Someone on Amazon wrote that the title How to Think Like Shakespeare is misleading. And it’s true that, after reading the book, I’m no better prepared to write a good play or sonnet. But the title — with its subtitle Lessons from a Renaissance Education — makes for an effective opening in a classical argument. Aristotle taught us to focus on specifics, particularly in our openings, and Scott Newstok’s opening closeup is Shakespeare. I can’t fault Newstok for ultimately giving me much more than Shakespeare.
Newstok’s quotes end up being both ancient and modern, sacred and profane (that helpful and outdated distinction), variable and constant. The variable part is the use he makes of quotes, which is unique as far as I know. He quotes not only to support his arguments but also to release the dead’s phrasing into living space. He quotes, I might say, as a farmer plows. The reader may as well be walking along a Vermont road on a bright, spring morning, smelling the turned-up soil.
Here’s a plug I pulled up this morning:
A methodical man, John Shade usually copied out his daily quota of completed lines at midnight but even if he recopied them again later, as I suspect he sometimes did, he marked his card or cards not with the date of his final adjustments, but with that of his Corrected Draft or first Fair Copy. I mean, he preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.
No, that’s Nabokov. But Newstok is, in a different way, as playful as Pale Fire:
What is good fit? Bad fit is easy to recognize, whether someone’s not fit for a task or out of shape (or both). In Cymbeline, the cloddish Cloten presumes that because the garments of another character “fit” him, Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? The illustration to this chapter [and you’ll love the often-Renaissance-era illustrations] depicts a mis-fit man, his boots on his hands and his gloves on his feet. The world is turned upside down, with the cart before the horse, and the cat had the dire disaster / To be worried by the mouse.
Newstok doesn’t get in the way of his source material, signified by italics and superscribed footnote numbers. Instead, he conjures his sources in the act of his own writing.
What’s constant in How to Think Like Shakespeare is the constancy of the dead. To hear the dead yet speak so well and for so long — and about a matter that concerns all of us, our individual and collective education — moves me. Newstok’s arguments bring the past to bear on many aspects of a good, lifelong education suggested by the chapter titles (e.g., “Of Ends,” “Of Craft,” “Of Conversation”). The arguments fuel and extend my imaginary debates with my district’s administration. I bought a copy of How to Think Like Shakespeare for my department head, my chief ally in my own slow fight for the longer view.
So if I’m no more prepared to write like Shakespeare (and if that’s the test of thinking more like him), then at least I’m more emboldened to write like myself. Newstok, an accomplished English professor and editor, has a better ear than I: I like listening to his sentences whether they come adorned and unadorned with quotes. I am a hoarder in line with Newstok, though I’m focused on mostly political and religious theorists. My commonplace entries aren’t as common as Newstok’s, but my dead can speak, too, in their own way and in their own time — perhaps in some future they see more clearly than I do (“They can tell you, being dead,” to quote Eliot), thanks to the past.
Despite my more finicky interests, many of my favorite writers — political, philosophical, and (of course) literary — are present. Newstok quotes Hannah Arendt in his prologue (appropriately titled “What’s Past Is Prologue”), and she returns among some excellent back matter (“Kinsmen of the Shelf”) with the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre and Jenny Odell. In a footnote in “Of Attention,” Newstok produces an unprinted work by Richard Sennett that I’ve now read and read, salted and stored. Just the names of the quoted suggest that the field of education is universal and therefore personal, too serious a matter to be entrusted to grim and narrow experts.
These footnotes, where you’ll find many such blessings, are half the fun and occasionally almost half the page. If you’re a quote nut — and I think you will be if you poke around in this book — you’ll be pleased that Newstok cites them in footnotes and not endnotes (an improvement over Pale Fire).
Newstok has given me a hundred more books to read. But his approach to reading and learning is so vivid and slow that nothing in me regrets it.
Victoria and I talked this morning about our fears of not being heard. For my part, I’ve been working on a book that I may or may not ever finish. I’ll let Victoria speak for herself.
