Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Back in 1998, I read this passage at a meeting of the Sheikh Zubayr society:

LATE that night, refreshed and strengthened by a good dinner and much free laughter, Isaac Penn and Peter Lake sat in the small study, staring at the fire. The heat ran around half a dozen logs that had become red cylinders of flame, changing their colors until they looked like six suns in a black universe of firebrick. Their glow was an in­visible wind that irradiated the room and froze the two men in place—like deer in a forest which is burning all around them, who lift their heads to the highest and brightest flames and look into a tunnel of white light.

“The doctors told me,” said Isaac Penn, as if he were talking to himself, “that she would be dead in a few months. That was almost a year ago.” He glanced at an ice-covered window in which the moon had gone all astray, and listened to the wind coming off the Lake of the Coheeries as it could only there, on a midwinter night, like the roaring jet winds of Mars or Saturn. “It’s a mystery to me that she can sleep outside, in that. She wasn’t supposed to. In winter, she’s supposed to come in. But she refuses, even up here. I can never get used to thinking that my daughter is out there in that caldron of ice. And yet, in the mornings, she comes to breakfast revived after twelve hours in cold that would kill a strong healthy man. The wind and snow cover her, attack her. At first, I used to beg her to come in; but then I realized that doing what she does is what keeps her alive.”


“I don’t know.”

“I wonder,” said Peter Lake, aware that he was in a warm com­fortable place in a vast sea of snow and ice which maneuvered beyond the walls like a wild unopposed army. “I wonder about the others.”

“What others?”

“The thousands, the hundreds of thousands, like Beverly.”

“We’re all like Beverly. She’s early, that’s all.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“What way? Be clear.”

“The poor should not have to suffer, as they do, in their mil­lions, and die young.”

“The poor? Do you mean everyone? Certainly you mean every­one in New York, for in New York even the rich are poor. But is Beverly poor according to your definition? No. And yet, what’s the difference?”

“The difference,” said Peter Lake, “is that small children, their mothers, and their fathers, live and die like beasts. They don’t have special sleeping porches, a hundred pounds of down and sable, mar­ble baths as big as pools, ranks of doctors from Harvard and Johns Hopkins, salvers of roast meat, hot drinks in silver vacuum bottles, and cheerful happy families. I want Beverly to have these things, and would die rather than see her go without them. But there is a differ­ence. The child I once saw in a hallway was barefoot, bareheaded, dressed in filthy rags, starving, blind, abandoned. He had no feather bed. He was near death. And he was standing, because he didn’t have a place to lie down and die.”

“I know this,” Isaac Penn asserted. “I’ve seen such things far more often than you have. You forget that I was a poorer man than you have ever been, for a longer time than you have yet lived. I had a father and a mother, and brothers and sisters, and they all died young, too soon. I know all these things. Do you think I’m a fool? In The Sun we bring injustices to the attention of the public, and suggest sensible means to correct inequities where they serve no pur­pose. I realize that there is too much needless and cruel suffering. But you, you don’t seem to understand that these people whom you profess to champion have, in their struggles, compensations.”

“What compensations?”

“Their movements, passions, emotions; their captured bodies and captured senses are directed with no less certainty than the mi­croscopic details of the seasons, or the infinitesimal components of the city’s great and single motion. They are, in their seemingly ran­dom actions, part of a plan. Don’t you know that?”

“I see no justice in that plan.”

“Who said,” lashed out Isaac Penn, “that you, a man, can al­ways perceive justice? Who said that justice is what you imagine? Can you be sure that you know it when you see it, that you will live long enough to recognize the decisive thunder of its occurrence, that it can be manifest within a generation, within ten generations, within the entire span of human existence? What you are talking about is common sense, not justice. Justice is higher and not as easy to un­derstand—until it presents itself in unmistakable splendor. The de­sign of which I speak is far above our understanding. But we can sometimes feel its presence.

