Sunday, December 18, 2016

Why Do We Need This?

It's the big question. It's really the only question I ever get while teaching.

Why do I need to read this? Why do I need to answer this? Why do I need to write this? Why do you need to test this?  All of it boils down to why is learning this necessary when I can access the answers, the questions, the essays answering the questions, the summary of the books, the anaylsis of the books from multiple perspectives, and the dissent over the same questions, all with the touch of a button on my phone?

What answers can I give to a reasonable question? Their thinking goes as follows: why do I need to know this when I can know it if I need it?  Why not wait until it is needed? Chances are, I won't ever need to know hyperbole or alliteration or how to break down a story into its parts, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, deneoument. Why do I need to read Gatsby?  Why do I need to read any book?  They're all here on my phone if I want, and I don't even have to read them, I can have them read to me.  It is a serious question, even if asked to simply get out of doing work.  It demands a serious answer.

Why is learning necessary when all knowedge is accessible?

When we reduce the need for knowledge to use, any knowledge which does not have an immediate use, is deemed useless.  Functional knowledge becomes not merely the baseline, but also the limit. Nothing further need be explored or explained.   We will become cave men in the electronic age, relying on machines to manage everything, we'll forget what we should not.  There is a beauty and a value to learning to play an instrument, master a sport, reading a book, or discovering the depth of a discipline.  We can only discover it by plunging in deeper, rather than skipping along the surface of all things.

Beauty has a purpose, but not use.  While moving the heart and growing the mind can be the goal as an educator, it cannot be the stated objective.  How do I argue with the reality of holding a library in one's phone?

I argue the reality.  You have a phone with a libary in it.  I have a manual for my washing machine.  I Having not read the manual, I can only do a fraction of what the machine is capable of doing. I've limited my capacity by my wilful ignorance.

Likewise, I have a piano.  I have enough knowledge to play decent pieces.  However, I've not practiced, ergo the skill lies atrophing.  The music is there, the knowledge, all that is required of me, is will and time.

What we can do, is limited by our willingness to encounter it, to wrestle with it, to struggle and suffer with it, to practice, to fail, to try and try and try again, and allow ourselves to be shaped and refashioned by the process.   I become a writer by writing, a pianist by playing.  We become what we're willing to invest ourselves in becoming.

So to my students:   Why do you need this? Because you do not have yet sufficient broad based knowledge to have uncovered all you are called to be, all you could be, and all you might yet want to be.  Such discoveries will require you explore places you would not go, and read books you did not pick, hear opinions you do not favor, and encounter thoughts you did not think.  Everything you take in, helps you take on more.  I want you to be able to take on all the more that comes from everyone else having access to that same library in their pockets.

Part of the why  is rational, functional, even practical. Those with a broader knowledge of that more, and more facile use of that more, will adapt to the moreness better than those who simply view it as the equivalent of a spare tire they might one day need.  I want you armed for the future.  A tool, like my washing machine, works only as well as the person programing it.  It works better for the one who reads the manual.

However the deeper reason is more ambitious on my part: I want them to be able to conduct the symphony, rather than merely listen to it, to write the book and craft the law, rather than simply be affected by it, or have to obey it.   Creation, whether of art or law, requires craft and skill, and such craft and skill only comes by work. Discovering all the ways in which what you know and how you know it affects how you can manage the world in which you operate is the process of becoming educated.    

I learned proper fingering for piano at eight, at fifty, my hands won't let me do otherwise.  We do not understand yet, and yet, it is only by going through things not understanding, that we will come to know what we should, and more than we planned.  This is the why of any education.  We must endure not knowing, and trust the coming to know has innate value in addition to practical and obvious worth of the knowledge won.

My goal is to expose every student I encounter to something beyond their experience; something true, something beautiful, something which tells more than a story. Hopefully, we're uncovering the unspoken truths about ourselves in the process of plunging through Gatsby and Shakespeare, and any other authors we encounter.  "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy Horatio," holds for each of us all the time.   Read and recognize, there might be something in this text speaking to your classmate.  Tomorrow, the text might speak to you.   It might be years before you grasp what struck you.  It might be never, but since we cannot know what will stir each soul, we keep presenting all these things in real time, in tangible ways, and asking you to turn over the prose and poems like jewels, to see each facet, in case one of them catches the light in your eyes.

Why do we need this?  Because I firmly believe all good stories are about more than what we think they are. They reveal who we are, when we encounter them.  The story we read as a child, means something different when we read it to  a child.  The romance we couldn't comprehend, now makes sense.  The mystery haunts whereas before, we were just in a hurry to get to the conclusion.  We need to create layers of understanding and that takes time.  School, and in particular, the arts, are a way of creating those layers which will come into play in later years.  So yes, I will make you read the book. Yes, I will make you write about it. Yes, I will correct your grammer and ask more of you than you want to give.  I hope one day, you will understand, I wanted you to dig deeper, because I knew as you cannot, there are treasures to be found, but only if you're willing to put in the effort.  It's my job to keep you interested in the meantime, and somehow content with not knowing why something is valuable, until you know enough to recognize its value.  

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