Cupcakes or Bust!

The shutdown last June of Hong Kong’s schools was doubly distressing because we had only just come out of the springtime quarantines and closures a few weeks earlier, and we had hoped they were finished for good. Students stayed mostly at home for the summer, showing remarkable fortitude in accepting restrictions on their usually active lives. I had wondered whether the summer philosophy colloquium I hold every year would work on Zoom. I need not have worried.

Three former students expressed interest in helping conduct the colloquium: a graduate of Oxford’s courses in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), a current PPE student, and a rising senior with a philosophy major at Columbia. (The first of these started the colloquium six years ago.) We worked out a syllabus mainly of their devising: Plato’s Crito, extracts from Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise, one of Marx’s philosophical manuscripts of 1844, a lecture by Amartya Sen, an extract from Fred Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth, and extracts from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Each of them was to prepare and lead discussions of one or two of these readings. They supplied material to help the younger students manage the readings, some of which are very difficult.

About twenty students and graduates signed up, and most of them attended through the entire programme. When we discussed the easier readings, many people became involved; when we worked on the harder ones, a few talked while most listened. The quality of discussion was generally excellent. I was happy to see, among other bits, an animated but polite discussion between the Marxist of the group and its Nozickian. I felt frustrated at hearing these discussions among the talking postage stamps on my Zoom display and wished that some students did not need to turn off their video because they had narrow bandwidth at home, but I was pleased that the talks went as well as they did.

In the past I’d bought cupcakes from the best cupcake shop in town, Sift in Wan Chai, and served them with the philosophy on ‘cupcake day’, the last session of the colloquium. This year that was, of course, impossible. But the education department decided just yesterday to reopen the schools again, and the young leaders thought it would be nice to have a reunion of the group with cupcakes later in the month. Since cupcakes are an unconditional good, serving them without philosophy will offer a nice belated end to this summer.


Here to Stay, Gone Tomorrow

In my last posting I anticipated the return of my school to live classes. The month or so since then has entirely gratified my expectations. Juniors taking theory of knowledge have just begun work on ethical and moral knowledge. One lesson earlier this week may speak for the rest. It began with a Socratic discussion about the sources and qualities of moral knowledge. It was a good way to start clearing away intellectual underbrush and glib thinking. We’ll continue the discussion in segments, but the first segment laid some interesting and important issues on the table, which the students were keen to discuss. 

(One of the provisions for the reopening of school was that students’ desks must be a meter apart and face forward in rank-and-file order. Arrangement into small discussion groups and Socratic circles is forbidden. Students kept this generally in mind, but at a couple of points we might have had a cross between a permitted and an impermissible arrangement: students kept their places but faced each other in small groups. There was no crowding, so I took them as generally complying with the rules.)

The ensuing discussions were exciting and fruitful. I moved around the classroom making comments and asking questions. As I spoke with one group, its neighbors could continue in their own discussions or turn and listen to me or other groups. I considered it a highly successful lesson—one that would have been mostly unfeasible online.

In the last posting I also discussed threats to classroom instruction by commercial interests connected with the sale of teaching technology, noting that the drumbeat had started for more online lessons in the wake of the corona virus. Unfortunately, the turn towards flickering blue stuff is now also being supported by people within the Ed Biz who have no visible connection to commercial interests. Such was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by one Flower Darby entitled ‘Sorry Not Sorry: Online Teaching Is Here to Stay’.

We need to examine such claims in light of the fable about the camel at the entrance to the nomad’s tent. The camel takes over the tent by inches. The moral warns us about the danger of not stopping pernicious incursions on our professional autonomy and lives. The same warning might be given about unwanted educational incursions on our classrooms. By contrast, Ms. Flower Darby is saying, in effect, that the camel is here to stay; but she is wrong. Trends are nothing but collections of individual decisions, and by changing our thinking and deciding, we can keep the tent our own.

Ah, but it is not about us, intones Ms Darby, it is about the students. I find this argument stupidly automatic and deeply offensive. There may be some serious and subtle discussion about what kind of teaching helps students best, and how to deal with educational emergencies, but it does no good to indulge in simplistic moral blackmail. Teachers are for students too.

