Click on the link for a 5 and 1/2 minute miniature lesson on the literary-critical term, “horizon of expectation.” I am hopeful of creating about 10 of these this year so that, on some occasions, I can assign students to watch and take notes for homework–I’ll use the time I gained back to do some close reading. (This lecture takes about 25-30 minutes to do in class.) In addition, students should be able to use this to review and take notes.
Let the Games Begin! “The Man in the Arena”–Reflections on Engagement and Attitude to Open the School Year
Opening of Year Talk to Faculty and Staff—August, 2013
On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech entitled “Citizenship in A Republic” at the Sorbonne. The Sorbonne is the name for a collection of Universities in Paris that function together and it is one of the most prestigious and oldest learning establishments in Europe—John DeMatha taught there for many years before he became a priest and founded the Trinitarians.
Roosevelt had been out office for about 14 months at the time of the speech and he had spent much of that time traveling through east and central Africa for the Smithsonian among other endeavors: he and his party eventually brought back or shipped back 11,400 specimens.
Part of his speech that day sounds like a challenge from a man who had been on safari. Consider the following:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The speech is popularly known as the “Man in the Arena” and I have always liked that particular quotation—its depiction of striving valiantly, bouncing back from failure, daring to try great things—those are all things to which I aspire. It conveys a kind of physicality that gives one the same reaction we have when we see the good guy take down the bad guy in a movie or TV show. I have little patience for the “talking heads” of either the political or athletic stripe—those who criticize every decision made by coaches, players, politicians, etc. without ever having tried to lead a group; without ever risking anything and who—even if they are spectacularly wrong—face no consequences.
A small voice does whisper to me that with the exception of the phrase that the person is spending oneself “in a worthy cause” that the rest of the quotation is value neutral. By this I mean that the pursuit of money or glory or power would fit—and even these could be seen by some (or even many) as “worthy causes.” So an inside trader might see himself as the man in the arena, justifying his actions through his great devotion to money as his worthy cause. Another small voice whispers to me that Roosevelt’s emphasis on the physicality of the struggle diminishes an appreciation for the life of the mind. What if physical pleasure were the man in the arena’s “worthy cause”? We specifically want our students (and alums) to be Gentlemen and Scholars. From one point of view it seems that Roosevelt is eliminating the Scholar from the arena and perhaps suggesting—much like the Social Darwinists of then and now—that the “arena” has no moral dimensions. The good is in the survival or conquest.
I am also conscious of the place where Roosevelt gave the speech—a famous University filled with “critics.” Well, I too am a “critic”—I spend my scholarly life in reading texts and writing about them. I spend my pedagogical life working with ideas and students and judging or “criticizing” both. I certainly watch sports and I have judged athletes to have made mistakes. How do I square these parts of my life with the man in the arena? Can I judge no novel because I haven’t published one? How deep into the arena must one go before you earn the right to make a judgment? Can a 2nd baseman not judge a pitcher because he never pitched? Do our opinions count only if we have been in some specific arena? At some point of absurdity we could make no judgments at all because we have never actually been that other person and had his or her identical experiences—and surely Roosevelt didn’t mean that. One might also point out that perhaps the person in the arena is not able to explain what she is doing—should someone who explicates the struggles of the warrior be grouped with the “timid souls” who know neither victory nor defeat?
Perhaps my conception of Roosevelt’s arena isn’t large enough. I think that my work as a teacher (or critic and reviewer)—places me in an arena—an arena where ideas are debated and one’s capacity is enlarged. Can the intellectual world and the moral world be arenas where we strive valiantly? Could Roosevelt be using the physical as a metaphor for the intellectual and moral? While my struggle with a novel, a movie, or a class only metaphorically marks me with blood and dust, I am, nonetheless, striving for truth, to achieve excellence in scholarship and teaching. I believe, actually I know, that I am working in the service of a worthy cause and I do know the great enthusiasms and great devotions—and I know well the mistakes I have made and the wrong turns that I have taken and I know too (however belatedly) my indebtedness to those who showed me my mistakes. I suspect that Roosevelt was speaking metaphorically; he was trying to encourage us to a life of action—even intellectual and moral action.
What is the proper attitude of the intellectual in that arena? As it happens, Roosevelt addressed this question later in the same speech:
Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that … cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or [pretends] to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes second to achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness… – all these are marks, not…of superiority, but of weakness.
