French Truffles and The Unseen Order of Things
1. White Privilege
There is much to let go of this time of year and time of history. Everything seems in question. Pandemic. Racism taking on new forms. A powerful President who appears to believe he is possessed of messianic vision we must all follow or else. Education delivered over the internet sometimes with no real teacher. Civil unrest. Exhaustion from dealing with all of this. The times are so unprecedented that it feels trite to call them unprecedented.
Is there some way to let it go and get some peace? What just happened? I’ve lost track of the main line versus the digression. Is there some way to make sense of the Guernica, to come home? So many broken pieces: pandemic, racism, extinction, fear, and beauty, culture, purpose: how to put them together? Here is a story.
Many years ago, I was teaching a 10th grade course called “European Culture Studies.” This was the required high school course that later became “Western Civ” and, ultimately, “World History,” and variously, “Global Studies.” I bet you think western civ was always a course. But back then, Europe was “civilization” in the eyes of American scholars and leaders, and the rest of the places on the map were color commentary: European colonies, European conquests, European vacations and photo ops, primitive people to be civilized, studies of the superiority of analytical thought over the atavistic forms of knowing.
Mathematics in US schools did much the same thing, mainly covering theorems white males had worked on before colonizing America. But that’s another story. I’m just going to hit carriage return when I digress.
I almost lost my job. I kept bringing in things like world population and hunger studies, imperialism in the third world, Native American studies, not to mention the fine arts, while the students were supposed to be preparing strictly for the New York State Regents Exams (which were basically set up to demonstrate Europe’s ascent to superior civilization).
One of my favorite resources was a monthly publication called Global Perspectives in Education. I was not trying to be radical, or even progressive. Only creative. I wasn’t thinking that this whole state-required pitch, this whole insinuation that European culture studies was the essence of our United States national heritage, was going to keep us on the path to racism and ethnocentrism and greed.
Many people I talk to think this is happening right now. We are in real turmoil, in health, in climate, and in “race.”
It was the '70s and we did not know where we were headed. Martin had been shot years ago already, Vietnam was over, and that era felt forgotten, like the prom from five years ago. Eurocentrism was a given. The union was strong: Hadn’t Grant and Lee shaken hands at the Appomattox Courthouse?
Hadn’t Lee, commander of the Southern Confederate army, symbol of nobility and dominant culture in America, walked away from losing that war with a reputation for …get this …empathy and compassion? Lee’s civility and dignity in losing the war was the thing that mattered, no matter that he was defending slavery. It was going to be America 2-point-0, called reconstruction. Europe seemed so much more evolved. At least until Lee got a bronze equestrian statue.
In my job teaching European culture, I was not trying to change any of that crazy history because I did not know enough. I was merely thinking: “Hey, this other stuff, these other histories, beyond the accepted recitals of history, also seem interesting—this could be fun to bring into the class”—a little excitement and color.
I have noticed that education is not only passing dominant culture along, it is inventing it for the benefit of that dominant culture. Education is the way cultures justify their existence. It is the way victors write the history books. How else could Lee shake hands with Grant, and move on to become president of Washington College, now called Washington and Lee, and we could all move on? How else could Napoleon have pastry named after him? Carriage return.
To some extent, this is healthy: the letting go, the moving on while maintaining dignity. The founding of universities.
American history always seemed like an in-game to me that I would never qualify to play, and I was glad to be teaching about Europe instead. One day I was reading the New York Times and saw a story about a French Restaurant in Manhattan called, “The Palace,” or maybe “La Palace,” the most exclusive restaurant in New York where the dinner plates were $95 each. We’re talking 1970's dollars here. So, I called them up and got the chef du cuisine on the phone, Michel Fitoussi.
“Hi, my name is Stuart Grauer and I am teaching a high school course in European culture studies. I wonder if you’d be willing to come to our class here on Long Island and talk about French customs and cuisine?”
Michel was very open to the idea, was receptive to me, and said, “Yes, of course I will come for the visit, but there is just one thing I must insist upon first.” (I’m trying to write with a French accent.) “First, you must visit the restaurant and eat the lunch with me.”
That weekend, I jumped in my car and headed into the city. I entered the enamel painted door of the Palace, and was met by a thin, young Frenchman all dressed in chef’s whites. He had darty eyes and dark brown hair that gently curled around the top of his head. Michel served me lunch, a group of items I mostly did not recognize arranged around the plate. And we had a lovely time talking over the details of the guest lesson: He would come out, put the students into pairs, and teach them how to make French pull candy. He would tell them all about life in Paris, and their traditions, the importance of food.
