Life has a way of narrowing down your options. When they’re reduced to two equally undesirable and dangerous alternatives, you’re said to be between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Though the situation reeks of evil, it actually has little to do with Satan or his environs. Its origins instead can be found at sea. In the days of the clipper ship, sailors were often ordered to do repair work on the seam in the hull which was on or below the water line. Its location made work there extremely difficult and hazardous; sailors who were ordered to do so, often referring to it as a “devil of a task.” After having been said enough times, “devil” came to name the seam itself, leaving the tars (who got their name from the substance with which they worked) between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Not knowing what dangers lay ahead, there could be all hell to pay—serious repercussions arising from the job. Closer examination shows it to be nothing more than that devilish seam again. The original phrase was “the devil to pay and hot pitch,” pitch being the sticky tar used for water-proofing and caulking with which they were “paying” or waterproofing the area.
The job was pure hell. So when this lengthy phrase became all-purpose, we pared it down to all hell to pay.
“What in tarnation are we talking about?” you might ask. It’s only a mild expletive for “damn,” “hell,” or the “devil”—probably a variation of “darnation” (“darn” being a euphemism for “damn”)—though a case might also be made linking it to the cursing of the aforementioned tars. Having a devilish time with your own bad choices? Sticky as they may be, things are never quite as bad as they seam 🙂
I am 82 years old and somewhat world-weary. Yesterday my grandson asked if I was in despair about the events in Dallas and the killings that preceded them. Yes, I said, I was deeply saddened by it all. I mentioned how I myself had once tried to address such issues. Though my efforts could be considered failures, I felt that they had not been in vain. I took comfort in the thought that though they had ended up on the discard heap of history they had also entered the ether and at some moment yet to come they would magically affect future generations who would learn from them and build upon them. I told him that I remained hopeful about the country and its future.
The year was 1968 and our country was reeling. The war was raging in South East Asia, and the struggle for civil rights was reaching its crescendo at home. Swirling about were massive protests and growing dissent against the War and demonstrations of militancy by Black Americans. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, more than 200 rebellions occurred nationwide on that night alone. Serious violence erupted in 38 states and 138 cities.
The unrest was accompanied by a massive and unprecedented level of counter-action by the Police and the National Guard. In the month of April, more National Guard troops were called out than in the previous year. Never before in the history of our country has such a massive military response been mounted against domestic disorder.
Robert Kennedy was a white man who had established an especially close relationship with the Black community. He was a symbol of reconciliation and a promising candidate for President. Only four years before he had expressed his anguish at the assassination of his own brother JFK. On the night of his victory in the all important California primary, he was also assassinated. The nation was coming apart at the seams.
On the campus of the Divinity School at Yale University, far from the disorder, a small program in compensatory education was taking shape. It was a small skirmish, part of the other war, the war on poverty, an articulated national commitment to address issues of social and economic injustice.
The school had been in operation for four years. But in 1968, a small group of educators redefined the enterprise and gave it a new direction. As in previous years, most of the students came from backgrounds of poverty. But that year the student body was especially challenging. Many were alienated from traditional schooling; underachieving academically and written off by their home schools. They were African-Americans from the large cities as well as from the rural South; Latinos from the far West, Native Americans from the reservations of the Southwest and white kids from Vermont and New Hampshire who had never before met a kid of color. For the first time ever, young women were enrolled as students on the Yale campus.
These students were as confused as we were as to the meaning of the events unfolding before them and how best to respond. The external turmoil reflected all too accurately the inner contradictions of our staff and students, bringing sharply into focus the conduct of individual lives as well as that of the nation.
For us it could not be business as usual. One could not simply seek refuge from these forces at our schools and universities. Schooling was part of and not apart from society. Rather than simply sit by idly, reflecting on these events, our schools were morally compelled to step forward—to generate new thinking, alternate visions and active approaches to the events of the outside world consistent with the needs and demands of its students. This was the stuff of a real education, intellectually challenging and spiritually and politically transformative.
We took to heart the words of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator, that when we educate for personal liberation, we raise social and political consciousness. We believed that though schools serve primarily as hand-maidens of the larger culture, perpetuating its values, traditions, and myths, they must also play the gadfly, holding the culture accountable, helping shape it in a more humane image.
Central to our effort was our curriculum. At its heart lay the forbidden issue of our culture — racism. We made discrimination, its nature and its origin, the centerpiece of our learning, using it as the touchstone of identity and a metaphor for the human condition. We examined the issue from all sides, beginning with ourselves, the students and staff, using individual concerns and interpersonal relationships as the primary subject of study. Beyond this was the issue of community, as we searched together for the values that ground people and bind them together.
We lived and breathed these matters daily. Nothing was swept under the rug. We were a vibrant laboratory in the American dream, struggling actively to better understand the problems and potential of our democracy.
