"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.

Monday, May 30, 2005


In a few days, many will process into bleachers and participate in a traditional commencement ceremony. Many may imagine that they would prefer to receive their diplomas in the mail (and to put them in a drawer instead of in a frame on the wall). There may be similar resistance for many who attend Eagle Scout Courts of Honor, weddings, funerals, inaugurations, church, chapel, and synagogue services, and other ritual ceremonies.

Why are we so resistant to this kind of activity, which human beings have been practicing since they have been known to be human?

Part of the answer lies in two big chips we carry on our shoulders when we enter into ceremonial occasions.

On our left shoulder is the unexamined assumption that anything that is not spontaneous, arising from immediate visceral instinct, is artificial and therefore false.

This chip we inherit from the Romantic movement of the 19th century, still very much with us. The spokesman for that movement, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in many pages of argument, articulated the premise that man is naturally good and that it is society that corrupts him. The conclusion drawn by many was and is that in order to recover goodness, we must depart from the group and become entirely individual, which in practice means getting into touch with the most natural parts of ourselves: our bodies, spontaneous impulses, feelings, gut. The enemy is every fraternal, political, or religious institution, every tradition, every form of social conditioning or societal influence (except that which tells us to resist societal influence!).

With this chip on our shoulder, we experience any ceremony as a compromise of our sacred individuality, a succumbing to corrupting external pressure, a surrender.

And so we resist. The moment our elders tell us “This ritual is what we do and how we do it,” we inwardly rebel. (Who are you to tell me what to do? Nature is my guide to the good. You are society, trying to corrupt me.) The romantic enters the place of ceremony believing his best (natural) self is under attack by society in the form of artificiality.

On our right shoulder is the unexamined assumption that anything that cannot be scientifically demonstrated to our rational intellect is likely to be at best inadvertent error and at worst intentional deception.

This chip we inherit from the Enlightenment of the 18th century, still very much with us too. Here the premise is that man’s intellect is constantly growing in its mastery of reality and, given time and sufficient experimentation, will eventually comprehend all things that have in the past seemed to be mysterious. The conclusion drawn by many was and is that in order to attain to truth, we must examine everything with the eye of objective and skeptical rational observation supported by experiment. The enemy is every attempt to appeal to non-objective modes of experience: tradition, imagination, faith, revelation, obedience to authority (except the authority of science!).

With this chip on our shoulder, we experience any ceremony as a compromise of our sacred reason, a succumbing to corrupting superstition, a surrender.

And so we resist. The moment our elders tell us “This ritual is what we do and how we do it,” we inwardly rebel. (Do you really expect me to believe this is real? Reason is my instrument of truth. You are the ignorant past, trying to bamboozle me.) The rationalist enters the place of ceremony believing his true (rational) self is under attack by the past in the form of superstition.

We are all both romantics and rationalists—all of us. We can't help it. We came to consciousness being trained to be both, and reinforcement is all around us.

Except in our ceremonies.

Despite the inherited burden of those two chips, we nonetheless keep participating in ceremonies. We go to weddings and funerals; we look forward to the prom and commencement; we watch the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve or the President taking his oath of office. Why?

Because we are not only romantics and rationalists. We are also mysterious whole beings that transcend our own categories and prejudices. As it turns out, we want something besides the satisfaction of our impulses or the observation of facts. We crave it.

What is this mysterious other thing that we crave, this thing that we willingly participate in ceremonies in order to find?

The answer is meaning—which lies in the experience of being or becoming part of something bigger than we are—bigger than our impulses and our individual natures, bigger than our facts and our explanations. We crave the meaning of being taken up and absorbed into something even more real than ourselves. And we simply will not live without it.

As a result, despite the weight of those chips on our shoulders, we participate in ceremonies—because lurking within us, out of range of the romantic longing for freedom from constraint, out of range of the all-examining eye of reason, is the hope that yet once more we may be granted participation in the experience of something real.

This is why those of you who will graduate this spring will be at baccalaureate and commencement wearing your caps and gowns. You will be hoping to experience meaning.

But because this experience of meaning is mysterious, ceremony comes with a warning: There are no guarantees. There is no guarantee that even if you give yourself wholeheartedly to the experience you will be deeply moved by it. Ceremony invites meaning; it can't command it. But you can bet that if you withhold your willing participation, you will almost certainly not be moved.

How can we lose ourselves in what is bigger than we are if we are anchored to ourselves by those heavy chips? If the left chip tells us that the most important thing is our separateness, the right chip that it is our detachment, how can we let these overly precious selves go and actually join in the ceremony?

