Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Critical Thinking and Writing

My writing workshop has doubled in length from two hours to four and now includes a major component of critical thinking.  This was supposed to be covered by a philosophy professor who had to drop out at the last moment.

So what do I hope my students learn in the brief time we have together?

Ask any teacher and she will tell you students lack critical thinking skills.  With writing, these skills are the most under-utilized in our students’ lives.  More importantly, society does not encourage deep reflection, thinking of a critical nature, or reading in a variety of genres and texts.  Students reflect what society values in education.  Right now, the ability to use technology and make money seem to be top priorities, not becoming a better person or coming to understand the human condition, much less the global concerns for environment and life.  It is a shallow and superficial age.

Critical thinking involves a headache.  That’s my experience.  It actually hurts to think that hard, but to do less is self-limiting and narcissistic.  Like working out one’s muscles, the pain is good.  It should, and does, keep us running.  Education is a pursuit; we are chasing intelligence, the ability to think for ourselves and see through the bullshit of our politicians and their corporate minders.  I’d like to say our fundamental humanistic beliefs have never been more devalued, but such devaluation and brutality have been pretty consistent throughout human history.  What has changed is our distraction level.  We are deep into our gadgets and digital domains and meanwhile, the world keeps moving on and we are only vaguely aware of the shifting ground beneath our feet.

How does one think critically?  Well, first start by surrendering, as much as possible, our biases and then study the issue as objectively as possible.  It is true that subjectivity is human nature and no one can mount a truly objective evaluation, but we can try.  One way is to read the opposition.  One should always read both sides of the issue.  Who stands to benefit?  Who reaps financial rewards (“follow the money”)?

I like visual tools such as charts or a white board.  Make a list of possible actions, like lowering emission standards on the American car industry, something that has been done in recent years.  Across from the list of actions, make a list of the consequences.  So lowering emission standards will increase the cost of the vehicle for consumers thereby affecting the economy.  Batteries and alternative fuels may raise the cost of maintaining a car.  Make a third column of overall benefits to the world and its people.  Ultimately, to reduce emissions means more expensive car costs, but it pays off in environmental benefits like controlling global warming and reducing air pollution.  When the good outweighs the negative, we have an answer.

There is also the old standby, the pros and cons list.  However, we must be careful because in this age, the truth is often not the truth, and there are a lot of red herrings out there.  Banning people from certain countries of the world from immigrating to the U.S. does not protect us from terrorists.  It is also not the American way of doing things.  So to make a pros and cons list about immigration that places keeping out terrorists in the pro side is a fallacy of sorts.

What we find with critical thinking is that in the end, after all the analysis, there may not be a clear answer.  However it is in the rumination about issues that gives strength to such thinking.  We have higher order thinking skills and that sets us apart from animals.  Mulling over choices, ways of behaving, formations of laws, positions on legislation and elected officials, these are the requirements of a working human brain.  We simply must do this.  Otherwise, to fail to think is to abdicate our intellect and surrender our free thinking to become automatons.

We are also wary of this because of what we have seen on television:  screaming heads going at each other night after night.  The point of an argument is not to scream.  Something is lost when we attack the opposition with names and personal affronts.  We debate the issues, and we may never agree.  That is the American way:  everyone has a right to an informed opinion, but we may not reach a consensus on every given issue.  We reserve the right to agree to disagree as the cliché goes.

To think critically means to examine every line of thought on a particular issue in our society.  We examine each premise and consequence and caveat and come to our own conclusions.  It is not wrong to question things; I am often surprised at how often other teachers and administrators think this way.  They are afraid of the questions, of being questioned.  Education and a developing intellect thrive on questions.  Authority is no protection against questioning, and to question our laws and institutions and those in authority will not destroy them.  To know why we believe the way we do makes our beliefs and self-confidence stronger.  Like vitamins, critical thinking is good for us.  Political and sociological arguments are necessary in democracy.  The ancient Greeks were adamant that a citizen participate in democracy, otherwise the whole enterprise falters.

