Literature, Identity, and Self-Worth


The following is a thank you letter written to me by an 8th grader graduating from VanDamme Academy after having attended the school for two years. In Why Read? I explain my goal in teaching literature. It is gratifying to know how deeply this student understood. 

Dear Miss VanDamme,

At the beginning of seventh grade, literature did not mean much of anything to me. I subconsciously understood the themes and repeated them in writing, but I did not act based on their ideas. At the beginning of this year, I understood far more how much literature can teach me. This became apparent when Michelle and I started reading Atlas Shrugged. We figured out that the only way we could begin to understand the book was to read each line, speculate, think, and ask questions to each other that would highlight what we thought the important ideas were. It worked to some extent at least; I managed to read Galt’s speech without my head exploding, so I would consider your method a success. The only way that I can truly thank you is by explaining what literature has taught me and how it has changed my life already, not to mention how it will change the rest of it.

Great works of literature as shown to me in your class have introduced me to characters that I never would have thought of as real before. They beautifully embodied both virtues and vices. I came to treat actions of honor in the same respect as their epitome: Cyrano de Bergerac. Rationality has come to mean more to me when I see it practiced by Atticus Finch and Howard Roark. Prejudice has never before meant the same degree of evil in my mind than when it was carried out by Bob Ewell. Revenge’s motive power and all-consuming nature was presented to me in stunning fashion in The Count of Monte Cristo. These characters allowed me to look at virtues as real, not just a mystical value above my everyday life. I try to apply what I can of these ideas in my life, and it is only through reading, and understanding, these books that I have been able to improve how I look at myself, and the world.

Literature has given me principles that I can follow – not necessarily just virtues, but how they are used in practice. The themes of the novels allow me to understand an idea, and have it represented in a virtuous hero. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me the power of a person in staying a mindless mob. I now know that a single person can have power in their mind and soul and stand for what they believe in through The Fountainhead. I had heard the cliché ‘do what you believe in,’ before coming to VanDamme Academy, but I never knew what I could actually do to do that, or what qualified as ‘what you believe in.’ It seemed that whenever I decided I believed in something, nobody would care, or they would be opposed to it and I was forbidden from taking action in favor of it. I understand through literature what it actually is to believe in something and what makes it worth fighting for.

Without this class, I never would have been able to think for myself, only trust. Now, for me, I do not ask others to trust either, I ask them to know, to understand. I could not be who I am, and I am proud of who I am, without you. Literature has given me a new sense of individual identity and self-worth. For all of this, I cannot thank you enough.

– Always left,


 “Always left” refers to a phrase from Hugo’s Ninety-Three. A man asks for directions that will lead him into the thick of battle, where he seeks a soldier he loves like a son. He is cautioned to avoid the battle, to save himself, to TURN RIGHT. Hugo ends the chapter by saying, simply, “He turned left.” For my 8th graders and me, this phrase has come to mean, “Make your own judgment and fight for your values.” 

Why Read?


The following are my opening remarks about the value of literature, from a recent panel discussion of the VanDamme Academy curriculum. 

I am going to begin my discussion of the VanDamme Academy literature curriculum by sharing a story from this school year.

One of my favorite days of every year in 7th grade literature is the day I teach the “mob” scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. In this scene, a mob has gathered outside the jailhouse, ready to take the law into their own hands and lynch the man being held there. And all that stands in their way is Atticus, the man’s feeble, old lawyer, who knows they are coming, and will do the little that is in his power to stop them. Meanwhile, Atticus’s children, Jem and Scout, fearful of what might be bringing their father away in the middle of the night, have followed him to the jail, and come upon this scene.

When they feel Atticus is threatened, the children run to his side. Standing beside him, young Scout looks out into the mob and sees a man she recognizes, a man who is the father of her classmate, a man who once owed Atticus money he didn’t have and was allowed to pay the debt off slowly, in the form of goods.  Scout says, with guileless kindness, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.” And essentially with nothing more than that, the mob is dissolved, and they leave.

I came into class the next day and asked what had happened. I asked why the simple, seemingly irrelevant words of a child had the power to break down a mob of men. Some had a sense of it, and couldn’t put it into words. Others had absolutely no idea.

That led to a discussion of the mob mentality – of having courage under the cover of darkness; of being emboldened by the anonymity of dissolving in a crowd; of daring to do with the support of a group what you wouldn’t do on your own; of acting impulsively, on emotion, without pausing for reflection and rational consideration.

We discussed the effect Scout’s innocent words had on the mob. That they singled out one man, shining a spotlight on him that forced him into individual accountability for his actions; that they humanized Atticus who, in the mob’s rage-driven stupor, had become only an obstacle in their path; that they reminded them he was a man, a man who had shown them kindness, and a man who had children, just like they did.

As I tell this story, I can picture my students’ eyes, and it is the most beautiful sight I know. They were riveted. The scene itself had become sparklingly clear, and that is deeply satisfying. But more than that, they had gained knowledge that was potent. They had come to understand an important aspect of human nature. They had learned principles that would shed light on times they themselves had felt the victims of a mob, or been witness to a mob, or inevitably been members of a mob – because though they haven’t ever staged a lynching, they have all at some point had a mob mentality. The essence of adolescence is defining yourself in relation to the group.  This scene is so powerful, and so memorable, and so instructive – and it constituted just one day in their many years of discussion of great literature.

