Nyílik a szem (The eye opens)

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This morning, on the way to the Dallas Institute, I was listening to 1LIFE’s song “Kopog a szív” and getting caught up in the phrase “nyílik a szem” (“the eye opens”). The song lands on it, by surprise, and repeats it, and returns to it, and stays there; the song is about a lot of things, but part of it is about suddenly seeing what is going on. To me, its montage of images tells a story, or two; different listeners will hear different stories in it.

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It fit well (though unintentionally) with today’s discussions of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and yesterday’s of Aeschylus’s Eumenides, both having to do with the opening of the eyes (as tragedy generally does). When things (like a song and a play) come together without planning, they set off many thoughts. I was thinking all day about having the eyes opened and what this can mean in different forms and places: in the plays we are reading, in this song, and beyond. When your eyes are opened to yourself, whether in tragedy or in song, there are two sides to it: you realize what you have done, and you realize who you are. Also, this opening of the eyes can’t be taken back. It can be terrible or joyful, but it’s there for good.

It isn’t just an intellectual consideration; I think of vivid moments in my life when my eyes were opened in some way, through a meeting with another person, through accident, through loss, through poetry, through learning, through mistakes.

The song opened up to me slowly over the past months; I enjoyed its melody and rhythm from the start but needed some time to grasp the lyrics, since I am still far from fluent in Hungarian. I remember hearing it in concert (at Európa-nap, I think) and suddenly understanding “nyílik a szem.” The rest came from there. It is now one of my favorite 1LIFE songs. (I have previously commented here on “Maradok ember” and “Kapcsolj ki!“)

Here is a video of the song, which contains the lyrics; and below it, my tentative translation. I took a few liberties and may have made some outright mistakes. It is a start; I will make corrections and improvements over time. “Szem” can be taken in a singular or plural sense. I first translated it as “eyes” (“the eyes open”) but later my eye opened and I changed my mind. “Eye” in English can also have a general or plural meaning, and all the other images in the chorus are singular (or archetypal).  “Nyílik a szem” could also be translated as “the eye is opened,” but that suggests that it has already happened, whereas here it seems to be happening right in the moment. “The eye opens” does not fit the rhythm of the song, even in translation–but it is more vivid and direct than the alternatives I considered. So I will leave it as is.

over the housetops, the sky
in the lonely streets, the wind
see our brain does not converse
gut and feeling, what goes with them?

infinity is in our cells
fear resides in our bones
suddenly a stroke of luck
makes our fingers interlock

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, the heart knocks

this is all that our eyes see
from the sky a cloud cries onto us
the truth has no clothes
our empty room is overcrowded

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eyes opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens

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I took all three photos today. The first and third are of the Dallas Institute; the second, of the dashboard of my rental car. The video was made by Zsombor Papp; the song “Kopog a szív” is by 1LIFE, and its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai.

I made a few additions and an important correction to this piece after posting it: “kopog a szív” means “the heart knocks,” not “the heart beats.”This correction is important because first of all, it’s accurate; second, it’s a fresher image than “the heart beats”; and third, it goes with the door, lock, and everything else. It affects everything. Also, I commented a little more on “nyílik a szem” (which I first translated as “the eyes open” but then changed to “the eye opens”).

Polla ta deina

Last night I went with a friend to see Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. My friend was unable to get us seats together; one of us was to be in the first row of section A; the other, in the second row of section B. “There are no intermissions,” he warned, “and it’s about five hours long. So people are going to be getting up and moving around. We might want to take a break at some point and even trade seats.”

About an hour into the performance, people started shuffling around. I looked across the hall and saw my friend, who nodded at me. We got up and met each other outside.

“Do you need a break?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “How about you?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said. “So, what do you think?”

“It’s fantastic.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.”

We went back in and reclaimed our original seats. We took no more breaks after that.

When we returned, the dance sequence had begun–dancers leaping across the stage, dancing out of sight, appearing again, with grace and skill and cheer, over and over again, angle after angle, rotation upon rotation, leap after leap, in perfect synchronicity and pattern but also appearing by surprise, a dancer leaping, almost flying, and then more dancers and patterns, crossing each other, circling, pirouetting, leaving.

