Monday, March 31, 2014

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print." -Barbara W. Tuchman

What was your favorite book growing up? No really, what was it? I'll wait.

If you're above the age of 25, you probably have to sift through, at the very least, the books you read in school. Maybe you read "The Giver," "The Diary of Anne Frank," or "The Great Gatsby." If you're me, and many of my friends, the number of books to consider and discard is exponentially higher. For example, George Orwell's "1984" remains one of my absolute favorites to this day, and I read that in Mr. Frey's ninth grade English class. Today, students may actually leave schools without having read and absorbed any great literature, and it's to the detriment of our society as a whole.

Even now, reading through quotations from "The Great Gatsby," or "Catcher in the Rye," fills me with the desire to read more, to become smarter, in effect, to become even more aware of the human condition. That's what literature is, after all. It is evidence that other people share your emotions, your stories, and your worries. Maybe even more importantly, it is a reminder that there are those who have more worries than you, people whose lives are hampered by trauma and experiences that defy imagination. 

THIS IS IMPORTANT. I don't care what you say, or how well a movie is done, you can't truly understand Nick Carraway's stress in "The Great Gatsby" without reading the novel. You can't feel Katniss' terror and depression in "The Hunger Games," and you certainly can't understand the complexity of Scarlett O'Hara's character in "Gone With the Wind."And trust me, I get just as excited as the next person to see my favorite stories on the big screen, but always, there is something missing. 

As a teacher, and I know, I know, I write about teaching all the time, the number of books-to-movies out there is somewhat troubling. Sure, I enjoy it, but all my students see is an excuse not to read the novel. When they're 25, will they be able to remember realizing that money can't buy you love after watching DiCaprio's Gatsby? Will they have turned the excitement that they felt at watching "The Hunger Games" into a passion for freedom and the importance of the government protecting its citizens' rights? Somehow, I doubt it.

In this world where it's as easy as the touch of a finger to a smart phone screen to watch a video, why would anyone remember any one in particular? When you can watch entire television show seasons on Netflix in a week (guilty), why use the extra energy to open a book and read for fun? 


The frequency of students who read only when forced to in school (and sometimes not even then) is increasing, and with it, this anti-intellectual age in America is gaining a stronger foothold. Susan Jacoby wrote an article called The Dumbing of America for the Washington Post in 2008 that is scarier than most horror movies I've seen. In it she posits that Americans are in danger of losing our "hard won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations." 


Six years later, America is still on a set path to intellectual destruction. The easier things become for us, the less likely we are to go the extra mile. Where are the students who want to write the next great American novel? Most of my students want to be professional athletes, and when prompted to consider other options, answer "I don't know," or "I'll just find something." 


I was looking back over my life today while I created an autobiographical PowerPoint to show my students, and I realized that in middle school, I was already well on my way to college and a career. I read books, wrote poetry, played the violin. I look at my students, glued to computers or smart phones, and wonder whether they will make it, or if the only ones who do will be the "elite" one percenters who are fortunate enough to be enrolled in private schools. 

We as a nation are not preparing future novelists, or scientists, or presidents. We are allowing technology use to dull the senses of our students, encouraging rote test taking strategies and skills, and killing creativity by removing it from curricula. 

What is going to happen to us when this generation of American citizens are tasked with the operations of the country? This needs to change, and it needs to begin now, and at home, because God knows the education system is sluggish at best, and possibly heading in the wrong direction altogether. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"It's lack that gives us inspiration. It's not fullness."


What does it mean, exactly, to be "inspired?" It's a word that is thrown about by literati, artists and musicians alike. It is a word that rests in the pocket of every (lucky) passerby on the street. It is found all over tumblr, in pretty little graphics that are undoubtedly pastel in nature. Those graphics make their way to Twitter, to Facebook, they're captured in screenshots and posted to Instagram. For those among us who have been lucky to feel, however fleetingly, inspiration, those graphics remind us of better days, or maybe heighten the emotions we are already feeling. 


Inspiration is akin to love, in that it's deeply felt, many times temporary, and somehow always escapes description. It's "indescribable"in that cliche way that boggles the minds of poets and painters, because it truly can not be seen, it can not be described, visually or otherwise. It can only be FELT.

Ah, the frustration of these human FEELINGS!

What's worse than not being able to describe it, even worse than not being able to draw it, or paint it, or sing it, is not being able to feel it. Like love, it isn't something that you miss until one day, it's gone. GONE. You look for it in books, you look for it in the National Gallery of Art near the Monets and the VanGoghs (because if it isn't there, it must have truly disappeared). You check for it in your favorite playlist, outside on a nice spring day (if it's available). Nothing. In desperation, you start looking for it in crowded bars, among the music and lights and general noise of it all. At this point, you're at the point of giving up the search, because really? In a bar? The only things you're likely to find there are sticky floors and inappropriately wandering hands. 

The saddest part is, YOU ALREADY KNOW THIS. 

This is a journey that you've taken before. If you're a writer or an artist, it's probably an epic journey that you take often. If you're not, you may not even realize what it is you're searching for. You might make a mistake and THINK that you're searching for love. WRONG. You might think that you're just searching for your next adrenaline rush. WRONG. It's inspiration, people. You're looking for that flighty little fiend, the fairy of the old stories that makes you happy in one moment and miserable in the next. 

And yet, despite the stress and despair, we continue the search. WHY?

Well honestly, I'm pretty sure it's the same reason that we continue to chase love, and that still more elusive dream, happiness. Because it feels good. Yes, it all comes down to the basic human desire to feel good. Not to mention, inspiration is a powerful tool. Inspired people invent awesome new technology, they write beautiful books that impact our hearts and minds. These people create music so profound that years later, generations later, we'll still remember it. Who wouldn't want some of that?

I know that I do. 

I know what you're thinking. "You've presented a problem with no solution! Where is this 'inspiration' that you speak of? I want some!" I know friend, I want some too. I've come to a realization though, and I used Ray Bradbury's quote as the title for a reason. "It's lack that gives us inspiration. It's not fullness." That empty feeling that you have? It's on the journey to fulfillment that you'll find your inspiration. It's the struggle, and the sadness, and the search that provide the spark with which great American novels are spawned. 

Maybe you won't write the next Grammy Award-winning song, or paint the next Mona Lisa. Maybe I won't either. But maybe, if you raise your children with inspiration, or influence someone that crosses your path, they will.