Teaching as Improvisation

Once you start looking, the heartfelt criticisms of modern education are stunning. In a delightful letter written to Paul Strand from Texas in 1917, Georgia O’Keeffe told of an exhilarating risk she took in her search for authentic education: “I’ve talked in Faculty Meeting,” she wrote, “a rearing, snorting time – it was amazing to me – I just knocked everybody’s head against the wall and made hash – and told them what I thought of school teachers and their darned courses of study and raised a time generally — it was an event … I talked for conservation of thought- in the child and the student- education for the livingness of life rather than to get a certificate- That teachers are not living – they are primarily teachers … Art never seemed so worthwhile to me before” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1987, P. 166).

Another powerful example can be found in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
There was nothing in his style to indicate that Aristotle was ever one to doubt Aristotle. Phaedrus saw Aristotle as tremendously satisfied with this neat little stunt of naming and classifying everything. [He was] the prototype for the many millions of self-satisfied and truly ignorant teachers throughout history who have smugly and callously killed the creative spirits of their students with this dumb ritual of analysis, this blind rote, eternal naming of things. Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish ‘principles’ and study ‘methods’ and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries – the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason (1974, p. 360).

It is tempting to dismiss these acerbic utterances as the hyperbolic fulminations of disillusioned curmudgeons. I have been struck, however, by the sincere agreement expressed by many of my students as they read these and similar texts. Far too many of my students have voiced not only dissatisfaction with, but downright hatred, of the whole enterprise of school. Many will leave college with a profound sense of relief, and will never turn to poetry, or philosophy, or history again. Further, the strength and certainty of their experience, the severity of their judgments, simply replicate my own often boring and confusing experience as a student, and as a teacher. And so I wonder: am I, as Pirsig charges, killing the creative spirit of my students? What am I really doing when I walk into a classroom? How can I nurture a love of learning in my students? How can I empower them to become lifelong learners? Why are some of my classes lively and involved, while others are deadly, rigid, and boring?

THE TEACHER AS HIRED GUN
When I was a fresh young teacher, I thought of myself as a teacher of texts. I had been trained in the canon of western philosophy. My job, I believed, was to transmit the wisdom of the ages; to expose a text as clearly as I could and then to dispel any difficulties my students might have. “Any questions?” I would ask, assuming an expectant John Wayne-like stance at the front of the class. Finally, a willing student would throw a plate-of-a-question into the air for me, and I would whip out my six-gun-of-an-answer and blast it into oblivion.

At the end of one class, the floor littered as usual with the debris of dead questions, I returned to my office to find a note on my desk. A colleague must have been listening to part of my lecture. His advice took the form of a quote from Malreaux which said, in effect, that one good question was worth a thousand answers. I was both touched that he had cared enough to give me some advice, and miffed to think that in his opinion I needed it. But more importantly, I had not the slightest idea what his message meant. Questions, I thought, were to be answered, and that is exactly what I was doing. What possible good, for heaven’s sake, was an unanswered question?

I was teaching as I had often been taught: according to an idea of teaching which educational theorist Paulo Freire calls “banking”: The banking concept distinguishes two stages in the action of the educator. During the first, he cognizes a cognizable object while he prepares his lessons in his study or laboratory; during the second, he expounds to his students about that object. The students are not called upon to know, but to memorize the contents narrated by the teacher. Nor do the students practice any act of cognition, since the object towards which that act should be directed is the property of the teacher (1971, pp. 67- 68) .

