The Book Has a Title!

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My book goes into production today and should appear in October 2018! Its title is Verbal Resistance: Waking Our Language from Everyday Clichés. The subtitle alludes to a passage in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty: “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.” For Mill, the “enemy”–the critic–keeps language and ideas alive.

Verbal Resistance takes up common words and phrases in need of scrutiny–“takeaway,” “passive listening,” “team,” “creativity,” and seven more–and regards them from different angles. It argues that democratic discourse and intellectual life depend on the questioning of language.

Update: The title has been changed. It is now Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies.

I took the photo of the blackbird above.

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?

Literature Courses and the Common Core

Will the Common Core State Standards push schools to emphasize “informational” over literary text, even in English class? Many educators worry that they will. The CCSS document states that, by grade 12, the proportion of informational to literary text in the curriculum should be 70 to 30—just like the ratio in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework. Granted, this ratio applies to the entire curriculum, not specifically to English Language Arts. Yet English teachers in many districts have been told to include more “informational text” in their courses.

Carol Jago’s piece “What English Classes Should Look Like in the Common Core Era” (The Answer Sheet, Washington Post, January 10, 2013) offers a refreshing view of the matter. She begins by clarifying this matter of “informational text.” No, English teachers are not supposed to stop teaching poetry, drama, or fiction. Instead, they should teach more of all of this, as well as literary nonfiction; students should get used to reading a lot. They should read attentively at home, so that they can take part in lively class discussion:

To reverse this trend [toward heavy entertainment media use in place of reading–DS] we need to make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day. They need to be spaces where anyone who didn’t do the homework reading feels left out. … I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.

In addition, according to Jago, students should read history books and write research papers for history class. They should not only become adept at reading different kinds of texts, but also come to understand why these texts are worth reading.

I applaud these ideas, yet I have some qualms as well. First, if the point is to introduce students to compelling literature, then shouldn’t curriculum and courses take precedence over standards? A curriculum specifies the actual literature; standards do not. A curriculum need not be uniform across schools, districts, and states—but it holds more meaning and coherence than generic standards do.

One standard reads: “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.” That is fine and well—but it matters a great deal what the text is. Ambiguities and uncertainties in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge are quite different from those in James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” yet here they are treated as one and the same. A student’s “growth” in relation to this standard could be uneven, yet he might be learning a great deal.

Second, the standards bring a spate of new assessments that we have not yet seen or tried. What happens if the tests conflict with good curricula? Will teachers come under pressure to defer to the tests? Will the technology companies start hawking software that supposedly helps students boost their scores? Will teachers be expected to use it? Teachers are understantably anxious about the new assessments; much will ride on them, yet we do not know to what degree they will reflect the contents of a literature or history course. The sample test items available for scrutiny (for example, a “task” regarding Ovid’s “Daedalus and Icarus,” from his Metamorphoses) offer little if any assurance; the Ovid passage is full of meaning and suggestion, yet the multiple-choice question does it poor justice.

Third, how will schools foster the sort of environment that Jago envisions (and that I support), where students come to class eager to discuss the texts? Many students will do this right away. Others will resist at first but will eventually come around. Still others will resist for a long time—maybe all the way through school. Jago suggests that the students who come to class unprepared, or unwilling to participate, will recognize that they have excluded themselves from something exciting. This is possible when the course has integrity: when the works selected for the course are inherently compelling and combine in an interesting way, when the teacher takes students into these works with verve and care, and when neither the standards nor the assessments distract from the  daily practice of delving into the texts. Students must care about more than their grade and test score; they must take interest in what they are learning, or at least glimpse something of importance in it.

In essence, Jago is talking about cultivating an intellectual environment. This comes when the teachers’ and students’ attention is not continually deflected toward peripheral things. It matters much more what John Stuart Mill says about the danger of squelching unpopular views, than how much On Liberty counts toward the “informational text” ratio, or even (after a certain point) the “growth” that students supposedly show or do not show on a test of reading skills. Of course students should be learning things that are testable (as well as things that are not), but will these tests capture what they have learned in a good class? If not, will we all be expected to set aside our better judgment and bow to the test?