I was preparing to leave the Palace when a tiny but unforgettable thing happened. “There is just one more thing I insist upon before you leave.” Michel walked me back to the kitchen, pulled on a heavy door handle, and opened up a thick, insulated door to his walk-in refrigerator. He reached down into the dark corner, extracted a glass gallon jar, screwed off the top, held it up to my face and remarked, “First, you must smell the truffles.” France is the home of the most famous white truffles in the world, which were $100 per serving. I stuck my nose over the opening. Luckily, I did not sneeze.
Today I realize that the smell is beguiling, but at the time I’m pretty sure the rich, pungent, earthy, scent did not beguile me. It would take me many years to acquire such a taste—and to become a master teacher.
Nevertheless, I instantly knew this little experience was the porthole to a rich world of European culture I had never found moving about the hallways of that high school, trying to be invisible, poring over the required textbook materials trying to be creative. I understood that this, the smelling of the truffles, was quintessentially what I needed to be doing in order to be a teacher just then.
To appreciate the smell of the truffles and why they matter is to understand much about France. You might not be qualified to teach about France if you have never smelled the truffles. You may not be qualified to understand the whole purpose of European Culture Studies or of white privilege until you have been beguiled by the truffles.
2. A Better World
I had no idea what I was doing as a starting teacher. Why was I teaching what I was, who created all this for me to teach, and why were we teaching all this stuff and not a lot of other stuff. I poured hours into lesson plans.
I also had no idea why I identified so inherently with the European culture and I understood I was unqualified to teach it. Not to mention, my forefathers on both sides had been chased out of there.
In a recent email conversation with teachers in the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), teacher Carissa Priebe de Cano writes how hard it is for all of us to know “humanity's real history and unjust reality rather than the whitewashed version of it, empathy for all perspectives and plights, and respect for each of our unique fellow human beings and the natural world; because the most destructive problems of our time and of all time—racism, sexism, violence, hate, othering, corruption, destruction of the natural world, economic injustice, lack of empathy—can never be abolished unless all of us from all generations, especially young generations who are uniquely capable of reimagining and recreating this world, make a fully informed, concerted, and persistent effort to do so.” 
We can’t just leave the past behind and be handed a better one, as General Lee did so effortlessly. First, we have to imagine a better world. For me, teaching has always been that means of reimagining.
Back then, I never thought: It is my role to teach the stories in human history omitted from educational textbooks of the traditional public school system, not just the stories of old, outdated and incomplete paradigms that support our wars and support our privilege. In my naïf way, I was driven to make my curricula include previously omitted history, and the history of religion, art, spirituality, etc.
There are everyday heroes to study.
Today, I am in the grocery store, in the produce section. I have to sneeze really bad but I have a new KN-95 mask on so I pull it up, since they are hard to get. I look around guiltily and see if anyone is looking. Someone behind the cantaloupes, maybe. Sneezing in the produce section during a pandemic is an act of violence. I grab my tee shirt, thrust my head down into it, sneeze, and scuffle out of the store with my head down, ignominiously.
My niece, at her job, has learned that she will not need to come into an office anymore—she can tele-work. In the same breath as saying how cool her company is for allowing tele-working, she is talking about all the other companies she might just as well work for—her organization, it’s brand, it’s people, and its existence, mean almost nothing to her. A good job is a culture—and hers is not.
My niece has deduced that it makes no difference where her work is done, and that the work she is doing has nothing to do with where she is doing it or who she is doing it for or with. She has deduced that so long as she completes her tasks and gets a paycheck, she needn’t even show up. She can phone it in. To me, this is worse than sneezing in the produce.
If you are working at home, perhaps axiomatically, it is easy to become a marginal member of your organization. Our best efforts to tele-teach, if we care about empathy and miracles, are accompanied by the slow, steady decline of something so engrained in human purpose and efficacy that we rarely even think about it in distance learning or tele-school: culture.
Face-to-face interactions help people communicate and bond: the serendipitous collaborating, investigating, along with all the sensations in a great school give us context and personal meaning. For computer programmers working remotely, the synthesizing and organizing they would experience at the workplace tends to be fuzzy and disorganized compared to the structured processes they do alone in a remote or home location. Not so, teachers. (Not so restauranteurs, or marketers or athletes or leaders.)
