Wishing Our Way Home

If Wishes Were Horses
Lucinda Williams

Wishing Our Way Home

The Knight’s Dream
Antonio de Pereda

Lucinda Williams is singing about undoing the past, wishing things could be done over differently and seeing that they can’t hoping that perhaps there can be a bit of forgiveness. In the chorus she sings “If wishes were horses I’d have a ranch” and that sentiment captures a lot, not just of lost love but of a great many human activities that have not gone as planned or never got off the ground because there was never much more to them than wishing. Often it is easier to aspire than to achieve. Aspirations are romantic and often a bit adventurous, but achievements are hard work, at least the worthwhile ones are.

The painting captures another aspect of dreaming and wishing. The knight is sleeping at a cluttered table. It seems that the objects on the table are reflections of his dreams. There are a couple of books, one of which is open and both of which are old. That they are set aside and that two objects, skulls, have been set on top of them suggests the books are not what currently occupy his interest. There is at least one musical instrument and some sheet music. These might suggest entertainment or a musical education.

There is also a globe and other objects that might represent conquest, like the miniature clock tower that could suggest a conquered city. There are of course the jewels and cash, representative of the spoils of war perhaps, along with a gun and what look like bits of armor, the tools of conquest. There is also behind the books an object that looks a bit like a bishop’s mitre that might suggest religious connections of one kind or another, either of complicity or a different kind of conquest. And of course there is the angel. Is the angel there to inspire or protect? But the knight is dreaming and perhaps, were he awake, the table would be empty. I think the painting suggests that there are some dreams better left unfulfilled.

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap
George Caleb Bingham

Education is a kind of dream or wish for many and for teachers the desire to teach something of value is a constant struggle between aspirations and accomplishments. There are many different ways that people learn. The painting of Daniel Boone suggests one way in which people learn, they are given guidance. (I think it is interesting that the woman on the horse evokes images of the Virgin Mary on her way to Bethlehem, though I am not sure that that means anything.) The people Boone is leading need to know how to get somewhere and as a result they have not just a desire to learn from Boone, but a need. Where the pupil understands the need to learn a thing, that pupil will perhaps follow without asking too many questions or engaging in disruptive behavior.

The painting might also suggest the limitations of this kind of teaching. Those following Boone have learned how to find their way to a specific place, and perhaps those paying attention will remember also how to find their way back should they decide to return, but they have not been taught how to discover anything on their own, only to follow directions. They need someone to lead them, they cannot lead themselves unless in addition to guiding the party Boone is also instructing them on how to find their bearings in the wilderness, how to find, or if the need arises, to make a trail and to survive on what the wilderness provides in the way of food and shelter. If I make my living as a guide, I want to keep those I guide a little bit ignorant so that they will always need my guidance and will not learn to guide themselves, or worse, become my future competition. As a teacher it is my goal to make myself obsolete, at least to this year’s students.

A Medieval Baker with His Apprentice
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

The apprenticeship system is still a preferred method for teaching another a trade. It was also, at one time, how one learned a profession. In Gulliver’s Travels we learn that Gulliver became a medical man by being apprenticed to a medical man who taught him how to doctor. Abraham Lincoln did not go to law school; he apprenticed himself to a lawyer. In light of the fact that, for the most part, the faculties of medical and law schools are themselves practicing doctors and lawyers might suggest that these professions are still learned through a kind of apprenticeship.

Part of an apprenticeship involves watching a master of the craft practice the craft, which is not unlike following Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap, the master leads and the apprentice follows. But there is more to an apprenticeship, the apprentice eventually does what the master does under the master’s watchful eye. There are mistakes that the master points out, not always in a kindly fashion, that the apprentice must correct.

A number of years ago I remember hearing Daniel Pinkwater on NPR. He was talking about his experience in art school and his apprenticeship of sorts to a sculptor. The sculptor taught him how to cut a piece of marble, something that is almost impossible to do if done incorrectly but very easy (or so Mr. Pinkwater suggested) if done correctly. One day his teacher asked him to cut a piece of marble down to a certain size. But before Mr. Pinkwater began the teacher pointed out that this is special kind of marble and needs to be cut differently. Pinkwater worked for hours trying to cut the stone with no success until another sculptor entered the room and asked him what he was doing. Pinkwater said he was cutting the marble, to which the other sculptor replied why are you doing it like that?