Hannah Arendt’s vision of the political is essentially positive: the political is a realm where people are seen and heard. All creation, it seems, wants to be seen and heard, to express the god-ness that God has placed in each.
° ° °
When I teach, I teach too much. That is, I talk too much. This summer I’ve worked hard on a plan to talk a lot less this fall.
I talk so much I didn’t know that one of my students, forced like the rest into relative silence, was working hard this spring choreographing an award-winning musical that meant so much to me and many others. What kind of talk is that, that doesn’t care to know its listeners?
° ° °
The most important prayer is what’s prayed through us: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Or the most important prayer is whatever’s on your mind: “You have not because you ask not.” Are these concepts so different? Because prayer is fundamentally communion, its content — the petition side of the operation — won’t come together outside of communion. The petition side is about hearing and being heard, the real presence that always expresses itself in communion.
° ° °
We all know by now that, despite his almost 11,000 false or misleading claims since becoming president, the president can count on the unwavering support of a very large base. That’s because, for the first time in their lives, many people in that base feel heard by their government. (The “familiar themes” in today’s headline refer to themes the president made to his base in 2016.)
° ° °
Consider two verses in which three steps seem to do the job of two:
And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us can you buy Lyrica at walmart in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. – 1 John 5:14 – 15 (NASS)
Our dyadic Western minds want to truncate these verses into simple, two-figure propositions: “Faith comes by the word of Christ,” and “If we ask anything according to his will, our prayer will be granted.” It’s not so simple, or at least it’s not so mechanical. In the former proposition, we’ve left out our hearing God. In the latter, we’ve left out God hearing us.
Hearing and being heard are among the most triadic and capacious of actions and are close to the ultimate “mediators,” to employ Charles Pierce’s concept.2
° ° °
Walter Lippmann in his essay “The Indispensable Opposition” defends freedom of speech with a unique argument: we need what our opponents have to say:
Unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.
° ° °
Five things (among many) that steal voices:
Abortion. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, whether you see abortion as murder or as the lesser of two evils, you are probably not pro-abortion. Abortion silences voices. The birth of a hero saga turns the births of Moses and Jesus into tales of survival; each hero in his birth survives an edict to kill babies. In a sense, considering the number of sperm that never fertilize eggs, we are all survivors. We are also all heroes. (I’ve listened enough to my students to finally understand this.)
Poverty and economic inequality. The French Revolution focused on the poor’s need for food, and it discovered that the poor speak this need with one voice, fulfilling Rousseau’s concept of the General Will. On the other hand, the American Revolution, when it addressed the poor at all, focused on the poor’s need to be heard. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, John Adams believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings. Adams’s thinking about the poor was in this respect different from Robespierre’s: “The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.”3 The American Revolution focused not on discerning and addressing the General Will but on forms of government, including (imperfect and incomplete) forums for the expression of specific viewpoints. The effective price of admission to these forums keeps many people out.
The destruction of the local community and of Tocqueville’s mediating institutions.
Facebook. Ironically, I suppose.
That image I just saw for a split second: a rock star’s windmilling his last chord, raising his arms in triumph. The next split second: his adoring crowd.
° ° °
Arendt on the “too apathetic or too stupid”:
It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 193017 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been “spoiled” by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.4
° ° °
and this from U2 (moments before the Edge windmills the last chord):
I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
I get so many things I don’t deserve
All the stolen voices will someday be returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard
Your voices will be heard
Your voices will be heard
“When processes of comparison grow complicated, new ‘third terms’ or ‘mediators’ may be needed at each stage of one’s undertaking. . . . it is by means of the use of a ‘third’ that each act of comparison is made possible, — whether the case in question be simple or complex. And the mediator plays each time the part which Pierce first formally defined.” — Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, at 301. ↩
Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279. ↩
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, pages 311-312. ↩
The seventy-two came back jubilant. “In your name, Lord,” they said, “even the demons submit to us.”
