The Tenacity of Learning: On the tug of war of classroom education

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By Leif Erickson

The student and the teacher experience dread over similar things. No one whistles on the way to school on all-day testing days, for instance.

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Students returning to UK’s campus

And no one is happy about the beginning of the school year shouldering its way in again with all its unbearable insistence.

That is an exaggeration, of course. (I am a teacher, so I can’t avoid them.) But truly, you will rarely find a person involved in education — on the delivery or receiving end — who does not experience a sinking sensation when those Back To School signs begin to blossom like cankers all over the big box stores and the “Seasonal” aisles start to look like they do at Halloween, strewn with spiral notebooks and small white glue bottles instead of plastic monster masks and pumpkin buckets.

Those huge, gaudy, yellow-dominated signs — why so much yellow? A tip o’ the hat to the No. 2 pencil? — those signs give it all away; they let the C-A-T out of the bag.

“Back we go!” the signs say. “Remember how exhausted we all were at the end of last year, students and teachers alike? Remember how close we came to saying ‘screw it all!’ in a hail of tossed themes and portfolios and reports? Back we go.”

Yes. Back we go.

Oh, I feel the excitement of the new school year too, don’t get me wrong. Once more into the breach! I’ve got some ideas! We’ve always got ideas, we teachers, and I suppose that’s also one more thing we share in common with our charges: they too have ideas. My ideas involve trying new things to lead the horse to water, so to speak, and their ideas hover in the vicinity of “what precisely do I have to do to get this grade?”

It’s a tug-of-war we have learned to call classroom education, and while I have much to say about the valuable, real learning we can accomplish in the belly of this Terry Gilliam-esque beast, it is a beast nonetheless, and we all feel its fetid breath on our necks every August. “You just had June and July,” it huffs. “Congratulations. Now come in under the shadow of this red rock…”

 

This article also appears on page 6 of the August 7, 2014 print issue of Ace.

This article also appears on page 6 of the August 7, 2014 print issue of Ace.

But I’m starting to sound like a cynic, and I am anything but that, especially when it comes to the precious job of enlightening people. One can love a cause and still dread the headlong plunge into battle that it requires.

Also, one knows after a decade and a half of teaching whether one has heeded the siren call of bitterness and cynicism. Those who have become cynical are well into the Acceptance stage at this point in their careers, as satisfied as monks making cheese. Some even manage to find a way to craft their cynicism and bitterness into legitimate teaching methodology, often reaching students a more positive teacher would have missed.

I do not repudiate the cynic so much as acknowledge that my way differs from his/hers. I do not and cannot function in such a way. I want to be in the classroom always and forever, no matter what kind of nonsense ebbs and flows outside of that room, no matter which competent or incompetent administration or system steers the helm. I love enlightenment, and for me there is no room for cynicism in the raw, pure pursuit of knowing.

No, my sense of dread in response to those yellow Back to School signs is at least partly born of the nagging conviction that this attempt to contain and quantify the Mysteries of Learning is simply absurd. It seems that by turning it ON in August, letting it run for a while, and then turning it OFF in May or June —as if any real and life-changing learning ever manifests itself in such a rote, mechanical way — we are demonstrating our collective insanity, pretending that what we are doing is pat, compartmentalizable, stable, fixed.

But it is not. I am reminded of the university philosophy professor Alan Watts describes — a practical fellow with a briefcase who punches out of his 9 to 5 job after “doing philosophy” every day. This fellow has missed it: learning is a messy, unpredictable process of trial and error and shifting perspective. How does one wrestle that into submission between one class bell and the next and stuff it into a briefcase for transport?

And how does one signal the call “Back To” some Thing when the very nature of that Thing knows nothing of beginnings and endings?

My birthday, August 14, always falls on or near the first day of school, which makes me question free will. It’s like that preacher I once knew with the last name “Bible” — did he stand a chance of being anything else?

This Day of Birth/Beginning of School connection should be comforting and satisfying to my literary brain: a ready-made metaphor. Those Back to School signs should remind me of the joy of living, of setting out on new journeys and adventures.

And they do. But birthdays and Back to School signs are also similar in that they arbitrarily demarcate things that can’t actually be demarcated with any sort of consistency or universality. The 14th will mark an event on a calendar, it’s true —but calendars only exist because we need to mark things on them. To forget that is to be like the town that set out to make a life-size map of itself and ended up confusing map for place, living on the paper map like we live on birthday reminders and school calendars.

But it’s handy and useful to set everything up that way, after all; and besides, what else can be done? The Back to School ritual is, more than almost anything, a reflection of our necessary limitations as an ever-swelling populace that needs its people to be educated. How in the hell do we educate all of these folks? And how will we hold all these educators accountable?

Those questions are 1st cousins to ones like “What is love?” and “How do you raise a child?” The lack of a clear answer does not excuse us from our needs and duties, so we grasp at any answer in the vicinity of correct, and we exhaust it of usefulness until WE are exhausted, and then we move on to a better answer. Such is living (i.e. learning) for conscious beings.

So here we are, in the land of modules: We sever history from art like sausage links, math from writing, science from all the rest of it — and we spoon it out and digest it and regurgitate it and chew it again and hold our noses and pray. It ain’t pretty, but it’s what we have invested in, and it will do until we figure out a better answer. In the meantime, the successes we DO have are just proof of the un-killable tenacity of learning: if we can teach some people in spite of conditions like these, what could we do with ideal conditions?

That is fantasy talk, but that’s okay. If we all start at the same time and pool our efforts, perhaps we’ll locate the thread of learning that runs the length of this labyrinth of good intentions and follow it to the light.

We CAN, you know. We’re about to prove it again.

This article also appears on page 6 of the August 7, 2014 print issue of Ace.

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