Monday, June 29, 2009
Michael Jackson: The last integrationist
As we all know, Michael Jackson has and will be remembered in many ways: pop star, freak, business mogul, et. al. What I fear, amid all all the grief, cacophony, and distaste of these and coming days, is that we will lose sight of the truth that he was, whatever else he might have been, a great artist. Like his predecessor, Elvis Presley, Jackson was a distillation --and extension -- of all that had come before him, in his particular case a tradition that runs from ring shouts to James Brown. And like Presley, a major component of Jackson's claim on immortality will be his status as a great American artist. And like Presley too, the heart of that claim is Jackson's quintessential generational embodiment of the grand drama of our history: the saga of integration.
Michael Jackson first burst into public consciousness as part of the final flowering of Motown Records, a label founded in the 1950s in large measure to make black music that would be commercially appealing to white people. But by the time of its heyday in the mid-1960s, Motown had achieved its cultural pre-eminence as great American music. African American music, yes, and thus ineluctably somehow not quite pure (i.e. white). But set against the social and political drama of the sixties this was precisely what legitimated it. At the time and ever since, there have been those who have denigrated Motown as pop that pandered. But this has always been a minority position, even among African Americans themselves. The paradoxical essence of American identity is its mongrel character (or, if you prefer, its hybrid character). That's as true of the Anglo-American Benjamin Franklin, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass, and the Russian Jewish immigrant Mary Antin as it was of Jackson.
By the late 1960s, the times were a changin,' even at Motown. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye -- even marvelously bright-spirited Stevie Wonder -- were realigning themselves on a landscape where Memphis, not Detroit, was central. Literally and figuratively, the national mood was a good deal darker, especially for African Americans. By the early 1970s it was no longer considered appropriate for anyone (with the possible exception of a child star) to uncritically embrace the paled appeal of racial integration. Popular music largely re-segregated, reflecting a society in which a seemingly permanent black underclass took shape and residential patterns stubbornly resisted legal mandates for multi-racial schools. Overt racism was no longer permissible. But by the early 1980s, the music executives at MTV would, with straight faces, make what seemed to be a rational assertion that white audiences would simply not be interested in seeing videos for a song like "Billie Jean."
Like Marian Anderson and Louis Armstrong, Michael Jackson in his heyday almost entirely sidestepped racial conflict, and like them this was a big part of his appeal -- even as the inescapability of his racial identity was also part of his appeal. With Off the Wall in 1979 and Thriller in 1982, he staked a fully formed adult claim to the center of American life and miraculously straddled musical cultures, as well as the transition from album-oriented radio to music video. That he could not remain in the center says less about his tragically deformed personality that it does the ineluctible shifting of what constitutes the center at any given time. The rise of hip-hop pushed Jackson to the musical margins, even on hit radio. By the early 1990s, the Sidney Pointier of his generation, Denzel Washington, was playing Malcolm X in a Spike Lee film.
We of the early 21st century have another honor roll that lists names like Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, and Barack Obama. We no more wish these people to deny the particularities of their heritage any more than we would Abraham Lincoln to deny his poverty or F. Scott Fitzgerald his Irish Catholicism. Far from a barrier, such distinctions have become a veritable asset. There's a word we often use to describe this state of affairs: Progress. But progress always has a price. The death of Michael Jackson serves as a pointed reminder of its cost, who pays, and what the world loses when we become who we are.
Friday, June 26, 2009
All that is solid melts into Stone
Iain Pears dazzles again with his latest foray into historical fiction
The following review was also published at the History News Network book section.
One of the pleasures of reading historical fiction, especially historical mysteries, involves the (often anachronistic) experience of encountering familiar characters or archetypes in novel settings: the headstrong female bucking paternalistic tradition; the prescient innovator whose genius goes unrecognized by his contemporaries; the likeable scoundrel whose necessary rule-breaking paves the way for a modern happy ending. That’s not why you read Iain Pears, though. Pears, whose fiction of the last decade is often astoundingly saturated in historical detail that spans the
This lesson in humility takes on a special relevance for
The set-up of Stone’s Fall is simple enough. In 1909, an immensely wealthy (and acrophobic) arms merchant John Stone, a.k.a. Lord Ravenscliff, plunges to his death from a window in his
Saying much about the plot line of any mystery novel is a risky business, but it’s especially true of this one, which is more intricate than most. (The multitalented Pears, by the way, has a background that includes financial journalism as well as the authorship of a series of more conventional detective novels featuring a contemporary art-historian/private eye named Jonathan Argyll.) At almost 600 pages, Stone’s Fall is not one you can read quickly. But its satisfactions are real, sustained, and quickly apparent.
Again, what sets Pears apart is an exceptionally acute historical consciousness. Sometimes, you encounter it as a sly inside joke, as when a onetime war correspondent consigned to reporting on celebrity aristocrats in Biarritz brags to another by saying “I was in Afghanistan doing really well.” His companion asks, “But there isn’t a war in
But in its broadest sense, Stone’s Fall is a novel about the sweeping force of historical change and the emergence of a modern order rooted in industrial capitalism. “Money,” an old intelligence operative explains to young Cort in the heart of the Belle Époque. “All the world is now convertible to money. It used to be that the sole determinant was the number of men you could march out to meet your enemies. Now more depends on the convertibility of your currency, its reputation among the bankers.” The purest embodiment of the new order is the aptly named Stone. Torpedoes don’t kill people; people kill people, he tells an incredulous Cort, justifying an avowedly amoral approach to commerce that includes a desire to sell weapons to
But Pears also insists that Stone and his ilk cannot simply be dismissed as brutes. The conversion of desire and the extraction of capital is an art no less than the chiseling of a sculpture (or the writing of a novel), and the motives of such people are no less human than those of anyone else. As one character explains, extrapolating from Stone’s financial records, “He seems to have approached what he did rather as an engineer approaches a problem, or an artist a picture. He took pleasure in creating something that was harmonious, integrated, and balanced. He could have been an architect, I think. Or maybe he would have liked these new crosswords, where the delight lies solely in solving the puzzle.” Later in the book Stone endorses this perception: “I find it astonishing that man can regard fine machinery without admiration. The machines our age has produced can induce an awe in me that is as powerful as the impulse to religion in other men.” (Stone's sentiments echo those of his contemporary, Henry Adams, who like Stone, was intrigued by newfangled motor cars.)
