Norm-Referenced vs. Criterion-Referenced Grading: A Key Window into Our Ed Values

One especially useful way to think about standards-based grading – and its various offshoots (outcomes-based learning, competency-based education, proficiency-based learning [as we call it in Vermont]) is the distinction between criterion-referenced assessments and norm-referenced assessments. It’s also a reveal way to examine into what we value about education.

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Does John Dewey Care About Subject Matter?

Last week, writing my post about John Dewey’s morality, which frankly has completely disappeared from my brain even after I spent so much time trying to understand it, I made a comparison that I wanted to revisit.  I was talking about the big difference that emphasis, not factual interpretation, can have on a thinker’s import.  I was comparing Burke and Dewey – two thinkers who both ostensibly value a balance between impulse and custom (to use Dewey’s phrases), but whose contrasting emphases make all the difference: Dewey’s faith in impulse and scientific deliberation to refresh and improve society against Burke’s faith in custom and institutions to buffet against human impulse.  

I was also making the point that although I agreed with Dewey’s point that moral knowledge can be generated the same way as scientific knowledge, I thought it important that Dewey was most interested in repeating this point in order to steer us away from dogma, rather than to focus on what this wisdom of the past (on which we can build) includes.  

Specifically, I compared Dewey’s stance here to his stance in his educational writing – specifically his emphasis on skills and process over traditional subject matter.  

This is all in the context of a broader critique that I was writing about pragmatism: first, that it’s relativist; second, that it is based on a hyperbolic vision of change; third, that its vision of growth for growth’s sake is strange; fourth, that it’s a method but not a goal, a corrective philosophy, but not a foundational one.

Dewey was famously critiqued for starting an entire movement that was hostile to traditional subject matter; he has also been well-defended against these charges by critics who seem even more knowing.  In fact, I have read this apparent defense of Dewey probably more times than I’ve read the attacks on him.  I am thinking here of E.D. Hirsch’s surprising defense of Dewey in his 1996 The Schools We Need.  I myself have read and written a lot about Dewey – most of it positive – and yet I’m not sure I ever remember him talking about subject matter or specific content.  

So this made me curious – is Dewey agnostic on content, as his critics allege?  Or is he a supporter of some content, and I just hadn’t picked up on it?  

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Dewey’s Morality: Human Nature and Conduct

I have just finished reading John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct – one of the toughest books I have ever found my way through.  I had naively thought that being an experienced reader of Dewey I’d be able to pick things up right away.  Oh, no!  While I found the introduction reasonably comprehensible, I found the lengthy first section almost impossible to understand.  It was replete with the usual Deweyisms: ludicrously abstract/eccentric terminology, quasi-evolutionary jargon, passive sentence construction, unweeded syntax, downright unclear referents in sentences, ambiguous language, repetitiveness, even digressiveness.  I almost gave up reading the book after struggling through this first section.  A description I read in some secondary research on Dewey kept sticking in my head: his writing is like the cannon fire from a nearby town – you can tell there is something important going on, but it’s impossible to say just what.  Fortunately the rest of the book went much better and I did finish, but I was deeply frustrated by the disclarity of his writing, which I sometimes began to associate with the disclarity of his ideas, or at least with a certain coyness about stating just what he really means.

That said, I learned a lot.  I think my main takeaway is that while I like pragmatist ethics in part, I still find this approach incomplete.


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Pragmatism:  Provisional Truth, or Relativism?

Pragmatism:  Provisional Truth, or Relativism?

I’ve just started reading Dewey again.  This time – “Human Nature and Conduct.” Given my current interest in all things “human nature,” this seemed like the right choice.  Reading this book – which I’ll write about more at length once I’m done – has given me a new perspective on Dewey the Pragmatist.  It has got me thinking about Dewey beyond his educational views, which are important, but seeming him more in his philosophic context.  And, frankly, it has me asking some new questions about him: For instance, is Dewey a relativist, a historicist?  Does he really believe in truth, or even the scientific approximation of truth – or just a shallow notion of “whatever works”?  Does he, as a Pragmatist, believe that reality is so changeable that truth is therefore changeable?  I’ve long admired Dewey’s educational thought, but now I’ve started wondering:  Are there epistemic or political underpinnings of his educational philosophy that should concern me?

