Lou LaBrant and Teacher Education’s Enduring Legacy

A colleague of Louise Rosenblatt at New York University, Lou LaBrant faced mandatory retirement when she turned 65 in 1953. Reflecting on her work at NYU as a teacher educator from 1942-1953, LaBrant wrote in 1988 “Public School 65, Down on the Lower East Side” as she turned 100.

LaBrant noted “that [New York City] requirements seemed to me inadequate for those who already spoke the language clearly but needed a richer background” (p. 6). Candidates for teaching English, LaBrant argued, needed greater linguistic understanding and experiences grounded in the complex Germanic and Latinate roots of English.

But other regulations also impeding LaBrant’s goals, including restrictions on the number of student teachers placed in each school. Circumventing that restriction, however, LaBrant placed 6 teacher candidates at “P.S. 65, a junior high school on the Lower East Side, known as one of the worst slum areas in the city” (p. 7). LaBrant then explained her choice (p. 7):

two years below

Next, LaBrant built her program and the experience for the student teachers on the characteristics of the students being taught—a progressive and student-centered approach to scientific education. The students at P.S. 65, they found, had very limited experiences with the wider city, lived in cramped and poorly lit housing, had no books or reading materials in the home, had life experience unlike the national research on student reading interests, and attended a school in which “[t]eachers did not welcome an assignment to the area and within ten minutes after the final gong were on their way to the subway to avoid the five o’clock rush” (p. 8).

In that context, LaBrant’s program included taking students on bus trips to explore the city, having librarians provide students time and opportunities to examine and choose books that matched their interests, committing to not requiring book reports, and creating an overarching goal that “[s]chool was to become a pleasant place” for students and their teachers.

Key, as well, was LaBrant’s rejecting deficit views of race, literacy, and poverty that pervaded popular practices: “This simple program did not depend on the theories about word count, word recognition, left-handedness, or any of the educational fads then popular” (p. 9). This “simple” approach to teaching reading was a hallmark of LaBrant’s work, including her rejecting reading programs as “costume parties” (LaBrant, 1949).

And while LaBrant admitted she did not know the long-term results of her work, she did note that this year, this “simple” experiment with teaching a vulnerable population of students (impoverished, racial minorities and English language learners) resulted in reading levels that “[rose] from two years below to two years above” in the city testing.

Today, we can see LaBrant’s legacy endures: public education policy that impedes teacher education, reading programs and “fads” that overcomplicate and distort literacy education, and the lingering challenge of teaching vulnerable populations of students who have strengths and unique needs that cannot be addressed through deficit ideologies or “silver bullet” approaches to schooling.

In 1940, LaBrant implored: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Again, teacher education and teaching children to read are, in fact, “simple”—if we allow them to be.


LaBrant, L. (1988). Public School 65, down on the lower east side. Teaching Education, 2(1), 6-9.

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.

North Carolina: The Anatomy of How Sham “Research” Becomes Bad Education Policy

First, count on the media: An Orwellian (read: misleading) headline, North Carolina Senate approves funding equality bill.

Add an equally Orwellian lede: “North Carolina senators passed a bill Monday night that would push public schools toward more equitable funding.”

And then stir in the kicker, sham “research” from a bogus university “department”: “North Carolina charter schools receive 83 cents for every dollar traditional public schools receive, according to a study by researchers at the University of Arkansas. Bill proponents say this is unfair.”

The study? Bruce Baker concludes in a review:

The University of Arkansas Center for Education Reform’s report on charter school funding inequities proclaims large and growing inequities between school district and charter school revenues, even after accounting for differences in student needs. But the report displays complete lack of understanding of intergovernmental fiscal relationships, which results in the blatantly erroneous assignment of “revenues” between charters and district schools. A district’s expenditure can be a charter’s revenue, since charter funding is in most states and districts received by pass-through from district funding, and districts often retain responsibility for direct provision of services to charter school students—a reality that the report entirely ignores when applying its resource-comparison framework. In addition, the report suffers from alarmingly vague documentation regarding data sources and methodologies, and it constructs entirely inappropriate comparisons of student population characteristics. Simply put, the findings and conclusions of the study are not valid or useful.

This toxic formula of naive and/or biased media plus the erosion of scholarship into mere think-tank advocacy resulting in Orwellian public policy isn’t unique to NC, but nonetheless, shame on political leadership in NC for allowing yet more bad policy to dismantle public education.

