Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Another Issue of NY Times' Education Life

The Sunday, April 20, 2008 edition of The New York Times contained another issue of the special section entitled, “Education Life.” This is a tabloid-styled section about all things collegiate, including entrance and admissions information, college life on campus, and statistics regarding attendance and other factors. The section is a must-read for the college bound and their parents.

The tabloid begins with two short pieces of interest. The first is about how students who send in a picture with their application often fare better than those who do not. The photos help admissions officials put a face to the name and statistics on the application materials. The second short piece is on the typographical errors found in a typical high school student’s application packet. Having proofread several students’ essays and application materials this year, I am often appalled at the errors that slip by. One student misspelled San Francisco on her envelope. Another forgot to include the college name in the address, labeling her envelope with “Admissions Committee, 1234 Mockingbird Lane, Somewhere, California 90001. I had to pull her back in and question what university she was sending her application to as there were several in that particular city.

Another piece detailed the mistakes that can result in the scoring and reporting of test results such as the SAT and ACT, exams students must take to qualify for college admissions. As I tell my students, double and triple check everything. Computers and human beings make mistakes.

The Data section consists of raw numbers that often indicate a larger message. This edition, the Data focuses on endowments. The list includes public and private universities and how much they have in their endowment funds. The numbers are often astounding.

Many of my students not only know what they want to major in, they have also selected subjects in which to minor. Minors are secondary areas of study that students might select. These areas are included in fine print on their diplomas, and can account for extra time and money spent during the undergraduate years. Minors require additional classes beyond major coursework. Michelle Slatalla writes a column called “Guidance Counselor” where she examines the importance of minors and why a student may, or may not want to select one.

The cover story for this issue is about the college financial aid system. David Leonhardt walks us through the revamped system and discusses such topics as grants and loans, so-called free tuition, and selected financial aid policies at several colleges. Michael M. Grynbaum follows up with a sidebar article called “Keeping The Lid On: Five Answers to the High Cost of Higher Education.” The one sentence that stuck out at me? “Beginning next fall, many prestigious institutions will replace loans in their financial aid packages with grants, allowing students to graduate debt free.” Where were these new rules when I was in school? Karen W. Arenson examines the finances at a specific university, Princeton. Thus the examination of the current state of financial aid and tuition is complete.

Charles McGrath reviews three books he groups under the title of “Growing Up For Dummies,” security at campuses one year after the Virginia Tech shootings is scrutinized, and a pop quiz focusing on the Internet and its impact as media round out a very full issue.

The final essay discusses test scores—SAT, ACT, AP—and their impact on students, parents, and egos. “Education Life” can be accessed online at

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Road

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
Vintage International, $14.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-307-38789-9

After September 11, 2001, I lost my faith in fiction. What story created in the laboratory of an author’s brain could match the intensity, tragedy, sheer terror, and heroism of that day? The real story far outstrips anything I have ever read. Even the congressional report makes for edge of the seat reading.

For fiction to regain its place, I felt authors had to somehow recognize what happened on that day, at least subconsciously, even if the actual novel had nothing to do with September 11 or terrorism. Our collective conscience now included the vision of the aircraft flying into the side of those iconic buildings. Everything fictional would now be measured against that, and I could not see how fiction could best the frightening absolute truth.

Cormac McCarthy restored my faith in fiction. In his novel, The Road, he establishes a standard for fiction in an era of terrorism and post-9-11 recoil. The novel centers on a boy and his father, walking through a barren, ashen world after some kind of holocaust. Nuclear? We do not know. A global war? Nothing is certain. An environmental disaster? That is a strong possibility. The description reminds me of predictions I heard in high school at the end of the Cold War about nuclear winter, where after the weapons of mass destruction detonate, the world is left with so much debris in the atmosphere that the earth is covered in ash, lakes and rivers dry up, and nearly everything is dead or dying.

The boy and his father remain nameless throughout the story. They speak in short, elliptical phrases without quotation marks or apostrophes. Their speech contains few adjectives and consists mostly of flat, declarative sentences. It is clear from the beginning that they are the “good guys” carrying “the fire.” The others left alive are cannibals scouring the earth for victims.

“What would you do if I died?” the boy asks his father.

