O, For a Muse of Fire, a Few Fernels, and a Follow Spot

“Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington”
Noel Coward

O, For a Muse of Fire, a Few Fernels, and a Follow Spot

(“David Garrick as the title character in Shakespeare’s ”Richard III””

William Hogarth.


It is always dangerous to attempt to put your daughters, or your sons for that matter, on the stage. It is a very risky business with the odds of success (and by success I only mean being able to earn a living without the aid of a taxi cab) significantly stacked against you. As in gambling, the odds favor the house, the house in this case being the folks that collect the ticket receipts and even they have a hard go of it.

But nonetheless there is something alluring about the theater. What is produced is called a play and is staged in playhouse. This speaks volumes about the nature of the work. A good actor, as well as a number of bad ones, if nothing else know how to play, they have not lost the sense of make believe, the ability to imagine themselves as someone else. Of course there is a lot more to it than that; it is first a craft that can be learned like the craft of writing, or house painting, and it requires an apprenticeship of sorts where the tools of the trade are mastered. It is also an art and that cannot be taught any more than the art of painting, sculpture, or hitting baseballs successfully over the center field fence on a regular basis can be taught.

One premise of the theater is that it provides a glimpse into life as it is lived by others, that it is real and captures the reality of the moment. When an actor brings a character alive on stage she or he is said to be “in the moment.” It is what every actor strives for, “to be in the moment.” There is a lesson here for us all perhaps as life is a lot richer if we can find a way to embrace each moment and make the most of it, though, speaking for myself, there are many moments in life that are not easily embraced. Like cactus they are best experienced from afar.

Still, the actor is trying to make the moment real, to make it look like life as it is actually experienced. E. B. White once said (though I forget his exact words) not only does art not imitate life, it better be a hell of a lot more interesting than life. This does not mean that what art captures is not true to life only that much of life is very uninteresting and the artist selects the interesting bits and gets rid of the rest. We never, for example, see Hamlet cleaning up his room or doing the dishes. There is not much there to hold an audiences’ attention. And if there were a scene featuring Hamlet cleaning his room it would be what is happening to him as he goes about cleaning his room that keeps us interested. Like the scene where Polonius comes upon Hamlet reading. The interaction between Polonius and Hamlet holds the audience’s interest; a scene featuring a man quietly reading a book, not so much.

The theater group at school is doing a play that steals its title from an old Jack Nicholson film (Five Easy Pieces) and its plot from Othello with a dash of Finding Nemo. It is Othello as it might have happened if Othello and Iago were fish. It is called Five Easy Pisces. Being a lover of puns I am thrilled by the title. It was written by the group’s director, Don Bliss. There are few who will mistake the life in a fish bowl with life in the real world, but often it is the theater’s ability to remove us from the real world that provides some of its magic. Edward Albee’s Seascape involves crustaceans on the beach. Some of the most dramatic moments in Peter Schaeffer’s play Equus revolve around horses. Then there is, of course, The Lion King; music, dance, and political intrigue in the animal kingdom.

Stage SetBaldassare Peruzzi

These plays are entertaining and a pleasure to watch. But what do they say to us about who we are and how to live from day to day. Is that the purpose of theater, or of any art? If not what is the purpose? Renaissance theaters in Europe (England did things a bit differently) tried to make the theater as true to life as possible. The stage design was intricate to the extreme. Often three sided panels would have each side painted with a different scene and by rotating each of the panels the scene could change from a city street to a room in the palace and each scene was painted in perspective to create the illusion of space and true architecture. There was, of course, only one seat in the house where the perspective was perfect for all the angles of vision and that of course went to the local monarch. The seat was in fact called “the eye of the duke.”

The point is that these theatricals were expected to look and feel real. They even had an elaborate set of rules that a play was expected to follow. The action of the play had to be limited to a single day, the setting of the play had to be limited to a single town, and there could only be one plot line that resolved all loose ends at the play’s conclusion. These were called “the unities” and no self-respecting playwright would ignore them.

