28 January 2014

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Last night at the age of ninety-four, Pete Seeger died. Funny, he was never Peter but always Pete. Yarrow was always Peter, but Seeger was always Pete. And he never wavered from his commitment to democracy, to freedom and to the people. If he was not always right, he was always true. It was from Pete Seeger that I learned that there is no such thing as a wrong note.  I think now that this was some of the greatest wisdom I have ever learned.

            And he taught me about commitment. Where there was a cause there would be Pete demanding “Which Side Are you On.” Or hammering out a song of justice and freedom. Maybe Pete is partly why I ended up where I amand even why I have so long stayed. The threads are so many and mixed, but it warms me to be wrapped in the weave that includes Pete Seeger. I am ennobled by his life and resigned to his death. I sense the loss personally: I have lost a mentor and a friend. 
Gone to flowers, everyone.

26 January 2014


This week there is Giambattista Vico. In his On the Study of Methods of Our Time he writes that because of the emphasis on the physical as the only valid evidence of reality, “our young men 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 or permeate their utterances with passion.” I think that what he is complaining about (in 1708-9) concerns the failure of education to develop what Horace Mann a century later will refer to as moral value. Mann argued that the education in the common school would “protect society against intemperance, avarice, war, slavery, bigotry, woes of want and wickedness of waste.” I will accept the charge here that there might be a bit of hyperbole in Mann’s hopes for the common school, but it is an admirable educational ideal that the liberal education Mann advocated for the schools could realize. But not in this age of accountability and measurement. Because that learning derives in large part from the study of literature, history (not social studies), philosophy, sociology, psychology—what are erroneously called ‘the soft sciences.’ Isaiah Berlin writes that Vico’s ’s claim to immortality rests in the principle that the human being is capable of understanding him/herself because, and in the process of understanding the pastbecause he is able to reconstruct imaginatively (in Aristotle’s phrase) what he did and what he suffered, his hopes wishes, fears, efforts, his acts and his words, both his own and those of his fellow.” These can be found in the literatures and the histories (at least) that comprise the liberal arts, a curriculum in sore decline in today’s schools. 
            Here is an irony: at opening school sessions there is a great deal of talk about civility and how the University environment might support the development of a civil society. Of course, outside the university there is no place a civil society may be found modeled. Not even the churches and synagogues seem free of incivility and immorality. Certainly we find absolutely no civility in government. And while the university officials call for civility on campus they also insist we develop concrete assessment tools that will provide greater levels of exact measurement in our classes for our students, and that we ensure that our curriculum places students in jobs. In his play Helen, Euripides wrote “There is much that falsehood seems to make quite clear.” The technological education that pervades academia provides a clear perspective on a very false world.
            There is a wonderful idea from George Simmel that I found quoted in Adam Phillips’ book Going Sane. Forget the context of how I became engaged in that particular book, and the context of where the quote appears does not affect its relevance here. In his Philosophy of Money Simmel attributes to our money economy the illusion of precision about what people demand in the way of goods or services or from each other. Simmel argues “the money economy enforces the necessity of continuous mathematical operations in our daily transactions . . . evaluating, weighing, calculating, and reducing of qualitative values to quantitative ones.” Money has taught us to measure the value of things down to the exact penny. Simmel oversimplifies, of course: but perhaps now Elizabeth Barret Browning’s question, “How much do I love thee?” is now answerable in the most reduced and clear-cut terms. We might use the exact cost of the gift, or we might construct a rubric and measure the quantity on the Likert Scale from 1-5.
            I do not mean to argue the aim of education here, but instead to decry the absolute quantification of every aspect of my life that includes education: where I go everyday of my life.

