Etymology of Day: malleable. Late 14th c., "capable of being shaped by hammering," from L. malleare "to beat with a hammer," from L. malleus "hammer" which lends itself to the English "mallet."
Cultural Literacy Item of the Day: "a pound of flesh" from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, insists on the payment of his debt and wants what was promised in return - a pound of his Christian rival Antonio's flesh. There's a whole lot more to this scene, and I take a second to explain that under the Christian rules of usury it was illegal for Christians to charge interest, which cut into Shylock's business, and there's the whole issue of Jessica, his daughter, who elopes with Antonio's friend... anyway, the exact quote is:
Shylock: A pound of man's flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. I say,
To buy his favour, I extend this friendship:
If he will take it, so; if not, adieu;
And, for my love, I pray you wrong me not.
The phrase comes up in literature from time to time, so they need to know what it means when they read it. That's my goal with the daily cultural literacy. The past couple of weeks have been concerned with the Bronte sisters, Ezra Pound's "Make it new," Henry James, "My kingdom for a horse," and Brave New World, both as it applies to Aldous Huxley and Miranda in The Tempest. I can't get to everything in my middle school English classes, but I can give them the ammunition to understand a reference when it comes up in literature or at a cocktail party when they are thirty and have to make conversation with the boorish guy from the accounting department. What's most important to me is that they understand the context for these phrases and ideas; not just that they are able to spit out the name Ezra Pound when they hear the someone utter the two lines of "In the Station of the Metro." I want them to know what it means to make something new, what Ezra Pound was trying to do with those apparitions, petals, and boughs. They need to know the lay of the cultural landscape; that's the only way they are ever going to have the wherewithal to make anything new themselves.
My lovely husband Tim is working late tonight, so I'm in charge of the kids and the mess we like to call home. I grabbed a season of The West Wing off of the DVD shelf and shoved any ol' disc into the kitchen computer so I could listen to some Aaron Sorkin genius while I washed the dishes and planned tomorrow's classes.
Lo and behold, I was presented with tomorrow's English class opener. Hang on - don't sharpen your pitchforks and light your torches; I'm not always this last-minute about my lesson plans. I have mentioned this particular scene from The West Wing to my students before, and hoped I'd have a moment to present it to them.
Season 4, Episode 3: "The Red Mass." The main point of this episode is to get at the constitutional issue surrounding the Red Mass. What's Red Mass, you ask? According to the President's valet Charley, "The Supreme Court convenes on the first Monday in October. On the Sunday before the first Monday, there's a mass held for the members of the court that's attended by the Cabinet, Congress and the President." The big question he's interested in is whether or not this tradition is constitutional, what with the whole separation of church and state issue.
While I am always in favor of a good constitutional debate, I wasn't interested in that scene. I was, however, thrilled to find the scene in which Josh asks Donna to go to a Teddy Tomba self-help guru-seminar because Ritchie, the rival presidential candidate has consulted with this whack-a-doodle.
Donna attends the seminar and is later debriefed by Josh in his office. I would love to present you with the video clip, compliments of YouTube, but clearly there are not enough West Wing/Robert Frost/Immanuel Kant/Plato fans out there. Go figure. My students, however, will get the clip. It's at 21:11 in the episode, if you care to watch it.
Donna is sitting at her desk reading a book, when Josh walks up to her. JOSH Hey. DONNA Huh? Hello. JOSH How was it? DONNA I'm sorry? JOSH How was it? DONNA [bewildered] It was...I don't know. It was... I don't... I don't think... maybe I'm not ready to talk about it yet. JOSH What was...? DONNA It was a transforming... no, that's the wrong word. We are not "transformed," we "locate the light switch." I own myself, Josh. You don't mind if I say that out loud at frequent intervals with no provocation for a little while, do you? JOSH Why? DONNA Because I live my life out loud. JOSH You're reading the book? DONNA The owner's manual. JOSH Are you serious? DONNA No, you idiot! I need a shower! JOSH All right. DONNA I've got, like, radioactive stuff all over me. JOSH Man, and you call me a snob. DONNA Oh, please. It was like a meeting for the There But For the Grace of God Society. JOSH Anybody ask you out? DONNA Shut up. JOSH So, report to me-- what did he say? DONNA Why is this important? They walk into JOSH'S OFFICE. JOSH What did he say? DONNA This is cheap. JOSH I'll say. DONNA I'm talking about this. So the guy's consulted for Ritchie. He's a buffoon, but he's harmless. Why should it be part of the campaign? JOSH Because it's not harmless in an American President. DONNA Nothing he said was wrong or objectionable. As suppose to the man who was sitting next to me whose name was Fern. JOSH Open this book to any page. Josh hands the book to Donna who opens the book and hands it back to Josh. JOSH Okay, well. This is an order form to buy "Owning Yourself," follow-up to the bestseller... DONNA "Leasing Yourself." JOSH "It's good to be trapped in a corner. That's when you act." DONNA That happens to be true. JOSH It is. In my case, it's the only time that I do. DONNA So? JOSH It's Immanuel Kant! "Duty! Sublime and mighty name, that embraces nothing charming or insinuating but requires submission." Every year a million freshman philosophy students read that sentence. DONNA And change their major? JOSH You've just got a mouth full of wiseass today, don't you? DONNA I located the lightswitch. JOSH Could you locate it again? DONNA So he cripped Kant. Isn't that what you're suppose to do? JOSH It comes from a 193-page book called "A Critique of Practical Reason." It's about metaphysics and epistemology. Tomba's impressively boiled it down to two-thirds of one page. Give me another one. DONNA "Look outside the cave." JOSH Right. That's from an old paperback called "The Republic" by Plato. Lucky Tomba's been able to fit on fortune cookie so it suits the attention span of the Republican nominee. Here he quotes Robert Frost. "Good fences make good neighbors." Did he talk about that? DONNA Yeah. JOSH What did he say? DONNA Basically, that if you stay within your personal space, you'll end up getting along with everyone. JOSH You had to study modern poetry. DONNA Yes. JOSH Is that what Frost meant? DONNA No, he meant that boundaries are what alienate us from each other. JOSH Why did he say "Good fences make good neighbors?" DONNA He was being ironic, but I still don't see... JOSH What does this remind you of? "I believe in hope, not fear." "I'm a leader, not a politician." "It's time for an American leader." "America's earned a change." "I before 'E' except after 'C'!" It's the fortune-cookie candidacy! These are important thinkers, and understanding them can be very useful and it's not ever going to happen at a four-hour seminar. When the President's got an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy water reactor, or any of the fifty life-and-death matters that walk across his desk every day, I don't know if he's thinking about Immanuel Kant or not. I doubt it, but if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty that he is doing his best to reach for all of it and not just the McNuggets. Is it possible we would be willing to require any less of the person sitting in that chair? The low road? I don't think it is.
And right there, ladies and gentlemen, is why I teach my students cultural literacy. Not just the McNuggets, but the whole Big Mac-supersized-extra-fries-on-the-side-meal. My hope is that my students will laugh when Donna says that "Mending Wall" is about staying within your personal space.
And they will. Because they know what that poem really means. Because I taught them that.