Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


I realize I’ve been remiss in not writing more on one of the subjects most dear to my heart: education. Following is an essay I wrote to spur discussion in May 2001, back when I was teaching.


Of all the figures in American culture, the most enduring remains the rebel. The maverick, the entrepreneur, the explorer, the bold seeker of new, unexplored territories, the inventor, the cowboy, the slightly cocky, self-assured (but ultimately good-natured) pioneer... whether it be John Wayne as an obsessive cowboy in The Searchers , Thomas Alva Edison tinkering away with revolutionary ideas in his shop as the Wizard of Menlo Park, or Huck Finn saying ‘to hell with your rules!’ the rebel proves a key figure in the American psyche. Dorthea Dix, James Dean, Susan B. Anthony... the list goes on and on. There’s something still bold and exciting about reading those first daring lines penned by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and the moral imperative to rebel against injustice. Jumping forward almost two hundred years, it’s hard not to be moved by the stirring words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous “I have a dream” speech. King’s words speak of honoring a promise made by Jefferson and the other founding fathers — and while King’s words challenge us as a society, there’s something profoundly exciting — and hopeful — about his subtext: injustice exists; we can do better. The American hero is often that man or woman who blazes his or her own path (or perhaps reclaims a good path from accumulated debris).

When we speak of America in terms of novels, doubtless one of the most “American” is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It boasts humour, adventure, drama, features issues of race, loyalty and friendship, and stars an anti-hero who bucks all the rules — and we love him for it. Just as the squabbling couples in Shakespeare’s comedies are far more interesting than the “perfect” couples of the same plays, (1) aspiring delinquent Huck Finn proves far more fascinating than Tom Sawyer.

Something profoundly American lies in Huck Finn saying to hell with school and going off with his friend Jim on the river. As the saying goes, “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” Huck Finn seems to be saying something very similar — I’ll get a real education here on the river, thank you very much, and learn things far more valuable than I can in your schoolhouse. Sure enough, everything is quite peaceful for Huck and Jim on the river — it is only when they land and have to deal with the craziness of civilization that things go bad for them. Floating along with the natural flow of the river, the duo are allowed a separation from the everyday and can gain a new, fresh perspective.

Huckleberry Finn also features one of the great moments in American Literature. In chapter thirty-one, Huck wrestles with his conscience over whether to turn in Jim or not as a runaway slave. While the two hundred dollar reward is not a factor for Huck, everything his society has ever told him says he must turn Jim in: “The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling.” (2) Huck winds up writing a letter turning Jim in, and feels relieved for a while. But then he thinks back on his relationship with Jim and can feel nothing but deep warmth. He spies the letter:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up. (3)

This is no simple act on Huck Finn’s part. He feels horrible, even damned by his choice. Yet at the same time his choice is profoundly exciting. Similar to Hamlet when he remarks “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” [3.1, 84], Huck mistakenly thinks he is going against his conscience when in fact he is following it. It is this startling boldness that makes Huck’s decision so very inspiring — almost everything he has ever been told tells him to do one thing, yet something deep inside himself, so deep he cannot come close to articulating it, compels him to act to save Jim.

Huck Finn is without question a rebel, yet he also reveals a deep moral core. He experiences an amazing moment of truth. However, he does so outside of the classroom. America has always had an anti-intellectual bent, which normally acts to our detriment as a culture. However, the journey of Huck Finn points to the positive path this impulse can take us if we are striving towards a deeper truth. The moral challenge for an uniquely American education is to provide students with the opportunity for these moments of conscientious rebellion, moments of truth, in the classroom. Huck Finn can and should continue to take journeys down the river in his life. But the classroom must provide a comparably meaningful experience. In America, this meaningful experience must come from nurturing the rebel spirit and guiding it in a positive direction.

Emerson, Thoreau, Rosseau, Dewey, and Freire have all said something similar. Huck Finn might well be a difficult student to have in class; these days he no doubt would be seen as rambunctious, unfocused, “ADD,” potentially a real handful — perhaps a younger version of McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Still, Huck Finn’s spirit should not be smothered by relentless indoctrination, nor do we ever want to take part in an educational system that would perpetrate such an act. Education and life should never be at odds. Anyone teaching Huck Finn must be willing to embrace not only questioning his or her students in probing fashion, but also must welcome being questioned by them.

It is important to remember that Huck Finn already has the potential for moral choices before he steps in the classroom. However, he still lacks some of the tools to help him examine his life and the world around him. Huck will face other moral dilemmas as he grows older. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give Huck, then, is the capacity to name what is going on both around him and inside him, to aid him in walking his true path.