I thought of the “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ Antigone, “Polla ta deina kouden anthropou deinoteron pelei…” (“Many are the wonders and terrors but none more wondrous than man”). I brought that ode to my eleventh graders on the first day of class and recited it for them in Greek. I explained to them the meanings of pantoporos (all-resourceful) and aporos (resourceless), of hupsipolis (great of city) and apolis (without city). But now it seemed I was seeing the ode before me, in a form I hadn’t before imagined.

It is a great thing when a performance puts you in awe, not only of the performers or of the piece, but of the possibilities in a day, in a crossing of the room. It’s easy to forget such awe or to let it get dusty.

I will never be able to dance across a stage like that, or play the way the Einstein violinist played, or make such a  tone of alto saxophone, or compose complex counterpoint that suddenly rises into something simple and pure. But I can lift myself in the things I do.

It’s Too Hard!—No, It Isn’t

In education discussions, when I have suggested that students read Sophocles or Thomas Hardy or study a Newton theorem, people have often exclaimed, “That’s too hard!” (Andrew Hacker provoked outrage when recommending that high schools drop algebra on account of its difficulty, yet variations of his attitude run rampant.)

These works and subjects are not in themselves too hard. Of course, some aspects are quite challenging, even for scholars. Others are easy for a layperson to grasp. There’s a wide range in between. Part of the point of education is to absorb something, to take it into your mind, so that you can return to it later with more understanding.

What I find puzzling is the knee-jerk reaction “That’s too hard!” Why deem anything too hard until you’ve given it a serious try—that is, more than a try? And what’s wrong with a bit of difficulty? Of course if something is too hard, then it’s out of reach for students. But more often than not, when people say “too hard,” they just mean “mildly challenging.”  

In education we often have to consider opposing or counterbalancing principles. One principle is that students need background knowledge in order to comprehend what they read and learn. A good curriculum (such as the Core Knowledge Sequence) builds such knowledge in a thoughtful and logical manner, so that students are prepared for the next stage of study.

A counterbalancing principle is that one can plunge into a seemingly difficult problem or text and figure it out—or at least a great deal of it. Through doing so, one gains insights into the subject beyond the problem. 

To illustrate this, I opened a fairly challenging book to a random page, to see what I’d find there and what sense I could make of it. The book is The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie. It is considered a classic of computer science. On page 113, the authors provide a function that returns a character string containing the name of the n-th month. So, if n = 5, the function will return “May.” Here’s what it looks like:

/* month_name: return name of n-th month*/
char *month_name(int n)
{
            static char [name[] = {
                        “Illegal month”,
                        “January”, February”, “March”,
                        “April”, “May”, “June”,
                        “July”, “August”, “September”,
                        “October”, “November”, “December”
              };

              return (n < 1 || n > 12) ? name[0] : name[n];
}

Now, it helps to know just a little bit about programming syntax and logic. But even without that, you can figure out a few interesting things. First of all, look at this list (which is called an array—but you don’t need to know that right now). The first element of the list is “Illegal month.” So, if the elements of the list were numbered 1, 2, 3, and so forth, your function would return “Illegal month” for n = 1 and “January” for n = 2. That doesn’t seem to be what we want.

But look at what it says a few lines down:

return (n < 1 || n > 12) ? name[0] : name[n];

This is clearly telling us to do something specific if n < 1 or n > 12. We’d expect that it would be telling us to return “Illegal month.” We can therefore surmise that “name[0]” refers to “Illegal month.” We can deduce from this that the numbering of the list (the array) begins with 0. The 0th element is “Illegal month”; the first element is “January,” and so on. That is indeed how arrays work.

So now we can interpret that line as follows: “If n < 1 or n > 12, return the 0th element of array ‘name,’ that is, ‘Illegal month’; otherwise, return the n-th element, which is the character string containing the name of the month.”

From there, we can grasp what the syntax actually means. We see that the double lines indicate “or”; the question mark, “if”; and the colon, “otherwise” or “else.”

I grant that I am cheating a little, since I already understand some of this stuff (which is rudimentary anyway; the book gets more challenging than that). But on many occasions, I had to make sense of the above syntax just as I am doing right now. I could bring in a hundred similar examples from literature, languages, mathematics, history, physics, and music.

Again, I’m not saying that we should study computer science or any subject haphazardly. My point is that in many cases, when something seems difficult, you can figure a great deal of it out with a bit of effort. Not only that, but it’s important to do so; such challenge is part of the nature of the subject. A first-rate curriculum includes beautiful, perplexing, and sometimes daunting problems.