I could tell many other stories. I could tell you about the time a student declared that I had “ruined her for romance” because she would never, ever find a man as wonderful as…Cyrano de Bergerac. I could tell you about the two or three students who, four days into this school year, were wiping away tears as we discussed the feeling of an acute memory of loss in Wordsworth’s poem “Surprised by Joy.” I could tell you about the student who swore she would make all her younger sisters read Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” because she believed its theme as relevant to women today as it was to those in 19th century Europe. And I could tell you about my class today, when I finished reading aloud the final chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the class erupted in applause.

The common denominator of these stories is this: the fundamental goal of the literature program is to endow the students with this sort of passion, and this sort of wisdom.

If I had more time, I would describe what the goal of the curriculum is not. It isnot fundamentally to make the students “well-read” in the sense that they have accumulated an impressive repertoire of works. It is not to teach them how to be literary excavators, digging up similes and metaphors and examples of onomatopoeia. It is not to expand their vocabulary so they score well on the SAT’s.

It is to mine the sort of potent knowledge they gained in our discussion of the mob scene from the many timeless works of quality literature available to them. It is to help shape them as human beings – to expose them to psychological truths, to models of virtue and vice, to archetypal life challenges, to grand-scale ideas – and thereby to help them become more thoughtful, observant, wise, and deeply value-oriented human beings.

I recently read a book called Why Read? by University of Virginia  professor Mark Edmundson, and I highly recommend it for his ability to put into eloquent words what has always been the goal of the VanDamme Academy literature curriculum. In it, he argues that reading should not be an academic exercise, but should be for the purpose, in words he borrows from Keats, of “soul-forming.”

“Real reading,” Edimundson says, “is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess.”

And later, he says that the value of reading is “the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than [we ourselves] are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.”

To make life “bigger, sweeter, more tragic, more intense, and more alive with meaning” is the goal of the VanDamme Academy literature curriculum.

Do Standards Work?


Most of the rhetoric in defense of Common Core is so insipidly conventional and blandly optimistic that it is hard to know what its proponents are advocating – and hard to object. Who wouldn’t want to “provide a world-class education for all students” [i] and “ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life” [ii]?

But how are these lofty and unobjectionable goals to be achieved? By the implementation of the Common Core Standards, a “consistent framework for educators” [iii] that establishes “strong, clear benchmarks in English Language Arts and Math.”[iv]

Are these standards truly so “clear,” “strong,” and “consistent” that they will guarantee for all a “world-class education”? Let’s take a closer look by examining the first of the standards for 7th grade literature, since that is what I teach at my school, VanDamme Academy.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.1: “Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”

No competent literature teacher could argue with that as a goal. All middle schoolers should be able to analyze a text and to defend their analysis with evidence both stated and implied.

In fact, my 7th graders are currently reading the great Greek tragedy Antigone, and Friday’s lesson plan could be said to involve just that. In the opening pages of the play, we are introduced to Antigone and her sister Ismene, who are discussing whether to violate the king’s order that their dead brother’s corpse be left unburied. We carefully observed and discussed the characters’ responses to this dilemma in an effort to penetrate their souls. Ismene is meekly obedient, fearful of punishment, and reluctant to defy the law of man. Antigone is strong and independent, determined to die nobly rather than live a coward, and moved, not by authority, but by morality.

Understanding the basic nature of a character is always a feat of inference. Antigone does not stand on stage and proclaim her strength, her independence, and her uncompromising allegiance to moral law, but those traits are implicit in, and given life by, every action she takes and every word she utters. Making those traits explicit, and contrasting them with those of her weak-minded sister, is what ultimately enables us to appreciate Antigone’s timeless heroism. Nearly three millennia later, students are still inspired by Sophocles’ portrait of a young girl with the courage to defy a king.

Reading Antigone, analyzing the text, drawing inferences about the characters, and deriving inspiration from its heroine – this was a valuable exercise in a quality education.

Is such an exercise unavoidably mandated by standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.1?

A quick Google search yields many tools for teaching “inference” that boast compatibility with Common Core.  Hampton-Brown, for example, provides a lesson plan titled “Drawing Inferences and Conclusions.”


The teacher is to begin by modeling inference, first by displaying the sentences, “Metin dreamed of becoming a writer. As he walked in the fiction section, he scanned the row of books,” and then by declaring, “I think Metin is in a library.” After modeling this impressive feat of conjecture, the teacher is then to have the students try their hands, asking them to identify who is described by sets of words such as “helmet, hose, truck, ladder.” (In case you are not practiced at literary inference, the answer is: a firefighter.) Later lessons involve the inevitable group project, with students working in partnership to scan for “inferences” (any inferences) in random paragraphs of books from the classroom shelves or banal stories provided in the Hampton-Brown reader.

