The Great Sin of Introducing a Text

Yesterday I had some of the liveliest classes of the year. My eleventh-grade students are about to read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an intensely beautiful and challenging philosophical essay. In preparation for this, I devoted a lesson to Mill’s life and thought.

I began by asking my students whether happiness could be measured, and, if so, how. (Many students jumped into the discussion.) Then I told them about Mill’s life—his upbringing, early work in utilitarianism, intellectual crisis, emergence from the crisis, relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and more. I brought in excerpts from his Autobiography and the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (which he had read during his crisis). I asked them to consider what Mill might have found in this particular poem. At the end of the lesson, I posed the question: if there were a mean between utilitarianism and romanticism, what might it be? Throughout the lesson, hands were flying up and dialogues mounting.

Under the Common Core, teachers are admonished against providing background for a text before the students actually read it. The rationale is that background information can interfere with the students’ direct reading and interpretation of the work. Supposedly, if you tell them too much up front, they will rely on what you told them instead of focusing on what the text actually says.

I understand this concern–but it doesn’t hold in all cases. For instance, nothing I told my students, and no ideas I drew out of them, will help them comprehend and interpret the following:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.

When reading this passage, we will focus on the words and phrases and their logical interrelation. We will examine the contrast Mill draws between social tyranny and tyranny at the hands of government. We will discuss the very concept of the tyranny of the majority—and ask why Mill considers it so insidious, pervasive, and dangerous. Almost all of the discussion will focus directly on the text—but we will draw important ideas and questions out of it.

Why, then, would I introduce students to Mill’s life in the first place, if there’s so much to be found in the text itself? Am I not wasting precious instructional time?

I would say no, for several reasons. First, Mill’s life is downright interesting—his strict classical education, his contact with Jeremy Bentham, his early work in utilitarianism, his crisis, his ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism and romanticism, his relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and much more.  Why shouldn’t students learn about something as intriguing as this? His intellectual crisis and emergence are intriguing in themselves—especially for teenagers, who may have experienced crises of their own.

Second, David Bromwich refers to Mill (in his essay “The Life and Thought of Mill,” which appears in the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty) as “the thinker of all the nineteenth century in whom romanticism and utilitarianism were most nearly joined.” It’s a great philosophical exercise to imagine how romanticism and utilitarianism might be joined—and that’s part of what we did yesterday. (One student suggested, strikingly, that they could be joined in optimism.) Later, after they have read On Liberty (or most of it), we can reread certain passages, and consider how they might contain a synthesis of romanticism and utilitarianism. That will come after students have seen and discussed what’s actually in the text, and it just might bring things around full circle (though it won’t be complete, as there will still be open questions).

Third, this is not a literacy class, but a philosophy course. Its content includes texts, ideas, and some intellectual history. I don’t think anyone would fault my course for lack of complex texts or careful textual analysis—we have spent entire lessons working through Locke’s syntax, for instance—but the course holds more than that. This is normal for a course in a subject; it needs no special justification. College courses focus on subject matter. Professors present and interpret the subject, and students must still read and think a great deal on their own. If part of the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college-level work, shouldn’t there be room to teach a subject?

Third, part of the point of education is to foster the exercise of good judgment. How do we show students how to exercise good judgment, unless we ourselves strive for the same?

The “Old Verities” and the Lamentation Sprawl

In his prize acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in 1950, William Faulkner spoke of a pervasive fear that was taking hold of writers and reducing them to mediocrity: a fear of being blown up in nuclear war. Consumed by this, writers were forgetting “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” the only things worth writing about. He continued:

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

We live today not under the immediate threat of nuclear war, but under other threats: in particular, the threat of spiritual and intellectual sprawl. Our intentions, desires, efforts, loves, treasures have no special time and place; they get spread out throughout the day and night and year. Supposedly, the more we get done (no matter what the time), the better. It is as though there were no more seasons. It is common to answer a work-related email at 11 p.m., work through the weekends, and take vacation only sporadically. People even find satisfaction in this; if they make themselves available around the clock, they not only receive kudos but expect some kind of reciprocation. If they are available all the time, then so are others, or so it seems for a while.