“If you died I would want to die too.” McCarthy channeling Hemingway in a post modern, or post, post modern world. The Road is set in a new frontier. He dares to imagine the unthinkable: what if we move past the paradigm of 9-11? What if our greatest fears were realized? This is also the soul quest of fiction: to imagine the unthinkable.

Do we think McCarthy’s imagination has run wild? Take a look at New Orleans. It does not take much to destroy the fragile infrastructure of America. We might be a first world nation, but recent events have shown us our vulnerability. McCarthy, like Don DeLillo, dares to extrapolate out beyond the news loop of towering buildings imploding, spewing the dust of human remains and a firewash of jet fuel. What will happen to us after everything falls away, the proverbial end of days?

In flashback is the moment when the world we recognize ended. “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? She said. He didnt (sic) answer.” The description is reminiscent of the 1983 film, Testament, starring Jane Alexander. The end comes with a flash on the horizon followed by a spreading death that seeps into the living unseen and takes them silently, helplessly.

The boy’s mother kills herself in a flashback. In the first agonizing days after the event, she loses hope. She cuts herself with “a flake of obsidian.” The boy realizes she is gone. Now he is with his father, and they are “each other’s world entire.”

In lean language, there are moments of ethereal beauty in McCarthy’s prose. “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain,” he writes, describing the father contemplating his new existence in this world of chaos and anarchy. “Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you.”

The novel’s pacing is slow and ponderous; acts of violence and depravity are seemingly random, and sneak up on the reader. From around a bend in the road come encounters with human beings gone mad, beyond the scope of animalistic behavior.

The duo encounter a cellar used as a human meat locker. The victims crouch waiting in the sour darkness. The captors come down periodically and hack off a limb for a dinner. Human beings squat there in the cellar, waiting for death.

They pass human remains along the road, burnt to a crisp, desiccated by the dry climate and burning ash. At first the father tries to shield his son, but then both develop an immunity to the horrors. They pass the corpses like so much dead foliage.

The two also encounter remnants of human decency. On the verge of starvation, they happen upon an undiscovered air raid shelter behind a house. Inside are clothes, food, batteries, radios, a gun and other necessities for this post-apocalyptic world. The father rounds up the supplies and places them in an old grocery cart. The boy wants to thank the people who made the shelter, but he realizes they are probably dead.

In the end, what is the point of such a novel? Where is the hope? Ultimately, is McCarthy trying to show us our end, the destruction of the fabric of all humanity, all our greater notions of humanistic achievement wiped out by the flash of a splitting atom?

Novels like this are inherently hopeful, even though a hopeful word may not be found in the entire text. There is hope. Even the boy knows this. “Are we the good guys?” he repeatedly asks his father.


“And we carry the fire?”

“We carry the fire.” Even in destruction there is hope.

We must now imagine what our world will be like in the future. The “dirty bomb” becomes reality; nuclear war becomes the go-to option. How do we live with this?

Still, if we imagine our own destruction, are we not responsible for some of its architecture? The terrorists in those planes were the catalysts of destruction. They wanted the world to live in fear. In many ways, they were successful. Now we must imagine what the future might hold. As we travel this road through a new frontier, I can only hope we do not face the kind of world of the father and son in The Road. The book is quite simply stunning in its horror, devastating in its implications, but hopeful in its conclusion.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Motivation Factor

There is a great scene in Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama, The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. As Eliot Ness, played by Costner vows to capture and prosecute Al Capone, Chicago police officer Jim Malone, played by Connery, asks him “What are you prepared to do?” Ness is a law and order kind of cop, a United States Treasury officer, so he hesitates at Malone’s insinuation.

“Anything within the law,” Ness replies.

“And then what are you prepared to do?”

“I have sworn to capture this man with all the legal powers at my disposal and I will do so,” Ness says.

“Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?”


“Good,” Malone says, “because you just took one.”

I like this scene for many reasons, but the main one is the line: what are you prepared to do? When faced with a difficult climb, it is always good to ask yourself what you are prepared to do to succeed.

I also use this line on my students when they talk about where they wish to go to college and what they want to be in the future. What are you prepared to do to reach these goals? They often make promises—to me, to themselves—and I often remind them of their answers in the successive years. Once graduation comes, the opportunities for choosing a college die away. The future has been decided. The time has come to deal with the consequences of failed plans, stillborn dreams, and create new goals to struggle toward in the years to come.