There is a way, of course, and it is the way of faith that things can happen that we are not masters of, faith in the wisdom of our forebears who established the ceremony for our benefit.

It is the way of hope in the power of something outside ourselves to reach in and change us, hope in the integrity and authenticity built into the ceremonial forms.

It is the way of love of our own good that longs to be, even for a moment, redeemed from the prison of our mere selves, love of our neighbors’ good that wills them to be moved even if we ourselves are not.

It is the way of surrendering the will to that otherwise inaccessible reality which the ceremony exists to draw into the here-and-now world of time and space.

So as you are marching to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” or stepping under the wedding canopy, or singing a hymn, or saluting the flag, know that if you let the chips govern you and keep your mental distance, the potential meaning will surely elude you, because you have closed the door and left it no way to come in.

But if you choose to participate in the ceremony with your whole self, if you open that door and invite the meaning in, it may or may not enter, but you have done your part. And if it does enter, the reward will be the fulfillment of your longing for meaning, a spirit that blows those chips off your shoulders like the dust of the earth and lifts you toward the stars.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Two Things to Read before College

There are two things all students ought to read before going to college if they wish to think responsibly and to pursue truth and good life with honesty and clarity.

The first is the short, challenging book by C.S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man. Believing in the absoluteness of certain fundamental values does not mean clinging with stubborn irrationality to narrow opinions. On the contrary, it is the only rational foundation for any judgment of value whatsoever. Especially if you think “It’s just a matter of opinion” and “Who’s to say?” are valid final arguments, you need to read this book.

The second is the introductory chapter of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students: Relativism—equal respect for all opinions as a method of preventing conflict—abandons the right use of reason and “extinguish[es] the real motive of education, the search for a good life.” Or, to put it in the words of the American epigrammatist J.V. Cunningham,

“The humanist whom no belief constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatterbrained.”

It is highly unlikely that these two works will be found on any reading list you will be given in college at the present time. But if you want to get some help in distinguishing between education and propaganda, these are two good places to start.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Seeker, Snooper, Teacher, Tale

Snooper is no longer with us in the flesh, but her inspiration remains. Wendell Berry writes, “We cannot comprehend what comprehends us.”

During class one Friday I was in the midst of explaining how to punctuate the line references for verse quotations when a hand went up.


“Can I ask a question?”


“Do you believe in God? And if you do, why? I mean what proof do you have that he exists?”

I said, “That’s two questions. I can answer the first pretty easily. The answer is yes. Answering the second might take some time. You aren’t on the point of committing suicide or suffering some other catastrophe if you don’t have an immediate answer, are you?” I said it half-jokingly, but it was a serious question. I’ve known some who would have answered differently.

“No,” the student said.

“Then let’s discuss it over lunch today.”

“I have an away game this afternoon.”

“How about Monday?”

“It’s a deal.”

“Anyone else who wants to can join us,” said I to the rest of the class, who, after their initial laughter at the apparent inappropriateness of the question, had become uncharacteristically quiet awaiting my response. “I’ll try to have a decent answer by then.”

Lying in bed on Saturday morning, I recalled the question. The difficulty, of course, was not to offer a proof where none was possible, but to demonstrate the impossibility of the proof while affirming the value of the questioner’s continued seeking. But I had not even formulated it that clearly in my mind before Snooper, as she has many a time, came to my aid. (Snooper was my beloved companion of over 12 years, a mixed border collie who meant to me more than anyone but our common Maker can know.) She didn’t do anything, you understand, but continue sleeping nearby. But she came to mind and, with the help of our Founding Fathers, brought with her an analogy that might serve.

“Proving to a human being that God exists,” I said to the two or three gathered at lunch on the following Monday, “is like proving to my dog Snooper that the United States of America exists. It can’t be done. The U.S.A. includes her as one of its inhabitants, obviously. She must abide by its laws. It allows her to live and, if she proves in certain ways troublesome, may put her to death. Her territory, from her napping place under the table to the park of her excursions, is contained within it. And yet its existence can by no method be demonstrated to her. I could walk her from San Diego to Bangor, Maine; I could take her to Washington, D.C., to sniff the parchment of the Constitution itself. Proof of the existence of the nation would remain, to her, unattainable. She simply lacks the organ to perceive it.

“In the same way, we lack the organ by which the divine may be directly perceived and proven. Since we are a part of it, it cannot become a part of us, even as an idea, certainly not as a proof to any organs we do have—the senses, the intellect, the imagination. But does the nation cease to exist or cease to strive for the welfare of its citizens and their dependents, including Snooper, because for her it is invisible?”