What’s the fun of learning, if you don’t get to delve in and struggle a bit? Where’s the reality, if you are never seriously confronted? Where’s the illumination, if the answers are right there before you? Where’s the awe, if nothing is beyond your grasp?

Thinking Apart in Education

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon asks the heroine, “Are you not ashamed to think apart from them?” (su d’ouk epaidei, tonde choris ei phroneis;).

In education, thinking apart from the others is likewise risky. Yet we need independent thought, if we are to have good thought at all.

The educational “right” and “left” both extol teamwork and collaboration, though for different reasons and in different terms. Proponents of value-added assessment, increased standardized testing, elimination of teachers’ seniority protections, and so forth stress the importance of teams in fostering student success. Dissidents and critics should not stand in the way of student progress, they say.

Opponents of such measures also emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Usually (though not always) they speak of nurturing of the whole child. They oppose the idea of pitting student against student and teacher against teacher; instead, they remind us, schools should pursue education in a cooperative spirit.

Yes, schools are cooperative entities, but in order for cooperation to have meaning, the individuals must be at liberty to bring their best ideas forward (at school and beyond). They must also have room to differ with the group, both privately and openly.

Truth is often unorthodox. For instance, there’s a lot of discussion of “value-added assessment” in education—that is, the calculation of the “value” that a teacher supposedly adds to the students. Many have objected, correctly, that such things cannot be calculated with precision. Others treat value-added modeling as the holy grail—a way of revealing, as though it were not already known, which teachers are moving their students along and which ones are not.

But there are alternate views. There are teachers, for instance, who do want to be evaluated in part on their students’ performance and progress, but want this to be interpreted intelligently. If I have been teaching intensive Russian for a year and most of my students can’t conjugate the verb chitat’ (“to read”), then something is very wrong, and I want to know this. On the other hand, if the teacher of second-year Russian sees her students progress by leaps and bounds whereas my first-year students progress more slowly, this isn’t necessarily because she’s more “effective.” It may be that this teacher’s students have a handle on the language and can learn new material with greater ease. (They might hit a bump in their third year, when they start reading literature.) If we steer away from crass calculations of teacher “effectiveness” and look at what’s actually going on, then we could gain some insights.

That’s just one example of a viewpoint that can get lost in the noise. It’s important for such views to exist and be heard, because they can offer something to both “sides” of the usual discussion.

So, people should just put forth their unorthodox views, right?

It isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, even the most independent-minded people have affiliations, loyalties, and restrictions. They may be outspoken on one issue and guarded on another. Few are in a position to speak their full minds. They may refrain from criticizing their friends and colleagues openly, or they may have confidentiality to maintain. Or else they’re swayed by other people’s reactions; if they’re applauded for saying something, they might think it is therefore correct. We all have weaknesses that can limit what we say.

Also, there’s the risk that you won’t have an audience, especially if you’re speaking entirely on your own, without the support of an organization or publication. By contrast, people who represent organizations have a built-in audience but significant restrictions on their liberty. When speaking for the organization, they must represent its positions. When speaking for themselves, they must still stay close to the organization’s positions—or else why are they affiliated with it? All depends, of course, on the nature of the organization, their role in it, and what they want to say.

So, suppose you are in a position to “think apart” from the others and speak your mind, at least somewhat. Suppose you have a vehicle for doing so—a blog, at the very least. What now?

Well, be prepared for some disappointment, because people may misunderstand your argument. They may try to place it in one of the familiar categories or camps. Or they may ignore it altogether. On the other hand, many people will show appreciation. Some will express relief (“Finally someone has said what I’ve had on my mind for years!”); some their interest (“Let’s discuss this further”). Things get dreary in education discussion fairly quickly; it’s refreshing when someone comes along and puts things in a different way.

Speaking on your own, you can refine and change your views. You can recognize and correct your mistakes. Mistakes can be embarrassing in the moment but should bring no shame (unless, of course, they have caused harm). John Stuart Mill wrote, “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.” Truth lies not only in the answers, but in the bearer’s integrity.

It can be lonely to think on your own. At times there’s cheering from all sides, at times jeering; at times people seem more interested in the jingle of the ice cream truck than in what you have to say. That isn’t always bad; it makes room for retreat and mulling, even for an ice cream cone. Thank goodness the world isn’t hanging on our words.