It did not occur to me at the time that I was forcing my students to memorize the answers to other people’s questions, questions that had never truly lived in their minds- or in mine, for that matter. Yet my dependence upon the answers found in books coupled with my view of the Teacher as Banker turned out to be a model of education that has been recognized as destructive since the very beginning.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates quotes Thamus approvingly: [writing] is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality (1920, [275A], I, p. 278)

Having the show of wisdom without the reality is the classic description of foolishness that Socrates gave at his trial which is recorded in Plato’s Apology. After questioning the wisdom of a famous politician, Socrates says: “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, -for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know” (1920, [21D], I, p. 405). Now how can a person not know something, yet labor under the fiction that he does? It seems to me that it is precisely having a head filled with vaguely understood answers that can lull a person into the false security of the fool. Thus, book learning can easily become a veil that shields a person from recognizing his own ignorance, and it is precisely this lack of recognition that is the mark of the fool. No, Plato has Phaedrus say, we must search “for the living word of knowledge which has a soul and of which the written word is no more than an image” (1920, [276A], I, p. 279).

Plato’s fear that an answer-bound education leads to false wisdom is echoed by the father of modern rationalism, Rene Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes says:

From my childhood I lived in a world of books, and since I was taught that by their help I could gain a clear and assured knowledge of everything useful in life, I was eager to learn from them. But as soon as I had finished the course of studies which usually admits one to the ranks of the learned, I changed my opinion completely. For I found myself saddled with so many doubts and errors that I seemed to have gained nothing in trying to educate myself unless it was to discover more and more fully how ignorant I was (1960, p. 5).

Like so many students before and after him, Descartes found school narrow and stifling, uninvolved with his real concerns. “This is why,” he says, “I gave up my studies entirely as soon as I reached the age when I was no longer under the control of my teachers.” (1960, p. 8)

Descartes’ criticism seems to center on the distance between what seemed to him to be academic dilettantism on the one hand and the concrete and confusing living of life on the other:

For it seemed to me that I might find more of the truth in the cogitations which each man made on things which were important to him, and where he would be the loser if he judged badly, than in the cogitations of a man of letters in his study, concerned with speculations which produce no effect, and which have no consequences to him except perhaps that the farther they are removed from common sense, the more they titillate his vanity, since then he needs so much more wit and skill to make them seem plausible. (1960, p. 9)

The warnings of Plato and Descartes were sounded again in the nineteenth century by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay The American Scholar Emerson warns that there hides in the very beauty and power of books a subtle danger: “Books are for nothing but to inspire,” he says. “I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 29). Books are tools, not icons. Books, and teachers, are hints and reminders, suggestions as to the nature of things. If this does not happen, Emerson says, “instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm [and] bibliomaniacs of all degrees … The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, they say, let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward …. Whatever talents may be, if a [person] create not, the pure efflux of Deity is not his — cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 29).

The teacher of texts generates plenty of cinders and smoke. Everyone is busy memorizing the “four basic points of the reading” in preparation for the examinations upon which the grades will based. But surely texts themselves, and the use of texts by the teacher, are not the core of the problem.

CINDERS, SMOKE, AND FLAME
The majesty and wisdom of great literature is simply too powerful to be dismissed. Zora Neale Hurston says of her Janie: “She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop” (1978, p. 119). It seems obvious that books are the scholar’s basic tool, and that the mastery and love of texts are the mark of the vital teacher. Emerson was eloquent on this point: “It is remarkable,” he wrote, “the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 30).

Georgia O’Keeffe, too, was an avid reader: “I had been reading the Divine Comedy – Longfellow translation,” she wrote Anita, “and the tearing storm seemed to be just a part of it all – I was so interested I read almost all night … it reads even better the second time” (Robinson, 1989, p.165). Her biographer Roxanna Robinson continues: “Georgia was reading seriously this year [1916]: Ibsen, Dante, and Nietzsche.” All of her reading raised “questions of sexual equality …. and all granted philosophical permission to develop a personal code of values” (1989, p. 165). O’Keeffe was also deeply influenced by Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ and most especially by Goethe’s Faust.  Concerning the latter she wrote: “Anita it’s simply great … I almost lost my mind the day I started it” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1989, p. 16).

