The business of education is not business


At the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this past weekend,  Mark Gleason made the following remark about the Philadelphia public schools:

“As you close the lowest performers, you’re slowly raising the bar. So that’s what portfolio is, as Paul [Socolar] described it–you keep dumping the losers and overtime you create a higher bar for what we expect from our schools.”

Now, Gleason has justifiably gotten a lot of flak for describing the poorer performing schools as “losers,” but it is something else that is bothering me.

Gleason was describing school evaluation in terms of stock portfolios. His use of the term “losers” was referring to those “stocks” that were not performing. He was using business/financial parameters to measure school success.

I am getting tired of it. Schools are about students not bulls and bears.

Somewhere along the line, it seems the model for education has been hijacked by the business/financial sector. In the past few years, I have heard students referred to as consumers, I have listened to speakers hold up CEO leadership qualities as  models we should emulate, I have read articles about the business of education and been given books that prepare me for successful management skills.  I bristle when I hear “entrepreneur” as the new academic buzzword.

I attended one workshop on “coaching” fellow teachers. The consultant hadn’t bothered to adapt her PowerPoint presentation so that most of her examples dealt with a “sales rep” that needed the proper advice or coaching. I went to another workshop where the presenter began by playing a video where a woman spoke about conflict resolution to about twelve middle-managers. To add to the insult, the presenter told us teachers that “We might not know it, but research has shown that taking notes during a presentation aids in memory retention.”

And then–in case we didn’t get the point– he gave us a worksheet of the video script with important words left blank. We were to fill them in.

Perhaps it is me.

I was raised to distrust big-business.  “Plastics,” after all, was the laugh-line when newly graduated Benjamin Braddock was adrift in 1968.  For the generations before me, the man in the grey-flannel suit was the emblem of mindless conformity; for my generation, big-business was connected with the lies behind Viet-Nam, turned on the fire-hoses against the vanguard of social change, and deliberately hid its own research about what it was spewing into the environment and into people’s bodies. In my circle, they were the bogey-men.

And they were very successful.  The  following decades saw “Greed is Good” become  big business’ mantra …and within twenty-years the country went reeling because of it.  And it is still digging out.  The rich got rich…the poor got further away.

I went into education to counterbalance the influence of big business.

And I know, I am being  illogical.

I know that there are plenty of good, wise and compassionate men in business. There are plenty of great ideas and practices that can be adopted and adapted. Dear friends, respected acquaintances, close family members are businessmen and businesswomen–and some are extraordinarily successful.  And I do go to them, at times, for advice on everything, even education.

But I don’t translate their world into mine.  Our worlds are too different.

Or so it seems to me.

I am feeling very much a dinosaur these days.  Not because I cannot keep up with the latest trends in education–the project-based learning, the collaboration, the student-centered focus. Those I can handle.

No, I feel so out of step, because I can’t kowtow to business metrics. I can’t measure my students’ progress–the quality of their learning — on a spreadsheet. I can’t draw up their successes and failures in a pie-chart based on 401K investments. I don’t hold up the world’s CEO’s as models.

Instead I hold up a liberal education for them to follow–believing that if they do, when THEY become the CEO’s of their world, the world should become a better place.

Book Review: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

In 2006, with the release of Christine Falls, the Booker-Prize-winning novelist John Banville began publishing “crime fiction” under the pen name Benjamin Black.  Like his “literary novels,” these crime novels are psychologically astute, intensely plotted, and keenly aware of language.The Black-Eyed Blonde

With The Black-Eyed Blonde, however, Banville decided to try something new:  to write a novel using Raymond Chandler’s most famous private detective, Philip Marlowe.

While Chandler’s fiction is read and esteemed, and his influence on detective fiction in particular and American literature in general widely acknowledged, his detective’s presence is mostly ingrained in the American consciousness through film and television.  There have been several television series featuring the L.A. detective and many movies.  Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum both played Marlowe, and successfully, but undoubtedly, the most iconic incarnation of Phillip Marlowe is that played by Humphrey Bogart. So pervasive are the film renditions of Chandler’s L.A., that I found myself casting the characters while reading The Black-Eyed Blonde.  Sure enough there was a role for all the usual suspects: there is a creepy, effeminate Peter Lorre type, an enormous, gang-lord Sydney Greenstreet, a fetching Lauren Bacall character, and, of course, there is Bogart as Marlowe.

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Banville himself is certainly aware of the hold that film has on the literary characters and early in the book he gives a winking nod to Bogart. Marlowe is sitting in the offices of a fancy country-club. There are cigars and brandy, chintz armchairs and fine china. Marlowe says:

“At that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some fruity type in white shorts and a blazer had come bounding through the door, inquiring with a lisp if anyone was for tennis.”