“Wup woo,” Jesus replied. “I saw Satan fall, like lightning, from heaven. And I have given you the power to tread underfoot snakes and scorpions and all the forces of the enemy. Nothing will ever harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but that your names are enrolled in heaven.”
-Luke 10:17-20 (REB, with a small addition)
Schooled in heaven! “Enroll,” I’ll admit, seems here closer to “write the name of (someone) on a list or register,” but today, when I laughed reading it, “enrolled” means registered in a course of study. These guys report back from a practicum.
But my joy is more about where our community is situated, about what it consists of — heaven. And on earth as it is, in fact, in heaven. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says. We’ll find our education as well as our politics if we find our community.
It’s Jefferson’s small wards, the local participation in government that he said would save our republic. It’s our participation in the Trinity suggested by how most liturgical prayer ends, e.g., “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”
It’s the bit that’s part of the whole, or Blake’s world in a grain of sand.
I want to do something different this quarter, a unit on identity and society. Students will choose one book to read from a short list of books, interview a United States resident born outside of the United States, and write (among other things) a profile of that person.
Which books, though. The college just approved my syllabus using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. My thought was that students would choose between (and as a class compare) the experience of a member of a minority citizen and that of an emigrant.
But as I’m reading Invisible Man for the third time, I’m struck by how some of my high school seniors (it’s a dual-enrollment course) or their parents might be offended by it. If it were purely a college course, I wouldn’t think twice. My plan all along was to give them fair verbal and written warnings. It’s funny: more and more these days I feel like a troublemaker when I put certain works from the accepted American canon in a course.
To replace Invisible Man or to supplement the two choices, what about Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son? Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces? Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp? I’m even considering Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, which also deals with the individual and society, mostly from a political standpoint.
When I teach writing as thinking, I describe a mind slowly leaving its brain. The mind travels down the arm to the hand and pen. After a five- or ten-minute session of sustained writing, I ask students to circle the best — the most interesting or energetic — of what is, from a communications standpoint, admittedly mostly bad writing.
Then I have them categorize this “best.” Is it something they had thought to write before writing or something they thought of as they were writing? If the latter, then they experienced a successful mind transplant.
Not everyone likes this transplant. One may be, more or less, a think-before-you-write writer. But this transplant activity helps a lot of people discover themselves to be think-as-you-write writers. If you’re the former, you may have put up no resistance to your grade-school teachers’ insistence on “prewriting” — graphic organizers and outlines. If you’re the latter, you may have found prewriting unfit for prehensile creation.
What’s your favorite pen? People who like to think before they write sometimes prefer fountain pens. This is writing as presentation, from which, I guess, comes calligraphy. People who like to think as they write sometimes prefer a pen that won’t let their writing lag too far behind their thinking — the smoother ball points or rollerballs, for instance. And their journals are a glorious, circuitous mess.
Start writing, WordPress 5.0’s editor advises. And it’s hard not to, given the space’s layout and typography. For me, writing is mostly driving. It’s getting behind the wheel and hitting the gas. Thoughts come and go like scenery. Turns of phrase are twists of two-lane highway. My father, who I think planned out every word his fountain pen ever scratched, loved to take a spin in his Continental convertible, particularly if he had nowhere to go.
People die; maybe that’s why the world never seems to get out of first gear. A friend of mine, the older he gets, finds life’s meaning more and more in the coming millennium of Christ. We’ll return with Him and have the time, this time, to get things done.
To those like him, who plot their rest in growth, speaks the Book of Common Prayer: “. . . we pray that, having opened to him the gates of larger life, you will receive him more and more into your joyful service . . .” For “your faithful servant N.,” what could heaven be but greater service? What is heaven but one’s twenties – the deeds with death a thousand years away?
