On Learning and Other Games of Chance

Dandelion River Run
Mimi and Richard Farina

On Learning and Other Games of Chance

Ad in the Boston Globe to Promote Reading

The dulcimer when played by Richard Farina is such an exuberant instrument. Art of all sorts for me is characterized by exuberance. Whether it be the exuberance the gentleman in the photograph brings to his reading or the exuberance dancers on prom night bring to the dance art is always an intense enterprise that demands a great deal of energy from those that would enjoy and understand it. Some think exuberance must always be cheerful, but I think it must always be energetic and enthusiastic and energy and enthusiasm are not always cheerful. The gentleman reading his book is absorbed, he is investing a great deal of mental energy in what he is doing and because he is doing what he is doing of his own free will there is, I like to believe, a great deal of enthusiasm involved in the process as well. An old philosopher said that art delights and instructs. This is probably true. But art also stimulates the mind and the emotions in ways that are not always instructive and perhaps not always delightful. The end of Twelfth Night, for example, is delightful, but I am not so certain that delight is what I feel at the end of King Lear or if it is, it is a very melancholy species of delight.

There is an autistic student I talk to with some regularity and she often asks me if there are any versions of Hamlet, or other tragedies, that have happy endings. I tell her that for Hamlet the ending is far from happy but for Elsinore and the state of Denmark things have been set right and for them the ending is happy and this is part of the point of tragedy. In the end good people suffer harm, but also a community has been redeemed and order has been restored. Scotland can be a just nation once again, Salem can recapture a truer righteousness. So in this sense all tragedy ends happily and perhaps it is here that the delight lives, though, it remains a delight wanting cheerfulness.

The Card Players
Paul Cezanne

There was an article in last weeks New York Times on taking chances. The article was actually an interview of sorts with the writer Leonard Mlodinow. It was called “What Are the Odds” and it was about speculating on the future. His basic point was that the farther we get from the present the less clear and the harder to predict the future becomes. This seems in some ways to be self-evident, but I wonder if we live our lives this way. We look at the present moment and make decisions about what will be important in the future. Some things we say are irrelevant and others we say are very relevant. But who can know the twists and turns the future will take. Mark Twain invested in a printing press that failed miserably because he did not believe anyone beside himself and his lawyer perhaps would buy a telephone.

The article suggests that what is important is preparation and gives examples of people with mediocre abilities who did extraordinary things because they were ready when opportunity presented itself. But what I found to be the most meaningful part of the article came at the end. He talks about learning to be comfortable with failure. He quotes Thomas Watson, the founder of I. B. M. “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” In our schools it seems that our preoccupation with grades discourages this. Failure is not seen as the first step on the road to success but the end of all hope. I believe that if I am not failing at things that I am not challenging myself, I am pursuing only those things I know I have the skills to accomplish. But to grow at anything I must attempt things that are beyond my grasp. And this means I must willingly flirt with failure and that as a teacher I must encourage my students to do likewise.

Students often do not like the books I teach in my classes. They do not believe they are relevant, but they say this without really having read the books. The problem often is that they are difficult and that students do not wish to wrestle with something so difficult. This may be because they have no interest in books or the stories of those books that I teach, or that they see no value in developing the skills that would enable them to understand these books. Who’s to say they are wrong? I think these books have given comfort, joy, and wisdom to many people over many centuries and that they can continue to give comfort, joy, and wisdom. A book that has spoken to people over centuries has already demonstrated an ability to speak to times very different from those that gave it birth. This would suggest that it speaks to something that is not constrained by time but adapts with some ease to changing circumstances.

The Chess Players
Thomas Eakins

Perhaps education is less a game of chance and more a game of chess, a game in which luck plays a part but is not entirely a roll of the dice, there is skill and preparation involved as well. Chess is a game that, like many of the books we read in school, has survived many centuries, and if Star Trek is to be believed, will survive many more. It is a game that requires the beginning player to enjoy a bit of failure while learning to master the board. It often rewards thought and careful planning, but just as often it does not. In fact a good player must be able at each stage of the game to adapt and rework whatever plan or strategy guided the game’s beginning. As the paintings above and below suggest, the game can be played by anyone, anywhere, any time; by the rich and by the poor, in a great house or in a public house, by sunlight or by moonlight.

The Chess Players
Honoré Daumier

This is also true of the development of the mind. All the money in the world cannot buy intelligence, though it can help those with modest intelligence develop their limited abilities to a far greater extent than those with greater intellectual gifts but fewer financial resources. It is important to wrestle with difficult things, whether it is becoming an accomplished chess player, an accomplished athlete, or an accomplished thinker. We wrestle with a difficult book for the same reason we wrestle with a difficult chess problem or a difficult equation, the wrestling grows the mind and the imagination, it reveals to us our capabilities. It is at the edge of failure that we truly learn our abilities and our limitations. The teacher must set the example. How do we teach students to test their limits if we will not find ways to reward failure? How can we understand what we are asking our students to do if we are unwilling to risk failure in our own practice?