In the first quotation it is primarily the lack of engagement that is criticized, the timid soul who is not in the arena—but here Roosevelt goes farther and attacks the attitude that feigns engagement, that uses the arena of the intellect to practice cynical observation, sneering disbelief—whose learning is put to service in looking down upon others. I love Roosevelt’s emphasis on the inauthenticity of the particular kind of critic who yields to “the cheap temptation to pose,” to be a “cynic,” to face life “with a sneer,” to convince oneself that there is no good or evil, to show a “twisted pride” or to “sneer” at what is great and lofty, to adopt an “intellectual aloofness.” Roosevelt knows profoundly that when you truly engage, when you “stand with” others and compete in the arena that only then will you appreciate the good, the true, the beautiful because you will have purchased that appreciation with the coin of yourself. It is that investment—the investment of self—that Roosevelt is after. The first quotation is truly not complete without this second quotation which rounds it out for us.
I want to be the person in the arena—I want all of you to be people in the arena—I want all of our students to be people in the arena. I want us in every arena that matters—the intellectual arena, the moral arena, the spiritual arena, the arts arena, the social justice arena, the athletic arena, and every other worthy arena. But, I only want this for all of us if we adopt the attitude Roosevelt describes here. I don’t want—and we shouldn’t tolerate in ourselves or anyone else—the pose of the cynic, the one who has outgrown emotion and belief, the one refuses to distinguish between good and evil, the one who is ready to criticize what one never tries to perform, the one who wants recognition for his accomplishments in his arena but denigrates or ignores the accomplishments of others.
Our striving for greatness must be informed by a reason larger than ourselves—otherwise what we really want is to be famous—and what we should want is to be heroic. The precondition to be a hero is to serve a cause larger than ones self—and after the heroic quest has been accomplished there is a requirement to return with gifts for those who did not go; you may journey by yourself but in the end you have journeyed for others.
I love the following observation by William Damon—then at Brown, now at Stanford:
Teachers can never be replaced, not by books, not by new buildings, not even by the advances in technology that seem to promise final answers every few years. In the end, if children are to acquire competence and character, they need to have sustained relationships with people who care about their intellectual and moral growth. Any improvement in our schools must begin by making sure that these kinds of relationships are available to all students. (Greater Expectations)
I will say again, our students “need sustained relationships with people who care about their intellectual and moral growth.” The toughest arena of all may be the one where we develop relationships with teen agers. But that is what we are called to do—to be in the arena where we stand with others. I read once that the three hardest things to do are not physical or intellectual—they are moral. Those things are: 1) return love for hate; 2) include the excluded; and 3) to say you are sorry. You cannot only be interested in a student’s intellectual growth lest he become the mere critic or the man who pursues only his own good—defining that as his “worthy cause.” You cannot, because of your profession, be interested only in a student’s moral development—unless you give him intellectual grounding and a model of how to think you are more likely to create in him a robotic obedience that is anathema to true education.
I intend to ask the students to be “people in the arena” and I intend to tell them that they will find us with them also. We’ll be the people who “stand with” them. Open wide the arena; let the games begin.
My brief address to the students and parents at our annual Baccalaureate Mass.
I asked you at the beginning of this year to “be a pilgrim”—to be a disciple of wonder, to anticipate the sacred, to be open to a metanoia—a conversion. All pilgrimages have stations where you stop and gather before continuing—this is one of those stops. The pilgrimage will go on but you—actually all of us—will soon be traveling in different company.
You cross significant thresholds in a short amount of time—Baccalaureate Mass, Graduation, college orientation, etc., and continue on your pilgrimage. Before we leave this way-station I have some advice for students and parents. A friend of mine, Dr. James Power, passed along some advice that a psychologist had given him. I have modified that advice for you.
Dear Students, your parents go through stages of development, just like you do, and I want you to understand where your parents are and where they have been. In the early years, your parents were your project managers and being a project manager is a huge job; they organized you, they checked your backpacks and agendas, they made appointments for you, they laid out your clothes for you, they saw to transportation for you, and they made sure you took your lunch to school. In elementary school you were mostly comfortable with this level of project management, of supervision. In fact, many parents seem amazed at the following change—when driving with their 9-year old son and seeing a friend, he might say, “Hey Mom” or “Hey Dad, there’s Biff. Honk the horn so he sees us!” Four years later, that exact scenario plays out in a completely different way. If a mom or dad is driving with their son and spots Biff, before one can think of hitting the horn, the now 13-year old shouts, “Please don’t honk!” as he throws himself under the dashboard. Four more years and the 17-year-old driver doesn’t even want his parents in the car with him. So students, the developmental challenge for your parent is complicated and you need to be aware of that.
