"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Kant at the Corners of the Quad

Except for the newest one, the buildings at our school are built around a grass quadrangle. It is a long-standing school rule that no one walk on the quad before 12:00 noon. Because we are near the ocean and therefore on many mornings of the year are under clouds or in mist, and because when the sprinklers operate they do so before dawn, the grass of the quad is damp in the morning. The rule protects the quad, and the carpets of the buildings, from becoming a muddy mess.

As a result of the rule, during the five-minute passing periods before noon the cement walkways around the quad are rather more crowded than they are in the afternoons. Because people are both hurrying then and feeling obstructed by the numbers of persons in front of them, some will cut the corners of the quad on their way to class. They will put one foot into the right angle made by the perpendicular walkways or perhaps risk two, three, or more steps to trace a longer hypotenuse across the grass.

The practice is common enough that some seem to be unaware that the letter of a law is being broken. Others are no doubt either hoping not to be caught by an adult rule enforcer or feeling that, given the crowd and the limited time, the spirit of the quad law permits them this mitigation so that they will not break the letter of the law against tardiness to class.

The result is that in the corners of the quad the grass is non-existent. It is worn away or deracinated or pressed into the hard, flat, lifeless mud by a hundred feet per day. No matter how often the gardeners dig up, replant, and cordon off the corners, so soon as the corners are green again and the cordons come down, down come the corner-cutting feet, and in a matter of days the grass is trampled into oblivion.

Partly because of what the gardeners go through to restore the grass there, partly because the quad rule is just and reasonable, and partly because the aesthetic order and harmony of the campus are marred by right triangles of brown mud where green grass should be, it is somewhat irksome to see people thus cutting the corners before noon.

But there is another reason that, if I happen to be on the walkway myself before noon and see someone cutting the corner, I’ll say something: The muddy corners provide a perfect visual aid for teaching Kant’s categorical imperative.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that the structure of the human mind was such that every honest rational being who asked the following question about any particular situation would come to the same conclusion: Can you will the principle of your action in this matter to be a universal principle? If the answer is yes, you may conclude that the action would be right. If no, it would be wrong. In this way Kant sought to restore faith in universal principles of value to an intellectual world that seemed (with the help of philosopher David Hume) to be dismantling them.

At the corners of our quad, it is very easy to see the consequences of ignoring the categorical imperative in the matter of the quad rule. In response to the precocious eighth-grader or sophomore or senior who says “I’m just one person; my stepping on the grass doesn’t hurt anything,” all I have to do is to point to the triangular mud-flat he or she has just stepped on and say, “but could you want everybody to think like that? Look what happens when they do. See?” And they see. They can’t not see. If you can’t will that everyone should think like that, Kant maintains, then to think like that is wrong.

So there’s one tiny lesson in individual responsibility taught in the midst of a busy day filled with struggles to learn, to avoid unpopularity, to get to class on time, to survive the pressures of adult supervision. Maybe the eighth-grader will find that the adult corrector is un-cool, the sophomore that he’s a busybody, the senior that he’s an anal-retentive. But maybe they’ll also think twice before stepping on the quad before noon. Maybe they will even remember the lesson and, at some point when it counts more, make the choice to do the right thing.

Or maybe I’m dreaming. My little lessons in the categorical imperative don’t seem to make much difference in the greenness of the corners of the quad.

But a teacher must not measure his success only in visible outcomes. Could I will it to be a universal principle that, whatever the consequences for the corners themselves, teachers should not correct corner-cutting students? No.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Honor and Gratitude to All Veterans

Honor and gratitude to all veterans, including my father, and to all in the service today, especially my former students.