Monday, August 29, 2016

I Don't Want An Education

In the classic 1960 film Spartacus, the famous gladiator-turned-freedom-fighter (Kirk Douglas) enjoys a rare evening of peace with his beloved Varinia (Jean Simmons). As they recline in a meadowland indulge in the soft conversation of lovers, their talk turns to knowledge of the wide world.

Spartacus: I know nothing. Nothing! And I want to know. I want to... I want to know.

Varinia: Know what?

Spartacus: Everything. Why a star falls and a bird doesn't. Where the sun goes at night. Why the moon changes shape. I want to know know where the wind comes from.

I was at an overnight planning session for the Indiana Junior Classical League recently at Indiana University, and as I often do when visiting my alma mater, I took a walk around campus during the early morning before our meeting resumed. I followed a path different from my usual course and ended up by Rawles Hall, home of the mathematics department, went in, and found a poster for an upcoming lecture. Apart from definite articles and conjunctions, there was almost no word on that poster that I had either seen before or understood.

As I drifted back past more familiar buildings, I recalled the words of Spartacus and thought as I have so many times about all that I do not know. And like him, I want to know. I want to have a deeper understanding of mathematics so that I can truly grasp the famous words of Galileo that "mathematics is the alphabet with which God wrote the universe." I want to understand the language of numbers and mathematics and how they describe the universe. And speaking of the universe, I want know how forces work and interact with other and with matter, forces like the electromagnetic force and gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I want to explore the human sciences and understand the workings of the mind and consciousness and how to know which fonts and colors and arrangements of graphic information are best for reaching certain audiences to communicate certain things and I want to know how we know such things.

Like most people, I raced through my education. Spelling for fifteen minutes, math for half an hour, followed by reading and lunch and then social studies, P.E., and science. That was a day in elementary school. In junior high and high school, the pace quickened. Math...bell ring ... move down conveyor belt ... English ... bell ... conveyor belt ... Latinbellconveyorlunchconveyorchoirbellconveyorchemistrybellconveyorhistorybell. And why? It was mostly to memorize this or that, prove yourself through tests and projects, and then get some more. With such training how could I have approached undergraduate studies any differently? I remember once during my freshman year sitting in a class thinking I should be back in the dorm room completing some assignment. The absurdity hit me like a thunderclap. Listening to a professor who was an expert in the subject was the reason I was in college, not mindlessly completing homework.

We speak of getting an education, as if it were any other commodity capable of being acquired. I already have too much stuff in my life. I do not need something more.  I do not need an education.  What I need is to do something. I need and want to learn. Learning is an inquisitive activity. It is an enterprise of curiosity, mystery, and adventure. It is non-linear and for heaven's sake it is not fast. It is not frantic and harried and driven. Learning is deep and therefore slow. As Andrew Marvell mused, had we but world enough and time I would go back to the university, seek out instructors in matters I wished to learn, and not allow myself to run in a terrified attempt to outpace the inexorable charge of the educational machine bearing down upon me.

So what can teachers do, chained as they are inside the belly of the beast and forced to turn the cranks to make it go? We can tantalize our students with tastes of the true, the good, and the beautiful. We can make them thirsty with grains of the curious and mysterious. We can take them to the edge of awe and wonder and inspire them with the possibility of one day being freed from education so that they can truly learn.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Teacher Ethics

I asked a colleague of mine why he thought I had never told him to stop punching a student in the face.  He correctly observed that this would have been unnecessary, since he was not in the habit of punching students in the face.  By similar logic, my wife has never told me to sit down and consume vast quantities of pizza as if I were still seventeen.  I do that just fine on my own.  She does, however, have to tell me that I need to rest or get more exercise because I am not naturally inclined to take care of myself in those ways.

We tell people what they do not likely know and we refrain from speaking what we assume is common knowledge.

What does it say, then, when newly hired teachers must be told not to sleep with their boss, have sex with students, or show up to work hammered or high? 

The pictures throughout this post were taken of a PowerPoint presentation at the ethics training for newly hired teachers.  I will not name the state or district, but they were shared by a good friend and highly respected colleague who teaches there.

Should a teacher really need to be told that "the 'night before' must end early enough for you to sober up before reporting to work?"  Should a teacher really need to be told "no flirting with students?"  Should a teacher really need to be told not to cuss out a student or colleague?

Make no mistake, all these violations of professionalism, law, and common decency have occurred in schools.  Nevertheless, one of two situations must be true in the district that offered this training to newly hired teachers.  Either it was necessary to do so or it was not.
If it was not necessary, then it was exceedingly insulting to professional adults.  Sadly, it would not have been the first time in the history of education that well-educated, professional adults were treated as if they were children.