It is a measure of Stone’s accomplishment than even people like the callow Braddock cannot fail to apprehend it, as in this scene in which he beholds the construction of Dreadnought battleships at Stone’s shipyard in northern England:
“I stared in utter amazement, with emotions verging on awe. The yard was gigantic, so big you could not see the end of it, whichever way you turned, it was simply swallowed up in the haze of sunlight through smoke. A vast mass of machinery, cranes, yards, buildings, storage areas, assembly sheds, offices, stretching out before my eyes in every direction …It seemed chaotic, even diabolical the way the landscape had disappeared under the hand of man, but there was also something extraordinarily beautiful in the intricacy, the blocks of brick buildings set against the tin roofs and rusting girders and the dark brown of the river, faintly in view to the east. And there was not a tree, not a bird, not even a patch of grass, anywhere to be seen. Nature had been abolished.”
Literally – and, arguably, figuratively – Twitter is small by comparison. So are contemporary hedge fund managers who indulge in little more than idle speculation. One need not romanticize the terrible cost of the Pax Britannica to wonder whether the achievements of its successor will be any more impressive, or durable. In any event, an imperial imagination is an artifact no less than a piece of pottery. “I was a great patriot then,” Braddock reflects at the beginning of the story, which opens in 1953. “I do not know whether I say so in pride or sorrow.”
Stone’s Fall has its shortcomings. Pears takes a comic potshot at the suffrage movement at one point, and the resolution of the story seems a bit forced. Some may not like a vein of supernaturalism that runs through what is otherwise a realistic novel. (There was a comparably surprising and, perhaps, misplaced religious angle in An Instance of the Fingerpost.) But this is an endlessly provocative book by an extraordinary popular novelist. In the decade since I first plucked a rack-sized paperback Fingerpost from a train station at
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
A story where nothing happens
Kevin Mattson’s What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country
The following review was published yesterday at the History News Network.
It has now been almost exactly thirty years since a summer of discontent led to one of the most remarkable presidential addresses in American history: Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech. (The word “malaise” was never actually used in the text, but in surfaced in the pre-broadcast discourse of the speech, and stuck.) As far as I can tell, the only other public address remotely like it is Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural of March 4 1865, in that it, like Carter’s speech of July 15, 1979, held American citizens responsible for the crises that beset them. For Lincoln, it was the Union no less than the Confederacy that God punished with a Civil War; for Carter, it was a culture of narcissism that explained a nation literally and figuratively sapped of its energy. But whatever their similarities in content and tone, the outcome proved to be quite different. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural solidified his claim on immortality; Carter’s speech, after giving him a momentary bump in the polls, became an emblem of his ineffectuality and hastened the end of his presidency.
The “malaise” speech is well known among presidential historians and students of the 1970s. But Kevin Mattson, recently named a “Top Young Historian” at the History News Network, here offers the first major book-length narrative history, focusing on the three months prior to Carter’s address. Yet perhaps without intending to, the effect of his account leads one to conclude not so much that his speech should have changed the country, but rather an explanation why it couldn’t. Challenged from his left by Ted Kennedy and on his right by an ascendant Ronald Reagan, the Carter White House was also riven by internal conflict that extended even to his genial vice-president, Walter Mondale, who fruitlessly urged Carter to take a focused and pragmatic approach to a national energy crisis that caused riots, mile-long gas lines, and seething anger at OPEC, the domestic oil industry, and the U.S. government. Instead, Mattson shows, Carter increasingly fell under the influence of the young pollster Patrick Caddell, who, armed with empirical data as well as the writings of scholars like Robert Bellah and (especially) Christopher Lasch, urged Carter to articulate a broader critique as to the troubled state of the nation and what the president would ultimately term “a crisis of confidence.”
Carter pulled few punches. “In a nation of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” he told the American people. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Carter, whose persona oscillated between his engineering training and his evangelical faith, re-entered the world of the Puritan jeremiad, and hoped to take the nation with him.
He did not. As Mattson’s analysis makes clear, that’s because public opinion was not sufficiently prepared or willing to accept the implications of his message. But this unwillingness was also a result of what Carter did – or, more accurately, failed to do – in his leadership role. The president’s address followed ten days of confusion resulting from a cancelled address on July 5 (prompting the New York Post to ask “What the heck are you up to Mr. President?"). Two days after the speech, Carter asked for the resignations of his entire cabinet, an act meant to demonstrate decisiveness but instead projected weakness. So was Carter’s inability to get his energy plan (which included a windfall profits tax and gas rationing) through Congress in anything like a recognizable form that summer. In November of 1979, the coup de grace of the Carter’s presidency – the Iranian hostage crisis – began. It’s probably this event rather than the “malaise” speech that was the true turning point that Mattson asserts the speech was.