From there the conversation was carried in various directions. Some argued that the analogy breaks down, and of course it does eventually. But its good was harvested before it did, and I felt that through the two of us, Snooper in her being and I in my thought, something valuable had been accomplished. Only later did I realize that we had incarnated James Joyce’s famous jeu d’esprit: God is dog spelled backwards.

The following week ended the quarter, and on its last day I indulged the impulse to tell this story and to draw from it one more lesson.

“It is true that we cannot encompass and know the divine. It is great and we are small. But it can shrink itself down to become for a moment known to us—not through expansion of our organs of knowing but through its own contraction into perceivability—as, the Jewish mystics say, it did in the beginning to make room for creation. The presence in the Burning Bush and at Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the inner voice of Socrates and the enlightenment of Buddha, the vast universe of space and time itself, and the instantaneous and subtle shift in comprehension that can change one’s life—all these are contractions of the divine to fit into our narrow sphere of experience. We call them revelations. God, when he wills, can reveal himself to us as the U.S. of A. cannot to a dog.

“And this is why I am here teaching poetry to you and why I think it important that you should be here learning it. Because a great poem or play or novel, too, is a revelation. It comes, as the poets report, from somewhere beyond the self, and the poet, like every artist, is not a creator but a maker of forms in which to convey what is demanding to be revealed (which is why the word “creative” as usually used seems so absurd). Every work I will teach you this year I teach because I know it can become, for a moment, a small window on the vast, unfathomable, living reality of which we are all parts—a revelation of the divine.”

The bell rang, and at the end of the day I went home to write progress reports. But I carried with me the experience of a small revelation of my own: A student is one who raises his hand under invisible compulsion to ask a question and is never quite satisfied with the answer. A teacher is one who in seeing that raised hand hears the voice of his calling. And when two or three such are gathered together to discuss the existence of God, who do you suppose is there in the midst of them?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Proms of Innocence and Experience

Proms of Innocence

A She: The prom has to be perfect. Perfection means being asked by the cutest boy in the class above me, spending weeks getting ready for the best night of my life so that every girl in the room will envy my dress and my luck in having such a gorgeous date. But it won’t be luck, really, but the reward of all my hopes and dreams, and if it all goes the way I want it to, he will dance me to the stars, and—who knows?—maybe it will lead to our being lovers forever. I can’t wait for the prom!

A He: The prom has to be perfect. Perfection means asking the cutest girl in the class below me, spending a fortune getting ready for the best night of my life so that every guy in the room will envy my suavity and my luck in having such a gorgeous date. But it won’t be luck, really, but the reward of all my expenses and planning, and if it all goes the way I want it to, she will let me French-kiss her, and—who knows?—maybe it will lead to our making love that night. I can’t wait for the prom!

B She: I hope we have fun at the prom. He’s not the cutest boy in my class, but I like him. I hope he likes my dress. He’s sort of shy underneath. If I can just get him to laugh early in the evening, we’ll both relax and have a better time. I have to remember not to be disappointed if we don’t dance to the swing numbers; he thinks he’s not good at swing. I hope he did well on that exam yesterday. I won’t bring it up unless he does. But he doesn’t seem to hold onto stuff like that, so maybe it doesn’t matter. I can’t wait to see him in his tux!

B He: I hope we have fun at the prom. She’s the nicest girl in my class, and she makes me laugh. I hope she likes the corsage. She’s so easy to be with. I hope we can get through the first dance without my stepping on her toe or something. Where will I put my hands in the slow dances so she doesn’t think I’m being fresh? I hope she did well on that exam yesterday. I won’t bring it up unless she does. But I don’t think she really gets upset about stuff like that, so maybe I can ask her. I can’t wait to see her all dressed up!

Proms of Experience

A She: What a horrible night. That noisy band and that repulsive food. I never want to see him again, or that—I’m not even going to say her name. How dare he agree to dance with her when he’s supposed to be with me? And how dare she tell him what happened over three weeks ago with—I don’t want to think about it. What a baboon to close my dress in the car door. And those stupid jokes of his. What were all his jock friends laughing at? How dare he think I was the kind of girl who would—why didn’t I say no when he asked me; I might have been asked by—what an awful prom.

A He: What a horrible night. That clueless band and the waiter taking my plate away before I was even done eating. I will never go out with her again. That friend of hers is ten times better looking, and obviously liked me. How can I get her number? Imagine saying she’d go to prom with me when only three weeks ago—oh who cares what she did with him. She didn’t even get my jokes. What were all her stupid friends giggling about? Who does she think she is, hanging on me all night and then not even letting me kiss her? Instead of her I should have asked—what an awful prom.

