The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

The Ubiquitous Team

Humans enjoy (and sometimes suffer from) a richness of relations. We first form bonds with family members, then start to make friends of different kinds. As we get older, we join groups, collaborate with others, and participate in many kinds of associations. Throughout all of this, solitude allows us to make sense of our relationships, come back to ourselves, and regather our strength and thoughts. Often relations change or break; often they renew themselves in different forms.

Today the concept of the “team” has overtaken all other associations. Just about every group gets called a “team”; and relations outside of teams get short shrift. It is even common to address people as “team.” The problem is not with teams or teamwork but with their ubiquity: the insistence that everyone be part of a team and the suggestion that any resistance at all to the team is a show of personal selfishness or weakness.

The team is just one form of association. Its role is to work toward a concrete goal in a tightly coordinated manner. For instance, if you are an athletic team, your goal is to score more points than the opposing team. You work together toward that end. No single athlete’s brilliance matters unless it contributes to that goal. Likewise, if you are working with others on fundraising (for instance) and have a specific target to achieve, then those contributing to the achievement of the goal are acting as team members.

But there are many forms of collaboration and association that are not quite team-like. A musical ensemble, for instance, is not typically called a “team” (though this is changing as the “team” denomination spreads over onto everything). Although musicians work tightly together, there is a soul to what they do, a kind of solitude to each contribution. Also, the goal is somewhat concrete but not only concrete. A concert goes beyond attaining a goal.

In addition, many associations benefit from the differences and divergences of the members. The work may not be tightly coordinated at all. For instance, in a college English department, the faculty may have different areas of specialty and different approaches to literature. Insofar as they can engage in dialogue, insofar as they have enough common ground, and insofar as the students benefit from their differences, it is good for their efforts not to be too strictly defined and pieced together. As the economist John Jewkes noted in 1958, overemphasis on teamwork can diminish not only individuals, but dialogue between them.

Beyond that, the richest personal and professional associations are often not group relationships, but one-on-one collaborations, friendships, and partnerships. Rarely can a group attain the understanding, rapport, and sympathy that exists between two. When the team is treated as the pinnacle of relations, even personal conversation, even original ideas get subordinated to the team. There is subtle pressure to include others in conversation at all times, to avoid saying things that stand out, to give others credit for one’s own work, and to reserve one’s highest praises for the team.

Teams and teamwork are not bad in themselves; they have an important place in daily life. Most of us have situations where we need to work tightly with others and where our own thoughts and wishes must recede for a while. Yet there is also work that we do better alone or with select others–and work that isn’t quite teamwork. Also, we must not always be working; there must be room and time for thought, exploration, rest, and laughter.

Learning to serve a larger endeavor is also valuable–but there are times not to do so, and many ways of doing so. It is at least as important to diverge from the group–when such divergence is genuine–and to question group assumptions. This may interfere with “teamwork” in the sort run but may actually enrich the work and the relations. As far as I know, we only get one life on earth. It would be a shame to waste it by flattening oneself.

So, without disparaging the team in itself, without dismissing its specific value, I resist its ubiquity with all my heart and soul. There are many more ways to be with oneself and others.

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 knows what one means by the word, 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.


What Should Teacher Education Be?

This is the closest I will come to reviewing Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher. (For earlier posts on specific parts of the book, see here and here; see also my response to the book excerpt “Why Do Americans Stink at Math” (New York Times, July 27). I find that the book raises important questions about teacher training but makes false oppositions between the “bad old days” and the promising present or future. In addition, I question its underlying assumption that we need a grand model for teacher training; as I see it, the best teacher education (and training) will be humble in scale and goal; it will give teachers the knowledge and skills they need to exercise independent thought, which will transcend existing models.

Elizabeth Green does us a great service by bringing the question of teacher education to the forefront and challenging the rhetoric and policy about “good” and “bad” teachers. She argues passionately that teachers can improve through deliberate study of the craft, yet she does not ignore the complexities of this proposition. The book is sure to meet with strong responses, because it deals with old (not new) controversies underlying pedagogy.

Unfortunately, she tries to resolve at least some of the complexities through a cosmic tale of slowly converging perspectives. We have Deborah Ball, Magdalene Lampert, and their TKOT group on the one hand, and Lemov and his “Taxonomy” group and “no-excuses schools” on the other. At first, it seems that Green is setting up a dialectic–but this does not seem to be the point. Slowly, through failures, revisions, and chance meetings, the two groups start to come togther, or so it seems. Enter the Common Core, which (in Green’s depiction) seems to mesh well with both TKOT and the revised “Taxonomy.” It seems–though this may be incorrect–that Green is placing hope in the possibility that some great convergence will lead to a great master plan for teacher training.