One standard, two lesson plans. Has the standard served to level the educational playing field, to set a clear benchmark of academic achievement, and to assure superior schooling for all? One group of students is using inference as a tool in the discovery of world-altering ideals in a classic work of literature, and the other is playing an intellectual connect-the-dots game on a par with the toddler TV show Blues Clues.

Such is the problem with the Common Core Standards, and with any effort at standardizing curriculum via the imposition of a set of vague and abstract goals. Even the most astute and apparently valuable of the standards is valuable only given a proper interpretation, within a specific context, for the achievement of a particular goal. Standards do not replace judgment; the quality of the lesson plan depends on the teacher’s judgment of how the standard should be implemented.

Many criticisms of Common Core can be (and have been) made from various political and pedagogical corners. Here I am just highlighting one of the most fundamental: They don’t work. They can’t work.

It is not just the rhetoric in support of Common Core that is vague and insubstantial; it is the standards themselves. Educational reform requires a sea change, not a sprinkling of standards over the entrenched body of educational practice. And until we see a sea change, a shift in the basic educational philosophy guiding practice in our schools, we can expect more failure, more frustration, more initiatives – more and more of the same.


[i] “A Blueprint for Great Schools, Tom Torlakson State Superintendent of Public Instruction 2011 states

[ii]“About the Common Core State Standards,”

[iii]“About the Common Core State Standards,”

[iv] “Learn about the Common Core in 3 minutes” video,

Surprised by Poetry

Photo by Tyson Rininger
Photo by Tyson Rininger

If I were asked for a short list of my proudest professional achievements, my course Making Poetry Part of Your Life would be near the top. And the audience’s response was enormously gratifying.

“Your enthusiasm for the subject was contagious.”
“Experiencing my understanding ‘bloom’ as I grasped what these strange words meant was uniquely valuable.”
“I got chills.”
“Next time please provide tissues…it was a tearjerker several times over.”

But when I pitched the course to self-described “crusty fighter pilot” Lee Behel—he was skeptical. His exposure to poetry had consisted of the drunken recitation of limericks with his buddies in a bar. He found it hard to believe that he—adventurer, officer, man-of-action—would have something to gain from the classics.

I made this pitch having just met Lee for the first time, at the opening banquet of the conference where my course was being offered. We must have felt a mutual meeting-of-minds, because it was also in this first conversation that he told me about the love of his life. She too had been a pilot, and he had lost her to a plane crash not long before. Stoic and “crusty” as he might be, his voice cracked with emotion as he spoke of his soul mate. At that point, it became non-negotiable. He had to take my course. He did.

I can still see his face among the attendees. Once skeptical, he was now focused, riveted, moved. A man with the capacity to love as he did also had the capacity to see that love reflected, emphasized and memorialized in a great work of art.  Shortly after I returned from the conference, I received a note from him entitled, “Surprised by Delight,” a reference to his favorite among the poems I taught, Wordsworth’s Surprised by Joy. He concluded his memorable message of gratitude by saying, “Thanks for broadening my horizons.”

I was reminded of all this recently, when I learned that on September 9, 2014, Lee Behel too died in a plane crash.

The next day, I told the story of my encounter with Lee to my 8th-grade students, to pay him tribute and to illustrate through his story that classic poetry is not just for English professors with their heads in the clouds. I then shared with them the poem that so moved him. Read it here.

In this poem, the speaker feels a flash of joy, and turns eagerly to share the moment with one he loves.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport…

Then he is swept with the pain of remembering that his love is gone.

…Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

It was for love of this lost companion that he felt a keenness to share his joy. But now, remembering that she is gone, he wonders that the depth of his love allowed him ever to forget.

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?

That brief moment of joy is shattered by the memory that he has lost the one with whom joy is to be shared. The memory of her loss brings on a despair greater than he has ever known, aside from the devastation of the loss itself.

…That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn,
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Now read the poem in its entirety again here.

Lee had clearly seen his own pain over his lost love reflected in this poem. How many times must he have felt a longing to share his joy, only to suffer again? Wordsworth gives voice to that suffering—and to the great love that suffering of that kind presupposes.

My students listened to Lee’s story, and then to Wordsworth’s poem—and they were focused, riveted, moved. In these lines of poetry, they felt the pain of Lee’s lost love, and the loss of Lee. The experience brought several of them to tears.

The power of poetry to put our most profound emotional experiences into words is what makes it valuable universally. It can serve either to accentuate the most meaningful aspects of the reader’s life or cultivate his ability to find that meaning. I hope that poetry helps my students learn to love the way Lee did, and I hope they will learn to appreciate, as he did, the poetry that does justice to that kind of love.

The Key of Light


My favorite quote of the week, perhaps even of the year, came from an eighth grade student.

“I feel like a terrible person.”

That demands explanation.

We had just completed Victor Hugo’s epic novel Ninety-Three, which happens to be the novel from which the title of this blog was derived. One of its primary characters, Cimourdain, is an ardent Revolutionary. Charged early in his life with the role of tutoring Gauvain, a young aristocrat, he had imbued him with his radical ideas and animated him with his fanatical passion. In the process, he had come to regard Gauvain as more than a son, and Gauvain, to regard him as more than a father. “This deep spiritual paternity bound Cimourdain to his pupil…A mind can have a child.”

