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

Saturday, December 08, 2012

No Other Uncommon Truths


I have been thinking about a recent NYT Magazine piece on the "immortal" jellyfish and the science of researching the mechanisms by which this organism "reverses" the inevitable.  I've posted a couple of things elsewhere (here and here and here) but what struck me as useful and interesting for this blog was that the piece opened with The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh: What exists materially of the two-thirds-divine Gilgamesh?  Nothing.  A name (sometimes spelled with a "B") and a story...words.  Sure there's likely some minor pile of dust somewhere that might be the magnificent walls of Uruk.  And yes, there's a tower in Babel somewhere too.  But listen, the grandeur was never very grand.  At least not to our bionic eyes.

Still, if the walls crumbled and the man who was king was as much or more myth than man, there are the pyramids you exclaim!  Yes, yes...they are human babel-ing too at least that is as they seem; Melville calls them observatories and bakehouses and it is interesting that he imagines the astronomer as taking "prodigious long" strides as if this was another form of being (an alien) long faded away like the "truth" of the buildings themselves.
And that the Egyptians were a nation of mast-head standers, is an assertion based upon the general belief among archaeologists, that the first pyramids were founded for astronomical purposes: a theory singularly supported by the peculiar stair-like formation of all four sides of those edifices; whereby, with prodigious long upliftings of their legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars...
Gilgamesh is story, and even the still visible, the visible from space, pyramids (and that other great useless wall), are story.  And the truth (ah truth) may be that the story we tell is always the wrong one.

Translation itself is always wrong--the Bible in Latin, in Aramaic, in Greek, in German, in English (King James, Revised Standard, New American)...wrong, all wrong...but then what is the "right"?  So many humans profess to know "the way."

Still, humans over the centuries have been expanding (universe-like), thinking big, reaching towards the (in)visible heavens, to hear the voice of God.  And to talk back no less, damn straight!

But, finally, ground glass has renewed our jackalled and featherless hope, grinding out faith in a seed: a contraction flowering again into infinitude.  Confirming (speculating upon) the endlessness of space, the ground glass also revealed the vasty spaces of our very being.  And it is in this exploration that we now know there is an answer...slice a jellyfish, grow an oracle.
Great is the mystery of Space, greater is the mystery of Time.  Either mystery grows upon man as man himself grows; and either seems to be a function of the godlike which is in man.  In reality, the depths and the heights which are in man, the depths by which he searches, the heights by which he aspires, are but projected and made objective externally in the three dimensions of space which are outside of him.  He trembles at the abyss into which his bodily eyes look down, or look up; not knowing that abyss to be, not always consciously suspecting it to be, but by an instinct written in his prophetic heart feeling it to be, boding it to be, fearing it to be, and sometimes hoping it to be, the mirror to a mightier abyss that will one day be expanded in himself (De Quincey, Collected Works, VIII, 15)
It is in the what-we-are-not that we seek to find, in order to remedy, the what-that-we-are.

But as to the cautionary in this...Gilgamesh kills the protector of the sacred cedar forest, traveling leagues to ultimately harvest lumber (a "fact" of Sumerian culture), and it is this offense against nature (the gods) that seals his fate.  His divine gift of a friend, Enkidu, is slain protecting him against the revenge of the gods and he fails in his quest to place himself among those gods even after discovering the "jellyfish" of immortality.  He cannot transcend the limits of life.

All he can do, all he has done, is transgress.

***

January 18, 2010, 9:30 pm
Must There Be a Bottom Line?
By STANLEY FISH

The assumption she [Barbara Herrnstein Smith] challenges — or, rather, says we can do without — is that underlying it all is some foundation or nodal point or central truth or master procedure that, if identified, allows us to distinguish among ways of knowing and anoint one as the lodestar of inquiry. The desire, she explains, is to sift through the claims of those perspectives and methods that vie for “underneath-it-all status” (a wonderful phrase) and validate one of them so that we can proceed in the confidence that our measures, protocols, techniques and procedures are in harmony with the universe and perhaps with God. 
It is within the context of such a desire that science and religion are seen as in conflict, in part because the claims of both are often (but not always) totalizing; they amount to saying, I am the Truth and you shall have no other truths before me. But if religion and science are not thought of as rival candidates for the title “Ultimate Arbiter,” they can be examined, in more or less evolutionary terms, as highly developed, successful and different (though not totally different, as the history of their previous union shows) ways of coping with the situations and challenges human existence presents.
***

