“…and NO annoying others for your own pleasure.”

This is not the best thing I read today. The best thing I read today was a hand-written list of rules posted on the door to the basement steps at the house where we attended the sixth birthday party of a classmate of the lad. They were written by the older sisters of the family, 15 and 12.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember them verbatim (except for the one).

So this is the second-best thing I read today, by a teacher like myself:

That was also the season in which, three nights a week, I taught a class in English composition, in one of the rooms in the School of Business at Columbia. Like all Extension classes, it was a mixture of all flesh. There was a tough and bad-tempered chemist who was a center of potential opposition, because he was taking the course under duress—it was required of all the students who were following a systematic series of courses in anything at all. There was an earnest and sensitive Negro youth who sat in the front row, dressed in a neat grey suit, and peered at me intently through his glasses all the time the class was going on. There was an exchange student from the University of Rome, and there was one of those middle-aged ladies who had been taking courses like this for years and who handed in neat and punctilious themes and occupied, with a serene and conscious modesty, her rightful place as the star of the class. This entitled her to talk more than anybody else and ask more unpredictable questions.

Once, after I had been insisting that they should stick to concrete and tangible evidence, in describing places and things, an Irishman called Finegan who had been sitting in bewilderment and without promise in one of the back rows, suddenly blossomed out with a fecundity in minute and irrelevant material detail that it was impossible to check. He began handing in descriptions of shoe factories that made you feel as if you were being buried under fifty tons of machinery. And I learned, with wonder and fear, that teachers have a mysterious and deadly power of letting loose psychological forces in the minds of the young. The rapidity, the happy enthusiasm with which they responded to hints and suggestions—but with the wrong response—was enough to make a man run away and live in the woods.

But I liked teaching very much—especially teaching this kind of a class, in which most of the students had to work for their living, and valued their course because they had to pay for it out of their own savings. Teaching people like that is very flattering: the class is always so eager to get anything you have to give them, and the mere fact that they want so much, is liable to give you the impression that you are capable of giving them all they want.

[This fact is I think a salutary signal of the validity of the idea that education ought not to be free. Now I do not say that education necessarily ought to be withheld from the poor, for I daresay I was not able to afford a good education as a boy—or as a man, for that matter!—but was blessed by the charity of others for the opportunity to receive a good education.

(So I notice, but do not pretend to know the answer for another problem regarding education.)

But I do say that for a society to guarantee education to all is a futile exercise, for it necessitates a narrow view of education, and tyrants (in the technical sense of that word: non-constitutional governors) to enforce the state’s view and to guarantee the availability of that education to all in actual fact.

Before the idea has even been realized, however, the society has always found that the “education” which inspired it through its sense of charity to extend to those who could not afford it, is no longer even part of the action. And so the goal of making it available to all has been achieved at the cost of changing what it is—now no longer education but indoctrination for the preservation of the system which is not compatible with truly “liberal” education.

For a liberal education—a truly liberal one—must by definition not be defined by a tyranny. That is, it must not be defined by the state.]

For my part I was left more or less free to go ahead and teach them according to my own ideas. Now if people are going to write, they must first of all have something to write about, and if a man starts out to teach English composition, he implicitly obliges himself to teach the students how to get up enough interest in things to write about them. But it is also impossible for people to learn to write unless they also read. And so a course in composition, if it is not accompanied somewhere along the line by a course in literature, should also take a little time to teach people how to read, or at least how to get interested in a book.

Therefore, I spent most of the time throwing out ideas about what might or might not be important in life and in literature, and letting them argue about it. The arguments got better when they also included discussion of the students’ favorite ideas, as expressed on paper. It soon turned out that although they did not all have ideas, they all had a definite hunger for ideas and for convictions, from the young man who wrote a theme about how happy he had been one summer when he had had a job painting a church, to the quiet Catholic housewife who sat in one of the middle rows viewing me with a reassuring smile and an air of friendly complicity whenever the discussion got around near the borders of religion. So it was a very lively class, on the whole.

—Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain


I’m reading other things, I swear, but it’s hard not to feel resonance in reading the memoirs of a man in his late thirties working on a PhD and teaching liberal arts at a university.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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