Standards, too, can distract when held up too high. What standard can hold a candle to the following passage from Mill? What standard approximates a discussion of it?

But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?

The answer: none. Standards can serve as reminders and gauges; they can help us see areas of excess or deficiency. But the substance of the courses must come first; students should be reading a given work not because it meets grade-band complexity criteria, not because it is “informational text,” not (primarily) because the reading of it will help them address standards X, Y, and Z, but because it is worth reading and pondering, and because this reading and pondering will help them think on their own. Any standards, any tests should be subordinate to this principle; the Common Core can help direct our efforts but is not our ultimate guide.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 1

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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.

“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.

“What Community Was This?”

My comments on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means are not and cannot be exhaustive; the book holds so much that I can only touch on a small part. Also, I don’t want to take anything away from those who plan to read it (if you are one of those, I suggest you do that first). I will not comment on every chapter; there’s something to be said for silence, too. I expect to write one or two more pieces about the book.

The book is bracing and inspiring–comparable to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and, in some ways, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I often pause on a paragraph to think about it more or to admire the integrity of the words. As I mentioned before, the book leaves me with some uncertainties and questions, one of which I will bring up here. That’s one of the best things a book can do: to set an example of thought and language, bringing the reader to life and questioning.

This piece will focus on the first chapter, where Bromwich analyzes a series of stories from the news. In most of these examples, an institution or group (or person acting in an official capacity) restricts an individual’s expression or artistic work in the name of the interests of the community (or an ethnic group). Such reference to “community” is deceptive and destructive; often the community doesn’t exist, at least not as invoked. Moreover, as invoked, it falsely presumes sameness and consensus; has unwritten laws that come forth with a vengeance at seemingly arbitrary times; and is “hard as nails,” despite its insistence on sensitivity.

Ultimately, by invoking “community,” such officials and institutions demand a sacrifice of individual thought and art. They make claims to culture of a corrupted sort—that is, culture defined by demographics and group identity, culture that tells people who they are and should be. (I have seen exceptions to this, but I have also seen the problem in its fiercest form. This book untangles and examines the problem.)

The situation Bromwich describes has only mutated and grown. Everywhere I hear the mantra of “teamwork and collaboration” (a version of “community”); supposedly these are the necessary and desired alternatives to “testing and accountability.” If I had to choose between “testing and accountability” on the one hand and “teamwork and collaboration” on the other, I would fall into despair. They are more similar than different. After all, accountability presumes a group norm, as does “collaboration” in its current usage. All of these will arise in life; one has to navigate through them, make sense of them, find what good they may hold, and resist their pressures. One can find hope in individual thought, but for this, one must think well.

Bromwich’s first example of such “community ” involves a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, whom the school’s administration charged with “lewd and indecent behavior.” The student had displayed a few Penthouse centerfolds on the door to his room. The official complaint came from the dormitory’s supervisor and her husband; they cited student complaints, yet no student came forward. The dormitory supervisor’s husband explained, “I was acting in the best interest of the community.” Bromwich asks in this chapter, “What community was this?” The Affirmative Action office called the centerfolds “degrading and abusive to women”—thereby making reference to a vast group that may or may not have agreed.

The point is not that the act of putting centerfolds on one’s door deserves any sort of respect. As Bromwich points out, the student who did it was displaying vulgarity and inviting censure. Still, there is a difference between individual reprimand and an official charge from the school, in the interest of “community.” The latter was based on slippery language, “degrading and abusive.” Bromwich comments, “Degrading such pictures undoubtedly are … But on no ordinary understanding of the word could a mere display of pictures be described as abusive.” This distinction is subtler than may appear. To say that such pictures are abusive is to suggest that students have no inner defense against them, no judgment, no capacity to turn away. If that is the case, well, then more “abusive” things must be removed from their sight.

This is only the beginning. I have not gotten to my favorite parts of the chapter. At the very least, I want to bring up some of the discussion of art.

