An Education

So imagine that you’re nineteen years old with a place at Duke University to read American literature. And you sign up for an unusual course, one that promises to dispense with all the traditional and orthodox methods of teaching. You find yourself being sent to Toys ‘R Us with your teacher, and told to pick out one toy to bring back to class where you’ll write about what the experience ‘brought up’. You play pictionary in some lessons, and you go on lots of trips, to the beach, to historical sites, in order to bond with your classmates. The whole point of this is to improve class discussion, to get students in touch with their emotions and to teach them ineffable truths about life. What would you think of this? Would you like it?

I’ve been reading Jane Tompkin’s memoir-cum-polemic about education, A Life in School; What the teacher learned. Tompkins spent most of her life chasing the top jobs in academia before having a revelation about her teaching. Physical symptoms – stomach aches, migraines – had dogged her entire educational career, whether as a pupil or a teacher, and she realized that terror of authority lay at the root of it. As a child she had been scared stiff at the thought of making mistakes and earning disapproval. As a teacher she had been afraid that her authority would be insufficient, that she’d be called out as a fraud. Having lived through the advent of feminism, which altered her thinking profoundly, it is only natural that she would want to enact some upheavals of her own with regard to power structures. And so she began experimental teaching, with the intention of removing the barriers of authority between her and her students, and of removing all vestiges of unwelcome expertise from the learning process.

In theory this sounds okay, sort of. But when Tompkins described what happened with one of her courses, I have to admit that it made me extremely annoyed. Let’s return to that trip to Ocracoke, intended to aid understanding of Melville’s Moby Dick. Tompkins wants to make it sound idyllic. ‘Rum and cigarettes. Swimming before breakfast. The delicious mixture of omelettes and literary language. Tumbling in and out of cars, restaurants, the group feeling, beach beauty.’ But there is trouble in paradise. On the way home, feeling tired, Tompkins berates her students angrily for stopping off at MacDonald’s. ‘I don’t normally impose my vegetarian beliefs on others, but in this situation, out of its hiding place, comes the desire to rule, comes the need to be right about something.’ As you can see, Tompkins is an honest writer, but throughout the narrative, she is not wholly honest with herself. It turns out there are things the students have done that she didn’t like – some stayed up late smoking dope on the beach, a married student flirted with another student. Trying to pretend she has no authority over them, no criticisms to make, that irritation forces itself out in a displaced way.

At the end of the course, a course which she felt was fantastic, the criticisms of the students shocked her. They said the course was too unstructured, the discussions too unfocussed, they spent too much time planning and arranging, there was not enough connection between the aims of the university and the course. Tompkins was shattered and did not hide it. She admitted that she had wanted too badly for things to go well – ‘there were sixteen different experiences,’ she writes. ‘At the time, though, the only one I wanted to acknowledge was mine… I was happy, so that was the only story I wanted to hear.’ But for all her transparency, Tompkins is again strangely resistant to making the links between emotional life and learning. ‘I still want to know why the students couldn’t see how great they’d been,’ she claims. But the next paragraph begins: ‘I’ll never know the answer to these questions. But I feel it’s OK not to know. To just go on and let the experience be… When you teach like this, you don’t know what failure is anyway, or success.’ It seems extraordinary to me that a teacher would refuse the perfect educational opportunity offered to her here – to make sense of what occurred and to improve on it.

Just as love and hate are counterparts, not opposites, so dictatorship and anarchy are two sides of the same coin. Neither deals with the problem that is authority. Now I agree that education is often too heavily weighted on everyone thinking the same things and toeing the same line. And that higher education is the right place to help students find themselves and challenge all the truths they have been given so far. But if Tompkins thinks her classes are free from authority, she can think again. It is very clear from her account that there is still a ‘right’ response that she wants from her students, only one that is emotional rather than intellectual. In fact it’s worse, because when they give her the ‘wrong’ response, she is personally shattered. This is why teachers cannot be their students’ friends. Friendship requires a mutual emotional transaction, so it does not leave the students free to have authentic emotions, no matter what they are, and then consider them. Tompkins decides that the course must have been successful because several of the students contacted her afterwards, inviting her to coffee and lunch. But to me this speaks far more of her neediness towards her students than any educational gain. In fact, I felt the whole book spoke of her fundamental need to belong – first of all to the teaching establishment in authority over her, and then to her students in later life. Education can be about this, it can be a way to belong to a school of thought, a theory, a strata of society. That’s why it’s often a haven for the unusual, unpopular child.

