While I’m the only member of my family who isn’t a teacher, what it means to teach others has always been on my mind. And so, comments from recent posts make me ask questions like these:

If we believe that something like rock music is clearly lesser than classical music; or that the likes of James Patterson are clearly lesser than the likes of Dostoevsky; or that TV and movies are clearly lesser than novels and poetry; or even that, in an ideal world, texting and email and the internet are clearly lesser than phonecalls or face-to-face communication; and if we believe a clear decline in our culture or civilization makes these and other assertions pretty obvious;

or if we believe the opposite of each of these statements; or if we believe there is a more nuanced response available for each assertion beyond a thumbs up or thumbs down;

…no matter what we believe, what is the best way to communicate that opinion, that belief? And in the realm of culture and religion, which inevitably involve the expression of beliefs to some end of individual and collective improvement, how do we communicate our concern to others in a way that will be convincing, and not alienating? (We’ve all heard of the Sunday school teacher or English professor who only made their students despise religion and reading.)

Personally, I always come back to the words of the late Joseph Campbell, who when asked why anyone should care about mythology—the study of which he had given his entire life—he replied, “Well, my first answer would be: go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in a subject because it’s said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other.”

As much as many of us may see decline in our culture or civilization, and as much as this situation inevitably comes to resemble a crisis situation, it seems more and more to me that this passive way of communicating belief and meaning is the way to go. Cultural or intellectual equivalents of the forced conversion, or the military regime change, may appear successful if only due to speed and a show of strength or numbers, but it breeds a kind of certainty and stridency that are both illusory and cannot last.

That’s what I would say anyhow. I know my fair share of people who subsist on a diet of light rock, popular novels and ESPN, yet they simply find deeper meaning elsewhere, whether in friendships or religion or family, in cooking or gardening. I wouldn’t dare tell any of them how much better off they would be reading and listening and doing the things I do; but at the same time I hope my presence when I’m around them is a suggestive lesson in its own right, should they ever wonder what makes me tick. Difficult to admit, but true: they really don’t need my love of prehistoric cave art, religious history, Caravaggio or Beethoven or Van Gogh, William Wordsworth or Walt Whitman. But I also don’t need what they love. The example of our lives teaches in another way.

Teach by not teaching, some Zen fellow might say; or, Teach by living. This of course has nothing to do with school, but the best school has always seemed to be less about learning than preparing one for the real learning of living. This kind of teaching almost invariably guarantees that we won’t be around to see the fruits of our labor, or hear a word of thanks from those we didn’t realize we taught, but that is small price to pay.



9 thoughts on “How Best to Teach?

  1. As a child, the bulk of my learning came from outside the classroom, on my own, at least after I learned to read. I studied the upcoming moon landing, built models of the spacecraft, wrote letters to NASA, while my parents just did what they could to help me feed my curious brain.

    I caught bugs and watched how they ate, spun webs, burrowed in the ground and any other unique behaviors I could ascertain.

    I guess I was the nerd down the street with a microscope and test tubes, growing mold in the garage trying to make my own penicillin.

    I don’t see much of that going on these days. In fact, it is unusual to see a lot of the kids in my neighborhood outside doing much of anything. I know they are there.

    Of course, all this learning did not prevent me from doing a lot of stupid things in life. Perhaps, I’d have been better off playing video games and watching 1,001 channels on the television.

    But sitting here in my office during a boring work day, it is nice to wander back into my memory to the day the giant cluster of praying mantis eggs finally hatched in our shrubs or when I ran into a giant bunch of migrating monarch butterflies amazed that there could possibly be so many of them.

    Those days of learning not only brought me knowledge, they brought wonderful memories that could not possibly be replaced by many of the things consuming time in our current culture.

    I guess this really isn’t a reply to your blog today. You just brought to mind the great times I have experienced learning. Thanks.

  2. Reading this, I think about my children, now young adults. Both chose to make music their career. One gravitated toward audio technology and the other toward orchestral performance. They landed in opposite genres but respect each other’s direction without any sense of superiority. I wish the whole world worked that way.

  3. Very nice, as ever.

    The keys to existence as self-aware beings can be as layered or simple as we wish to see them. In my opinion, life is to learn, learn from everything. Whether as education or as warning, each and every thing in this vast, stupid universe may teach us, if we let them. (I could have done with a bit more learning in the written English department, my grammar is goddamn awful).

    I find similar sublime beauty in Halo as Dvorak, video games fill me with as much awe and emojified-feels as orchestral music (put the two together, I need to take a knee).

    As ever, “absorb, learn, and try not to be a dickhead”

  4. Thanks JTM & always good to hear from you. I’m pretty sure too that I owe my introduction to classical music to old midi music for the old 8 bit Nintendo and Sega games. You could do worse as a kid than hear the music from Golvellius the Valley of Doom:

  5. Nice! Much of my classical appreciation came directly from Warner Brothers cartoons. If not for them I may have never gotten hip to one of my absolute loves: Gioachino Rossini!

  6. How ironic. I had to look up the origin of “ignorance is bliss.” Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eaton College,” 1742. How utterly great to read his poem after contemplating your post. Close to three hundred years removed and still we discuss the issue. Do I need to know about my genetic defect and how it will waste my body? No cure, yet the science is there and the thirst is quenched. Is it better? Tell me please. Thanks. Duke

    Link to poem: http://www.thomasgray.org/cgi-bin/display.cgi?text=odec

  7. I find it really really interesting that we have national conferences on education to complain about our schools.At the same time, we are laying off teachers left and right. Who gets the blame for the failure of our schools? Teachers. Yet we expect them to spend 60 – 80 hours a week working. It’s not just classroom time that consumes their time but preparation and grading. On top of that, they are constantly struggling to reach those kids who are unreachable. Many of the kids in many of the classes don’t respect their teachers and the parents attack the teachers. We have professors who are on food stamps because they make minimum wages.

    We throw money at the like of the Khadasians. Guess that tells you where our society’s priorities are. CEOs of major corporations get on tv and complain about our schools. When asked if they will help pay for them with taxes, they run the other and take their companies overseas.

    I would ask of each of you to think of a teacher who changed your life. For me, it was Mrs. Hennis, Mrs. Duke, Mr. Norton, Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Hickman.

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