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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.

 

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?

Should School Be Hard?

I want to think more deeply about an issue I raised years ago on this blog.  Should someone’s experience in school be “hard”?  Of course such an ambiguous term needs defining first.

My use of the term “hard” here refers to activity which is challenging, difficult, causes the student to expend effort.  While many today believe it to be the opposite of “fun” I disagree and will develop that disagreement below.  But if we can agree to stick with this basic definition of not easy, but hard, difficult, making the student have to rise above their normal level of effort, then we can progress with the question.

My answer, as with most really good questions, is mixed.  It depends on why the student finds the activity challenging.  I can think of at least three reasons for school to be hard, and they each have a differing level of legitimacy in my mind.  I will label these three reasons as: ability, motivation, engagement.  I think any given person may experience all three even in the same day of school.

Ability

In this case, the student finds school activity difficult or hard because they have been attempting some act of learning for which they are ill prepared.  If a teacher assigns work that the student lacks the ability to do well, it will be difficult for them.  This is not necessarily illegitimate by the by.  Math and foreign language teachers do this every day (or should).  Here is a problem or translation, go see how you do on it then we can work on the issues it raises when you have tried and fallen short.  If the teacher does this too early, without proper preparation for the exercise, the hardness of the experience may cause frustration before it can be used to any learning advantage.  But if it is timed correctly, the student is shown his areas of lack and the learning curve actually picks up speed.  While I do see teachers ask things of students that they have no idea how to do, it is really what happens once that ignorance is discovered that matters in our question.  I think this is an excellent part of a good education, if done well.

Motivation

Some school activity requires a willingness from the student to push through a difficult moment, or to invest time in the work that they may wish to invest elsewhere.  I stop short of calling this form of hardness “laziness” but some will call it such.  I don’t just mean kids who don’t want to work at all (though they should find school “hard”) but in particular the common problem of competing motivations.  A simple and common illustration of this is the household rule, “homework before play.”  The parent sets boundaries in order to get the less desirable work of Algebra done before hours of “work” are put in on basketball.  Note: this is an issue of motivation because I can guarantee you the student will put forth more physical and character effort practicing their free throws than will be expended on quadratic equations, but they will “feel” as though the later was more difficult than the former.

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Engagement

I think the last note above leads right into the heart of this issue.  There is a point in school at which a student’s mind changes its view of whatever is at hand in the classroom to that of a delight rather than a chore.  The physics class falls away, with all its attendant details and difficulties as the newly lit light bulb of understanding the lesson transports the student to a moment when they no longer are considering anything other than this beautiful new idea.  They have forgotten the work for the pleasure of what the work has wrought.  This is the most compelling category of my question.  Whether the transport happens because of the genius of the teacher, or the nature of the student, or both, or neither, is for other considerations.  But the fact that truly engaged students, students who have moved into the reality of the lesson, forget the hardness for the wonder and awe, motivates me as a teacher to get them there if I can.

I regularly hear from students that school is hard.  It is said often in a way that implies they would like it to be easy.  I, as a student, commiserate with their wish.  But proper hardness and difficulty lead to winning the game at the free throw line with 2 seconds left, and finding that new idea to be beautiful and exciting and even transporting.  The blood, sweat, and tears are worth it.