And in another timelessly eloquent metaphor for education, the one that inspired my title, Hugo says: “It is a beautiful thing to mold a statue and give it life; it is still more beautiful to shape an intelligence and give it truth. Cimourdain was a Pygmalion of the soul.”

The relationship between Gauvain and Cimourdain is one of the cornerstones of this riveting, heart-wrenching, and awe-inspiring novel.

The story takes place at the height of the Reign of Terror, when the woods of Vendée have become a pivotal and menacing battleground. The leader of the royal army in Vendée is the Marquis de Lantenac, a notoriously ruthless general who sees justice in any action that furthers his cause. He will shoot women—which he does, when the innocent peasant mother Michelle de Fléchard is given refuge by his enemies. He will make hostages of children—which he does, when he must decide what to do with the executed young mother’s three helpless orphans. He will kill his own family—which he vows to do, since his fiercest rival in Vendée is none other than his own nephew and Cimourdain’s pupil, now a Revolutionary general—Gauvain.

Gauvain, himself a brilliant and capable military leader, is also known, however, as more idealistic and merciful in the implementation of his ambitions. “Above the revolutionary absolute,” he contends,” there is the human absolute.” The leaders of the Reign of Terror see this as a weakness, and they decide to appoint a man with the  severity and mercilessness of Lantenac himself to supervise Gauvain and, should this weakness betray their cause, to see to his execution. They appoint none other than Gauvain’s spiritual father—Cimourdain.

Consistent with Hugo’s unfailingly grand view of life and of man, every one of these characters is heroic in the defense of his values, and the clash or confluence of their goals makes for a breathtakingly dramatic climax.

At the Tourgue castle, Lantenac’s childhood home and the very site of Cimourdain’s tutelage of the young Gauvain, we find: Lantenac and eighteen royalists besieged and outnumbered, yet determined to fight to the death; Gauvain and a large Revolutionary army surrounding them, competing for the honor of being in the vanguard of the attack; the three blissful, frolicking children, unaware they are being held under the threat of execution should Gauvain’s army begin the assault; Cimourdain watching over Gauvain’s shoulder, tortured by the conflict between his revolutionary and fatherly devotions; and the mother, who, as it turns out, has survived gunshot, starvation, and a grueling, solitary, barefoot journey through the woods, finally finding her children again, in the center of this inferno.

The great author Ayn Rand once said that reading Hugo gave her “the feeling of entering a cathedral.” In a Hugo novel, man is heroic, life matters, and values are worth dying for. “To die is nothing,” he wrote, “but it is terrible not to live.”

Hence, my student’s reaction to Ninety-Three: “I feel like a terrible person.” Now, clearly I do not want her response to be fundamentally discouraging or self-critical. But it wasn’t; she said it with a smile. Though she phrased her feeling in the negative, it was tongue-in-cheek. I believe she meant to express the feeling’s positive corollaries: “This novel makes me feel that greatness is possible. This novel makes me want to be great.”

From their education, I want my students to gain knowledge, to gain practical skills—and to gain a Hugoesque perspective on what is possible in life. As usual, Hugo himself put it best, in a phrase I only really noticed during this, probably my tenth reading of Ninety-Three. In a tribute to his teacher that it is my life’s ambition to earn being said of me, Gauvain says, “You made me fit for earthly life as a man, and for heavenly life as a soul. You gave me the key of truth to go into human reality, and the key of light to go beyond.” Hugo’s novels help to provide just such a key.

Don’t Let It Fade


If I were to create a short portfolio of my proudest career achievements, it would include a song written last week by one of my seventh grade students. Let me explain why, and then I will share it with you.

We had been reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary classic, a timely tale for the coming-of-age, and a novel ideally suited to my particular purposes as an educator at VanDamme Academy.

It is a story of justice. From meddlesome children and gossipy neighbors spinning tales about a mysterious and reclusive neighbor; to a judgmental aunt declaring nearly every member of the town to be victim to a “streak” running through their family; to a jury quick to declare an innocent man guilty simply because of the color of his skin—we see prejudice in every pernicious form. And we see one man, Atticus Finch, rise above it all, counseling his children not to judge a man until you “climb into his skin and walk around in it,” serving as a pillar of the community and a model of human dignity, and working steadfastly to defend a black man against the false charges of his accuser and against the virulent racism of the town.

It is a story of idealism. The seventh graders and I had many a conversation about the beautiful guilelessness of the novel’s young narrator, Scout Finch. She is utterly frank, sometimes to a fault; when pal Dill awkwardly confesses that he doesn’t have a father…but he isn’t dead…she declares, “Then if he’s not dead, you’ve got one, haven’t you?”  She is utterly without prejudice; when brother Jem classifies the community into four types of “folks,” she famously responds, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” She is utterly innocent; naïve to their motives, she singlehandedly dismantles a violent mob, simply by singling out one of its members with a greeting of gentle kindness: “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”

Throughout the story resounds the theme that this guilelessness, this innocence, this idealism is the province of childhood. In response to Scout’s simple wisdom, “I think there’s just one type of folks…” adolescent brother Jem responds, “That’s what I thought too…when I was your age.” As we advance into the teenage years and beyond, goes the conventional wisdom, we descend into cynicism and resignation.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

Typically, when I tell people I teach junior high, they look at me with an expression of profound pity, for just the reason indicated above. I am always quick to correct them: “No. You don’t understand. I love teaching junior high.”