To the parents, your son has to “fire” you as his project manager for his own good; it is a necessary step on his journey towards independence. Once you are fired, there are two things that you need to do: First, you have to grieve a bit because a wonderful stage of life is now over. Second, like any project manager, once you’ve been fired, you have to figure out a way to get rehired as a consultant. And being a consultant can be apretty good gig.
Back to advice for the students, I suggest you rehire your former project managers as your consultants.
I ask all of us to take on the Trinitarian task of seeing Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters. There are 38,000 high schools in the country and One DeMatha and just one Trinitarian school.
As a representative of all of the faculty and staff, I extend our best wishes to you and to your families at this special time when we make sacred the spaces in our lives.
I invited one of my terrific young colleagues, Paul Clark, to talk about The Great Gatsby. Paul–speaking for many others–regards the novel as an American Masterpiece, I do not. Some of this back and forth reflects an ongoing conversation that Paul and I have about canon formation, what kids need to know, the virtues of teaching off-the-beaten track material and the importance of creating a common culture. I spend much of my time reducing Paul’s arguments to straw men and he humors me. I put Paul’s comments in italics.
We thought we’d structure this dialogue (and we are both committed to dialogue) around Gatsby since the movie just came out, though we could have picked something else.
Immediately I’m aware of your home court advantage — and I’m a bit nervous that your invitation to dialogue about Gatsby is in line with your comment about Hemingway’s praise of Twain (“All modern American literature comes from … Huckleberry Finn”). Your claim, if I remember correctly, was that Hemingway was setting a bar he knew he could easily surpass, and so perhaps you drag me to wordpress with similar plans. But I arrive undaunted, with a classic on my side and the memory of many of my students who have requested the “alternate ending” — so charmed were they by the title character.
For my opening: I enter the book the way Nick enters the city:
Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world….
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”
Gatsby’s magic is the sense of infinite possibility he radiates. Nick falls under his spell, and I think it is only the cold-hearted reader who is able to stay sober and clear. Of course, his dreams aren’t able to come fully to fruition, but there’s something hypnotic about his commitment to them, his belief in his own vision of what life holds for him, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This “romantic readiness,” as Nick calls it, should have been stomped out of him years ago, most certainly by the war if by nothing else. And yet the dreams persist, his foolhardy belief that “the rock of the world [is] founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” Admittedly, this is no way to live, but isn’t there something beautiful about it none-the-less? Isn’t there more than a little Don Quixote in him, a character to which you are more than sympathetic?
What a wonderful opening! As you know, you have the much more difficult task in our discussion. You love and admire Gatsby and want to share that with others. I do not like Gatsby and think that it and Catcher in the Rye are the two most overrated novels in American Literature with Huck Finn coming in third.
I have taught Gatsby twice (on the recommendation of a colleague I admire greatly–John McGean) and have not re-read it since then–please forgive me if I get things wrong. I found several things disturbing about the novel. Let’s start with this one: is there a likable character in the novel? An admirable one? Daisy? Myrtle? Tom? Gatsby? George? Jordan? Nick?
It is, of course, in theory possible to write a fine novel with no likable characters or admirable characters (but I am struggling to think of one). Nick’s voice, for a WWI vet and Yale grad, has always seemed to me to be remarkably naive (and at times impenetrable–I have no idea what image I am supposed to get from a city “in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money” and I object to seeing a city “always for the first time.” A city could “seem” new each time one enters it but could it be seen for the first time more than once?). While novels have no absolute ethical obligations, I am curious to know what I should learn by watching people who have worshipped themselves and status climbing and money–and finally their own pleasure. You know that when Gatsby was first published reviews were decidedly mixed and the novel was little read until it made it on to so many high school curriculums in the 1950s. During WWII it was handed out free to tens of thousands of soldiers–who having little else to read, read Gatsby. It is my experience that when one has read little, it is easy to have a “favorite” book–when one has read much, few works have no value and few are unassailable masterpieces. Let me answer the question about Don Quixote and pose one to you–Quixote is indeed a character that I admire–a dreamer whose goal is to serve humanity and God (and to become famous doing so). You assert that Gatsby is a “classic,” I wonder on what basis–that lots of people read it (The Da Vinci Code qualifies; that it deals with a particular time period well (perhaps–but wouldn’t that make it a history book more akin to Grapes of Wrath); that it presents a philosophical world view that deserves serious consideration (if so, I’m struggling to figure out what that would be–a Gordon Gecko “greed is good”? a Victorian-era roman a clef looking at the lives of the rich)?
