A Dream of Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Index to Comments on Politics by Other Means

This is mainly for my own convenience; maybe some readers will find it helpful. Eight of my recent blog pieces comment in some way on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking, an extraordinary book that has been on my mind and in my life. I decided to list the entries here, in chronological order, so that I could link from them to this list (instead of linking from each one to each of the others).

1. “David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means,” October 27, 2012.

2. “I Want to Starve Them of This Credit,” October 31, 2012.

3. “Is Teaching a Calling?” November 1, 2012.

4. “What Community Was This?” November 2, 2012.

5. “The Danger of False Confession,” November 4, 2012.

6. “Lists of Names Do Not Think,” November 9, 2012.

7. “Tradition Without a Last Word,” November 11, 2012.

8. “A Way to Think for Myself As If Under Their Eyes,” November 17, 2012.

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”

“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.

Tradition Without a Last Word

In yesterday’s comments on the second chapter of David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, I ended with a conundrum: “When a school lacks such a tradition [of literary study], 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.” Three paragraphs into the third chapter, Bromwich brings up a similar but more complex problem:

But a difficult paradox holds together the idea of a nonrestrictive tradition. Before it can be reformed intelligently, it must be known adequately; and yet, unless one recognizes that it can be reformed, one will come to know it only as a matter of rote—with the result that the knowledge of a tradition will seem as unimaginative a business as the knowledge of an alphabet or catechism.

In his book, Bromwich is talking mainly about higher education, yet the paradox of curriculum and tradition applies to K–12 education as well. The problem is this: in the loudest diatribes of the right and the left, tradition is either upheld as an authority or bashed as an authority. Bromwich defends tradition not as an authority but as a context for thoughtful discourse, solitude, independent thought, and self-knowledge. Unfortunately such an idea of tradition has been losing ground in higher education; instead, universities have been rewarding specialized and marginal knowledge in the name of professionalism. If you have a niche, you are marketable. Your work may not be understood by your colleagues, but that’s part of the point.

At the same time, many academics have come to see their institutions as microcosms of society; thus they attach great political importance to their choices within the classroom. The outside society, in the meantime, has lost much of its former nerve for informed discourse, so it relegates this formerly public activity to closed institutions. Thus, in a twisted way, the most virulent academic opponents of authoritative tradition have an entrenched authority of their own.

Like the book as a whole, the chapter is subtle and intricate; a summary does it poor justice. But I would like to take on this idea of tradition versus authority and suggest that, while no tradition should have ultimate authority, a certain kind of authority may be necessary for an open and changing tradition.

At the start of the chapter, Bromwich distinguishes between “the traditional study of the humanities” and “the study of tradition in the humanities.” The two concepts, he observes, are too often confused and mixed together. “Attacks on the first,” he writes, “tend to shade into attacks on the second, without understanding the very different challenge this entails. At the same time, defenses of the second often try to cover the first as well.”

The confusion he describes has grown worse. People on the right and left attack “traditional schools” (which of course house traditional pedagogy and traditional curriculum) as though they even existed and were all of a kind. The very word “traditional” carries negative connotations. Many proponents of free-market education use it with disdain today, implying that some thuggish gang of recalcitrant teachers has been thwarting rapid change and “results.” Many progressives distrust it too; they hold that traditional things impede the creativity and initiative of the child. So, when defending tradition, one ends up defending, willy-nilly, both traditional pedagogy (if there is such a thing) and traditional curriculum. In fact, under current conditions they are often of a piece.

The reason is this: to read anything of substance, you have to be willing to quiet down and listen—not only to the teacher, but to the book itself. I mean “listen” in the sense of taking the words, sounds, patterns, structures, and ideas into your mind, making sense of them, raising questions, following those questions as far as they will go, and reading again. So, for a little while at least, the book or the teacher has to become the authority—in that you will shut up for that short stretch of time to hear what it or he or she has to say.

