This has been a strange school year. I said it, even though it doesn’t seem to need saying. Since I didn’t get to say good-bye to them in person, I wrote the following letter to my students and posted it for them as a final act of the 2019-2020 school year. I didn’t get to read Fahrenheit 451 with my students this year, but we did read my YA novel, Making My Escape. Our inquiry unit for 9th grade was The Purpose and Power of Education. We spent the year discussing the purpose of education from all different angles, in fiction and non-fiction and poetry. They wrote about it. They discussed it. It may seem obvious, but if it does, you may need to think about more. I make this my question because I think most students don’t “get” why they are in school. It’s just something they need to do because grownups tell them to. And many of them view school as a prison. My hope is to give them some different ways to look at education.
The following is the message I sent to them this afternoon, minus some housekeeping stuff about turning on novels:
Dear Pre-IB Students,
I’m not sure how many of you are still paying attention to Teams, but before collapsing into reading a lot of books and doing a lot of writing and drawing this summer, I felt a need to touch on a few things, just in case anyone is still listening.
If you get the chance, order or find a copy of Fahrenheit 451, and more importantly, read it. It ties together so much of what we talked about this year: the importance of books, reading, the emotions, vocation, questioning, and, of course, the purpose of education. I’m happy if you enjoyed Making My Escape, but I don’t think I can hold a candle to Bradbury’s book. It’s actually a pretty quick read (you just have to wrap your head around his metaphors) and the last third of the book is a chase scene that operates on several different levels – it’s sort of the action version of standing on Boo’s front porch.
Lastly, some final thoughts that I would have given you in class had we had the time.
First, I didn’t teach you to write an essay “properly” as some of you stated in your final journals. What I really did is teach you that there is no one “proper” way to write anything. There are only decisions you make as a writer – decisions based on your subject, your audience, and the occasion for writing. I am struggling with those decisions now as I figure out how to write comic strips addressing this moment in our national history – or if I even can address the moment in comic strip form.
Second, my whole purpose in creating an inquiry about the purpose of education was to get you to think about why you are here. Many students are here and don’t know why they are here, except for the fact that school is what is expected of them by the adult world. Many students think they are here to get grades and earn credentials to that they can use to get into a college, be more competitive, make more money, and come out “on top.” I question whether those are worthwhile goals – or I wouldn’t be a teacher. A competitive view of education in which grades and credentials are everything is what leads to cheating and plagiarism. To cheat in school, even if you think the material is unimportant, is the beginning of becoming a fraud. Read the story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin (a story I never found time for us to read) or watch the movie based on it, The Emperor’s Club. I think you’ll see what I mean. Read the books for yourself. Do your own work. Don’t cheat yourself.
My hope for you is paradoxical. I want you to both appreciate and to question your education. I want you to appreciate that in a world where the abilities to learn anything and be creative will be at a premium, no learning is ever wasted. Learning anything makes you better at learning everything. And knowing things makes you more able to be creative: as it says in “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” we need an inventory of knowledge before we can invent something. Become a collector of knowledge of all kinds. Inventio!
My hope for you is to see that education is not just job preparation. Education is for life in all its aspects – including our emotions (as we saw with Romeo and Juliet). My own education hasn’t just made me a better teacher; it has made me – I truly hope – a better husband, father, friend, citizen, actor, writer, and cartoonist. Education can even be what helps us through difficult times. In The Once and Future King, Merlin gives Wart – the young King Arthur who does not yet know his true identity or destiny – the following advice:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
We are living in a time of change, disruption, and polarization. I don’t know about you, but it makes me sad sometimes. I keep this quote in mind – and I go try to learn something.
I think there is plenty to question about the way we “do” education now. You are not wrong to question it. But you should also question your own questions. Be self reflective. I want you to please understand that although I have tried to give you creative freedom and asked you think outside the box, not all teachers will do so. Please do not use my class as an excuse to be rude to other teachers. I ask you to figure out what you can learn from them, and go from there. Everything is a learning experience, even classes you don’t enjoy. And I truly believe that most teachers, like most people, are doing the best they can. I was not always the teacher I am now. I am hoping to change and grow next year. I will probably retire before I ever learn to teach as well as I could.
Lastly, I hope I want to ask you take a couple of ideas with you that were implied but never stated in my class. One, reality is communal. No one of us has all the answers. No one group or philosophy has all the answers. We need to go beyond our “filter bubbles” and echo chambers and stand in other people’s shoes (as Atticus tells Scout) to begin to experience reality. That is why I have the Robert Frost poem front and center in my room from day one:
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
I leave you with one final purpose of education to ponder. I have emphasized decision making and creativity in your writing and thinking. The biggest act of creativity you have ahead of you is the creation of your own life. It’s a daunting task, made more daunting by the fact that what you do with your life affects the world around you. In the musical Into the Woods, the fairy tale characters face a giant who is destroying their kingdom. They blame each other for the giant’s presence, but ultimately realize they are all responsible for the predicament they are in. They sing:
You move just a finger,
Say the slightest word,
Something’s bound to linger,
No one is alone.
The poet Martin Bell puts it another way.
I create the world I live in
By each and every choice I make today
And when all is said and done
I’m the only one
Who can make the world
A better place to stay.
Thanks for being my students this year. Here’s hoping we can all work to make the world a better place to stay. Of course, that raises questions, too – how do we define “better”? – but for me, that is the real purpose of education. To have enough knowledge to know what better might mean and to try to act on that knowledge. (Again I say – read Fahrenheit! I just realized I was paraphrasing Faber!)
I wish you all a good summer – or as good a summer as can be had in these trying times. Remember, the best thing for being sad is to learn something.
I miss you all.