So critical thinking boils down to observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition (thinking about your thinking!).  And as soon as one works through this checklist, it is lather, rinse, repeat.  We are always coming to new possibilities, new information, more enlightening data.  We must always leave room to reconsider.  The human intellect is always growing—a few poets like William Blake said it was a tree growing in our brains, like a burgeoning cancer.  Intellect is not cancerous unless it is used for destruction of life.  There is also moral and ethical thinking.  These are not separate categories—often to think critically involves thinking morally and ethically.

Descartes said, in rough translation, “I think, therefore I am.”  It is a popular quote, but the root of it is the negative:  if I do not think, if I do not seize the opportunity to think, I cease to be a human being.  Brains come with responsibilities.  That is what it means to be human and it has been so from the start.  What tree did Adam and Eve eat from in the Garden of Eden?  The tree of knowledge.  What knowledge did they gain from this fruit?  They were alive, but would someday die.  They were naked and needed clothes because nakedness was shameful and others could use that nakedness to encroach on one’s ability to walk through life unmolested or avoid assault.  As some theologians have said, Adam and Eve, by eating the fruit, came to know some of what God knew.  We learned we could create life, we could end life, we could love others, we could destroy others.

In the end, it is not a stretch to teach writing with critical thinking because they are necessary to each other.  If one doesn’t think, one cannot write, or write well, for that matter.  Consider the world, its people, its spirituality, its gravity and breath.  Only when we listen and consider can we find the through-line of thought leading to right action.  Only then can we be truly engaged in the daily wonder of life and creation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Writing Was [Is] Everything

Just four years before he died, Alfred Kazin gave the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University, joining the likes of Eudora Welty, Irving Howe and Toni Morrison who had given past lectures.  His words were gathered together and published in the slim volume Writing Was Everything (Harvard University Press, 1995), now very difficult to find except in used copies.  But what a gem.

I have been looking for the book for years now, and I had suspicions it was in my storage unit with a couple thousand other books.  So when I cleaned the unit out this summer, I was overjoyed to find my pristine copy tucked away in my box with Samuel Pepys, Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Clemens—don’t ask me why old Alfred was boxed up with the Samuels, but there he was.  Immediately, right there in the dimly lit hallway, I started paging through and reading snippets.

“If there is a writer who is not filled with fear and trembling as he begins and begins and begins,” Kazin writes near the end of the book, “he has to be an amateur.”  Kazin here is building to a climax and rhapsodizing eloquently about the importance of good writing in the realm of cultural criticism.  He holds up the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and his words from the “burning city” where he was not sure “anyone would survive to read him, but he wrote anyway.”  Milosz did the only thing he could:  write.  “Morally and imaginatively,” says Kazin, “he could not live without the connections writing makes, without believing in his heart that somehow, somewhere, despite the cruel wisdom of the age that nothing is less probable or perhaps less desirable, all lines do intersect.”

This is the beauty of this book:  it is a genuflection to the power of criticism; it is a tribute to the lost art of cultural discussion.  The book is called Writing Was Everything, but really it should be Writing and Reading Are Everything.  Kazin is a man reaching back to revel in the years, deeply reflective and wise.  He tells us the best critics are poets and the best practitioners were “Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats in his letters, Emerson, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot.”  They wrote about books to “change the direction of literature.”  Criticism had cultural currency; it was important work.  Look around today and such criticism is disappearing.  The publications that shaped the 20th century critical mind, that published people like Kazin, have disappeared or they are mere shadows of their former selves.  It is difficult to know where people like Edmund Wilson and Edgar Allan Poe (a difficult and cantankerous critic) would publish today.  There are a few beacons of hope:  The New York Review of Books (minus its dearly departed editor, Robert B. Silvers), The New York Times Book Review; The New Yorker; and The Atlantic.  Others can be found by doing a quick Google search.

What we have now, Kazin notes in his time, is a professional class engaged in telling other people “How To Read.”  And these critics are academics who are “riding herd on students who are so unused to general reading that they have little taste of their own and are glad to be told how to read, especially what to discount.”  If this was the state of things in 1994, what would he say today?  Students that I have encountered not only struggle to know how to read different texts, but really have no time for recreational reading.  They utilize social media, television streamed to the computer, and movies.  The reading they do for their classes is reading for information.  They are skimming through things to glean the facts for the test.  There is no depth, no shaded or nuanced understanding.  Kazin believes there is a dearth of true criticism which is “the ability to state preferences, to make choices on the basis of what is said in the only way available to that particular writer to say it.”