It turned out that it did not matter that the marble was a special kind of marble, all marble is cut alike. When Pinkwater confronted his teacher the teacher replied it is not enough to know, you have to know that you know. We are not so easily fooled when we know we know what we know. There is a scene in the book The Chosen where the Rabbi teaches a sermon at the dinner table. In the sermon he gives a piece of misinformation and it is his son, Daniel’s responsibility to catch his father in the mistake. Daniel knows that when the sermon is done his father is going to ask him (Daniel) to not only identify the mistake but to correct the mistake. Daniel is in a sense apprenticed to his father, because it is expected that Daniel will eventually take over as Rabbi. This is another effective way of teaching and helping the student to know that he knows, though it may be unwise as a practice in the public schools.

Carl Sagan

When I was younger I was a big fan of Carl Sagan, I still am. He explained science in a way that was both interesting and inspiring. I did not become a scientist but he created in me an interest in it that has never gone away. His television program Cosmos reached many people and explained in ways that were relatively easy to understand how science and the universe worked. Sagan used television as a teaching tool and as a result he taught many. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the current host of the PBS series Nova, was asked who inspired him to go into science. He said that was an easy question to answer and after giving a few biographical details identified Carl Sagan as his greatest influence. Tyson then told a story about Sagan.

As a graduating senior Tyson was accepted to Cornell University, where Sagan taught. Shortly after being accepted by Cornell Tyson received an invitation from Sagan to come and take a tour of the campus. Sagan offered to not just take Tyson on a tour of the campus but to show him the laboratories where the faculty and students conducted their research. This is another way of teaching. Sagan was at the time an important enough figure that he did not have to spend this time with a high school senior, but he did. This sets a different kind of example. Tyson concluded his story by saying that whenever a prospective student asks him something, he stops what he is doing and tries to answer. Ultimately we do what we do, whatever it is that we do, because someone took an interest in us and thought it important to guide us into the craft or profession and to show us the ropes.

There was an article this week in The Guardian. It was written by the children’s laureate, Anthony Browne. I was surprised that there existed such an office as children’s laureate anywhere. The title of the article is “Creativity in schools: Every story needs a picture” In the article Browne discusses creativity and picture making. He is concerned that too many students, and adults, tell themselves they cannot draw. He thought schools were doing more to discourage picture making than to encourage it. He then talked about the “shape game” which involves one person drawing a shape on a piece of paper and others adding to the shape in order to create or redefine a picture. It is sort of like the game that folks interested in stories play where one person starts a story and others continue it. He thinks more time should be spent playing the shape game or something like it.

He was especially troubled on a visit to a school highly regarded for its success in guiding students through the various standardized tests. The students could read well and they could write competently, but they couldn’t draw and their imaginations seemed to him to be underdeveloped. It troubled him that none of the students recognized the Mona Lisa probably one of the most famous paintings ever made. Browne acknowledged the need for students to master skills but he is troubled that in teaching the skills we are often quenching the imagination. Skills are necessary if we are to continue doing what we are doing today, but without imagination we will not shape the future, that will be done by those who can first imagine what it could look like.

When You Wish Upon a Star
Keith Jarrett Trio
Hitomi Memorial Hall Tokyo on October 26, 1986

The song comes from the Disney film Pinocchio. As most know Pinocchio is a puppet who wishes to be a boy. He is instructed to wish upon a star. There may be dreams that are achieved by wishing on stars but most require, as did Pinocchio’s dream, a lot of hard work. When I wish upon a star I wish good things for my students, I wish for the skills that will help me lead my students to those good things. But as the earlier song says, “If wishes were horses.” Wishes are not enough. Sometimes we wish for things that it are not in our power to provide or to achieve. But there are doable wishes that with effort can be attained.

Teaching others is a wish with an outcome over which I have some but not complete control. I can work at developing my skills, at keeping an open mind to new ways of doing things, but I cannot will my students to desire what I have to offer. Some can be motivated to change their minds but probably not all. It is a complicated thing. I feel that in saying that I cannot reach all, I am giving up on some, that I have to believe in all of the students and in their ultimate success, but this can be a dangerous road to go down, it can lead to discouragement and even to forsaking the craft. It is important not only to know our limitations as individuals but also to recognize that others have choices as well.

The desire to teach, the wish, the dream to teach is romantic, it is adventurous, but the wish and the dream by themselves do not teach anyone. There is work that must be done, exciting work, but work nonetheless. There is a bargain that is made in any classroom. The teacher promises to work as hard as she or he can but the students must work as hard as they can to make their teacher obsolete.