Here we find a crucial and fundamental difference between the quality of O’Keeffe’s reading and mine as a young teacher. I viewed books as entities in themselves, as things that contained the Truth. Engaging, surely, filled with fascinating insights and difficult ideas, but not really addressing questions which were matters of life and death to me. As long as I was simply a teacher of texts I can honestly say that I was never in danger of “almost losing my mind” over a book. Perhaps the teacher, then, who wishes to nurture learning in her students will use writings that Emerson calls “Blood-warm” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 44). She will choose books that have brought her more deeply into the conflagration of human experience -her own experience- messy, uncertain, and paradoxical. She will choose books that have exploded the boundaries of her own world, propelling her outward toward richer patterns of being.

The image is Annie Dillard’s. “When you open a book,” she writes, ” …anything can happen …. A book of fiction was a bomb. It was a land mine you wanted to go off. You wanted it to blow your whole day. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of books were duds. They had been rusting out of everyone’s way for so long that they no longer worked. There is no easy way to distinguish the duds from the live mines except to throw yourself at them headlong, one by one. The suggestions of adults were uncertain and incoherent. They gave you Nancy Drew with one hand and Little Women with the other. They mixed good and bad books together because they could not distinguish between them” (1990, An American Childhood, p. 83).

I came late to the realization that books need to be judged against the litmus of the self. It was not until my mid-thirties that I had the jolting realization that Plato was provoking and challenging me as a human being, not simply as a mind capable of finding its syllogistic way to the truth. Plato, I suddenly realized, was not trying to give me answers. He was posing questions which sought to deliver a shock of wonder. My failure to see this at least partly explains why my early attempts at the socratic method always ended in failure. I thought that the point was to lead my students to truths which I already knew by asking them artfully leading questions. But the answers the students gave back always stumped me! They stopped me in my tracks. I think now that Socrates asked real questions, questions to which he did not have the “right” answer. I further believe that he was not trying to lead his students to a truth which he held firmly in his own mind, but that he was attempting to lead them to truths which dwelt within themselves. I think that here is where the power of the Socratic method can be found. Socrates cared nothing for cinders and smoke. He sought always to ignite a flame in the minds and hearts of his students; the flame of love, or eros, as he calls it in Symposium, the love of being, the love of wisdom, a longing for wakefulness.

QUESTIONS
The philosopher Jacob Needleman says: “Whether we are speaking about the education of young people, or the education of what is young and searching in ourselves, it is first of all necessary to support the love of wisdom, the sensitivity to universal ideas that throw the whole of our common life into question. To think in new categories; to envision life within a vast, new frame of reference; and through that, to awaken and orient that impulse in human nature which is deeper and higher than ego — this is the first task of real philosophy” (1986, p. 177). Real questions have the power to expand the horizons of the world. They are “those that we have all but given up hope of ever seeing asked or answered, questions that somewhere deep within us, in the child within us, we long to think about, dream about” (1986, p.8). These questions, Needleman continues, are different from the problems of philosophy: the problem of the existence of god, the problem of universals, and the like. He says: These are not the questions of philosophy; they are only the fossilized remains of what were once living and breathing “creatures.” Official philosophy, a sort of paleontology of the mind, lays out these bones and fragments and reconstructs gigantic skeletons called “philosophical arguments,” which are housed in museums called philosophy departments and philosophy texts. But reconstruction is not remembering. The “problems of philosophy” are only the tracks left by the questions of philosophy — something that has long since moved on, and is still moving on within every serious human being (1986, p. 8).

Needleman distinguishes here between problems and questions. Problems need to be solved. Real questions, on the other hand, transform our experience of life and of ourselves. Their answers are not spoken or written. They can only be lived. Rainer Maria Rilke puts this well in his Letter to a Young Poet: …1 beg you …to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer (1975, p.25).

A FIRE IN THE BELLY
A real question can be the force that slowly and inevitably clicks the kaleidoscope of the mind in order to reveal undreamt of patterns of beauty and reality. These patterns are not answers that serve to lull the mind into complacent satisfaction. Rather they astonish the mind and quicken the heart with wonder.  Ludwig Wittgenstein says toward the end of his Tractatus: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is” ( 1981, 6.44, p. 187). This is a mysterious question that opens the mind to the reaches of infinity and confronts it with an unfathomable living reality. And it is this confrontation that can spark the heart’s longing for awakening. The philosophic spirit, the questing spirit, is one that can only be found moving between a living mind and a living world.

The true Socratic question, then, teeters on the brink of mystery. Questions such as this do not seek to add to the known. They push us, rather, to the edge of the unknown, and keep on pushing — until we fall in. These questions ignite the flame for which Emerson was searching. A mind inflamed with wonder and a heart inflamed by longing are simply the natural human responses to a world which is cracked open by an adamantine question; a world which is itself revealed to be dynamic, like a living flame. The pronouncement of Heraclitus that “this universe …has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is , and will be — an ever-living fire … ” (1960, fro 29, p. 71), is rendered in the modern idiom by Annie Dillard: “The whole show has been on fire from the word go,” she says. “I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world
sparks and flames” ( 1990, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, P. 9)

It is not only artists and philosophers who are aware of the necessity of mystery and wonder in life and in education. Albert Einstein wrote: “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer feel wonder, no longer face amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle” (N. D., p. 5). Einstein felt that the attempt to arrest the mysteries of existence with final solutions was “for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me,” he went on, “the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality … ” (N. D., P. 5).

ATTENTIVENESS
The power of wonder in the face of mystery is its ability to make us look, really look, with attentiveness. Annie Dillard puts it well: “We don’t know what’s going on here …. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise” (1990, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 9)

In 1973, Georgia O’Keeffe received an honorary degree from Harvard University. She later wrote a charming letter of thanks to President Derek Bok in which she said: “It is difficult to write and acknowledge what I felt about the time with you …. The walk in the rain, finding the flowers like stars hanging over the wall — it was all very special for one living in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch for 25 years, only venturing out once in a while for a look around. This look was special. Thank you” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1987, p. 102).

Special indeed. Georgia’s looking singled her out. Ansel Adams was bowled over by it: “To see O’Keeffe in Yosemite is a revelation; … for a while I was in a daze. Her mood and the mood of the place — not a conflict, but a strange, new mixture for me. She actually stirred me up to photograph Yosemite all over again ..She says very little, but she looks, and once in a while something is said that sums everything up in a crystal, inevitable clarity” (Robinson, 1989, p.425). A life, then, suffused with the wonder of experienced mystery, consists of careful looking. We can, in fact, only look carefully at the mysterious. The known, or easily known, requires only a cursory glance which catalogues and dismisses.

But vitality entails seeing. The Spanish Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset asserts: “Such curiosity … is a vital luxury which only organisms with a high level of vitality can possess. The weak individual is incapable of disinterested attention to what occurs outside of himself. He fears the unexpected, …and …he does not immediately relate to others with total interest. The ability to interest oneself in a thing for what it is in itself and not for the profit which it will render us is the magnificent gift of generosity which flourishes only at the peaks of the greatest altitudes of vitality” (1957, p. 198). It is this vital inquisitiveness, Ortega says, which is the ground of our ability to love. “In order to be enchanted,” he says, “we must be, above all, capable of seeing another person …. One must be vitally curious about humanity, and more concretely, about the individual as a living totality …. without this curiosity, the most eminent creatures can pass before us and make no impression upon us” (1957, p. 197).

THE TEACHER
So far, I have outlined some thoughts on the power of questions to ignite and nurture the spark of wonder. A powerful question can open the mind of a student to the authentic richness of reality, thus steeping her mind in a wonder which is in truth a reverence for the miracle of what is. This wonder, I have suggested, engenders a longing for wakefulness which in turn occasions a looking which is the essence of vitality. Without the longing engendered by wonder, all the answers in the world are rock-hard shells with no life of their own, and no life to give.

