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GP 6 September 2006: The Big Sleep

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast. 

Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2 

The Big Sleep.  Shakespeare has more or less cornered the fitful sleep market, but a few fellas have given him a run for the money in this the Age of Freud and Nuclear Fission.  Certainly a mid-20th-century hallmark in this regard is Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep, transformed into a 1946 Howard Hawks cinema noir movie that was riddled with talent (Hawks, Bogart, novelist William Faulkner) and toughguy (and gal) repartee. 

‘Sleep’ here means death and conjures up the corruption, perversion, and murder that is woven through plot and subplot as we puzzle our way through the movie.  But, really, the narrative moves through a nether world halfway between death and life, sleep and insomnia, that General Sternwood describes to Marlowe, the private eye: 

“You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life—crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat, and my sleep is so near waking that it’s hardly worth the name.  I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider.  The orchids are an excuse for the heat.  Do you like orchids?” 

The Insomnia Market.  Make no mistake about it.  The insomnia market is absolutely huge in our age, as epidemic as mental disease of which it is probably a cohort.  The research community estimates that 10-15% of our population has chronic insomnia.  It is providing heaps of research money to all the universities with medical faculties in the grant racket, and the academics offer a huge array of hazy insights as to its causes and its relief.  See, for instance, on the Global Province “Sleep without Drugs.”  We used to be fans of Bill McLaughlin’s turnaround at Select Corporation, the mattress people, until we listened to its sleep number advertisements on TV, which are guaranteed to keep you up all night.  We fear that all this stuff is symptomatic—that all the cures out there for tiredness are just part of the web of nonsense that makes us weary on Labor Day 2006. 

Burnt Out Kids.  Worse yet, we manage to visit our sleeplessness and frenzied schedules on our kids.  In “Want to Improve Education? Let Kids Sleep,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2006, p. W11, Stephen Moore visits this dilemma: 

As a father of two teenage boys, I can attest to the fact that the single greatest teen crisis in America is not drugs, alcohol, smoking or early sexual activity, but sleep deprivation....  The reason that so many kids today appear to be slouching toward Gomorrah is simply that they lack sleep. 

Moore, of course, is simply talking about the fact that we start school too early, around 7:30 instead of 8:30.  But the schools, on autopilot, connive in several ways to turn kids into very tired, hyper-enervated, uneducated children.  They stuff too many subjects into the day, don’t have sufficient recesses and lunch periods, and permit athletic practices and contests that consume too much of a student’s year.  Oddly enough, the State of Virginia, which is as errant as Moore testifies, nonetheless has a law mandating recess periods in its schools.  We imagine that this is a throwback to the Virginia of Thomas Jefferson, when life had a more measured pace, and the news of the defeat of Cornwallis and the British at Yorktown took a month to reach Ben Franklin in Paris. 

Too Much Homework.  As importantly, there is now too much gratuitous homework, all part of a tendency in public and private education to mistake quantity for quality.  Much of it is makework—now larded out even during the summer months when students are supposed to be on vacation.  Several groups have now come together to oppose this Wal-Marting of education, which you can read about at “Too Much Homework I” and “Too Much Homework II.”  To read about over-scheduled kids, see “Schools Amok.” 

Murdering Sleep.  The Elizabethans did a pretty good job of murdering sleep, as Shakespeare and Macbeth make all too clear.  Yes, we have refined this deadly art, yet have so tired ourselves that we cannot even speak eloquently about it.  Rest and contemplation and orderly activity have jumped out the windows of our skyscrapers. 

Mr. Moore has it right in more ways than he can imagine.  It’s not just that exhaustion ties the brain in knots.  It extinguishes the very atmosphere in which learning takes place.  We wonder why education continues to go downhill even as we pour on more complex courses, a parade of new buildings, and, most of all, laws out of Washington and the state capitals.  But there’s no education without leisure.  And there’s no leisure without sleep. 

P.S.  The New Yorker, September 4, 2006 is mostly dedicated to education, though by and large it takes on entertaining topics for the affluent such as school cuisine or a new prep school in Jordan modeled after Deerfield.  What’s most telling is the brain on the cover that is filled with Snoop Dog, You Tube, Manga, etc.—all the distractions which make it hard to get a handle on algebra. 

P.P.S.  A fertile concept in America, from our earliest days, is benign neglect.  The British were at their best when they did not pay too much attention to the Navigation Laws and other instruments they used to regulate the colonies: closer attention to their possessions lost them North America.  The late Daniel Moynihan touched on a bevy of  urban problems that government has only made worse, and which begin to resolve themselves if left untouched.  He counseled benign neglect.  Over-meddling by both the Feds and the states in education seemed to have helped America get dumber, as well as exhausting our teachers and students.  One classic commentary to government gone excessive is R. M. MacIver’s The Web of Government

P.P.P.S.  Probably Diane Ravitch is as good as it gets when you are looking for an educator who brings some commonsense to everyday education.  We have mentioned her in passing in “Ethnomathematics” and “You Can’t Say That.”  Her former husband Richard Ravitch has quietly done many constructive things on urban problems, notably for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City (1979-1983).

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