The Energy Cost and the Power of Empathy

empathynoun em·pa·thy \ˈem-pə-thē\

the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions

the ability to share someone else’s feelings

Some analogies seem credible, but fall apart when considered carefully: the mind as a blank slate or even as computer hard drive, for example.

But analogies work when they bridge one person’s understanding with another’s—such as how the iPhone battery life reveals the energy cost of anxiety or being an introvert [1].

Despite the popularity of the iPhone, battery life has plagued the device, prompting each time a new version is released dozens of posts on how to increase battery life.

Often, battery life is being drained unnecessarily by Apps running in the background, thus not apparent by simply looking at the screen.

And herein lies the analogy: anxiety (living in a constant state of impending doom, having a constant internal, and negative, conversation with yourself) and introversion are states in which even though the person may appear to be functioning well—or even extremely well—the stress of anxiety and introversion are draining that person’s psychic and even physical energy.

The consequences are often heavy: exhaustion but being unable to sleep soundly or at all, aches and pains in joints where the tension rests, and assorted seemingly unrelated health issues. As well, the response to environments hostile to the anxious or introverts is to flee—a flight that in fact is a running to a place where they can try to stabilize, to recharge.

The energy cost of anxiety and introversion also significantly reduce a person’s ability to concentrate, to focus.

For teachers, then, Michael Godsey’s When Schools Overlook Introverts is an important addition to carefully considering the many ways in which student engagement and achievement may be signs of anything except student effort or learning.

Just as living in poverty drains a person’s ability to think in ways similar to being sleep deprived, anxiety, stress, and introversion often impose energy costs on students that significantly impact their learning.

Godsey highlights that school functions overwhelmingly in ways detrimental to introverts:

The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts. In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.

Beyond the emphasis on collaboration, schools are generally noisy, and few opportunities or spaces exist for students to be alone. For introverts, a school day may often be something to endure, forcing those students to spend a great deal of time outside of school simply recharging instead of attending to homework or studying.

Introversion, like anxiety, can have cumulative and very negative consequences—especially when those predisposed to either do not have the support of family, friends, teachers, or co-workers who can empathize with experiences unlike their own.

As I have noted about anxiety [2], having to explain constantly ones introversion is yet another energy cost.

For teachers, especially, we must be aware and then willing to empathize with students whose measurable outcomes in the classroom may be windows into something quite different from their effort or learning.

For the anxious, the stressed, and introverts, the empathy of others not only avoids one energy cost but also allows the space some need to recharge.

See Also

How to Teach Introverts, Nancy Flanagan

[1] Alone in my office, my back to the door, the office mostly quiet, I write—I, an introvert, drained and fighting the internal-dialogue demon of anxiety. As many writers are, as many writers do, we write in quest of empathy.

There is the soft sound of rain on the leaves outside my office window. Rain asks nothing of anyone. For an anxious introvert, few gifts could be greater.

[2] More on analogies. Know the scene in Alien when the alien bursts through Kane’s chest? The moment right before that is the constant state of impending doom of anxiety. Anxiety is a physical manifestation of a psychological response to the world.

Guided Activity: More Reading Like a Writer

After walking through a reading like a writer (scholar) class session using an essay by Barbara Kingsolver, I want here to offer briefly a guided activity for students to complete in groups in order to practice reading like a writer as one step in their own growth as writers.

Here I ask students to read “Water Is Life” by Barbara Kingsolver, and then, to discuss and answer the following questions:

  • What appears to be Kingsolver’s target/primary audience? What is the evidence from the essay to support that?
  • How does Kingsolver create an effective opening? What techniques (literary, rhetorical), strategies does she employ? Give specific examples.
  • What are Kingsolver’s major claims? How does she elaborate on those claims? What evidence does she use to support her claims? Give specific examples.
  • Identify one or two of the best sentences in this essay. What makes them effective?
  • Does Kingsolver break the “rules” of grammar or that you were taught in school? Examples? What is her purpose in these situations?
  • What is the guiding tone of this essay? How does Kingsolver create that tone? Give specific examples. Does she ever break that tone? Example(s)?
  • What does Kingsolver want her audience to know or do? Give specific examples.
  • How does Kingsolver frame this essay in her closing paragraph(s)? Give specific examples.