The last part of the discussion in this article has to do with the desirability of working with a school’s Learning Management System, an “underdeployed tool with significant potential for fostering dynamic teaching and learning interactions.” With that kind of endorsement, no wonder it is underdeployed. I suspect another reason for running shy of a LMS is that it ends up treating education like a canned good.

Whatever purpose online education may have served in the corona virus emergency, we must not conflate emergencies and standard operations. That kind of distinction may be hard to keep in mind while the emergency is in progress, but Hong Kong’s experience should offer some hope for real teaching in the better times that can follow.


Back to School

My school will open its doors to students this week for the first time in four months, and I am delighted. The students’ feelings about returning are possibly more ambivalent, but I think that, on the whole, they are also happy. Now is a good time to reflect on what the closure of schools has taught us—or of what it has reminded us, for some of these insights are so old they’re new.

For thousands of years, people with insight have known that we are a species that is meant to live and function in groups. Aristotle’s statement usually translated as “Man is a political animal” actually has the connotation that human beings form groups for governing themselves. He went so far as to say that someone who lives outside human society “must be a beast or a god, for he is no man.” Our language itself seems to support this notion: The word “egregious,” meaning literally outside the group, describes something conspicuously bad or flagrant.

“Egregious” also has an archaic meaning of “remarkable for good quality,” showing that not just extraverts have shaped the language. During the first two or three centuries of the Christian era, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, like St Anthony and St Melania, had a strong vocation to solitude. It turns out that they have something to tell us about the problems of isolation. The eremitic life, that is, the life of a hermit or anchoress, has its hazards. Dullness, torpor, depression, feckless lassitude: all these afflictions come to someone practicing self-isolation. Does that list sound familiar? The Desert Fathers and Mothers ascribed these afflictions to the agency of a devil called the Noonday Demon. To maintain their goodness against his onslaught required all the wisdom, discernment and strength they could muster, and was beyond the powers of many.

The best artistic representation of spiritual troubles during isolation is, I think, Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Temptations of St Anthony. The saint self-isolated in his thirties and lived another sixty or seventy years. At one time he reports having been besieged by devils, and Bosch gives us the scene around his cell as a surreal pandemonium.

If isolation is difficult for a discerning devotee who knew what he was in for and chose the solitary life anyway, how much more difficult must it be for a young person with little prior reflection or assistance? It is true, of course, that today’s students are not as isolated as yesterday’s hermits; but Skype and Zoom, though useful in a limited way, are not reality, which we should know in the deep places of our being. Cyber-hermits have trouble with this reality, and some of them are caught up in dark places—not their bedrooms, darkened except for the blue flicker of their screens, but mentally or spiritually dark places.

A positive reason for students to return to a real school is the opportunity presented to them when they immerse themselves in a community. It is an opportunity to see and learn about human associations and to find in those associations things worth knowing about. I mean not just subjects but norms, ways of thinking and the other complexities of human nature that we call a culture. Schools can reflect a wider culture and have some elements of a culture of their own. The wider culture may expect us to read, write, count, think and speak effectively; a particular school’s culture may be alive to particular interests. My own school’s culture includes an interest in and respect for music, for example. Smaller groups within the school may have specialized interests. The magazine of which I am the teacher-in-charge allows its staff to write and publish articles, poems, and art under the direction of editors and layout staff. If the magazines are published and sold without much detailed direction from me, it is because the student culture makes this kind of work possible.

I don’t mean to say that a school is full of students smiling and working happily together like the Cossacks of the Kuban on their collective farm. Some students’ favorite class is recess, and their favorite classroom is the tuck shop. Some students hear a different drummer, and a good school or university culture will let them step to the music they hear. Schools with good cultures accept variety in their teachers and students while at the same time leading them towards some broadly conceived common goal. They work live and in real time with real groups of real people, as in real life.

The reason many teachers have not liked online education during the corona virus pandemic is that at some level they recognize how less satisfactory than reality it is. On some level most students have come to the same conclusion, and for the same reason. I am afraid their—our—opposition will not be credited even though we were the ones who had the experience. We are already hearing the drumbeat in favour. 