At the junior high level, students are gaining a thoughtfulness, a sophistication, a wisdom, that makes it a great pleasure for me to engage their minds. And given the right educational environment, there is no necessity of their following the cliché path to teen angst. Immersed in a culture of exposure to and reverence for deep and meaningful values, they can hold on to the radiant idealism of youth.

It is the daily discussions like those described above, penetrating discussions of great characters like Atticus and Scout and the inspiration they provide, that help these teenagers to maintain their passion, their optimism, their dedication to values.

As evidence, I present a song by seventh grader Natalie Schroder.

We had just finished both To Kill a Mockingbird and a unit on composer George Gerswhin. Having introduced the students to songs from Porgy and Bess, I asked them to rewrite the lyrics to one of the songs from the perspective of a character in Harper Lee’s novel. Natalie chose Boo Radley, and here is her song (to the tune of “Summertime”):

Youth and Innocence

All these years
I’ve watched you through the window
Growing up
Getting bigger each day

But you’ve kept your youth
And your child-like innocence
Don’t let it go
Just stay the same

You’ve seen the ones
Who’ve been blinded by prejudice
You know them
And their irrational ways

The very thing
I’ve been trying to hide from
Inside these walls
I’ve spent my days

I’ll be there
When you are in danger
I care for you
More than I can say

Preserving the light
Which shines through your souls
My children, hold on
Don’t let it fade

Little did Natalie know that in these final lines, she captured my life’s purpose, echoed in the very title of this blog. It is through educational experiences like this one that I try to help my students preserve the light that shines through their souls.

My children, hold on. Don’t let it fade.

Schools May Be Cesspools – But Don’t Throw Education Out With the Wastewater


I am appalled by the state of American education. I am appalled not primarily by the crowded classrooms, decrepit buildings, unmotivated, unionized teachers, severed arts programs, drugs, violence, or many-children-left-behind, but by that which should be the central, fundamental, defining element of any school – the education. Even those schools with richly appointed, sprawling campuses, dedicated faculty with PhD’s, and reputations for academic excellence backed by test scores to prove them still suffer from the same basic pedagogical problem. Education, the actual “learning” that goes on within the walls of our schools, has come to consist primarily, almost exclusively, of mindless memorization.

From the causes of WWI, to Newton’s laws of motion, to types of literary devices, to the formulas for area, etc., etc. etc., we are asked to memorize, and regurgitate, and study, and memorize, and regurgitate…and forget. Today’s schools are failing utterly to provide children with a real, functional, life-enhancing, lasting education. That is why I sympathize with the widely popular rallying cry well captured in this viral video, of people who “love education” but “hate school,” and the message, “We will not let exam results decide our fate.” They recognize that their education is bankrupt, and they refuse to define themselves by the schools’ standards of success.

But sadly, this rallying cry and most of those like it are not a rejection of education in its current, empty, memorization-driven state – they reject education as such. The idea that school must “change with the times,” that education is fundamentally for “getting a job” or “satisfying society’s needs,” that our “different genes” mean we must be educated by “different means,” that Google, Twitter, and Facebook are as legitimate means of personal development and self expression as any schooling, betray a basic hostility to the very concept of education. This should not be surprising, given that those sounding the call are victims of the very educational system they decry. How could they know any better?

What a real education actually looks like, what basic purpose it serves, what it does to enhance the life of an individual, why it is essential to life as a mature and thriving adult – these are enormously complex issues. But for my own peace of mind, I want at least to offer some food for thought, and a rallying cry of my own: Protest the “education” in today’s schools, but not education in and of itself.

What does a real education provide?

1. A proper education empowers you to understand basic principles, as the summation of a detailed study of particulars you might not retain.

The artist in this video says that since most people will have to study subjects they “will never, ever use,” it was worthless to learn them. But this oversimplifies the educative process, and the concept of “use.”

Need I learn, for example, the causes of the Fall of Rome, or of WWII, or of the American Civil War, because some day I will be asked—on a date, in a job interview, or for a TV talk-show host—to provide such a list, with my value as a person being weighed in the balance?

Certainly not.  But what today’s tragically uneducated generation fails to recognize is that understanding the fundamentals of history—the basic ideas, figures, actions, and their monumental consequences for mankind—is what makes us informed citizens of the world. It is what enables us to understand where we have come from and where we are headed, to appreciate the legacy that has made life as we know it possible, to safeguard those things which are essential to preserving that life, to effectively evaluate current events, to make informed and productive political decisions, and much more. That no employer will ask you how the United States was born does not relieve you of the responsibility of knowing it. Understanding the foundations of freedom, from Greek democracy, to Roman law, to the Enlightenment concepts of rights, to the American Constitution – these are critical concepts for every American citizen to have studied intensely, understood thoroughly, and appreciated deeply. Or God help us.