These questions are common in the writing conferences I hold with students about their own original essays so this activity helps further reinforce the need for writers to be aware of and purposeful about these elements of essay writing.

Why You Cannot Trust Common Core Advocacy

I used to show my high school students a passage from Aristotle that was essentially a “kids today” rant, noting he wrote in the 300s BC. So I generally have little patience with anyone damning contemporary youth as if this generation is somehow quantifiably worse than the ones before. That is so much drivel.

Why Americans can’t write falls squarely in that sub-genre, but, alas!, that is just a mask for its real purpose: propagandizing for the Common Core.

Before we look at the nonsense in this really bad piece of writing that claims kids today can’t write, we must note that the writer, Natalie Wexler, chairs the board of trustees for the Writing Revolution, self-described as “a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to teaching students from underserved school districts to think clearly and reflect that thinking in their writing.”

And here is the key bit of information: Who sits on the advisory board? David Coleman, grand architect of the ELA Common Core. Hmmmm.

So Wexler claims writing is in dire circumstances based on data from NAEP. The problem here is that in my own analysis of the writing section of NAEP (see pages 31-32), I have shown that the test is so badly constructed that we can draw no valid claims about writing at all.

If Wexler were credible on writing quality by American students, she would be aware that we have significant research on how students are being taught writing and what the consequences of those practices are: Applebee and Langer’s Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

Wexler would also know that, yes, students are not writing as much as they need to write, and in many ways, students arriving at college do not have the background in writing they should or that they need to write well in college.

But the real interesting part of that research is the cause of both our failure to teach writing well and students underperforming as writers in college: the standards and testing movement has effectively dismantled the composition movement that began in the 1970s and 1980s, notably because of the National Writing Project.

In short, Applebee and Langer found that teachers across several disciplines know more than ever about best practices in teaching writing, but because of high-stakes accountability, students are unlikely to receive that instruction or the practice they need to be competent young writers.

Therefore, it is easy and valid to extrapolate that there is no doubt that simply changing the standards will not change the corrosive impact the accountability movement has had on writing. Neither Common Core as standards nor the related high-stakes test will save writing, but they are both poised to continue ruining writing instruction.

We are left only with this: Wexler’s piece is yet more heinous Common Core propaganda, cloaked in the weakest of sheep’s clothing—a really bad piece of writing claiming students today cannot write.

For Further Reading

Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

More on Failing Writing, and Students

TCR: REVIEW: Writing Instruction That Works

Reading Like a Writer (Scholar): Kingsolver’s “Making Peace”

Just a few weeks into the fall semester of college, a first year student of mine revealed her exasperation about the inordinate amount of time and energy she had spent in high school “learning MLA” because her teachers claimed “everyone in college uses MLA.”

This moment in class captures perfectly the great divide that exists between the mostly rote and significantly flawed approaches to teaching writing in K-12 settings governed by high-stakes accountability and the disciplinary writing that students must demonstrate in college and then (possibly) as writers or scholars themselves.

In my writing intensive first year seminars, we seek to unpack what students have been taught about writing before college, and then begin a journey in which we read authentic texts (both popular and disciplinary essays) like writers and scholars. I have adopted over my 30+ years as a writer and writing teacher a philosophy that begins with the broad (literary essays by writers) and then couches the narrow (disciplinary essays by scholars) within that.

Below, I walk through Barbara Kingsolver’s “Making Peace,” from High Tide in Tucson, as an example of how reading like a writer (scholar)—asking what a writer is doing, how (style, literary/rhetorical technique, grammar, and mechanics) the writer is accomplishing it, and why it works or doesn’t—repeated often and throughout a semester, and even an entire college career, can instill genre awareness so that students can cast off their roles as students to become writers and scholars.

From Literary Essays to Disciplinary Writing

“When I left downtown Tucson to make my home in the desert,” Kingsolver confesses in her opening sentence, “I went, like Thoreau, ‘to live deliberately'” (p. 23).

When my students and I explore this essay by Kingsolver, we have already done an activity on openings—in which we look at just the first paragraphs of several of her essays in order to begin to challenge the introduction/thesis paradigm and move toward a wide range of strategies for engaging and focusing the reader.