The Swan Theater

The English were different. They did not care if the play took a day or a number of years. As can be seen from the illustration their sets were much simpler. But the plays they produced at their best captured better than most the human psyche and its complications. Everyone says Shakespeare did it best, but Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson didn’t do too badly either. The point is that it is not the set design, it is not that the characters are like you and me, it is that for the moments the characters spend on stage a kind of life is being lived. We may not know what it feels like to be a fish in love or a lion with ambition beyond his station. But we have experienced love, jealousy, and ambition. Do we come away learning how to better deal with these shortcomings of the human character as a result of watching the play?

In Mr. Bliss’ play it is the fish tank’s filtration system that does the fish in, something that is not likely to worry most of us. But it is not the cause of the fish’s demise; it is the personal interactions that produce this cause that is the heart of the drama, and the comedy. These are struggles that are human, and perhaps the play offers insight. Or perhaps, the true nature of the play and of theater in general is to offer commiseration, a chance to say “and I thought I had it bad.”

From Slings and Arrows

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

As the director says “the whole thing falls apart if one of the actors is not good at pretending.” This is the heart of good theater. For a play to work well the cast must work as an ensemble. Each actor must be able to pretend well or the production falls apart no matter how good the rest of the cast may be. In order for the audience to enter this magic world a group of people must learn to work together and to play together well. If the work looks like work and not play the play does not work. If the pretending is not built upon something real it amounts to pretense and no one believes it. And it takes work to rise above pretense. There is, I think, a truth here for all of us. A key to living well is discovering how to put the play back into the work that we do, while maintaining the quality of the work that we do.

For the Greeks this was there religion. Once a year everyone went to the theater to learn something about how they should live, to be reminded that the gods are involved in our daily lives and the rich and the powerful cannot escape the will of the gods. Oedipus may be king but at the end of the day he is as answerable for his misdeeds as the slave that sets his table. That is the point of the catharsis at the end of the play. Bad news for Oedipus, but when put into perspective good news for the rest of us.

I had a professor in college that believed plays, even the plays of Shakespeare, should not be read as literature, as we read a poem or a novel, that plays are not literature. The only way a play can be experienced properly is by watching it performed. A play creates a bit of magic and it goes against the creed of the magician to reveal the secret of the trick. A play is multi-sensory and audiovisual. Lee Strasberg, one of the founders of the Actors Studio, said nothing of importance gets said in a play except for maybe five minutes in the last act (or words to that effect). Yet when we read a script all we have is the words that are spoken.

The magic of theater, and a reason we study plays and watch plays, is discovering what is happening behind the words. What motivates Hamlet to say what he says? What is the real life that lives under the words? Most of what we say in conversation is a kind of playing for time, filling the space with words while we try to figure out what the moment is all about. In watching characters on stage, or reading their words in the script, we realize that we are not alone in our struggle to find meaning in the day to day activities that fill our lives. Plays confront important issues but at the end of the day most of us are not concerned with how the powerful misuse their power or whatever the important issue of the play is. What does concern us is preserving the scent of the rose in our day to day experience while enjoying the coffee. It is not what happens to Hamlet and his family but how they persevere.

A Life of the Mind is the Heart of the Matter

“That’s All”
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis

A Life of the Mind is the Heart of the Matter

William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, “Scholars at a Lecture”


The lyric suggests that wisdom and education do not go together. It is true that the song is talking about a preacher being an educated fool if all she or he has to offer is book learning and nothing in the way of practical wisdom. While it is difficult to argue with practical wisdom, we all want to know what will succeed in making us happy and help us have a productive and contented life, it is not necessarily the case that practical wisdom and book learning share no common ground.

