Friday, January 30, 2009

Remembering John Updike


It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.


Published January 28, 2009 in the New York Times

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Remembering Structure in Progress

I’m so happy to have come across this recent article by David Brooks. In October, I wrote a piece for on the value of an Oberlin education. I wrote about how Oberlin equips its students to be fearless thinkers, to be innovative, to affirm that there is endless knowledge to gain. In this ode to Oberlin, I neglected to explore context, and to question whether Oberlin prepares its students to be all of these things while navigating the institutional frameworks that define our society.

I’ve talked a lot already about what it means for a school to prepare its students for the real world. This point comes close to home for me because I’ve never felt fully equipped to work within the institutions that shape the structure of my life. Whether this is a fault of the educational institutions I attended or my own is not really relevant—what does matter is, did Oberlin do the best that it could to build my awareness of institutional persistence? Did it appropriately prioritize individualized agendas and critical, innovative thinking against the way our world actually, mechanically, works?

When I started at Teachers College, I had a general sense of the kinds of things I would learn and the arguments I could expect to hear in the classroom. What I didn’t expect was to encounter readings by Tyack and others that remind us of the immense challenges of educational reform based on the permanence of our institutions. As recent college graduates with fire in our eyes and passion in our hearts, former teachers empowered by too many years of lacking power in their schools, and mid-career changers seeking a new spark, we are buzzing with thoughts we think have never been uttered before. We are scathingly, unforgivingly critical of the very system that brought us to where we are, picking apart the details of a school day, the educational units that define and bind a degree, the notion that children sit in a room together to learn. Yet as one apt writer once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Institutional theorists, those brave, seemingly negative souls, strive to bring us back to the base, to remind us that the system just doesn’t change as much as we think it will. Radicalism may be what it takes to see the change we need, but the change we need might not come from a total restructuring of the institution of education itself.

David Brooks’ words offer an important reminder. “In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us.” He continues:
“As we go through life, we travel through institutions—first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do…New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve.”

At the end of his article, Brooks calls for renewed faith in these institutions. In a way, he’s telling us not to bite the hand that feeds us. These institutions are here to stay—just as a writer derives her argument from engaging in another’s and a teacher structures her lessons around the core curriculum that has shaped millions of students before hers, we live in our world through constant engagement with the past and the present and the future via these institutional mechanisms that contain our interactions. Our institutions don’t ask us for complete conformity; they ask us to acknowledge the progress of our ancestors and to pass on a usable framework to those that follow us. In doing so, they allow us to continue forward, learning ever onward, finding comfort and strength in consistency and in our ability to critically, thoughtfully, and wisely understand where we stand against where we have been and where we could be.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Where Is Prayer?

The brochure for Paris' Sainte-Chapelle says it is meant to "create a feeling of entry into the Heavenly Jerusalem." It is apparent that this chapel's creators have not been to Jerusalem, where history and faith are gritted with the dirt of everyday life and the thousand steps of pilgrims trodding narrow walkways by rote. What strikes me more, though, is how so many of these masterpieces were created for private eyes. Resources were utilized so furtively; private sanctuaries scream glory to God in brilliant, sheltered silence, so clandestine that it makes me want to scream for the world beyond these thick, heavy walls.

What does it feel like to pray in an ornate private chapel, inaccessible to the people and lacking any resemblance to this life? The creation of such an elaborate space relies on worldly goods to create the atmosphere--excess defines access to God here. Hundreds of tired, worn hands built this space. In private prayer, hands folded pointing to the heavens in a dusty room somewhere far beyond this sacred space they built, these workers engage in the same rituals without the decorative supplements. Which is more holy? Which has more access? Who, in their prayer, is getting closer to God?

Not far from Sainte-Chapelle, on Île St-Louis, Rue St-Louis en I’île bustles with the business of everyday life. Curious shops peddle playful housewares, Moroccan furniture, and French travel literature; cafes tout famous ice cream, providing respite for tired souls. Here, today, no one is thinking of how to build a place so private and so stunning that it will nearly guarantee better, more direct access to God. Here no one aims to create a feeling of entry into the heavenly, otherly destination. But is God absent? Is God not present in the details, in the glorious meticulousness with which the cobbler mends a client's shoes or the attention a bookshop owner pays to the request of a child for a magical story? Is our devotion to private religious space, to proclaiming glory to God in an ornately adorned room, a thing of the past? Or has it become even more private, hidden in smaller, more secret spaces, disguised as living rooms or parlours, bookstores or conversations, absent the tall beckoning gray walls of yesterday’s grandest chapels?