“Sunrise, sunset”


As I enjoy coffee, birdsong, and breeze (the balcony door is opened wide) and think about the coming week, I thrill over the extra bundle of time that got dropped into my lap. Last week, we had the graduation ceremony; this week, the seniors take their finals. While I have many things to do at school, this Monday through Thursday I have no classes until afternoon. Thus I have some morning time for two big projects: reviewing the page proofs for my book and learning the liturgy and texts for Shavuot.

There were two graduation ceremonies: one in school (on Thursday), and one outdoors, throughout Szolnok (on Saturday). I couldn’t attend the second, since I was in Budapest–but the first was unlike any I had seen or heard before. With their form teachers at the front of the line, the seniors walked hand in hand, class by class, through the halls, carrying flowers and singing songs in unison (including “Gaudeamus igitur”). The faculty stood outside the teachers’ room and listened to them as they wove by. It was so beautiful. Then we went out into the schoolyard for the speeches and awards.

These rites of passage have meaning, but only if we recognize that life does pass by.

In the U.S., women (and men) over 30 are continually urged to conceal their age, to make themselves seem younger than they are, to knock off a decade somehow, as though one’s true age were a source of shame. I reject this shame. It is in my fifties that I find things coming together: meaningful work and projects, self-knowledge, a few insights into the world around me, a sense of fun, and a tolerance for the many things that I do not know or understand. I was not there in my twenties, thirties, or forties; why hide from my age, when it has allowed me to build things? One day I will be older still. In fact, that will happen right now.

Each age comes with its responsibilities too. They are not spelled out and absolute–they vary from person to person–but they make themselves clear. I see the fifties as a time of ordering. The house is built; now put things in place. For some, this happens much earlier; for others, later; or maybe different parts happen at different times.

When preparing the Torah portion for this last Shabbat, I struggled with the text (Leviticus 21), which discusses how the priest must keep himself pure. For example, he may marry only a virgin, not a profaned woman, a harlot, or a woman banished from her husband. The judgments of women seem archaic–but as I worked with the text, I saw greater meaning. The priest, in his role, has an obligation to conduct himself in a holy manner, for the sake of the holiness itself. Others might be at liberty to marry a “profaned” woman–but he may not, even if he wishes. There could be many reasons for this: the relationship should not stir up gossip, its status should not be ambiguous, the children should be born into good reputation, etc.–but the larger point is that he must restrict himself for the sake of his role, which in turn serves something larger.

Today’s rules are more flexible–and can vary considerably from one culture or position to another–but like ancient rules, they carry principles. Each office in life comes with its obligations and strictures. In most cultures, a teacher does not socialize with students outside of school, since this would break the integrity of the classroom. Facebook “friending” between teachers and students is common in some places (for instance, here in Hungary) but comes with boundaries. Friendships between teachers and parents are a trickier matter; in some cultures and communities they are common and accepted, whereas in others they break the norm. Yet even where accepted, they must be conducted properly. Even collegial relationships can be tricky, since they come with many unspoken and unofficial rules.

With all the supposed liberties of our era, one of the great challenges is to glean and apply the rules, allowing for appropriate variation. No profession, no way of life can survive long without structure, but what kind does it need? Some parts are obvious at the outset; others take time to figure out but hold equal importance. Part of the beauty of Leviticus (along with its harshness) lies in its offering of structure.

Those who flagrantly disrespect structure (such as President Trump) affect not only themselves but others. The structure is never only for oneself; it sets an example and hints at a form. Throughout my life I have learned from others’ structures and lack thereof.

Back to the question of age: I see the fifties as a time of knowing one’s structure, arranging one’s life within it, and treating others with dignity. This does not have to be rigid or final; there will be many mistakes, openings, bendings, and rebuildings. But one comes to see structure for what it offers and means. This can happen earlier and later too–but there’s a special time when structure comes into focus.

This brings me to the title: “Sunrise, sunset.” The days go by too fast; you barely get your structure together, and it starts to creak. All the more reason, I think, to give it honor.


I took the photo on my bike trip.

I revised this piece in several stages after posting it.

