The Mind Awake When the Day Is Done

From Day Is Done
Peter, Paul, and Mary

The Mind Awake When the Day Is Done

School Is Out
Elizabeth Adela Forbes

The song is about a father being there for his young son when the day is done and things are difficult. The end of the day is often the toughest part of the day, our energies are spent, we have been working at whatever it is we work at, and there is an overall need for rest. But the “day” can also be a metaphor for the end of one thing and, hopefully, the beginning of another. In the painting we are told school is out. Is school out for the day or is it out for the summer. The students are too young to be finishing their education but that too might be suggested by the title.

When the day is done and a student leaves the schoolhouse either for another schoolhouse or for the world of work, or just the world, what ought that student to have learned? What is the purpose of getting an education? There was an article in the New York Times this weekend about a commencement address delivered by the novelist David Foster Wallace. The article is about reading the address, and other works of Wallace, in light of his recent suicide. But the address itself is about education and the reason he thinks it is important to have one. The gist of it is that our education does not teach us how to think so much as point out that we have choices about what it is we think about, especially when life becomes trying or tedious. It can also be an antidote to self-absorption.

But is that enough of a reason to devote the time and energy and financial resources that are required to attain that education? There are other things that are gotten of course that enable us to make our way more comfortably through life, but it is that other stuff about teaching us that we can choose what we think about, that we can change our thoughts that Wallace suggests is valuable. We can choose to empathize with those that annoy us, for example, rather than be angry with them.

Henricus de Alemannia Lecturing his Students
Laurentius de Voltolina

As a teacher this is an important question. Why do I do what I do? I like to believe I am not wasting people’s time and that what I teach has value. I look at the painting of scholars seated in a row reading from books along with their instructor I am struck by the fact that the look of the class has not changed much. In my classroom the students dress differently and I am not on a raised platform looking down on students, but other than that not much has changed. Did Henricus de Alemannia teach his students anything of importance? What did those he lectured do with what they were taught? The world has changed and the content of my class is probably different from his, but is it entirely different? Are there things that are important to learn that do not change over time, that are as important today as they were five or six hundred years ago?

In an English class students read books by folks who lived in vastly different times. How does Chaucer or Thoreau speak to the 21st century? Can they speak to the 21st century? Are Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien, Michael Connelly, or William Gibson (the novelist, not the playwright) more relevant to students today and their future aspirations than Shakespeare or Wordsworth? There was another article in the New York Times, a book review, that suggests, or at least the author of the book being reviewed suggests, that there are not really any poets worth studying today. The review is called “The Samurai Critic” and the title suggests the approach towards his material the author of the book being reviewed takes. But if his assessment is correct and if it is also true that older poets do not speak to the present day, how are students to be instructed in poetry if there are no poetic voices speaking competently to their time? Is it important or necessary to study poetry?

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
Casper David Friedrich

Sometimes teachers feel like the gentleman in the painting, that they are standing above the fog and as a result can see more clearly what lies ahead. Sometimes they feel like the fog is what separates them from their students and keeps them from communicating effectively why it is they teach what they teach. The fog that stands between them makes it difficult for each to see what the other sees and what the other values. Perhaps it is also what makes it difficult for students and teachers to find a common language.

I think that as an English teacher I should be teaching books that students cannot easily teach themselves. Writers whose works have spoken to generations after the generation in which they lived have probably caught onto to something about the human condition that resonates in the human psyche. When Wordsworth confronts his woods and waterways he gives language to an attitude towards the natural world that is not unique to the time in which he lived. When Hazlett talks about the familiar style he may be using a style that is unfamiliar and out of step with the present moment but the idea of using language to articulate clearly our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions is not unique to Hazlett’s day.