Again the purpose here is to pull back to the broad conventions of essays (literary essays for a mostly lay audience) in order to nest disciplinary writing in those conventions (acknowledging that many disciplines do conform to a functional [but not aesthetic] template: introduction with overt thesis, body, and conclusion).

In that first sentence—and then throughout the essay with references to Preston Adams, Joseph Campbell, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Kafka—Kingsolver reveals both her awareness of and her speaking to a targeted audience, well educated and literate readers [1]. As well, the entire opening paragraph is highly detailed (images) and humorous, and thus, engaging and interesting.

For literary essays, then, we note that instead of offering an overt thesis, reader engagement is primary. In fact, while Kingsolver has a very clear focus (thesis), it isn’t revealed until several pages in: “Ownership is an entirely human construct” (p. 26).

Kingsolver’s confrontation of ownership becomes much more direct and even scholarly toward the end when she notes: “Life is easier since I abdicated the throne. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things”—which is reinforced by quoting Engels (p. 33).

Throughout, our reading this essay like writers (scholars), we begin to note the conventional differences between a literary essay and disciplinary writing, highlighting Kingsolver’s own direct and subtle nods to the disciplines (literature, economics, anthropology, religion, botany, and biology). And so we begin to frame this essay against disciplinary conventions:

  • While Kingsolver highlights narrative and literary constructions, disciplinary writing tends toward exposition.
  • Kingsolver’s citations are sparse—names, quotes—but disciplinary writing has a much more stringent threshold for identifying references and quotations.
  • Organization and structure are more aesthetic, including Kingsolver’s use of graphic breaks to show transitions (the publisher uses a wave image), but disciplinary writing tends toward subheads and more overt structural devices as well as more direct statements of claims.
  • In both Kingsolver’s essay and disciplinary writing, however, diction, style, grammar, and mechanics must match the purpose of the essay as well as the targeted audience; in other words, these matters are about appropriateness and purpose, not correctness. There are no universally right words, there are no rules of grammar.

Just as I focus on openings, I also highlight endings. Kingsolver’s “Making Peace” builds to a two-sentence final paragraph: “So what, they all declare with glittering eyes. This is their party, and I wasn’t exactly invited” (p. 34).

Here, I emphasize that just as Kingsolver eschews the mechanical introduction/thesis, she also avoids the conclusion as restatement of the introduction. Instead, literary essays often frame the body paragraphs; in this essay, Kingsolver returns to the party/not invited motif from the end of the first paragraph.

Framing is an aesthetic approach that many disciplines ignore, especially if the disciplinary writing is primarily functional, such as transmitting new or synthesized information.

For students as emerging writers and scholars, the lessons of reading like a writer (scholar) are about appropriateness in the context of conventions and purposefulness within the writer’s/scholar’s awareness of her/his audience.

From Reading like a Writer (Scholar) to Drafting to Conferencing

My goals and process for first year seminar students in a writing intensive course include exploring What is an essay? and then What is a disciplinary essay? In those explorations, I am seeking ways in which students can become autonomous, ways in which students can rise above being students in order to embrace their autonomy as writers and/or scholars.

Reading like a writer (scholar) is foundational to that so that students begin to ask what writers are doing, how writers are achieving their purposes, and in what genres and conventions writers (scholars) are working.

The walk-through above is within a process that asks students to craft and submit a personal narrative followed by an on-line essay (using hyperlinks for citation) and then a disciplinary essay using a discipline-specific citation style sheet. Students also submit a fourth essay, but that is determined by their needs after completing the first three.

Vital to that process and anchored by reading like a writer are professor/student conferences after the initial submission of each essay.

Reading like a writer practices help inform what students need to consider, but also provide concrete references during the conferences.

For example, I begin conferences by asking who the primary/intended audience is as well as what the purpose of the essay is: to inform that audience or to call that audience to some action or behavior.

From there, we begin to investigate the essay draft against what we have discussed with authentic essays and reading like a writer (scholar): we consider the effectiveness of the opening, the scope and amount of claims, the authority of the student in the context of those claims and the topic(s), the use (or lack) of evidence, and the framing of the essay.

These investigations of the first draft become revision strategies for the student, with a premium placed on the agency of the student as a writer (scholar).

