Confronting the albatross in the classroom

Bringing the world in to see

October 27, 2013 

Joe Anthony, who started teaching at Hazard Community College in 1980, will retire from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in December in order to write fulltime. His latest book, Bluegrass Funeral, is a collection of stories set in Central Kentucky.

PHOTO PROVIDED

I can almost see John Dewey, the early 20th-century philosopher, the guy who transformed American education, waving a bony finger at me as I teach his essay, Thinking in Education, in my honors class.

It's as if Samuel Coleridge's ancient mariner has invaded my wedding feast, casting a chill over sentimental reminiscences of a career in the classroom. Dewey suspects I've been making up "mock problems" for the students to tackle all my 35 years of teaching.

"Give students something to do, not something to learn," Dewey intones. Solving the problem will demand thinking.

Something other than the problem of how to fill five double-spaced pages.

Make education real.

The students love Dewey's essay. I ask them on their blog to compare their educational experience as Dewey describes it. Alas, high school does not fare well in their accounting: The artificiality of much of what they were forced to ingest, the disconnectedness of facts, the segregation of learning from anything real in their lives. They are sometimes bitter. Sometimes a bit self-justifying, too, in why they didn't do better.

But they make a strong case.

"When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school," Paul Simon, another educational philosopher, says, "it's a wonder I can think at all."

My goal for many years of teaching has been to get students to think and to keep my own mind alive, too. But I wonder: Have I been guilty of the sins they describe so vividly?

I start to recite my Hail Marys, one of those things Sister Mary Caroline made us memorize. You see? Some rote learning comes in handy.

I've sent my creative-writing students to nursing homes to write down real stories. I've sent students to interview fast-food workers when we did our units on Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. I've sent students to look at art and talk to artists. I've tried to send them out into the world and into their own minds.

Many of them have come back stimulated or mad or happy or sad.

Some haven't come back.

But even those who returned engaged and thoughtful were still thinking about what I wanted them to think about. My object was to get them excited about certain things: art, poetry, crime, punishment, the awfulness of the fast food industry, the ravages to our environment. But it was my bony finger they were following: think about this; get excited about that.

Sometimes they did come up with new ideas, but they started with mine.

And some of them did get excited.

But a few would cast on me an icy, bored look that made me feel a bit like the shot albatross in Coleridge's poem.

And why not? This wasn't their thought. This wasn't their wedding feast.

Who hasn't seen the disconnect between real life and the classroom? The smallest subtlety perplexes so many students. They want an outline of the main points. Satire often baffles them. Tell them to read between the lines and they look at you as if you had lost your mind. How can you read between lines?

And yet I know they have a subtlety in their personal lives that would perplex me. The complexity of their social lives would be a calculus maze to me. They scorn and parody and mock and slyly praise. They sniff out the tiniest of differences and grade them on a scale of one to a thousand. All in a nanosecond.

So why does something like tone elude them so?

Because it isn't real. Because it isn't their problem.

I know what John Dewey would tell me. Don't try to excite people about Keats who don't want to be excited about Keats.

But isn't that my job, I whine to J.D.? If I don't bring them these ideas, they'll never get to them on their own. If I don't show them the world outside their world, how will they know it's even there?

They know the world's there, he says to me. And they know that often, that world hasn't been in your classroom.

Has so, I tell him.

Has not, he repeats.

Keep wagging that finger, buddy, and you might bring back a bloody stub. I've told the waiter not to give him any wedding cake (retirement cake, whatever) although I think he's already been at the punch bowl.

All I can say is John Dewey didn't teach at a community college.

Joe Anthony, who started teaching at Hazard Community College in 1980, will retire from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in December in order to write fulltime. His latest book, Bluegrass Funeral, is a collection of stories set in Central Kentucky.

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