The following letter is adapted from remarks delivered at the Parents Association Holiday Gathering in the Olson Hall Presentation Room on Friday, December 2.
It would be an overstatement to say that the historical connection between MICDS and the poet T.S. Eliot, whose grandfather founded our wonderful school, is the reason that I applied to work here, but it might not be a significant overstatement.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, an early modernist poem that Eliot began composing at the age of 21, is among my favorite works of English literature. The title character is a figure of alienation and isolation, a person whose education and position in the world would appear to signal a life of happiness and success, but who is secretly restless, anxious, and alone. Prufrock torments himself with audacious questions never posed and bold actions never taken–questions and actions that would challenge the stultifying routines of his society. “Would it have been worthwhile,” he asks, “to say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all,’” if doing so would jeopardize his social standing? He imagines being rebuffed (“That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant at all”), perhaps by one of the subjects of the poem’s best-known couplet: “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” So Prufrock does nothing. The risk is too great.
We find a more recent expression of modernist alienation in the lyrics of Jason Isbell’s song Relatively Easy from his 2013 album Southeastern. “Better off to teach a dog a card trick,” Isbell sings, “than try to have a point and make it clear.” So very difficult is the precise articulation of our thoughts and ideas, especially when we anticipate resistance from our listener, that we dare not make the effort. So why is Prufrock willing to sing his love song at all? Eliot’s epigraph, a passage from Dante’s Inferno, suggests an answer. Dante imagines that he is guided by the Roman poet Virgil through the depths of Hell, the eighth circle of which imprisons a man named Guido da Montefeltro in a column of flame that flickers as he considers sharing his story. “If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth,” the man says, “this flame would remain without further movement. But as no one has ever returned alive from this depth, I can answer you with no fear of disgrace.” In other words, he can confess his true thoughts without having them exposed. We may never be able to teach card tricks to our dogs, but we can always tell them our secrets.
Prufrock writes boldly as a substitute for speaking boldly, presuming in his audience, the object of his Love Song, both a similarly “hellish” imprisonment and a similar fear of liberation. The Love Song is a valuable secret among cautious conspirators. It is an early twentieth-century confessional in quiet rebellion against small talk, image curation, and social artifice. (And what is the emerging social media platform BeReal in our present day if not an early twentieth-first-century confessional technology in quiet rebellion against small talk, image curation, and social artiface on Instagram and Facebook? Are we not all, still, J. Alfred Prufrock?)
Ruth and I were in Madrid at the end of last week with our two children. Our son, Jed, is studying there this semester, and the Thanksgiving holiday afforded the only opportunity for the rest of us to join him before his return. We loved our dislocated time together. Holiday lights were illuminated throughout the city last Friday, strung across thoroughfares and suspended over intersections. Far fewer horns honked than one hears on the streets of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Smiles abounded, even in the thickest of crowds. The apparent ease of the pace of life in Spain relative to that of the United States was evident to all of us, as it has been evident to Jed since his arrival to Madrid in August. Recognizing, however, that a tourist’s perspective on a place is by definition incomplete and vulnerable to romanticization, and knowing as well the importance of playing devil’s advocate with oneself (our MICDS Mission insists that we “think critically” after all), I returned home with an appetite for either substantiating or debunking our collective impression.
A little digging online turned up recent data from Gallup which, when coupled with gross domestic product (GDP) figures, tends to support our anecdotal experience. When asked, “Do you enjoy the work you do in your job every day, or not?,” the responses of 127,000 people across 122 countries reveal essentially no correlation between the strength of a nation’s economy and the work satisfaction of its people. Statistically, less than 3% of the latter is explained by the former, meaning that over 97% of work satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) is due to factors independent of GDP. Respecting our family’s hypothesis specifically, the Gallup data reveal that although American workers stand to make more money than Spanish workers, Spanish workers are generally happier than their American counterparts.
Elizabeth, Ruth, and I returned home through Newark Airport on Sunday and confronted immediately the comparative intensity of American life. In fairness, it was the busiest travel day of the year, and there was weather over New York, but this didn’t stop exasperated passengers from accosting gate agents with complaints. My own flight to St. Louis was postponed for over two hours. “I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t delayed,” another person said to me. “You’d think they would figure this out.” In view of the complex set of variables with which airlines must constantly contend, the thought occurred to me that it’s an absolute miracle that any plane ever departs or arrives on time.
The Pareto principle gives us the 80/20 rule. By way of Voltaire’s observation that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” Pareto suggests that 80% of a task (“the good”) can be accomplished in 20% of the time required for its completion. The question then becomes to what extent the remaining 80% of our time is well invested in completing the final 20% of the task (“the perfect”). My family and I spent several hours at the Prado while we were in Madrid. As we walked over from our hotel, it seemed to me that the exterior and grounds were not as immaculately maintained as those of major American museums, but then I saw the breathtaking Caravaggios in the main entrance hall and forgot all about the difference. I think the Prado has the 80/20 rule figured out just fine. I wonder what it costs us in the United States–the wear and tear of our relentless pursuit and expectation of perfection–not to have it figured out quite so well. I wonder what it costs the children and young people in our care as they model their habits and choices on our own. “You should know, compared to people on a global scale, our kind has had it relatively easy,” Jason Isbell sings, but he and his “angry…lonely heart” are clearly not so sure. Neither should we be.
In The Return of the Beloved, the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi asks, “Why, when God’s earth is so wide, have you fallen asleep in a prison?” The cult of “get” and “succeed” may well be our society’s self-made prison, but the freedoms of “give” and “let go” are the wide earth beyond them. In the project of a child’s education, the disinterested memorization of “what” may well be a kind of prison, but the interested exploration of “why” is ever the mind’s wide earth. Grades, transcripts, and college acceptances are a kind of prison, too, but learning, growth, and lives of purpose and service–these are all the wide earth spread before us. “Abandon life and the world,” Rumi concludes in the same poem, “that you may behold the Life of the world.”
Have I, the Head of School at MICDS, an academically rigorous college-preparatory institution, just dared to suggest that we be skeptical about the relative importance of grades, transcripts, and college acceptances? “Do I dare,” asks J. Alfred Prufrock, “disturb the universe?” Perhaps, for now, my reflections here can simply be a valuable secret among cautious conspirators, in quiet rebellion against prisons of our own making. As an exasperated Prufrock declares, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” But we must continue to try. It is most certainly, I think, easier than teaching a dog a card trick.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. My best wishes to you for a joyful weekend with your loved ones.
Head of School