Thursday, October 29, 2009


Mo'olelo is the Hawaiian word for "story," but that doesn't really capture its meaning.

I am wary of endowing foreign words with a magic that English does not have for us, simply because we use English all the time, and so I won't claim that "mo'olelo" is more profound, necessarily, than the words we use. That is different, however, I won't deny. Our word "story" is a contraction of "history," with which it was used interchangeably until around the Renaissance. History comes from the Greek "historia," which means, basically, knowledge gained through narrative or record. Important, here, is knowledge. Indeed the theoretical roots of historia are "to know" and "to see" (which, to the Greeks, were closely related).

Mo'olelo, on the other hand, has simpler origins. "Mo'o" means succession, and "olelo" means words. A succession of words. A story.

And yet, that captures what Hawaiian history was. In an oral culture, preserved by story-telling, a succession of words is immensely powerful. It is a whole mode of expression, and, indeed, the only mode of expression for teaching the lessons that constitute the wisdom that each generation passes to the next.

I mention all this because I've been thinking very hard about where I am, where I'm going, what culture I belong to, and so on into deeper and deeper existential depths. Perhaps I do too much of this, because my beloved St. John's forces its students into such questions throughout their undergraduate lives (and makes it a hard habit to break). Yet, I believe that such questions are never truly answerable, but must be considered and reconsidered time and again. Where I stand now, those questions loom large, and something about Hawaii - what it means to be a Hawaiian - stands at the heart of these questions for me.

Am I a Hawaiian? In blood, certainly not. I'm about as European as it gets. In intellectual heritage? Certainly not, for I am a reader of Kant and Plato and Hume, Europeans all. What's more, I'm a member and, ultimately, supporter, of our modern scientific culture.

I don't see magical power in Hawaiian words, but I do see a language and a culture with profound lessons for the world. Perhaps that's a bit grandiose. Maybe I see a language and culture with stories to tell, and fewer and fewer people to tell them. Perhaps that's too tragic. Maybe I simply see those students I worked with in Kaneohe, pushing and being pushed to think a little differently, to learn a little more, and to speak each other's language. Perhaps that's too personal. Maybe all of these things - and so much more (to quote Eliot) - are true. Perhaps none truly captures the point (Eliot again, "it is impossible to say just what I mean").

No matter where you go, you will always find conversation. Sometimes the conversations we have are verbal, sometimes (these days) digital, sometimes merely implied in the way we gesture or avert our eyes or sigh. These conversations are not always successions of words, and are not always stories, but they can be. What's more, sometimes - more often than we usually realize - they should be. How many stories have never been told that should have been?

What is the point of a story? Must it have one? I don't know the European answers to those questions, let alone the Hawaiian answers. For my part, I suspect that many of the best stories have a point that cannot be communicated, because the point is not itself linguistic. That is where stories connect to music, and where symphonies and sonatas connect to poetry, and where a man comes to believe that he has a spirit that is undefinable, because his thoughts and feelings are inexpressible except through allegory, allusion, and song.

Is this a Hawaiian sentiment? Probably not. And yet the belief that these questions also imply a fundamental principle, the kokua of a shared journey, the malama for your fellow man, the aloha of a shared spirit... these things seem particularly - if not uniquely - Hawaiian, because they are about the way that stories are told, and the simple profundity of mo'olelo, a succession of words.

Sometimes the lessons of a story are blunt and practical, obvious to even a child. Sometimes they are complex and intractable. But lessons that come from stories always belie a belief about what education is, and why it is important. Education is a cultural event, not an economic one, or a political one, or even a personal one. It's about understanding your heritage and your identity and finding the place where your spirit belongs, and who your people are. The stories we tell and the stories we are told define us far more than the facts we can recite, or the equations we can solve. They tell us who we are, and what we know about ourselves.

Perhaps stories are not so powerful as all that, though. Perhaps they are just a succession of words.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brief Thoughts on Citation

Citations, citations, everywhere. If you read the studies that show all the things that "studies show," you'll find that they are full of citations. A single paragraph may spend as many characters chronicling all the people who were sources for the words in that paragraph as it does actually, you know, making a point. I have serious reservations about this practice, not because it violates Plato's "once you put it in your own words, it's your idea" concept (though that certainly makes sense to me), but more because it ruins the flow of the writing, and makes every piece about law more than about ideas.

Like with many social, academic, or cultural ills, the reason this happens is money. How can we make sure people get paid for their ideas? By making those ideas intellectual property, of course!* But the process of getting published makes intellectual property more of a political competition than an actual representation of the way ideas are generated. Though not an expert, a high school student may conceive of an idea that a Senior Researcher would not, and yet the high schooler cannot publish that idea - cannot be granted ownership of it - unless he can play the game of writing a proper paper, finding a proper journal, and including proper background and citations and so on.

*Think about how much blogging - and electronic publication in general - complicates the issue.

The reality is, there's no way to trace all of our ideas. We can debate whether a priori knowledge is possible - allowing for the possibility of "original" ideas - but even if it is, the fact remains that almost everything we think and say is amalgamation and permutation of things we have seen, heard, read, felt, or done elsewhere. There may be original means of expression, and original ideas in some formal sense, and perhaps original connections between experiences, but it is exceedingly difficult to have a truly original idea. How far does citation go, then? Exact, word-for-word recreations of thoughts published elsewhere makes some sense, but what about paraphrasing, or re-wording? Should I cite my classmate for a witty saying, or my Uncle for a joke he told me when I was twelve?

'Common knowledge,' we tell students, need not be cited. We all know that there are 12 months in a year. But what is common knowledge in academic writing? In education research? In a physics journal? What glaring assumptions go without citation, while others are backed by fifteen papers over the last fifty years? And which of those papers do you cite?

I would be shocked if there are not people who research the use of citations in research (who must, themselves, also include endless citations), but there seems little to do about the actual practice. Yet, so many people seem to think it's either useless, or silly. At the very least, we could move citations out of the body of the text, right? Regardless, it's a game that academics have to play, but it's a game that I find indicative of a troubled culture.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Word Clouds

Odds are you've seen a word cloud, whether you know it or not. More and more websites - especially blogs*, but not exclusively - use them to generate tags and inform readers of the major content. If you've never played around with one before, head over to and try it out. As you'll see, the program takes all the words in the text you give it, and counts how often each word appears. The more frequent a word is, the larger it is. Other than that, it just kind of jumbles the words together according to an algorithm that is probably a lot more complicated than the results indicate.

*On a scale of Alanis Morissette to William Shakespeare,** how ironic is it that the spell-check for my blog thinks that "blog" is misspelled? I'm thinking that's about a Joyce (for writing a Great Book that is unreadable).

**Ok, I should explain the logic here for those who haven't heard or heard of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." Basically, the entire song is a list of things that are, actually, not really ironic at all (the good advice that you didn't take?). Except Ms. Morissette continuously prompts us to consider how ironic they are. This, I have come to believe, is "meta-irony." That is, none of the supposedly ironic things she says are ironic, but the song itself is supremely meta-ironic because it is about irony, and yet contains none.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, uses irony quite deftly in a number of his plays, and doesn't even need to call that irony "ironic." Of course, that was a more sophisticated (or something) time, when irony was not, in the words of Urban Dictionary: "One of the most misused words in the entire English language." Which, when you think about it, is pretty ironic. Or maybe meta-ironic...

What use is a word cloud? On some level, it's simply an aesthetic production. The most frequent words in a given text aren't always the most meaningful or important, even after you cut out (as Wordle does by default) all of the common words like "the" and "of" and "and." Nevertheless, it certainly can help to identify major themes, and, for a writer, can point out overused diction.

Rather than blathering on, I think we should take a look at a couple word clouds (hint, click on them to make them bigger). Here's the first five paragraphs of Finnegan's Wake:

Wordle: riverrun, the opening of Finnegan's Wake

No, most of those are not actually words.

Here's Morissette's Ironic:

Wordle: Ironic - Morissette

Here's my post about Peter Quince at the Clavier:

Wordle: Peter Quince Blog Post

Here's Peter Quince at the Clavier itself:

Wordle: Peter Quince at the Clavier

Unfortunately, Wordle doesn't differentiate between "like" as a verb, and "like" as a preposition, so it tends to show up, especially in poetry.

Useful? I'll let you decide. It certainly is fun, though, and an example of how technology can help us look at something we take for granted - like writing - a little bit differently.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Peter Quince Sonata

Warning, this is a long entry about a poem. Read at your peril.