I have noticed a disturbing trend in some of my students. They lack motivation. The most common excuse I hear when they begin to slip is: “It’s too hard.” Yeah, life is like that. But difficult things are often the ones most worth doing.

I remember a teacher I respected in my undergraduate years wrote an essay that appeared in the newspaper where he said that if a student were serious about succeeding in school, he would not waste time working a job and put all his efforts into studying. Sacrifices would have to be made, but studying must go on. I was really angered by his views; at the time, I was working a forty hour week, carrying a full load in school, and supporting myself. I was burning up my strength and willpower like a raging forest fire. I was sick, tired, broke, depressed and devastated. I had been paying my own way in school since freshman year of Catholic high school. I literally had no other choice. It was pay the freight or drop out.

I never spoke to him about his essay. He mentioned in class that he had angered many people with his views, so I figured he had already heard whatever argument I had to offer, plus I was so damned tired, I had no strength to fight against his position. I just kept working.

Nowadays, if I could do it over again in a magical world, I would always have plenty of money to devote my energies only to study and the life of the mind. But that is the alternative universe of the “might have been.”

What I did vow to myself that year was should I ever become a teacher, I would not make judgments about what my students had to do to survive in their personal lives. One must walk in another’s shoes to fully understand his life, but here I am, doing just that—making judgments about people who come to me and say everything is so hard.

I am not wrong. Very few of my students face the kind of hardships I faced. They drive cars that cost my yearly salary or more. Many can wait until the end of senior year to get a job. Many do not work at all. They have a computer on their desk that gives them access to a wealth of information that would take me years in the library in the old fashioned way. There are some disadvantages they will encounter, but most are not faced with the kinds of dilemmas that defined my student years: should I write a bad check for my books and risk getting my records and registration held back, or run to the library and try to check them all out before some other student beats me to it? Should I pay my car registration and insurance on my five year old car, or pay my tuition? (No insurance meant no driving privileges in California during those years, so when the cop stopped me, I had to continue to drive illegally for another couple of weeks until I had the money for the fine and the insurance.)

Achievement takes sacrifice. The jagged edge of the pursuit of a dream cuts to the bone and you bleed. Sometimes it’s worth it: you succeed. Other times, you just bleed.

I wish I could tell my students it will be easy. I would be lying, and many of them would not listen anyhow. Like most young people, they believe they have everything all figured out. The people I hang around are middle aged now. None of us has it all figured out. I am wondering if we ever will.

You can’t be in a fight and not get hit. Life is what it is, and hard choices have to be made, and you have to absorb the blows and protect the body.

Life will not get easier, that is most certain, and the test never ends. The fight goes on and on and on. There is no time for excuses, for cries and wails that life is too hard, or that life is unfair. Life is guilty on both counts, but that’s the way life is.

Like Odysseus longing for Ithaca, we will all get home some day, but that is not the point. Constantine Cavafy summed it up best in his poem: Ithaca is not about the destination but about the journey. “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage. Without her you would have never set out on the road. She has nothing more to give you. And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you. Wise as you have become, with so much experience, you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.”

In this life, on this journey, what are you prepared to do?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Stress of Trying To Get Ahead

All week, I have been writing my senior students letters of appeals to universities that refused them. It has not been a pleasant process.

Along the way, I have listened to a number of stories about why they wish to appeal their lack of acceptance. Most of the time, it has to do with parental pressure.

The first question I ask a student who wishes to appeal his selected university’s decision is “Where were you accepted?”

Many times, the answer is something like, “UC Santa Cruz,” or “UC Riverside.” The look on the kid’s face is one of embarrassment. I try to make him feel better. Gaining admission to any University of California campus is an achievement. So why is this student not happy with the result? The parents want him to be accepted at UCLA. Friends of the family have children who were accepted at UCLA, and they cannot save face if their child is not similarly accepted.

One parent told his daughter, “What will I brag about if you do not get into UCLA?”

For my students, UCLA or USC are enviable options because they are first rate schools and close to home. A student could commute and would not have to move away. Coming from a private school environment, many parents and students are loathe to step outside that sheltered world. Moving away from home to a public university represents a huge step. I would argue it is a necessary step.