William Hogarth’s engraving captures the common perception of the well educated. There is a group of scholars listening to another scholar giving a lecture. Some are talking while the lecturer is speaking; others are yawning and drifting off to sleep, while the remainder stare somewhat blankly at the speaker. A few are paying real attention, but very few. The implication is that what the lecturer has to say is of little value to anyone and even his colleagues do not take him seriously. As a classroom teacher I recognize this scene, it is frequently acted out in my classroom. I wonder where the problem is in fact, is it with the lecturer or with the audience?

It is probably with both. No two people have identical interests and even those that share many of the scholar’s interests are going to find some less than compelling and as a result there will be times when the minds of like minded colleagues will wander. This is often further complicated in the classrooms by students that lack the life experience necessary to understand fully what is and is not of value in the curriculum they are being encouraged to master.

Add to this that most of the students in any of my classes, even the most advanced classes, are going to pursue careers unrelated to what I teach. This is not because English is less important than math or science but because statistically the academic interests of my students are spread somewhat equally across the academic disciplines of which English is only one of five or six. It is important that those with a scientific bent are exposed to poetry and the arts, not because this will produce better scientists but because there is more to life than science and our lives are richer if they are not confined to a narrow band of interests. Of course it is also important that scientist write clearly and articulately about what they have discovered. I am not sure that Darwin and Freud understood most deeply and completely the sciences they helped to establish but only that they could write more persuasively than others about what they found.

There are two statements that I often come back to when I think of education and the value of educating the mind. The first takes a comic view of education and comes from a book called Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock. The book is a satire on the lives and views of the Romantic poets of his generation. The central character is named Scythrop who is modeled on Peacock’s friend the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He says of Scythrop’s schooling:

“When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head.”

I think this reflects a view of education that is prevalent today, that it is a nice thing to have, but in the end is not that important. We have embraced an egalitarian view of education that values common knowledge or common sense to a richly and deeply trained mind. On the one hand political leaders will talk about the importance of math and science while on the other proposing budgets that do not add up and trying to silence the science with which they disagree.

The other quote is from a book that is appreciated by a very select few (not because it is a book only a few are smart enough to appreciate but because only a few have a taste for this style of writing). It comes from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton thought that educators as a group belonged the to the race of melancholics. He lived at a time where everyone was placed in one of four personality groups based on the ” four humours”, or the four fluids that flow through the human body that shape a person’s temperament. The ideal is to have all four fluids in balance, which in turn puts the mind and emotions in balance. But most have a fluid that dominates. Melancholy was produced by the presence black bile in an unhealthy proportion to the other fluids, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile. Now you all are on your way to becoming medieval physicians.

The Philosopher in MeditationRembrandt


Burton was himself an educator and scholar and was himself of a melancholy temperament. Perhaps the melancholic nature of scholars was aggravated by the fact that to be a scholar and teacher, especially at the university level, you were expected to live the celibate life of the monastic. Too much time spent in our own company can make us all a bit dour. Burton said of educators:

“For first, not one of a many proves to be a scholar, all are not capable and docile; we can make majors and officers every year, but not scholars: kings can invest knights and barons, as Sigismund the emperor confessed; universities can give degrees; but he nor they, nor all the world can give learning, make philosophers, artists, orators, poets; we can soon say, as Seneca well notes, ”point at a rich man, a good, a happy man, a prosperous man, but tis not so easily performed to find out a learned man.”

This captures the essence of what it means to be truly learned with a heart for scholarship. The scholastic temperament comes from within and cannot be given with degrees or diplomas. It is a frame of mind that does not use knowledge to gain advantages over others but delights in the acquiring and the preserving of it.

From Goodbye Mr. Chips – PBS

Mr. Chips is probably everyone from my generation’s favorite teacher. After reading James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizons we we went on to read his other famous novel Goodbye Mr. Chips. He is a good teacher with a heart for developing the potential of all his students. In this scene he is working with a scholarship boy, that is, a boy from a poor family that could not afford to educate their children. Because of the academic potential seen in the boy he was given a scholarship that paid his way through school. But most of the students in the school come from wealthy families that could afford to pay for their children’s education. Because the scholarship boy came from a different social class from the rest of the students he was often ridiculed and his academic road was often brutal. I like Mr. Chips’ argument for getting an education in spite of the difficulties encountered along the way and think this should be a part of the academic make-up of all students (though it goes without saying that all students do not have this passion for learning).