I agree with you about the lack of “likable” characters — by my count there’s only one, Gatsby’s father. It breaks my heart when Mr. Gatz arrives from Minnesota, having learned of his son’s death from the newspaper, and asks, “Where have they got Jimmy?” (And the way he beams with pride when he shows Nick his son’s copy of Hopalong Cassidy with that schedule written inside kills me). Though I always find myself rooting for Gatsby, I do think there’s a bit of trickery involved. This has been replicated by countless romantic comedies — to justify the male or female lead cheating on his/her partner to find his/her true love, the partner is made out to be a horrendous character, a trap that the hero/heroine must escape. It’s a failure to provide a reasonable conflict. So we’re rooting for Gatsby to break up a marriage (that has produced a kid no less!) simply because Tom is so vapid and cruel. And when Nick shouts to Gatsby that he’s “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” what, really, is he saying?
But I agree with Claire Messud on this topic. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she says, “you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” For me, Fitzgerald’s characters are alive — even (and especially) Nick, whom I tend to “like” less with each read. Quick to judgement and blind to his own short-comings, cold himself while criticizing others’ lack of care, happy to retreat to his own moral upbringing in the face of a conflict of values, yet unable to fully extricate himself from the situation… Nick is still captivated by Gatsby’s strong romantic vision, the little piece of humanity he believes is worth something. Admirable? Heck no. But I think we can find these qualities in ourselves in our lesser moments.
As for what makes a classic, I’m happy to be generous with the term. Isn’t there a natural selection that happens with stories within a culture? So even if Gatsby began its tremendous run in the 1940s barracks, doesn’t it mean something that it has stuck around decades later, and that so many people carry that character around with them in their heads?
We’ll see if Da Vinci Code (or Twilight or 50 Shades) stands the test of time. We English teachers are reader-for-hire, and as such, we are of service in two ways (I’m stealing a bit from you here): we conserve and pass on the great books from the past that our students wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and we help them make sense of the stories they encounter without our suggestion in their daily lives. (The latter is one of the many reasons I’m teaching Frank Miller’s incredible The Dark Knight Returns right now.) I believe that we do not like stories accidentally — maybe they speak to the best in us, maybe they speak to the worst. And maybe they speak to a quality that is just there, one that we have to figure out what to do with: that yearning for perfection, for the ultimate prize, whatever our personal interpretation of it may be.
I admire your response on several levels–I had forgotten that Mr. Gatz makes an appearance. I’m not sure the obstacles of a Rom-Com are comparable to the destruction of marriages and, ultimately lives, but perhaps they exist on a continuum. Also, I’m particularly intrigued by Claire Messud’s observation–and I am not sure I agree–though it certainly sounds reasonable on its surface. I do not read searching for “friends” but I suppose I read searching for knowledge of self or the world around me, to be entertained (I think it is easy for “professional readers for hire” such as ourselves to dismiss the appetite for joy or entertainment as somehow not worthy or noble enough–an attitude that says if we don’t suffer as we read then we can’t be learning anything. I suspect also that I am looking for a “friend” in the author if not in the characters–or worthwhile companions if not friends–I have to think more about this). Still, I am struck by your sense of what Forster would call “rounded characters.” Perhaps that is part of my “disillusionment” with Gatsby–the characters are round/real–and universally disagreeable, hypocritical, and repellent–so I do not find myself enriched or entertained by them. Your lovely sense that we “conserve” a tradition and pass that along is indeed something I am charmed by–but like anything else (as a Jungian I can’t help but say this), it has a Shadow side. What if the tradition we pass on is profoundly morally or intellectually flawed (like defending slavery or segregation or refusing to acknowledge the truth of Copernicus, etc–and what current things do we debate [global warming or drone strikes] that future generations will settle against us? What if the acclamation of Gatsby is really the accretion of thousands of readers led to believe that the emperor is clothed when, in fact, he isn’t? I’ll conclude with two things: 1) thanks to you I will re-read Gatsby next fall with my habitual generosity of mind; and 2) we’ll have another discussion like this on the blog and attempt to address the importance of creating common culture and teaching students to “make sense of the stories that they encounter” and, I’ll add, to learn to narrate themselves into a fuller, richer, human tapestry.
This is a lengthy (2000 words) and uber-nerdy piece on teachers, what else?
Roles of a Lifetime: Magicians, Strippers and Sherpas
Teachers play numerous roles for students and their families, for colleagues, and for alumni. We don’t play the same role for each student or each colleague. But there are three roles we should embrace, they are: the Magician; the Stripper; and the Sherpa. Sometimes when I do this presentation with a faculty they only want to play one of these roles–or they assume that one of these is a “better” or “more privileged” position or “more desirable.” They are all necessary–and, good Jungian that I am, they all have their shadow side. *There is a description of the “Shadow” at the end of this blog.