“No choreographer, no architect, engineer, or painter could plan more thoroughly and subtly. Every action and every scene has its purpose. And the less power one has, the closer he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that), but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations terrifying and benevolent—a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. There is justice in the world, Peter Lake, but it cannot be had without mystery. We try to bring it about without knowing exactly what it is, and only touch upon it. No matter, for all the flames and sparks of justice throughout all time reach to invigorate unseen epochs—like engines whose power glides on hidden lines to upwell against the dark in distant cities unaware.”

“I don’t know,” said Peter Lake, confused. “I think of Beverly, and I’m not sure about the golden age of which you speak, which is beyond our lives, and which we will never see. Think of Beverly. How could it be?”

Isaac Penn got up from his chair to leave the room. At the door, he turned to Peter Lake, who felt cold and alone. Isaac Penn was an old man, and sometimes he became dreadfully grave, as if he were in the presence of a thousand tormenting spirits. His eyes reflected the fire. They seemed unnatural, like tunnels of flame into a soul grown so deep that it must soon leave life. “Have you not yet realized that Beverly has seen the golden age—not one that was, nor one that will be, but one that is here? Though I am an old man, I have not yet seen it. And she has. That is what has broken my heart.”

I have two friends who are sickeningly well read. One is Peter Hovde and the other is Garner Gollatz. It was Garner who pointed out that the writer, Mark Helprin, was a neo-con. I was embarrassed, because the text could be given a flat, vapid reading as some sort of support for laissez-faire capitalism, which certainly was not the interpretation I had made of the text. Moreover, I don’t know Helprin’s work well enough to really venture what his specific agenda in writing the piece was. I will interpret the text only to extricate a certain meaning that I find useful. Anything else, he may keep.

One of OED’s nicer definitions for melancholy is: tender, sentimental, or reflective sadness; sadness giving rise to or considered as a subject for poetry, sentimental reflection, etc., or as a source of aesthetic pleasure. This feeling is one that I am first conscious of having felt early in the summer of 1996 and it has been my frequent companion since then.

It was the very end of my Fulbright year in Jordan. A few days before I left the country, I had a small get-together at my Aunt Zakiyeh’s house. She lives on the top floor of a three story building in the village of Safut. Her small apartment does not take up the whole floor, so she has a very large open-air patio. In the evening, one can entertain under the stars quite splendidly. That night was an evening of extraordinary blessing in my life. It is hard to get everyone to get together in Jordan—the Arabs are a very spontaneous people and event planning is quite the challenge in Jordan. But everyone made it that night: Kholude, Norma, Maysa, Firas and even my Jesuit friend, Paul Heck. Later in the evening, Charlie and Elaine stopped by just before they were about to emigrate to Canada. We all talked and talked: politics, theology, you name it. We drank whiskey and `araq and had a royal meza. At the end of the evening, a shooting star streaked across the sky. The evening was perfect. If I’d had MS at the time, I’d have undoubtedly shed a tear. I never cried, back then. But it was beautiful. And I knew that we’d all be scattered to the wind, that I couldn’t hold the moment. That was sad, but it made the moment real. I was able to enjoy living in the moment fully, without the need to hold on. My heart was open, as were the heavens.

Melancholy is a powerful and strange emotion, so different from depression. Depression takes away your desire to live. Melancholy makes you sublimely aware of just how alive you are, of how exquisite life is. In the same breath, it reminds you that you are mortal, that you cannot capture the moment, that it will pass and, eventually, that you will die. Melancholy makes you especially present. This for me is a good thing. Like all those plagued by their imaginations, my soul’s chief passion has always been to become. Melancholy teaches me to be, to relish being, to be grateful for being, to be grateful for life.

The experience of melancholy teaches us to release irritation at the world’s persistent inability to meet up to our highest ideals and to replace this irritation with gratitude. It teaches us the importance of seeing the moment and living in it, of seeing what is good in every moment, in finding a way to let go of irritation. When I am clear-sighted (sadly, it isn’t often), I see that this is God’s plan for me. My life is an exercise in learning to understand the melancholy. If there is purpose in my life, I think it must be that.