It is temporary authority, yes. But it is still authority. If a student does not believe that he has anything to learn from a book or teacher, then he might as well keep on talking and talking and talking. For me, that has been the most dispiriting aspect of being a teacher: that some students will not stop talking, during class, about matters that have nothing to do with class. They see neither the subject matter nor the teacher as an authority. Most of my students over the years have not done this, but a few have. Such talk, when it persists, can ruin a lesson. The common “strategies” go against the grain of what I am trying to do. Keep them busy at every moment, some advise. Hold them accountable for every step. Never leave them without something to do, something that will have consequences for them. I reject this as an overall approach (though I have to use aspects of it for survival). It is unfair to the students who come in prepared and willing to learn. Not only that, but it shortchanges the subject matter.

So a certain sense of authority, a certain kind of respect, is essential even for intelligent questioning of authority. To question authority well, you have to know what it is. To know what it is, you have to pay attention to it. To pay attention to it, you must give it temporary authority (which may seem like a lot of authority to some).

There’s even more reason to uphold a certain kind of authority. I wish I could take one of Bromwich’s courses. I wish I had done so long ago. I would do this not just to be in the midst of the thoughts and insights of peers, but primarily to hear what he had to say, to read the books he had chosen for the course, and to sense the effect on class discussions and my own thinking. A professor brings something to the students’ own thinking that wouldn’t be there otherwise—and so, in a different way and at a different level, does the schoolteacher. Our best teachers’ words and gestures stay with us, even after we begin questioning aspects of what they say. They have a lasting authority of a kind.

But Bromwich is criticizing a different kind of authority–a rigid, closed world, be it a “culture of assent” (that clings to a “canon”) or a “culture of suspicion” (that rejects anything suggestive of a canon). Both have a set of “socializing codes.” Neither one is tradition as it should be. “Traditions are made of something more,” Bromwich writes. “They offer, in fact, a kind of solitude, and a kind of company.”

Yes–and the solitude and company require a sense of measure:  a sense of when to listen and when to speak, when to question and when to hold back from questioning. This is not a question of propriety; it does not follow absolute rules, except for basic ones. The proportions come with time, and they are not fixed. They require, at the outset, a willingness to defer (in some ways) to something that one does not yet know. I don’t think Bromwich would disagree. This is, indeed, an aspect of the paradox that he brings up at the start of the chapter.

Note: I revised this piece on November 20.

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


“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.


The Danger of False Confession

In the seventh chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Napoleon orders all the animals to assemble in the yard. He is wearing his two medals and surrounded by nine huge dogs. He lets out a whimper, and the dogs immediately seize four pigs and drag them forward. The pigs then confess to collaborating with Snowball. The dogs kill them on the spot. Then come more confessions: from the hens, a goose, several sheep, and more–until there is a pile of bloody corpses on the ground. The allegory is obvious and disturbing, but even more disturbing is the draft horse Boxer’s comment on the events.

I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. The solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings.

Up to that point, there were two implicit possibilities: either those who confessed had actually done what they said they had done, or they confessed for some other reason (for instance, to get the whole thing over with). But Boxer suggests that there is only one possible truth: that everyone is guilty (except for Napoleon and the dogs, one must suppose). The only solution, then, is to work harder. What Boxer doesn’t know, and what the reader knows, is that in assuming guilt, he has renounced all hope of a clear view of the situation.

Consider, now, by contrast, the Book of Job. (This seems a far-flung comparison, but it will make sense.) One of the most remarkable things about Job is that he does not confess to things he hasn’t done. He stays not only faithful to God, but clear in his mind.From Job 27.1-8:

[1] Moreover Job continued his parable, and said,
[2] As God liveth, who hath taken away my judgment; and the Almighty, who hath vexed my soul;
[3] All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;
[4] My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.
[5] God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.
[6] My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live.
[7] Let mine enemy be as the wicked, and he that riseth up against me as the unrighteous.
[8] For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?