In this sprawl of unending availability and accessibility, it’s difficult to make anything matter. Things get flattened because they’re “always there”—and when you look around, they seem to be nowhere. With respect to the classroom, there’s an adage that students don’t need to learn things because they can “always” look them up. Not only is this notion false—they need a store of working knowledge to make sense of texts and concepts—but it robs us of a sense of treasure. When I memorize a poem (or even the conjugation of a verb), I am taking time with it and giving it a place in my mind. I “produce” something—ultimately, the recitation of the poem, and a greater understanding of it—but I hold something as well.

Today we are caught up in production without treasuring and holding.

To stop treasuring things is to stop grieving them, to take up residence in a lamentation sprawl. You can’t grieve what you have never missed. This is why Faulkner says of the writer, “Until he [commits himself to the old verities], he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

What does it take to gather oneself up from this sprawl, in education and in life? How does one honor the “old verities”? This may take, among other things, a willingness to set certain activities and roles apart from others, certain times and seasons apart from others, certain works, certain people apart from others. Leon Wieseltier writes in Kaddish:

In Chicago: Kaddish on the road. A lovely little shul near the lake, with the separation of the women from the men cleverly accomplished by a row of plants. I say the kaddish and stroll along the silver shore. I am delighted to have done my duty. Tonight the fulfillment of my obligation does not oppress me. It refreshes me. It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.

“Doing your duty” is not the same as caving in to every demand that comes your way, or pursuing any particular work without pause. It is different from that; it involves refraining from work just as it involves working; it involves refraining from giving to others just as it involves giving. It involves giving dignity to things.

What does it mean to “do one’s duty” in education? It means to devote oneself, in a structured way, to things that matter—and having the courage to say that they matter. A curriculum should not just consist of “complex” texts; who cares how complex a text is, if it has no beauty or importance? No, a school should dare to teach what is beautiful and important, even if there is disagreement over the selections, and even if the selections change over time.

Beyond that, “doing one’s duty” involves a sense of humanity. In the classroom, we approach the “old verities” obliquely, through the subject matter—but we also encounter them directly, in subtle ways. It takes courage to show interest in a subject when others do not; it takes honor to make good judgments about the direction of a discussion. In all of these things we are fallible; that’s where compassion and pity come into play. The “old verities” surround and fill us all the time; we need only be alert to them.

The greatest threat to the “old verities” is a crass version of utilitarianism: an insistent focus on short-term results that can be assessed quickly by an outsider. Results are important (sometimes immensely so), but it matters what they are and what they mean. One must continually choose from an array of actions, each carrying possible results. These choices hold everything; in their absence, without a sense of conscience, soul, or something worth holding up, one ends up without choices, as they all seem more or less on a level, without height, texture, or abyss.

 

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

“A Way to Think for Myself As If Under Their Eyes”

This is the last of a series of comments on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I expected to write two more—but then I thought it would be more interesting to choose and comment on one favorite part of the book. So I chose the fourth chapter, “Reflection, Morality, and Tradition,” where Bromwich defends and represents a tradition of liberal thought by interpreting and reflecting on Edmund Burke, David Hume, Joseph Butler, John Stuart Mill, and others.

The chapter (like the book) demonstrates a liberal tradition. It is the very discussion of Burke, Mill, and others—with intriguing interpretations of specific passages—that takes me into the tradition as it can be. I often find myself slowing down to read a passage again and think about its meaning. I enjoy this greatly.

This tradition of liberal thought has a place for the person who thinks and acts alone; in fact, group thinking has no place in it. It involves both “an irreducible respect” for oneself and a perspective on one’s existence. It can serve posterity because it is not bound by a need for immediate approval. It has what Hume calls “general utility”—which Bromwich distinguishes from the “reductive utilitarianism” that has taken over much of our educational discourse.