Robert Pondiscio, who finds that Green comes “perilously close to undermining the case she sets out to build,” shares Green’s belief that any viable plan for teacher training must be scalable: “But if teachers are to be made, after all, rather than born, then good instructional practice must be something that can be identified, named, practiced, and mastered by millions.” (I wish I could attend the September 2 discussion, hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, between Pondiscio and Green; alas, I am at school until late afternoon and can’t possibly get to D.C.).

I argue the opposite: that both TKOT and the Taxonomy go wrong when they try to become comprehensive models. Scale them down a bit–make them into working principles for certain situations–and they can be of great use. The problem with an overarching model is that it comes from the minds of the few–so you have a few thinkers at the top, and many followers at the bottom. Teaching must allow for independence of thought, or education itself will be downgraded.

Green quotes Ball’s statement that the math she learned in school was “uninspiring at best, mentally and emotionally crushing at worst.” Her own pedagogical approach seems to repudiate and counter the “old style.” Yet one of her classmates might have been inspired by the lessons that she found so dull. I have seen math students–and have been a math student–who, listening to the teacher’s presentation, detected a pattern or corollary and jumped out of the seat with excitement. I have had teachers who expected this and who would pose questions along the way: “Where do you see this going? What would change if I did such-and-such instead?” In addition, my math teachers (in high school) were skilled at diagnosing my errors. They could quickly tell the difference between a careless error and a conceptual one; in addition, they recognized when I was solving a problem in a way they hadn’t considered. Good math pedagogy has been alive and well for a long time. (So has bad math pedagogy–but it often appeared in the guise of a new method.)

What about classroom discipline? In my book and in an op-ed, I criticize Lemov’s Taxonomy for its rigidity and excessive emphasis on external behavior. My main argument is that Lemov’s system promotes a “thinking gap” between those who depend on directives from moment to moment and those who have internal focus and direction. A classroom of students in the latter group–which you will find in top-level schools and colleges–do not need SLANT, nor do they get punished for minor aberrations (such as looking out the window). The focus–for them and for the teacher–is on the substance of the lesson; within that focus, they have great intellectual liberty. Helping students reach such self-possession is another matter–it takes some effort–but the Taxonomy, as a full model, is not the route. Yet certain techniques within the Taxonomy could be of help to teachers.

If, as a teacher, you have a mind of your own, you will find any model insufficient for your purposes. The challenge lies in recognizing those aspects that could be helpful. For example, I object strongly to an overemphasis on “reading strategies.” I find that generic strategies do little to illuminate specific texts–and that strategy instruction tends to bring down the intellectual level of a course. Granted, students need to learn strategies of various kinds, but they can do that in the context of the subject matter. Green describes Pam Grossman’s strategy emphasis with apparent enthusiasm that I do not share (see pp. 268 and 302, for instance). It is important to challenge such enthusiasms. Most principles of teaching can be taken too far; the challenge lies in recognizing when they do.

Likewise, a teacher should be willing to question advice. When Green prepares to give a guest lesson to a high school class, she accepts the regular teacher’s (Andy Snyder’s) judgment that the readings she initially selected would be “too boring” for the students. I do not blame her for deferring to his judgment here; this is a one-off occurrence, and he is a highly skilled and respected teacher. Yet in general it is important to question assumptions about what students will find “boring.” My students have gotten excited about John Stuart Mill, Hannah Arendt, and other writers that some would consider far beyond teenagers’ realm of interest. Much depends on what the teacher does with such works. That leads to the point of this piece.

Good teachers are knowledgeable, questioning, and self-questioning. They learn much from others–but also learn from the many hours of rumination over the course material, the lesson plans, and the students’ work. To insist on an opposition between the “bad old days” of teacher isolation and the “good new days” of collaboration is to set things up for a great error. Green writes, on p. 311: “The only way to get better teaching, [some teachers] argued, was lot leave teachers alone–‘liberate’ them, one columnist put it, and ‘let them be themselves.’ Yet leaving teachers alone was exactly what American schools had done for years, with no great success.”Here Green commits two fallacies: first, by quoting the columnist, she comes close to ridiculing the idea that teachers should be left alone–an idea that has great merit when not taken too far. Second, she implies that schools were uniformly leaving teachers alone for years–which is not true. Collaboration and professional development are not recent inventions.