God help me, for I’m not much good at it. But I want to be. I want to be. Help me, Lord.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Thinking About Ethical Neutrality in Teaching, Part I

Teaching went fairly well this term. The class design isn’t really where I want it to be quite yet, but it’s getting close. When you start applying for jobs, the vogue thing is to have a teaching philosophy. At some point I have to develop one of my own. It’s a while before I go on the market (there’ that nasty bit called the dissertation to finish first). But I’ve been pretty focused this term and so, I thought I would reward myself by allowing some philosophical musing. I’ve really scaled back on indulgences (like this blog) and I need to get cracking on cleaning the house and writing my oft-referred-to-seldom-seen research proposal. But some fun first.

The excerpt is from a play called History Boys, by Alan Bennett, the playwright who brought us, among other texts, The Madness of King George. Unlike most teacher stories, the teachers are very human. The play is a marvelously constructed study in different types of conflict The excerpt we’re going to read is the central intellectual conflict between the two leading characters, Mr. Hector and Mr. Irwin. Strangely, from my perspective, both are queer. Today, I'll do the exegesis and next time, I'll do the proper discussion.

HECTOR: A romantic idealist who is obsessed with the ostensible purpose of education—that it help you live a good life. He is meaning, fleeing from the violence of being represented in a form. His self-image is that of a rebel who protects his students from, well, “mechanized petrification.” When Hector hits the boys, it’s typically with a rolled up paper and symbolic and not painful. The boys ham it up in response. They have a tender and deeply humorous relationship. Hector has a good deal of trouble with the problem that life cannot be lived entirely on the level of grand meaning. He has a reprehensible penchant for feeling up his male students’ crotches while taking them for rides on his motorcycle. His wife doesn’t know and apparently doesn’t care enough to find out. Hector is now stuck team teaching with Irwin because he got caught.
IRWIN: A tremendously gifted rhetorician with an all-consuming obsession with controlling his image in the eyes of others, he nonetheless comes across as engaging, affable and charming. He is a very able teacher. While he lacks a moral compass, his need to control his image prevents him from falling into the sorts of difficulties that have essentially done Hector in. In the play, the character’s fate is to be bound to a wheelchair and to become deeply corrupt. In the movie, he’s on crutches for a few weeks and he becomes less corrupt.
DAKIN: The best-looking boy in class and among the most clever in an exceptionally brainy class. He is already sleeping with the headmaster’s secretary. He is very aware of the queer characters’ sexual attraction to him. My guess is that he’s a Kinsey 2. Destined to be a lawyer, he is enormously attracted to Irwin, as Irwin offers him the power of becoming a player in the game. He has issues with Hector, although it doesn’t seem that getting felt up on a motorcycle is prominent among them. Ironically, he is the character who has the clearest view of Irwin’s immorality. Strangely, while I don’t think he shares that immorality, he does not seem disturbed by it.
POSNER: The youngest boy, probably a Kinsey 6, he has a deep crush on Dakin, who, while not encouraging Posner, is not at all upset by the fact. Posner is the only student that Hector will not feel up. My gut instinct is that the reason this is the case is that Posner is the only one of the boys who might really want to feel back. I doubt Hector is really up to something like that. Posner is Hector’s best student, although not his favorite. Posner does, however, care very deeply for the ideals of truth and beauty. He is the sort of boy who is wounded by his education. This is the type of wound that never fully heals. In the play, he winds up isolated and a little insane. In the movie, he becomes a teacher with a deep understanding of melancholy.

It’s strange that Bennett should change the Irwin and Posner’s fate so dramatically for the film. Whether this is pandering to Hollywood or relenting mercy for his characters, I cannot tell. The other boys don’t need too much description to understand the scene.

Boys come in, followed by Hector. They sit glumly at their desks.

IRWIN Would you like to start?
HECTOR I don’t mind.
IRWIN How do you normally start? It is your lesson. General Studies.
HECTOR The boys decide. Ask them.
IRWIN Anybody?

The boys don’t respond.