Take a look at the questions below, answer them, and then we’ll have some fun with the various roles (when I do this as a workshop I show movie clips of teachers).
1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college.
2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years.
3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.”
4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me.
5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house.
6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic.
7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.”
8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice.
9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students.
What is the value of thinking of teaching as being a Magician, a Stripper, or a Sherpa. Well, we all think by analogy (see my prior post on horror movie monsters and teaching styles at http://pulpteacher.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-horror-the-horror-there-are-monsters-in-the-classroom-all-horror-movie-monsters-are-derived-from-teaching-styles/) for another example of analogic thinking.
When Aristotle developed the formal rules of logic he gave analogy a place as a method of inference—though he noted that analogies could not be formally demonstrated.
One of the GREAT analogies in all of history is that of the “Body Politic”—used by Aesop in the fable of the belly and the members, Plato in The Republic, and St. Paul in 1st Corinthians. In each case one might emphasize the importance of cooperation, of teamwork, of valuing all of the parts. The “body politic” is deeply ingrained into our language—Head of State, long arm of the law. There is a “shadow” side to the body politic analogy–almost universally the “body politic” argument is used to reinforce a hierarchical order where some members are required to “obey” others. Is the state an organism? Interestingly, the body politic analogy diminished greatly with the rise of democracy—replaced by “social contract”—but came roaring back with Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology, “A primitive society evolves into an industrial nation just as a small, simple form of life becomes a large, more complex organism.” (And it shows up in all sorts of social darwinian thinking and language even now.)
Analogic thinking is important and creative—and revealing! Educational philopopher Parker Palmer tells a story that he often asks workshop groups of faculty to complete the following: “When I am teaching at my best, I am like a ____________” He tells them to do it quickly and go with the first image that arises. He sees himself as a Border collie: all business, keeping the space safe, bringing back strays, keeping out predators, when the grazing ground is depleted he moves the herd to another space where they can be fed. There is a “shadow side” of this: students are sheep—with all the Orwellian and invidious meaning that has—the dumbest of the barnyard animals, mindless, docile, bleating “4 legs good, 2 legs bad.” Palmer knows he must stay on guard against seeing students like this–or they will forever be sheep and never be autonomous.
Try the following as ways to encourage students to think analogically:
Spanking a child to teach obedience is like…
Building low-cost housing for poor people is like…
The effect of American fast food on our health is like…
The personal gain realized by people who have committed questionable or illegal acts and then made money by selling book or movie rights is like…
Cramming for an exam is like…
Keeping wild animals in zoos is like…
Earlier this school year (more self-reference!) I talked about students and teachers as: Vacationers, Business Travelers, Tourists (or Tour guides for faculty), and Pilgrims. In that entry (http://pulpteacher.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/go-as-a-pilgrim-opening-talk-to-the-faculty-2012/), I did encourage people to think of Pilgrimage as the highest or best form of journeying. Not so here, all three roles–Magician, Stripper, Sherpa–have their place.
There are many times when a Teacher is a Performer–as both the Magician and the Stripper are. (The Sherpa is a companion.) The Magician practices a “concealing” art designed to inspire awe or wonder, to celebrate mystery, to engage in misdirection, hide the “process” until the “reveal,” and perhaps to shock. The Magician can be particularly appropriate in Introductions, beginnings of classes/units/subjects. An attention-grabbing act–something to inspire curiosity, is always a good opening. When I present at conferences, or do presentations or demonstrations, I often adopt the Persona of the Magician. Another benefit to the Magician–he or she will travel to you. The weaknesses of the Magician: the Magician, not the subject being studied or the student, becomes the object of attention, the “process” is never revealed (like not showing your work or not seeing any drafts of a paper), the performance may be dazzling but not deep, the Magician may adopt a refinement that is distant or alienating (or a combative persona such as Criss Angel or other street Magicians). In its most pathetic incarnation, this is the person who hides behind the teacher’s edition of the book (having access to all the “answers” but concealing them–not letting them out [see Shevek's physics' teacher, Sabul, in LeGuin's brilliant The Dispossessed]).