In teaching, both solitude and collaboration have an essential place. If you never consult with others, you may develop blind spots; if you only consult with others, you may settle for the judgments of the group. Collaboration, at its best, is distinct from group work; it involves a great deal of solitary work. One goes off and thinks on one’s own; then one brings one’s insights to the table and listens to others. This allows for substantial discussion. When collaboration is reduced to group work, when it no longer has a solitary component, it becomes shallow. Although this varies widely from one situation to the next, I would say that the solitary work should take up about 80 percent of the time, and the remaining 20 percent should go to in–person collaboration. Instead, I see a widespread assumption that collaboration and meetings are one and the same.

What, then, should teacher education look like? First, teachers should have a liberal education–a background in math, literature, history, science, art, music, and preferably philosophy and a second language. They should have additional preparation in their own subject. This “preparation” should consist not simply of required courses and grades, but of intellectual discussion; “professional development” should often consist of literary and mathematical study.

Then what of the pedagogy? Teachers should be offered techniques and tools–with the emphasis on the underlying principles, and with the recognition that any given technique may be more appropriate for one setting than another. Beginning teachers–or teachers in an especially challenging setting–may need more structure at the outset, but ultimately they should be encouraged to find their way.

Finally, teachers must not be crushed with unreasonable duties. Too many teachers have to create their curricula on the fly, while teaching; this is  unreasonable and harmful. (Some aspects of a curriculum may well be spontaneous, and that’s good; but there’s more room for spontaneity when you know what it is you’re teaching.) Teachers should not be assigned to teach subjects that they don’t know; that, too, is a setup. Finally, teachers should have more time in the day for planning–both on their own and with colleagues.

These three facets of teacher preparation–liberal education, pedagogical techniques (to be used with judgment), and a restructuring of teachers’ responsibilities–would do a great deal to strengthen the teaching profession. Various pedagogical models could come into play, yet teachers would be expected to go beyond them. Is that not what we hope our students will do: learn, defy, and transcend the structure we have offered?

Note: I made some edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it. I made two more minor edits on September 1. Then, on September 8, I made a substantial addition to paragraph 10 and inserted a new paragraph after that.

The Forum (BBC World Service): Panel on Solitude

In April I took part in a panel discussion on solitude, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li and host Bridget Kendall, on BBC World Service’s program The Forum. (Update: I thought the podcast was going to expire on July 28, but it appears that it will be up for another year.)

Also, you may be interested Melvyn Bragg’s recent discussion on the philosophy of solitude, also on BBC. (Because my streaming is spotty, I haven’t listened to it yet, but I hope to do so soon. It looks promising.)

Finally, you may enjoy the recently posted samples from my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE.

The Privacy of Speaking One on One

Lately I joined Facebook in order to do specific things. I had joined before, a few years ago, then quit because I didn’t like it. This time around, I was bewildered all over again by the prevalence of group updates—the practice of telling a large group about life events, major and minor. I couldn’t keep up with these conversations and didn’t want to join them. I miss the old-fashioned practice of speaking with an individual.

Online group communication can be a boon at times. For instance, someone with a medical emergency could keep her friends posted without having to write individually to each one. A medium like Facebook can be useful for announcements as well–of events, special occasions, and so on. The problem lies not in individuals’ use of Facebook or any other online medium, but rather in the general drift away from private association. I am uneasy with the ubiquitous group conversation and the pressure to surrender private conversations to the group.

The problem is not restricted to the internet. In many situations, individual conversations are subject to interruption and curtailment, and people are not staunch about defending them. There’s a general assumption that a conversation belongs to anyone—that it is up for grabs. When people interrupt, they are often not conscious of interrupting, or don’t see the interruption as a problem. Thus, most conversations don’t last long.

Growing up, I saw and heard excessive quotation of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” (especially the first two lines). I don’t hear it quoted any more. It isn’t in the air.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The poem is stark no matter what the times, but today it stands out so severely against everything we are asked to do. The repetition of “Unmoved” in the second stanza seems defiant now, and it’s a defiance I miss, even though I have it to an extent. We are supposed to move along with things, to be responsive to as many people and events as possible. To stay “unmoved” in the face of demands is to shirk one’s unwritten obligation. But it may be a way of keeping a greater obligation.