According to Edward Coke, Thomas Littleton’s Tenures is “the most perfect and absolute Worke that euer was written in any humane Science.” But as good as it is, “Certain it is that when a great learned man (who is long in the making) dyeth, much learning dyeth with him.” Coke named his own writings Institutes “because my desire is, they should institute, and instruct the studious, and guid him in a readie way to the knowledge of the national Lawes of England.”
Coke’s contemporary, John Donne, said that “Any man’s death diminishes me”; to “instruct the studious” is a fittingly small consolation.
This morning, the more I write, the more my thoughts jump ahead of what I’m writing. The writing is making me think, and the thinking is making the writing very difficult.
Writing is hard anyway. Some people would like to hire ghostwriters to capture their thoughts. These people mistake writing for the visual transmission of one’s thoughts. Instead, writing is thinking. Writing makes us think, and the process of writing makes us discover realizations and examples and exceptions and connections that slow down the writing.
Ghostwriting carries an essential fraud, and not because one person is writing in another’s name. The fraud is the illicit self-protection the ghostwriter provides, similar to the self-protection each spouse can access in marriage counseling. If I am in marriage counseling, I have an out: when the counseling gets too close, I tell myself and my counselor that it’s my spouse’s fault. If I hire a ghostwriter, I have an out: I’m not challenged to fix the words and the thinking they represent because they’re never thrown back at me. The best marriage counselors treat “marriage counseling” as a necessary euphemism and get their clients to take responsibility for their own lives. And the best ghostwriters insist on involving their clients in the writing process.
Our president and his immediate predecessor wrote important memoirs. President Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, and President Trump wrote The Art of the Deal. President Obama wrote his memoir. President Trump hired a ghostwriter to write his, and the ghostwriter latter admitted that he never challenged his client. The two presidents couldn’t be any more different in their integrity and capacity for reflection.
The rise of Donald Trump has led to calls to fix high school civics. Some want to change its content, others its delivery, and still others its share of the curriculum. Representing this last view is the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King, whose column includes this peroration: “The declining civic portion of public education . . . is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.”
I argue with that.
In Kansas, the Post informs me this morning (we demagogues, unlike our victims, still read the paper), six high school boys are running for governor. The article is full of ironies: the would-be governors aren’t old enough to vote; one candidate, Tyler Ruzich, rushes from a debate to his part-time work as a grocery store cashier; and Ruzich observes that, in Hamilton’s time, “someone my age could be commander of a frigate.”
The article’s climax involves an interchange among two of these candidates, Ruzich and Jack Bergeson, and Soledad O’Brien on her nationally syndicated show. The show is taped the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The article implies that the Florida shooting makes O’Brien take the candidates seriously: O’Brien, the article says, “didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.” Instead, she asks Ruzich about Parkland.
Instead of finding better ways to tell teens the political facts of life, many adults after Parkland have begun to listen to and learn from high school students. As a high school English teacher, I’ve spent years learning from them through their discussions and research papers, most of which address matters of public concern. Now some American students, suddenly in the news, are taking their learning outside the classroom to discover how the kind of argumentation they’ve been trained in, based on facts and reasoning and respect, works in our public realm.
Parkland students, for instance, were in the galleries when, days after the shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives voted two-to-one not to consider a bill banning the kind of military weapon that mowed down their friends. One Parkland student was photographed covering her mouth as if she were about to sob or vomit. So it goes.
At his hotel with his mom the morning of O’Brien’s show, the article says, Ruzich watches Parkland student David Hogg address Florida’s lawmakers on CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”
But most of the action recently has come from the students. They – and we – are up against what Hannah Arendt calls “automatic historical or political processes,” ones that seem both disastrous and inevitable. Yet action – “the work of faith,” as Arendt calls it – can perform miracles to interrupt these processes1:
. . . in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them – men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.2
Man’s civic action stems from his ontological relation to the world, Arendt says: “man is a beginning and a beginner.”3 Because these teens are closer to their beginning than adults are, as I see it, Arendt’s “men” now include boys.
On national television, Ruzich, a Republican, answers O’Brien’s question about gun control:
If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest. I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.