Socrates, what have you done to me? I no longer know who I am!
— Alcibiades

Alcibiades, one of Socrates’ most notable students, was a man who was very wont to “easily make many fine speeches to large audiences” (4) about topics such as virtue. The popular, charismatic Alcibiades would be quite well-received in the process, and think himself quite wise based on his accolades — until he offered the same arguments to Socrates. Suddenly, cross-examined through Socrates’ probing, thorough questioning, Alcibiades found that he no longer was sure of being right — indeed, he found himself as “perplexed and numb as the torpedo fish does” to its victims. (5)

Educator Mortimer J. Adler — an avid student of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — poses that “pain and work are irremovable and irreducible accompaniments of genuine learning.” (6) While pain might overstate the case somewhat, certainly when it comes to discomfort Adler is correct. How can one learn without being open to learning and questioning one’s views, and how can one be truly open without some element of risk? Yet American teachers are notorious for not letting students struggle — similar to overprotective parents, several studies have shown that American teachers tend to swoop in to save students from discomfort. The perceived trauma of not being able to arrive without struggle to the right answer in a math class is judged to be just too much for the fragile Huck Finns in our classrooms. However, such a rescue ultimately says more about our discomfort watching students’ struggle. While the impulse to save our students is certainly born in part out of compassion, it also sends a powerful implicit message to our students that they cannot handle the matter on their own. Many students, deep down if not consciously, are hungry for just such challenges — but while we often supply those challenges on the athletic field, we often rob them of the same experience when it comes to intellectual and spiritual growth. Thus, while we might not force him to drink hemlock, we force Socrates to remain mute if he is allowed in the classroom at all.

“Real Art has the capacity to make us nervous,” (7) challenges critic Susan Sontag. Similarly, Anatoly Smeliansky, the vice-rector of the famous Moscow Art Theater, once observed that “American Theater is like the sign on hotel rooms — Do Not Disturb.” (8) We can see the same impulse in education, where discomfort is often not allowed to enter. Alcibiades experiences extreme distress after being questioned by Socrates, to the point that he exclaims he no longer knows who he is. However, he also comes out of this experience a better person, as he later acknowledges in other Socratic tales — and looks on Socrates with not only respect, but affection. Socrates has given Alcibiades a moment of truth — and Alcibiades has grown as a result.

Meno, after seeing Socrates question a young boy, comes to a similar conclusion about the wisdom of Socrates’ approach.

Socrates: You realize, Meno, what point [the boy] has reached in his recollection. At first he did not know what the basic line of the eightfoot square was; even now he does not yet know, but [earlier] he thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did know, and he did not think himself at a loss, but now does think himself at a loss, and as he does not know, neither does he think he knows.

Meno: That is true.

Socrates: So he is now in a better position with regard to the matter he does not know?

Meno: I agree with that too.

Socrates: Have we done him any harm by making him perplexed and numb as the torpedo fish does?

Meno: I do not think so.

Socrates: Indeed, we have probably achieved something relevant to finding out how matters stand, for now, as he does not know, he would be glad to find out, whereas before he thought he could easily make many fine speeches to large audiences about the square of double size and said it must have a base twice as long.

Meno: So it seems.

Socrates: Do you think that before he would have tried to find out that which he thought he knew though he did not, before he fell into perplexity and realized he did not know and longed to know?

Meno: I do not think so, Socrates.

Socrates: Has he then benefited from being numbed?

Meno: I think so. (9)

A popular quip states that “education is the process of moving from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.” The above exchange, repeated with variations throughout the Socratic dialogues, reveals the key to the Socratic ideal — that one must know one’ self, but most especially one most know the limits of one’s knowledge, of both one’s self and the world. Only then can true learning occur. While strong convictions can be wonderful, we must remember both MLK and Hitler possessed strong convictions. As the passage from Pope’s Essay on Criticism goes:

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not, the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sober us again.

It must also be noted that Socrates is supportive of his students — and many of his “victims” come back to him. If he was merely harsh or cruel, such loyalty would be unlikely. Socrates can be sarcastic and cutting at times, puckish and playful, but ultimately he proves devoted to his students’ true well-being. Socrates is no sadist. After “numbing” the boy in front of Meno, Socrates moves to the next stage in his style of teaching. As Socrates tells Meno:

Look then how [the boy] will come out of his perplexity while searching along with me. I shall do nothing more than ask questions and not teach him. Watch whether you find me teaching and explaining thing to him instead of asking for his opinions. (10)

Nurturing and support play an essential role in good teaching. The actress Brenda Blethyn (from Mike Leigh’s film Secrets & Lies) once said that what she wanted most from a director was his trust, his support — “if he gives me that, I’m willing to go anywhere.” (11) Teaching works similarly — the student must trust the teacher to serve as a competent guide facilitating the search, and the teacher must pose good questions. And, as Neil Postman observes in his superb essay “Silent Questions,” the questions we ask almost always determine the answers we receive. (12) Notice also, however, that Socrates acts as a facilitator, not a dispenser of knowledge. The best teaching often seems almost invisible; Socrates’ technique forces his students to articulate their own thoughts, refine them, discard bad ideas, and eventually arrive at the answer themselves. True learning often proves a joyful process, but true learning embraces risk, especially the risk of discomfiture.

As Tennessee Williams once put it, “once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle, you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.” A true education, one that touches the lives of its students and teachers, embodies this struggle. As teachers and parents we must ask hard, challenging questions of our students (and ourselves), not for the sole purpose of discomfort, but to pursue deeper truths. Deep down, the Huck Finns in our classrooms want nothing less.


Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
— T.S. Eliot, Choruses From ‘The Rock’

A few months back I was riding in the car of a recent acquaintance who was very concerned about not having a cell phone. He possessed a surprising degree of anxiety about the issue, and said something about wanting to be “connected.” It’s a phrase tossed around these days with wild abandon, and I had to wonder — “connected” with what? Would this be a connection to a boss, a job, clients, to work obligations? A connection to friends, family, a significant other? Surely this would not be a connection to nature, to a tree, a stream, a mountain, a beach? Doubtless it would not be a connection to literature, to art, to deeper questions about his identity and his life?

I do not mean to be cavalier — e-mail is wonderful thing, and cell phones can be very useful if not invaluable. Yet, as T.S. Eliot suggests above, it is all too easy to speak while saying nothing, to communicate on a shallow level without saying anything of meaning. One can make fine speeches like Alcibiades, or never have a meaningful, honest conversation with one’s parents — one can speak “words, words, words” “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” (13)

It has been observed that if facts alone constituted knowledge, one could merely read an encyclopedia and possess all the education one could ever need. Similarly, the internet is a wonderful tool, but ultimately it is merely a tool — one still needs to learn how to sift through all that (often suspect) information, to pick and choose from various sources, to ask, like Socrates, the hard, probing questions.

One of Socrates’ most exciting lines is that “the truth about reality is always in our soul.” (14) Socrates is not merely clever, but wise — his questions are not merely parlor tricks, but push his students towards a deeper, spiritual truth. This is real connection. Socrates also inspires through his genuine hunger for learning — he does not want to rest on his laurels, but prefers to keep searching:

Meno: Somehow, Socrates, I think what you say is right.

Socrates: I think so too, Meno. I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it. (15)

Even a seeming anti-intellectual such as Huck Finn could get excited by a teacher like this, who embraces the search, and honors the pioneering, maverick spirit. Because it is all too easy to slip into complacency and pick the easy familiar answer over the hard truth, to pursue the truth without limitations shall always be rebellious and revolutionary in the very best sense. The Zen Buddhist tradition pursues a similar goal to that of rebellious Socrates; Zen masters often give their students koans, riddles with no simple, rational answer. This forces the students to strive for a deeper truth beyond the familiar or obvious, and to achieve this, they must not only look more openly at the world about them, but also within themselves. Regardless of the tradition, questioning is key, but it must connect with something deeper versus dealing with the superficial.


Perhaps the greatest scene in Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X occurs when Elijah Muhammad teaches Malcolm a principle by using two glasses. Muhammad first fills one glass with water and then dumps in ashes, so that the water is horribly filthy. He says that if that glass is all the people have, they’ll drink it, and drink it gladly. Muhammad next pours a glass of clear water — it looks wonderful, especially in contrast to the glass of ashes. Muhammad observes if people are offered the glass of clear water, they will pick it instead.

Malcolm shows a flash of concern, (16) as if to ask— what if people don’t pick the right glass? But as Elijah Muhammad explains it:

Here is a glass. Dirty. Water - Foul. You offer this to the people, they have no choice. They’ll drink from it. If they’re thirsty.

You offer them this glass and let ‘em make their own decision, they will choose the pure vessel.

Malcolm’s task is merely to offer the choice. If people but see the choice clearly, they will always pick the better glass.

Removing this lesson from the religious bent of the scene, (17) it remains a powerful metaphor. All people pick the path they feel is best, even if they find out they are mistaken later on. The trick is seeing this. Most every student I have questioned about his or her dreams possesses some sort of vision for him or herself. Deep down, that dream, while varying wildly from person to person, almost always involves giving back to others or leaving the world a better place. No one has ever had a vision of his or herself that has not involved other people in some fashion, whether it be a family, friends, or co-workers. This is another sort of dialogue, or connection. Martin Luther King, in a quotation used at the end of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, speaks of the need for dialogue, versus monologue; violence is a monologue of power, and prohibits true dialogue. (18) In the same vein, Socratic teaching is opposed to indoctrination; indoctrination (like censorship) is violence.

We need our heroes. We need rebellious students and revolutionary teachers. There is also a necessary cost, a sacrifice to made in nurturing these heroes — as teachers we must be willing to suffer the discomfort of watching our students occasionally make poor choices, and learn for themselves. Good teaching will, per Malcolm X’s dictum, use almost “any means necessary.” One of these tools is engaging students in the Socratic dialogue. Another tool is tapping into that Huck Finn rebel spirit rather than squelching it. And still another is presenting students with a choice, but allowing them to choose. We must merely offer them better glasses to see.

Take a student; couple a healthy, restless curiosity with a sense of vision in that student, aid that student in developing the critical thought and expression to name what he or she sees and feels, honor and nurture the spirit that drives that vision — and we are close to what education should be. “I have a dream,” spoke King so powerfully not so very long ago. We must arm Huck Finn to articulate questions of himself and the world, asking him to keep us honest — if we do, perhaps he can grow up from being a Lord of the River to another King.


The two quotations from at the end of Do the Right Thing are:

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding. It seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leave society in a monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.


I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the one who seem to have all the power and be in the positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and that doesn’t mean I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.

-Malcolm X

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