Moreover, Mattson, who is also a historian of neoconservatism, is off the mark in another sense as well, one that again harkens back to his subtitle. For in a way, Carter’s speech did change the country: it crystallized the perception that modern liberalism was exhausted, and it became the touchstone for conservative critics – Reagan was only one of a number who cited it as justification for a political realignment – who would soon dominate American society. Mattson seems to imply that the nation was at a crossroads in 1979, that it was “a time of contingency, when a turn was taken that wasn’t carved in stone.” Yet he has little positive to say about Carter, not to mention his liberal challengers Kennedy and Jerry Brown, and gives little indication of a countervailing force anything like that of an ascendant Moral Majority and a new Right that made even figures like the one-time Republican front-runner John Connally look passé. The country was changing all right, just not in a way Mattson wished it would have. And his analysis, which explicitly affirms contingency, implicitly shows inevitability.
In the final pages of the book, Mattson makes clear that he regards the speech it as prophetic, only becoming more resonant as U.S. global confidence sinks and its energy dependency deepens. He’s right about that. Yet this is an argument in favor of a book that looked more closely at what Carter actually said than Mattson does, a book with a lot more of the Hendrik Hertzberg who helped write the speech and less of the Pat Caddell who lobbied for it. In his acknowledgments, Mattson notes his commitment to write narrative history. Alas, there isn’t much of a story here. It’s more a snapshot of a body politic facing right, not quite in motion.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Revisiting Walden through Robert Sullivan’s The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
The following review was first published at the History News Network.
I’m one of the people for whom Robert Sullivan wrote this book. Every year, the entire tenth grade of the school where I teach makes a somewhat misnamed “
I’m not going to do that anymore – or, at any rate, I’m not going to do it with quite as clear a conscience. As Sullivan points out, people like me (and I suspect he’s right in his suspicion that there are many) are smug about Thoreau’s smugness. “He worships nature, monk-like, while we carry on at home, ministering to the demands of the non-natural world,” Sullivan writes of our view of Thoreau. “He tends the pure
Sullivan’s critique of this critique is two-fold. The first is in effect to accept many of the charges leveled at Thoreau and turn them on their head. To point out, for example, that
But the other half of Sullivan’s argument is to directly rebut the charge of Thoreau as a cranky loner. He was not. That we think so, Sullivan says, is as often as not a perception of his cranky contemporaries, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, much more likely to talk the talk than walk the walk of his own philosophy, conflated Thoreau’s iconoclasm with unsociability. We forget that the lifelong bachelor had a hand in raising Emerson’s own children (the sage of Concord loved the idea of family life when he was on tour more than when he was actually at home), and that Thoreau was as comfortable with farmers and mechanics as he was Boston Brahmins. And he was as comfortable refining the process by which he manufactured pencils for the family business as he was cataloging the fate of seeds.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of this defense of Thoreau is Sullivan’s careful attempt to situate Thoreau in the economic and political climate of the antebellum decades. We tend to forget, for example, that the long downturn that followed the Panic of 1837 made social experiments like Brook Farm and Thoreau’s own cabin less a matter of bohemian sentiment than a search for a fiscally viable way of life. Far from isolated from the shifting social tides of his time, this quintessential Yankee had protracted contact and often careful observations about the Irish immigrants who surged onto
It’s important to note that Sullivan is hardly the first person to make these or other points in defense of Thoreau. But he does so with pithy – yet tangy – prose worthy of his subject. “To imagine Thoreau and his writing without considering the economy is a little like thinking about The Grapes of Wrath without considering the Great Depression,” he asserts. Sullivan distills the political vision of works like “Civil Disobedience” into a series of declarations: “Stick together! Join the club and pay the dues [well, maybe not all the dues], and don’t abandon the ship, even if you have to get arrested and thrown in the brig to save it, even if you feel undervalued . . . Send the telegraph message but have something to say. Use text messaging, but for more than delivering the news that, as the narrator of Walden jokes, ‘Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.’”
Actually, such willful anachronisms go to the heart of what’s original and compelling here. Sullivan, himself a freelance writer (as well as the author of Thoreauvian books like Rats and The Meadowlands) is acutely aware that Thoreau was, too, and that this consciousness really can explain a lot. “A literary stunt is a thing that happens all the time today in publishing circles: a writer living in a particular way – or partaking in a particular community or ritual or what have you – in order to ultimately report on the event or place or people,” he writes of the circumstances that led to Walden. “It is an essentially artificial experiment undertaken with an interest in making money on publication or putting forward a not-so-artificial argument (optional) or, in some case, both.” A garden wasn’t the only place Thoreau made his living.
After finishing The Thoreau You Know I went looking for my annotated Modern Library of Thoreau’s writings from my college days, and was distressed that I couldn’t find it. So I had to browse him again fresh, online. And when I did, I remembered why it was that I’ve used Thoreau’s sentences as epigrams for two of my books. Like many of the Transcendentalists, his work is easy to mock as vague, even meaningless, from a distance, and yet it takes on a tensile vitality when you come up against it. He’ll never be on of my favorites (I’m one who finds Whitman’s embrace irresistible, as apparently did Thoreau.) But next time I’m at the pond, I’ll give Thoreau his due (which is as likely as not to mean that I’ll keep my mouth shut). I might even pick up some trash I find in the parking lot as I walk back to the bus.
