Category Archives: Education

Covid-19 Has Revealed the Dual Nature of Schools in the USA

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The debate over whether to open schools is revealing an important question that has lurked just below the surface for a generation–indeed, perhaps for as long as free public education has existed in the United States: what is the purpose of our schools? Is it to teach people crucial skills and allow them to acquire important knowledge, or is it rather to provide a holding tank, a safe and dependable place for a part of the population that cannot yet care for themselves?

Some teachers take umbrage at the thought that K-12 schools are used as childcare centers; they say that they are not babysitters, and that the push to open schools is an attempt to get the economy going again by providing workers with childcare that is not otherwise available to them. There is truth in this assertion. But universities, too, have been used for the last fifty years as childcare centers of a sort, places where a group of people is deposited under the guise of acquiring a higher education until they are ready to enter the workforce, or until the working world is convinced to let them in. Our educational institutions, in other words, have been, at least for the last fifty years, both places of learning and care facilities at the same time.

It’s best if we accept this dual role of educational institutions, rather than rail against it. A K-12 school can be both a place where education occurs as well as a place where parents can send their children for safe care (school shootings and pandemics aside). A university or college can be a place to teach important skill sets, including knowledge that is difficult to acquire on one’s own, as well as a place where young adults are sent while they wait their turn to enter a work force that isn’t quite ready for them yet. This leads to the question of opening the schools: are they essential for our country? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding “yes”: providing such a safe space is essential in order to run the economy we’ve grown used to, one in which financial necessity compels parents to scramble to find childcare, as well as one in which young adults require an expensive university education merely to snag an entry-level job in a field that becomes outmoded within years.

In this sense, teachers and professors are indeed essential workers; they are, in fact, babysitters. (Note that I do not say “mere” babysitters. The term itself is a demeaning one, indicating that a caregiver’s job is completely passive, but anyone who has ever been around young children knows this is far from the truth. I will leave that topic for future post, however. At any rate, babysitting is at least as important a role in our society as being a university professor, perhaps much more so.) But at the same time they are caregivers, teachers are also purveyors of knowledge and skills, and we need to keep both functions in mind as we think about the job they do.

I’ll be honest: I can see no clear solution as to whether schools should be opening up in a few short weeks. Sadly, we have completely squandered the time we bought back in March, when schools were summarily shut down in order to stem the spread of Covid-19. We did not stop the disease from spreading, which is bad, but what is even worse is that we completely failed to create a workable plan for re-opening schools and instead just held our breath, hoping that the pandemic would simply die down or fade away. It didn’t have to be this way; the complete lack of leadership at the federal level is to blame for this awful situation. During this time, other countries’ schools have created solutions  that we can learn from, and we must study them closely to find our own, but here is one simple takeaway: flexibility is the key to fighting this pandemic. As argued in Tomas Pueyo’s important article published the early days of the pandemic, we need to shift between strict containment measures, including lockdowns, and loosened restrictions, again and again until Covid-19 becomes manageable. This demands that we act with flexibility, becoming responsive to the current situation.

And here we find a heartbreaking irony: flexibility is precisely what is lacking in the educational institutions we have come to rely on for childcare. And this in turn is a direct result of the binary role of schools in our society and our unwillingness to recognize it. In other words, what matters in childcare is dependability, after all; we need to know that our children have a safe place to go with someone watching over them whenever we need to be at work. But as far as education goes, flexibility is the most important thing. If one learning method doesn’t work, a good teacher always has a host of other methods to try out. Learning itself has to be flexible, because knowledge is acquired through a series of attempts, failures, and (hopefully) successes; a good education should always provide its student with the ability to be flexible. In other words, critical thinking, simply described, is the ability to see a problem in a variety of ways in order to solve it. Flexibility, elasticity, and adaptability are excellent things in education, however unwelcome they may have become in the working world (or the political world, for that matter). I would even argue that ignoring the role of flexibility in education has actually led to the demise of its effectiveness in our country, as we came to rely on testing and objective-chasing rather than more organic approaches to teaching, but that, too, I will have to leave for another post, or to another blogger.

