Making the Grade

Won’t Get Fooled Again
Peter Townshend
The Who

Making the Grade

Faculty of medical school faculty giving an examination
Examination at Faculty of Medicine; Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

It is difficult to know if grades have any real value. Educators are told there must be assessments and measurements of what students have learned and the depth of that learning. Plato once said “Nothing that is learned under compulsion stays with the mind.” Teachers often complain that students forget much of what they learn soon after they take the test, which, if true, suggests that Plato may have been onto something. But of course that must be balanced with the fact that student who hated their math classes can often balance their checkbooks and those that hated English can read newspapers and write, even if only after a fashion.

The first quizzes have come due in most of my classes this year and though, on the whole, the students did better than usual, there were still some “causalities”. High school students are not at an age where they can know what they will and will not need to know to succeed in the future. It is in their interest to learn much of what they are taught in school, they just do not know that yet. But, that said, there is also much they may never need to know that they will still have to learn. The only way future mathematicians can know they are destined to become mathematicians is by being exposed to the more complex forms of math that they are unlikely to encounter in daily life. The students that are exposed to this level of mathematical learning but are not destined for the world of higher mathematics may not ultimately get much value from taking these courses.

This is to say nothing of course about the tests in each of the disciplines that are being made a requirement for graduation in public schools. If I were a public school student today I would have to pass a science proficiency test in order to graduate. I took three or four years of science classes when I was in high school, but I do not remember much of it now and I am rarely asked in my English classes to demonstrate my knowledge of science. I could probably have passed the test at the time if it were a graduation requirement (I passed all my others) but I do not know if passing such a test would have improved my recall.

On the other side of the coin what I learned about the practice of science and the scientific method in those classes has stayed with me to a certain extent. One need not be a scientist to know that methods used to verify scientific facts, truths, or theories are complicated, thorough, and difficult requiring a great deal of training. It helps a person appreciate not only the complexities of life on earth but to approach problems in general with a bit of skepticism especially towards simplistic solutions to difficult problems. It is not necessary to remember a lot of high school math and science to appreciate the value of logical thought and careful analysis.

What then is the value in being able to scan a line of poetry, to understanding a Henry James novel, or knowing about Shakespearean stagecraft? If the study of math and science teaches us to appreciate logical precision in all things what does English teach us that transcends the discipline? English is the only discipline, at present, that is required in all four years of high school. Why is this? If the purpose of studying English (or English Language Arts as it is called today) is to learn to write an effective memo or to understand product brochures, why study novels, poems, and plays that are hundreds of years old and often employ a kind of English no one speaks anymore?

I tell my students that I read to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. To care about the characters in a novel or play I have to enter into the world of these characters and try to understand what is happening from the point of view of these characters. This builds empathy. To live well we must learn to balance our mind and our passions. If we ignore our passions and listen only to our intellect we cut ourselves off from much that makes living worthwhile. Not only that we lose some of our humanity. We start looking at the world clinically as though living well were little more than making the right diagnosis.

The dangers of listening only to our passions are a bit more obvious. One of the slogans of my generations was “If it feels good, do it.” This view of the world resulted in some unfortunate choices. But to ignore the passions altogether is also problematic. I think empathy proceeds from passion; it is after all the ability to feel, to a degree, the joys and sorrows of others. What becomes of a society that divorces itself from the suffering it sees going on around it?

Reading also helps us to understand how to live. I do not think it is an accident that most of the world’s great teachers used stories to illustrate their ideas. Whether it is Plato telling his story about “The Cave” as a metaphor for ignorance or Jesus telling the story of the “Good Samaritan” to illustrate who is the neighbor we ought to love, or Aesop telling his fables as a way of illustrating what he believed to be moral truths, it was the stories that defined ignorance, love, or tenacity not the dictionary.

