Where Dreams are Found

Sonny’s Blues

Jean Redpath


Where Dreams are Found


Two people dressed like clowns stand by a house by trees with a full moon in the sky with three clouds

A Carnival Evening

Henri Rousseau



The song is about a young man who becomes an old man who never pursues his dreams because his mother needs him at home, sort of like Luke Skywalker’s uncle needs Luke about the farm. Later in the song we are told:


Sonny’s dreams can’t be real, they’re just stories he’s read

They’re just stars in his eyes, they’re just dreams in his head

And he’s hungry inside for the wide world outside

And I know I can’t hold him though I’ve tried and I’ve tried


The lyric tells us that Sonny’s dreams can’t be real because they are just stories, stories from books, stories he’s been told, or stories from films, television, and songs that are just made up. The school where I teach is reconsidering its curriculum. We are told on the one hand that the new standards require students to do more with non-fiction and real life type “stuff.” Fiction, of course, is all made up and therefore it can’t be real and cannot really tell us much about life and how it is lived, or so some would suggest to us. Of course it should be remembered that there is a great deal of non-fiction that, if read correctly, is going to be read for more than just the information it provides, that is a body of literature as worthy of study as any important work of fiction, but I fear non-fiction of this variety is seen to be as irrelevant to the school curriculum as the fiction that is being replaced.

They tell us that for the study of literature to have value it must provide students the opportunity to search and to find information. There is no point, for example, to studying Macbeth (or perhaps Edmund Burke or John Locke) if this study does not result in students learning facts they did not previously know; facts that will be useful to them in the future. The future, it seems, is all about gathering information and finding proper uses for it. I think Macbeth has much to teach us, but I do not know if there are many useful facts to be found.

The painting is of a clown and a woman standing under a cloudy, starlit sky. The title tells us it is a painting of a “carnival evening.” I am not sure what an evening must possess in order for it to be a carnival, but the painting captures whatever that something is. There was an article in the New York Times, “The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules”, about Maurice Sendak and other writers of children’s stories that did not play by the rules, whatever the rules are. There is much that is dreamlike, especially in Sendak, in the stories that these and other writers of children’s books tell. C. S. Lewis said of his Narnia books that they began with a dream he had of a faun standing by a lamppost in the middle of a snowy wood. On one level there is, of course, nothing real in a dream. On another, though, the stuff of dreams is immensely important and it silhouettes some of the deeper realities of our lives, realities that are perhaps too difficult to face in a more realistic setting.

Even if we do not believe what the likes of Jung and Freud tell us about dreams, the literature of the world, both sacred and profane, gives great significance to dreams. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is packed with allegorical dreams. I particularly enjoy all the dreams that the various knights seeking the Holy Grail have. They are dreams that contain important information, life and death information, and there is always someone, usually a monk or hermit of some kind, who can tell the knight what the dream means. On at least one occasion the interpreter of the dream is a fraud whose interpretation of the dream is also a fraud. Dreams being what they are, it is not difficult to spin them in a number of different ways, not all of which are enlightening. There is a message here as well; that it is not enough to dream, but it is also important to understand our dreams correctly.


Ships anchored in port at night with London's St. Paul's Cathedral silouetted in the backhground

Nightfall down the Thames

John Atkinson Grimshaw



But what has all this to do with curriculum standards and the usefulness of fiction? Aristotle thought that poetry, and by poetry we soon realize he means story telling, has value because, unlike history, it does not tell us what has happened, but what might be. Aristotle also thought that stories show us how a philosophy of life might be lived out. They answer (or suggest answers) to questions like: What are the implications of our philosophy for our futures? How do our beliefs guide our choices? What does our philosophy teach us? The problem with non-fiction, or much of it and certainly the kind of non-fiction the proponents of the new standards seem to have in mind, is that it just presents information that we can accumulate, it does not make us wise, it does not teach us what to do with the information once we acquire it. The paintings above and below are of seaports, one on the River Thames and one on the River Clyde. This is suggestive because these seaports are not on the sea but on rivers that lead to the sea. What is important is not where we are, but where we can get to from where we are. What is important in what we read is not the information that is conveyed, but where that information can take us. A manual that shows us how to properly set up and configure our computers tells us nothing about why we would want or need to set up and configure that computer in the first place.


