A Kind of Certainty: III. A Scripture of Truth

Click here to read Pt II. Curriculum, or What You Will

A Kind of Certainty

III. A Scripture of Truth

Motive is the key, I would suggest to students: to know motive is to know the truth. And I offered this suggestion knowing full-well the timeworn joke about the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation?” Whats the Motivation Just as we can never cover it all and must go with whatever we decide to include, we also cannot (nor should not) try to present it all, ask it all, or attempt it all in one go. Yes, the odd non sequitur can break the monotony – everyone needs a laugh, now and then. But as with all clever comedy, timing is everything, and curriculum is about more than good humour and bad logic. In that regard, given what has already been said about spotting pertinence, curriculum is about motives: to include, or not to include.

And we must try to comprehend this decision from more than one perspective; each in their own way, both teacher and student ponder what to include and what to disregard during any given lesson: “Teachers are problem-posing, not just in the obvious sense that they require students to doubt whether they know something… [but] implicitly [asking] them to question their understanding of what counts as knowledge” (Beckett, 2013, p. 54-55). People generally will not doubt themselves without good reason, or else with a lot of faith in whoever is asking. Challenged to reconstruct or reorganise an experience (Dewey, 1916), more than likely we will want to know why. Curriculum addresses ‘why’.

Why! take Hamlet, for instance… deigning to know a little something about role-playing, he offers some curricular particulars while lecturing the Players ahead of the Mousetrap performance, although really this is to say Shakespeare offered them. Writers famously cringe as rehearsing actors and directors dismember their carefully worked dialogue – or is that another hackneyed joke? In any case, Shakespeare opens Act 3 with some forty lines of advice from Hamlet to the Players, whose replies are little beyond short and polite (although ‘why’ has evidently been left for you and your theatre company to ascertain). These follow some forty lines in Act 2 during an exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz about theatre companies, all of which could simply be played as a dose of comic relief amidst the far “weightier matters” of the play (Guyton, 2013). Tried another way, Hamlet’s lines about acting embody the very perplexity of his prolonged tumult: he takes for granted that his listener will attempt to reconcile what he says with whatever uncertainty they might have. What better job description, a “teacher”? Otherwise, why even bother to open his mouth?

What need to teach when we trust that we are all alike, that all around is 100% certain? As it pertains to telling the Players about acting, Hamlet wants no assurance that his audience must bridge some gap of certainty over his trustworthiness, not so far as he is concerned.[1] Indeed, common to live productions that I have watched, he is as relaxed and certain in offering his advice as the Players are in hearing it, like preaching to the choir.[2] Their relationship, apparently going back some time, suggests mutual respect and a shared faith not merely to listen but to understand in listening. It suggests a kind of shared attunement, something mutual, like a kind of curriculum founded upon trust. For all we might want to trust those around us, for all we might want some certainty that we are respected by others – or, perhaps more so, that we are believed – what a torment life would be if our every utterance were considered a lie. Then the only certainty would be the assurance that no one ever believed you, and if that still counts for something, it is dreadfully cold comfort.[3]

We citizens of 21st century post-modernist [your label here] North America may not have descended nearly so low although Klein (2014) does presciently discuss politics, the national discourse, and an observed decline in public intellectualism (Byers, 2014; Coates, 2014; Herman, 2017; Mishra & Gregory, 2015). Where Klein encompasses individuals and the processes, systems, and institutions that they innervate while going about their daily lives, he describes Dewey’s “conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey, 1916, p. 101) and implicates “an extraordinarily complicated conversation” (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery & Taubman, 2006, p. 848), one that occurs everyday and includes everybody. But since we are forbidden to compel but only persuade the beliefs of free thinkers, we realise that all our perceived uncertainty can only be bridged by a kind of faith: we depend either upon others to see things as we do, or else we depend upon our rhetorical skill to persuade them toward our way. Or we live tense lives full of disagreement and antipathy. ’Swounds, but life would be a lot more stable and certain if we all just believed the same things!

Hamlet craves certainty, to the point where the dilemma of his doubt halts him so dead in his tracks that he is prompted to question existence itself. Where it comes to enacting vengeance – but, really, where it comes to everything we witness in the play – Hamlet – and, really, every character[4] – craves certainty and assurance while suffering from uncertainty and reluctance, which means, of course, that he craves and suffers from both ends. Indeed, a piece of him is certain. But comprising “one part wisdom and ever three parts coward” (4.4.42-43), he wages an unequal battle against himself. He wanders from room to room searching to free himself from his purgatorial tesseract, challenged not simply by one retrograde faith but by several, the consequence of conveying curriculum from Wittenberg back to Elsinore where, previously, he had received, to say the least, an impressionable upbringing. The upshot, given the conflicting decisions he faces, is that Hamlet would rather renounce any mutual faith of any sort and rely upon a certainty all his own: himself.

Yet he even doubts his ability to self-persuade, just as he holds no faith in anyone whose judgment he fears. As a result, he is rightly miserable and lives an exaggerated moment-to-moment existence, “…enraptured with, submerged in, the present, no longer a moment in but a suspension of time, absorbed by – fused with – the images in front of [his] face, oblivious to what might be beyond [him]” (Pinar, 2017, p. 12). Pinar describes a kairos moment of chronos time, as if Cecelia, while watching The Purple Rose of Cairo (Greenhut & Allen, 1985), could press “Pause.” He may not have been Woody Allen’s modernist contemporary, but Shakespeare still appeared to possess enough prescience to machinate a rather, shall we say, enlightened viewpoint; many consider The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark to be the Magnum Opus of English literature, not just Shakespeare. Evidently, he knew exactly how to craft such a rich and roundly individuated protagonist, one certain enough to persist for over 400 years. Certainty the Bard found within himself, and that he bestows (albeit perversely) upon Prince Hamlet, who “[knows] not seems” (1.2.76). Faith he found within himself, too, but that he saves for his audience, trusting them, freeing them, to spot it when the time is right, rendering what they will get unto those who will get it.

By the same token, may the rest get whatever they will get. As far as curriculum is concerned, one size has never fit all, nor should it ever be so.

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith


[1] I always suspected a handful of my students were just humoring me – have I mentioned they were brilliant?

[2] Sometimes, these lines have even been cut, to help shorten the play from its typical four-hour length.

[3] Elsinore seems just such a place. But they are wise who “… give it welcome” (1.5.165) since at least, then, you can get on with functioning, knowing where you stand relative to all the other prevaricating liars and weasels who inhabit the place alongside you.

[4] Every character, that is, with the possible exceptions of the Gravedigger, who apparently is most cheerful and self-assured, and Fortinbras, who suffers perhaps not pains of doubt so much as loss, and then always with something up his sleeve. I might also include Horatio in this reflection, but I fear, then, the need for an endnote to the endnotes, to do him any justice.

Umm, This.

[Originally published June 11, 2017]

So, it’s interesting, listening to people talk these days, quite frankly, in terms of their words, their language, their speech. I have an issue with what everyone’s saying – not like everyone everyone but, you know, it’s just their actual words when they talk about complex issues and such, or like politics, what with the whole Trump thing, you know, that Russia probe and the Mueller investigation and everything that goes with that. I’m also a bit of a news hound, and that’s really where I started noticing this on-air style of speeching, of making it sound thoughtful and taking them seriously.

And it’s so much out there, like an epidemic or something, which is interesting, which speaks to on-line streaming and TV news, talk radio, and pretty much the whole 24-hour news cycle. I was a high school English teacher for sixteen years, and I also started noticing all this, you know, frankly, during class discussions, too. And there was me, like guilty as anyone.

Here’s the thing, though, because I guess substance will always be up for debate, but that’s just it – it’s so wide-ranging that it’s like people have no idea they’re even doing it, which is interesting. It’s almost like it’s the new normal, which really begs the question – are people getting dumber? Is education failing us? In terms of intelligent debate, that will always be something that probably might be true or false. And let’s have those conversations!

But in terms of intelligible debate, it’s interesting because, when I listen to how people are talking, it gets really interesting because when I listen what they actually say, it’s like they’re making it all up on the spot in the moment as they go, so it’s just that that makes me not as sure it’s intelligent as it’s less intelligible. But it’s all in a sober tone, and they’re just expressing their opinion, which is democracy.

And that’s the thing – if you challenge anybody with all what I’m saying, clarity-wise, it’s interesting, they’ll get all defensive and whatnot, like it’s a personal attack that you’re calling them stupid or whatever, like you’re some kind of Grammar Jedi.

And, I mean, I get that. So that’s where I think people don’t really get it because I totally get where they’re coming from.

Seriously, who would want to be called like not intelligent or anything all like that, whatever, especially if we’re trying to discuss serious world issues like the whole Russia thing that’s been happening or the environment or all the issues in China and the Middle East? Or terrorism and all? I mean, if you look at all that’s happening in the world right now, but you’re going to get that detailed of the way someone talks, maybe you should look in the mirror.

And I mean, SNL did the most amazingggggggggg job with all this, back in the day, with Cecily Strong on Weekend Update as The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party. Comedy-wise, she even like makes a point, but basically, she’s furthering on intelligence, except I’m talking about intelligibility. But still, if you haven’t seen it, what can I tell you? Your missing out, SO FUNNY. She. Is. Amazing.

And that’s the other thing, and this one’s especially interesting, is just how there’s just SO MUCH out there, what with Google and the Internet, and Wikipedia and all, so who could possibly be expected to know like every single detail about all the different political things or the economy and all the stuff that’s out there? And it’s even more with speaking because pretty much most people aren’t like writing a book or something. (W’ll, and that’s just it – nobody speaks the way they write, so… )

Anyway, so yeah, no, it’s interesting. At the end of the day, first and foremost, one of the most interesting things is that everybody deserves to have a say because that’s democracy. And I think that gets really interesting. But the world gets so serious, probs I just need to sit down. See the bright side, like jokey headlines from newsleader, Buzzfeed, or 2017’s “Comey Bingo” from FiveThirtyEight. Gamify, people! News it up! Nothing but love for the national media outlet that helps gets you wasted. Or the one about the viral tweet, for an audience intimately familiar with pop culture? News should be taken seriously, and the world faces serious aspects, for sure. But the thing is, work hard but party harder! I mean, we’re only here for a good time, not a long time!

And it’s interesting ‘cuz people seem to require more frequent, more intense, more repeated engagement, to spice up their attention spans. There’s some good drinking games, too, on that, because politicians! I know, right? But not like drunk drunk, just like happy drunk, you know? Not sure if all this counts as it means we’re getting dumber, per se, but it’s just interesting.

So, yeah, it’s interesting because we’ve come such a long way, and history fought for our freedom and everything, so I just really think going forward we should just really appreciate that, and all, you know?

From The New York Times – “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort” and further Reflections on Journalism

A needfully challenging appeal to raise the level of discourse, and an appropriate inclusion to The Rhetorical WHY, from an Opinion piece in The New York Times (Feb 22, 2018) by Op-Ed columnist, Bret Stephens:

This is the text of a lecture delivered at the University of Michigan on Tuesday [Feb 20, 2018]. The speech was sponsored by Wallace House.

“I’d like to express my appreciation for Lynette Clemetson and her team at Knight-Wallace for hosting me in Ann Arbor today. It’s a great honor. I think of Knight-Wallace as a citadel of American journalism. And, Lord knows, we need a few citadels, because journalism today is a profession under several sieges.…” [continue reading]

'Oddly enough, I feel offended...'
All That’s Fit to Print, Wiley Miller

Some thoughts of my own on the significance of a free press to our lives…

Next, I offer a series of responses I made to remarks by Hannah Arendt, published October 26, 1978 in The New York Review of Books, itself a report of her interview with Roger Errera). I encountered them in a Facebook post from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Arendt: “… how can you have an opinion if you are not informed?”

Everybody has opinions – our five senses give us opinions.

In order to be “informed,” we need discernment enough to detect accurate information…

Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

For me, continual lies ultimately yield zero trust, but again, how would I know who’s even lying, but for my own discernment and experience?

At the least, if I were aware that all around were lies, that much I’d know is true. It’s not that “nobody believes anything any longer,” so much as it’s “everybody goes about searching out truth on their own.” The downside is when those individual searches for truth become disrespectful, as we’ve seen lately, or worse, chaotic.