The students in Florida and Kansas are not just entering public space; they are creating it.
Our public realm is shrinking. As Philip Gorski puts it, our society believes, with Ronald Reagan, that “the true domain of human freedom [is] the marketplace, not the public square.”4 We are not far behind China in this respect. Our students are trained in civics, but they leave high school or college for the “real world” in which leadership and creativity are not often put to the public’s service but to private gain. American conservatives used to mistrust the modern marketplace – a liberal idea, after all – precisely because it tempted citizens away from republican virtue.
We vaguely believe our democracy is modeled after ancient Athens’s, but we’ve forgotten our civics lessons that informed us about Athenian democracy. It wasn’t just the city’s small size that permitted more participation. After all, Athens became the center of a Greek empire after the Persian Wars, and most places its league conquered became their own democratic poleis. Athenian juries sat not twelve but at least five hundred.5 Any citizen could speak at the general assemblies. In nearly every civic position, Athens had not a single officeholder but a college or a group of magistrates, and the citizens rotated in and out of office annually. These policies were inspired by the Athenians’ fear of tyranny.6 Many Americans believe that a fuller democracy leads to demagoguery and tyranny. But the Athenians reasoned that the greater the democracy, the smaller the chance of tyranny.
Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of democracy; he was elected because of an institutional check on democracy that gave him the election despite his losing it by almost three million votes.
A lack of democracy causes misinformation, which in turn can lead to tyranny. King cites a study indicating that only a third of American adults in a recent survey could name their country’s vice president. But misinformation that exploits powerlessness is worse than ignorance. Vast numbers of Americans believe, for instance, that Trump won the popular vote and should postpone our next presidential election until he is satisfied that the system is no longer rigged. This isn’t the result of an inadequate civics curriculum. It’s the result of inadequate civics. Our politics is a spectator sport, and a dull one at that. People are susceptible to believing anti-government, “deep state” conspiracies because they feel powerless and invisible.
This invisibility worried John Adams. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, he believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings:
The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.7
Of course, Adams’s observations about the poor’s lack of free time apply as well to a large portion of today’s American middle class, which works longer and harder than its counterparts in other industrialized countries. Our emphasis on the marketplace over the public square is costing us.
Compared with today’s America, my public high school is a hotbed of democracy. Its many clubs and teams resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. Like most high schools, the cafeteria is broken into cliques, and students must learn how to navigate among them, a great skill in a pluralistic society. Students are inoculated against demagoguery not so much by learning the three branches of government as by learning how to distinguish popularity from friendship and truth. The student-officeholder-to-student ratio is high. When they vote – and they vote in both class and schoolwide elections, and their turnout is near one hundred percent each election – they listen to candidates who are empowered to make changes that affect how students experience high school. Officeholders negotiate with the school administration to realize changes that are outside of their direct control. By the way, the civics classes and teachers are first rate. I saw all of this at my previous high school, too.
How does this high school civics experience apply to the civic responsibilities students face when they graduate from high school or college? We consider an adult a model citizen if she doesn’t dodge jury duty and votes once a year. Is that enough democracy? The students go from practicing democracy in school to becoming mere spectators as adults, and the school’s inoculation against demagogues, in many cases, loses its efficacy.
How can we transplant high school’s civic engagement to our adult world? For one thing, we should seek to shield politics from necessity. We can learn even from the Athenians’ practice of slavery if we understand the institution as a cruel means of conquering necessity, which for the Greeks constituted a private, pre-political sphere. Only Athenian men who had conquered economic necessity could participate in public life. A school tries to insulate students from some aspects of poverty – it institutes clothing drives and free and reduced lunch programs, for instance – in part for the same reason Athens allowed only free men in its polis – so its members can learn and participate without the distraction of necessity, and so the community can have the benefit of their talent and insights. If we believe in equality, then we could take steps to move the poor into the public realm, not because they otherwise wouldn’t be adequately represented but because they otherwise wouldn’t be seen – wouldn’t be fully human in our eyes, despite our idealistic protestations to the contrary. In the private realm, their poverty is measured by their lack of life’s necessities. In the public realm, though, their poverty is measured by their transparency and ultimately by our own commensurate civic poverty.