My point here is simply this: it isn’t necessarily bad for education to serve as child (or young adult) care, but not recognizing and accommodating this dual nature of our educational institutions will lead us to make faulty, even disastrous, choices as we move forward to confront our new future. 

This pandemic, awful as it is, may well have good consequences. One of them, I hope, is the bright light it shines, often harshly, on the institutions and traditions we’ve come to accept so blithely through the years. Though it may be painful in the beginning, we can work to make these institutions work for our society much better than they have in the past. But the first step, as always, is to see things as they are, and in this case, we must accept the idea that schools have been necessary in this country not only because they teach the skills and knowledge that citizens of a democracy must have, but also because they provide childcare to people who need to work and otherwise could not afford to do so. Let us look at the situation clearly, transparently, and earnestly: only then can we hope to meet the challenges that face us in this difficult and unprecedented time.

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How the Study of Literature Could Save Democracy

Beowulf MS, picture from Wikipedia

Usually, I am not one to make grand claims for my discipline. There was a time, back when I was a young graduate student in the 1980s, that I would have; perhaps even more recently, I might have argued that understanding ideology through literary theory and criticism is essential to understanding current events and the conditions we live in. But I no longer believe that.

Perhaps in saying this publicly, I’m risking some sort of banishment from academia. Maybe I will have to undergo a ritual in which I am formally cashiered, like some kind of academic Alfred Dreyfus, although instead of having my sword broken in half and my military braids ripped to shreds, I will have my diploma yanked from my hands and trampled on the ground before my somber eyes. Yet unlike Dreyfus, I will have deserved such treatment, because I am in fact disloyal to my training: I don’t believe literary theory can save the world. I don’t think it’s necessary that we have more papers and books on esoteric subjects, nor do I think it’s realistic or useful for academics to participate in a market system in which the research they produce becomes a commodity in their quest for jobs, promotions, or grant opportunities. In this sense, I suppose I am indeed a traitor.

But recently I have realized, with the help of my friend and former student (thanks, Cari!), that literature classes are still important. In fact, I think studying literature can help save our way of life. You just have to look at it this way: it’s not the abstruse academic research that can save us, but rather the garden-variety study of literature that can prove essential to preserving democracy. Let me explain how.

I’ll begin, as any good scholar should, by pointing out the obvious. We are in a bad place in terms of political discourse–it doesn’t take a scholar to see that. Polarizing views have separated Americans into two discrete camps with very little chance of crossing the aisle to negotiate or compromise. Most people are unwilling to test their beliefs, for example, preferring to cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence. As social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris point out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.” They use the term “cognitive dissonance,” which means the sense of disorientation and even discomfort one feels when considering two opposing viewpoints, to explain why it is so hard for people to change their ideas.

To those of us who study literature, the term “cognitive dissonance” may be new, but the concept certainly is not. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, in an essay which is largely forgotten except for this sentence, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (“The Crack-Up,Esquire Magazine, February 1936). In addition, cognitive dissonance isn’t that far removed from an idea expressed by John Keats in a letter he wrote to his brothers back in 1817. He invents the term “Negative Capability” to describe the ability to remain in a liminal state of doubt and uncertainty without being driven to come to any conclusion and definitive belief. Negative capability, in other words, is the capacity to be flexible in our beliefs, to be capable of changing our minds.

I believe that the American public needs to develop negative capability, lots of it, and quickly, if we are to save our democracy.

But there’s a huge problem. Both Fitzgerald and Keats believe that this function is reserved only for geniuses. In their view, a person is born with this talent for tolerating cognitive dissonance: you either have it–in which case you are incredibly gifted–or you don’t. In contrast, Aronson and Tavris clearly believe it’s possible to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance: “Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty…” While their belief in our ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and to learn from it is encouraging, it is sobering that they do not provide a clear path toward fostering this tolerance.