The book review section of The Guardian published a series of articles on the 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read. This is a very diverse list taking into account most of the genres of popular fiction. The writers range from Danielle Steele and Ian Fleming to Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner. There is something for everyone. I would like to propose an addendum to the list of books about scholars and scholarship. These are books that put academics at the center of the story and celebrates their quirks, eccentricities, and humanity. This is not an exhaustive list, just my list.

The Book and the Academician

To Serve Them All My Days – R. F. Delderfield
Goodbye Mr. Chips – James Hilton
Gaudy Night – Dorothy Sayers
The Browning Version – Terrence Rattigan
The Moving Toy Shop – Edmund Crispin
Hag’s Nook – John Dickinson Carr
A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
A Separate Peace – John Knowles
Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut

Well this is enough to get you started. The list includes science fiction, detective, and coming of age type novels. But at the heart of each of them is an academic setting and an attitude toward learning that colors the story. The life of the true scholar is characterized by a passion for learning, she or he trains the mind to satisfy the heart.

When All the World Is Young, Lad

“The Marvelous Toy”
Tom Paxton

When All the World Is Young, Lad

Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandArthur Rackham

The song describes the wonder that a child felt upon receiving a strange toy. The toy has no real purpose and it isn’t even clear how one is supposed to play with it, but the way the toy behaves creates its own magic. This is, I think, how stories often work. We are not exactly sure what we are supposed to get from the story, we only know that we are bewitched. I also find much of this same magic in the illustrations that often accompany children’s stories. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of many children books (and many adult books) have defined the characters in these stories for me as in the scene above from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The illustrations define Alice and the White Rabbit for me as well as some of the mystery of “Wonderland.” The trees and stones in the scene have a life of their own, the landscape almost becomes a character in its own right.

The stories we read as children profoundly influence the adults we become, and not always in the way the stories may have intended. Adults looking back at what they read as children sometimes feel a bit betrayed when they discover the hidden morals or a subversive kind of preaching in the story telling they never realized was there as children. I have heard this said of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. In fact, Philip Pullman wrote the trilogy His Dark Materials as a kind of antidote to the influence of Lewis’ books. But I wonder if the children reading his books are any more attuned to the hidden messages than I was as a child to those concealed in the Narnia stories. I think children often experience books differently than adults and ignore the preaching (and ignore the books themselves when the preaching becomes too overt).

I was looking at the children’s book section of The Guardian this weekend and it got me thinking about children’s literature and its importance (at least it was important to me). Graham Greene said of the books we read as children:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair, it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back. But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water, they influence the future.

I think there is truth to this observation. I think a child has a greater capacity to believe in the world the author has created and the characters, no matter how far fetched, are more easily accepted. I am not sure that a child looks at the Cat in the Hat as a character in the same light as an adult. And like the marvelous toy of the song a story can spin its magic and carry away the child (and sometimes the child within the adult) to places that can only be real in the imagination.

Adults often look down on the books that children read and treat them as a second rate form of literature. It has been pointed out by many (J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis among others) that the fairy tales often told to children in the nursery were originally told to adults and were later, like hand me down clothes, bequeathed to the children. W. H. Auden once observed, “There are good books which are only for adults because their comprehension presupposes adult experience, but there are no good books only for children.” I think this is also true. The literature we read as adults often employ a vocabulary beyond the average child or involve events or sensibilities that can only be appreciated and understood by an adult reader.

But though the vocabulary may be simpler and the elements of the story more accessible to the young mind, the quality of the writing must be able to hold its own. Most children’s literature, like most adult literature, does not survive the generation for which it was written. Those children’s books that survive, like their adult counterparts, have something of literary merit in them that is not defined by the moment of their making.