Jacque Brel

The song is about a man and a woman, one French and one Flemish. The French and the Flemish, at least at the time the song was written, did not get along. The love pursued by the two people in the song has to overcome cultural prejudices. This prejudice may not rise to the level of the Capulet’s and the Montague’s but it may feel that way to those involved. Love is one of those things that defies reason. It demands a long term commitment from people who often have not thought much or at all about the future and the nature of the commitment they are making. This is true not just of the love a person has for another person but it is also true of the love a person has for ideas, principles, and occupations. We choose our careers, for example, before we fully understand what it will be like to pursue those careers on a daily basis over many years. We embrace a faith before we fully understand how the pressures of daily living will challenge that faith and sow seeds of doubt.

As an educator I must care about those who care very little for that which nurtures me and is the focus of my work. And there is little comfort looking backwards. In the 16th century Robert Burton wrote of schoolteachers, “For what course shall he take (the learned man), being now capable and ready? The most parable and easy, and about which many are employed, is to teach a school, turn lecturer or curate, and for that he shall have falconer’s wages, ten pounds per annum, and his diet, or some small stipend, so long as he can please his patron or the parish; if they approve him not (for usually they do but a year or two), as inconstant as they that cried “Hosanna” one day and “Crucify him” the other; serving-man like, he must go look a new master; if they do what is his reward? At last thy snow-white age in suburb schools / Shall toil in teaching boys their grammar rules.” Things have improved, I suppose, tenure means a bit more job security, though there are those that would seek to take tenure away. But at the end of the day there is the belief, against all odds, that most will learn, and that some will find a similar vocation, or if not a vocation, will find a similar ardor for a beautiful thing and a the subtleties of language.

According to the article the one aspect of success that is under our control is the number of chances we take. I think that many things that we think of as being difficult are only unfamiliar. That means the more chances we take the sooner the unfamiliar will become familiar and with familiarity comes a degree of success. For a teacher last year’s success will not always guarantee success in the new year. Like the chess player the strategy and the plan must adapt to a different combination of moves and counter moves. Every year is new and unfamiliar. Each year must find its own road from failure to success or something resembling success. This process is difficult and it can be disheartening. But as Tom Hanks said in a movie about young women playing baseball “there is no crying in baseball” and “if it was easy, everyone would do it.” The classroom is an exuberant place and it is a thing of beauty.

Farming a Sandy Soil

Dick Dale
Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughn
La Mer “#3 – Dialogue Du Vent Et De La Mer”
Claude Debussy
André Previn: London Symphony Orchestra

Farming a Sandy Soil

Ocean Park #129
Richard Diebenkorn

The painting and the music offer different impressions of the sea. The painting evokes the emotions associated with the color of the sea and its “wetness”. The music evokes its power. Pipeline also evokes for me memories of growing up in Southern California overlooking the ocean. I sometimes tell people that I was there when the skateboard was invented. Not entirely true because there were skateboarders in my neighborhood the day I moved in, but it was when we split up one of a pair of clip on skates and nailed it to a board. I was told that surfers invented the skateboard as a way of practicing their balance on the board when they could not get to the ocean. I do not know if this is true but it seemed to make sense. By the time I graduated high school about seven years later in 1968 customized wheels and boards were on the market and friends were designing their own very fast skate boards that began to resemble those that are so ubiquitous today.

I remember while growing up there would be waves of extraordinary size that would visit the local beaches. There would inevitably be in the morning paper a photograph of a surfer who appeared as a small dot on the face of the wave riding the wave into the shore. It is in part this aspect of the ocean’s power that Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar, was evoking in his song. Debussy’s impressions of the sea capture a bit more of the oceans “range of emotions” perhaps but the selection used in the musical opening captures the sea’s more tempestuous nature. The sea is a force of nature whose power can overwhelm us and whose beauty can deeply move us.

For me stories have a similar kind of power. Often a story will grab me like the opening chords of Pipeline. They pull me into their depth and I remain lost there. But I also know that not everyone seems to be affected as I am by stories, or at least by the stories that move me. Many do not believe the stories of the past speak to people today. They speak to me, but that may only mean that I am an anomaly, the proverbial exception that proves the rule. But I wonder. Odysseus is a man trying desperately to get home, fighting against divine powers with a grudge. I think most of us know what it means to be lost, if only metaphorically. We are home safe in our rooms, but feel like Odysseus desperately trying to find his way home over an angry sea (he is involved in a grudge match with Poseidon, the god of the sea).

A Bigger Grand Canyon
David Hockney

Often in stories the first adversary is the natural environment, the setting of the story. In stories like The Last of the Mohicans that environment is in part the place, the wilderness in which the story takes place, but in others, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the environment is the culture in which the characters are raised. The paintings by David Hockney and Georgia O’Keefe capture the stark beauty of a desert landscape but the ram’s skull also suggests something of its dangers. In stories like McTeague and Death Comes for the Archbishop characters have to figure out how to survive in a hostile desert environment.