Friday, June 19, 2009
The Heart of rock & roll
I was engaged in the quintessential act of postmodern life – channel surfing – late the other night when I came upon an unexpected and welcome sight: the rock band Heart performing at the Orpheum. (The “info” button on my remote control didn’t specify which Orpheum, which in a way was fitting, since part of what touring bands did during Heart’s heyday was create a national rock culture, even if the homogeneity of that culture was the source of much criticism.) The twin pillars of Heart, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, were in fine form. Ann’s voice still seemed strong, and
When Heart burst onto the national scene in the mid-1970s, the sisters were widely regarded as rock mavericks of a sort – bold women seizing ground long regarded as a male preserve – but they were never really regarded as feminist icons the way their contemporaries Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde were. That’s not really surprising. Unlike Smith or Hynde, the
In any case, Heart was a remarkably good rock band. Sinuous rhythms and a muscular guitar-based sound fused with an exceptional knack for melody that has stood the test of time. Despite growing anxieties about a weight problem, the raven-haired Ann projected a tremendous sense of authority and joy in her singing; despite evident shyness, blonde
When, in the early eighties, the band’s moment in the spotlight began to dim, the
Heart was never really at the forefront of my youthful musical obsessions; I always considered the band as the equivalent of an acquaintance I’ve long liked from a distance without knowing very well. My guess is that the group’s very skill at capturing its moment – its album covers of the eighties look like gaudy fashion caricatures of the time – will steadily fade as its core demographic gets displaced to the margins of pop culture. But I’d like to take this moment to do the Internet equivalent of flicking my bic in the blogosphere. Thanks, ladies. I’ve been grateful for times we shared in these swing decades of the millennium.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Postscript: About Felix
The origin of "The Felix Chronicles" dates back to the fall of 2007, when, my work on my book Essaying the Past substantially complete, I began thinking in earnest about what would come next. I knew I wanted to continue in the (new) vein in which I had been working—writing about teaching—but I wasn’t sure how. As I groped my way through false starts, I began to understand that I would like to do something I have not often found in the discourse of education: capture the everyday life aspects of schooling, particularly the the life of the classroom. Most education writing I was familiar with tended to be prescriptive or theoretical; very little depicted the sense of a class in motion—the unfolding curriculum, the multi-directional conversations, and the constant stream of choices that go into the work of teaching a course.
My desire to record this aspect of the school experience was all the more ardent because I believed it was absent in the broader public understanding of education. In the spring of 2001 I had offered course in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard called the “The Culture of Schools,” which explored the way schooling is depicted and discussed in popular culture, and the sobering lesson of that experience was how little a role academic life had in that culture. I wanted to bring this overlooked facet to light on a page, and to connect it to other aspects of everyday experience.
That’s why, by the spring of 2008, I had begun drafting pieces in the shape of classroom episodes. The first was published as “Artificial Light” in Common-Place, the online history magazine for which I write a regular column. By the end of the summer vacation, I had generated dozens of such essays in the hope of turning them into a book.
Early attempts to get a book contract were not successful. In and of itself, that was not especially surprising or even troubling: Despite my veteran status, I’ve never found the publishing industry particularly easy to crack. But this time nevertheless felt a little different, in large measure because all media industries were in such upheaval. I never thought I’d live to see the day when books ceased to be commonplace; now, suddenly, their disappearance seemed conceivable. With a combination of fear, sorrow, and a hope that I could reinvent myself, I joined the great democratic throng and launched the blog you’re now reading as a vehicle for publishing what I had begun calling “The Felix Chronicles.” The title is both an acronym drawing on the name of my school— “Fieldston in Everyday Life Intellectual Exchange” —as well as a nod to the school’s founder, Felix Adler (1851-1933).
“The Felix Chronicles” ran in my blog for what was essentially the second semester of the 2008-09 school year, a year that included a presidential campaign and a meltdown of the global financial system, two events that loom in the background of these pieces. Their locus, however, was the school itself and the people in it, zeroing in on a single section of the standard 10th grade U.S. history survey up to World War II, though I sought to protect the privacy of my colleagues and students by concealing their identities. (This could sometimes get me in trouble; I heard indirectly of cases where fictionalized people and situations were mistakenly believed or considered to be real.) I declared the experiment complete with the publication of the 36th and final piece in June of 2009.
In reproducing them here as a complete set, I am mindful of the (non-linear) medium in which they appear. Taken together, the essays are about as long as a short book, though I don’t imagine many people would be inclined to read them straight through. While they are arranged in loosely chronological order (corresponding to the events they describe, not the dates they were first written or published), my guess is that readers will take them singly or in batches. And that’s just fine with me.
I appreciate any interest you may have in my work. Thanks for getting this far. And please feel welcome to leave any comments along the way.
Monday, June 15, 2009
Closing the (grade) books: Felix in repose
are declared complete
The Felix Chronicles #36
Kim: A (That's easy.)
Mindy: B (That's easy too.)
Mark: B- (That botched final exam really dragged down his average. He's been erratic in recent months. Gonna let the chips fall where there may there.)
Joey: B+ (The numbers say B, but would the class have been half as good without his humor? His jokes themselves were signs of engagement.)
Grading. The final act, a postmortem ritual that gets performed after everyone but the administrative staff is gone (and even their ranks are thinned and days shortened). I generally dislike assigning grades, because I think it's overly reductive to denote an entire semester's performance to a single letter. I also dislike grading because it seems to be that there's a core conflict of interest between being a coach and being a judge, and I regard a teacher's job as essentially the former. Coaches have to make judgments too, I guess, and rank their players competitively. But there's still a sense of a team, a shared enterprise, that's generally missing in grading. At least there's the factor of class participation, which typically looms large in my calculus, somewhere between 20-30% of a grade.
Of course, using a figure like that implies that in fact something like class participation is quantifiable. It isn't. And even those things that seem quantifiable, like test scores, are suspect in all kinds of ways. Grading simply can't be objective, and I really don't see too much point in trying. I've long decided that it is first and foremost a pedagogical tool -- carrot, stick, way of sending a message. There are flaws in this kind of thinking, I know. But there are flaws with the alternative, too, and in this situation as in so many others, you simply have to pick your poison. I try not to be reckless, honoring talent and punishing laxity insofar as I can perceive them. But grading seems like as good an arena as any for a child to learn that life isn't fair, at least as far as human beings can engineer it. Not that we shouldn't try.