It all started a month or two ago as I was reading a book about the major challenges to American constitutional thinking.  In one chapter, devoted to Pragmatism, there was an extensive analysis of Dewey’s challenge to the Lockean tradition of natural rights.  According to the author of the chapter, James H. Nichols, JR., Dewey’s political goal is not Hobbesian self-preservation, or Lockean protection of sanctified natural right, but the ideal of growth for its own sake: more testing, hypothesizing, adapting to the environment, and improving.  Growth leading to further growth, as Dewey put it in many of his best educational writings.  Nichols equates this with Aristotle’s definition of the good life as activity, but without the notion of a completed, perfected state of the ideal man that such activity may attain, and which accompanies Aristotle’s conception of humans as a distinctive and unchanging species with fulfillable ideals.  For Dewey, it really is about the process, since there’s no ultimate aim, no final end point, no ideal “good man” or “good life” that one can aspire to, other than the fairly loosely-defined one of experimentalism and pragmatic problem solving, which is by definition of-the-moment, and therefore historicist (the ideal conduct in one era is necessary different than that in another one because times and situations change).

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The Seeds of Revolution: Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality

Years ago, when I was first reading John Dewey – learning how to read him, really – I always loved it when he’d quote Rousseau.  It wasn’t so much the insights – which were always, penetrating – so much as it was the writing itself.  Suddenly, for a blessed few lines, the book would come alive.  Dewey’s turgid, impenetrable prose would fade away and there was Rousseau, direct, poetic, playful, seeming to speak across the ages directly to you – above all memorable.  Rousseau’s critique of liberalism is, wrote Leo Strauss, unforgettable.

Given that I’ve just read two of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers in the social contract tradition, Locke and Hobbes, I thought it was time to read the man who in many ways saw himself as correcting these thinkers, and I figured I’d start out with his first major work on political philosophy: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality.

Rousseau’s main argument rests on two points.  The first is that, as he puts it early in the “book,” no thinker has really portrayed the true state of nature – not John Locke, and particularly not Thomas Hobbes.  Locke, it would seem, got closer in Rousseau’s estimation, but both thinkers portrayed a state of nature that was far later in man’s development than the true state of nature.  This true state of nature, says Rousseau, is far more primitive, peaceful, and above all solitary than that portrayed by the others.  

Rousseau’s second point is that moral or political inequality – which is, for him, the difference in esteem, wealth, or political power (and which he differentiates from natural inequality – differing physical sizes and abilities) – comes from developments that are not related to man’s natural condition in the state of nature: sociability, the development of government, and above all, the advent of private property.  

Rousseau argues these two points in – as Strauss puts it – unforgettable fashion.  His writing is beautiful as he tells the story of humankind’s development as he sees it: from a primitive state of nature in which all men are too solitary, too pre-verbal, and too incidental in their contact (even with the opposite sex) to war with each other in Hobbesian fashion, or to even contemplate having their own property or taking that of another, in Lockean fashion.  One interesting point is that Rousseau believes there were no real families in the original state of nature; he claims that humans mated, then split up, with the female apparently caring for the child alone, for only as short a period as was necessary, with no real bond between them.  He also takes on Hobbes (several times directly, by name) by arguing against the proto-Darwinian notion that the strong oppress the weak.  In characteristic fashion, he gets right to the heart of the issue:  “I hear it constantly repeated that the stronger will oppress the weak, but I would like someone to explain to me what is meant by the word ‘oppression’” – a wonderfully direct inquiry that I think many modern theorists would do well to ask!  He goes on to establish the unlikeliness of primitive man enslaving another.  He imagines his captor being distracted for a moment by a noise: “I slip twenty paces into the forest, my chains are broken, and he will never see me again in his life” (106).  Here is Rousseau’s overall description of the state of nature:  

“We conclude, then, that savage man, wandering in the forests, without work, without speech, without a home, without war, and without relationships, was equally without any need of his fellow men and without any desire to hurt them, perhaps not even recognizing any of them individually . . .  There was neither education nor progress; the generations multiplied uselessly, and as each began afresh from the same starting point, centuries rolled on as undeveloped as the first ages; the species was already old, and man remained eternally a child” (104-105).

