Yesterday I tweeted/posted a #morningprayer, which I have been known to do on occasion. The prayer went like this:
Many of you liked it, some of you retweeted it, and a couple of people asked me what it means, or what it looks like, to be have our learning and teaching be humble and courageous. Good questions class.
Humility in education
For me, education is all about humility. It's about being a constant learner whether you are in the student's seat or at the teacher's desk. This perspective comes from two quotes:
1) The first is posted on my bulletin board hanging over my desk and stares me in the face as I type, read, and zone out. It is:
Write that one down folks. I find that the more I learn the more I don't know. For those of us in academia that is a crushing burden that causes us to question our validity and authenticity as we publish articles, teach classes, and bat around titles like "expert" or "doctor." Scary. I know. Such a realization should prove a catalyst for all of us to never put the books down, to ask questions and listen and learn as much as we talk and teach. It should also keep us humble.
2) That quote is put in context by one of my favorite proverbs:
Put that in your arrogant little pipe and smoke it. Double back on that proverb for a moment and realize what is being said -- that the wise (a.k.a. those who already know a whole bunch) hear and increase their learning; that those who get it go back to school. This is even more powerful when put in the context of the verse before, which refers to the young and the naive. We are never to old to learn, never to wise to absorb new things, and never too young to teach. For profs and instructors this means leaning in to what you will learn together with your students. For students, this means gleaning wisdom from those who have gone before you even though you think you know it all. For those of us who are educational elites, it means listening to those who are not adorned with official letters or degrees and may be considered peripheral to society.
Wisdom comes from many sources, the question is whether we are humble enough to hear it.
Now what about courage?
In light of the lecture on humility, what does it mean to have courage in education and instruction? It means diving head-first into a liberal, progressive, and challenging education in the classroom and in the world.
There are constant pressures for you to conform to the process of education. To fit the mold of the model student. While there is a time and place to submit to authorities and maintain the aforementioned humility, there is also a time and a place to push the boundaries, to question the curriculum, and to boldly take hold of the world through education.
When I was in 9th grade I was at that point. I was tired of school, spoiled with my suburban education, and was a little brat. Enter Mrs. Mary Starr Kelly and Kurt Vonnegut's tale of Harrison Bergeron. The story is a classic about conformity and breaking the mold. After we finished the short story we all had to write essays. Being a pompous little punk I penned a fairly unseemly little essay about how having 30-odd freshmen write an essay on a short story about conformity, wherein we would be judged by a rubric of compliance, was tantamount to nonsense (though, I may have used stronger language). Mrs. Kelly not only gave me an "A" on the assignment, she made me her TA and I was seated at the teacher's desk from then on. She took over my academic schedule and placed me in AP classes and as her TA for the next two years in AP European History and AP World History. I wouldn't be on the educational trajectory I am on today if it wasn't for Mrs. Kelly.
While the kudos go to Mrs. Kelly for that brilliant intervention and dishing-up of a piece of humble pie to a student sorely in need of it, she has constantly taught me to be courageous in my learning -- to write that essay, to teach classes on European history as a sophomore, and grade essays on Islam and world religions written by my classmates.
She also pushed me to "go to night school." So much of education these days requires certain readings and rubrics. This is fine and good, but we should never settle for reading simply what we are assigned. Instead, we should continue to learn at home even when we aren't doing "homework." Check the bibliography of a good book, follow the footnotes, and trace the genealogical history of an excellent work to extend your learning beyond what is required. Don't conform to the contours of the educational stream you're on, paddle to the side, dock, and explore the world around you. Be adventurous in your learning and you'll never be the same.
That's what it means to be humble and courageous in our learning and our teaching. And that is still my prayer as students and teachers from preschool to post-doc start their terms this week. Go get it.