Now what is the role of the teacher in all this? It is obvious that the teacher is the one who will usually introduce a powerful question into the classroom. It is equally obvious that a teacher can do that only if she herself asks questions out of her own sense of wonder. If this is true, the good teacher is not the one who has the answers, but the one who has the best questions; questions for which she does not have “the right answer.” One of the most important characteristics of a vital teacher is that she is an expert, and passionate, learner. She models this expertise in the very process of teaching. This is, it seems to me, the fundamental purpose of a teacher: to empower her students to ~become expert and joyful learners for the rest of their lives. She can only do this if she embodies in herself first, the Socratic eros for learning or longing for awakening; second, the requisite skills and talents for learning; and third, a sense of caring for her students and for her subject. These characteristics can best be illumined, I think, by looking at teaching as a creative art.

THE TEACHER AS CREATIVE ARTIST
In the quote by Georgia O’Keeffe at the beginning of this essay, it is telling, I think, that she places her experience of art at the center of an education that is for “the livingness of life.” It is here in the reality of art, that all I have said of the nature of questions and of mystery, of wonder and of life, can be brought to a focus. For teaching is above all an art.

O’Keeffe’s biographer Roxanna Robinson remarks: “The instinctive need to transform experience into image is a mysterious phenomenon.  These forces, vital and inexplicable, pass through the circuits of the soul. They are responsible for the sense of joyful recognition, interior resonance, and blissful confirmation that attend the sight of certain paintings” (1989, p.28).

We might also call on these forces to provide the resonance and joy of a vital classroom. In one of her most captivating moments, O’Keeffe described the mysterious phenomenon of creativity in a letter to Sherwood Anderson: “I feel that a real living form is the natural result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown — where it has experienced something — felt something — it has not understood — and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown – known. — By unknown — I mean the thing that means so much to the person that he wants to put it down – clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand — sometimes he partially knows why — sometime he doesn’t — sometimes it is all working in the dark — but a working that must be done. Making the unknown known — in terms of ones medium is all absorbing. The artists form must be inevitable” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1987, p.174).

The creative process, she continues, goes on and on. The deeper one goes into mystery, the clearer the vision; and the clearer the vision, the louder the call to mystery. “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant,” she wrote. “There is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you catching, crystallizing your simpler clearer vision of life, only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead … ” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1987, p. 174).

Perhaps it was this type of creative looking into the unknown that Plato had in mind when he spoke of ‘the living word of knowledge which has a soul.’ For the classical Greek philosophers, every virtue, every empowering quality of mind and heart, had a characteristic activity which flowed from it. The activity that flowed from wisdom was called contemplation: literally “to be with the stars.” Contemplation today has a passive, almost wishy-washy feel to it; we think of Aristotle contemplating the Bust of Homer. But for ancient thinkers, contemplation was a being-present-to, a knowing, or looking which issued forth in the white-hot creativity of loving union. Whether we think of a master in the act of painting, or playing Bach on a great organ, or blowing wild jazz in a Harlem club, or crystallizing a vision of Plato’s cave in a classroom, we are envisioning a person caught up in the creative vitality of contemplation. It is this model of the teacher as the creator of a vision in a contemplative moment that I wish to explore.

FORM IS EMPTINESS, EMPTINESS IS FORM
The chanting of the Heart sutra is a daily occurrence in Zen monasteries throughout the world. It says, in part, “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.” This sounds like so much gibberish until we reflect that form might be taken as the “known”, and emptiness as the “unknown”; an unknown which lies not outside the known, but at its center. This identity of form and emptiness is central to the creative process.

