Mid-June Thoughts on Education

I can tell that it is mid-June because I’m rested enough to begin thinking about teaching again.  It takes me a couple of weeks to get over the rush of May. I must be recovering because this morning I find myself processing an incident that took place about a month ago.  Picture this.

It’s one of those typical school days in late spring, one of those days where there just doesn’t seem to be time to squeeze it all in.  I have just finished a lecture/discussion on Renaissance Art.  The bell rings and my students begin to pack up, preparing to move on to Literature where they are due to have a test on Dante’s Inferno.  One of my usually sunny students is grumbling as he pushes in his chair, “I just don’t think the number or names of the rivers in Dante’s hell is going to be something I need to know in order to do whatever job I get in real life.”  Freeze scene.

I have a love/hate relationship with these moments in my teaching career.  I love them because they present a chance for a truly teachable moment.  I hate them because they remind me of the reality of our culture, the fact that we have become all about production.  Values are assigned based almost solely on monetary worth.  I makes me sad.

Roll film.  I take a deep breath, pat the student on the shoulder and say, “You’re probably right, but knowing about Dante, his hell, and its rivers is making you into the kind of person that will be able to do that job and do it well.”  The day moves on from there in its usual spring-time whirl.

That evening I chewed on the incident a bit.  It reminded me of my favorite quote about education”  “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” –William Butler Yeats

Most of us, whether we know it or not, view education as the filling of a bucket.  Filled buckets are easy to measure, and education these days is all about the measuring.  I go to school; I sit in class, and the teacher fills my bucket.  I take tests which supposedly indicate the volume and weight of the material in my bucket.  I use what I have stored in the bucket to get a job and then to do that job.  I will be successful or not depending on how much the teachers have managed to cram into my bucket.  Since there is only so much room in the bucket, I don’t want to put any frivolous or unnecessary  stuff in there.  This leads students to ask questions like, “How am I ever going to use this in real life?”  (This is on the short list of questions that make teachers want to quit–just after, “Is this going to be on the test?” and just before–with waving hand in the middle of a deep discussion, “May I go to the restroom?”)

Mr. Yeats knew that the job of a teacher is not to fill a bucket.  The job of a teacher is to light a fire.  Lighting fires is a lot harder than filling buckets.  The results are almost impossible to measure, and sometimes the spark doesn’t actually kindle the flame until the student has moved on into life.  Once it’s burning though, a fire is of a lot more use than a full bucket.  A student aflame is able to fill his own bucket–over and over and over again.

I teach at a classical school, so I’ve adapted the quote to fit our model.  In grammar school, grades K-5, our students gather the materials for the fire.  You need wood and kindling, matches, etc.  Grammar school is for the basics.  In dialectic school, grades 6-8, students learn to compare fires and to understand the different purposes for fire; they argue about it because that’s what comes natural.  We call it debate.  What kind of fire is needed to smoke a brisket and what kind do you need to roast marshmallows?  How about fire safety?  Which materials gathered in grammar school are appropriate for various kinds of fires? Those are all things to be explored in the middle years.  By the time a student reaches rhetoric school, our high school, hopefully he is prepared and anxious to start the fire going.  As seniors, our students pick a topic, research, and write a twenty-page persuasive paper.  They turn this paper into a speech, present it before a panel of judges and then spend a while fielding questions, defending their thesis.  It’s an amazing process to watch.  Those in whom the fire is burning shine and shimmer with enthusiasm and passion.  As the presentation gets nearer, we hear them discussing their topics and joining in discussion about the topics being researched by other students.  They sharpen one another; they make each other’s fires burn more brightly. We know we’ve done our job when we hear them say things like, “That was so much fun!  I want to do it again!” ( I really, actually, truly, have heard  students say that.)

Of course, this doesn’t happen for everyone.  For many, thesis is just one of the hoops that must be jumped through in order to get to graduation.  I’ve learned that this is okay.  The spark may still be there, glowing quietly, getting ready to burst into flame in college.  One former student was telling me about being in the library on his college campus.  “I look around,” he said, “and I see all these books, and I know that they are full of things I need to know.  I want to learn it all!” These are the moments teachers live for.  For some students, the flame kindles even later in life–it might be a difficult job or becoming a parent that fans it into flame, but burn it does!

Being educated does not mean having a certain volume of knowledge stored away for later use.  Being educated means becoming the kind of person who knows where to find answers, who is passionate about life, who has hope for the future.  Being educated means knowing how to recognize beauty, truth and goodness in life without having to put a price tag on it.  This is why I teach: I like to light fires and I love watching them burn!

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