Sterile Manure and the Brain Lady

The startling oxymoron “sterile manure,” coined by Barzun to describe intellectual “superstitions of the day,” came to mind as I recently read an article about research on the brain. The article discussed the educationist vogue of localizing trait-bundles of intellect and character in one or the other of the “hemispheres” of the brain. Its writer observes that neurology has thoroughly debunked the left-brain-right-brain opposition. This is true even though some brain functions have been shown to be more or less localized in particular parts of the brain.

The superseded “knowledge” is manure in that, as with all manure, its users rush to spread it, which it was with careless thoroughness in the 1990s. What teacher of that decade doesn’t remember the hours at conferences spent with The Brain Lady[1] or her equivalent? And what teacher of that decade remembers what The Brain Lady said? The problem with that manure of intellect is that it was sterile because nothing of lasting value came of it.

Dare I say it? Peer reviewing is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. As with schools, so with researchers: some peerages are more equal than others. Review by peers with low standards contributes to the “plausible wrongness,” as Barzun put it, of much of the research that establishes or confirms the superstitions of the day, such as—what shall we call it?—hemisphericism. I mean not just its unprofitable reductionism of intellect as a duality, but also the bad thinking that follows in its wake: the absolutely invidious preference expressed by many teachers for one “hemisphere” over the other—usually the right brain, the “good” hemisphere. Can my younger readers believe that such thinking was common twenty years ago? Probably: such “research”-based faddism is still far from uncommon.

And there is a chance, sometimes a good chance, that the manure, in addition to being sterile, will be poisonous. I refer among other things to young persons inculcated in shortcoming who justify their intellectual vices by citing reductionist “research” in their own favor, e.g., “I couldn’t possibly do math homework because I am right brain.” (Please note: I am not arguing that intellectual or developmental differences do not exist among students or that teachers should not take note of some of them. I am arguing that false categories can lead to plausibly wrong stereotyping, including self-stereotyping.)

Now, the Brain Lady was an earnest, sincere, charismatic presenter. If, in addition to her educationist credentials she, as well as people like her, had also received the formative training that a good liberal arts education (particularly history) imparts, she might have been able to use her considerable gifts to greater and more beneficial effect. We, in turn, might be spared the intellectual false starts and wrong turns so sadly characteristic of the field of education.

[1] I should say a Brain Lady, for the BL we see at the top of a Google search this morning is not my Brain Lady.



As we move towards this spring’s IB exams, my English students this week finished the last poems that the Higher and Standard Levels would study together. The remainder of the course, extending to the beginning of the pre-exam reading period, will be for HL only. Yesterday’s lesson was therefore the last we had as an entire class. At its end the class applauded.

The hand was of course touching, but more to the point of these postings, it is indicative: I think they were applauding themselves as much as or more than me. It indicates a sense that a course is a kind of production with a beginning, middle and end; that they were a part of the production; and that they had reached The End. It indicates that the teacher is something more than a delivery boy (we may appreciate soft water, but we don’t applaud the Culligan Man) and that those applauding are more than passive recipients. It indicates that the students are a group and not just a collection of terminals.

Of course exam results will tell a tale as well; but if as I believe they will, these students’ results turn out to be good, the course will have succeeded while at least partly avoiding Barzun’s four constituents of hateful work. By immersing themselves in literature and responding to it they will have avoided needless abstractness. By doing much of the interpreting, understanding, and improvement themselves, they will have avoided an abject over-dependence on the teacher. By handling successively new material in due course, they avoided repetition[1]. By proceeding through an articulated and structured course culminating in a series of summary assessments, they avoided incompleteness. These results seem worth a hand.

[1] Though not my repeated injunctions to wipe out comma splices, etc.



One regular occurrence of my boyhood weekends used to be the appearance outdoors of my early-rising father, a passionate gardener, as soon as direct sunlight hit the yard. If I had chanced to “sleep in” (till eight), he would tend the part of the garden outside my bedroom window, loudly singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” I don’t think he really intended to propagandize the joys of getting up early, but whether by habituation or genetics, I ended up an early riser too, except in New York City, where one point of pride in college seniors is that none of their classes begin before eleven.  A late-rising former colleague of mine was horrified to hear when I usually got up when not in New York: she referred to four and five as the f-hours and six and seven as the s-hours.

