A Kind of Certainty: I. An Uncertain Faith

Well, you had to know this one was coming… a meditation upon Hamlet.

This meditation, though, also happens to be a treatise on curriculum. I wrote this essay last year for a course I took with Dr William Pinar, who is Curricular Royalty on top of being a super guy. And, like me, he taught secondary English, so I felt I had a sympathetic ear.

Dr Pinar’s course was driven by chapters he was writing for a book about George Grant, who was (among many things) a philosopher, theologian, educator, and Canadian nationalist. Dr Pinar’s book is about Grant’s critique of time, technology, and teaching.

The series of posts, “A Kind of Certainty,” comprises my final paper, in which I attempt to present Hamlet, the character, by way of the same treatment that Dr Pinar presents Grant. That said, I don’t address technology here (although I do address it here and here), focusing instead upon teaching and curriculum, and granting due respect to the concept of time.

I debated how I might present this essay, whether to revise it into something more suited to the style and structure of my other blog posts. But it just proved far too difficult to change or remove anything without drastic revision, essentially having to rewrite the entire paper, so here it is in academic trim… citations, endnotes, and all – Dr Pinar is a big fan of endnotes, by the by, so that’s the explanation there.

Here, too, is the bibliography.

 


A Kind of Certainty

1. An Uncertain Faith

I taught Hamlet in English 11. During what typically lasted five months, we considered, among other concepts, certainty and faith. One example of mine to illustrate these was to ask a student why she sat down so readily on her classroom chair. She would be puzzled and say something like, “Huh?” My reply was to note how much faith she evidently placed in that chair to support her without collapsing. Then she would laugh, and I would ask further whether she knew the manufacturer, or the designer, but of course she knew neither. Then I would ask how many other chairs that week had collapsed beneath her, and (apart from one, unfortunately!) the reply would be, “None.” My point, of course, grew clearer to everyone as this conversation progressed, so my next question was to the class: “How many people rode in a vehicle sometime this past week?” Once most confirmed it, I would ask the same basic question as that of the chair: how were you certain that vehicle was safe? I was more tactful where it came to car accidents, usually using my own spectacular examples (… I have two). Ultimately, my claim was that we might have as much as 99% certainty, yet for whatever doubt exists, we rely on faith or else we would never sit in chairs, or drive in cars, or whatever else. As my tone grew more grave, so did their nods and expressions, as if we ought to be dropping Hamlet to study car mechanics, or industrial first aid.

My students were typically alarmed when they realised their faith was only as certain as its object, be it a sturdy or rickety chair. Where extremes present themselves rather obviously, even so, in any case of such offhanded faith, we make ourselves collateral. As if we live on credit, certain that all will remain as it has done, we borrow on faith against our future well-being until it comes time, as it says in the fable, to pay the piper. Meanwhile, what seems certain to us we literally take-for-granted, begging the question with impunity, I suppose, since every day the sun continues to rise.[1] Everyday, we overlook the caution, familiar to investors, that past performance does not necessarily indicate future potential, or as they say in the casino, the House never loses.

Maybe we never stop to consider just how loosely we play with certainty and faith in our day-to-day because doing so might mean never again stepping outside the door – no sense everyone being as hamstrung as the Prince of Denmark. Having studied the play as much as I have, I find every one of its concepts up for debate – arrghh – and where certainty and faith can actually seem either opposed or synonymous, that determination depends on yet another concept from the play, perspective. In any case, where it comes to certainty and faith – at least from my perspective – Hamlet is particularly instructive.

No matter your perspective, I would warn students, no matter where you stand or land, the play will then present you with a challenge of certainty, something I called the “Yeah, but…,” which was naturally a source of unending frustration. Conversely, and ironically, it was also a source of certainty since, like Hamlet in duplicitous Elsinore,[2] at least we can be certain that everybody else thinks, shall we say, uniquely, if not differently. Hamlet’s return home to the web of Catholic Elsinore from the symbolic bastion of Lutheran reform, Wittenberg, on account of his father’s death, finds him divided not unlike the Elizabethans comprising Shakespeare’s audience, caught between two branches of Christian belief.[3] The Bard besets his tragic hero with a matrix of inner turmoil – both secular and spiritual, of fealty and faith – a tesseract of beliefs such that Hamlet cannot reconcile any one to another, even as he quakes yet pines for some grand repose. For each possible value he might set down in his tables, his same self-assurance prompts Hamlet to pose questions more profound, rendering him unable to decide about, well, anything. Doubting that anyone can even interpret what it means to exist and, thereby, doubting that concern over living, or dying, or even debating the question is worthwhile, Hamlet, like the actors he so admires, effectively stands for nothing. As such, I admitted to my students, he was hardly an exemplary role model.

