Sunday March 7, 2010

RICHMOND

Along with everybody else, I have been trying for the past several years to figure out what is wrong with our educational system. Along with all the experts and non-experts like myself, I have not come up with any kind of solution to any of the problems. The only thing we all agree on is there is something terribly wrong and something has to be done.

Right now the talk of the town is Central Falls, Rhode Island, where the state's education board fired the entire staff of 74 teachers and 19 staff members because the students were doing so poorly.

I had all kinds of teachers during my educational era, some of whom I felt were good, several of whom I felt were bad and a small handful that inspired, excited and caused me to do better than I ever had anticipated.

My elementary teachers were rather elemental, my junior high teachers totally by the lesson book and it wasn't until high school that I encountered Ms. Madeline Pfeiffer and Ms. Dorothy Rhodes, the first who scared me into improving my writing and the latter who brought Latin and Rome into my personal world.

In college there were two professors, one in literature and one in German, who spurred me on, and in graduate school at Smith College there was a professor of Old English who couldn't wait to die because she had all these questions she wanted to ask King Alfred.

But it was when I went on to Columbia University that I encountered the most inspiring of teachers who made me want to write, made me want to teach, made me want to learn everything about everything. His name was Gilbert Highet and the course was Classical Literature.

Highet was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and had a real burr in his speech. He was a handsome man who dressed impeccably with a folded handkerchief in his breast pocket, and at some time during his impassioned lectures you knew that the handkerchief was going to be whipped out to dry a heated brow and then be tucked back into his right cuff for easy availability. He might suddenly leap to the top of his desk and start spouting in ancient Greek. Or he might sing a short song or dance a bit or recite dramatically.

And you learned something from his bravura approach, something that stuck in your mind and made you rush to the library to turn what he had told you into a depth you might otherwise never have obtained.

He was obsessed with teaching. He would hold up a book and say "These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but ‘minds' alive on shelves. The chief aim of education is to show you, after making a livelihood, how to enjoy living and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."

In almost every class session, he would ask the same question? "How can you know who is a good teacher?" And he would give the same answer. "You know a good teacher by the students who have studied under him." (This was before the obligatory female was added to the mix.) If you could take 10 students at random and check on how they were doing 10 years after studying with a particular teacher, then you would know how good the teacher had been, how memorable. This, of course, would not be possible to do in these difficult economic times.

I often think back on the teachers that spurred me on, who made me want to know more and more about everything there was to know and pass it on to those who came after. And I bless them.

Anything as huge as a national educational system with the millions and millions of people involved has to have winners and losers and neuters in its maw. When you figure on how family life is such a huge and uncontrollable factor in education, how many teachers should not be in the profession to begin with, how many people who should be teachers but are not, how much ignorance and religious bias has an impact, how much social disparity and how much bad and good luck, it is almost impossible to think of solutions.

Firing a whole faculty is an act of desperation. But these are desperate times in this country and in the world. At least it is an action that will force a reaction and that is better than everybody just throwing his (her) hands up in the air.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.