One of the joys of teaching is organizing your life not around the 52 week corporate calendar, like most 9-to-fivers, but by semesters. That, plus the something like 17 weeks of vacation which all too easily one begins to take for granted.
And now my internal clock tells me it’s that time again. As summer fades, schools are beginning to open their doors.
Yes, I am mostly retired these days. Certainly I don’t miss faculty meetings. But I do miss, believe it or not, that very first day of class. There’s a giddiness in the air that is intoxicating. Students are eager and fresh – and if they are ever going to be in the palm of your hand, it’s now. You stride into the room and it’s like opening night on Broadway before a premiere audience!
I would tell those bright inquisitive eyes that my teaching philosophy can be summed up in several simple quotations. First, “never trust anyone over thirty” (Abbie Hoffman). Mostly, of course, this kind of statement is meant to serve as an icebreaker. But it also tends to produce the kind of fertile uneasiness that is a prerequisite to self-motivated learning. “Who, then, should we trust?” is the unspoken question hopefully reverberating in the back of their minds.
That uneasy suspicion that this is no ordinary class is confirmed a moment or two later when I unleash my second quote, this time from the precocious teenage poet, Arthur Rimbaud: “Everything we are taught is false.” An adult like myself, with gray hair, a teacher—undermining his own credibility! What I am challenging, of course, are traditional pedagogical and epistemological assumptions. Students in my classes do not sit back and passively soak up facts. I question, I challenge, I provoke. Students only really learn, after all, when they aggressively sift through alternatives in search of what rings true to their experience. In the humanities we study values, normative values. And my job as a teacher is to jump-start inquisitive minds. The implied flip side, of course, of Rimbaud’s contention that what we are taught by others is false, is that what we honestly acquire for ourselves is wisdom.
Popular culture in America would have us believe that something is of value only if we can eat it, drink it, snort it, spend it, or . . . [make love to] it. That being the tacit student assumption, the conscientious teacher always has to sweat out the delicate question of why should anyone bother to study this cultural nonsense-stuff, the humanities. And for that I go to Jeremiah, who somewhere warns that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” I insist that my students stretch their imaginations and embrace the larger perspective. When all is said and done what we in a humanities course seek to accomplish is to yoke a mind with a text. (By “text” is meant a painting, a film, a sculpture, a symphony, a poem, etc.) And in that confrontation of a properly-seeded imagination with a carefully-chosen text, something incredible is always on the verge of happening. A mind stretches, an imagination grows, consciousness expands, humanity blossoms. It is wrong to think that we have to defend the humanities; the humanities defend us. Just as the so-called liberal arts “liberate” us from ignorance and superstition, so the humanities “humanize” us, usher us into the human community. I never allow my students to ignore this larger dimension. To do so would be to betray the vision that differentiates us from animals.
What my students will get, like it or not, is a teacher who is blessed with a living relationship with the humanities. I am both an existentialist and a humanist, and the humanities constitute, so to speak, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich, the theologian, my cultural “ground of being.” Unfortunately, that the humanities can still nourish the human spirit is no longer self-evident in this postmodern, “post-humanist” world we live in. Thus I am obsessed with breathing life back into the humanities, with exploring the role of the humanities in light of today’s changing cultural paradigm, and in imparting to my students something of the vital necessity for encountering and participating with those artistic creations and intellectual achievements which define our cultural heritage.
Are my classes then, “like, uh, like . . . easy”? I can best answer that by comparing my role in the classroom to that of Magic Johnson’s on the basketball court. At Magic’s retirement ceremony, it was said of him by his colleague, Kareem Abdul Jabbar—who was himself a hardworking, frequently battered, beleaguered, and blood-spattered superstar—that Magic Johnson “convinced me that I was having fun.”
We ARE having fun now, aren’t we?
[Excerpted & adapted from an essay submitted along with a transcript and a completed job application to a college in Tennessee. They had requested that I respond to the following question: “On the first day of class, if your students asked you to tell them what to expect from you as a teacher, what would you say?” That was 20 years ago, and I have yet to hear back from them :)]