What I'm not going to do, here, is interpret a poem.* That's perilous territory, not because it's impossible to say something insightful whilst being uncontroversial (indeed, offensiveness may be a barometer of insight), but rather because the poem I'm going to share with you is not, I think, meant to be interpreted in the old English-class-dissection way. One might argue that no poem is meant to be read as a kind or word problem, but some poems are particularly unyielding to that kind of analysis.

* Funny how writing works. As I finish up writing the post, what I've done is, actually, interpret the poem. I'm keeping this paragraph anyway, but know ahead of time that it's all lies. Of course, my disclaimer should be, instead, that I'm ignoring a whole lot of stuff I should be including in my interpretation, but the post is long enough without more detail.

Wallace Stevens is certainly a difficult poet to comprehend no matter what approach you use. Some of his poems - many of his poems - are not even all that pleasant to read, and don't necessarily seem to have a point outside of some bizarre and esoteric conviction that only the truly initiated understand. That, however, is not true of all of Stevens's poems. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird may be one of the more enigmatic poems that have made it into the Canon of English classes everywhere, but it is hardly unreadable.

Fun as it would be to play with that poem, I'm more interested, for the moment, in Peter Quince at the Clavier. A great many poems are described as "musical," which almost always annoys the Hell out of musicians. The problem is, most people don't really know what they mean when they call something "musical." A fairly technical definition might be something like: 'contains tones arranged in logical sequences to produce harmony, melody, and rhythm.' Poems do no such thing. Even if you grant that a poem read aloud has an auditory quality, it would be hard to argue that it is music unless it is sung. So describing a poem as "musical" implies a more touchy-feely definition. Unfortunately, that touchy-feely usage of "musical" often means, simply, "I liked it because it made me feel ______."*

* This is similar to calling music "beautiful." While a great many pieces are beautiful in some sense, it's kind of a throw-away, at a certain point. Calling music "beautiful" is often an excuse to not think about the how and the why of our love for a particular piece. "I can't explain it, it's just beautiful." While wonder and awe are certainly an important part of music - or poetry - that doesn't mean we should just let it be without trying to understand what's so wonderful about it. "Beautiful" music is sometimes the most terrifying and insidious, when you really think about it, and "musical" poetry can be the most disturbing. But we'll have to explore all of that at another time.

For my part, I would call Peter Quince at the Clavier a musical poem, not simply because I like it, but because it is actually an attempt to capture the spirit and form of music. Specifically, Stevens replicates the sonata form in the structure of the poem. This is a remarkable trick, because it asks not only that the reader see an analogy between the written word and the auditory piece of music (and not a fake analogy, but a meaningful, structural one), but also it presents its content - which is inherently more concrete than a sonata's - with a kind of musical sense of connotation.* What makes this connotation more powerful, to my mind, than the connotation in a typical "musical" poem is the self-consciousness of Stevens. He is writing a musical poem, and he knows it.

* Which is, of course, what people do mean when they call poems "musical." The kind of images the poem inspires are the kinds of images a song might.

Let's get the poem on the digital table. I want to present it couched in my own framework (you can read it at the link without my meddling).

Movement One - Sonata Allegro

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

"Music is feeling then, not sound." Ah, the other tenet of the "musical poem." But here the music comes not from trying to create a feeling in the reader - though certainly that does occur - but more from the description of the feeling itself. This is a poem not to generate a feeling, but about a feeling, and about why that feeling is musical. This is a more genuine way for a poem to be "musical."

More to the point, however, is the form here. The pacing of this section of the poem - this "movement" - is very much according to the sonata form, and, what's more, at the not-too-fast but not-too-slow allegro pace. The pacing you'll be able to tell from the coming sections, but the sonata form bears a little explanation. Sonata form, traditionally, goes A-B-A. That is, exposition to introduce the theme, development to depart from it, and recapitulation to return to it. Here the poem starts with music, a theme. What is music, it says, and what is a poem's relationship to music? That theme never goes away, but it transforms into desire, and metaphor. The development of that initial theme takes the form of "a green evening, clear and warm," a description of a setting for a feeling, which prepares us to return in our recapitulation. "The basses of their beings throb / In witching chords," We return to music, perhaps more specific, certainly more orchestral than our lonely piano at the opening, but music all the same. Our theme has been developed, and is now recapitulated.

Second Movement - Adagio

In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned --
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.

This reads slowly, because Stevens breaks lines in order to force delay. Those milliseconds we take to jump from "She searched" to "The touch of springs" are enough to slow us down, so that we feel the tempo has dropped, and the mood has deepened. The content - the theme - of the first "movement" of the poem was almost philosophical (music is feeling), and so the actual feeling - desire - was subsumed under a kind of joyful and playful intellectual romp. Not so in this movement. Here Stevens is not sad, per se, but he is reflective. His Susanna does not jump, she lies "in the green water, clear and warm."

This movement rhymes, at points, as well, engaging our ears and further slowing our progress as we reflect back to the line with which the rhyme occurs. In all this strikes me as a minor theme, not because it is sad, but because it is unsure. If we had opened in C Major, we are in A minor with strong intonations of C ("so much melody"). The picture here is one of longing, desire, loss even. In some way we are completely divorced from the first movement - as we would be in most music - but there is a vague connection, a promise that this image of Susanna by the water, shares a certain musical feeling with the desires of the opening Allegro. It is an explication of what was melancholy amidst the romp.

Of course, it ends with a nice crescendo into the Scherzo.

Third Movement - Scherzo

Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.

They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;

And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.

Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.

And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

While there is something uncomfortable about the story here, it is very much in the playful, jovial style of a Scherzo. For one, it is undoubtedly the fastest movement yet. The couplets jump off the page quickly, especially because of the regular meter (iambic quatrimeter, for those technical readers out there*). "Scherzo" means "joke," and while the joke here may be a cruel one for Susanna, it is a joke nonetheless. Even the diction (rhyming Byzantines with tambourines twice, for example) here suggests that things are, if not rofl-funny (I'm coining that one), at least a bit absurd.

* It is worth noting that quatrimeter could be considered far more musical than pentameter, the more common poetic meter. Quatrimeter is, basically, 4/4 time. "Revealed (1) Susan- (2) -na and (3) her shame (4)." Each foot is an eighth-note. 5/4 time does happen, of course, but it is exceedinly rare. Especially in sonatas.

Scherzo's also tend to be shorter movements, and this is certainly brief. Nevertheless, they play an important musical role, separating the reflective Adagio from the culminating Finale, punctuating the depth of reflection with a joviality that does not fully forget the melancholy - indeed, it comes from the same source - but recharacterizes it in a different way. Our original theme, "music is feeling," is a bit distant, but the image of Susanna, the desire and longing that she represents, is made sharper here.

Susanna is a delicate, almost mournful creature in the second movement, but here, in the Scherzo, this musical desire that our Peter Quince (a telling name) has takes on it's true form. He may love her beauty, but he also loves her shame. His desire is conent to fester, but it is nonetheless a desire to be bawdy and lusty. His music may be beautiful, sensual, and melancholy at one turn, but at the next it is devious. And should this surprise us? The longings of Beethoven's music were thought dangerous and innapropriate in his time.

Fourth Movement - Finale, Theme and Repetitions

Beauty is momentary in the mind --
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden's choral.

Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

Most every sonata culminates in a Finale that, while encompassing the thematic material (if not in actual notation, in spirit) of the previous movements while moving beyond to a more profound and usually more theatrical climax. Here Stevens winds his Finale around Death, perhaps to our great surprise. As if the movement - which I say is a "Theme and Variations" because "So ____ dies" is a refrain here - were not surprising enough thematically, it opens with a chord we did not expect: "Beauty is momentary in the mind... But in the flesh it is immortal." Music? Longing? Our themes are gone.

Except they are not. Stevens has jumped from music and desire to death, perhaps, but what is that death? The obvious play here is the French "petit mort," seeing the Scherzo here as a culmination of desire in orgasm. I think Stevens may be suggesting that - he is certainly a fan of innuendo* - but I think he is also drawn to death as a musical question. Our sonata is to reach it's final cadence, our poem is to end, our romance is to play out for better or worse. The death here is a death of many things, not the least of which is the true death that awaits all lovers and all musicians, not particularly because they are lovers or musicians, but because they are men (who may also be lovers and musicians for the same reason). Is that too broad? Probably, and Stevens has more going on here, but it is certainly the theme against which his variations are played.

* I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Against death Stevens pits immortality, but of a strange kind. The immortality of physical beauty and the immortality of music are separate from the body itself, from even the mind or the poet or the musician. This immortality that "makes a constant sacrament of praise" depends upon music, or feeling, or desire. What is immortal, what is beyond death - we can hope - is just that; the desire to be musical, to love and to lust after, to play song after song and sonata after sonata.

