Robert Grudin

Time and the Art of Living

Mariner Books.

Reprint of 1982 Harper&Row ed.

Pp. 106-110

 

VIII-1 The child of two or three, who knows neither past nor future, sees, knows, becomes the present more than we can understand or remember. For him space and temporality are limitless, and each distinct experience, whether or not he has had it before, adds another chapter to an unending sequence of newness. He concentrates better than we do; and his concentration knows no purpose and needs none because, unlike us, he is still sensible to the animate magic of the physical world. To say that he has no sense of time is fatuous, for his sense of the present is so lordly and encompassing-like some vast sunny chamber of garden with room for innumerable pleasures and occupations-that he is beyond time as we know it, closer to St. Augustine's conception of a timeless God. And as he is still a stranger to memory, conscience, aim and ambition, his inner time is not limited by these factors, and so may expand to identify itself with his external environment. Perhaps, with our assistance, he will be able to take traces of this dignity and serenity into later life. We should not interrupt him when he is happy or entertain him in such a way that his attention will be divided.

 

VIII-2 The act of concentrating on a given subject is, conversely, the act of temporarily forgetting everything else. This is one reason why, in most cases, highly successful people seem to be possessed of great calm and impressive reserves of energy. Capable of intense concentration on basic questions, they are not worn down by superficial difficulties, distracting side issues or the enervating friction of a divided mind. Professionally hard at work, they are psychologically on vacation: this is one case where conventional achievement is completely in accord with mental and physical health. Peaking more generally, concentration is the forgotten component of intelligence, the virtue whose absence, more than anything else, characterizes the weakness of modern education. Our American IQ tests, in which a student's total ability is estimated from his success of failure in answering a long series of distinct and specific questions, is an example of our failure to understand the power of concentration or to respect the patience, humility and grandness of vision it requires. The results of this failure, in large part, are hundreds of thousands of young people who are sensitive but dissatisfied and disoriented, hundreds of thousands of mature individuals who are devastatingly bright on specific questions but devastatedly impotent in terms of larger projects.

 

 

VIII-3 One of the commonest fallacies of child-rearing is that babies have characteristic likes and dislikes, abilities and defects, which may be ascertained from repeated instances and will hold true thereafter. Parents with the faith and tenacity to keep trying soon realize that this is nonsense. Babies and tiny children are all will; but theirs is fluid will, power without rigidity. They are also subject to an evolution of awareness so constant and profound that the "same" object or experience can, over the course of a few weeks, appear to them as a number of wholly different things. The fact that a given course of action has ten times failed to teach or satisfy a child is absolutely no proof that the same course will not succeed the next time round; and children who have seemed chronically defective in a given area will often develop sudden and titanic prowess in that area. To see children as having ingrained characteristics is to endow them, quite mistakenly, with adult weaknesses; when we do so, we prematurely bestow these weaknesses upon them. Instead we must be optimistic, flexible and relentless.

 

 

VIII-4 Obedience is the necessary context for education and indeed for survival; moreover, it is the primal matter or substructure of what will later be called self-control. But teaching obedience is difficult, particularly because it must occur during the same period when the child is discovering his own individual will. On the other hand, when we tell him not to do something, we contradict his will as actually or potentially asserted. The positive thus carries more permanent weight than the negative; and if we gain a child's respect through positive directives, he will be more likely to obey such negative directives as must also be given. Here, as in most other interpersonal relationships, the primogeniture of will operates strongly: the earlier asserter has a subtle but undeniable advantage and can, if perceptive, determine the course of action. But this sort of beforehandedness is, I repeat, not easy for parents to achieve. Our children's wills, because they are so intensely vivid and resilient, project them ahead of us in time, leaving us helplessly to condemn or command faits accomplis.

 

 

VIII-5 The teacher-student relationship, largely devoid of self-interest and rich in psychological power, is perhaps the most beautiful and effective interaction which civilization affords. No culture I know of has ever fully used the power of this relationship, and indeed most cultures reserve for the young a privilege which people of all ages and in all positions should share.

 

 

VIII-6 We generally feel that we must choose between coddling and suppressing teenagers, when instead our proper function is to challenge them, through demand, ridicule, frustration, cajolement, domination, example and enchantment. We must never be hesitant about correcting them and indeed embarrassing them in the process. Loss, failure and chagrin are as important to proper education a pain is to the health of the body. Realizing error is a spur to careful and accurate performance. More profoundly, the repeated small disgraces and humiliations of learning encourage students to discard the meaner aspects of identity vanity, defensiveness, affectation and the eagerness for petty victories which would otherwise inhibit them from real appreciation and achievement. Delight and dignity lie behind this wall of pain. Educators who revere this process realize that they cannot achieve it if they remain "on easy and familiar terms" with their students. They are aware that the teacher, whose work is a high form of love, cannot seek to be loved in return.

 

 

VIII-7 Many modern teachers and theorists of education believe in making learning "fun" making its early stages gamelike and pleasant rather than arduous. This method is natural and effective with small children, but less so in high school and college, where it generally results in a dilution of learning and a depreciation of its excitement and dignity. The apologists for this theory tend to forget that the process of learning is itself innately pleasurable and that this true pleasure is likely to be hidden or distempered if we present it with the dishonesty of a publicist. A more dynamic method is preferable one in which a study, initially described as almost mysteriously difficult, becomes, as the students invade it, and increasingly delightful exploration. This latter method implies a greater respect for students and is also closer to nature, for in nature we learn by struggle as well as by play.

 

 

VIII-8 An ordinary teacher weighs and bags ideas like potatoes; a skilled teacher makes them open up like flowers from a bud.

 

 

VIII-9 The state of modern higher education resembles that of an oak tree in a drought. Most oaks will survive one dry season, but not two in a row. Higher education is now entering its second season of drought: a generation in which the untaught will be taught by the untaught.

 

 

VIII-10 Every teacher, whether he knows it or not, teaches three things at once: the subject under investigation, the art of investigation and the art of teaching. The two latter teachings, which concern method rather than matter, are more subtle, more lasting and more important. We teach them by patient and unadvertised repetition, showing through time how the same method works in a variety of cases. Only through this combination of coherence and variety can the student grasp the nature of method abstract it and see it as something distinct from the specific subject matter and the specific character of the teacher. More advanced students should be shown how a variety of methods can be applied to the same subject. Both these levels of teaching are like perambulations, walkings around an object in an effort to comprehend its dimensions and form. In the first case, we walk around method itself; in the second, we walk around a subject. In a third and still higher form of learning, we seek a master method, discovering through repetition and abstraction what all valid methods have in common.

 

 

VIII-11 Few fallacies are more dangerous or easier to fall into than that by which, having read a given book, we assume that we will continue to know its contents permanently or, having mastered a discipline in the past, we assume that we control it in the present. Philosophically, speaking, "to learn" is a verb with no legitimate past tense.