16 January 2014

Stuck Inside of Mobile

The flight was delayed almost four hours. There we all were, boarded and belted in, when the pilot announced that a ‘placard’ needed to be replaced. That meant that there would be a slight delay in take–off. “Just a few minutes,” he reported. But shortly thereafter the captain returned to say that a ‘bottle’ had broken while the placard was being mended and that the repair would take a good hour to complete. If anyone so desired then we could de-plane while the mechanics replaced “the bottle,” and then re-board when the work was finished. I became suspicious. I had a connecting flight to make, and when I had originally scheduled the trip I made sure that the layover would leave sufficient time for mishaps and/or delays, but this new development threatened my caution. And having de-planed, I noticed that the airline had brought over a cart filled with the ubiquitous little packages of peanuts, pretzels and sweet cookies that have become the free fare for economy class passengers, and offered us them and drinks as if we were aboard and in flight, I grew convinced that this delay would certainly exceed an hour and that my connections would not be successfully made. I approached the attendants at the gate and asked without real hope if the delay would prevent me from making my connection, and the woman behind the counter immediately booked me on a later connecting flight—a much later connecting flight. A much, much later connecting flight. There would be no joy in Mudville this nightand no dinner either. I called my dear friend and reported the state of the world, and he said graciously (as I expected he would) that whenever I arrived he would be there to pick me up.
            It was subsequently announced that the plane’s broken bottle had been caused by “human error.” I suppose this was for the airline both excuse and exculpation—there was nothing structurally wrong with their airplane: it was other people who created the problem. Of course, this didn’t account for the original problem with the ‘placard,’ whatever that might have been, indeed, what a placard might be, in fact. In any case, the repair continued to increase in complexity and time required, and after about two hours we were informed that the decision had been made to route us to another gate and another plane altogether. And so all of the passengers re-boarded the first plane and retrieved our carry-ons, de-planed again, and moved to the new gate that was at that moment de-planing a newly arrived flight in from somewhere else. The waiting area became very crowded and extremely lively. After approximately another 30 minutes or so we re-boarded, taking exactly the same seats we had occupied on the first flight. There was no mention of placards and bottles. We sat awaiting taxiing and takeoff.
            But the weather had changed dramatically. Snow had begun to vigorously fall and before take-off the plane had to visit the de-icing section of the airport: another 30 minutes or so of delay.  I was reading my Giambattista VicoOn the Study Methods of Our Timewith some sincere interest, but soon the day’s hours had to be accounted for and I drifted off to sleep, only to be too-soon awakened by news that we were now actually headed for the runway and eventual take-off. These are such moments through which I prefer not to sleep, and under my watchful eye we flew into the air with no further complication—though for me the very possibility of flying in the airplaneany airplaneis fraught with complexity. We were served (again) packets of peanuts, pretzels, and sweet cookies, and offered (again) complimentary Coca-Cola beverages and even, for purchase, more elaborate food stuffs and liquors. Now we appeared to be a normal flight, albeit four hours late.
            There was a time in my life when these events would have caused me inordinate worry, consternation and even anger. At such times I would anxiously pace the floors, hoping, even expecting that my pacing would inspire somebody to do something and return everything to schedule and send me on to my destination in due time. I hoped my worry and discontent would effect some solution.
            But this time I felt resigned and rather at peace with the situation. I mean, I knew that there was nothing I could do—I had no bottle they could use to replace the bottle someone had brokenand there was no other means of getting me to my destination in reasonable time except this airline. And so my breathing remained steady, my heart beat regular and slow, and my mind focused comfortably on matters far removed from issues of delay. And I suspect that this patience derives from the age at which I have arrived: I am not in a rush for anything, really. After all, wherever I am ultimately heading, well, I can wait. I do what I can here and now and do not worry about those things over which I have absolutely no control. If I do not arrive sooner, I will certainly arrive later.
            I think of Hillel: And if not now, when?
            I think of Hamlet: Rest, rest, perturbed Spirit.
            I rest, no longer perturbed or even perturbable.