High school teaches us also to take responsibility for the local. We connect to government if we participate in it. What if we took steps to take responsibility for our subdivisions the way the Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking responsibility for their school community? What if the states ceded more power to the local governments, and the local governments more power to the precincts, boroughs, and subdivisions? What if the local mattered again? Edmund Burke may have gotten it right if one applies his idea of the local not to love but to civic friendship and engagement:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.8
We need a revival of local, civic engagement. Our republic, in other words, needs a deeper democracy.
Public space can be created by policy, as the Athenians created it, or by acts of faith, as the members of the French Resistance created it when, as Arendt puts it, “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute wily-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country were transacted in deed and word.”9
Through action, these students in Kansas and Florida are creating public space. At the risk of sounding like a demagogue, I think we could learn more about democracy from our children.
Feature image: “Philly students #CounselorsNotCops rally” by Joe Piette. Above image: “Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws” by Lorie Shaull. Both used by permission.
So much of a devotional is what you pack of it. Last night, Victoria recalled Jesus’ impossible command to “love your enemies,” the nub of what we had read that morning from Matthew, and applied it. The impossible becomes possible when I chunk my learning.
“Love your enemies” may be an example of Hannah Arendt’s “certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference” that I wrote about three days ago and that serve as bridges between talk and talk — the bridges and the talk that will help revive the spirit of the American revolution.
If we look at these guideposts as short-term memory aids — as “takeaways” from our reading for us to apply in the emerging public sphere — then we won’t dismiss them or, worse, revere them as aphorisms. They’ll be on the level of the sayings of the Desert Fathers — wisdom reduced to aphorism but made mysterious (i.e., infinitely scalable) by either lost or extant context.
The aphorisms, so understood, don’t just carry us from one talk to the next. They aren’t minutes to be read at a next meeting. They frame experience and permit experience — all of experience, and not just the harshest of it — to teach. Life becomes, in a way, what we look for in the best computer simulators, technology that, as educational theorist Ulrich Boser puts it, “allows people to apply their skills in a real-world setting without the high stakes.”1
These aphorisms frame, and then are forgotten. Experts are generally poor teachers of their expertise because they have automated what we once had in common with them — aphoristic knowledge suitable for our narrow but essential short-term memory:
. . . most of what experts know is simply beyond their actual ken. They don’t really know what they know; they made it fully automatic. (55)
The automation comes from a steady diet of word and context. The words, no longer needed and relegated to books, are forgotten. So I’m evolving my curriculum to speak less in class. Boser again:
Fewer words—and more breaks between ideas—make it easier for people to grapple with new information. (42)
Lincoln, someone whose life’s mission was to restore what he understood to be the revolutionary spirit, wrote with a lawyerly reductionism. He liked words like “nub” and “rub.” Here’s how the president-elect ended his letter to his friend, Alexander H. Stephens, the future vice-president of the Confederacy:
You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us. [Emphasis original]
Here’s practice in the emerging school of democracy: talk, pith, experience, repeat.
Every year I hear these words, new to each succeeding class of ninth graders, at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some will be pardoned, and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
When I thought at all about the prince’s command to talk — and I didn’t most years I read it — I thought the prince was Shakespeare trying to generate buzz: “go hence, to have more talk” means “go talk about my play.” But Hannah Arendt put the prince’s command in a new light for me this morning, as Victoria and I talked about what I had just read in Arendt’s On Revolution.
Arendt is not the first writer to observe that the American Revolution was a success and the French Revolution was a failure. But why, then, she wonders, do all the subsequent revolutions model themselves after the French one? She concludes that the difference is in the talking. The French never stopped discussing their revolution, while the Americans stopped talking political theory almost as quickly as they began revering their new Constitution.
