Thus, as we tumble further into the post-literate era, we can expect to witness ever more hideous alterations in our society. Mass conformity must increase, as the examples of past lives, imparted by a knowledge of history, fades from men’s minds; the average life of our fellow citizens must become ever more confined, ever more directed towards trivial goals, ever more consumed with petty concerns. Magnanimity, in policy and personal choice, must evaporate, as the ideals of our ancestors fall into quiescence; vulgarity will become ubiquitous, and manifest itself in our arts, our laws, and our manners. Fraudulent movements of every stripe will proliferate, as even the most credentialed persons – for educated we can hardly call them – will lack the rational capacity to detect their fraudulence. Our politics will become a chaos, as public discourse transforms into rancorous and fruitless abuse, the arts of government grow identical with the arts of deceit, and arbitrary will increasingly usurps the place of reason. Freedom, which has no other arms than the truth, will disappear entirely. Mark Signorelli
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“The Second Coming” William Butler Yeats
It doesn’t seem a small matter that modern education has turned away from the past–and the standards set by the past–in its student-centered quest to appease the self’s desires through endless innovation and experiment (science and experience). The use of history and philosophy to understand truth recedes, and we use social science (surveys and polls) to measure effectiveness.
Democracy itself was greatly feared by some of its greatest advocates, including Dewey, because they could see the danger that it might dissolve all standards, since it does not itself contain or suggest any.
In our increasingly democratized society, there are those among us who still vaguely suspect that some books are better than others, but the educational “standards” that are being imposed upon us don’t quite say that and certainly don’t offer any list of what books might be important enough to be suggested to teachers. Those who are imposing the standards make no credible argument that they have any authority to do such a thing. Indeed, they go to great lengths to pretend they are not doing such a thing, creating a theatrical pretense that the standards are voluntary.
So we face mere power imposing standards, but when it comes specifically to literature the standards are not standards at all. Who would dare suggest that all students should have an acquaintance with, say, Homer or Shakespeare? In an age when democracy (choice) trumps everything, doesn’t belief in any standard come to be a mere superstition?
Truth is problematized away, which leaves power. In a democracy, power flows from numbers, and so the lowest common denominator leads the processes of decadence. What is easy, base, and cheap outsells what is difficult, sublime and costly. Dewey drives out Socrates, Glee replaces Shakespeare, and our positivist measures distract from what has been lost.
The favoring of “evidence-based” this or “research-based” that derives in part from Dewey’s emphasis on “science” and “experiment” as the basis of educational practice. “Evidence” in these cases nearly always refers to measurements, although other forms of evidence are often reasonable–such as logical deduction or even common sense. Much of common sense lacks an empirical data base simply because nobody has thought to make a study. Did an education based on studying a thousand years of Greek and Roman culture and politics through what were once understood as “the classics” lead to citizens with a better understanding of human nature and politics? Reading Jefferson, Adams, and Madison might lead one to suspect that it did, but I’ve not been able to find any studies supporting that thesis.
That emphasis on positivist data is a turn away from the attempt to understand humane values through historical and philosophical methods.
When education was based on philosophy it made perfect sense, for example, to continue teaching the ideal of nobility even if positivist research showed that many people were not particularly noble. Ideals, it was understood, were precisely what needed to be taught because they were, to some extent, contrary to much of human nature. Virtues–generosity, sexual discipline, thrift–were the focus of education not because surveys provided data confirming this was what students wanted but because philosophy argued that these were important to creating a society more “humane” than society often appeared in practice to be.
If it is true that paper and pencil tests along with common educational research methods leave out much that should concern us because many important things are difficult to measure simply and efficiently and with high levels of validity and reliability, and if it is further true that our choices of what is in the curriculum are driven by what we test and measure, then it follows logically that the schools we are building will ignore much that should concern us.
This includes nearly everything that was once the heart of a humane education.
Occasionally I come across an essay that’s useful in my personal project of rethinking the curriculum by rethinking the Canon–to the extent I can with my limited time and abilities. Such is Cicero Bruce’s review of Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation by Glenn C. Arbery.
Arbery makes the by now familiar arguments about the “decimation of the humanities in the culture wars,” and he links this to the undermining of the discipline of literary studies in the pursuit of reputation by modern professors. “Unless literature itself, not the academic industry around it, not the competition for tenured positions or endowed chairs, is the central concern, then perhaps the academy deserves to fall,” he says.
Often, he claims, the meaning of great works is distorted to make some point related to a professors’ own agenda.
That interests me, but only in passing. Perhaps the academy will fail–such are the passing affairs of the world. What interests me more is what Arbery says about The Illiad: “Of all the poems in the history of the West, actual Scripture aside, but including the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and all the devotional lyrics ever written, God loves the Iliad most.”
This did not seem like a strange claim to me. Bruce summarizes what this means:
That Homer’s epic would be pleasing to God is not surprising, at least not to Arbery. For it depicts “the broken world as it is, fallen and savage, but capable of noble formality and tender mercies; groaning ceaselessly for redemption but without undue self-pity; conscious of being kingly, masterful, and godlike, yet also mortally aware of being subject to every loss and humiliation, including the ultimate form, mortality itself.”
Finding nobility and tenderness amid mortality by achieving form. It’s something I learned, in part, from Keats’ “When I Have Fears.” Why would one compose a lament of absolute despair in an intricate sonnet form?
Literature functions as a mode of knowledge that finds its completion in the achievement of form. It follows that a story, poem, or play is excellent to the degree that it is well wrought. Yet, to infer from what Arbery posits between the lines, it should be said that the test of enduring literary merit begins and ends with abiding questions something like these: Does the given work look from the standpoint of eternity at material things and transitory wants? Does it function as a medium for apprehending unchanging truths? Does it plumb the depths of being “with an intelligence,” as Arbery puts it in his final paragraph, “that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering”?