Ram’s Head
Georgia O’Keefe

But often the hostile desert of story is found in the human heart, the heart incapable of compassion, the heart incapable of mercy or forgiveness. The Count of Monte Cristo has ample reason to seek revenge and to harbor an unforgiving heart. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights feels more than justified in pursuing his revenge. But the strongest argument against giving sanctuary to such feelings is found in the manner in which these characters have been molded and changed by their dedication to vengeance. This is a great value of literature; it enables the reader to learn from the experience of others. This is something that we often do not do well, choosing instead to learn through our own suffering, but literature can provide an avenue for avoiding such suffering, or at least engaging some of life’s snares with a little foreknowledge.

There is also something to be learned from a desert. My father owned some land in California’s Anza Borrego desert. We would often go camping there. The roads into my father’s parcel of land were not well maintained and in places were of dirt and sand. I think my father bought the land as a speculation. A new highway was going to be built and the parcel my father bought was on one of the proposed routes, but the state chose an alternative route. But he may not have been speculating. My father loved the desert and when he had to make a difficult decision he would often go into the desert and camp for a few days. The land was very remote and no one went there. During the day things were very quiet and the nights until moonrise were exceptionally dark. For one comfortable with solitude this was a place to plumb the depth of your thought. When the moon finally rose, the desert landscape would become nearly as bright as daylight and the sand would almost glow.

Woman Reading
Henri Matisse

A book is a kind of wilderness in which I can lose myself as my father would lose himself in the moonrise over the desert. I am reading a book by Maria Tatar called Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood. In the book she talks about how children read differently from adults. She quotes Adam Gopnik. He points out that when an adult reads to a child the adult and the child are in different worlds. He says, “In children’s literature the grown-up wants a comforting image of childhood, or just a familiar name or story; the child want a boat, a way out, an example of the life beyond. The parent wants to get back, the child wants to get out.”

I think this is also true of the books I teach and of the students to whom I teach the books. I want to on one level get back to the first experience I had with the book, to the pleasure and excitement the first reading afforded. I want to reawaken the perceptions I had and the understanding I had of what the author was trying to say. Now, of course, the reading I am trying to reawake may not have been my first reading of the book but the first reading of the book in which my mind was engaged and my intellect and my imagination took flight. I am looking to re-sample the literary meal the first reading offered up to me with all its emotional and intellectual intensity.

My students are trying to preserve the way they are used to reading stories; they are looking for a boat or a spaceship, a train, or a jalopy; anything that will get them into the open air. They are a bit like Mr. Toad after his first encounter with the motorcar. If the book does not provide this “magic carpet” (and provide it rather quickly in the reading process) they want to go on to something else. I am trying to teach students to begin reading as adults while they are trying to continue to read as children. I feel a bit torn when I enter this process because on one level I think I am taking away, in a sense, their belief in Santa Claus and the other myths of childhood, myths that I often want to reclaim when I go back to a book I read as a child or a more recent publication that affects children today the way the books I read as a child affected me. I understand this desire.

But I also understand the need to mature as readers and as people. This is something that books have done for me. Books that touch me deeply often bring with them an epiphany and instead of losing myself in a book I find myself. I think this is a kind of reading we all need to grow into, a kind of reading that teaches us, nourishes us, gives us a map of sorts to follow into the dusky night that is the future.

There was an article in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times about reading and writing. It was written by Rich Cohen and is called “Will Facebook Kill Literature’s ‘Leave the Past Behind’ Themes?” The main thesis of the article is that social networks like Facebook keep the past to close to us. We cannot get enough distance from our friends and the events of our youth to be able to shape them into stories. If we were to attempt what Hemingway attempted in writing about Michigan as he remembered it, or as Anderson wrote about Winesburg, Ohio we would get a message on Facebook pointing out everything we got wrong. The article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I think there is some truth to the writer’s need for time alone with his characters and his settings so that he can shape them into the world he wishes to create, give them their own and separate reality.

I think it was E. B. White who said that not only must art not imitate life; it had better be a hell of a lot more interesting (or words to this effect). Part of the power of fiction is that it is imagined, that it is not biography or autobiography though it may contain elements of both. Fiction enables us to imagine the world as we would like it to be, or in the details we choose to emphasize clarify for the reader the world as it is. As someone has said, we experience life as a series of random events but we look back on life after it has been lived to find the purpose and the design.

Fantasia – “Night on Bald Mountain”
Walt Disney Studios

I enjoy this film in part because it is the first, and one of the few, films I saw that did not have a clear narrative structure. It is more a series of images than it is a story. The stories that are there, like the “Night on Bald Mountain” evoke a narrative structure; suggest a narrative that our imaginations can then create. There are devils and spirits and bones dancing about, there is hellfire and brimstone but why all this dancing and fire is happening is not made explicitly clear. It is a film that needs to be approached in much the same way we approach a poem, especially a poem by William Blake or Emily Dickinson that does not overtly state its purpose; that calls into question, perhaps, the need for a purpose in everything we do.