14 January 2014

Bare Arms

I read (on line!) that in Tampa Bay, Florida, a retired police officer reportedly shot and killed a man who was texting his three-year-old daughter before the movie had actually begun. The film was, ironically enough, The Lone Survivor. The story is absurd on a number of levels. Certainly, the response of the accused seems in gross excess to the stimulus. If the movie hadn’t even started then the regular announcement requesting that all mobile phones be silenced and that texting was prohibited had not yet even been made. The theater lights were not yet dimmed. I appreciate that time to read whatever material I have managed to carry in with me.
            And if the requisite pre-theater previews and advertisements were being shown, then still the theater lights were on because people entering the theater had to find their way to seats. For safety’s sake (!) the theater lights have to remain on.
            And the man was texting his three year old daughter? Was he texting to her personal telephone or to that of a baby-sitter? Why? Okay, I know: he was saying, “I love you. See you soon.” But it does interest me (who himself borders a bit on helicoptering as a parent) that the man would assume that the child would actually at that moment need this communication. Like my mother, she would probably and immediately forget in the excitement of the present activity organized by the obviously competent companion. The text might actually be an interruption. At least, I hope the child was imaginatively engaged and wasn’t moping about anxiously at the front door awaiting her parents return from their movie.
            And frankly and most importantly, I am horrified, disgusted, appalled, terrified at the ubiquity of firearms in the United States, the ease with which they are used, and the remarkably absurd belief held by too many that without the right to bear arms (though not in the service of a militia or other military outfit organized for the defense of the country, which was apparently the intent of the founders in framing the second amendment (most fools should be able to see that), the very democracy in which we live would be endangered. What endangers the democracy is the intellectual level of those who hold these views.
            A final absurdity appears in the report in the paper (denied by the theaters) that they have considered reserving the last rows of the theater for people who want to text during the film! I remember when the back rows were reserved for those lucky couples who wanted to neck!  Make love, not war, I say!

03 January 2014

Tentative First Thoughts . . .

In his book Going Sane: Maps of Happiness, Adam Phillips at one point says that if we acknowledge that the universe is essentially meaningless, and that there is no teleological purpose to it, then to be sane requires that we ignore this reality. I recall the secene in Annie Hall when a depressed young Alvy Singer responds to the doctor’s query concerning his despondency, Alvy answers that he had read that the universe was expanding, and that “someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!” Why should Alvy do his homeworkor anything else for that matter given the ultimate fate of the universe? Alvy suffers a type of madness: he is depressed. He has a point!
            Phillips links sanity to a certain almost willed ignorance. Better not even to think about the fate of the universe at largeor many other things, I suppose, because to ruminate upon such subjects would drive one into insanity. Hamlet says of the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude, “Let me not think on’t, it would make me mad.” I think that this is the case in Waiting for Godot: if Vladimir and Estragon stop speaking for even a moment the reality of their situation would crash down upon them. “In the meantime,” says Estragon, “Let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent.” And Vladimir responds, “It’s so we won’t think.” Ignorance allows for bliss.  Renee once said that a good relationship depends not on what you can forget but on what you can ignore. Sanityand perhaps the ability to exist in a relationship depends on sanitydepends on ignorance.
            Now education is the antidote to ignorance, but it might be that it is the knowledge we offer that would drive us mad. There is a sense here that school knowledge is meant to preserve ignorance for the mental health of the universe. Hence derives the refusal to teach evolution and to read difficult, disconcerting materials. The question arises: how do we in schools offer knowledge in such a way that it maintains an ignorance that preserves a sanity. Or is it the function of school to disturb the sanity upon which so much of society rests. Thus the schools become responsible for graduating the insane. What does it mean to be sane?
            School is meant to aid in the child’s development, but as Phillips asks, “What is supposed to develop in development?” It is the received wisdom (to many but not A.S. Neill) that school means to tame the “the most intense feelings and  . . . fearfully acute sensations” that are available to the unrepressed and “insane” child. In this sense, school deprives the child of a certain wildness and original experience of passion: that moment of the splendor in the grass. School promises to replace gratification with mastery. Or rather, school will suggest that mastery can lead to gratification though pleasure will be delayed. The mad want their pleasures immediately satisfied.
            In the “Intimations Ode” Wordsworth suggests that the adult can ‘in thought’ recover those moments, but then the function of rationality is to retrieve moments of insanity!
            I’ll return to the questions: as a teacher what sanity do I offer? As a teacher what do I think I’m developing in the student/child in my effort?