And yet there is Peter Quince, the Shakesperian ass, playing the Clavier. For all the depth of meaning - most of which I am sure I do not understand - in the poem, there is always that self-depricating, self-sabotaging irony that says we ought not to take any of this too seriously. That may be a profound piece of wisdom, or it may be a reminder that poetry and music are too different to really be translated, even in the clever way that Stevens has tried to do so.

Regardless, this sonata by Stevens - or Peter Quince, I'm not sure - is musical to me, as I said at the outset. It is musical because I feel I need to read it aloud, to feel the meaningless connotations as much as the loaded ones, to explore my own reaction to it as much as the attempt at self-expression that it must clearly represent. It is musical because it exists somewhere in that paradoxical land of great art, being the supremely selfish creation of a particular mind, whilst being so universal as to be comprehensible - on some level anyway - to just about anyone. Perhaps, above all, it is musical because it says it is, and who are we to argue?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eating Real Food

Not so long ago I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. While I was naturally disposed towards agreeing with most of his points, it was an educational read nonetheless, and I highly recommend it. In the meantime, I want to reflect on some of the central ideas, especially now that I'm cooking (gasp) for myself.

It is fascinating that, despite the incredible progress of medicine, in many ways people have actually gotten unhealthier over the last century. Sure, lives are longer, and the older people get, the more likely they are to manifest the horrible diseases that are lurking somewhere in their genetics. But even younger people are less healthy. There's a lot more cancer a lot earlier in people's lives, and obesity has become a huge problem, especially in the United States. Pollan, thankfully, doesn't take the silly "Americans are stupid, fat, and lazy" tack that you're likely to hear on a talk show. Rather, he approaches the problem from a nutrionist perspective.

In short, the generally low quality of health in America comes from one primary source: our fascination with nutrition. Instead of eating food, we try to consume nutrients, and, as a result, we end up ingesting lots and lots of processed food-like-substances wraught with chemicals and plastics and pesticides and hormones and all kind of nasty stuff. There's obviously an anti-corporate sentiment in opposing mass-produced, highly-processed food products, but Pollan is also concerned with food science as well.

There is a kind of assumption among food scientists that we can simply figure out what nutrients a person needs to survive, and, ultimately, we could just create a pill that would sustain a human being without the need to eat. Ignoring the cultural and social implications of this model, Pollan points out that there are some serious scientific issues as well. The reality is, we simply don't know what exactly is in our food, and why it is so good for us. What we do know, on the other hand, is that human beings co-evolved with fruits and vegetables and even other animals (to a degree) so that those things would be good for us. It was beneficial for a fruit if a human would eat it and thereby spread its seeds, and it was beneficial for a human to eat so it could, you know, live. As a result, fruits developed all kind of attractants and hidden benefits and, in a cunning and devious move, subtle hidden things that we need to survive.

The problem is, we can't simply extract all of those things and figure out how they operate in our bodies. Anatomy, medicine, nutrition, evolution, and all the sciences involved are simply not advanced enough to adequately understand what food really is. There are complex interactions in the process of digestion that we cannot isolate, there are relationships between parts of the fruit that we do not appreciate, and there are nutrients that, probably, we haven't yet discovered. The evidence for this lies in the history of the science of food. Every time we think we've cracked the puzzle, we discover there's another layer of complexity we never considered before (much like, I don't know, just about every other science).

That's not to say research into food is not meaningful or valuable. Of course we should be trying to discover the micronutrients that make up our diets (just as we try to discover the sub-atomic particles that make up our universe). The problem lies in the translation of food science into practice. Because food science is tied in with food corporations, it is in their interest to perpetuate the idea that science knows what you should eat, while your mother (or grandmother) doesn't. This is - as Pollan points out - a rather severe reversal of the previous few millenia of human history, during which people may have been unhealthy for many reasons, but bad nutrition was rarely one.

I won't try to reproduce the whole argument, but I do want to emphasize this main point of Pollan's. Almost every cultural diet in the world produces good health, despite the wide variety in focal nutrient. The "Western Diet" of processed cereals, lots of red meats, candy, and soda does not. But it's not just candy and soda that is to blame. It's really, more than anything, our emphasis on processed rather than whole foods. Processed foods, by definition, cut out nutrients in favor of others, and try to do things like reduce fat, fortify with vitamins, preserve freshness. The problem is, none of that is really any good for you. An apple, some salad, and maybe a small piece of chicken will always be better than even a "healthy" breakfast bar.

Pollan's catch phrase is "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." That is exceedingly sensible advice, because it could easily be translated thus: "eat the way human beings evolved to eat." Just because the grocery store says your cereal is "heart healthy" doesn't mean it actually is.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Changed Setting

FYI to everyone. I changed the settings so anyone can comment, rather than just registered users of Blogger. I didn't realize it was set up that way by default... So fire away, if you so desire.

The Best College in the Country

It's odd that we rank schools. What, exactly, does it mean to be "the best college," or the best preschool, for that matter? Does it mean students have higher standardized test scores, or the school has a larger endowment? Does it mean a school is more selective? Does it mean students graduate more prepared to work in high-paying fields?

Earlier today I read an interesting set of sixteen negative theses about a particularly fine college. It describes what the faculty are not, and what the school does not do. Why? Because this particular college does things a little differently. You can probably guess what college it is, but I'm going to operate under the pretense of suspense and not tell you. Here's the list, with my comments or further quotation sprinkled in when appropriate:

1) We (the faculty) receive no compensation.

Instead the faculty receives a stipend. Sufficient to make a living and to educate their own children, but not the kind of salaries commanded by many Professors - especially those who moonlight as corporate board members.

2) We deliver no to commodity to our students.

It's fashionable these days to speak of education as a business. Students are "end users" or "consumers" who pay the University for a degree, which is itself a commodity for use in the job market. A college opposing this notion is non unheard-of. Many liberal arts colleges would sustain that they do not commoditize education.

3) We do not prepare students to make a living.

"We do help them to examine and shape their lives," the text continues.

4) We produce no assessable outcome.

"The shaping of a soul is a simply immeasurable event." Again the text. Assessment is one of the biggest problems in modern education. All the things you can assess are, generally, not worth assessing, and all the things you really want to assess, you can't.

5) We are not an academic institution; we are, instead, a community of learning.

6) We have no administration.

Imagine having your dean, or the President of your school, for a class. Imagine running a college - not a small charter school - on by consensus.

7) We are not Professors, and perhaps not even teachers.

From elsewhere in the piece, but an awesome quotation: "We are devoted teachers who doubt whether teaching is possible." The contention is, essentially, that learning is more important than teaching (or education, you could say... And no, I didn't plan that).

8) We are neither intellectuals nor scholars.

What is more important, questions or results? In a research-driven academia it's easy to get wrapped up in career-advancement and publishing and so on. A faculty not concerned with these issues is a faculty devoted to its students instead of itself.

9) We are not selective, at least not in intention.

If the primary outcomes are impossible to assess, why should the preparation of the student entering a school matter? The assessments we use are, largely, economic ones. The primary differentiating factor on SAT performance is not quality of education, but quality of checkbook. What are elite institutions really looking for when they seek high-scoring students?

10) We are not a participatory democracy; instead we live by a polity.

11) We have no hierarchy.

12) We are intrinsically non-political.

These go together, and are radical, so much so that they challenge politics as-such. "To the radicals we might say: you don't begin to know what radical is; we are the ones who go to the roots."

13) We are not our students' companions.

14) We are not a writing, but a speaking school.

Writing is important, without a doubt, but conversation - unrecorded dialogue - is more vivid, more dynamic, and - because it is more flawed - more real.

15) We are not an experimental college.

16) We have no method.

These last two are particularly interesting to me, because many people look at St. John's (yep, you guessed it!) and see something strange and experimental. They see a methodology that is ingrained. In reality, it is as far from experimental a college as you can find. The program changes, to be sure, but reading good books and having conversations is not really a subject of experimentation, and it certainly isn't a "method" in the proper sense. Each student learns his own way, each tutor her own.

The title of the piece is St. John's Educational Policy for a "Living Community" by Eva Brann (who many of you will recognize as an Annapolis tutor and former Dean). It was a regular internal report from the Dean to the faculty in 1991, but unlike most - and fortunately for us - it was published.