Our “momentary stays against confusion” achieved by creating form are always metaphors–things of this world that give us glimpses of the transcendent, an order beyond us which we realize. Our despair has its origins in a world we know by sensing our lostness from it. The poem may be about despair, but the existence of the poem is an argument of hope. Great literature reveals to us more than it can say.
A young woman–a former student–told me recently she does not like to pay attention to politics because she feels helpless to affect what is going to happen. Who doesn’t know that feeling?
Educators once understood that their work was of a piece with the ongoing work of establishing justice in the world, and that the means to do this was to pursue the truth. It’s worth asking why we now live in an age of such moral confusion and who this benefits.
One of the realities of American public education today is that if one attempts to talk among teachers about truth as though it matters one will be quickly assailed by versions of Pilate’s question, “what is truth?” Whose truth? It’s become something of an intellectual habit to balk at the very mention of truth, and to feel that warmth of being among the right sort of people–the righteous–to talk of nonjudgmentalism and tolerance.
It remains an inconvenient truth, nonetheless, that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Justice is inseparable from truth. We can’t see that the right things are done if we don’t know the truth about what happened. The primary defense good people have against bad people is the truth. One could hope that a profession that has made The Crucible part of its canon would understand and teach such things. Alas, that story seems more often used as a parable about distrust of the wrong sort of people–Puritans and anticommunists. Ironic.
I think an important question for teachers today is why intellectuals from the mid-twentieth century on have labored so hard to mystify and problematize truth. It’s a real question and I think there are true answers that are worth understanding. The answers are not immediately obvious though to those who have been subjected to years of ideological indoctrination.
The trouble is that the confusion–intentionally sewn and cultivated, I think–is quite genuine. Consider Alexander Solzhenitisyn’s passionate naming of ideology in Gulag Archipelago as the source of so much modern evil:
To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.
Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.
Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.
We all recognize, at this stage in history, that true believers with their self-righteous finger pointing have done tremendous harm–that Eric Hoffer is correct when he asserts that most of the world’s evil is done by those who feel they are righteously engaged in crusades to destroy evil. The trickiness of recent decades can be glimpsed in the way that this truth has been distorted into ideological slogans that encourage a hatred of those who speak of truth as though it could be known. The cure for true believers, it is widely believed, is to disbelief assertions of truth, to say that there is no truth beyond “your truth” and “my truth” and to feel revulsion–hatred even–toward those who insist on talking about goodness and evil as if they exist out there in ways that demand that we take sides.
Still, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Most of our confusion is created by evil’s penchant for parodying goodness. Evil needs to work this way because it is absolutely uncreative. It only destroys.
Evil has no telos–purpose or goal–of its own. It is, at bottom, nothing–except opposition to goodness. Goodness is the only true game in the Cosmos–it is, in fact, our name for that true game. We can see evil’s agenda in the way that those who do evil are virtually required to pretend, even to themselves, that they are doing good. Rotten dictators do not usually say they are seeking power because they enjoy power, and that power is felt most keenly when we are harming or destroying another. When we harm a fellow we provoke the most pure and primal opposition and in overcoming that fully focused will of another we achieve the purest sense of our self’s will. But the evil rarely admit this. What they say, generally, is that they are seeking some version of equality, fraternity, and liberty–because that is the true game.
In practice, it can be hard to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying. It’s so hard, sometimes, to tell what’s true that we are tempted to feel impotent and helpless, to wash our hands of the question. We note that partisans come to resemble each other, with each side making the same accusations of the other: they are lying, they have a hidden agenda of self-aggrandizement, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum till the end of time.
And yet, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice.
One ancient text that focuses on the problem is the story of the judgment of Solomon, from 1 Kings 3:16-28. In this story, two young women who both had an infant son came to Solomon for a judgment. One woman claimed that the other had rolled over on her own son while sleeping, smothering him, and had then switched the two babies to make it appear that the living child was hers. The other woman denied this and so both women claimed to be the mother of the living son and said that the dead boy belonged to the other. Each accused the other of lying. At a glance, they appear indistinguishable.
But who would therefore conclude that there is no difference between them? Who would be content to say that there is no truth or that we cannot learn what it is? Who would that benefit?
King Solomon called for a sword. He declared that the live son must be split in two, each woman receiving half of the child. The true mother cried, “Please, My Lord, give her the live child—do not kill him!” However, the liar, a bitter and jealous being, agreed with the judgment, “It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!”
Solomon thus brought to light the critical difference between the two women who superficially appeared the same. He gave the live baby to the real mother, who was motivated by love, and he revealed the false desire of the liar. She did not love the baby. She perhaps envied the baby’s mother, and so her desire was a form of imitation rather than something authentic. Her borrowed desire for the baby, which she may at some level have believed, stemmed from envy of someone possessed of a fulfilling desire. No doubt part of her wished she could feel the way she imagined the real mother must feel. So the empty woman acted in ways that inevitably transformed the one she envied into a rival. Her dishonest desire led her inexorably toward hate.
We can see this disturbing pattern at every level in our society, from high school drama between jealous girls or boys fighting over the same girl, to intense political contests, to international war. It’s a grave mistake to underestimate the power of envy or to remain oblivious to the ways it destroys worlds. Part of the learning we have in store for ourselves in the present age is the wisdom that lies behind the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.
This story of Solomon’s Judgment should resonate strongly in an age when, for many, the dominant political passions are envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred. For those wanting a better understanding of where the truth lies, attention to desire remains the key. What do they seek? What will satisfy them? Could anything satisfy them?