Ships anchored in port by a rain soaked city street at night

Shipping on the Clyde

John Atkinson Grimshaw



Both of the seaports are shrouded in mist. This mist limits our vision, we cannot see as far in a fog as we can when the horizons are clear and sunlit. To read for information only, without a clear idea as to what the value of the information is, or to even care if it has value, is to read in a fog and at the end of the day all we will have is information without an imagination adequate enough to put that information to good use, or to pass judgment on it and discard it when it has no use or is, worse yet, deceptive or unhealthy. I was told when I was in school that medieval scholars believed everything they read in books, even when what they read in different books was contradictory. This was both a strength and a weakness; a strength because it prodded them to seek synthesis, to find a way to bring these contradictory ideas together to reveal a hopefully deeper truth. A weakness because it produced a kind of naiveté that gave greater value to some of what they read than was warranted or even wise. There is something of this medieval view in the attitude we are being encouraged to take towards non-fiction. It is what justifies the teaching of informational texts in place of literature. But reading for information only is not reading critically, it is premised on the belief that what is written in books must be true and therefore can be trusted.

I am sure that I am oversimplifying the new curriculum standard and the way it is being presented, but one of the things that reading literature does, if we read deeply and well, is to make judgments about characters and ideas and the implications of the actions of the characters in the stories. When we read books like The Catcher in the Rye or The Turn of the Screw we must evaluate the narrators and the validity of the stories they are telling us. For even if these narrators truly believe the stories that they tell and believe they are telling us what happened as it truly happened, we see throughout their narratives that they are not reliable witnesses. In many ways they are the most convincing witnesses against the truth of the story they tell. We in our lives will encounter every day people who will tell us stories that cannot be true, even though on occasion the people telling the stories may honestly believe in the truth of the tale they tell.

When we read fiction well we are learning from experience, from experiences we are having with other people who, even if they are fictional, are forcing us to make judgments about what they say and do and we avoid these judgments to our peril. If we read the books mentioned above for information alone all we know at the end of the story is that Holden Caulfield had a harrowing few days in New York City and a child died in a governess’ arms. What we do not know is whether the most harrowing events are taking place in the city or in the mind of the young narrator or if the governess is the child’s protector or his killer.


Painitng of a house viewed through trees at night

Château Noir

Paul Cezanne



There is another value to reading fiction and that relates to Aristotle’s first point about the value of stories; that they show us what might be. They stimulate the imagination. Neal Stephenson in an article in the World Policy Journal, “Innovation Starvation”, suggests that many of the advancements in science and technology that took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s had their origins in science fiction novels that speculated about the future. And even where the predictions in these novels did not come to pass, they still stimulated the imagination. Stephenson talks about waking up early to watch the old Gemini mission launches. I remember waking up to watch not only the Gemini launches, but the Mercury launches as well and like Stephenson I followed the space program from its glorious beginnings to its more mundane ending. It seems to me that as our cultural imagination went into decline so did our cultural ambitions. We exchanged a dream of visiting other planets and solar systems for a fleet of celestial cargo ships. When the imagination necessary to pursue the dream declined and vanished, the dream died. It is not necessary that the new dreams that replace the old involve space travel, but they do need to involve something large, something that inspires and rekindles our enthusiasm for accomplishing the sublime.


What We Learned from 5 Million Books

TED Talks


The video is not just about collecting books digitally so that they will always be with us, but about the power of language and the value of preserving that language. Aiden and Michel in their presentation point out that much has been lost and is unrecoverable from antiquity. It may be that much, even most, of what has been lost has been lost for good reason. But we cannot know that for sure. There was a review of a new book by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve, in the Guardian, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt – review”. The book tells the story of the re-discovery of Lucretius’ book On the Nature of Things, a book that had been lost for many centuries and existed only as oblique references in the work of other ancient authors. The name of Lucretius was known as was the name of the book, but the book itself was lost. This book that was lost and was found went on to inspire many Renaissance writers, thinkers, and scientists. The Guardian is of the opinion that Greenblatt’s claims may be a bit exaggerated, but it recognizes the value of the book itself.

In another review in the New York Times, The Almost-Lost Poem That Changed the World” (which you must be a subscriber to the New York Times to read) Greenblatt is quoted saying, “I am constantly struck,” Greenblatt told The Harvard Gazette in 2000, when he was named a university professor, “by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.” And this is at the heart of why we read literature. Books are letters of a sort, a kind of correspondence where we communicate with those long dead because the content of the conversation will always have relevance if we take the time to understand what is being said to us. Maimonides, St. Paul, Confucius, Homer, Scheherazade, and all the other writers long dead who continue to inspire the living and, if given the opportunity, many generations to come, desire to chat (and I use this word not to be flippant but to suggest the intensely personal nature of the conversation) with us. Like Socrates in the Agora they engage us with questions about life and how it is lived and what gives it meaning.