Students must also learn to write well and to construct meaningful arguments that give weight and credibility to their thoughts and opinions, but aside from the example good writing sets what is the point in devoting the amount of time we do to the study of literature? What is the value of this kind of knowledge for a society? History tells us that many of the most brutal tyrants enjoyed the arts, wept at the theater, read great literature and though many of these works of art and literature showed brutality for what it is, these tyrants at best missed the point. At worst they got the point and were unchanged. Thomas Nashe wrote “Those that care neither for God nor the devil by quills are kept in awe. Multi famam, saith one, pauci conscientiam verentur, (Many respect what others say, few respect what their conscience tells them.)” But the behavior of some of the worst suggests that perhaps they care no more for what others say than they do for what their consciences tell them, though it might be said they have been robbed of any presumption of innocence, that they can no longer say they did not know any better.

My generation also questioned the relevance of everything (or at least we did while we were in college). It was not enough to study a poem or novel there had to be some relevance to that poem or novel; it had to have something important to say about the human condition and the state of the world. If they did not do that they were nothing more than entertainments that were probably not worthy of our time. I think this judgment is a bit severe, but at the same time I do think there should be good cause to make so many young people read so many books against their will. There is of course the medicinal defense that they will be better for having invested the time in books, but that is only true if they in fact invest the time and learn the lessons the books teach and apply these lessons to their own lives.

Certain Victorians saw the study and teaching of great literature as a kind of religious vocation. They saw the professor of literature as a kind of priest and the books themselves as a kind of scripture. It is largely out of this attitude towards literature that English class became more than just the study of rhetoric and classical texts. These Victorian critics lived in a world where anything written after the second or third century of the Common Era was considered “modern literature” and therefore not worthy of serious study.

So is literature worthy of this study, is it relevant? And if it is not relevant why ask students to spend so much time reading and writing. And why ask teachers to spend so much time grading all the stuff that this reading and writing produces that must in turn be assessed? As a teacher I think true learning comes from the love of learning itself and that this love cannot be coerced, though it must be awakened. Without exposure to great writing few will go on to appreciate great writing and those sensitive to the lessons that the literature teaches will perhaps not learn those lessons effectively.

I remember attending a lecture given by the Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal. He talked about, among other things, how refined and sensitive the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was at home with his wife and children and how brutal he was to the rest of the people of Spain. He made the comment that brutality should be taken off the streets and put back in the home where it belonged (he spoke in Spanish and this is the gist of the translation that was given). His point was that if Franco spent more time beating his wife and children perhaps he would not have been so brutal to the people of Spain. As a teacher of literature I would like to think we could learn to be kinder to one another by taking the lessons of literature more seriously and continue to show some kindness to our families. I say this knowing that many of those that wrote this great literature were not themselves very kind. Perhaps this is a bit idealistic and the likelihood of this happening may not justify the time spent reading and writing and grading. I do not know the answer, but it is my personal struggle.

There should be relevance to reading great books and there should be a value to the grades that we assign. I have never liked grading, not just because it is a tedious exercise but because I think it often stifles the true love of learning. But I also know there are those that come to love learning through the educational process as it is practiced today and that grading was a part of the process that inspired these students. The issue may not be whether or not all students can learn at the highest levels, but whether or not all students can be made to want to. I have read stories of Zen masters that used to beat students with sticks who asked them how to find enlightenment. The students were beaten because the question itself betrayed a lack of understanding concerning the nature of enlightenment.

Perhaps study that is motivated only by grades is improper study and must be discouraged. Students who do only what they need to do to pass have perhaps missed the point but have made a bargain with the process and if they are not going to move on to appreciate learning on its own terms they should be left alone to pursue what interests them, so long as they learn the minimum as required by law. Others come to take some pleasure in acquiring knowledge and perhaps a bit of wisdom. For these students grades, though important for other things, are not entirely what motivates them. Perhaps grades are a kind of metaphor for the sticks Zen Masters used on their students. They fall painfully on those students who think the wrong way about grades and the nature of learning. Some students, though, come to understand that “what’s my grade?” is the wrong the question to ask and on those students the sticks fall softly, if at all.