B She: What a great prom! The band was ok and the food was good. He looked so gorgeous in that tux, and his laugh is really infectious. I wish I hadn’t let the corner of my dress get stuck in the car door; he was so apologetic, I felt bad for him. And how stupid I was not to get his joke about—but at least he didn’t rub it in. Anyway, it was fun. Watching him dance that one dance with—what a good dancer he is. He is such a gentleman too, and so are his friends. The way he looked at me when he came back to the table—I think he really liked my dress. I hope he calls me tomorrow. I can’t wait to thank him for a wonderful evening.

B He: What a great prom! The band was ok and there was a lot of food. She was so gorgeous I couldn’t stop looking at her, and she’s so funny too. What a dork I was to catch the corner of her dress in the car door, but she was so nice about it and didn’t seem to care at all. And why did I have to tell that stupid joke about—I hope she didn’t think I was trying to show off. Anyway, it was fun. She is so lively and relaxed at the same time. I like her friends too. The way she looked at me when I came back after having to dance with—I think she meant it about how good I looked in my tux. I’m going to call her tomorrow to thank her for a wonderful evening. Maybe she’ll want to go to a movie next week.


Like commencement, the ceremony celebrating graduation from childhood learning to adult, the prom is a ceremonial graduation too, from childhood social relations into adult, where male and female, united to one another as individuals, also take their place in that larger society composed of couples.

Formal dress, courteous behavior, traditional gestures—the corsage, the opening and closing of doors, the dinner, the dancing, the feminine whispers and male bonhomie during temporary separations, the attentiveness and good humor in rejoining—all these are the forms in which two unions are practiced as a kind of initiation into the life of marriage in society:

One is the ceremonially acknowledged joining of a young man and a young woman on a personal date that (however remotely) prefigures wedding. The other is the ceremonially acknowledged joining of each couple with all other couples in a collective date that (however remotely) represents society’s foundation upon marriage. Courtesy toward one’s date ceremonially represents the personal love upon which marriage is built. Prom traditions ceremonially represent the courtesy of couples upon which society is built.

Eros underlies and energizes both these kinds of union without in itself compromising their meaning. The prom, like marriage, like society, is in part a harnessing and channeling of eros in the name of civilization. Nor does it matter whether the prom date eventually becomes the spouse. (And none of this disparages those individuals who, for whatever reasons, do not or cannot participate in the ceremony.)

The point here is that the prom’s ceremonial civilization of eros is corrupted when the envisioning of it is hijacked by sentimentality, whether of the romantic (A She) or the erotic (A He) kind, which turns it into a mere wish fulfillment fantasy. No evening can possibly live up to such expectations—and a good thing too, considering how socially and spiritually impoverished are the people imagined in and imagining it.

Eros is active in both couples. But Couple A is doomed to disappointment, in the prom and in life, until they graduate from self-centeredness to civilized human kindness. It is for Couple B that the prom may both be a true pleasure and become a joyful memory. Upon them, as upon a solid foundation, society may rightly hope to build its future.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Dead Poets and Living Cliches

This critique of Dead Poets Society was written when the film first appeared. It is a bit long for a weblog, but I hope it will reward you for the time if you're interested in the influence of movies on the young.

“You’ll like Dead Poets Society,” some of my students said. “It’s about a great English teacher. He’s sort of like you.” A flattering recommendation, I thought—until I saw the movie.

The story is certainly compelling, as is the acting. And visually the film is almost irresistible. But if that teacher is sort of like me, God help me. Dead Poets Society angered me. Though it pretends to inspire idealistic rebellion against the evils of society, in reality it is a melodramatic indoctrination in the romantic clichés that have brought our society to the brink of dissolution.

The film’s obvious manipulation of the audience did not in itself offend. When the English teacher, John Keating (earnestly played by Robin Williams), has a student in his poetry class read aloud from the introduction to their textbook, I enjoyed the parody. (The author proposes a system for measuring the greatness of any poem by plotting its qualities on a graph.) And I was perfectly content to be manipulated into merriment when Mr. Keating said to his students, “Tear that page out of the book. Go ahead. Tear it out!” But tear it out in the name of what? What does Mr. Keating substitute for the graph model of poetry appreciation?

He substitutes the standard modern vulgarization of nineteenth-century romantic literary theory: A poem, his teaching implies, is the expression of personal emotion. It has little to do with the music of words, still less with truth or beauty or any other reality that may lie outside the poet’s emotions. It owes nothing to imagination or to the inspiration of the muse. Above all, it has nothing to do with thought, form, readers, or literary tradition. Poetry, according to this teacher, is purely a matter of inner feeling, impulse, and self-expression, just those things the adult society in the film is in the business of stifling.