Susan Ohanian responds to Sara Mosle’s "What Should Children Read
Bringing about 20 years more teaching experience than Sara Mosle brought to her out-of-balance article (“What should children read?” Nov. 25), I can cite hundreds of instances of student writing being informed by the fiction they love, though, admittedly, I'm not talking about a fixation on sentence elements that will supposedly lead directly to better corporate memos such as the topic sentences Mosle cites. It would be useful to poll parents, asking how early they want their children’s education stripped of fiction and directed toward the utilitarian, market analysis goals so loved by David Coleman.
Regrettably, Mosle perpetuates the myth that non-teacher David Coleman has a clue of what is developmentally appropriate to students needs, and it is worse than a mistake that she fails to include the judgments of experienced teachers or researchers.
I wonder why The New York Times gives so much space to the opinion of amateurs without even a nod to professionals in the field.
Surely we can all acknowledge by now, and in this space particularly, that it is the professionals who are doing all the work, and that the only "amateurs" here are those spouting off in the press.  It does not take a professional educator (or scholar of learning methods) to proffer the preferred trope of the managerial moment.

But lest I lose the point: it is the professional educators and policy-makers, both in academia and in industry, not to mention that halfway house for dissembling, the "think tank," who are doing this for very well-incentivized reasons.

***

It seems possible to me that the testing regime and the national culture regime (common core) are ways to make "pre-crime" a reality.  That is, the one (constant and "normalized" educational structures focused on testing) prepares the ground for annual psychometric testing--who will succeed, who can be a killer, who will be a politician, who will sell out his mother, who will lead a revolution, etc.; while the other (White, European, Enlightenment, Christian literacy programs) prepares the ground for easy classification of the internal assignment of "us" and "them" status.

Perhaps you recall the scene early in Blade Runner where the replicant is discovered via cortical responses to psychometric testing?

Who will administer the proper form of worship for the testament to the One True Cultural Church?

***

Who is the "right" man to tell us the proper things real Americans need to know?

The Common Core as an idea has nothing to do with its corporate poster boy David Coleman and I would bet all of his money that he had no hand in its development...as an "architect" I would imagine he might have delivered the plans.  Common Core is in reality the brainchild E. D. Hirsch, Jr. who has for over 40 years been pushing for a "right interpretation" ministered by an "interpretive priesthood" with himself as it's Archbishop.

In 1976 Hirsch published The Aims of Interpretation.  Barbara Herrnstein Smith said of the author:
Hirsch tends to speak not of readers but of interpreters, for example, "those who practice interpretation," and "we who interpret as a vocation," and seems to imply that there should be not merely readers who engage professionally in the public articulation of their interpretations (as teachers, "critics," essayists, and so on), but a corps of highly disciplined exegetes who serve as self-abnegating mediators between authors and the laity....however, it is not clear why such a ministry should be necessary or what useful functions its devotees would perform...(On the Margins of Discourse, 213)
Hirsch doubled-down hard in 1990 with Cultural Literacy and it was at this time that he "think-tanked" himself and created the "Core Knowledge Foundation" ("registered!").  Old Dave Coleman must have been in college about then, right?

From the book:
Although nationalism may be regrettable in some of its world-wide political effects, a mastery of national culture is essential to a mastery of the standard language in every modern nation.  This point is important because educators often stress the importance of a multicultural education.  Such study is indeed valuable in itself; it inculcates tolerance and provides a perspective on our own traditions and values.  But however laudable it is it should not be the primary focus of national education.  It should not be allowed to supplant or interfere with our schools' responsibility to insure our children's master of the American literate culture. 
Herrnstein Smith on this passage from her review of the book in The South Atlantic Quarterly (Winter 1990), "Cult-Lit":
It is not clear what Hirsch understands and implies here by "multicultural education," and the vagueness is not without consequences....The indeterminate reference here permits Hirsch to...imply (and may, of course, himself believe) that (certain) internal American cultures are foreign or, in any case not "our own."  The question is, which traditions and values are "our own," or, to put it the other way around, which traditions and values, shared by members of various communities in America and/or elsewhere in the world, are not "our own," and who exactly are "we"?  Hirsch's answer to each part of this question, though never explicit, is a subtextual drumbeat throughout the passage and the book.
Hirsch:
To teach the ways of one's own community has always been and still remains the essence of the education of our children, who enter neither a narrow tribal culture nor a transcendent world culture but a national literate culture.  For profound historical reasons, this is the way of the modern world.  It will not change soon, and it will certainly not be changed by educational policy alone.
Herrnstein Smith:
What this deeply allusive and determinedly grim statement is meant to suggest, I take it, is that, however much pluralistic- or international-minded educators might wish to ignore the stark realities of life, modern (American) children have no use for local, ethnic cultures (at least not for certain of them--dare we guess which?), and, furthermore, should not be encouraged to identify, as their own community, any social unit either smaller, larger, or other than the nation.  What is indicated here as ironclad fact, however ("this is the way of the modern world"), is, of course, thoroughly ideological and, for "profound historical reasons" plus many other--sociological, geopolitical, etc.--reasons, profoundly questionable.
***

