“He was not of the material that usually makes the first-rate Eton scholar. There had sprung up in him a meditative yearning after wide knowledge which is likely always to abate ardor in the fight for prize acquirement in narrow tracks.”
-- George Eliot, in Daniel Deronda
When I read this passage this morning, I was first struck by the phrase “narrow tracks”, I guess because it started me thinking about my 8th and 9th grade students and the strictly regulated roads I make them travel in English class. Young Daniel Deronda, the subject of the above quote, would not have fared well in my class, with its fairly inflexible assignments and meticulous rules and regulations. Something “had sprung up in him” as a boy, sort of a desire to stretch and reach for far-off realms of learning, and my modest but almost fussy essay assignments would surely not have satisfied that desire. He wanted the kind of “wide knowledge” that quite honestly, is probably seldom discovered in my little and limited classroom, but is best searched for in the liberty of the world around us. I must say, though, that I’m a bit like Daniel in that I sincerely wish my students and I could stumble upon this “wide knowledge” more frequently. I wish more poems could propel us past the borders of the usual literary analysis and out into the territories of free-range feeling and thinking. I wish more sentences in stories could send rockets across our minds and make a few lights flash and signal inside us. Maybe it happens more than I think. Maybe the young people in my classroom occasionally come to Daniel Deronda’s longed-for “wide knowledge” as they’re working on a formal essay, or perhaps remembering my voice as I spoke the lines of a poem, or maybe just thinking of a classmate’s simple thought shared with sincerity during class. I hope so.