Nevertheless, investigate! Accept responsibility to inform yourself. Accept or believe all with a grain of salt until such time as you can prove to your own satisfaction who and what are trustworthy. And, at that point, be tolerant, if not respectful, of others – this applies to everybody, all sides, liberals and conservatives and all points between. Taking the high road is not to be done with pride or smug assurance. It’s easy to nod and say, “I already do while others do not,” but even so, reflect upon yourself with each conversation, each debate, each exchange.

Open-minded and open-hearted – both are virtues, but they don’t have to be the same thing.

Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

On its face, this statement could only be accurate if you had some clairvoyance or a crystal ball.

By “everybody” doing their own investigation and accepting responsibility to inform themselves, I mean everybody. We’re able to trust news & media sources to the extent that they have lived up to their responsibility… to the extent we’re aware that they have. I support proper, professional investigative journalism and public intellectualism, both of which I gather to be in decline.

'Well, apparently you haven't heard. . . personal opinions are the new facts.'
The New Facts, Chris Wildt

Finally, I offer two sets of remarks about journalism by two long-retired anchor-journalists of PBS fame, partners Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. The first is transcribed from an exchange between them during a tribute to MacNeil upon his retirement in October 1995. The second – comprising two parts – is Lehrer’s closing words upon the “retirement” of his name from the title of the PBS NewsHour, on December 04, 2009. Following that, I’ve included a thoughtful follow-up by the PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, published the next week on December 11.

MacNeil’s remarks upon his retirement (October 20, 1995)…

MacNeil: You know, I’m constantly asked, and I know you are in interviews, and there have been a lot of them just now – I’m constantly asked, “But isn’t your program a little boring to some people?” and I find that amazing, because, well, sure, it probably is, but they’re people who don’t watch. The people who watch it all the time don’t find it boring, or they wouldn’t watch.

Lehrer: That’s right.

MacNeil: And it’s the strange idea that’s come out of this medium, because it’s become so much a captive of its tool – as its use as a sales tool that it’s driven increasingly, I think, by a tyranny of the popular. I mean, after all, you and I’ve said this to each other lots of times – might as well share it with the audience: what is the role of an editor? The role of an editor is to make– is to make judgments somewhere between what he thinks is important or what they think is important and what they think is interesting and entertaining.

Jim Lehrer’s guidelines of journalism (December 04, 2009)…

Lehrer: People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism. Well, yes, there are. And here they are:

* Do nothing I cannot defend.

* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

* Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

* Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.

* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.

* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

* And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Here is how I closed a speech about our changes to our PBS stations family last spring:

‘We really are the fortunate ones in the current tumultuous world of journalism right now. When we wake up in the morning, we only have to decide what the news is and how we are going to cover it. We never have to decide who we are and why we are there.’

I am struck by the continuity of their respective final comments, about entertainment – each, in his own way, seeks to distance journalism from vagary, each thereby implying that we are susceptible to emotional or whimsical tendencies, which evidently seem capable of overtaking our focus to learn; otherwise, why mention the point at all?

  • Watch Lehrer’s remarks here, in a functional if awkward series of video archives of that 2009 broadcast.
  • In May 2011, upon Lehrer’s retirement, MacNeil returned to offer his own reflections upon his friend and colleague that include some further worthwhile commentary upon contemporary TV journalism
  • Watch them during a more recent (October 25, 2016) retrospective interview from 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural and community centre in Manhattan.

I recall “Lehrer’s Rules,” as they were called, making a small stir – some of it more substantive, meaningful, and some the critical “woe-is-Us” lament at the passing of favourite things. In amongst it all, as I mentioned, were the following comments from PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, which I include here, at length, on account of PBS webpages’ tendency to disappear.

In fact, a number of the PBS pages where I found these articles are no longer active – where possible, I have checked, updated, and even added weblinks. But I believe Getler’s comments, like the rest, are worth preserving, on account of their potential to provoke us to think and learn more about a free press and its relation to ourselves.

“Lehrer’s Rules” by Michael Getler (December 11, 2009)

A couple of people wrote to me in the aftermath of that Dec. 4 sign-off to say how much they liked Lehrer’s guidelines and asked how they could get a copy. That’s why they are reproduced above. A subscriber to the widely-read Romenesko media news site also posted them there on Dec. 6 and they also were posted on the campus site of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). “Whether you agree with all of Lehrer’s guidelines, or not,” that posting read, “he has surely earned our attention.”

