“A Way to Think for Myself As If Under Their Eyes”

This is the last of a series of comments on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I expected to write two more—but then I thought it would be more interesting to choose and comment on one favorite part of the book. So I chose the fourth chapter, “Reflection, Morality, and Tradition,” where Bromwich defends and represents a tradition of liberal thought by interpreting and reflecting on Edmund Burke, David Hume, Joseph Butler, John Stuart Mill, and others.

The chapter (like the book) demonstrates a liberal tradition. It is the very discussion of Burke, Mill, and others—with intriguing interpretations of specific passages—that takes me into the tradition as it can be. I often find myself slowing down to read a passage again and think about its meaning. I enjoy this greatly.

This tradition of liberal thought has a place for the person who thinks and acts alone; in fact, group thinking has no place in it. It involves both “an irreducible respect” for oneself and a perspective on one’s existence. It can serve posterity because it is not bound by a need for immediate approval. It has what Hume calls “general utility”—which Bromwich distinguishes from the “reductive utilitarianism” that has taken over much of our educational discourse.

Bromwich’s distinction between “general utility” and “reductive utilitarianism” is immensely important. In education policy I see a general attitude of reductive utilitarianism: the insistence that schools should serve the demands of the moment and show immediate, crude results. “General utility,” by contrast, is not shrill or ephemeral. It involves a perception of something beyond our immediate circumstances, something reaching far back and far ahead. But at the same time it does not involve bowing to some imaginary standard set by others. Instead, it requires integrity of thought.

Such thought is far removed from “narrow self-regard” or what Burke calls “speculation”—the reliance on one’s own “private stock of reason.” It likewise does not come from excessive attention to the latest word. “Utter privacy and utter contemporary-mindedness have the same disadvantages,” Bromwich writes when discussing Burke. “But the latter condition may have the wider appeal. Many people have thought some time or other that it might be attractive to try to live entirely for the present moment. And in a crisis of authority, a new government may test its credit by putting this idea into practice.”

Bromwich quotes a memorable passage from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which Burke imagines the consequences of total disregard for ancestors and posterity. “By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions,” Burke writes, “the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.” (The quotation in the book is substantially longer; I regret abridging it here.)

Burke is not simply calling for preservation of cultural monuments, Bromwich points out. His argument is this: when we imagine we have the right to destroy things that others have held dear, we imagine future generations doing the same to our things. “It is a gesture of contempt,” Bromwich comments, “in which self-contempt must always be deeply involved.”

Later in the chapter, Bromwich distills the idea as follows: “A maxim Burke seems always on the point of formulating is that no generation has the right to act as if it were the last generation on earth. (It may be a corollary that no generation has a right to think as if it were the first generation on earth.)” A person does not avoid those errors by submitting to the needs of the collective. To the contrary; the errors themselves are products of group sentiment and group selfishness. “What we are witnessing here is an inversion of American individualism,” writes Bromwich. “Groups have become the contenders. And yet the groups retain the traits of the old egocentric bargainers on whom they are modeled.”

What is self-respect, then? Bromwich sheds some light on this when discussing Mill. Many readers of Mill, according to Bromwich, assume that he defends free speech mainly because restriction of speech shrinks the free market of ideas. Bromwich shows that Mill sees much more at stake: in particular, moral and intellectual courage. If one does not enter into dialogue, if one shuts oneself off from opposing or contrasting views, then one’s opinion, writes Mill, “will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

This willingness to consider other views is not the same as deference to fashion or clamor. It requires an understanding of the origins of these views; it requires some distance from the noise. One cannot consider every view that comes along; one must make choices. But at the very least, one must allow the various views to exist and be expressed. This very tolerance comes from self-respect, since it helps ensure that we live in relation with the past, present, and future, not closed off in self-certainty or self-admiration. Insofar as we tolerate, we may be tolerated too.

As usual, there is much more to the chapter than I am conveying. As I was reading it, it opened up a place for me, but also reminded me that that place has long existed and that I have things to do in it. A liberal tradition does exist, as much as it seems to have been shouted out. It is not escape or retreat, but a vivid and demanding way of thinking.

