16
Jan
12

Shock and Awe

Observing John, our august leader, at seminar yesterday I deduced that he holds us to a standard. our group discourse must ever press toward worthy aims, and we must be held accountable for our individual opinions, offering reasons for our judgments. 
   Will it be fair to say that I hold my own students to high standards of intellection and inquiry? Yes… And I now espy a standard which may NOT yet be on the syllabus but which is involved in the envisionment classroom. By demanding answers to difficult questions, we hold students accountable to the principle of STANDARDs. 
    What we mean by standards really is PRINCIPLE. 
   Action from principle, Thoreau argues, is action from conscience, from an individual standard higher than the direct statement of the Bible, Constitution, or, we may substitute, core curriculum standards. They provide the letter, yet the “fountainhead” is the source of “wisdom”. It may be prudent to meet the standards, but is is wise to discern their eternal truth. 
   Upon what foundational principle is the brickwork of our national standards built?
“College readiness,” anyone? Good Lord, one might as easily and arbitrarily say vocational school, the navy, or pub chat. 
   One of my best friends, Phil Lee, used to say he majored in “dinner conversation” at Yale. At the time I found it a droll remark, designed to elicit a smile. But I have come to see it as a mark of the liberal arts education. When a person graduates from a high school or four year college, the product ought to be little more and little less than a good dinner conversation. 
   One arrives at the home of friends or strangers, the mine worker or The President and First Lady, and sits down to a “BAH-tel” of beer or a dry martini. This ability to slide from the society of one class to another is the same one explored in Six Degrees of Separation and Princess Diary. It is all about what to say and how to say it, the external features a person presents. Pygmalion by Shaw gets at this differently, as the artist shapes his Galatea, Eliza, into a creation of his own, taking too little account of her own soul. Describing the end goals of AP English Lit class, a teacher offering a summer institute at Stanford once told me the class goal for his students was “to love literature and to find something interesting to say about it in writing.”
   To say and write interesting things. To turn out an interesting person. Is the goal, then to BE interesting? We ought to go one more step down this path and offer a corresponding angle: to be interested.  
    In recent class discussions, the student who asks the most interesting question appears to be the most interested. “I do not think that we have answered the question,” one of my ninth graders chastened as we terminated an investigation of why the balcony scene in Romeo etc. was so famous. Dissatisfied with the results of our inquiry, she seemed to chide her classmates for not getting to the bottom of the problem. She was interested in the issue, and her appetite for a reasonable answer had not been sated. She could not say something interesting yet about the scene, nor the question, but was prepared to note that none of the arguments yet put forward by the class was persuasive. She wanted to learn, and she wanted the learning to be meaningful, to address the questions that persisted. Persistence itself was a sign of her interest, her inquisitiveness.
   While she may have been interesting to observe and to listen to, what was even more interesting to me was her own curiosity. If the trait she demonstrated became a model trait for all students, we might imagine a school where inquisitiveness was one of the highest values, which might be measured by type and number of original questions asked, and by where the answers led. 
   If the principle of curiosity is invoked as a foundation upon which we may build our learning programs, success may be measured differently, and student, parent, and administrative orientation toward grades and test results might be altered. What would it take for a culture of inquisitiveness to become so foundational to school learning that its living waters trickle down into our classrooms and homes (dare I say textbooks*)?
   If our goal is inquisitiveness in all of high school and college, then it is easy to adapt a specific course to a particular expression of such investigative learning: for instance, in a physics class, one studies relations of bodies, inquiring about such things as movement; in mathematics class relations of symbols of quantity, in literature class relation among parts of sentences, parts of great works, and the relation of works to the society that generated or which peruses them. 
   But will holding people accountable for persistent inquisitiveness in their choices and their responses to literature, as my seminar mentor John does, help them to grow in gaining control over their responses? Are they gaining control over their own learning? Evidence of such control would be a good reason to name intellectual curiosity as a principle which could drive instruction at various levels.
  
So do students actually gain control over their interest over time? I assume that, with any effort, they will become more interesting writers, and more able readers and writers . But are they aware that we really have another standard in mind, one which may go unstated? Will they become more interested readers, writers, and thinkers? 
   We hope to awaken their interest, so that they might act on a desire to control their own learning. 
   Do we merely await the disturbance of the slumbering giant?
Do we pour into their ears a leprous distillment, praying that with each new droplet that falls they will leap to their feet in paroxysms of delight? 
 
 It may be something like that. 
 
It may be that our earnest efforts are attempts to put problems before them, as John Barell once wrote, and that we offer them time to play with solutions to those which stir their interest. 
   Is it that such a faculty already lives within their minds, almost as Socrates supposed one to inhabit the mind of the untaught slave who could work out an unknown math problem in the Meno? That such a faculty needs only to be recalled to life. How often do we teachers live by the Allegory of The Cave as our enduring foundational myth, whose guiding principle is that students are somewhere within the cave, and that we, their teachers, have moved out into pure illuminating light, by which we see the true forms, and of which they are ignorant. They possess shadows; we see have seen the light. We descended into the cave again to pull them out. We know more than they do about truth. 
   Is this the myth by which I teach? if so, there is an eternal opposition which will exist between them and myself. It will be an antagonism. I will make their rest uneasy, and I will get no rest until their chains are loosed. 
   In brief, I must be their savior and their authority. 
 