Free Will and Education Reform

George Henry Hall: The PomegranateThe question of free will bursts into question upon question. What does it mean to have free will? To what degree do we exercise it? How can we know? For all the swarms of ideas on the subject, there seems to be agreement—among philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and others—that whatever freedom we might have, we do not control other people or the outcomes of our actions (and if we could, it would be unwise). What a refreshing thought—and what a far cry from today’s education reform, which insists on our ability to control others’ results!

Literature from ancient Greek drama to contemporary psychology warns about illusions of control. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (in Robert Fagles’ translation), the Chorus sings, “And neither by singeing flesh / nor tipping cups of wine / nor shedding burning tears can you / enchant away the rigid Fury.” Rabbi Hanina states in the Gemara of Berachot (33b) of the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (There are numerous interpretations  of this statement.) In recent centuries, literary, philosophical, psychological, religious, and sociological writings have emphasized the futility (or danger) of trying to control others.

Yet much of education reform assumes we can and should control others–in particular, their measurable achievement. This assumption is profoundly wrong. To rate teachers on their students’ test performance is to distort the educational endeavor. Teachers influence students (and their influence is great); they do not cause students to do well or poorly. (It’s one thing to analyze the results; it’s another to convert them by formula into a rating.)

“Very well,” someone might respond, “so you’ve admitted that teachers influence students. Are you saying this influence doesn’t matter?” Of course it matters; it gives meaning to the work and helps teachers heed the alarm clock in the mornings. Still, whenever the student steps out to do something—take a test, give a presentation, or read further on the subject—this is the student’s action, not the teacher’s. The student has the credit and the dignity (or should).

“In that case, teachers might as well throw up their hands,” another might say. “If they aren’t held accountable for results, why should they bother trying?”

When you think you might influence (but not control) your students, there is all the more reason to try. You get to share in something that is not your own, something that goes beyond you. When a student does well, you have the honor of contributing to it in some way; when a student does poorly or runs into difficulties, you have sorrow and the self-questioning. Honor and sorrow and self-questioning and responsibility inspire me a great deal more than the publication of teachers’ “value-added ratings” in the newspaper.

It is not just that they inspire me more; it’s that they serve as better guides. I don’t know, and have no way of knowing, how great my influence will be or what form it will take (beyond concrete and immediate learning). That is all the more reason to put thought and effort into my lessons: I am participating in something partly knowable, partly mysterious, but in any case larger than myself. If I had wanted a predictable effect on things, I would have become a chocolatier, a producer of delight and cavities. Even then, my results would not have been uniform.

Yes, of course I want concrete learning to come out of my lessons; of course I want to see evidence of it. Even so, I do not make it happen, nor do I set its limits. Even less do I control what comes out of that learning.

Many economists would disagree. A 2011 study (by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff) concludes that teachers affect not only students’ performance on tests, but also their college attendance and future earnings.  Granted, they say “affect,” not “cause,” but then they extrapolate: “Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

I think of D. H. Lawrence’s  “Pomegranate”: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?”

I respect these scholars and acknowledge the care that went into the study. Still, its projections assume minimal variation among students, little that could interfere with their earnings, and little room for them to choose their directions in life. Presumably, if teachers could “increase” students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 (a projection based on limited data), then we could boost the economy just by replacing the low-ranking teachers. We could replace our way to a better world.

But what if the students’ lifetime income didn’t increase as expected? What if these students faced layoffs, job changes, and life difficulties, or chose professions that didn’t pay especially well? What could one replace then, for better outcomes? Perhaps one could give each of their choices a value-added rating (in terms of how much income it produced) and demand that they make lucrative life choices. Someone would have to chase after them and make sure they did so.

What if illness and war and death got in the way? Well, one would have to replace those students who got sick or died, or who grieved the death of others. No room for mortality (or aging) in the picture, especially if it interferes with earnings.

We are left, then, with those select few who don’t age, fall ill, or die—and who, without fail, take actions that bring them more money.

We are down to no one—but there, in that world of none, we have attained prosperity!

Happy are those who do not inhabit that world.

Puttering, Responsibility, and Beauty

In a recent satirical piece, I described an imaginary movie called “Won’t Quiet Down” (a dark spoof on “Won’t Back Down”), in which two disaffected students launch a “student trigger”: namely, they talk nonstop in class until the school, weary of efforts to “engage” them, converts itself into a computer lab without teachers. This was not a commentary on my own students, though some of them do get chatty. Rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek look at the consequences of distractedness and disruption in schools and beyond. It was also a parody of propaganda films, so the message was intentionally crass. But it had a serious element.