For an excellent study of what great literature (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, Proust) can teach us about good desire and its false parodies, read Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire & the Novel.
One reason I don’t whole-heartedly believe a return to a great books curriculum would “fix” education is that people bring the same ideas and mental filters to literature that they bring to the world. In a Marxist reading of Hamlet, the good prince’s spiritual awakening is invisible, and in a Freudian reading, the urgency of his advice to the queen is lost in psychosexual musings.
Shakespeare wrote within a Christian culture. Strangers to that culture read something quite other than he wrote.
I believe there can be great value in trying to understand old texts as their authors understood them, and since I also believe in an actual reality to which words refer, I also believe in the possibility of genuine understanding. The currently fashionable pedagogy of teaching students to “read” texts through various lenses, such as a “Marxist lens” or a “feminist lens” in practice sometimes amounts to no more than a willful subversion of those texts–an intentional avoidance of drawing near to what the author knew and attempted to communicate.
I used to argue that the curriculum of a school should form a unity with its policies and its administrative and board decisions–that what we knew of reason and evidence from science and philosophy, and of truth and judgment from history and literature should inform our student handbooks, our discipline code and our deliberations at faculty and board meetings.
Increasingly I see that we have achieved something of unity, but rather than our schools acting in the light of the best of our cultural and intellectual heritage, the schools themselves have been transformed into purveyers of pop culture. Pop psychology, cable news journalism, politically correct posturing, junk science and low-grade social activism provide much of the basis of discourse in the hallways, the classrooms, and the board room.
In significant ways, public education has become part of pop culture. For years I imagined something of a hierarchy based on the scale of information various institutions were charged with handling. Small-scale and fast-moving information could be handled by markets–as people moved from VHS tape rental to Netflix DVDs, the business community would monitor and respond to changing opportunities and tastes.
More intermediate information could be handled by government agencies, which were (supposedly) more slow-moving and deliberative, paying more attention to the rules of the game than the game itself, concerned with keeping the game reasonable honest and reasonably fair, while making compensations for market failures. The government should not try to replace the market but it must consider solutions to problems such as the inability of poor people to create demand no matter how great their need, since need without money does constitute a market demand.
The foundation, though, was education–dealing with the most slow-moving and large-scale information–judging fads and emergent possibilities against the great standards of the past and evaluating adjustments and changes in terms of the long-range effects on community and character. Of course, the largest-scale and slowest-moving information was eternity–a reality that educators should be nearest to understanding.
It would be nice to work in a school whose culture grew out of the best understandings drawn from history, science and literature–that is, a place led by the liberally educated. We never fully realized such an educational culture except at a few private schools led by humanely educated masters, but we did once aspire to it more than we do now.
Among the reasons for the shift, from looking to the great intellectual accomplishments of the past to looking at what’s “hot” in pop culture for inspiration and guidance, is, I believe, a shift in the basis of education from philosophy and literature to the social sciences. Teacher training programs have followed Dewey and his ilk, away from the idea of enduring things and stewardship of the best that has been thought and said into a “scientific” emphasis on endless innovation and change. We cannot simply teach what has been known for centuries using methods that have worked for a thousand years. Every teaching movement must be an experiment.
The incoherence of advocating “change” without a clear standard against which to measure it would be comic if the resulting mess were not so dispiriting. With little sense of a goal or purpose–beyond more “democracy”–and with a bias toward innovation rather than knowledge or standards, the scholar’s authority is replaced by the bureaucrat’s power, which derives from catering to the lowest common denominator. So our schools are dominated by test scores even when it is not clear what the scores are actually measuring or what they mean, and the purpose of schooling is widely, almost universally, held to be to serve “the economy” with “serve” defined by the lords of that economy–the corporate interests behind the push for 21st Century Skills, for example.
Test scores, dollars–everyone has to give some heed to credentials and income, so these lowest-common denominator concerns dominate in a culture in rebellion against cultural authority. And without cultural authority, who’s to say Hamlet has greater value than the last episode of Glee? The latter is easier to peddle to a distracted and self-absorbed audience, and the most attention from the most people is the standard that trumps all others.
The star intellectuals in the humanities have abdicated any claim that one text might be more important than another. The linguistic manifestation of nihilism–deconstruction–has denied that texts can actually contain truth or can actually be said to say anything definite at all. Having dissolved faith in the connection between word and world, truth is no longer interesting. Instead, we are left with desire–with the “choice” of radical individualism, with the understanding that values are simply preferences.
This leaves us somewhat where we are–that we cannot really distinguish between the latest YA novel cashing in on an interest in the latest perversion and the Aeneid.
And so our “evidence-based” schooling–a positivist bias in favor of materialism, judging as real only those things that can be measured– is dominated by social science research–which in practice means little more than that policies need to be blessed and sanctified with footnotes to this or that article written by an “expert” with an Ed. D. in something, but who likely knows little or nothing about the enduring things. What we read and discuss in class drifts toward what is most popular–which usually means easiest and most novel or shocking.
Those who have control of the apparatus of cultural change are not going to turn any of this around. They have deconstructed the shared culture and shared domain of discourse we would need to talk together about what might be better.
Peter Lawler is a writer I’ve been following for the past couple of years. He labels himself a “postmodern conservative” which caught my attention, because I’d decided that although I’d learned quite a lot from the postmodernists, it seemed to me that they were inside a bubble and though inside that bubble their views held, they thought the bubble was reality and I thought it was only a bubble.
