By Jennifer Jacobs, MA
This one's going to get a little personal, but it's been weighing on my mind a lot which tells me I need to write about it.
It's almost inevitable that when a student comes to me for help with a literary essay I am bound to hear at some point in our conversation, "I just need to know what to write. It's due [insert day];" or, "We didn't discuss this question in class and I don't know what to do;" or some variation of a sentence that means just tell me what to say so I can finish the assignment.
The rest of the hour typically plays out with me asking a series of questions to generate discussion and assist my student with forming, framing and organizing thoughts of their own. The lesson almost always ends with a student trying to answer more questions than they originally had. And for me, that's a win.
After many years of teaching literary analysis, critical thinking and academic writing, I am no longer surprised when I sit down with a student to write an essay on Shakespeare and hear, "I'm never going to have to write an essay after I finish school," "No one talks like that anymore. It doesn't matter," or my all time favourite, "It was so long ago, who cares?" I still have to remind myself to take a big, deep breath in and slowly breathe out.
You can do this, Jenn.
Now, here's the thing. Most parents appreciate my approach to learning and respect my unwillingness to hand out answers. I like to think most of my students do, too. But, I believe that's because over the past twenty years of teaching the arts, I've gotten pretty good at explaining why it's not good enough to know that Hamlet simply struggles with knowing who he is; that the real meaning of the play comes from an insightful exploration of his thoughts, what they are, where they come from, why they matter, followed by inquiry into the barrage of other questions that emerge from the answers to our original ones. This is how we begin to reveal who Hamlet the Prince of Denmark is under his "inky cloak." Indeed, the opening line of the play poses the question, "Who's there?" and so we must be willing to delve into each and every line to work out our interpretation.
Shakespeare aside, here’s why this has been weighing on my mind lately: education is being attacked. Our twenty-first century culture puts value on immediacy and instant gratification. It pushes for quick answers, fast solutions, and easy-to-follow steps. Advertisements for technology boast of efficiency, speed, and user accessibility. The health and fitness industry feeds its consumers the same kinds of messages: pop a magic pill, eat a certain food, or do these 10 fat blasting exercises for 10 days and see your body transform before your eyes. And, recently, I've read a number of blogs and articles, and even seen TikToks, suggesting that the education system needs to be revamped to better prepare students for "real life" (which for some bizarre reason apparently only starts after one has graduated secondary school, but that's a whole other blog.)
The message beginning to weave its way into our educational discourse is that our school curriculum is outdated and no longer meets the needs of its students. The big topics on these lists range from cooking classes, to tax courses, to improving basic social skills. And, while I understand that these are skills people need to have at their disposal, it saddens me that education is being reduced to utilitarian purposes. Now, this is where you might want to curl your toes. I might step on them.
The purpose of education should be to challenge and disrupt our thoughts and how we think so as to drive us to learn again and again. William Butler Yeats wrote, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." As an educator, especially as an educator of the arts, these words hit home. I think about them often. In fact, I am made painfully aware of just how diminished the value of education has become every time I sit with a student to write an essay and have to "the talk" before we can get to work on the writing. So, am I against students learning everyday skills? Absolutely not. I thoroughly enjoy a seafood pasta with a rosee sauce, and I file my taxes annually like everyone else (though having a brother who's an accountant has certainly taken the pressure off me having to know the difference between a T1 and a T4.) However, education must not bend nor stray from serving its primary purpose: to light a fire. When education serves to fill pails, to be stored and used only when needed, then by default knowledge becomes limited and little more than a handy renewable resource. Divided and contained it’s unable to take root and grow. But, when education ignites a fire, it grows in its intensity. It knows no boundaries and thus grows in strength and consumes anything in its path. Time has become a commodity to be packaged and sold. Consequently, teaching kids to see the value in developing their own thoughts and opinions has become increasingly difficult. Ease and convenience save time and so a more efficient course of action when writing is to cut out original thought, avoid asking questions, eliminate reflection and replace your ideas with those of someone else (being sure to use proper citation, of course.) Click and done. The process functions much more like the smartphone in your pocket.
Perhaps Oscar Wilde said it best when he remarked that we know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Our world has made it abundantly clear to students that the price of an essay with a high number written in red ink is far more attractive to universities and (supposedly) opens more doors than the essay with the lower number. And so, students fight for the grade. In my twenty plus years of teaching, I’ve never promised a grade to a parent nor a student. I don’t believe the value of learning is found in the final number. I believe that the value of learning is found in the fire and that the best way to ensure the fire ignites and stays lit is to walk through it with my students. After all, I want to continue to enjoy delicious seafood pasta dishes. So, I need to ensure that my students always seek out imaginative ideas and creative thoughts, lest they become complacent, go to their bucket, and take out someone else’s recipe - because they never imagined they could create their own.