But no matter how warm the workplace, one must remember that at some level, it is a job. There is work to be done. Friendship and fellowship can form within it–but that should not be the expectation.

All of these pitfalls can be addressed with careful use of the word. There are different kinds of community, each with its offerings and restrictions. If one uses the word carefully, one can avoid being deceived by it. But there is still another danger.

Belonging to a group is meaningful only if some true fellowship exists in it. Fellowship between two may be the best and strongest kind. As Emerson writes in his essay “Clubs” (the ninth chapter of Society and Solitude), “Discourse, when it rises highest and searches deepest, when it lifts us into that mood out of which thoughts come that remain as stars in our firmament, is between two.” Yet a community often interferes with the fellowship of two (or with solitude, for that matter); the individuals come under pressure to include others in their group, to level out their conversation, to accept the common denominator. If a community can make room for friendship and idiosyncrasy, if it does not try to smooth everyone down, if it recognizes that some affinities will run deeper than others, then it can be strong.


A Dream of Uncertainty

Yesterday I sat for a while on a bench in Riverside Park, listening to the water and the wind (and traffic). I had a chance to sort through the many events and conversations of the week. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting time: my students’ philosophy journal received a great review, a paperback edition of my book just came out, and my classes have been lively. More exciting events lie ahead—and, as usual, I have piles of homework to grade and a backlog of errands and duties.

In the midst of this, I have a slight ache, which goes back to the subject of my book. It has been a long time since I heard someone praise—or even acknowledge—singularity and independent thought. (The one recent exception was Susannah Heschel, who gave a wonderful lecture yesterday about her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his relationship with Rabbi Marshall Meyer [1930-1993]). One thing she said that struck me is that we have a responsibility to let ourselves be uncertain.

In general, what I hear all around me is “Go Team.” People are praised insofar as they serve the team; teams are praised insofar as they are teams. (G. K. Chesterton would have had a field day with this phenomenon.) The word “community” likewise comes in hardened dogmatic form (as David Bromwich notes in his 1992 book Politics by Other Means). As it is commonly invoked, the “community” doesn’t make allowances for those who don’t fit its strictures or who make a regular practice of walking away.

I am not deploring the concepts of team and community; my complaint is that they have been taken too far. There is too little room for the counterpart, which could be called solitude. Solitude and company (or community, or collaboration, or friendship) exist in complex relation. Solitude, like community, can be understood crassly. It is not just time alone, or space apart. It is part of the mind, soul, and sinews. (Yes, there’s solitude even in dusting the furniture—the private glimpse of the shining wood and the specks flying up in the air.)

My students recently read part of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There’s a passage (in the final chapter) where the sight of a man and woman coming together on the street and entering a taxicab sets off a stream of thoughts about how our creative work requires the coming together of the male and female in our minds. In this very passage, there’s solitude (the stream of thought) and company (the man and woman entering the taxicab). Who could separate them? What would the stream of thought be without the encounter, or vice versa?

My most important projects have had a combination of solitude and collaboration. The philosophy journal could not have existed without the individuals who worked on it. Yes, we had to bring the many efforts together, but without the singularity of the contributions, there wouldn’t have been much to bring. The wit, thoughtfulness, and beauty did not come from a team. At the same time, we spent much time meeting and deliberating over matters of many sizes.

My book, which was largely a solitary effort, involved some collaboration as well. I sent individual chapters to scholars and others who had special knowledge of the subject. Whenever I quoted texts, I did so with care—taking the larger context of the work into account, tracking down first editions for the bibliography, and so on. Beyond that, many of the ideas in the book were inspired by people who had influenced me along the way: teachers, students, mentors, friends, and family members.

All of this is obvious yet difficult to describe. Solitude is not completely solitude, nor company completely company. The problem I see around me is a sealing of terminology. People speak of “the team” as though that’s all that existed and mattered. There’s little recognition that it’s only a part. The same can be said for invocations of community; the community would be a great thing, were it allowed to be a little less than great.

