Two dogs & the nature of story

The most important global narrative conflict to learn about is the one within ourselves.

The idea of discipline as it’s presented in school is a joke.  Discipline isn’t what others do to you.  Discipline is what you develop in yourself that guides your decisions and actions.  Open Source Learning provides learners the space, time, and opportunity to develop their own sense of discipline.  Some students immediately take the reins and perform better than ever.  Some students fall on their faces in full view of their colleagues.  It’s important for young people to start making decisions early in life, while the stakes are relatively low and the environment is relatively safe.

Making decisions and understanding our own thought processes, habits, and emotions are important elements of Mental Fitness.  Every day we have opportunities to reflect on the choices we make as functions of our mental fitness; this can be a powerful way to develop our habits of mind and support ourselves with the kind of discipline that will help us succeed for a lifetime.  I explored some of these ideas with high school juniors in the following post, during an average week of class when we read a couple of my favorite stories early in the school year.


Young Goodman Brown decides to go for a walk.  He thinks that the enemy is the devil.  But he ventures out at sunset to meet him.  He thinks his wife– his Faith–is the force of good in his life.  But he leaves her at home.  He thinks he’s in charge every time he chooses whether to go on or to stop.

This guy clearly doesn’t have a handle on his situation.

The next time you want to know who’s responsible for how you’re feeling, grab a mirror.

Story isn’t about action, or theme, or love, or death, or good and evil.  It’s about conflict.  Young Goodman Brown’s character is only interesting to us because of his strange circumstances and the choices he makes in dealing with them.  When was the last time anyone got interested or even heard of a story about a nice person who had a nice day, went to sleep, woke up the next day early and refreshed, and did it all over again?

Our lives are filled with obstacles, both real and perceived, and what makes stories compelling to us is how characters deal with the challenges they encounter.  For generations English teachers the world over have categorized those conflicts: man v. himself, man v. man, man v. nature, etc.  (Stunningly, we’ve managed to take the most interesting element of story and make it multiple-choice boring.)

Conflict is entertaining.  Every Reality TV show ever made depends on conflict for its success.  This is not an exaggeration: every single one of those shows, in every single genre, for every kind of audience, goes out of its way to manufacture conflict because that’s what attracts viewers.

Marshall McLuhan was one of the most insightful commentators on media and communication in the 20th century.  He’s the guy who famously observed that, “The medium is the message.”  More importantly for us, he noted:

Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.

Students get a lot of information in my courses.  Some of what they learn comes from the traditional American Literature curriculum: diction, syntax, tone, mood, theme, allusion, symbol, genre, etc.  Most of what they learn has to do with individual styles and our learning community.  I’ve learned that some students still think they’re passive consumers of a teacher’s curriculum, or worse, the entertaining conflict of “student v. school.”

McLuhan also said: There are no passengers on spaceship Earth.  We are all crew.

Those students who still operate under the illusion that the roles of “teacher” and “student” are separate are trapped in old ways of thinking and they’re missing the point of Open Source Learning.  For all his talk of caring, poor Young Goodman Brown doesn’t see the people in his life for who they really are as individuals.  He categorizes them according to simplistic labels like “good” and “evil.”  As a result, he’s heartbroken when their words and deeds don’t fit his expectations.

When he sees the conversation between the devil and Goody Cloyse, Young Goodman Brown suffers a crisis of meaning– but why should the private life of an old lady shake his own identity and everything he believes to be true?  In reality, people do both “good” and “bad” things in the world.  We hope they learn from the bad and use their learning to contribute to the good.  In fact, we hope that all of “them” eventually come to realize there really is no “them.”  There is only us.  We want to be understood, and that begins with understanding ourselves.  The next time you want to know who’s responsible for how you’re feeling, grab a mirror.