Bromwich describes the controversy over the Broadway casting for the London play Miss Saigon: the lead actor, Jonathan Pryce, was going to bring his role to America; the Committee on Racial Equality, of Actors’ Equity, voted to bar him from performing it, on the grounds that it should be performed by an Asian-American actor. (Ultimately Pryce did perform it.) The committee’s initial decision ran counter to art, to put it politely. When you demand that a character be played by a person of the character’s demographic background, you imply that people can only understand reflections of themselves, or, at the very least, that representation counts for more than imagination. But art offers much more than confirmation of who we are, much more than a chance to play ourselves.

Bromwich writes, “As I shall argue throughout, it seems to me that art, like thinking, does exist in tension with culture thus defined. You cannot serve both at once–cannot even pretend to when, as often happens, the two come into open conflict. … It follows that in art, the suitability of person to role is a matter of strength of imagination–only that.”

(I am giving a shortened version of the argument; there’s much more, and I have many more thoughts about it.)

Education, too, holds more than a confirmation of who we are—and that is part of Bromwich’s overall thesis. I recall when, at age twelve, I first visited the school that would be my high school. I was moved by the serenity of the place: students walking quietly through the halls, students intent on a lesson, the sound of someone practicing the piano, a giggle coming from somewhere. The school taught Latin and Greek; I longed to study these languages. I left with dreamy impressions and a copy of the school’s brochure. On one of the pages, there were various quotations from students about the purpose of education. A seventh grader said, “It is to teach you something that you don’t already know.” I cried over those words because they were so simple and so remote from the conception of education at the junior high school I attended.

That leads to one of my favorite passages from the first chapter:

Is it our job to turn students back to their parents safe and sound, intellectually and demographically much as we found them but, if anything, more confident than before that they ought only to be what they already were? Is it the aim of education to assure students that they need not change, need suffer none of the pains of distance that go with the liberation of intellectual life? Or are we a superior social adjustment agency, in the business of granting degrees that mean: “Your son or daughter has turned out correct. Politically, morally, socially correct, at least by this year’s standards.” An institution going forward on these principles would deserve to be called many things. A laboratory that knows how to monitor everything, and how to create nothing. A church, held together by the hunt for heresies, but without a single ritual, credo, prayer, or prayer book in common. Maybe it would resemble most of all an industrial park, with a perpetual supply of interns and apprentices, but with enough refinement not to want to call itself an industrial park. It does not much matter what we call it, for once the reflection or the remedy theory of education has been accepted, new demographics will always dictate a new name. Whatever the place we work in turns out to be, it will not be a place for thought.

Such institutions brandish the “we” against which Bromwich protests throughout the book. When discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (which he calls “a great and liberating work with a wrong title”), Bromwich finds, in Emerson’s remark “imitation is suicide,” a distillation of the problem of a self-aggrandizing and self-assured “we.” Bromwich explains: “The people who believe that it takes one to know one, who know exactly who and what they are, to whom and what they belong, want no singular person ever to survive as singular. They aim at complete possession.” Their “we,” in other words, allows for no “I.” I have heard this “we” in many places, particularly in schools and in education discussion.

Now, here is my qualm, in short. In order to make room for individual thought in schools and universities, one must counter the trends that have pushed it out. To do so, one must define some sort of common purpose and understanding, including some kind of (non-restrictive) curriculum. Otherwise one is left with a battle of opinions where words cross each other. If students are to have a chance of encountering Shakespeare and Milton in a college course, instead of focusing on “21st century media literacy” and such, then a school must foster kindred minds (that may differ deeply on certain matters) and kindred purposes. Otherwise there’s no standing up to the fads. So, in a sense, we do indeed need “we,” but this is profoundly different from the “we” of false consensus and false community. (For more on “we,” see my third piece about this book.)

It is good to be distrustful of “we.” It is good to avoid slipping into its muck. This book invites me to shed that sticky “we,” and I accept the invitation gratefully. But there’s a rocky, hardy, glistening “we” somewhere, a “we” that gets you to the place where you can stand on your own. I don’t think Bromwich would deny this, though I might be wrong (and I recognize that the book was published twenty years ago). In any case, it’s a puzzle waiting to be solved. What is this “we,” and how do we sustain and defend it against the other kind?

Note: On November 18, I made a few revisions to the penultimate paragraph, and added a new paragraph before it, for the sake of clarity. I made some additional revisions (again for clarity) much later.

