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Learning at its Best

Albert Einstein, Lewis Hyde, and The Gifts of Teaching

“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.

About Garreth Heidt

Designerly Minded High School Humanities and Liberal Studies Teacher Faculty Mentor FIRST Robotics Team #7414--PV Retrobotics. Constantly learning, trying to be more a maker and less a consumer of culture. I believe in the infinite value of a liberal education and the power of design thinking to help make the world a better place.


5 thoughts on “Albert Einstein, Lewis Hyde, and The Gifts of Teaching

  1. It’s all about learning to learn and appreciating the experience. Though I am not a Miley Cyrus fan, “It’s the climb” and never wanting/expecting to reach the top. Enjoyed the article, Garreth. Thanks for your gift.

    Posted by lbold | September 24, 2012, 8:06 am
  2. Garreth,

    What a fantastic post. Thank you for THIS Gift! The Einstein quote is particularly amazing in the context of what a miserable time in school EInstein is thought to have had. Maybe that’s partly why is advocating for a much more soulful understanding of education here?

    The only thing I wonder about in terms of giving “the gift” is that idea of it perishing for the giver. It seems to me that a genuine caring encounter will necessarily give back to both giver and recipient many times, and really serve to make both more “human”. This reminds me a lot of Nel Noddings work on Caring and her book, The Challenge to Care in Schools. I am also reminded of Riane Eisler’s work, both on schools: Tomorrow’s Children and economy: The Real Wealth of Nations.

    And to me, really “the gift” all comes back to the quality of the individual relationship and the recognition of the depth, beauty and “sacredness,” if you will, embodied within the teacher/learner exchange. Have you read Martin Buber’s I and Thou. That’s really the heart of education to me, and precisely what is lost when we view education through that competitive, RTTT, economic lens you write about. Looking through that lens tends to produce so many of the hard-hearted, tough-love, no excuse kinds of educators that you refer to at your staff meeting. I know so many of them!

    Well done, my friend.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | September 24, 2012, 10:10 am
    • Paul,
      Thanks for the feedback. When I was first working through the connections between Hyde’s work and Teaching, I wasn’t sure how to explain the act of “perishing”, because I never felt that anything perished. Indeed, I was more sure that I grew immensely from the act of giving. I think Hyde would agree, but I was already well over a self-imposed word limit for this post (I’m bad with such limits) and tried to gloss over it with the third to last paragraph. I think, however, that Hyde does offer something similar to your “sacredness”, that being this: “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.”

      I’m quite pleased that you mention Buber. While at Bard’s Institute for Writing and Thinking several years ago for a week-long workshop called “Inquiry into the Essay”, I wrote a piece they eventually published in their journal “Writing From the Inside Out.” The piece was called “Touching the Sturgeon” and it is all about these moments of utter clarity (Jung terms them Numinous moments) that often wash through us, when we no longer perceive (if only for a moment) through a glass, darkly, or only see the shadows and not the things themselves. In the piece I reference Buber heavily. If you’re interested I could send it to you…or perhaps turn it into another post.

      Thank you, again, for deepening my experience.

      Posted by Garreth Heidt | September 24, 2012, 11:12 am
  3. Hey Garreth,

    Thanks for the dialogue. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s more to this idea of “perishing” than the death or loss it seems to imply at first glance. I look forward to reading The Gift for myself. Thanks for the nudge.

    And yes, please go ahead and send me “Writing from the Inside Out” at your convenience. I look forward to future conversation and collaboration. Paul:

    Posted by Paul Freedman | September 24, 2012, 9:21 pm
  4. Garreth,
    Your post gets at the very heart of the relationship involved in teaching and learning. Far too many of our schools feel like jobs to kids, and going even further, I would say that to many they feel like correctional facilities, replete with guards and punishment for not conforming to our expectations of them, for not being able to focus on what we tell them to do despite their inability to see value in it. Coercion is not conducive to optimal learning, and in fact can in itself teach what aught not to be learned. And what is grading but a form of coercion?

    Whenever I think about what I think might approach an optimal learning environment and compare it to what we have in most of our schools, I wonder how we got here and how we will ever evolve beyond it. Certainly the approach and attitude of the teacher are incredibly important, but how far can that take us when the structure and form we find ourselves in so constrains our ability to build those learning relationships in ways that speak to each child as who they are, and meets their interests where they are, when they are ready?

    Thanks for your sharing thoughts.

    Posted by Aaron Eden | September 27, 2012, 4:10 pm

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