Kazin cites George Orwell’s theory in the essay, “Why I Write,”  that the writer’s “subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.”  Right here, right now, we are in danger of never having that emotional attitude.  We are slack-jawed and drooling in the free-falling catastrophe of an under-developed intellect.  We are not engaged with ideas much less with reading and writing.  It is all narcissism and boredom.

We cannot even have a discussion about political correctness; those have become fighting words.  Kazin saw the beginnings of the coming language apocalypse:  “Only in an age so fragmented, so ignorant of the unlosable past working in us can presumably literate persons speak of Dante, Beethoven, or Tolstoy as ‘dead white European males.’  It is true that literature can no longer be regarded anywhere as the truth about human existence.”  He goes on to write that “It is true…that literature is besieged by movies and hijacked by television, so commercialized that the million-dollar advances handed out to macho spy novelists makes life difficult for quieter talents.”

Kazin in his notebooks found himself wondering why printed words had such an effect on him.  Why did writers write the way they did?  Literature was a problem to be solved as well as entertainment for the imaginative mind.  Everything begins with a question.  That was how he started as a critic.

As for economics, Kazin has this to say:  “A son of the immigrant working class whose parents were tortured by poverty, I hardly needed the depression to be suspicious of moneyed power, or to see that in this society money is the first measure of all things and the only measure of many—or to learn for myself that there is no way in America of being honorably poor.”  Today with all the border wall nonsense and travel bans, one cannot be “honorably poor” or the “son of the immigrant working class” without being held up for undeserved shame and ridicule.  It is Kazin’s fervent belief that “art invents truth better than any document can,” and therefore, literature could be the great equalizer for us as it has for generations before us.  Of course, when Kazin combines a discussion of immigrants and working class, we see his roots in the communism of the early 20th century.  He faced criticism in his time for his political positions, but that is what comes with a life of the mind.  Critics like Kazin, Sontag, Chomsky, challenge the status quo.  They dare to consider all possibilities and explanations.  They dare to think.

All this from Kazin’s little book of lectures.  “In his pages,” he tells us, “literature and life are necessarily intimate.  The one lesson as a critic I seem to have been born with is that no storyteller can escape that intimacy.”  In this age of information, we have lost that intimacy with our own lives.

I continued my reading at home, all of this is swirling around in my head as I stayed up late into the night soaking in his words.  For Alfred Kazin, it was a century of ideas.  They faced horrendous and bloody wars, weapons of mass destruction, unspeakable atrocities.  They also saw the first human beings to leave earth and land on the moon.  We cured diseases.  We developed institutions dedicated to helping others.  No doubt, we in the 21st century have had our trials already.  We need thinkers and cultural critics to help us grow, to make us aware of life and its possibilities, and yes, to hold a mirror up and tell us this is who you are.  Quite simply, we need critics like Alfred Kazin to help us see the world clearly.

Friday, July 21, 2017


Yolanda is my wife’s aunt and she is dying.  Her battle with metastasized cancer is, as the hospice nurse says, coming to an end.  The family has gathered for day-long vigils at her bedside.  Relatives and friends trade-off for night shifts in case she leaves us under cover of darkness.  All are stoic, waiting.  Emotions did crack through when the priest arrived for the Anointing of the Sick.  During the performance of the sacrament, Yolanda, who was groggy from the pain medications, raised her arm as if to fend off the inevitable.  Her son gently lowered her arm and clutched her hand until the priest was finished.

Her primary caregiver, along with my father-in-law, is a retired nurse from Trinidad named Yvonne.  She is a unique and soulful presence in the apartment, quiet, calming, selfless.  She has known heart-breaking loss in her life, but she absolutely loves her work and she can recount stories of previous passings where she was present to help the sick shuffle off this mortal coil.  Of all the family members moving through the apartment in the last few weeks, she knows everyone’s name and most unbelievably, seems to know what each person needs to hear about this act of dying, because make no mistake, Yolanda is the one dying but we are all reminded of our own mortality in this moment.