In democratic education, though, the slave is already free, because he possesses the keys to knowledge within himself. He alone must wake the sleeper within. 
   How do I reconcile my conflicting desires to let students find their own voices and ask them to heed mine? To use their own keys and to offer them my own? 
   Are we Yoda, using arcane syntax to equip the young Luke so he may Walk the Sky?–Luke, whose namesake knows and writes the gospel truth, and who undertakes a literary journey “up to Jerusalem” in order to invite his listeners to join him on a similar spiritual quest). We are good teachers because we see in our students a potential to be greater than ourselves, and we have the experience to help them see their own, discover their own ability and promise. 
   It may not be that we possess a light of knowledge such as Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness, which we must carry to the darkest places (caves) of the earth to call the people out of their barbaric past and into a modern age of enlightenment. Rather, we possess the means by which we can encourage each of them to individually turn around and make a choice to inquire what lies outside the cave, and choose to take steps up an upward path toward the real, away from illusions. Nothing short of such “repentance,” a symbolic turn-around, gets at the drastic physical and spiritual change of direction that one engages in when one assumes responsibility for one’s own learning. 
 
By acts of mentorship, we use our own experience as curious beings, to show others that inquisitive acts of mind are pleasurable and productive. Maybe we live as though our questions about the world have given us a kind of control over our own learning that they would like to exercise over theirs.
 
If Martin Luther presumed that a personal reading of The Bible would lead  anyone with earnest application to see the same light he did, are not we counting on something of the same sort here? Those of us who believe that experience is a good teacher, and that personal discovery makes for lasting learning, daily aim to offer our students environments rich in language, in multi-sensory learning experiences.
 
Perhaps it could be said that we rewrite the myth by changing it. We bring into the cave abundant evidence that the world is a wonderful place. 
   (Why is it that Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What A Wonderful World” sounds so melancholy, but Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” sounds so defiantly whimsical?) 
   We do put problems before our students, but we hope the placement and selection of difficult things causes them to wonder. 
    We rewrite the myth so that rather than encountering a black and white world of shadows thrown on a cave wall, which approximates at most an early stage of adolescent critical thinking, our students encounter a world of color through tactile, sonic, visual, and olfactory signs, proof of the existence, just outside the boundaries of their limited perspective, of a world more whole, more intriguing, more puzzling, more three-dimensional, more unexplained, more different from the one they are accustomed to than they have ever imagined. As my astronomy professor Dr. Posin used to say, quoting Einstein, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we CAN imagine. 
 
Am I suggesting that we can shock our students into being curious? Possibly. Consider the jolt delivered by the first volley of fire in a Ginsberg poem:
(Note: poemhunter.com offers the option of sending this poem as an e-card)
 
 The Terms In Which I Think Of Reality
 
Reality is a question 
of realizing how real 
the world is already. 
 
Time is Eternity, 
ultimate and immovable; 
everyone’s an angel. 
 
It’s Heaven’s mystery 
of changing perfection : 
absolute Eternity 
 
changes! Cars are always 
going down the street, 
lamps go off and on. 
 
It’s a great flat plain; 
we can see everything 
on top of a table. 
 
Clams open on the table, 
lambs are eaten by worms 
on the plain. The motion 
 
of change is beautiful, 
as well as form called 
in and out of being. 
 
 
Next : to distinguish process 
in its particularity with 
an eye to the initiation 
 
of gratifying new changes 
desired in the real world. 
Here we’re overwhelmed 
 
with such unpleasant detail 
we dream again of Heaven. 
For the world is a mountain 
 
of shit : if it’s going to 
be moved at all, it’s got 
to be taken by handfuls. 
 
 
Man lives like the unhappy 
whore on River Street who 
in her Eternity gets only 
 
a couple of bucks and a lot 
of snide remarks in return 
for seeking physical love 
 
the best way she knows how, 
never really heard of a glad 
job or joyous marriage or 
 
a difference in the heart : 
or thinks it isn’t for her, 
which is her worst misery. 
 
 
Allen Ginsberg 
 
(N.B. Make certain the e-card is addressed to only those whose curiosity you would like to awaken. I do not recommend sending this as an e-card to the humorless nor incurious, who have already decided that the cave is a perfectly good home and are even now stocking it with furniture from Ikea to accommodate the friends with whom they wish to spend eternal adolescence living in Elvis Costello’s “Black and White World”)
 
I do not need to shock my students by CONTENT, but by selecting problematic passages, or by asking them to raise the standards of their curiosity. I shock them early on by challenging them to inquire at all. Then it is my duty to keep supplying them with either choices that offer suitable degrees of thickness, of depth, color, flavor, texture to allow for the process of discovery within a class period or unit, but will not allow exhaustion of the specimen; or to offer new questions which continue to probe the specimen. If we analyze anything to death, we have not done our office. And we may have chosen a poor specimen, and it will not have done its office. 
 
For some reason (vocation?) we choose to linger in the cave, offering what feeble evidence we can of a wonderful world, in hopes that a fellow human being will shake off her chains and run to the cave entrance and into the arms of life. I hope it is not a foolish goal to want that for every child in a school.
I would love to hear what you are doing to model inquisitiveness, and to foster it with high standards. 
 
*I suspect that inquisitiveness would drive textbook production downward, at least by eliminating their felt need to place questions at the end of each reading selection. 
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