What happens in Bogota when we have a long, rainy Saturday, at least a half a pound of Juan Valdez Colina coffee, my wife fresh from shopping and getting into her stride cooking, a puente—holiday on Monday, and this month there are three Mondays in a row that are puente—some pent up, developing thoughts and a hiatus from any strenuous reading or writing? I think!
Whether the results are commensurate to the circumstances from which they arose is, I realize, as unlikely as that anybody will read anything so long. But I hate to post it in bits, even though it promises to have other bits swimming in the soup of this blog for some time to come.
It is becoming apparent to me that the church believes in mixing entertainment and worship because it believes that learning ought to be fun, and it believes that learning ought to be fun, in part, because theories of learning in the world in general stress the importance of making learning fun. I think this is due to a failure to make the distinction between what is fun and what is interesting. Teaching ought to be interesting and learning ought to be interesting, but that is something different from using fun to gain interest. I want to explore the idea that fun is something that aims to diminish boredom by distraction (and for that reason not really interesting, but instead distracting), and that what is truly interesting has something of intrinsic interest—that the subject has depths that beckon, full of wonder.
That teaching ought to be fun comes about for at least two obvious reasons: on the one hand there are lethal, old (but not old enough!) theories of learning which believed the task to be one of merely imparting information, that stressed quantifying learning and objective measuring, and in which abstraction prevailed; on the other hand are the bad teachers who do not believe in the mystery and wonder of what they are teaching. Grammar, for example, is taught abysmally (and it happens to be the thing I am learning to teach at the moment, and which provokes my thought) as a system of prohibitions and curtailments. It is not the living language that is taught, rather a system of intractable laws and recently deceased meanings.
Against Such Teachers
But grammar is mysterious, and powerful, and learning how things are and work is like discovering another world. I think in this case the failure is with the teacher who has no eyes for the metaphysical reality of language, is ignorant of poetry, and fails to relish the best possibilities and use of it. It is like Bible teachers who are boring because their aim is to impart information but not understanding. This teacher perhaps relishes a dead law because he has achieved an adequate mastery, having decided to take the easy way or, or being ignorant of the depths which constitute the reality of a thing. Or it just never occurred to this teacher that the language lives, is important, is the medium of our consciousness, contains wonders because the soul of said teacher is drab, and the reality said teacher inhabits is not one in which any wonder exists at all.
If we expect teachers to discourage complacency in the students, then we should not tolerate complacent teachers.
Language is wonderful the way other things that are wonderful are wonderful: they are wonderful because they are mysterious—they contain depths and possibilities. Language is wonderful because it is mysterious and it is mysterious because it is the gift of God, and so our mother language, which is a gift of God and a product of human culture takes on the awe of a thing in which a sort of hypostatic union has been achieved.
I ought to say that when it comes to poetry the best poets are those who have some sense of wonder about the world. Here my thought is not sufficiently developed, but I would point to poets such as Blake and such as Yeats who had strange systems of belief but whose systems resulted in astonishing poetry, alive with depth and wonder. Their systems are dismissed by many, from what I can tell, and this is due to an inability to take those systems poetically, as mythical expressions of something true. We don’t have to agree with Blake or Yeats in order to learn from their systems of belief things that are true about reality, and things that are essential to poetry, anymore than we have to know what Anton Bruckner believed in order to receive an insight into the true nature of things whenever we hear the first movement of his Fourth Symphony.
On Hardness and Discipline
I do not want to leave the impression that I think there is nothing hard in learning grammar and that there is no discipline. For the first time in my life (at least for the first time that I remember that I’m going to prepare for it) I am going to have a comprehensive test on English grammar, not only filling out a whole chart on the tenses of the verb describing their meaning, form, the auxiliaries they use and the common time expressions usually associated with them, not only filling out another chart with modal verbs, but also listing what sort of information is crucial prior knowledge to teaching, for instance, the future perfect continuous. This will take some work.
But I’m eager for it, not because of all the games I can play, but because of the descriptive powers it will give me for handling discussion more precisely, for thinking with greater clarity at the level of grammar, and because it will allow me to speculate on the nature, or reality, of English itself, to understand it as a whole more intelligently. When you understand the details you are ready to synthesize, to make observations based on a better view in which more distinctions—and better distinctions—are present to your consciousness. If learning is about anything, in a way, it is about making increasingly refined distinctions without losing the organic coherence of . . . everything. Or perhaps one should say it is about making such refined distinctions that the organic coherence becomes clarer.