Hirsch in a NYRB piece (a review of a book by the ubiquitous Diane Ravitch) called "How to Save the Schools":
Loyalty to the Republic had to be developed, as well as adherence to Enlightenment ideals of liberty and toleration. For without universal indoctrination by the schools in such civic virtues, the United States might dissolve, as had all prior large republics of history, through internal dissension. 
The aim of schooling was not just to Americanize the immigrants, but also to Americanize the Americans.
I'm pretty sure that's all you need to know about Hirsch's imaginary.  The whole very long review is a master class in the ideology of the "founding dogma."  But you've got to admit, it's hard to beat the ability to promote of "liberty" and "indoctrination" in the same breath.  Up is down after all.

In the review Hirsch uses the work of historian Richard Hofstadter approvingly.  Here's a bit from Hofstadter that seems useful here as regards our new world.
Humility belongs with mercy among the cardinal Christian virtues.  "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  But the demands of Christianity and the success myth are incompatible.  The competitive society out of which the success myth and the self-made mah have grown may accept the Christian virtues in principle but can hardly observe them in practice.  The motivating force in the mythology of success is ambition, which is closely akin to the cardinal Christian sin of pride.  In a world that works through ambition and self-help, while inculcating an ethic that looks upon their results with disdain, how can an earnest man, a public figure living in a time of crisis, gratify his aspirations and yet remain morally whole? 
Richard Hofstadter, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth" in The American Political Tradition.
But maybe this, from Lincoln's law partner in Springfield (also in Hofstadter), is more appropriate and applicable to Hirsch himself:  "It was in the world of politics that he lived...Politics were his life, newspapers his food, and his great ambition his motive power....His ambition was the little engine that knew no rest."

I think Morse Peckham hits on the nature of Hirsch's "doctrinal" insistence, on the "violence" intended in these "cultural" instructions (the "Americanization" of Americans).

The use of violence, mild or extreme, by the state can be seen in two ways, or analyzed into two differing functions.  The first is governance, that is, control of behavior; the second is politics, the use of violence to maintain the social stability of the group or even individual known in a given circumstance as the state.  Both the function and the limitation of violence can be seen by glancing at the contemporary problem of terrorism.  It cannot be that the state objects to terrorism because its citizens are being killed.  In this country the citizens kill each other by murder and automobiles, fifty percent of the latter by drunken driving, and the state remains on the whole quite unruffled, except when some group of citizens forming itself as an organ of the state manipulates the state to take some action....No, the state objects to terrorism for quite different reasons.  A state maintains its legitimacy by maintaining a monopoly on the use of violence for politics and governance.  Terrorism is a challenge to the state's monopoly on violence for such purposes....The trouble with violence is that if it is used in its ultimate forms there is no further recourse.  So we may understand civilization as the strategy by which control and position are maintained without resorting to violence.  Legal texts are of the first importance, of course, in circumventing the use of violence as well as justifying violence. 
"Literature and the State," (1987).
I think it would be tolerable and do little violence to that paragraph to replace "legal texts" with "founding texts" or, perhaps, "culturally literate texts."

***

There is here also, and always in our "national" (bully) culture, a "blame-the-victim" strategy at work.  Companies just have to employ Chinese workers in Chinese factories, for example, because they're smarter and more disciplined than American workers (or at least that's what one of our national bullies Arne Duncan keeps saying).  The truth of any of this is irrelevant...even the facts are irrelevant.  All that matters is the verbal strategy that masks the geo-political-economic maneuvering of the owners.  All that matters is that the "off-shoring" of everything be "necessary" because the US has "failed."  It is always fascinating that the victims allow this to be "true."  That the victims AGREE that the US has failed.  That "they" are failing.  But, and here's the very powerful trick, the "they" who is "failing" is never a "me" to the "victim."  That is the victim blames the victim also but hides from himself that he is the victim he is blaming as a proxy of the owner's proclamations.

What has "failed"?  Define it.  What has succeeded?  Militarism has succeeded.  The Surveillance Economy has succeeded.  International Trade Agreements are "trading" rights (for all people of the planet) away and that is a "success."  The Financial Sector though failing massively has succeeded.  For whom?  A failure for whom?

And I'm pretty sure those corporations providing materials to our educational prison system have a healthy (though diseased) bottom-line (h/t Lawrence).

***

A boy buys a novel at his school's book fair.  He reads it quickly but nearing the end the going is slower.  Why, he is asked.  "The first part of the book gave more information and the ending is just them doing things."  But it's all information as a general proposition.  What is it that you liked about the first part that differs in the last?  "There's more information about the people, who they are, the setting, their story, like you're getting to know them."