And even if we do not agree with their conclusions there is value in letting them help us shape our own conclusions, if only by accepting the challenge to think as deeply about things as they have thought, so that our conclusions, though different, will be as acutely considered. Or as Sarah Bakewell, quoting Petrarch, pointed out later in her New York Times review of the Greenblatt book, “Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.” I wonder if a book can have an impact this profound if it is read solely for information, or what is worse, if the only books we read are those that provide information to be gleaned without inspiring the reader to do much of substance with what’s been found.


Painting of a tree with a reddish-brown trunk against a blue sky

Red Tree

Piet Mondrian



Wishing Our Way Home

If Wishes Were Horses
Lucinda Williams

Wishing Our Way Home

The Knight’s Dream
Antonio de Pereda

Lucinda Williams is singing about undoing the past, wishing things could be done over differently and seeing that they can’t hoping that perhaps there can be a bit of forgiveness. In the chorus she sings “If wishes were horses I’d have a ranch” and that sentiment captures a lot, not just of lost love but of a great many human activities that have not gone as planned or never got off the ground because there was never much more to them than wishing. Often it is easier to aspire than to achieve. Aspirations are romantic and often a bit adventurous, but achievements are hard work, at least the worthwhile ones are.

The painting captures another aspect of dreaming and wishing. The knight is sleeping at a cluttered table. It seems that the objects on the table are reflections of his dreams. There are a couple of books, one of which is open and both of which are old. That they are set aside and that two objects, skulls, have been set on top of them suggests the books are not what currently occupy his interest. There is at least one musical instrument and some sheet music. These might suggest entertainment or a musical education.

There is also a globe and other objects that might represent conquest, like the miniature clock tower that could suggest a conquered city. There are of course the jewels and cash, representative of the spoils of war perhaps, along with a gun and what look like bits of armor, the tools of conquest. There is also behind the books an object that looks a bit like a bishop’s mitre that might suggest religious connections of one kind or another, either of complicity or a different kind of conquest. And of course there is the angel. Is the angel there to inspire or protect? But the knight is dreaming and perhaps, were he awake, the table would be empty. I think the painting suggests that there are some dreams better left unfulfilled.

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap
George Caleb Bingham

Education is a kind of dream or wish for many and for teachers the desire to teach something of value is a constant struggle between aspirations and accomplishments. There are many different ways that people learn. The painting of Daniel Boone suggests one way in which people learn, they are given guidance. (I think it is interesting that the woman on the horse evokes images of the Virgin Mary on her way to Bethlehem, though I am not sure that that means anything.) The people Boone is leading need to know how to get somewhere and as a result they have not just a desire to learn from Boone, but a need. Where the pupil understands the need to learn a thing, that pupil will perhaps follow without asking too many questions or engaging in disruptive behavior.

The painting might also suggest the limitations of this kind of teaching. Those following Boone have learned how to find their way to a specific place, and perhaps those paying attention will remember also how to find their way back should they decide to return, but they have not been taught how to discover anything on their own, only to follow directions. They need someone to lead them, they cannot lead themselves unless in addition to guiding the party Boone is also instructing them on how to find their bearings in the wilderness, how to find, or if the need arises, to make a trail and to survive on what the wilderness provides in the way of food and shelter. If I make my living as a guide, I want to keep those I guide a little bit ignorant so that they will always need my guidance and will not learn to guide themselves, or worse, become my future competition. As a teacher it is my goal to make myself obsolete, at least to this year’s students.

A Medieval Baker with His Apprentice
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

The apprenticeship system is still a preferred method for teaching another a trade. It was also, at one time, how one learned a profession. In Gulliver’s Travels we learn that Gulliver became a medical man by being apprenticed to a medical man who taught him how to doctor. Abraham Lincoln did not go to law school; he apprenticed himself to a lawyer. In light of the fact that, for the most part, the faculties of medical and law schools are themselves practicing doctors and lawyers might suggest that these professions are still learned through a kind of apprenticeship.

Part of an apprenticeship involves watching a master of the craft practice the craft, which is not unlike following Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap, the master leads and the apprentice follows. But there is more to an apprenticeship, the apprentice eventually does what the master does under the master’s watchful eye. There are mistakes that the master points out, not always in a kindly fashion, that the apprentice must correct.

A number of years ago I remember hearing Daniel Pinkwater on NPR. He was talking about his experience in art school and his apprenticeship of sorts to a sculptor. The sculptor taught him how to cut a piece of marble, something that is almost impossible to do if done incorrectly but very easy (or so Mr. Pinkwater suggested) if done correctly. One day his teacher asked him to cut a piece of marble down to a certain size. But before Mr. Pinkwater began the teacher pointed out that this is special kind of marble and needs to be cut differently. Pinkwater worked for hours trying to cut the stone with no success until another sculptor entered the room and asked him what he was doing. Pinkwater said he was cutting the marble, to which the other sculptor replied why are you doing it like that?