So here’s where the study of literature comes in. In a good English class, when we study a text, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beowulf, students and teacher meet as more or less equals over the work of literature in an effort to find its meaning and its relevance. Certainly the teacher has more experience and knowledge, but this doesn’t–or shouldn’t–change the dynamic of the class: we are all partners in discovering what the text has to say in general, and to us, specifically. That is our task. In the course of this task, different ideas will be presented. Some interpretations will be rejected; some will be accepted. Some will be rejected, only to be later accepted, even after the space of years (see below for an example).

If we do it well, we will reach a point in the discussion where we consider several differrent suggestions and possibilities for interpretation. This is the moment during which we become experts in cognitive dissonance, as we relish interpretive uncertainty, examining each shiny new idea and interpretation with the delight of a child holding up gorgeously colored beads to the light. We may put a bead down, but it is only to take up another, different one–and we may well take up the discarded bead only to play with it some more.

The thing that makes the study of literature so important in this process is that it isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. To my knowledge, no one has ever been shot for their interpretation of Hamlet; the preservation of life and limb does not hang on an precise explanation of Paradise Lost. If we use the study of literature as a classroom designed to increase our capacity for cognitive dissonance, in other words, we can dissipate the highly charged atmosphere that makes changing our minds so difficult. And once we get used to the process, when we know what it’s like to experience cognitive dissonance, it will be easier to for us to tolerate it in other parts of our lives, even in the sphere of public policy and politics.

If I seem to be writing with conviction (no cognitive dissonance here!), it’s because I have often experienced this negative capability in real time. I will give just two examples. The first one occurred during a class on mystery fiction, when we were discussing the role of gossip in detective novels, which then devolved into a discussion on the ethics of gossip. The class disagreed violently about whether gossip could be seen as good or neutral, or whether it was always bad. A loud (and I mean loud!) discussion ensued, with such force that a janitor felt compelled to pop his head into the classroom–something that I had never seen happen either before or since then–to ask if everything was ok. While other teachers might have felt that they had lost control of the classroom, I, perversely, believe that this might have been my most successful teaching moment ever. That so many students felt safe enough to weigh in, to argue and debate passionately about something that had so little real importance suggested to me that we were exercising and developing new critical aptitudes. Some of us, I believe, changed our minds as a result of that discussion. At the very least, I think many of us saw the topic in a different way than we had to begin with. This, of course, is the result of experiencing cognitive dissonance.

My second example is similar. At the end of one very successful course on Ernest Hemingway, my class and I adjourned for the semester to meet at a local bar, at which we continued our discussion about The Sun Also Rises. My student Cari and I got into a very heated discussion about whether the novel could be seen as a pilgrimage story. Cari said it was ; I vehemently disagreed. The argument was fierce and invigorating–so invigorating, as a matter of fact, that at one point a server came to inquire whether there was something wrong, and then a neighboring table began to take sides in the debate. (For the record, I live in Hemingway country, and everyone here has an opinion about him and his works.) Cari and I left the bar firmly ensconced in our own points of view, but a couple of years ago–some three years after the original argument occurred–I came to see it from Cari’s point of view, and I now agree with her that The Sun Also Rises can be seen as a sort of pilgrimage tale. It took a while, but I was able to change my mind.

It is this capacity to change one’s mind, I will argue, that is important, indeed, indispensable, for the democratic process to thrive.

In the end, it may well be that the chief contribution that good teachers of literature make to culture is this: we provide a safe and accessible place for people to learn what cognitive dissonance feels like, and in doing so, we can help them acquire a tolerance for it. This tolerance, in turn, leads to an increase in the ability to participate in civil discourse, which is itself the bedrock of democratic thought and process. In other words, you can invest in STEAM classes all you want, but if you really want to make people good citizens, do not forget about literature courses.

In view of this discovery of mine, I feel it’s my duty to host a noncredit literature class of sorts in the fall, a discussion-type newsletter that covers the great works of English literature–whatever that means–from Beowulf to the early Romantic period, in which discussion is paramount. If you’re interested or have suggestions, please let me know by commenting or messaging me, and I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.