Just as reading like a writer replaces the narrow high school focus on literary analysis (the literary technique hunt and parroting back to the teacher what she/he said about the text), we replace the mechanical essay template of high school with a developing genre awareness of students as becoming-writers (scholars) who write with an awareness of audience and conventions (both popular and disciplinary) that demonstrates purposefulness, and not mere rote compliance.

My exasperated student shaking her head about the misguided focus on MLA prompted many other students to express the same sort of frustration. But more troubling is that very bright students with outstanding potential are often nearly frozen with uncertainty when faced with authentic expectations of essay writing.

The essay, however, is a vibrant and beautiful thing, rendered like students into a lifeless state by formal schooling.

Reading like a writer (scholar) helps breath life back into reading as well as writing, opening the door for students to become the writers (scholars) they can be.

[1] In Kingsolver’s “Creation Stories,” for example, she begins with “June is the cruelest month in Tucson,” as allusion aimed at a literate audience indeed.

Dismantling an Unstable Discipline: Education without Foundation

“Whether we are willing to admit the role or not,” Lou LaBrant wrote in 1943, “schools cannot escape responsibility for some share in determining whether the peace which comes will last” (p. 225).

As the U.S. approached the mid-twentieth century—after decades of vibrant debate about the purposes of schools, the promise of universal public education—LaBrant and many progressive educators remained optimistic, if not idealistic, about the power of formal education to create broad social change.

LaBrant mused about the teacher as scholar, demanding from herself and other educators very high expectations for content knowledge and pedagogy among teachers. And she also “advocate[d]…that we attempt to develop the kind of students who can themselves make a world of peace even though we do not give them the pattern” (p. 228).

Over seven decades ago, LaBrant called for embracing authentic critical thinking over basic transmission of knowledge:

What I started to say was that we must not depend upon presenting a body of facts, useful as facts are, but that we must in our classrooms constantly remember that it is thinking about facts which is the important thing, and that this is as true in science and English and mathematics as it is in history or economics or the arts….(p. 229)

But she added:

Thinking is not sufficient. We must also have people who are accustomed to work with others (not against them), and who know that regardless of color, religion, clothing, occupation, or skills, people can work together….Teachers who are themselves striving to find answers will lead children toward those answers. (p. 229)

My career as an educator has spanned from the early 1980s until today, but my classroom practice and educational scholarship have much deeper roots, ones richly grounded in the history of U.S. education that was made real to me by the life and career of LaBrant.

Having taught from 1906 until 1971, LaBrant wrote her memoir as she approached 100 years of age, brushing aside the back-to-basics movement under Ronald Reagan as something she had witnessed herself twice before throughout her career as an English teacher and university scholar.

LaBrant’s last decade was spent in the first decade of the current accountability era, but even as her eyesight faded, LaBrant saw through the facile political and bureaucratic rhetoric and policies that now define the field of education, a discipline that was never very robust but which is now nearly completely dismantled.

Education, A Discipline Denied

During a video-taped interview of LaBrant for Missing Chapters, LaBrant claimed that despite having been born in the 1880s she had never experienced any sexism.

Of course, she was an exceptional woman in many ways, and had achieved many accomplishments that during the early twentieth century were stereotypically male endeavors. But primarily, LaBrant was always a teacher, and being a teacher has been historically and continues to be a profession and discipline of women.

Currently, as John Warner writes, education remains plagued by sexism—as demonstrated in the low pay and dependency on adjuncts to teach composition, about which Warner highlights while attending a composition conference: “The attendees were also overwhelmingly female.”

There was no Golden Age of education as a profession or discipline, by the way; once again, something the study of the history of education reveals. But since the progressive era of the early to mid-1900s, when LaBrant published frequently, the steady bureaucratization of education has eroded any chance that education as a discipline could rise above teacher training and sit among the core disciplines in the academy.

Published years after Joe Kincheloe’s death by co-editor with Randy Hewitt, Regenerating the Philosophy of Education examines the disappearance of educational philosophy in education degrees and certification programs.

Standards, standards everywhere—it seems—but not a spot to think.

And now, Stephen Sawchuck in Education Week reports:

Once an ubiquitous course requirement that nearly all aspiring teachers took, the history of education seems to be going the way of land-line phones, floppy disks, and shorthand.

Crowded out by an ever-expanding teacher-preparation curriculum in the latter half of the 20th century, such courses are now almost exclusively electives reserved for graduate education students, according to scholars who have documented the decline.

