Category Archives: teaching

Mitt Romney's Bain "Dream-Team"

On Honor, True and False

2013 National Honor Society Induction Speech
Singapore American School
21 March 2013

Thank you and welcome, 54 inductees, current members of NHS, parents, faculty, family, friends.

It’s an honor to have been asked to share some words of wisdom with you—especially so, given that I know your first choice, Mr. Kay, was unavailable to do so.

So: upon accepting this late assignment, I rushed to Mr. Sturgeon to ask what this speech should attempt.

His answer was simple: “Talk about character, service, and leadership—talk about honor.” I have to admit I found the answer slightly boring. But thankfully, Mr. Sturgeon added two more words that hit me in my sweet spot: “Inspire them.”

A Metaphor from the Dead

I happen to have fallen in love with the word “inspire” a good 30 years ago, when I was fresh out of high school and falling in love with the beauty of the English language to such a geeky degree that I spent my spare time playing with etymology—the study of word roots. I used to lie on my apartment floor with this very book—the Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language—for hours at a time, and surf through its pages looking not for definitions, but for the ancient, original meanings of words we use today.

The etymology of the word “inspire” has been one of my favorites for all my adult life. The literal definition—“fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something good or creative”—that’s so cliché by now that, here again, we find it boring. But as one of my very closest friends, the great German philosopher and Dead White Male Friedrich Nietzsche observed in the late 1800s, “all words in use today are dead metaphors.” All the words we use today, in other words, have a poetic meaning at their roots that has rubbed off over the centuries to the point that we don’t hear it.

So hear this one:

“inspire”: ORIGIN: from Latin in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ Originally used of a divine or supernatural being.

Do you hear that? Admit it: at its dead metaphoric root, the cliché word “inspire” has  more epic swag than all of us in this room combined: God breathing life into Adam? An act of “inspiring.” The muse of epic poetry breathing the Iliad into Homer? Another act of “inspiring.” Oh, the swag, it overwhelms.

At the same time, though, this piece of swag makes my job here harder. Because it means that this here ceremony, folks, is at heart religious, and that my job is to somehow try to express nothing less than “the divine.” It means that your teacher has suddenly received the role, for the space of this gathering, of something closer to that of priest.

So the flip tone, the swaggy slang, I must inform you, stops here. One of you asked me to be a rapper up here, and I am not sorry to say that you will be disappointed.

Because honor is no laughing matter.

We can laugh back in the mundane world. I’ll rap for you in the cafeteria.

But here, now, let us try to understand this ritual—yes, I said “ritual”—for what it is.

Out of the roughly one thousand young adults in our society, its elders—and again, yes, I said “elders”—have invited a tiny, select minority of our young—the 54 of you standing on this stage—to honor you with a rite of passage. It is a passing, from our generation to yours, of a torch we call, metaphorically, “honor.”

And this means, at bottom, that we have identified you as having the most promise to lead our society when we no longer can.

It is a solemn thing, the rite of passage, stretching back surely thousands of years and hundreds of generations in human history. In this ceremony, we are entrusting you, among all your peers, with a new role: to be our replacements in the future, and to lead our society well. We are passing to you the responsibility, when you replace us, to keep our society strong and wholesome, decent and admirable.

We don’t do solemn well in these times—so I’m going to ask you to take this moment to concentrate yourselves in order to, just this once, attempt to do solemnity well. I’m asking you to open yourself to whatever “divine breath” might inspire you for the remainder of this ceremony, as we discuss your passage to adulthood, and to a life of honor.

Let’s begin with that lamentably dead, cliché word itself. Let’s begin with the word “honor.”

An Uncomfortable Question

We observed you closely and chose you carefully, because you have shown uncommon honor. We are confident that you deserve this ceremony, and we congratulate you for it. I personally know many of you standing on this stage, and have observed you in action in our years here together, and I have greatly admired you. I am sure I speak for many of your elders in this room when I say that it gives great hope for the future.

It’s that future that we will now focus on—your future. Let’s be honest here: the odds are strong that many of you will graduate from SAS to enter some of the most privileged and ivied halls of power on earth today.

The question that intrigues me, but also concerns me, and that should concern you as well, is this: how will you handle the opportunities that your privilege will offer you as you grow into adulthood? Will you be able to continue handling them with honor?