One executive of a Silicon Valley company invites us to consider the waste of “all those buildings” dedicated to education alone. (He says this from the executive offices of his building dedicated to commerce alone before leaving for a resort full of buildings dedicated to leisure alone, or to a concert at a building dedicated to the arts alone.) A lot of students are grateful for “those buildings.” Most students of the Leshata Secondary School in a shantytown near Johannesburg, who lived in shacks when I went there, passed the national school-leaving test. One reason was that the school remained open as a place to study in the evening, which they would have had trouble doing in their shacks. Less dire examples can be found of the benefit a school building can bring to a poor neighborhood. For the better off, the need for such places also remains. Where will they learn laboratory sciences except at a school with labs? If they watch Mr Wizard or Professor Wonderful do an experiment on TV, they gain some knowledge, but what about the skill they gain doing an experiment themselves? What about the understanding they derive from their own endeavors, including the translation of their own work into their own writing?

Another tech CEO thoughtfully points out that the pandemic has taught us how vulnerable we are in real schools compared to online: “Humans are bio-hazards,” she says, but “machines are not.” There is an answer to this breathtaking idea. You can find it in Hong Kong, whose human citizens, taking the right hygienic precautions together, are not biohazards.

The enthusiasts of ‘creative disruption’ have their reason to get rid of “those buildings.” It is that educational routines everywhere and without exception are stale and need ruining, like the village in Vietnam that was saved by being destroyed. Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge begins with the drunken mayor betting his wife in a game of chance. He loses her. The creative disruptionists think like the Mayor, though they are not even drunk, and approve of using people in bets—in this case, other people’s children.

Finally, we have the problem of lousy schools. I’ve written about the high school whose salutatorian received an SAT score in the 500s, and the high school whose valedictorian could not compute fractions on his summer job. Whatever problems lie behind such results will not be solved by lots of pretty lights, bouncing balls and unsociable distancing. 

To someone with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The tech people need to leave their hammers at the forum door.


What’ll It Be?

Next week my grade 11 students will face a deadline to do for the first time something called a “ToK Presentation” and to produce something called a “Presentation Planning Document.” Much can be said about these two productions, but for now I want to focus on their difficulty. Success requires that students simultaneously balance and handle some rather complex intellectual demands of a kind they have not had to handle before.

Of the three basic kinds of learning—knowledge, skill and understanding—this work demands more than the usual amount of new and detailed understanding from students who hope to do well. As these postings have frequently pointed out[1], understanding is more likely to come from Socratic questioning, which works on each individual student’s needs and helps him find the understanding needed to meet them. The original and greatest Socratic questioner usually did his teaching in small groups or with individuals. Plato’s dialogue the Symposium takes place at a dinner-and-drinking party, the original meaning of the Greek word. The guests are few, the conduct is temperate, the wine is cut with water, and each claim made by one of the guests receives Socrates’ undivided attention for as long as needed. The Crito takes place in Socrates’ prison cell as the time approaches for him to take the poisoned chalice that will kill him. At the end of each piece the participants understand something they had not understood before.

It is possible for understanding to come to a listener, but it is less likely than to a participant. We may be happy to hear what others say, and we may get something from it, but we will be surer of understanding if we have our own chance to ask and be questioned. In these circumstances a teacher must “read” the group or his collocutor, moving things along or slowing them down at need, so that everyone, listener or speaker, may achieve an understanding.

It should be unnecessary to say that for teaching purposes, the best conditions for such a colloquy exist in a live classroom with a small number of students paying close attention to each other and to the teacher. Physical proximity does wonders for attention, and distance diminishes it. When students are arranged in a circle, everyone is in the front row and on the spot. When students are arranged in a display on a Zoom screen, everyone is in the back row and at ease. Why, they may even be looking at other material than their assigned reading! When work in a live classroom divides into small groups, the teacher can divide attention between the group he’s talking to and the other groups, moving from one to another at need. When the students are arranged in Zoom “breakout rooms”, the teacher completely loses touch with other groups than the one whose “room” he has entered, and “movement” becomes arbitrary. Obviously, the other groups lose touch with him, too, and that can have its consequences, as one of my “rooms” found out two weeks ago to the utter embarrassment of one of its members.