He’s writing a series looking at contemporary American education through the “lens” of Tocqueville’s thought. His focus is on higher ed, but the main issues are completely applicable to what has happened in secondary ed. In Part 3, “Is it all about the soul?” he notes signs of America’s educational decline: “We can see that, in fact, most of the best theoretical programs can be found in our country today, but a strikingly disproportionate percentage of the students and professors didn’t grow up here. We know enough to spend the money, but we’re not so good in raising and educating kids to become the most top-flight of scientists.”
He suggests that this is because we are losing a framework for thinking about the soul, without which even our technological thinking atrophies. As we neglect the importance of the soul, our language becomes “more abstract and technical, using words like input when what is really meant is opinion. Language becomes less attuned to the personal longings of the being who loves, dies, and is open to truth about all things.”
Without steady replenishment from the ancient writers, who were “all about the soul,” we become a people among whom “poetry, and philosophy will lose ground.”
When he taught at Amherst in the 1930s, Robert Frost observed that changes advocated by apostles of endless innovation and experimentation would lead to the replacement of philosophy and literature with psychology and social sciences. This has happened to such an extent that it would be a rare occurrence, these days, to find an educator who understood what loss that change entailed.
What it has entailed, unfortunately, is that we are no longer in conversation with the great thinkers of the past–with the best that has been thought and said about the enduring questions. We can marvel, somewhat, at the depth and breadth of the understanding of such as Madison and Jefferson, but we have radically curtailed the sort of education that produced such leaders. They had a profound understanding of the intimate connection between the quality of our education and the fate of our republic.
Two things seem clear to me about today’s schools: first, our well-being and perhaps our survival as a free and self-governing people depend on some of us or many of us engaging in a deep conversation with America’s Founders, and with the sources of their insight, about the meaning of the American republic, and second, any such conversation is not going to emerge among those who have power and authority in the schools we’ve built. They speak of change incessantly, but they are nearly the last people with either the education or the motivation to question the status quo.
Some things today had me thinking about a poem from The Lit Window and the choices I began making a long time ago and continue making today. As I said to a friend today, I’ve never regretted choices I made in favor of family and relationships.
I wanted like a cat to measure myself
by whisker deeper into the dark passage.
Instead, I’ve been father and teacher,
proclaiming some prairie noon as if–
I keep thinking. To his daughter’s offered rose
Rodin’s thought was stone. Rilke’s family
passed him unattended like the distraction
of a passing wagon. Faulkner claimed a good fiction
outvalued a mere old woman. Byron burned years
in homage to a season. And Yeats pretended
we must choose perfection of the life or of the work.
And yet I winter the job conversations of men
rapt in the clever implications of each other’s
notions about someone’s accountant’s interpretation
of the latest version of the tax code
and come home to my trailer filled with children
and books and sink in getting something done
while Eldon Tarzan-yells from the perilous edge
of the coffee table and Gwendolyn tells
the wide-eyed truth to a mobile yellow telephone
and Christabel remembers with fragmentary
and long-winded exactitude the rapid magic
of a cartoon feud and for the fifth, I think, time
Thucydides says something about the confusion
of power and will–
I am where I want to be.
I read D. G. Meyers’ blog long before he became the “literature guy” at Commentary. It was refreshing to find a voice writing about literature that was not part of what David Mamet calls “the herd” and Anne Coulter calls “the mob.” His recent post about the “dead zone at the core of American life” deals in a more explicitly political way than most of his writing with the corruption and decadence at the heart of American education–including the creation and study of literature:
Even if the “best and brightest” in academe were not so keen to throw off the burden of the liberal arts — which were once the zone of strong moral codes in American life — the university has irretrievably lost its position as the training ground of personal character.
Nearly everyone has abandoned what was once understood–and had been so since Socrates–to be a core mission of education. William James put it thus:
The purpose of a university education, everyone now agrees, is to help you get ahead; not, as once said, underlining every word, to “help you to know a good man when you see him.”
About contemporary fiction, Meyers cites Joseph Hynes (“Morality and Fiction) to the effect that Henry James is a “highly sensitive moralist trying to find some roots for his conviction that responsible choices require attention to how we ought to live our lives,” but then he goes on to suggest that “James was one of the last American novelists with any such conviction.” Modern fiction-writers “have written more and more painstakingly about less and less,” Hynes observes. At present we see “the determined refusal, on display in contemporary fiction, to enter into conscious moral debate. . . .”
Humanists once sought asylum, to a degree, from a world consumed by “business ethics” and money values, and the major institutions in which such fugitives could “earn a living — the mainline churches, the research universities, the publishing trade” — have mostly imitated and come to share the values of the mercantile world they once critiqued. Meyers concludes that “if a new zone of personal character and strong moral codes is to be created in American life, it will have to be the work of a counterculture.”
It’s been disheartening to watch the humanities, which one could easily imagine would have been home to those least easily fooled by the deadening dissolutions of all the twentieth century’s ideologies, to witness it becoming so badly confused and self-contradictory, following a dead end road of modernity and post-modernity, a way marred with thousands of road signs bearing only slogans and pointing nowhere real.
It appears that Christian humanists are the group who are most diligently reading the great old masterpieces, including those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Those books, along with those of the ancient Hebrews, do model habits of thought and reason that have repeatedly set people free in the past and will do so again. The forces of greed and nihilism and hedonism are hardly new. They are the perennial enemy of the good life.
And it is the good life, finally, that is becoming a real counterculture.
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it. . . .
Hannah Arendt, Teaching as Leading
To do a good job, it’s important to believe that we have time. Hurrying would be a mistake. To hurry, the Chinese proverb tells us, is to eat soup with a fork. All the difficulties we face can be solved, if we think in long enough time frames. Some problems require years of work. Some require decades, and some require generations. Artists at their work experience time as the ground from which their sensibility bodies forth into the world. For them as for lovers, time is deep and endless. There is enough and more.
