“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
-Sir Isaac Newton (though it had been said before, so I suppose he borrowed it from one of his giants)
“This is not an American seminar. I don’t give a damn what any of you ‘think.’”
-A Cambridge professor to her graduate class, as related to me by Professor Kim Townsend
Earlier today, after a class spent thirty minutes trying to discuss The Little Prince, one of my students said,
“Are you asking us what we think “growing up” means?”
“No,” I said, after considering that for a moment. “I’m asking you to help me understand what Saint-Exupéry thinks ‘growing up’ means.”
It felt strange saying that, but it also felt right. My job is to help young people discover, build, and share their ideas. I’m honestly interested in what they write and think. I want to hear their voice. But we can also get too caught up in raising our own voice. Maybe there’s a reason so many speakers always have a glass of water near to hand: we need to stop, and drink. We need to listen, and have a sip from the river that flows outside. I can’t listen to the river run when I’m still talking. I can’t listen to you, or Saint-Exupéry.
The Cambridge professor takes all this a big leap further: from her perspective, students’ ‘thoughts’ on Proust are a dilution of the original wisdom. The goal isn’t to see your mind: the goal is to use your mind to see through the dimness in which you started to the light ahead. The goal is to learn from the text in front of you. I like that, but I’m uncomfortable with any learning that asks you to ignore your own mind. I like that, but I think old learning becomes useful when it grows in someone new. For that to happen, we need to learn. For that to happen, we need to let what we learn grow in our own soil. That means it will change. That means, in the end, it’s part of the text and part of us, and part of a new landscape.
I should have told my student: “I’m not asking for what you see. I’m asking you to climb up on a giant’s back, take a good look–and then tell me what you see.”