A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Alan Noble sees The Road as validating faith in the transcendent

It’s difficult to express how remarkable this novel is. Modern readers expect a hopeless ending, an ironic ending, an ambiguous ending, or at best an ending that praises the human will to persevere in the face of a godless and hostile world, but McCarthy very intentionally validates the faith of his protagonist, a faith that is absurd from a secular perspective (for a lengthy treatment of this absurdity, see here).

One of the points made by Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his great work, A Secular Age, is that while religion remains popular, our society no longer assumes as a basic fact that the supernatural or transcendent is a reality which can affect us. Whether it is miracles in the Bible or God’s preserving common grace today, most modern people find it difficult to conceive of the supernatural. Ours is a largely disenchanted world, one in which we look inward for our hope and significance and direction, rather than outward toward a transcendent reality. And yet here is Cormac McCarthy, perhaps the foremost living American novelist, telling a story that acknowledges the weightiness of the secular vision (in the voice of the mother) and then denies that vision by validating a faith in the transcendent.

Alan Noble, describing a book he thinks every Christian should consider reading

Active scholars are better teachers

Economists have discovered that teachers with high SAT scores or perfect college GPAs are generally no better for their students than teachers with less impressive credentials. But teachers with large vocabularies are better at their jobs because this trait is associated with being intelligent, well-read and curious.

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois, who once taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Tennessee, wrote that teachers must “be broad-minded, cultured men and women” able to “scatter civilization” among the next generation. The best teachers often love to travel, have fascinating hobbies or speak passionately about their favorite philosopher or poet.

From the Wall Street Journal

Thabiti Anyabwile appeals to evangelicals to call what happened to Michael Brown wrong

Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.

To be clear, evangelicalism’s quietude is not a case of not knowing what to say, how to say it, or being too distant from the problem. It’s not merely a case of leaders and people staring into an isolated incident and needing to collect data before they act. It’s not a case of not having media outlets and channels of its own. No. In incident after incident—proving a pattern, a systemic problem that requires eyes-and-mouth-wide-open denouncement—the church has turned her head, closed her eyes, and pressed tight her lips. The problem dominates local and national news. But evangelicalism changes the channel and carries on with regularly scheduled programming. Even if the revolution is televised, evangelicalism ain’t even willing to watch much less join.

And this call isn’t an attempt to guilt people who have nothing to do with some far off situation. No. This post is a recognition that evangelicalism is useless in its own back yard, with its own neighbors, while it changes its twitter avatars to identify with persecuted Christians half a world away. Evangelicalism should show outward solidarity with persecuted Christians. But it should also be the good Samaritan religion, a religion of justified people who demonstrate their justification in practical acts of compassion for its beaten, robbed and left-for-dead ethnic-other neighbors. Do we see that from national evangelical ministries and leaders? No, we don’t. Ours appears to be the religion of the Pharisee who asks, “Who then is my neighbor?” . . .

We pretend the world is large when the suffering of “others” is in view, but it’s small when it comes to the promotion of our ministries, the establishment of multi-sites, or the size of our conferences. We board planes, as I’m about to do Saturday, and cross oceans to preach in distant lands. Proximity isn’t a problem when it’s time to preach; why is it a problem when it’s time to protest?

from Thabiti Anyabwile’s post, ‘Is It “Goodbye Evangelicalism” or “We Evangelicals Join You in Your Suffering”?’

One consequence of schools’ obsessive focus on 21st century skills

We as schools are so obsessed with the knowledge economy and the Common Core that we can’t recognize or acknowledge what our students want to be and the real needs of our culture. I find this particularly revealing:

Across the country, skilled manual labor is in high demand. But it’s also in short supply. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, two-thirds of construction companies are struggling to find enough skilled workers, and 79 percent expect the shortage to continue. Meanwhile, craftsmen are retiring in droves. According to Manpower Group, 53 percent of skilled trade workers are 45 or older; 18 percent are between ages 55 and 64. There aren’t enough new workers to replace the waves of skilled laborers retiring from the workforce.

Given the types of jobs that are expected to grow in the coming years, the looming skills shortage is particularly acute. A 2010 report published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted the fastest-growing occupations through 2020. Of the top ten, four were skilled trades: (4) brickmasons, blockmasons, stonemasons, and tile and marble setters; (5) carpenters; (7) reinforcing iron and rebar workers; and (9) pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters.

- The Handcrafted Gospel

Is the school culture that led to Atlanta’s cheating scandal uncommon?

Righton Johnson, a lawyer with Balch & Bingham who sat in on interviews, told me that it became clear that most teachers thought they were committing a victimless crime. “They didn’t see the value in the test, so they didn’t see that they were devaluing the kids by cheating,” she said. Unlike recent cheating scandals at Harvard and at Stuyvesant High School, where privileged students were concerned with their own advancement, those who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.

. . .

John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators’ “infatuation with data,” their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. “The end goal of education isn’t to get students to answer the right number of questions,” he said. “The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.” In a 2011 paper in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, he warned that policymakers were using mathematics “to intimidate—to preëmpt debate about the goals of education and measures of success.”

From Rachel Aviv’s story in The New Yorker about the cheating scandal in Atlanta. Unfortunately, I’m sure teachers across America recognize many aspects of their own school districts and school culture in this article.

