Teaching Method

Mind and Schools, Part 3

By Eli Siegel


Always, Self and World

[Note: Mr. Siegel is discussing comments by Harry J. Carman of Columbia University on what makes a good teacher.]

“A person of integrity and responsibility”: what are we responsible to? We aren’t just responsible to a school or a family. We are responsible essentially to two things, the big self-and-world team: we are responsible to ourselves, because our selves are very demanding and we want to like ourselves; and we are responsible to the world.

“He should have an attractive personality, one who has a sense of humor and can win the confidence and respect of his students.” Dr. Carman wants people who won’t take it as a blow if you don’t know something and also won’t take it as a blow if you do know something. Teachers have been vexed for both reasons. They want to have their knowledge to themselves, and at the same time they want to bully people into thinking they are ignorant. And sometimes they don’t care what happens as long as they can get back to some private work at home. Many persons are so interested in writing monographs that they cannot be interested in doing such a thing as teaching a young man of nineteen, just come from Pennsylvania. In other words, teachers can be conceited—but so can anybody else, and their scholastic problem is their human problem.

“[A teacher] should have…an understanding of society as a whole.” That again is a common failing; I wouldn’t say a truck driver is interested in society as a whole. If he belongs to a union, he is interested in the union. He is interested in people insofar as people can be in his way when he drives a truck. He is interested in his wife or girlfriend. Very few people are interested in society as a whole. That is a big order. It’s a little bit like saying, Let all of Ohio be wise tomorrow.

“He should have competence in a chosen field.” Certainly. But a good human being is competent in being human, and that is the first competence. A competent human is a person who can honestly say that he is doing what he wants; and who can honestly say that his attitude to other people and everything that is not himself, is really liked by him. Those are the two criteria, and if you have those two aspects of competence the other things will come along.

What this article is saying, really, is that teachers should take their humanity more seriously. They should not think that because they have mastered courses and taken tests, they have a right to say hallelujah among the footnotes. They have no such right. Their job of being a human is still around.

How a Mother Should See

A mother should say, “When I tell my child, Look, this is a dish; when I tell my child how I feel or try to find out how he feels, he is just as much learning as if he were taking up the pluperfect. When he was born, he started learning. His learning started the first time he touched something, the first time he looked at the wall really, the first time he really got a look at my nose, the first time he remembered a word. He and I are not only in a mother-and-son arrangement: we are in a learning arrangement. The school is my assistant and I am the assistant of the school.” To be in the world is equivalent to being educated. You can’t be in the world and not learn. The only way you can not learn is not to be in the world and act as if you were.

So this kind of talk should be had by the mother: “I have tried to make my child like the world he is going to meet in the form of arithmetic, grammar, geography, object lessons. The teacher is going to collaborate with me in a very nice way. The schoolroom is going to be an extension of the kitchen. My child’s big function, even when he leaves school, is to learn. He is going to go to a job to learn about the world and have the world mean more to him, and also to express himself as to the world and be useful. You can’t be useful”—this mythical mother will say—“without really learning something or teaching something, because as you are useful there is a certain form that is happening to you and the object you are dealing with.”

The mother will look on the child as being educated by being born. Then she will think of every other way he can be educated: school, books, baseball games, dramas, thoughts, his deepest thoughts. Out of this, the utmost in knowledge and the utmost in a logical good time will occur. Birth will be education; life will be education; feeling will be education. And the inside world of every child will go gaily with the outside world of arithmetic and spelling and reading and Bolivia and cube root and the circle and angles and long division and everything else, including some of the things not studied. And I hope one of these days it will be Aesthetic Realism.

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