That’s certainly true in my case. I’ve also been a devoted watcher of the NewsHour in all of its evolutions during most of the past 30-plus years, long before I took on this job four years ago. Although segments of the program have been the subject of critical ombudsman columns on a number of occasions, I’ve also said many times that it remains the best and most informative hour of news anywhere on television, and it has never been more important. I follow the news closely but almost always learn something from this broadcast every night.

Boring, at Times, But a Luxury Always

Sometimes, of course, it can seem boring. Sometimes the devotion to balanced he said/she said panel discussions can leave you frustrated and angry and no smarter than you were 15 minutes earlier. Sometimes the interviewing is less challenging than one might hope. But the luxury of an uninterrupted hour of serious, straight-forward news and analysis is just that these days, a luxury. And, in today’s world of media where fact and fiction, news and opinion, too often seem hopelessly blurred, it is good to have Lehrer – clearly a person of trust – still at work.

I had the sense when he added his guidelines to that closing segment last Friday that the 75-year-old Lehrer was trying to re-plant the flag of traditional, verifiable journalism that he has carried so well all these years so that it grows well beyond his tenure – whatever that turns out to be – and spreads to all the new platforms and audiences that the contemporary media world now encompasses.

Oddly, I did not get any e-mail from viewers commenting on the new NewsHour format, other than one critical message that said “do not post.” Maybe that’s a good sign since people usually write to me to complain.

Make no mistake, the now defunct NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is still quite recognizable within the new PBS NewsHour. So those who wrote earlier and said they didn’t want any change won’t be terribly disappointed. I, personally, found the first few days of the new format and approach to be a distinct improvement. The program seemed to have more zip and energy, faster paced, with good interviews and without the always predictable language that introduced the show in the past. It presented its news judgments more quickly, benefitted from the early introduction of other top staff members as co-anchors, and from the introduction of a promising “new guy,” Hari Sreenivasan, a former CBS and ABC correspondent who presents a headline summary from the newsroom and is the liaison to an expanded NewsHour Web operation.

Now, just to keep this a respectable ombudsman’s column, let me add a few quibbles when it comes to Lehrer’s rules, as posted above.

First, one of the interesting things about American journalism is that there are no agreed-upon national standards, no journalistic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. There are, of course, many universal values and practices that vast numbers of journalists have voluntarily adhered to generally for many years, best exemplified by SPJ’s Code of Ethics. But the fact is that all major news organizations – from the Associated Press to the New York Times to PBS and CBS – have their own guidelines and standards that they try and live by. And they all have their differences.

Naturally, a Few Quibbles

Lehrer’s guidelines embody lots of the good, praiseworthy stuff, and we come out of the same journalistic generation and traditions. But I think on a couple of points they are actually too nice, too lofty, cruising somewhere above some of the grittier realities of journalism.

For example, “Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.” Really? Bernard Madoff? Osama bin Laden?

Then there is: “Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.” I would argue, and have, that the NewsHour withheld from its viewers at the time a legitimate turn in a major story – reported by all other major news organizations – last year when it declined to inform them that a former senator and former candidate for the vice-presidency, John Edwards, issued a public statement and went on ABC Television to acknowledge that he had had an extra-marital affair with a woman who had been hired by his political action committee to make films for his campaign. That’s news.

Finally, there is, “Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.” I agree about the blind quotes when they are used to attack someone personally. But anonymous sources have often proved to be absolutely crucial to the public’s right to know what’s really going on in scores of major stories as they have unfolded from Watergate to secret CIA prisons overseas.

The most accurate and important pre-war stories challenging the Bush administration’s on-the-record but bogus case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were based on anonymous sources. Many of those stories, in part because they were based on anonymous sources, got buried or underplayed by newspapers at the time. Many of them never got reported at all on television, including the NewsHour. But there are times when there are mitigating circumstances – like internal threats within an administration or maybe jail time for leakers – when some sources must remain anonymous and when editors need to trust their reporters. And often you don’t know if the occasion is “rare and monumental” until it is too late. Pre-war Iraq, again, being Exhibit A.

Freedom of the Press_ Matteo Bertelli
Freedom of the Press, Matteo Bertelli

Some other links…

World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

World Press Freedom Index

Ryerson School of Journalism

Edelman Trust Barometer

Freedom House