There are probably a lot of bones to pick here, and I'm sure there has been - and is - internal controversy at St. John's over this kind of document. If I were a student there, I think I would be a bit more sensitive to the potentially jarring conclusions Brann makes, and a bit more reserved in my support. But from the perspective of a student at a research University, Brann is absolutely right. I won't pretend that I don't love Stanford, and that it isn't giving me things St. John's never could. However, I also won't pretend that St. John's isn't what a community of learning is supposed to be, in some quintessential way. It's no accident places like the University of Chicago, Reed College, Whitman College, and many others have borrowed from the St. John's 'Great Books' model.

It's all well and good to puff up my undergraduate institution, but I only do so to highlight some of the things that I have heard about education and learning, and to reflect upon the lessons that St. John's understands without needing research. That learning happens when you read good books and talk about them with intelligent people is inevitable, of course, but it's not the whole story. We try to complicate learning all the time, we try to ascribe it to external pressures and good (or bad) teaching, and good (or bad) policy. Learning starts and ends with a student, and the will to learn.

To Brann's theses I would add one, though perhaps it is captured by the notion that teachers cannot teach. It is this: We do not impose a false desire to learn upon our students (nor do we tolerate one). Instead their motivation is their own. Without that, no school can function, and with it, no school can fail. It is a necessary and sufficient cause for education.*

* To use a little Aristotle that, to my surprise, remains quite common parlance. Of course, the more sophisticated among us - or at least the more latinized - prefer "sine qua non" to "necessary cause." And can you blame them?

Yes, you can.

There are many excellent colleges and universities in the country, and I'm not so big-headed to think that the one I like best is actually the best one. I reject the notion of "best," anyway, because that's not the point of education. There's a reason St. John's opts out of the US News and World Report rankings, and that's a fundamental opposition to the premise.

So what's really the point here? Well, to share with you a nice little article I found about my college. Heaven knows there aren't very many, probably because the bit about assessing changes in the soul is true (and who does research on souls?). And yet, isn't that what education - especially high school education - is about? There are times when I suspect that innovative approaches to education forget to look backwards, and that education technology forgets the most important education technology of all: the book.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Sibylline Books

At the end of Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams retells the story of the Sibylline Books in the context of species lost and environmental protection. It is quite powerful, coming as it does, after a series of stories about species on the brink of extinction (the Baiji River Dolphin, one of the species in the book, is now extinct). I won't reproduce the story from the book, exactly, but I do want to retell it in my own way.

A long time ago there was a small, but prosperous town in the middle of a great plain. The town saw plenty of foreigners passing through with exotic wears, stopping on their way from the great cities that surely lay far beyond the horizon. As a prominent way-point, the town found itself never in want, not only of the necessities of life, but of many of the luxuries as well. So one can easily imagine their reaction to the unsightly old hag who strode into the town on a bright autumn afternoon carrying a sack full of a dozen dusty books.

"All the knowledge and wisdom of the world," She said, "Only one sack of gold!" The men and women at the marketplace chuckled at the old woman. A whole sack of gold for twelve dusty books? It didn't matter what was in them, that was an outrageous price! Their own books usually sold for a gold piece each, at best, and that only for the highest quality binding and printing. A trading village was no place to sell books, besides, considering how busy everyone is with commerce all the time; most books were bought for show.

The woman tried to peddle her goods all day, but found it impossible to attract the attention of even the most credulous buyer. "Leave me alone," one would say. "I have plenty of books already," said another. "Obviously you don't know everything, or you would have left already" the more snarky in the town would opine.

Finally, as the sun was setting, the woman approached one of the other vendors and bought a bit of firewood. She dug a small pit, placed six of the books in, along with the wood, and started a fire right in the middle of the marketplace. This attracted the Mayor, who scrammed the woman out of the village, but not before the books had burned to ashes.

Winter came, and the town was hit hard by blizzards lasting well into March. They were a frugal lot, however, and always planned for such a contingency, and so they braved the winter well. Summer brought the normal volume of trade, and the town was back to normal by the next autumn, when the old woman returned again.

"Not you again," the Mayor said as she entered the town. "Are you still selling the same nonsense?"

"If by 'nonsense' you mean all the knowledge and wisdom of the world," she replied, "No. I now only have half of it remaining. I have changed the price, however." At this the townspeople nodded at each other sarcastically. Of course she's changed the price, they thought, because she only has six dusty old books left. "The remaining books are only two sacks of gold!" The woman sat down among the merchants and laid the books out in front of her, waiting for any takers.

"You must be joking," A man said, "You can't charge twice as much for half the merchandise! We are a trading town, well-versed in business and exchange. You can't expect us to buy books of such low quality for a price so high!" The woman merely sat there, and when the day ended without any takers - but with considerably more jeering than in the previous year - she repeated her ritual and burned half the books. The morning after the woman left, a few young people from the town ruffled through the dying embers of the fire, searching for an odd page, but all was ashes once again.

Another year passed, and this was a hard one. Again the winter was long, and harvests around the countryside were poor. The summer trading caravans were less frequent than they had been in decades. In the end, the city managed, as it always had, but there were whispers that another hard winter would spell serious trouble.

When the old woman arrived in autumn, she was expected. The Mayor greeted her personally, "Madame, we would like to look at your books. We will not be able to offer you two sacks of gold right away, but we are ready to form a committee to investigate the worth, and, in a few weeks, we will be able to make a suitable offer."

The old woman looked back at him. "These three remaining books contain a quarter of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world, and I cannot part with them for anything less than four sacks of gold."

"Four sacks of gold is out of the question, madame, but if you would consider our offer..."

The old woman simply shook her head, and proceeded to burn two of the three remaining books, leaving the town to fend for itself for another winter.

When she returned again the following year the town was desperate. Trade had all but ceased, and the granaries were less than half full. The winter was just around the corner, and already it was cold and windy, though the summer had only just ended. The whole town anxiously awaited the old woman, ready to swallow their pride and purchase her remaining book.

The woman entered the town cautiously, holding the book in front of her. "Are you now ready to buy my book. It contains one-twelfth of the knowledge and wisdom of the world, and it is exceedingly valuable. I can only part with it for twelve sacks of gold."

The Mayor looked back, "We had only budgeted for six." The woman started digging her fire-pit. "Now hold on," the Mayor said, "We can give you ten, but we need something to get us through next summer's trading season." The woman kept digging. As she placed the book into the pit, along with a little kindling, the Mayor finally gave in. "You win," he said, "We'll give you twelve. It better be worth it."

"It is," the woman replied. "You should have seen the rest of it."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Learning and Education

There's an interesting, if superficial, difference between the program I am in and the comparable one at Harvard. What Stanford calls "Learning, Design, and Technology," Harvard calls "Technology, Innovation, and Education." I'm sure I'll be offering reflections on all three of the components of my program over the course of the year, but I want to start with "learning," because, on some level, it is the primary focus of the program. The LDT program takes place in the School of Education, after all.

Why do we chose "learning" over "education" in the title of the program? Is it just an aesthetic thing, or is there really a substantive, if philosophical difference between the two? On a visceral level, "education" strikes me as a more institutional term than "learning." Education is what happens in school, or during some king of training. We talk about "informal learning," but rarely do you hear "informal education." What's more, education seems to be an active process. For education to happen, you need an educator of some kind. Learning, while certainly facilitated by a teacher, emphasizes the recipient. You need only a learner for there to be learning.

What is learning, then, as opposed to education? Learning is what happens to an individual, while education is what someone - or something like a school or a computer program - tries to make happen to an individual. Learning and education can happen simultaneously, of course, but it seems it's entirely possible to have learning without education and education without learning. Indeed, we might say there's far too much education without learning in the world/

As tempting as it is to ascribe a morality to learning and education, it seems to me that learning is amoral, in its essence. We may learn not only about things that are cruel, unjust, frightening, and unfair, but we may also learn how to do those things. The old harping against violence on TV or in video games is based on this principle: we are always learning, and the things we are exposed to determine what we learn. I don't know that education is similarly amoral, but it certainly tends towards an agenda in a way that learning does not. Because education is the act of one person on another, it is purposeful, directed (even if the outcome is unexpected), and therefore related to some system of values. We may not agree with the moral structure of a given lesson (a Christian may not approve of a secular education, for example), but it is hard to deny that there is a value-judgment in education as to what is worth teaching.

According to Dewey, our experiences build on each other, and it is the job of the educator to make sure that the learning that is always happening - whether we like it or not - is directed in a way that is sensible, practical, fulfilling, and stimulating. This vision of education and learning is largely agreed upon because it is so intuitive: of course we cannot put things into people's heads, we can only provide them with a series of experiences that culminate in a certain kind of knowledge.