This brings me to the title of the post: “A Dream of Uncertainty.” I long for a language that questions itself, that recognizes its own indefinite edges. I long for a community that does not pretend to be everything, to include everyone, or to be more glorious than it is. Uncertainty allows for an opening—a way of existing with things that go beyond us, that slip away from us, that hum a song beyond our understanding.

The Great Sin of Introducing a Text

Yesterday I had some of the liveliest classes of the year. My eleventh-grade students are about to read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an intensely beautiful and challenging philosophical essay. In preparation for this, I devoted a lesson to Mill’s life and thought.

I began by asking my students whether happiness could be measured, and, if so, how. (Many students jumped into the discussion.) Then I told them about Mill’s life—his upbringing, early work in utilitarianism, intellectual crisis, emergence from the crisis, relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and more. I brought in excerpts from his Autobiography and the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (which he had read during his crisis). I asked them to consider what Mill might have found in this particular poem. At the end of the lesson, I posed the question: if there were a mean between utilitarianism and romanticism, what might it be? Throughout the lesson, hands were flying up and dialogues mounting.

Under the Common Core, teachers are admonished against providing background for a text before the students actually read it. The rationale is that background information can interfere with the students’ direct reading and interpretation of the work. Supposedly, if you tell them too much up front, they will rely on what you told them instead of focusing on what the text actually says.

I understand this concern–but it doesn’t hold in all cases. For instance, nothing I told my students, and no ideas I drew out of them, will help them comprehend and interpret the following:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.

When reading this passage, we will focus on the words and phrases and their logical interrelation. We will examine the contrast Mill draws between social tyranny and tyranny at the hands of government. We will discuss the very concept of the tyranny of the majority—and ask why Mill considers it so insidious, pervasive, and dangerous. Almost all of the discussion will focus directly on the text—but we will draw important ideas and questions out of it.

Why, then, would I introduce students to Mill’s life in the first place, if there’s so much to be found in the text itself? Am I not wasting precious instructional time?

I would say no, for several reasons. First, Mill’s life is downright interesting—his strict classical education, his contact with Jeremy Bentham, his early work in utilitarianism, his crisis, his ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism and romanticism, his relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and much more.  Why shouldn’t students learn about something as intriguing as this? His intellectual crisis and emergence are intriguing in themselves—especially for teenagers, who may have experienced crises of their own.

Second, David Bromwich refers to Mill (in his essay “The Life and Thought of Mill,” which appears in the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty) as “the thinker of all the nineteenth century in whom romanticism and utilitarianism were most nearly joined.” It’s a great philosophical exercise to imagine how romanticism and utilitarianism might be joined—and that’s part of what we did yesterday. (One student suggested, strikingly, that they could be joined in optimism.) Later, after they have read On Liberty (or most of it), we can reread certain passages, and consider how they might contain a synthesis of romanticism and utilitarianism. That will come after students have seen and discussed what’s actually in the text, and it just might bring things around full circle (though it won’t be complete, as there will still be open questions).

Third, this is not a literacy class, but a philosophy course. Its content includes texts, ideas, and some intellectual history. I don’t think anyone would fault my course for lack of complex texts or careful textual analysis—we have spent entire lessons working through Locke’s syntax, for instance—but the course holds more than that. This is normal for a course in a subject; it needs no special justification. College courses focus on subject matter. Professors present and interpret the subject, and students must still read and think a great deal on their own. If part of the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college-level work, shouldn’t there be room to teach a subject?

Third, part of the point of education is to foster the exercise of good judgment. How do we show students how to exercise good judgment, unless we ourselves strive for the same?

“They Guided Me in My Sense of What Is Significant”

Thanks to Leon Wieseltier for his splendid column “The Unschooled” (The New Republic, December 31, 2012). He begins boldly:

WHEN I LOOK BACK at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant. The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge. (And in these nightmarishly data-glutted days, the winnowing of information may also require the masterly hand of someone who knows more and better.)

The piece builds from there and speaks for itself. I want to take a little time with these first five sentences.