Once Upon a Time

From Don Quixote, Op. 35, “Variation VII – DQ & S on wooden horse they think is Pegasus”; Richard Strauss; The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seija Ozawa Conducting

Once Upon a Time

Image of Don Quixote with Sancho in the background

Don Quichotte und Sancho Pansa; Honoré Daumier; English: c. 1868

The music is from Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote. This story is a fairy tale of sorts of an old man desiring to return to, in his view, a more romantic era and his friend who watches over him. The music reminds me of the scene where the Don jousts with the windmills, though in fact the music is from a different scene involving wooden horses. Most of the adversaries the good knight faces are, like the windmills, of his own imagining and in his imagination a windmill can be a giant and a rocking horse can be Pegasus.

This is what helps to create the fairy tale quality of the story. Don Quixote is engaged in one conflict after another with villains that greatly resemble those found in folk and fairy tales. That they are in fact everyday mundane things adds a level of comedy and satire to the story but they do not alter the nature of the battles, at least not for the knight and it is the knight we care about. In fact it is his ability to live in the realm of his imagination that makes him an empathetic character. He may be consumed with a kind of madness but it is a madness that endears him to the hearts of readers.

Cormac McCarthy in his book The Road creates a different kind of story concerning a kind of knight and squire. The man and the boy at the center of his tale inhabit a world of wicked witches in gingerbread houses feeding on every “Hansel and Gretel” that wonders down the highway. Perhaps the only difference between McCarthy’s fable and the traditional fairy tale is the “lived happily ever after” ending. It is, after all, the wicked witch, the evil stepmother, and ogre under the bridge that capture our interest with the fairy tale in the first place. Imagine “Hansel and Gretel” only with the wicked witch winning at the end and serving the young children up in a Swiftian soufflé (to find out the extent to which the bad guys win in McCarthy’s novel you will have to read the book).

Perhaps the issue is no longer that good must triumph over evil but only that it must endure in the face of evil, which is perhaps a more realistic kind of ending. Vladimir Nabokov viewed the happy ending with distaste and it would appear that his view has carried the day, at least for the moment. The only serious modern writer I know of committed to the happy ending is Alan Furst, the writer of World War II era espionage novels, though, perhaps, a veneer of unhappiness is placed over the tale’s conclusion by the fact that within the frame of the fiction the war is still raging at the story’s end with some of the greatest horrors yet to be revealed. Perhaps the happy ending is a thing of the past, though life as it is lived, for most, is often a fair balance between the two.

From The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird
Director: Paul and Pierre Grimault
Producer: André Sarrut
Production Company: Clarge Distributors
The film clip is an adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. In the story a painting of a chimney sweep falls in love with a painting of a shepherdess. There is also a painting of the king who is also in love with the shepherdess. They all escape the bonds of their respective canvases and the story revolves around each of the individuals pursuing their own definition of happiness. In the clip we see that the king is on the verge of winning his happiness at the expense of all the others. But this is a 19th century fairy tale and we can probably take comfort in the knowledge that the tales of that day ended happily and that a reversal of fortune is in store for the shepherdess and the chimney sweep.

There was an article “Fear of Fairy Tales” in this week’s (9-21-08) Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section. The article is about how the darker elements of the fairy tale are disappearing because we do not want to frighten the children. The problem with living happily ever after if no terror or struggle or great unhappiness of some kind precedes is that the nature of happiness becomes diminished. Much of life is understood by contrasts. Can we fully savor and enjoy the “good times” if there re no “bad times” to contrast them with? Would we take as much pleasure from Cinderella marrying the prince if there were not an evil stepmother and a handful of evil stepsisters that would prevent the two from meeting?