Bromwich’s distinction between “general utility” and “reductive utilitarianism” is immensely important. In education policy I see a general attitude of reductive utilitarianism: the insistence that schools should serve the demands of the moment and show immediate, crude results. “General utility,” by contrast, is not shrill or ephemeral. It involves a perception of something beyond our immediate circumstances, something reaching far back and far ahead. But at the same time it does not involve bowing to some imaginary standard set by others. Instead, it requires integrity of thought.

Such thought is far removed from “narrow self-regard” or what Burke calls “speculation”—the reliance on one’s own “private stock of reason.” It likewise does not come from excessive attention to the latest word. “Utter privacy and utter contemporary-mindedness have the same disadvantages,” Bromwich writes when discussing Burke. “But the latter condition may have the wider appeal. Many people have thought some time or other that it might be attractive to try to live entirely for the present moment. And in a crisis of authority, a new government may test its credit by putting this idea into practice.”

Bromwich quotes a memorable passage from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which Burke imagines the consequences of total disregard for ancestors and posterity. “By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions,” Burke writes, “the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.” (The quotation in the book is substantially longer; I regret abridging it here.)

Burke is not simply calling for preservation of cultural monuments, Bromwich points out. His argument is this: when we imagine we have the right to destroy things that others have held dear, we imagine future generations doing the same to our things. “It is a gesture of contempt,” Bromwich comments, “in which self-contempt must always be deeply involved.”

Later in the chapter, Bromwich distills the idea as follows: “A maxim Burke seems always on the point of formulating is that no generation has the right to act as if it were the last generation on earth. (It may be a corollary that no generation has a right to think as if it were the first generation on earth.)” A person does not avoid those errors by submitting to the needs of the collective. To the contrary; the errors themselves are products of group sentiment and group selfishness. “What we are witnessing here is an inversion of American individualism,” writes Bromwich. “Groups have become the contenders. And yet the groups retain the traits of the old egocentric bargainers on whom they are modeled.”

What is self-respect, then? Bromwich sheds some light on this when discussing Mill. Many readers of Mill, according to Bromwich, assume that he defends free speech mainly because restriction of speech shrinks the free market of ideas. Bromwich shows that Mill sees much more at stake: in particular, moral and intellectual courage. If one does not enter into dialogue, if one shuts oneself off from opposing or contrasting views, then one’s opinion, writes Mill, “will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

This willingness to consider other views is not the same as deference to fashion or clamor. It requires an understanding of the origins of these views; it requires some distance from the noise. One cannot consider every view that comes along; one must make choices. But at the very least, one must allow the various views to exist and be expressed. This very tolerance comes from self-respect, since it helps ensure that we live in relation with the past, present, and future, not closed off in self-certainty or self-admiration. Insofar as we tolerate, we may be tolerated too.

As usual, there is much more to the chapter than I am conveying. As I was reading it, it opened up a place for me, but also reminded me that that place has long existed and that I have things to do in it. A liberal tradition does exist, as much as it seems to have been shouted out. It is not escape or retreat, but a vivid and demanding way of thinking.

On the surface, this way of thinking seems unequal and unfair. It sometimes involves giving one’s best to those who are unwilling to receive or return the gesture (such as students disrupting or ignoring a lesson). It may involve receiving things that one can never repay—from books, from teachers, from parents. But all of these seeming unfairnesses allow for a greater distribution over time. Bromwich quotes the moral philosopher Annette Baier, who writes of “the asymmetry of care”—that is, “an extended version of morality in which there are more who are cared about than there are doing the caring.” I see more promise in this than in the benign but pat concept of “paying it forward.” After all, there’s no “it” and no “payment” here, and the gesture is not only in a forward direction.

Nor do the guides of the past disappear. Bromwich writes of a relation “to persons not only whom I do not know but whom I cannot know. If liberal education adds up,” the chapter ends, “it shows me a way to think for myself as if under their eyes, or at their half-acknowledged promptings. In doing so it suggests a way to act for something beyond myself.”

So does this book.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here. I have revised a few of them since their initial posting.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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