Socratic teachers don’t see the role of teacher as remote from their students. We see the good teachers as creators of culture (in classes, groups, organizations)—with a good teacher, these cultures become rich with context, sound, smell, color, feel; good teachers are responders, sensitive interactors, sensei, probers of purpose, shapers of purpose, nourishers of mind, nourishers of living life, interpreters of now. I knew instinctively that Michel Fitoussi would help me be more this way.
5. Remote Teaching
Today, in pandemic days, when I hear distance learning schools tout their teaching cultures, I don’t get it. I felt a little like this about the New York State Regents annual standardized exams—like, if you know all the answers in advance, what is the point of the teacher-student relationship? The Regents just put space between me and my students, and distance learning has hardened that space.
Sobel-Lojesky at Harvard Business found that increased virtual distance results in a connectivity paradox: As more people are connected virtually online, they feel increasingly isolated. They found that when virtual distance is relatively high :
- Innovative behaviors fall by over 90%
- Trust declines by over 80%
- Cooperative and helping behaviors go down by over 80%
- Project success drops by over 50%
You can make connections through remote technology, but it is much harder and much more limited—obviously. You do not have all your regular sensations.
In the offices, outdoor nooks, and classrooms of The Grauer School, people are always bumping into each other and I am astonished at how quickly and naturally trust forms and leadership rises up. Tasks are grabbed or assigned haphazardly, and there are few systematic ways to track who is working on what or to find out how the work is really going. Sure, to some, such a chaotic work environment would be confusing or inefficient, but they would be blind to a whole beautiful, creative world.
There are profound advantages to gathering people together face to face and engaging in nothing but their vision for something that only becomes passion when it is shared—the pull candy that you could never make from your home workstation.
Pandemic days have been hard days of working at a distance. The word “remote” has always meant something like “bizarre” to me, but in pandemic days it seems to be touted as a virtue. Remote learning. Have we accepted that term naturally! Hold on a minute there. Is that okay? Is it an oxymoron?
In my remote workplace, where my co-workers are at least partially reduced to abstract e-mail addresses or handles, I had 100 days where the point of a day was sometimes to vanquish my rapidly filling in-box. I beat them back, every time, and I win. 100 days of winning. Some of us ended up feeling extremely busy and impacted in those remote learning pandemic days, despite the convenience, and many of us became exhausted by all this technology touted to put the world at our fingertips.
Our coronavirus-induced telework drew us into lists and tasks and we could almost forget that the spontaneous conversations we were having with students in the quad were way more than just digressions back in the pre-coronavirus days. As tele-teachers, we appeared to be developing dexterity as we learned to use tele-teaching better. So what.
If we could insert a computer chip with the whole of European culture studies into our brain, perhaps a few school boards would claim success, but would we be educated? Would we be happy? Would we serve a purpose?
Today I am reading “Analysis of Targeted School Violence” by the United States Secret Service, and a prime conclusion is: “Create and promote a safe school climate built on a culture of safety, respect, trust, and emotional support for students.”
In case you are wondering, truffles are expensive because it is so hard to farm them. They only like very specific kinds of soil and trees and it might take specially trained pigs to find them. They live inside tree roots. You can’t develop truffles outside that ecosystem. And this is a terrible and ridiculous time to suggest this, because the imperative is to focus on social justice right now, but truffles go for $168 per ounce. Carriage return!
In tele-teaching, in addition to the loss of serendipity, there is the loss of the aimless ramble around the green campus.
Tele-teaching is an effort to reach out to more people—at least there’s that.
There in my European Culture Studies class back then, the students got colors, smells, interactions and a role model who would make them remember French culture forever and do nothing for their prospects for passing the New York State Regents Exams. Later on, I found out the Principal hosted reporters to cover that French chef event—I never met them, but I think that’s why I was offered my job again. The next year, I moved to Europe anyway.
Did you know wars have been fought over truffles in both Italy and France?—not on the exam! Now it is time again to let go of the old stories. I don’t remember a single fact I taught the students about that curriculum or the right answers to the exams, but I remember the truffles.
 If you're interested in joining Carissa, you can take the survey on the Just Ask Us website, which is talking to diverse students to get their insights on reinventing education.
 The Subtle Ways Our Screens Are Pushing Us Apart, Karen Sobel-Lojeski, Harvard Business Review, April 8, 2015.
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