The film does what I want a story to do, it lights my imagination and lets me provide my own details. The writer of the story puts the words on the page, but my imagination puts the film into the can, so to speak. This is something else the adult reader does. The child follows the character through the looking glass or through the wardrobe or through whatever the magic door happens to be and than follows along. The child is looking for the vehicle that will take them away and the child imagines what the child must imagine in order for the story to live. But the adult paints, I think, a fuller canvas.

The adult sees the boat but also some of the invisible creatures that are swimming out of sight below the surface. The adult sees some of the pitfalls that are hidden from the child. The story may reveal these pitfalls in the course of the story or it may not, but the adult with the adult experience she or he brings to the reading sees them. I was a big fan of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show as a child. I saw the surface of the narrative and had a good time. But my parents had a good time as well and it was clear to me that they were seeing things that I was not. When I went back to some of these programs as an adult I saw some of the things my parents saw. That there were things happening that the children missed but that delighted the adult.

I think this is part of what I want to do as a teacher and a reader of stories. There is the immediate world of a story that does not require interpretation or analysis; its only demand upon us is that we enjoy it. But there is a less immediate world to the story; one that requires the reader to become a watchmaker of sorts; to disassemble the story and then to reassemble it so that the psychology of the characters can be understood, so that complexities that make the world tick can be seen, so that we can both tell the time and understand the times. It is this taking apart and putting back together that prepares us for the world in which we live; that teaches us to look beneath the surface of human events so that we can influence in our small way the course these events take. This is what I want my students to see and to embrace. But this is often farming in a sandy soil; it is working with a landscape that does not wish to nourish the seeds that have been planted. But the land must produce a harvest if those that live on it are to survive.

Things Change

David Bowie
“Una Nave da Guerra” From Madama Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini
“Que facevi Que dicevi” from La Boheme
Giacomo Puccini
“A Heart full of Love” From Les Miserables
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg

Things Change

“The Theft” and “The Restitution”
Max Beerbohm

The David Bowie song is about changes and how we all change over time, sometimes in our own eyes, but more often, perhaps, in the eyes of others. The changes that take place between the songs and at the end of the music clip are much more jarring and a bit too noticeable, in large part due to my lack of skill with the tools used to merge the four songs. But there is a transformation within the second song that can almost go unnoticed. The aria is from the end of the opera Madama Butterfly and Madama, realizing she has been abandoned by the man she loved is preparing for the tragic ending of the story. The man who betrayed her was a United States Navy officer and if we are paying attention we notice a point in the aria where Puccini has seamlessly worked into the score “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is woven into the song Madama sings. It only lasts a few seconds and then it is gone, but this musical metamorphosis reminds the listener of who the responsible party is.

The clip segues again into two other views of love that are on the one hand more positive, but in one case equally as tragic, La Boheme ends tragically for Mimi and Rodolfo while Les Miserables ends happily for Cosette and Marius. It may just be me but there seem to be echoes of La Boheme in Les Miserables. When I hear the two pieces of music separately the one evokes the other in my mind, but less so when I hear them together. Perhaps there are other similarities in the two stories that encourage this musical connection or perhaps it is just the mind’s “rage for order”.

Literature is about change. Stories involving characters that do not grow or learn from their actions are either dull stories or stories that are not true to life or stories about foolish people. The illustration at the top underscores a change in the artist, Max Beerbohm. I do not know if this illustration documents an actual event or if it is fictional but it does underscore a change either in Mr. Beerbohm or the character he has invented of the same name. He stole a book from a library as a young man and many years later, as an old man sees the error of his ways and attempts to put things right. Perhaps this act of restitution was the result of something he read in the book he stole, I do not know, but I know people are often transformed by what they read. St. Augustine in his Confessions tells of stealing some pears as a child and how as an adult after converting to Christianity he still carried the guilt for that action; it followed him throughout life. We can argue whether this change that came about as a result of his reading was for the better or for the worse, but it cannot be argued that the change was profound.

What we see, read, and hear changes us. This is true whether we are aware of this or not. I remember as a child watching Leave It to Beaver and shows of a similar ilk that presented the American family in a certain light, and this light colored the way I viewed the family ever after. When I started teaching the American family was represented on television by programs like The Simpson and Married with Children which presented a very different view of the family and where the view I grew up with was probably a bit too rosy, I wonder if the one my students grew up with is a bit too dark. It can be argued that there are families like those depicted The Simpsons, but the same might be said about the television families I grew up with as well.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the reality probably lies somewhere in between. But that is not the point. The point is to what extent is our view of family shaped by our actual experience of by the families we encounter in the media. Do we draw our own conclusions or have they been drawn for us. The issue for me is that our views are being shaped by the books we read, the movies we watch, and the music we listen to. Do we play a part in the changes that take place or are they happening without our knowledge. When the worldview of a nation or a culture changes, does it change as a result of reflections on the good and the bad in past behavior, or does it happen thoughtlessly through shifts in the stories we are told and the passivity with which we engage these stories? As an English teacher this is to me an important question, though I do not pretend to know the answer.