This is Banville’s joke, and nod to Bogart.  Before he played tough guys in film, Bogart played in drawing-room comedies on Broadway. A long-lived story is that Bogart’s first professional line as an actor was as a young dandy, bouncing onto stage with his tennis whites and tennis racquet and inquiring “Tennis, anyone?”  That Bogart also had a slight lisp, makes Banville’s nod even more on target.

But The Black-Eyed Blonde is not a film, it is a novel, and a highly readable one at that. The title is one of several possibilities that Raymond Chandler had filed away and which Banville received permission to use from The Raymond Chandler Estate.  From there, somehow, Banville began channeling Chandler, because what he has created is an exceptional mirroring of Chandler’s style: the rapid-fire dialogue, the lyrical similes, and the sprawling, frenetic plot and subplots.

The plot is typical: the eponymous blonde, Clare Cavendish, enters Marlowe’s office and hires him to find a “friend”  who has gone missing.  When Marlowe discovers that the friend was killed and cremated two months earlier but that Cavendish had seen him just a few days ago, things get complicated.  There are betrayals, murders, cover-ups, flirtations, and deceptions.  And throughout it Marlowe maintains a strict code of honor–the characteristic that always set Marlowe apart from the rest. He protects his clients’ confidences, he takes no joy in the violence that is visited upon the deserving, he cannot be bought no matter what the price, and, while he can empathize with those on both sides of the law, he believes in justice.  It is this chivalric honor that became the hallmark of the American noir hero.

But always, when reading Chandler–and now Banville posing as Chandler–the story seems secondary.  It is the evocation of 1930s-40s Los Angeles, the elaborate metaphors (“He smelled like an over large man who had lain in the bath too long.”), the snappy dialogue that conjures up an entire world–a fictional world, perhaps, but one that we are very familiar with through both reading and film. And with The Black-Eyed Blonde, Banville re-captures that world perfectly,  note for note.

The Black-Eyed Blonde is a fun, a quick, and a memorable read.


Quote #36: “In just Spring…” e.e.cummings

illustration 2014  jpbohannon

illustration 2014 jpbohannon

… it’s


balloonMan          whistles
                 e.e.cummings from “in just Spring”

Quote #35: Jung and the “ridiculous fear”

Mask 2014 by jpbohannon

2014 by jpbohannon

“We yield too much to the ridiculous fear that we are at bottom quite impossible beings, that if everyone were to appear as he really is, a frightful social catastrophe would ensue.”

Carl Jung,  The Archetype and the Collective Unconscious

Billy Collins … and how to think better of poetry

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

The other night I went to see the poet Billy Collins deliver a lecture. It was a pretty fancy event–I’d been given the tickets– held in the  beautiful Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. As Billy Collins remarked, it is like standing inside an enormous cello.

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Anyway, I don’t know a lot of Collins’ poetry, except maybe two or three poems, but I always use his poem “Introduction to Poetry” at the beginning of any course I teach in poetry.  In it, Collins claims:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

It is those last five lines that are important. They describe why poetry is met with such an “ugh” from people whose only experience with it has been in classes where the well-intentioned teacher urged them to “find the meaning.”

I tell my students that human beings are innately wired to respond positively to poetry (think infant lullabies, toddlers’ picture books, nonsense riddles, jump-roping songs). It is the English teachers who teach students to dislike it. To think of it as something to fear and dread.

And that is a shame.

For last night, Collins (who repeated what I said about poetry being innate) was as entertaining as could be. He told the audience a bit of his life and his term as Poet Laureate of the U.S.  He spoke of his influences and literary influences in general. He spoke of the death of humor in poetry–he blames the Romantics who he said “replaced sex and humor with landscape.” And he spoke of the difficulty for some people used to hearing formalist poetry to hear the acoustics of what is commonly called free verse. (He doesn’t like the term.)
He also read several of his poems, although half of what he read came from others. Here is a wonderful two line poem by Howard Nemerov called “Bacon and Eggs”:

The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.

See it’s good to laugh.  And have fun in poetry.

And so he spoke of the importance of humor and used a poem by Ruth L. Schwartz to demonstrate how humor can be used as a transition point, moving from light to darkness (or vise versa). He got a laugh on the line “look at that DUCK,” which is how he wanted it to be:

The Swan at Edgewater Park

Isn’t one of your prissy richpeoples’ swans
Wouldn’t be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
at that big duck!
Beauty isn’t the point here; of course
the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible—no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesn’t know yet she’s gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back—and
He’s a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It’s not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both—
That’s the kind of swan this is.

But the most effecting poem that he read was the one that he read last. It is his beautiful poem about the love between a mother and son–told with sweet humor:

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Quote #33: The highest point of philosophy…


Glad Day, or Dance of Albion by William Blake, c. 1804

“The highest point of philosophy is to be both wise and simple; this is the angelic life.”

John Chrysostom (c. 347-407)