It Goes Both Ways

I sat in my office chair and reflected on what had just happened.  It is not like this does not happen often (because it does) but sometimes you are hit right between the eyes with it.  My students had just enlightened me.

Often in my seminar course, where I am seated and sharing equally in the lessons the Great Conversation teaches us all, I learn new things from Plato, Augustine, or Camus.  In my literature courses as well, the students find things I have never seen.  But this time it was a Freshman!

My course for the Freshmen introduces them into the Intellectual Life and teaches them the basic skills to thrive in high school and college.  We play around with such basic skills as reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  It is a class where I feel “safe” with the subject material.  And yet, on this day, the clouds parted and light poured in.

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” I think you are selling something none of us want to buy.”

The student was unblinking and bold as he stated what it seemed to him the majority of his classmates were thinking.  We had been discussing reading and why it is so central to the Intellectual Life, and perhaps, all of life.  I had poured out my passion for reading, and books, and ideas, and learning, and…and…then this bald statement.  The wind kind of came out of the sails.

“What do you mean by that?”  I was convinced that if he rethought his statement, he would see the error.  But instead, he and his classmates began answering the question in spades.

“Of what real value is reading in today’s world?”

“Who needs to read anything when you can Google it?”

“What job requires reading?”

That is when the light struck me in the eyes.  Our modern world makes little of reading.  When I was young (and dinosaurs threatened my extinction), there was tremendous guilt for the young person who did not read.  He or she would hide or disguise their lack of reading.  Now the tables seem to be turned.  Reading for any prolonged period of time is mostly seen as either recreational or utilitarian.  “Of course I will read if it will bring me some monetary benefit.”  But don’t hurt yourself reading more than you have to; keep this to a minimum.  Read smart.  Those on the cutting edge will let SparkNotes do the heavy reading for them and they get the gist in bulleted points.  Most of what we as adults model to young people is how to read as little as possible, not how to read more and better.  Far too many of us (and I hope you note I am including myself here) read a title or half a sentence and then click on to the next thing.

So did this moment destroy my passion for teaching students to read?  No.  But it sure helped me see more clearly that such instruction is more and more a counter-cultural activity, not something to be assumed.  I had answers to the questions they raised, but the fact that they are now being raised when they really were not even questions in my youth helped me learn a lesson I hope I never forget: learning is as much about what we love as what we know.  We are what we love.

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Preparing to Meet an Idea

Aristotle teaches us to move our students from the known to the unknown.  We cannot learn new things without some attachment to what we know already.  This insight alone greatly guides the teaching enterprise.  But there seems to be innate within this principle another principle that needs more attention.  If we are leading minds from what they know to what they ought to know, we must prepare their mind for reception of that “new” idea. Without proper preparation, the mind is asked to “jump” into a new idea without proper connection to what is already known.  This is a problem many teachers should be on guard against in their teaching.

The problem I think often comes from the teacher’s own expertise and experience with the subject at hand.  Even new teachers have already learned most of what they are leading the student through.  Because their mind is already accustomed to the movement from old to new that they are now calling their students to make, they don’t properly prepare and manage that movement for their students.  The mind needs to be ready to receive a new idea, have a clear sense of how this idea connects with their overall knowledge, or it will not become a part of them but will remain some factoid to be forgotten as soon as it is assessed.

Consider the teacher who is now pushing (let’s say) thirty-five years of age.  They, if they are possessing the heart of a learner, have been adding to what they know twice as long as their high school pupils.  They are more skilled at learning, have more knowledge from which to add, and long ago (15-20 years ago) accomplished the feats of learning they are now asking from their students.  To their own mind this stuff is “easy.”  It is a familiar, well-worn path in their mind.  But for the student, each day brings new ideas.  Or at least each week.  And their minds need preparing for each new thing.  The teacher must understand the student’s needs enough to plan for this preparation.

What the preparation looks like will differ based on what is being taught.  Language, mathematics, to some extent the natural sciences all build on previous learning in clear and ordered ways.  History tends to be chronological (knowing what has come before, here is what happens next).  But many fields in the humanities, philosophy, theology are not as incremental.  One of the great crimes of modern literature instruction is its inability or unwillingness to connect studied works into a meaningful whole.  I won’t decry the sad state of the New Humanities and why this is so here, but I will mention one popular view that seems intent on destroying this habit of preparation.

Progressivism in education makes this preparation difficult by calling the student to break with the past.  If the past is obsolete, it is logical that my own past is becoming obsolete, therefore each new learning experience is expected to stand on its own two feet.  I have not met many progressivists willing to actually state this, but the logic of their position is clear.  Don’t look back, look only forward.  But looking back seems not only necessary, but the most efficient means to learning something new as well.  If A, B, and C, then surely D rather than Y, correct?

The learning mind, given the tools to teach itself, by high school should be a highly intuitive thing.  Much of preparing that mind for something new is simply a review of A, B, and C so that they themselves begin leaping to D, E, and maybe even F.  As teachers, we are pursuers of the truth, not dispensers of mystic knowledge.  We are not waiting to reveal secrets, but excitedly trying to impel our students past us into truths perhaps even still new to us.

I am convinced the best learning of new material comes from a contemplative teacher who remembers, who reconstructs their own past learning so as to lead their students down the same path.  They are not there to tell them what is true, but rather to lead them, compel them, prepare them to go down the path of truth themselves.  This again reiterates a common theme on this blog:  questions are the most powerful teaching tool in the world.  Ask them to remember what they know, then ask them to anticipate what would come next.  Remember what it was like when you were where they are?  What is the next question?