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the careful use of compliments


As evidenced by the lack of posts here, I’ve been more than usually busy at work, engaged in a protracted political battle over confronting the achievement gaps for African-American, Native American, Latino/a, Filipino/a, and other groups of students at my school. The good news is that almost everyone now admits that achievement gaps exist, something we couldn’t say even six months ago. The fight over what we will do to address the problem, and who has control over what we will do, will go on for a while yet and, as has been said before, fights in academia are among the bitterest.

So it was with some relief that I turned to read The Careful Use of Compliments (Alexander McCall Smith, 2007) a book that, though set in Edinburgh, a city of about 500,000, has a small town feel. It’s written at a walking pace, full of Scottish mannerly reservation and ethical dilemma. Though loosely a mystery, the author does little to build suspense or tension in the usual sense; if one isn’t paying attention, the mystery could be missed. Yet, the questions confronted by the protagonist are substantive and the answers not clear at the outset. There is a tension here—one does not fall asleep while reading the novel—but it is not the extraordinary tension of crime or danger or any of the other trappings of the genre. Instead, we experience the every day tension of moral and ethical decisions.

For every person, the quiet moments, deciding how to act and responding to the pressures and demands of the day add up to integrity—or not. Smith’s pace lends itself to consideration of these moments, calling out the significance of small acts of loyalty, courage, and compassion. And so, at the same time that the novel provided escape from the dramas of my day, it also underlined the importance of all the decisions I make during this time and during all my days.


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