To put it simply: Is the history of education, well, history? And more to the point, does that matter?

Increasingly, then, education practitioners and scholars are watching our profession and our field being bled of all the essential elements of either a profession or a field.

Education without philosophy is education without a mind.

Education without history is education without a past.

While there is much hand wringing (and little action) about the so-called corporatization of public education, there is little being done to save education as a discipline. And soon it will be too late.

Absent philosophy and history, education will in fact be mere technocracy and will be easily managed by temp workers (TFA, adjuncts) and technology (on-line education).

Absent philosophy and history, no one will be asking if that should happen, no one will be demanding the big demands that LaBrant and other progressives yearned for in the quickly dimming 1930s and 1940s.

Yes, I am here to fight to create the sort of universal public schools we have so far failed to produce, but I also am here to fight for education as the discipline it has never become.

“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” LaBrant wrote in 1961, but could write the same today, continuing:

By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire. Many are talking as though teachers with sufficient training would become good teachers. There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. (p. 390)

Finally, LaBrant built to—and speaks to us now:

“They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (p. 291)

On Family and the Inevitable Inadequacy of the Human Heart

For casual readers of Kurt Vonnegut, his broad use of dark satire likely cloaks the enduring streak of idealism running through his fiction, public talks, and essays—notably his unwavering faith in “artificial extended families,” which is central to what his genre-bending Prologue to Slapstick or Lonesome No More! notes is “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.”

In that opening, Vonnegut implores in typical inverted Vonnegut logic:

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.” (p. 3)

Like “common decency,” kindness weaves its way through Vonnegut, as the eponymous main character of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater demands:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

The family, decency, and kindness—these are the ideals that have always drawn me to Vonnegut’s work, Vonnegut’s message. But ideals often reveal themselves quite differently in the lived world.


During my doctoral work, I became a biographer, writing an educational biography of English educator Lou LaBrant. And over the past twenty years or so, I have read a high number of biographies, often of writers I admire.

Biography is a damning thing, however, because people bigger than life laid bare are mostly exposed as just like us—and when bigger than life is juxtaposed with just like us, those people seem very, very small.

It is parallel to that moment as a child when you recognize your parents are flawed humans, just real people.

Biographies of e.e. cummings have left me hollow and numb, especially in terms of his relationships with wives and his daughter. Like Vonnegut, cummings is filled with idealism about children, love, and carpe diem, but his ability to fulfill that idealism was mostly absent.

Reading the first major biography of Vonnegut, then, also peeled back the curtain from the man who created out of tragedy (the death of his sister, Alice, and her husband) an “artificial extended family” and who wrote in “Biafra: A People Betrayed”:

General Ojukwu gave us a clue, I think, as to why the Biafrans were able to endure so much so long without bitterness. They all had the emotional and spiritual strength that an enormous family can give. We asked the general to tell us about his family, and he answered that is was three thousand members strong. He knew every member of it by face, by name, and by reputation.

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities—and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own—perfectly naturally. (p. 150)

There is a beauty and impossible idealism in this description that I do believe Vonnegut aspired to personally and then for all of humanity. He continued, wistfully:

The families were rooted in the land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Lovely. (p. 150)

Yet, just like us, Vonnegut’s bigger than life personae was not sustainable on this mortal coil.

So it goes.


While teaching Advanced Placement Literature, I often helped high school students anticipate the complex world of literature. While patterns and truism certainly can be disrupted by individual works of literature, a few are very helpful for young readers faced with a timed high-stakes test demanding both rapid and complex responses to dense literature.

And so, I often stressed that literature is ripe with examinations of the family as a source of great tension—King Lear, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, As I Lay Dying, and I could list for quite some time.

For me, I think, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof resonates powerfully as just such a work that demands we consider how difficult, if not impossible our roles as parents, sons/daughters, siblings, spouses, and lovers are—Tennessee Williams pens a song that echoes with the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.

Ah, the universal truths of great literature: the family is the source of our greatest passions and our greatest calamities.


While Vonnegut has profoundly shaped the young adult and aging adult me, as I have noted often, George Carlin—along with Richard Pryor—is my guiding initial voice for my world view, my own emerging and developing voice, and my relentless demand that we understand and shape the world with words.