HECTOR Come along, boys. Don’t sulk.
DAKIN We don’t know who we are, sir. Your class or Mr Irwin’s.
IRWIN Does it matter?
TIMMS Oh yes, sir. It depends if you want us thoughtful. Or smart.

The first criticism of teaching, if you will. Students are aware of their instructors’ expectations and clearly put on a performance. An inevitable part of any relationship of power, yet I imagine one that is not consonant with Hector’s self-image. Hector wants to break through the scene to a moment that is “real.” Timms is the class smart aleck. His suggestion that all the world, including Mr. Hector’s class, is a play, doesn’t go over very well with Hector.

HECTOR He wants you civil, you rancid little turd. (Hits him.)
TIMMS Look, sir. You’re a witness. Hitting us, sir. He could be sacked.
IRWIN Settle down. Settle down.
I thought we might talk about the Holocaust.
HECTOR Good gracious. Is that on the syllabus?

The opening of the rift begins here. A statement like “Good gracious. Is that on the syllabus?” is almost completely bizarre for Hector, a teacher who routinely ignores syllabi. For him to ask a question like “Is that on the syllabus?” is a clear admission of discomfort.

IRWIN It has to be. The syllabus includes the Second World War.
HECTOR I suppose it does.
IRWIN Though in any case the scholarship questions aren’t limited to a particular curriculum.

Irwin has been hired by the headmaster to prepare the boys for scholarship examination to get into Oxford and Cambridge. A subject is a subject to him. He’s there to teach a technique.

HECTOR But how can you teach the Holocaust?

An ethical question directed at Irwin. To Hector, a subject’s not just a subject. Moreover, the question is not asking for the proper technique. Hector clearly means that one cannot teach the Holocaust.

IRWIN Well, that would do as a question. Can you ... should you ... teach the Holocaust? Anybody?

The question is neatly deflected. Presumably, from Hector’s perspective, this is a dilemma that is to be resolved by the instructor before class begins. But it’s always good form for a teacher to throw a hard question out to the room. Irwin is a master of form.

AKTHAR It has origins. It has consequences. It’s a subject like any other.
SCRIPPS Not like any other, surely. Not like any other at all.
AKTHAR No, but it’s a topic.

Akhtar speaks in the voice of the scientist. Our methods do not change because of how we feel about the subject. If they do, we have clearly not practiced ethical neutrality.

HECTOR They go on school trips nowadays, don’t they? Auschwitz. Dachau. What has always concerned me is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their Coke?
CROWTHER The visitors’ centre. It’s like anywhere else.
HECTOR Do they take pictures of each other there? Are they smiling? Do they hold hands? Nothing is appropriate. Just as questions on an examination paper are inappropriate.
How can the boys scribble down an answer however well put that doesn’t demean the suffering involved?
And putting it well demeans it as much as putting it badly.

Hector’s concern, then, is one of reverence—our reverence for the dead, for these dead who experienced and suffered “unspeakable” horror. To give a thing a name, to speak that name, makes the thing an object. It makes it subject to our power. The emotional impact of an object must, perforce, be less than that of an unfathomable source of awe. Objects are objects because they can be manipulated. Much like the name of God, Hector would not speak of the horror, for in his view we should not become desensitized to it. Such an awful thing should not lose its awe.

IRWIN It’s a question of tone, surely. Tact.
HECTOR Not tact. Decorum.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

TACT: Ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence, or win good will; skill or judgement in dealing with men or negotiating difficult or delicate situations; the faculty of saying or doing the right thing at the right time.
DECORUM: That which is proper, suitable, seemly, befitting, becoming; fitness, propriety, congruity, especially in dramatic, literary, or artistic composition: That which is proper to a personage, place, time, or subject in question, or to the nature, unity, or harmony of the composition; fitness, congruity, keeping.

Decorum refers to that which is appropriate to the object about which a person speaks. For Hector, to speak of this must be an act of reverence. Tact refers to what one says to win over the listener. To Irwin, what is central is understanding how to avoid the emotions that would prevent his point from being made. An object is an object. The key to dealing with objects is knowing how to use them. Whether the object is the subject of discussion or the subject who listens, an object is an object.