Most teenagers are her soulmates. This identification was particularly strong among my Egyptian students when I taught in Alexandria. Egyptians start their dinner between ten and midnight, and one of my favorite restaurants there, King of Quails, didn’t even open till ten or so. During Ramadan most Egyptians stay up well into the night, many of them only going to sleep after the public waker-up cries the approach of the pre-dawn prayer call, a Muslim’s last chance for food or drink till sundown. To Egyptian teenagers, he is not a waker-up but a settler-down.

One day these same night-owls were in my English class as we read in Walden Henry David Thoreau’s paean to rising early. They were also urbanites and strongly convinced that the country is a dusty sort of place where birds fly around uncooked and spitting cobras lie in wait to teach urbanites the foolishness of venturing outside the city limits. The idea that someone could choose to leave the city and go to the country seemed by itself deeply unsound, but they lost all patience on hearing Thoreau praise the delights of dawn. They dismissed him as a lunatic.

I don’t think this horror among teenagers of early rising is a strictly Egyptian phenomenon. My current English students, generally a very good bunch, are always at their worst of the week when their lesson falls during first and second period, and so I always have to proceed more slowly then than at other times. When I taught at schools where each course met at the same hour every day, I could always tell the difference between my first-period class and the others. The one place where this phenomenon was generally less noticeable was the school that began at 9:00.

So I was predisposed to say Amen to an article discussing the growing movement to push back the opening hour at school; but the Amen is qualified. As I recently noted, American students suffer inordinate sleep deprivation and consequent dumbing-down of their lessons because they work their gadgets when they should be sleeping or preparing to sleep. Even the article about pushing back school opening hours posed its student-protagonist in bed using her mobile phone. If there is not a way to keep gadgets shut off at night, a later starting time for school could just end up leading to a later bedtime for gadget-wielding students.


I’ve Got Some Good News and Some Bad News


The good news is that the folks that bring you the SAT have decided to abandon the SAT I essay. That infamous exercise, proven ineffective at “measuring” anything but length, is being laid to rest, and I guess that no one will be sorry to see it go. Even better is that much more of the remaining SAT I will be based on the ability to read analytically and synthetically.  It will also take a page from the IB book by requiring the quoting of lines to justify multiple-choice answers.

Problematic is the decision to tie the test more directly to the Common Core. The bad news is that the Common Core, a twelve-year program, is being suddenly and completely implemented all at once instead of grade by grade over the twelve-year period a sensible introduction should take. Grade 11 students with no training in the Core might find themselves suddenly at sea in a new SAT based on a curriculum they have not studied before. It would be better to implement it in twelve years with this year’s first-graders after the other eleven years were reliably in place. So the other bad news is that the new, new, new, new SAT may confront Grade 12 students a few years hence with many of the difficulties of understanding said to bedevil the current test.

But the good news is that colleges and universities abandoning the SAT entirely report 1) an upswing in the quality of their new students, and 2) a stronger showing in the admissions office of poor and disadvantaged students who can’t afford the price of special tutoring in how to take the SAT. It also gets rid of the US News corollary of Campbell’s Law. That corollary states that Admission Offices admitting students with weak SATs on the promise of better things to come—a decision commonly made with students from disadvantaged backgrounds—will lower their US News ratings and thus exercise a corrupting pressure against their admission of these students. The bad news is that dropping the SAT is not happening fast enough[1].

Further good news is the College Board President’s plan to include questions derived from reading foundational documents in American history. The bad news is that many people, including those who should know better, do not want to take seriously the role of properly taught history in intellectual formation, resulting in students who haven’t had that formation and don’t really know history.

In connection with that lack we have some really bad news in the reappearance of Joel Klein in a second launch of Rupert Murdoch’s Educational Tablet, called Amplify. The first launch, a year ago, promised such academic challenges as a game in which Tom Sawyer battles the Brontë sisters. I assume that we are having a second launch because after the first one, people stayed away in droves from Paintball for Literacy, if that’s what it was.

For the second launch we have a new game in which middle-school students “get” to solve the problem of who murdered Edgar Allan Poe by examining the coroner’s report. Now, the cause of Poe’s death has been a persistent mystery for the past 175 years, and there was no coroner’s report because coroners didn’t typically make reports on deaths in the 1830s. What is more, the suggestion of foul play was first made only forty years after Poe died. Where is the history in this game? And if the object is only to cultivate a disembodied skill in deductive thinking and the process of elimination, why not just play Clue at home instead of buying Fun Software from Murdoch & Klein? The bad news is that students might come away from all this fun with a false sense of history, and their school district with an empty wallet.

