The Classroom of Clarice

Analogical thinking is often clarifying for me.  You can tell me a theory and it goes right by me, but if you show that theory in motion, give me a story or a metaphor, some analogous way of seeing the theory, I usually catch it.  I find a great deal of help in examining education as it is portrayed in stories, whether through text or film.  That is the basis for this short meditation from the film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

If you are not familiar with the plot, one psychopath (a cannibalistic murderer named Hannibal Lector) is used by a young FBI agent (Clarice) to gain understanding of another killer.  Clarice meets with Lector on several occasions, and if you put aside the horrific trappings of a maximum security prison, it becomes by the direction of Lector a classroom wherein he seeks to teach Clarice in something of a Socratic manner.

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Lector is a trained psychologist.  He is bored.  So he decides that rather than just answer Clarice’s questions, he is going to analyze her and the unnamed subject of her investigations together.  He gives her a clue about the killer in exchange for some piece of personal information from her.  He reveals to my eye several important aspects of good education.

Indirectly Teaching:  If, as David Hick’s writes in Norms and Nobility, we should “never teach a student what they can learn for themselves,” then analogical learning is paramount.  Lector does not just “give” Clarice what she is looking for, he makes her figure it out.  A good teacher is not obtuse, or obfuscated, or inordinately difficult just to be difficult, but perhaps better described as coy.  “I know the answers, because I know the material.  But I want you to learn the material by figuring it out, not simply benefiting from my knowledge.”

It is never business, it is always personal: The best teacher walks a thin line between co-learner, authority, and tutor.  Purely authoritarian “instruction” (or perhaps a dysfunctional form of the lecture it could be called) typically results in impermanent learning.  The students receives, shows he has received, and then forgets.  There must be a commonality and an otherness in place for the relationship to work.  I think this is one of the most artful aspects of educating rightly.

There are norms:  In the movie, Hannibal has a sense of normative rightness.  Certain things just simply must be.  Clarice is not allowed to deny these norms.  Our modern sense of what constitutes education has left this idea behind as old and outdated.  Hicks says it best:  “The abandonment of the normative question for the operational – ought for can – was predictable.  Since the Enlightenment, education has developed an acute case of schizophrenia.  Its antipathetic selves have fought over the question of man’s identity, the old self asserting a knowledge of man derived from the transcendent ideas and inherited truths of religion, art, and letters, and the new self insisting that man can know himself only by examining the composition of the material universe and drawing his inferences from that.” (p. 8)  Clarice wants to catch the killer; Hannibal wants her to figure him out, to understand him.

Knowledge is nothing without wisdom:  Ideas lead to action.  Hannibal is keenly aware and wants Clarice to see that the unsub’s actions are connected to his vision of the world, warped though it may be.  We are led in watching the film to extrapolate out from this lesson a contemplation of what kind of thoughts would be behind the horrific behavior displayed by Hannibal himself.  Knowledge should not be a path to power, but a road to truth.  We should not bend knowledge to our desires, but our desires to the truth.

There is more there, but modern blogs should not be long, so…

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Making Learning Happen

horse_water-700x434Somewhat related to my long meditations on motivation is the idea that we can cause learning to happen volitionally.  I certainly recognize that anyone is able to choose to learn for themselves, but as I sit here in the last hour of a school day prior to a long weekend I am reminded again and again that you can lead a horse to water, but the drinking is very tenuous.

So can we cause another to learn?  Is it appropriate to herd souls into lined up seats and then, with the ringing of a bell, in essence say, “Now, learn this stuff?”  As one Freshman recently said to me, “Mr. E, you just sellin’ what I don’t want to buy.  You want me to read and I just don’t feel like it.”  Now in that moment there was certainly the need to press the ideals of discipline and self mastery, etc. to push the young man out of his laziness and into the light, but there is the rub again: if he does not want to do so, the best I can hope for is his faking it enough to pass the class.  But I don’t teach to such ends.

I wish to see my students learn.  I almost beg them to do so.  I prepare great lessons, based on lengthy contemplations, just the right questions to spark their minds, models of great Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and all the humanity and grace I can muster for the classroom.  And many respond.  But others just sit there.  I seek their soul and it just can’t always be found.

Please don’t view this as a big bottle of whine.  I have been doing this long enough to have gotten past that; I just want to be faithful and find that this issue is at the heart of the temptation toward infidelity.  Just dial it in; they are not listening anyway.  Make a worksheet and call it learning.  Give them work time knowing they will be thinking about a lot of things, almost none of which resemble the work assigned.

I think the appropriate pedagogical approaches best suited to answering these things are found in conversation (two way discussion in the class) and writing.  I give mostly essay tests these days.  It is much harder to “fake” engagement in a written essay than when you are simply guessing the patterns of multiple choice or matching questions.  While some students can try to bloviate their way through a class discussion, and some quieter ones are just as engaged, or more so, this is where the experience of a teacher or tutor comes into play.

I think the best answer to this question is that the teacher must be engaged in the learning process, not simply pushing learning at the student but entering into it himself to have any hope that the student will enter in.  We must be students to be teachers.