The point of the article is that it is not only the darker elements of these stories that hold our interest but that these dark elements are allegories for the various traumas that are a part of growing up. Of course only the adults fully understand that “Little Red Riding Hood” is really a story of rape and sexual awakening, if such is in fact the case. It is ironic that at one time these stories were criticized for always ending happily when real life is much more of a mixed bag. Now all the unhappiness and trauma have been removed. Is a happy ending still a happy ending if no deliverance from evil comes before it?

The most troubling aspect of the article is what motivates the happiness in the story, the desire to sell things to young children. This is perhaps the real danger of the sanitized story telling. Reading has been replaced with other forms of entertainment and it is the entertainment value alone that determines the worth of the story and the entertainment value must arrive early and never leave.

This coupled with some of the new web technologies raises troubling issues for our culture. I remember as a child watching the old, I think 1950’s, version of 1984. The story, as everyone knows, revolves around a society that has been programmed to think and act alike. There are many versions of this story but in most of them literature is banned. Perhaps this was most graphically represented in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In this book firemen did not put out fires but burned books and 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns.

Another element of these stories is that there are cameras everywhere recording everything we do. These stories may have put us on guard against a government that would overtly spy upon us but they have not served to deter us from spying on ourselves. Perhaps it is vanity that takes pleasure in putting one’s private life on film (as well as the private lives of others) and broadcasting it over the internet. It is perhaps a form of entertainment and entertainment rules.

In the stories books are burned but that is not necessary if we dissuade ourselves from reading in the first place. It is probably true that the only reason reading has survived as a popular activity is because, for most people, it entertains. Those books requiring more thought and concentration have always been enjoyed, I think, by a smaller audience. But if the books that stir things up cannot find a place on the bookshelf because they do not reach a large enough audience has not the totalitarian spirit succeeded after a fashion. It is not necessary to burn books to put an end to dangerous ideas; it is only necessary to remove from individuals in the society the desire to read those books.

C. S. Lewis, who was also a Christian apologist, once remarked the more The Bible is translated the less it is read. I do not know how true that statement is, but it seems that the more books that are published the less books are read, or at least what are thought of as “important” books. Sometimes it feels as though we live in a society that spies on itself and censors itself in the name of entertainment. Perhaps this is an overreaction. I am concerned, though, that our pursuit of happiness has blinded us at times to other liberties our Constitution guarantees, such as the freedom of the press and the right to privacy. Hopefully these liberties will not be remembered only in fairy tales.

West of the Moon

Sweet Baby James

James Taylor

West of the Moon

Emigrants Crossing the Plains by Bierstadt

Emigrants Crossing the Plains, by Albert Bierstadt, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City

Early in the week I saw a blog by Jim Gates on what a school somewhere in the eastern United States was doing to prepare students for the 21st century. According to the blog there was no mention made, not even once, of a computer, just markers, easels, and large tablets. I would like to think that what Mr. Gates found was a hoax, but he has struck me as a reliable reporter in the past. There are few frontiers left to explore on this planet and we have stopped exploring seriously the frontiers beyond this planet so the only frontiers left open seem to me to be the ones provided by technology and the human imagination.

My eleventh graders are reading The Last of the Mohicans. I put a VoiceThread together to help students consider some of the issues in the story and the historical and cultural contexts that produced the story. (For those that are interested, The VoiceThread can be found at Mohicans, as other of Cooper’s books, are among the earliest representatives of the western novel and in thinking about this book one is confronted by the frontier spirit that characterized much of early America, if only in the genre of western fiction.

One frontier that remains to be explored is that of technology. This will always be a frontier because the human imagination charts its own course and makes its own worlds. Educators, I think, have more opportunities than most to explore the technological frontiers. We need to know where the technology is headed or we will not be able to prepare our students for the technology they will confront when they enter the world.

Yet it seems when it comes to innovating the classroom schools are often reluctant to make the journey. I do not know if this is because of the cost of the technology or the investment of time and energy required in learning the technology and crafting the assignments. Though, like with most things, the more one works with it the easier it is to use. In the novel Last of the Mohicans Hawk-eye has little use for the character of David Gamet, a music teacher who does not seem to understand the realities of the wilderness.

