A Teacher's Writes

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

Alan Jacobs’s reflection on election reactions

After a few days, or weeks, I hope self-reflection will kick in, and my friends on the left will get beyond simplistic denunciations — they hate women, they’re racists — and start to own some of their own responsibility, not just for Trump, but for a government that’s now entirely run by the GOP. They mocked people they didn’t have to mock; they supported policies that ran roughshod over people’s most deeply held beliefs; many of them treated everyone who disagreed with them with undisguised contempt. And they did all this because they felt that they stood for #Reason and #Data and #History — they were “on the right side of history” — they thought hashtags and cheap slogans were tools sufficient for the job of transforming America. Their smugness was titanic.

This morning my internet friend Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is a supremely decent person, remembers how troubled she was by George Bush’s election in 2004 — and, interestingly, shared that with her students, who I suppose all (all?) shared her politics — and reflects on how different this election feels: “In 2004, I felt that I might have a lot that I could teach. Today, I cannot help but feel like I have much, much more to learn.” If the majority of the people on the left take this attitude, then there will be a good chance for the renewal of their hopes, and for them to win over politically complicated people like me … should they want to.

Alan Jacobs

Shredding decency without paying a price

But this year Donald Trump has decimated the codes of basic decency without paying a price. With his constant, flagrant and unapologetic lying, he has shredded the standards of intellectual virtue — the normal respect for facts and truth that makes conversation possible. With his penchant for cruelty, bigotry, narcissism, selfishness and even his primitive primate dominance displays, he has shredded the accepted understandings of personal morality that prevent the strong from preying on the weak.

Most disturbing, all of this has been greeted with moral numbness. The truest thing Trump said all year is that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes. We learned this year that millions of Americans are incapable of being morally offended, or of putting virtue above partisanship.

David Brooks

The Coolest Cycling Poster

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I want this in my classroom. And on a t-shirt. I guess I’ll have to settle for the background on my computer desktop.

Miles believed in the Cubs

I believe in the Cubs. I love the people who hate the Cubs. It makes my team feel that much more special to me. I love having faith in my team and watching every game, the good and bad all the way through. I believe in the Cubs because it’s what my grandpa believed in.

from “I believe in the Cubs

In 2010 Miles Toledo, a student of mine, wrote this piece about the Cubs and his grandpa for sophomore English. It made me cry, and I kept it, wanting to publish it in our school newspaper, the Pine Needle. Miles moved the next year–I heard back to the Chicago area, but it was at least second hand information–so I never ran it. I thought in light of last night’s amazing ball game, the time had come to publish his work. So please, take a brief moment to read an essay that captures why last night was such an amazing night for baseball and families and American traditions.

Bill Bilichick shows innovation isn’t always an upgrade

While I am conscious that, on principle, seeing others suffer should not bring me joy, it is difficult at times not to find solace in the suffering of those who are notably privileged. If they’re having problems with that too, the thought runs, at least I know it’s a universal experience.

Such is my thinking today in learning that Bill Belichick has given up using a tablet on the sidelines of NFL football games. An Associated Press story explains that Belichick has found the devices “just too undependable,” and observes how “Belichick was caught on camera slamming down a sideline tablet following a Bills touchdown.”The slam is a beaut: he’s not going full ballistic, but he causes the most damage possible, letting the tablet land on its corner. If it didn’t break the manufacturer of the case should use this clip in an ad campaign.

From my own experience in the classroom, I could have written the rest of the AP story. Belichick curses the undependability, swearing to go back to his old ways (in this case case, paper and printer); the tech folks defend the system, explaining they’re doing the best they can to improve its reliability; somewhere, a colleague declares he really likes the technology and it’s working great for him.

It would make sense that the NFL, which drips money, would utilize communications devices almost on par with the Navy’s, so when they can’t make this stuff work the way they want, I feel a whole lot better about the class periods I’ve wasted waiting for half of my students’ laptops to log on to the school’s wireless network.

But mostly, I think Belichick is exactly right on this. He is no luddite: he was open to the technology and its possibilities and he’s clearly using anything that will give him an advantage. But this innovation was not effective, so he’s dumping it (literally).

Each technology has to be evaluated against what it is replacing. If we have something that is working for us–say, occasionally asking students to write essays on paper, with pens, or maybe a landline with  no cell phone–then we shouldn’t feel pressured to move past it. Not every innovation is an upgrade.

Politicians Should Say, and Mean,”War Is Terrible”

Two weeks ago in an interview, the libertarian party candidate for President, Gary Johnson, was asked what he would do about Aleppo. Perhaps he did not hear the question well in the context, perhaps his mind went blank, but the question caught him off guard so much he asked, “What is Aleppo?” in response.

Given he is running for President of the United States and that Aleppo has been in the news as a center point of humanitarian crises in the Syrian civil war, Johnson was lambasted in the media for his lack of awareness of foreign policy. Certainly Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have known what Aleppo is and answered the question.

But Johnson’s gaffe hints at a bigger problem in American politics, a problem that encompasses all three candidates for President.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan suggests that politicians’ attitudes toward war in general is alarming. “They have their heads all screwed up about war,” she writes. “They approach the subject cooly, as a political and geopolitical matter, and . . . they see it through prisms of personal political need and ideological gain.” Johnson, then, may be pitifully uninterested, but in Noonan’s view the broader trend is for every politician to view war as a talking point, a required subject for advancing their cause or building political credibility.

Noonan’s concern is that such an indifferent point of view misses the great truth of war: that “war is terrible.” Noonan affirms her point by telling the story of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria, who was pulled from the rubble of his bombed out home. By the time she describes a video of his rescue, where he “brings his left hand up to his head and touches around for the wound” and then “puts his hand down on his legs, as if not to call attention to his wounds,” any reader with a heart knows she is right: “You should hate war.”