° ° °
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
° ° °
After introducing her idea about Americans’ failure to talk, Arendt steps back into a brief discussion about learning and memory, something that immediately felt familiar to me as a teacher:
For if it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself. (212)
To translate Arendt’s observations here into always-helpful educational jargon, “all thought begins with remembrance” means that learners “build on prior knowledge.” Aware of this, teachers create “anticipatory sets” largely to put students in mind of what they already know about an upcoming lesson. Arendt’s distillation “into a framework of conceptual notions” means that teachers have students do something with the new learning: students apply it to a project, they discuss it in small groups and write down summaries of what they discuss – in other words, students begin the process of making the learning their own. To employ the title of a famous book by the psychologist and educational theorist Jean Piaget, “to understand is to invent.” The converse is also true: no invention, no understanding.
Part of the invention is talking. Many of my blog posts come out of Victoria and my “devotionals,” our term for our deliberate morning talks and prayer we’ve committed to only after a quarter-century of marriage. We discuss what we’ve been reading, thinking, and feeling, and because we’re two different people – in our case, two completely different people – we’ve taken some time to learn how to relate the other’s perspective to our own perspective in order to enrich the latter.
This is deliberate talking. It doesn’t replace, nor can it really be compared with, the talking we do in the course of living together. But I think the deliberate talking helps the rest of the talk.
Arendt goes on talking about talking:
Experiences and even the stories which grow out of what men do and endure, of happenings and events, sink back into the futility inherent in the living word and the living deed unless they are talked about over and over again. (212)
What does Arendt mean by the “futility inherent in the living word and the living deed,” particularly as it applies to the American Revolution? In his address to Springfield’s Young Men’s Lyceum 180 years ago this month, Lincoln seems to amplify Arendt’s concern about the “futility inherent”:
I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. . . they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest.
Lincoln goes on to propose that reason’s materials “be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws” so that, upon George Washington’s rising at the last trump, he will find “that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last.” Lincoln’s seeming reliance on reason alone is belied by the patriotic image of the sleeping Washington. A fidelity to the dead, and a reinvention of the dead consistent with the stone-cold facts, keeps them warm in our memory through our talk.
° ° °
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
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How much, for instance, we’ve talked of Alexander Hamilton over the past two years! Sometimes I think theater has saved us, just as comedy saved us in 2008. But I think we need a firmer, more local foundation based more on our own talk because our national civic resources are running out. One hopeful sign appears in this morning’s Washington Post, which contains the paper’s annual list of what’s out and what’s in. “Running (for office)” is in, and running can help if there are local public spaces and actions left for those candidacies to generate our talk. Jefferson also had a great idea: he “devoted many of his later years to the promotion of a system of local ‘wards’ or ‘hundreds,’ which were intended to be ‘little republics’ and schools of democracy.” 1 How could we create this kind of public space for public talk?
The next installment from Arendt:
What saves the affairs of mortal men from their inherent futility is nothing but this incessant talk about them, which in its turn remains futile unless certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference, arise out of it. (212)
My blog posts are never as good as the talking. There is no comparison, of course: they are different genres. But I often want the writing to contain some of the turns of phrase, turns of conversation (including 180-degree non sequiturs) and other charms of the talking. The challenge, never met, at least helps the writing come. (More educational theory: talking leads to writing.) And the writing, in turn, is important, Arendt would say, because it helps “to generate incessant talk about” the principles and practices that led to the American Revolution. Her book proves it: as Philip Gorski points out, Arendt’s On Revolution “quickly became required reading for young advocates of ‘participatory democracy’ during the 1960s and 1970s.”2
But blogging is a way for me not to generate talking but to invent by making my talking and my reading my own. Facebook, by contrast, can’t help me talk or write. I think it’s because most of Facebook is the kind of talk that makes talk impossible. Already our physical architecture, our social strata, our racism, our suburban planning, and our technology keep us from talking. Now even our talking keeps us from talking.