What of the Stripper? The Stripper practices a “revealing” art designed to inspire desire or passion. The Stripper demands the focussed attention of the audience and often crosses boundaries or taboos. Both Magicians and Strippers feign intimacy with the audience while keeping their distance. (Think of the Magician who invites people on stage, banters with them, makes them prop in the performance, etc–all of it is fake intimacy; the Stripper–well that should be obvious). What are the advantages of the Stripper: to inspire desire, to communicate passion, to convince/seduce, to entertain, to show off, and to subvert. Like the Magician, the Stripper will travel to you. The weakness of the Stripper: the performer IS the object of attention, the Stripper creates hunger or desire but offers no real connection, genuine passion can be debased and become crude or coarse. In its most glaring abuse it often manifests as the attempt to indoctrinate to political or personal views. (Anyone else notice that these two roles–Magician and Stripper–have gender connotations. Most, not all, Magicians are men; most, not all Strippers, are women).
What of the Sherpa? The Sherpa is appropriate for graduate students, for graduated students, for long-term relationships built on genuine intellectual intimacy. The Sherpa is a fellow traveler and, unlike the Magician or Stripper, understands his or her anonymity–everyone remembers Sir Edmund Hillary who climbed Mt. Everest–virtually no one remembers the Sherpa who accompanied him–Tenzing Norgay. But Hillary never forgot Norgay and our great students never forget us and we never forget our great teacher-companions. The role of Sherpa has weaknesses, however. The Sherpa is isolated–he or she lives in the rarefied Nepalese air of biomechanics or the world of string theory or narratology and might never leave his or her own province to “recruit.” You can order a Magician or Stripper–and they will come to you–but you cannot order a Sherpa.
Back to our questions at the beginning. I’d suggest that they reveal the following–but you may have your own ideas:
1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college. The Sherpa is valued as a role or you are conscious you have had a Sherpa in your life.
2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years. The Magician is ascendant here–strong performances that one can go back to (though someone might make the same argument for the Stripper).
3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.” The Magician again–more the focus on the subject than the relationship with the student–again, the Stripper strikes me as a secondary choice.
4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me. The Stripper. Passion (even feigned) is central to the Stripper and is revealed right away.
5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house. The Sherpa cultivates particular relationships (“appropriate relationships” I guess I have to say nowadays–I have utter contempt for those who abuse their POWER and teaching is ALWAYS about POWER relationships). The Sherpa loves to share expertise and is more than willing to help carry the load. My own learning has been shaped and helped by several superb Sherpas–Robert Ducharme and Verlyn Flieger in particular. I hope I have been Sherpa to a few.
6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic. Very often the Stripper–the idea of peeling back the workings of things so that others can see them is prevalent.
7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.” Rarely have I seen the Stripper so powerful as he “undresses” himself to a point where his individuality has become universality–spectacular.
8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice. I recognize that while I am Sherpa for some, others are Sherpas for me.
9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students. The Magician–things are unexpected but eventually make sense. If I do not provide the student with the “wrap up” then I have failed.
All great teaching springs from relationships that need to be cultivated. I hope that in whatever role we are most comfortable: the Magician, the Stripper, or the Sherpa, that we will honor the role we play for our students–and honor those who played those roles for us.
Parker Palmer: “A subject is available for relationship; an object is not.”
*On the “Shadow,” here is a brief aside from a worksheet I give my students to understand Persona, Ego, and Shadow: “The shadow is the inferior being in ourselves, the one who wants to do all the things we are not allowed to do….” Fordham, 49. The shadow is in the personal unconscious. The collective aspect of the shadow is expressed as a devil or witch or something similar. “In choosing the word ‘shadow’ to describe these aspects of the unconscious, Jung has more in mind than merely to suggest something dark and vague in outline. There is, as he points out, no shadow without the sun, and no shadow (in the sense of the personal unconscious) without the light of consciousness. It is in fact the nature of these things that there should be light and dark, sun and shade. Superstition holds that the man without a shadow (using the word in the ordinary sense) is the devil himself, [Dracula famously casts no reflection] while we ourselves are cautious with someone who seems ‘too good to be true,’ as if we recognized instinctively that human nature needs the leaven of a little wickedness.” Fordham, 50. from A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, ed. by Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, and Fred Plant. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. “the shadow: ‘the thing a person has no wish to be’ (CW 16.470). In this simple statement is subsumed the many-sided and repeated references to shadow as the negative side of the personality, the sum of all unpleasant qualities one wants to hide, the inferior, worthless and primitive side of man’s nature, the ‘other person’ in one, one’s own dark side. Jung was well aware of the reality of evil in human life. Over and over again Jung emphasizes that we all have a shadow, that everything substantial casts a shadow, that the ego stands to shadow as light to shade, that it is the shadow which makes us human.” From Jung himself, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions” (CW 11.131). CW stands for Collected Works of Jung.
Each year on Academic Awards night I give a brief talk to the assembled students and parents–this year I spoke on the quality of wonder.