“Apollo and Daphne”
Piero Pollaiuolo

The paintings above and below capture scenes from a classical poem by Ovid, The Metamorphoses, which is entirely about change. Characters change into birds and trees and other objects from nature, stories merge into each other; the world is in a constant state of change and transformation. The poem contains in its pages most of the more important stories from the Greek and Roman myths but it also addresses character and what produces change in character. The young lady in the painting above is changing into a tree in order to avoid the unwanted advances of one of the gods, Apollo. This motif of a human character who is mobile and active changing into a tree that is rooted and bound to a single spot of land is found in other stories.

Spenser in his poem The Faerie Queen has a pair of lover so rooted. In the science fiction novel A Voyage to Arcturus a character whose will is being taken from him by another is being forced to root himself and is slowly changing into a tree. He is made to watch the roots slowly appear from his ankles and his feet. It is a rather terrifying moment in the story, for me at least. But it illustrates how things change, with or without our consent. In the story the man that is being rooted lacks the strength to fight back; his adversary is more powerful. This suggests to me how powerful forces in a culture can change those that are complacent and unreflective without their being aware of what is going on. The stories we read in school can only help us if we engage them actively; if we look at the worlds and the characters the stories offer up and question them and their reality and relevance to our own lives.

“The Spinners, or The fable of Arachne”
Diego Velázquez

This story of Arachne is a bit different. It is about pride and over-confidence. Arachne boasts that she is a more artful weaver than Minerva (the Roman name for Athena), one of the more prominent goddesses in the Greek and Roman mythology. Arachne losses the contest, of course and is transformed into one of nature’s more capable weavers, the spider. What does this suggest about power, especially divine power. Are there forces that must be respected even though they can at times be malicious?

When I was younger I worked for a few months on a kibbutz in Israel. I left the kibbutz to see something of the country and I hitchhiked down to Elat, a small town on the Red Sea. At one point, after hours of trying, I could not get a ride. I decided it was only twenty miles to Elat and so I would walk the distance (I enjoy walking, but it is unwise to attempt a walk such as this in the desert in the middle of August). The forces of the desert are unremitting and were it not for the kindness of some Israeli soldiers with a jeep, I may not have had as happy a conclusion to my trip. Is the desert malicious or was I foolish? Does it matter in a world that can be hostile if its forces are not respected.

Still Life and Street
M. C. Escher

This etching by M. C. Escher plays with transformations and expectations. We see a table with a pipe, some cards, and a few books that unfolds into a busy city street. The image is discordant; this cannot be the real world. What does this suggest about the imagination? Is this just a clever piece of perspective drawing that plays with our expectations without really commenting on the nature of reality or does it suggest something about how the imagination works, perhaps how stories work? I enjoy the games that Escher plays with perspective (both in the artistic and the cognitive sense). I think about the articles on the table and what they suggest. The pipe suggests reflection, a person quietly smoking a pipe as he (or perhaps she) thinks things over, like Sherlock Holmes with a six pipe problem. The cards, to me, suggest magic and the magician’s slight of hand (I was an amateur magician as a child and this may color my interpretation). The books suggest the imagination and the ability of the imagination to create new worlds, with their own city streets no doubt, as a magician might pull a world out of a hat.

I think of something G. K. Chesterton once said, “Art exists solely in order to create a miniature universe, a working model of the universe, a toy universe, which we can play with as a child plays with a toy theater.” I think there is some truth to this. We often tell stories and read stories to understand how the world works or how the world might work or be made to work differently. I wanted to say that the artist might seek to create a better world, but than one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. I remember reading in Rabelais of the Academy of Theleme and thinking folks like me might find this an interesting place, but many of my students would probably feel like they had entered 1984. Most of us want to understand and to make things better, but there does not seem to be much consensus as to what constitutes a better world.

There was an article in this week’s Los Angeles Times “A Room of Her Own” by Nahid Rachlin. It is about growing up in Iran and being a woman and desiring to be a writer. She eventually comes to the United States where she can get an education and where she can write. There were conflicts in her home that she had to reconcile. She was raised by a Muslim fundamentalist aunt who gave her the freedom to write and secular parents who were less tolerant, an interesting juxtaposition of stereotypes. She was drawn to reading and writing to find answers and to understand. The reading and writing did not answer the questions she had about the world in which she lived, but the reading and writing brought her peace and often happiness. I think for many this is a service that literature and the written word has provided. Reading and writing cannot change the world perhaps, but they can change us and help us to live with the things we cannot change and to work at changing those things we can change.

Thomas Edison’s Production

I like this film because it was one of the first films ever made and because it helped to start a genre, the Science Fiction film. The special effects by our standards are quite crude, but for 1910 I imagine they were something to write home about. I like science fiction in part because it reflects on reality and how the world might change and how in spite of all the changes that may take place, human beings often remain very much the same. One story I like a lot is A Canticle for Leibowitz. The book imagines a world that has been destroyed by human violence and then sets about rebuilding itself to the place where it can once again destroy itself. In some ways it is very pessimistic but in others it is hopeful. For though the human capacity for destruction remains so does the human capacity for kindness and compassion.

