Waterford was delighted to welcome visiting scholar Michael Lasser, a legendary teacher from the Harley School in New York and a committed practitioner of the liberal arts. Lasser spent the day meeting with students, faculty and staff and sharing his inspiring and enlightening insights into the importance and wonders of a liberal arts education. Below you will find the talk Lasser gave to MS/US students during an assembly and an introduction by previous student of Lasser’s and Waterford’s own, Harmony Button.
INTRODUCTION BY HARMONY BUTTON, ENGLISH TEACHER
In my school growing up, Mr Lasser was legendary. Everybody knew who he was and everybody had a Mr. Lasser story. I have to admit, when I first met him, I was a little bit scared: he was very tall, very smart, and he did not suffer fools.
Suffer fools – what an interesting phrase. It means that he didn’t tolerate with any foolishness. And it was true – in Mr Lasser’s class, you would not fidget with your fob. You would not pass notes or whisper to your neighbor. But most importantly, you would not try to fake it and sound smart when you hadn’t really done the reading. He would KNOW. And he would tell you to cut the crap, do the reading, and try that essay again when you had located an original thought in your head. Owch – right? But also – what a wake up call.
For me, this was the moment when I stopped “performing” English class (which I was quite good at doing, by the way – little fluffy words here, filler blah blah there – oh look, I’ve met the word count), and I started to take myself seriously as a thinker and a writer. See, Mr Lasser cared enough to tell me to stop putting lipstick on a pig, pull myself together and write something I believed in. He was like the coach who trains alongside you in sports: he never sat back and expected students to make the journey alone. He was always in thick of it with us – asking real questions, flipping through his copy of the book that was so well worn the pages were falling out – and always, every day, expecting to find literature simultaneously difficult and delightful. Delightfully difficult. Like he said to us often, a little soul searching is good for the soul, if not for the search.
The talk you’re about to hear is about why school matters. You should all be thinking, every day, about why school matters. So locate the “on” switch in your brain, flip it into the upright and locked position, and keep up. It’ll be worth it.
THE LIBERATING ARTS WITH MICHAEL LASSER
Good morning. Here’s the first thing I want to tell you. I believe in the liberal arts. Profoundly. I went to Dartmouth and majored in English. My wife went to Rutgers and majored in history. And then we became parents who put our money where our mouths were.Our daughter went to Vassar and majored in art history. Our son went to Bucknell and majored in music. For today, though, I’m happy just to be back in school.
Like you, I went to grammar school and high school, and then I went on to college and graduate school. After that, I taught for forty years in two independent schools that went from nursery to 12th grade. I spent thirty-two of those years in the same school. I taught English mainly to sophomores and seniors, and then I retired 25 years ago. Yes, I’m old, but I still love school. I can’t think of a better way to have spent a life.
When I retired, I learned a deeper meaning of one of our best words, bittersweet. I retired to do things I wanted to do, but I still missed school. Bittersweet is a contradictory word; it’s ambiguous. It goes in two directions at the same time. That makes it feel aligned with the liberal arts. More about that later.
For now, though, let’s talk a little about baseball. First, because I love the game. Second, I’ll tell you that later, too. Baseball is a three-dimensional game played outside time. You play nine innings or until it ends, no matter what. It’s an escape from reality that also reflects reality. The outfield fences mark off human limitation. Even the greatest hitters can hit a round ball with a round stick only so far. But without the fences, the foul lines would stretch to infinity. In baseball, you score by leaving home and venturing out into the world where you may succeed or fail. Your goal is to return home by completing a circle safely. Most of the time you can’t do it by yourself. Through actions you take, other actions you can’t control (including the sacrifice of others and mistakes by still others), you may return successfully after a series of adventures. It’s not unlike the heroes of legend, fairy tale, and myth. Think Odysseus. Baseball is also the only game that tallies errors, and hitting 300 means you failed 70 percent of the time.
Bart Giamatti taught at Yale and was its president before he landed his dream job. He became commissioner of baseball, and was smart enough to say, “Baseball will break your heart because it’s supposed to.” And yet to play it very well, you don’t have to be seven feet tall or weigh three hundred pounds. It’s the most human and human-sized game of all.
Here’s the second reason I promised you. I’ve been using the kind of critical thinking the liberal arts taught me to look at baseball, something I love and thought I knew. As former baseball manager Earl Weaver said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
Does anybody know what a convocation is? It’s a formal ceremony to begin something important. When I was a student at Dartmouth, Convocation on the first day of class began the school year. It was a big deal. Undergraduates entered, and then the faculty in caps and gowns, led by John Sloan Dickey, the President of the College. Finally, the seniors entered in their spanking new senior blazers, complete with their class numerals on the pocket. Dickey always spoke about the liberal arts. One year, he called them the “liberating arts.” That stuck with me. In a speech I gave at a graduation many years later, I said that the liberal arts are an enduring revolution even though they may not look like it. I still believe both statements, Dickey’s and mine. That’s because the liberating arts lead you to question, doubt, and dig deeper. They free us from ignorance, certainty, fear, received wisdom, and common assumptions—whatever holds us back. The liberal arts free us to move forward with awareness. They demonstrate that thoughtful competence helps to protect freedom. And they remind us that the freedom of the imagination is the widest ranging freedom of all. Unless it’s rooted in context and knowledge, an opinion proves only one thing: enough blood is reaching your brain so you’re conscious.