Yet, even more sadly, this probably was necessary.  It was probably necessary to tell adults charged with helping develop the intellectual gifts of children not to have sex with them.  It was probably necessary to tell adults who should be modeling the best of what the human race has achieved, which should be the core of their curriculum, not to come to work inebriated.  It was probably necessary to tell adults who are the custodians of the words that have been spoken to bring light into darkness and to conjure forth the ideas and devices that have saved countless lives and allowed the human race to explore the eternity set within its heart not to use two-cent vulgarities best suited for the bathroom wall.

Yet such things ought not to be.  For the vast majority of those who would claim the name "teacher," the highest intellectual and moral standards should prevail.  There will always be the exceptions, of course, but these can and should be dealt with individually.  If we have arrived at a point where the best we have coming into the profession truly need such training, then we must ask ourselves some hard questions.

First, have we so destroyed the profession of teaching through crippling legislation, tyrannical or ridiculous local leadership, and media vitriol that few decent people will enter it?  Schools of education and licensing departments suggest so (here, here, and here).

Yet even if we were no longer able to attract the most accomplished, creative, and intellectual among us into the realm of teaching our children, would we be truly unable to draw people with a basic moral sense?  This would be a far greater problem.  The schoolhouse is not the monastery, to be sure, and there should be no requirement for sainthood to accompany the teaching license.  Yet we must all ask ourselves what sort of culture we are developing if people who enter the field of education need a PowerPoint presentation to tell them the information in these slides.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Celebrity Teachers

I am not the celebrity hound that my dear friend and colleague Marcene is.  She has pictures with everyone from Red West to Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame.  Nevertheless, I was as geeked up as the next guy when my son and I got to meet Michael Sweet, lead singer and guitarist for the hair-band Stryper.

Yet I realized that I am still a huge, stars-in-the-eyes fan of a certain group of people.  It is not sports stars or actors, not politicians or authors.  It is teachers.

I recently attended the National Junior Classical League Convention, which was hosted this year by my own state, Indiana, at my alma mater, Indiana University.  While there with over fifteen hundred Latin students, teachers, and professors from around the country for a week of competitions, learning, and fun related to the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, my wife, also a Latin teacher, and I had the opportunity to visit with professors from our undergrad days.

On the first day of the convention, Matt Christ, department chair of Classical Studies at IU, spoke to us before one of the assemblies.  As we talked about Classics at the university, I could not help thinking, "I'm talking to the department chair!"  A few days later he dined with us at a banquet for all the teachers, and as our talk meandered through Classics at the university and secondary levels, I was again struck by the opportunity I was enjoying.

My wife, Melissa, and I with Matt

Mid-week of the convention, I met my good friend Tim Long for breakfast.  Tim is a professor emeritus of Classics at IU, and far more than just being my Greek professor, he gave me sage advice on many matters when I was an undergrad and has remained a good friend whom I often consult whenever Classical questions arise.  When I left the breakfast table after two hours of conversation, it was as if I had just sat down.

Tim and I with the first winner of the scholarship our high school Latin Club has in his name

That afternoon my wife, Melissa, and I had the chance to relive a memory.  We sat in Ballantine Hall, where we had so many classes as undergrads, and listened as Ellie Leach presented her work on the mythological paintings in Roman houses.  We had been her students in multiple classes, and to have the chance to sit under her instruction again, in the classroom building where it all began for us, was a tremendous thrill.

Then that evening I received an email from Derek Vint.  Derek has been the office manager and fiscal officer of the Classical Studies department for many years.  We made it a point to visit him the following day, and when I asked how long he had been there, he said that this September would mark 40 years.  Derek was always the one who assisted us with our class scheduling, and as he gestured to open chairs so we could sit and chat and turned on his window air conditioner for our comfort, we knew we had come home.  (We did not get a picture with Derek because I was partly in costume for a presentation as a Roman centurion and did not have my camera with me.)

Finally, on the last day of the convention, Betty Rose Nagle had us over for pie.  Betty Rose taught the first and last classes I took as an undergraduate, the first being on Cicero and the last on Ovid.  We remain Facebook friends, and she is often a person I reach out to with my many questions.  We spent the morning on her porch, eating wickedly good key lime pie that she had made, and discussing her work with 18th century German-authored Latin texts on human skulls and various other Classics related topics that made me never want to leave.  When we did, however, she imparted a box full of books that are already in my classroom.

The relationship between teachers and students never ends, and like the biggest rock and roll fan, I was giddy with excitement in each of these encounters with these friends in education who have had such an effect on my life and what I do.  And why shouldn't we be excited to interact with our teachers?  They worked with us in our formative years in loco parentis, and the places where we learned with them bear the name alma mater, nourishing mother.  Our teachers and professors are more significant parts of our lives than most celebrities ever will be.  The next time you have a chance, pay one of them a visit.  It will mean the world to both you.