I hate to say it, but unfortunately, the odds are very strong that for some of you—perhaps even most of you—the answer may be uncomfortable. Why? A Wall Street Journal article last year entitled 10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You says it well: “If you really want to cause social mayhem,” the author tells his imaginary audience of graduates, Continue reading

On Meaning-Focused History

“Conceptual, not factual”–we were urged to prioritize it at the beginning of the year, and again at a faculty meeting this week. Yet we’re making MCQs and canned timed essay prompts straight out of 1970. Why?

Sent to my colleagues — many of whom will rightly say “He doesn’t need to preach this to me, because I’m in the choir!” — as we shift to planning semester 2. I’m curious how many history teachers out there are fighting the same battles, and am all ears as to tactics that have worked for you in this battle against the 1970s.

I have a dream that meetings planning semester 2 start on the conceptual and inquiry level, not the factual and knowledge level. (In other words, that they follow UbD as we’re expected to do.)

It could make for beautiful meetings if everybody came to a meeting with a response to an agenda item such as,  “What’s the most interesting, challenging, provocative, real essential question you can come up with for the Age of Imperialism*?”

I’d love to hear people offer their answers–especially if their angle is more exciting than mine. Off the top of my head, I would answer for this one, for example, Continue reading

Back to Blogging Again–Elsewhere, and Elsewhat

But not here. I’m blogging with my History of China students here. Why?

Crazy, beautiful backstory: Several eons ago, I wrote a “Must-Reads Before Dying” post that the inimitable Stephen Downes challenged for its omission of Confucius. I met his challenge with a cheeky “Confucius? Really? Too stuffy for students” type response:

And Stephen, notice the sentence before this update? Of course there are omissions…. The Dao De Jing? A deep book, but too ponderous and opaque next to the joyous alternative of Zhuangzi. The Analects? Sure, though far from a literary masterpiece.

Fast forward to, oh, the last three years teaching the entire history of China six times over (it’s a semester course, so I get to watch that epic story twice a year). With each turn to the “100 Schools of Thought” of Classical China, during its very un-classical and downright barbarous Warring States Period, I’ve had the pleasure of re-visiting Master Kong’s Analects and, with each re-visit — and re-read, and reading of new translations (my god, the Ames and Rosemont philosophical translation is rich), and re-annotation — and I’ve had the pleasure of esteeming and enjoying him more and more. (Prof. Robert Eno of Indiana University has an excellent, free “teaching translation” here.)

So, Mr. Downes: a mega mea culpa. You were so very right — and your philosophical background, which you recently pointed to in a Stephen’s Web post defending the value of a philosophy major, showed that value in your challenge to that “Must-Reads” post. Do I still love Zhuangzi and Laozi and the Daoists? Absolutely. But Confucius has grown on me with each new read until now, he — and Mencius and Xunzi — are even more “must-read before dying.” The bloody Chinese hit the jackpot in terms of ancient wisdom. Crazy cool.

So anyway, yeah: not much calling to write about technology in education any more (obviously, as the silence shows). But to use it to write alongside, with, to, and for students? And anybody else interested in what the world’s oldest living civilization may have to offer the young upstarts like our own? Oh, yes.

Anyway, that’s how this blog started, years ago. It was for my students. I began because I was making my freshmen in Korea blog about history and literature, and pulled the old “practice what you preach” thing by blogging alongside them.

Now, though, it’s China and the West in the ultimate civilizational stand-off. Drop by and join the conversation if you’re interested (and here’s the class blog, chocablock with readings to catch you up if you want an education in Chinese history that has nothing to do with textbooks and everything to do with provocative reads and questions).

Consider that an invitation. Here’s the card:

Writing China screenshot

Colorful Student Writing Award

Mao swimming the Yangtze

Mao swimming the Yangtze at 72, in 1966

I asked for voice in the “Was Mao Really a Monster?” editorial assignment, and boy did I get it in this student’s opening:

The cool waves splashed against his chest, his glimmering green teeth glistened in the beautiful sun, his body moved majestically in the cool waters. This is not the image of a great brute, but of an excellent ruler. After seeing Mao’s adorable face, there is no way you can classify him as a monster.

I’m not making fun of the writer, by the way–the kid’s bright, and the sentences above, though obviously written in what David Sedaris might call a “kicky” (and academically heretical) mood, are pretty elegant for teen prose. (A webcam reflection he did this week made me recommend, in all sincerity, that he consider aiming to become the next-generation Pee Wee Herman.) And since he couldn’t resist going for the laugh–and succeeding in giving it to me, out loud, just now–I pass it on for your enjoyment.

(More on Mao’s historic swim below:)

And speaking of Pee Wee, here’s a blast from his amazing 1980s wonderland. It’s one of few children’s shows I watched religiously as an adult: