The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Reflections: Charles Knott

Thoughts on Education

Our educational system has been moving toward collapse for many decades.*

I remember attending a conference on D.H. Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico, in 1970, and even then, the panel of distinguished professors from universities across America were admitting and lamenting that American education was intellectually and spiritually bankrupt. Ironically, many of them unconsciously illustrated this in their own presentations. The poet Robert Bly happened to be in the audience, and he heckled and ridiculed them loudly and mercilessly. His basic position was that such people as they, who were themselves emotionally sterile and therefore could not feel the emotions D.H. Lawrence presents in his writing, should not annoy us with their dull essays on Laurentian literature.

In another conference, this one in Manhattan on archetypal studies, Bly heckled and ridiculed a professor who read an over-intellectualized and very boring essay on the trickster archetype. Bly wanted to know how on earth a valid discussion of the trickster—who is the antidote to boredom—could be boring! He, of course, was himself identified with the archetype during these moments and did not hesitate to let the trickster act out through him, so he livened up an otherwise turgid and leadenly boring event.

When I think about the thousands of hours I spent as a student suffering the intense distress of classroom boredom, both at the public school and at the college level, I fall into despair. I remember an occasion, however, when this extremely painful boredom was penetrated by a moment of sheer beauty.**

I was sitting in a tenth grade classroom, and the subject matter for the hour was Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The teacher had been droning on about the poem, and my head had taken its accustomed position of resting heavily on my desk. Then, in an act of divine mercy and inspiration, she played a Camden recording of Richard Burton reading the poem. Burton's voice penetrated my soul and set off the ecstasy of a true epiphany. I heard The Rime as I believe Coleridge himself would have had me hear it.

I went home that day, still in a state of grace, and found that my father, in an act of magical synchronicity, had bought me a reel-to-reel Wilcox Gay tape recorder. Immediately, I began recording myself reading The Rime over and over again dozens of times. It happened that I had also been listening to Stravinsky's Firebird on my hi-fi system, and as I read, I began to see the imagery of the poem corresponding to the imagery of the music. So I practiced reading the poem with the music in the background. I worked on this for many weeks and eventually expanded my repertoire of readings.

Later on, in my 50s, I took a teaching job in distance learning. Still fascinated with The Rime, I looked at a book of photographs of Gustav Dore's woodcut illustrations of the poem and took slide photographs of the illustrations. Then I prepared a lecture for the students in the college where I was teaching, as well as for students at remote locations around the state who would tune in to the presentation on closed circuit TV. In the lecture, I showed slides illustrating scenes from the poem, and I explained each scene in my own words. Then I had an assistant flash the images on a screen in sequence as I gave a dramatic reading of the poem itself. It became an immensely popular presentation, and I even traveled around to public schools and presented it not only in high schools but also to students as young as fourth grade. In all modesty, I can say that it was universally well received.

I believe what I'm describing here is a successful educational experience, as exciting and inspirational as it is rare. What a miracle for me that Richard Burton's reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner fell through some crack in the classroom wall of somnolent stultification at the very moment I was able to hear it! With the exception of musical experiences in the choir room, his reading of the poem was the only time I experienced a richly presented moment of cultural excellence in twelve years of public school. With the resources at hand even in the 1950s, our schools across the nation should have offered such experiences every day.

When I hear people describe the public school classrooms of today, I realize that, as a graduate of the class of 1956, my schooling took place during the good old days. Back then, while the spirit of healthy inquiry in many of us had been suppressed or broken, we at least had an orderly environment. No mass murderers shot up our classrooms; no student stabbed another student; no student violently confronted a teacher; no student was ever arrested and taken away by the police. But, to boast about this as an educational achievement is to set the bar pretty low.

The worst educational crime was present in what we learned NOT to do. How did we learn not to doubt that Columbus "discovered" America at the same time we heard stories about indigenous peoples greeting him when he arrived? And how did our textbooks manage to leave out the fact that, according to diaries of the mariners that accompanied Columbus, he put to death any "Indian" he could get his hands on that would not bring him gold? Only recently on Columbus Days have people begun to protest celebrating as a hero a man who committed the genocide of these darkskinned people that he himself described as wholesome, happy, generous and welcoming.

