By Diana Senechal
Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, was published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012. She is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She has written numerous articles and blogs for American Educator, Education Week, The New Republic, The Core Knowledge Blog, The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), GothamSchools, The Cronk of Higher Education, and other publications. She teaches philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in NYC.
One chilly day in February, I sat down with a stack of tenth-grade philosophy tests to grade. Within minutes, I was roaring. This is not typical of my grading experience, so I will explain.
I teach ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, a selective public school in Harlem. (Through our partnership with Columbia University, eligible high school students may take courses at Columbia.) The high school philosophy curriculum, which I wrote in consultation with colleagues and the principal, focuses on philosophical and literary texts. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the tenth-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the eleventh-graders, political philosophy. (In several pieces published by GothamSchools, I have written more about these courses.)
The tenth-grade Ethics and Aesthetics course consists of four long units. The first unit focuses on human choices in the face of suffering. Students read the Book of Job, Blaise Pascal’s “Wager” (from his Pensées), a substantial excerpt of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the first part of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and Saul Bellow’s novel Seize the Day. The second unit focuses on virtue, measure, and symmetry; students read Book IV of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, selections from Epictetus’s Discourses, Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose,” and selections from Desiderius Erasmus’s treatise Praise of Folly. The third unit, on freedom and responsibility, includes the story of the ring of Gyges (from book II of Plato’s Republic), Leo Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions,” the prologue of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The last and shortest unit, on ethics and aesthetics, features works of art, music, and poetry, as well as commentary by Søren Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde, and others.
For the test, which I gave at the end of the second unit, I asked my students to write a letter from a character (or author) of one work to a character (or author) of another, or else to create a dialogue between the two. They had to demonstrate knowledge of both works and relate them in a meaningful way. The responses were intensely imaginative and funny, yet grounded in the texts. In discussing one student’s piece (which you can read in full below), I hope to show how literary and philosophical study can inspire creativity instead of stifling it. Beyond that, I want to give readers a chance to enjoy the piece for its own sake.
What is creativity, and why does it matter? Merriam-Webster’s Concise Encyclopedia defines it as the “ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form. The term generally refers to a richness of ideas and originality of thinking.” Creativity matters because it enlarges our sense of the possible; even to a minuscule degree, it alters how we see the world. Sometimes the alteration is profound, as in Rilke’s sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with the injunction, “You must change your life.”
For all its importance, creativity in education is often misunderstood. Many perceive it as spontaneous, unfettered activity that is stifled by traditional schooling; this is a misconception. Creativity demands working material, among other things. A poet is immersed in poetry, words, etymology, sound, rhythm, and more; a potter, in the work of potters past and present, in nature and art, clay and wheel, kiln and glaze. A strong curriculum can provide much of the working material for creativity. If students read interesting texts that have been combined thoughtfully, they can find interesting things to do with them.
The student’s piece, a comic dialogue, draws on Gogol’s story “The Nose” and a chapter from Epictetus’s Discourses. The continuation (which the student wrote voluntarily, after the test) additionally invokes Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. The first three works were part of the unit on virtue, measure, and symmetry; the second, part of the unit on freedom and responsibility. How on earth would one relate these four works through dialogue? It turns out that there is a way.
Some background is required. I recommend reading these works in full; for now, brief summaries will have to do.
“The Nose” is about a barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, who discovers a nose in his bread one morning, and a certain Major Kovalev (given name: Platon) who finds his nose missing. (I use the word “about” warily, as we could endlessly debate what the story is about.) Toward the end, when Kovalev recovers his nose, he asks the doctor to reattach it; the doctor refuses. Kovalev finally finds his nose reattached, but there’s no telling how this happened.
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher of the first and second centuries. In Book I, Chapter 2, of his Discourses, he advises his listeners to act according to their true character. To illustrate his point, he tells of a certain Florus and Agrippinus. Florus is deliberating whether to attend Nero’s festival; Agrippinus replies that the very consideration of that question indicates a wish to be like the others, whereas he wants to be the red thread, the thread that stands out and makes the cloth beautiful.
Leo Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” concerns a king who seeks answers to three questions: What is the right time to begin things? Who are the right people to listen to? What is the most important thing to do? He ultimately visits a hermit; during the visit, he answers the questions for himself without realizing it. The answers are: (1) now, (2) the person you are with, and (3) good.
The Renaissance humanist Erasmus wrote a treatise titled Praise of Folly, in which Folly, personified, praises herself and explains why she is essential to life. (Students enjoyed this work tremendously; many were disappointed that we didn’t read it in full.)
Now for the student’s piece. In the first part of the dialogue, we find the doctor and Kovalev (“Platon”) from Gogol’s story arguing about the reattachment of the nose. They have summoned Epictetus, who gives advice in keeping with his philosophy and character.
I would raise the suggestion that, because pain and pleasure are subjective to a person, there is no greater violation of the Hippocratic Oath than allowing someone to die. Thus, I suggest you consider all harm you could do by inaction greater than any you could perform, and reattach his nose even if you have to use hot tar to do it, for this man is not one that would ask such a thing lightly; it is his specific nature to value his appearance on any level more than his life.
Funny, dark, and true to the texts, this speech of Epictetus brings out aspects of “The Nose” that I hadn’t seen before. Indeed, one paradox of Gogol’s story is that Kovalev’s very superficiality makes his loss profound.
Later, in the second part, which begins after Epictetus’s exit, the comedy rises to another level. In walks the hermit from Tolstoy’s story, followed by a Familiar-Looking Disciple of the Hermit (FLDOTH), clearly the king, and a Guy Following Him (GFH). The hermit begins: “What have we here? It appears that I have arrived at exactly the perfect time. For the perfect time is always now.” Swiftly, in few words, the student has shown the silly side of Tolstoy’s moral. The parody doesn’t stop there:
HERMIT: The time is now. This man is the most important. Reattach his nose immediately, while you can.
DOCTOR: Or what?
HERMIT: Or the world will conspire against you.
DOCTOR: Are you threatening me?
HERMIT: No, I’m terrifying you. There is a difference, and it is as important as everything else.
Through the hermit’s words, the student nails the problem: if the most important time is now, and the most important person is the one you are with, then there can’t really be any importance at all. Anything is as important as anything else, as long as it is now. Understandably, the doctor becomes enraged and throws everyone out, including Folly (but not before Platon’s life wish comes true). I wish Russian majors and scholars knew about this piece. Platon, the doctor, Epictetus, and Folly have probably never been in a room together before, and they make the most of the occasion (the most important occasion, after all, since it is now).
This was one of many inspired pieces I read that February afternoon. One must know the original texts, or something of them, in order to enjoy the wit—but isn’t that always the case? We are in continual dialogue with texts; the richer the text, the more substantial the dialogue, and the more it asks of us. Of course, that doesn’t explain this particular piece’s existence. No curriculum or pedagogy could produce it predictably. I initially set out to demonstrate that a rich curriculum can inspire creativity; I ended up with more. Education has purposes and goals, as well it should, but sometimes it shakes us into something greater, like a glass bead game, where the beads and their combinations (the books, the thought, the writing) take us to things we haven’t known or planned.
The student (who requests anonymity) and his parents have given permission for his piece to be quoted, discussed in this article, and posted in full on Scribd (where it is easier to read).