So, I suggested, to avoid the debilitating trap that befalls the brooding Prince, that of “thinking too precisely on the event” (Shakespeare, 1997, 4.4.41),[4] we must simply and ultimately decide what we believe after having drawn such conclusions from the best available evidence. Easily said, yet is this not exactly what Hamlet is trying to do? Little wonder students find him so frustrating. Then again, I pointed out, all our sighing and huffing is its own judgment call, a very palpable hit borne of the frustration of those who are upset with him. With Hamlet’s inability to decide for most of the play comprising most of the play, and with him chastising his own cowardice and rebuking God-given reason as a consequence (2.2.571-580, 4.4.36-39, 43), a spendthrift sigh of our own is hardly unreasonable. On the other hand, observed one student, well on her way to modern material success, he sells tickets. Unquestionably, yes, Shakespeare made a meal of Hamlet making a meal of things. And, even though he doomed his protagonist from the start, the playwright does release Hamlet from his torturous hamster wheel – mercifully? – just before he meets his grand moment of truth.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare includes what I call “Let…” statements. Of particular significance are the following four statements, presented here in sequential order:

  1. Of Claudius’s machinations, Hamlet tells Gertrude to “let it work” (3.4.205)
  2. Exacting vengeance for his father’s murder, Laertes will “let come what comes” (4.5.136)
  3. Having finally made peace with the certainty of death as well as the uncertainty of what lies beyond, Hamlet tells himself (alongside Horatio) to “let be” (5.2.224)
  4. Later, as Horatio confronts doubts of his own, Hamlet tells him to “let go” (5.2.343)

Alternatively arranged, these statements help comprise, for me, a response to the famous question, “To be, or not to be.”[5] This alternative arrangement derives from a sentence analysis exercise that my students and I would complete while preparing for the play. The sentence is from an essay by Drez (2001) about American pilots during WWII: “There were no souvenirs, but the grisly task of scrubbing decomposing remains from their boots later left a lasting memory” (p. 144). Briefly, the words later, left, and lasting illustrate the creation and the span of the airmen’s memories over time – the future, past, and present, respectively – made all the more ironic since the souvenirs they found were hardly the ones they sought. Using these three words alongside my own interpretation of each “Let…” statement, I have arranged them chronologically out-of-sequence with the play, using instead an interpretive application of temporality as three discrete periods[6] to challenge the common concept of linear time as historical calendar pages or a ticking clock.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

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

 


Endnotes

[1] Shame on us for carrying on so fallaciously! At pedestrian-controlled stoplights, we eventually step off the curb believing that drivers have halted their oncoming vehicles rather than carrying on through and running us down. To call the stoplight “pedestrian-controlled” is somewhat of an embellishment on the part of the city engineers, I think, a deferral to who really is favoured, for whatever reason, in the equation. But for the pedestrian to step off the curb is an act of faith, surely, since they abrogate control to the driver who has the car’s capability to accelerate and manoeuvre at his disposal. For that brief moment, only the driver’s motives keep the pedestrian safe. And careful though we are, accidents still happen in such everyday circumstances. Worst of all, as more recent times demonstrate, cars and trucks can be used precisely as weapons of terror against innocent people; the danger I speak of, the giving-and-taking of control, however uncommon, has now been realised. That changes attitudes profoundly.

Security measures, safety audits, protective equipment, government regulations – on and on goes the list of processes and people in which we place our faith, believing with some degree of certainty – or, as often as not, taking for granted on faith – that proper standards are being met that ensure our safety.

[2] Just my interpretation, mind you, “duplicitous Elsinore.” Certainly, you will have your own analysis.

[3] Since the time of those events described in the New Testament, their interpretation has divided Christian belief into myriad denominations, such as those found in both Shakespeare’s play and Elizabethan England: Catholicism and two respective branches of reform, the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther and the English Reformation decreed by King Henry VIII. I simply use “Christian belief” in a broad sense, wanting to avoid the suggestion that any particular denomination tops some hierarchy, since that sort of debate, here, is beside the point.

[4] For the duration of the essay, I shall refer to quotes from this cited edition of the play.

[5] Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, I’m hardly the first to devise this response to the famous question. Evidently, where my approach differs from other examples (Baumlin & Baumlin, 2002; Critchley & Webster, 2011) is connecting the four specified “Let…“ statements and Hamlet’s closing lines (5.2. 222-223, 358) with concepts of temporality.

[6] A full explanation of the four “Let…” statements and temporality demands its own essay, and I am already deep enough into Hamlet as it is, so for my weary negligence I ask some gracious leeway instead of a challenging “Yeah, but…”. Suffice to say, though, as we might feel this way or that about past or future, we still must inherently live each present moment, such as we are.

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