Questions like "What is knowledge?" or "What is experience?" rear their heads, at this point, but I'll resist their urges. Rather, I want to offer a working definition of this thing we call learning. Learning is consciousness over time. I'm reminded of the joke, "time exists so that everything doesn't happen all at once, and space exists so that everything doesn't happen to you." Because things happen in a sequence, we try to process those things and therefore strive to put our experiences together in a logical, meaningful way. We cannot, even if we try, avoid learning. We may not learn things that an educator might call valuable (or that we might call valuable), but we learn just the same.

Stanford's program strikes me as a bit more abstracted than Harvard's, for this reason, though in reality there is likely little difference between the fundamentals of the curricula. We'll be competing for the same jobs, reading the same research, and doing the same kinds of projects. Nevertheless, the spiritual difference is meaningful. Is it more important to understand the process of bestowing knowledge and experience, or the processes by which people acquire knowledge and experience? I'm not sure, and even though I'm sure Stanford and Harvard - and any other school with a similar program - will try to address both sides of that issue, I think understanding learning is probably more fundamental and certainly more philosophical than understanding education.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Listening to the "Variations on a Theme By Haydn"

Because he is so different than other composers of his era, Johannes Brahms is a difficult composer to classify. He is certainly a Romantic - expanding beyond the formal limitations that the Classical Era (Mozart being the chief practitioner) placed upon composition. But he is also very much rooted in a classical - perhaps even a baroque, at times - sensibility. Despite the wild harmonic (Wagner) and melodic (Chopin) inventions of his contemporaries, Brahms remains stuck somewhere in between. His music is a testament to the kind of melody and harmony, to be sure, that encompasses the newer, "dissonant" forms that characterize the Romantic Era, but it is also reflective and moving, subdued and inoffensive.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of Romantic music is not the way that harmony, melody, or even presentation changed. Rather, the Romantics - beginning with Beethoven - were emotional, charged, urgent. Their music was not meant to be beautiful above all, or divine. It was human, and painful, and moving. Chopin is perhaps the epitome of this; his music so often strikes us as sad unto utter depression. But the Romantics compose with the same Joy that signaled - in Beethoven's 9th - the end of an era. Perhaps that joy is present, too, in Mozart and Bach and their contemporaries, but it is not the point in the way that it is with the Romantics.*

*Ok, ok, we'll do the Jupiter Symphony at some point, and the Bradenburg Concerti, and blow that sentence out of the water, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

What sets Brahms apart from the other Romantics is not that joyful sensibility, or the subtlety with which his melodies move through the harmonic aether so prominent in his time. No, Brahms is different because, while doing all of those things, he nearly convinces us that he's not really doing them at all. His music feels older, more structured than it is. His Variations on a Theme by Haydn feel almost as if they could have been written by Haydn himself, until you listen more closely, and you realize that it would have been impossible for Haydn to be so bold, so daring, so offensive.

I suppose what I'm saying is that Brahms is a paradox. He is the least offensive and least intense of Romantic composers, but only because he is so good at being offensive and intense. In the Variations it's all too easy to forget where you started, and where you've gone, and to realize how strong a grip Brahms has gotten on your soul using only the bare scaffold provided by some old master - Haydn - who never could have imagined such power. Trying to explain how that happens is probably impossible, but I want to walk through the piece anyway, to try to understand the subtle motions a little better.

There are a couple versions on youtube that are passable, but I'd recommend a CD if you can find one. I'll link to the movements from one of those youtube versions as I talk about them. Unfortunately, a few of the movements I'm linking to here cut off early.


The opening of the piece is a fairly straightforward statement of Haydn's theme. It's a pleasant enough starting point, with an unintimidating chord progression and a simple structure. While hardly an amazing starting point, it is more than adequate. In many ways it conforms perfectly to what we might call the Classical Composer's Handbook: open with a theme that is not too complicated or emotional, because then you won't have anywhere to go. This is a theme with plenty of potential - if only because the chords are so, well, basic - and so Brahms can reasonably play with it in any number of ways.

First Variation

Brahms wastes no time in taking off. While his first variation retains both the harmony of the initial movement and many of the melodic and contrapuntal devices, it also changes the attitude substantially. The backdrop of quarter notes played by various wind instruments gives the variation an urgentness not present in the theme itself. There is also a hint of dissonance from time to time - though hardly enough to disturb or surprise us - that Brahms mixes in with the rapid, flighty counterpoint that highlights the variation. This variation, in itself, is not so different from Haydn, and could possibly be something Haydn himself would write if he was feeling antsy enough.

Second Variation

The urgency of the first variation leads us into this, an all together more intense variation than either of the first two. Brahms particularly emphasizes the dominant chords when they appear (setting us on edge, because of the need for resolution this creates). The tempo has been picked up once again, a technique that further sets us on edge. While chords - more than melody - are an emphasis of the theme itself (fitting for a classical theme, indeed), this variation is even more chordal than the opening. Melody is used primarily to bridge the gap between one forte expression of a chord (usually dominant) to another, further increasing the urgency of the variation.

Third Variation

At about half the tempo as the second variation, this variation is a return to a melodic and more sensual music. The presence of sixteenth notes in the counterpoint - forming arpeggios - in the early part of the movement prevents the variation from feeling properly "slow," but there remains a sense of relaxation that we didn't have in the previous variations. It as if we were rushing to get here, and now we are content. Only, there is something unsettled about this place we have arrived, and the variation - at least to my ear - feels less and less satisfying as a resting place as it moves along. Perhaps this is because those sixteenth notes become more and more prominent, or perhaps it's because of the instrumentation or the harmony. It's hard for me to say, but I am decidedly ready to move on by the end of the movement.

Fourth Variation

This is the first movement to make the move to a melancholic minor, and it is decidedly romantic. While the harmony remains fundamentally similar to what it has been, there are few traces of the original theme in the melody, with the emphasis being on a desirous, longing melodic construction that leads us, invariably, to dominant chords with weak resolutions. That those resolutions are minor is further unsettling, not because minor keys cannot be tonics, but because the original theme - the context we're hearing this in - is so major. Where did this melancholy come from?

Fifth Variation

In stark contrast to the preceding variation, this one is the fastest yet, and returns to a major key. That said, it is far from jubilant. While there are certainly bright passages, it also has sinister moments. On the whole, though it is a kind of frantic search for where to go next, since we have been thwarted in our search for resolution in the previous few movements. This is a hopeful variation, no doubt, but it is also far from a resting point itself.

Sixth Variation

Where the fifth variation leads us is a more plodding, and wholey more satisfying and playful sixth variation. The forte chords that invade about a third of the way through are not sinister, even though they are minor. They give the sense that something momentous is about to happen, that we're getting somewhere, at last. We undoubtedly have to push further - just a little bit - but we're on the cusp. If we choose to look, back, too, we see how incredibly far we have come from the opening. This movement is pure romantic era; mixing in chords based on sentiment rather than harmonic theory, and emphasizing a galumphing, rhythmic melody that serves a distinctly cheerful emotional purpose.

Seventh Variation

This variation is not where we're going; it feels more reflective than the movements before it. Brahms dulls the edges of some of the particular places in the harmony that he has heretofore emphasized, taking the volume down and exploring a more romantic (in both senses, this time) direction. This variation strikes me as a kind of swooning, a "so there" to the haughty and academic sound of the opening theme. It turns out the same harmonic framework can lead to romance and desire and fields of poppies (if you will), just as well as it can more formal concerns of orchestra, progression, and composition. Here we have music starting to extract itself from theory, becoming music as it truly is.

Eighth Variation

With something of a chuckle, Brahms leads us back into a more sinister melody. We are absorbed, thanks largely to the seduction of the previous movement, in the emotion of the music. And here we are not disappointed, though perhaps a little surprised, to find that something clever and dramatic is afoot. We feel close to the end, now, because the searching of the previous movements is no longer present. Rather, we are here, but Brahms has not yet shown us what the hullabaloo is about.* Instead he's poking fun, a little, and giving us a little more buildup to better set off his fireworks.

*Of course, the circular journey of the piece is really what the hullabaloo is about, but that's kind of the point. There's nowhere to stop in the whole piece, except for the end (which we're getting to), but the end wouldn't stand on its own either. While I might argue that most pieces cannot be taken apart (shame on you to classical stations that only play single movements of symphonies), there is no way you would even consider doing so to this piece. No single bit of it is particularly brilliant alone - though all are certainly excellent - but the whole, as a whole, is incredible.