On the surface, this way of thinking seems unequal and unfair. It sometimes involves giving one’s best to those who are unwilling to receive or return the gesture (such as students disrupting or ignoring a lesson). It may involve receiving things that one can never repay—from books, from teachers, from parents. But all of these seeming unfairnesses allow for a greater distribution over time. Bromwich quotes the moral philosopher Annette Baier, who writes of “the asymmetry of care”—that is, “an extended version of morality in which there are more who are cared about than there are doing the caring.” I see more promise in this than in the benign but pat concept of “paying it forward.” After all, there’s no “it” and no “payment” here, and the gesture is not only in a forward direction.

Nor do the guides of the past disappear. Bromwich writes of a relation “to persons not only whom I do not know but whom I cannot know. If liberal education adds up,” the chapter ends, “it shows me a way to think for myself as if under their eyes, or at their half-acknowledged promptings. In doing so it suggests a way to act for something beyond myself.”

So does this book.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here. I have revised a few of them since their initial posting.

“Lists of Names Do Not Think”

Quite a week it has been: with the ninth graders, looking at the exchange between Teiresias and Creon in Antigone; with the tenth graders, concluding our discussion of Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals and starting to read Buber’s I and Thou; and with the eleventh graders, finishing up the unit on Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes and beginning a discussion of Hobbes’ Leviathan or, rather, an excerpt from it. That, and the election, and the city’s slow recovery from the storm, with some heavy losses (I and those I know are fine)—all of this has made for a tumultuous week on the one hand and a contemplative one on the other.

It is a treat to return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means and put together some thoughts on the second chapter, in which he examines the incoherent conservatism of George F. Will and William Bennett (as examples of a larger tendency). As I discuss this chapter—perhaps the most difficult to discuss, and the one that has challenged me the most—I will keep this question in mind: If a primary purpose of education is to teach people to think critically, knowledgeably, and independently, to what extent does a core curriculum serve that end?

According to Bromwich, both Will and Bennett see education and religion as a way of rescuing a dying culture. (I am using the present tense for convenience; the book was published twenty years ago.) They believe in cultural transmission—that is, the “imitative (not inventive) continuity of a tradition,” which “involves the pouring of a contained substance into a new container.” Will considers himself an intellectual descendant of Burke—but, unlike Burke, champions both tradition and the free market. “Burke himself disdained any tactic that would have appeared at once to defend an existing order and to favor the instrumentalities of rapid change,” Bromwich observes. By contrast, Will and Bennett share an incoherent philosophy and “a shallow idea of tradition.”  In addition, Will and Bennett distrust some aspect of historical consciousness—in particular, the idea that we are to some degree formed by history and must study history in order to understand ourselves.

To a degree, Bromwich sympathizes with them. Like them, he worries that a sense of the past is vanishing from curricula and culture. Yet he favors the great old books (and great newer ones) not because they constitute “cultural capital” but rather because “their good derives from their peculiar power to make us think, and the right use of that power is to reform, and not to console, the culture and society in which we are at home.” By contrast, Bennett in particular seems distrustful of the whole enterprise of “critical thinking.” (I will return to that in a moment.)

This chapter gave me a good shaking. As one who has defended “classical” curriculum and has not overtly challenged the idea of cultural capital (though I have argued repeatedly that a good curriculum encourages critical and independent thought), I am incited to sort out my ideas in a way I haven’t before.  When I began writing about education, I received a warm welcome from curriculum advocates, both conservative and liberal. Like them, I saw a lot of fads interfering with good education: for instance, an insistence on group work at the expense of focused instruction and discussion; on student choice of books at the expense of a literature curriculum; and on so-called “21st century skills” at the expense of those skills that are not of the moment or tailored to the current market.

I continue to criticize these fads. But my rationale has been mixed and perhaps incoherent. On the one hand, I have argued (like Will and Bennett) for cultural preservation. On the other, I have recognized that there is no fixed culture to preserve. Any great work of literature or art takes on new life in the mind of the reader, viewer, or listener. I have taught Antigone for four years and read it many times since age thirteen; I am still surprised by the play and still consider myself an advanced beginner with it. In addition, just as a work of literature (or literary nonfiction) sharpens the reader’s thinking, so it becomes sharper in the reader’s understanding. Consider this happening over time, and you have not only a single reader, but many, each with thoughts and responses, which then start responding to each other and influencing the course of life around them. In no way can this be collected as a set and handed down.

