"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Huck Finn On Interpretation: Jim Answers Coleman

Coleman's Nihilistic Pedagogy
Morse Peckham's non-final Answer
The Instability of "Meaning"
GOP Rep. Dr. Paul Broun (GA) offers an example asserting a "Young Earth" Answer
Jim's goodness as answer to all of this (Huckleberry Finn)
Huck in the fog


Famously (apparently) David Coleman uttered the ultimate truth of the ground zero stance in his "pedagogical" nihilism:
Common Core’s architect, David Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication. “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he famously told a group of educators last year in New York.  (Tyre, Peg. "Writing Revolution," The Atlantic Monthly, Oct. 2012)
Heavens!  What is the lesson learned?

This is out of Nietzsche and refers to the singular individual's "will" to control all stimulus and response interaction.
O man! Listen!  What does the deep Midnight urge?  "I slept, I slept--, from deep dreaming I am awakened: --the world is deep, and deeper than the day has thought.  Deep is the world's woe--, joy--deeper still than agony; woe urges: Perish!  Yet all of joy wants eternal being, wants deep, deep eternal being!" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra
The midnight is the voice of the deepest forces in man, powers below the unconscious mind, below Schopenhauer's will, even, powers that unite man to the biological world, and beyond that to the forces of the universe. 
The midnight, as Nietzsche came to realize, is the source of he human will to power, man's drive to dominate, control, and master his environment, not to adjust to it, for man cannot adjust to his environment.  The effort to adjust is a will to submission, which leads to asceticism, to self-denial, to the desire to perish.  The effort to adjust must always fail, for between man and his environment is an eternal disparity; man's mind is but an instrument of the midnight powers, and an instrument is necessarily other than the object it manipulates.  (Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision, p 365)
That is, adaptation is submission; mastery is dominance.  It is illusion to propose to dominate the very ground of one's biologic being.  Now then, what is it to dominate other beings?


   When I got to it Jim was setting there with his head down between his knees, asleep, with his right arm hanging over the steering-oar. The other oar was smashed off, and the raft was littered up with leaves and branches and dirt. So she'd had a rough time.

   I made fast and laid down under Jim's nose on the raft, and began to gap, and stretch my fists out against Jim, and says:

   "Hello, Jim, have I been asleep? Why didn't you stir me up?"

   "Goodness gracious, is dat you, Huck? En you ain' dead -- you ain' drownded -- you's back agin? It's too good for true, honey, it's too good for true. Lemme look at you chile, lemme feel o' you. No, you ain' dead! you's back agin, 'live en soun', jis de same ole Huck -- de same ole Huck, thanks to goodness!"

   "What's the matter with you, Jim? You been a-drinking?"

   "Drinkin'? Has I ben a-drinkin'? Has I had a chance to be a-drinkin'?"

   "Well, then, what makes you talk so wild?"

   "How does I talk wild?"

   "How? Why, hain't you been talking about my coming back, and all that stuff, as if I'd been gone away?"

   "Huck -- Huck Finn, you look me in de eye; look me in de eye. Hain't you ben gone away?"

   "Gone away? Why, what in the nation do you mean? I hain't been gone anywheres. Where would I go to?"

   "Well, looky here, boss, dey's sumf'n wrong, dey is. Is I me, or who is I? Is I heah, or whah is I? Now dat's what I wants to know."

   "Well, I think you're here, plain enough, but I think you're a tangle-headed old fool, Jim."

   "I is, is I? Well, you answer me dis: Didn't you tote out de line in de canoe fer to make fas' to de tow-head?"

   "No, I didn't. What tow-head? I hain't see no tow-head."

   "You hain't seen no towhead? Looky here, didn't de line pull loose en de raf' go a-hummin' down de river, en leave you en de canoe behine in de fog?"

   "What fog?"

   "Why, de fog! -- de fog dat's been aroun' all night. En didn't you whoop, en didn't I whoop, tell we got mix' up in de islands en one un us got los' en t'other one was jis' as good as los', 'kase he didn' know whah he wuz? En didn't I bust up agin a lot er dem islands en have a turrible time en mos' git drownded? Now ain' dat so, boss -- ain't it so? You answer me dat."

   "Well, this is too many for me, Jim. I hain't seen no fog, nor no islands, nor no troubles, nor nothing. I been setting here talking with you all night till you went to sleep about ten minutes ago, and I reckon I done the same. You couldn't a got drunk in that time, so of course you've been dreaming."

   "Dad fetch it, how is I gwyne to dream all dat in ten minutes?"

   "Well, hang it all, you did dream it, because there didn't any of it happen."