What a passage, and what a writer.  What an evocative, poetic explanation: a worthy, worthy rival to Hobbes’s lyrical passage about man’s bleak condition in the state of nature:  the whole “nasty, brutish, and short” paragraph.  Rousseau is – shall we say – clearly not scientifically accurate in his assessment of human primates.  His argument is mostly conjecture, but he does include specific examples a few times of primitive people’s – “the Caribs” he calls them, who seem to support his point, and I am sure his understanding of these people is probably skewed, even for his era.  But his argument – like the passage above describing how domination was unlikely in primitive man – is just as memorable and penetrating as Locke’s or Hobbes’s.  Even though you know that the overall argument is not quite right – perhaps even very far from being at all right (especially the part about families), he’s such a brilliant thinker and evocative writer that it’s hard to shake off.  He is right about so many things, and on many others, you can’t help but be carried along by his charm.  It’s interesting – the overriding sense I had in reading this account was how underdeveloped Rousseau made both Hobbes and Locke – but especially Hobbes – look in his account.  It’s evocative, and descriptive, and detailed.  He is, in the end, one of the most seductive writers I’ve ever read.

This whole narrative is done in order to show that little inequality existed between primitive humans.  It was not until society came along that inequality – moral and political, not natural inequality, which Rousseau thinks (like Hobbes) counts for little – took off.  The whole of Part II in the Discourse is focused on describing how exactly man left the state of nature, in order to show two points:  First, that it was not the simple, deliberate, rational “contract” that Locke and Hobbes say it was (in fact, it was a gradual evolution), and second, that it was not a beneficial or good choice; society is in fact deeply corrupt.  

It is not deliberate for Rousseau.

Before I outline Rousseau’s second “narrative” in Part II – the evolution of natural man into civilized man – I should mention that I was very much on the lookout for what extent Rousseau believes that our entry into society – and our subsequent inequality – was a deliberate choice.  This is the question I always have with the notion of the modern theory of blank slate-ism / social construction: the tinge of “deliberateness” it always seems to carry.  Because a thing (inequality, for instance) is not “natural,” that means humans “constructed” it deliberately.  Even the notion that we allow it to happen, allow it to “have its play” (as I once heard it described about liberalism), that seems to indicate to social constructionists that it is a deliberate choice (with the implication that his should not be okay).  I was keeping my eye on whether Rousseau would start characterizing the ills and corruption of society a deliberate choice, and several times he does flirt with it.  In a memorable passage toward the end of Part I, he calls society “instituted inequality” (105) and calls most of the inequalities among humans “the product of habit and of the various ways of life that man adopts in society”( 105).  Right at the start of the book he writes that moral or political inequality “is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men” (77).

And yet, as he begins to tell his second narrative about mankind’s true move from the real state of nature into society, it is hard not to ask two questions:  First, doesn’t Rousseau believe that this process in itself is quite natural (even though it’s bad), and second, even if he does think Hobbes and Locke were wrong as to the true state of nature, couldn’t one merely argue that they had picked up the state of nature just at a later point than Rousseau; and if so, what difference would it then make as to whether original man really had been solitary and peaceful (especially if this whole process is understood as being somewhat natural)?