Final Variation (Return of Theme)

From the outset we can tell that the original theme is back, but in a non-distinct way. We are, truly, hearing a Romantic version of what was a Classical notion at the opening. It is a music triumph and a celebration folded into a simple recapitulation. Brahms revels in the drama of the opening of this movement because he knows where it is going, but also because it shows the continuity of music so well. The history of music folds always into its present, and a great composer is always indebted to the harmonies and melodies that came before. We may prefer a particular era - and history seems to prefer the romantic era - but that's silly. Great music is great music, if only you can unlock it's potential.

Brahms, in this final variation - if it is a variation - somehow manages to let Haydn rewrite his own theme. There is no lording over an age gone past, an age insufficiently aware of what music is capable of. Rather, this piece is a reminder that those predecessors feed into the power of more contemporary music, and that music is, ultimately, more a dialogue than a speech. Perhaps not all composers feel that way, and not all music is capable of conversation, but Brahms straddles so many theories of music and composition that he cannot help but be a conduit for conversation between seemingly disparate methods.

Brahms is the most classical of the composers of his time, to be sure, but he is also the most modern. Perhaps Brahms is simply more musical than his contemporaries. There are many excellent composers from the late romantic era, each with their own emotional and spiritual mission (or baggage). Brahms is not separate from that, but he is somehow above it. We may listen to him today and find his music too similar to what we now here in movies, but that is no accident. Movie composers copied Brahms because his was the most relevant music, the easiest to connect to, the least dependent upon understanding theory and history. His is a timeless music, dramatic, beautiful, and human.

It is worth noting that, while I was talking about the orchestral version of this piece, there is also an excellent version for two pianos (also by Brahms; it's not a reduction made by someone else). The piece takes on some different characteristics when played on piano, of course, and he expertly plays the two instruments against each other (letting one take the melody for a time and switching). Perhaps even more than the orchestral version, the piano version is truly a dialogue.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The End of a Season

Today I'm going to diverge from my more philosophical tendencies to talk about my weekend a little. I can't promise that this will be strictly narrative, of course (who am I kidding, there's no way), but the hopefully the context the real-life events provide will help to illuminate whatever comes after. Or not.

As you may be aware, back in 2007 the Colorado Rockies went on something of a win streak to close out the season. Winning 14 of their last 15, they made it to the playoffs after a dramatic walk-off in extra innings against the San Diego Padres in a play-in game (and yes, Matt Holliday touched home). Since I have been a Rockies fan ever since 1993, I was very excited by this chance to see my team make the playoffs for only the second time in their history. Since I was only 10 in 1995, I didn't remember too well the beat-down the Braves put on the Rockies that year. Now, in 2007, I was finally old enough to appreciate it, and, what's more, I had shrewdly bought tickets to the first round before it seemed possible that the Rockies could make it.

My roommate Joe and I drove up from Santa Fe to Denver for what turned out to be the final game of a sweep of the Phillies, promptly driving back down the very next day, not even missing class (as I recall). I could go into more detail about 2007, but suffice to say the Rockies lost in a frustrating World Series to the Boston Red Sox. Even so, the chance to see playoff baseball at Coors Field was more than worth it, especially because of the sweet taste of victory at the time.

This season, for the third time in their history, and for the second time in three years, the Rockies made the playoffs as a Wild Card. Their first round opponent? The Phillies, again. Joe is now living and working - from time to time - in Denver. I'm not at Stanford in California. But when our paths crossed over the summer, I had promised Joe: "If the Rockies make the playoffs, and you can get tickets, I'll be there." And I was. And, even though the Rockies lost, it was, in many ways, even better than 2007.

Fortunately my schedule allowed me to get to Colorado and back without missing any class. Unfortunately, Major League Baseball, in its infinite wisdom, chose to postpone both games, forcing me to move my flight back in order to fulfill my purpose (and putting me in conflict with one class which, fortunately, the professor was going to miss as well). I flew out Saturday morning, arriving in Denver just in time for what should have been game three, but instead became a chance to talk to Joe until ?'o-clock in the morning.

Nostalgia having set in, we prepared for game three on Sunday. The Saturday game was scheduled for 7:00 pm, and it was deemed "too cold" to play (though there was a chance of snow, it didn't happen). The Sunday game was scheduled for 8:00 pm, and started at a toasty 35 farenheit. Anyone who has watched playoff baseball knows that the games tend to be slightly longer than regular season games. Pitchers are more deliberate, managers are quicker to make changes, and, most of all, commercial breaks are much, much, much, much longer (so long that, at the end of each inning, there would be a good minute of waiting before the fielding team actually left the dugout and started warming up). As a result, playoff games tend to clock in at about four hours, instead of the more typical two and a half or three we see all season long.

Now 8:00 pm + 4 hours, at 35 degrees... It doesn't take much imagination to figure out what this game was like. In fact, the game was particularly slow, and lasted closer to four and a half, meaning all those fans out in Philadelphia had to stay up until 2:30 if they wanted to see the conclusion. I have no sympathy, however, because in Denver, while not as late, it was much colder.

The game itself is one of the finest I have ever seen. It was hard-fought, gut-wrenching, and utterly frustrating. Time after time it looked like the Phillies would break the game open, or the Rockies would add an extra run or two. Time after time the whole stadium waited silently but nervously, only to erupt into euphoric applause and, in the end, groans. The Phillies won (6-5) after a run in the top of the ninth was surrendered by Rockies closer Huston Street (who had only lost one game all regular season). In the bottom of the ninth, Troy Tulowitzki (who you may remember as the Rockies best player), popped out to left field to end the game with the tying run on second base. It was a sad loss, but a beautiful game all the same, and Joe and I agreed that, if we had to lose, this was as good a way as any. The energy had been even greater than in 2007, when everything was too unreal to register. This time we all knew what was happening, and it was clear that the Rockies and Phillies were playing an uncommonly intense game from the outset.

The Monday game started at 4:00 - much to the consternation of fans who had previously held weekend tickets - and it honestly felt like the previous night's game had never ended. It was still cold, the atmosphere was still as charged as you'd expect at any Denver playoff game, and the players were still sore and tired from their all-night affair. The intensity was just as high, with the Rockies knowing a loss meant the end of the season and the Phillies trying to take another step in defending their World Series crown from last season.

Like Sunday's game, Monday's was brilliant. The pitching was better, and the starters exited with the score 2-1, leaving the Phillies troubled bullpen to protect a one run lead in the last two innings. One was all the Rockies would need. The eighth inning saw Jason Giambi knock a key game-tying double into right field, followed by a Yorvit Torrealba double to the gap that gave the Rockies a 4-2 lead. Torrealba pumped his fists like a prizefighter as he cruised into second, releasing all the pent up expectation of two days worth of "almosts" from the Rockies lineup. This time they had done it, they had broken through against the Phillies bullpen and put up a big inning. What's more, they led by two with their closer Street poised to enter in the ninth.

Street struggled, however, and soon found himself with two speedy runners (Chase Utley and Shane "The Flyin' Hawaiian" Victorino) on base, with former MVP Ryan Howard at the plate and two outs. Here it's important to make a quick sabermetric point. Howard is left-handed, Street is right-handed. Howard hits righties better than just about anyone in baseball, and hits lefties worse than just about anyone. He has one of the most extreme splits of any hitter in the Majors. The Rockies, in this situation, stuck with Street because he is their "closer," that mystical role that managers have come to love so well. Joe Beimel - who has made a career of getting guys like Howard out - sat unused in the bullpen.

Even if you didn't see the game, you can guess what happened next. Howard ripped a double to right field, scoring both Utley and Victorino. Tie game. Before anyone in the stands could really process what had happened, Street surrendered another hit to Jason Werth, allowing Howard to come around and give the Phillies a 5-4 lead. Tracy called on Beimel to get out three, two batters too late.

The bottom of the ninth was almost identical to Sunday's. Ultimately, Troy Tulowitzki came up with the tying run on second and two outs, just like the day before. This time he struck out, instead of flying out, and the Phillies celebrated on the frigid dirt and grass of Coors Field just as the Red Sox had in 2007. There's a strange disconnected feeling you get watching an opposing team celebrate on your home team's field. It happens so rarely - since you can never hit a "walk off" on the road - that you almost never see it. Watching the Phillies mob each other as we left the stadium, I couldn't help but feel it was odd that 25 men could be so happy when the 50,000 around them were so upset.

I love baseball, but this season is over for me. I have plenty else to do, and the remaining teams do not inspire. The two Los Angeles teams - the Dodgers and Angels - are hard to really like, and the Phillies just beat the Rockies. The Yankees, of course, are the Yankees. In all, it's money that's speaking loudest now, with the three of the five largest markets in baseball (only Chicago and San Francisco are left out) represented in the final four teams. In the end, the World Series is still the World Series, and great teams are still great teams, but there's only so much terrible announcing and huge-market mayhem I'm willing to take.