Time is the very stuff of life. What we make of it is ultimately all we are. Introducing young people to the depths of time and what has happened there is important work. We should help them to feel and understand time as an inexhaustible wealth.
Unfortunately, students in many schools experience time in the way it is experienced by prisoners and slaves: as a burden. Because they can do no work, but only tasks and chores, their identity becomes weak and faint. Hope fades. Time hangs. The clock barely moves. Desire asphyxiates. Those who have gone into our classrooms to study what happens there report that little happens. Things are controlled but not much occurs. People goof off, but not with much zest, and nobody really cares. Boredom and lethargy rule. When we pass through airports, we are reminded of the way the administered life drifts toward endless lines, endless forms, slow motion order and the pervasive feeling of impotence to accelerate or change the process. Time, the very stuff of life, is wasted.
There is another way to get no work done, and that is to dissipate ourselves in a thousand tasks. This is the plight of many of us today. Our modern world developed with and through our technologies of organizing time. In the early 1400s a new technology-clocks-changed people’s relationship to each other by increasing their ability to coordinate their activities. Clocks were too large and expensive for individual ownership, but huge clock towers were built in the centers of many towns. The periodic tolling of great iron bells drifted through the countryside. Folks suddenly able to coordinate individual schedules with new precision began to collaborate in ways they had not previously imagined.
Today, we live in an extraordinarily organized society in which all of us keep, or are kept by, schedules. Our highly elaborated and precise sense of time has allowed for a society organized to an unprecedented degree, within which nearly all of us are specialists. An artist ordering invitations for a show featuring his old-fashioned oil paintings might drop his sketch off at a quick print franchise on main street. He need not be at all aware of what happens next: with clocks ticking every step of the way, the design is digitalized and bounced off a satellite to a print shop in Hong Kong where the bits are reconverted to atoms, arranged as black patterns on white paper. The package of printed invitations is rushed to the Hong Kong airport and loaded onto a jet. Later that week, the artist picks up the finished job back on main street. This everyday task required the organization of hundreds of people. It’s the way we live now.
But though society has never been so organized and we know our lives are deeply entangled with other people’s lives, we have never been more isolated in private agendas and personal schedules. We rush to appointments and meetings, bumping others on their way to other appointments and meetings. Time, it seems, has become the scarcest of resources. Thirty seconds of “gray bar time”-waiting for a computer program to finish-can seem much too long. Each of us now has our own clock strapped to our arms and mounted on our dashboards, and we rush through the week without a village tower in sight. Time, the very stuff of life, seems to be running out.
For the most part, we did not shape the systems that now shape us. We don’t even know for sure who did shape them or what they are really up to. Because commerce has made the most visible and spectacular use of modern organization, we suspect that a lot of what is happening is because someone is making money. Though this may not be bad, enriching someone else is hardly a goal that brings people together. Instead, we tend to keep moving, trying to put aside a little something for ourselves. Time is money, it seems.
The world is moving faster and faster and change is the name of the game, the somewhat manic consultants keep assuring us. We need to forget faster and faster, just to make room for the new. Who remembers DOS commands?
At a town meeting not long ago the school superintendent became quite animated, talking about the pressures that rapid change put upon schools. His voice getting urgent, he cited statistics and painted a picture in which we were all going to become obsolescent if we didn’t do something. Our students were not prepared for the world that was forming around us. He was trained to keep up with the times. I wondered if that training had given him the perspective to distinguish between a fad and a trend. I wondered if it had given him the experience to set priorities wisely.
I suggested that if many things were changing too rapidly for schools to keep up, maybe more time should be spent studying things that changed very slowly, if they changed at all.
He looked perplexed. “What things might those be?” he asked.
Running a school, by his lights, was not all that different from playing a video game. Keep your eyes on the screen. Keep moving. Last year it was community service. Right now it is school-to-work. Whatever. Just react. Hurry. We need to change.
The unfortunate effect of such leadership is a kind of self-inflicted dementia. Dedication to staying in sync with rapidly changing fads leads schools to change directions with every shifting breeze of fashion. One school I worked for was like a person with Alzheimer’s, unable to remember from moment to moment what it was doing, what remained to be done or even who its friends were. We began lots of things but finished nothing. The bookshelves in the administrative offices were laden with unread binders, all that was left of abandoned projects that not so long ago had been touted as the solution to our worst problems.
Every apostle of change wants to retrain all the teachers, of course, so teachers were accustomed to being corralled into workshops and given lots of handouts and hearing lots of promises, but they knew there would be no follow through. Next year they would be on to something different. They would efficiently forget all this. They sat politely but they no longer really listened.
When I was studying to become an English teacher in the late 1970s, one of the books I was given to read was The Educated Imagination, first published in 1964 by Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. Near the end of that book, Frye said that “The society around us looks like the real world, but . . . there’s a great deal of illusion in it, the kind of illusion that propaganda and slanted news and prejudice and a great deal of advertising appeal to. . .It changes very rapidly, and people who don’t know of any other world can never understand what makes it change.”
Might not this have been written this morning? Frye goes on to argue that the real world is not the one that’s changing. “The real world,” he says, “is the world of what humanity has done, and therefore can do, the world revealed to us in the arts and sciences. This is the world that won’t go away, the world out of which we built the Canada of 1942, are now building the Canada of 1962, and will be building the quite different Canada of 1982.”
The real world, like gravity, may be invisible. We do not see it but see its effects. The best education is about learning to apprehend, behind those effects, the things that do not change: the timeless patterns and the eternal forces. These are things that educators, even school superintendents, might usefully ponder, if they can find the time.
