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I was driving home on the freeway when a motorcycle screamed past. Ahead, a van and a big rig were traveling side by side, and the motorcycle streaked into the narrow canyon between them. (Lane splitting is legal in California). It clipped one of the trucks and ricocheted between the two, sending the rider airborne at 90 miles per hour. He sailed high into the air and hit the freeway, bouncing to a stop, face down.

I got stopped twenty feet short of the body. Behind me, cars braked to a stop. I flung open my door and ran to…


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We are approaching a junction. When the protests over the murder of George Floyd subside, what will remain? What, if anything, will change? The Rodney King incident — and the riots following the police acquittal — were thirty years ago. It seems little has changed.

I do not have answers. I do not know what reforms would best work in stemming the tide of police violence, nor do I know how to bring about those reforms. But I do believe there are some lessons — in the form of guiding principles — that we can learn from the sixties. I…


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In 1978 a red panda escaped from the Rotterdam Zoo, and an appeal went out for the public to report any sightings. Hundreds of good faith sightings were reported — all of them after the red panda had died on the roadway. Hence the phenomena psychologists call the “red panda effect,” the mind’s tendency to see what it is looking for.

The past few days have brought forth an avalanche of articles about Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the race, many of them expressions of grief and outrage at the misogyny that brought it about.

The grief I understand. The analysis…


In classrooms and cafes, at book clubs and in essays, people discuss literary characters with as much passion as they discuss their neighbors or politicians. Readers feel anger, exasperation, joy, and grief over the likes of Prince Hamlet, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, or Holden Caulfield. It seems absurd to spend so much psychic energy on people who are not real.

But maybe what’s absurd is the idea that things are neatly divisible into two categories, real and not real, life belonging to the first category and fictional literature to the second.

Some years ago I was driving up a hilly…


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In a recent interview in the New York Times Book Review, George Will was asked to name an overrated book. He answered, “The Catcher in the Rye, which, like Holden Caulfield, should have been strangled in the cradle. Just what the world does not need: another sullen adolescent.”

Over the years, Catcher has had its detractors. A 2009 Times story suggested that the book might be dated. One English teacher commented, “The alienated teenager has lost much of his novelty,” and one 15-year-old boy said, “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut…


On March 12, 2019, the education world was rocked by news reports of a college admissions scandal in which fifty people were indicted on criminal charges. There may be more to come. The buzz was heightened by the fact that those charged included Hollywood celebrities and the super wealthy, and the universities involved included some of the most elite.

Let us assume that there are two kinds of crimes: those that violate the milieu in which they occur and those that reflect the milieu in which they occur. I fear these college admissions crimes are the second type.

The milieu…


Photo credit: Evgeni Tcherkasski

What if Trump is not the real problem?

Melville once praised the kind of character in fiction who functions as a Drummond light, a bright beam that illuminates others. Suppose Trump’s gift to the country is holding up a mirror to our gravest faults, faults that evolved before he ran for President and will remain after he leaves office.

Certainly, Trump has illuminated people’s anger and resentment that are rooted in their own pains and disappointments. He has both fanned those flames and exploited them. …


When I tell people that I taught a college course on ethics at San Quentin Prison, they pause, waiting for the punch line.

There is none.

My curriculum was standard fare: Socrates and Plato, Kantian and utilitarian ethics, social contract theory, virtue ethics, and contemporary issues. The students were not standard fare; all were convicted felons, about half of them in for murder. Their ages ranged from mid-thirties to seventy.

One might expect that in a class of convicts, their crimes would constitute the elephant in the room. Not so. Most were forthcoming — sooner or later-and they emphasized two…

Bill Smoot

I teach in the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison. I am the author of Conversations with Great Teachers and a novel, Love: A Story.

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