I don’t think that teaching can ever be free of authority, and I think it’s much more important to use it wisely. Authority in itself is not a bad thing and it’s real and intrinsic to the learning process. Authority is there to counteract the piggy part of the self, the part that wants nothing more than to wallow in muck, doing nothing, staying stubbornly inert and apathetic. The only ways around the piggy part are terror and passion, themselves two sides of one coin. In a school environment, as in the parental one, it is often much easier to inspire fear. But there are other ways we need authority. If we lived in a world that had no experts, no superior knowledge, no especially wise people, no one to turn to in times of crisis and perplexity, what an intolerable world it would be. Students need teachers to have authority – they want to be reassured by it and inspired by it as much as frightened by it. Good authority is benign, caring and calmly indifferent. If you have some emotional distance from your students, whilst being firmly on their side, then it is not difficult to respond usefully to their difficult emotions – anger, frustration, bewilderment. To my mind, that is exactly what teaching is all about – being responsive to the other person, using one’s authority over them to provide a safe, holding environment in which they can experience their emotions and thoughts and be taught how to deal with them. And literature is a perfect place to do this, because it offers the safest place possible to consider the most difficult and taxing of issues. Students can discuss their experience through it while remaining private, dignified, and always in control.

I had to stop and think about why this book made me so mad, when I did have sympathy with Tompkins and what she was trying to do. I suppose it boils down to the fact that as a reserved person myself I would have loathed to have a teacher wanting to know all about me, forcing me into extrovert emotional responses I didn’t even want to have on my own. Again, I think teaching is about recognizing what students need, and giving them what they are capable of taking on. That means no prescriptions, no absolute theories, no fixed agendas. Neither pure authoritarianism nor the total absence of rules and directions. Instead something recognizable, structured, but constantly questioning itself. Worshipping pure knowledge or pure experience is no help to internal growth at all, but learning how to transcend both, in a way that challenges them, understands them, analyses them, and constructs a holistic view of ourselves in relation to our own lives and to the lives of others – now that’s an education.

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16 thoughts on “An Education

  1. I suppose it boils down to the fact that as a reserved person myself I would have loathed to have a teacher wanting to know all about me, forcing me into extrovert emotional responses I didn’t even want to have on my own. Again, I think teaching is about recognizing what students need, and giving them what they are capable of taking on. That means no prescriptions, no absolute theories, no fixed agendas.

    Yes! This explains why I loathed the creative writing class I took in my second year of college. The teacher wanted us to get personal, and not even in that subtle and unspoken sort of way that writing almost always is. No, she wanted us to bare our hearts and souls, and every minute of it was torture to me.

  2. From your description it doesn’t sound like the teacher really learned all that much! I give Tompkins kudos for trying to inspire a certain comfort level among her students that would allow them to be willing to open up in discussion and not worry about making mistakes, but what she did just sounds, well, weird. I would have hated that class!

  3. I’m sure I would have found this book and the class, had I taken it, extremely annoying. Teaching is a profession. If you are paid to teach literature, by golly, that’s what you do. There’s room for innovation and it’s totally appropriate to want students to feel they are in a safe environment where their ideas can be voiced. There should be space for personal reflection and encouragement to read widely. I think it’s wrong to proscribe what students should think. They should be exposed to a variety of discipline specific theories and allowed to make up their own minds which they find most compelling. But in the end they are there to learn about the discipline and not to be the teacher’s friend.