The Art of Slow Thinking
The most powerful education is not driven by markets or election cycles. Instead, it aims passing on cultural knowledge that has taken centuries to build and that will remain useful even after our business partners change and our transportation systems are re-invented. It’s okay that cultural mores and institutional practices change more slowly than markets. That’s their job.
“Don’t hurry,” should be the motto inscribed over every schoolroom door. But also, “Don’t stop. Don’t waste time.” Schools should primarily be caretakers of the slow knowledge we call wisdom.
Teachers should be less interested in high velocity markets and the shifting priorities of political election cycles than in passing on the techniques of intelligence–such things as how to evaluate evidence, how to use math to perceive patterns too large or too small for direct observation, what it takes to develop friendships and alliances, how to organize a town and hold it together, what it feels like to win a kingdom but lose your soul, how fights begin and how they end, how justice comes into the world and how it perishes, how to discern between things ephemeral and things of permanent worth and so on.
Change, of course, is assured–indeed, it is irrepressible. But the more things change, the more important it becomes that we learn to see what does not change, or changes only slowly. We need to know what is solid ground. We need firm footing to wrestle with what comes.
Familiarity with the past more than anything else provides us with that footing. In times of rapid change the institutions we most need to strengthen are those that preserve memory. The most reliable way to know something of the future is to know the past. It is long memory that encourages the longest possible view of the future.
In The Clock of the Long Now Stewart Brand reports that in 1980 the Swedish Navy received a letter from the Forestry Department announcing that the ship lumber that had been requested was ready. In 1829, the Swedish Parliament had ordered twenty thousand trees planted on Visingsö, in the lake Vätern. It took 150 years for an oak to mature and they anticipated a shortage of ship lumber during the 1990s. The move had been opposed by the Bishop of Strängnäs because he didn’t believe people would still have wars by then and even if they did ships would probably no longer be made of wood. Parliament overrode him. They got the details wrong but by thinking in the long term they did the right thing anyway. The worth of that mature oak forest today is beyond calculation.
Wisdom tends to come to older people because they have had to live with more consequences of bad choices. As people see and understand longer time frames, their thinking gets stronger and their decision making gets better. The same is true of institutions. Wendell Berry has noted that morality is nothing other than long-term practicality, and companies that rely on repeat customers tend to be more honest and fair than those who believe that tomorrow will always be a brand new game.
The single simplest thing to do to make schools more sensible institutions and to make the education they deliver of more worth is to develop institutional practices that lead people-administrators, teachers, board members, parents and students-to consider what is happening over much longer periods of time. Schools today need institutional practices and institutional goals that organize their daily labors around visions longer than a 45-minute period, longer than a semester, longer than a superintendent’s tenure, longer than this political cycle’s hot problem and longer even than a teacher’s career.
It may be helpful to think about what James P. Carse, religion professor at New York University, calls “the infinite game.” He says “a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game.” Football is a finite game. Gardening is an infinite game. A political campaign is a finite game. A family is an infinite game. A business deal is a finite game. A religion is an infinite game.
Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars built upon Carse’s thought. In a finite game, they pointed out, winners exclude losers. In an infinite game, winners teach losers better plays.
In a finite game, the winner takes all. In an infinite game, winning is widely shared.
In a finite game, the players’ aims are identical. In an infinite game, the players’ aims are diverse.
In a finite game, rules are fixed in advance to guarantee a single winner. In an infinite game, rules are changed along the way by agreement.
In a finite game, energy is focused in short-term, decisive contests. In an infinite game, energy is invested in the long term.
Finite games focus on how they end. Infinite games focus on how they continue.
Good schools, like good communities, good economies and good families, are playing an infinite game. They may include finite games within them, but they ensure that these games don’t displace the larger play or corrupt it. James Carse ends his book with a statement that bears further reflection: there is but one infinite game.
The story of that one infinite game is the right story for schools to organize their practices around.
Playing the Infinite Game
I have some thoughts about the infinite game and how it should be played. So do you. Here are the basics: it includes everybody, it involves all knowledge, and it includes all of the past and all of the future. That’s quite a bit. So where do we start?
We start with families. Family, suggests historian Elliott West, is the tool that can help students connect all the disconnections of time and place they face in the modern world. In a speech to the Montana Heritage Project he pointed out that “Families intertwine the chaotic details of every past time and bind them with the present and with us. For those of us interested in how societies have worked, families have always been the center of ordinary human lives. Their greatest power is to implicate you and me in the emotional world of real people who have come and gone, people we will join soon enough.”
He suggested that we study the past using our own families as a point of entry, and as a linking principle. Fortunately, recommending the study of family history as one of the animating principles of schools is not a quixotic thing to do. In fact, the evidence suggests that millions already feel this is just what they need and are flocking toward it. Just as people responded to the realities of their sedentary lives in the 1970s by taking up jogging and finding gyms, people today are responding to the feeling of disconnection in today’s world by flocking in vast numbers toward family history, which at its best is genuine history but with a personal connection.
Doing family history research is not simply about creating pedigree charts. Rather, it is about understanding the human experience. Through the internet, people are connecting not only with their distant ancestors, re-imagining the worlds they knew and pondering what they faced and how their world grew into our world, they are also connecting with like-minded people around the world. They are forming, of their own free will, ambitions on a massive scale. These ambitions will only be realized by shared effort. Stewart Brand points out that “Thousands of users of a program called Family Tree Maker are linking their research into a World Family Tree on the Web. So far it has tied together seventy-five thousand family trees, a total of fifty million names. The goal, once unthinkable, is to eventually document and link every named human who ever lived.”
Every named human who ever lived. Think about that for a moment, or maybe even for an hour.