And what comes next? “I’ve known her — from an ample nation —Choose One —” Who gets to do that today—except when choosing a spouse? It is possible, of course, to meet with particular friends, but it’s challenging, given people’s complicated schedules and tendency to do things in groups. The problem is not new, but it has taken on new forms. A Yale professor remarked to me recently that he doesn’t see students talking to each other one on one any more. He used to see them on the lawn, on benches, in dining halls. Now he sees four, five, six students talking with each other or walking through campus together.

Is that all terrible? Of course not. But some of it is.

Granted, there’s something terrible on either end. The poem is not sweet. Even in my childhood, I got a chill from the last two lines: “Then — close the Valves of her attention — Like Stone —” (where “Like Stone” sounds like stone clapping, and the dash aftwarwards, like an unknown). Even then, there was something disturbing about the poem: a suggestion that an intimate friendship required hostility of a kind. (I loved Julie Harris’s rendition in The Belle of Amherst—I think she brought this out.)

But that hostility can be a kind of protection, an enshrinement. The poem has a subtlety and surprise: the “Society” of the first line is the “One” in the final stanza. This One is a society, in that the soul can associate with it as it could not with a pausing chariot or kneeling emperor.

It takes courage to lift one person above the “whatever”—to meet with one person, to write to one person, to listen to one person. It takes the willingness to shut others out for a stretch. There is solitude in this.

I am not talking about limiting one’s entire company to one person; that is dangerous and confining. Nor am I saying that all meetings should be one on one. There are no mandates or policy prescriptions here. I am talking about the simple practice of spending time with an individual—and having strength and room for such a meeting.

Dickinson’s poem suggests an absoluteness of attention that people in any era might find terrifying. It goes a bit beyond what I am describing here–but is part of it all the same. There is a stalk of such staunchness even in a dialogue over coffee.

To speak to a particular person as one would speak to no one else; to notice things about the other that others may notice too, but not in the same way; to hear stories take shape, stories that belong to the two, because they come out of the listening and telling—this is the privacy that I defend.

Note: Just after posting this piece, I added what is now the penultimate paragraph.

What Would Become of Walter Mitty and Fern?

There’s a new medical term for excessive daydreaming: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. This is not a joke; research into this possible condition has been in progress for thirty years or so. Although it has yet to be recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has conferences and articles in its name.Some supporters of the new diagnosis wax exuberant over the supposed clarity it brings to the ADHD question (since it overlaps with what has been known as ADHD).

Before discussing the problems with such a diagnosis, I will give it its due. “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo” (SCT) is the term for a cluster of symptoms: daydreaming, mental fog, confusion, frequent staring, and others. Researchers have been looking into the possibility that this cluster exists apart from ADHD. If this were so, and if treatment were found for the condition, many children and adults could be spared the pain and risks of misdiagnosis–and might have access to effective treatment. For those whose condition prevents them from functioning from day to day, this could be a godsend (or a science-send).

So, why fret over this? I worry for Walter Mitty, the protagonist of James Thurber’s story and the film based on it (the one starring Danny Kaye; I was unable to bring myself to see the more recent one). Walter Mitty would have been diagnosed with SCT, and then we would not have had him. There would be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” Mitty would be “on task.”

In fact, many a wandering mind would be herded back onto the task at hand. But maybe some of those wanderings are more interesting than the task. Maybe we attach too much value to task performance. (I bring this up–in relation to solitude, not SCT–on BBC World Service’s program The Forum.)

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way–as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think. Fortunately my teachers let me be; today, I would be considered off-task.

The daydreamer may actually be highly attentive–absorbed in the matter at hand and unwilling or unable to move on to the next thing. The one who stares into space may be listening closely to something.

Granted, some people’s daydreaming and other SCT-associated symptoms prevent them from doing what they themselves want to do. But when it comes to diagnosing children, it is adults who decide whether there’s a problem. They might not see the rewards of daydreaming; they might only see the low grade on the homework assignment. “Why didn’t you start each paragraph with a topic sentence? Why do you have only one supporting detail here instead of two?” Wandering minds such as Mitty, Tristram Shandy, and many an actual person would get faulted, diagnosed, and fixed. The world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

I do not mean to romanticize a serious condition–but I suspect that if SCT had been a diagnosis in Fern’s day, and if Dr. Dorian had not been so wise, Fern might well have ended up on medication.

