Leaving the Din of Trifles

So, Emerson.

He is my dad’s favorite American author and as such was a constant presence in the literary landscape of my childhood. I came to him on my own terms in college: I was a double major in literature and philosophy, just Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kind of guy I suppose.

Truth be told, Emerson isn’t one I’ve spent lots of time with since I was an undergraduate, but every once in a while I dip into an anthology and am reminded of why my dad likes him as much as he does.

This weekend was one of those once in a whiles.

As a principal ushering in the start of the school year, I turned to “Education,” a posthumously published essay cribbed from notes and commencement addresses and filled with ideas as challenging and thought provoking as any in today’s education landscape.

With a mix nineteenth century circumlocution and New England bluntness, Emerson begins by praising the value of school, writing:

Humanly speaking, the school, the college, society, make the difference between men. All the fairy tales of Aladdin or the invisible Gyges or the talisman that opens kings’ palaces or the enchanted halls underground or in the sea, are any fictions to indicate the one miracle of intellectual enlargement. When a man stupid becomes a man inspired, when one and the same man passes out of the torpid into the perceiving state, leaves the din of trifles, the stupor of the senses, to enter into the quasi-omniscience of high thought–up and down, around, all limits disappear.”

This idea of disappearing limits, of “intellectual enlargement,” of expanding horizons is as worthy a goal in this present century as it was in the nineteenth. Today we talk about education being the gateway to success, and spend much time justifiably focused on equity, knowing that helping every student leave the “din of trifles” and step onto a path of growth will help foster a life enlarged by opportunity.

Emerson’s essay marches through a series of nineteenth century ideas as antiquated in concept as they are in language, and emerges from the intellectual weeds of his time, stumbling into the bright sunlight of the grand and timeless notion: “Education should be as broad as man.”

IMG_4616What he means by this, he explains, is that “the great objective of education should be commensurate with the object of life.” This coupling of grand notion and practical application, similar to contemporary notions of a pedagogy beyond regurgitation, challenges educators to push students to learn, understand, and apply that learning and understanding.

Are we doing this today?

Were educators doing this in Emerson’s time?

Writ large, the answer is “no” or at least not always. The many and frequent measures of academic success: grades, tests, and benchmarks complicate the free acquisition of knowledge and thorough engagement, but Emerson counters with an argument for optimism that is timeless: “I call our system a system of despair,” he writes, “and I find all the correction, all the revolution that is needed and that the best spirits of this age promise, in one word, in Hope.”

Hope, that thing with feathers that perches on the soul, as transformative then as it is now, is something that fills the best educators I know. It allows us to see beyond despair, or the more common annoyance, and focus on the important work of helping support every student in our schools.

Emerson suggests that the answer needed, the “revolution” in education he would like to see to help students become “great hearted” adults, is in transcending what he calls “neat and safe uniformity” and seeing students for who they are.

He suggests that students bring a “variety of genius” to school, and that they are motivated by different passions and purposes. He recognizes, in his very nineteenth century vernacular, two kinds of learners, introvert and extrovert, whom he describes as “obscure youth” learning in “solitude” and the “young giant, brown from his hunting tramp” lustily engaging with life. For both he praises the value of imagination, writing: “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil.”

For the introvert this means being allowed to learn “the literature of his virtues; and, because of the disturbing effect of passion and sense, which by a multitude of trifles impede the mind’s eye from the quiet search of that fine horizon-line which truth keeps- the way to knowledge and power has ever been an escape from too much engagement with affairs and possessions.” Don’t make the kid read aloud. As Emerson says later: “There is no want of example of great men, great benefactors, who have been monks and hermits in habit.”

For the happy hunter, learning true to “nature” is a rumbling of “stormy genius” and Emerson suggests that “if he can turn his books to such picturesque account in his fishing and hunting, it is easy to see how his reading and experience, as he has more of both, will interpenetrate each other. And every one desires that this pure vigor of action and wealth of narrative, cheered with so much humor and street rhetoric, should be carried: into the habit of the young man, purged of its uproar and rudeness, but with all its vivacity entire.” Let the kid talk. Let her tell stories. Guide her to less uproar and rudeness, but not at the expense of that pure vigor that makes her who she is.

For both types of learners Emerson argues that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil,” an idea not so far from much of educational theory today.

This isn’t to say, acknowledges Emerson, that we should “throw up the reins of public and private discipline [or] leave the young child to the mad career of his passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature.”

“Respect the child,” he advises, “respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue, but not kinsman to his sin.” Teachers matter much, and that balance of respect and guidance is as real today as it was when Emerson was writing.

Put simply, Emerson’s focus is on allowing the natural wonder, the “perpetual romance of new life,” to exist side by side with instruction around how to learn. A student “can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured; as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.”

That learning how happens step by step, and according to Emerson should never lose the “mutual delight” of teaching and learning. I’d add to that the delight of reading folks like Emerson.

I do my best to read books relevant to my work as a principal, Couros and Dweck, Brown and Lythcott-Haims on the shelf by my desk, but it’s important too not to ignore poetry, philosophy, and even a good kids book when as an educator I set my sights on leaving the din of trifles.

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Irreplaceable

When you want to strike up a spirited conversation with a room full of English teachers, start talking about books. I taught English for thirteen years, freshmen through seniors, and had my own favorite texts (Heart of Darkness, Their Eyes Were Watching God), books that my students loved (Gatsby, Frankenstein), and some that seemed to fall in the middle of the Venn Diagram of the two (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

photo 2 (7)I tended to change up the books I taught from year to year, whether a text worked or not, mostly, I suppose, to keep myself engaged and fresh. I found, through this ongoing experiment, that there was a short list of texts that provided something no other works did. They were works that I couldn’t substitute something else for; something about each made it, to my way of thinking, irreplaceable.