I think as we and the world grow older we have the opportunity to grow wiser, but this is an opportunity we each must accept as individuals, and it gets back to how we define a better world, Is it one with markets that do not crash and where everyone becomes prosperous, or is it one that recognizes the value of making sacrifices for the sake of others? I remember reading something about utopia by Theodore Adorno. He suggested that many of the writers that tried to imagine Utopia would think we are living in a utopia because of all the conveniences that we have. But Utopia is not about an electric blanket on a cold winter’s night, but about the higher aspirations of the human heart. And to have aspirations at all we must reflect on where we are and where we might be.

Famous for Being Faithful

From Desperados Waiting for a Train
Jerry Jeff Walker

Famous for Being Faithful

Kindred Spirits
Asher Brown Durand

The song is about the friendship between a young boy and an old man. The boy is, I imagine, as energetic as you would expect any young boy to be and the old man less energetic than you would expect most old men to be. Yet the boy hangs around with the old man. The title, “Desperados Waiting for a Train” lends an aura of western romance to the relationship. The boy and the old man are not doing anything, just as desperados “casing” the train station in preparation for a robbery do not appear to be doing anything. But the boy and the old man are friends and the friendship makes the sedentary passing of time worthwhile.

The painting idealizes the friendship between Thomas Cole (a friend of Asher Durand who did the painting) and the poet William Cullen Bryant. It imagines a meeting of the two friends in a real place that was important to both. The “place”, the Kaaterskill Falls region of the Catskill Mountains, though, is not painted as it was but as it was remembered many years after Durand had visited the region. The occasion for the painting was the recent death of Thomas Cole. Cole is credited with establishing the Hudson River School of painting, of which this painting is one of the most famous representatives.

The painting was done as an act of friendship on the part of Durand for his friend Thomas Cole and is a remembrance of him. The painting in turn commemorates Cole’s friendship with Bryant. The Hudson River painters, in turn, pursued a friendship of sorts with the environment of Upstate New York (though this love of landscape was exported to other parts of the United States and the world). I suppose that in part this is what friendship is, a commitment between two people that is experienced in the real world, with all the pressures and beauties that the real world brings with it.

The setting of the painting is beautiful; it captures a wilderness, even if it is a wilderness romanticized by memory. Danger and unpredictability are aspects of a wilderness. It is in times of danger and the unpredictable, especially the unpleasant side of the unpredictable, that a friendship is tested. Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is better to be faithful than famous.” This is especially true of friendship and where this is not true that friendship has likely become tainted with exploitation on the part of at least one party to the relationship.

William Wordsworth
Benjamin Haydon

There are many examples of literary friendships, some of which did not remain friendly. Joyce’s treatment of Sylvia Beach comes to mind as well as Hemingway’s treatment of just about every literary friend who helped him get his first books published. One of the most productive literary friendships was that between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. These two men essentially began the Romantic Movement in England with the publication of their book Lyrical Ballads. The friendship had its strains and eventually came apart. As the two paintings suggest both these poets had a melancholy side to them and melancholia can put a strain on a friendship. Coleridge also had other problems that made him a difficult friend.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Stories help us to define values and concepts. One of the ways we come to understand the true meanings of words and the ideas and values those words stand for is through the stories that we read. We see friendship defined in Huck’s relationship with Jim, a friendship that should never have happened inside the culture from which it evolved. When Huck says he is willing to go to Hell rather than betray a friend he is not speaking figuratively. He has been raised to believe that he will literally go to Hell if he continues to help Jim and does not turn him in to the authorities. Define Hell however you will, are there many in your life that you would risk that consequence to protect.

Huckleberry Finn comes from the literary tradition of the picaro and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a picaresque novel. A picaro is street urchin who must survive by his wits. He is inventive, resourceful and shrewd. The tradition began (or at least it was given its own name as a literary genre, though I think the type is probably older) with a Spanish novella by an anonymous author called La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes. Lazarillo had few friends and survival depended on trickery, “street smarts”, and persistence, many of the same qualities we find in Huck Finn. Huck, on the other hand, is rich in friends. There is Judge Thatcher, Tom Sawyer, and the Widow Douglas, all willing to do most anything to help him out. It is Tom, in fact, who gets Huck to go back to the Widow Douglas’ house to live. Tom is forming a gang of robbers and Huck can only become a member by letting the Widow Douglas make him respectable.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Honoré Daumier

Another famous friendship from the picaresque tradition is that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In the painting Don Quixote is seen in the foreground and Sancho seems to be missing, but if you look carefully you can see Sancho off in the distance hurrying to catch up. Of the two it is Sancho that is the most like a picaro, but neither the Don nor Sancho are young urchins. Quixote takes to living by his wits in order to make the world nobler; a place where folks like Lazarillo can live more honestly and more humanely. Sancho watches out for Don Quixote and keeps him from getting into too much trouble, or helps the Don escape when he has gotten into too much trouble. The two are technically master and servant, though Sancho is perhaps, more an apprentice than a servant in that he is Don Quixote’s squire and a squire is a knight in training.