2. Education is not for “getting a job.”

A hallmark of this popular rallying cry is the idea that the “information” we had to know to take “tests” so that we could get “degrees” does not help us to get jobs, or at least, to get jobs we love – so who needs it. Instead, we should look at what we love to do (i.e., become a famed internet spoken word artist), and retrofit the idea of education to that end.

Education is not fundamentally about job training, whatever the language of the Common Core Standards would have you believe. Fundamentally, it is about becoming an adult – an intelligent, clear-thinking, well-informed, deeply valuing adult. This includes learning the logical rigor that comes from mathematical study; it includes grasping the order and explicability of the physical world, so that it can be rationally understood and harnessed; it includes developing the ability to communicate thoughts with clarity, and precision, and eloquence. It includes much more.

And when it comes to learning what it means to live a mature life of reflection and wisdom, something without which life – thereby unexamined – becomes hardly worth living, there is no substitute for the literary classics. Ibsen, with his radical and iconoclastic challenges of basic societal conventions; Hugo, with his epic heroes dedicated to profound values that we come to understand and hold ourselves; Dostoevsky, with his penetrating insights into the soul and psychology of man. The development of this thoughtful and philosophic perspective on life makes any individual infinitely more employable, whatever his job or interests. But the purpose of education is not defined by any job, it is fundamental to his soul.

As evidence for the “we don’t need no education” perspective, critics, including the artist in this video, offer the following, “Look at him! He didn’t get an education, but look how much talent he has, look how successful he is!” My quiet, internal response is always the thought, “Ah, how much more could he enjoy his life and develop his talents if he were also well educated!”

The fact that someone is, for example, an entrepreneurial prodigy with the savvy and drive to build a company from the ground up is remarkable, and inspiring, and admirable—and does not the least absolve him from the value of a good general education. He has built a great company – does he have the knowledge of history and politics necessary to defend it against inevitable attack by those bent on tearing down success? (He could get that from history.) He has built a great company – has he developed the psychological self-awareness, and understanding of human relationships, and appreciation of romance that will allow him to share his success with a loved one? (He could get that from literature.) He has built a great company – does he have the vocabulary, and literacy, and intellectual wherewithal to explain, promote, defend, archive his achievement for posterity? (He could get that from the sum total of a good education.)

When joining the rallying cry to “love education” but to “hate school” – be careful. Give due contemplation to what you mean by education. Do not be led down a path to an understanding of education as subjective, job-oriented, utilitarian skills training. Historian and writer John Truslow Adams once said, “There are two types of education…One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” The latter, he would agree, is the more fundamental. What good is a living, if we don’t know how to live? And knowing how to live—how to really live—requires that we draw upon the wisdom of the ages that has brought us from grunting cavemen to rational, cultured, and life-loving men. It requires education.


The New Frontier


In my recent research of and visits to high schools, I have learned of the emergence of a new educational trend: student-led classrooms. The teacher, according to this theory, should act as “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage,” simply facilitating, managing, and directing the students’ own work and discussions. But many of today’s schools are taking this still further, relegating the teacher to a near passive observer of classroom goings-on. He or she is there to do little more than encourage the students’ independently-formulated theses and act as a sort of conversation traffic-director.

If you read the literature about “student-led classrooms,” you will hear all sorts of stirring claims to grandeur. This model, they say, is “the way of the 21st-century classroom,” one that deftly blends “creativity and teamwork.” It encourages “active learning” and “out-of-the-box thinking,” rather than “passive absorption of lectures.” It allows children previously stifled by an authoritarian educational system to “find their own voice” and to “discover their own truth.”

The other day, I paused in reflection on this trend after teaching a group of 8thgraders Badger Clark’s poem The Westerner. (You can read the poem here.)

The Westerner is a moving portrayal of the pioneering spirit, of the man of independence, self-sufficiency, and progress.  The class had recently finished—and deeply enjoyed—the novel Shane (also made into a classic 50’s western), and I knew this poem would help them to capture in efficient and eloquent language the traits they had come to adore in the novel’s hero.

This is a bright and well-read group of students, but when I recited the poem aloud the first time and asked the class to share what they believed to be its basic meaning, I was met with blank and intimidated stares. From the opening line, “My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains, and each one sleeps alone…” the poem is wrought with subtlety of meaning, conveyed in an abstract and metaphorical form. The poem’s substance and value were not readily accessible—unearthing them would take diligent work, and it would take my guidance. As we worked through the poem, step by meticulous step, they delighted as they saw the meaning unravel before them.

The most memorable part of our discussion concerned the first lines of the final stanza: “The sunrise plains are a tender haze/And the sunset seas are gray,/But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze/Over me and the big today.” “What,” I asked them, “are the ‘sunrise plains’?” After an initial silence, someone tentatively suggested, “Heaven?” “No…” I said with a grin, and then tried to emphasize the juxtaposition of sunrise plains and sunset haze. “The open range?” someone else suggested (probably because it featured prominently in Shane), to which I again said, “No…,” and then added as another point of contrast in my refrain of sunrise plains and sunset haze—“the big today.” “The East?” someone offered, in response to which I squealed, “No!” This time it was met with giggles among the class, who were entertained by my adamancy and increasingly eager for my explanation.

