you learn by being taught

Forgive the relative quiet lately; I’ve been enjoying my birthday weekend and then catching up on a ton of work. There’s a bunch of good things coming this week, including the return of book reviews after a brief (and unplanned) break.

This morning I spoke to an entire public high school, where I was invited to discuss being a product of public schools, higher ed, and success. It was very funny for me to be asked, though flattering – as I told the kids today, I would never think of myself casually as a success. Who ever thinks that way, beyond the wealthy and the deluded? But it was flattering and fun. I told them that there was no great wisdom in life, just a series of decisions before you, and hopefully with time the perspective to be able to choose better from worse. And, because I think this is important, I told them that they needed to cultivate a sense of “good enough” in their lives. At that age, they are being told constantly that they should pursue their dreams. But very few of us get what we’ve dreamed of, and those who have often find it’s far less grand than they’d imagined. So I told them to learn and experience and enjoy and to figure out how to live in the essential disappointment of human life.

It wasn’t as much of a bummer as it sounds!

I have been reflecting on the value of teachers. I have been accused a lot, lately, of not believing that teachers matter. That’s the opposite of the truth, really. I just think that this notion of casting the value of teachers in purely quantitative terms is a mistake, and a very recent one. The entire history of the Western canon, from Socrates to Aquinas to Locke to Dewey to Baldwin, contains arguments against this reduction. But this fight, to define what I mean and what I don’t against the tide, is a fight I suspect I will always have to keep fighting, and I intend to.

Our culture celebrates autodidacts. It talks constantly of “disrupting” education. It insists always that we need to radically reshape how we teach and learn. It treats as heroic the rejection of teachers and traditional mentorship. The self-help aisle of the bookstore abounds with writers who insist that they truly learned by rejecting the typical method of education and became, instead, self-taught, self-made. It’s an unavoidable trope.

What amazes me about my own education is just how far that is from the truth for me personally. I’ve learned, over decades, how I learn. It’s pretty simple: teachers teach me. That was true in kindergarten and it’s true now that I have my doctorate. I can’t tell you how often I have found myself feeling lost and ignorant, only to have patient, kind teachers take me through the familiar processes of modeling and repetition that are cornerstones of education. I think back to my graduate statistics classes, where I often feel like the slowest person in class, but where I always ended up getting there, thanks to steady and reassuring teaching. When I don’t get what I need from class, I’d go to office hours, or I’d go to the statistics help room, where brilliant graduate students eagerly shared knowledge and experience with me. None of this is fundamentally any different than when Mrs. Gebhardt taught me to cut shapes out of paper or when Mr. Shearer taught me simple algebra or when Mr. Tucci taught me to read poetry or when Dr. Nunn taught me to write a real research paper. The process is always the same, and in every case, I have succeeded not through rejecting the authority of teachers but by accepting their help, by recognizing their superior knowledge and letting them use it to enrich my life.

Is that a contradiction of what I’ve said about the limited ability of teachers to control the outcomes of their students? I don’t think so. The question is, do you want us to have a fuller and more humane vision of what it means to learn? I do.

They say that great men see farther than others by standing on the shoulders of giants. I think most of us are enabled to see as far as others because others have collectively reached their hands down and pulled us up.