And in the meantime, keep your minds open! Cognitive dissonance, uncomfortable as it is, may just be what will keep democracy alive in the critical days to come.

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Education, Literature, Politics, Teaching

Elegy for Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.

If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.

In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.

I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)

I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”

I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.

Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.

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Filed under culture, Education, Literature, Reading, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing

A Very Short Story

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Image from Wikipedia: By U3173699 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81674970

 

I want to refer to a day many years ago, back when the world was normal and my kids were still at home. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was making chili for dinner, chopping up ingredients at the kitchen counter. My daughter, a high school student who was also taking classes at the local community college, breezed through the back door, walked through the kitchen, put her books down on the dining room table, and returned to the doorway to say, “Mom, the kids in my school are so stupid. I mean, they’re just so dumb that I get worked up about it. I actually think I’ve gone through the Stages of Grief about their stupidity.”

“What?” I had been dicing bell peppers, but I put down my knife and looked up at her. She had just come home from her college psychology class.

“Well, we were learning about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about the stages of grief, and I realized that the kids I know are so annoying and stupid that I’ve gone through all those stages about them.”

I asked her to explain, and she went on. “So, the first stage is Denial. I start out thinking, ‘I cannot believe these people are so stupid. Maybe if I ignore them, I won’t have to deal with them at all. The extent of their stupidity actually scares me, so I’ll stay away.'”

I nodded and said, “Go on.”

“The next stage is Anger. I get angry at their stupidity, because they frustrate me, and they make me anxious. I’m just mad that they’re dumb and they don’t care about changing.”

I waited for her to continue.

“Okay, then comes Depression. I seriously get depressed about how stupid they are. I begin to think that they’ll never be anything but stupid, no matter how much I — or anyone else — tries to help them. It makes me sad that anyone can be alive and so dumb.”

By this point I had nothing to say. It’s always a little overwhelming the first time your child shares a truly interesting thought that you didn’t plant in their brain.

“That’s when I start Bargaining. I say to myself, ‘Oh, they may be stupid in this class. They may be stupid in all their classes, but maybe they’re good athletes. Yeah, they’re probably great at football or basketball or volleyball. They’re in band, so maybe that’s what they’re good at. See, they’re really stupid, but there are ways to compensate for that, aren’t there?”

She paused a moment, then finished by saying, “But I always end up Accepting their stupidity. I just factor it into my plans, sometimes I even use it to get what I want, and then I move on to something else.”

She stood up, grabbed her books, and went upstairs to her room, leaving me staring after her. I had nothing to say in the face of such brilliance, but she didn’t even notice.

Every single thing she’d said made perfect sense, and I promised myself one day I would write about it.

And now, 15 years later, awake at the crack of dawn because I can’t stop thinking and fretting and worrying, I realize that we’re probably all going through the Stages of Grief about the Coronavirus, and I’ve finally made good on my promise.

P.S. If you’re looking for more stuff to read, check out my friend John’s blog: TomatoPlanet! at https://ininva.com/. John’s been doing this blogging stuff since way before it was cool, and he’s got some great stuff there.

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On Finally Reading Paradise Lost

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Illustration from Wikimedia

Although I’ve never been to a literary cocktail party, I have a certain game I imagine playing at one. (The truth is, I’ve never been to any kind of cocktail party, which is somewhat disappointing. As a youngster, I’d imagined that cocktail parties, like falling into a pit of quicksand, would be a regular part of adult life, and that I would be expected to know how to behave in both situations. Obviously, I was misinformed.)

At any rate, the game goes like this. A bunch of well-read people get together and confess what books they should have read but never have. It would, for those of us who teach literature for a living, be a daring game, one in which public humiliation might lie in wait for us. Who would want to admit, for example, that they had never actually read The Grapes of Wrath? Might the heavens open up, allowing peals of scandalized laughter to descend, if one were to admit, in public, that one’s copy of The Sound and the Fury had never actually been opened? It seemed to me an amusing game to play in my mind, something like Truth or Dare for grown-ups. In an alternate version of the game, I imagine myself going through life with a large deck of cards, each of which has a title printed in large, Gothic letters on its back declaring my inadequacy: Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ulysses. The list goes on and on.