What Is Joy, and What Is Joy in Learning?

This morning I read a piece by Annie Murphy Paul titled “Fostering Joy, at School and at Work.” She begins by describing the efforts of Menlo Innovations to create a joyous workplace (a great success, according to the CEO). Unsatisfied with the unscientific nature of this report, Paul then turns to research by the Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä on the subject of joy in schools. They conclude that (a) “teacher-centric” instruction does not foster joy (in their words, “the joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches”), whereas student-centered instruction does; (b) students are more joyous when allowed to work at their own pace and make certain choices about how they learn; (c) play is a source of joy; and (d) so are collaboration and sharing. Before taking apart these findings (which hold some truth but are highly problematic), let us consider what joy is.

Joy is not the same as cheer, happiness, or even enjoyment. It does not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter. It is a happiness that goes beyond regular happiness; it has to do with a quality of perception—of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard. When you suddenly see the solution to a geometry problem, you are also seen, in a way, because your mind has come forward in a way that was not possible before. When you listen to a piece of music that moves you, it is as though the music heard you as well. Joy has a kind of limitlessness (as in “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and stricture (as in Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?”). One thing is clear about joy: when it comes, it marks our lives. It is not to be dismissed.

So, let us look at the first of the research conclusions cited by Paul: that “teacher-centric” learning does not foster joy. My personal experience contradicts this flat out: some of my greatest joy in school (K-12, college, and grad school) happened when I was listening to a teacher or professor who had insights into the subject. The listening was not passive; to the contrary, it woke up my mind. Likewise, as a teacher, I have known those moments when students are listening raptly—not necessarily because of something I have done, but because the subject itself is so interesting.

Of course, students need a chance to engage in dialogue as well. I am not advocating for one-way discussion. Nor do I consider a lecture necessarily “teacher-centric”; it may be the most “student-centered” thing the students have encountered all day, in that it gives them something interesting to think about. Or rather, maybe it is subject-centered. Whatever it is, there is no need to rush to put it down. Take a closer look at it first. Consider the great freedom of listening–and the great gift of something to listen to.

Working at one’s own pace—yes, there may be joy in finding one’s own velocity and rhythm. But in the higher grades, this normally occupies the realm of homework. In the classroom, one is discussing the material—and such discussion can meet several levels at once. In a discussion of a literary work, for instance, some students may be figuring it out for the first time, whereas others may be rereading it and noticing new things. The class comes together in discussion—but outside of class the students may indeed work at their own speed and in their own manner (yet  are expected to complete assignments on time).

(I can already hear someone objecting that the researchers focused on early elementary school. Yes—and that is how they should present their findings. They should make clear that their research does not comment on “joy” in general—in school or anywhere else. Onward.)

As for play, it is immensely important—but play, like anything else, can be well or ill conceived. There is play that leads to amusement, and play that leads to joy. (Amusement is not a bad thing, but it is not joy.) Also, play does not always bear the obvious marks of a game, although it can. There is play in considering an untried possibility or taking an argument to its logical conclusion. There is play in questioning someone’s assumptions or taking apart an overused phrase. My students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is full of play of different kinds—and it’s also intellectually serious. An academic essay can be filled with play in that the author turns the subject this way and that. If you are immersed in a subject, it becomes difficult not to play with it. Play is the work of the intellect. So, I would say that when there is no play in a classroom, something is very wrong, and joy is probably absent—but this doesn’t mean that students should be playing “algebra badminton” (whatever that is—I just made that up) every day.

As for the researchers’ last point—about collaboration and sharing—yes, those can be rewarding things. But did the researchers consider how much joy can also come from working alone, or, even better, having a combination of solitude and collaboration? As long as I can remember, I have loved to sing with others, but I don’t think that would have had meaning if I didn’t also sing alone, in private. It is there that one comes to know the song. If you have ever gone out into the woods to sing—or even sang quietly while walking to the subway—then you know what it is like. It seems sometimes that the song must be solitary in order to exist at all. I am only touching on this subject, which I have discussed at length elsewhere; in any case, sharing and collaboration are only a part of joy.

Joy is not always happy. The other day I experienced joy when reading “Winky” by George Saunders. The ending was so unsettling and perfect, so beautiful in its botching of a plan, that I cried “yes,” in not so many words. Maybe joy is a kind of wordless “yes.”


Note: I made a few minor edits after the initial posting.

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.