The other day I had a conversation with Jesus about history.  Sometimes it’s hard to connect the Founding Fathers or the Hawley-Smoot Tariff with what’s happening today.  But whose job is it to connect the dots?  (Spoiler: it’s yours.)  If you want to Learn, you have to stop settling for Being Taught.

When I teach, I not only give students permission, I demand that they question the value of what we read and do.  Whenever it’s not clear, they should ask me: WTF is the POINT?  I’ll even go a step further: if what you experience isn’t motivating, let’s talk about why and what else is out there, and let’s do this now, because the world won’t wait.

In fact, the more you read, the more you realize that other people have felt the same way as you and are waiting for you to show up and take your place in the conversation.  You also come to realize that the other 8 billion people on the planet have their own problems and they’re not going to care very long if you sit on the sideline and sulk.  As Stephen Crane put it:

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

Example: those of you who read “Earth on Turtle’s Back” will be rewarded next week when we have an essay exam comparing the story with “Young Goodman Brown.”  Since you were supposed to read it and take notes on it weeks ago, and since you’re preparing for a life of independent learning, I’m not going to remind you again and I’m not going to review it in class– unless you ask me to, in which case I’ll drop everything after we finish “Young Goodman Brown” and do whatever it takes to make sure you understand the essentials.  If that causes you any sort of concern or negative feeling, consider how willing I am to help you and how hard I’ve worked so far to prove it.  Then consider this gem from Sitting Bull:

Inside of me there are two dogs.  One is mean and evil and the other is good. 

Which one wins? 

Whichever I feed the most. 

It’s easy to feed the dog that seems like an old friend, and we are most sensitive to negative information.  Change is hard.  Overcoming obstacles is hard. Sometimes the fight for happiness actually feels more rewarding than actually experiencing happiness.  So ask yourself whether you’re really taking steps to overcome conflicts or just sitting with the same old tapes that say, “I can’t,” or “I’m just not good at ____,” or “That teacher doesn’t like me,” or “[insert your favorite/s here].”

We are all under a great deal of pressure.  Monday we only had 30 minutes, Friday we’ll only have 30 minutes, there are 34+ people in a class, we’re all constantly worried that we suck at what we do or that we’re not doing enough, and after a day of standing around in the sun we’re hot and tired.  The obstacles are out there.

We may not be able to control those obstacles (which will be an interesting question when we study Naturalism and return to “Richard Cory”) but we can control how we respond to them.  You have more power than you think you do, so use this course to flex your questioning muscles.  Stop being a victim of your education and start putting it to work for you.  Ask yourself what kind of environment you want for 50 minutes and push your colleagues (including me) to help you create it.  Whether I’m in the room or not, if someone upsets the balance by clinging to their hurt, or their old stereotypes, or their need to be the center of attention, or whatever, find a way–with empathy, compassion, and critical thinking– to bring attention to his/her choices and remind him/her that no one is putting that person in that box except him/her.

After we finish this week and I give a final exam on the first month of class, we’re going straight to another story about a guy who went for a walk.  Taking a walk is a small journey that begins with one step– this is an important metaphor for the work we’re doing right now.  Ray Bradbury wrote “The Pedestrian” after he went for a late-night stroll and police started questioning him just because he was out.  That experience and that story led Bradbury (who once asked my grandmother out when they sat next to each other at Los Angeles High School) to write Fahrenheit 451.  Lots of people think that book is about censorship.  Partly, but it’s really about self-determination.

We live in a world where it’s hard to imagine that one person can make up her own mind, make her own way in the world, and in the process make a difference for others.  If you feel this way, spend some time with these words from expert-on-the-subject Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We get to walk a path that Young Goodman Brown hasn’t yet discovered, a path where people aren’t just “good” or “evil” or “teacher” or “student,” but complex individuals trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.

Again I realize that an author has put it best, so the last word goes to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


[Originally published on Dr. Preston’s American Literature 2016-2017]

[Photo credit: DaPuglet Happy Birthday Boo Lefou! via photopin (license)]