“Mr. Pickwick’s Reception”
Sol Eytinge, Jr

Sam Weller is another famous friend who doubles as his friend’s servant. He looks after Mr. Pickwick in much the same way Sancho looks after Don Quixote. Like the Don, Mr. Pickwick is a man in great need of someone to save him from himself and that is a task that Mr. Weller performs very well. Both Sam Weller and Sancho Panza are paid for their services (or at least promised payment at the end of the adventure) but both do what they do not for the paycheck but out of friendship. Those who have read both The Pickwick Papers and The Lord of the Rings will recognize a bit of Sam Weller in Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Both Sam and Samwise are full of worldly wisdom and useful aphorisms (most of which have been learned from a wise parent) to fit most any situation. Though there is not a “cockney” district in the Shire Samwise would probably feel right at home in the markets of Covent Garden.

This tradition of the resourceful servant reaches a pinnacle of sorts in the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse, though neither Jeeves nor Wooster were likely to regard the other as a friend. What Sancho and the Sams did out of friendship Jeeves performs as a professional service. Wooster can fire Jeeves at a moments notice (and does on a few occasions) and Jeeves is free to leave at a moments notice. Jeeves also performs his duties with a bit more sophistication than do his more rustic counterparts. One gets the impression at times that Jeeves not only surpasses his master in common sense but in education as well. Jeeves also embodies the essence of literacy in that not only is he knowledgeable, but he can put that knowledge to practical and effective use.

Curly’s Sweater
The Three Stooges

This film shows friendship taken to another extreme. The Three Stooges, it is clear, are good friends. The Marquise de Sevign said, “True friendship is never serene.” The Three Stooges live out this principle in each of their films. They stick together through thick and thin and a great deal of choreographed abuse. Whatever the hardship, they endure it together and that after all is a large part of what friendship is, enduring together. Robert Frost in his poem “Provide, Provide” suggests the only friends that can be relied upon are those that are bought and can be paid for on a daily basis. The Stooges suggest not only that friendship is not a commodity, but that it willingly endures suffering (largely of their own making) and sacrifice.

Making Gentle Waves
E. H. Shepard

For me, though, friendship is seen at its most exemplary in the children’s book The Wind in the Willows. Ratty and Mole are kindred spirits that endure much together, much that is pleasant and much that is trying, especially on behalf of another friend, Mr. Toad. The author of the book, Kenneth Grahame, would be celebrating his 150th birthday this year if he were still with us. To acknowledge this Katherine A. Powers devoted her column, A Reading Life in last week’s Boston Globe to the book and to two new editions of the book. The two new printings are annotated editions of the story and they sound colorful and interesting, even if, according to Powers, they miss the meanings of some of the commonplaces of Edwardian daily life that are found throughout the book. It is the friendship, though, that makes the book remarkable for me. Friendship is something everyone craves and needs but real friends are often difficult to come by. As a result the story resonates.

C. S. Lewis in his book, The Four Loves, discusses the role of love in our daily lives and the life of the culture(s) in which we live. In it he describes each of the four Greek words for love. One of the four loves, phileo, is friendship. According to Lewis this is the most unnecessary of loves, in that it does not have any “work” to do, society and its institutions do not need friendship in order to survive, as a society needs well behaved, well brought up, and well provided for children in order to survive. Friendship exists for no other reason than the relationship itself.

I am not certain that this is entirely true, but it does underscore an aspect of friendship and that is whether the relationship is like that of Ratty and Mole or that of The Three Stooges, all parties are free to leave whenever they choose but for however long the friendship endures, they choose not to. But what is more, the friendship is only a friendship as long as it is pursued out of a love for the other and not out of a sense of duty (though that may enter in from time to time). There can be no obligation in a friendship, only desire.

A Penny for Your Two-Cents Worth

From Sitting Here in Limbo

Jimmy Cliff

A Penny for Your Two-Cents Worth

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein
Paul Ehrenfest

Limbo is an uncomfortable place to be, it is the ultimate dead end, it is not as painful a place to live as purgatory but there is also no hope for advancement. It’s not hell, but that is about all that can be said for it. The song presents a less “theological” view of limbo. It is a place between, between what we were and what we might become; we can see where we were and understand why we cannot go back but for one reason or another we cannot progress to the next stage, perhaps are not even certain what the next stage is. In this sense we are often in a kind of limbo. A relationship has ended; another may or may not take its place. A belief is recognized as inadequate or untrue but there is no alternative belief to pick up where the other left off. This is an uncomfortable place to be, but often we learn important things about our world and ourselves while we are there.

As an educator I live in a kind of limbo, that space between the belief that all students can learn at the highest levels, that intelligence is solely a matter of training and time on task and the belief that intelligence is an innate gift that some possess and others do not, that even with the best training from the best teachers and the most diligent efforts of all parties to the process some students will never master calculus, become concert pianists, or write great poetry. In the photograph above, for example, were these two men, Bohr and Einstein, no more gifted than all the other physicists of their generation or were they born with gifts of intellect that few others of their generation possessed? Did they work harder or more effectively at developing that slice of intellect that all were given in equal measure or did they get a bigger slice?