Yet I think I understand Bennett when, in his 1986 speech “In Defense of the Common Culture” (quoted in this chapter), he complains that colleges are “listing their objectives as teaching such skills as reading, critical thinking, and awareness of other points of view.” Bromwich takes this to mean that Bennett actually opposes the teaching of critical thinking. I may be giving Bennett far too much credit, but I interpret his words otherwise.

Bennett may have meant (in which case I agree) that critical thinking minus the substance is bunk. For good critical thinking to occur in school, students must be reading and thinking about something worthy. (Or perhaps it’s the word “worthy” that should be emphasized.) Take out that crucial condition, and you may end up with a lot of “media literacy” courses where students comment on commercials and TV programs, courses that celebrate the students’ opinions, and courses that treat literature as a sociological enterprise, with representatives from every walk of life. These are real dangers—and often realities—in institutions that proclaim their main goals as “critical thinking, awareness of multiple perspectives,” and so on. You have to dare to name works of literature that deserve attentive study.

But is that a fixed, invariable canon? Of course not. Teachers and professors will base some selections on their own affinities. In a highly educated world, such selections could be based almost entirely on affinity. But when the pull is in the other direction—away from reading, away from sustained thought—a curriculum based on “affinity” could easily encourage such rationales as “I never got into Homer, so I am not going to impose the Iliad on the kids.” Or: “Sorry, my students just can’t relate to those British poets like Donne and Blake. I’m going to bring them something closer to their experience.” It takes a great deal of attention to relate to something that isn’t immediately about you; it also takes works that call you across, the works that teach your mind such crossing.

Still, as I read the chapter, I found myself increasingly averse to the pretentious tone of Will’s and Bennett’s pronouncements. Public-quasi-intellectuals can get away with an awful lot of hollowness; the mere hint of learnedness impresses people. Here I am especially self-critical, as I  I think back on some of my more grandiose writing. Bromwich’s book eschews such grandiosity by sticking to close analysis of a few situations and texts. He criticizes Will for “studding” his text with “the names of learned authorities, whom Will brings forward much as an arriviste displays silverware, to dazzle, stagger, oppress, and sicken the visitor to his study, his emporium.”

I would be indulging in false confession if I said that I did the very same thing as Will. But I have overdone my quoting at times; what’s more, I have sometimes quoted people in arrays, as though the assemblage itself could make a point. “Plainly Will does think in lists of names,” says Bromwich, “but lists of names do not think.” I will keep that in mind for my future writing; it has bearing on curriculum as well. Lists of books do not think, either, unless the person doing the listing has thought carefully about the selection and arrangement. At that point, it’s no longer a list. (I have thought carefully about the selection and arrangement of my philosophy curriculum—but to someone unfamiliar with the works, it’s just an impressive-looking list.)

A core curriculum (that is, one that provides a foundation for further study and thought) must be thought through and shaped by the people who teach it. It may indeed start as a list (as when the novice literature instructor receives a syllabus), but once the teacher has pondered it, arranged it, and fine-tuned it, it is already something else. From there, the teacher may alter it even more, but with a stronger sense of what it is in the first place.

Give me a list of skills and a list of books, and I will find much more life in the latter—but that’s because my mind starts playing with it (if I am familiar with the books). That’s what policymakers often forget about curriculum. It can’t just be implemented. The teacher must know it well enough to become its interpreter and creator. This requires study. Study of what? Of these and other works that another teacher, likewise, has studied closely and interpreted. This is tradition in the best sense of the word.

There’s the conundrum. When a school lacks such a tradition, and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it. With a great deal of caution and doubt, I’d say it can, if it is good.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting  it; on November 20, I made a few additional changes to the final paragraph.

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

Is Teaching a Calling?

Some of my respected and dear colleagues describe teaching as a calling; while I ultimately agree that it is, I find the concept perplexing and will try to tease it apart a little. The term “calling” is too easily misunderstood; one must get rid of the false meanings in order to find the true ones, if they exist.

First of all, what is a calling? The word “vocation” means roughly the same thing (as its etymology suggests), but its adjectival form, “vocational,” is most commonly used in reference to manual and technical trades. (Both “calling” and “vocation” can denote an ordinary occupation or source of livelihood; I will go beyond that here.) A calling, as I understand it, is an internal pull toward an action or a line or work. A person with a calling does not necessarily want to be called and is not necessarily happy when called. Yet there is something right about heeding the call. Alternatives do not seem satisfactory.