I don’t know what the point at which a student learning a second language catches some of this. But I think the teacher of every subject has the power to gesture at it. I do not play the piano nowadays, but one of the most important teachers in all my life was my piano teacher who not only taught me many things about playing the piano, made me a more intelligent listener than I would have been otherwise, but above all taught me the true meaning of the discipline of a discipline and that there are wonders to be discovered in the learning of anything serious. She scorned the fun little piano books Americans used (and generally disparaged the powers of American musicians in general—she was wonderfully prejudiced), asking me why if Beethoven’s disciple Czerny wrote basic piano music, if Bach wrote music for learners, if serious composers wrote the curriculum . . . etc., why anybody would seriously consider using anything else?
Old fashioned? Decidedly, and still in my memory one of the best teachers I had: to teach me not only about the subject, but to open up a window onto a real world after which I have ever since longed. My only regret is not that I had to leave her lessons because I departed Mexico (I have no musical talent and to stay with her might have ruined what I truly learned), but that all my teachers weren’t more like my piano teacher in Mexico. I have seldom since worked as hard for any teacher as I worked for her for those two years.
And that is my point about discipline: I did the hard practicing, laboring the careful way she wanted me to not only because I wanted to please my teacher, not only because I trusted her since she convinced me she knew what she was doing, but because she was showing me the way out of Plato’s cave. I don’t think the subject has to be music, I think it can be grammar, because the purpose of grammar and syntax and vocabulary is speech and the glories of literature, just as the purpose of scales and theory and technique is music and Anton Bruckner’s inexhaustible vistas of reality.
Observations on Present Circumstances
Preface: my observation of the present circumstances is limited in that material is actually in short supply in Bogota, or I am ignorant of the location of said material. My observations about the present circumstances are also limited being based on a class I am taking and very little other formal, pedagogical instruction. Nevertheless, one can’t help getting a feeling for the systems of thought prevailing in our times if one is a part of any serious conversation about culture, politics, the arts, etc. I believe I am adequately informed about such matters, and even if my observations are not precise—and are certainly open to correction—they are sufficient for making a beginning. I mean to find out more, and research more, and think more carefully about this now that it appears I’ll be immersed in the world of teaching.
From the way things are presented is seems to me that the postmodern condition, resting as it does on the same assumptions of modernism while refusing its conclusions, is the condition in which approaches to learning are made. Many of the approaches to teaching English that we reviewed were based on a rejection of inadequate former notions. Part of it was that people were feeling their way forward in a world where more of the common people traveled and the likelihood of encountering a foreign language increased. Merchants and politicians have always had the dilemma of Babel forced on them, and when a society becomes more mercantile and now as government swells to unimaginable proportions, the need to speak in other languages, and now especially in English, increases. Old methods of learning—the Grammar Translation Approach, in which you learn paradigms, do not focus on communicating but rather reading and perhaps writing another language—start to appear inadequate. So you have people thinking how they can make the acquisition of a language more like the experience of a child learning his mother tongue, how they can use technology like the tape recorder, in the seventies how they can be anti-authoritarian and weird (the Silent Method of learning language, for instance, in which the teacher used gestures and colors and mime—no, it didn’t last too long, though Sugestopedia, another Method of the seventies, introduced the use of Baroque music in the classroom, so it wasn’t all loopy), and how they can make things fun.
Doesn’t it sound just like the modernist assumption about information being dry and boring when they try to make it interesting by adding things that are extrinsic? It is the postmodern abandoning of all order and system to say you can mix something serious with distractions and entertainments. And just as postmodernism really requires some assumptions the postmodern condition itself will not allow us to examine, so into the classroom come some assumptions about the seriousness of learning that are the salvation of the teacher who is serious about his subject.
The recognition that the student ought to be led by an internal desire is a crucial recognition. It is what will really make the discipline of a discipline the discipline of a willing student. As I said, I am in some doubt when this arises in a student, which is why I am eager to have the opportunity of teaching for at least a few years, if not the rest of my life, in the desire to put upon the foundation of this approach to learning (imparted to many of my readers in a class on Epistemology formerly known, rather disingenuously, as Teaching Methods, where it was imparted to me). The recognition is one that is made in contemporary theories, and the teacher who is serious about his subject has that same internal desire, but in an age where practical concerns tend to prevail, where the student is either a pathetic subject of therapy or a touchy customer, the recognition tends to be cast in terms of making the class interesting by way of extrinsic distractions. Inductive approaches serve as a way to camouflage the operating idea: distract them with some fun while quietly shoving information into their heads.
I think it is bad pedagogy because it is bad epistemology and because it is, in the long run, impractical. During WWII a system of learning languages called the Audiolingual, or the Army Method was formulated. It concentrated on listening and on quick results and one of the drawbacks discovered was that in focusing on short term goals it tended to stifle any curiosity in mastering the target language in the long run. This is recognized by people practicing other modern methods of learning. I think the same criticism can be made of methods which confuse what is intrinsically interesting about a subject and distracting fun.
But it has stopped raining and appears to be clearing . . . might be time to go out.