Academic Awards Night 2013
I’d like to speak tonight—a night on which we celebrate all kinds of measurable excellence—in praise of the quality of wonder, for which, ironically, there is no measuring rubric. “Wonder,” writes my friend Tom Hibbs, Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, “is a counter to two of the chief vices of our time: inordinate certitude, the confidence that we know everything there is to know, and [radical] skepticism, a surrender of the human spirit that despairs of the very quest for truth.”
So, how does cultivating an attitude of wonder inoculate us against the twin evils of absolute certitude and absolute relativism? It does so because it draws us away from what we are positive about and it gives us hope about what is to come. Wonder means that you are not likely to think of education or intelligence as an accumulation of facts or a set of answers that you can apply anywhere. Wonder pushes you to go outside of your usual limits. And wonder nourishes a passion for meaning; it asks us to connect the things we know to the things we don’t know—and to understand those connections.
Think of the acquiring of knowledge (and eventually wisdom) as sailing in an archipelago—or a series of islands. Each time we get to an island, we own a bit of knowledge, but we get restless, we “wonder” what is out there—and in an act of surpassing bravery we set sail again for the next island—not sure if we will get there or when—but believing that we will. One is never certain where one will end up next and that is where the courage comes in. Can we risk giving up our inherited and adopted opinions? Can we challenge our own ideas? Wonder makes that possible. So we travel and arrive at our new outpost and reflect on how we got here—but soon, for it is in our temperament, we will have to forge on. We check our ship—make sure our ideas are sound, our minds and sails open, and our senses aware. We’ll wonder what’s next and what it will take to get to our next port of call, whether we’ll follow where others have been—though for us it will be brand new and so still a great thing—or whether we’ll go, like members of the Enterprise, where no one has gone before. Can we wonder like Newton, like Clerk Maxwell, like Einstein, like Heisenberg, like Higgs? Each refused the certainty of his own time and each refused to yield to radical skepticism. Can we wonder like Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant; can we wonder with them? Can we wonder with Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Ellison? Can we wonder with Capra, Ford, Eastwood, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Nolan, and Pixar? Can we wonder with King and Chavez, with Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, with the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis? Nothing can stop us wondering except ourselves.
An unreasonable certainty is one of our great enemies. We might be tempted to settle down on our current “island of knowledge” and never go out again—we would shut off our capacity for wonder. We could believe as the early map makers did that when we can no longer see the next land that “here there be dragons”—that is the curse of certainty without wonder. Our other enemy, radical skepticism would have us recognize no lands, no safe harbors, no places to mark or guide ourselves—just endless wandering under a starless, sunless sky—movement without purpose.
Wonder is small-d democratic. It requires no natural ability and anyone can cultivate it. It is free to all in whatever portion, generous or meager, you wish to take—and it is inexhaustible—it cannot be used up.
There is one thing that wonder cannot do—it cannot make you immune to failure, which is why the corollary to wonder is courage. If you wonder, then you will make mistakes–you’ll sail in circles sometimes; your destination will not be obvious, you may land on several islands that DO NOT have water, wood, food or whatever you need before you find the next right one. Certainty and radical skepticism won’t make you immune to failure either but they promise that they will and because of that lie they require no courage, no risk, no vulnerability. Certainty gives you the illusion of immunity to failure because you risk nothing. Bunkered down in your own ideas, talking only to yourself, listening to those with whom you already agree—ah, there is safety in that. Radical skepticism will also give you the illusion of immunity to failure for the same reason—you acknowledge no authority, you question every motive, you doubt every idea or action (except your own)—you stand always on the outside—you never risk anything.
The reason that certainty and radical skepticism lead to the same place is because no motion—a perfect stasis—is the equivalent of all motion with no direction—a perfect kinesis. In the lexicon of physics, life does not exist at zero degrees Kelvin—perfect stasis—any more than it exists in absolute entropy.
One of my heroes, Carl Jung, said “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” All of us here, of whatever age or gender, no matter where we are seated, play both roles—teacher and pupil—over and over in our lives. Let’s vow to use the currency, the coin, of wonder to repay the teachers in our lives. If we do so—they, and we—will be paid in full.
I am “PulpTeacher”–celebrator of the middle brow, defender of abused genres, scourge of those who venerate and genuflect before “the classics” and who forget Horace’s dictum that art “should delight and instruct.” I can hear the calls from ivory towers everywhere that I should have my poetic license revoked, that I should go back to telling students that they should bow down before the canon, that they should just take my word for it that Shakespeare and Milton, James and Twain, are beyond any questioning of their greatness. (And I do love Shakespeare and Milton–not so much on James and Twain–but I also love James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, and Michael Connelly, Christopher Nolan and Stephen Spielberg, Michael Crichton and Ted Chiang and scores of other allegedly second, third, and fourth-shelf artists).