The very act of teaching has become taboo. A teacher is supposed to “drive” results–or else “empower” the students to initiate their own learning. A teacher who wants to teach something substantial is told, directly or indirectly, “that’s not how it works.” Students, too, are swept up in this credo; they don’t think they have to pay attention unless there’s a palpable payoff. Some regard listening to the teacher as a passive and outdated activity (or, rather, non-activity).

Not all students, educators, and policymakers have fallen for this. Many understand that education requires voluntary and persistent attention, the kind that William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin considered a virtue. In A Choice of Inheritance, David Bromwich describes this kind of attention:

[Darwin] gives attention to objects whose use is as yet inconceivable, and he cannot help exemplifying the value of such attention. As with Wordsworth, it seems to me difficult to do more than connect this with a virtue like patience. One watches an object closely, even when it does not fit an available story, because one trusts that it will matter. The practice is not a wager or a sound investment but the pursuit of a calling.

What if you do not have such a calling? Can anyone push you to exhibit patience that is not there? Can it be created artificially? My answer would be no and yes. Ultimately no one can be forced to take interest in something. On the other hand, attention itself can open up the interest, and impatience can close it off. To listen to a teacher is, at the very least, to consider a possibility. It is a good habit.

I have been impatient at various times in my life. In the first semester of my junior year of college, I plunged into political activity and social service. I thought my classes were remote from the crises and demands of the present. I was taking a fascinating lecture course on the history of the American West, but decided that it didn’t speak to current problems. I stopped doing the work.

Jay Gitlin, the teaching assistant, whom I revered (and who is now a professor and author), approached me in the snack area of the library one day. “You should read these books,” he said. “You will find them interesting. Read Cabeza de Vaca.”

“But–” I tried to explain to him that I was worried about various pressing problems of the moment.

“These books have more to do with your concerns than you may think,” he said. “Just read them and see.”

He was wise and kind, and he let me make my own choices. I chose to do the wrong thing (slip impossibly behind in the class) but knew that I was wrong and appreciated his gesture. I must have recalled this conversation hundreds of times over the years.

Even then, at the nadir of my general patience, I wanted to listen to him, my teacher. I treasured his advice although I didn’t follow it; over time, I treasured it even more. Today I am indebted to him for the understanding that came out of that conversation, which led to the understanding that things may matter in oblique ways, or show their mattering slowly (and that Cabeza de Vaca is well worth reading).

This brings me back to Wieseltier’s words: “Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.”

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 2

seizethedayYesterday I examined William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767), with particular attention to the phrase “accuracy of imagination,” which I first encountered in David Bromwich’s A Choice of Inheritance. Today I will consider how “accuracy of imagination” plays out in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. My students finished reading it last week; we had memorable discussions of the ending.

The briliance of this novel has to do with the elusive Dr. Tamkin (among other things). There are plenty of ways for a writer to get Tamkin wrong; Bellow somehow got him right. But whom did he get right, and how did he do this? I will attempt an approximation of an answer.

As I stated yesterday, Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes.” Extending this to literature, I see it as a quality of inevitability—the sense, as one reads, that there is nothing makeshift, extraneous, or compromised.

Seize the Day is the story of a pivotal day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man who has lost almost everything, or so it seems—family, dreams, job, money, and pride. He has moved into the Hotel Gloriana on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the same hotel where his father lives. In this same hotel resides the psychologist Dr. Tamkin, who has convinced Wilhelm to speculate in lard with him—and to hand over his remaining seven hundred dollars. Unlike Wilhelm’s father, who has no sympathy for him, Tamkin claims to understand what’s wrong with him and to know how to set things right. Wilhelm doesn’t trust him, doesn’t believe his stories, yet can’t resist placing faith in him. He loses, of course, and this loss propels him to the beautiful and surprising ending.

