An Idea Whose Time Has Come


Using a passage from the great Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three, I will illustrate the difference between literary analysis as I learned it and as I teach it.

   “During the mother’s terrible supplications, other voices arose on the plateau and in the ravine:
   ‘A ladder!’
   ‘We have no ladder.’
   ‘We have no water.’
   ‘Up there in the tower, on the third floor, there’s a door!’
   ‘It’s made of iron.’
   ‘Break it open!’
   ‘That’s impossible.’
   And the mother redoubled her desperate appeals:
   ‘Fire! Help! Hurry! My children! If you won’t save them, kill me! The horrible fire! Take them out of it or throw me into it!’
   In the intervals between these clamors, the calm crackling of the flames could be heard.
   The marquis put his hand in his pocket and touched the key to the iron door. Then, stooping under the vault through which he had escaped, he went back into the passage from which he had just emerged.”

If this literary masterpiece somehow found its way into an American high school, the following, in my experience, is typical of how it would be analyzed. Please bear with me through this cold and merciless dissection:

Looking at the excerpt out of context, we would spend a great deal of time identifying and discussing the various literary devices Hugo employed. The dialogue, the teacher might tell us, conforms to the technique known as “stichomythia”—short, alternating lines featuring repetition or antithesis. We would then compare it to similar exchanges in the plays of Shakespeare. We would probably discuss Hugo’s use of “alliteration,” or repetition of sound: “between these clamors, the calm crackling of the flames could be heard.” Perhaps we would analyze the “mood” captured by his diction, the somber hopelessness conveyed with such descriptors as “terrible,” “impossible,” “desperate,” and “horrible.” We might talk about the onomatopoeic nature of the word “crackling”—the sort of word that imitates the sound to which it refers. And at the conclusion of the lesson, we would be left with nothing but the lifeless, fragmented remains of Hugo’s exquisite passage.

If the teacher made an effort not just to dissect, but to connect, we would examine the novel for “themes,” or abstract concepts that happen to recur within the story. We might talk about a theme of “conflagration, ” drawing out similarities and differences among various scenes involving fire—from the one featured in the passage above, to the burning ship at sea, to any metaphorical references Hugo might make to the “blaze” or “ignition” of battle.  We might discuss a theme of “doors” or “passages,” from the royalists’ impossible escape through the secret portal, to the marquis’s decision to re-enter the vault, to the idea of the door as a symbol for a departure point from one’s impassioned convictions. In essence, we would lump together the pieces of the carcass into mangled imitations of a whole.

Treating Hugo’s work in this manner, even to make a point, leaves me feeling traitorous and unclean. I will endeavor to purify myself with the following description of how I would teach this passage.

First, I would have helped my students to observe and to deeply admire the mother’s devotion to her children. This mother, who had suckled her baby and cared for her children in a war-torn-forest, desperate, starving, evading ambush and sleeping in a hollowed-out tree. This mother, who survived gunshots to the breast, and set out on a journey, barefoot and alone, to recover her kidnapped children. This mother, who is shown a rare and vitally needed act of kindness when a stranger offers her a piece of bread, and who then divides it in two for some urchin children who reminded her of her own. This mother, who arrives at the ravine overlooking the war-ravaged castle where her children are held captive, only to see it slowly enveloped by whirling, murderous flames. This mother, who curses God when she sees within the castle’s library three cradles holding her three sweetly sleeping children, and whose terrible desperation is captured in the only words possible for her to scream, “If you won’t save them, kill me! The horrible fire! Take them out of it or throw me into it!’

We would have understood and been moved by the marquis’s ruthless loyalty to his cause, and his willingness to devote everything to its realization. We would have watched him risk his life to stop a loose cannon that had been rolling over his ship’s deck, cutting down everything in its path, and leaving behind a pile of bloody corpses and a vessel at risk of shipwreck. We would have seen him besieged in a castle with a band of eighteen fanatic followers, and witness his steadfast determination to do battle with a vast enemy army rather than surrender. We would have seen this great general, zealous enough to sentence to death a man who had saved his life or to aim a bullet at the head of his own disloyal nephew, caught in a moment of conscience. We would have held our breaths as we waited to see whether he would flee to freedom knowing that he alone held the key to the iron door and that in doing so he would be betraying three innocent children to an inferno. And we would breathe again as he stooped to “return into the passage from which he had emerged.”