At the end, in chapter 42, he repents, but that is at a different level. It remains true that he committed no sin, and his holding fast to this truth was essential to his ultimate restoration.

Treacherous confession comes in at least two forms: refusing to admit to a wrong you have committed, and confessing to a wrong you have not committed. (There are still more, but these are the two I will discuss.) Sometimes the latter treachery is worse because of its very seduction. False confession can feel good. It brings forgiveness, perhaps, or swift punishment, or at least some kind of resolution. The price is your mind and soul. If, like Boxer, you convince yourself that you are guilty of just about anything, then it’s no longer possible to choose the good or even to understand what it is. You labor away, but that gets you nowhere. You have only the comfort of thinking that you need to work harder.

To return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, which inspired this post: the careless use of “we”  confuses one’s relationship to the world–and, with that, one’s intellectual and artistic life. Among other things, it prevents one from criticizing anything except oneself, and strips even that of its integrity. (This last observation is mine, not Bromwich’s, but I build it from various arguments in the book.)

In the first chapter, Bromwich discusses a series of events at Yale Law School (drawing primarily on a report published in the New Republic by a law student, Jeff Rosen). In 1990, a white female law school student was raped by two black men in New Haven; soon afterward, ten black law students found hate mail in their mailboxes.

The dean of the law school issued a public memorandum stating that the letters pointed to the racism of the associated institutions. A newly formed Committee on Diversity called for a one-day boycott of classes and decided that the day should be devoted to sensitivity workshops run by the New York organization Project Reach. (Attendance, I take it, was voluntary but strongly encouraged.) The dean urged faculty members to take part.

There is more to these events and to Bromwich’s analysis than I am conveying here. But he points out that “the professional insulation of the academy, and the consequent weakening of good sense, alone lent plausibility to certain developments in the law school case.” The Diversity Committee, the dean, and the students (and participating faculty) chose to focus on the hateful action of an unidentified person, presumably white, who could be anyone and thus, in some twisted sense, was everyone. (Hence the sensitivity workshops.) In the meantime, Bromwich notes, there were real political battles being fought in the outside world: “David Duke and other racists of an admitted virulence were inching closer to power in contests for state or national office.” Instead of putting their efforts into fighting blatant racists, the students chose to go on a hunt for the invisible racist within the law school, the racist who resides in each of us. Among them, there was likely a Boxer who resolved to work harder.

Now, let’s look at this from another angle for a moment. There is (or can be) virtue in recognizing subtle wrongs in yourself, or the potential for wrongs. Most of us have felt hatred, anger, jealousy, prejudice, excessive admiration, misplaced desire, and more. Most of us have judged others unfairly at some time, or restrained ugly impulses. It is important to recognize these things. But it matters how we respond. Each of us is tasked with choosing what to do–that is, locating and acting on the good or the beautiful, or not, as the case may be. There is such a thing as transcending something petty or ugly. Faults and foibles are universal, but there is a vast difference between leaving hate mail in someone’s mailbox and not doing so (and not even considering it).

This brings me back to the word “we” (see an earlier piece). I am not confessing falsely when I say that I have used it in a slippery way. When criticizing a social, educational, or other tendency, I have sometimes softened the accusation by saying “we”–thereby implying that I, too, take part in the problem. And indeed sometimes I do. For instance, I find many online discussions distracting and dissipating but get involved in them anyway (not very often, of late). On the other hand, I am not on Facebook or Twitter, don’t do much Web surfing, rarely use a cell phone, and spend a lot of time reading books. This is a relatively trivial example, but it illustrates the point. If I see a problem with online and digital distractions, I do no one a favor by suggesting, beyond the point of truth, that the problem is mine.

It is difficult to find the right use of “we.” It is a worthy challenge. There’s more at stake than may appear at first.

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


“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.

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.

“I Want to Starve Them of This Credit”

School is closed until next week, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and rereading David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I will be posting some commentary as I go along. I will be sparing, as my commentary cannot and should not stand in for the book. If you intend to read the book, please do so before reading these posts.

