Half of education has nothing to do with books

By Karen Lustig, Upper School English Teacher Karen Lustig

My favorite question is “Why do we even have to do this?”

Kids have a right to know the answer to that question. Adults have a right to know the answer to that question. And from my perspective, there are many reasons that pertain to our intellectual life, in the classroom and far beyond. We analyze literature, for example, because it allows us to recognize patterns in a mass of material that seems otherwise chaotic. We grapple with challenging math problems with the same goal in mind. It’s imperative to stretch our brains, to shift our perspective, to see things differently in order that we may navigate them, in time, with relative ease. Chemistry labs may look like an academic-only endeavor but they have purpose in the world: we must be able to anticipate a possible reaction and, more importantly, we must recognize why, at any given time, our hypotheses were incorrect. The study of world history and the examination of world languages serve our scholarship as well. Through careful consideration of communications past, we can create a reasonable chart of cause and effect, a template, so to speak, of human behavior and its effects on the world. By examining the past, we forge the future. By studying others, we come to know ourselves.

But there is so much more to school than what our brains cull and categorize. It was thirty-five years ago that Robert Fulghum declared that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten: compassion, kindness, cooperation. All essential tools and gifts. But the learning goes far beyond kindergarten because the hurdles become higher and the weather far more fierce. Sometimes empathy doesn’t ease the pain. Sometimes there are no solutions: to a math problem, to an argument, to an illness. And that’s education as well. We read books not to solidify what we do know but to experience – if only vicariously – what we hope never to live: the brutality of slavery, the relentlessness of ignorance, the burden of apathy. As we grow older, we write papers that fall short of what played out in our minds; we spend hours staring at a math problem that never reveals its secrets to us; we press firmly into clay that refuses to bend to our will. Those failures are important. Those encounters mean something. They muster in us the ability to persevere. They build resilience, one stubborn bow of the head at a time. They give us purpose and meaning and the determination to move beyond what we could not do yesterday toward what we might do tomorrow.

It’s tough to sell struggle to a kid who can barely see college on the horizon. But it happens all the time in the classroom and we ought to see its value. Even I remember the look of defeat in a student’s eyes – far more than once – and it taught me: to be more patient, to be more kind, to press on. For their sake. And mine.

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