I think it is important to see that some battles have been fought for some time and that the struggles are not new. This issue of what are the important books that ought to be taught and preserved is itself an old argument. Jonathan Swift fought similar battles about 300 years ago and wrote about it in a little book called The Battle of the Books. In this story it is the books themselves that fight it out. But this is the teacher’s struggle. Cervantes’ knight Don Quixote struggles with making his idealism real in the world, using it to make the world better. Is he crazy, has read too many books and lived too little, is the world un-amenable to being changed for the better? If the language these writers use can be opened up to students there is, I think, some comfort in the knowledge that others have felt what they feel and have had had similar aspirations. It helps us to realize we are not alone and that we do not struggle alone.

The Music Lesson
Johannes Vermeer

Our education also teaches us how to do stuff. In an English class students learn to read closely, to identify sub-text and nuance. They learn to write analytically and clearly. Hopefully they learn to observe and to listen as well (hopefully the teacher has learned how to observe and to listen well). The paintings above and below this paragraph are of teachers teaching students skills, one to play a musical instrument the other to dance. This is also an important part of education. We learn things that we need to know in order to do a job or work at something that interests us. Some embraced music lessons others fought them every step of the way. Can anyone become good at something they are unwilling to learn? Do any of those music students resisting their instruction ever change their view of learning an instrument, do any go on to become great musicians? Can anyone become a great dancer who does not want to dance?

Jules Perrot Ballet Master
Edgar Degas

What is the student’s responsibility for their education? Do students have a responsibility? If the state mandates that its youth must spend a dozen or so years of their lives getting educated does the state also have a responsibility to make it clear why? In the United States we believe all students can learn and achieve academically and go onto college. Is this a reasonable expectation? I think it is, but I think at some point the student needs to become a partner in their education, though I am not entirely sure when that point is reached or if there ought to be consequences for failing to participate. I suppose even students educated against their will retain some things.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Twentieth Century Fox

Then there is the character of the teacher to be considered. Miss Jean Brodie is an innovative teacher, she challenges the status quo, and her students seem to love her. She is subversive and challenges authority, but she is clever in her challenges and often authority is unaware they are being challenged. But there is a troubling side to Miss Brodie and it is not just that she seems to plan her students’ lives for them. By the end of the film we discover many reasons to be thankful that Miss Brodie was not our teacher no matter how compelling a teacher she seemed when first we met her.

Ultimately our time alone is worth minimum wage. What we earn above that is the result of the training and expertise that comes along with that time we are being paid to spend. That training or expertise is the result of our education, whether it is gotten in the classroom, in an apprenticeship of some kind, or from our experiences in the world of work. Darwin went to school, Lincoln educated himself, they both changed the world as they knew it and the world has never been the same since. It is obviously not important how we become educated; it is hard work whatever avenue we pursue, but it is important that one way or another we bring more than our time to what we do.

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7 thoughts on “The Mind Awake When the Day Is Done

  1. This blog is very interesting to start off. With this blog the thing that caught my eyes was the questions that were pertaining to, what is the purpose of getting an education. Many people may have different opinions but to me the purpose of getting an education for me is to achieving success and life long success. You can gain alot in this world by having knowledge and the more you have the better. With getting an education doors open up new things, new goals suddeny occur that you couldn’t have imagined. With learning different subjects growing up in school it makes you a well rounded person. I find with education you have to be willing to get one becuse in the blog you wrote something like can anyone be a great dancer who does not want to dance. You basically have to have to motivation to do anything in life.
    Coming across the issue of the U.S believeing all students can learn and achieve academicaly and go to college is false to me. Some people are not made out to do certain things..yes i believe eyeone should have their GED but some the college life is not for them. Some people are just making it by with graduating highschool. College is a tough world to me i think… i think it follows under the guide lines of having the willingness and want to do something. Also does this ALL students apply to those who are disabled, that is another factor. The goverments mind to me is living in this perfect world thing and thats not realistic.
    Reading this blog ans writing to it im just writing and not thinking. This reminds me of the last blog and the clip of the man talking about dont think just write.

