Departments

Teaching

I shudder whenever I hear of a new method in education. In the hands of a good teacher, who understands and shares its aims and principles, any method can succeed. In the hands of the rest, the shape and color of the prod do not matter: they will find a way to draw blood with it.

In the classroom of Procrustes there are standards. Those who are below the line may hope to be lifted up to it; those who are above the line must expect to be trimmed down even with it.

(Provided that it is peaceful and prosperous, I suspect that a country in which many minds fall below the line, will have unusually many minds above the line. This has been one of the reasons for America’s success. But unless the majority of people are close to the line, a country shall be neither peaceful nor prosperous.)

Sometimes a new method dredges the silt of habit. Sometimes it solves a problem; sometimes it shows up a problem in need of solving. But all methods try to reduce the teacher to catechist or technician. It is beyond reformers of education to acknowledge that good teachers are good, because they have good instincts. They have use for any method only if they can, when necessary, set it aside. When governments or school administrations enforce a particular method, they waste the best and excuse the worst.

The most basic question of method is whether to teach knowledge or critical thinking. But not even this question makes sense. I once read the difference analogized in the terms of computer programming – whether program or data is more important? It is a good analogy only because it shows how misguided the question is. The distinction of data and program is not essential or fixed. In the most sophisticated computer languages what is now data may become program, and what is now program may become data.

There is no skill of critical thinking, no capacity to learn, distinct from knowledge. You cannot learn to think, or learn to learn, without actually learning. Classroom critical thinking, when it is the ritual abuse of carefully stuffed straw men or the circling of out-of-reach questions, can only stop at inverting every statement into a question or cavil. That is the opposite of understanding; it is active ignorance.

Nor is knowledge absorbed directly. Words are symbols, and what symbols represent symbols cannot be. You learn not by absorbing thoughts from another mind, but by private analogy. Beginning with what you already know or have experienced, you recombine by aggregation and dissection until you meet what is shown to you. You build outward and inward, year by year, from the experience of the cradle – to the soul and the stars. But minds are not as different as their differentiating experiences. The building and building up of analogies, beginning in the isolation of the individual, converges on what is shared, what can be communicated – that is sanity.

Because it cannot be made into procedures, we neglect the basic truth: all education is self-education. Teaching cannot be brainwashing or downloading. No regulation and no method can do more than bring the teacher to the halfway where they must meet the student. No stake on any test and no drug can do more than bring the student to the halfway point where the teacher should meet them.

The mind is a fire, not an attic. You cannot burn anything without fuel, and you cannot fuel what is not burning. It takes a good teacher and a good student to set the fire; and it is the sign of good teachers to understand that whatever method does not serve the burning mind will smother it.

Modern Letters

The idea of serious writing is increasingly a paradox, because what is considered serious in modern letters is what it is impossible to disagree with and take seriously. What we read from the best modern essayists and critics, and in the best modern venues, is assembled from parting and passing shots, from the revelations of the esprit d’escalier. Everything shows the guerrilla spirit of political pamphleteering; and if we view each camp from its opposite, the world seems made up of monsters and fools.

The pamphleteer is certainly among us, but it is not the spirit of the pamphleteer which haunts modern letters; it is the spirit of the missionary. In place of lessons from religion, our secular sermonists preach the historical revelation – some moving catastrophe which (like a sacred book) delimits the permissible range of serious controversy. Beyond lies irrelevance (or heresy).

WWI was such a revelation for Europe – a message of horror and futility Europe found more powerful than the Gospel. That revelation has been superseded for them by the Holocaust. Even of a Christian, one may ask which is the more meaningful image: the Man of Sorrows, or the men of Dachau? Until 9/11 the principle revelation of American history was Vietnam – either as a betrayal of the people by an overreaching government, or the betrayal of victory by a weak people.

Where religion has disappeared from state liturgy and private conscience, it has been replaced with the cults and rites of infamy. The world of letters, and the world at large, is divided into factions, each with some central atrocity for which it works to broaden the basis of outrage. Religious fanaticisms, nationalisms, and secular ideologies are secondary. It is faction which drives events. It is impossible to explain the world today in terms of beliefs and loyalties. Everyone sees the strange alliances behind the forces of our time; it is common outrage which brings and ties them together.

The religious can, in principle, extend tolerance and decent behavior to members of other religions. Worship, where it does not become fanaticism, leaves room in the mind for other feelings. But outrage is an uncontainable passion. It subordinates every other feeling, warps every observation, breaks every chain of thought. These factions are as mutually deaf and mute as the most extreme fanaticisms of religion.

Outrage drives out justice. The blindfolded statue of justice puzzles us; our goddess of punishment has her eyes taped open. Factions cannot weigh the crime, the violation, and the loss, to calculate justice; they must parade grief and trauma, talk of closure or taking action as if these were answers. But grief is a wound that does not close, and action leaves us where we started: there is no satiety in extracting satisfaction, no revenge sweet enough to mask the bitterness.

The factions of outrage cannot be satisfied with finite goals. Outrage substitutes for religion as drugs substitute for achievement; outrage beguiles uncertainty as a hit or a high beguiles boredom or frustration. Both being poor substitutes, both tend to subvert and consume. As drugs subvert and consume one’s life, outrage subverts and consumes one’s voice.

History contains no revelations. History has no pivots, no keys and no locks. The only lesson of history is human weakness, human folly, and human fragility. Religion can embrace history; but history can be made to yield only perishable religions – their saints, made only once, all die in time and cannot be renewed. Looking at the Somme or Cu Chi, at Auschwitz or Ground Zero, some of us are driven to invent an analogy to Providence. We find a meaning to equal the loss; we find inspiration because we cannot bear despair. But history is only truth, not myth; and things happen because of what went before them, not in order to change the world afterward. No one can speak for the dead, nor do the dead speak.

Our serious writing is reducible to the devotional and the penitential. What does one learn from our periodicals? How is one illuminated by them? No distinctions are introduced, no arguments are undertaken; we are expected to bow to the alternations of authoritative pronouncement and sly derision, or be dazzled by a handful of shiny statistics. The actual reading is redundant; from the venue and the subtitle you can usually deduce the contents of the article or essay in advance. You could write it yourself.

I cannot believe that our descendants will read our literature. Will even their scholars delve it comfortably? A hundred years from now, our literature will feel to our descendants as an old book of earnest and censorious sermons feels to us: claustrophobic and inhuman.

Curiosities

Not all curiosities are of scientific use or value; but the habit of collecting curiosities, their gothic fascination, grows from the same ground as the scientific temperament. The philosopher may reject the aberrant as the spoiled ideal; but to the scientist, as to the poet, all things out of the ordinary – everything curious, bizarre, monstrous, abstruse, singular, marvelous – whatever it proves to be on examination, in the first instance and encounter it seems the token and promise of a new world.

It was not in their first reaction, but only in their later scrutiny, that scientist and magus diverged: the scientist applied Occam’s razor, to find the place of the thing in the known world; the magus tried to find new worlds in the thing. Of course sometimes the scientist is wrong. It was difficult for scientists to accept the notion of meteors; now they journey to cold white wastes to find the iron traces of the occult commerce, not just of earth with sky, but of planet with planet.

What is vast inspires our wonder. The mountain! The sky! But there is equal inspiration in the glamour of the small and strange: in the jests of nature, in the freakish, inexplicable, puzzling, or inscrutable, even in the foreign banal exoticized by lack of context. (We are all foreigners to someone.) If explanation cannot dim the wonder of the vast, it should not dim the glamour of the curious.