Perhaps books I read as a child, like Stone Soup or the stories of Dr. Suess only continue to enchant because of the memories of childhood that they evoke, though I think there is more to it than that and that the language of the stories have an enchantment that is all their own, an enchantment I still found in certain stories written for children that I did not read until I was an adult.

The Wind in the Willows – Courtroom Scene

One of my favorite children’s stories is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. As a story it defines friendship, loyalty, and the importance of maintaining a sense of spontaneity and adventure in our daily lives. I am not certain at what point I became an adult (I have serious concerns that perhaps I never have) but there are times when I read a story that I am captured by it in the same way I was captured as a child. I like to tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up. But it may be, as Graham Greene suggests, that the stories that I think are moving me as I was once moved as a child are only in some way flattering me by endorsing a world view I hold, where when I read as a child I did not have a world view to flatter.

Sinbad IllustrationEdmund Dulac


One of my earliest memories of being captured by a book was of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. My parents had books around the house, mostly in the living room. For a time they subscribed to the Heritage Book Club and would receive from time to time illustrated editions of classics like Moby Dick and Frankenstein. One of the books they received was a three volume set of Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. The language, of course, was significantly beyond me but the book contained these marvelous illustrations by Edmund Dulac. I had seen Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Sinbad in the movies so I knew who the characters were (sort of, the films in fact did not much resemble the stories).

I could lie for hours on the living room floor and just get lost in the illustrations. As a result I think that the illustrations are as important a part of a children’s book as the stories themselves. Perhaps it is the illustrations in conjunction with the language of the stories that train the child’s imagination; that gives the mind the practice it needs to be able to imagine the worlds created by the language of the writers that move us as adults. Perhaps without the words and pictures of a Dr. Suess we could not fully appreciate the words of a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy.

What D’Ya Know

Swinging on a Star
Dave Van Ronk

What D’Ya Know

The song suggests that it is important to get an education; that going to school is a valuable thing. But what does it mean to go to school, to get an education? When we call a person educated what does that mean? Is there value in learning for the sake of learning or does the material we learn and study have to have a practical application; must it be “good for something”?

When I was young I was curious. I wanted to know about things, to think about things, and that curiosity affected the choices I made. It didn’t help me stay in college when I left high school because I had difficulty with the discipline of studying things that did not particularly interest me at the time. I was madly curious about what interested me but had little interest in learning what did not interest me. In my first years of college this lack of interest often had more to do with presentation than with the content of the discipline. I have always been curious about physics, for example, though not particularly good at it; my father after all worked in the aerospace industry and I looked at speculative NASA drawings of spacecraft from a very young age. Granted this had more to do with science fiction perhaps than with actual physics but the science behind those drawings fascinated me as well. Why was the lunar module shaped the way it was, why did the early space capsules return from space “backwards”?

College physics, though, did not capture my interest, in large part because I had difficulty following it. Still, later in my college career I took a course in physics that used science fiction to teach physics and I had a much easier time, though the course did not have nearly the depth of the more traditional physics course I took earlier. I grew up a bit in the few years I spent away from college. I stayed curious, I found things out on my own, and learned quite a bit, some from travel and some from reading. When I returned to college I was more disciplined and had an easier time managing courses I had to take but did not want to take.

Painting of Averroes

Averroes, detail of the fourteenth-century Florentine artist Andrea Bonaiuto’s Triunfo de Santo Tomás.

So, what is the point of this? Only that there are some that delight in scholarship for its own sake, a perhaps intellectual variation on the “art for art’s sale” movement, though both art and study involve the intellect. The painting above is of Averroes, an Islamic scholar of the 12th century. He is among the Arabic philosophers that are responsible for preserving the work of Aristotle that had largely become lost to European scholars. The work of Averroes and his Jewish contemporary Maimonides were largely responsible for reintroducing Aristotle to Europe. Averroes was, it appears to me because of the depth and breadth of his interests, a man who took a certain delight in scholarship and study. I cannot know this of course, but he wrote on issues of psychology, music, philosophy, law, politics, physics, well you get the idea. If he did not enjoy study he was probably not a happy man.

