There’s been no shortage of the things to write about, just a shortage of time to do it. As I put the finishing touches on a couple of pieces that I’ve been working on (remember, one of the primary reasons I write here is to help clarify my thinking and to give voice to some reflections which might profit from wider discussion), the universe intervened. This is the first of two such “interventions”.
Recently, a long time colleague and good friend, shared with me his reflections as his career working in schools seems to be ending. Bernie Josefsberg has had a very varied and successful career. It began with his role as an English teacher in a very prestigious and high performing high school in Chicago. After holding a series of administrative positions (supervisor, principal, assistant superintendent, superintendent) in multiple states, Bernie returned to the classroom, once again as a teacher of high school English.
I asked if he would mind if I shared his observations and reflections here in this space. I think Bernie has captured something very essential in the relationship between teaching and learning, something worth exploring. A growing number of us believe that we are experiencing the end of an “old story”… a story that no longer fits our reality or our needs. As we continue to look for ways to grow learners, we recognize the need to expand student choice and student agency.
I believe that Bernie’s reflections can help us create a space for exploration of critical how and why questions: What is the best space for learning to occur? Can there be a healthy blend of teacher directed, teacher guided, student self-determined learning experiences? Is there room for a fixed curriculum? These are not theoretical questions. They are matters of some weight. What do Bernie’s experiences have to tell us? Enjoy and please feel free to share your thinking.
THE RICHARD III FILE: SOME CONCLUSIONS
Clearing out old files at the conclusion of a career, I recovered my circa ’73-’85 file on Shakespeare’s Richard III. In my memory, that cautionary tale of personal and political deformity served my high school sophomores well. With Watergate and Contragate as contemporary scrims, it also suited the historical moment.
It included “Decent Is as Decent Does,” a NY Timesop ed piece in which Anthony Lewis savages Gerald Ford’s record on “Human Rights, Law, Secrecy, War, Arms, Amnesty, and Abortion.” He concludes:
It is indecent for those who care about sensitivity and humanity in politics to talk of the decency of Gerald Ford.
Also included: William Sloane Coffin’s “Not Yet a Good Man,” another NY Timesop ed describing the hollowed ethical core of Jeb Stuart Magruder — one of Richard Nixon’s very well educated, highly positioned, and subsequently convicted flacks. At Williams College, he passed through Coffin’s course on Ethics. He concludes:
Teaching is at best a precarious business; the rational mind is no match for an irrational will that needs to place popularity and power above truth. Nevertheless, all of us who taught him, and American society as a whole, could have done better by Jeb. Now we have the opportunity to learn from him the ancient lesson that to do evil in this world you don’t have to be evil – just as nice guy, not yet a good man.
Additional items included original tests and essay assignments. For example,
Choose one of the following and discuss:
- Though Richard orchestrates his own rise to power, he relies upon the assistance of associates. Such figures as Buckingham, Tyrrel and Catesby willingly and directly contribute to the success of Richard’s “plots.” Others, such as Anne, the mayor of London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, are manipulated to the point where they, too, factor in his triumph. Clearly, Richard could not have “bustled” through his world with such ill-effect in the absence of both witting and unwitting support.
- As suggested in Richmond’s concluding speech, England has suffered grievously under Richard’s rule. In keeping with his character, he outlines a vision of England under his prospective reign that contrasts sharply with Richard’s legacy – itself a reflection of character.
Discuss the validity of each following statement:
In his opening soliloquy, Richard presents himself as a bruised soul, tortured by experience. Though he really wishes to be at peace with humanity, he turns to villainy to express his need to be loved.
Richard woos Anne by repeating his “love” for her. As the audience, we are convinced — as finally Anne is — of Richard’s passion for her which he offers to explain his conduct at Tewkesbury. He subsequently delights in Anne’s acceptance, thereby demonstrating his respect for women and, indeed, for humanity at large.
To teach my students “how to think,” the file includes a “model thesis statement.”
Among several themes, Richard III emphasizes the discrepancy between appearance and reality by highlighting the fatal consequences of foolishly equating the one with the other. Hastings’ dire fate in Act III stems from his inability to recognize the true thrust and scope of Richard’s malevolence – an inability shared by a number of equally ill-fated characters. In disregarding Stanley’s warning that Richard will kill him should his support for Richard’s corruption wane, Hastings relies upon blind faith when survival requires acute awareness. Why “make pursuit where he mean no chase?” he asks, revealing how thoroughly Richard dupes him. Conversely, Lord Stanley chooses flight, astutely gauging Richard’s villainy. As a result, he is able to fight Richard’s tyranny and contribute to its demise. That discerning judgment – in contrast to Hastings’ smug complacency — sets the standard of conduct needed to thwart Richard’s tyranny.