Some people think of a calling as something they love to do, something they would rather do than anything else. But this is not necessarily the case with a calling. For one thing, it might not take shape at first. Teaching is not monolithic. Teaching elementary school is profoundly different from teaching high school; teaching literature, from teaching physics. Its nature can vary greatly from school to school as well. A person may be suited to one kind of teaching and not another. So it may take a while for a new teacher to find his or her way. The time of searching may hold many doubts.

Is there something, though, that characterizes all teaching and distinguishes it from other professions? I believe that there is; I discuss it in the fifth chapter of my book, where I bring up Plato’s Symposium to shed light on the problems with the New York City workshop model. A teacher is a translator and mediator who brings the subject to the student and vice versa. To do this well, she must go far into the subject or topic to see what it holds, and then must find a way to bring it to her students.

Unfortunately education leaders and policymakers rarely see education in this way. But such a definition of teaching does help explain what a teacher’s calling might be. It can also offer some clarity to teachers who don’t know whether they’re called or not—who think that they probably aren’t called, because they find themselves wanting out or the profession. “I guess I am not called,” they think, “because a teacher who is called would want to stay, no matter what.”

That brings up the question: does it matter whether you are called or not? Or do you just make the best decisions you can, given your conflicting desires and mixed circumstances? If we could live by trial and error alone, then we’d probably be experimenting until the cows came home and longer. In that case, the only reason to stay in a profession would be practical: you gain the experience, and that helps you do a better job. It hardly matters what it is; you just find something that you can do and do it (or do something else instead). But we do not live by trial and error alone, or for practical purposes alone.

There is such a thing as a soul finding its way. It already has a way, but the world knocks it this way and that, off course and back on, and it tries to make sense of this and steer away from garishness and lies. At some point it starts to know itself and grow sturdy in what it does. But that is not the end of it; the work and the soul may still be at odds with each other, and the latter has to keep knocking around for a while, trying to get stronger and clear out a path. That is what’s involved in responding to a calling.

A few things may indicate that this is indeed going on.

First, a teacher who is “called” and who leaves the field will feel out of sorts in some way. Like Arch Makepeace in Tobias Wolff’s Old School, this person will sense something missing—will walk around detached, no longer belonging to the same worlds as before, and will sense a wrong in this.

When I took two years away from teaching to write my book, I was content with the way of life and would gladly have extended it for another year, had financial circumstances allowed it. I then became a curriculum adviser (at my current school) and could have continued in that role, but things took a different course. To help with curriculum, I found myself jumping in and co-teaching a philosophy class, then writing the high school philosophy curriculum for the school, then offering to teach the high school philosophy courses this year. My own choices brought me back into teaching. I found that I had missed it and that I thrived in it. (I also found, once in the full thick of it, that I missed the quiet time, which I have been enjoying this week.)

Second, a teacher with a calling will find a way to the vitality of the work. There is much humdrum stuff in teaching: paperwork and mandates, things that have a purpose but distract from the immersion in subject matter. The world of education debate and discussion isn’t much better; there’s an awful lot of chatter and very little sustained discourse. Yet the field holds something better than all of this. No matter what the circumstances, it is possible to go farther into the subject matter and learn from others.

In different ways, both teachers and students come to the subject as novices; over time, they become more adept at navigating it but become all the more disarmed by it and opposed to reducing it. That is part of the sadness and joy of teaching. I say sadness because I recognize again and again that I do not live up to the books I teach, do not teach them exactly right, say things in class that I later question and refine, but all the same, somehow, introduce my students to these books and maybe to a way of being alone with them.

David Bromwich writes (in the fifth chapter of Politics by Other Means):

The novice literature instructor was never expected to contribute to the higher learning from a freshman class on Hamlet or Augustine’s Confessions. It was merely assumed that what the instructor had to say would add to the student’s sense of taking part in a conversation larger and other than that supplied by the daily surroundings. This understanding had to do with an acknowledgment of great writing not as familiar and acceptable but as unfamiliar, and worthwhile under a description one can only make for oneself. The tradition that a teacher thought of evoking was an awareness of the impalpable links that bind one person to others remote in time or space, the recognition Burke thought more vital to humanity than any social contract, and which he called “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art.”