Teaching in Vastness

I am ambivalent about Parker J. Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, but I return to it as I assemble thoughts on teaching. I treasure passages in this book and admire its durability overall. Palmer makes a vitally important argument: that good teaching comes from the teacher’s identity and integrity. There is no single “successful” pedagogical style; one teacher may teach through lecture and another through dialogue, but if both are deeply connected to the subject and aware of themselves and their students, they can both do powerful work.

A teacher, says Palmer, works on the border between the public and the private—“dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, and ridicule” (18). To ward off this danger, according to Palmer, we tend to disconnect—and this disconnectedness hurts education and those involved in it.

All true—but when I read Palmer’s words, and continue to read, I get restless for something more. (He recognizes the danger of sounding pat–but falls into that trap repeatedly.) Yes, identity and integrity are essential to teaching, but there’s something beyond both of them. To have identity and integrity, you must go into something larger than yourself. To hold up at the intersection between public and private, you must be aware of something beyond public and private, something that transcends the two.

Or maybe this is not necessary for all; I have no way of knowing. What is it, though? What is this space or sound or presence that can shape a teacher’s work?

Every day in the classroom, I run up against my own imperfections: I make a mistake, misunderstand something that a student said, get slighly irritated, answer a question too quickly, or find myself combating something internal—an area of ignorance, an excess, a sadness, even a rampant joy. In the moment, there’s nothing much that I can do beyond using my best judgment, which is far from perfect. Then, later, when I sort through the events of the day, something else happens.

I don’t just “reflect” on what went right or wrong. That’s an important (and much touted) part of teaching, but only a part. Reflections, after all, must be informed—and where does that form come from? First, it comes from immersion in subjects—any subjects. I learn as much about teaching philosophy when immersed in Russian or Hebrew as I do when reading Machiavelli. Learning to consider the sounds, shapes, roots, and different meanings of words—learning their tones, weights, and connections—all of helps the teaching. Also, when I study anything beautiful or important, I find out, all over again, what education means and how it happens. That said, there are special reasons to immerse myself in the specific subject I teach—to read and reread Machiavelli, Locke, etc. I find out, over and over again, that there’s far more than I presented or even suggested in the lesson. New lesson plans light up in my mind.

There’s still another kind of immersion. When I go through the events of the day, I find myself in a silent, private dialogue—not with myself, really, or with God (I don’t claim such direct access), but with something a little beyond myself. I am able to sort out not only the practical aspects of what I did that day, not only the ethical aspects, but something else, something that puts the events in their proper place, a place I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Without this, I would lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

For example, last week, in one of my classes, I found myself telling my students about a dream in which one of the assistant principals appeared. (The subject came up because had just popped in the classroom a moment earlier, and a student had mentioned having a dream about him.) My dream was strange and brief, with no embarrassing events. It wasn’t too far off topic, since we were discussing Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which is filled with dreams of a kind.  Still, I felt a bit off kilter after telling it. I didn’t know whether I had done the right or wrong thing.

From a practical standpoint, it was a bit of a digression, but it didn’t do any harm. From an ethical standpoint, it was mostly harmless, though it feels “gossipy” to tell about a dream that involves a colleague, even though the person isn’t really involved at all. That said, there was nothing gossipy about the dream, in which I was the conductor of a mostly empty train, and he was giving me driving advice (I think).

But there’s something else to reckon with, beyond practical and ethical matters. I recognized, as I went into rumbling thought, that I was feeling unwell on that day and that my gauges were a little off. I also saw that I was starting, in general, to relax around my students and tell them stories now and then—and figuring out when and when not to do so. There would never be a final, fixed answer, but I was finding my way. This meant that there would be errors, or semi-errors, or things that seemed like errors. It is an important question, when and when not to tell a story, since we are made of stories. I loved the stories that my teachers and professors told me over the years. They didn’t distract from the subject; rather, they made things more vivid overall.

How is this different from “identity and integrity”? It differs from them only insofar as it is their source. I find, again and again, that I am up against immensity, or maybe not up against it at all, but walking and thinking in it—and that this is the honor of teaching. Those running the system ask us to show results, to show that the students have moved from point A to point D. That is a reasonable request, if put in its proper place. Palmer would add that a teacher should teach from the self–a self that inhabits the subject. Yes, I grant that as well. But there is something beyond the self, an invisible teacher without lessons, maybe, who shakes me out of my limited senses and points out signs of life.


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