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Great Teachers And the Art of the Unconventional

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How should we teach? How learn? In these times--perilous for education--who has the answer?

My 8th-grade history teacher, a flinty old horror, never gave an A. ''Read Chapter Three," she would say, "and we'll have a test tomorrow." We would read Chapter Three and flounder through the exam. The truly gifted might scramble toward a B minus, but most of us wallowed in the marshes of C and D. A few sank from sight.

One night, however, after I had read the assigned chapter, a sinister voice seemed to whisper in my ear. "What if you read the chapter again?" it slyly asked. I was shocked. We hadn't been instructed to do anything of the kind. Still, I reread the material and found it much clearer and memorable. Then the serpent hissed a second time. "What," it suggested in its devilish way, "if you went through and looked for questions she might ask?"

I began to tremble. My audacity had limits. But I embraced the powers of darkness, and at once potential questions leaped off the page--or rather the answers did; it was a little like playing "Jeopardy."

The next day to my amazement "my" questions appeared on the test, and I answered with obscene ease, astonishing the class with the first A anyone could remember the old gal yielding. Affecting an astonishment of my own, I put my success down to luck, but I wasn't being falsely modest; I was scared, frightened that if my diabolical secret became known I would be exposed as a "cheater" and flunked or even expelled.

The ironies here are obvious and funny, at least to me. I had learned to "study," though I didn't know that's what it was called, and I was covered with guilt--something like the kids in "The Dead Poets Society" who defiantly "rebel" by sneaking into the woods and reading Tennyson! But what if the teacher had told us to reread and look for possible questions? It wouldn't have worked. We would have stared at her blankly and gone on as before.

Students think that teachers speak in code, that "Please pass the salt" is a request for pepper. And by forever trying to figure teachers out students overlook or complicate what should be plain and simple and clear, which drives teachers wild, though I suppose we get used to it. Recently, I signed on to read several hundred essays by students aspiring to credit for a college course they hadn't taken. Again and again the hopeful writers avoided the directions and supplied offerings neither wanted nor asked for until I began to feel a smothered exasperation. "Look," the schoolmarm in me wanted to say. "You chose to take this test; you didn't have to. Don't you want to pass? Why don't you do what you're asked to?" But actually I knew.

Teachers do speak in code because they have to, because they know that the real learning you have to do for yourself, sometimes against the grain, that even Tennyson has to be appropriated, possibly by stealth. So the great teachers seem to cultivate a Zen-like talent for eluding the conventional. They come at us obliquely, as in Timothy Gallwey's Inner Game of Tennis story of the flustered pupil--a grown man--who had been told by five different tennis pros that he carried the racket back too high on his backhand, as indeed he did. About to repeat this obvious criticism, Mr. Gallwey checked his tongue and set the man before a windowpane where he could watch his reflection. "Hey!" the man cried in wonder. "I really do take my racket back high!"

Or consider A.S. Neill of the famous Summerhill school, pestered with endless trivial questions from an importunate boy who never waited for the answers. "What was that you asked?" he said, pretending to misunderstand. "Where do babies come from?" No, the boy protested in fury; he didn't want to know that--and out he stormed, only to return. All right, where did they come from? Mr. Neill told him, and the questions stopped.

To make us conscious of ourselves, then, the true state of our backhand or our psyche--or what we really want to know--that must be the blessing a fine teacher can give if perceptive enough, understanding that students too speak in code like the Summerhill boy. Only, is that awareness always such a gift? In the 1st grade I, age 5, was made to stand beside my desk and sing from a songbook; then I was graded--F in this case, since I couldn't carry a tune (nor can I now). The grade was perfectly just, but what was the point? I can tell you the effect--a lifelong inhibition where music is concerned, an inability to enjoy or pursue the stuff except in a fitful and superficial way.

Well, but at least we can agree that a teacher should be open, helpful, friendly, encouraging, etc. I wish it were that clear, but I keep remembering the time I helped read 300 essays by prospective teachers challenged to describe a teacher of theirs, and to tell why they would or wouldn't emulate such. Paper after paper celebrated all sorts of humane, liberal, kindly virtues, but only one rose above mediocrity. The single essay that could fairly be called "good" came from a student who had been taught to write by some harridan of a nun who screamed and rapped knuckles with a ruler. This student too intended to be humane and helpful and unintimidating--admirable resolves, I guess, but you had to wonder. The whole thing called to mind the Catholic priest who, defending the rod, told me with gloomy resignation, "We find the boys don't like to learn."

I and Aristotle wouldn't like to think so, but I admit to playing football for a high-school coach who cursed and slapped us and once decked a refractory lineman. Though dubious as role model, the man won a lot of games, taught us a good deal of football, and produced in us a certain nimble alertness. As George Orwell said, writing of his prep-school days, it's a mistake to think such methods don't work. They work very well--for their purposes.

The simple truth seems to be that there is no simple truth. I know how a low grade or unkind remark can rouse some students to furious endeavor and unimagined progress, but I remember others who soared, given a little encouragement. There was the young man--a "minority"--who at the semester's end asked if he might hug me (I said he might), so grateful was he that I had let him feel he wasn't a complete idiot. Possessed at last of a little confidence, he had started to blossom. On the other hand, there were my Stanford minority students who found praise a threat and success a terror, and committed a sort of academic suicide, drifting away not because they couldn't make it in this alien world but because they could--and feared that in so doing they betrayed their roots and falsified their identity.

There's much to be said for removing frustrations and obstacles, and much to be said for installing them. When to be cold-hearted? When sympathetic? When to act shrewd and wise, and when to put on that calculated obtuseness A.S. Neill wore so effectively? When to let the whole student/teacher distinction dissolve? When to sharpen and strengthen it? I wish I knew. And all the while I've been talking as though the application of the proper technique will produce some desired and predictable result, which is nonsense. In fact, whenever I hear of some book or film or classroom "strategy" guaranteed to have splendid effects, I think of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and the juvenile hood who in the interests of reform is given the gospel and urged to read of Christ's Passion. The boy does so and enjoys fantasizing about wearing a toga and directing the Scourging and Crucifixion. (For that matter, I wish someone would explain once again, slowly, how a love of the arts humanized such exemplary types as Hermann Goering and the emperor Nero--he who expired with that magnificent sob of self-pity: "Dead! And so great an artist!")

We have to face it. Learning and teaching are explorations, and explorations by their very nature carry us into the unknown. So a misguided attempt to discover the "absolute" motion of the earth leads in a roundabout way to the realization that mass is a form of energy--that is, speculations about the earth's movement give us Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which no one could have foretold. The universe isn't just queerer than we suppose, said a famous scientist. It's queerer than we can suppose.

And we are a part of that universe, and little universes ourselves, spheres, Emerson claimed, which touch only at the points. Here is the real "crisis" in education but also what makes it exciting. We are the problem, you and me, complicated, unpredictable, perverse, alternately rebellious and docile human beings, certain to modify and very likely overturn all "strategies" for our improvement. Surely, the prospect of trying to "educate" such creatures is daunting--but also exhilarating.

Rabelais, imagining his ideal school, chose as its motto, "Do What You Would." I, less sanguine but hopeful still, will take my slogan from Kafka: "Nothing alive can be calculated."

Clark Brown teaches English at California State University, Chico, and is the author of The Disciple, a novel.

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