Immersed in a Calling

Contemplation is not readily classified as a belief that one fights for, and attempts to squeeze its value into the language of justice or dignity or basic human rights will fall flat. It is better characterized as an object of love and reverence, and a source of fulfillment. For humanists, contemplation is not a cause. It is a calling.

-Agnes Callard, “What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?” in The New Yorker

My latest reading adventure took me through How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, a new book by Scott Newstok, a Rhodes College faculty member, Duluth native, and friend of this blog. In addition to our hometown and some occasional correspondence, it’s become clear that Newstok and I share a lot in how we look at the world, and his new book encapsulates so much of that shared calling.

I do not consider myself an expert in the realm of Shakespeare. Sure, I had the pleasure of playing the title role and donning a sheet with splotches of red paint in a sophomore English class reading of Julius Caesar at Duluth East. In more recent years, I’ve been a sometime attendee of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, an annual excuse for some extended family members to get together to eat a lot and drink a lot and enjoy a couple of the Bard’s plays. I’ve developed an appreciation for just how many Shakespearian aphorisms have made their way into our speech today. But I haven’t come close to consuming his collected works.

A deep familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre is peripheral to How to Think Like Shakespeare, though.The book is not a systematic assessment of education in Shakespeare’s work, nor a thorough overview of Renaissance-era schooling. Instead, it is a defense of a humanistic education, and an ascent into a dialogue down the generations of how best to work one’s way through this thing called life. It is a reminder that expertise and even so-called genius come from discipline, from dedicated work, from immersion in the works of past giants and even occasional outright theft from them. We’re all in this tradition, and the style of the book underscores this on every page. Newstok doesn’t go two paragraphs without citing some great past thinker or literary work, without pulling in one of his friends to show how historical insights all build on one another. He quotes liberally from Shakespeare, of course, but a whole crew of canonical figures insert their insights, from Erasmus to James Baldwin, from Ovid to Hannah Arendt, from Cicero to Bob Dylan. (Newstok is a Duluthian, after all!)

I found myself scrawling down snippets of wisdom from across Newstok’s 14 themed chapters. Of course, I am a sucker for such lines as “if your school says your education has impacted you, ask for a refund—and a laxative,” in an effective early sequence in which Newstok skewers the idea of education as training for jobs that currently exist. But the insights compound on themselves and build to something bigger. Newstok writes of the idea of craft, and the process by which the craftsperson “forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft.” This process, we learn in “Of Imitation,” comes from repetition and careful use of models. Many great writers began by directly re-writing authors they admired, a process replicated across any number of crafts; only by inhabiting existing great writing could they later develop something that measured up to their own idea of greatness. Readers of How to Think Like Shakespeare are immersed in a flow of ideas from very smart people, all of whom together make it hard to claim they don’t have a very strong case.

Newstok’s chapter on place, with its critiques of Descartes’ notion that thinking alone made him who he was, was especially resonant in an age when most education is happening through placeless means. He traces the failed dreams of countless technologies to supplant in-person learning, from correspondence courses to massive open online courses, and shows what a valuable equalizer a classroom can be. Since their dismissal from campuses, privileged college students are free to Zoom in from spare offices in vacation homes while the less affluent sit in shared bedrooms on lousy internet connections in chaotic environments. School, Newstok writes, provides the freedom to think and interact alongside others. The content of communication is what matters, not its medium or speed; computers, to quote Picasso, are “useless,” because “they can only give you answers,” not the underlying questions.

I could go on picking out quotes, but I’ll settle for just telling people to read the book. Its structure proves the point of the Callard quote at the top of this piece. How to Think Like Shakespeare is not the work of an activist militating for his cause but a thinker reveling in his work. Newstok reminds us that this work is, above all, fun, and the calling on display is infectious. People have been attacking the value of the humanities since the humanities came into being (just ask Socrates), but they hold up because again and again. People fall for them and make compelling cases for why we need them in our lives, and again expose the poverty of the belief that a humanistic education is a frivolous luxury. We can wish that more people felt this call, but as Newstok shows, it’s hardly some innate feature. It’s something we cultivate over time, hone and perfect and pass along, and our educations, both formal and informal, decide whether or not we can impose our control on the often-accelerating pace of human life and make it slow down, be masters of our own time instead of letting it master us.