Who is this Tamkin? He is neither this nor that. He has tinges of Nikolai Gogol’s Chichikov and Vladimir Nabokov’s Quilty but is distinct from them, insofar as he can be distinct at all. Enthusiastic, optimistic, involved in everything, a shrewd wheeler and dealer, yet somehow removed from everyday urgencies, somehow out of reach; full of ludicrous stories and warm understanding, of lies mixed with truth; preposterous, infuriating, endearing, yet vague and easy to lose, this Tamkin could be the stretch of sordid hope—the hope that we know we shouldn’t have but have anyway—yet is too lively to be reduced to that. He is America itself, one might say, but there’s also something Russian and Jewish about him. A “tamkin” is a tampion (a wooden stopper for the muzzle of a gun, or a plug for the top of an organ pipe), but it also suggests the Russian word “tam,” “over there.” (This is morphologically improbable—“tamkin” would not be formed from “tam” in Russian—but the suggestion is still there, as I hear it.)

What is the effect, then, of Tamkin’s disappearance, just when the stocks have fallen and Wilhelm has lost all his money? My students spent some time discussing this. (I just realized, to my dismay, that I left my copy of Seize the Day at school—so I will have to go with memory and whatever quotations I can find.) When Tamkin and Wilhelm leave the brokerage office for lunch, the rye has risen and the lard is holding steady. Of course, Tamkin takes much longer with lunch than Wilhelm would like. When they return to the office building, they see the blind Mr. Rappaport coming out. Rappaport asks Wilhelm to take him across the street to the cigar store. Dismayed, Wilhelm assents. When they return, the lard and rye have fallen, and Tamkin is nowhere to be found.

Wilhelm tries to control himself, to keep from showing tears. He hears someone ask him, “…going away?” Apparently Tamkin had told the man that he (Tamkin) was going to Maine for  summer vacation; the man thought Wilhelm might be going too. Wilhelm enters the restroom and sees a grey straw hat with a cocoa-colored band; he thinks it might be Tamkin’s. (It isn’t.) He returns to the hotel and manages to enter Tamkin’s room; Tamkin is gone, but his pills and books are there. In all of this, Tamkin is still there and not there; there are hints of a physical presence, but he is gone from the hints.

Wilhelm approaches his father for help; his father wants nothing of it. He calls his wife; his wife wants nothing from him but money, and finally hangs up on him. He heads out into the street again and sees a large funeral at a chapel. There, in the pressing crowd, it seems to be Tamkin who is “speaking so earnestly, with pointed shoulders, to someone under the canopy of the funeral parlor.” Then he thinks he spots him at the canopy-pole, “that damned Tamkin talking away with a solemn face, gesticulating with an open hand.” Wilhelm tries to follow him, but he gets pushed and drawn into the crowd, into the chapel, where he forgets Tamkin and instead gets swept into something that I won’t reveal here, since it would be ruined out of context. Several of my students approached me to tell me how moved they were by the ending; one student was disappointed in it. But the ending would be nothing without Tamkin.

It is “that damned Tamkin” who led him there, in more ways than one. My students recalled Tamkin’s earlier words about the “true soul” and “pretender soul”: “In here, the human bosom—mine, yours, everybody’s—there isn’t just one soul. There’s a lot of souls. But there are two main ones, the real soul and a pretender soul. Now! Every man realizes that he has to love something or somebody. He feels that he must go outward. ‘If thou canst not love, what art thou?’ Are you with me?” He goes on to say, “The true soul is the one that pays the price. It suffers and gets sick, and it realizes that the pretender can’t be loved. Because the pretender is a lie. The true soul loves the truth.” All of these truisms spiral down the drain to nothing—or almost nothing. There’s a sliver of substance here, enough to entice Wilhelm.

There is also the eclectic diction. Tamkin’s elusiveness lies not only in his disappearances, not only in his combination of nonsense and wisdom, but also in the strange concoction that is his speech. This is especially clear in the poem he gives Wilhelm—a dreadful four-stanza jingle that is just peculiar enough to be interesting. I will quote the first two stanzas:

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

Why-forth then dost thou tarry
And partake thee only of the crust
And skim the earth’s surface narry
When all creations art thy just?

