A Sounder Conception of Change

In discussions of education and culture, characterizations of change often veer into crassness. It is common to speak of a battle of change versus the status quo, as though Good were finally girding its loins for the great confrontation with Evil. According to such rhetoric, those who do not embrace change will eventually be beaten by it, so everyone should jump aboard the big New Change. Thus Chris Hughes, owner of The New Republic, has stated that the magazine had to choose whether “to embrace the future or slide towards irrelevance, which is something I refuse to allow”; thus Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor, writes in Lessons of Hope (p. 72 et passim) that true “change agents” in schools must fight resistance from defenders of the “status quo.”

In fact, change and status quo are in continual interaction; to effect good change, one must consider carefully what to preserve. A sound conception of change would allow for sound courses of action; instead of pitting change against stasis, we would recognize the role of both.

What most disturbs me in change rhetoric is its blunt conformism. You are either for change or against it; there is nothing in between. I don’t know who decided that change required abdication of thought and judgment, but whoever did so wasn’t thinking carefully (or sought to manipulate others). To confront the fallacy, let us first consider what change is and then address two common misconceptions of it.

Change is alteration, variation, mutation; it can be slow or rapid, chaotic or organized. I will focus here on intentional change. As rational beings, we are capable of choosing to effect a change. Much change lies out of our control; it happens to us willy-nilly (like aging) or comes out of coincidence (an overheard melody, for instance). What interests me here is the change we bring about through our own will, in our individual actions or on a larger scale. (Rarely is a change entirely the result of our own intent and effort; that is a separate matter.) The usual language surrounding intentional change embeds two misconceptions: it portrays the proposed change as (a) part of a large and inevitable movement and (b) absolutely opposed to the old ways.

One common line is that change is happening anyway, whether we like it or not, so we must go along with it. If magazines are turning into “vertically integrated media companies,” then what would any savvy publication do but conform? In fact, no good change results from abdication of judgment. Any change “in the air” can be pursued or interpreted in myriad ways. A magazine such as The New Republic could develop an online presence while retaining its quality and readability. It takes imagination and good judgment to bring this about, but these qualities have been found in humans before. A flashy, distracting layout is not the inevitable mark of the encroaching Future. Insofar as the future always lies ahead of us, we are at liberty to shape it.

Another mistaken notion is that a “change agent” must differ markedly, in word and action, from those who guard the “status quo.” According to Klein, a principal who acts as a “change agent” must disrupt the current teaching practices and push new methods and models. Are we sure that these new methods and models make sense and serve our students well? Are we sure that such changes will not prove superficial? Often the most profound educational change involves a mixture of preservation and alteration.

This year I am teaching my tenth-grade ethics course for the third time; because its structure and content are stable, I can make significant and subtle adjustments. Had a change agent pushed for a drastic pedagogical change in my classroom (for instance, student-led small-group discussion in almost every lesson), many of the subtler changes would not have been possible, nor would I have been able to exercise judgment as I do now.

In literary, philosophical, and religious works, one finds an understanding of change that could inform public discussion. My students are now reading Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. The protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, finds himself in a mid-life rut, a kind of contemporary Inferno. As a student pointed out, it is as though he were surrounded by dead people and struggling for his own life. Yet his ultimate change comes not from any financial windfall, job offer, or change of scene, but from an opening of the soul. (I will say more about that in another post.)

Some would protest that Tommy Wilhelm’s transformation has a place in fiction but not in real life and certainly not in policy. (“Come back when you have a Tommy Wilhelm model for the classroom.”) But policy is the work of individuals with a mind and a conscience. We use our intelligence, after all, to determine what is correct, good, just, and beautiful; the soul (defined in secular or religious terms) responds to these qualities. If we act without mind or soul, we are not acting at all; we are merely yapping in unison.

As I look at the mulberry tree outside, I think about its bareness. It is the same tree, with the same structure, that abounded in yellow a month ago. The change in the tree has meaning because of what has not changed. In the tree and elsewhere, the interaction of change and stasis is as complex as our perception admits. If our language of change reflected this truth, we could work toward wise policies and avert great damage.

Learning to Govern Oneself

What is Teacher book cover test3Happy New Year (of several kinds) to all!

