Letter and Spirit: Two-fisted adventures at home and in the classroom

Letter and Spirit: Two-fisted adventures at home and in the classroom

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I grew up in a very nice home on Chicago’s South Side, two stories with a full attic and basement. On the first floor we had the kitchen, dining room, living room, den, and the “powder room” or guest bathroom.

My father ran a big company and once a year and invited his top executives–some 20 men in suits and ties–over to the house for a weekend meeting in our living room. My mother prepared her four boys carefully for the home’s temporary conversion to conference center, stressing that we had to be quiet during our father’s meetings. We had to dress nicely. Above all, we couldn’t use the powder room, which was strictly for the guests.

The living room opened onto our foyer and the carpeted front stairs. The powder room was off the foyer on the other side. During the meeting, we weren’t to enter the foyer or use the stairs either.

I was young–at least recollecting, I hope I was. One afternoon while the executives addressed matters of consequence in the living room, I was playing in the playroom. I needed to go to the bathroom and by force of habit went to the powder room.

Reaching for the flusher when I was done, I froze, suddenly remembering that the powder room was off limits. Mortified, I lost what little good sense I might have possessed at that age. With contrition surging through my veins I dutifully corrected my error. I reached both hands into the bowl and lifted out the two pieces of offending evidence. Dripping, I carried both of them out of the powder room through the foyer and up the carpeted front stairs, intending to drop them into the sanctioned bowl in the upstairs bathroom.

Climbing the stairs to carry out what I took to be my corrective obligations, I looked up to see my mother walking down the stairs. I remember she was wearing pearls. I broke into tears, shaking and gesticulating apologetically.

My mother, may she rest in peace, had the composure of a hostage negotiator. Here, in formal dress a few feet from the executive conference center, that composure was tested to its limits. There I was, my hands dripping onto the carpet, wobbling under the weight of my guilt, my upturned face wide open with my howls of embarrassment–embarrassment not for what I was doing in the moment, but rather for having used the powder room.

My mother calmly coaxed me upstairs, helped me slide my cargo into the toilet, encouraged me to wash my hands not once but twice, and explained to me a little about the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law.

Yes, I wasn’t supposed to use the powder room. That was the letter of the law. But having used it I would have served the spirit of the law better by simply flushing. It was an abuse of the spirit of the law to carry my violation through the house.

I’ve taught a freshman psych course for about 30 terms now and have always ended it with that story. It introduces the “official class handshake”–both hands outstretched as if weighing two stones.

It’s an embarrassing story told at my expense. When I first told it to my middle son during his disrespectful teen years, he was so impressed by it that he begged respectfully for permission to tell it to his friends. Shameless guy that I am, I granted it, glad for his rare show of supplicating attention. Shamelessness can be worth it. The story reliably endears me to my students just before they write their course evaluations and take their final. And it leaves them with an indelible image reinforced by the official handshake we exchange in the school corridors.

On one hand there’s the letter of the law; on the other hand there’s the spirit. The spirit of the law is its intent. The letter of the law is its implementation. There has to be balance between the two, a kind of give-and-take, because intent divorced from implementation is toothless, and implementation divorced from intent is empty–or worse, dangerous. This is true for laws imposed on us, laws we impose on others, and laws we impose upon ourselves.

The law is a slippery slope in two directions. If you honor the spirit of the law at the expense of the letter, implementation suffers. The spouse who’s OK with a little fooling around, the recovering alcoholic who’s OK with a little alcohol–soon they’re not so OK.

If you honor the letter but not the spirit, you drift into perverse violation of the spirit convinced that you’re honoring it. Orthodoxy, fanaticism, fundamentalism, absolutism, fascism, totalitarianism–in comparison to these human vices, my dripping on the stairs was sanity itself.

This last term, one student was anything but endeared to me by the story. He raised his hand agitatedly halfway through it. I ignored him until I was done and then let him have his say, a sharp rebuke to me, a real dressing down.

“Over the course of this term my respect for you has plummeted. How do you expect me to respect you if you tell personal stories like that? You are a professor and you ought to be ashamed.”

Having taught the course so many times I wasn’t really perturbed. Many of his 84 fellow classmates came to my defense. I thanked him for sharing his opinion and pressed on. To the sound of 85 pencils scratching away on finals, I had a chance to reflect on the way the story backfired with this one student. I realized I had just missed a perfect teaching moment.

The dissenting student (who got an A in the class, having done good, spirited work) is from Russia, where for most of the past century the letter of the law was sacrosanct and the spirit ignored.

I may have this student next term for Western Civilization, where one of the themes is the relationship between spirit and law in revolutions. They start with a visionary’s justified and spirited dream of a better world. To turn that spirit into changes in the letter of the law, the visionary takes it to the streets. Once it ignites the people’s spirits, the vision takes on a life of its own and threatens to race out of control. The establishment lawgivers crack down, and the visionary realizes that the revolution will succeed only if it consolidates and escalates rapidly toward hard and fast radical changes in the letter of the law. Lenin, for example, realized that “to make omelets one has to break a few eggs.”

Then along comes a sociopath like Stalin, who says, “Break eggs? I can help break eggs.” The visionaries welcome him because he seems able to execute the efficient translation of the new spirit into the letter of the law–except that he doesn’t care about the spirit at all. He just likes breaking eggs.

Lenin admired Stalin at first. Only on his deathbed did Lenin write that Stalin was just too bad a person and should be removed. By then it was too late. Once the sociopaths have a foothold, they climb to absolute power quickly. Stalin killed over 20 million of his own people enforcing the letter of “The People’s Law,” while ignoring the spirit.

My student grew up in a country where the tension between the law and its spirit is a sensitive subject. And here I am his teacher.

There’s the letter of the law about maintaining professorial dignity. That law precludes using self-effacing potty humor. And then there’s the spirit of the law: What is dignity for? For making a lasting and valuable impression on the students.

Is it appropriate for me to sacrifice my dignity in order to make a lasting and valuable impression on my students? Should I, in this case, sacrifice letter for spirit? As my Russian student rightfully argued, breaking the letter can ultimately kill the spirit. The classroom can become too chummy, too casual, loose, and ultimately accommodating for the students’ good. And as I rightfully argued, sometimes it’s worth it. There’s the dilemma. We’re each right. Sometimes.

Teaching is give-and-take. We teachers must hold content to professional standards or the students will be unprepared for professional life; we must bend the standards down so that the students can reach them from where they stand. We are the students’ bosses; the students are our bosses. A bad teacher like a bad writer ignores his audience. A bad teacher like a bad writer mollycoddles his audience.

As a mind reader in training, I wish I had recognized immediately how my student’s objection dovetailed with my story. Then I could have shared that amazing teaching moment. But I was too slow. Ten minutes into the test, I interrupted to explain how my student’s objection reflected the tension between spirit and letter which was exactly what my story was about. But by then, the students were distracted, concentrating on their finals.

I must have been distracted earlier when he attacked me, concentrating on my test too, concerned with maintaining classroom control, restoring the dignity his eleventh-hour challenge had posed to my authority as my students’ boss.

After all, my students–my bosses–were about to fill out their evaluations. If I was to maintain the letter of the law, I had to set aside the spirit of ambiguity that I had worked so two-fistedly to impress upon my students throughout the term.