Incessant talk runs into serious trouble. It can’t honor things, because there’s no “sacred space” for them (to quote someone with whom I spoke recently). There’s no sense of a time for quieting down and listening. Thus, there’s little room for taking anything serious in. Instead, people vie to be heard—but no one’s listening anyway, so no one gets heard. This is an exaggerated representation, of course, but it’s largely accurate.

The problem is not just that people talk, talk, and talk. (Nor is it a problem of extraverts versus introverts, as many who qualify as introverts have a great propensity for chatter.) It’s that there’s so much rush, so much overload of work and information, that people don’t even have a chance to ruminate, to sift through experiences, to read books for pleasure and interest, or to test out ideas. I have discussed this in my book and elsewhere; I see it as one of the primary problems of education.

Teachers and students have little time to think. They scamper from one thing to the next. During the week, I am on a gerbil wheel; I can think of little more than the things I have to get done for the next hour and next day. Over the weekend, I have hundreds of assignments and tests to correct. (I really mean hundreds, since I have about 260 students, whom I teach twice a week.) I love teaching philosophy; at its best, it’s illuminating. Listening to my students discuss the Book of Job, Pascal’s Wager, and Kant’s categorical imperative has given me hope. These kids are reading and pondering the texts and analyzing them keenly.

But what I don’t have, and what they probably don’t have, is time to putter around. (Today’s an exception. I am intentionally puttering today, since I need it badly. I don’t teach on Fridays, and last night I was at school until late for a glorious Hispanic cultural evening.)

Most of my good ideas come out of puttering. I love to mull over lesson planning: I read the text, think about it, think about different ways to present it and things to pull out of it, think about how my students might respond to it, and start to shape the lesson from there. I putter when coming up with ideas for writing and when revising existing pieces; they take various shapes in my mind, and I seize the one  that seems best. Puttering allows me to reread books, listen to music, memorize a poem, work on a math problem, and so forth; and each of these activities can expand into something more.

Of course, you can’t spend your whole life puttering. You must also be able to pull things together under pressure. I like deadlines and performances for that very reason. Sometimes they bring things out that would not have been brought out otherwise; at the very least, they can help you get things done.

But I long to take my time with things, including lesson planning. I consider this a staple, not a luxury. Yet our society seems to treat it as either a vice or an afterthought. As a culture we place more value on doing, doing, doing than on thinking; more value on certainty than on uncertainty; more value on saying something than on taking something in; and more value on results of any kind than on slow and soulful labors.

Throughout the school system, throughout the country, from what I have seen and heard, teachers strain under unreasonable workloads, as do students. Not only do teachers have large classes and many of them, but their “prep” time during the day comes to little, if anything. In urban districts, a quiet place to work is a rarity; teachers often share classrooms and may not even have a desk. As for students, they are in class every minute of the school day except for lunch. They stay after school for electives and sports. Then, when they get home, they have several hours of homework. Students with college aspirations must build resumes and portfolios; in many cases, they must show not only their academic ability and interest, but their ability to lead a club, initiate a project, and speak on video. On top of it all, they have many digital distractions.

I do not recommend eliminating homework or extracurriculars (or, for that matter, technology), but something has to give. How is it that in high school I took Latin, Greek, French, history, physics, math, and English (sometimes two English courses at once), practiced cello for two or three hours a day, sang in the school choruses, participated in sports, and still had time to take long walks, see friends, and write stories and poems? Part of it is that the school trusted us with free periods during the day, so our schedules were not packed. Some of our frenzy today comes from a perceived need to fill everyone’s schedule, to make everyone accountable for every moment.

If we want to relieve some of this pressure and live more sanely, we need to move from accountability (where you must give moment-to-moment account of your actions, on someone else’s terms) to responsibility (where you honor your conscience and duties, relying primarily on an internal guide). Accountability has its place, but as a way of life it will squeeze the best out of us and drive us to exhaustion. Responsibility is much more difficult to build and sustain, but it allows for tranquility, though it puts us to serious tests.