Rousseau’s basic argument in Part II is that, after many thousands of years stumbling around in the state of nature, man all the while has potentialities (mental abilities, for instance) that go uncultivated.  Language dictates thought, Rousseau says (facilitating, for example, the notion of abstract ideas – such as the idea of a trans-substantial “tree”) and given that primitive man had no language, he had no way to have such detailed thoughts.  (Here one sees early instance of similar insights as the postmodernists / poststructuralists would have much later.) Rousseau’s analysis is rich and concise; it is surprisingly materialist, too.  Man begins by adapting to his environment, creating tools and others objects to aid his survival.  Because his material advances bring him into closer contact with others, he begins to occasionally cooperate with other humans.  Meanwhile, tools facilitate the construction of houses, which eventually leads to the creation of the family unit, and eventually to the advent of private property.  This all leads to increased sociability among men, which breeds greater comparison of one’s self to others, and greater resentment.  This is in part because man’s mental powers begin to develop in this process, especially his powers of observation, reflection, and (111) what he calls “love of one’s own well-being” (sometimes translated as “self esteem” or “vanity” – “amour propre” in French).  This is different from his concept of primitive man’s “amour de soi” – his “self love” – which is really a desire for one’s own preservation.  It is similar to Locke’s concept of humans’ “self preservation” instinct.  Amour propre is the desire not for preservation, but for the approval and esteem of one’s fellows.  This is the seat of many human vices, for Rousseau.  Meanwhile, the predictable division of labor which resulted from these conditions (as well as the improved technology, and the advent of agriculture) begins to separate men materially from others – the true birth of real inequality.  This feeds a need for esteem in the eyes of other men, which in turn led to more ambition, more vices, and more inequality, especially as the rich developed a taste for domination over their fellows.  Here is where we meet up with Hobbes: the unequal shares of private property create a perpetual state of war.  Rousseau writes, “ . . . the elimination of equality was followed by the most terrible disorder . . .  There arose . . . .  a perpetual conflict which ended only in sights and murders.  Nascent society gave place to the most horrible state of war . . .” (120).

It’s important to note that unlike Locke, Rousseau sees the acquisition of more and more property as unequivocally wrong.  Where Locke saw the acquisition of property as a natural right – and sidestepped the question of inequality resulting from unequal shares of property – Rousseau is adamant that it is unjust.  He writes, “Even those who had been enriched by their own industry could not base their right to property on much better titles [than ‘precarious and bogus rights’].  In vain would one say: ‘I built this wall; I earned the right to this field by my own labour.’ For ‘Who gave you its extent and boundaries?’ might be the answer” (121).  Rousseau’s critique of property is not just structural, it’s deeply moral, too: “‘Do you not know,’” he has his imaginary inquisitor ask, “‘that a multitude of your brethren perish or suffer from need of what you have to excess, and that you required the express and unanimous consent of the whole human race in order to appropriate from the common subsistence anything beyond that required for your own subsistence?’” (121).  Here Rousseau’s disagreement with Locke is sharpest: Locke is explicit that man needs no consent of his fellows to cultivate the earth, and Locke thinks it’s good when industrious men take more and more land for themselves, because they will cultivate more from it than were the land to remain idle.  But for Locke, this sort of land-grab is deeply unjust, and because the rich cannot answer this charge from the poor, they resort to maintaining their power by – here is the moment – establishing the first real government.  

I think this is fascinating: Rousseau is saying that the first governments came along not as the contract among equals wishing to escape a state of war for mutual benefit, but as a cynical ploy by the rich hoping to avoid having their property taken.  Again, note the subtle but important difference from Locke; in Locke, all men wished to preserve their property, in Rousseau, it’s only the rich, the ones who really have property (whose moral right they cannot defend) who have anything to lose.  Note how it is as though Rousseau has found out the weak points in Locke’s argument; where Locke is quiet about how much “natural right” man has to accumulate vast property, Rousseau fills the void with an explicit moral condemnation.  Where Locke is quiet about the relative enthusiasms of the differently-propertied members of society in their entrance into civil society, Rousseau is explicit: it’s the rich hoodwinking the poor.  I think this is what other authors mean when they talk about Rousseau’s challenge to liberal democracy: he is finding the cracks in the reasoning, and providing a potent moral critique of it.

Either way, Rousseau has some striking quotes about how the rich are putting the poor in chains without their knowing it; yes, he grants, there is some element of self-interest in a social contract on the part of the poor, but they cannot foresee what liberty they are giving up, while the rich understand their own gain from the contract perfectly well.  Rousseau says that the form of government the people select depends on the state they’re in when they first establish the government, but outlines three stages common to all governments: first, the institution of laws and private property rights, second, the institution of magistrates to execute laws, and third, the transformation (corruption) of legitimate power into arbitrary power – which he says is the natural end point of any government.  Like Plato, Rousseau believes that all government eventually descends into tyranny, which he calls the “last stage of inequality” (134) which “closes the circle” and makes everyone “equal” again – as slaves to the despot.  Each of these three stages corresponds with a further degree of inequality, on the way here: the first stage corresponds to that between rich and poor, the second to strong and weak, and the third to master and slave (with despotism bringing us back around to the start again, in a perverse kind of “equality”).  