The book argues that and that both the right and the left (I’m simplifying here) have subordinated independent thought to group thinking in the name of “culture.” It proceeds to defend this thesis in a beautiful and uncompromising way.

I don’t always know why a book affects me. Here, I can see several reasons and something beyond them. First, the author has a refreshingly fierce (and humane) understanding of solitude. This book is closer to my Republic of Noise than any of the contemporary books I read for research. I am not boasting of any equality here; to the contrary, I know that Bromwich’s book would have informed and sharpened mine, had I read it a few years ago or earlier.

That leads to the second point: this book was published when I was a graduate student at Yale and in some ways unhappy. My unhappiness had various sources, one of which was the “professionalism” I saw around me, the kind that Bromwich lambastes in this book. People latched onto the latest theory as though it were their ticket to a career. I’d bring up a literary work, and the response would often be, “Have you read so-and-so’s article?” A young professor told me once, with a slight hint of condescension, that “close textual analysis” was my forte, as though that were quaint or narrow. (In his preface, Bromwich writes, “By 1990, it was possible for a senior editor of an established journal of literary history to admonish a young scholar who had submitted an article for publication: ‘You stick too close to the text.'”) I rebelled against these trends but didn’t fully understand them. This book would have helped me understand, and it would have given me hope.

There’s much more. The book calls me to hone my thinking, to use words more precisely, and to trust myself to stand alone. I say this not in self-disparagement. To some degree, these are already my strengths. But it’s easy to take one’s own strengths for granted instead of developing them to the fullest. I am not exaggerating when I say that reading this book led me to something like the final words of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo“: “you must change your life.” Now, life has plenty of “archaic torso” mirages: often, things that seem life-changing do not prove so. Or rather, it is the will that fails, not the work of art. Can I live up to what I am learning here? We shall see.

So, on to the preface. The more Bromwich thought about his topic, and the more comments and criticisms he received from others, the stauncher he became. This passage is wonderful: “I have been told often by members of both camps [roughly, of the static right and insular left–DS] that my reactions are too negative. Calm reflection has made them more so. Both cultures are deeply sick, and it would be a good thing to rid ourselves of both.” Yes, indeed.

Such ridding must start with a resuscitation of language, which requires some initial asphyxiation. Bromwich points to the corruption of three concepts: culture, community, and professionalism. Each one can be used in an honorable or perverted sense–but the perverted sense, having won for now, flashes booty of the honorable sense just for prestige. Bromwich writes:

The reader is well warned concerning my prejudices, for, in the course of this book, they oblige me to use in a pejorative sense certain words that need not be pejorative. Culture is one of these. A great confusion now prevails between culture as social identity and culture as tacit knowledge acquired by choice and affinity. If I could use the word and be sure that people would understand the second meaning, it would appear in the following chapters frequently and without blame. At present, however, most people have in view the first meaning of culture; they use the word in the hope of borrowing a reflected prestige from the second. I want to starve them of this credit. I therefore write against the idea of culture and speak of it, in its likely current meaning, as an institutional lie.

If one could starve careless or corrupt word-users of the credit they have borrowed, and starve the corrupted words themselves, it would be like feeding on death, that feeds on men. It’s as worthy a deed as slaying Eurymachus and all of Penelope’s suitors. I’m all for it–until a part of me gets slain or at least badly stung in the bargain. That happens right after the preface, in the book’s epigraph:

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.”

–Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Wait, I used “we” carefully! I even brought up its problems, on the fourth page of my book, and got slammed by a reader for doing so! Doesn’t that exculpate me?

My impulse is to justify my “we.” But I know that the impulse is wrong. It’s impossible, when writing about a societal tendency, to avoid all “we”–even Bromwich uses it–but if I were to write the book again, I’d starve “we” (and myself) of its credit.

This is invigorating, not disheartening. More soon.

Note: I made a few edits after the initial posting. For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.