Seeing the Whole Together

“Teaching is an art, and an art, though it has a variety of practical devices to choose from, cannot be reduced to a science.” — Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning

“On the face of things, there is no art of teaching. Teaching is, rather, an aspect of all arts; as a division of each art, it cannot be considered an art itself.” — Robert Grudin, The Grace of Great Things: Creativity and Innovation


This is the season when alumni from all walks of life wend their ways back to campuses around the country. They will be variously shocked, discouraged, amused, and maybe intrigued by the changes they see in the old school. 

One thing has not changed, however, and that is the constant question about the value of education in America. Alumni, students, parents, legislators, and teachers ask the question, over and over again in a myriad of ways. The anxiety betrayed by the asking suggests that we have no clear idea what we want out of education. The fact that American students consistently do not place in the top ten worldwide in any subject category is a cause for consternation.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, Finland’s students continue to place near the top in international tests of math, science, and reading while the US ranks 27th in science, 19th in math, and 15th in reading. Handwringing and derision are indulged in and delegations of American educationistas make the trek to Finnish schools to learn their secrets. Finland has fewer students nationwide than New York City has — 600,000 to New York’s 1.1 million — much more homogeneity, far less poverty, and the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library. These are disparate facts; jumbled together they create a somewhat misleading portrait of both countries. 

To read educational surveys and official reports—and they are Legion — is to enter Alice’s Wonderland, minus the humor and heavy on the politicization. To recall the basics about teaching and learning I often read Jacques Barzun and Robert Grudin, those quoted above. These particular sentences, plucked from their context, make it seem that agreement cannot be found among teachers, especially about the nature of teaching. 

But while they may differ on the details they are both, I believe, honing in on a key point: that teaching in its most fundamental and noblest form is about confronting students with what lies outside their narrow concerns. Grudin says, “To learn is not merely to accumulate data; it is to rebuild one’s world,” and Barzun, whose contempt for the latest methods in teaching is unreserved, speaks of the “difficulties,” not the “problems” of teaching. “It will always be difficult to teach well, to learn accurately; to read, write, and count readily and competently; to acquire a sense of history and develop a taste for literature and the arts—in short, to instruct and start one’s education or another’s.” 

Grudin adds a nuance to this by noting that teaching is intended, when done well, to shock the learner with a sudden juxtaposition of the new alongside the familiar. “True teachers,” he says, “all seem to practice, in many ways and under many guises, this form of shock. . . .  Good teaching develops students’ creative abilities by unlocking their sense of wonder. Students learn creativity not directly from the teacher but from the cathartic self-revelation that the teacher inspires.”

When was the last time you felt the ‘shock of the new,’ that bolt of excitement when you realized you understood something that had seemed impenetrable only moments before? Did that happen in a classroom? If so, you are blessed with a rare experience. 

Both Grudin and Barzun recognize that teachers of this sort are few. It is a convenient truth that many students come to college woefully unprepared, some without any apparent study skills and most without any curiosity about the way the world works. But that alone is not reason enough for mediocrity in teaching. 

There are other reasons for why teachers might not give their best day after day in the classroom. One is the sheer size of some classes, when sections of a single course can number 500 or more. Another is the fact that over 60 percent of college teachers these days are adjuncts, a peculiar existence in which one dashes from campus to campus for classes, has no office, and is paid a fraction of what full-time teachers make without any benefits. Still another reason is that studying is just one of many activities in a student’s life. Most of them work, some full-time, and squeeze classes in around their work schedules. A good number are student athletes, another form of work which requires long hours of practice, road trips during the semester, and days missed for injuries. 

Yet another reason is that most students equate a college education as the means to a job, the collecting of ‘skill sets’ which will fit them nicely to step into harness at a variety of locations throughout a lifetime of work. Education, then, is a series of hoops to hop through, obstacles to avoid, and a system to game with the least amount of mental effort. They have been encouraged in this by business leaders, by family members, and by educational administrators who regard  them as ‘customers.’

The natural alternative to this way of thinking is to see education as an end in itself, something done without any regard for practicalities. This viewpoint rightly draws heavy fire from almost everyone who has ever paid bills, managed a household, and held a job. But if formal learning is more than training for a job or personal indulgence then what is it?

Robert Grudin draws the contrast between the Sophists and the Socratics. The Sophists disdained any learning that did not lead to the specific and the practical. They would have felt right at home with students who are training to hold a specific occupation. The Socratics, on the other hand, believed in a liberal education that could transcend the specific and the merely practical. Only by gaining a wider and broader perspective, they argued, could a person become truly practical. Life demands of us the ability to see the forest and the trees, indeed, the tree and the leaf. A liberal education gives us the ability, they thought, to understand why the big picture is made up of many pixels, to use a contemporary metaphor. It is an interdisciplinary body with curiosity at its heart and enthusiasm right out to its fingertips. It is literally a vision or visualization (the Greek word is ‘synoptic,’ meaning ‘to see the whole together’) of the world from diverse points of view. 

“Forget Education,” says Barzun, ironically and good-naturedly. “Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and Learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it.” 

Wise words for those who would cast themselves as life-long learners. In this season of alumni reunions find a teacher who opened the world to you and thank him or her.

That’s the kind of teacher I’ve yearned to be. After three decades of teaching, I’m still learning. To lift a phrase from St. Paul, “”It is not to be thought that I have already achieved all this . . . . but I press towards the goal.”

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