That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

bridge over tisza

 

Questions of Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Knowledge vs. Nonsense

Rarely does an article make me cheer as did Shannon Rupp’s in Salon (about the benefits of studying philosophy). Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

I’ve long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring — the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense.

A treasure! Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for bringing it to my attention.

It brings me back to my first year of teaching, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times about the misguided focus on “strategies,” especially reading strategies.

“Strategies” of that kind make me queasy (unlike chess strategies, which I enjoy). Yet I fear that the “strategy” nonsense is now being supplanted by other kinds of nonsense (or even wrapped up inside it). At least there are people calling out the nonsense! Here’s another quote from Rupp’s article:

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Yes, and the same can be said about “strategies.” What are they? In many cases, they are methods of evasion. When I taught elementary and middle school, I saw students dutifully look at the picture on the cover, read the blurbs, make predictions about the book’s contents–before even opening the book and reading. They had been taught to do this. Then, once they started reading, they continued dancing around the text–making “text-to-self connections,” using pictures to help with word meanings, and so on. I encouraged them to pay attention to what was actually there.

But now the focus is on “close reading,” and while that’s an improvement, it might get taken too far. For instance, you do need to understand certain things outside the text in order to grasp the text. Try a “close reading” of Aristophanes without any knowledge of mythology, ancient Greek literature, or ancient Greek history! You might as well try to boil a turnip without water (or other suitable liquid).

Also, reading is not always linear; the mind goes here and there, drawing connections and imagining things. When you read Crime and Punishment, for instance, you start to feel the presence of Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovich. You can cite textual evidence, of course, when describing these presences, but it’s also good to take them in less rationally, to imagine them in the room. This requires close reading, but not of a strictly analytical kind. Similarly, when reading a poem (such as Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“), it’s as important to take in its mystery as it is to notice its structure, syntax, and tropes. (This goes for literary nonfiction as well; if you try to read Emerson’s “Experience” in a strictly analytical manner, your mind will end up in knots, and the text will fly away.)

How should one read, then? Well, the thing one reads will often lead the way. If it’s good literature, it calls for careful, thoughtful, imaginative reading. If it’s nonsense, well, then, it calls for the “spot-the-nonsense” strategy, which requires some background knowledge–of philosophy, literature, and other subjects–as well as a salutary allergy to buzzwords and overpuffed ideas.

“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 be forces in life; one has to navigate through them, make sense of them, find what good they may hold, and resist their pressures. There is hope in individual thought, but 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 demands 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.

The Solitude of Good Collaboration

Not long ago, I attended a meeting where a teacher presented her own definition and explanation of “analysis.” She suggested that other teachers do the same: think about analysis on their own, put their best definitions and explanations together, and then bring these ideas to the next meeting. As I listened, I understood what she was after. She realized that the discussion would be more productive if the teachers first thought alone about the matter. In other words, she saw that collaboration requires an element of solitude—an idea that seems obvious but is often forgotten.

We hear, over and over, about the need for cooperative learning and collaborative planning. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin put forth the familiar argument that teachers want to collaborate, bless their souls, but end up spending most of their non-instructional time alone, in their isolated rooms. It is time, they say, to create more opportunities and resources for collaboration. But why do Mirel and Goldin pit solitary work against collaboration? Take away the former, or reduce the time for it, and the latter will lose meaning. Meetings will gravitate toward the lowest common denominator—that which everyone can readily understand and accept.

In many schools, teachers are required to spend time in teams every day, but there is no protection of solitary time. Most of the day is taken up with instruction, meetings, and various other tasks and duties. Even when alone in the room, the teacher is usually gathering materials and correcting student work. One of the most important parts of teaching—mulling over the subject itself—gets pushed out to the edges of the day.

Yet is this very mulling, this solitary relationship with subject matter, that preserves the integrity of teaching. When we bring our own work and thought to the group, the group does not hold us back; it does not reduce what we have to say, since we have already worked it out in our minds. “Conversation will not corrupt us,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “if we come to the assembly in our own garb and speech, and with the energy of health to select what is ours and reject what is not.” To have “our own garb and speech,” we must know what it is; to have the “energy of health” for selection, we must be able to restore and strengthen ourselves alone.

When teachers have insufficient time for thinking alone, they are more susceptible to group errors and group jargon. Suppose teachers were trying to come up with a definition of “analysis.” If they did this as a group, without thinking alone first, they would end up with a collection of scattered thoughts, which they would then try to cobble together. They might arrive at something like, “Analysis is a higher-order critical investigation in which a thesis is substantiated with evidence and clear connections are made between the evidence and the thesis.” That is difficult to detangle, as many group statements are. But if they took the question into their minds, played with it, figured something out, and then brought their thoughts to the table, they could arrive at a good working definition. (Note: dictionaries offer multiple definitions of “analysis”—so even after looking it up, one must think it over.)

