Another school year is upon us. The latest crop of books and articles about what’s wrong with American education are being hotly discussed by all the right authorities. The usual critics are heaping the usual contempt on teachers and their unions, and teachers are saying the usual things in defense of themselves. Back-to-school purchases, most of them unnecessary, are flying off real and virtual shelves.
This familiar seasonal frenzy tends not to include much appreciation of the craft of teaching. There are many good teachers out there, quietly tuning up their instruments as they prepare to go back to making beautiful music with their students. What they do in the classroom may look sorcerous, even miraculous, but, like good music, it’s almost always the result of painstaking practice, rigorous self-examination, and deep attention to craft.
So, as I enter what I like to think of as the 42d grade, I offer a few grateful words of recognition and thanks to some of the fine teachers I’ve had over the years. In addition to their various subjects, they taught me a lot about how learning works.
From Ms. Bello (kindergarten), Ms. Tengan (grades 1 and 2), and Mr. Strang (grade 3) I learned that freedom and creativity grow from order and competence. If you first get things set up right, with routines established and structure in place, you can then improvise, explore, and invent with confidence.
From Mr. Lubway (grade 5) I learned two complementary lessons about the classroom as a community of inquiry. First, sometimes the greater good of that community obliges you to do things you’d rather not do. But, second, once you’ve pitched in and proven yourself part of the company of learners, you do have the right and even the duty to pick your own priorities in the pursuit of knowledge. Mr. Lubway emphasized music, theater, performance of all kinds, so I dutifully learned my parts, sang, and acted. But at the close of that year I resolved that my onstage career had reached an end. Stage manager, OK; musician in the orchestra pit, great; but no more acting ever again.
From Mrs. Matchett (middle school) and Mme. Pillet (high school) I learned, too late and to my sorrow, that whether I learn is ultimately up to me, not the teacher. They tried and tried, but I didn’t, so it’s my own fault that I’m semi-innumerate and speak broken French.
From Ms. McCampbell and Mr. Hoffenkamp (high school) I learned an essential lesson about the bottomlessness of art. If you take your time with, say, “Twelfth Night” or “The Hustler,” and trust yourself and the fellow seekers in the room to pursue purposeful analysis over the long haul, you can draw near-limitless sustenance from a work of art. Wrestling with it in motivated company for weeks at a stretch instills a kind of faith in other people’s meaning-making capacities — and in your own.
From Richard Slotkin (college) I learned a baseline truth upon which to build a critical worldview that’s both realistic and generous: People aren’t stupid; they’re crazy. And the classical American Studies methods he taught to his students equipped us to make sense of even the craziest-seeming aspects of the culture around us.
From Andrew Szegedy-Maszak and Joseph Siry (college) I learned that sometimes good citizenship obliges you to say what’s on your mind, and sometimes it’s better to shut up and take notes.
From Jon Butler (graduate school) I learned that there’s no inherent connection between sophistication of thought and complexity of expression. You can assemble the most complicated ideas by piling up simple sentences. Obscurely difficult prose often masks a writer’s fear that what he has to say isn’t worth saying.
From Jim Fisher (graduate school), who always knows the hometowns of his students and of the historical figures they study, I learned to listen for the buzz and crackle of human lives in events, artifacts, and documents of the past.
From Robert Stepto and Michael Denning (graduate school) I learned how to complete a big job of work. One always said, “This is good; keep going,” and the other always said, “This won’t work, and here are three reasons why.” Between them, I got what I needed.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’