Assisting us in our quest was a full range of academic and aesthetic resources, from the great books of the Western literary tradition, to poetry, drama, dance, music, and film. At a time when multicultural education was coming into vogue, we complemented it with the words of “dead white men,”looking to classical literature for guidance in order to better understand the external crises of our day. Their words and thoughts helped mediate the day-to-day encounters between students and staff, illuminating the realms of the personal and interpersonal strife and confusion.
Today, we find ourselves once more at a watershed moment in our history. If educators need a clarion call to step into the current breach, I humbly offer the prospectus for our school, written almost fifty years ago:
This prospectus represents the product of our total reassessment of the Yale Summer High School. We feel that the need exists for a national educational community where, in microcosm, our strength in diversity might be brought to bear on the critical areas of American life.
Our point of departure is the widespread disaffection and estrangement felt by many members of the body politic towards the quality of American life; whether reflected in the Black-White polarization and the spasms of civil disorder that have shaken our cities, or in the apathy and despair of those who have chosen to “turn off.”
For many of its most talented youths, as for many of its most gifted adults, America has ceased to inspire commitment. A functional concept of citizenship itself is in crisis; a crisis stemming from the gradual loss of common bases for action and common social goals. As educators, we feel compelled to address ourselves to this problem.
Our effort is directed primarily to those potentially creative youngsters who are in danger of being ignored and discounted by society. We would have them grow into responsible participants in our culture. We would nurture a valid commitment to American society via those young people currently most at odds with it.
However, there exist few values, taken seriously, either universal or uniquely American, which might bind our citizens together. An effort must be made to structure contexts wherein such values might be rescued from our past; and new values generated so as to ground our common choices and imbue them with redeeming significance.
We agree with Socrates that “wisdom cannot be taught”, yet feel that contexts can and should be structured where it might best be learned. Nowhere is the need more clearly felt than in the area of race relations; for it is only through the recreation of shared values that freedom will be possible for both Black and White.
Our school would be such a workshop, for young persons, in the problems and possibilities of modern America. It may appear that we are seeking students of heroic dimension, and exhorting them to a heroic task.
Perhaps this is true; but we concur with Max Lerner that one of the saddest things that has happened to American Education has been “the squeezing out of the heroic.” Adding this necessary dimension is one of our goals as a model educational community.
It is 2016. Our nation once more finds itself at a critical juncture. We anxiously search for answers, Our failure to fully explore new ways in which a diverse population might learn to live and work together in harmony can only lead to an extension of the present state of thoughtlessness and confusion that now divides the nation. We look to our politicians for answers . But this is an important teaching moment for our country. And politicians are not teachers. Our schools and universities should be leading that conversation rather than simply following or re-formulating that which passes for thought in Washington.
Where are our schools today and the educators who lead them? When will they step forward to assume a leadership role and help show us the way? Might they, at the very least, create a context in which that conversation might occur? When it happens, please let me know. I’d very much like to join in.
More from Larry Paros on education:
Another weekend dining out, indulging yourself, eating high off the hog (late19thC). Why not? That’s where you’ll traditionally find the choicest cuts of meat — high up on the hog’s side. You say you ate like a bird, thinking birds don’t eat very much. In truth, relative to their size, they eat considerably. The moment of truth comes when you step on the bathroom scale. Your bravado crumbles, and a sumptuous breakfast gives way to eating humble pie (early 19thC). You are absolutely mortified. The umbles were the heart, liver, and entrails of the deer, a little something left for the servants while the Lord and Lady feasted on the venison. Having to eat the umbles suggested poverty, a humble status, and your current humiliation. The only thing left to swallow is your pride. The call to a hearty breakfast, however, still beckons. “But a morsel,” you say, from the Latin mors , a “bite,” from mordere, “to bite.” You hesitate for a moment. Adding re, “back,” leads to a “biting again and again,” something “vexing” you, creating remorse (1385) — that gnawing feeling that can only leave you eating your words (1550s).
You know you’ve been into one cup too many during this holiday season, when the Latin bria, “cup” leaves you inebriated. Refraining from that same cup, however, could also have sobered you up. All you had to do was remain so, “apart from” it.
Though too many cups can leave you out of your skull, a more accurate designation would be “in your skull,” there being a time when skulls and shells served as drinking cups, the Old Norse skal being the source of the popular toast. Skoal later became a popular expression among English speakers in 1589 when Scotland’s James VI’s marriage to a Danish princess provided the rationale for much drinking and toasting.
Skal is also the source of our scales, originally a pan or bowl hanging from each end of a beam, horizontally suspended at its center. So weigh your actions carefully, especially when it comes to drinking and driving. Those skals also are the scales of justice, one of its principal attributes being that you can never outweigh even a little right with any quantity of wrong.
