Teaching Badly: Six Great Schoolmasters

Michael Gilleland was posting excerpts from an old book, Six Great Schoolmasters, a while back.  They are riotously funny, especially for someone teaching at a boys school that nods to the British classification.  Finally the Laudator’s praises inspired me to Nook (thanks, Nook!) the book for free (yay, 1905 publications!).

It’s not just a light read of old-school mad caps.  The book is steeped in comedic British pretension about an absurdly specified Golden Age of education.  But it’s not a lost cause relic, either, for it concerns itself with universal questions and answers about how to teach kids.  This quotation very early on in the book grabbed my eye:

[Dr. Goodall] presumed that the work done in school was a small part only of the education of the boys, and expected that all would do an immense amount of private reading.  This he encouraged by inviting illustrations from other authors of the book which might be in hand.  Thus it is said that “no one of that set would think of going into school without being prepared to illustrate the lesson, if it were Homer or Vergil, from not only Milton but from Dante and Tasso; if it were Demosthenes or Cicero, from great English orators; if it were a Greek play, from the great modern dramatists, whether French or English.”

What to say?  This–seeing the bonds of debt between works and appreciating the variations–is one of the great pleasures of reading, in my view (admittedly colored by years of reading primarily classics).  You know you have a great book on your hands when the connections to great works are all over the place but your pleasure in the book is not diminished thereby.  You have then an addition to the age-old narrative instead of a rehash or cheap knock-off.

Reading Homer makes Ariosto (and pretty much everyone else) more interesting; reading MacDonald makes Tolkien more interesting; reading Lovecraft makes King more interesting; reading Vance makes Wolfe more interesting.  For counterpoint, Jordan is not made better by reading all his sources because he’s got very little other than a commercialized  hash of them.

And just to show that I can be hip, we can play this game with cinema and television.  The Blacklist is merely an overt rehash of Alias and The Silence of the Lambs universe; it is a testament to James Spader’s greatness that he can carry that show.  For an ambiguous case, watching The Wizard of Oz–does that make Jackson’s The Return of the King more interesting or less?  I’m torn.  And yes, that’s as hip as I get, which in hindsight is a little sad.

So we have this high ideal of literate pleasure at work in 19th century British schools.  But how do you teach kids to reach this?  Or am I just a teacher out of time, fit only to prepare British gentlemen to lead lives of leisure?

“Making connections” is a super-buzzy term of education.  Primary ed bombards children with demands to make connections to self, text, or world when they read.  Getting kids to see the conclusion of a simple Barbara; the break-through moment when the student sees the connection between the chemistry experiment and the organization of the periodic table; every compare-and-contrast essay ever assigned: all about making connections.  And that doesn’t even touch on the cross-curricular connection (said with bassy reverb):  calculus to physics, history to literature, drama to philosophy, the vast web of learning.

So I’m not a teacher out of time; that’s a relief.  But how do you teach it?  When the rubber meets the road, the praxis praxes the theoria, the talk gets walked, my answer is about as caveman as it gets.  It’s a standard refrain in my office, the rejoinder to every problem, the panacea for the struggling student: read more books.  Or, since we are talking about all disciplines now, volume and repetition.

Back to reading, since that’s what this is about and I’m no chemist.  Learning to read like Dr. Goodall would have it is about building a neural network from the ground up.  If that sounds like it would take a while, you’re right.  There are no silver bullets in education.  You have a ninth grader who can’t read well?  Go back in time and start reading books to him as a small child.  Any reading assistance you can give him in high school will be crowded out by all the other things he (or she, but I teach boys so I default to the masculine pronoun) has to “learn” in order to graduate and become an “adult.”

Volume.  Repetition.  Time.  Successful education is like water torture.  Drip, drip, drip.

The other component is to show them the connections repeatedly, over time.  Do it with them.  My middle school curriculum is built around a slow, steady march through Scripture that misses no word.  And then what happened?  And then what happened?  And then what happened?  One of the interesting things about reading Scripture is how tightly the tales are interconnected.  There’s a huge amount of “long memory” required to appreciate what’s going on in the story.  Where have we seen this before?  What does this remind you of?  What prediction did we make last book?  Why is this really funny?  Why is this really messed up?

The doom of the house of Eli?  Still happening two books later.  Samuel’s warning about having kings?  Still matters two books later.  The unprovoked malice of the Amalekites?  Still matters…basically forever.

Because Scripture is a library of books stretching across time–and they are still tightly bound at a level both human and divine–it’s an excellent training ground for the kind of connection-making Dr. Goodall expected of his students.  And I’ll go a step farther, into unprovable territory: the history of Western literature is built on imitating this aspect of Scripture.  So training ground is a bit of a misnomer.

Scripture also has a connection-making feature along another axis: the spiritual senses.  It’s not just a horizontal text-to-text link at the literal level.  Once your literary network  has developed along those lines pretty well, you start plumbing levels of meaning.  The spiritual senses depend on the literal not just in terms of content or priority, but also in terms of learning the skill.  One leads to the other.  This business of multiple levels of meaning is also at the foundation of Western literature, which all reduces, in a weird way, to Scriptural commentary.

Behold, Wisdom’s children.


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