It turned out that it did not matter that the marble was a special kind of marble, all marble is cut alike. When Pinkwater confronted his teacher the teacher replied it is not enough to know, you have to know that you know. We are not so easily fooled when we know we know what we know. There is a scene in the book The Chosen where the Rabbi teaches a sermon at the dinner table. In the sermon he gives a piece of misinformation and it is his son, Daniel’s responsibility to catch his father in the mistake. Daniel knows that when the sermon is done his father is going to ask him (Daniel) to not only identify the mistake but to correct the mistake. Daniel is in a sense apprenticed to his father, because it is expected that Daniel will eventually take over as Rabbi. This is another effective way of teaching and helping the student to know that he knows, though it may be unwise as a practice in the public schools.

Carl Sagan

When I was younger I was a big fan of Carl Sagan, I still am. He explained science in a way that was both interesting and inspiring. I did not become a scientist but he created in me an interest in it that has never gone away. His television program Cosmos reached many people and explained in ways that were relatively easy to understand how science and the universe worked. Sagan used television as a teaching tool and as a result he taught many. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the current host of the PBS series Nova, was asked who inspired him to go into science. He said that was an easy question to answer and after giving a few biographical details identified Carl Sagan as his greatest influence. Tyson then told a story about Sagan.

As a graduating senior Tyson was accepted to Cornell University, where Sagan taught. Shortly after being accepted by Cornell Tyson received an invitation from Sagan to come and take a tour of the campus. Sagan offered to not just take Tyson on a tour of the campus but to show him the laboratories where the faculty and students conducted their research. This is another way of teaching. Sagan was at the time an important enough figure that he did not have to spend this time with a high school senior, but he did. This sets a different kind of example. Tyson concluded his story by saying that whenever a prospective student asks him something, he stops what he is doing and tries to answer. Ultimately we do what we do, whatever it is that we do, because someone took an interest in us and thought it important to guide us into the craft or profession and to show us the ropes.

There was an article this week in The Guardian. It was written by the children’s laureate, Anthony Browne. I was surprised that there existed such an office as children’s laureate anywhere. The title of the article is “Creativity in schools: Every story needs a picture” In the article Browne discusses creativity and picture making. He is concerned that too many students, and adults, tell themselves they cannot draw. He thought schools were doing more to discourage picture making than to encourage it. He then talked about the “shape game” which involves one person drawing a shape on a piece of paper and others adding to the shape in order to create or redefine a picture. It is sort of like the game that folks interested in stories play where one person starts a story and others continue it. He thinks more time should be spent playing the shape game or something like it.

He was especially troubled on a visit to a school highly regarded for its success in guiding students through the various standardized tests. The students could read well and they could write competently, but they couldn’t draw and their imaginations seemed to him to be underdeveloped. It troubled him that none of the students recognized the Mona Lisa probably one of the most famous paintings ever made. Browne acknowledged the need for students to master skills but he is troubled that in teaching the skills we are often quenching the imagination. Skills are necessary if we are to continue doing what we are doing today, but without imagination we will not shape the future, that will be done by those who can first imagine what it could look like.

When You Wish Upon a Star
Keith Jarrett Trio
Hitomi Memorial Hall Tokyo on October 26, 1986

The song comes from the Disney film Pinocchio. As most know Pinocchio is a puppet who wishes to be a boy. He is instructed to wish upon a star. There may be dreams that are achieved by wishing on stars but most require, as did Pinocchio’s dream, a lot of hard work. When I wish upon a star I wish good things for my students, I wish for the skills that will help me lead my students to those good things. But as the earlier song says, “If wishes were horses.” Wishes are not enough. Sometimes we wish for things that it are not in our power to provide or to achieve. But there are doable wishes that with effort can be attained.

Teaching others is a wish with an outcome over which I have some but not complete control. I can work at developing my skills, at keeping an open mind to new ways of doing things, but I cannot will my students to desire what I have to offer. Some can be motivated to change their minds but probably not all. It is a complicated thing. I feel that in saying that I cannot reach all, I am giving up on some, that I have to believe in all of the students and in their ultimate success, but this can be a dangerous road to go down, it can lead to discouragement and even to forsaking the craft. It is important not only to know our limitations as individuals but also to recognize that others have choices as well.

The desire to teach, the wish, the dream to teach is romantic, it is adventurous, but the wish and the dream by themselves do not teach anyone. There is work that must be done, exciting work, but work nonetheless. There is a bargain that is made in any classroom. The teacher promises to work as hard as she or he can but the students must work as hard as they can to make their teacher obsolete.