Strangely, though, I feel rather content with the Rockies season. Is this because I'm not a good fan? A Yankees fan sees anything less than a championship as a failure. That's why Joe Torre was fired, and why they spent $200 million on salaries this season. I didn't become a Rockies fan by watching them win, however. Baseball is not a game that can really be judged by its results. Oh sure, it's better to win than it is to lose, and I'd rather see the Rockies win the World Series than watch them finish 5th, but I would still watch if they finished 5th all the same.

Playoff baseball is intensified, but it needs those regular season games in order to be as powerful as it is. I would never be able to appreciate the energy of Coors Field on a 35 degree night in October if I had never sat in 90 degree sun and watched the Rockies lose by 12. If I hadn't stayed up listening to a 21-inning game in a lost season. If I hadn't lived and died with each Jason Jennings fastball in his promising (and unfulfilled) rookie season. If I hadn't followed the path of Ubaldo Jimenez since he was in AA, walking a hitter every inning. Baseball isn't about nights in October, it's about the whole world that surrounds it, the culture of the sport that is rife with injuries and surprise seasons and heated debates and, well, cracker jack. Where else can you get 50,000 people to sing together, but at a baseball game?

Speaking of the culture that surrounds a game, so much of that is present in the fans you see the game with. Those fellow denizens of the bleachers who you've never met, but you you're willing to hug and high-five like you've been friends for years just because some guy hit a ball with a stick. How much more so with the friends you actually have known for years, who have sat through those extra-inning games and blowouts with you.

In our academic and professional lives it's easy to frame our lives in terms of the so-called meaningful things we do. But sometimes it's the meaningless ones that really matter. The success and failure of the Rockies means nothing to my work as a student, or as an educator, but the sport of baseball - for all the money, the advertising, and the steroid-induced drama - remains a constant reminder... Of what? Nothing, really. And that's the point. It's easy to make baseball into a metaphor for life, or to ascribe it some particular profound meaning. That's silly. The whole point is that there isn't one. For those three hours (or four and a half), whether it be 76 degrees and sunny or 35, overcast, and windy, all that matters is whether or not Troy Tulowitzki can hit a game tying single in the bottom of the ninth with two outs to keep the season alive, and you care so much even though you shouldn't.

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Odd Nobelman

I've got a post on music (Brahms, to be precise) in the works, but sometimes the blog writes itself. As you've probably heard, Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a full eight months into his first term. Now this is an incredibly odd decision, no doubt, and has been met with what the media is calling "mixed reviews." In the less-than-mainstream media, there's something more like disgust, indignation, and Orwellian terror (perhaps War is Peace after all). While undoubtely there will be much rejoicing among the Obama-faithful, it is also clear that the ranks of the Obama-faithful are thinning as his Presidency continues to sputter in frustrating non-accomplishment.

It should be no surprise that I stand somewhere outside the realm of even frustration and disgust in the matter of the Nobel. While there have certainly been some quite honorable and deserving winners in the history of the prize (Martin Luther King, Jr and Aung San Suu Kyi come to mind), there have also been some bizzarre choices (Henry Kissinger being perhaps the most notorious, with Yasser Arafat a close second). It's hard, ultimately, to take the Nobel seriously simply because it is an institution so steeped in politics and a history of not just acknowledging champions of peace and justice, but also trying to find those champions in places where they are not.* It bears remembering that George Bush and Tony Blair were both nominated for the Nobel during their terms in office.

*For those looking for a better Peace Prize, I suggest any of the Gandhi awards: The Gandhi Peace Award, The Gandhi Peace Prize, or the Indira Gandhi Prize.

Barack Obama may be no George Bush, but you wouldn't know it from his actual, on-the-ground policy. And that's the important point, here. Obama is a wonderful public speaker, probably the best we've had since Kennedy. Words, however, are just that, and the actions of our President - on Health Care, on the Patriot Act, on the War on Terror, on torture and wiretaps and Civil Liberties broadly - simply do not back up the rhetoric. That is not just true of his presidency, but of his brief stint as a Senator, and in his earlier life as a politician in Illinois. He is, in short, a consumate politician, and that - more than any particular policy, more even than the War - is why he should not win the Nobel.

I've been hesitant to approach the Obama issue, because it's so charged, and I know how easily people get offended by politics. Indeed, that's a quintessential part of framing the discussion and how the major parties in America maintain their power: make people passionately, violently supportive of a position almost indistinguishable from the alternative. Obama may be pursuing an almost identical foreign policy to that of Bush, but you have to make sure you don't tell that to the wrong people, because you're liable to get yelled at, if not beat up. The narrower the spectrum of debate, the more intense it becomes, it seems.

What makes the image of Obama so persuasive that the Nobel Committee - who received his nomination just two weeks into his presidency - bought into the hype? I think Obama has an amazing capacity to define himself in a limited, but suggestive way. What I see when I look at Obama is different than what you see, or what your brother sees, or what your parents or children see. That much is true, probably, of everyone. But with Obama, that subjectivity is captured and magnified, because Obama gives you just enough to make him into what you want him to be. If you want to believe he is a scholar, you will. If you want to believe he is a Cato, you will. If you want to believe he is a champion of people's rights, you will. And so on. Matt Gonzalez - Ralph Nader's running mate in 2008, and a candidate for Mayor in San Francisco a few years back - reported that his conversations with Obama supporters often went something like this on the campaign trail:

Gonzalez: "You know Obama supports the death penalty, right?"
Obama supporter: "No he doesn't."

In this case, there's not even a debate. There is not a single example of Obama voicing opposition to the death penalty, nor is there a single example of him voting against it. Why does the Obama supporter believe that he opposes capital punishment, then? Becuase the supporter herself opposes the death penalty, and she has attributed that opposition to a candidate who has given her the opportunity to fill in those details by always staying just far enough back.

The Nobel Committee - and you can probably see where I'm going - has done the same thing. They are looking, for obvious reasons, for powerful and passionate supporters of peace. What they see is a President who espouses "Hope" and "Change," and take for granted from those loaded and indefinite words that peace is an end-goal of the administration. What reason do we have to believe that it is? Our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations of what Obama is and will be. But politicians live in a strange world, and even if Obama himself wants those things, it is unlikely that he could bring them about without actually challenging established power structures and political traditions. In short, he would have to cease being a politician, and of all the words that define Barack Obama, that is the most fitting.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Employees and Citizens

In my post about the supposed conflicts between the sciences and the humanities (yeah linking to myself!), I believe I briefly mentioned that there might be a prejudice towards employees - as opposed to citizens - under certain models of education. This is an important distinction, because while it is easy to decry the horrors and failures of the modern education system, it is a lot harder to say what we should be doing to better educate our students. Indeed, it seems to me that we've all bought into the idea that our schools in America are struggling and, what's more, worsening continuously (and have been for some time). We rarely ask what that means, unfortunately, and who's data backs up this conclusion. We almost never challenge the terms and slogans that have become watchwords for educational crisis: "the achievement gap" is probably the most prominent, but you've probably heard that we're "falling behind other countries," and "our schools are underfunded" and "there aren't enough good teachers."

It is undeniable that these conclusions come from somewhere, but I'm not convinced that the crisis is as bad as it is. Or, rather, I'm not convinced that the crisis is what mainstream media says it is. While it is easy to conclude that our schools are insufficient in some fundamental way, it is also true that schools today are about as successful as they've been (in terms of graduation rates, dropout rates, percentage of students enrolling in college, and international test scores) for the last century or so. Granted, complaints about how ineffective schools are are nothing new, and neither are attempts at reform.

A simplistic, but informative piece of data is this (from the Measuring Up Internationally report in 2006): The percentage of Americans aged 25-34 with a college degree of some kind is is 39%. The percentage of Americans aged 25-64 with a college degree of some kind is 38%. In short, there are almost exactly the same percentage of students graduating from college in the United States now as there were in 1980. What has changed, more than anything, is the percentage of people in countries like Japan, Canada, Korea, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden that are enrolling in college and completing degrees.* The United States isn't falling behind, per se. Other countries are catching up, and it's a strange view of the world that says that's a bad thing.

*For example, in Japan, 37% of people age 25-64 have degrees, while 52% aged 25-34 have degrees.

While the United States has fallen behind quite a few Asian and European countries in terms of percentage of the population with a college degree, where the United States still rules is in percentage of students with at least a Bachelor's degree. The incredible gains made by countries like Japan are contingent upon Associates and vocational degrees. Translated, the United States still produces more academically educated students than anywhere else in the world. Where is lags is in producing professionally educated students.

