Friday, May 30, 2008

Autodidacticism

Saturday is my high school reunion. I plan to spend the day writing, then make dinner with my wife, and put paid to a bottle of Bordeaux. So, this is one school assembly that I'll be skipping. Maybe next reunion.

I absolutely detested high school and spent my days there longing for adulthood and freedom; adulthood and freedom having been attained, I am now entreated not only to return, but to pay for the pleasure. No thanks, especially since it is not merely a class reunion, but a cumulative reunion. All of the school's graduates are invited to attend, wander the halls, and reflect upon those heady days when they were antagonized, coerced, hazed, ridiculed, beaten, bullied, badgered, tormented, and tortured - and that was just by the teachers. Far worse awaited at the hands of fellow students. In my case, this involved many desperate hours of evading a gaggle of troglodytes whose purpose in life was to test the effect of inversion on anyone who read books. Strangely, I find that I have no desire to see them now, shake hands, pat backs, take business cards, and dither about giving them a call if I need more insurance.


But let's talk about the teachers. Let me begin by saying that I count myself fortunate to have had four or five teachers who were not merely excellent but inspiring, people who understood that there's more to it than jamming curriculum down unwilling throats, and whose influence persists in my own teaching. In fact, I recently dedicated a book to two of them. A few months ago, though, I saw a bumper-sticker that said "teachers bring to learning to life" and it occurred to me at once that they omitted the word "good" from the beginning of that sentence. In my case, a dreary succession of bad teachers — mean, ill-educated, petty, and, in at least one case, literally psychotic — not only failed "to bring learning to life" but did their very best to kill it stone dead.


I learned in spite of them. In a few cases, I learned in order to spite them. Consider the science teacher whose "lessons" consisted almost entirely of forcing us to copy notes from a succession of overhead transparencies, and the history teacher who made us do the same with the textbook; there was the "popular" math teacher who continually disparaged the intellect of his female students, and who once whacked me with a ruler; another who changed the seating plan after every test, putting people with the highest marks at the front right, people with the lowest at the back left (in fairness, it was quiet back there); and then there was the computer science teacher who, when I told him that I wanted to major in literature in university, guffawed and said, "what a waste of time." I'm skimming the surface here: I won't even get into the authentic instances of sexual harassment endured by some of my female friends, confused and hapless in their mid-teens.


Worst of all were the physical education teachers (as Woody Allen put it, "those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, teach gym"), a succession of flabby ex-jocks who exactingly cultivated the aggressive proclivities latent in many young males, allowed them to bully and intimidate lesser athletes, and all the while mouthed banalities about how sports promote "team work" and "fair play". For many an academically inclined student, the playing-field and locker-room tortures, passively and sometimes even actively encouraged by our teachers, are one of the few enduring memories of our high-school education.


It was astonishing, too, how much emphasis was placed on the non-academic, how tolerant so many teachers were of the hissing, muttering, incessant classroom ridicule of academic achievers, but insistent upon the compulsory celebration of mediocre athletics - provided it was male athletics, of course. Loyalty is admirable only when it is freely given and bestowed upon someone or something worth defending. I did not then and do not now consider my high school's football team to fall in that category, and yet time and time again we were hauled down to the gymnasium to cheer ("like idiots for idiots," a friend of mine used to say) and to demonstrate our "school spirit". No such event was ever staged for the chess team, the debating club, the poetry society, or indeed for any girl's sports team, even when they won major competitions. If the goal was to create irrational attitudes to submission to authority — and clearly that was on the agenda — they failed in that, too, since for many of us events such as these only furthered our feelings of alienation and contempt.


But there was no arguing with it, no possible means of dissent that wouldn't be summarily and angrily dismissed, accompanied by the threat of some tedious and unimaginative punishment. One of the biggest problems with our high schools is that the teacher is the source of both knowledge and discipline. It follows that the line between critically assessing what one is learning and committing a disciplinary infraction is often indistinct. Consequently, many students who go on to university arrive with the assumption that they are in an adversarial relationship with their professors. For them, curriculum is a burden rather than a boon; the professor is a person to be worked around rather than worked with. Nothing is more damaging to higher education than views such as these, but they are the inescapable corollary of the way our high schools operate, and of the fact that, for many teachers, teaching is a career they chose by default and out of necessity rather than out of a love for learning that they hope to reproduce in young people.


Well, like I said, it wasn't all bad. I had some fine teachers, and unwittingly even the bad ones taught me what Confucius believed to be the most important lesson of all: that truth has four corners, of which three must be found by the student. In other words: if you want something taught right, you have to teach it to yourself.

2 comments:

Graham Broad said...

This early update was brought to you by Plato and Aristotle (pictured above), in a detail from Raphael's "The School of Athens" (ca. 1510-1511). Now that's a school reunion I *would* have attended. Next update, June 11th. Seriously.

Andrew Denstedt said...

I recognize that picture, it's used on the current mass market edition of "The Republic", which happily goes for a $3.50. "Bush Presidency: 10 Intimate Perspectives of George Bush" on the other hand, commands $54. I know I'm ignoring important publishing industry factors with that comparison, but that still makes me chuckle (quiver?).

Anyways, here's my funny/confusing/sad story about Plato and Socrates. I participated in a seminar on education during a class last year. Most of the conversation was dominated by thoughts from around the room on the current state of higher education in Canada. During a probably long-winded and tangential contribution to the discussion, I decided to make reference to earlier forms of higher education in Western society. I quickly hit the high points which I figured at least some of my classmates would recognize: The Lyceum, The Academy, and most of all the Socratic Method (we were talking about pedagogical considerations at this point). Now the key point to this story is, I never actually named any of them, I made the mistake of assuming that if I described the Socratic Method, at least some people would know that I meant. Of course, I'm sure some did, but when I finished the comment there was a pause and the professor responded by saying...drum roll..."Andrew, I'm not sure if that ever actually happened."