The most distressing thing of all is the intellectual dissonance that students learned to repress in order to function. I am thinking of such things from my youth as going to the movies on Saturdays and cheering as the cowboys and cavalry shot the Indians, and then going to school and celebrating Thanksgiving by coloring with our crayons pre-drawn images of Puritans and American Indians making nice with each other around the banquet table. And no one asked how we could bring ourselves then to murder our table companions—and do it so gleefully.

I have only recently realized that I was rehearsing genocide myself when, as a child in my back yard, I played cowboys shooting Indians. As a “cowboy,” I celebrated using modern weapons to wipe out a whole race of Stone Age, tribal peoples with whom I had celebrated sharing Thanksgiving dinner! I was conditioned to see no contradiction in doing so. This dissonance is an example of our "education." No wonder a national survey conducted some years ago indicated that fifty per cent of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.

Many—some say all—of our troubles worldwide could be solved if we would sensibly apply to them the technology that we already possess. Yet human genius is soaring among the few, and incompetence pervades the many. We cannot have a new generation of well-educated students without first producing a generation of well-educated teachers. And how can we produce good teachers without first producing good students?

Catch 22!

We already have brilliant teachers in our culture, but too often they are not in the classroom. I'm thinking, for example, that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a wonderful educator, and I am grateful that he presently enjoys a wide public exposure where I can see him, even as I wish we could replicate him in school and university settings. We could, by using video, if the teachers and schools were of a mind to do so.***

Our public schools and our universities could be teaching truthful versions of American history; they could be teaching responsible citizenship at home and peaceful coexistence abroad; they could be teaching students to love and care for the biosphere that sustains all life. Instead, they too often seem to perpetuate intellectual ignorance even while imposing a crushing amount of debt on students. The profit motive should never be present in schools.

The public school system has long since been an institution for socialization of the individual into a highly imperfect world much more than it is an institution for improving that world. Is it too much to hope that education should lead to richness in cultural experience and to the creation of good critical thinking skills among future citizens so they can demand and produce sound and honest governance?

We don’t need a lot of research to make the radical improvements that public education needs. There is already a huge tome called The Encyclopedia of Educational Research. I looked through it as far back as 1969 and was amazed and appalled: amazed at this incredibly rich and thoroughly researched compendium of educational wisdom in our possession, and appalled at how little of it was being applied in our schools. That gap between what is known and what is applied is doubtless much greater today, hence our continuing decline.

On the Internet, we have innumerable feature-length films accurately portraying history, and we have miles and miles of videotape holding brilliant documentaries. For that matter, Ivy League universities are now offering core curriculum courses online free of charge. With a little conscientious supervision from a competent educator, a student could use the Internet to put together a rich and appropriately structured educational experience without accumulating a mountain of debt.

We need to face reality. The last time the human race was in so much danger was the Cuban Missile Crisis, when one of three Russian submarine commanders saved the world by refusing to agree to give the command to fire nuclear weapons on American cities and begin World War III. Yet, despite the threat that the world could be burned to the ground any moment due to human intransigence, like Nero, we continue to “fiddle” by turning so much of education—which could save us—into little more than a moneymaking scheme. If we're going to correct our path, we had best do it soon.

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*The latest news reference to that came out just this week in a couple of televised discussions of the PISA rankings related to education in the U. S. According to the OECD Key Findings from the PISA report 2015 for the United States, the fifteen-year-olds assessed ranked average in science and reading but did poorly in math. This was a worldwide study. For students in the richest country in the world to score average and poorly when compared to students from the poorest countries in the world reveals how poor we are in managing our resources.

**I have mentioned this incident in more than one article written for Issue 19 of The Grapevine. That shows how important it was to me in so many ways.

***See Mending News on the Reflections page for a link to a new online course just being offered by Neil deGrasse Tyson.


Copyright 2016, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.