I am in the final edits of a book on storytelling as a theological response to grief and loss.  The research and writing have taken more than a year.  It is my thesis for another degree but I have little hope now it will ever be published.  I have lost faith in the project and now the best I can hope for, I feel, is to complete it.  I’m also now deeply concerned, after our vigil at Yolanda’s bedside, that I’ve missed something.  Is my natural pessimism, gloom and doom coming through?  After all the research and writing and rethinking and rewriting, I feel like there is no adequate response to grief and loss except to soldier on and live with the impermanence and eventual end of this existence.  Lost faith keeps me awake thinking every night.

It seems to me that all art is a hedge against mortality.  Hell, everything in life is an act to defy the end.  Human beings seem hard wired in that way.  “Once more unto the breach…” as Shakespeare put it.

I can admit to myself that I landed on this topic because I am afraid of my own death.  I was facing open heart surgery for a bad heart valve and quite clearly, my health was a significant point of debate among the various doctors I cycled through for second and third opinions.  Thankfully, the consensus now is that there are other treatments and drugs to try before we get to cracking open my chest, cutting out the failing valve and sewing in an artificial replacement.  I am ever so grateful for this news, but it hasn’t turned my thoughts away from how brief human life is and how fleeting our influence is as well in this existence.  All the literature I’ve read and taught over the years told me this but now the lesson has hit me, pun intended, directly in the heart.  Bullseye.

One night this week, Yolanda, in a moment of lucidity, told Yvonne she was afraid to die.  She had been calling out names of family, some dead, some still living, moving in an out of consciousness.  Yvonne told her there is nothing to fear.  She just needed to let go, that all the people who loved her, both the living and the dead, were there to see her off or welcome her home.  Death is as much a part of life as birth.

I guess I was looking for a different answer than the one Yvonne conveyed to Yolanda, or I am unwilling to accept the answers I found in my research.  I felt helpless to assist family members with Yolanda’s illness and coming death.  I felt that someone who just spent a year researching how we respond to death, grief and loss should be a wiser and more helpful teacher.  Instead, I remained a student and a novice.  Do we ever find the wisdom in our own demise, or is that ability only granted to a select few like Yvonne?

The one thing that is abundantly clear is that everyone, saints and sinners, struggles with the knowledge of our mortality.  Even Jesus, the night before his execution, tried to find a way to avoid his own death.  But our end is present from the beginning, and if we recognize and accept that, loss makes our lives richer.  Knowing we will die hopefully makes us wise enough to live in the moment.  It is ironic that we must live because we will die.  As Yvonne told me, whispered to me, actually, we can fight or we can make peace with dying, grief and loss.  Either way, we cannot change the ending.

As for that ending, I have always treasured a quote from Louis L’Amour:  “There will come a time when you think everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.”

Endings, beginnings, and everything in between are the fruits of this existence.  So we sit in Yolanda’s small apartment, all of us gathered together as family, telling stories, looking at pictures, remembering, praying, and waiting.  In the other room, Yvonne sits on the edge of the bed holding Yolanda’s hand, guiding her into the night.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Shakespeare and Company

Paris for me will always be a haunted city.  Ghosts linger in the streets and behind gauzy living room curtains.  There are narrow streets lined with buildings and cafes.  But this is a city with so much depth.  It invites one to pay attention, to see the ghosts in plain sight.  My regret is that I have yet to experience Paris alone.  Only then can one absorb the history, the shadows.  I have experienced Paris only when accompanied by a large group of students.  I’ve missed the subtle nuances of light and sound while focused on whether or not we forgot someone at the Louvre.  As we boarded the plane for home, it was I who wished to be lost and left behind.