I will return to this passage later, with more context, when discussing the fifth chapter of Bromwich’s book. The meaning is subtle: the teacher of a freshman class (like the high school teacher) opens up the way to these books so that the students may find a different way of life in them—not because the literature tells the reader what to think and how to live, but because it draws him or her into something private, something out of the ordinary, and thus into a partnership without social contract, a tradition that comes from not following what others think.

So that’s it, right there: the recognition that the most important part of teaching may lie in its imperfection. Not that a novice teacher’s offerings are equal to those of an advanced scholar; that is not the case or the point. But even the advanced scholar opens up a subject for the students so that they may enter it; the students may misunderstand what the scholar says, and yet, if they take to the solitude behind the words, will learn the most important thing one can learn: that there is more, and that one can come to see it more keenly.

There is the teacher’s calling: whatever it is that says “do not stop opening up the subject for others. Do not complain that you did it poorly. Do it better, but recognize that even your poor offering had value, because once the subject is ajar, it has no end.”

I made a few revisions to this piece long after posting it.

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

David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means

Every once in a while I read a book that both meets and lifts my intellectual yearning. David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking is such a book.

Bromwich shows how both the static right of American politics and the self-contained left of American higher education, both the “culture of assent” and the “culture of suspicion,” reinforce group thinking and impede thoughtful intellectual discourse. First published twenty years ago, the book gives more insight into the problems of education today than many a recent work I have read.

It is Bromwich’s careful and discerning argument that distinguishes this book from most. He makes illuminating distinctions between seemingly similar assertions. He disassembles and examines many oft-bandied catch phrases and terms (such as “values” and “mass culture”). It is easy enough to say that the right and left are insular and misguided; it’s another matter to explain how. Bromwich’s explanation unsettled me in the best of ways, as it made me reconsider some of my own assumptions.

He distinguishes between (a) studying tradition in order to adopt a set of pre-established views and (b) studying tradition in order to think about it independently and take part in conversation about it. He shows how George F. Will and other self-proclaimed conservatives not only differ fundamentally from Edmund Burke, whom they regard as a predecessor, but do not merit the claimed inheritance.

He shows the deep problems (not just the immediately obvious ones) with the trend toward teaching mass culture in literature departments–which occurs in a larger context of “professionalization.” The one who “specializes” in mass culture has the triple advantage of supposedly relating to the people, being unassailable by colleagues, and having a claim to a “marginal” field.

I was fascinated by his commentary on Burke and Mill (and Hume and Butler) and by his analyses of literary study and the change it has undergone. I bring these up in the same sentence because some of the dangers of which Burke and Mill warned became the reality of the literary academy. As it replaced the study of literature with the study of theory, the literary academy lost both its “historical imagination” and the experience needed for attentive reading.

One of Bromwich’s most intriguing observations occurs on p. 130, when he writes, “Dependence and group-narcissism are the paralysis of genuine scholarship; but scholars, like citizens, to whom that seems a healthy state of things will always invoke the argument of growing solitude.” (He then quotes Nietzsche to provide the source and original context of the phrase “growing solitude”). Indeed, those who welcome group thinking tend to be the very ones who suggest that there’s too much solitude. Solitude, Bromwich suggests, is in part a discipline of the mind: the ability to work without regard for popularity or immediate approval.

Occasionally I find myself disagreeing with Bromwich or disputing his reasoning–but that’s a sign of a book that has me thinking along with it, replying to it, questioning it. Something would be wrong–and counter to the book’s spirit–if I accepted everything in it without question. For instance, Bromwich objects to the conformism inherent in the phrase “we need,” but I see room for this phrase, provided one uses it judiciously. Bromwich is right, but I’d qualify his point.

One of my favorite passages is in the third chapter, where Bromwich states that “conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before.” Reading the book was a conversation of this kind, a conversation I have longed for. I had just been remarking how rare the art of conversation has become–how frequently and unabashedly people interrupt each other, switch topics, or reduce an exchange of ideas to “whatever.” Politics by Other Means invites the reader to the best kind of conversation, the kind that transforms at least one of the participants. I hope to continue this conversation by reading the book again.

Note: I posted this commentary on Amazon and Goodreads as well as here. Also, in the fourth paragraph, I changed “neoconservatives” to “self-proclaimed conservatives,” since Bromwich does not use the former term in reference to George F. Will.

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

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different



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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

  • Recent Posts


  • Categories