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.