How do we know that this is Mr. Keating’s idea of poetry? In one class session, he calls a repressed and tongue-tied youth to the front of the room, spins him around, and orders him to verbalize whatever images come to his mind. The result is a gush of words that express the boy’s feeling of confinement and his desire for freedom. According to the teacher, however, that gush is not merely the raw material of poetry. It is a poem. There is no follow-up scene in which the boy is taught to arrange his words to be moving to others. (They certainly are not moving yet, though the scene itself is fraught with emotion.) Mr. Keating gives no hint that the poem might be a way of sharing experience. The poem has accomplished all a poem needs to in the world of this film. It has testified to the absolute value of the self in rebellion against society.

Indeed, the film is not concerned with actual poems at all. It uses the idea of poetry solely as a metaphor for the individual’s relation to society. And its image of that relation turns out to be a composite of the threadbare platitudes of Rousseauist romanticism: The individual self and its emotions are basically good; society’s attempts to train the one or temper the other corrupt them; the instruments of that corruption are tradition, discipline, and schools; the only worthy authorities are those poets and teachers who tell us to follow our own impulses (ignoring even them); and so on. In short, the film presents the specious axioms of the popular culture masquerading as high idealism.

Another class session shows the absurdity of these axioms, though the scene is intended to reinforce them. Having taken his students out of the classroom and into a courtyard, Mr. Keating asks three of them to walk around while the others watch. The three begin moving uncertainly but soon fall into a march. The rest of the students start to clap in time. Before long, military marching ditties are shouted, the clapping becomes syncopated, and all are caught up in a crescendo of excitement and fun.

Suddenly Mr. Keating brings everything to a halt with a withering accusation: You have been herded into uniformity by social pressure. You have sold your birthright of individuality for a mess of conformist pottage—three of you by marching in step, the rest by clapping in time. The students are chagrined. Mr. Keating then asks them all to walk around the courtyard again. Only this time each is to move at his own pace and in his own unique way. They do, and we are supposed to believe that they have been freed to be themselves. The lesson? Nothing a group can offer is more important than one’s individuality.

But what the scene cannot help revealing, in spite of its intentions, is that in marching and clapping the boys had become joyfully united in the exalting communion of play. By contrast, when they walk around trying to be different, each is self-consciously isolated within the limits of his own imagination, and, significantly, everyone of them looks like a fool. Yet we are expected to believe that they are now better off. (The one boy who refuses to participate in this communal exercise in individualism is praised for his choice to be even more individual than the rest.)

What is so offensive in all this propaganda is that it offers a corrupt idea of education to the very audience that is most in need of a valid one, namely adolescents. Of course at times it is right to rebel against mere conformity for conformity’s sake. And of course students need to be challenged to think for themselves. But the differences between excellence and shoddiness, truth and error, good and evil, are crucial, and the essential task of the teacher is to help students see them. The non-conformist is no better off than the conformist if he is being different merely for the sake of being different. Murderers, rapists, and suicides are non-conformists too.

Which brings me to the film’s most damnable participation in the swindle of Rousseauist romanticism. One of the boys, under Mr. Keating’s new dispensation of self-expression, decides to pursue his love of acting. His tyrannical father, who is determined that his son will be a doctor like himself, forbids it. When the boy disobeys the paternal orders by playing Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the father announces he is sending the boy to military school. After he has glowered his son into silence and despair, there is a prolonged scene of visual schmaltz—moonlight, open window, snowy woods, half-naked boy ever so slowly donning Puck’s wreath of twigs, which now doubles as a crown of thorns. Then the boy kills himself with his father’s pistol.

Everyone is shocked and saddened. The boy has obviously been driven to the only gesture of self-expression left him by the conformist society that his father represents. But the school administrators, in order to protect the school’s reputation from tarnish, blame the suicide on Mr. Keating’s unorthodox teaching and fire him. This arouses our righteous indignation because it is clearly the father who is guilty of the boy’s death, or so we are made to feel. But having martyred the liberated actor, relentless society will now make a scapegoat of the teacher who liberated him. It is typical adolescent paranoid fantasy—so unfair, so sad, so beautiful.

