Chicken Soup for the Classical Teacher’s Soul

We approach the end of a school year; we are tired, therefore say these types of things over and over, when it’s quiet and you are alone:

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  1. Truth exists.
  2. The Truth will set you free.
  3. You cannot make truth, nor can you sell it, nor can you make it into anything. It is.  You are related to it.
  4. Your students need Truth, as do you.
  5. Truth leads to a great number of things: God, joy, happiness, wisdom, a vocation, the ability to live rightly in this world which includes loving (a small part of which is being able to earn the money needed to care for the needs of yourself and others), etc.
  6. Much of what is frustrating in the classroom is some error or impropriety regarding #1-5.
  7. A lot more of the frustration we face in teaching is outside #1-6 and lies in other expectations and pursuits we import into education when all that is truly important is contained in #1-5.

I truly believe that if we would maintain some mantra-like grasp of these 7 things, we would teach better, with more focus, and find it much easier to love our students as God would have us love them.

Ranting at the End of a Long Week About Education’s Ability to Impart Joy…

Is education still possible in a dead culture?  Is learning capable of being what is now called, “fun”?  What does it mean to care?  As in, “I don’t care about what we are doing in school.”  Or what about the best moment of the week, when I was told, “It’s the teachers job to make learning fun.”

So let’s deal with the term first.  Fun seems to mean, in most of my student’s usage, enjoyable.  So how is learning linked to joy?  It would seem to indicate a possible dichotomy between means and end.

I think this is where things are breaking down for us in education, at least in part.  I was taught when I was young to enjoy something either by finding joy in the doing of it or the end results.  I was hard pressed to enjoy suicides in full pads on the football field, but I really enjoyed the win.  Mowing the yard was a pain, but that moment of silence when the loud engine is cut off, the waft of newly mown grass is breathed in, and the look of all that uniform green grass is surveyed that true joy is there for the moment.  But what if the pain of the suicide or the sweat and heat of the mower caused me to quit before the end?  No joy.  The end only comes at the completion of the means.

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But I think that analogy is inaccurate to what I face on long weeks like this one.  I think instead a habit has been instilled in many students that leads them to avoid all means but the one they consider necessary.  They don’t run any extra laps or go ahead and trim the hedges as well.  Instead, they seek whatever gets them the end (re: the grade) and thus have no joy in either the means or the real end that would bring joy, an education.  They get the diploma without any reality in it.

So my students sit there wanting me to make learning fun.  But they don’t want to learn, they want to get past “school” to the party they perceive to be waiting for them out beyond the school walls.  Their habits of life, the means they enjoy that they hope lead them to joyful ends, are antithetical to a real education.  They enjoy texting, but not reading a challenging text (in fact they don’t equate books and written passages with a text, they think a text is something on a mobile device).  They love to talk, but they don’t want to do so with any clear definition of terms, careful exposition of their thoughts, etc.  “Why you have to be smart all the time; you should be more dumb like us, Mr. El.”  And I will leave the skills of writing and listening alone, because it has been a long week of grading papers and speaking to a non-listening group of students.

These habits will greatly limit the joy my students can have in life.  They are headed for Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation” but I am not sure how to give them an appetite for real joy.  I love them.  I want life’s best for them.  I recognize that my frustration with them only disrupts their perception of the joy that I have in my own life in both the means and ends of a vibrant and joyful life of learning. God save me from myself and draw my students out of their caves and into the bright light of truth.

Let’s Get Out of this Cave!

It happened some years ago now, but I think it could still happen today.  I started a conversation without defining my terms.  Some teens and I were talking about classical music.  At some point it was clear they were thinking of the Beatles and I had Bach in mind.  Once they understood how I was using the term, two more things became all too clear.  First, they knew very little of orchestral or “classical” music and secondly, they did not wish to do the work necessary to get to know it.  When I played just a little of Bach’s most accessible stuff (his Air on the G string, BWV 1068) they recoiled with distaste.  Just not our thing, Mr. E.  The Beatles were old, but still kinda cool; Bach was dust.