Noonan’s theory of war as terrible is extremely useful in highlighting for us how politics are calculated and ultimately impersonal. She tells us how she asked a candidate for President if he hated war, and “He got the dart-eyed look politicians get when they sense a trick question.” It wasn’t a trick question, but any statement issuing from a candidate’s mouth is released only after considering how it will affect poll numbers—even Donald Trump’s seemingly say-what-I-want slips of the tongue aim to generate particular popular responses. Somehow, then, the nature of geopolitical conflicts has added so many layers for politicians to sift through that they’ve lost track of how to answer that simple question. They’ve exposed their calculations and missed the only right answer about war, that it is terrible.

Yet by focusing on the genuineness and humane feeling of a politician’s response, Noonan’s political test leaves us susceptible to the next talented politician. As Barton Swaim has pointed out, “Successful politicians are people who know how to make us think well of them without our realizing that that’s what they’re doing; they know how to make us admire and trust them.” In Swaim’s view, the most effective politicians have an almost instinctual knowledge of what people want them to say or do, which means that as soon as a few politicians understand how to project this humane response Noonan wants to hear, we are likely to trust them.

I agree with Noonan that “before the election is over it would be good if someone said [war is terrible].” It would certainly beat not knowing what Aleppo is. But wouldn’t it be best if the person who finally said it, actually meant it?

Human Touch in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

I read a lot of books and have forgotten more about them than I thought was possible, but some scenes stay with me no matter how many books intervene. Maybe because I’m a dad, the scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when the father shoots and kills the man who has grabbed his son will not leave me. It’s not the only scene from the book seared into my brain (“the things you put into your head are there forever” (12) after all) but when I picked up the novel this year to re-read it, I was thinking about it before I’d even reached it.

It rose to the top of my thoughts with the first line of the novel, where the father reflexively reaches out to his son: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping before him.” It occurred to me that in my previous readings of the novel, the only other person to touch the boy was the man his father killed. The contrast between the two men’s touching of the son struck me–they both aim to possess, but one is for the sake of consumption and one is rooted in love.

What role, I began to wonder, does touch have in this bleak world McCarthy creates for us?

Touch, I realized with this first line, has maintained credibility in a world where so much language is useless, its “sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality” (89)¹. At no time in the book does the father say I love you to his son, yet we never doubt through all their Okays that he loves his boy. How do we know this? How are we so convinced about this father’s love for his son?

No novelist wins a Pulitzer Prize by being sloppy, and having read a few of McCarthy’s other novels, and having read The Road a couple times, I knew nothing extraneous had sneaked into the text. Every letter and comma serves a purpose, advances some kind of idea. What if, then, I spent this year’s reading monitoring McCarthy’s use of human touch? What might I discover about the role McCarthy assigns touch in The Road? What insight might that deliver to me about the nature of touch?

I therefore read with a pencil close at hand and marked each referral to one person touching another person and then jotted on a note card the pages where I found those moments (I can therefore assure you that 99 pages of the novel contain instances of touch). Obviously, most of these depict exchanges between the man and the boy, and in that basic sense most of the touch connotes something positive. My next task–which I have yet to finish–is to categorize each incident in a chart so I can determine which kinds of touch are most common (is a touch of guidance more common than one extending warmth?).

But while I have not completed my chart, I can already see how this touch stands in direct opposition to the meaninglessness of the world the man and the boy inhabit. While the bonds between humans have burned like the landscape–the boy and the man’s primary mission, after all, is to check for and avoid contact with other human beings–and while concepts of goodness and love make no sense anymore², the primacy of human touch has defied reason and meaninglessness. So opposed to the mother’s argument that there is no reasonable defense for living, the man continues to kiss his son (e.g. 82), to hold him when he needs comforting (e.g. 62, 85), to intervene when the boy cannot do something for himself (e.g. 39, 66), to guide him (e.g. 61, 85), to warm him (e.g. 29, 36, 67), and to keep him safe (e.g. 67, 77). Thus, when this dragon of meaningless evil breathes its fire, burning every word of reason propelled at it to destroy it, this simple and fundamental sensory expression withstands its conflagration.

In this preponderance of love expressed through human touch–and, admittedly, the punctuations of hatred, also expressed through touch³–exists the concrete reality of love (and hatred). The abstractions of language and morality have burned away, but goodness and love exist. People can say what they want–can name themselves Ely if they want–but the boy carries the fire, and we know he carries the fire not because of what he says, but because of what he does; we have seen him and we know he is the one who worries about everything, who has to worry about everything because no one else will (259).

In the end, this human touch shows us what the man and the boy do, and what they do is good. If we agree that McCarthy’s portrayal depicts a true aspect of our world, then no matter how bleak our world appears at times, no matter how much evil pushes against the ideas of what we think is right, goodness and love still reveal themselves through their actions, like touch.

In this way, I’m convinced McCarthy’s novel is a parable for a reality I confront frequently. Its insight is stunning.  When darkness is overcoming the world and I can’t find words to confront it, I can hold my son, rocking him back and forth, and know in this is a spot of grace, a place where light shines in this world.


Notes

  1. Thus the man can say to his son, “I’ll be in the neighborhood” but to his son, born in the world after the incident that destroys it, the phrase means nothing (95). The same thing is true with his stories about heroism and even names–see the conversation with “Ely.”
  2. See the mother’s defense for suicide and her point that the man has no way to answer her because there is no reason to live (57). See also the depiction of “absolute truth” as “cold” and “relentless,” “darkness implacable,” and a “crushing black vacuum” (130).
  3. Hence the man the father kills and the father’s vow to kill anyone who touches the boy (77).