The file proves that I understood much of the play and could satisfy any teacher quality standard — from then or now – based solely upon such an understanding. It does not prove that my students learned anything: no such evidence is included. It seems that my teaching was Hastings-like, relying upon a blind faith in how readily my students students succumbed to my wisdom. Too bad it is too late for any survey research into how those students voted in the last election.
Many in my generation chose teaching to perform socially righteous work, to contribute to a more just society. In the context of concluding a career at a moment when malevolence is on the move, it might be useful to re-consider Richard III against that purpose.
Richard III’s portrait of “ancient lessons,” concludes with Richmond’s restoration speech proclaiming that, at last, “civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again.” But only after “England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself.” Indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness now run deep, as they have done historically, well before 1593 — when Shakespeare staged Richard III— a hundred years after Richard Crookback’s bustling reign.
Today, Richard IIIis rarely taught in our high schools. Instead Romeo and Julietis taught to almost everyone because, well, Romeo and Juliethas always been taught. Also, several movie versions – including Gnomeo and Juliet– are available to lay down the plot in student minds and moderate the pain they experience confronting text that, for many, might well be Sanskrit. Nonetheless, the play’s conclusion – however adulterated in presentation – offers much to open adolescent minds. “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,” enjoins Prince Escalus to those gathered around the coffins. Do so because, “Some shall be pardoned and some punishèd.”
[A note for the future: after a civic debacle, apportioning blame is necessary. For any prospective reconciliation, how it is done is essential.]
Concluding his tragedies and histories, Shakespeare typically sends forward a chiding accountant who draws a line down the middle of the moral ledger, with the pardoned on the one side and the punished on the other — not unlike a teacher at the conclusion of a school year weighing student grades. Or not unlike a teacher concluding a career, vocationally conditioned to distinguish vice from virtue, failure from success.
All such past accounting intend to shape future individual conduct.
But who cares whether Richard IIIor Romeo and Julietis under-learned in our high schools? As Auden writes, “Poetry [let alone teaching poetry] makes nothing happen.” Few would draw a straight line between under-teaching Richard IIIand current indecencies, evils, wounds scars, and madness. Whatever Allan Bloom asserted in 1987, over-viewing Gnomeo and Julietdid not cause The Closing of the American Mind.
When young, teaching well requires the mastery of craft grafted upon a duty of care. At the conclusion – after experience has “drowned innocence” – teaching well requires everything learned before plus an ongoing regard for what youth encounters in their own existential go-round. However we teach, they will naturally have their own shot at “bustling through this world.”
Which makes more good teaching even more important.
In 1992, FedericoMayor Zaragoza addressed UNESCO’s International Conference on Education and asked, “What kind of education do we need?”
It is a kind of education that will entail our learning to live together in a world of all-encompassing complexity; having a conscious remembrance of the past, of things discovered and knowledge distilled; and laying down plans for the future. It will entail ensuring the full flowering of diversity …. Instilling attitudes that pay heed to the natural environment and to the attendant human and cultural environment represented by the ‘Other’ to whom we owe our respect …. Education should teach us … how to protect our culture by adopting an open-minded outlook instead of beating the retreat and withdrawing into the prison of our identities. It should also teach us to have the courage to rise up in permanent rebellion in favour of the rights of others and ourselves alike. Learning to be is, above all, learning to relate, learning to take up our stand at the crossing of the ways instead of remaining behind the fortress walls, as well as showing concern for others. It entails learning to conjugate the verb ‘to share’ every day of our lives, so that the future will be less one-sided. This is a Utopia that is in the realm of the possible, the reality of the morrow. Education really comes into its own when it builds bridges and pushes back horizons, for its true calling is to look to the future and inform action. The Utopia of the realm of the possible -the real utopia -appears to be a major contradiction, yet it is capable of cutting a broad swathe through the narrow alleyways of necessity.
No one should doubt that “indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness” are on the move. Potentially countervailing call for “the future to inform action.” Who more so than teachers can “go hence to have more talk of these things?”