25 May 2009

Consciousness in stream

I think Joyce was mostly correct in Ulysses by his depiction of consciousness as in movement like an unending stream. When I run it intrigues me the amazing patterns of thought which transpire. I run with music—the ubiquitous iPod—and so sometimes the sense of the song directs my thought into a certain path, but there is no order (except that which I create, which may be the whole sense of order anyway!) to the array of thoughts.

But if I sit and write and read, then the stream is directed and the pattern evident. I cannot stop the stream, indeed, but I can slow it down so that I can have some control over its current. As now, when I search for words and sentences that flow smoothly and regularly. Perhaps that is why Joyce had to send Bloom and Daedalus walking through Dublin—to ensure that their minds would be open to the abandon of the rushing stream, and not restricted in flow by conscious effort.

Of course, when I sit writing and reading I cannot wholly control the stream, but that phenomenon does not hurt the writing; indeed, perhaps it helps it by ensuring that I don’t halt too severely the movement of the stream but leave it open to influence and gravity.

And so again it strikes me that the control of narrative voice is central to the writing of fiction. The monk so far is the narrator of Part I, and it is the women through whose eyes we know Frank Lloyd Wright. Their thoughts are not a free flowing stream, but rather, quite controlled and smooth moving.

21 May 2009


Three Novels Reading: An Open Blog

I am in a novel reading phase. There are moments when I think that the truths I seek can only be found in scholarly texts of philosophical and political matters, and then there are other times when I think that those truths are in works of fiction, which for me means novels. And so piled about me are a plethora of novels and a pad on which I write the novels I must (re)read. I recently reread Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist , and am about one-third into TC Boyle’s The Women, a portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright as seen through the women in his life and narrated by a male Japanese former apprentice at Taliesen. But in the batter’s box:

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamzov. Several times I have read crime and Punishment, but never this final novel. But last weekend I saw a program of five one-act plays by Tony Kushner and in the final one the Brothers Karamazov was a central image. I realized that I the Grand Inquisitor is a central figure in western culture and certainly in Jewish history. And I knew that The Brothers Karamazov is an important novel that I probably should read before I depart, though the logic of the idea expressed in that sentence now escapes me.

Then Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury sits on my desk. So long since I read this novel or any Faulkner for that matter. I don’t think I’ve ever made sense of Absalom, Absalom, but recall with some pleasure reading As I Lay Dying. Of course, the short story “The Bear” is anthologized in every high school and college text, so I have åcovered that several times in my studies. Also this is a novel I will read with my daughter, whose studies as an English major return me to my own college days. Interesting to read novels now which I read then and knowing what I know now about criticism and reading.

Then . . . I hold these readings down with books I should be studying but have no faith in, or patience for, right now: Charles Taylor (all right, I did read a third thus far of A Secular Age), Slavov Žižek (Parallax View) and a new book by Yirmiyahu Yovel about the Marrano Jews of 15th century Spain.

It is all about searching somehow. And belief that somehow all of this will find some place in my thought soon.

18 May 2009


Last night I had the strangest dream. In the dream, I was searching through some writing on which I was working for a missing page; a page somewhere in the middle had become lost, and I could no longer work on the piece without that missing page. I remember leafing thrugh the pages, turning over the last ordered one (as if the missing page had been typed on the back of it), and shuffling through the front pages as if the missing page were merely misplaced.

At the moment, I am not working on any writing, and so perhaps my dream represents either a writer’s block dream, or a writer’s dream dream! If the former, then I must feel in my writing life somewhat . . . stuck. I am afraid to sit down and struggle with almost anything that would require some intellectual effort. I think right now I don’t have any spare reserve to use for my writing. I am at best distracted, and at worst, well, incapable of devoting any imaginative effort to anything but daily functioning. So much seemingly that needs to be done that I cannot imagine even an hour devoted almost selfishly to writing.

But perhaps the dream means that I am searching for a writing project, and that the missing page is the page I should be writing now. Perhaps even this is that page.

I once wrote a paper on S.Y. Agnon’s story “The Book That Was Lost.” In that essay I talked about how my reading is motivated by a vague search for the answer to an unasked question (a borrowing here from Thoreau’s Walden). I argued that the answer for my life was always in the book that was lost, and so I have made it my life’s quest to the search for that book. When I find it, I will know.

Of course I realize that any answer is useless without the right question, and as suggested above, the question is yet unknown and unasked.

14 May 2009

Standards, a continuing conversation

I’ve been thinking (a bit more) about standards.