Elizabeth Blair’s The Dark Side Of Funny: Growing Up In George Carlin’s Shadow, in fact, explains:

Stoned or not, George Carlin was also a perfectionist. According to Jerry Hamza, George’s manager and best friend for more than 30 years, the comic worked at his craft incessantly. He says, “I would tell people, ‘Well, where’s George? He’s up in the trees,’ because what he wanted to do was write. He wanted to go away, be by himself and write.” When George wasn’t writing, he and Hamza were on the road driving to gigs, TV tapings and meetings with entertainment industry types. “I spent more time with him than his wife or his daughter,” Hamza says.

And it is there, in this piece on Carlin’s daughter’s memoir of her father that, like Vonnegut, Carlin’s lived life just like us crashes against the bigger than life comedian Carlin, whose routines about child rearing were performed in front of his daughter:

In fact, in a 1999 HBO special George ranted about overprotective parenting:

“You know what it is? These baby boomers, these soft, fruity baby boomers, are raising an entire generation of soft, fruity kids who aren’t even allowed to have hazardous toys for Christ’s sakes. Hazardous toys, s***. Whatever happened to natural selection, survival of the fittest? The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn’t get to grow up and have kids of his own.”

The audience howled and Kelly says she laughed, too, though she wasn’t all that surprised. “I sat in the audience listening to this going, ‘Well, of course this disgusts him, because, you know, he was the ultimate laissez faire parent.'”

I find myself both compelled and repelled by Kelly Carlin’s A Carlin Home Companion. I also both know and do not know what is between the covers of that book.

What is there is on the family and the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.


I am one not prone to giving advice, and even when I do, it is laced with so many caveats that the actual advice gets lost in the trimming.

Advice almost always seems trivial, trite, and the person giving advice is faced with the monumental task of not being either a hypocrite or a pompous ass.

So let me offer what I know, and take it as advice if you want.

There will be moments in life if you live long enough that you will regret above almost everything else having not appreciated the kindness and love bestowed upon you by others.

You will regret taking for granted those people, and their gifts of love and kindness.

Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet.

Knowing this, of course, has little chance to keep us from making that mistake—even repeatedly.

But I wonder if we have the capacity to recognize when we have given in to the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart, I wonder if we have the capacity then to do something not to erase the failure but to make things right now.

And I wonder about my dear muses Vonnegut and Carlin, nonbelievers both, possibly somewhere in the Great Beyond still committed to the better humans we could be but now relieved of this corporeal Self that is a glorious jumble of soaring human passion and stumbling human frailty.

In the last paragraphs of his Prologue to Slapstick, Vonnegut recalls his idea for the novel and how Alice is central:

Who is Melody? I thought for a while that she was all that remained of my memory of my sister. I now believe that she is what I feel to be, when I experiment with old age, all that is left of my optimistic imagination, of my creativeness.

Hi ho.

Hi ho, indeed.

And so, I am sorry, and you know who you are. Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet. I am begging you to take that seriously because that is one family I do not wish upon anyone.

On Touch, Loneliness, and James Baldwin’s Radical Love

In the second chapter of All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, an unorthodox and engaging biography, Douglas Field confronts the “Disneyfication of the FBI,” highlighted by his own search of the bureau’s website that includes 1884 archived pages on Baldwin.

All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, Douglas Field

Field seeks to re-examine, complicate, and enrich many of the mainstream responses to Baldwin’s writing and “lives,” as the title notes. The disproportionately large and now easily accessible FBI files serve as a provocative reason to read this biography that never attempts to be comprehensive. However, I was drawn ultimately to the “Love Is in the Air” section of Chapter 3: James Baldwin’s Religion: Sex, Love, and the Blues, in which Field weaves together passages from Baldwin’s fiction and essays to stress the radical politics of the unappreciated author’s commitment to the power of love.

Politics features prominently in Field’s mostly thematic approach to Baldwin—the politics of sexual identification, the politics of race, and the politics of being an artist/public intellectual. And all of that, of course, is illuminated against the backdrop of the partisan politics of the U.S. and world during Baldwin’s life throughout the mid- and late twentieth century.

Baldwin suffered then and since his death charges he was too focused on race, he wasn’t focused enough on race, he was too focused on sexuality, he wasn’t focused enough on sexuality, he was too political, and he wasn’t political enough.

