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What I Learned in School by Mark Smith

Oh dear, but it’s dreary, this ongoing educational debate. I am an educator, and like a plumber who goes home and avoids pipes, I usually eschew any talk about the "business" of education, but here goes. Do I agree with Bernard Shaw? No, obviously, but part of me knows what he means. Obviously Shaw learned to read and write, learned "the basics", read Cicero, studied grammar, and jumped through the hoops of algebra, but none of this was of any apparent value to him. He didn’t consciously remember any of it, and so he "learned nothing". Whatever he learned remained unattached to any meaningful experience of life. A lot of that sort of thing still goes on in school.

What do I remember from school? Strangely enough, I don’t remember what I "learned", but I remember the day Warren got sprayed by a skunk on his way to school. I must have been in third grade. Warren was a different sort of boy. What little we knew of him contributed to the overall impression of a broken home. He had some sort of southern drawl, like my cousins from Fort Wayne, and he wore a rumpled blue and brown flannel shirt, like a cowboy. His hair was thinning and he was always earnest. Looking back, I suppose he must have been bowed down with the responsibilities of the world from an early age. I picture him now driving a truck, if he’s not in jail. He is a divorced chain-smoking grandfather, in my imagination. But on that day, back in the early sixties, in the backwater town of northeast lower Michigan, Warren came to school with a stink so bad he had to be sent home. It was either him or us. I still remember that sulphurous smell, and the way it lingered long after he left us. Some time shortly thereafter, Warren left us for good.

What else do I remember from that year? There was a canvas tarp, frozen stiff outside the school in an out-of-the-way corner. It was probably December. The ground was hard and there was some ice. It was morning, still dark, and none of my third grade friends seemed to be there yet. Some snow had drifted around the corner of the building and collected on the tarp, in the folds, on top of some heavy seams of trapped ice. Whatever was under the tarp was not going to be easily revealed because the canvas itself was frozen and heavy with permeated ice. But there I was, putting the toe of my galoshes under the tarp and lifting, kicking, and lifting some more. It was like some sort of stick under there, and it would lift so high, and then flop down again. And so I bent down and peeled the tarp back, and lifted it. The tarp came away from what was under it, and what I found was a calf’s leg, sticking straight out at me. Somebody had brought the calf to school, so the big kids could dissect it, I suppose. My god, what was it doing there? I remember this almost more than anything else because it intrudes into the daily routine and shakes me still.

What else happened that year? Our teacher read us "Horton Hears a Who", which at that time was probably a brand new book. I was asked to deliver the book back into the safe keeping of Mrs. Perkins, the fourth grade teacher, when we had finished it. "Tell her we enjoyed it one hundred and one percent," said my teacher, which was the punch line from the book. I conveyed the message, without much conviction, but Mrs. Perkins was delighted nonetheless. Later that day, on the way home from school, Jack Badgero sidled up to me with a pocket knife. "Bring your knife tomorrow morning, and we’ll have a knife fight." He meant it. He was older than me by a couple of years. The whole family was trouble. Jack had red-rimmed eyes, and he always stood too close. He smelled of glue, or something. He had a perpetual leering grin, and a malicious sneer in his voice The next morning he accosted me outside school. He appeared to have been waiting for me, specifically. When I told him I had not brought the knife, he pushed me, called me a "chicken shit", and warned me to not forget to bring the knife tomorrow. So it went on for about a week. Eventually my mother got wind of it, and stormed up to the school to put a stop to this nonsense. But Jack never stopped leering at me.

Telling these three little stories, pulled almost randomly from one year of my school life, makes it sound as if my world consisted of a series of sinister Far Side events. And yet, I remember that the emotional backdrop to these events was one of security and comfort. I do not consciously remember very much about the discrete learning events of my school life, and yet, here I am, educated. Somebody must have done it. Did it happen because of school, or despite it?

I do not know what the day-to-day fabric of school life actually is like anymore, for my young daughter, from the point of view of a child, because now I am an adult. But I suspect that what one "remembers" from school, what one consciously recalls learning, is entirely different from what teachers teach. I never know exactly what my students will remember five, ten or twenty years from now, which, by the way, is the real measure of the value of an education, but whatever they remember will be attached to some emotional event, because otherwise they will probably forget it. The truth of a thing always shines through, and truth is connected to genuine feeling. Truth has nothing to do with facts or the fragmented texture of "information" as it surrounds us today. Truth is also not the same as skills, although skills help us to get at truth.

