We must always teach our children universal ideas. The temptation to “corridor” teach them — instead of bending young minds open to other doorways for learning — is a national failing of a teaching philosophy.
It is certainly easier and cheaper to teach children what they already “sort of know” within the city limits of their own cultural experiences — but in that easy exchange we sacrifice imagination, and we give up on the idea that young minds can ever become more than their origins.
Several years ago, I was offered a job teaching a required, core, writing class at a major, public, East Coast, university.
The philosophy of the department Chairman was to leave the minds of the students as we found them. We were instructed not to lead them beyond the corridor of their present state. We were not to lift them up to our level. We were to condescend to their level.
The Chairman explained these students were “regional” and their parents worked industry jobs and few of them would ever venture beyond the county when they graduated. It was our job, he claimed, to teach them how to get along in the life they were expected to have.
The students were to only read and write about chemical interactions, agriculture, and leisure activities like golf, football, and basketball.
I sat there, listening to his condemnation of the students he was vested to serve — and I thought we were supposed to be enlightening — and I began to realize it was that sort of narrow, corridor, thinking that created regionalism, bigotry and nationalism-by-county in the United States that stamped, and condemned, the international identity of so many people in the state.
I was always taught as a student that the idea of higher education was to expand your thinking beyond yourself and into the minds of others that came before you and to then join in the foreign-to-you imaginings of current minds living outside yours.
If my instructors had followed the thinking of that Chairman, I never would’ve read “Moby Dick” — why bother? You live in landlocked Nebraska! — or watched “Citizen Kane” — why bother? You’ll never be that rich or influential in publishing and politics! — or dared to dream about the implications of King Lear’s daughters — why bother? You don’t have royal blood!
The final stake in my decision to not teach in that Chairman’s department came at the end of his pitch when related the story of a local genius boy who — upon his history-making graduation from the university as its youngest alumnus — claimed the hardest class he had taken was the one we were expected to teach.
The child prodigy, we were told, was “confused and frustrated by the process of rewriting and rewriting the same paper over and over again during the semester.” The Chairman glowed with accomplishment, “He couldn’t figure out what we wanted.”
As the other instructors joined the chair in a pealing laughter, I remained motionless — slumping, astonished, and wondering — how a university Chairman, with 50,000 students enrolled for learning, could ever find joy and satiety in purposefully frustrating the concentrated and eager wants of a single, genius, student — let alone the rest of the open ocean of unattached, average, minds looking for a safe harbor for expansion — and refuse any of them the necessary freedom and the early promise of escaping their county mindset via expanded learning and an untamed, but tended, active imagination.