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.

“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.

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.