About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On Reading the “Great Books” at Eighteen

            Today’s blog is an extension of my post from July 29, 2015 “Reading a Difficult Book.” It’s a reflection on learning to read difficult literature; the way we slowly, gradually develop our ability to comprehend it; and the way our reading of literature, any literature, changes over time.

            The long prefatory note to my earlier post is relevant here to set the context for this blog. I’ll reprint part of it, but if you read “Reading a Difficult Book” and remember the preface, then you can skip it and go right to the new material.

Prefatory Note

With the exception of a few classes, I was a mediocre student in high school, unengaged, drifting along, spending huge amounts of energy trying to find my balance on the runaway train ride that is adolescence.  In my senior year, I had the sheer, dumb luck of landing in the English class of a new teacher, Jack McFarland, a Columbia University graduate student who had come back home to Los Angeles and found a job in our small all-boys Catholic high school.  He taught us what he knew: the Mid-Twentieth Century Columbia Western Civilization course, starting with The Iliad and The Aeneid and, after nine months, concluding with Graham Greene and the Existentialists.  The year before, our Junior English teacher had us half-heartedly reading Animal Farm and another short novel and writing a few brief papers.  Mr. McFarland hurled me and my classmates into the very deep end of the academic pool, and we flailed and sputtered and learned way more than we thought possible.

            I tell this story in Lives on the Boundary.  For a complex set of reasons, Mr. McFarland caught my attention in a way no other teacher had, and I worked like crazy for him.  He was the person who recommended I go to college and, despite my sorry grades up to the point of his class, got me into one.  He changed my life.

            Even though I’ve written about this experience, I have recently been thinking about it again…a lot…feel driven to understand it as deeply as I can.  Over my many years in education, I’ve encountered a number of other students who have had experiences similar in form to mine: they were drifting along and then had a teacher, or entered a program, or had life smack them in a way that flipped a switch for them.  School began to matter.

            One thing I’ve been doing to further examine that year in Mr. McFarland’s class is to reread all the books he assigned—and, believe it or not, I still have some of the original paperbacks.  When I don’t, I try to find the edition we read through used booksellers or eBay; I want to hold it in my hand and see the typeface and illustrations I saw then.  I also have the many papers I wrote for Mr. McFarland and my class notes as well.  Finally, I am still in touch with Jack McFarland, and we are rereading some of the books together.  I’m doing everything I can do to achieve the impossible: to put myself back in time to better understand that life-changing year.


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Those classics we read for Mr. McFarland became the grist for the mill of our understanding.  We hacked away at them, half-read and mis-read them, cursed them, trivialized their meaning, the many dimensions of human experience they rendered, for, after all, we were boys turbocharging our way through late adolescence.  We were certainly familiar with the pull of ambition, or the sting of jealousy, or with sadness and loss, but nothing close to the depth of years and expression that unfolds in Oedipus the King or Othello or Checkhov’s Three Sisters.  That understanding would perhaps come as our own years, then decades, passed.

            Sometime shortly after Mr. McFarland’s class, maybe during the summer when I was feverishly reading on my own, trying to extend the education he had set in motion, I found Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  The well-lighted place is a small Spanish café, late at night, with one elderly patron and two waiters, and it is through the dialogue between the waiters that the story unfolds.  The old man comes every night to drink one brandy, then another, then another in the quiet, orderly restaurant.  The week before, one waiter tells another, he tried to kill himself at home.

            One waiter is young with a wife waiting in bed for him, and he is eager to hurry the patron along and close up shop.  The other waiter is older, alone, and understands why the old man needs the café, for he, too, does “not want to go to bed” and needs “a light for the night.”

            The young waiter sends the patron on his way and leaves for his wife.  The last few paragraphs—this story is brief and moves quickly—have the older waiter continuing the narration in his head.  “It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.”  For beyond the clean well-lighted café there “was a nothing he knew too well.”  Then in a subversion of the Lord’s Prayer that grabs a Catholic kid’s attention, the waiter intones “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…”  There is no God.  Only nothingness.

            The last scene finds our waiter in a bar himself, ordering a drink, but leaving for home soon after.  Though the bar is bright, it is not clean.  “He would lie in bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep.  After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia.  Many must have it.”

            By the time I read the story that summer, I had developed, thanks to Jack McFarland and on the backs of his Great Books, the tools to analyze it.  I pinpointed the light and dark imagery.  I got Hemingway’s use of the café as a symbol for something larger, for the need for some kind of order and routine in the face of chaos.  It is not enough that the café be well-lit; it also has to be kept up.  The human protective response to a world without God.

            I understood the story, could explain how it works.  This is hugely important, otherwise it’s a seemingly pointless and puzzling account of an old drunk and two waiters, one eager to get home to his wife, the other more than a little strange.  I would read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” again at other points in my life and teach it as well.  That first reading brought with it the pleasure of interpretation, an appreciation of Hemingway’s skill and the welcome feeling of my own growing competence.  I can do this.

            When I read the story in my thirties or forties, I remember the chill of emptiness, of the café as a fragile defense against the fear of dying.  This was an emotional—really an existential—response that I didn’t have that summer after high school.  And when I read it now, I choke up as the waiters debate cutting the old man off and when the older waiter begins to ruminate about his own isolation and fear.  More than dread, the story now evokes sorrow for our mortality.

            “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" represents one of the many long arcs of reading that began with me clomping my way through Mr. McFarland's book list and continues as an old man and two waiters live out their lives again and once again in the protective light of a bright Spanish cafe.

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