The other aspect I noticed this week is the shame that accompanies where a student was accepted or not accepted. Our college counselor came to my class and ask the students to write their names on a card with all the schools where they were accepted. The principal would be attending a Board of Trustees meeting that evening and he wanted to give a preliminary report. The students panicked. “Who is going to see this?” they asked. “Is this going to be published somewhere?” “Is this going in the parent newsletter?” The counselor had to reassure them that it was only for administrative purposes right now, however it might be published later. We have published the information in previous years, but often with just the university name and number of students from our school that were accepted. Still, I could not believe the looks of panic on their faces. They were deeply concerned.

After the counselor left, I tried to discuss this with them. They told me the competition and bragging rights were out of control. Parents could not face other parents unless their children were accepted to the right schools. After class, many students told me privately that seniors were actually taunting each other over acceptances and refusals. This had turned young people who had been on friendly terms for years into bitter enemies. In addition to the normal spring malaise and “senioritis,” they were all fed up with each other and the respective attitudes.

In the middle of this turmoil, the principal dropped off the latest report of SAT scores. As I perused the results, I noticed that many of my students who did not get into the colleges of their choice had low SAT scores. Although schools now use a holistic system of admissions, I think their scores might be low for admissions to a UC campus. Some of my students who gained admissions to say, UC Riverside, were actually lucky to have been admitted at all. Obviously, the school was moved by the student’s essay, their grade point averages, or resume of activities.

In the end, I tried to reassure my students and calm the frictions, as well as ease the shame. Life unfolds as it unfolds; we must all make do with the circumstances we are handed. One can get a good, or bad, education anywhere. Sure, having a certain school’s name on a diploma might open some doors, but the acceptance process is beyond the student’s control. All she can do is her best. If the admissions committee chooses someone else, a student must move on and deal with the consequences. Many of my students are trying to do just that, but there are the parental and community pressures and stresses with which to deal.

This is a monumental moment in these kids’ lives. They are about to venture out into the world, the next phase of the drive to maturity. They should be supported. They need to be strong and confident, not ashamed of the fact that they were accepted at Cal State Northridge but not UCLA.

Parents need to realize that their children will make them proud, and disappoint them, throughout their lives. That is one of the frustrations of being a parent. But it is the child’s life. They need the space to be successful and yes, make mistakes and learn to live with the consequences. Stop trying to shelter them. Stop trying to live your life vicariously through them. Encourage them to never give up, to always put their best foot forward, and when disappointments come, to keep on fighting and make the best of a bad situation. There is a reason they call it “strength in the face of adversity.”

In short, let them be human beings, fallible and flawed, yet capable of so much greatness. Let them travel the road they are given. Tell them you are proud of them, and they have your love and support. Most of all, give them the chance to live their lives and find their way. It is the most parental thing we can do.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Alfred Kazin

Alfred Kazin: A Biography
By Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press, $35.00 cloth
ISBN 978-0-300-11505-5

Richard M. Cook’s biography of Kazin, America’s foremost literary and cultural critic, spends equal time with the great man’s writing, his thoughts about literature and American culture as well as his sex life and sordid battles with various wives and girlfriends. Cook’s prose is serviceable, only occasionally falling into the kind of clunky academic writing that Kazin so carefully avoided in his own work.

Cook takes on a difficult subject. Alfred Kazin had so many facets to his life: the book critic, the memoirist, the historian, the cultural critic, the teacher, the speaker, the journalist. Therefore, the biography could have been streamlined a bit, eliminating some of Kazin’s sexual peccadilloes and marriage battles. But they are a part of the man’s life, and these days, readers seem to want the proverbial “warts and all” in a biography. However, Kazin is more interesting as a twentieth century thinker and critic of American literature than as a lover, and Cook might have improved the book if he had focused only on Kazin’s writing and work exclusively.

Alfred Kazin was the quintessential New York intellectual, born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1915 to parents mired in working class poverty without time or inclination to read. In fact, as Cook reveals, they were barely literate. This left Kazin on his own to devise ways of secure reading material. His main source was the New York public library system. Both he and his sister managed “to secure illegal library cards, enabling them to take more than the allowable number of books from the Stone Avenue Library, which, [Kazin] said, they visited every other day for a new supply.”

