Saint John’s College

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For the most part school is what a person makes of it. College is especially so, and within a college graduate school is even more so. It’s therefore difficult to evaluate a school experience, because of the complex relationship between school, student, teachers, and other life circumstances. I went into the St John’s program with a lot of educational quandaries that I wanted to both “solve” and ignore, in about equal parts. I wanted to know what it is that makes education — teaching and learning — so complicated in some times and places, and so simple in others. Why was it that there was such a great divide between my experience as a student and as a teacher? I also, of course, wanted to read great books, which is what we did. I left the other questions on a slow simmer, because whenever I tried to engage them more directly they left my mind feverish and agitated. The answer, of course, I already knew. Teaching and learning is simple when the teacher teaches and tries to help the student understand, while the student tries to do what the teacher asks, and tries to understand — or doesn’t, fails, and perhaps comes back later for another round, or perhaps goes off and does something else. I either read the reading, or I don’t; then I either write an essay on it, or I don’t — the complex, difficult part should be the reading or writing or discussing; Hume or Shakespeare or Euclid. That’s if the teacher is responsible for teaching, and the student for learning. Then the teacher is a helper, because he known more, and the student can rely on him for direction. Most schools, however, insert something else into that equation, especially with children or teens: the teacher must not only teach the subject, but must insist that the student work on it. That arrangement is extremely hard on the teacher, because it’s essentially a relationship of distrust. In previous times and places that was expressed by teachers beating students; now it seems to be most often expressed by teachers being dishonest with students and using assessment as a means of control. We’re dishonest by trying to pretend that disciplines are something other than what they really are — by trying to pretend that they’re really about group work or note taking skills or some other kind of easily learnable and assessable skill, rather about powers like attention and thought and seeing and writing. Because those powers are a difficult and arduous thing to learn.

I don’t remember how I learned to speak or read well. I do remember beginning to read, which was about vowels and songs and my parents reading books to me. I don’t even remember how I learned to read philosophy, but I do remember learning to read Tolstoy. I learned to read Tolstoy not from class — class is what happened after I had learned a bit about reading Tolstoy, and as something of an aside. No, I learned to read him by reading 100 pages — why do people like this guy? His descriptions are striking and beautifully written, to bee sure, but who are all these people? Why do they matter? — and 200 pages — gosh, society life is boring and complicated! And who are all these people, anyway? OK, that was a pretty fantastic battle scene. And some pretty fantastic description. And some really fantastic exploration of joy in the midst of misery. The sky! The great, expansive sky! — and 300 pages — Ok, Prince Andrei is pretty cool, but who are all these people, anyway? — and 400 pages — I don’t really care about your philosophy of history, Tolstoy! but, ah, you are a brilliant writer!– and 500 pages — “yes, here, in this woods, was that oak I agreed with,” thought Prince Andrei. “But where is it?” he thought again, looking at the left side of the road, and, not knowing it himself, not recognizing it, he admired the very oak he was looking for. The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun…” But who are all these, people, anyway? So the reading of War and Peace continued for another 500 pages, with brilliant, insightful, beautiful parts and long, confusing, rather dull parts — but the former more than made up for the latter.

In class we came together and tried to express what we had found, but mostly we weren’t successful. In my essay I tried on my own to express what I had found, but mostly learned that I couldn’t show why War and Peace is fantastic by analyzing its philosophy; I’d have to be a much better writer to do that, and put much more thought and work and time into it.

I learned to read Kant by attempting to write an essay on him, but I didn’t fully learn to do so, because I had a mind full of Kantian categories for about six hours, and the essay made sense; the teacher agreed that it did. Two days later, however, I could hardly understand my own essay, because it looked too much like Kant, all wrapped up in the precise distinction of categories of reasoning. If I were to learn to read Kant in such a way as to be important to how I think and reason I would have to spend a great deal more time with him — and I don’t know that I want to learn so much from him. But his writing did go from being unintelligible to intelligible, mostly by reading him, and then reading some more of him, and then trying to articulate what I had found there, and then going back and reading him more carefully while trying to articulate what I had found.

No matter the topic, that process is usually long and arduous and mysterious, in proportion to my familiarity with the thought processes of the writer and the difficulty of what is being discussed. The process of thinking metaphysics is unfamiliar and difficult, so I never did learn much of it well — especially from Aristotle. But within that are bright spots, which were rarely or never from the class itself, but sometimes came out of the authors we were required to read. Why they were bright was usually something that I couldn’t articulate, or not well, or fast, or comprehensibly enough to be worth mentioning in class. But the classes helped — they helped because I could check what I understood against other people, but mostly they helped because they forced me to at least attempt to read things that I wouldn’t have otherwise read, attentively, and to try to articulate orally and in writing what it was about them that was important, or meaningful, or helpful to me. Or at the very least, what it was they were trying to say.

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