Nate: A- (I don't really think he deserves it, but the grades say so, and I have to err on the side of disregarding personal feelings.)
Sam: A- (Part of me thinks he should get the A, but the grades aren't quite there, and I feel like there's a whiff of complacency about him that I'd like to see him prodded into overcoming, which I hope I'll get to do myself next year.)
Erica: B+ (Another late collapse. Could see this coming. Actually, B+ is a bit of a gift.)
Ellen: A (I'm simply going to disregard the 84% she got on the first test of the semester. It was an outlier. She'll obsess, fruitlessly, if I factor it in, and I told her to forget about an makeup assignment for extra credit.)
Chris: B- (He's been limping along all year. Last semester he got a B; I hope his folks will notice the deterioration.)
As far as I can tell, there are basically two grades at this school (and every other one I've worked at in the last twenty years): A and B. There are the gradations between them, and a big jump between B+ and A-. As my colleagues often say, you gotta work hard to get a semester grade of C or less, though I'll sometimes slap one on a weak essay. Students fail my exams all the time, but I can't think of a single instance where I flunked a kid for a whole course.
Alec: B+ (Love to make it higher, but can't find an excuse to do so. Again, this isn't about my affection for the kid.)
Samantha: A (if only I could make it higher!)
Beth: A (Ditto!)
Jason: B (He kinda slipped between the cracks. I feel bad about it. If I get another chance, I'd like to work a little harder to pull him in.)
Becky: B+ (She'll be mad about this, and I'm likely to hear about it. But it's what she deserves.)
Susan: A (Really shaky in terms of numbers. But she's been so reliable in class. And that research essay on Amelia Earhart was really terrific. She tells me she's already signed up for "U.S. Since 1945," and her Mom is lobbying to get me again.)
For me a class never seems to end so much as it fizzles. We get to the last week of May and we're chugging along into World War II. Then it's time for review, and we play a round of Jeopardy!, using the same set of clues every year. I give a class session over to discussing he final essay question, which I hand out in advance of the exam, but it usually runs out of steam about halfway through.. At the end of that last week we play a game of whiffle ball, which I enjoy very much -- I play very competitively and will be bragging for weeks about striking out Tom, star of the baseball team, with my curveball -- and savor the company of these kids, who will soon disperse. (It's when my team is at bat that I learn things like Becky's plans to study art at Bennington or Roy's ambitious plan to go to Antaractica.) And then I have a session where I just answer any questions they might have, a session which typically peters out. Then we have finals, and the class meets a final time on the last day of school, when I turn back exams and sign yearbooks. But it always seems anticlimatic. I always feel like a living organism is dying. I'll have many of these kids again, but never in this configuration. It makes me sad.
Lisa: A- (Pretty much a straight row of grades there.)
Liza: B+ (Never got to know her well, but academics are secondary now; she's a nationally ranked tennis player.)
Roy: B+ (Nice surge at the end there.)
Tom: B (He found Becky, and the clock, far more interesting than anything I ever said or did. Maybe he'll wake up next year.)
Unlike the seniors, all these kids will be back. As, God willing, will I. But I've decided that it's time to retire our friend Felix; the chronicle you're now reading will be the last of its kind.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that it's difficult to chronicle a school year during a summer vacation when there's no year to chronicle, as it were. I probably could keep this going for a while. For one thing, there's always been an element of imagination in this enterprise. I also had a backlog of pieces that I wrote before I started publishing them on this blog. You may have noticed that I've been running some of them, many of which are set in the fall months, here on the cusp of summer. But sooner or later, I'd find I had a dearth of material, real or imagined, to work with.
A more serious problem is attention of an unwanted kind. While I believe many, if not most, of the thousands of visitors I've had to my blog have kindly read my work with an understanding that I'm trying to capture aspects of everyday school life in a way that illuminates issues for consideration and reflection, there have been some indications that my posts have been fodder for gossip. Beyond that, I've always known that I've been walking a tightrope here. While I don't believe I've committed anything remotely resembling libel or slander, the possibility for misunderstanding and hurt feelings has always been a risk, one that only increases the longer I do this. I made the decision that the potential good in terms of honesty and clarity justified launching this experiment, but understood that my final responsibility is to my students and institution. I'm going to stop before I unambiguously cross a line.
I do so with some regret. I've enjoyed this project, and would like to see it continue. But I'm glad I did succeed in publishing three dozen of these pieces, and do hope they will be the foundation for further work of a similar kind in the future. Please keep an eye out for it.In any event, I do intend to try and keep this blog going with pieces about teaching as well other subjects in the realm of American history in everyday life (I recently signed on to review books for the History News Network).
I'll end here with a few words of thanks: to my students and colleagues at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. To Felix Adler, the man who founded the institution, and in whose name these chronicles were written. And to you, dear -- and I do mean dear -- readers. Merely stopping by to say hello has been appreciated. But please know that you are welcome, now or later, to grade me on the work I did here.
And please continue to come by. I will labor to be worth your time.
Coming soon: A postscript and the complete Felix Chronicles, with links, at this blog.