   "But, Huck, it's all jis' as plain to me as -- "

   "It don't make no difference how plain it is; there ain't nothing in it. I know, because I've been here all the time."

   Jim didn't say nothing for about five minutes, but set there studying over it. Then he says:

   "Well, den, I reck'n I did dream it, Huck; but dog my cats ef it ain't de powerfullest dream I ever see. En I hain't ever had no dream b'fo' dat's tired me like dis one."

   "Oh, well, that's all right, because a dream does tire a body like everything sometimes. But this one was a staving dream; tell me all about it, Jim."

   So Jim went to work and told me the whole thing right through, just as it happened, only he painted it up considerable. Then he said he must start in and "'terpret" it, because it was sent for a warning. He said the first towhead stood for a man that would try to do us some good, but the current was another man that would get us away from him. The whoops was warnings that would come to us every now and then, and if we didn't try hard to make out to understand them they'd just take us into bad luck, 'stead of keeping us out of it. The lot of towheads was troubles we was going to get into with quarrelsome people and all kinds of mean folks, but if we minded our business and didn't talk back and aggravate them, we would pull through and get out of the fog and into the big clear river, which was the free States, and wouldn't have no more trouble.

   It had clouded up pretty dark just after I got on to the raft, but it was clearing up again now.

   "Oh, well, that's all interpreted well enough as far as it goes, Jim," I says; "but what does these things stand for?"
   It was the leaves and rubbish on the raft and the smashed oar. You could see them first-rate now.

   Jim looked at the trash, and then looked at me, and back at the trash again. He had got the dream fixed so strong in his head that he couldn't seem to shake it loose and get the facts back into its place again right away. But when he did get the thing straightened around he looked at me steady without ever smiling, and says:

   "What do dey stan' for? I'se gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin' for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos' broke bekase you wuz los', en I didn' k'yer no' mo' what become er me en de raf'. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun', de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo' foot, I's so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin' 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed."

(from Chapter 12 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)


If we recognize that meaning is not, as Peckham makes clear in every essay he writes (knowing we are strongly compelled and trained to forget this), immanent (that is to say that there isn't "meaning" within words), then we recognize that all assertions are unstable.  Emerson's wisdom in "Circles," around every circle another can be drawn, offers an example.  And further this helps us understand the nature of "orientation" as applied to "perspective."  Meaning is a negotiated behavior field.  Yes, that sounds willfully complex, but it is really quite simple: if you speak words to someone then he or she responds.  That is a negotiation of directions for behavior.

To make an obvious example.  I've spoken about the difficulty of "containing" the "ADHD-labeled" child in a classroom; that is, the difficulty of controlling his/her (mostly boys?) physical movements and verbal "outbursts."  Often this child displays a very clear understanding of the "appropriate" responses to instructional content questions: one example of what is inappropriate is the outburst of correct answers.  We frown on this because we train for order.  But the "curricular" understanding is evident.  What is "wrong" with this kind of child is that it seems the entire random processes of brain "responses" are always "uncontained," and so, they are labeled "inappropriate."

This is extreme but relevant.  Our responses are contained by cultural expectation, by convention, in all instances.  If there are two people, there is soon a "convention" that is controlling utterance and response.  If groups of humans are small in number these conventions can be contravened and re-established as a matter of "normal" routine with little concern for transgression--in fact transgression might be encouraged as a value.  However, as more and more people gather together transgression is given less and less "freedom" of valuation.  That is to say, "culture" polices utterance and response with far more strictness and aggressiveness.  This is said to be necessary for the smooth operation of civilized peoples.  There must be law, yes, but the cultural codes that are "trained" from birth do much more work in policing "actions" and "thoughts" (not that these need or should be distinct) than the laws and actual armed police force.  But this externalized body of policing responses are simply manifestations of cultural conventions and they are the "last" answer to order--force or naked physical power.

This is all to say that, as the internalized social or cultural conventions lose "force" or lose "meaning," the higher culture managing the institutional structures that support convention (a "right" way to do things, say things, think things) must offer other "utterances" that will manage responses to expectation, to maintain conventional order (retaining privilege and power for some, etc.).  Again, perhaps an extreme example would be the Tea Party agenda.  As all of the citizens of America begin to doubt the coherence of the "idea" of America, especially its "superior morality" as a "force for good" in the world and the assertion that decisions are "democratically" enacted (if so, why are so many of us failing economically, we are forced to consider), a very stringent and forceful reversion to an almost antebellum ethos was employed; that is a reversion to a certain branch of nationalism (my country, wrong or right).