If one thinks about it a bit, David, though unprepared for the world in which he finds himself, demonstrates a bit of courage in going there. He has a mission and he knows the world is not a safe one. But his work takes him there and he goes there. Perhaps there is more foolishness to this than courage but than the educational process demands a bit of foolishness I suppose. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result I wonder how many teachers are sane.

Some of us are fearful of the tools that would enable us to change the way we do things but even for those that embrace the changes educating the young is a difficult task that often requires doing over again what didn’t work the first time. Sometimes this is how we learn to do what did not work once in a way that will work a second time. But in the classroom it can also be a bit crazy to do the same thing over again expecting the same result. What worked last year may not work this year. Education is a frontier and perhaps too much sanity is a handicap on the frontier.

Hawk-eye had the skills and the tools to survive in a wilderness, but the wilderness in which he moved was one that behaved according to patterns he understood. He could not know what lie behind the next tree or whether anything at all lie behind that tree. But he knew how to interpret the signs and the likelihood of ambush. Perhaps the classroom is a similar wilderness. Perhaps it has its signs and markers that those learned in such things can recognize and understand. On the other hand, it may be that like on the Mississippi River the landmarks are always changing.

I think the frontier is what many of us live for. I enjoy western fiction because it embodies heroism and certain values. It involves risk and rewards and adventure. It is difficult to help another to open and train their mind. The new, whatever form it takes, is always a scary thing. But I have found in my own experience that the things that I wanted to do and didn’t do didn’t go undone because of my abilities. They went undone because I was frightened of the unknown and all that could go wrong and the potential for failure. I do not know if I had the ability to do those things or if I have the ability to do the things that frighten me now, but it seems there is little harm in trying and that it is better to know than to not know. The missed opportunities of the past cannot be recovered but the opportunities of the present can be embraced.

Confidence for our students does not come from taking notes and learning and remembering lessons, it comes from the experience of accomplishing a difficult task. Fear of failure haunts them as much as it does anyone else, including the classroom teacher. The classroom is often unnecessarily safe. A good story always involves conflict and struggle. Many of us spend our lives trying to avoid conflict and struggle. As a teacher I find I often want a classroom that is free from the tension conflict brings. But if what I do is not a little bit scary how can I help my students prepare for a world that is at times a bit scary.

The Angel and the Badman
Directed by James Edward Grant
Production Company: Republic Pictures

In the film above the most courageous people in this western adventure are not the gunslingers and lawmen, they are a group of Quakers who do not believe in using the weapons of the frontier. It is the struggle to keep from using those weapons when threatening situations arise that creates much of the tension in the story. It is because they refused to use those weapons and to surrender to their fear that they have a story to tell.

Telling Stories Out of (and in) School

“Vesti La Giubba” from Pagliacci
Ruggiero Leoncavallo
Luciano Pavarotti

Telling Stories Out of (and in) School

The song is from the opera Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. It is the story of a brokenhearted circus clown. It is in fact a story about a story in that there is action taking place on the “circus stage” that mirrors the action that is taking place in real life. Do “clowns” (including class-clowns I suppose) have real feelings? The clown suffers in life and his suffering to a degree is the source of his comedy.

Mark Twain, one of America’s most popular and most enduring comic writers was also one of America’s most “tragic” celebrities. There is a photograph of Mark Twain with what look like telephone poles and telephone wires in the background. These poles and wires are probably telegraph poles and wires but to a modern viewer telephones are what most likely come to mind. I find this a tragic image in that when given the opportunity to invest in the telephone Twain replied that he would buy one and his lawyer would buy one but it was unlikely anyone else would buy one. Instead of investing in the telephone he invested in a new design for a printing press that eventually left him bankrupt, while we know quite well that many more people besides Twain and his lawyer purchased telephones. This, though, was just one of the more minor “tragedies” of Twain’s life.