[1] Did you know that “SAT” no longer actually stands for anything? It seems as if, in a different sense, these progressive colleges do!


Dead Ducks and Dead Poets


The days grow long, the mountains

Beautiful. The south wind blows

Over blossoming meadows.

Newly arrived swallows dart

Over the steaming marshes.

Ducks in pairs drowse on the warm sand.

Almost as famous a favorite son of Chengdu as the panda is the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712 – 770), praised by Kenneth Rexroth as “The greatest non-epic non-dramatic poet to survive in any language.” His “thatched cottage,” or rather a reconstruction of it, is, with the surrounding park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, though it is also popular among residents. For the benefit of foreign tourists a sign points the way to “Exhibition hall of poetic saint is famous through all eternities.”

On one occasion I was talking with a Chinese man, a lawyer, telling him how much I appreciated Chinese students’ ready familiarity with their country’s poetry. With a somewhat surprised look, he said, “Of course. Poetry is the heart of civilization.” It would be tempting, but wrong, for us to think that they just memorize poems without understanding them. While that may be true in some cases, it was emphatically not true one day in my Theory of Knowledge class.

That class of young Chengdudes (I don’t suppose that is the real demonym for inhabitants of Chengdu) was reading Rexroth’s translation, given above, of one of Du Fu’s most famous poems. My students knew the original. I asked them what the translation conveyed of the original. They fell on it like lions and tore it to shreds. They were most severe with it for losing much of the original’s allusive character, of which they tried to give examples, reserving their strongest contempt for the last line. The problem, they said, was that nothing of what the line and the rest of the poem imply about love and faithfulness remains. They were particularly hard on the ducks. After class one bright student-artist, now studying in the animation department at the University of Southern California, said that it was a nice poem but not a good translation of Du Fu[1]. Traduttore traditore[2].

But that saying (translator traitor) implies another kind of faithfulness. Though in a translator we accept some license to bring a poet’s original work to a language foreign to it, it is harder to dismiss errant reading in one’s own language. (Denis Dutton offers a partial explanation in “Why Intentionalism Won’t Go Away”.) We may allow that some poems, like Shakespeare’s funeral song in Cymbeline, change their meaning in time[3], and that these changes may result in good poetic readings; but not just any reading on any occasion will do. I remember one 9th-grader offering his opinion that Penelope Lively’s story “At the Pitt-Rivers[4]” was about fish, and I have had a posting about the smut of Emily Dickinson. Both these errant interpretations needed to be corrected, not by ukase but by discussion of how to read closely.

Unacceptability in readings includes, dare I say it, misreadings such as those one finds in Dead Poets’ Society. We are approaching the 25th anniversary of that movie—a movie I saw during my second year of teaching and never saw or wanted to see again.  I didn’t like it then because it seemed false to what teaching is really like, and I fear I wouldn’t like it now because it seems false to what poetry is really like. Never mind that no such critic as Dr. Pritchard, Mr. Keating’s scholarly antagonist, existed or could exist: Keating, as the article linked above notes, is “forever reading in the book of himself.” Whether Keating was a reader-response theorist before the fact or a narcissist, he seriously misreads Frost, Whitman, and Wordsworth, turning them into a “Song of Keating’s Self.”

In this claim we come some distance from the commendable wish of the translator that the Other might in some fashion cross the barrier of language, however imperfectly. We are now in a terrain of self-regard whose inhabitants say, “This interpretation is right because it is mine: there is no Other.” If all that matters in teaching poetry is ratifying what a fourteen-year-old says, simply because he has said it, why is a teacher even needed?

[1] While writing this posting I discovered that old Burton Watson, now 88, published a scholarly translation of Du Fu when he was 75. I just placed an order for it with Powell’s Books.

P.S. (Some time later): The book arrived and is fine, though Watson himself says that Du Fu is “the despair of translators” and recommends reading as many translations as possible of his poems.

[2] Though Kenneth Koch thought good poems that were flawed as translations still warranted study, too, e.g. Chapman’s Ovid and Pound’s Li Bai.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, pp. 121 – 122.

[4] Set in a natural history museum, not an ocean or an aquarium.