I left my classroom at 6:00 pm last night. Period 6 is my prep time, so I’d spent the last 4 hours of my teaching day lesson planning, grading, making parent phone calls, taking care of paperwork, and talking to students who stopped by to chat between classes. Walking to the car I wondered how I was still taking a stack of essays home to grade and a list of materials to design. It is moments like these that I am reminded of Theodore Roethke’s observation that there is an “... element of self-destructiveness in teaching.”
With this on my mind, I consider the article I am to write...and I’m tired. I’m tired because teaching requires constant energy and creativity. I’m tired because this generation of young people is hard to reach. I’m tired of fighting to defend good writing and good thinking all day. To then go and engage contemporary culture in my “free-time” is overwhelming. I find that it’s easier to ignore contemporary ideas and attitudes, to retreat to the generations of solid Christian thought that have preceded me.
I want to snuggle up on a Friday night with Pride and Prejudice or The Hobbit, not A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize 2011). And I feel completely justified in this, because at least I’m not snuggling up with, you know, Glee.
This desire to retreat to the relative safety of books and art that won’t question or challenge my Western Judeo-Christian norms isn’t bad in and of itself, it’s just bad if it’s an excuse to avoid engaging and loving the world as it is.
There’s a fundamental difference between being a person who’s counter-cultural and being someone who places herself outside of culture, neither affecting it nor being affected by it. Someone who retreats from culture is, so far from being a person of courage or endurance, actually removing herself from the very circumstances in which endurance and courage are most called for. In order to be truly counter-cultural educators, we must be educators who converse with contemporary culture directly, with eyes wide open.
Being an educator requires courage that refuses to deal with the world by putting it in neatly labeled boxes. Ignoring or marginalizing current culture is just stubbornness, obstinacy to the possibility of truth and beauty being created down the street. We should approach contemporary cultural artifacts with the same openness and humility that we give to our 21st century students—asking, listening, and pursing together.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be reading old books or listening to classical music. This strange thing we do at Wheatstone really is counter-cultural. The looks I get from my fellow teachers when I tell them I help organize a camp where students read Platonic dialogues and listen to opera is enough to assure me of this. But we know that it’s not just about the texts. We could learn to think by discussing many other texts. What we are really asking students to do is this: Reexamine the priorities by which you live your life. Yet, there is the danger that the very tools by which we counter culture at Wheatstone can equally well be used to hide from it.
What we describe as counter-cultural behavior can often just be cultural escape.
Let me use art as an example:
We rightly consider an afternoon at the Getty looking at the Old Masters counter-cultural, as it is neither common nor contemporary. On the other hand, if such an experience is never brought into dialogue (and I do mean dialogue, not battle) with an afternoon at the MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) or some other exhibitor of the present cultural aesthetic, we have not yet managed to become counter-cultural. We’re merely on the outside, extra-cultural: choosing old over new.
The choice to live, read and think outside of our 21st century culture might be easier than the work of really understanding the ideas, images, and emotions of our present day. This is not to say, of course, that tackling a reading list from Plato to the Victorians is an easy task—but it might be a more comfortable task.
We’d like to consider extra-cultural behavior as a sort of activism, but our actual problem might just be passivity toward the present changing times. In my case, it’s not that I want to make a statement against Jonathan Franzen and other contemporary authors—it’s just easier to pick up Tolkien. Tolkien is going to agree with me. After a day with 17 year olds, I am done with my “old fashioned” notions being challenged. I want pretty words—not to be hit in the face with the ugliness of factious, fallen families that someone like Franzen writes about.
But, here’s the problem. I suspect that this passivity results in our slavery to the status quo and an inability to teach our 21st century students well. We must know our students and their world better than they know it themselves. By becoming an educator, you’ve chosen to throw your lot in with this generation. Whether you like it or not, you must have a deep investment with the ideas and the art of the 21st century. Is this investment a simple, easy and pleasant task? Of course not. Facing the world requires endurance and courage. But, this is better than the alternative: being irrationally set in your own ways.
What are people writing, right now? What are artists painting? What will my high school freshman be reading in their college classes? What is going on in math and science in 2011? What are the ideas that have shaped my students’ parents? What is the best and the worst of what we’re making?
The solution to this passivity problem is to keep educating ourselves. The barriers to this are many, but let me tackle two:
We are studying constantly as we prepare for classes. Why is reading and study outside of this necessary?
We can’t ask our students to do things that we won’t do ourselves (i.e. read and think about things that are difficult). It’s important to remember that our education is a distinct thing from the lessons we prepare for our students. The way I’m going to read Beowulf as I prepare to teach it is different from how I studied it myself in college. I’m thinking as a teacher now, not as a student. If we are to keep our minds sharp and our experiences relevant, we must continue to be students ourselves. Just as I encourage my students to do, I should read books that require my reading skills to grow and make me think about ideas that are both challenging and uncomfortable.
Time. I don’t have any of it. Also, I’m overwhelmed. Where do I start?
1. Peter wrote an insightful article last month about reading in “bits.” Caring about the literature we’re producing currently doesn’t necessary mean tackling the collected works of J.M. Coetzee while reading stacks of current articles about physics...this weekend. It might look like having one old book and one new book sitting on your nightstand. Make it a goal to read one novel in the next two months written by someone who is actively producing literature. If you literally have no time to read a couple pages a day... then you are probably doing too much and should prayerfully reexamine your schedule.
2. Set your homepage to a site like Arts and Letters Daily, where you’ll be exposed to a couple current articles on a variety of topics. One of the dangers of our high-tech age is that we’re great at filtering information. Using Google alerts and RSS feeds etc., I can effectively protect myself from what I don’t really want to read about. This is troublesome. Try giving up some of the control over your information input.
3. My last suggestion (and what I was originally planning to write this whole article about) is to start a book group. Book groups can be a fantastic way to keep you accountable to read and discuss literature. They can make the process of tackling hard and sometimes disconcerting books seem more manageable. But, make sure that you’re setting high standards as a group. Read carefully. Discuss deeply. Challenge each other’s ideas. And, don’t be content to read books you know you like ... or even that you’re sure are good.
My husband and I have a summer reading group that was started on the principle that the (mostly) wide expanse of an educator’s summer was the perfect time to explore a genre or period of literature entirely new to us. As we’ve studied science fiction, South American fiction, and now, contemporary prize winning novels*, I’ve been inspired to expand my reading and to deeply consider the breadth and depth of art and thought in the 20th and 21st century. But it’s not easy. This summer’s novels were often frustrating, ugly, terrifying and boring. They made me reexamine my assumptions about my parents’ generation, my generation, and the next generation... as well as my notions of good literature. These novels forced me to think critically about what is happening in the current world of ideas.
This seems good.
But, as I said in my opening, I’m tired. Teaching is hard. Books are hard. Teaching books is hard. So, in closing, I will quote the recent encouragement of a fellow teacher: Keep fighting the good fight.
Don’t be stubborn. Instead, be open and curious. Keep reading, keep thinking, keep praying, keep loving your students and their culture with the redeeming love that Christ has for this broken world.
*Here’s our reading list from this summer:
Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
The Sea (John Banville)
Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
The Shadow of Sirius (W.S. Merwin) – a foray into poetry ...
Tinkers (Paul Harding)
A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)