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.

Thinking Apart in Education

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon asks the heroine, “Are you not ashamed to think apart from them?” (su d’ouk epaidei, tonde choris ei phroneis;).

In education, thinking apart from the others is likewise risky. Yet we need independent thought, if we are to have good thought at all.

The educational “right” and “left” both extol teamwork and collaboration, though for different reasons and in different terms. Proponents of value-added assessment, increased standardized testing, elimination of teachers’ seniority protections, and so forth stress the importance of teams in fostering student success. Dissidents and critics should not stand in the way of student progress, they say.

Opponents of such measures also emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Usually (though not always) they speak of nurturing of the whole child. They oppose the idea of pitting student against student and teacher against teacher; instead, they remind us, schools should pursue education in a cooperative spirit.

Yes, schools are cooperative entities, but in order for cooperation to have meaning, the individuals must be at liberty to bring their best ideas forward (at school and beyond). They must also have room to differ with the group, both privately and openly.

Truth is often unorthodox. For instance, there’s a lot of discussion of “value-added assessment” in education—that is, the calculation of the “value” that a teacher supposedly adds to the students. Many have objected, correctly, that such things cannot be calculated with precision. Others treat value-added modeling as the holy grail—a way of revealing, as though it were not already known, which teachers are moving their students along and which ones are not.

But there are alternate views. There are teachers, for instance, who do want to be evaluated in part on their students’ performance and progress, but want this to be interpreted intelligently. If I have been teaching intensive Russian for a year and most of my students can’t conjugate the verb chitat’ (“to read”), then something is very wrong, and I want to know this. On the other hand, if the teacher of second-year Russian sees her students progress by leaps and bounds whereas my first-year students progress more slowly, this isn’t necessarily because she’s more “effective.” It may be that this teacher’s students have a handle on the language and can learn new material with greater ease. (They might hit a bump in their third year, when they start reading literature.) If we steer away from crass calculations of teacher “effectiveness” and look at what’s actually going on, then we could gain some insights.

That’s just one example of a viewpoint that can get lost in the noise. It’s important for such views to exist and be heard, because they can offer something to both “sides” of the usual discussion.

So, people should just put forth their unorthodox views, right?

It isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, even the most independent-minded people have affiliations, loyalties, and restrictions. They may be outspoken on one issue and guarded on another. Few are in a position to speak their full minds. They may refrain from criticizing their friends and colleagues openly, or they may have confidentiality to maintain. Or else they’re swayed by other people’s reactions; if they’re applauded for saying something, they might think it is therefore correct. We all have weaknesses that can limit what we say.

Also, there’s the risk that you won’t have an audience, especially if you’re speaking entirely on your own, without the support of an organization or publication. By contrast, people who represent organizations have a built-in audience but significant restrictions on their liberty. When speaking for the organization, they must represent its positions. When speaking for themselves, they must still stay close to the organization’s positions—or else why are they affiliated with it? All depends, of course, on the nature of the organization, their role in it, and what they want to say.

So, suppose you are in a position to “think apart” from the others and speak your mind, at least somewhat. Suppose you have a vehicle for doing so—a blog, at the very least. What now?

Well, be prepared for some disappointment, because people may misunderstand your argument. They may try to place it in one of the familiar categories or camps. Or they may ignore it altogether. On the other hand, many people will show appreciation. Some will express relief (“Finally someone has said what I’ve had on my mind for years!”); some their interest (“Let’s discuss this further”). Things get dreary in education discussion fairly quickly; it’s refreshing when someone comes along and puts things in a different way.

Speaking on your own, you can refine and change your views. You can recognize and correct your mistakes. Mistakes can be embarrassing in the moment but should bring no shame (unless, of course, they have caused harm). John Stuart Mill wrote, “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.” Truth lies not only in the answers, but in the bearer’s integrity.

It can be lonely to think on your own. At times there’s cheering from all sides, at times jeering; at times people seem more interested in the jingle of the ice cream truck than in what you have to say. That isn’t always bad; it makes room for retreat and mulling, even for an ice cream cone. Thank goodness the world isn’t hanging on our words.