I have a lot of time for contemplation these days. Unlike Callard, I find myself mostly able to pass the humanist test, at least when I am not caught up in lamenting the absence of certain things from my life that would make it more difficult to pass the humanist test. (Solitude, per the Octavio Paz quote in my last post, works well as a temporary condition; it is not healthy as a permanent state.) I am leery of the line “never let a crisis go to waste,” as some people use crises to justify all sorts of nefarious ends, but I’ve been using it in my own internal monologue with some regularity over the past month.

In normal times it’s easy to get caught up in the drift away from thinking about how to think, especially for a rare humanist who, with some notable exceptions, has a day job that offers only occasional brushes up against the academy. (Moreover, coronavirus has cost me the most fertile ground for those exceptional conversations: long, shared car rides with colleagues.) It can be hard to find the time to devote to this activity, day after day. Funnily enough, I’m not any less busy these days: my job still takes up the same amount of my day, at times even more of it; I’ve launched my most aggressive running regimen ever; and an explosion of videochats with friends and family near and far has filled the empty social calendar. But, somehow, the notion that I’m trapped in a crisis-stricken world and ought to make something of it has allowed me to do so.

Sometime about a week ago, the road became ever so slightly clearer. It was a gradual process, one that came in fits and starts and some periods of mental anguish that rank among the less pleasant of my time on earth. I have not achieved nirvana; there are regressions large and small. But, at least in my mind, I am no longer a victim of hard times but an agent capable of using that greatest human capability. It is something I have mustered by knowing that others have traveled this road before, left some signs and guideposts, and any blank spots on the map are adventures to test what we’ve learned, not some fear-inducing void.

Melodrama in the Board Room Bubble: ISD 709 Notes, 7/15/14

When I was at Georgetown, we students made frequent use of the term “Georgetown Bubble.” Crazy as it may seem, many Hoyas don’t take much advantage of DC; it was very easy to get so caught up in campus life, with heaps of homework and extracurriculars and all of the shopping (and partying) one could ever desire within a few blocks of the front gates. The Georgetown Bubble had a tendency to make small things seem big: campus protests became people’s raison d’etre, and one could practically feel the stress in the air in the library; at the same time, people were often ignorant of the DC beyond them, and all that it encompassed.

The Georgetown Bubble, however, has nothing on the ISD 709 Board Room Bubble, which was on full display on Tuesday night. The Board Members and various hangers-on, positing themselves as saviors of the District no matter which side they were on, battled back and forth, overtly and covertly. The PR operations were in full swing, and even though long stretches of the meeting were fairly routine and even productive, I couldn’t fight off a sense of disgust with it all. I guess I’m just hoping that someone somewhere can truly rise above the fray, but I’m just not seeing it. I shouldn’t be surprised, really, but the board room drama is at such odds with so much of the other stuff going on in the district, which plugs along at a mundane rate—not a great one, mind you, but one that hardly squares with the uniformly celebratory or uniformly apocalyptic language one hears at Historic Old Central.

But, on to the meeting. This time around, we learned just how deep the bench for Superintendent was: Supt. Gronseth was in Baltimore receiving an award on behalf of the District, Assistant Supt. Ed Crawford was revisiting his roots in France, and Deputy Clerk Bill Hansen was at a family function. This left Director of Special Services (whatever on earth those might be) Laura Fredrickson sitting in the Supt’s chair on the dais. She settled for delivering the basic Supt. Report toward the start of the meeting, and otherwise held her silence.

There were four citizen speakers; Ms. Melanie Grune thanked the Board for reaffirming the tenets of civility last month, while the other three all spoke in defense of Member Johnston, who is the subject of an investigation over alleged “abuse.” The first two were eloquent and, refreshingly, posited their concerns within a broader context. Mr. James Youngman worried about use of levy money in a city whose median income is well below that of the state, and emphasized teacher development, while former Board candidate Henry Banks demanded more information on administrators’ salaries and pleaded with the Board to quit its infighting for the good of the students. He said the Board needs questions and a healthy dialogue, and recommended a local mediator in place of a Twin Cities attorney.

Mr. Loren Martell, meanwhile, once again displayed his complete lack of tact in an attempt to shame several individual Board Members for their roles in the Johnston affair and wound up doing a lot of talking about himself and the trouble he’s seen. This whole thing has become incredibly personal for him, which is both impressive (he has put in an astonishing amount of work and sacrificed a lot) and rather sad (someone please put me out of my misery if I ever allow my life to become so tunnel-visioned). It is also why he struggles to convince people who don’t already agree with him to join his cause. As always, catharsis is good fun, but if he thinks antics like that will inspire soul-searching instead of defensiveness, he hasn’t learned the first thing about human nature. His supporters hear what they like to hear (there was a burst of applause at the end), but anyone outside the Board Room Bubble just hears a ranting nutcase. This is a shame.