D. C. Comics cover of Beowulf

Classics Illustrated Comics cover of Last of the Mohicans

Comics covers for Beowulf and Last of the Mohicans

I begin the school year with two stories, The Last of the Mohicans and Beowulf, stories I enjoyed even when I read them as Classics Illustrated comics (though I missed the D. C. Comics version). I do these stories with my eleventh and twelfth grade classes respectively. The response of my students to these stories are not always as enthusiastic as I would wish and I find myself reflecting at the beginning of each year on stories and why we read and study them.

I think good stories are essential to our mental, imaginative, and ethical well-being. Stories enable us to imagine what we might do in certain situations by living vicariously through the choices made by characters with whom we empathize. Good stories make demands upon their audiences. I remember watching the film Judgment at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich (among others). During one scene in the film Dietrich is reminiscing, in a conversation with Tracy, about a night at the opera spent with her husband and Adolph Hitler (the film revolves around war crimes trials held at the end of World War II). As Dietrich shares her memories of the evening and the performance an orchestral theme from The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, the opera Dietrich is recalling, plays underneath.

Most in the viewing audience may miss the significance of this piece of music in the soundtrack of the film but for those who recognize the music there is a kind of ironic joke. Wagner, the opera’s composer, was a hero of the Nazis, the film itself takes place in Nuremberg, and there is also a resonance of sorts between the history of the film and the story of the opera. Hitler, as an orator, was a kind of “Mastersinger” who mesmerized the German people. Wagner was also renowned for his use of the “leitmotif”, a recurring musical theme that underscores a character, concept, or place. This has become something of a staple in film scoring. Those paying close attention to the soundtrack in the film Jaws, for example, knew immediately that the one “fake” shark attack in the film was a hoax before it was revealed to be a hoax because the “shark attack” theme does not play underneath the scene as it does under every other shark attack scene.

If we watch a film only for what happens (as many of us do) or read a book only for plot (as also many of us do) the imagination is not greatly provoked by the story. But if we get beyond the images on screen or the events on the page stories help us learn about ourselves and our world. The decline in reading underscores two problems in modern culture (there are probably more, but two stand out to me) a lack of imagination and a lack of reflection.

Stories, especially written stories, make almost as many demands on the audience as they do on those that create them. For a written story to work I as the reader must be able to bring that story to life in my imagination (I think this is also true of a film story though not to the same degree). The reader may not be the artist that the writer of the story is, but to imagine a story well does require a certain artistry.

But more important than the demands made upon the imagination are those made upon our inner lives, on our ability to reflect on what is taking place around and within us. Ben Jonson, the Jacobean satiric playwright and poet, imagined two audiences for his work. The first audience understood the jokes and laughed at them but that was as far as it went. The second audience got the jokes as well but also made connections to themselves, saw in themselves the same human failings the playwright was making the object of his satire. The insights gained from the reading of the poems or the viewing of the plays provoked reflections and, or so Jonson hoped, reformation.

To read well one needs to care about the characters of the story and the circumstances in which these characters find themselves. I do not believe we learn the meaning of courage or loyalty from the dictionary; we learn the meanings of these words from the stories we read, whether these stories be found in fiction or biography, and the things that happen to people we care about. Hamlet struggles with the murder of his father and this struggle leads him very close to, if not into, madness. Anyone who has experienced even a minor injustice can begin to understand what at the human level Hamlet is experiencing.

When we read only for plot we can easily escape the implications of what we read for our own lives. If we read to the depths the stories contain (and I do understand that many stories do not go very deep) there is an opportunity to learn something about the depths of our own lives. If the stories we surround ourselves with do not contain much depth it is unlikely there will be much depth to our lives either. This is not to say that those that do not read are somehow more shallow than those that do (I am sure there are many shallow readers) only that they are going to have to go elsewhere to find the stories that help to define themselves to themselves. Some stories make it easier for us to be passive observers of life; the best stories provoke our involvement and give us the tools that help us to understand ourselves and the world around us.