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O O O O that Shakespearian Rag –
It’s so elegant
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”
° ° °
Social media generates buzz, but it doesn’t generate talk. Quite the opposite, overall — it displaces talk. Shakespeare, I now think, wasn’t trying to generate buzz through the prince’s final command to talk, any more than God was through Moses when, after giving the law, he issued this command:
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut. 6:7, KJV)
To understand this command to talk as pertaining to hermeneutics or theology is to see ourselves becoming only founts (or spouts, anyway) of scripture. But if we go with the action verbs, which I think are indicative rather than exclusive, we’d find a context for deliberate talk in the things we do every day: sit, walk, lie down, get up. (Note: we don’t buzz.) When we add deliberate talk to our daily talk – that is, to the kind of talk we do anyway when we do other things we do, then the words work themselves into and enrich our days. The words move from theory, if you will, to practice. We reinvent the words we speak and apply, and they become our own.
How do we do this? Not through social media or any other form of that enervating oxymoron, a “national conversation,” favored by pundits and some national politicians, who don’t really, when all is said and done, talk. All talk is local and is usually in the context of daily action. We need to talk in the coffee shops, in the spas,3 at work, and in our marriages. To the extent we don’t talk in these places, then we need to understand them better by reinventing them.
The talk isn’t necessarily deep or theoretical or practical or personal — at least not all at once. We may need help in “reclaiming conversation,” to put to use another book title, this one by Sherry Turkle. But the talk will lead to new thinking that we can reduce to a kind of shorthand as we get to know one another again. In this regard, I recall E.D. Hirsch’s account of his father’s business associates becoming familiar with his allusions to Julius Caesar. I’m not advocating cultural literacy at this point, of course — just talk. But my final installment from Arendt suggests how such relationally developed shorthand can serve memory and future talk:
How such guideposts for future reference and remembrance arise out of this incessant talk, not, to be sure, in the form of concepts but as single brief sentences and condensed aphorisms, may best be seen in the novels of William Faulkner. Faulkner’s literary procedure, rather than the content of his work, is highly ‘political’, and, in spite of many imitations, he has remained, as far as I can see, the only author to use it. (307)
That’s all she says about Faulkner, but I think I know what she means. Faulkner’s characters, even the usually silent ones, are obsessed by talk. Some action, some speech – some spark – causes a character to respond with largely aphoristic remarks that incorporate the past and present. These remarks often make evident an obsession with and reinvention of the past that makes the present possible, if (particularly for Faulkner’s characters) often unbearable. Maybe they help to make a desired future possible, too, if we accept more agency than a lot of Faulkner’s characters seem capable of. When Faulkner’s character, the lawyer Gavin Stevens, says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he speaks with an understanding of talk and reinvention that I think Abraham Lincoln4 would have admired.
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The above inserts, of course, are from T.S. Eliot’s “A Game of Chess,” the second section of The Waste Land. At a New Year’s Eve party last night, Victoria complained to friends that she still often doesn’t know what I think until she reads it somewhere. Check. Perhaps reinvention has its limits.
[The feature photo is of our development in Leesburg early last month, just before dawn.]
Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 65. ↩
Gorski points out that Reagan understood freedom in mostly economic terms — free to make money without government interference. For Reagan, “the true domain of human freedom was the marketplace, not the public square.” Gorski, supra, at 188. If I asked you to color-code a map of your town or city for these two kinds places — red, say, for areas that serve as marketplaces and green for those that serve as public squares — I suppose the marketplace color would predominate. ↩
Gorski’s understanding of Lincoln’s understanding of the political past is, I think, the correct one: “Like the literalists but unlike the progressives, the civil religionists emphasized the periodic return to sources. They envisioned the future by not only revisiting but also reinterpreting the past: there lay the break with the literalists. Gorski, supra, at 108. ↩