LOCKWOOD What if you were to write that this was so far beyond one’s experience silence is the only proper response?
DAKIN That would be your answer to lots of questions, though, wouldn’t it, sir?
HECTOR Yes. Yes, Dakin, it would.
DAKIN ‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.’

Hector groans and puts his head in his hands.

That's right, isn't it, sir? Wittgenstein.

I have some pity here for Hector, although I feel Bennett is so good to him that I ought to be made of sterner stuff for the sake of justice. The hardest thing for a teacher to hear is that the point of his or her teaching, the point over which he or she has labored to persuade the student, has not sunk in at all. We try so hard to guide their attention to what we profess to be valuable. When we no longer occupy the stage of their mind however, it is shocking to see what they have instead taken from what we said. They’ve listened, but they have not taken the point. These moments of futility are the hardest ones for me to bear.

IRWIN Yes. That's good.
HECTOR No, it's not good. It's ... flip. It's ... glib. It's journalism.

OED tells us that, a journal is, among other things, “A record of public events or of a series of public transactions, noted down as they occur day by day or at successive dates, without historical discussion.” The word “journalism” is, of course, a round condemnation in this particular text. I can’t help thinking that the distinction of recording events without historical discussion is the reason why. Although, clearly, this attack is made on the historical discussion itself. I think the essence of the insult is that the historical discussion is not real and is, in some sense, a sensationalist fraud.

DAKIN But it's you that taught us it.
HECTOR I didn't teach you and Wittgenstein didn't screw it out of his very guts in order for you to turn it into a dinky formula. I thought that you of all people were bright enough to see that.
DAKIN I do see it, sir. Only I don't agree with it. Not . . not any more.

Dakin, who perhaps for a time has been under Hector’s spell, is disenchanted. I don’t know if that disenchantment is with Hector’s ideals, with Hector himself, or both.

HECTOR (head in his hands) Yes?
TIMMS You told us once. . . it was to do with the trenches, sir ... that one person's death tells you more than a thousand. When people are dying like flies, you said, that is what they are dying like.

For once, Timms isn’t making a wise crack. He’s beginning to make intuitive leaps between new material and other things he’s learned. He’s beginning to think. He’s not there yet, but he’s gaining on it.

POSNER Except that these weren't just dying. They were being processed. What is different is the process.

There it is. The moment of insight.

HECTOR No, not good.
Posner is not making a point. He is speaking from the heart.

Irwin is praising Posner’s insight. What Hector objects to is not the praise, but the reason for the praise. Irwin is praising the technical performance, not the meaning of the statement. What offends Hector is the divorce of rationality from sacred meaning and its grafting onto a purely instrumental process in which the outcome is a simple and mundane victory or loss. He would not see sacred meaning fall into Irwin’s hands. The tools of the temple were never meant to be used for Irwin’s kind of work.

DAKIN So? Supposing we get a question on Hitler and the Second War and we take your line, sir, that this is not a crazed lunatic but a statesman.
HECTOR A statesman?
IRWIN Not a statesman, Dakin, a politician. I wouldn't say statesman.
DAKIN Politician, then, and one erratically perhaps, but still discernibly operating within the framework of traditional German foreign policy ...
DAKIN ... and we go on to say, in accordance with this line, that the death camps have to be seen in the context of this policy.


IRWIN I think that would be ... inexpedient.
HECTOR Inexpedient? Inexpedient?

Dakin is exulting in new-found power and using it to make a swipe at Hector. Irwin is focused on the work and probably doesn’t notice. Hector is outraged by the fact that Irwin is completely senseless to the meaning of what Dakin has just said.

IRWIN I don't think it's true, for a start ...

This is Irwin’s genius. The argument isn’t tactful, so he calls it untrue. Don’t be the Devil’s Advocate unless you can win the case. The win-loss record is what makes the reputation.