The other day, I began to work at removing one of the cards from my deck of failure. This did not occur, however, as a determined plan at self-improvement. I am far beyond that stage in my life, having settled into a lazy, perhaps defeatist, sense of who I am and what I can do. Rather, it all began with an invitation to visit a friend’s high school classroom to discuss a play I’d written about C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The class had been reading The Screwtape Letters, and, to prepare for my visit, I reread the book.

Lewis was a gifted satirist, there’s no doubt about it. His characterization of Screwtape, the devil who gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, instructing him on how to secure the soul of his “patient,” is brilliant, and I found myself wondering how he had been able to create such an enjoyable character out of a devil. The answer came quickly enough: Lewis had, after all written a short book called A Preface to Paradise Lost He must have known the poem intimately. And, although I’d never read Milton’s epic poem in its entirety, I’d read bits of it–enough to teach it to college sophomores in the British Literature survey classes I regularly taught. (Another guilty confession: I’ve taught the poem, yet never read all of it.) I guessed, and I think I’m right, that Lewis’s depiction of Screwtape owes a good deal to Milton’s depiction of Satan.

But the question remains: why had I never read Paradise Lost? After all, I’d been teaching it for decades. The omission is nothing short of scandalous. Actually, back in graduate school, I had tried to sign up for an entire class on Milton, but the class was oversubscribed, and we students were required to apply to take it by submitting a letter stating why we thought we should be allowed into it. My letter simply said I knew next to nothing about Milton, that I expected that I would have to teach his work, and that I thought that was a good enough reason to be admitted to the class.

It wasn’t.

And so I never read the whole poem. It turns out that I had gleaned enough information from my own undergraduate days to fumble through a few class days on Paradise Lost when I began to teach English literature, and so I just relied on that. Over the years, a colleague introduced me to a few of Milton’s poems (notably “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”), and then, much later, gave me his Milton texts when he retired and cleaned out his office, but they stayed on my shelf, treasured more because they reminded me of my colleague than for any interest I had in reading them.

And then one of my former students took a class on Milton, and suggested we read Paradise Lost together. Neither of us had the time, however, and the plan fell by the wayside. But apparently the idea stayed with me, because last week, as soon as I finished The Screwtape Letters, I dove into Paradise Lost, forcing myself to progress through it. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching Shakespeare, so the language wasn’t nearly as foreign as it could have been. When I found my attention wandering, bored by elaborate rhetorical constructions and erudite footnotes, I read Milton’s words out loud, and this kept me on track. I kept plodding through the poem, line by line, book by book, not worrying whether I was understanding all of it. I studiously ignored the footnotes, for the most part, but read my colleague’s hand-written marginal notes with affection.

And now I can say that I have read Paradise Lost, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed parts of it. I hated the parts that were clearly anti-feminist, wishing someone else–maybe Ursula LeGuin or Virginia Woolf?–had dared to write Eve’s side of the story, since Milton had covered Adam’s point of view so thoroughly and unfairly. But as for filling in this gap in my education, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The heavens did not open as I finished reading the last lines of the poem. The Angel Raphael did not come down and pat me on the back. Nor did the archangel Michael arrive with a flaming sword to celebrate my victory over the text. I simply read about Adam and Eve departing Eden, sighed, and closed the book.

Did I learn anything? Just this: those things we put off because they seem too difficult are often not that difficult after all. Perhaps other people want to make us feel that they are difficult so as to make themselves feel smarter, or more worthy, than we are. In all likelihood, they aren’t. But I realize now that reading is a skill that we must train for–much like long-distance running– and I believe that as a society our reading endurance is steadily declining. We are clearly losing the taste for, and consequently the ability to, read long and rambling texts, settling instead for shorter and easier ones, and this will have serious consequences for our intellectual and public life in the coming years. Nevertheless, I believe that if we tackle our reading with confidence and optimism–if we keep to our task, pushing forward one line, even one word, at a time–we can make it through even the densest of texts.

