The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. Often, when people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only one clearly has to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are those who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. When describing such people, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

Beyond the Introvert-Extravert Divide

Over at New York Magazine, Drake Baer has been challenging the introvert-extravert dichotomy with vigor. “‘Introvert or Extrovert’ Is the Wrong Way to Define Your Identity,” declares one October article; an article from July has a similarly bold title (“Why Declaring ‘I’m an Introvert!’ Limits Your Life“). In both articles, and in some earlier pieces, Baer emphasizes the complexity of personality and the influence of occupation and context. I would go even farther than he does—for instance, I am skeptical of the Big Five model of personality—but I applaud his combination of boldness and subtlety.

The introvert issue has been so overhyped that it swept other discussions into its hot air. It created a “groupthink” of its own. In 2012, a few months after Republic of Noise came out, I was interviewed for an Education Week article on introverts in the classroom (as was Susan Cain). When speaking with Sarah Sparks, I emphasized the distinction between solitude and introversion. Solitude is essential to education (in some way and in some form) no matter what your personality type. Instead of trying to make the classroom amenable to introverts (who are a highly diverse bunch, with a wide range of preferences and needs), pay attention to the subject matter. It just isn’t true that “introverts” prefer online discussion to class discussion. If you are approaching the subject keenly, your class discussion will not be dominated by table-thumping loudmouths anyway. People will have to think, because there will be something to think about. Of course you should pay attention to the students—but for their ideas and unique qualities, not their type.

But these points were left out of the article;  Sparks and other reporters continued to present issues in terms of introverts and extraverts. I have wondered why. It seems part of our country’s tendency toward polarization. It isn’t so far removed, in other words, from the climate of the election. It is all too easy to identify yourself with an oppressed group (in this case the introverts) and let someone else tell you who  you are and what you need. Someone shows up who seems to tell your story, explains how you and your kind have been mistreated, and promises a revolution.

But maybe this isn’t quite your story; maybe your personal oppression (to the extent that it exists) comes from many places, including the self; maybe liberation lies not in an uprising of your personality type but in good independent thought. I don’t mean that one should reject all alliances, but no alliance should demand a reduction of the mind or soul. There should be room to challenge not only the dominant train of thought but its underlying suppositions. There should be room to say, “this isn’t quite right.”

I see Baer’s articles as a promising step in that direction. A shout-out to Melissa Dahl too.

Note: I originally mistitled the first Baer article; the error is now fixed. Also I changed “Big Five theory” to “Big Five model”; stay tuned for more on this.)

Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

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 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.


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 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 takes the form of homework. In the classroom, one is discussing the material; such discussion can meet several levels at once. In a discussion of a literary work, for instance, some students may be puzzling through it 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 (while also completing 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 too 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, you end up playing with it. Thus, when there is no play in a classroom, something is 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. But did the researchers consider how much joy can also come from working alone, or, even better, from 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; on February 6, 2017, I made a few more.