    Needy teachers are as bad as needy parents. In both relationships there is a power imbalance and it is your responsibility as a parent or teacher not to abuse that by making the relationship about your needs. You provide the context for learning, you make it as rich and interesting as you can, you make the parameters and expectations clear and you stand ready to be a guide or helping hand when necessary. Then you take a step back and let the learner go on their journey, which is their journey, not yours.

  4. This was so fascinating, and actually made me think quite a bit about the type of authority in the therapy/client relationship, and why/how it works (or doesn’t) for many of the same reasons you so eloquently express here.

  5. ” Authority is there to counteract the piggy part of the self, the part that wants nothing more than to wallow in muck, doing nothing, staying stubbornly inert and apathetic. The only ways around the piggy part are terror and passion, themselves two sides of one coin. In a school environment, as in the parental one, it is often much easier to inspire fear. But there are other ways we need authority. If we lived in a world that had no experts, no superior knowledge, no especially wise people, no one to turn to in times of crisis and perplexity, what an intolerable world it would be. Students need teachers to have authority – they want to be reassured by it and inspired by it as much as frightened by it. Good authority is benign, caring and calmly indifferent.”

    Wise words… Love this… oink oink… the piggy part on BOTH sides, teacher too.. though I’m not sure about ‘indifferent.’ Maybe… disinterested ?

  6. … reminded of a public dialog between Martin Buber and Carl Rogers… of patient centered therapy fame. It’s the patient who comes to the therapist out of need, Buber reminded Rogers. The therapist may, indeed, learn from the patient, but the relationship cannot be both therapeutic and equal.

  7. You hit so many points of right in this post it’s just wonderful. I remember being made to fear teachers in school, then getting upset when they’d scream and having them look at me in genuine puzzlement and tell me I couldn’t get this upset because it would make me ill. Clue – 13 year olds are afraid of people who scream because someone forgot their art apron etc, etc, etc. In the end kids just develop this hard, I don’t care exterior which is more harmful to them than the teacher. I certainly remember feeling really pleased with myself when I’d do something that a teacher liked and refuse to acknowledge any interest in the good result, because it would drive them crazy. Can’t say it did me any good in the long run, but it gave me a feeling of control and I think lots of people from my generation would ahve developed a bit better with some benign authority.

    Also when will the general world learn that literature is one of the safest places for kids to explore all the big complex, scary issues that turn up in life? There was this crazy report on Channel Five the other day (have you heard about that terrible Ian Wright Melinda Messanger chat show that Parkinson hates?)about whether childrens stories are too scary and dark nowadays and all the presenters agreed. I do just find myself wanting to shake people like this and explain to them that stories are such a great place for kids to explore scary things without actually hurting themselves. It’s like the ‘rap music is destroying our kids minds’ argument has been transferred to books now.

  8. Tomkins’ method of teaching would have been a complete nightmare for me. As a reserved, methodical, mature (non-trad) student with a liking for structure I would have walked away from her course after the first week!

    Also an excellent comment by ‘Amanda’:’Needy teachers are as bad as needy parents. In both relationships there is a power imbalance and it is your responsibility as a parent or teacher not to abuse that by making the relationship about your needs. You provide the context for learning, you make it as rich and interesting as you can, you make the parameters and expectations clear and you stand ready to be a guide or helping hand when necessary. Then you take a step back and let the learner go on their journey, which is their journey, not yours.’

  9. As I have said before, Litlove, I would have loved being a student in your class. I’ve never had a professor like Tompkins (perhaps it was the school itself, perhaps the era) but my daughter certainly has, and she would complain mightily about it. Naturally, I wanted her to do well, but I wanted her to remain true to herself as well. I did caution her, however, that the professor was not always going to be right, but he or she was always going to be the professor. But going along to get along eats away too much.