So to say that I enjoyed reading Shakespeare and Company, Paris:  A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Krista Halvorson, would be an immense understatement.  I was enraptured with the book, a collection of journal entries, letters, reflections, history and pictures, lots and lots of pictures.  I studied each and every photograph like an ancient manuscript.  I soaked up the interiors and the street life of this old book shop nestled across from the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  I missed visiting this landmark in person on my travels with students—why?  I must have walked by it several times as Notre Dame is on literally every trip itinerary.  Keeping up with teenagers is simply too overwhelming.  So alas, I have never set foot inside the beloved institution, and that is something I will have to live with until I can rectify the situation in the future.

The story of the shop is well-known.  In 1919, Sylvia Beach, an American in Paris, decided to open a book shop.  Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and all the other ex-pats stopped in to read and browse along with many other writers and artists.  The Nazis forced Beach to close during the Occupation, but after the war, another American, George Whitman, a distant relative of Walt Whitman, relaunched the shop at its current location.  This was 1951, and the world was coming back to life again after that bloody and tragic world conflict.  The location, 37 rue de la Bucherie, is there waiting for the next round of book lovers making a pilgrimage to Paris.  George Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, named for the original owner of the book shop, is now in charge.  George died in 2011.  Sylvia keeps her father’s tradition of leaving the door open for visitors—they can shop and browse, but also sleep among the books and partake of the store soup pot.  Shakespeare and Company is an institution, a chapel dedicated to the religion of the book.  All are welcome.

The writers, artists and readers who choose to bunk between the shelves and around the books are called “tumbleweeds,” a term George coined during his days.  He let thousands of people stay over the years if they would agree to help out for a few hours in the shop, write a one-page biography to leave behind in the files of the store, and read one book per day.

The book about the book shop begins with selections from George’s journal when he was a younger man traveling the world.  He is a wise and poetic writer, although he definitely classifies himself as a reader first.  And like every bibliophile, he is interested in everything—astronomy, history, mythology, fiction, poetry.  Sciences to humanities, George absorbed it all.

“There are so many great books in the world,” he writes, “all of them islands in the infinity of man’s ignorance.”  In his journal, George sees himself as a traveler, a human being in perpetual motion.  “A vagabond lives and dies many times and is reincarnated into new worlds,” he says.  This sounds like an excellent credo for a full life, and George Whitman had a very full and colorful life.

The book also includes memoirs from some of the tumbleweeds.  Winslow Eliot speaks of a mystical encounter with a wise stranger in a corner of the shop—not George Whitman, evidently.  After a discussion about science, philosophy, literature, the man said, “What is essential is how you respond to any of life’s challenges.  Whether you are fortunate or unlucky, whether you decided to wage a battle or to stay home and raise children—whatever your life is like, it’s responding to it with dignity and love that matters.  And then to write about it from your heart.”  This, of course, is the noble job description of any writer or artist.

In his later years, George’s eccentricities began to interfere with the health of the shop, so George’s daughter, Sylvia and her partner took over the day to day running of the business and shepherding the expansion projects into nearby spaces and apartments as they became available to be remodeled.  George still puttered around, still offered pungent analysis of his twenty-first century customers.  “I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read,” said this patron saint of books and reading.  “I don’t have time to do anything else!”  George Whitman would probably not have much use for social media, unless it helped him put more books into readers’ hands.

We have lost the communal civil society of the neighborhood book shop, and frankly, the internet is a poor substitute.  What great ideas could be conveyed in 140 characters?  We have become skimmers and speed demons when it comes to consuming texts online.  We want to cut to the chase and absorb wisdom by osmosis rather than by deep reading and thinking.  America as a reading culture seems misidentified as well.  Maybe Shakespeare and Company is a phenomenon that could only have happened in the intellectual dream-life of Paris.  In France, they put philosophers on television for public discourse.  But I could be underselling American life and thought.  We are a country founded on a strong and prevalent work ethic, but I for one would give up my right arm to have a Shakespeare and Company in my neighborhood.  The only shop even close to that was Dutton’s and they disappeared long ago.  If only we could be so blessed and lucky to have a book shop with the likes of George Whitman and Sylvia Beach down the street.  For now, we must make due with a pilgrimage to the book shop across from the gargoyles and the Seine and feed some euros into the cash register to keep the dream alive.  And we can buy this book.