Wishing I Knew

“Der Alter Bulgar”
Itzhak Perlman and The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra
Arranged by Andy Statman

Wishing I Knew

The music is from an album of Klezmer music called In the Fiddler’s House. The song is described in the album notes as one that enables each of the musicians to improvise and go where the music takes them. On the one hand improvisation enables musicians to exercise their creativity, to play a part in the shaping of the song, to help determine what the song will ultimately be. Many of the classical composers left room for improvisation in their work and trusted to the creativity of the musicians interpreting the score. It is the passage of time that has produced a “definitive” score. This suggests the other side of improvisation; it is scary. If the score is not “written” but in the process of being written than each musician is to a degree on her or his own.

As a teacher I find that many students want the answer where what I want to give them is a way of understanding the problem and of working their way through to possible solutions. As an English teacher I am not concerned with telling students what a work of literature means but of helping them find out what it might mean or how it might evade meaning altogether. I think it is more important to understand how interpretations are reached and to understand that many different interpretations have merit than it is find the definitive interpretation, which probably does not exist. The more artfully a text is written the less likely it is to lend itself to a single interpretation, to a simple solution. This is one of the great values of literature; it teaches us that inquiry has value in and of itself even if it does not provide solutions but only more avenues to investigate.

After class one day this week a group of students asked me a question about history. Not being an historian I thought the question a bit odd but I tried to answer. The question concerned the causes of America’s Civil War. I gave the best answer I could but tried to point out that there is not complete agreement among historians. But the group of students that asked the question were not so much in search of a correct answer as demonstrating that a fellow student was wrong in his assessment.

The real problem of the question asked, and of many questions that are asked, is that there is not a simple answer. Different people read the events differently. This has always been the case with literature, that some read thing differently from others and the secret is, if there is in fact a secret, that most things of consequence are complicated and do not lend themselves to simple solutions; there is often not a clear right and a clear wrong answer (though wrong answers are often easier to find than the right ones).

The purpose of education is not to lead students to right answers, though that seems to be what many students want, but to develop curiosity and a mind that questions what is placed before it. There is real pleasure that comes from being able to answer a question, especially a difficult and complicated question, but if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that the answer we gave was probably inadequate even if it satisfied the questioner. Once an authoritative answer has been given many feel the issue is resolved and they can go on to other things, and no longer trouble themselves with the question that had been nagging them. But it is the nature of a question to nag and of a questioner to go where the nagging leads.

Painting of departed souls entering into credit

Ascent of the Blessed
Hieronymus Bosch

My seniors are looking at bits and pieces from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The character of Satan is probably the most intriguing in the poem. Some believe Satan is the hero. William Blake famously stated “Milton was a true poet and of the devils party, without knowing it”. The key phrase there is “without knowing it” because Milton begins the poem by saying he is justifying the ways of God to man and he asks the Holy Spirit to help him get the story right. Others point to these lines in the poem as the foundation for their interpretation that Satan, though an attractive character in the poem, is in fact the villain.

It is true that Satan has all the best lines and he is certainly heroic. But if Milton was in fact a Puritan and a devout Christian he would have it on Biblical authority that Satan is the Father of Lies and that nothing he says can be trusted. From this point of view Satan’s language is not so much heroic as it is seductive. He is saying what his human listeners want to hear and what sounds attractive to them. There is a bit of the rebel in all of us and the words of Satan resonate, we want to believe it is better to rule than to serve, that the mind can make something good of the most hellish circumstances (Satan says this much better than I but you will have to read the poem if you want to see what he has to say).

As a teacher I present both sides and tell my students that my heart is with Blake but my mind takes Milton at his word. A close reading of the poem does not give the reader an easy choice and that is the real thing for students to understand. We do not read to find answers or to understand necessarily but to learn something about ourselves and the way we think and feel about the world around us. Reading Paradise Lost does not let me rest comfortably on the side of God, the angels, and the archangels nor does it let me rest easily with the devil and his fallen friends. Reading well does not afford solutions to literary problems only the knowledge that how a text is understood depends to a large degree on how it is read and the point of view that is brought to the reading.

Will Richardson in his blog this week discussed how students are approaching knowledge and learning differently than in the past. There is probably truth to this, I know I learned differently from the way my parents learned and that different things interested me than interested them. Quoting from a MacArthur Foundation study he says, “Youth using new media often learn from their peers, not teachers or adults, and notions of expertise and authority have been turned on their heads.” I think on the one hand this is very exciting. Curiosity is the best teacher. But on the other hand many have a limited idea of what it means to understand something. Often we gravitate towards those with ideas similar to our own and as a result the information we get often conforms to the views we brought to the subject. Because there is a single perspective that resembles our own we are not challenged to confront the weaknesses in our views or to see the true depth of the issues before us.

This does not need to be the case but in a culture that has become so dominated by talk radio personalities who present a single side of an argument as if it were the only side to an argument the likelihood of this becoming the case seems very real. Curiosity and the sharing of information ought to be encouraged but there also needs to be a healthy respect for the conclusions of those that have thought deeply and long on a subject, especially when they arrive at conclusions different from our own. I believe in expertise. I think there are rewards for spending time in study and that those who have spent time in study have something to teach us. It is unwise to believe that the mind can function well without training. It is equally unwise to believe that those that train us have all the answers.

Jacques Derrida- Fear of Writing

In the video Derrida I think captures the struggle between a reliance on expertise and a need to explore an independent line of inquiry. Derrida invested a great deal of time with ideas and in the study of ideas. Part of his confidence probably flows from this. But it is the time spent in study that he also had to break away from; to learn to trust his own conclusions and not those of others that were taught to him. This is what an education should provide our students, the willingness to challenge authority and to trust to their own authority. But that education must also give them the tools to think clearly and deeply. If students do not trust their own conclusions and their own ability to reason to those conclusions they will be easily manipulated by others.

If on the other hand they have not been taught rigorously they will arrive at sophistic solutions. Discussions with “experts” often reveal the weaknesses in our thinking and show us where we need to do a bit more work. In my classroom I try to give the most difficult time not to those that disagree with me but to those that cannot articulate clearly their own point of view, whether or not it is my point of view. Real educators train students to clarify their thought; they do not tell students what to think.

As a teacher I try to act as Derrida’s sub-conscious acts in half sleep. It is my hope that my students will respond as Derrida does when he is awake; that they will have learned to trust their conclusions and the thinking that has brought them to those conclusions while recognizing that there is still a certain inadequacy to those conclusions. It is important to understand that the ideas of those we disagree with do have merit but that the merit of those ideas do not necessarily undermine the merit that is to be found in our own thinking.

When musicians improvise they trust the part of the score that is written to lead them safely through that part of the score that is to be composed in performance. Because they have mastered the written score, what the experts have provided, they have the necessary confidence in their own creative abilities to provide the parts that are missing and to go wherever their understanding of the music leads them.