We brought into the home from Trader Joe’s (a new phenomenon for this household) four plastic packages of Organic sprouted mix: ingredients include sprouted organic adzuki beans, organic lentils and organic peas. I love this mix, and consume them plain and by the handful, even though I haven’t the foggiest idea what it means to say they are ‘sprouted,’ (probably something as a vegetarian I shouldn’t admit) or that they have these filaments hanging off of them that look like little tails. I remember this item from the glorious arrays of product on display at the green grocers on the streets of New York City, but the have not been a very hot item in the rural mid-west. Of course, I didn’t really I missed them until they reappeared suddenly in my home.

Thus, while munching cheerfully away today I noted on the package that the serving size was about ½ cup (57g), and that each package contained two servings.

Who sets these standards? Every package in my house has such a declaration: the unchicken nuggets (serving size 5 nuggets per person equals); potato chips (servings per container, 7, serving size 2.2 ounces, 7 chips); Paul Newman cream filled cookies (serving size, 2 cookies). Etc., etc. Every item in my pantry and refrigerator announces rather pointedly how much I ought to consume and how many calories this eating will entail. Who makes these decisions? Why do I only have to eat two cookies, or half a package of organic sprouted mix? Or that my bottle of root beer contains two servings even though the cap won’t go back on to preserve the bubbling for the second serving.

And then someone mentioned something about a dysfunctional family. What does that mean? What isn’t a dysfunctional family? If the standard is Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best or any recent situation comedy where the laughs occur every 11 seconds, then I don’t place much stock in the standard. Yet I suspect too many of us try to measure our own family life to a standard artificially set by someone who doesn’t know very much obviously. Or maybe s/he knows a great deal, and is working out in their standard-setting an unrealized (and unrealizable) wish for a more functional family.

And so, we all walk around eating seven potato chips, and half a container of organic sprouted mix, and two cookies, holding all the while that we derive from and maintain a dysfunctional family. And always wanting more.

Seven potato chips? Seven? And of what size should they be?

12 May 2009

Semester's End

End of semesters always have never been easy for me. There must always be that ‘last class,’ the one where all I have hoped yet failed to teach sits in the last empty chair in the room. The vague hopes of the opening days lay crushed under the weight of texts, student papers, and grade books. I feel so inadequate at this event—and event it always is, as I attempt to communicate what I have yet failed to do so, and students strain to look interested and comprehending in ways they have never looked before.

How to enact these last classes? Review for the final exam? Open the discussion to learning achieved? Play Scrabble? Or just open up the room to Facebook?

When I taught High School I used to use the final class of the year—or the final classes before holiday breaks—as a time for hootenanny. I would play guitar and sing old lefty folk songs and while away the social time with politics. I don’t think I fooled anyone but myself.

And now it is another end of the semester, and I am puttering about trying to look busy, accomplished and important. I don’t think I’m fooling anyone, not even myself.

01 May 2009


“Dr. Block, can I ask you a question?” she said.

I had just left a class I felt to have been an utter failure. We had been discussing John Updike’s The Centaur, a novel I have loved over the years, and had decided an appropriate text from which to teach in a Foundations of Education class occupied by first and second year students who were interested in becoming teachers. During the semester I had made a point to emphasize how difficult the teaching profession was, and how very hard it was to be a teacher. To this end, besides studying the ideas concerning education of several influential American educators (John Dewey, Franklin Bobbitt, Jane Addams, Robert Hutchins, etc.) I had offered several case studies of student-teachers who had struggled mightily in the classroom in their attempts to become teachers. One of the two chose to leave the profession after a particularly difficult and unrewarding student teaching experience. I had recently given students an article I had recently published in The Journal of Teacher Education, one certainly not for the weak of heart, entitled, “Why Should I Be a Teacher?” a serious portrayal of the difficulties immanent in the teaching profession. In the essay, I had suggested that teachers must be brave because the work is so hard and the rewards so intangible, so rare, and so uncertain.

The Centaur is the story of a teacher, George Caldwell who struggles with the demands of the profession because he is such a good teacher. Like his mythological counterpart, Chiron, Caldwell means to bring the children out of darkness, but in twentieth century Olinger, Pennsylvania, this darkness seems pervasive and unending. “Knowledge is a sickening thing,” Caldwell responds to poor Judith Lengel, who almost in tears says, “I get so sort of sick and dizzy just trying to keep it all straight.” Caldwell’s father had been a minister, but on his deathbed had asked, “Will I be eternally forgotten?” This doubt spoken by a man of faith plagues the son: the essential doubt troubling the man of faith calls into question the very solidity of the world. When Al Hummel comments “These are bad days,” Caldwell responds, “It’s no Golden Age, that’s for sure.”