Reading The Road as a father, vulnerable to McCarthy’s probing tension

I remember enjoying Life Is Beautiful while in college: the quirky Roberto Benigni created a character I’d hope to be, and the peek into one story struck me as a poignant way to capture the tragedy of the broader genocide that was the Holcaust. At least, that’s how I remember thinking about it, and the positive memories are why I assigned my sophomores to watch it fifteen years later when I was out of class for some meetings.

They didn’t finish the film with the sub and I had to show the last 30 or 40 minutes or so when I returned. It did not go well for me. Within five minutes of hitting play my stomach was tied. When we finally reached the scene where little Joshua hides in the junction box and his father is taken away and shot, I left the room, afraid I’d throw up. What was different from my college experience? Becoming a father had made the movie unwatchable.

I wonder, as I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with my students, if they can comprehend this fatherly perspective, or are they as clueless to the gut-level connection as I was the first time I watched Life Is Beautiful? The first time I read The Road I withheld any positive acclaim until the end, muttering to McCarthy with every page, “Do not do this. If you do this, I will hate this book like no other.” I never had to utter to myself what “this” was any more than McCarthy’s narrator has to explain what is on the man’s mind: “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” (29). I knew with the first mention of “it” what McCarthy meant. The pit in my stomach, the one that drops into place the moment I read a sentence of The Road, told me what “it” was.

The pit, or whatever it is that leaves me on the edge of sickness and threatens to push me off it, arises particularly from the juxtaposition of the father’s knowing watchfulness and the boy’s sweet peacefulness, which we see immediately in the novel. For example, with the pistol out and ready, the man sees the same sweet sleeping idiosyncrasies any parent sees from their child: “He just sat watching the boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets” (5). The boy’s sleep prevents him from seeing what consumes his father: “He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day” (5). And when the boy wakes the two elements crash:

The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.

I’m right here.

I know. (5)

The tender boy sees his father and greets him, a moment in which any father would want to bask and respond in reciprocal tenderness–that is to say, it’s a moment where I would, so I assume any father would as well–but instead he answers by assuring his son that he is watching, that he is here, because that is what consumes him and how he must express his love. It is sad that it must be this way, but it works, for the boy’s response acknowledges his understanding and trust in his father. He knows his father is there, he doesn’t have to be told.

What a pang such tension brings me as a father. I know what it is to watch over my sleeping son, his face relaxed, his body vulnerable. Yet the joy of my looking at him arises from the contrast of his sleeping self with the buoyant energy that fills our home when he’s awake. Like the father in The Road, I see him as my charge, my “warrant,” but to me this is a responsibility within my grasp. It’s a duty of character development and moral guidance, not a task of raw survival and violent protection. In my gut I know no extremes exist to my willingness to protect him, but I need not imagine such circumstances, let alone plan for them or expect them.

This book is a long metal pole McCarthy has probed inside me, and with it he is pressing the nerve endings of my fatherly spirit. That nerve is central to what it means, to what it feels, to be a father, and even when aware of the novel’s ending, I find myself muttering, “Don’t press me too hard, McCarthy. If you rupture that nerve, I’ll never forgive you.”

 

Briefly connecting literature, depth, education, and Steve Jobs

Paul Elie, at The American Scholar, describing his first book proposal experience:

I went into his office and waited for a phone call to end. He stood. A smile, a cock of the head, a pat on the shoulder. He liked it, he said—liked it a lot. Then: “Go deeper. You need to go deeper.”

I asked him what he meant, and he explained, roundabout but in such a way as to draw clear lines between the literary text and all the other kinds of writing that washed up against the pilings of our office. What I’d written was too journalistic. It made too much of superficial connections. It was boosterish in style—it was trying to put the idea of a “school” of American Catholic writing over on us instead of trusting the material. And (again, all this was conveyed indirectly) it didn’t get to the bottom of what made these people a school, or what made them Catholic writers, or what made them Catholics at all, or why what they believed mattered to them or us.

Roger Straus liked it too—and Jonathan and FSG signed up the book. And day and night for a thousand days and nights I sought to go deeper, starting by moving my point of entry into the story back nearly half a century—to the moments where those four writers themselves turned, in their different ways, to literature and to religious belief in their own efforts to go deeper. And somewhere in the middle of those thousand days and nights, I concluded that the experience of depth—intellectual, emotional, spiritual depth—is the central literary experience. It is what makes literature literature, and what makes us read literature, and write it.

“Go deeper.” It’s not advice a writer can outgrow or set aside as unnecessary. Augustine asked, “Who understands his sins?” Likewise, what writer can truly say, “I’ve gone deep enough”?

I originally saw this quote on Wesley Hill’s tumblr, where Hill added this:

I’m reminded of the (one suspects apocryphal but wishes not) story about the Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs at Yale. Asked by a student upset over his grade on an essay how he could improve the next time around, Childs replied, “Become a deeper person.”

It strikes me that this “become deeper/go deeper” thrust is why we make students read literature in school. It’s a challenge to help students realize that their answer isn’t good enough, that they need to push themselves to see more in a text (and thus, in life). They’ll point out that their answer is right, and it’s true, it is correct. The problem is that too often it’s also shallow, obvious, and uninspiring.

I was reading Walter Jacobson’s article in The Smithsonian about Steve Jobs, and it strikes me that Jobs is a good example of how depth can work outside the world of English class. Depth doesn’t make you a good person (Jacobson says frankly Jobs was a bit of a jerk) but it does give you an understanding of people that can guide your pursuits. Jobs’s depth, gained most prominently, it appears, through his study of Buddhism, is what pushed him to understand design and its importance with computing technology–thus, the simplicity and beauty of Apple’s products.

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