    WE judged that three nights more would fetch us to Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois, where the Ohio River comes in, and that was what we was after. We would sell the raft and get on a steamboat and go way up the Ohio amongst the free States, and then be out of trouble.

   Well, the second night a fog begun to come on, and we made for a towhead to tie to, for it wouldn't do to try to run in a fog; but when I paddled ahead in the canoe, with the line to make fast, there warn't anything but little saplings to tie to. I passed the line around one of them right on the edge of the cut bank, but there was a stiff current, and the raft come booming down so lively she tore it out by the roots and away she went. I see the fog closing down, and it made me so sick and scared I couldn't budge for most a half a minute it seemed to me -- and then there warn't no raft in sight; you couldn't see twenty yards. I jumped into the canoe and run back to the stern, and grabbed the paddle and set her back a stroke. But she didn't come. I was in such a hurry I hadn't untied her. I got up and tried to untie her, but I was so excited my hands shook so I couldn't hardly do anything with them.

   As soon as I got started I took out after the raft, hot and heavy, right down the towhead. That was
all right as far as it went, but the towhead warn't sixty yards long, and the minute I flew by the foot of it I shot out into the solid white fog, and hadn't no more idea which way I was going than a dead man.

   Thinks I, it won't do to paddle; first I know I'll run into the bank or a towhead or something; I got to set still and float, and yet it's mighty fidgety business to have to hold your hands still at such a time. I whooped and listened. Away down there somewheres I hears a small whoop, and up comes my spirits. I went tearing after it, listening sharp to hear it again. The next time it come I see I warn't heading for it, but heading away to the right of it. And the next time I was heading away to the left of it -- and not gaining on it much either, for I was flying around, this way and that and t'other, but it was going straight ahead all the time.

   I did wish the fool would think to beat a tin pan, and beat it all the time, but he never did, and it was the still places between the whoops that was making the trouble for me. Well, I fought along, and directly I hears the whoop behind me. I was tangled good now. That was somebody else's whoop, or else I was turned around.

   I throwed the paddle down. I heard the whoop again; it was behind me yet, but in a different place; it kept coming, and kept changing its place, and I kept answering, till by and by it was in front of me again, and I knowed the current had swung the canoe's head down-stream, and I was all right if that was Jim and not some other raftsman hollering. I couldn't tell nothing about voices in a fog, for nothing don't look natural nor sound natural in a fog.

   The whooping went on, and in about a minute I come a-booming down on a cut bank with smoky ghosts of big trees on it, and the current throwed me off to the left and shot by, amongst a lot of snags that fairly roared, the currrent was tearing by them so swift.

   In another second or two it was solid white and still again. I set perfectly still then, listening to my heart thump, and I reckon I didn't draw a breath while it thumped a hundred.

   I just give up then. I knowed what the matter was. That cut bank was an island, and Jim had gone down t'other side of it. It warn't no towhead that you could float by in ten minutes. It had the big timber of a regular island; it might be five or six miles long and more than half a mile wide.

   I kept quiet, with my ears cocked, about fifteen minutes, I reckon. I was floating along, of course, four or five miles an hour; but you don't ever think of that. No, you feel like you are laying dead still on the water; and if a little glimpse of a snag slips by you don't think to yourself how fast you're going, but you catch your breath and think, my! how that snag's tearing along. If you think it ain't dismal and lonesome out in a fog that way by yourself in the night, you try it once -- you'll see.

   Next, for about a half an hour, I whoops now and then; at last I hears the answer a long ways off, and tries to follow it, but I couldn't do it, and directly I judged I'd got into a nest of towheads, for I had little dim glimpses of them on both sides of me -- sometimes just a narrow channel between, and some that I couldn't see I knowed was there because I'd hear -the wash of the current against the old dead brush and trash that hung over the banks. Well, I warn't long loosing the whoops down amongst the towheads; and I only tried to chase them a little while, anyway, because it was worse than chasing a Jack-o'-lantern. You never knowed a sound dodge around so, and swap places so quick and so much.

   I had to claw away from the bank pretty lively four or five times, to keep from knocking the islands out of the river; and so I judged the raft must be butting into the bank every now and then, or else it would get further ahead and clear out of hearing -- it was floating a little faster than what I was.

   Well, I seemed to be in the open river again by and by, but I couldn't hear no sign of a whoop nowheres. I reckoned Jim had fetched up on a snag, maybe, and it was all up with him. I was good and tired, so I laid down in the canoe and said I wouldn't bother no more. I didn't want to go to sleep, of course; but I was so sleepy I couldn't help it; so I thought I would take jest one little cat-nap.