My students did a good job of pointing out the bad grammar and false archaisms. (They didn’t notice the false archaisms right away, but slowly they caught on.) Beyond the grammar, the bad rhymes and rhythms, and the absurd “Why-forth,” there’s the carelessness with meaning. If it is wrong to “tarry” and “partake thee only of the crust,” what is one to do, then? Hurry up and eat it all? (That’s precisely what Tamkin has been refusing to do.) How does one “tarry” and “skim the earth’s surface” at the same time? But the most perplexing question is: why do I come back again and again to this terrible poem? I come to laugh, yes; I come for the sheer perplexity of it; but I also come to figure out what on earth it is.

The paradox of Bellow’s “accuracy of imagination” is that it has captured a supremely vague entity—or rather, something in between the vague and the specific. I don’t trust Tamkin one bit, but like Wilhelm, I think I glimpse him in a crowd. For reasons I can’t explain, I draw closer to find out; I do not find out, but in all of this I have been interested, even seduced. Despite Tamkin’s garish presence and maudlin meanings, despite my loss of an imaginary seven hundred dollars, there’s a blessing in this seduction.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 1


Catarrhally clogged and dizzy, I am enjoying the slowness of these first few days of break. Yesterday I read William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767) with excitement. I was drawn to it by David Bromwich’s book A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989). I will not discuss the latter at length, as I would not do it justice. Duff’s essay I will discuss today.

In the second chapter of A Choice of Inheritance, Bromwich examines the changing meanings of “genius” over the centuries—from Edward Young’s conception of genius as complete and natural originality, to Wordsworth and Darwin’s intertwining of genius with interpretation and history, to a more specialized sense of the word, and then back to a sense of genius as something mysterious, separate, and natural. Despite this seeming reversion, what matters is the “displacement of the idea of nature by an idea of history” (24).

Bromwich devotes an intriguing paragraph to Duff, drawing attention his phrase “accuracy of imagination.” According to Bromwich, Duff retains some of Young’s idea of original genius but stops short of denying genius’s link with tradition. Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” (a phrase he appears to have invented) as the gift of philosophical genius; Bromwich sees this as a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”

The idea of “accuracy of imagination” interested me so much that I wanted to find out what Duff meant by it. His essay consists of two parts; each part, of five sections. The first part examines the ingredients, indications, and modes of genius; the second focuses on original genius and its various manifestations—in poetry, art, music, oratory, architecture, and philosophical science. Genius, according to Duff, need not be wholly original; yet the most sublime genius, poetic genius, is marked by originality.

At the outset, Duff associates genius unequivocally with invention: “To explore unbeaten tracks, and make new discoveries in the regions of Science; to invent the designs, and perfect the productions of Art, is the province of Genius alone” (5). Yet, as we find out later, such invention can take many forms.

Genius, according to Duff, has three ingredients: imagination, judgment, and taste. They exist in different proportions, according to the nature of the work, but imagination assumes primacy, and none of the three can be absent. If genius were to consist of imagination alone, then “there is scarce any means left us of distinguishing betwixt the flights of Genius and the reveries of a lunatic” (23-24).

In poetry, according to Duff, imagination comes first, then taste and judgment; in philosophical science, imagination still comes first, but judgment follows as a close second. Because imagination, judgment, and taste influence each other, the philosophical imagination is different in nature from the poetic imagination. The former is distinguished by “regularity, clearness, and accuracy”; the second, by “irregularity, vehemence, and enthusiasm.”  They need not always be separate, though; Duff regards Plato as both philosopher and poet (104):

Of all the Philosophers of antiquity, Plato possessed the most copious and exuberant imagination, which, joined to a certain contemplative turn of mind, qualified him for the successful pursuit of philosophical studies, and enabled him to acquire an extraordinary eminence in those various branches of Science, to which he applied his divine Genius. He is the only prose writer, who in Philosophy has dared to emulate the sublime majesty of the Mœonian Bard. He was indeed animated with all that ardor and enthusiasm of Imagination which distinguishes the Poet; and it is impossible for a person, possessed of any degree of sensibility, to read his Writings without catching somewhat of the enthusiasm.

