On Learning and Other Games of Chance

Dandelion River Run
Mimi and Richard Farina

On Learning and Other Games of Chance

Ad in the Boston Globe to Promote Reading

The dulcimer when played by Richard Farina is such an exuberant instrument. Art of all sorts for me is characterized by exuberance. Whether it be the exuberance the gentleman in the photograph brings to his reading or the exuberance dancers on prom night bring to the dance art is always an intense enterprise that demands a great deal of energy from those that would enjoy and understand it. Some think exuberance must always be cheerful, but I think it must always be energetic and enthusiastic and energy and enthusiasm are not always cheerful. The gentleman reading his book is absorbed, he is investing a great deal of mental energy in what he is doing and because he is doing what he is doing of his own free will there is, I like to believe, a great deal of enthusiasm involved in the process as well. An old philosopher said that art delights and instructs. This is probably true. But art also stimulates the mind and the emotions in ways that are not always instructive and perhaps not always delightful. The end of Twelfth Night, for example, is delightful, but I am not so certain that delight is what I feel at the end of King Lear or if it is, it is a very melancholy species of delight.

There is an autistic student I talk to with some regularity and she often asks me if there are any versions of Hamlet, or other tragedies, that have happy endings. I tell her that for Hamlet the ending is far from happy but for Elsinore and the state of Denmark things have been set right and for them the ending is happy and this is part of the point of tragedy. In the end good people suffer harm, but also a community has been redeemed and order has been restored. Scotland can be a just nation once again, Salem can recapture a truer righteousness. So in this sense all tragedy ends happily and perhaps it is here that the delight lives, though, it remains a delight wanting cheerfulness.

The Card Players
Paul Cezanne

There was an article in last weeks New York Times on taking chances. The article was actually an interview of sorts with the writer Leonard Mlodinow. It was called “What Are the Odds” and it was about speculating on the future. His basic point was that the farther we get from the present the less clear and the harder to predict the future becomes. This seems in some ways to be self-evident, but I wonder if we live our lives this way. We look at the present moment and make decisions about what will be important in the future. Some things we say are irrelevant and others we say are very relevant. But who can know the twists and turns the future will take. Mark Twain invested in a printing press that failed miserably because he did not believe anyone beside himself and his lawyer perhaps would buy a telephone.

The article suggests that what is important is preparation and gives examples of people with mediocre abilities who did extraordinary things because they were ready when opportunity presented itself. But what I found to be the most meaningful part of the article came at the end. He talks about learning to be comfortable with failure. He quotes Thomas Watson, the founder of I. B. M. “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” In our schools it seems that our preoccupation with grades discourages this. Failure is not seen as the first step on the road to success but the end of all hope. I believe that if I am not failing at things that I am not challenging myself, I am pursuing only those things I know I have the skills to accomplish. But to grow at anything I must attempt things that are beyond my grasp. And this means I must willingly flirt with failure and that as a teacher I must encourage my students to do likewise.

Students often do not like the books I teach in my classes. They do not believe they are relevant, but they say this without really having read the books. The problem often is that they are difficult and that students do not wish to wrestle with something so difficult. This may be because they have no interest in books or the stories of those books that I teach, or that they see no value in developing the skills that would enable them to understand these books. Who’s to say they are wrong? I think these books have given comfort, joy, and wisdom to many people over many centuries and that they can continue to give comfort, joy, and wisdom. A book that has spoken to people over centuries has already demonstrated an ability to speak to times very different from those that gave it birth. This would suggest that it speaks to something that is not constrained by time but adapts with some ease to changing circumstances.

The Chess Players
Thomas Eakins

Perhaps education is less a game of chance and more a game of chess, a game in which luck plays a part but is not entirely a roll of the dice, there is skill and preparation involved as well. Chess is a game that, like many of the books we read in school, has survived many centuries, and if Star Trek is to be believed, will survive many more. It is a game that requires the beginning player to enjoy a bit of failure while learning to master the board. It often rewards thought and careful planning, but just as often it does not. In fact a good player must be able at each stage of the game to adapt and rework whatever plan or strategy guided the game’s beginning. As the paintings above and below suggest, the game can be played by anyone, anywhere, any time; by the rich and by the poor, in a great house or in a public house, by sunlight or by moonlight.

The Chess Players
Honoré Daumier

This is also true of the development of the mind. All the money in the world cannot buy intelligence, though it can help those with modest intelligence develop their limited abilities to a far greater extent than those with greater intellectual gifts but fewer financial resources. It is important to wrestle with difficult things, whether it is becoming an accomplished chess player, an accomplished athlete, or an accomplished thinker. We wrestle with a difficult book for the same reason we wrestle with a difficult chess problem or a difficult equation, the wrestling grows the mind and the imagination, it reveals to us our capabilities. It is at the edge of failure that we truly learn our abilities and our limitations. The teacher must set the example. How do we teach students to test their limits if we will not find ways to reward failure? How can we understand what we are asking our students to do if we are unwilling to risk failure in our own practice?

Jacque Brel

The song is about a man and a woman, one French and one Flemish. The French and the Flemish, at least at the time the song was written, did not get along. The love pursued by the two people in the song has to overcome cultural prejudices. This prejudice may not rise to the level of the Capulet’s and the Montague’s but it may feel that way to those involved. Love is one of those things that defies reason. It demands a long term commitment from people who often have not thought much or at all about the future and the nature of the commitment they are making. This is true not just of the love a person has for another person but it is also true of the love a person has for ideas, principles, and occupations. We choose our careers, for example, before we fully understand what it will be like to pursue those careers on a daily basis over many years. We embrace a faith before we fully understand how the pressures of daily living will challenge that faith and sow seeds of doubt.