   But I reckon it was more than a cat-nap, for when I waked up the stars was shining bright, the fog was all gone, and I was spinning down a big bend stern first. First I didn't know where I was; I thought I was dreaming; and when things began to come back to me they seemed to come up dim out of last week.

   It was a monstrous big river here, with the tallest and the thickest kind of timber on both banks; just a solid wall, as well as I could see by the stars. I looked away down-stream, and seen a black speck on the water. I took after it; but when I got to it it warn't nothing but a couple of sawlogs made fast together. Then I see another speck, and chased that; then another, and this time I was right. It was the raft.
(from Chapter 12 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)


From The Great Gatsby:
There was so much to read for one thing and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air. I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew. And I had the high intention of reading many other books besides.  I was rather literary in college--one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the "Yale News"--and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the "well-rounded man." This isn't just an epigram--life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.
As I was writing the above a friend emailed me this, GOP Rep.: Evolution, Big Bang 'Lies Straight From The Pit Of Hell':
Congressman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said last week that evolution and the big bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of Hell." "God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell," said Broun, who is an MD. "It's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior." He continued: "You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says."According to NBC News, Broun's comments were part of a larger speech given at the 2012 Sportsman's Banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia on September 27th. (h/t focus)
(See this Errant post for more on "young earth theory.")
So, there's that.  

Now, depending on our "orientation" we will respond to this in various ways.  My friend, who is a doctor, expresses shock that a doctor can say this.  She might be trying to assert that a doctor is a "scientist" and that scientists cannot think this way.  I would disagree (and have) that being a doctor makes one a scientist.  Rather, a doctor is a kind of technician who must understand how a system works in order to "fix" it.  It is often a source of real depression when doctors cannot fix patients.  Medicines seem to me an attempt to "palliate" the doctor's response to failing systems as much as the patient's.  "Take this and hopefully you won't need to see me in the morning."  That is to say that  doctors are people and people like answers.  Science, or rather, the "scientific method," is a constant display of "not quite right."  We make predictions and they are proven false, always.  

Politically, as concerns Paul Broun's speech, we might want to say this is "just performance."  Broun has a particular message to sell to a particular constituency and it's irrelevant what the rest of the world thinks about what he has said.  (This leads us back to David Coleman's remarks.)  In fact, we might want to start acknowledging that this stance is the very heart of our modern dilemma.  If I can't find a "right" answer, if no one "cares" about my feelings or thoughts, then all of life must be reduced to a very conscious application of persuasive performances.  This, to be mastered, (education to mastery is a very common instructional trope now), requires acknowledging that "you," the identity you believe inheres "inside you" somehow, is not stable either.

Maybe more to the point: an analytical stance in teaching writing (and reading) primarily seeks to "understand" the "answer" proposed and expose it as at best "an" answer easily replaced by other "valid" answers IF and ONLY IF one can be "persuaded" of validity.

If "persuasion" is our ultimate test of the effective use of language--if it is our most "valued" response--then we must conclude that there is only one valid persuasion in a society acknowledging the instability of meaning: Power.  This includes all that that single word can subsume such as wealth, might, political or corporate positions, etc.

In any event, freedom's just another word for "winning friends and influencing people" (where "friend" means "those less knowing").


I would press upon you to read (or, likely more enlighteningly, listen to) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  There is hardly a chapter in it that does not shout out in opposition to David Coleman's corporate and personal "will to power."

In the sections of Chapter 12 on offer here Huck describes the very "unknowingness" of our interpretations.  We try and try to "see" in the fog of language and the non-verbal "utterances" that are the "geography" we inhabit.

He then dominates his good friend, Jim, through the power of language and by exploiting the trust between the two.  He lies to him for fun.

In many respects this is the very lesson of which David Coleman's pedagogy approves.  Huck knows how to best Jim, to manipulate him, to persuade him.  Jim answers both Huck's betrayal and Coleman's nihilistic pedagogy.


  1. I don't like David Coleman either (http://literacyinleafstrewn.blogspot.com/2012/05/david-coleman-and-reading.html), but leaving him aside for the moment, I just have to say, I do wish you'd write slightly shorter posts. I am pretty interested in what you have to say, but sometimes I finish reading a post of yours and wish it had been a bit shorter.

    1. Isn't there an apothegm for that--something like "kill all your darlings?" I don't know, EC.

      Do you mean you wish I would write them differently or do you mean you wish I would cut out parts you find superfluous?

  2. I just re-read this--hugely depressing, but I thank you for laying it out, and in particular for the passage from Gatsby, which I had never thought of in exactly that way before.