But it is also pernicious. For all its sadness, the suicide is portrayed as an inevitable response to adult society’s oppression. No one hints that it might have been an error on the boy’s part, perhaps forgivable, but wrong. No one remarks that his action exhibits a failure of imagination. (He could have run away, after all.) No one suggests that maybe the boy was cowardly, or revengeful toward his father, or cruel toward his mother and toward himself. Mr. Keating’s response is only to cry a bit. Thus, all we can conclude about suicide from Dead Poets Society is that it is a reasonable, meaningful, perhaps extreme, but touching last resort.

Of course there are excellent reasons for not killing oneself, but the dead poets in whose work such reasons might be found are not heard from in the film. Except for a few lines from a sonnet by Shakespeare—quoted only for purposes of seduction—Mr. Keating and his protégés confine themselves to the Romantics. They worship “at the altar of Whitman, Byron, Keats,” as film critic Duncan Shepherd points out, but “you don’t catch them reciting Herbert or Pope.” Nor do you catch them experiencing even one complete poem, Romantic or otherwise. They are too busy quoting poetical snippets that urge them to be true to their impulses and seize the day.

“Seize the day” is the essence of Mr. Keating’s doctrine. Standing before a display of photographs of the uniformed “old boys” who had been killed in World War I, he asks his students to lean in close and listen to what the ghosts of the dead are whispering to the living. What they are whispering, says the teacher, is “Carpe diem.” (The phrase comes from Horace: “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”—seize the present day, trusting as little as possible to the next.) Eat, drink, and be merry, they say. Go for it. For tomorrow you die. Such is the spiritual legacy of the dead, according to Mr. Keating. Reject tradition, discipline, allegiance, and honor, which lead only to disillusionments like that of World War I. Do your own thing while you can.

To be fair, there is one moment when the doctrine is modified slightly. One of the students, in a fit of desperate resentment after the suicide, has disrupted an assembly, mocked the powers that be, and nearly gotten himself expelled. Mr. Keating urges him not to follow his impulses so stupidly in future. “Suck the marrow out of life, but don’t choke on the bones.” Seize the day in such a way that you will be around to seize the next day too. But for all its seeming practicality, Mr. Keating’s advice proves useless—not only because it comes too late, but because it is shallow. If carpe diem is your only guide, why not choke on the bones when there seems to be no more marrow?

In spite of Mr. Keating’s enthusiasm for it, carpe diem is a doctrine of despair. It eliminates hope for the future because it renounces faith in what is eternal. In reality, of course, no one who writes off the future and busies himself with seizing the day would bother teaching anything to anyone. But this flaw in characterization is less significant than the film’s moral flaw. It is clear from the exaggerated evil of his enemies that Mr. Keating is meant to embody the good. But the good he embodies is a sham. For if there were no values outside the impulses of the self, the sensualist, the autocrat, and the suicide would be as admirable as anyone else. Yet about being true to reason or conscience or law or any other value beyond seizing the day neither Mr. Keating nor the film has anything good to say.

The film implies that following our impulses unhindered by society is good. So Rousseau says. But the truth is that to be good we must distinguish among our impulses and choose to follow the better ones. And how can we distinguish the good from the bad without principles to guide us? In the final scene, when the boys disobediently stand on their desks in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with their fired mentor, we are moved by their action. But we are moved not because they have followed their impulses. They also have an impulse to sit still and let the moment safely pass. Nor are we moved because they are rejecting conformity. They are acting in perfect conformity with one another. We are moved because they stand on those desks to uphold principles that we still believe in despite films like this one that strive to debunk them—justice, loyalty, selflessness, and truth. The boys have behaved rightly, though nothing taught by Mr. Keating has prepared them to do so.

The seemingly revolutionary doctrines that he has taught have been banalities of our culture for nearly two centuries. Mr. Keating is not rebelling against the norms of society but voicing them. Morally speaking, he is the establishment. Hence his ideas are even more subversive than those of Miss Jean Brodie. The evil in her teaching was eventually unmasked because fascism became an external enemy. In John Keating too we have met the enemy. Only we have failed to recognize him because, as Pogo says, he is us.

Dead Poets Society is the enemy of education because it proclaims that dead poets live insofar as they legitimize our self-indulgence. But the great poet in fact lives by virtue of his power to carry us out of ourselves—the meaning of education. The great teacher does the same. Both provide access to truths and freedoms that cannot be reached in a lifetime of seizing the day.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Happy Mother's Day

Dear Mom, Happy Mother's Day! You're the best.

And to everyone's mother, we celebrate you every day, but especially today. Thank you for the gift of life and love.

And, for those who know of her and those who don't, Happy Mary Holmes' Birthday.

The ancient bull obeisance made,
The earth was kissed by the tip of his horn,
The angels of mothering, spring, and sight
New praises sang to Him whose light
Descended to illumine night
The day that she was born.