Title Page to Guide for the Perplexed

Title page The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides

Averroes’ contemporary Maimonides also was a man greatly devoted to learning, but I find him attractive largely because of the name he gave his most well known book The Guide for the Perplexed. It is not an easy book to read, or at least it wasn’t for me, but because I identify so well the state of perplexity I found the title quite attractive. Like Averroes he wrote mainly as a religious writer, Averroes was an Islamic thinker and Maimonides a Jewish thinker. They lived at a time where philosophers of both faiths influenced each other’s thinking. Scholars can be as competitive as athletes when it comes to ideas and their development so it would not be fair to say that a shared commitment to thought can overcome the violent urges some cultures have to eradicate each other, but I like to think shared pursuits, like study can alleviate cultural hostilities.

Omar Khayyam was a Persian and lived about a century before Averroes and Maimonides and is known mostly as a poet of four line poems called rubaiyats (his book of poetry was translated as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam). He made significant contributions to the study of Algebra but what I like is his story. He and two of his friends had a teacher who went on to a position of leadership in the government; he became Vizier. Omar and one of his schoolmates wanted their teacher to share his good fortune with them. Omar’s friend was given a position of leadership in the government. This friend’s ambition got him in trouble and he was eventually executed. Omar on the other hand just wanted a stipend so that he could devote his time to study. He received his stipend and free from ambitions to power lived out his days rather peaceably. Though the story is probably not true, I like it because the life Omar chose in the story seems desirable to me.

All of these thoughts about scholars and scholarship were provoked by a blog article I read this week “Oh, and You Have a Degree Too” by Will Richardson. The article debated the importance that today’s culture places on getting a college education. The ideas expressed and the concerns that are at the heart of the article are, I think, legitimate but it also suggests that college is largely a place students go to learn a valuable trade, a skill that will provide a meaningful income, certainly not something to be discouraged in these economic times.

Portrait of Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman, when he preached his first sermon in Over Worton Church on 23 June 1824

This discussion of what a university should be is an old one. John Henry Cardinal Newman and T. H. Huxley articulated two views of the university and the kind of education it ought to provide; Newman seeing the university as a place where students pursued a wide variety of academic disciplines while Huxley argued for an institution that offered more specialized training. Newman defended the traditional liberal arts education. Newman thought:

In the combination of colours, very different effects are produced by a difference in their selection and juxtaposition; red, green, and white, change their shades, according to the contrast to which they are submitted. And, in like manner, the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student. If his reading is confined simply to one subject, however such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular pursuit, a point into which I do not here enter, certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind. If it is incorporated with others, it depends on those others as to the kind of influence which it exerts upon him. (Newman, The Idea of a University)

He thought that our understanding of a subject was shaped to a certain degree by the other things studied alongside that subject. That for him was the value of the liberal arts education, that no discipline was studied in isolation. The scientist was also well schooled in music and poetry and the poet was also well schooled in science. As a result both the scientist and the poet saw the larger world that lived alongside their specialized pursuits. This knowledge enriched, enlarged, and shaped the understanding of each for their chosen discipline.

Caricature of T. H. Huxley

Chromolithograph of Thomas Henry Huxley in Vanity Fair

Huxley on the other hand felt that the general studies were the province of a student’s secondary education; that students entered the university with a basic foundation in the liberal arts and that the university was the place were specialization should take place. Huxley was not bothered much by the university as a technical school and saw that as part of its mission, though his idea of a technical school and ours are very different creatures.