Friday, June 12, 2009
In which we survey the annual spring harvest
The Felix Chronicles, # 35
I make a detour when I arrive at school for a final round of faculty meetings to take a look at the Quad. Surprisingly, there are no obvious traces of yesterday’s ceremonies. Less than 24 hours ago, this space was teeming with parents, grandparents, alums, along with hundreds of students —- some of whom were wearing caps and gowns and about to dissolve into living ghosts. Today, all that remains is a sole folding chair. And since it’s brown, not black like the hundreds that had been set up, I’m not even sure it was here yesterday. The only sign that anything relatively unusual had happened are the distressed stripes of grass running horizontally across the Quad. The maintenance crew will take care of that in pretty short order, and this space will revert to a stretch of silence, punctuated only by the occasional round of elementary school kids singing here on summer afternoons, or administrators walking to and from their cars. Birds and bees will hold dominion for a season.
I’m relieved it’s finally over. It’s been three weeks since the seniors finished classes, a period punctuated by end-of-the-year parties, final exams, the prom, the senior dinner, and other rituals. Graduation is the most tedious. People typically experience a string over a string of a dozen or so years: elementary school and middle school, then high school, college, each a little more bittersweet and dogged by anxiety, followed perhaps by a postgraduate degree. And then that’s it for a generation. But we teachers (especially high school teachers) go through the motions every year. The students, the speeches, the recitation of the school song: they all tend to run together. If anything is likely to be memorable, it’s the weather: hot or rainy, surprisingly cool or surprisingly beautiful. There’s usually a moment of genuine gladness at some point in the morning, as we witness the visible signs of maturity in some of our charges. And there’s often a moment of genuine regret, too, when we face an esteemed colleague’s retirement, the graduation of the final child in a cherished family, or a fond farewell from a clutch of friends who complemented each other so nicely. Any of these people may reappear at some point, in some perhaps transfigured way. But the uncertainty of such scenarios, and the certainty of time’s passage, make such moments bittersweet at best.
It’s always a relief when you get in the car and head home after such rituals, and I’m glad to seize a life, however quotidian, that’s truly my own. For years now, it’s been my habit to come home from graduation and mow the lawn. I think of Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “Veteran in a New Field,” which depicts a recently returned Civil War soldier threshing wheat. Figuratively speaking, my campaign is over, and I’m eager to get back to my farm.
This notion of closure is among the greatest satisfactions of teaching. Other walks of life are comparably cyclical. But I don’t think any afford the kind of clean lines and closed books that a life in schools does. Many working people take extended summer vacations, but few of them are as expansive and sharply chiseled as that afforded by an academic schedule. As we are all veterans of schooling, this experience is a virtual birthright. But only teachers refuse to relinquish it.
The time will come—unexpectedly quickly —when my longings will turn away from completion and repose toward the rebirth that comes with the fall. In my case, the longings typically return long before it's time to actually return to the classroom. But as I make my way from meeting to meeting, from a final faculty softball came to a final trip to the local watering hole before we all disperse, I pause to savor the cadence. The present is past. And history will be born anew.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
working on relaxation
The Felix Chronicles, #34
“Fellow Citizens, we cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln once told us. But that’s never stopped us from trying. Not even me.
By any measure—meteorological, solar, the annual calendar or the academic one—we are entering the heart of summer, and it’s time for our family vacation. This is a trip we’ve been looking forward to for months. The six of us—my wife and four kids, ranging from ages seven to fifteen—of us pack up our minivan, pop a David Sedaris audio book into the stereo and drive into bliss, gas prices be damned. We’re headed to Smuggler’s Notch resort in northern Vermont, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
The resort sits on over 1000 acres of ski trails, though the principal draw for us is the 70 acre village at the base of three mountains. We’ve sublet various condominiums for the last few years, some of them as part of a family reunion with my in-laws, with whom I’m happy to say I get along well. Within an hour of arrival, our bags are unpacked, and within a day we visit three of the resort’s pools (all of which feature water slides), play miniature golf, go to the arcade, get some ice cream at the Ben & Jerry’s concession, and (thanks to cousins and other relatives who take the kids off our hands) nap on the couch. Within 48 hours, I’ve polished off a mystery novel.
And by the (Monday) morning of the third day, I’m getting restless. I now remember the thought I had last year that as glad as I am to have come up here, I’ll be really glad to go. And I wonder: Will I be able to make it through the work week like this?
So when I spot an entry in a resort brochure about a guided “wike”—that’s a cross between a hike and a walk that’s just about my speed—focusing on local history, I’m chomping at the bit to go. Fortified by a tuna melt and my wife’s blessing, I put on my running shoes and head for village, where I encounter a motley crew of other tourists, all of whom are better equipped than I am. My own preparation has been virtual: I’ve spent some time googling to get a better feel of where I am and what I’ll see.
I quickly learn that the most obvious form of history here in Jeffersonville, Vermont is geologic: massive continental plates pushing, bulging, pressing gigantic formations above and below the ground, only to have solid rock whittled away by chemicals in the air over millions of years. The more recent rhythm of natural history is literally glacial—a set of ice ages dragging tundra to spawn the rolling waves of green that give the state its (Francophone) name. Over the course of day, that green will be enveloped in clouds of gray that turn pink as the sun sets, blurring the line between earth and sky, reminding me of just how small the human presence on the face of the planet can be.
For much of the past half-millennium, Vermont has been liminal space, a border between the Iroquois Mohican and Algonquin Abenaki, who were then forced to share it with the British and French. When, at the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, the territory presumably became British, only to have its sovereignty fought over between New York and New Hampshire, each of which chartered towns in the hope of collecting patronage and taxes. By the time the local militia of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were performing terrorist/freedom fighter acts against New York officials and declaring an independent republic, the American Revolution was getting underway—which of course is why their insubordination was possible in the first place. Vermont wrote a constitution, abolished slavery, named ambassadors, and flirted with union with Canada before becoming part of the Union in 1791, part of a broader deal that allowed Kentucky in as a (balancing) slave state.