It is very difficult to break through the barriers of commercialism and hype which surround our kids nowadays, and yet, underneath it all, they are crying out for a genuine experience of life. They are crying out for the truths which are revealed through literature. It does not surprise me that Wordsworth speaks to them, or Shakespeare, or Thornton Wilder, or Arthur Miller. Why should they not want to hear? There is something more than mere information encoded in Shakespeare; students enjoy Shakespeare because he embodies universal truth. We all crave truth and beauty, and we are surrounded by so much ugliness and lying. Who wouldn’t enjoy a jolt of unadulterated truth? Truth is "the pause that refreshes," to borrow (ironically) a phrase from advertising.

Today we are in the midst of a technological revolution so vast that it threatens to undermine and redefine what it means to be human. Wordsworth lived at the beginning of another revolution, the Industrial Revolution, which completely and irrevocably changed the way man lived in nature. Bruce Catton, in his excellent autobiography "Waiting for the Morning Train: an American Boyhood" writes eloquently of the tail end of that revolution as it played out here in Michigan and how Benzonia Academy saw its mission:

"At a time when the state as a whole was waging war on the visible surrounding wilderness this school saw itself as waging war on the wilderness of ignorance, whose tangled undergrowth was also visible out in the clearings the lumbermen were creating. The sense of mission was powerful. The forests were being destroyed for a purpose: so that men and women could have better lives after the forests had been removed. That the physical obstacles to achievement were being taken away was interesting but not particularly important. What mattered was to teach men and women that the obstacles to their mental and spiritual development could be destroyed. Man had control of his future, but that control did not in the least depend on improved machinery or mechanical progress."

If you have not read Catton’s book, get it and read it. It is as true today as when it was written in 1972, towards the end of Catton’s life, and at the dawning of awareness of the environmental movement. "Waiting for the Morning Train" is an extended meditation on the folly of "progress", with the tenderness of Catton’s childhood memories before the cataclysmic events of World War One. "We lived in Indian summer and mistook it for spring. Winter lay just ahead, when we thought June was on the way."

The true value and meaning of education, the nurturing of the soul, the folly of technological "progress" - all these themes have even more resonance today as we stand at the brink of the new millennium. What can we teach our children? What do we learn at school? What do we ultimately remember? What I hope we can learn is that the human soul cries out to be fed with truth and knowledge, and that knowledge, apart from any narrow utilitarian value, will enhance life. Knowledge is power, truth is comforting and eternal, and the endless flow of information has nothing to do with knowledge. "The flow of messages from the instant everywhere fills every niche of our consciousness, crowding out knowledge and understanding. For while knowledge is steady and cumulative, information is random and miscellaneous," writes Daniel Boorstin. The texture of life is not contained in facts.

What will we remember of our education? Not the factoids, not the pie charts, not the elements, not the naming and labeling of parts – nothing, in fact, that has no resonance to real life. What we learn will be useful and important only insofar as it affects the way we see the world, and our ability to place ourselves in it. The darkness of ignorance is more prevalent today, in this so-called age of information, than it was before the industrial revolution. We know this in our hearts, and we must first admit it in order to have any hope of learning anything worthwhile. As Bruce Catton put it so well when he described his own early days of learning:

"We lived in a time of great expectations. We believed in ourselves and in the future, and we welcomed all of the omens that were good…However, bookish knowledge did not necessarily mean much. We lived by our emotions rather than by our brains, and although we did not know where we were going we trusted the future… The daily routine, in study hall and classroom, was real enough, certainly; but so was the flood of moonlight that sometimes lay on the countryside at night, turning the plain gravel road south into a white highway that wound through enchanted meadows that would not be there at all when daylight returned."

Click to Order Waiting for the Morning Train from NMJ's Bookshelf

Mark Smith is a teacher at Leland Public School. Among other things, he edits and webmasters a journal of student and teacher writing, The Beechnut Review.

Copyright 2000 Manitou Publishing Co. & Mark Smith • All Rights Reserved.

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