“All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood.”
--Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man”
I’ve been teaching for many years, but sometimes, even now, I get the peculiar feeling that I understand almost nothing about my work – which is why I was especially struck this morning by this quote from Pope. Even after four decades in the classroom, in spite of everything I’ve supposedly learned about my profession, I often feel that teaching is an “Art unknown” to me. It seems, at times, so chancy and haphazard, as if there’s no direction to it, or at least none that I can see. Despite all my carefully designed lesson plans, I occasionally feel like I’m in the dark with a thoroughly insignificant flashlight, just hoping I might occasionally search out a truth about teaching. Strangely, though, this doesn’t discourage me. In fact, it’s actually quite exciting to realize, more and more clearly, that the art and science of teaching is far too immense and obscure for any one person to fully understand. I’m gradually taking in the fact that that this enterprise I’ve been involved in all these years is as vast and incomprehensible as the Grand Canyon, and who wouldn’t be happy to spend 40+ years surrounded by such splendor? Places like the Grand Canyon are majestic because of their mystery, and since nothing in my experience is more mysterious than the teaching of teenagers, there must be majesty in the work I’m lucky to be doing. Going back to Pope, if there seems to be discord in my teaching now and then, maybe that’s only because I can’t make out the hidden harmony that’s behind it all. If there appears to be disarray and confusion, perhaps it’s because I can’t detect the suitable and steady direction in which my students and I are moving. Were I hiking through the Grand Canyon, I wouldn’t be worried because I couldn’t fully (or even partially) comprehend the mysteries of its grandeur. In a way, my ignorance would be my bliss – and so it should be in teaching.
© 2010 Hamilton Salsich