In this manner, we would arrive at a clear understanding of Hugo’s fundamental view of man’s potential and of the moral message in this masterful work. We would see that the mother, the marquis, the nephew, and others represent man’s capacity for heroic dedication to his values. And we would see that Hugo wove all the circumstances and dialogue and actions into one, basic, profound theme: “Above the revolutionary absolute there is the human absolute.” We would understand that for Hugo, revolution must come through liberation, and not through violence and oppression.

Subsequent to all my years of schooling, I discovered one teacher who taught literature by this method. He showed me to view a great work of literature as an integrated whole, to strive for an understanding of the characters’ basic natures, to carefully observe the arc of the plot, and to discover the underlying meaning that the author intends. He showed me that the goal of this effort was to feel the characters’ plight, to be riveted by their actions, and to be moved, or at least stirred to thought, by the author’s message. This method opened up to me the true and irreplaceable value of literature: its ability to convey a monumental idea in the form of a captivating story.

Hugo once said, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The time has come to abandon the conventional approach to literature, which leaves it mangled and mutilated. The time has come to once again understand that literature is art, meant to move and edify and inspire. May this idea, whose time has come, defy all the forces of modern education.

We Don’t Talk About College


Years ago, I accompanied an 8th-grade student I had homeschooled as she visited prospective high schools. At one school, the director of admissions welcomed us and then proceeded to assault my student with the information that entry to college had become highly competitive, and she must therefore chart the right course through the right high school to stand even a chance of admission to the better colleges. She then proceeded to sell the school with the following: my student would need to take multiple AP courses—this school offered a wide variety; she would need to complete the IB program—they were honored to be a member school; she would need to be competitive in a sport and ambitious in an extra-curricular activity—they had many from which to choose. As the director mapped out all that my student must do (with the unquestioned assumption that admission to Harvard was her foremost educational goal), I looked over—and saw her wilt.

This was a child of whom I had endless vivid, touching stories from the classroom—stories of her gasping out loud when she was irrepressibly moved by a passage from Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three; stories of her eagerly recreating science lessons at home with her parents as students; stories of her writing with ferocious confidence (though she had previously loathed writing), because, she said, I taught her how. Now, before both our eyes, education was becoming nothing about the development of invaluable, life-long skills, nothing about the discovery of joy and utility in the acquisition of knowledge, nothing about the deepening of a capacity for emotional experience. Admission to high school was about… admission to college, which was about…

The answer to that was nothing more than a vague, unstated apprehension of doom.

Many years later, I am the owner and director of a private K-8 school of 140 children in Aliso Viejo, CA. And eternally conscious of that visit to the high school and all the educational principles it implied, I am proud to say that I have a refrain here at VanDamme Academy: “We don’t talk about college.” We talk about how fascinating it is to be able to orient yourself using the stars in the sky, or to tell time with a shadow; we talk about what is truly miraculous about the climactic scene in “The Miracle Worker,” or how beautiful a metaphor the rebirth of the secret garden is for the reawakened souls of the children; we talk about how crucial it is to understand how the world fell into the Dark Ages and how it was spectacularly reborn. We don’t talk about college.

It is in this spirit that we at VanDamme Academy have started a speaker series of successful people in a variety of fields to talk about something else—their path to and passion for their careers.

The goals of the program are manifold. The first is to counter the emphasis by schools like the one visited by my student on college admission as the goal of the children’s studies. We will offer an alternative to the idea that out-competing in high school, gaining entry to the Ivy League, and securing one among the list of society-approved jobs is the path to a happy life.

Instead, through the personal stories of successful people (many of them parents at the school), we will emphasize the principles underlying their success. For example, students will see that a fulfilling career is rarely the object of a “grand plan.” My own “grand plan” was to teach philosophy at the college level, yet here I am the director of a private school, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. In his inspirational commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs said that there is always a path to your career, but that the path is only observable in retrospect. We also want the students to understand that neither is a career something that drops in your lap. Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” People who find those careers-they-didn’t-plan still work hard chasing and fulfilling opportunities as they present themselves. We want to stress the importance of pursuing your values with passion and energy as a means to your career end, even though you might not know what that end will be.

And finally, we want them to understand, deeply and personally, that school is neither a waiting room for adulthood, nor vocational training, nor some sort of trial-by-ordeal. School is a place where they can delight in the development of the knowledge, sophistication of skills, awareness of opportunities, appreciation of achievements, depth of values, and virtues of character that will enable them to enjoy a fulfilling career and a beautiful life.