I had given students sufficient time to read the book, and asked them to keep a reading journal (though regretfully I didn’t give instruction how this practice might occur), and I offered the class a study guide which I asked them to fill out and bring to class. I had during the semester engaged students regularly in discussion about the assigned essays and book chapters exploring issues concerning the foundations of education: philosophy, history, politics etc. I expected that by this time in the semester, everyone would be familiar and ready and prepared to engage in some intellectual discussion of The Centaur.
I was wrong. In this class I was confronted by deep wells of silence. All I could hear in that classroom were the echoes of my own voice as I called down into the dark cavernous abyss. I felt not unlike the student teachers described in the two book chapters I had assigned: confused, lost, frustrated, and upset. But I had been teaching for thirty-nine years!! I felt angry and discouraged. I consciously reviewed my Bloom’s taxonomic levels of cognitive behaviors, tried to adjust the nature of my questions to his categories, and in my questions to move up and down along Bloom’s hierarchy searching for the stimulus to some conversation only to confront the silence. I said aloud (foolishly, because I knew no response would be forthcoming!), “What is wrong with my questions? Why won’t you respond? What questions would you prefer?” In silence they stared beyond me.

And so, when I departed class and walked toward my office, I felt that this had been an empty class, and that the time and the book had been for naught. When I considered what had occurred in that classroom all I could admit to myself was that nothing had happened. And then Anna snuck up behind me and said tentatively, “Dr. Block, can I ask you a question?” Anna was a student in the class from which I had just fled. “Sure,” I responded, (“Please,” I thought, “give me some insight into what I had done wrong in that class. By your question please help me be a better teacher!”) Hugging her books to her chest she asked, “Have you ever read The Sun Also Rises?”

Not exactly what I expected and certainly not what I wanted, but at least it was a question! I said, “Yes, I’ve read the book several times. Why do you ask, Anna?” She looked ahead, waited a second or three, and then wondered, “What’s the point?”

Now, this was an interesting question, and I realized that depending on how I ascribed a certain emphasis to the words, I could interpret it in at least one of two ways. First, Anna could be asking what was the point of reading the book at all! This emphasis called into question the very nature of the life I had chosen, but I was not prepared to engage in that discussion at this time and place. The philosophical implications of that question were so enormous that I feared venturing into this terrain even the smallest step. I wasn’t ready to explaining my life in front of the Student Union Building. I decided not to deal with the implications of that particular emphasis to the question. I asked Anna for further clarification. “What do you mean, Anna, what is the point?” “Well, she said, “What is the point of the book?”

Ah, I considered, I know where I am. Hannah wanted to know what was the meaning of the book; what was the book’s theme? I have been here before. And if I could give my response to her in say, a single sentence or brief paragraph, I think she would have been very appreciative. After all, points are those places to which we head: arriving at some point justifies the effort, or at least, completes it. Without the point, too may hold, effort is meaningless. Dubious as to the point of The Sun Also Rises, Hannah was wondering if she had wasted her time reading the book. Without a point there would be no justification for her activity. “Why did you read that book? she might be asked. “I don’t know,” she might respond. “It was a waste of time, actually. I don’t know what the point of it was.” On the one hand, if Hannah didn’t get the point, then there was either something wrong with her or with the book; her question to me whether the book had a point led her away from her own potential failings.

I know that Hannah’s is a pedagogical problem; Hannah learned to read that way—to get the point—in school. She learned this in part because in schools teachers ask all of the questions praising students for correct answers and voicing disapproval to students for wrong ones. Standardized and multiple choice tests are forever asking what is the main idea in this selection. Students are constantly sent out seeking the hidden meaning of texts. Reading is seldom considered an open activity engaged in for its own sake; students are rarely taught how to make meaning of the texts they are assigned to read. Students are not taught how to interrogate the texts they are assigned; rather, reading is performed in order to “get the point” so that some question posed by someone else might be correctly answered. The question students most ask in school is “Teacher, will this be on the test?”

On the other hand, Hannah’s question suggested a limited repertoire of questions. She was expressing the only question that she had been taught to be legitimate: what is the point? And this too is a pedagogical problem: we have organized education so that students only proffer answers rather than ask questions.

