“Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as hard duty. Never regard study as duty but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.” –Albert Einstein
On the second day of teacher preparation this August, my building held a discussion regarding our use of grades and what we grade and what we don’t. Eventually, the discussion turned to the issue of failure on a test or failure to complete a project on time. How should we handle this. A good number of the staff felt that we ought not offer repeated chances to make up the work/grade. How else would these children learn about the importance of accountability and meeting deadlines? How else would they understand their duty/job as students? A large number of us felt differently, that there would be plenty of opportunities for the students to encounter the “real world”, and that offering a “zero” for such learning taught the students nothing about their shortcomings on a test or project, that all it would do is convince the students that they would be unable to succeed in certain subjects and, perhaps, in school in general (and by extension, for many of them, in the world at large.)
Within this mental context, I turned to my collection of education quotations which I use to begin every day in the right frame of mind. It was there that I reread the Einstein quotation pasted above. And, within this framework, Einstein’s words helped me construct a new perspective on my teaching.
I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore. We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grow into good people who are free to achieve their own highest potential. (Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”)
As regards Einstein’s observation, my assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the sprit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.” Too often students do see study as a duty and only that. It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light: light for ourselves, but also light for the community. Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world. Rather it is about discovery, however that may come: be it individually, as a group, a class, an entire grade level; be it through wild success or the reframing of failure as opportunity rather than end state.
You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing of teaching as the offering of a gift. Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?”, which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing. The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Hyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money or something else of value…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy. Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation): “For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the ‘paradox of the gift’: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.”
“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….” Tell me that’s not teaching and learning. I don’t impart knowledge. No. It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.” Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience. Teaching, however, offers a strange gift, in that I feel no sense of loss , nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing. I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening Genius, as Thomas Armstrong called it. And it is that sense of genius as pertaining to the discovery of what brings us joy that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.
Back to Einstein, then: “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….” It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.” When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity. But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”
I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy that, one need not ever accept a gift. Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model, a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift. But oh! How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.