So what's all the hullabaloo? Obviously it would be nice to have more highly educated people, and perhaps the quality of the college education Americans are receiving has decreased (though I have no evidence either way on that point), but comparing today to the past is not a good way to argue that our schools are "failing." If you do look at the past, it becomes clear that our schools are failing now in exactly the way they've always failed.

What way is that? We're failing - and always have failed - because students from rich families in rich neighborhoods almost uniformly get a better education than students from poor areas and poor families. Because of the history of our country, it also turns out that "rich" and "poor" can usually be substituted with "white" and "black" (or "latino," or any other minority). It is somewhat scary to learn that wealthy students with a D average in high school are as likely to go to college as poor students with straight As. That is the true failure of our schools, and it always has been: there is no (or little) semblance of social, racial, or economic justice in the college application process, in the design of assessment or curriculum, and in overall federal policy. Those programs - College Summit, for example - and (usually charter) schools - South Valley Academy, Summit Preperatory - that break this mold are very much exceptions, and, while bold attempts to address a larger problem, are usually under-supported.

The national "solution" to failing schools pays lip-service to these issues, of course, but under a different guise. What is a concern, above all, is that students are not adequately prepared for the job market. Their colleges do not teach them employment skills, and their high schools and middle schools are too toucy-feely and unaccountable. They need to be taught, the argument goes, according to rigorous standards and skills that will prepare them to meet the challenges of a dynamic and technological job market.

The real crisis is the transformation of schools from places of learning to places of training. The Community College and Charter movements are both powerful sources of educational innovation, but often those very tools of progress are co-opted to serve business purposes. Charter schools, for example, may engage students who would otherwise drop out, allowing them to expand their minds and better understand their culture, their history, and their purpose in life. But what really counts - to funders, to the government, and to school boards - is whether Charters do a better job on assessments crafted, frankly, to fit the needs of business.

That may sound a bit conspiratorial. It is certainly not the case that Lockheed Martin is writing the SAT. But it certainly is the case that the same companies which shape national policy on War, Human Rights, Health Care, Agriculture, and Trade also shape national policy on Education. The rhetoric - the United States is falling behind - is a carefully crafted message, because it is simply not true unless you look at the data from the perspective of business. The United States has a fine public education system - one of the very best in the world (and don't let anyone tell you otherwise) - but it has one of the worst vocational education systems.

The philosophy behind American Public Education is and always has been this: to run effective Democratic Republic, we need citizens who understand the fundamentals of history, literature, and science. Above all, we need citizens who can think critically, who can make effective decisions on behalf of their fellow countrymen, and who can have a reasonable and intellectual debate on a national scale. Now I'll be the first to admit that we certainly have nothing of the kind - and never have - but the ideal has always been there. Now that we have, increasingly, the tools (technological, pedagogical, etc) to provide that kind of education to an increasingly large (and increasingly diverse) percentage of the population, the question is whether we will choose to do so.

Or will we, instead, choose to pursue the vocational route that has been so successful in Japan. That seems more likely, but at what cost? Good citizens can easily become good employees - because good citizens are critical thinkers, and tends towards adaptability and work ethic. Good employees, however, who lack those skills that make good citizens are unlikely to be good citizens under even the best of circumstances. They're likely to listen to slogans and propaganda and hype, trusting "experts" without figuring out who the real experts are.

The issues surrounding education are, of course, more complicated than I can address here, and I know that I've oversimplified horribly at many points. But I do so to frame a question that otherwise might seem overly philosophical: What is the purpose of education, really? And why are we so willing and eager to settle for policy built around an answer that, in the end, does not satisfy?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Baseball Playoff Primer

Just a quick run through some of the things to keep in mind in the upcoming playoffs. I'm including the Tigers and the Twins when I talk about playoff teams, since their one-game play-in doesn't happen until Tuesday evening.

1) Offense wins games

The nine teams remaining almost all have excellent offenses, according to fangraphs. During the regular season, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels had the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd best offenses in all of baseball. The Twins were 5th, the Phillies 6th, and the Dodgers 10th. That means, of the top 10 offenses in baseball, six of them are in the playoffs. The three outliers are the Cardinals, the Tigers, and the Rockies, but you don't have to look far. Those three teams are 12th, 14th, and 15th. You may not need an awesome offense to win, but you better be in the upper half of the league.

2) Who needs pitching?

By contrast, our playoff-bound competitors do not uniformly have good pitching staffs. Consider:

Phillies - 20th
Tigers - 18th
Twins - 17th
Angels - 14th
Yankees - 8th
Cardinals - 7th
Dodgers - 6th
Red Sox - 3rd

There are some excellent pitching teams here, but there are also some very mediocre staffs. In principle a run saved is worth as much as a run scored, but two runs scored is worth more than either.

Is it any accident that the Red Sox are 2nd in offense and 3rd in pitching? Sure, the Yankees have a better record - and their offense is really that much better than everyone elses - but the Red Sox are consistently the most balanced team in baseball. Remember Bill James?

Oh, it seems I forgot a team in my list of pitching staffs. The Rockies, it turns out, finish slightly ahead of, well, everyone else. That's right, I left off this part:

Rockies - 1st

So before you buy into the analysts telling you how "The Rockies don't have an ace," remember that the Rockies have a better three starter (Jorge De La Rosa) than most teams' two starters, and a better five starter (Hammel) than most teams' three starters. Don't let Coors Field fool you, the Rockies can pitch, and those 92 wins are not an illusion.

3) The postseason is a toss-up

This is easy to forget, because we like to talk about who's hot and who's a better team and so on, but in reality, there's no evidence to suggest that a winning streak going in means the World Series is a given, or that a losing streak means a first round exit. So the Dodgers are not doomed, and the Rockies haven't won anything yet. As for the importance of records and, by extension, home field advantage, I point you to this wonderful graphic. The essence: since 1995, the team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series twice. The team with the second best record? Twice, also. The team with the third best? Three times. Fourth best? Once. And so on. The 2000 Yankees and the 2006 Cardinals both won the Series despite having the worst record of any postseason qualifier (and worse records than some non-qualifiers). The lesson is, the regular season is over, and while the Red Sox and Yankees may be better than the Twins or Tigers, that doesn't mean the Twinkies can't win it all.

4) November is cold

Despite last year's debacle (if you didn't see it, there was a game rained out in Philadelphia because, as it happens, it's really cold and awful in the East during the middle of fall), the postseason is starting even later this year. There's a good chance the World Series will be played almost entirely in November. Some pertinent information:

November mean temperature:
Detroit - 35
St. Louis - 37 (often rainy)
Denver - 38
Boston - 38 (very often rainy)
Philadelphia - 46 (often rainy)
New York - 47 (often rainy)

But hey, at least there's the Dome in Minnesota, and the two LA teams:
Los Angeles - 54
Metrodome - 76, always

So if the Dodgers and the Twins make the Series, there's nothing to worry about. But I'm rooting for a snow out in Denver, personally.

Really, the issue is that baseball has a very long pre-season, a very long season, and a very long postseason. Add in the commitment to starting the season during the week (instead of on the weekend, or adapting to the calendar), and you occasionally get a regular season that ends in early October, and a World Series in November. Eliminating the copious off-days during the playoffs would help, but, really, there's not a lot to be done. Personally, I think the prospect of a make-up game on Thanksgiving is fun.

5) Go Rockies!

It goes without saying, but I'm especially excited by the Rockies second playoff appearance in three seasons. That said, anyone looking for a team to support - or to follow from a distance - this postseason need look no further. The Rockies are, in addition to being my hometown team, and the team I grew up with, a great story. The Rockies were 20-32 at one point this season. That's 12 games under .500. They were 15 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. They fired their manager of eight seasons (who took them to a World Series in 2007) when they had the second worst record in all of baseball (ahead of only the Washington Nationals). They looked like a team that was going to lose 100.

But they turned it around, somehow. Since early June, the Rockies are 72 - 38. That means they lost only six more games in their final 110 than they did in their first 52. Think about that. They almost won the division - a sweep of the Dodgers last weekend would have done it - after being down by 15 1/2 games. Without getting into all of the mini-stories - because those surround every team - there is no question that this Rockies team, like the one in 2007, has done something historic. The playoffs wouldn't be nearly as fun without them, which means they should stay in the playoffs as long as possible.

Or something like that. Really, there's not much logic in fandom, and I won't claim to have much at this point. Rather, I'm looking forward to watching the Rockies - even though I don't have time to - as they march towards, hopefully, their first Championship. Now doesn't that sound weird?