Mary was born on May 8, 1910, the best of the age. She would have been 95 today. Find out more about her and order books at Mary Holmes: Paintings and Ideas

And thank your mother!

Saturday, May 07, 2005

What’s Wrong with Instantaneous Comprehension? or Charles Dickens meets IM

My students are some of the brightest in Southern California. They are so capable that they can be listening to a favorite song on an IPod, talking on a cell phone, playing a remote video game, exchanging Instant Messages with their friends, and typing their English essays all at the same time. This is real talent. I’ll talk about the quality of the resulting essays in a minute.

Their gifts of multitasking intelligence being so prodigious, why is it that when my sophomores open Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to the first page, so many of them feel either “this is too hard for me” or “I am too dumb for this” and immediately fly into the Web, where—at quicknotes. or read4me. or dumbdown.—they get stuck among the shrunken, dried, brittle carcasses of books whose juices have all been sucked out of them by the dot com spider?

Obviously the book isn’t really too hard for them, nor are they too dumb for it, because approximately four weeks later, having been forced actually to read the book, nearly all of them will report that they loved it, that they were moved by it, that it got easier to read as they went. So why do so many of them think it’s too hard for them? And more to the point, why do they think the proper response to that difficulty is to find a way to make it quick and easy?

My theory is that it’s because they’ve been brought up to expect instantaneous comprehension of whatever they see, hear, or read. Almost everything they have seen on TV, in the movies, or on the computer or video screen, almost everything they hear on the radio or CD or IPod, and almost everything they have been expected to read—websites, instant messages, email, advertising, and nearly every textbook—has been pitched at a level so low, so shallow, so easily absorbable, that anyone could get it, and get it instantly.

This low aim is intentional on the part of the pitchers. The easier something is to comprehend, the greater the market share. Pitching something that takes effort and time reduces sales.

One of the corollaries of this marketing of lowest-common-denominator content is that any individual instant of it is boring. Freeze-frame a TV show or study the score or lyrics of a pop song or reread an email or IM exchange a week later and you will most likely find insufferable shallowness. But if things keep moving, you don’t notice. You have the constant excitement of perpetual expectation. Of course this moment is boring, but that only increases your hope that the next may be meaningful. It isn’t? Well, how about the next? the next? (If you want to read more about this subject, check out Gerry Mander’s book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.)

Given the predominance of the shallow media during their formative years, my students grow up expecting, quite understandably, that everything that comes to them can and should be instantly comprehended. And if no one has taken the time or effort to force them to learn from experience that an hour’s time and effort expended on a worthy object (like a good book, poem, painting, or movie) will yield deeper meaning than a thousand hours in the electronic media world, then how would they know it?

Because the culture they are steeped in and their busy parents have left it to machines to train them, is it any wonder that their natural reactions end up conforming to the machine? TV, radio, computer, IPod, cell phone, VCR, DVD player, palm pilot, even the automobile—all respond predictably, regularly, and effectively and yield instantaneous and perfectly comprehensible (however shallow) results. Why wouldn’t kids raised by them think that they should be doing the same?

So it is not my students’ fault that they are tempted to rush to the computer to find the explanation for a chapter of Dickens thinking they can’t do it themselves. They have not been taught that they can. They have not been trained to think it normal to reread a difficult sentence before they get it or to look up an unfamiliar word or to think about a passage before its light comes on. They can be forgiven for thinking that anything requiring that sort of effort must be too hard. Nonetheless, they need to be taught a better way.

What is wrong with instantaneous comprehension is that if you think it’s either that or quickienotes dot com, you cannot believe or even imagine how meaningful—how rich, deep, moving, and life-enhancing—are the rewards of time and effort spent in appreciating a great work of art.

As for those essays I mentioned above, which would you rather read: the essay of a student who thinks that you should instantly comprehend whatever he or she has tossed together on a computer whose screen also has open windows showing Instant Messages, a video game, and the notes to a Dickens chapter at cheat4me.com? or the essay of a student who has taken the time and made the effort to live in the world Charles Dickens creates out of words and sentences of whose profundity freeze-framing would only reveal greater depths and who has tried to craft his own sentences to be worthy of them?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Finger Food for Thought

A group of fingers was sitting around after philosophy class one day discussing the body.

“The body is the bones and the bones are the body,” said a materialist middle finger, who was taller than the others and a bit proud of his height. “It’s obvious. Without the bones what would we be? A drooping flap of nothing.” Then he added, “bones and nails, of course.”

