Mind and Schools, Part 2
By Eli Siegel
Teachers Have Had Pain
Teachers have gone through pain all through history. Sometimes the classes seem a burden, a burden they cannot meet. And just as a child can go dreaming away elsewhere, that dreaming can happen to a teacher also. The teacher finds that trying to teach is hard, too hard, and the teacher also goes away and becomes mechanical and dreamy. It is difficult because knowledge brings up our ethical questioning of ourselves. We say we are interested in knowledge, want to transmit knowledge, and sometimes we ask do we deserve to. Very often the answer is not good.
Often teachers get into tantrums of a kind, too. We find teachers going into tantrums in novels—take Smollett’s novels, Dickens’s novels. Anthony Trollope, a novelist now popular, went to school, I presume, in the 1820s; he talks of how he went to Harrow, writes of the cruelty of the boys, and has this passage in his autobiography:
I remember well, when I was still the junior boy in the school, Dr. Butler, the head master, stopping me in the street, and asking me, with all the clouds of Jove upon his brow and all the thunder in his voice, whether it was possible that Harrow School was disgraced by so disreputably dirty a little boy as I? Oh, what I felt at that moment! But I could not look my feelings. I do not doubt that I was dirty—but I think that he was cruel. He must have known me had he seen me as he was wont to see me, for he was in the habit of flogging me constantly. Perhaps he did not recognize me by my face.
Cruelty has come from mothers, without their knowing it; it has come from teachers; it has also come from children. Cruelty happens to be democratic or versatile.
The very greatest writers have said things against school, and there could be a little anthology of things against school from Shakespeare. I read some of the more important passages. This can be said quite definitely: when Shakespeare deals with school, he doesn’t present it as very likable. He didn’t go to school much; he may have gone to school at Stratford, but definitely he didn’t go to college, and he was sneered at by some of the Cambridge and Oxford wits. This is from As You Like It (ll.vii. 145-47):
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
Another passage, from The Taming of the Shrew (III.ii 151-52): “[Tranio.] Signior Gremio, came you from the church? / [Gremio] As willingly as e’er I came from school.” Another passage is from Romeo and Juliet (II.ii.157-58)—this is by the man most taught in schools; funny, I should say: “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books; / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.”
School can be a lovely place, and it is interesting that all I have quoted from Shakespeare contradicts the idea of Aristotle that the deepest desire of a person is to know (that is in the beginning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics). So how is it that children who want to know can often have such a bad time at school? The reason is that knowing is not seen completely. The way a child sees his mother is along with the way he sees geography or arithmetic; you cannot dissociate the two really, because everything that goes on in one’s mind is next to something else. Our heads, like the schoolmaster’s in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, contain a memory of a mother’s smile and a memory of a misspelled word and a memory of how to do long division. A child, when he comes to school, has in him how he felt last night; maybe a bad dream; how his mother was in the morning (and maybe she was feeling bad); how his father, perhaps, left for work (and maybe that wasn’t so good); and perhaps he was given a kick yesterday afternoon by a little boy who was mad at him—and now he’s going to study grammar. All these things are really inseparable, but it is convenient to act as if the child were there just for the purpose of studying grammar. That isn’t so.
Neither is the teacher there just for the purpose of teaching grammar. She may remember a quarrel in her own family. She may have felt bad that night too. She may have been dealt with disrespectfully by a person who was to decide whether she was to get this credit or that degree; perhaps she is going for an MA or a PhD and there is difficulty. So two people, both having had the stresses of the hours, are going to talk blithely about the present perfect, Bolivia, the multiplication table, cube root, the life of Benjamin Franklin, maybe how the Mexicans live. If we cannot put together what we are deeply with knowledge, we won’t either want to have it or want to show it. That is why teachers are not interested, very often, in what they are teaching.
Life Will Be Education
A school can be defined as a place where a group of people come together for the avowed purpose of knowing more, and come together steadily. Whether it is a kindergarten or a postgraduate course doesn’t matter: the problem is of taking the world into our mind. Whether it is the phonetics of medieval French or how to pronounce cat, we are trying to take things into our minds, make them ourselves. And that is a deep and dramatic procedure. So people without knowing it are against learning. They want to keep that apart from their “real selves.” I have described such a person in “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics” [Self and World, chap. 10]: Hal Stearns, who used learning to have conquests for himself and used footnotes to win out over others. He was interested in learning as other people are interested in stocks or acquiring factories.
Teachers very often really don’t want to be teachers; the Columbia dean, Harry J. Carman, implies this. This is from the New York Herald Tribune of today: “‘Our college staffs are weighted with well meaning but often dull and routine people,…the majority not knowing how to teach.’ Dr. Carman stressed the following attributes for a teacher: 1. A person of integrity and responsibility….”
What is integrity? The first thing in integrity is that, whether you are at home in the kitchen or in school or in a club or on the street, you feel you are one person and that there is a unity of motive in everything you do. Now, that is a rare order. The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to make the order less rare; that is, for integrity to occur more often. Integrity is not something that we will for ourselves. To ask of a teacher that he have integrity is a little bit like asking New Jersey, Let’s have some gold mines.
The idea of integrity has nothing at all as such to do with teaching. It is a human problem. A human needs to be integrated because he is capable of a great deal of diversity, up-and-down procedure, change. And the question is, is he going to use the change to make a set of personalities for himself—or is he going to use the change to become more compact in mind, compact in the depths, in such a way that as he exfoliates, shows himself in detail, there will be a unity felt.