SCRIPPS But what has truth got to do with it? I thought that we'd already decided that for the purposes of this examination truth is, if not an irrelevance, then so relative as just to amount to another point of view.
HECTOR Why can you not simply condemn the camps outright as an unprecedented horror?

The obvious, moral answer. Hector is upset because coming to this conclusion should not, in his view, take so much work. Notice that because of the timing of Hector's outburst, Irwin is freed from answering Scripps' very poignant question.

There is slight embarrassment.

LOCKWOOD No point, sir. Everybody will do that. That's the stock answer, sir ... the camps an event unlike any other, the evil unprecedented, etc., etc.
HECTOR No. Can't you see that even to say etcetera is monstrous? Etcetera is what the Nazis would have said, the dead reduced to a mere verbal abbreviation.
What have we learned about language?
Orwell. Orwell.

This is a link to Orwell’s essay, if you’re interested. Hector has lost the room. His attempt to sacrilize the method of reason and link it solely to the good has failed to win the class over. He has failed, like Plato before him. Unlike Plato, however, he was in the room to hear his students reject his teaching.

LOCKWOOD All right, not etcetera. But given that the death camps are generally thought of as unique, wouldn't another approach be to show what precedents there were and put them ... well ... in proportion?
SCRIPPS Proportion!
DAKIN Not proportion then, but putting them in context.

Tact. Dakin’s getting the hang of it now.

POSNER But to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained then it can be explained away.

Posner sees Hector’s point more clearly than anyone else in the room. Indeed, we discover, a few lines later, the reason that he might be more inclined to. He alone in this room is living the argument. Recall that Hector’s argument is pedagogical. It is an argument about the proper values for teaching to follow, a protest of the tactical process that Irwin is teaching.

RUDGE Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.’

Hector groans.

To understand all is to forgive all. What Hector is trying to say about why the Holocaust shouldn’t be taught has just become fodder for the process Irwin is teaching. This happened because Posner has learned that point by taking part in the debate sincerely. What Hector has tried to teach as a supreme value has become one more clever position, despite the fact that Posner is utterly sincere and not trying to be clever for the sake of cleverness. Irwin’s winning the game, the game that Hector refuses to let be a game. "He shoots, he scores!" Leave it to Rudge, the class jock, to see the puck slide in most clearly.

IRWIN That’s good, Posner.
POSNER It isn’t ‘good’. I mean it, sir.

And Posner did mean it, too. The irony, however, is that without the process that Irwin is championing, Posner would never had faced the dilemma and never formulated the position. Remember that Hector would never have let the dialogue happen, had he been given a choice.

DAKIN But when we talk about putting them in context it’s only the same as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After all, monasteries had been dissolved before Henry VIII, dozens of them.

Dakin is intoxicated. A world in which nothing is sacred is a world where everything is a potential object of power. What's whiskey compared to that?

POSNER Yes, but the difference is, I didn’t lose any relatives in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
IRWIN Good point.
SCRIPPS You keep saying, ‘Good point.’ Not good point, sir. True. To you the Holocaust is just another topic on which we may get a question.
IRWIN No. But this is history. Distance yourselves.
Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past and one of the historian’s jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be ... even on the Holocaust.

The bell goes.

What’s sad here, is Irwin comes off really well. He comes off as a scientist should. I think the play shows us in other scenes that this isn’t what he truly believes. Yet, whatever Irwin's intentions, the awakening of Posner in the dialogue shows the power of the process.

IRWIN I thought that went rather well.
HECTOR Parrots. I thought I was lining their minds with some sort of literary insulation, proof against the primacy of fact. Instead back come my words like a Speak Your Weight Machine. ‘Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.’ Ugh.
IRWIN I was rather encouraged. They’re getting the idea.
HECTOR Do you know what the worst thing is? I wanted them to show off, to come up with the short answer, the handy quote. I wanted them to compete.
It’s time I went.
IRWIN Went where?
HECTOR Oh, home. Home.

In a sense, Hector really isn’t alive to Irwin. Hector’s just a helpful object. Irwin scares me.