4 Aug


A Life in School, what the teacher learned,
by Jane Tompkins

(Wherein he learns what New Earth Academy is really up against.)

“I’d recently become aware that our work lives as professors (or as professionals in any line of work, for that matter) have become dominated by habits that leave no room for camaraderie or intellectual exchange. … And as long as achievement remains the measure of who we are, our lives will inevitably be patterned in a certain way. It means that hurry, busyness, and too little time will be our portion, for we will never think we have done enough.
… For whether or not you have time is more a matter of perception than anything else. The way we live now, we never feel we have time, in the middle of a workday, for just wandering over to a café, sitting down, and spending a couple of hours chatting.
The notion of making time belongs to a mind-set that assumes that more important things must be pushed aside or put on hold while we clear a space for this relatively unproductive activity. … It’s this way of thinking about our time – regarding anything that is not directly involved in productivity as an interruption – that we need to reconsider.
… I began to reconceive the way to live – at least to the extent that I evolved a very different notion of how to think about a day. The idea was to leave the day as blank as possible. At first, this was to ensure that I wouldn’t get worn out by doing too many things. But gradually the idea took on another coloration. Instead of seeing unaccounted for time as empty, I saw it as full, full of peacefulness, absence of pressure. Full of the possibility of lingering, meandering, dreaming, puttering, being lost in thought. The blankness of a morning in prospect began to take on luster. I learned to preserve it from encroachment. The encroachments would come of their own accord.
… With the cessation of outward busyness, inner phenomena became more apparent. … Becoming more aware of my physical and spiritual needs, and more aware of my surroundings, has made me more skeptical about the way we teach our students inside colleges and universities. There’s too much emphasis on matters related exclusively to the head and not enough attention given to nurturing the attitudes and faculties that make of knowledge something useful and good. Thinking these things over, I’ve begun to form some ideas about the kind of place a university should be.
… Many students, driven by the fear of not getting a good enough job after they graduate, make choices that go against the grain of their personalities. …. Of course, as professors, we don’t see the ways in which what we do as teachers narrows and limits our students: for we ourselves have been narrowed and limited by the same process.
… People who take the classroom seriously have invested themselves in perfecting a certain kind of performance. Knowing just how to answer the question, performing exactly right for the teacher, learning how not to offend the other students become the guidelines for success in life. Slowly, with practice, the classroom self becomes the only self. At preprofessional colleges where students (largely as a result of parental influence) are headed for law school, medical school, business school, graduate school, the performance mentality intensifies; people are so grade conscious and worried about doing well on their LSATs, MCATs, or GREs, that how they do on tests and papers becomes the measure of their worth as human beings.
Learning too well the lessons of the classroom exacts a price. Its exclusive emphasis on the purely intellectual and informational aspects of learning, on learning as individualistc and competitive, can create a lopsided person: a person who can process information efficiently, summarize accurately, articulate ideas, and make telling points; a person who is hardworking, knows how to please those in authority, and who values high performance on the job above all things.
Everything I have learned in the last ten years has shown me that this is not the sort of person to become.
… Human beings, no matter what their background, need to feel that they are safe in order to open themselves to transformation. They need to feel a connection between a given subject matter and who they are in order for knowledge to take root. … People often assume that attention to the emotional lives of students, to their spiritual yearnings and their imaginative energies, will somehow inhibit the intellect’s free play, drown it in a wash of sentiment, or deflect it into the realms of fantasy and escape, that the critical and analytical faculties will be muffled, reined in, or blunted as a result. I believe the reverse is true. The initiative, creativity, energy, and dedication that are released when students know they can express themselves freely shows, by contrast, how accustomed they are to holding back, playing it safe, avoiding real engagement, or just going through the motions.
The real objection to a more holistic approach to education lies in a fear of emotion, of the imagination, of dreams and intuitions and spiritual experience that funds commonly received conceptions of reality in this culture. And no wonder, for it is school, in part, that controls reality’s shape. The fear of these faculties, at base a fear of chaos and loss of control, is abetted by ignorance. For how can we be on friendly terms with those parts of ourselves to which we have never received a formal introduction, and for which we have no maps or guides?”

(emphasis Juno’s)

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