It is therefore troubling and exasperating to hear people argue in favor of online lessons, not as a necessary stopgap in time of pandemic to be abandoned as soon as possible, but as a positive alternative to live lessons. Such was the position taken by Jeannie Suk [sic] Gersen, a professor at the Harvard Law School who also writes for The New Yorker. She asserts that Zoom makes lessons “more personalized, not less”. Now, it turns out that the class she teaches has one hundred and ten students in it. I mention that number because Gersen says she conducts her class using the “Socratic method”. I don’t recall any Platonic dialogue with one hundred and ten participants, and that is no accident: the Socratic method demands fewer participants than one hundred and ten. Gerson’s Socratic questioning involves not a close examination of the state of an individual’s understanding, but asking dozens of her students questions during single lessons in order to have a “dialogue” with them. What kind of “dialogue” is possible with dozens of individuals in a two-hour lesson? What kind of examination? Think of Crito. Think of Thrasymachus. Think of Alcibiades. It is hard to avoid concluding that the governing genius of this dinner party is not Socrates but Howard Johnson.

Masha Gessen is less sanguine. Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting professor at Amherst College, thinks there is big trouble with online lessons, though in the linked article she voices many other concerns in addition. She notes that her students prefer live lessons and gives reasons why that preference is sound. Of course, she is at Amherst, the home of close colloquy, the opposite in technique and intention from remote and massive lessons. It is the place where Robert Frost could seek signs of students’ understanding so subtle that in a less intimate setting he might have missed them altogether. 

And it is a place like my own, at least in ideal conditions. One of the ways I’ve tried to imitate the closeness of colloquy typical in Socratic teaching is by establishing “office hours” during which students may Skype me either singly or in small groups for a discussion of matters that concern them. My impression is that it works better than barging into “breakout rooms,” though it is rather less satisfactory than live teaching. I hope that it will work as well as it can and that when conditions become normal again, we will return to the kind of teaching that we know works.

For we do know what works. 

[1] E.g., here


Tea for Three with Æsop

One reason Hong Kong has not been ravaged by the novel corona virus should be evident to anyone who casts back in memory to the days when school children were taught how to draw a moral from a fable of Æsop’s (Ooh! A ligature!) or to interpret an old saw. Think, for example, of the saw that “a stitch in time saves nine.” Just as someone darning socks has an easier job of it by darning when the hole is small, so the people of a city, by jointly and severally following a few simple directions for prophylactic hygiene, do not have to suffer the massive lockdowns that result when a virus gets out of hand.

I recently went for afternoon tea at the old Peninsula Hotel with a former colleague. (I teach at a city school; she, at an “international” school.) A member of the hotel’s staff took our temperatures when we entered. Tea tables were spaced two meters apart. All the staff were masked, as were we till we reached our table. No group was larger than four. Even the string band that played tangos and fifties movie tunes from a balcony wore masks.

After friendly catching-up, our talk moved to the closure of Hong Kong’s schools. Chief among the consequences has been a shift from live teaching to online. Our circumstances of teaching are different, our students are different, and our administrative structures are different; but we found that our concerns were the same. They are not always or necessarily what our schools’ managers focus on, but they are important.

First: As these postings have often argued[1], of the three kinds of learning achieved in school, only one can be treated massively or mechanically. This also happens to be the kind of learning that students tend to forget most easily and quickly. The other two[2] must be achieved under the tutelage of a live human teacher.

This means that, second, online learning is unfitted to do many of the basic jobs of education. My former colleague and I commiserated the unsatisfactory way online teachers must ignore their students’ need for improved skill and understanding. Online courses that offer “breakout rooms” and “office hours” cannot eliminate this deficit. A few students troubled by having to ask questions in front of a live class will open up in a chat thread, but they are exceptions that only slightly prove the rule.

We must therefore conclude that, third, online learning is only an emergency expedient, not the next brave new world of education. Even The New York Times, long a gull for novel stupidity in teaching[3], has recognized this, calling for online learning to return to a supporting role after the emergency recedes.