Through a focus on family history research, students can be drawn to oral history, which involves reading, writing, speaking, listening, summarizing and analyzing as well as the fundamental work of turning towards elders with interest and compassion. They can be drawn to primary document research, which includes making a research plan, using finding aids, writing letters, evaluating conflicting evidence and synthesizing original conclusions. They can be drawn to published texts that treat historical periods, specific events, political history, personal experience and the rest of the human record.
But that’s not all. As they join the worldwide effort of others who are trying to understand the world through the work of finding their families, they will find that they can contribute to the world’s memory. They can discover what has been lost. They can contribute important information to the shared work.
The work of reconstructing the past is not a passing fad but a historical trend that cannot be turned back or stopped any more than the industrial revolution could have been halted. Those who decide to help with the work will find that history is on their side. In Thoreau’s terms, they will “meet with success unanticipated in commoner hours.”
They will begin to see that this work drives other work. They will see that in doing this work, the stories of various sects become entangled with one another. Muslims and Jews find each other connected through not just through their modems but also through the intertwined stories of their intertwined families.
Conducting family history research is a central human project at this time and as we do it we will put vast amounts of the world’s knowledge online and we will steadily increase all people’s access to it. The distributed research and linked computers of millions of searchers will exceed by many orders of magnitude the power of the government’s largest super-computers.
That woman in Ireland who is looking for an uncle who was last heard from somewhere in Montana in 1875-how is she to find what happened to him? The answer may lie on a gravestone in that cemetery just up the hill on the windswept prairies. If she had the name and the date on that gravestone, she could find an obituary, and if she had the obituary she might have the name of employers, information about historical events that touched his life. One thing leads to another and to another and, given time, to all things.
Right now there is work to do. The cemetery records, the courthouse records of real estate transactions and marriages, it can all be put online. Students who share this work and learn to organize information, to create and maintain data bases, to research and to write, and to place a value upon the human record will not be getting a provincial education. They will be stepping into the central story of our times.
To find every person who has ever lived, people in each village and town and city need to find those who lived there. While people in Scotland or China are finding your relatives there, you can help them find theirs where you are. Much of this is work that students can do. Much of it is work that grandparents can do. And much of it is work that they can share.
Schools that act as catalysts for this work will find support coming from every direction. They will find that students are motivated, teachers revitalized and communities re-engaged. They will, of course, continue other studies and they will still have proms and basketball games. The infinite game, after all, has room for us all with all our interests.
And though we start with families, we don’t stop there. Family history leads to community history, and community history leads to national and world history and history includes all other disciplines. As schools, in partnerships with museums and historical societies, begin to maintain community archives containing research done by students and other community members, these archives will become the most important institution in the school.
If you would like to test the educational value of such materials, you can conduct a simple test. Set up two tables in a classroom. On one table, put the most seductive materials you can locate from the large publishers of educational materials, with their four-color illustrations and lavish layouts. On the other table place some old photographs of the local neighborhood, a few old maps of the place and a collection of old newspapers. Bring some kids into the room and watch where they go and what they do. Be ready to be quiet for a while, because the students will not hear you. They’ll be buzzing with excitement, pointing things out to one another.
A good local archives will include long-term ecological studies, local geography, studies of transportation systems and public utilities and studies of local folkways and traditions. Caring for such a collection of local research and adding to it will be everyone’s responsibility. And the work that is done in such schools will not be ephemera, as most school work has been. It will be intended to last forever.
Joined in Time
Some of the work will be in file folders, awaiting the right researcher to take it farther. Some will be in published documents, that hold in place organized bodies of work that have been done. And some will be ready for publication online. Since the work is intended to last forever, it is not done in undue haste.
The collection will not seem grand at first. The first year it might have only fourteen biographical essays done by a senior English class. But fourteen essays is something, if it is kept. In ten years, the value will be more clear. There will be hundreds of documents, and teachers who had shown no interest at the beginning will begin to pay attention. Nearly every student in their classes will be able to find information on their own families. This will provoke further questions.
In twenty years, everyone will understand the value of what is being done. The archives will be quite large and everybody will have a personal interest in some part of it. Community members will come to the school to do their own research alongside students.
In doing the work, they will come to understand more and more of what it has meant and now means to be human. They will see the world from all its perspectives: that of victors, that of the defeated, that of women, that of kings, that of slaves. They might be brought to ponder the way consequences follow actions, not always quickly and not always fairly. They might meditate on justice. They might learn new songs. They might be stirred to compassion.
Maybe they learn that every life has its lessons to teach, and that if those lessons are learned then every life, no matter how hopeless it might have seemed, has its value. As Elliott West reminded us, “All of us sleep with ghosts. When we invite them into our own day, we learn about the world they knew, and how it grew into ours. But we do something more. We resurrect our humanness.”
In fifty years, people will have a hard time imagining a school without an archives. A school without an archives would be, would be-well, a place full of busy work, a place where time was a burden and people watched the clock and waited, a place where nothing that was done was real or permanent, a place where people thought mostly about token rewards and cliques, a place where people were bored and restless and angry-in other words, a place where people wasted the very essence of their lives: time.
Whoever you are, if you are still you might feel the stirring of ghosts, of lost souls returning, bearing gifts, walking the halls and towers of a vast library where all the voices of humanity speak as a stirring in the dust. Wherever you are, if you listen slowly enough, you might hear now the gentle tolling of a giant bell in a distant commons, calling you home.
It’s only a story, but a story already coming true.
Vico. I haven’t thought about him since I was an undergraduate. One of my philosophy profs in a “great books” program was writing a book on Vico, who he believed was hugely underappreciated, and so Vico seemed to creep into everything we read, from Homer to James Joyce, though I would be exaggerating if I suggested I understood the prof well enough to agree or disagree.