Conclusion:  Isn’t Man’s Development to Society “Natural,” Too?

Where does this leave us?  Should we return to the state of nature?  Is it better to be solitary, simple, and unthinking – yet equal – than to be corrupt and unequal, but civilized?  If Hobbes’s theory of man’s natural state was dark, Rousseau’s theory of man’s civilized state is almost darker.  It’s quite clear that Rousseau does not approve of society, but it’s also fairly clear that he believes it’s impossible for us to move backward to a return to the state of nature.  This work, after all, was only intended to demonstrate *how* we became unequal – not necessarily to propose solutions for fixing it.  

It’s interesting to consider to what extent Rousseau differentiates between the original state of nature, and the process by which humans moved into our current position in society.  This process, for lack of a better term, seems particularly “natural,” too.  This is only bolstered by the notion that even primitive man in Rousseau’s true state of nature has “potentiality” – mental and physical abilities, such as the potential for reason, speech, language, and tool-making  – that are innate and “natural,” if largely untapped in primitive existence.  Yet if a being is by nature able to do certain things, isn’t this being in its natural state when it is truly exploiting all of its capacities?  (This is similar to Aristotle’s “function” argument, except it’s making the case for the true “natural state” of men, rather than asking what the “good life” is.) Is man, in Rousseau’s primitive stage, really in a “natural” state, or just a “primitive” state?  A car is designed to be driven, so a car sitting in a garage is surely not in its “natural state.” So why then is man, in Rousseau’s state of nature, considered to be in his natural state?  This is not just semantics.  Rousseau is trying to employ the state of nature as a thought experiment in order to better understand human beings and why they create political and moral inequality.  The question is why does Rousseau’s state of nature, since it does not seem to particularly reveal man’s true predilections or capacities, really reveal much at all about human beings?  And isn’t it logical that perhaps, because of Rousseau’s concept of natural inequality between men, human beings naturally create some degree of material inequality between themselves.  This, after all, is Locke’s position.

It really comes down to the extent, I suppose, that one agrees with Rousseau’s implication that the process of civilization is something of a chosen, deliberately created path – not something fairly “natural.” The way man enters into society is not seen by Rousseau as similarly natural to the way that birds naturally fly together, or bees band together in a hive.  You can tell that he really does believe that society corrupts, vice springs from sociability, and that we really were better off in some sense back when many of our talents were only latent.


In the end, this Discourse is a powerful, evocative critique of Hobbes, and, to a lesser extent, Locke.  It is rich and memorable, and its moral critique of the material inequality engendered by society (and early liberalism) is memorable and potent – if a little bit dubious and self-serving.  But clearly there was no going back after this.  The cat was out of the bag.  Romanticism was just over the horizon – back-to-nature, emotion-over-reason, rustic simplicity, cold baths, authenticity, natural food, be-who-you-are, communes – it’s all there.  So are the seeds of many powerful thinkers to come who would be inspired by just this critique; Rousseau’s critique of private property was clearly an influence on Karl Marx.  In Rousseau there is the spirit of the revolution:  If we designed civilization, or at least allowed it to manifest in its current form, we can undue it, change it, make it better suit our needs. 

I look forward to reading his next work, The Social Contract, soon, and to revisiting his educational classic (although very long read), Emile.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: The Philosophy to “Get Through”

Thomas Hobbes’s famous work of political philosophy, Leviathan, was another tome that I’d inexplicably kept on my shelf in the twenty or so years since I first “read” it in college.  Why?  I’m not sure.  It is a tome – a 500-page book taking up some two inches of width in my bookshelves all these years.  Once I’d read Locke, I knew I had to read Hobbes.  It kept coming up all over the place, in both the primary and secondary literature I’ve been reading.  I knew the basics – that it was written before the Enlightenment, all the way back in 1651, that it was a singular, singular book, and I knew all about the “nasty, brutish, and short” life that Hobbes theorized for men in the state of nature.  

