23 March 2013

Random, Repetitive Thoughts

There is something sterile about education today and deadening to the teachers who choose to engage it. In few classrooms are teachers responsible for teaching that learning has no end, or that learning ought to engage students in the mire and the muck of life rather than keep them secluded from it. A better awareness of this adventure might prepare students for the lives they will inevitably live in the world. To the innocent faces of my students who would avoid the world’s hardness and trust in a world where they might easily rest their heads, I would proffer the ironic smile of Parmenides. In his essay on George Santayana, Lionel Trilling says that Santayana’s critique of the American poets or of his Harvard friends who ‘petered out’ was made not because they “were worn out by American life, not that they were hampered by economic circumstances, or perverted by bad ideals.” Rather, Trilling argues, Santayana accused that they ‘petered out” because “they did not know how to break their hearts on the idea of the hardness of the world, to admit the defeat which is requisite for any victory, to begin their effective life in the world by taking the point of view of the grave.” These poets and artists who had ‘petered out’ would rather escape from the mess that is the world than engage in the challenging confrontation with life. Santayana thinks admiringly of the smile of Parmenides, the philosopher’s knowing response to a young Socrates who had voiced complaint about the “ideas’ of filth, rubbish, etc. with which he [was] surrounded in the marketplaces and which he would avoid.” Parmenides recognized that to be wise Socrates must accept his engagement in all ideas that derive from the world because that is finally where we must live and from which all ideas arise. Experience might not be pleasant but it is certainly real.
I’ve been watching reruns of Scrubs, a television situation comedy that ran from 2001 through 2010. It is the opening sequence on which I want to focus right now: for in it the main characters serially pass to each other an X-ray sheet that intern J.D eventually hangs on a backlight box and that names the show’s title. In the background the opening jingle declares, “I can’t do this all on my own. No, I’m no superman,” and refers clearly not only to the series of doctors who have passed along the X-ray photograph, but to the nature of the entire medical profession. It is an interesting admission that suggests that despite the comedic aspects of the show all will not be well enough. I’m no superman. Indeed, in season Four, Resident Director Dr. Cox, standing before a new contingent of interns, offers what was supposed to be a supportive pep talk. Instead he intones: “Everyone of you is going to kill a patient. At some point . . . you will screw up, they will die, and it will be burned into your consciousness forever.” Needless to say, he terrifies the neophytes, and none of them attend the celebratory introductory pizza party that welcomes them to the profession! I teach that episode to first year students in the teacher education program at the university who arrive to class with some vague, romantic motive for becoming a teacher, and who hold some idealized image of the work teaching entails. That episode serves as my smile of Parmenides.
Our educational standards today intend to mask the risk and difficulties that are engaged in being a teacher. Our objective in education has become not to learn, a pursuit that demands the commission of error after error, but to be right, a state that assumes no mistake! As Thoreau suggests, the acceptance of uncertainty is the hallmark of intelligence, and it ought to be the teacher’s work to prepare students in their understanding to be at ease with ambiguity. In Philip Roth’s American Pastoral Zuckerman says, “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.” Dewey somewhere says that an experiment whose results turn out as expected has been a badly designed experiment: there is nothing to think about if everything worked as planned. There is nothing to think about in success except the past. The teacher might stand in the front and offer the smile of Parmenides.
In education we almost always aim to be right, but I do not think that that is how learning occurs. Learning requires problems, even insolvable ones. Everyone of you is going to kill a patient. When Ishmael heads out to sea it is because he is a seeker, and it is in the life at sea that he searches for “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all,” he asserts. In Cape Cod Thoreau picks up a stoppered bottle yet half full with red ale that had washed up on the shore, and lifting it, as did Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull Thoreau says, “But as I poured it slowly onto the sand, it seemed to me that man himself was like a half-emptied bottle of pale ale, which Time had drunk so far, yet stoppled tight for a while, and drifting about in the ocean of circumstances; but destined erelong to mingle with the surrounding waves, or be spilled amid these sands of the distant shore” (92). Here there is no muffle but only the clear and singular of sound of life’s tragic view that today’s classroom obscures behind a plethora of answers, numbers and instruments of measurement.
I think that the sterility of contemporary classrooms organized by strict objectives and methods of assessment avoids the messiness of the world and cannot prepare students for the difficult business of learning and teaching: I am a teacher and, at present, a teacher of teachers. Once (if not always) I was a high school English teacher. Doubt and ambiguity were my métier; it was my entrance into thought and my strength in method. But today, we hide our fears of chaos and disorderof the certainty of uncertaintybehind all of the numbers and common core standards and instruments of assessments we employ to protect us from the void. We have stopped teaching for the ease of management and the safety and comfort of certainty.
            It’s partly what I consider on this sabbatical.


Anonymous Barbara said...

Just when I think I must escape the teaching profession...and some days, even my part in this play called life...you write something that brings an ache to my throat, compels me to dig my heels in this earth and keep fighting in the trenches for a bit longer.

I thank you for your words which give me a gift of hope, for the gift of error as a teacher...and forever a student too...for I am no "superwoman."

24 March, 2013 06:54  

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