Thursday, June 19, 2008

June 19, 2008

Yesterday I sat on the beach for a while, enjoying both the refreshing sea breezes and a few bracing pages in a short story by Carson McCullers. I can’t imagine a more perfect day for the beach – temperatures in the 70’s, the best kind of soft sunshine, and clear visibility for what seemed like miles out to sea. I read a few sentences, looked up to enjoy the flawlessness of the day, read a few more of her brisk paragraphs, and so on. Life, I knew, doesn’t get much better.


Walked the hills in the park again this morning – up and down the black paved path in the mist and silence, my walking stick tapping its way by my side. On the way home, I stopped to snap some pictures of the pond after an overnight rain. (See above.)

My morning walk brought to mind this poem by the British poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967):


IN the grey summer garden I shall find you

With day-break and the morning hills behind you.

There will be rain-wet roses; stir of wings;

And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.

Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep

Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:

And I shall know the sense of life re-born

From dreams into the mystery of morn

Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there

Till that calm song is done, at last we’ll share

The league-spread, quiring symphonies that are

Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.


I’ve been thinking lately about how easy it is to gradually accept certain points of view that seem obviously accurate, and how shocking it is when someone points out the incorrectness of that view. A prime example, of course, is what happened centuries ago when people started to realize, to their astonishment, that the sun does not revolve around the earth. For countless generations, the belief had been passed down that the earth is the center of the universe, and it seemed an obvious truth to one and all. To prove its truthfulness, all anyone had to do was watch the sun travel across the sky, then disappear, then rise again in the east. The facts seemed clear and palpable. Imagine, then, how difficult and unsettling it must have been to accept a theory that completely overturned those facts – that described a reality the exact opposite of what had so long been believed. I’ve been thinking about this especially in relation to teaching, and wondering how many long-accepted educational beliefs might be utterly wrong. For instance, it has always generally been accepted that the teacher does the teaching and the students do the learning. Could that be entirely incorrect? Could it be that the students actually do as much teaching as the teacher? Could it be that the teacher, through teaching, learns at least as much as the students? It’s also been a time-honored axiom that each student and each teacher is a separate and unique individual, requiring exclusive and particularized attention. Could that actually be wrong? Could it be that all students and teachers are inseparable parts of a single infinite process called learning? Could it be that the best approach to education is not individualized instruction, but rather the instruction that comes from realizing that teachers and students are actually a single emergent organism that moves in a cooperative and supportive way along the paths of learning? And finally, most teachers have traditionally acknowledged that students’ ideas can be good or bad, helpful or harmful, right or wrong. I wonder, though ... could this assumption be like believing the sun revolves around the earth? Could we be absolutely incorrect in this viewpoint? Is it possible that all the ideas that occur to our students are, in some unique though perhaps hidden way, good and helpful and right? Is it possible that we have been missing the grandeur of our students’ ideas simply by accepting a false viewpoint, a patently incorrect belief?

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