Thursday, October 11, 2007

Not Out of the Cave Yet

I have made it through the beginning of the school year! I have a course description prepared for my spring elective, I have great students this year, and I don't feel like the new kid on the block any more. I do feel like the kid who has too much to say about everything and who hasn't yet learned to keep her mouth shut. I see so many things we could be doing differently, from the way our schedule works to the way we assign papers. I wonder if we are not revolutionary enough. I wonder if we will ever be. I don't like being a revolutionary, but this phase of my life seems to be a revolutionary phase. Perhaps such thoughts are mere shadows on the cave wall. There is more to consider than revolution. I wonder what happened to me?

How did I go from being the girl who wanted to study only the classics, the great books, to being the woman who wants to see a more global approach to education? The desire to look for something new in the stream of discourse seems to me to be a privilege I have gained by dint of my education. That is not to say I wouldn't do it all over again. There is something about having spent four years learning for the sake of learning that is very precious to me. I want all of my smart, curious students to do the same. Even so, I wonder if the way to make classic texts available and interesting to the kids might be to integrate them purposefully and deliberately with a study of more contemporary texts, texts that are equally worthy of attention and study.

I wonder. But then I think that my passion for, e.g, the ancient Greeks shows when I teach the Odyssey to my freshmen and when I teach Sophocles to my sophomores. I prefer Socratic seminars to teacher-heavy lectures. Is that enough? (I doubt it, somehow. I know I can be a better teacher.) I wonder whether my students know that knowledge for its own sake is worthy of pursuit. (That's not entirely true; many of the students at my school have fascinating interests and know a great deal about plenty of things that I would never think of learning about.) I had a student inform me today that he could see why he might, as a future computer programmer or engineer, have a need for math, or science, or English. But he saw no need for history! I asked him whether he was planning to live his entire life without talking about the rest of the world or about politics in this country -- how could he expect to be an informed citizen without some knowledge of history?

I should not have been shocked, perhaps -- these are some very bright, very driven kids -- but I was never one of those kids. I was the kid who thought that in order to understand the world, I had to look at the origins of whatever world I lived in. For me, that meant the Greeks and Romans and Kant and Nietzsche and the rest of the canon. Now, I wonder how much of that canon my students will ever read; worse, I am guilty of the crime of wanting to read as much non-canonical literature as I possibly can. So I come back again to the idea of a privileged position. Time to change the topic:

Today was the day that I asked my students to think of essay-writing not as a chore, but as a way of expressing their thoughts. I asked them to describe aspects of writing that they enjoyed. After much thought and much sarcasm, they seemed to agree that the sense of satisfaction that arises from completing a thought or figuring out what they really mean to say was the most pleasant thing about writing. I spoke to them of my own struggles to write: I am a sporadic writer at best. The muse doesn't sing in me often. I am making a commitment to spend a few minutes every week reflecting on teaching, or life, or whatever on this here blog. The test will be over the next few weeks, the busiest of the school year. I am looking forward to being a part of the conversation, instead of solely taking in others' words, even if for a long time I am talking only to myself.