The best part of the whole experience is that I’m now ready to discuss Paradise Lost with my former student. And for this, rather than for finally reading the whole poem, I think C.S. Lewis would be proud of me.

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Filed under culture, Education, Literature, Reading, Retirement, Teaching

To Be Read Before the Midterm Elections

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This year, my husband and I decided to host a foreign exchange student. “If a kid wants to come to the United States in these dark days,” we told each other, “let’s do all we can to show him or her that we are not the nation we appear to be under the present regime. Let’s welcome that kid with open arms and praise the bravery that brought him or her here.” And so hosting a foreign exchange student became part of my own private resistance to the 2016 election.

We were so enthusiastic, in fact, we offered to host two students. After all, our house is fairly big, we live quite close to the high school, and, most of all, our youngest son was a foreign exchange student in 2015, and I felt that it was my karmic duty to reciprocate in some way.

Our international experiment, as I called it, did not go well–but more on that in a later post. We are down to one foreign exchange student now, and things are going much, much better, but that’s not what this post is about. What I want to discuss here is something I’ve learned from being a host parent of a European teenager, a discovery that I think needs to be shared with other Americans. And I also want to share something that I’ve learned about myself.

Here is my discovery: Europeans do not understand what is happening here. They do not know how much we despise the present regime; they do not understand that we feel our country has been commandeered by a power elite that is aiming to enslave our population through hatred, racism, ignorance, and overpowering greed. They understand that Trump has a lot of opposition, but they do not comprehend the ways in which an outdated system of voting was manipulated (in all likelihood with foreign help) in order to take over our government. According to our student, who is admittedly young but was chosen by the German government to study our culture and government while on a scholarship here, the Women’s March in protest of the inauguration was not a focal point in European news, and pussy hats are virtually unknown there. The massive resistance that is part of our everyday lives simply isn’t understood in Western Europe.

We have tried to explain certain things to her. We have said that Trump’s election was so shocking and horrifying to us and to our friends that we did not leave the house for several days. We have compared the night of his election to the day on which JFK was assassinated: a moment which showed just how awful Americans can be and how easily our hopes for the future can be wiped out. We have explained that we are afraid to watch Tuesday’s election returns for fear that the 2016 election might have been a signpost for the future, and not a terrible accident, a result of complacency, laziness, and foreign interference.

I think she is beginning to understand. But more importantly, we have begun to understand, too. We understand now that the rest of the world thinks we just made a mistake in 2016, that Americans did something stupid and inexplicable–after all, our nation has done that so often. We are beginning to see that our sense of despair and anger, our horror at Trump’s policies and the Republicans’ willingness to comply with them, is not registering across the Atlantic. Our government has been hijacked, we tell our student, but she is only beginning to understand that.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned something about myself as well.

I love my country. Of course, I am not always proud to be an American. For forty years, I have criticized the United States; I have never withheld judgment on what I see as a culture overpowered by greed, smug ignorance, and rapacious, unfettered capitalism. I know our faults and our flaws, many of which go back to the days of the Puritans, resulting in the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and the wholesale oppression of minorities. Clearly, our history contains many things to be ashamed of.

But there are things to be proud of as well: NASA, baseball, multicultural neighborhoods that are teeming with people of all ethnicities and languages, Muslims coming forward to help Jews, Jews coming forward to help Muslims, people protesting the actions of a cruel and oppressive government by massing in the streets, in airports, and at border resettlement centers. Last night, during dinner, I shouted the word “jazz!,” to the surprise of everyone at the table, then explained that it’s the one, truly original American art form. It’s a contribution to world culture that all Americans can be proud of.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to explain both to my student and to myself why I am afraid to watch the election returns on Tuesday night. Will I be overcome by despair again? Will I have to throw up my hands in disgust and say that as a country we deserve what we vote for, that our grand experiment in democracy is finally over? I’m not sure how I’ll bear that, considering how awful November 7, 2016, was for me.