I should pause here, as any English teachers reading are sharpening their knives, to admit that this post is just one foolish fellow’s point of view. It’s almost certainly wrong. Well, at least not the only right way of looking at things. It’s a starting point, however, for a great discussion of curriculum (one probably best done over coffee, or perhaps something stronger, with friends who can disagree without malice. The ability to hold different opinions and to talk about these without coming to fisticuffs is vital for educators, and I suppose humans). So…

Part of what made the three texts I’ll mention “irreplaceable” was the richness of language, part the cultural significance, part the unique power of the story, and part …well, part that magic that a (former) English teacher like me can’t quite quantify.

I love Othello, for instance, but found that I could use Lear or Richard III to achieve a comparable experience.

One of my most rewarding teaching adventures came with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, an astounding book that provided more perspective on 20th century America than almost any other I taught. If push came to shove, however, I might have used works by Toni Morrison or Richard Wright and helped my students experience some of the same magic.

That said, the short list of books I found completely unique:

Hamlet,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey

Hear me out.

Please. This is all in good fun.

It’s not that Shakespeare, Twain, and Homer are the most important writers, nor that these three are the most important works. Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright (among others) had sacred spots on my syllabi, but through years of trial and error (and error and error), I found that the title I chose from each mattered less; The Bluest Eye or Beloved, A Room of One’s Own or To the Lighthouse, the powerful point of view of the author shone through.

My evolution as a teacher, for instance, saw me move from teaching The Glass Menagerie to having students perform Tennessee Williams one acts. In both the full length play and the shorter pieces from Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton students experienced what Williams said was the purpose of his writing: “I have only one major theme for my work, which is the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual.” When they got to wrestle more intimately with the shorter plays, I felt they understood this theme even more deeply.

I saw this for Shakespeare too. Once, when I was teaching at tiny high school in rural Oregon where my best friend and I were the entire English department, we decided that we’d expose our students to multiple plays by Shakespeare each year. Familiarity, we thought, was the ticket for demystifying the bard.

photo 4 (3)One of the best moves we made was to teach Macbeth to freshmen and then again to seniors. So seldom do high schoolers have the opportunity to reread texts, particularly longer ones, and so much do kids change from thirteen to seventeen. The experiment was a delight, but the truth is that we just as easily might have chosen As You Like It or Romeo and Juliet. Grand themes of love and power recur in many of the plays, and as with Williams (or Morrison or Conrad or Hurston) more than one option could open a door into the author’s oeuvre.

But then there’s Hamlet.

Elements of Hamlet appear in other plays: the taste of intrigue in Othello, the complicated love of Romeo and Juliet, the politics of Titus. But as a font of cultural significance, comprehensive wisdom, and great poetry, no single work comes close to the story of the brooding Dane.

Act by act, scene by scene, year after year, Hamlet separated itself from any other drama I taught, providing a complexity and richness to my students that continued to amaze me.

Complex and rich, but never easy, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all that Hemingway says of it and more. From the well worn arguments against (and for) the book to the unflinching engagement it invites, this novel more than any other captures the complexity of our country. Past and present, ugly, beautiful, mean, and moral, Huck is America.

I know I did a poor job of teaching Huck for most of my time in the classroom. It’s complexity and subtlety beat my best efforts year after year, and felt tired finishing the book, knowing I didn’t give my students all they deserved from their interaction with the text. Always challenged by its content and language, forever sensitive of Twain’s nuances and my inability to consistently explicate them, I lumped on, always believing I could do better.

And then Ralph Ellison showed me how I might.

My last year teaching Huck, and the only time I really think I got it right, I began my semester with slave narratives (mixing up four with my classes and creating book groups on them), moved to Frederick Douglass, touched on Sojourner Truth, and then introduced the class to Ellison’s Invisible Man. Filled with historical context, and fueled by an ongoing series of mini-lessons on the history of the blues, we read the first half of Invisible Man, got to the explosion in the paint factory, and stopped.

Enter Huck.

Students tucked Invisible Man away and we read Twain’s novel.

Better put: we laughed, winced, argued, loved and hated our way down the Mississippi. At one point I almost witnessed a fistfight in class.

And as we got to the end of the book and saw Jim’s story conclude, we pulled out those copies of Invisible Man and extended our education. Huck wasn’t really done. Beyond the references in Ellison’s novel, the shadow of Twain’s book loomed over Invisible Man, and the light of Ellison’s flame illuminated Twain’s characters and text.

I’m not saying that my approach was the right one, but it was the right approach for me. I wish for every one of the English teachers I know a similar struggle. I’m convinced that teaching Huck, and figuring out the way I needed to teach it, as difficult as it was, made me a better person.

As individual as one’s relationship with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, each reader’s response to Homer’s Odyssey has the potential to be as unique.

Unlike The Iliad, a brainpan busting war epic, The Odyssey tells the universal tale of finding home. There’s something primal and innately inspiring in the journey. Tennyson, Cavafy, and even Steely Dan riff on the story. Odysseus’ adventures fill our collective consciousness: the cyclops, the lotus eaters, the sirens, Ithaka.

Sure, there are other epics and other characters as large, but Gilgamesh, Aeneas, and even Dante’s Virgil don’t resonate with the same mythic tone or singularity.

And now is the time when you get to say: “No way!”

What about  The Great Gatsby? Where is Steinbeck? Austin? To Kill a Mockingbird?

photo 3 (5).JPGLiterature is rich and diverse. Books, beautiful books, spark conversations, connections, debates …and occasionally near fistfights.

My three titles, irreplaceable from my limited point of view, might not be yours.

Great.

What are?

Which texts, for you, have that one of a kind …something, that no other works have?

Not your favorites, that’s too easy, but what books would make your list of irreplaceable?