As a teacher there is no resolution to this conflict. If I treat students as though the abilities they possess were doled out unequally I will challenge some students more than others, give up on some students because their GPA suggests to challenge them too much would only produce failure and frustration. If, on the other hand, I accept that all receive an equal portion and as a result challenge all equally I have to be careful not to blame the students, to think them lazy, when they do not achieve. If all are gifted equally than it is the students’ fault that their innate gifts are so woefully underdeveloped when they fail at the challenges set before them. If the fault lies not with the student but with their preparation then the blame for a student’s failure must rest with the teacher and not with the student. This might be possible, but in my experience I have seen many students fail even though their teachers made every effort and taught them very well.

Philosophically I believe that some students are more gifted than others, but guide my practice by a belief that all are equally gifted. I challenge all my classes, from College Prep to Honors and A. P. with the same course content, they read the same books, they write the same kinds of essays, they are given the same projects; I do not expect all my classes to master the materials at the same level, but I expect a degree of mastery from all my students. I work from an assumption that all my students would be A. P. students if they had received proper preparation. But philosophically, I do not believe this, so I provide back doors so that those who are not equal to the challenge (or do not believe themselves equal to the challenge) have an avenue of escape, ways to pass the course without mastering everything, though they do have to master some things. I believe that it is important to set high expectations because in my experience most students will not believe in themselves unless someone else (usually an adult) believes in them first. And even when they are not successful at living up to our expectations, each student must be helped especially when they are struggling with the challenges set before them.

Mozart Sheet Music
Robert Bellamy

The image above is of a page of sheet music written in Mozart’s own hand. It is from his Requiem. In the movie Amadeus a character looking at a page of Mozart’s music remarks that there are no erasures. He is told by Mozart’s wife that Mozart does not rewrite it comes from his mind to the paper in its final form. I do not know if this is historically accurate but it makes for a memorable moment in the film. According to David Brooks, in an article showed to me by friends this week, this was not because Mozart was born a musical genius but because he worked hard at developing that equal share of raw intelligence he was given. Perhaps this is true, but if so, few composers before or since have worked as hard.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Johann Nepomuk della Croce

I tend to think that Mozart was gifted and that there was more involved than hard work and fortuitous circumstances, but, of course, I cannot prove this. A recipe is given in the article for producing a genius. Find the right person born into the right combination of circumstances and then make sure that person gets the requisite training. Stanislavsky made a similar kind of argument for the development of a corps of actors. He trained young actors and achieved some interesting results but few went on to become household names. His methods were brought to the United States and resulted in the Actors Studio that produced actors like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. But how many actors that went through the program have never been heard of after graduation. Is this because they did not work as hard as Brando or did Brando have an additional something the others did not?

Giant Posters of Dodger Greats (posted on the exterior of Dodger Stadium)
Kenneth Han

These were the two geniuses I emulated when I was young. They are hard to make out but the gentleman on the left is Don Drysdale and the gentleman on the right is Sandy Koufax. Being left handed I was especially attracted to Sandy Koufax and had dreams that I might one day pitch like him. I practiced a side arm pitch with a high kick. I was never much good but the wind up and the pitch were a lot of fun. But they accomplished things as athletes that have not been equaled. What they were able to do with a baseball was sheer genius and I know lots of boys from my generation that worked awful hard at being like them, but none of them succeeded. I had a student in Los Angeles who had, I was told by his coach, an incredible fastball. He did not have to work that hard to develop it, he just seemed to be able to throw a baseball incredibly fast. He was kicked off the team because he would not accept coaching. He was asked to come to a Dodger try out camp because of the speed at which he could throw a ball, but he did not want to do push ups and left. As far as I know he never played sports after high school. The skill he had, though, seemed to come naturally.

New Math
Tom Lehrer

The math I studied in high school is the math Tom Lehrer sings about (I am not sure who is doing the singing in the video but the song is by Tom Lehrer and was popular when I was young). New Math was a movement that believed that all students could learn math at the highest levels if it was taught a certain way. I do not know if this is in fact what new math was, but that was how it was presented to me. In my ninth grade math class we had these two large yellow books published, if my memory serves me well, by Yale University. They were paperback books with yellow textured covers. We got about half way through the program during my ninth grade year. Those that did well went on to geometry, those that did not had to go back and redo the ninth grade math in the hopes they would pick up what they had missed the first time. I was in the group that did ninth grade math over again.

The most important thing that I got out of new math was an introduction to different number systems. I will sometimes tell my students that in English there is rarely a single answer to a literary question. It is not like mathematics where two plus two is always four unless of course you are in base three in which case it is eleven. I think this illustrates that true intelligence is at least in part, measured by an ability to see things from more than one point of view. I recently saw a tee shirt that said there are 10 kinds of people in the world those that understand binary and those that do not. Because I studied new math in high school I understood the joke.