My back pages

By Todd R. Nelson

Time was, I used to write a syllabus for my English class. I listed the readings, vocabulary and grammar goals and gave a succinct statement of my philosophy. I took myself very seriously, as did my ninth grade class, pretty much. Or perhaps they fed off my high-minded sense of purpose. By setting the bar high and setting a tone of intent to produce high-caliber thinking, I hoped they would feel fired up. They did.

And they were a high-minded lot to begin with, coming from homes of the academic, political, medical and legal movers and shakers of the city. Nobel laureates and heady professorships. And yet the parent-teacher conferences and report writing centered on the common parenting angst: Will my kid be ready for the next phase in his or her academic career? I expanded the mission to include “ready for life.” I didn’t want to short-sell the great poets of humanity on the syllabus. Filthy lucre is easy. Character is the real deal and gets short shrift among the school-as-resume-building classes.

Recently, I came across my opening day manifesto. “This course is dedicated to reading poems, stories, novels and plays, grouped thematically, that will change your life,” I wrote to my students. “And it is dedicated to learning to ask the right questions about the words, sentences and paragraphs we read and then to carefully choose the words, sentences and paragraphs we write.” At the time, I was fond of a quote by Eric Sevareid, which I added: “One good word is worth a thousand pictures.” I didn’t let it rest there. “Or, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “If I had a message, I’d send it by Western Union.”

I had a core curriculum in mind that was uncommon, if pretentious in hindsight: great authors, poets, playwrights; eclectic, playful and heavy thinking. There was a sense that there was no higher calling than reading and understanding great words, and talking with others in the cohort to elucidate that understanding and idealism.

I long for that teacherly life to endure. I miss it. I miss me as that teacher. I don’t think, however, that there are many places that can afford to provide safe harbor for such bravado and aspiration. It doesn’t fit any more in the new era of standards. My syllabus, were I to prepare one, would be defined by this approach to a standard: “Cites evidence and draws inferences that supports analysis.” Or, “Uses eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.” So much emphasis on the how, and very little on the what of learning.

I’m not just irked by the era of the Common Core, high stakes educational testing, and measurement and data collection. I find myself thinking about the world in which my former students lived compared with the world that my recent students inhabit. For all their access to information, connectivity, brisk communications, they are bereft of the hunger to know and process. They want to advance without developing their souls. They want superficial transactions not conversation; texting, not texts. One good word is, like, so boring.

I’d rather not live in a 21st century absent a significant number of the 19th century intellectual skills. Who do we think we are, to abandon the wisdom of the ages for a few course credits of superficial software facility and the ever-ready digital devices? I think Frank Bruni has it right: “Education is about growing bolder and larger. It’s about expansion, and that can’t happen if there’s too strong an urge and a push to contract the ground it covers, to ease the passage across it, to pretty up the horizon.”

I mourn the loss of substance in favor of tinselly packaging. The lives of my latter-day students are laden with digital ephemera, intolerance for abstraction and subjectivity, a minuscule attention span, and a default interest standard set to “That was easy.” Struggle and effort are to be avoided at all costs. Intellectual gray areas are anathema. My goal “to carefully choose the words, sentences and paragraphs we write,” is not a received notion. It must be installed. This kind of exploration doesn’t lend itself to a syllabus. But it does throw me back on my own instructions: “Ask the right questions about the words, sentences and paragraphs we read and then carefully choose the words, sentences and paragraphs we write.” Will my own back pages come to the rescue? “I’m younger than that now,” as Dylan sang. Younger and wiser.

Todd R. Nelson is a retired teacher and school head.