“The strange words rolled through his mind; […they] talked wonderfully and only half-understandably, a terrible beautiful magic […]” -Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, in describing John’s love for Shakespeare’s poetry
I want to talk about two different styles of teaching, and then see something about living. It might even work.
I remember sitting in a college English class, listening to the professor discuss Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” I read that story as a teenager: it’s harsh view of life as something that can so easily shimmer and seep away frightened me, confused me, made me grow. In the professor’s hands, the story was an example of changing society. He pointed out that the language itself looks like an instruction manual. In society’s new view, he argued, life becomes something that we either succeed or fail at doing. (‘To build a fire you arrange the wood like this; if you don’t, the fire doesn’t catch.’ I think, by the way, that he’s onto something, and I think it’s an incredibly dangerous way to look at life). Walking out of the class, my friend said there were two ways to teach a story: either you use your theory to try to get closer to the story, to move into it and see more of it, or you use the story as a supportive structure for your theory. In the first approach, your goal is to engage with the story itself. In the second, your goal is to explain and defend a theory. My friend said she wanted the first kind of class. I agreed.
Which is why I was surprised, and to be honest rather discouraged, when I realized last week that I was doing the second in my class. I was bringing in beautiful poems, but I brought them in as another step on the intellectual staircase we were building. I did that because I was trying to present the class as a unified movement, a series of thoughts that we could follow along. I wanted the students to feel how each thing led to another. I wanted them to know what to expect and what to learn, so they could learn it. So they wouldn’t be left behind.
That approach has its place, but right now, I want my class to do something else. I want to find John, who comes alive in learning from something he only half understands. I want to give students the chance to be confused. To muddle about. To interact with things that don’t seem connected, and connect them in their own ways, and fall in love (reasonlessly, witlessly) with a story for its own sake. I want them to build something new. These stories are overwhelming: there are oceans of life in them. I could limit that, I could pretend there was an easy, progressing path by hiding the story behind a wall and giving us a pinhole view. That way there would be a lesson. There would be a staircase, but staircases only lead to one place. I want the ocean and the wind. I want them, together and alone, to remember that they can swim.
Confusion, waves, new rhythms to stumble after, and overwhelming loves–all these flows toward us from all sides. In that there is magic.