  10. Horrors! I would have hated Tompkins’s methods and would have been out of that class as fast as I possibly could. Now perhaps such a class is exactly what I need … but surely there are better ways to learn how not to be overwhelmed by authority! This is a great post, Litlove, and it makes me think about how I handle authority in my classroom. I’m a bit of a control freak, so I struggle with letting students make the mistakes they need to without taking it personally or reacting emotionally. I need to work on accepting the limits of my authority, which will help me react better when students don’t do what I expect them to. But still, I’m not jetisoning authority entirely — I agree completely that it’s a matter of how I use it, not whether I have it or not.

  11. Such an interesting review! I know this class would have been murder for me on so many levels. I’m a very structured person, so that would have driven me mad; and as well I always found needy teachers upsetting – Amanda makes an excellent point!

  12. Nymeth – I feel for you! I would have loathed that. And isn’t it all kinds of wrong to prescribe student’s creative writing? I mean, it’s not de rigueur to have it ALL hang out. We’re not all Anne Sexton, lol!

    Stefanie – this was a tricky book for me because I am right behind any campaign to free higher education in the arts from the shackles of absolute authority. But to swing to the opposite extreme seemed to me to be sticking with the exact same structure. But I approved of her motivation, if not her methods.

    Lilian – thank you! :)

    Amanda – what a brilliant comment, thank you! I agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said there. No needy teachers, thank you. That’s a highly unreasonable demand to make on a student. Eventually it can become emotional blackmail to think a certain way, which is just plain wrong.

    David – yes, I was thinking that it applies to that relationship too, if in slightly altered ways. And thank you for your kind words, much appreciated.

    Jacob – disinterested is exactly the word I was groping for but couldn’t find thank you! I must remember to edit this at some point. And your point about Buber hooks up neatly with David’s. You can learn with a figure of authority, you can learn with a group of your peers through trial and error, but learning with an authority figure who refuses to acknowledge this is just strange.

    Jodie – it seems so unfair that teachers discipline in schools for the worst element of behaviour, thus dulling the senses and striking fear into the hearts of the majority of the class who were always going to be good.
    I haven’t heard of the chat show, but my god, how awful does that sound on paper! And to say books are too scary for children, end of story, is ludicrous. Children find their own level, and they will seek out what it is they need. The holding of the narrative and the promise of closure offer such safety in themselves, there is room for all kinds of negativity in the body of the story itself.

    Student mum – hello and welcome. You find yourself in good company here with lots of us who would have recoiled in horror at such methods! And you’re right, that’s a wonderful point Amanda makes.

    Grad – I’d love you to be one of my students! It’s true that compliance has a natural borderline – and so it should. Beyond that people are twisted out of shape, and no good ever came of that. It’s interesting that your daughter should have had to put up with some of these methods. There must be a history of education somewhere – it would make for interesting reading as these fashions change.

    Dorothy – I used to like to keep a firm controlling hand over the structure of lessons, but within that, I didn’t mind what the students said. But I was all over the place if they messed me about behaviourally, you know, chatting out of line, heckling, turning up late. I found it hard to put up with all of that. I must admit that whilst I didn’t approve of Tompkins methods, her early arguments about teaching and authority were eye-openers for me, and my goodness, did I suddenly recast a lot of my own educational history!

    Jenny – I think students learn better with structure. Minds are structured, so information goes in easier. That’s why we can remember stories much easier than a bunch of random facts. And needy teachers are awful, and usually the ones with the class in uproar…

    Sagustocox – Yup, I’m verbose! :) Thanks for stopping by.

  13. I particularly liked this part: “To my mind, that is exactly what teaching is all about – being responsive to the other person, using one’s authority over them to provide a safe, holding environment in which they can experience their emotions and thoughts and be taught how to deal with them.”

    As David says, so true of therapy too. It’s draining work creating that holding environment but so rewarding too.

  14. I loved this whole review – full of wisdom (as usual) and all the responses, too. From a different type of teaching (Adult Literacy) what I try to get across to the tutors I manage is that we need to provide “Maximum Challenge and Maximum Support” . As with most things that I’ve learned the hard way, it seems to be all about balance!
    Come to think of it, effective teaching/learning relationships follow the same principles, whatever the level of skills that are being developed.

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