Fourth, educational “managers” must keep their heads rather than go off half-cocked. Unfortunately, many of them are losing their heads in the educational game of “Ready, Fire, Aim.” This game has dangerous consequences. The danger is increased by the flatulent and idiotic discourse “educators” often favor[4]. My former colleague instances an “exploratory” session held by her school’s “management” about online learning. One of the ground rules was that “negative” ideas were not permitted. It was as if the “managers” had learned from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

And so we come back to Æsop, who warns us against the volcano that labors, only to bring forth a mouse. It helps to remember the long term. In doing so, we can be reassured that, like the tortoise, we’ll win the race by being deliberate and steady. Of the sixteen to twenty years that many of our students will require for their education, the current difficulties have taken up about 1% of the time, a thing that educationist hares are likely to forget. Maybe they need to take some time off for a nice cup of tea.

[1] For example, here and here

[2] All three are identified here

[3] As here

[4] I am referring to Western education, not Chinese. Chinese educators favor zheng ming over bullshit, and their paramount educator, who has been dead for 2,500 years, has been giving lessons for most of that time. 


Here, Kitty

In my last posting I suggested that some menaces, like Macavity, work invisibly and are ‘not there’ when attempts are made to detect and stop them. It may seem flippant to name a class of potential disasters after a fictitious cat, but in the musical version of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Macavity is a menace.

The response to the novel corona virus is revealing another menace that dodges attention. It is the danger that people will start to believe, wrongly, that online education is as good as the live and personal kind. Besuited personages are already coming out of the woodwork of their tendentious and commercially funded ‘Institutes’ to offer this argument and to welcome a turn of educational events that in the normal course of things would never have begun.

Actually, online education is a second-rate spare tire that can be used to get the car to the garage in an emergency, but then must be replaced. A whole generation of teachers and students now know how true this claim is. Ask them if they’d rather be at school or in front of their screens, and there is only one answer they will give unless they were giving or getting a spare-tire education in the first place. I include college students and their professors, one of whom writes to say that remote lessons are an unsatisfactory substitute for the close engagement he and his students used to have. Because he teaches at a small college with an admirable student/teacher ratio, he is able to mitigate partially the effects of remoteness by having daily written encounters between himself and them. Consider by contrast the teacher of large or immense classes, his Zoom screen a flickering honeycomb of indistinguishable little faces or, as Orwell might have put it, an undifferentiated blue stuff. Who could be in favor of it unless the alternative was a pandemic?

We should never underestimate the ability of people to be panicked or provoked by educational ‘movements’ or to run before them, particularly if they really don’t know how education works. They can sometimes work rapid havoc, as in the case of the University of Virginia’s dismissal of its president Teresa Sullivan. Its governing body got the scent of the MOOC menace (remember MOOCs?) and off they ran. Sometimes the havoc is persistent, as in the twenty-year upheaval in education caused by “value”-“added” “metrics” (remember VAMs?), whose partisans are still clattering across empty prairies like the bucks chased by the “firecat” across Oklahoma in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Earthy Anecdote.”

Another cat! But the firecat, unlike Macavity, is a menace because of its power to stampede dumb animals.



Tomorrow marks an entire month of closed schools in Hong Kong as a result of the outbreak of the “novel coronavirus”, as I will call it: “Covid 19” looks and sounds too much like something spray-painted on a wall at night. The Vertical City has become the Masked City; the Fragrant Harbour has become the Hygienic Harbour. We are so clean that there has been no significant outbreak of winter flu, and so fastidious that we have abandoned the handshake for the traditional Chinese fist-clasp and bow. 

I say ‘we’: I wear a mask though I am a foreigner, but most foreigners are conspicuous by not masking. I’ll explore the reason for this difference of response below, but my students have noticed it. One of them told me that the foreigners where he lives are unmasked, and he wondered whether they are fools or he is a coward. A quick look at where the disease is spreading and where it is being contained should answer that: they are fools, which is what I told him.