School was a struggle for young Kazin, a stutterer and introvert who would rather keep his face “stuck in a book.” In fact he dreaded Monday every Sunday night, a feeling to which most school-aged children can relate.

Cook keeps as a backdrop Kazin’s interest and exploration of socialist and communist groups—although his first meetings involved only his parents. Kazin kept a foot in these worlds as did most Jewish intellectuals of his era. As a child, Kazin read during the meetings, learning the art of “being with people and yet not being with them,” he wrote in his published journal.

“I read walking in the street, to and from the Children’s Library on Stone Avenue, on the fire escape and the roof, at every meal when they would let me; read even when I dressed in the morning, propping my book up against the drawers on the bureau as I pulled on my long black stockings.”

The early days of Kazin’s career, his inclination and talent for reading, are clearly presented in the book. Cook shows us his development, from the seminal On Native Grounds, a groundbreaking and intensive study of American literature, through his early memoirs of growing up in, and walking through his beloved city.

Of particular interest are Kazin’s daily work habits while writing his first book of criticism in the fall of 1938. “He did most of his work in the great reading room (Room 315) of the New York Public Library,” Cook writes. Kazin spent four and a half years there researching and writing the book. “His accounts of his days in Room 315 have become legendary among those interested in the history of the library,” Cook assures us. His friend, Richard Hofstadter often joined Kazin in the library, working on his own dissertation. “After a morning of work, the two friends would break for lunch at a nearby automat, sometimes squeezing in a game of ping-pong at a Times Square pool hall before returning to the golden tables” in the library reading room.

Cook presents a picture of Kazin’s work during the years of the Second World War. He worked for the magazine the New Republic, as well as other publications. Kazin was not altogether comfortable at the magazine, even though one of his heroes, Edmund Wilson held the position before him. Kazin liked writing much more than editing.

During this period, Kazin’s interests shifted a bit from American literature to William Blake. He would go on to write extensively about Blake’s work. He also studied Proust and his work. The meat of Kazin’s criticism remained American literature, specifically nineteenth century authors.

He wrote about culture and the American scene. He was also one of the few American Jews to write about the fate of European Jewry during the war. His essays, however, “provoked limited response,” according to Cook.

Kazin’s life as a teacher is thoroughly documented here as well. He was hired by a number of prestigious universities, but was a difficult teacher for the most part. He was often exasperated with his students, sometimes resorting to throwing a book at them, literally—“using the canon as a cannon.” He also tended to approach his teaching as a critic in the classroom, rather than as a teacher. “Teaching must be a real discovery—not a critic’s notebook,” Kazin wrote.

“His teaching format was traditional, lecture discussion,” Cook recounts. “He was a kind of evangelist for Melville and Blake.” His students often left class “intoxicated” by him and his passion for the texts.

Cook gives equal attention to Kazin as husband, lover and father, and this is where the biography loses some of its momentum. In a way, I thought these sections demeaned Kazin. Do we really need to know that Kazin called his third wife, Ann Birstein, by the slang term for a vagina? Do we need to know the specific demands of Kazin’s lovers in bed, and how much he enjoyed these demands? Cook could have, and should have left these details out.

Cook’s prose is not always the smoothest. “If some mysterious and decisive things happened in 1977-1978, they were not unprepared for,” he writes at one point. And “It had been a year of change and a culmination of earlier changes that would bring more changes.” Certainly, Cook’s purpose in writing is to convey information, yet I have read biographies that are written poetically. This is not one of them. I found it ironic that Cook is profiling a man who titled one of his books, Writing Was Everything, and this biographer’s own writing is so often stilted and awkward.

In the end, Cook does a serviceable job of conveying a complex life. Alfred Kazin died on his birthday, June 5, 1998 at the age of 83. His journals, entitled A Lifetime Burning In Every Moment, were published in 1996. In Kazin’s case, the title is not an example of hyperbole. Richard M. Cook takes on a difficult and multifaceted subject in this biography, and though the results would not make for great art, we do catch more than a glimpse of the man behind some of the greatest writing about literature and the life of the mind in twentieth century America.