My senator for a lot of years was a very wise man named Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He once said, “You’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.” You begin with facts. They’re both essential and meaningless. Here’s a fact. In The Tempest, which you all were supposed to read, Prospero breaks his staff. So what? He has chosen to forgive his enemies, give up his magic and his immortality, and return to the real world where his every third thought will be of death. Fact, a man breaks a stick. In context, that act signifies everything. Isolated facts are nothing, but without them we’re helpless. With enough of them, we may be able to rise from information to knowledge to understanding to insight and perhaps even to wisdom.
A new medication: 91% are cured, 6% have no change, 3% die. They die! But the vaccine is a success because truth is squishy. Nothing is 100%. The liberal arts trade in ambiguity, in possibility. They look for what’s so, not in measurable ways, but in response to human thought, emotion, and behavior. They’re at home with squishy.They let you enter other people’s minds and hearts, including people from other times. They create memory and hope, and so they reflect us. We do the same thing all the time. They’re a many-angled way to think about the world beyond yourself. Figures from history and characters in literature confront moral choices. The liberal arts take us to that place where conscience and competence engage. And that you have to figure out for yourself—again and again.
Mindfulness, which lives intensely in the present these days, is no justification for ignorance. Sensitivity, while important, never equals the importance of freedom of free speech. Censorship, the removal of books from libraries, and the erasing of history, even ugly history, is despicable. Regardless of where it comes from, left or right.
George Santayana: those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Mark Twain came closer. History doesn’t repeat, he said, but it rhymes.
Confused? Figure it out. Talk to your friends. Figure it out.
You study history. You find similar points of view or actions at different times in the past. They look alike, but are they? Does ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean now what it meant in 1776? You get to think about the ways they’re similar and different. They rhyme.
Let’s talk about school, the one thing all of us have in common. Then I’ll wrap it up. Music lessons, art lessons, going swimming, sitting under a tree, horsing around. All worthy pursuits. But none of them requires a school. Literature, history, mathematics, science, and foreign language do. They’re what you come to school for, regardless of what you think or pretend to think. If they aren’t at the heart of your school, then what you’ve got is a rec center or an arts center or a playground. You’ll learn valuable stuff, but it ain’t no school. A school is a place where the life of the mind will determine if your school has a living soul. And that school will embrace the liberating arts. One thing kids do in school besides study is play. I almost always taught seniors. I knew very well that by May they thought the year was over; I also knew very well that it wasn’t. We made a deal—no more papers, no more tests, but do the reading. In-class writing: I’d give them the topic the day before. I confess that I did cut them a little slack. The first time they showed up with the collective energy of a sloth, I’d take them to a small gym down the hall, sit them in a circle, and announce Mr. Lasser’s world championship Duck, Duck, Goose game. I got to watch eighteen-year-olds, convinced of their own adulthood, turning back into 6-year-olds, right before my eyes. It was fun but there’s more to it than that. Tomorrow we’d be back in class.
The liberal arts are a form of play, too, very high-level play. You’re free to go wherever you want, but the limits are the text itself. They require you to be inventive, to face a new idea, to figure something out. What the hell more do you want from an hour in a classroom? Eventually, though, the liberal arts turn play into game. They impose rules: you have to go to class, you have to write a paper, you have to take an exam. You also have to read in the spirit of what’s written. That’s where common understanding lies. Freedom always exists within limits. Otherwise, it’s chaos. Not necessarily a ton of rules, but often norms to guide behavior.
For example, the school I taught in had no study halls. Kids used to spend free time gathering in the halls, working, studying together, gossiping, being silly. If they got too noisy, I’d go out to quiet them but also tell them that if I had to come out again, I’d empty the hall. More often than not, the norm worked.The goal in class was always the same: To reach an understanding of a character or event, and then maybe eventually some part of yourself and even the world. Not to replace pleasure but to deepen and sustain it.
So what can you hope for—the ambiguous, sometimes contradictory truths that make up our lives. The American writer Sherwood Anderson in his novel, Winesburg, Ohio, had a name for people who embraced a single truth in the face of all those diverse, even contradictory, truths out there: he called them grotesques.
They’re not creepy looking and they’re not zombies. They look ordinary but here’s part of Anderson’s explanation:
There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of carelessness and abandon . . . And then the people came along.
Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them . . .
The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
The trick is to hold on to more than one truth at the same time—to become an intellectual and emotional juggler struggling toward clarity.
Like I said, the truth is squishy.
Ultimately you take what you can get. Here’s a guide: Rita Dove’s poem entitled “The First Book.” I think she wrote it for children, but it reaches much farther than that:
Open it.Go ahead, it won’t bite.Well … maybe a little.More a nip, like. A tingle.It’s pleasurable, really.You see, it keeps on opening.You may fall in.Sure, it’s hard to get started;remember learning to useknife and fork? Dig in:You’ll never reach bottom.It’s not like it’s the end of the world—just the world as you thinkyou know it.
So don’t just sit there. Go read something, ask or try to answer a question, and see what happens next. In or out of school. It can become an elemental part of your life. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I can’t imagine myself without it. I hope you come to feel the same way. Good luck with it and thanks for listening.
January 8, 2021
June 3, 2020
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