An index finger, aware of his neighbor’s crudity, said, “Yours is too shallow a definition. The truth of the body is in sensation. What are the bones without the capacity of our tips to feel, and not only that but by feeling to distinguish among the subtlest of differences?”

“But we can all do that,” said an individualist thumb. “The real body is what is unique to each of us, never duplicated in a universe of fingers and thumbs. (I wish you’d remember to include us too. Thumbs are thumbs, not fingers.) The prints of our skin are our real bodies—no two alike.”

“All three of you have such mechanistic ideas about the body!” shouted the romantic ring finger, reddening with emotion. “Our bones and nails and skin are vessels for relating to others. It’s working together with others that being a finger is for, and all your structures and sensations and individuality are nothing without that. Our relationships are our true body.”

“Dreamer,” said the middle finger.

“You can always spot a ring finger,” said the thumb to the group. “It thinks it’s nothing till three or four other fingers put a ring on it and then it’s instantly the be-all and the end-all and expects to live happily ever after.” And turning to the ring finger, he demanded, “Where’s your self-respect, man?”

“Anyway,” added the index finger, “the whole point of being with other fingers is feeling with them. That’s the body of your so-called relationship. The rest is just cultural conditioning.”

The four went on wrangling for a while until, during a lull in the argument, a pinky said, “I’m not really sure, but I think none of us can say what the body is. After all, our vantage point is so limited. And if we could say, why would we be disagreeing about it? Why would we even need to discuss it? I think there’s more to it than fingers can grasp.”

When the chorus of guffaws died down, the middle finger observed, “Obviously the wishful thinking of a pip-squeak, about as convincing as the non-violence of a sissy.”

“All I’m saying,” continued the pinky, undaunted, “is that we can’t know what our true body is. Maybe we don’t have a body at all,” he added. “Maybe the true body has us.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” said the others as the bell rang, sending them all to their next lesson.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Why kids got stuck last week

Here are some of the reasons we get stuck on the horns of a dilemma, like which college to choose when we’ve been accepted at more than one:

1. We forget that we can't know the future. No matter how big the decision, throw the mind into four-wheel drive, shift down, up, or sideways, we’ll never get traction on what’s going to happen if we go to MIT instead of Davis, or Haverford instead of Michigan. We might go to our first-choice school and hate it, or our last- and love it, or anything in between. But we can't know which before it happens.

Solution: Don't try. Decide based on what you know and feel now. What’s the worst that can happen? You learn something about yourself for a year and transfer.

2. Fears multiply infinitely. There is no limit on what we can imagine going wrong. The worry-wart section of the brain can always supply disaster scenarios. You’ve got a free ride to your ideal school? Fine, but what if the only dorm without cockroaches has you rooming with someone just like your evil aunt Gertrude?

Solution: Don't decide based on fear. After registering all the known positives and negatives, decide based on desire. What draws you? Go by that.

3. Making the “wrong” choice seems to imply a lifetime of misery and regret. It’s the romantic either/or absolutism of adolescence (which some of us never get over). One choice is the “right” one, the other the “wrong”—success or failure, heaven or hell.

Solution: Realize that you can't possibly make a wrong choice here. You’ve been accepted into two or three places to which you chose to apply. Why would any of them ruin your life? In any case, you can't take both forks in the road. Mercifully, you will never know what it would have been like to choose the other fork: you might have been made valedictorian or been hit by a truck, but you won't know it. Get over this phantom fear.

4. What will my parents/friends/relatives/future children/future grandchildren/fans say? Well, if they were wise, they would say “why would you care what I think? It’s your education. We’ll be the happier if you follow your heart in this.”

Solution: Listen to the wise among those parents/friends/relatives/future children/future grandchildren/fans and ignore the pretentious, bragging, manipulative, self-concerned, and threatening phantoms of the mind.

Every true choice is a response to something that moves us, to a calling. Where the call is not immoral or destructive, let your courage bounce your fear off the premises. Go toward instead of running from. That’s what the people you admire do.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

How to pick a college

If you've already been accepted to more than one college and have to decide, try this (though tomorrow is the deadline for most of you):

1. Get all the information on the colleges you are deciding among. Write it down and absorb it WITHOUT trying to decide anything.

2. Put colleges, deciding, the future, and all such questions out of your mind for 24 hours, or preferably 36 hours.

3. Go the the beach (or the woods) and sit there undisturbed for an hour. Realize how big nature and the world and the universe are and how small you are.

4. After an hour, ask yourself where you'd really like to be sitting next year at this time. The answer is where you should go to college.

5. If the above system fails, flip a coin, but don't look. Instead, check which side of the coin you are hoping will turn up. There's your answer.