This is indeed what has drawn me to Plato over the years—the combination of exuberance and reason. One might also find a combination of poetic and philosophical imagination in the poetry of John Donne (whom Duff does not mention) and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

When it comes to “accuracy of imagination,” Duff has two contrasting things to say. On the one hand, as mentioned before, he regards it as the gift of philosophical genius. On the other hand, he concurs with Longinus, who maintains that sublimity is inconsistent with accuracy of imagination—that (in Duff’s words) “native grandeur of sentiment which disclaims all restraint, is subject to no certain rule, and is therefore various and unequal” (164). It is not only that genius must risk error in order to rise high; it is that the very freedom of genius brings inconsistency. (I will comment more on this in a later post.)

But Duff makes ample room for genius that is not original, or not entirely original. For one thing, even poetic geniuses begin by imitating their predecessors: “one who is born with a Genius for Poetry, will discover a peculiar relish and love for it in his earliest years” and “will be naturally led to imitate the productions he admires” (37). The other arts definitely rely on predecessors: “There never arose an eminent Painter, Orator, Musician, Architect or Philosopher, in any age, completely self-taught, without being indebted to his predecessors in the art or science he professed” (263). Thus original genius in these fields is not independent of the past. Poets, by contrast, are better off, according to Duff, if they don’t have much of a past; he gives reasons for this toward the end. (This, to me, is the least convincing part of the essay, though parts of it make sense.)

Duff allows, likewise, for genius that is not so much inventive as interpretive or even imitative. Here, on p. 74–75, is one of the most striking passages of the essay:

We may farther observe, that Genius may, in a very considerable though much less proportion, be displayed in the illustration of those truths, or the imitation of those models, which it was incapable originally to discover or invent. To comprehend and explain the one, or to express a just resemblance of the other, supposes and requires no contemptible degree of Genius in the Author or Artist who succeeds in the attempt. Thus we allow Maclaurin, who has explained the Principles of Newton’s Philosophy, and Strange, who has copied the Cartoons of Raphael, to have been both of them men of Genius in their respective professions, though not men of original Genius; for the former did not possess that COMPASS of IMAGINATION, and that DEPTH of DISCERNMENT, which Were necessary to discover the doctrines of the Newtonian System; nor the latter that fertility and FORCE of Imagination, that were requisite to invent the design, and express the dignity, grace and energy, displayed in the originals of the Italian Painter.

Duff goes on to say that genius can be found in the mechanical arts—that a watchmaker and carpenter show genius when they bring special elegance into their work. “So diversified are the forms of Genius,” says Duff, “and so various its modes of exertion” (75).

What I find remarkable is that Duff allows for many kinds of genius without treating them as equivalent. He does not say that everyone is a genius; genius, no matter what form it takes, stands apart from ordinary life and production. Even so, he makes fundamental distinctions between various kinds and degrees of genius. These distinctions are not absolute; “original” genius often relies on tradition, and the acts of interpretation and imitation may involve genius.

There’s a hidden paradox in Duff’s argument: this very diversity of genius may encumber it and bring it down. At the end of the essay, Duff argues that the poetic genius (in particular) fared best in ancient society, where it was unfettered by manners, criticism, distractions, tradition, and so forth. He admits that he has no proof for this, yet he offers Homer and Ossian as evidence. If this is so, then the great abundance and multiplicity of genius may trample down certain kinds of genius. Ah, well, some may say, but new kinds may come forth. Yet if the highest form of genius suffers (and Duff appears to regard poetry as the highest), what happens to genius as a whole?

I will leave that question aside for now and return to the phrase that first drew me to Duff: “accuracy of imagination.” What is it? Duff perceives it as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes” (33–34).

I would say that such “accuracy of imagination” has a place in poetry as well, though there it’s a different kind of accuracy, or rather, an illusion of accuracy. (I return here to Bromwich’s idea of a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”) When reading a poem, one wants to sense that it could only be that way, that nothing in it is makeshift, extraneous, or compromised. In my next post, I will discuss that kind of “accuracy of imagination” in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.