I thought of that moment again recently when talking with teens about Plato’s cave analogy.  I was captivated with the collateral response.  Plato makes it clear that if the guide returned to the cave to free another “slave” he would be killed if they could get their hands on him.  Killed.  For leading men into the light of truth!  Ask Socrates about that kind of thanks.

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Our modern word “educate” has as its roots the meaning, “to lead out.”  That is the educational enterprise, according to the word’s root meaning.  I can’t contemplate that well without Plato’s cave coming to the forefront my mind.  My job as teacher is to educate, to lead those enjoying shadows in the cave out into the brilliant light of the truth.  While I can take their hand and lead them, they must follow.  There seem to be many who wish to stay in their chains.  “We are okay with the Beatles, but kindly keep Bach to yourself.”

I came away from my music discussion thinking about this issue of taste.  Lots of questions come to mind.  What is good taste?  Is there something that defines Bach as better than the Beatles?  Who am I to assert that my taste is better than a teen’s?  How do you lead someone toward higher tastes?  What relationship is there between knowledge and taste?  Is it a fair reading of the Cave Analogy to state it involves the improvement or heightening of taste?

Good leading out “converts” the one led.  This much is clear in Plato.  They don’t want back in the cave once they are used to life in the real world.  Their affections have become more rightly ordered.  So there is something that occurs in the heart of the one who leaves the cave.  None in the cave want to leave, but those who do, do not wish to return.  Their tastes have changed.  The teacher is a convert themselves, so if they remember the cave, they should have mercy on those still chained.  I find myself hanging around the door of the cave and thinking about these things.  So few of my students have found their way out into the light.  To some extent this is me.  But I can’t get past the notion that our society has trained the youth to enjoy the video lit dimness of the modern cave.  Come out.

 

Connections: One Benefit of an Integrated Curriculum

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There is a lot of conversation about the Liberal Arts these days.  This is a good thing.  In the midst of many reevaluating the Progressive model of men like Dewey, while still holding that the traditional L.A. model does not fit the 21st Century, many seem to be calling for something altogether new.  This article about Connecticut College is just one of many I have come by recently.  One great result of these discussions in a renewed interest in integrating the curriculum.

If all truth is one, and it is, then anything taught is connected to any other thing taught.  The Ancients had that much down pat.  As a faculty seeks to cultivate its graduate, it should carefully consider how each part of its program forms that graduate.  What unique and necessary aspects of the desired graduate come only or mostly by the study of language?  Or math?  Or the arts?  Given the full range of development best epitomized in the Liberal Arts degree, each course should its piece to the assembling puzzle.

I am not a big fan of the term efficiency.  All too often it only succeeds in sucking the humanity out of whatever endeavor it is applied to.  But in this case I can argue for the efficiency of a whole faculty working together for one end: its desired graduate.  I would accept the knock on this view that it removes diversity and individuality if I did not see that such an education best prepares each graduate to realize their own humanity, their own goals and dreams, by giving them as broad and human an education as is possible.  The most efficient education, in the end, does not seem to one of specialization, but one that prepares each student as fully as possible for as much as is possible.

May each faculty of each school enjoy the conversation about integration and the role each course plays in forming a complete person.  God bless the Liberal Arts and its efficient manner.

Truth and Imitation

I have written before on both these topics (see here, and here,  for blogs on Truth).  I can’t lay my hands on specific blogs about imitation, but in short we have discussed how the act of imitating great examples is central to good education.

But I want to focus on the connection between them here.  To the extent that Truth becomes relative, imitation becomes less possible.  If imitation is key to gaining the necessary arts (skills) that allow men to be free, then when such imitation becomes less possible, education becomes less liberal.

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When I call a student to imitate a master, be it myself or some more masterly folk of yore, I am stating that the art to be imitated is truly exemplified in the sample being imitated and to that extent is therefore objectively true.  But when I don’t believe, or the student does not believe, or a society has chosen not to believe that truth can be objectively known, then my assertion of a master sample becomes less powerful, something more like a suggestion.