For the past two days i have been in Dallas, where I spoke at the Education Forum at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (and participated in panel discussions, plenary discussions, a seminar, and more). This year’s Education Forum celebrated the 30th  year of the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, as well as the publication of the Dallas Institute’s wonderful book What Is a Teacher? Remembering the Soul Of Education Through Classic Literature, to which I contributed a chapter. I have just begun reading the other chapters, with great enjoyment. I met many people at the Forum and recognized many others from the Summer Institute and various Dallas Institute events. In addition, I had a chance to work through some ideas that have been on my mind and that I plan to carry into the school year.

This year, in my Ethics and Political Philosophy courses (for tenth and eleventh grade, respectively), I will bring up (and return to) the idea that education prepares a person for self-government. Self-government is not the same as “self-regulation” (a concept that Elizabeth Weil takes apart, with partial success, in a recent essay in The New Republic; more about that another time). Rather, it involves drawing on one’s knowledge and understanding to make numerous choices and decisions. None of us can escape being governed in some ways by others–our political leaders, our bosses, our teachers, and, in childhood, our parents–yet we can come to understand the terms of these arrangements (and question them intelligently).

The difficulty is this: self-government involves what seems its opposite: laying aside our own urges and immediate judgments in order to learn or consider something foreign to us. It may seem unrewarding, at first, to make one’s way through John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, but that treatise opens up rich ideas about intellectual liberty itself. Similarly, it takes great patience to listen to another person in the classroom, be it the teacher, a classmate, or even a musical recording–yet such listening can be a way of adding to one’s resources and treasures.

So, we will be discussing the idea if self-government (intermittently) while reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and many others. It’s a tricky and paradoxical concept–but it plays a role in many texts and has a great deal to do with education.

Wieseltier’s “Going to Melody” and the Language of Lament

We aren’t expected to lament much today. If we have a complaint about the state of things, we’re supposed to back it with data. It will not do, for instance, to say that children don’t have enough time to roam. We must argue, instead, that research has shown that the lack of roaming affects a particular area of children’s brains.

This puts us in a bind. Research has its place, but if it replaces lamentation, we lose something of humanity (and I won’t provide brain data for that). Lamentation has thousands of known years beneath it, and even more unknown years. It has the toughness  of memory and treasure. It is about those things that we will not give up even when the world says we must. It is David weeping for Absalom; it is Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle”; it is the narrator in a Gogol story who exclaims, “It’s dreary in this world, gentlemen!” Its privacy taunts us like water. We thirst for those quirky cries so close to our own.

So it was with thirst that I read Leon Wieseltier’s piece “Going to Melody” (The New Republic, February 2, 2012). It’s about the uninspired greed of large businesses such as Amazon—how their “hunger for profit exploits a hunger for meaning.” As they drive bookstores and record stores to the ground, they kill the activities that take place in those stores, particularly browsing. Browsing is the opposite of searching, writes Wieseltier: “Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for.”

Granted, there is browsing within searching and vice versa. But the distinction stands—and there’s still more too it. Browsing makes room for uncertainty and serendipity, for those books we didn’t expect to find, let alone continue reading. Amazon doesn’t have room for serendipity. “After all,” Wieseltier explains, “serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.”

Where’s his evidence? The memories of Melody Records, for instance, which for thirty years stimulated him and “provided a sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” Or his father’s furniture store, where Wieseltier as a boy sold sofas to U.N. people who lived nearby—by talking to them about the crises in Iran and Cyprus. He knows the foe, too; he describes Amazon’s Price Check, the app that allows customers in a bookstore to scan an item’s bar code and transmit the information back to the behemoth, which then offers a discount if the store’s price stands to compete with its own.

The evidence lies not only in these memories and details, but in the language of the piece, its amblings and rhythms and visions. As I read it, I too experienced a “sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” I found myself in the record store, listening to the advice of the staff, enjoying this song, or at the bookstore, picking up a book and reading it without rush. I came in with worries and sadness, which loosened and fell away, and with petty complaints, which fizzled in their silliness. I was not loftier than before, but somehow the piece lifted me a little, the way a parent lifts a child up to the window.

Kudos to Wieseltier for not citing brain research here (or any research, for that matter). It would have taken something away from this piece. Yes, there may be research indicating that our loss of real-life interactions has correlated with an increase in stress. Yes, it may be interesting and important. But the point of such a piece is to say, with full risk of disapproval, that I have lost something dear to me, be it a surprising piece of music or a store my friend owned or a place where I can be renewed and revived.

At least we have not yet lost the language for robust lamentation. Let us take care not to lose it. Let us not ask it to be anything else.


I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.