But I think that this is far more than a pedagogical problem: I think we are confronted in Hannah’s question with a social issue of some consequence. Hannah’s question suggested that she has learned that she should be focused on ends and not means. This is a paradox because if we mean to create life-long learners, a statement inherent in every mission statement of every educational institution of which I am aware, then Hannah should be learning about means and not ends. But “what is the point?” is a question about ends and not about means. I thought back to Phaedrus, in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: there he says that the top of the mountain defines the sides, but it is on the sides that life grows. Hannah’s question concerned the point—the peak—and was blind to the sides.

I said, “Hannah, perhaps the book doesn’t have a point.” I tried to make a joke: “If books had points, then they would hurt people.” Hannah didn’t laugh. I continued: “But perhaps you might ask a different question.” “Like what?” she asked. “Well, what kind of world does the book portray? Would you want to live in the world of The Sun Also Rises?” “No,” she said. “Well, why not?” “Well, all they do is drink, and screw around, and criticize each other?” “Well, why do they do these things.” Her face wrinkled a bit. “Well, I don’t know,” she offered.

This is a standard response. I tell students that it is not true that they do not know, but it is certainly the case that they don’t trust what they do know, or that they do not know that what is running through their mind is what knowing is about. A question is the beginning of knowledge. “What do you think?” I asked. And for just a few precious minutes, as we walked down the block on one of the first days of a too-brief Spring, Hannah and I discussed Hemingway’s novel. I think Hannah learned a few things about The Sun Also Rises and maybe even about asking questions. And I learned that the failure of the class hadn’t been all my fault. And I think I learned a bit about a new set of questions I might ask the next time I teach The Centaur.

What is my point here? Our students seek answers, or even worse, they seek the answer, but they haven’t the foggiest idea how to ask the questions. After all, almost all of their worth as students has been derived from bubbling in answers to questions on standardized short answer tests. Much of the time they are the targets for answers to questions they have not asked. I suspect they do not know even that they are authorized to ask questions. In schools, at least, the question is merely the route to an answer, and if they do not have a ready answer, then they revert to silence and await the next question. Or if the answer is too ready, then they do not want to expend much energy to give it. They have not been yet taught to ask another question or to turn an answer into a question.

There is a story about a man spends all of his wealth to purchase a chest filled with answers. When he opens the chest he discovers pieces of paper and on each one is a sentence: “Eat breakfast,” “Marry him,” “If you must,” “Seventy-six.” “Now,” the man excitedly cries, “I have the answer to all things!” But what good are the answers without the right question? Our students don’t know how to ask questions because they have been taught to seek only the answers.

But I want to say right here and now that this is not merely a pedagogical condition: I do not intend to join the horrid chorus of critics who decry the state of our schools, our teachers and our educational system. Rather, I think that this issue is a social one as well. We have created a society that is not interested in questions. We have come as a society to expect and to value only the answer; we have placed all of our faith in the answer and none in the question. It is an instrumentalist stance we take: the answer always tells us what must be done. Paradoxically, it is the question that inspires movement and requires that something be done, and it is the answer that makes independent movement unnecessary. The question leads us out to we know not where, and the answer draws us back into the familiar.

The question implies an unknown, a sense of mystery. There is a dangerous excitement in the question. Finally, our society has lost its pursuit of the delight of the mystery, magic and enchantment replete in the question. Questions open the world, and answers close it down. Questions inspire movement, but answers render further movement unnecessary. Questions are the enemies of falseness, but the answer falsely promises fulfillment. We are told that when the genome project is complete that we will know everything there is to know about the human being. All questions about human behavior will be finally answered. But I do not believe this at all: will the map of my genes tell me know why I have fallen in love with one and not another, and what I should do about it? Will it tell me why today for breakfast I want oatmeal and not eggs? How will knowing my genetic map improve my sense of humor or compassion? The question acknowledges that there is more to know, and the answer puts an end to curiosity. The question opens the world to speculation, and the answer closes it to wonder. There is nothing beyond the answer, but by the question the world is open to possibility.

We must as a society restore the sense of mystery and enchantment to life so that the first thought is of the question and not the answer. There is nothing wrong with answers as long as they do not silence the question. The genome project itself was begun by a question, but its beauty seems despoiled by its promise of the finitude of the answer. What good is the answer without the right question? Why would I want to end all of the mystery and remove from the world all enchantment?

And so I want now to honor Hannah’s question, “What is the point?” It is a start, and I hope my responses to her the beginning of our education. We opened the world on our walk from a class that I thought had closed it.