The region I hiked today is part of the township of Cambridge, founded in 1781, when the Revolution was still raging. The center of Cambridge incorporated itself as Jeffersonville in a town meeting in 1827 in honor of Thomas Jefferson, who had died the year before (so had John Adams, but apparently “Adamsville” was never in the works, which is a bit surprising since flinty New England was Adams family turf). I was amused to read that Jefferson at the time was popular “in some parts of the state,” the implication clearly being that in others he wasn’t—not surprising, since Jefferson had wrecked the New England economy with his deeply unpopular Embargo Act in 1807, part of the run-up to the War of 1812 that choked the region’s access to international markets and led to talk of the region seceding from the Union. A gap in the mountains nearby became a secret passageway for illegal goods traveling back and forth between Canada; hence the name “Smuggler’s Notch.” It would later be a transit point in the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves, and for illegal liquor during Prohibition.
Such excitement notwithstanding, Vermont had peaked economically and demographically by the start of the Civil War, its ambitious young natives (like Abraham Lincoln’s great rival Stephen A. Douglas) long having scattered to the west. The site of the terrain I traverse includes the property of a saw mill owner in the late nineteenth century. The mill actually had an electric generator, so the Industrial Revolution really did touch here. But Vermont nevertheless remained a backwater, where land could be acquired for a few dollars an acre well into the 20th century.
It was only in the 1960s that Vermont’s population began to reverse a century of demographic decline (though one still hears now inaccurate assertions that there are more cows than people). The engine of its reemergence was automotive. Smuggler’s Notch was established by a group of skiers in 1956, the same year President Eisenhower signed the bill creating the interstate highway system. In the sixties, it was discovered by IBM executive Thomas Watson, who developed the village, demonstrating the long reach of corporate power to transform the hinterland at the height of the American century. (He divested his interest in the project following a heart attack.) For decades now, Vermont has had a reputation as a bucolic haven from urban civilization, yet this reputation, and the state’s prosperity, would have been impossible to establish without successive waves of technological innovation. Lord knows without them I’d never be here.
I come back from the wike refreshed and ready for family action that includes a trip to the pool and a meal with the extended family. But when everyone, including my early bird wife, has gone to bed, I grab my laptop and head for the livelier of the resort’s two bars. What the hell: Nerd’s night out. The house entertainer, “Good-Time Charlie,” is taking a break from his performing duties to show classic videos from the seventies and eighties. (I’m dazzled, and saddened, to see the prodigiously gifted Michael Jackson, who looks so damn uncomfortable trying to pass himself off as a regular heterosexual.) This is not exactly a hot club scene; “Smuggs”—doesn’t that aggressively-marketed nickname give anyone pause?—is a family resort and last call comes dismayingly soon after 11 pm. By then I’ve restocked my glass with another Jack Daniels on the rocks and have begun writing the prose that you’re now reading. I know: I’m one of the more ridiculous features in this tiny human landscape. But it’s no joke when I tell you that this is what happiness feels like.
Monday, June 8, 2009
The Felix Chronicles, #33
Morning, first day of school, opening assembly. The student body chatters on the sun-dappled quad; my colleagues and I dot the rim. Summer heat and humidity linger, in no apparent hurry to depart. The collar on my new white oxford shirt is already damp.
A series of speakers go through their paces. The principal welcomes the students back, and gives a special nod to the seniors, who whoop it up: their Moment has come. The senior class presidents – white male, black female, the winning political combination for the past few years – make announcements, all of which are met with disproportionate enthusiasm, some of it mockery. The new head of school comes forward to say how excited he is to be a part of the community. Figuratively speaking, we’ve all been here before, but nobody seems to mind.
My eyes and mind drift, just like everybody else’s. I see my son in the corner of the quad, legs bent, knees in the air: this is his home. Black jeans, red dress shirt untucked, white basketball sneakers with black laces and red trim. Looks effortless, just the way he intended. Truly amazing that the hopeless dork I was in high school could have produced such a child.
My gaze shifts to the broader sweep of the student body. I feel a combination of envy and pity – capturing that sense of promise would be nice, but boy am I glad to have gotten a few things ahead of them under my belt. I look into the faces and imagine some of them as middle aged. Some, I think, will weather well; in others, I see sagging jaws and wan expressions.
And then there’s Marcus, now a junior, isolated in the crowd, plucking the grass and probably wishing he was anywhere else. High school can’t end fast enough for him. Caught cheating on a Spanish exam in June, the dean decided against disciplinary action – his overbearing single father and evident, self-loathing penitence made anything beyond an F on the test seems like piling on. I’ve actually got some hope for him. His overall grades are pretty good; notwithstanding Dad’s unrealistic expectations (no doubt a factor in the cheating), he’ll probably get into a decent college. His skin will improve, and I can imagine him putting on a few pounds. I picture an appealingly incredulous fiancé trying to imagine him as the ungainly kid he currently is, a momentary flash of pity giving way to instinctive affection.
All right kids, have a good year, the principal is saying. The buoyant chatter returns as the gathering disperses. I’ve got about forty minutes before my first class. One last bout of hurry up and wait. The beginning always takes so long to arrive.
Friday, June 5, 2009
Gaming the system
and who -- we don't see that matters
The Felix Chronicles, #32
Rick is writing his final Civil War research paper on an Xbox game, which he has hooked up to the classroom Smart Board and is playing in front of his classmates. Not exactly an orthodox topic for an academic essay, but I see a real workshop opportunity here, both in terms of engaging him in something he's passionate about, and in raising intellectual issues in places and in ways they might not otherwise get raised.
But we're not off to a promising start.
"Those graphics suck," Eddie points out as Rick puts a sniper in his sights and fires away.