But a longer look is more helpful, a former student argued. He pointed out that while there is little or no evidence that masks protect their wearers from others’ nasty micro-aerosols, there is significant evidence that they protect others from the wearers’ own coughs and sneezes with their comparatively large drops of chest gunk. We should therefore wear them for their social benefit rather than their personal benefit. Non-maskers are not fools; they are free riders. ‘Well-reasoned’, as the Ravenclaw knocker would say. He (the former student, not the Ravenclaw knocker) adds that the many other hygienic measures people are taking, such as washing hands frequently and working from home, probably have a great combined effect.

I would add to his argument my my own that masking, the most continuously visible of the protective measures, has come to symbolize public hygiene and should be seen as a sign of accepting a public good and not just a magical talisman.

Two years ago Hong Kong was struck head-on by the ‘super typhoon’ Mangkhut. Storms that bring seemingly Biblical flooding are a fact of life in this part of the world, and Hong Kong’s record rainfall in one day, set in the 1920s, is over 500 millimeters, or just about twenty inches. The city has strict regulations about construction, the management of slopes (of which the mountainous city has many, including the hill on which our school is situated), and infrastructure (entrances to the Underground in low-lying areas are all protected by coffer-like baffles to keep out flood waters). Though many things were blown about, the city as a whole was not badly hurt.

Among the blown things were trees and shrubs at my school. The school decided that on our first day back, we would don work clothes, put on gardening gloves, and clear away the windblown rubbish. This film, produced by students, shows the cleanup.

The kind of threat represented by this typhoon I’ll call a Mangkhut menace. Such a menace has a physical aspect that is apprehensible by the senses. It has an identifiable beginning and end. If it is not utterly crushing, like the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, people can decide whether to be resigned to what it has done or to do something about it as the school did. 

The novel coronavirus represents an entirely different kind of menace. It is invisible to the senses, and its coming and going are hard to detect. It is “not good TV”: no blood, no pain, no evident horror. Our visual sense of it is composed of images that do not seem to be connected to anything real, e. g., masked babies or Michelin men in space suits. Its term is unfixed and maybe unknown. There is nothing we can actively do about it; we can only try to stay out of its way. I would call this kind of threat a Macavity[1] menace or a Macbeth menace.

The problem with the feline antagonist is that he is a “mystery cat” who is both “the Napoleon of crime” and “not there.” We have a second-hand sense of his activity but cannot actually confront him. A Macavity menace baffles the senses, and without special training in detection, it eludes our grasp. If it seems too flippant to name a serious menace after a cat, then call it a Macbeth menace. Is the dagger that marshals him to the murder of Duncan real, or is it a ‘dagger of the mind, a false impression / Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain”? Either way, for Duncan and Scotland it was a disaster. We cannot say while it is underway whether, as in Macbeth, a Macduff or a Malcolm will see us through or, as in “Macavity,” we will remain as helpless as Scotland Yard.

It is possible that such a menace, like Macavity, does not really exist at all. History is littered with the disjecta membra of fake menaces and their hysteria. The ‘Popish Plot’ of the 1670s is a good example. By the time its originator was convicted of perjury, nearly two dozen people had been hanged, some of them then drawn and quartered. Samuel Pepys was among its innocent victims, though he was saved by the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act from having his bowels roasted before his living eyes. 

It is thus that people remain unmasked in Hong Kong. They tend to take infectious diseases as a distant or unreal menace. One of the features of a Macavity menace is that different people may weigh its threat differently. That should not, however, leave us thinking that all such evaluations are equally valid.

William James called the readiness to fall uncritically for every hope or menace, real or imagined, mental vertigo. It is also a kind of mental vertigo to adopt a thoughtlessly skeptical pose. The cure for mental vertigo, James said, is education. He meant, of course, the kind of education that doesn’t forget the wisdom we lose in knowledge, or the knowledge we lose in information[2] and alternative facts[3]. It therefore seems vital that education—good education—should continue whenever the menaces of the moment permit.

And so we are offering online lessons. Online education is greatly inferior to the live kind, except in the classroom of Ferris Bueller’s history teacher and those like him[4]. It is a kind of stopgap that can be tolerated in an emergency, like a crummy spare tire that gets us to the garage. When the emergency ends, though, back to the trunk it must go.

