Stolen Learning

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In the 6th grade, I stole a cheap paperback atlas that no one seemed to want. I took it because I loved maps and spent hours happily poring over them. About the same time, a fast-talking encyclopedia salesman convinced my mother that my intellect would be permanently shrunken without his product. As a reference work, the thing was poor, but it had the right combination of pictures and simple-minded prose to entice a kid. For years, I leafed through it, digesting all sorts of information.

It sounds as if I were the ideal—if slightly larcenous—student, and, in fact, I checked books out of the library, disliked television, read history for pleasure (or possibly hero worship), and fooled endlessly with a chemistry set. But none of this dedication carried over to school, where my performance was undistinguished. There, I would stare out the window or count slowly to pass the time. Sometimes, I pretended a need for the boys' room and wandered the halls like a ghost. I knew this was wrong, but I knew, too, that I was hopeless. I entered high school convinced I was “dumb,” and though I scraped my way into college, I thought it even money that I would flunk out my first semester.

Then a miracle occurred. Suddenly, my work drew the high praise that had eluded me since kindergarten. Of course, I was working hard—from sheer terror—but there was more to it: College was interesting. Gradually, I realized that whatever my mental limitations, I had until then been bored simply crazy.

I think about this personal history because like everybody else, I have been reading about the sad plight of American education and about the proposed reforms—most of which make me shudder. There is an irony here. I am on the other side now. I started college convinced of only two things: I didn't want to take any English, and I didn't want to teach. You will not be surprised, then, to learn that for the past 25 years I have made my living as a teacher of English. Insidious the things we think we hate.

It's the teacher in me that winces at these Draconian schemes, such as longer school days and year-round enrollment. Students, I keep reading, can't be given three months off; they forget things. And I wonder what it is that students forget and if anything so easily lost is worth preserving in the first place.

Not that school can be turned into a daily romp. The amount of fun to be extracted from punctuation or the multiplication table is probably limited. Even Shakespeare is drudgery until you get onto the language. True, my own dull schooling may have paid off eventually by driving me deeper and deeper into some inner self that rescued me in college. All the same, I don't think the regeneration of American schools lies in making them deadlier than they already are. And it seems that's just what most current proposals aim at doing.

I doubt that anyone knows much about how people really learn—or how to measure it in any detail—but I believe that I learn (assuming that I do learn anything) through tricking the conscious mind into a partial and momentary relaxation, usually accompanied by some undemanding physical activity. So some of the thoughts you are reading surfaced not while I was sitting in a book-lined study trying to ponder deeply, but—if you must know—while I was heating up a can of chili. Most helpful, I find, is walking about the backyard swinging a baseball bat.

I realize that the prospect of hundreds of students strolling the school grounds with flailing bats would send even Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf scurrying for cover. And I don't think successful teaching means assuming the lotus position atop the desk while smiling inanely and asking enigmatic questions. Still, what school can do is exert a pressure and arouse a curiosity, but only if that school is willing to accept the consequences—that is, to abandon students to their own wonder and confusion, realizing that they will not always get things “right.” So I, in my childhood explorations, somehow got the idea that if you conquered a country's capital, the country itself was obliged to surrender. Nor was my understanding in other matters always perfect. What happens, I once asked, if the Pope dies without offspring?

But it's just this letting go, this surrender, that educators won't make. Learning, it seems, can't occur except on school territory and during school time. Left to themselves, students will do all sorts of unproductive things like watch television. (Never mind that those marvelous Japanese kids watch even more television than their American counterparts.) The real problem is that learning takes its own curious and perverse routes, and the results aren't always predictable or desired—as I discovered twice, to my humiliation, during my first year of teaching.

Telling one class about the books we would be reading, I described Voltaire's Candide as “funny”—which it is, a philosophical satire full of comic-strip-type violence. Afterward, a young woman approached and told me gravely that she had read Candide and didn't find it funny at all. “I mean,” she said in hushed tones, “all the awful things that happen!” Then a strange light glinted in her eyes, and before I could speak she broke out in astonished revelation. “Unless—” she cried, “unless it's ironic!”

Candide is ironic, and I had “taught” her all right, but hardly by intent or design.

The second story is less encouraging. Fresh from the civil-rights wars of Berkeley, I cared passionately about causes, and causes are less ambiguous when you're in your 20s. I had joined demonstrations and tried to get myself arrested to promote minority hiring. So when I became a teacher charged with leading my students into some “controversy” about which they might write, you can imagine what it was.

I tried to keep my opinions to myself, but I don't know if anyone was fooled. We read the standard pieces of the day—James Baldwin, William Faulkner, et al.—and I had no doubt that through some dialectical process my neophytes would inevitably seize upon enlightened truth—that is, they would think and feel like me. And so with the unflagging optimism of the crusader, I attempted to ignite a discussion.

The result was disaster. No one wanted to talk. The subject only embarrassed them all, and besides, they were sick of it. I grew desperate. Then one shy hand rose, and, shamelessly grateful, I called on its owner.

“Well,” he began, “I think the trouble with the niggers is ...” There followed the familiar racist litany.

I would like to think that, as Martin Luther King used to say, I had exposed a cancer in order to cure it, but I wouldn't bet on it. And I take this consolation—that if my student learned little, I learned a lot. I learned that education isn't a kind of quality control that guarantees a foreordained outcome, and I learned that conscious, systematic brainwashing is still brainwashing, even in a good cause. Students sense it instinctively and resent it bitterly, and clumsy but well-intended attempts at cultural revolution have a way of self-destructing, as we may be finding out.

At the root of such attempts is the notion that education has a mission to perfect human nature, which usually means trying to make the instructed resemble the instructors. It's this very notion that builds in pedagogical failure, the relentless effort to oversee what and how people learn, thus destroying learning, itself, which seems to have happened in my own dismal schooling.

Not entirely, though—and this may be the hopeful note: that guerrilla war that children wage, like that dull but determined boy with his stolen maps, trying to puzzle out just where the hell he was.

Vol. 04, Issue 03, Pages 33-34

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