"And the lack of interactivity is really lame," Aaron adds. "What happens if you go off into the woods there?"
"You can't," Rick says. "It doesn't let you."
"That is lame," Darius notes. "You gotta wonder about the developers here. Did they pour all the resources into marketing? I could have probably done this on my two year old MacBook Pro!"
Hmmm.Darius has said virtually nothing all semester. Here he sounds like a management consultant critiquing an entire product line. But this isn't quite what I had in mind -- and while the class as a whole is engaged at the moment, I suspect we're going to start losing altitude soon.
"So how would you compare this game with comparable games out there are the market, Rick?" I ask.
Somewhat surprisingly, it's Darius who answers for him. "There's no comparable Civil War product," he says, "except for Blue/Gray Field Command. In that game you're a four-star general trying to supervise overall strategy."
"Well that's interesting," I reply. "Here you're an individual soldier performing a localized mission."
"That's right," Rick says. "You sometimes complete the mission only to be informed that your side has actually lost the battle."
"That in itself says a lot," I note. "This game is more like The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming lost at Chancellorsville, while the game Darius is talking about is more like The Killer Angels, Lee and Longstreet debating whether to engage at Gettysburg. Am I right Caroline and Zack?"
Caroline, who's working on Red Badge, and Zack, who's doing Killer Angels (actually the lousy film version, called Gettysburg) nod. But that's all they do. I'm disappointed. I thought this would open things up a bit.
Aaron still has his eyes on the screen, tracking Rick's movements. "I see your job is now to clear that barn over to the left. So you can get a change in mission halfway through?"
"Yeah. This happens a lot when you play 'Easy.' In 'Medium' and 'Hard' you'll typically take longer or get killed before you execute the original orders."
"Don't tell me you actually get yourself killed in this game," Darius says.
"Of course he does," Aaron says. "I swear to God it took three weeks for Rick to steal his first car on Grand Theft Auto at my place after I first got it.
I see Chantel roll her eyes. I decide to seize on this.
"Oh," I say with mock solemnity, "So you're also appalled at Rick's ineptitude at Grand Theft Auto? Well tell me, Chantel, how long did it take you to steal your first car when you played it on your Xbox?"
Chantel smiles wryly, recognizing that I'm not serious. "Actually, I don't have an Xbox."
"Don't have an Xbox? Wow. Why, that means you can't play this game or Grand Theft Auto!" Laughter.
I shift my gaze sharply. "Caroline: How 'bout you? How long did it take -- "
"I don't have an Xbox, either."
"And you, Tanya?"
She shakes her head, smiling. "Nope."
I sound desperate: "Christina?"
"I don't have one either," she says. "I steal my little brother's to play Space Invaders."
A roar of laughter.
"Well thank God for that. For a minute there I was beginning to worry we were going to have a problem with gender bias there. But I guess you've saved us from that, huh, Christina?"
"I guess so," she says, smiling.
"You get my point, though," I say to the class as a whole, as a few kids nod. "One way of being to figure out what's going on with a document -- or, in this case, a game -- is to ask who it's likely to appeal to. And who it isn't. In this case, it appears the game in question has a strong appeal to boys, though our statistical sample is admittedly small."
"Actually, I'd say the appeal here is mostly young boys," Rick says. "The level of play is fairly simple compared with some others I've played."
"Yeah. And also it's less violent. I'm afraid of Grand Theft Auto 4," Christina says. "My mother won't allow my brother to get it."
"And this one is endorsed by the History Channel," Rick notes.
"Okay," I say. "I think we're beginning to get somewhere. One way Rick will be able to develop his argument in his essay will be to focus on this question of audience. But we can ask a similar question about content -- we can ask what's not there."
I pause for dramatic effect.
"I guess it's time for me to share a little secret with you, gang. You see, I've decided to quit my day job and become a video game designer myself. I've come up with something I think you'll find interesting. It's called Contraband." I adopt the voice of a movie preview announcer:
You are an officer on the Underground Railroad. In your hands is the awesome responsibility of saving human lives and striking a blow for liberty. Your mission: to blaze a path for a group of escaped slaves as they make their way from an Tennessee plantation across the Ohio River to a secret station outside Cincinnati. One wrong move and they're back in bondage -- and you're back in jail for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Will you take the challenge?
"Whaddya think? How long you think it will take to ship a million units?" Lots of smiles. Darius is shaking his head, as if I'm an incorrigible child.
"Why not, Darius? Isn't this a good idea?"
"Sorry, Mr. Cullen. I think you should stick with your day job."
"Because nothing really happens."
"What do you mean nothing really happens? You have to think hard! You have to evade capture! You have to endure racial insults!"
Hearty laughter at that. (Maybe a little too hearty?)
"All right, Darius, I'll keep my day job. But I hope, Rick, and the rest of the class get my point here. Which is that sometimes figuring out what you don't have means figuring out what you don't have. It's often what isn't talked about that can be as revealing as what is."
I look up at the clock. "One thing we don't have, today at least, is more time. Caroline: You're on tomorrow, yes?"
"Yup. I'm showing a clip from Glory."
"Excellent. See you all then. Oh -- and one other thing."
A few faces look up expectantly from closing books and backpacks.
"Anybody know where Kermit was today? Field trip? Sudden illness?"
Nodding heads. "Uh -- I think he may be sick," Darius says.
Kermit missed class yesterday, too, and missed the exam we had last week. This morning I saw him playing frisbee on the lower field with his buddies. I make the appropriate notation on my attendance sheet. This isn't going to be pleasant -- tedium, for me, aggravation for Kermit, and, in all likelihood, anger for his parents, who will be getting an e-mail from me later today. In high school, at least, gaming the system tends to catch up with you.