This will be the last of my series of guest-blogging posts, and perhaps the most controversial one. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and stimulating comments.
Much of education discussion rests on the assumption that we can and should demonstrate the efficacy of what we do in the classroom. We have concrete aims, and it is our responsibility to ensure that these aims are achieved. These include: ensuring that students learn the basics, bringing them up to a desired proficiency level across the subject areas, teaching them to communicate and debate ideas, exposing them to subjects that they will need for work and life, helping them do well on tests, seeing to their well-being at school, preparing them to participate in a democracy, and more. Our practices are deemed good insofar as they bring us closer to our goals.
But there are parts of education that cannot be explained or justified in a concrete way. Why teach literature? Because it is useful? Because it prepares us to participate in a democracy? Those are secondary reasons. Ultimately many of us teach it because it is beautiful and urgent and because we do not have it in our hearts to do otherwise.
It is not that a student must know Shakespeare in order to have a rewarding life or be part of a democracy. We do not study for concrete purposes alone. There are other things that pull us. Think of the times when you see something beautiful outside–a leaf with unusual colors taking its time to flutter to the ground, then bouncing on the sidewalk as if in a dance; a dirty littered sidewalk gleaming with chestnuts, their shells just opened, and yellow butterflies flying above–and trucks roaring by, and grass taking over the sidewalk cracks. If you tell someone what you have seen, it is not useful information. It will not help the other person, except perhaps to change what the person notices when walking down the street. You pass it on because it came to you as a gift, and you wanted to pass it on. So, too, with literature. We pass on what has held great meaning for us. One may argue that it will not have the same meaning for young people. But that does not make the gesture futile. Students respond to a teacher’s love of literature; they come to see things in it; what’s more, they learn that they may find more in it later. They are given a glimpse into what they do not yet understand. And this is intangible.
This does not mean that we abandon evidence and do only what the spirit moves us to do in the classroom. I would be among the first to laugh that sort of suggestion out of town. In The New Education (1915), Scott Nearing describes the Oyler School in Cincinnati, where, if a teacher felt it was the right time to go visit an absent student, she would simply leave her class to another teacher and do so. That is going a bit far. Likewise, it would be absurd for a research study to conclude, “Policy X is good because I know in my heart that it is.” But not all our purposes can be spelled out, and not all of them can be justified by evidence. Evidence does have its place, but we should not confine ourselves to evidence any more than we should confine ourselves to utility.
I brought this up in a comment on Deborah Meier’s latest column in Bridging Differences. She asks what students truly need to learn to participate in a democracy, and suggests that there’s no evidence they need Milton or Dante. This may or may not be so. But in any case, whatever the arguments for and against certain works of literature, our reasons for teaching them go beyond the arguments.
I can hear the objections to this, and part of me objects to my own argument. If we allow for things in education that we cannot explain or justify, how can we sort out the valuable from the loony? How do we keep wacky ideas and irresponsible practices from taking over? That is a serious question, not easily answered. I would suggest that there is a touch of the loony in the valuable, but only a touch. We have to use our logic, observation, intuition, experience, belief, and faith (not necessarily religious), all together. One on its own will not do.
Autumn has declared itself here in New Haven. I remember teaching on a day like this, a year ago in Brooklyn. I was teaching my second-grade class the Christina Rossetti poem “Who Has Seen the Wind?”
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
They were taking turns reciting it in groups while acting as the wind and trees. We had done it a few times, and suddenly a girl started bouncing in here seat and pointing.
“They’re doing it!” she cried. We turned to look. She was pointing out the window.
“They’re doing it! The leaves are trembling!”
And then a chorus of children chimed in, “The wind is passing through!”
Evidence of what? A “text-to-world connection”? Oh, more than that! And one of the most beautiful moments of my teaching experience. I would not trade that moment for a 100-percent guaranteed research-proven practice.