But what if the opposite happens? How will I manage a blue victory, given that the thought of millions of people coming out to vote in the midterm elections to show they are not sheep, that they believe in right and wrong, that they will not be complicit with a government that is irresponsible, ignorant, and self-serving–how will I cope, given that this possibility also overwhelms me with emotion? Since the mere thought of this possibility makes me tear up–I can be very sentimental when confronted with evidence that human beings can be kind and decent–I think that either way, I might be in for some kind of an emotional collapse on Tuesday night.

(I will just add here that there’s another, minor, concern, of mine, too: I’m running for local office, and I will be watching election returns on Tuesday night to learn the results of my race. But the stakes are so much lower for that race that I am not expending much thought on it.)

So here’s to all of you out there who, like me, regard Tuesday’s election with an uneasy mixture of heavy dread and stubborn, overpowering hope. Let’s remember that we can take our country back and set it on the right path again. If we get out in strength on Tuesday, maybe that will be the very first step to re-fashioning our country into the nation we want it to be, the nation it needs to be.

Godspeed to us all.

 

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Six Rules for Reading (and Enjoying) Julius Caesar

I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.

I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.

I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss  Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.

julius_caesarFirst of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.

So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play,  I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.

Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.

Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.

Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.

Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.

Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.

Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?

In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.

 

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How I Became a Writer, Part 3

And now, as promised, the last installment on how I became a writer.

By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I needed to read as much as I could, and, with an older brother in college who evicted me from my bedroom each summer when he came home and left his previous semester’s English syllabi laying around, it was not difficult for me to devise a reading plan to fill out my knowledge of literature. For example, I declared tenth grade the year of the Russian novel; during that year, I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. It was an ambitious undertaking, and I neglected my math and science classes to achieve it.

But I worked hard at the task I set myself. For example, one day in Band class (I was an underachieving clarinet player), the instructor was going through a piece with the flute section. Earlier that month, I had found a fantastic copy of The Brothers Karamazov–hardbacked, with two columns of print on each page–and I found that it fit perfectly on my music stand.

Usually I would put my sheet music on top of the book to camouflage my reading, but I had reached a really rivetting section (a chapter called “Lacerations”) that morning and I was oblivious to pretty much everything around me. I didn’t realize that Mr. Wren had crept up behind me and was, along with everyone else in the band, watching me read. When I finally realized the entire room was silent, with no flutes playing dissonant notes and no baton clicking out a rhythm on the conductor’s stand, I looked up to see what was going on, and met Mr. Wren’s small blue eyes peering at me. I expected to be duly chastised, but all he said was, “Lacerations? Do I need to send you to the counselor?” Mortified, I shook my head and shoved my book beneath my seat.

This is merely a long-winded way of demonstrating that I was a dedicated reader at a fairly young age. I tried to create a system, a reading method, but when I reached college, I realized how very inadequate my system was. My subsequent years in graduate school were probably an attempt to fill in the gaps of my literary knowledge. That attempt also ended in relative failure. I got a master’s degree and filled in a few of the many gaps left by my undergraduate education, then continued on to the Ph.D. level and filled in a few more. I was still very imperfectly educated in terms of English literature by the time I received my Ph.D., but thankfully education has no definitive endpoint. And if one becomes a generalist, as one must at a community college professor, then one can continue to add to one’s knowledge year after year after year. Even now, some years after retiring, I am still working hard to fill in those gaps.

But of course all this reading derailed me from becoming the writer I had originally planned to be. In other words, the preparatory work I set myself that was designed to make me a good writer eclipsed the desire to write for a great many years. There was, after all, so very much to learn and to read! I decided that if I had to choose between writing and reading, I would opt for reading, because I wanted to know what was out there. I guess you could say that my quest to perfect my knowledge of English literature (certainly an impossible task) has never been anything more than mere nosiness.

