Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Teacher's Natural Habitat

There is a natural habitat for a teacher.  It is a "sound and sweet and wise place" that is "surrounded by beauty and sanity," a place where "the whole human being, not disembodied chunks of him, is the focus of education."

And what may teachers expect in their natural habitat?  They should expect "the joy of teaching" and perhaps even a certain "happy boyish enthusiasm" as "souls [are] born in wonder."  They can expect "cheerful faces, and plenty of them" and "happy students" who are "not eager to leave, because they [are] having too much fun."

You will likely have one of two reactions to such a description of the teacher's natural habitat.  You may sit back and sigh with a faraway look of longing as you heart yearns for such an Eden.  You may also find a certain anger rising within you, a burning, righteous indignation that someone would even dare to describe a place that is so far from your present circumstance that it could not be glimpsed with the Hubble.

I know both of those reactions, but I also know that the descriptions offered above are about what should be, what can be, and what in some places actually is.  These descriptions come from two articles, one about and one by Anthony Esolen.  Tony Esolen was a tenured professor of literature at Providence College in Rhode Island before moving, after decades at that institution, to Thomas More College in New Hampshire.  In addition to being a teacher of literature, he is also a poet, an acute critic of contemporary culture, and a translator, perhaps most notably of Dante.  I have read him for years and can say only this...if you see his name on it, read it.

From the Kindergarten teacher to the dissertation supervisor, any teacher who has spent more than one year in this calling has known the joy of teaching that he describes.  They have known it at least once, or they would not have returned.  

In one article, Esolen writes, "Then came the joy of teaching. I’m a born teacher. I don’t mean to say that I am great at it—I’m quite aware of my flaws, which I’d rather not enumerate. I mean that even when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means."

This is what teaching is...raw, unbounded, childlike enthusiasm. And if something like justice should come from it because it has been about the work of the true, the good, and the beautiful, then so much the better, but teaching is not first and foremost about justice or someone's finding a job or gaining a credential. It is not, as Tony Esolen puts it, politics by other means.  It is something much grander than that, taking in far more territory, and, when it is allowed to flourish in its natural habitat, it produces a harvest of many of the best things known to man.

And then in that same article he writes of one group of his students, "They were not eager to leave, because they were having too much fun. They were having too much fun—repeat this sentence three times carefully—reading Virgil in the Latin, with a gray-haired fellow they had never met before. I drove home almost in tears."

This is a joy like no other, and I have been blessed to taste it. Teenagers in a last period class on a Friday, deeply engrossed in their Latin and asking questions and contributing meaningfully to the great friends, this, this is what education can be, and we must fight each and every effort to turn education, which, because it is a supremely human endeavor, must be characterized by life, into a zombie, the walking dead version of its true self.
So where is this blessed abode of teachers, this Elysium of education?  Some teachers find it by carving it out of the blackboard jungle in which they find themselves.  They must make bricks without straw as they guide and shape minds all while trying to turn their own schools into suitable learning environments.  This, however, is not as it should be, and while decent-minded folk rightly laud their efforts, families of students and the citizenry at large should never for one moment think that this is good.

There are also those who leave a toxic environment for one in which their teaching arts can be given full expression.  Esolen himself is in this category, and it would be pharisaical in the extreme to fault him for it.  He writes, "Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion."  By contrast he observes, "I came home recently from a day at Thomas More College, full of good cheer and energy, and for somebody who isn’t getting younger, those can take you a long way. They can add many years to your life as a teacher, whereas discouragement and disappointment lead to exhaustion."