  2. I think whoever said there was nothing to learn from reading poetry was very wrong. Even if you can’t necessarily relate to a certain poem, it should get you thinking. It’s good to be able to understand someone else’s point of view and agree or disagree with it. Either way, you have to think about how that subject makes you feel, and it helps you to determine your own beliefs and become your own person. If you were never faced with having to choose one side of something, everyone would be the same; imagine how boring that would be! I think teachers are extremely important, especially to kids who actually care about learning and want to invest themselves. If a teacher can help even just one student, they may make a huge difference on that person, and that person will hopefully pay it forward and help others. Education is definitely something worth having.

  3. I agree with Genna completely. Just because Wordsworth and Shakespeare wrote about situations that, for the most part, do not apply to our world doesn’t mean we can’t at least enjoy the art of the stories and poems. I think that the underlying messages in most stories and poems are standard and can be applied to a modern world even though it took place in a different time period. Humans go through the same major experiences through out their life, the only differences between the heartbreak or ecstasy of romance today and 500 years ago is technology and societal morals. If someone says that poetry is not worth studying merely because it takes place in a different setting than the one we are used to, then i think they are incompetent of applying the greater views of the author to our everyday life, and that they have a very narrow understanding of that work of literature.

  4. Im my point of view, i believe you need an education to survive in this world. You dont need one necessarily to continue with school or to create the career of your dreams. But you need one to live. Education is having knowledge of the world. To me it is an amazing thing to just know facts about our surroundings and the ancient place we live. My favorite is when a teacher goes off on a tangent while teaching. It may be of useless knowledge but it is knowledge nontheless. I am always so captured by the idea that this teacher is so brilliant. That they know such things and stories. It is almost as if their mind is a never ending source of information. Knowledge is also the ability to look beyond the surface. It is looking at something as simple as a painting and understanding the artist who completed the work of art. When we have knowledge we are able to read a poem and understand the message presented to us. In every poem there is a message, however you can only find it if you take the time to look and think. To me knowledge is life. I believe that those who are truely successful are the ones who are indeed filled with the useful facts. The facts that make most of us say “why do you know that” As humans we must expand our minds and allow ourselves to drift into worlds that are not necessarily familiar. We must dig deeper to find true meaning.

  5. I agree that English teachers should teach students about books that we cannot fully understand. If we read books and do not understand them, there is an unlikely chance that we will finish it. If we have a teacher teach us about what it means, then we will have the desire to finish it, especially if it interests us. The biggest reason people don’t finish a book is because they can’t understand it. If we learn about what the book means, then we can finish it and we can be exposed to a different type of writing and genre of book. If someone teaches us about a genre of book and we end up liking it, then they could open our eyes to a new type of book that we would end up reading.

  6. I think it is absurd that someone would even wonder what the purpose of getting an education is in today’s society. Simply people can not be successful without an education and if they are it is by chance. Without knowledge or basic understanding people can not function. I understand that some believe that school is a waste of their time but I feel this may be because they have not been presented with a teacher who really shows them how fascinating knowledge is. I am captivated by teachers who are able to ramble on about nonsense that has nothing to do with our curriculum but in the end teaches us something valuable. I find learning about diverse things helps to shape us and allows us to see the world from all different viewpoints. It is the knowledge that we gain through education that helps us grow as a person.

  7. This passage really provoked me to think about my future. I agree that the toughest time of the day to do work is at the end of the day. I know exactly what it feels like for all of my energy to be spent. The thought of having to push on is exhausting within itself. Frustration and weariness accompany me throughout the day, and are most bothersome by the end of the day. I must force myself to remember though why I push on. My hopes are that one day I will attend an ivy league school, and will establish myself in a notable occupation. To do so will require hard work. I remind myself of the quote, “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it”. Everyone is capable of earning minimum wage. Like the passage states, time spent alone is worth minimum wage. The extent of what people pursue in their lives as individuals is what sets them apart from all others. The more dedication involved, the higher away from minimum wage one climbs. This passage has helped to remind me that hard work, without a doubt, truly pays off. My own motivation has been further encouraged.

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