[1] After the cat in the T S Eliot poem that bears his name

[2] As Eliot put it

[3] As Conway put it

[4] As I put it in my last posting, Gone and Back Again


Gone and Back Again

Since I write only about teaching & learning in this blog, I mention Hong Kong’s current political situation only because of one consequence it had: for a week last month schools were closed. What is more, my own school’s gates, which had been open day and night continuously since the expulsion of the Japanese army from the grounds at the end of World War II, were closed on weekend nights.

The sociologist James S Coleman found that the single most important correlate of successful schools among those he studied was that they served as functional communities. It should be evident why this is so. As communities, schools provide more than just a place to learn the lessons of the curriculum; they act as a matrix of humanity within which their students can grow and develop in ways no curriculum can prescribe.[1] What the matrix can be is more evident when for a period of time it goes missing. That is what happened at the school.

But before discussing that, I want to treat another consequence of the school’s closure. I had to arrange for the 12th-graders to deliver their “ToK Presentations” using Skype. The work got done, but how minimally satisfactory it was! Instead of live students presenting to a live audience, they appeared, disembodied, on their Skype screens distorted and distended by their computers’ low-grade cameras—extraterrestrial foreheads, chipmunk cheeks, schnozzles, pop-eyes—into quasi-cubist talking heads. Lord knows what I looked like to them, but one shoulders on. The electricity that goes with presenting before a live audience was missing, as was the more natural by-play one usually finds in a classroom. Montag, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, finally escapes from his media-enclosed world and becomes suddenly and almost ecstatically aware of the little things that surround him: smells, sounds, feelings, sights on the periphery of conscious awareness that fill the non-mediated world. I felt during my week of mediated contact with my students as if I had made a reverse journey to the one Montag took.

I was therefore delighted when the school closure ended. One Saturday soon afterwards I met a graduate in one of the little gardens one finds on the school grounds, and we walked over to the building where I teach, and where he and other alumni, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, meet with students in ‘mock interviews’ to help prepare them for the genuine and live interviews to which the Ancient Universities have invited them this month as part of their admission process. (Some of my readers may think that these are private-school students, but the school where I teach is not a  private school.) After leaving the graduate to his interviews, I walked out the other side of the building to take a stroll through the repopulated grounds. Students appeared through the windows of the gym swimming and playing basketball. Across from them, alumni were meeting to play tennis on the outdoor courts. Down a little way among the buildings, some junior secondary (middle school) students played hockey on the multi-purpose courts. Up a few steps were the school’s Boy Scouts, gathered  on a lawn to prepare  meals for themselves on gas camp stoves (this is the Vertical City). Onward, on the field, primary-school students were playing soccer. On the other side of the field stood a forlorn erection called a ‘jumbo-tron’ by some. As far as I can tell, the thing has not been used since it was installed.

Why should it have been? Why go to a ball game and then watch television? For that matter, why go to school and watch television? Give me live students and teachers, real bricks and mortar, gardens, courts, and the matrix of humanity.

[1] When I was a boy reading Herbert Zim’s Golden Nature Guide to Rocks and Minerals, I was intrigued by pictures of gems in matrix, that is, a surrounding or pervading element within which something takes form and develops. The origin of the word is the Latin for “mother”. I’d like to rescue this meaning from the oblivion that was a result of the matrix in the movie, a kind of totalitarian fakery.


Fishhouses and Water

Sometimes graduates come back and tell me about some interesting book they have found or been assigned; sometimes we look at something they haven’t encountered before. That happened last weekend, when a graduate came by and we discussed Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”

The fishhouses of the title are located on the austere coast of New England or the Maritime Provinces of Canada, where Bishop spent much of her girlhood. They “have steeply peaked roofs / and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up / to storerooms in the gables / for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on. / All is silver.”  The speaker of the poem—let us call her Bishop—finds that “the heavy surface of the sea, / swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, / is opaque, but the silver of the benches, / the lobster pots, and masts, scattered / among the wild jagged rocks, / is of an apparent translucence.”