Once formal meeting business began, though, things were surprisingly tame—in fact, they were so tame that it seemed like everyone was forcing it and trying to act like good, model Board Members. It’s nice to celebrate the people who put in time and work on things, and many of Member Johnston’s questions do add clarity for those of us who are not in the Bubble and don’t get to committee meetings. Maybe half the time these questions and comments seem legitimate; with the other half, there’s a veneer of fakeness and a not-so-subtle agenda underneath.

As usual, Member Harala gave a thorough Education Committee report, whose highlights included an overhaul of social studies curriculum and updates to the bullying policy, both of which are required by state mandate but enjoyed widespread support anyway. Mr. Mike Cary, the new Director of Curriculum, explained some of the revisions on that front, while Member Johnston posed a favorably received suggestion to create an annual report on bullying statistics and actions taken in response to complaints. The Board will hammer out the details of that proposal over the coming month, with further community involvement—as always, plugged heartily by Member Loeffler-Kemp—along the way.

The Human Resources Committee moved along fairly quickly, with Member Johnston asking some very basic questions on wage increases proposed for hourly and substitute district employees. He also pulled item 2B, prompting a “to be or not to be” joke and a much longer quotation of “Hamlet” from Chair Miernicki. (If I may add: “to die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death, dreams of ISD 709 Board meetings may come, and there could be no worse torture.”) He used this to propose working in the same language he’d suggested in the bullying policy for the District’s anti-harassment policy.

The Business Committee report featured the discussions most relevant to the Johnston investigation, including a resolution establishing that board members are not ISD 709 employees and thus not subject to the Data Practices Act. (Pet peeve alert on the language used in the resolution: “IMPACT” IS NOT A VERB.) Member Johnston said this resolution didn’t really matter since he would have waived his right to privacy anyway, but made it clear he was “confused” by it, and why it had come into being. He said one of the attorneys retained by ISD 709, Kevin Rupp, had written opposite language in a similar case in Farmington, and demanded “immediate” answers to a series of prepared questions he had prepared for his accusers. Chair Miernicki (one of the accusers) immediately called the question, however, and Member Johnston went along with it; the question-calling and the resolution both passed unanimously. Member Loeffler-Kemp tried to get in a passive tense non-answer to the question about why it had come up afterwards (“questions were asked…”), but Chair Miernicki cut her off, too.

Member Johnston also jumped on a new insurance contract to point out that the District’s insurance might cover both his and the District’s bills in the investigation (I fail to see why this is odd?), and used this to go into a broader tangent about how “lawyer-happy” the District is. He was also peeved that no one could tell him how much the lawyers were being paid, though he was sort of, kind of promised those answers in time. Both he and Member Welty are suspicious of the lawyers being used, which is understandable to a degree, but one also gets the sense that they know very little of the legal procedure, and there are probably more tactful ways to learn about that than via questions at a Board meeting. Normally, I like the transparency here, but this is one place where a thorough, behind-the-scenes answer is much better than any political capital out of a “gotcha” one.

With the re-zoning of the old Central High site recently completed by the City Council, Member Harala had one quick question: what would happen to all of the stuff the District had stored there? (It would be sold at auction, according to Facilities Manager Kerry Leider.) Mr. Leider also fielded a series of follow-up questions on loading dock and roofing issues from Member Johnston, all of which had basically the same response: they’d been resolved at the contractors’ expense. Member Johnston, continuing with his suggestion-filled night, planted the idea of allowing citizen speakers to come forward to speak on specific issues, instead of just at the start of the meeting. That wrapped up the proceedings, and everyone was free to head back out of their little bubbles and into a beautiful summer night.

And that’s it, really. I have nothing new to say on the Johnston affair that I haven’t already said, and probably won’t until we get real answers. If it sounds like my patience is waning with all of this, well, it is. I guess I’m spending a little too much time in the Bubble myself. For reasons unrelated to that waning patience, next month’s Board meeting will be my last for the foreseeable future. I’ll probably have my own little cathartic moment and get a few things off my chest, but only for one a few minutes before moving on. There is comfort in the Bubble, with clear battle lines and villains to be vanquished, but in the grand scheme of things, there’s a much bigger district out there, one with far more compelling drama than anything that happens in the board room. Sooner or later, someone might discover that, and perhaps take a few people along to explore it as it is, and not as part of an ideological war. Perchance to dream.