Monthly Archives: April 2017

“Life Without Principle”

When I was a first-year student in college, I faced a fork in the road.  While I had started with the intention of being a pre-med major, I found my science classes to be boring.  They seemed to all be focused on rote memorization which was stultifying to me.  The classes which excited me were my History classes.  I loved reading and writing essays, thinking about ideas, conceptualizing the past.


My internal conflict was increased my second year of college when I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria for a semester.  My passion for art, music, and history was fueled even more through travel and exploration.  When I returned from Europe, I confided my struggle to my advisor, who was a Historian.  While I had been encouraged to pursue medicine as a potentially lucrative career, I did not feel any love for that path.  He wisely handed me a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 essay “Life Without Principle.”

I already was a fan of Thoreau, and this selection undoubtedly changed the direction of my life.  I was moved by his directive to earn one’s living “by loving.”  I knew that medicine was not a reflection of my authentic self, but I LOVED history.  And so it was History that I pursued.  This path led me to transfer colleges, study abroad in England, travel to Africa, earn a doctorate, write several books, and ultimately be a writer/educator in the NYC area.  All of these choices have made my heart sing.

henry-david-thoreau-lgI was reminded of “Life Without Principle” this semester in the introduction to the Humanities course that I teach to first-year engineering students at Stevens Institute.  I had heard several of them making comments about feeling that college was like a boot camp as they were herded through classes aimed at directing them to lucrative careers.  I wanted to broaden their horizons so I created a class session around Thoreau’s essay in the hopes of reminding them not to forget about their life’s happiness.

I started the class by reading the quote below and asked them to guess when it was written.  Several of them noted that it sounded timeless and that, except for some of the word choices, it could have been written in the twenty-first century.

–“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.  This world is a place of business.  What an infinite bustle!  I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive.  It interrupts my dreams.  There is no sabbath.  It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.  It is nothing but work, work, work. … I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”

We then discussed a few other passages from the essay, and they did some self reflective stream of consciousness writing.  When it came time to share in small groups, the results were very interesting.  Several students admitted they would like to teach if their career path was not concerned with money.  A couple of students expressed a desire to travel, but said they had never looked into it because their academic loads were so heavy.  One student proclaimed that he’d love to just leave everything behind and travel the world for some time.  A number of students noted that they felt pressure from their families to make a lot of money so they could take care of their parents in the future.  flowers

I hope that reflecting on Thoreau gave them some new perspectives to consider.  In these same classes, I recently sent them on a brief nature walk (without their phones or laptops!) to enjoy the springtime beauty that is blanketing the campus right now.  A number of students admitted that they rarely take a break and just enjoy the out of doors without technology.  Maybe someday soon or someday long in the future, they will remember enjoying nature and Thoreau’s words, and will take some time for their own personal joys.  The art of self reflection and cultivating inner happiness is one of the most important lessons, I can share with my students, just as my advisor did over twenty years ago with me.  Thank you, Sachem!  Thank you, Thoreau!

–“… I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence.  Wherever a man separates from the multitude, and goes his own way in this mood, there is indeed a fork in the road, though ordinary travelers may see only a gap in the paling.  His solitary path across lots will turn out to be the higher way of the two.”




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Coltrane as Meditation


Last weekend I saw the film Chasing Trane. What I liked most about it was being in a dark, quiet space watching images of Coltrane, and getting a lost in his music. Just being in a space filled with Coltrane for a couple of hours was very satisfying. I especially enjoyed the artwork employed in the film to go along with the photos. Not only was he incredibly photogenic, but he inspires excellent visual art.

The film got me to ruminating upon Coltrane, and I reconnected with one of my favorite songs of his: “Spiritual.” I believe that art can be a force for good in the world.  That is the ethos behind Winfield Artists because, as my business partner Grant Cooper says, we are planting seeds for the future.  Coltrane once said that he wanted to be “a force for good.” Certainly, Coltrane’s art inspires and uplifts, enabling us to transcend.

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So I decided to integrate “Spiritual” into my meditation routine. For thirty days, I will see how listening and meditating through Coltrane’s music will impact my outlook and attitude. I started three days ago, and it is already having a positive impact.

I find that the more I listen to Coltrane, the more I want to listen to Coltrane.  I played him in class this week while my students did a group activity, and I put on “Spiritual” as I worked in my office on campus.  Right now, at the laundry mat, I am humming the song. It is starting to frame the backdrop of much of my day.  It is like coming back to a space of peace in every moment, kind of like returning to your breath while meditating.

Maybe Coltrane can become like the breath of life.  I can’t think of a better way to live.

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Happy Birthday, Paul Robeson!

Last summer I taught a class on the life and times of Paul Robeson to a group of rising freshmen.  It was a humanities enrichment course for students who were entering college in the fall.  Most of them were first generation college students from New Jersey, and I thought that Robeson’s narrative of scholastic achievement might be meaningful to them since he was also a native of the Garden State.  But I had perhaps been overly optimistic and forgetful that these students were mostly interested in engineering and computer science.  Toward the end of the course, I began to wonder if any of them had been inspired by Robeson as I had hoped.pr2

When the class was over, I went to my office one day and found a handwritten note under the door.  A student thanked me for the class and said that learning about Robeson “had been valuable information” for him.  The universe seems to always know when we need affirmations like this.  Tears came to my eyes, and I felt gratified knowing that at least one student had been moved by Robeson’s story.  I keep that note on my computer so that I see it every day that I teach.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, artist-activist and mentee of Robeson’s, Harry Belafonte lamented of the current political climate that “we have no movement.”  And he noted, “I don’t know where to go to find the next Robeson.”  Belafonte recently celebrated his 90th birthday.  He witnessed and participated in the high tide of civil rights resistance of the 1950s and 60s, and has lived to see many of its leaders gunned down and many of its achievements lost or eroded.

Sunday, April 9th is the anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, a formidable activist and artist of the twentieth century.  As Belafonte pointed out, maybe none of us knows where the next Paul Robeson will come from.  What I do know is that when Grant Cooper and I take our program on Robeson to colleges, students often crowd around us afterward asking thoughtful questions.  What I do know is that we are taking our dramatic program on Robeson into eleven middle schools in New York City this spring.  What I do know is that we are team teaching a class on Robeson in April and May at a high school in Manhattan.  Maybe it is naive to believe that the next Robeson is in one of these groups.  Maybe the current political climate is too grim, the culture of America too cynical or corrupt to produce another Robeson.

Then I look up from my keyboard to the note from that student last summer and I have to believe that Robeson’s legacy is alive, maybe even alive and well.  Happy Birthday!


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