Universality

I’ve begun a new article, and this is the introduction (or somewhere near it:

 

The most reasonable objection to what I have to say is simply that my knowledge of how people learn is based largely off of my own experience of how I and others who share many of the same taste and interests learn best, and is largely meta-cognative and anecdotal. “What is the ways in which we learn, or the things we need to learn are not universal?” a person may well ask. Is it not possible – perhaps even probable – that there are people in the world who learn in a manner utterly unlike myself, making most of my observations invalid? Perhaps I should conduct a study to find out, using only scientific observations governed by outward behavior. To this objection I answer thus: should there exist such people, who not only learn in ways utterly like myself, but cannot benefit from those I do know intimately enough to understand, then I have no right to teach them. Having no right to teach them, they have no obligation to believe anything I have to say. The same answer goes for those (and I know they exist) who’s final goal is utterly unlike my own. I will concede that much to postmodern thought; they may well be right, and those goals and learning styles that are utterly unlike my own may be equally good. That does not mean that I should teach them in a manner that is closer to those different means and goals; quite the contrary. It means that they should not have to suffer the dissonance of learning from a person who is likely to prove utterly unintelligible to them in every way that really matters.

 

It is the job of a teacher to relay information and understanding to a group of students. We do that in a number of ways, usually hinging upon anticipating difficulties that may be had, and describing our subject in ways that overcome or bypass those difficulties. Often we can’t know them in advance, and so must rely on the self-awareness of students, or, if they are young, trying various ways of communicating the same thing until one of them makes sense. The whole process hinges upon a sympathetic understanding between teacher and pupil, wherein each attempts to understand the other. With some people this is easier to do than others, although in many cases the difficulty pays off with learning not only a skill, but the outlook of another mind as well. Thus, sympathetic understanding is absolutely essential to good teaching. I might almost say that otherwise we might as well learn only from textbooks or videos, and do away with classroom teachers altogether, perhaps replacing them with some kind of crowd control specialist.

 

In the realm of the arts sympathetic understanding is, if possible, even more essential, because many of the things taught can be reasonably questioned, even by beginners. If you say that The Brothers Karamazov is trite and poorly written, while The Purpose Driven Life is deep and stylistically complex, and you have read both, then we quite simply have nothing to discuss. We could, I suppose, argue our cases anyway, and I probably would, for days and weeks even, because I haven’t quite learned my lesson yet, but it would likely be a pointless exercise. At that point we could try one of two things – a reading course of everything that humanity has generally held to be great, and see if one of us changes our mind, or we could admit that our conceptions of reality are too much in opposition to maintain a teacher – student relationship. The former solution is rarely possible in practice. A similar situation occurred between myself and a professor of art education, and dragged on painfully for a year and a half of required classes in college. We disagreed, I think, on the nature of art, education, schooling, beauty, teaching, learning, children, thinking, authority, philosophy, aesthetics, history, culture, meaning, and everything else in all creation. Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. Interestingly enough, she is, by the standards of the College of Education, quite an excellent teacher. I spent three semesters attempting to reconcile our perspectives, failing miserably all the while. Only after several months of not having to take any art ed. classes have a few useful things begun to filter through my dissonance screen. I don’t particularly want to do that to anyone else; it makes learning extremely difficult.

 

The main mark that I have nothing to teach that you are in a position to learn is if it is not possible either to agree or disagree with what I have to say; if you can’t understand their use through a reasonable expenditure of imaginative sympathy; if, in short, I prove to be simply unintelligible at many points. A reader can simply stop, and say “my, what an annoying piece of writing; it actually resonates negatively.” Students, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They have to try to learn to guess what I’m up to. The Education School says that the solution is to be all things to all men, and acquire, somehow, the ability to extend imaginative sympathy to everyone, no matter how different. That’s nice, but it’s also impossible if the differences lie too near the core of our beings, so that even once we understand each other, it is still not impossible to agree, or even discuss, anything of importance without first taking 35 large steps back and starting over at the beginning each time. Or we could simply discuss facts and philosophies in the abstract. That would, perhaps, be a good solution, were it not impossible within the constraints of the world of Education.

 

That I have nothing to teach to those too distant to learn it may sound exclusive; a sin against Diversity, and in a way it is. In another way, however, it is as inclusive as it is possible to be while still maintaining enough definition and substance to make a content area worth teaching. To the extent that I have anything to teach at all, it must be learned within its own confines, and must be looked at on its own terms. We do not create our own reality. On the other hand, there are no national, ethnic, nor “socioeconomic” boundaries necessary to good thought. I have seen the same kind of thought in writings from every country and language, for those are not essential to the nature of human thought. So I stand by my method of discrimination, in the hope that it truly discriminates between what is essential, and leaves broad freedom on all things inessential. With that straightened out, I may be able to begin to understand what it is to teach.

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