When a person sits down at a piano to interact with a song, say “Moonlight in Vermont,” he might do this in any number of ways. First, he might simply put the music on the piano, and sit with his arms folded, reading it. It is conceivable that he might be quite good at reading and explaining the music, without ever having learned to play an instrument; or even wanting to. Conceivable, and safe. Second, he might play the music exactly as written, every beat and note played with metronomic precision and predictable dynamics. In these two modes, the person is purely dependent on form. The known is, as it were, all there is. There are no possibilities beyond the given. This person might well teach, but he teaches only form, not music. In a third mode, a person might have mastered the form of music in general and of this song in particular. This would mean that the person would have spent years studying the general theory of music and assimilating that theory into her very body. She would also have spent considerable time on the text of the song, working with its harmonic progressions and with the emotional colorings of its rhythm and melody. Armed with this preparation, the person would then need to be present to herself, to the song, and to the environment: to herself in terms of her feeling, mood, and attitude; to the song in terms of its feelings and moods; and finally to the environment in terms of the condition of the piano, the acoustics of the room, and the feelings, moods, and attitudes of any people who might be listening. At this point, the musician is able to reach into the form -the song as written- to find the not-given, the spaces, the emptiness, and within the vastness of that emptiness within form, she is able to create a ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ that has never been heard before. She finds what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things” (1967, p. 66 ), a freshness, a newness, a vitality which can only be found in a mastery of form coupled with a courageous and generous heart that embraces and emancipates the spaces within given.

Verse 11 of the Tao Te Ching says:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use (1988).

Lao Tsu amplifies this insight while explicitly applying it to
the teacher (verse 2):
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever (1988).

We might add, to stay with our analogy, that the true pianist plays without playing anything. This is a reference to the Taoist notion of Wu Wei: to act without a sense of control or ownership. Someone once asked Horowitz what he thought about as he played a Beethoven Sonata. “Lunch!” he replied. It was a rather flip answer to show that he was not “thinking” the music, but it would be perhaps more accurate to say that he was thinking of nothing at all. He was so present to himself, the music, and the environment, that in an important sense, “he” wasn’t there at all. The extent to which he created freshness within the spaces (Emptiness) of Beethoven’s music (Form) was directly proportional to the extent to which he was able to open to the spaces within himself.

TEACHING ON THE EDGE
The model of teaching toward which I am moving is now becoming clear.  I have isolated and explored three characteristics of vital teaching. These characteristics are not linear; they suffuse and inform each other during the spiral growth of the teacher’s entire life. First, a living teacher must have the desire and the ability to nurture and, if need be, ignite the love of wisdom, the longing for wakefulness, the flame of wonder at the mystery of it all, in herself and in her students; second, she must cultivate the ongoing mastery of what is given in texts and in experience, a given which is itself constantly changing; and third, she needs to muster the willingness to risk the contemplative interplay of the given and the mysterious, form and emptiness, the known and the unknown, within which the creative activity of vital teaching can unfold.

At the beginning of this essay, I asked myself what I thought I was doing when I entered my classroom. Now it seems to me that my fundamental intention should be to enrich my own understanding of the universal and personal mysteries of the human condition, and at the same time to create an atmosphere within which my students can open to the utter joy and the satisfying skills of learning.   My desire is to help them in the process of creating a newer and hopefully more comprehensive vision of human possibilities, freshly understood and beautifully rendered.   I strive to always remember that I am not the star of the show.  Rather, I am dancing on the razor’s edge of my provisional knowledge.  I move in a liminal reality suspended between the surface of what I think I know and the unexpected and surprising perspectives that sometimes emerge from the silent and pregnant space of a sacred classroom.  On the first day of class, I quote this poem of Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I will meet you there.  When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”  The real business of learning, I think, happens in the field out beyond our given ideas.  Finally, Robert Pirsig’s challenge has struck a nerve: killing the creative spirits of my students is the last thing I want to do. I find myself journeying along the continuum that lies between Pirsig’s warning and the magnificent aspiration set forth in a couplet by e. e. cummings:

i would rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance (1959, p. 66).


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