“Up on the little slope behind the houses, / set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass, / is an ancient wooden capstan, / cracked, with two long bleached handles / and some melancholy stains, like dried blood, / where the ironwork has rusted.” There she and an old man, a “friend of [her] grandfather,” smoke Lucky Strikes and “talk about the decline in the population / and of codfish and herring / while he waits for a herring boat to come in.” I don’t suppose there is too much else to talk about: “He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away.” Of the fish Bishop says, “The air smells so strong of codfish / it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.”

Water, “cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / element bearable to no mortal” except “to fish and to seals….” Bishop has “seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, / slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, / icily free above the stones, / above the stones and then the world. / If you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately, / your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn / as if the water were a transmutation of fire….” “If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, / then briny, then surely burn your tongue.”

From the water comes the old man’s living through codfish and herring, and thus the fishhouses. Bishop’s living also came from this water since she had a private income settled on her by her father’s New England family. These waters are “bearable to no mortal,” and both lives are hard. (After all, Bishop also wrote “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “One Art.”) But in this poem she ends by saying the water “is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.”

The arresting simile brings us by an unexpected means to an understanding of knowledge. Of course the water in this poem is a harsh water; a Minnesotan dropping a hook for walleye in a lake on a placid summer’s day lives on another water, another knowledge. But this poem is not about the Minnesotan (although another poem might have been). Poetry, like other arts, works with a particularizing energy, as the teacher and, increasingly, his former student understand.

One of these arts is the art of teaching (‘ars docendi’ in Latin). It, too, works with a particularizing energy–the energy old Professor Barzun called ‘perpetual discretion’. It may have to deal with the light-filled waters of Minnesota as easily as with waters “drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.” Knowledge, like humanity, is various; and teaching by human beings is needed to help students realise that.


Tennessee Waltz

Teachers of a certain age will remember the 1960s’ singing comedians the Smothers Brothers and their zany songs. One of the zaniest was ‘The Last Great Waltz’, whose romantic protagonist, fond of the waltz, finds happiness in the arms of a three-legged woman who shares his passion.

In a contemporary story harder to credit than that song, the schools of Tennessee are trying to win the heart, or at least the dollars, of the US Department of Education with a ‘reform’ plan of monumental goofiness. It started with the Department of Education’s astonishing demand that RAT[1]programs have as an “absolute priority” the intention to “measure” students’ “knowledge and skills” across a set of standards including some “against which student achievement has been traditionally difficult to measure.” Not asking whether the difficulty was due to an epistemological problem, Tennessee spent seven years wooing DoE with a plan which is now “in place”.

What a plan! What a place! Unlike the ballroom in the song, which had only one three-legged dancer in the corner, Tennessee’s educational dance-floor is crowded with unfortunate educators who have been fitted by mandate with third legs. It is hard to know who is stumbling worse: the teachers or the principals. Teachers must compose lesson plans to such a demanding rubric that plans taking four or more hours to produce for a single lesson may be rejected. Principals must conduct five observations per year of every teacher, each with a conference before and after. During the observations they must rate the teacher on over 100 criteria—one every thirty seconds—and justify those ratings. ‘Value-added’ tests, given twice a year, assess skills and knowledge only in English and math. Teachers in other subjects are rated by how their school’s students do on the English and math tests. (I wonder what they study in geography class—assuming there is one.) No wonder they can’t walk, much less dance.

Tennessee’s band leader, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, insists that the dance go on whether or not everyone on the floor can dance with three legs. He blames on teachers’ laziness and fear of the unknown their reluctance to accept the state’s pedagogical prostheses. Resistance or grumbling can even be heard among principals, not normally a rebellious group, though some of them welcome the program because it has brought principals back into the classroom, which is like welcoming a third leg because it leads to more exercise.

Given the choice of the Smothers Brothers’ “Last Great Waltz” or the Three-legged Tennessee Waltz, I’ll take the Smothers Brothers. One reason is that the tune is catchier. Another is that is less painful to hear. The third is, as Miss Prism said, that “the  good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

[1]RAce to the Top