Now here comes Mark Signorelli at the invaluable Front Page web site talking about Vico’s argument about “the inescapably probable nature of our knowledge concerning human affairs, and the importance of educating youth in a way that prepares them to accept verisimilitude as a proper standard for political and ethical debate.” Maybe now I’m ready to understand what he was talking about.
We have allowed the success of science to forget older understandings of truth and knowledge that are more fitting the needs of our lives as persons among other persons. Over time, this has made life in relationships, including in civil communities, difficult for us: “Our young men, because of their training, which is focused on these studies, are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology of permeate their utterances with passion.”
Signorelli says that “by exalting the Cartesian standard of truthfulness into a universal standard, teachers were effectively undermining their students’ ability to reason on matters of an ethical or political nature, where the neatness and conclusiveness of science can never be reproduced.” He sees our current “imbecility” about political and moral matters as a consequence of applying the wrong standard of truth to such matters:
Exactly as Vico feared, we take the scientific standard of truth to be the sole and universal standard of truth; whatever is not scientifically verified, we assume, is not really true. One symptom of this intellectual disease is that the modern mind indulges in the recurrent fantasy – played out every day in Psychology and Sociology Departments across the land – that an application of scientific methodology to human experience will somehow provide us with conclusive and substantive knowledge about ourselves. And when this delusion falls apart, as it inevitably does, we swing just as wildly to the opposite extreme and declare that nothing true can be asserted regarding ethical or political topics. Thus we oscillate endlessly between positivism and relativism – between sociobiology on the one hand, and post-modernism on the other – without ever discovering the grounds on which to establish some form of civil agreement.
The moral confusion that results has been incorporated into our teaching. Schools, governed more by fashion and politics than by philosophy, have responded to the age’s lack of moral clarity by abdicating moral education, except for slogans amenable to the diversity regime or those aimed at eliciting compliance with various school rules. “Respect” at school means complying with rules about wearing hats, and “responsibility” mean turning in homework on time.
This doesn’t seem to be working very well. Lost in Transition : The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Hilary Davidson, Kari Christoffersen, Christian Smith, Patricia Snell Herzog explores in some detail the moral confusion of young Americans. This sociological study from Oxford University Press is based on “in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of emerging adults (ages 18-23) to investigate the difficulties young people face today, the underlying causes of those difficulties, and the consequences both for individuals and for American society as a whole.”
The findings that have gotten most attention are the author’s claims about the vacuity of moral reasoning among today’s young people:
We asked emerging adults to tell us about any experiences they have had facing moral dilemmas recently and how they went about resolving them. In the context of a larger discussion about moral rights and wrongs, goods and bads, we asked this question: “Can you tell me about a specific situation you’ve been in recently where you were unsure of what was right and wrong?” Their answers were revealing. First, one-third of the emerging adults who we interviewed (33 percent) simply could not think of any moral dilemmas or difficult situations that they had personally confronted in recent years. . . .Two-thirds of the emerging adults we interviewed (about 66 percent) proved simply unable to engage our questions about moral dilemmas in their lives. . . .The rest either think they do not face any moral conflicts or uncertainties, think that they do when in fact they really do not, or do not understand what “moral” means.
. . . the adult world that has socialized these youth for 18 to 23 years has done an awful job when it comes to moral education and formation. Moral individualism and relativism are simply intellectually impossible and socially unsustainable positions. Any college sophomore philosophy major should be able to handily deconstruct them both. Yet the majority of American youth have entered emerging adulthood committed to moral individualism. And a substantial minority of them have done the same with moral relativism. On these two elementary points, these emerging adults are simply lost. They are morally at sea in boats that leak water badly. That is not an acceptable situation. . . .
Schools are one of the most powerful socializing institutions of youth in American society today, along with families and the mass media. Public schools are the dominant institution among all school types. Before we interviewed our respondents as emerging adults, we had previously interviewed them twice, when they were still teenagers, some of them when they were as young as 13 years old. So we know a great deal about their lives before they entered emerging adulthood. One big theme that stuck out in our previous interviews was the fact that the schools, especially public schools, that our younger respondents attended studiously avoided talking about potentially controversial moral issues. Over and over again, these teenagers we interviewed reported that their teachers always sidestepped and evaded questions and problems that might generate disagreement or conflict in the classroom. “No, my teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” they would typically say. “Anytime anything that might make trouble or hurt someone’s feelings come up, they say we aren’t going there,” others confirmed. “Nope, we can’t talk about religion or them hot-button moral issues in school, ’cause they don’t want to open up that can of worms” was a typical report. In short, it appears that most schools, especially public schools, are not teaching students how to constructively engage moral issues about which people disagree. Quite the contrary, schools are teaching students that the best way to deal with difficult moral problems and questions is to ignore them. The moral pedagogy of most middle and high schools clearly seems to be: avoid, ignore, and pretend the issues will go away. Needless to say, that is naive and impossible. It actually resembles highly dysfunctional families that have sets of issues that nobody is allowed to bring up or discuss and that are instead carefully tiptoed around.
So, should we do something? According to Signorelli, we need to regain the standards of truth that are embodied in the great works of our own tradition. “Our task,” he says, “is simply the revival of humanist scholarship, in the schools especially, but in the broader culture also. We must become regular readers again of Sophocles, Thucydides, Petrarch, Cervantes, Racine, Johnson, and Tolstoy, because a mind that is acquainted with their works will find it absolutely ridiculous to suppose that such authors do not state truth.”
My own reading has tended heavily toward such old authors in recent years, and the claims that Signorelli makes for such reading ring true for me. However, I don’t imagine any of this will have the slightest effect on public schools, if things are left to them.