If we give up on the basic tenets that Socrates taught us (that truth exists, can be known, and can be communicated) and swallow instead the ancient and modern fallacies of the Sophist (which are the opposite of those tenets) then we disable the powerful teaching mode of imitation.

This is worthy of way more meditation than I am giving it here.  I think about this often when I am teaching students literature (what gives us the right to say these stories are worthy of study?) and composition (what makes the Greek notions of Rhetoric so worthy of modern imitation?) and the like.  I would love to discuss such with other educators as we are able.

Linear Learning

I was recently asked if “learning is linear or non-linear” by, of course, an art teacher.  We discussed his definition of “learning” for a few moments, but the main point of the question was this comparison of learning with that of a line.  We tend to define learning as a line, starting with the small child and progressing formally through high school or college or the rest of life.  And the chronological timeline notion is legitimate for many reasons.  But the best learning cannot be simply adding one new thing to the collected line of known things each day.

I happen to be working my way through a great work on Aristotle’s views of teaching (here on Amazon, though it’s out of print so if you see it in a used book store, snap it up).  In that work Aristotle does not use linear/non-linear, but deductive and inductive, which I contend are basically the same ideas, but broad enough to encompass more.

In deductive learning, or what my friend meant by “linear” learning, one adds line by line, precept upon precept new learning to what is already known.  This is the syllogistic type of learning.  Premise A is true, and Premise B is true, therefore we can deduce from those truths that something we did not know before is true (the conclusion of the syllogism).  Aristotle is often credited with formalizing this type of learning, or logic.  Certainly there is a place for this learning, and many methods can lead to its outcomes.  But often many mistake this for all there is to learning, and Aristotle soundly rejects that notion.

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Inductive learning is not so linear.  In this non-linear mode, a complexity of experiences are used to learn new principles, that can in turn become perhaps the premise in a new deduction.  But induction is more like a web than a line.  It is the bringing together and comparison of many specifics to gain new categories and generalizations.  We sometimes say “connecting the dots” but two connected dots is one definition of a line.  Here is imagined a scattered group of dots, each representing a specific sense experience, and when compared, contrasted, pulled apart and thrust together, new learning occurs.

So my answer to the question about linear or non-linear is both/and.  Neither really can separate itself from the other, and the great teacher seeks to have both constantly conversing with each other and the souls in their classroom.

After the boys of summer have gone…

It is summer time, so excuse me if the blog gets weird.  During the school year, my thoughts stay pretty focused on the direct aspects of my teaching, but summer lets me take rabbit trails.  In fact, this is about my thoughts of education and Summer.

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  • Summer vacation in schooling is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is nice to have time off, but on the other, it flies in the face of good teaching.
  • Having summer off has not always been a thing. It derives, as best I can ascertain, from an agrarian culture long since lost in America.  You had to give kids time to help their families get the harvest in.
  • So why have we held on to it after its purpose has gone? I think it is correlated to the rise in the factory school system right as we moved from farms to town.  So while we no longer need time to get the grain in, we need time to recuperate from the increasingly difficult and repetitive work we now call school.
  • School, schola, used to mean leisure. I wrote on this already, so I won’t repeat myself, but leisure is different from work.  Leisure is revivifying, work takes it out of you.  Leisure may not need two and a half months of the year for recovery; something like factory schooling may.
  • Given the cultural perniciousness of having summer off from class, it would be good to use it to further our lifelong pursuit of truth rather than to waste it. I do this through reading, writing, thinking about school, the subjects I teach, meditating on the nature of things, etc.  I would invite others to do the same.
  • It is sad that we continue to make school harder with the continuance of so long a vacation each year. It makes a good teacher have to review and remind and cajole up through and into October before they can really attack new material.  Education is a long series of dominoes.  If you place a large gap between any two of the dominoes, you will have to restart it all after the gap.
  • Almost all the reasons given for continuing to have summers off say way more about our poor conception of learning than any positive humane considerations for the teacher or student.

Not sure if these wandering thoughts help anyone else, but as this blog’s readership increases, the comments section is a wonderfully easy way to discuss these things.  Feel free, and be free during the summer break.