When I finally explained that the “sunrise plains” were the past, the “sunset seas” were the future, and the “big today” was the present, they became uniformly wide-eyed, and from them emerged a low chorus of “oooooohhhhhh” in understanding. They were then able to integrate this with the remaining lines in the stanza, grasping the idea that the pioneering man neither laments the past nor idly contemplates the future, but takes action in the present, knowing that life is short and must be lived for all it’s worth. Then, not a moment later, one of them spontaneously volunteered, “I love this poem!”

What would have happened in a “student-led classroom,” with me sitting to the side, urging them to explore and express their own inaccurate, unfounded opinions? Would those initial blank stares have been followed by arbitrary conjectures, in the name of having an opinion and thinking freely? Would they have spent time rhapsodizing about metaphorical suggestions of “heaven” and “the open range” that didn’t exist in the poem? Would they ever have arrived at any meaningful understanding of the author’s intention? Would they have—could they possibly have—come to love the poem?

Advocates of the “student-led classroom” would claim that they are pioneers, charting new and enlightened frontiers in education. But the true pioneers knew that frontiers are not built on ignorance, assertiveness, and free, unexamined opinion. Badger Clark’s Westerner makes the following vow:

They built high towns on their old sills, 
Where the great, slow rivers gleamed 
But with new, live rock from the savage hills 
I’ll build as they only dreamed.

A proper education too must be rock-solid, built of real knowledge, rigorously logical thought, and clear, well-founded, precisely-articulated conclusions. I hope those who understand the emptiness of this “student-led” method will help me to expose these “new frontiers” in education for the flimsy facades they are. And I hope you will remember that – the world is ours to win.

A Dazzling Universe


I love the novel Shane, by Jack Schaefer. That it has not made it among the canon of literary works for junior high and high school students is a travesty. Its charming story of a boy’s worship for his hero, its moving depiction of a steadfast friendship, its portrayal of men of unsullied, resolute, strong-willed character, make it a literary masterpiece ideal for young women and men.

Shane tells the story of a mysterious cowboy who rides into a town torn by conflict between cattle rangers and homesteaders battling for the survival of their way of life. Though clearly trying to escape his violent past, Shane defies cattle baron Fletcher and his band of gunslingers when they threaten the homesteading Starretts, to whom he has become guardian, hero, and friend.

One of my favorite things about this novel is that between its covers, Shanecreates a universe that is distinctly, dazzlingly clear. Everything is meaningful. And that meaning is conveyed with economy, precision, and unpretentious beauty.

I am currently teaching this novel to the 8th graders at VanDamme Academy. This week, we did a fun exercise meant to emphasize this very point, that Shaneis a finely-crafted work of art in which every line is purposeful. I asked the students to do the following: Close your eyes and point at random to a line from the first chapter. Then examine whether that line is important to establishing something fundamental to the novel’s plot, characterization, or overall meaning.

The first of the randomly-selected lines was, “But his voice was gentle and he spoke like a man schooled in patience.” This was easy. Shane’s “gentleness” is central to the puzzling nature of his character. He is introduced to us as a man of seeming contradiction: ever alert and tense, yet with a simultaneous relaxed easiness; “dangerous,” yet the safest man the Starretts ever had in their house; cold and terrifying, yet mannered and gentle.

The next line selected was, “He shook his hands dry and used the handkerchief to remove the last drops from his face.” This line, and those surrounding it, established the strangely proud, mannered, and dignified demeanor of this rough-and-ready cowboy. Though riding the hot and dusty range, he maintains a polished appearance, wearing clothes of fine materials, wiping the dust from his boots, scrubbing the dirt from his hands and face, and even taking care to remove the last drops of water.

I wanted to present the students with a point of contrast, so I sent one of them to retrieve from my office the book Shopaholic Takes Manhattan. (To explain what this was doing in my office would take us too far off the point.) Though we had not read the novel, we thought we’d see if we could tell whether a line chosen at random was critical to the novel as a whole, as it was in Shane.  The line I selected elicited a giggle, because it read, “As I watch her come in, I am slightly transfixed.” We agreed that not only did the line appear to be fairly empty and unlikely to possess the economy and necessity of Schaefer’s, it was comically oxymoronic, since to be “slightly transfixed” means to be slightly “motionless with horror.” To use the familiar comparison, this is similar to saying someone is “slightly pregnant.”

The goal of this exercise was to heighten the students’ enjoyment of the novel. I hope it will help them to soak in every line, to take pleasure in the exactness and the eloquence of Schaefer’s language, and to enjoy their time in a world so purposeful, lucid, and brightly lit. They will have many such experiences in the course of their education here, which will have the effect of giving them a light of their own to shine on their lives and on the world around them.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come


Using a passage from the great Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three, I will illustrate the difference between literary analysis as I learned it and as I teach it.