Facing the music is never easy. It does, after all, require confronting unpleasantness and the consequences of one’s own errors. For actors, their moment came when facing the pit orchestra as they looked out towards the audience— a time to owe up to their mastery of the role and the reaction of the theater goers. For soldiers, it was being mustered out in full battle regalia for a call to inspection — often initiated by a bugle, or on the occasion of their formal dismissal from service — a ceremony also often accompanied by band music. Politicians also take it hard. When Margaret Truman, daughter of the President, gave her first public concert in August of 1947, music critics found her performance wanting. Unwilling to face the music as to Margaret’s limited talents, the President lashed out publicly at the critics, noting how their opinions were not worth a song (late 1500s) — a phrase originally alluding to the meager earnings of street singers — often nothing more than pennies or a few scraps of food. Better yet, Baron Burleigh who remarked on being ordered by Queen Elizabeth to give Edmund Spenser an annuity of 100 pounds for having composed The Faerie Queene, “All this for a song?”
Apple triumphs over Microsoft! Time to celebrate—it’s the joy of victory, the agony of defeat. The Greek agein, “to lead” gave us agon — an “assembly,” into which people were led to witness the public games.
Once comfortably seated, you watched the Agonia, “the contest or struggle for the prize” and your favorite agonistes, “contender” — creating our first antagonists, those you rooted anti, “against” and the protagonists, those you rooted pro, “for.”
Eventually, agonia came to describe not the struggle but the mental and physical anguish experienced in its course. Agony then extended to “any activity fraught with difficulty or pain;” later, “anguish” and “intolerable pain,” before arriving at its current definition —“any extreme suffering of body or mind.”
For sheer agony you went to Rome for gladiatorial contests — extremely violent events held in amphitheaters, the floor of which were covered with sand to lend stable footing and absorb the blood of the combatants. Over time, the sand and the fighting area became linked — making harena, Latin for “sand,” into the arena — the field of play or the actual building or stadium where sporting events are held. No accident that the corporate arena is now the area of greatest bloodletting.
Time then to get down to the nitty-gritty (1963), “the heart of the matter,” “the essential facts.” What’s more important: the nits or the grits?
Nits are simply the eggs or larvae of insects such as lice. Being almost microscopic, they are extremely difficult to spot. Getting down to them means attending to the smallest details.
Grit initially described the fineness, coarseness, etc texture of stone. Those considered clear grit were considered “of good hard quality.” It wasn’t easy sifting through it all, searching for the best grit.
John Wayne’s true grit enabled him to grit it out, “to endure even the most difficult situation.” To be the grit was to have genuine spirit or pluck; to be the ‘right sort’, the genuine ‘article’—but only to a point.
To be a successful nitpicker, you have to be obsessive about the smallest of details and the most petty of matters. Whatever impels you to be so meticulous? It’s the Latin metus, “fear” + the diminutive ul+ osus, “full of,” leaving you “full of little fears.”
Could it be that you are fear-driven? Worse yet is when you become overly fastidious from the Latin fastidiosus, “disdainful” or “squeamish” from fastus, “contempt’+ taedium, “aversion,” your actions becoming tedious to others, “wearisome to the point of being disgusting.” Like the nit (1902-03), which once described “an inconsequential or obnoxious person,” you too are now worthy of being picked on.
In the 60s, when we “lost it,” we “went ape.” Nowadays, we have a cow. Where would we be without them? In Anglo Saxon times, feoh, “cattle” and “money” were one and the same, contributing to the fees we now receive. The milch cow (1601) gave folks a “source of regularly accruing profit,” or “a person from whom money was easily drawn,” helping pave the way for today’s ever-dependable cash cow.
No one relied on cows more than the Romans who used pecu, “cattle,” as their standard of wealth and barter, creating pecunia, “money,” which left us pecuniary — whether we were into cattle futures or not.
Doing well financially made us pecunious, not so well, impecunious. Fancy this somewhat peculiar? Peculiar originally spoke of “cattle which belonged solely to one person,” then just “private” or “special,” then “strange.”
What’s peculiar in our day and age are sacred cows — persons, ideas, or objects, so sacrosanct as to be exempt from criticism. In India they roam the countryside. Here you’ll find them in the fields of politics, education, medicine, and law, milking their specialty for all it’s worth. Not to despair. As Abbie Hoffman once reminded us, “Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
In America, children go to bed each night rhyming “Bang, bang, you’re dead, thirty bullets in your head.” They later grow up with bang-up expectations, always giving things their best shot, knowing that if they work hard, their ideas will go over with a bang. They are thus assured of becoming a bang-up success and the best he culture has to offer, i.e. a top gun. People have been preoccupied with guns since 1330. The soldiers at Windsor Castle named their favorite and most prominent weapon, a huge catapult which hurtled large stones and balls of fire —“Dame” or “Lady Gunhilda” from the Icelandic gunnr, meaning “war” and hildr, a “battle.” With the advent of the cannon, she was shortened initially to a gunne and then to gun, thus naming the world’s first firearms. Our first great guns were large firearms like cannons, as opposed to smaller ones such as muskets or rifles, a distinction which held up to the end of the 19th century. One of the largest was Big Bertha, from W.W.I, named for the portly wife of the German munitions manufacturer, Krupp — though evidence reveals his firm bore no responsibility for the giant howitzer. They also named a person of note or consequence. The man we used to call a great gun was really something. Today we know him better as the real big shot. He looks to go over with a bang; though he’s more likely to just pop off.