One teacher might say, for instance, that analysis is the act of breaking something into its elements. Another might say that it is the act of inferring generalities from specific details. Still another might say that it is both: that it involves relating details to the whole and vice versa. Still another might define it as the examination of a phenomenon’s structure. As they considered the ideas that had been presented, they might see truth in all of them. Analysis, they might conclude, is the systematic explication of a relationship—for instance, between a part and a whole of a literary text or between a historical event and its possible causes. Having arrived at a plausible general definition, the teachers might supplement it with specific definitions to suit the situation at hand. This is not likely to happen without solitary thought.

By bringing solitary thought into their collaboration, teachers not only enhance their own work but set an example for students. Students, too, will learn more from each other if they know how to think and work alone. Let us suppose that, in a music class, students are considering how the sonata form plays out in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 (“Pathétique”). To do this well, they are best off listening to it alone, without distractions, several times. The form (introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda) is not difficult to discern. When alone, they will hear its particularities: the key changes, the textures, the transitions from one theme into another, and the subtle, less tangible changes of color and mood. Then, in class, they can point out what they found; one student may have noticed something that others did not. The teacher will be able to alert them to still more subtleties and patterns, which they will be able to appreciate. It is not only time with the material that they need; they need private, nonsocial time with it, time without peers nearby to condition what they think and say.

We must halt the collaboration screech-wagon and pursue greater thougthfulness instead. The visible signs of collaboration are not the only ones; taken too far, they impede good work. There is something vast in a bit of quiet: a chance to absorb, practice, and tinker. At its best, it takes us past our narrower selves, allowing us to see our mistakes and misconceptions. There is no need to shove it aside, no need to disparage the thing that allows us to bring something to others.

The Importance of Saying Nothing

A piece about saying “nothing” seems like a contradiction, since the words preclude the “nothing” in themselves. But there is a “nothing” worth considering in words. It is the “nothing” of taking things into the mind without pushing anything out immediately: of spending an evening reading, thinking,  listening to music, working on a problem, or talking with a good friend. For those who write and blog frequently, it can be difficult to seize such “nothing.”  

Writers sense pressure to put something forward, over and over. They think they’re supposed to have something to say, day after day, even if it isn’t substantial. Supposedly, through scraping their feet on the surface of things, they will make a mark over time. Unfortunately, that sort of scraping will not be remembered in fifty years.  To have something to say, you must build it; to build it, you need to be quiet for long intervals. We are nervous about taking that time.  

The problem is not particular to the Internet era. The writer’s “voice” always risks crumbling into noise. Part of this is due to our culture of “empowerment,” which tells people to believe in themselves and to show this by putting themselves forward. Aspring writers are told to write, write, write—and publish, publish, publish. Practice is good, of course, but silence is also practice. We do not hear enough about the importance of slow research and reading, of holding the pen (or pattering fingers) still, or waiting before publishing a piece.  

What happens to the writer who takes the time to read and think? The view widens; objects come into clearer focus and arrangement. Patterns, rhythms form in the mind; phrases come back to memory. The writer sees how much has been said before—and instead of being intimidated, he or she perks up. The challenge now is not to churn things out but to join this interchange. I want to speak with Epictetus about his purple thread, with Ralph Waldo Emerson about the “glass tripod,” and with William Butler Yeats about “the winds that blow through the starry ways.” Of course, this will not take the form of interviews; I am not concerned with their explanations or motives, nor could I ask about them even if I wished. Rather, such conversation will show itself in a stronger sense of language, of rhythms and thoughts that have come before me.  

A bit of quiet allows a person not only to take things in but to form sound ideas and opinions. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about an event, policy, or tendency; while there is no harm in putting forth a hypothesis, a tentative view, it is sometimes even more satisfying to wait and see. One can treat oneself to reserve as though to a jewel.   

A carefully formed opinion can be both strong and tranquil. In 1931, Henry McBride wrote in the New York Sun: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.” (Marianne Moore quotes this in her poem “The Student.”) This restfulness is liberty, a house.  

Granted, writers are not made for vows of silence. They are garrulous at heart—or some are (most generalizations about writers are wrong). If they are fortunate, they have something to say and know how to say it well. But under their writing, some pressure of knowledge and discernment must build. It must swell up until the right phrases take shape and other possibilities fall away. That’s worth a bit of quiet, a gentle tumbling out of date and out of fame.