   “During the mother’s terrible supplications, other voices arose on the plateau and in the ravine:
   ‘A ladder!’
   ‘We have no ladder.’
   ‘We have no water.’
   ‘Up there in the tower, on the third floor, there’s a door!’
   ‘It’s made of iron.’
   ‘Break it open!’
   ‘That’s impossible.’
   And the mother redoubled her desperate appeals:
   ‘Fire! Help! Hurry! My children! If you won’t save them, kill me! The horrible fire! Take them out of it or throw me into it!’
   In the intervals between these clamors, the calm crackling of the flames could be heard.
   The marquis put his hand in his pocket and touched the key to the iron door. Then, stooping under the vault through which he had escaped, he went back into the passage from which he had just emerged.”

If this literary masterpiece somehow found its way into an American high school, the following, in my experience, is typical of how it would be analyzed. Please bear with me through this cold and merciless dissection:

Looking at the excerpt out of context, we would spend a great deal of time identifying and discussing the various literary devices Hugo employed. The dialogue, the teacher might tell us, conforms to the technique known as “stichomythia”—short, alternating lines featuring repetition or antithesis. We would then compare it to similar exchanges in the plays of Shakespeare. We would probably discuss Hugo’s use of “alliteration,” or repetition of sound: “between these clamors, the calm crackling of the flames could be heard.” Perhaps we would analyze the “mood” captured by his diction, the somber hopelessness conveyed with such descriptors as “terrible,” “impossible,” “desperate,” and “horrible.” We might talk about the onomatopoeic nature of the word “crackling”—the sort of word that imitates the sound to which it refers. And at the conclusion of the lesson, we would be left with nothing but the lifeless, fragmented remains of Hugo’s exquisite passage.

If the teacher made an effort not just to dissect, but to connect, we would examine the novel for “themes,” or abstract concepts that happen to recur within the story. We might talk about a theme of “conflagration, ” drawing out similarities and differences among various scenes involving fire—from the one featured in the passage above, to the burning ship at sea, to any metaphorical references Hugo might make to the “blaze” or “ignition” of battle.  We might discuss a theme of “doors” or “passages,” from the royalists’ impossible escape through the secret portal, to the marquis’s decision to re-enter the vault, to the idea of the door as a symbol for a departure point from one’s impassioned convictions. In essence, we would lump together the pieces of the carcass into mangled imitations of a whole.

Treating Hugo’s work in this manner, even to make a point, leaves me feeling traitorous and unclean. I will endeavor to purify myself with the following description of how I would teach this passage.

First, I would have helped my students to observe and to deeply admire the mother’s devotion to her children. This mother, who had suckled her baby and cared for her children in a war-torn-forest, desperate, starving, evading ambush and sleeping in a hollowed-out tree. This mother, who survived gunshots to the breast, and set out on a journey, barefoot and alone, to recover her kidnapped children. This mother, who is shown a rare and vitally needed act of kindness when a stranger offers her a piece of bread, and who then divides it in two for some urchin children who reminded her of her own. This mother, who arrives at the ravine overlooking the war-ravaged castle where her children are held captive, only to see it slowly enveloped by whirling, murderous flames. This mother, who curses God when she sees within the castle’s library three cradles holding her three sweetly sleeping children, and whose terrible desperation is captured in the only words possible for her to scream, “If you won’t save them, kill me! The horrible fire! Take them out of it or throw me into it!’

We would have understood and been moved by the marquis’s ruthless loyalty to his cause, and his willingness to devote everything to its realization. We would have watched him risk his life to stop a loose cannon that had been rolling over his ship’s deck, cutting down everything in its path, and leaving behind a pile of bloody corpses and a vessel at risk of shipwreck. We would have seen him besieged in a castle with a band of eighteen fanatic followers, and witness his steadfast determination to do battle with a vast enemy army rather than surrender. We would have seen this great general, zealous enough to sentence to death a man who had saved his life or to aim a bullet at the head of his own disloyal nephew, caught in a moment of conscience. We would have held our breaths as we waited to see whether he would flee to freedom knowing that he alone held the key to the iron door and that in doing so he would be betraying three innocent children to an inferno. And we would breathe again as he stooped to “return into the passage from which he had emerged.”

In this manner, we would arrive at a clear understanding of Hugo’s fundamental view of man’s potential and of the moral message in this masterful work. We would see that the mother, the marquis, the nephew, and others represent man’s capacity for heroic dedication to his values. And we would see that Hugo wove all the circumstances and dialogue and actions into one, basic, profound theme: “Above the revolutionary absolute there is the human absolute.” We would understand that for Hugo, revolution must come through liberation, and not through violence and oppression.

Subsequent to all my years of schooling, I discovered one teacher who taught literature by this method. He showed me to view a great work of literature as an integrated whole, to strive for an understanding of the characters’ basic natures, to carefully observe the arc of the plot, and to discover the underlying meaning that the author intends. He showed me that the goal of this effort was to feel the characters’ plight, to be riveted by their actions, and to be moved, or at least stirred to thought, by the author’s message. This method opened up to me the true and irreplaceable value of literature: its ability to convey a monumental idea in the form of a captivating story.

Hugo once said, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The time has come to abandon the conventional approach to literature, which leaves it mangled and mutilated. The time has come to once again understand that literature is art, meant to move and edify and inspire. May this idea, whose time has come, defy all the forces of modern education.