It is obviously impossible that any student should pass through the whole of the series of courses of instruction offered by a university. If a degree is to be conferred as a mark of proficiency in knowledge, it must be given on the ground that the candidate is proficient in a certain fraction of those studies; and then will arise the necessity of insuring an equivalency of degrees, so that the course by which a degree is obtained shall mark approximately an equal amount of labour and of acquirements, in all cases. But this equivalency can hardly be secured in any other way than by prescribing a series of definite lines of study. This is a matter which will require grave consideration. The important points to bear in mind, I think, are that there should not be too many subjects in the curriculum, and that the aim should be the attainment of thorough and sound knowledge of each. (Huxley, “Address on University Education”)

Huxley does not think there is enough time in the day for students master both a discipline that will become the cornerstone of a career and to learn anything significant about the other disciplines that form the program of studies offered by a university. The purpose of a degree is to verify that a discipline has been mastered and that someone holding the degree whether it is in English or Mathematics has mastered that discipline.

I have always been most attracted to Newman’s idea of a university education but, especially in these times where the body of knowledge that can be learned is so large, Huxley’s view is certainly not without merit. It was said of John Milton that he read every book that was available in print at the time he lived. I do not know if this is true, and I imagine if it is that it was probably only true of books available in Europe. Still, the story illustrates how the body of available knowledge has grown. That the story was told and believed suggests that for Milton the story was credible. Could such a story be seen as credible if it were told of some scholar today? Probably not.

Not on the Test
John Forster and Tom Chapin

This video captures what I think is a problem with the focus of much of modern education. Whatever the limits to what we are capable of learning may be, those limits cannot be tested by an educational system that places more emphasis on rote learning than on understanding concepts and developing the minds ability to understand and solve problems. The song suggests that all standardized tests are more concerned with what can be remembered than with what is actually understood. As an English teacher it is more important to me that a student can use an adjective properly than be able to tell me what an adjective is. Obviously, there is value to being able to do both, but it is more important to be able to write a good sentence than define the parts of speech. I am not sure all standardized tests are limited in this way, though I do think many are.

Tests, no matter how well they are constructed, rarely provoke in students any enthusiasm for learning; they are something that must be gotten through. On the other hand a test does measure how much has been learned and mastered, even if what the test measures is not always worth measuring. They can also help students identify where their interests lie in that those tests that test a content area that captures the student’s interests are usually the easier ones to prepare for.

What Matters To Me Scholarship Application Video
Stefan Ramirez Perez

The student that prepared this video obviously has an interest in the subject he is studying. The video is an entrance exam of sorts, in that it was submitted to help him win a scholarship. But as a test it demonstrates by what it shows that the student has mastered the skills he needs to have in order to succeed. What I find interesting about this test is that it is a test the student created and gave to himself. Obviously before a test of this kind can work the student must already have a profound interest in the subject. Is there a way of testing that can provoke this kind of interest in science in students whose main interest is history. This to me is the real challenge of education. Where this succeeds the learning process is exciting for everyone, but this is a very difficult bar to reach and I am not sure it is possible to reach this goal with every student in every discipline. Perhaps this is a reason why some of the more traditional forms of testing will be with us for awhile.

Education Today and Tomorrow
A Byrd MS Production
Tom Woodward

This is the concern that confronts many teachers today. What kind of future are we preparing our students to enter? The rhetoric of the film shapes a view of the world that may be a bit overstated but certainly not entirely. As a teacher I want, on the one hand, for students to get the kind of thrill out of discovering something new that I get and have always gotten for as long as I can remember. But I also realize that not all students share my interest in this. As a teacher I also want my students to be ready for the world that will meet them when they leave my classroom for the last time. Part of the problem of providing this kind of preparation is economic, new technologies are expensive and by the time the costs come down to affordable levels the technology is on the verge of obsolescence, though the mastery of a soon to be obsolete technology may not be a bad place to start.

My heroes remain folks like Averroes, Maimonides, and Omar Khayyam not just because they were smart and well read but because they were curious about a wide variety of things. They also lived in a time when it was possible to master many disciplines; where one could be a musician, a lawyer, an astronomer, mathematician, poet and scientist. This does not seem to be possible any more. But it is possible for a well trained mind to entertain the itch to travel such a road.