As an educator I must care about those who care very little for that which nurtures me and is the focus of my work. And there is little comfort looking backwards. In the 16th century Robert Burton wrote of schoolteachers, “For what course shall he take (the learned man), being now capable and ready? The most parable and easy, and about which many are employed, is to teach a school, turn lecturer or curate, and for that he shall have falconer’s wages, ten pounds per annum, and his diet, or some small stipend, so long as he can please his patron or the parish; if they approve him not (for usually they do but a year or two), as inconstant as they that cried “Hosanna” one day and “Crucify him” the other; serving-man like, he must go look a new master; if they do what is his reward? At last thy snow-white age in suburb schools / Shall toil in teaching boys their grammar rules.” Things have improved, I suppose, tenure means a bit more job security, though there are those that would seek to take tenure away. But at the end of the day there is the belief, against all odds, that most will learn, and that some will find a similar vocation, or if not a vocation, will find a similar ardor for a beautiful thing and a the subtleties of language.

According to the article the one aspect of success that is under our control is the number of chances we take. I think that many things that we think of as being difficult are only unfamiliar. That means the more chances we take the sooner the unfamiliar will become familiar and with familiarity comes a degree of success. For a teacher last year’s success will not always guarantee success in the new year. Like the chess player the strategy and the plan must adapt to a different combination of moves and counter moves. Every year is new and unfamiliar. Each year must find its own road from failure to success or something resembling success. This process is difficult and it can be disheartening. But as Tom Hanks said in a movie about young women playing baseball “there is no crying in baseball” and “if it was easy, everyone would do it.” The classroom is an exuberant place and it is a thing of beauty.

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7 thoughts on “On Learning and Other Games of Chance

  1. I agree with the fact that no one wants to put up with a struggle. I can see how many children don’t want to read difficult books, not because of the actual context but because of the fact that they are difficult to understand. So, a lot of students choose not to read the required book. People want they easy way out, they want to do the minimum things required to get by in life. Many people look towards others to get things done because they don’t want to do difficult things themselves. In reality, we should strive to attempt to do the difficult things. A great accomplishment in life is to over come something difficult because it would be very rewarding.

  2. I agree with what you said about accepting failure. You can not succeed unless you have experienced failures in your life. By failing, you learn from your mistakes, and you can progress as an individual. You can look at failure as a chance to do better next time, and reflect on the skills you gained because it was a challenge. What you said about the books we read in class makes sense. Students are often intimidated by the size of the book, so they choose not to want to read it because they assume it will be too hard. It should be looked at as a challenge, because you never know what you could gain from reading a book.

  3. I particularly enjoyed reading this passage, and I especially enjoyed the end. Nearing the conclusion, I came upon a quote that I wholeheartedly live by. That quote is, “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it”. I remember this quote whenever I find myself in a challenging situation, and I am on the verge of simply giving up. Quotes like this renew my stamina.
    I think that more people in the world should take the time to reflect on quotes such as this. When it comes to the subject of enthusiasm, there simply exists not enough. I don’t think that a person should ever have the opportunity to take the easy way out. Pat Clark is absolutely correct when he makes it clear during Round Table discussions that we must make it impossible, as a school district, for students to take the easy way out. While it may seem like an easy solution at the time, it is hurtful in the long run. Like art isn’t always pleasant, neither is life. However, an individual possesses divine control over the outcome of their own life. We have the power to conquer any obstacle as long as we put forth the enthusiasm required to be successful.

  4. I agreed with the part where you spoke of money alone can not buy intelligence. I feel as though in past years (and even in the current times) people truly tried to buy intelligence. I have heard time and time again when learning of a politician that had “nothing extraordinary” for grades, but then they end up going to harvard, or yale, or princeton. Money gives these people the avalibility to go to these places for their educations. And clearly, these under qualified people going to these schools take away the chance of completely qualified, yet less fortunate on a monetary basis, people. This does not give the poorer people the opertunites to grow intellectually. In my opinion, colleges should start to turn away from this. The students should be picked based on ability, not social standing.

  5. Anyone could tell you that life is a constant struggle filled with things designed to challenege us. What we do with this challenge is what makes us who we are. The quote “if it was easy, everyone would do it” is so true. In life it is human nature to look for the easy way out, to do things in the simpliest fastest ways so that it is done. But where does that get you? Absolutely nowhere. In life people dont do the hard things because they are scared to fail. So what if you fail? That just gives you another reason to try again and to improve the second time. If MAtrin Luther King didnt stand up for what he believed in because he thought he was going to fail, where would this country be today? it is those of us who accept failure and continue to try are the ones who wil make a difference in this world. Life is difficult, it will throw many things in our face that we are not ready to handle, but we have to stick with it. That is the only way we will ever accomplish anything.

  6. I found this blog very interesting. I agree when you worte of no one wanting to put up with a struggle and accepting failure. No one wants to put up with struggles because they are faced everyday and some people every second like a disabled person. Dealing with education i remember one day in class you we talking of books and back then they are much different than books today. If we were to read those books we would not understand them. When reading emerson and thoreau in the the beginning i had struggled with them. Struggles are apart of life they happen just like failure. Failure is something we must accept. because of failure it makes you a better person depending on who you are and your drive for the certain situation. I always learn from my failures/ mistakes, a failure creates a drive to do better and never fail again. I try in my school work and different areas not to fail but when it happens you have to just get back up again. I enjoyed reading this blog.

  7. Society thrives on the quote “If it was easy then everyone would be doing it. ” Unfortunately it is human nature to look for the easy way out of things. This seems to be prevalent especially in today’s society. Nobody is willing to put in the hard work. But it is those who challenge themselves who become successful. This is because when you take the easy way out you learn no lesson and never have the opportunity to grow.

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