The goal of education is not résumé-building for college admission, nor is it “preparation for college and career” in the pragmatic, “good-of-society” sense that the new Common Core Standards would have us believe. The goal of education is, in the beautiful words of the very educated John Adams, “to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue.” In every subtle facet of child-rearing and education, it is crucial that we preserve—or reinstate—this as the goal.

The Origin of the Title


Several years ago, I taught Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, to a class of junior high students. Pygmalion is the story of a lowly flower girl who is invited into the home of a brilliant phonetician after he makes a bet that he can teach her the elegance and speech of a proper English lady and pass her off as a duchess at a garden party. The musical My Fair Lady was based upon this classic play.

In the play’s most comical scene, a favorite among the students, Eliza, the flower girl, ventures into society for the first time. Having been told to confine her conversation to the benign and inoffensive topics of weather and health, she discusses, with the utmost elegance of manners and articulation, her suspicion that her aunt who had allegedly died from influenza had actually been murdered over a hat. And so begins a comedy of errors, in which, as Higgins the phonetician says, the problem is not “how” she says things but “what” she says.

With more training, Eliza learns to curb her coarse speech, and she becomes thoroughly polished, dignified, and charming. Her debut at the garden party is a smashing and unmitigated success. She has become a proper English lady.

But in the last and most important scene of the play, we discover that though she has learned to be a lady, she has not yet learned to be a human being—an independent, self-sufficient individual with her own judgment and her own sense of self worth. She has learned how to conform to the standards of elite society, but she has not learned how to form her own standards.

It is only when she drops her decorum and stands up self-confidently against Higgins that he says, “By George Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have.”

Because for Higgins (and for Shaw), the mark of a worthy person is not conformity to the standards of the upper classes. Rather, a worthy person is one who has—in my favorite expression of the play—his “own soul” or his “own spark of divine fire.”

Teaching the play this time, it struck me as metaphorical for my own view of education.

Just as Eliza was taught in a way that allowed her to be passed off as a duchess at a garden party, the best of schools today teach children in a way that allows them to be passed off as educated at a cocktail party. But have they learned to be clear-thinking, independent, passionate human beings? Have they gained their own “spark of divine fire”?

That is our goal at VanDamme Academy. Our aim is not to teach the children a stock set of facts that will make them culturally literate. Our aim is to empower them with the lessons of history, to equip them with the tools of math and science, to provide them the fuel and inspiration of literature—to endow them with the wisdom that will give them the means to live a meaningful and deeply fulfilled life.

That is why the following were highlights of my teaching experience.

First, when the class read the last act of Pygmalion, we came to a scene in which Higgins calls Eliza a fool and she responds that the comment is “not proper.” I put down the play and asked the class what Higgins’s response to that would be. 11-year-old Taylor’s bright eyes became incandescent with understanding and her hand shot in the air. “He would say he doesn’t care what’s proper!” In that moment, she had not just grasped something deeply important about the character, she had grasped something about Shaw’s philosophic perspective on life. She had understood that Shaw cares little for conformity to social standards. And her expression revealed that that kind of understanding was thrilling.

Second, I was stopped in the hall one afternoon that same week by the mother of a 7-year-old girl named Emily. She told me that Emily had related to her a story from her book Adventures of the Greek Heroes. Emily told her mother the tragic tale of Admetus the king and his true love Alcestis. Admetus was dying, and the gods declared that if he were to remain with his love, someone would have to die in his place. Admetus went to his loyal subjects, his soldiers, his servants, then even to his own parents, but all feared to die for him. Finally, in a tragic twist, his own dear Alcestis, the love for whom he wanted to live, gave her life for his. As 7-year-old Emily shared the story, her voice became halting, and her mother noticed that she had tears in her eyes. (And as her mother told me this story, both she and I both had tears in ours.)

Our goal at VanDamme Academy is not to produce students who are refined, polished, and superficially educated. It is to produce students who are perceptive, passionate, and wise.

My favorite author, Victor Hugo, has a passage in which he describes the role of a teacher. He says, “It is a beautiful thing to mold a statue and give it life; it is more beautiful to shape an intelligence and give it truth.” And he captures this whole metaphor in an exquisitely poetic description, calling a teacher “a Pygmalion of the soul.” This blog is dedicated to all these Pygmalions, striving to raise children with exalted ambition and depth of soul.