Tuesday, April 26, 2016

teaching moments

In college, I once took a course in 19th century literature. The course included some -- or maybe just one -- of the works of Thomas Carlyle. The title I remember was "Sartor Resartus," but what I remember more than that was how much I hated the book. It was far too much artifice and far too little art as far as I was concerned. Boy, did I hate that book.

The teacher of the course I had signed on for, a kind woman with greying hair, took to meeting with me informally ahead of class on any given class day. We'd both arrive five or six minutes ahead of time.

"So, Adam," she might say as we stood outside the classroom waiting for it to empty so that her class could enter, "did you do the homework assignment (read some pages of "Sartor Resartus")?

And invariably I would have. Education isn't about ingesting the pleasant alone and, more than that, I knew she would be waiting for me outside the classroom, inviting me to toot my enraged horn.

"Yes," I would say.

"And what did you think?" she might ask.

And that was my cue to sound off -- to spew as much vitriol as I might care to.

It did not occur to me at the time that in order for me to hate the book as much as I did, I would have to read it first ... which was the object of the teacher's effort. So, coming in a sneaky back door, she was teaching me about Thomas Carlyle, an author I sincerely hoped would rot in hell.  (Don't ask me to remember what I hated. All I can remember is that I did hate it.)

Looking back, I think she was a pretty savvy teacher. It was OK with her if I hated it as long as I could bring compelling evidence to my diatribe. In those days, you had to be able to prove your point, not just emote about it. Opinion was fine, but emotion alone was for feather merchants.

And still is.

On the one end of the spectrum, emotion. On the other, intellect....

My mother once took several faltering steps towards getting a Ph.D. in Shakespeare, possibly because it was the topic of my father's academic career. My mother took those several courses and then quit because there was no room she could find for the love she felt for Shakespeare. A Ph.D. was all about commas and semi-colons and parsing and intellect ... and there was a piece of her that simply said "no!" She loved Shakespeare and hoped with an advanced degree to love him more.


Once upon a time, I used to love going to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The art works are displayed against walls that rise up or sink down in a spiral. I loved the Guggenheim because whatever the exhibit, still I flat-out loved the building and so could never be short-changed.

But one day, on entering, I paid the admission and, just beyond the admission booth, found myself in front of a counter where some bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed twenty-something was offering to rent me a hand-held tape recorder that she promised would "explain" the art works currently on display.

My jaw dropped. "Explain" art????? What sort of bullshit was that? Either the artist could and did communicate with the onlooker or s/he did not. It was an intimacy that no Dr. Phil could co-opt or explain or improve. What sort of cowardice did that tape recorder exemplify ... JEESUS!

The twenty-something told me with a straight face that the aural add-on would enrich the experience of the paintings, that it would bring substance and content and ... I walked away from her. Her chatter simultaneously enraged and shamed me. I did not want to be caught around anyone who might believe the claptrap she was spewing.

"Improved" art ... bite me!

"Explained" art ... get a fucking job!

Only of course there are millions of good-hearted people who believe this tapioca approach ... all slippery-slide-y and sounding so caring and....

And it still makes me want to hide under the bed. Give me art that loves me and invites me to love it back. Even when it fails, at least that is a success. Take the dulcet tones and stick 'em up your ass: This is my heart you're talking about.

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