I had expected it to be bracing – a kind of apocalyptic vision of humanity, cleansing, a jolt, a condensed dose of something powerful.  Given my fascination with a – if not dim, at least realistic, capacious – view of human nature, I imagined this would be a book I’d really appreciate, or at least find memorable.

It is – sort of.

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On the Morning After the Sixities — Joan Didion

If there’s one writer who has the power to evoke emotion in me unexpectedly, it has always been Joan Didion.  I say “unexpectedly” because Didion is not an overtly “poetic” writer; she works mostly in non-fiction, her style is spare, stripped-down, deemphasized, non-dramatic, straightforward.  But her prose is deceptive; you’re reading some nonchalant lede, and suddenly you’re sitting right there next to Didion back in 1961 or whatever, sitting on a barstool in a train station, overhearing a conversation between two men that makes you think about some dress you used to wear. She pulls you in, transfixes you, raises the atmosphere of some foreign but familiar place all around you — just the way it must have felt.

One of my favorite of her essays, and one I think about often as I read more political and educational philosophy, is from her book The White Album.  The story is called “On the Morning After the Sixties” – just the title itself is so beautifully evocative.  It’s short – not even four full pages – but just devastating.  And for me the central line in the story, the one I find myself thinking often about, comes — characteristically — quite casually, just about halfway through.

But let me set the scene. 

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Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: The Problem at the Heart of It

I was struck by the negative reaction I had to rereading this book (which I’d first read in college).  

I say that because I like Aristotle.  I have written before about my evolution from youthful Platonic idealism to a more sober, nuts-and-bolts Aristotelian realism.  I love in particular Aristotle’s method of classification, his sensitive and acute separation of a thing into its (many!) categories, parts, or types.  That’s a method that I’ve wholeheartedly adopted into my own thinking in the last five years.  It’s an approach focused on specificity, above all: the notion that the truth is to be found by sifting through the details, by inductive reasoning, by taking everything apart, studying and classifying it, and then putting it back together into some kind of wider and higher system of understanding, moving ever-upward toward truth.

And that’s why I think I reacted so negatively to rereading this book – because I was surprised when Aristotle, after such a promising start, makes such a monumental error in logic – one which, now that I’ve noticed it, changes the way I see his entire famous work.

What is this error of logic?  It is this:

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Locke’s Second Treatise of Government

Locke – Two Treatises of Government

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep dive exploring the works of John Locke.  As you can observe from my last two blog posts, I began with Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and then I read his famous An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  But you can’t do a deep dive on Locke without reading his other most famous work:  the second treatise in his Two Treatises of Government

I didn’t know much about this work going into it except that it was supposed to be deeply influential both in the formation of modern liberalism and in the American constitution – even to the extent that Locke’s wording was possibly (though this is much debated) the source of the famous phrase in the Declaration, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Clearly Locke, writing about a hundred years before the founding of the United States, was a major source of political theory for the founders, and I already knew that many of his concepts supposedly outlined in the famous second treatise were seminal for the political realities of our country: the doctrine of natural rights, the notion of the state of nature leading to a social contract, the famous idea that government exists based on the consent of the governed.  

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The Birth of the Enlightenment: John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

During my first year in college, I took an intro philosophy class.  It was the first and only straight philosophy class that I took in college.  Back then philosophy seemed too removed from the real world – a feeling I had about the rest of school, really, but philosophy even more so – it just seemed like a bunch of people sitting around a table and haggling about semantics.  What was the point?  

I’ve often wondered about people whom I’ve read and heard since then who described having an awakening in their first philosophy class in college.  It makes me think that perhaps these people must have entered college with some already strong questions about the world that they wanted to answer, or strong convictions that they wanted to prop up, or strong aversions that they wanted to investigate, to argue back against, to refute.  I remember well one young man in a class of mine on literary theory who really came alive when we were discussing Michel Foucault’s concept of the “deviant.” You could tell there was something there for him — and I’ve often thought that coming into college with some pet “concern” or “issue” with the world is not a bad thing at all — but a spur to inquiry and investigation — almost better than walking onto campus with the classic wide-open mind and lack of preconceived ideas.

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