Running throughout Baldwin’s life were his own demand that he was a witness, an artist as witness (as Field’s quotes Baldwin from 1969, “‘I am not a public speaker. I am an artist'” [p. 67]), and as Field weaves together, a profound message about loneliness and the radical power of love—all of which, I think, has been as under-appreciated and insufficiently examined as Baldwin himself as a major writer and thinker.

“The Touch of Another”

Field challenges those who label Baldwin not political enough by first noting love for Baldwin is not “sentimentality,” and second, “his definition of love is explicitly active and political” (pp. 95, 96).

Baldwin’s insistence on the power of love is part of his “radical rewriting of Christian,” Field explains; then drawing on Leo Proudhammer in Baldwin’s novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone:

[S]ome moments teach one the price of the human condition: if one can live with one’s pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.

Field adds: “Baldwin explicitly replaces salvation through prayer with what Leo refers to repeatedly as ‘the touch of another: no matter how transient, at no matter what price'”:

Baldwin’s emphasis on “touch” is both physical and spiritual, suggesting being moved (to be touched) but also the physical act of reaching out to another. By emphasizing the physicality of touch, Baldwin continues his critique of the way in which American Puritanism prohibits and inhibits both bodily and spiritual contact, which he explicitly refers to as the damage caused by “a fear of anybody touching anything.” In order to redress this, Baldwin insists that we must overcome our “terror of the flesh,” what he also calls “a terror of human life, of human touch.” (p. 96)

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, James Baldwin

Later in this section on love, Field adds Baldwin’s view on the “sensual,” drawing on The Fire Next Time:

The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. (qtd. in Field, p. 98)

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

In the next section of Chapter 3, In the Beginning Was the Word, Field hits what I think is the key to Baldwin’s lifelong emphasis of touch and love: “Baldwin’s first novel is also a remarkable exploration of loneliness” (p. 101).

Baldwin’s art and lives, then, are fueled by and efforts against the very human condition of loneliness made manifest by human institutions such as the church and human organizations such as religion. Baldwin sought the power of love to reinstate humanity, but was in no way trying to erase the day-to-day and often harsh realities of race or sexuality.

On Touch and Loneliness: Baldwin’s Echo

However we are compelled to frame it—coincidence, karma—immediately upon reading the section above in Field’s biography, I noticed three pieces that seem to suggest that Baldwin was not only speaking to an enduring human reality but also quite possibly shouting down a well.

“American men,” writes Mark Greene, “in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation.”

Greene offers a historical perspective on the culturally shifting attitudes toward platonic touching between men that has been rendered taboo due to the rise of homophobia in the twentieth century. Greene also notes how touch is common between adults and babies, but for boys, that intimacy is gradually replaced “with the introduction of [a] ‘get tough’ narrative.”

Addressing the taboo of touch in schools, Jessica Lahey asks, Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?:

The sensory experience of touch can’t be divorced from the emotional experience, [David J. Linden] explained, because the way humans perceive touch depends on its social context. An arm thrown over your shoulders by a domineering boss is perceived very differently than an arm thrown around your shoulders by a trusted friend, for example. “The sensation is perceived differently because the emotional touch centers in the brain are receiving signals about social nuances, even if the touching is identical,” and these nuances, Linden explained, are one of the reasons it’s so hard for schools to create rules governing touch.

And then, my colleague, Melinda Menzer, English professor and avid swimmer, blogged about searching the “swim” category in the menu of Sports Illustrated:

When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.

Further, she muses about her experiences with people talking about being hesitant to swim:

The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.

It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”…

I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look.

From touch taboos to paralyzing body image phobias—is this not the tyranny of the Puritanical Baldwin deplored?

Are there not messages here about the power of radical love (self-love, love of others)—”we can release each other from pain”—that Baldwin demanded?

There is a sadness to these questions, ones that remain with Baldwin’s words echoing in the background—words that seem not to touch us.

Field also turns to Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” where Baldwin too seems resigned: “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often” (p. 98).

In “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin acknowledges, “This rage for order can result in chaos, and in this country chaos connects with color” (p. 827). And then:

Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most powerful terrors and desires.

Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be….

We are part of each other. (p. 828)

“[O]ur most powerful terrors and desires,” then, found in all we do not touch, cannot touch, and thus, loneliness.