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Why We Teach

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Brandon BennettOne of the easiest things for adults to appreciate is also one of the hardest for kids to learn: that everything is connected, that one thing leads to another, that nothing happens in isolation. A teacher’s job is to help students recognize, appreciate, and build on the connections that are everywhere around them.

It takes time. For long stretches, it feels like students are treating everything in isolation. School is school, with little or no connection to life at home or with friends. Even at school there is compartmentalization. Each subject lives in its own space, with little or no sense of interdisciplinary crossover. Education is the long, gradual process of breaking out of this narrow view of the world.

Especially in a liberal arts school, where we expose students to a broad range of subject matter, the ultimate goal is to help students see and feel the interconnectedness of it all. Plato, in his poetic way, described this goal as the sense of harmony between body and soul, between physical training and mind training. He exhorts us to recognize that all knowledge is one, everything bound together by the deep unifying force of reality itself.

More prosaically, and modestly, as teachers at Waterford, we patiently nudge students toward a personal appreciation for the way that all the liberal arts disciplines, including the visual and performing arts, are everywhere and always speaking to each other, informing each other, inviting each other to press toward the elusive ideal of unity.

As a teacher of literature, I’m reminded of the challenge every time I work with students to help them understand a poem. Every poem of any substance is deeply enmeshed in a network of associations and allusions that a young, first-time reader is hardpressed to understand. It takes lots of reading and lots of living to recognize and respond to the layers of meaning in a significant poem. But everyone has to start somewhere. The magic of education happens as students, guided and coaxed and compelled by knowledgeable and committed teachers, begin to see the connections that had been hidden from them just moments before.

I’ve always liked the way Wordsworth characterized these moments of deep insight:

that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

That’s the ideal that we are striving for at Waterford: to awaken in students the innate capacity to “see into the life of things.” It’s the goal in a literature class, but so also is it the goal in science, mathematics, theater, history, music, dance, and every other part of the curriculum.

To awaken this capacity for deep vision, we start with basic skills that over time become discipline-specific techniques and strategies. The teacher mixes in a sense of passion and inspiration, a promise of deep springs of joy (to borrow a phrase from William James), and also a measure of push (for nothing seems to happen without challenge and elevated expectation). The moments of awakening are rarely dramatic, like a bolt of lightning striking in the night, but they do come.

Teachers at Waterford have the benefit of seeing students grow from three to eighteen, and are able to trace the profound marks of growth and deepening insight. I see it now in the seniors I am teaching. It is a wonderful and humbling experience to see students, reading poetry, begin to recognize the deep life of things, the riches of unifying connections, just waiting to be grasped.

Especially in the dead of winter, may all of us in the Waterford community seek to look beneath the surface, and see into the life of things.