But building responsibility—in society as a whole—is a complicated matter. It involves strengthening one’s solitude and learning not to give in to every passing craving or demand. It also requires having something to live up to, something worth the responsibility, something beautiful to carry as though it were our own.

Note: On March 5, 2013, I deleted the original first paragraph, as it was about the blog, not about puttering.

What David Brooks Doesn’t Get

In his New York Times op-ed “Testing the Teachers” (April 19), David Brooks warns that “an atmosphere of grand fragility” hangs over America’s colleges. The grandeur, he says, comes from the colleges’ increased application rates, new facilities, and international reputation; the fragility, from increased tuition combined with uncertain results. What must we do? Hold colleges accountable for results—through value-added testing. That’ll show who’s teaching and who isn’t!

Brooks is wrong. Accountability systems would drag down our colleges. The best would be made mediocre, and the worst would rise to mediocrity at most.

Having put forth the idea, Brooks waxes dreamy about it. “There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t,” he muses. “There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.”

What Brooks doesn’t understand is the difference between accountability and responsibility. It is the latter, not the former, that will help and sustain colleges.

Responsibility is an internal sense of duty; accountability, an external show. The professor who who puts full thought into lesson preparation, corrects student work, holds office hours, challenges students in class, and takes them, day by day, into the subject—this professor has a deep sense of responsibility but may or may not “produce” test score gains. A professor who focuses on showing results to outsiders (an accountable professor) may be less immersed in the subject, less concerned about navigating tricky points—but may raise test scores. If schools must foster the latter sort of teaching, they will glide into a monotone.

But why should accountability and responsibility be at odds? They are not always opposed, but there’s ongoing friction between them. To honor one’s best thinking and conscience is not the same as to do what others want and recognize. The best instruction does not absolutely and consistently produce test score results.

For one thing, course content may not match the content of standardized tests (and it would be dreary if it did). Second, if students take especially difficult courses, they may go an entire semester without showing visible progress. A grade of “C” may be honorable in such cases. Third, each subject has its language, structure, and logic; these are not always easy to convey to those outside the field. In their presentation “Assessment on Our Own Terms,” delivered at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, Mark Wait and Samuel Hope draw attention to the difficulty of translating “musical logic” into “speech logic.”  Fourth, the higher the level of study, the more complex the assessment becomes. (That’s not to say that assessing kindergarteners is a straightforward matter.)

This leads to another flaw in Brooks’s suggestion. He assumes that it is the colleges’ duty to “produce” visible signs of learning. But even today, with the tuition hikes, many students go to college to be challenged, to explore many subjects, to dedicate themselves to a major, and to work on something of beauty. Getting top grades isn’t necessarily their first priority. Some would rather take more courses, or more difficult courses, at the risk of lower grades than take easy courses and get all A’s. Some find themselves immersed in a particular course or subject and let the other ones slide a bit. Some follow an idea or a project only to discover that they are on the wrong track. This is their prerogative, and they must take the consequences.

True, not all students are so serious–many  skip class repeatedly, go to party after party, and fret over relationships. If they slip too far, a good hard “F” can shake them up. Deans and advisors should watch for students in danger of failing, but students must learn to make choices and take responsibility for them. It does not help students—especially college and graduate students—to make someone else responsible for their performance.

Now, of course I am assuming a liberal arts college or school of art (or music or drama), and a high-level one at that. I am not referring here to colleges where most of the students need remedial courses. Nor am I talking about vocational and technical schools, whose mission is to prepare students for a concrete profession or trade. These are colleges with specific, standardized goals—and they should make good on their promises, provided the students do their part.

But it is not nostalgic, romantic, or naive to insist that college also be about something else: about pursuing interests, enjoying a life of the mind, making and learning from mistakes, being around intensely knowledgeable and interesting people, studying a subject at a high level, and yes, allowing for imbalances between receiving and giving. Education is a gift in a troubling sense, a sense that recalls Robert Frost’s lines about a star, “It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height.” This is no trivial demand. Students, receiving a fine education, do not immediately show the height required. Sometimes this takes years, even decades. Sometimes we think back on something learned long ago and see how it honed our thinking and our lives. That’s a result worth defending to the end. We must not treat such learning as a lie.