There is a continuum in art (literature and film included) that should have us take a look at something as otherwise pedestrian as the writing of Jack DuBrul. I have read three of DuBrul’s novels: Havoc, Pandora’s Curse, and Deep Fire Rising. His recurring hero is Philip Mercer, a great geologist. DuBrul is a serious if limited craftsperson and you can learn lots about mining, exploring, geology, and related subjects in reading the novels. DuBrul intends to delight and instruct and for the most part he succeeds. His novels are what we might call “reality-fantasies” like much popular, escapist entertainment. Mercer’s skills are extraordinary and he is actually a throw-back in some ways as he is remarkably noble and gracious with no shadow side that drives him. The plot of each novel can be rendered thusly: Mercer gets called into some geologically-related activity; there is much more to this than meets the eye; there is a beautiful woman who will share the adventure with Mercer; shootouts, violence, hairbreadth escapes will occur; usually there is a particularly physically menacing henchman that Mercer will deal with; and Mercer’s sidekicks will remain stable.
I quote a page-long passage from Havoc below as Mercer’s octogenarian, chain-smoking sidekick and friend, Harry, talks with Mercer about his loss of a woman he actually LOVED. This presents DuBrul with a problem–the woman cannot live because then Mercer would marry and would no longer be “Mercer” (lots of Romantic Hero things to consider here from Robin Hood and Don Quixote to Shane and Josey Wales to Han Solo and James Bond). So DuBrul kills off the lovely Tisa in a previous novel–but this presents another problem–how should Mercer, a man not really given to reflection, respond to this tragedy? The following passage with my intermittent commentary in bold:
“Harry noted the tension creeping into Mercer’s neck and saw the shadow lingering in his storm gray eyes when he turned from the map. ‘You were attracted to her.’ [Yikes! "storm gray eyes," wow is this clunky]
‘She was attractive,’ Mercer admitted.
‘Quit dodging. That’s not what I asked.’
No matter how much Mercer wanted to avoid the issue, he knew his friend wouldn’t let him. ‘Yes, I was attracted to her.’
‘She’s the first since Tisa and now you feel guilty about it.’
‘Six months is an eternity and it’s the blink of an eye. I can’t tell you how to feel about this but I will tell you that being attracted to another woman is not a bad thing. You do realize that since Tisa died you’ve held yourself to a standard most married men can’t touch. Guys find women attractive every damned day and you can bet that not one of them feels the least bit guilty. But you, you see it as an act of deepest betrayal. This isn’t mourning, Mercer, it’s self-inflicted punishment.
‘What if I can’t help it?’
‘You’ve always found a way in the past.’
‘What do you mean?’
Harry lit another cigarette, gathering his thoughts. ‘You beat yourself up every time something in your life goes wrong. You blame yourself whether it’s your fault or not. Most people don’t take responsibility when they screw up but you do even if you don’t. [This point about Mercer's feeling of responsibility for everything is made over and over again] This isn’t a character flaw, or maybe it is but not a bad one to have, except each time it costs you a little more to find your center again and come to grips with whatever just happened. It’s been six months since you lost Tisa and you’re no closer to putting her death behind you.’
Mercer’s anger flared. ‘I won’t put her behind me.’
‘Not her, you dope, her death. You haven’t put her death behind you. There’s a distinction and maybe that’s where you’re stuck.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I bet you relive her death every day but don’t relive her life.’ Mercer didn’t deny it so Harry continued. ‘You turned her into the symbol of some perceived failure, a memory where you can unload all the guilt you carry around. You don’t celebrate the short time you were with her and that’s not very fair. To her I mean.’
Mercer was rocked by what Harry had said. In a rush he realized it was all true. Tisa’s memory had become a wound he would reopen just so he could revel in the guilt he was certain he deserved. This wasn’t mourning. It was self-flagellation and was actually a little sick. He’d made her death about him and in doing so reduced her life to something he could blame himself for.” [That last line makes this passage worth reading--it reflects a human truth that many of us, scratch that, ALL of us do sometimes--we make "it" about ourselves and thereby reduce someone else's life to a prop in our lives]
Big deal, I can almost hear, so the blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in a while. True–and the blind squirrel gives hope (like the stopped clock) to all of us who stumble along without genius to accompany us.
Next week on the quality of “wonder.”