***
One night, as he lay in bed, the winds had carried to him the clangoring of the church bell as some enthusiast jerked the rope frantically to tell the twisted news of a great battle. This voice of the people rejoicing in the night had made him shiver in a prolonged ecstasy of excitement. Later, he had gone down to his mother's room and had spoken thus: "Ma, I'm going to enlist."

"Henry, don't you be a fool," his mother had replied. She had then covered her face with the quilt. There was an end to the matter for that night.

Nevertheless, the next morning he had gone to a town that was near his mother's farm and had enlisted in a company that was forming there. When he had returned home his mother was milking the brindle cow. Four others stood waiting. "Ma, I've enlisted," he had said to her diffidently. There was a short silence. "The Lord's will be done, Henry," she had finally replied, and had then continued to milk the brindle cow.

When he had stood in the doorway with his soldier's clothes on his back, and with the light of excitement and expectancy in his eyes almost defeating the glow of regret for the home bonds, he had seen two tears leaving their trails on his mother's scarred cheeks.

Still, she had disappointed him by saying nothing whatever about returning with his shield or on it. He had privately primed himself for a beautiful scene. He had prepared certain sentences which he thought could be used with touching effect. But her words destroyed his plans. She had doggedly peeled potatoes and addressed him as follows: "You watch out, Henry, an' take good care of yerself in this here fighting business--you watch, an' take good care of yerself. Don't go a-thinkin' you can lick the hull rebel army at the start, because yeh can't. Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others, and yeh've got to keep quiet an' do what they tell yeh. I know how you are, Henry.

"I've knet yeh eight pair of socks, Henry, and I've put in all yer best shirts, because I want my boy to be jest as warm and comf'able as anybody in the army. Whenever they get holes in 'em, I want yeh to send 'em right-away back to me, so's I kin dern 'em.

"An' allus be careful an' choose yer comp'ny. There's lots of bad men in the army, Henry. The army makes 'em wild, and they like nothing better than the job of leading off a young feller like you, as ain't never been away from home much and has allus had a mother, an' a-learning 'em to drink and swear. Keep clear of them folks, Henry. I don't want yeh to ever do anything, Henry, that yeh would be 'shamed to let me know about. Jest think as if I was a-watchin' yeh. If yeh keep that in yer mind allus, I guess yeh'll come out about right.

"Yeh must allus remember yer father, too, child, an' remember he never drunk a drop of licker in his life, and seldom swore a cross oath.

"I don't know what else to tell yeh, Henry, excepting that yeh must never do no shirking, child, on my account. If so be a time comes when yeh have to be kilt of do a mean thing, why, Henry, don't think of anything 'cept what's right, because there's many a woman has to bear up 'ginst sech things these times, and the Lord 'll take keer of us all.

"Don't forgit about the socks and the shirts, child; and I've put a cup of blackberry jam with yer bundle, because I know yeh like it above all things. Good-by, Henry. Watch out, and be a good boy."
***
Once the line encountered the body of a dead soldier. He lay upon his back staring at the sky. He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could see that the soles of his shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously. And it was as if fate had betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends.

The ranks opened covertly to avoid the corpse. The invulnerable dead man forced a way for himself. The youth looked keenly at the ashen face. The wind raised the tawny beard. It moved as if a hand were stroking it. He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.
(The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane)

***

Late 19th century Realism.

Henry tells his mom he will enlist in the army.
His mother is unhappy. (Interpretive)
He does enlist.
He tells his mother.
She milks the cow.
He appears before her in uniform.
He expects something prideful from her, romantic (interpretive).
She gives him practical advice.
Be careful; you're just one man.
I've packed clothes for you.  Send them when you want them mended.
Don't drink.
Keep good company.
Imagine your mother's (dis)approval before you act.
But do what you have to when you have to; She can bear it.
Be a good boy.
***
A dead soldier on his back.
The men avoid the corpse
He had a beard.
Henry stared at him.

***
Cultural Literacy promises practically everything, costs practically nothing, and is produced, packaged, and promoted in a form quite familiar to Americans, whose shared national culture consists as much of media hype and 4th of July speeches... 
The project of cult-lit will...fail because, even if children all over the country began to study cultural literacy lists, it would make little if any dent in the conditions that actually produce and perpetuate illiteracy, poverty, social inequities, and political ineffectiveness...(Smith, "Cult-Lit")
This is true but wrong in one thing, or rather, it assumes that Hirsch wants to affect the conditions of living for the masses in the U.S. rather than simply affect their status as "literates" and or "illiterates"--see, a citizen might be literate, but what will matter is whether or not she is culturally literate (and can prove it).  If not it would be dangerous...for her.  ("Do you really hate the Romans?")

Or as Bobby Frost said, in his own tricky way, that would make all the difference.

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