I would still pick reading over writing any day. In fact, most days I usually do. There is still so much to read, so many gaps to fill. For me, reading comes first, and it always will. I write to show that I am reading, that I am paying attention to what is out there. In the end, I write not because I love story-telling , but rather because I love the stories we’ve told throughout the ages so much that I cannot keep myself from adding to the ever-growing collection of them that makes up human culture.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 2

As I recall, my first real attempt at critical writing involved a book review of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, written in third or fourth grade–I’m not sure which. Why did I pick an obscure novel by a largely forgotten American writer? I believe it was because I had read White Fang (or was it The Call of the Wild? or perhaps both?) earlier that year and felt that writing a book review about a book I’d already read seemed to be cheating, so I found another book by Jack London. Perhaps this was my first foray into literary studies. I didn’t really get much from The Sea Wolf, unfortunately. My book review basically argued that London’s use of curse words within the narrative was a distinctive feature of his writing. I have no idea whether or not this is true, never having gone back to read The Call of the Wild, White Fang, or The Sea Wolf again.

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Some more recent critical writing

This was, if I recall, the year I had requested to be allowed to bring in the Bible for independent reading. My request was denied, which was a good thing. Mrs. Cirillo (or was it Mrs. Moss?) was right to curtail my outrageous desire to be a precocious reader. No one who spells the word “universe” with almost every letter of the alphabet, as I did back then, has earned the right to be a waywardly precocious reader. As for writing, we were allowed to make a book that spring, and I chose to write an elegy about my parakeet Dinky, who had dropped dead on Christmas morning. (This, coupled with the fact that during the Easter pageant at my church that year I was chosen to play the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, may account for the fact that I later converted to Judaism.) The little book, which I can no longer locate, itself is nothing special, but it may be telling that the “Note About the Author” (written in a pretentious third person) at the end of the book refers to its author’s ardent desire to become a writer.

After this, there was a long spell of forgettable short stories, poems, and other forced writing assignments. But then, in my senior year of high school, I was nominated by my long-suffering English teachers to compete in a nationwide writing contest held by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The contest had two components: first, a prepared story (mine was some atrocious story about Brian Boru, King of Ireland–even the passage of fifty years cannot erase my shame at having concocted it) sent in ahead of time, and second, an on-demand essay. I remember being pulled out of algebra class on a April morning in 1976, ushered into an empty classroom, given pencil and paper, and losing myself in an essay in which I mused on my relation to my birthplace–Brooklyn, New York–a place I had moved away from some nine years earlier. I also remember that I left the classroom feeling somewhat pleased that I had mentioned my grandmother, who still lived in Brooklyn, noting that she was in fact the last thread that drew me back to my birthplace summer after summer. Somehow, I was surprised but not shocked when, an hour or so after I got home from school that day, my father called to tell me that my grandmother had died that morning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she had probably died while I was actually writing my essay. (Two days later, I received an Easter card in the mail from Grandma. She always had great timing.)

I won the contest despite my dreadful story about Brian Boru, and was chosen as one of 26 students from Texas to win the NCTE Writing Award in 1977. It wasn’t such a big deal. While it may have helped me get into college, I have to admit that I completely forgot that I’d won such an award until a few years ago, when I was cleaning out some old papers. It came as something of a shock to me to realize that I had been involved with the NCTE years and years before I myself became a teacher of English and a member of that organization.

I have not gone into detail about the short stories I wrote in my high school years, because they are too pedestrian to stand out. Everyone writes those kind of stories. I was, however, quite a letter writer in those days, stealing funny bits from P.G. Wodehouse and other comic writers and inserting them into my letters to my parents and siblings. Below is a letter I found while visiting my mother last year. (Obviously, she recognized my genius–or she decided to save it as evidence that time travel really happens.)

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Once again, I’ve made less progress on this project than I had anticipated. That leaves one more post (I promise–just one more!) to bridge the gap between my young adult and middle age years, and how I postponed my writing career (such as it is) by making a study of literature and becoming a professor of English.

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Teaching Behind the Lines

French resistance fighters putting up posters

French Resistance Fighters putting up posters.  Image from “History in Photos” Blog (available here)

It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.

But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.

Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.

The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.

Here is my list:

  1. In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
  2. I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
  3. I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
  4. I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
  5. I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.

All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.

I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.

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