Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Eros and the Modern Student

In my recent post “The Endless Practice,” I wrote a fable of sorts involving a young boy who wants nothing else but to learn how to play baseball after seeing a professional game. Soon, though, he loses his enthusiasm after joining a baseball league in which he plays no games but simply practices the isolated skills, over and over again, that the sport involves. I hope the message wasn’t too obscure. In order for an educational experience to succeed, it must nurture desire.

After his initial trip to the ballpark, the boy fell in love with the game, and was raring to learn. He had been transported by the sights and sounds of the park, the action and excitement of the game itself, and was eager to take up the sport, so that he too might take part in the game of baseball. Desire gave birth to practice, and the important skills of fielding and hitting and running the bases were a joy to learn.

What he desired, though, was not this or that skill but the game itself. The discrete skills that a team works on at practice only make sense in the larger context of the nine-inning, head-to-head competition called a baseball game. Remove the game from the equation, and you remove that thing which gives meaning to all the rest. You remove that one thing necessary to plant the seeds of desire in all those who participate.

I see similar forces at work in my daughters’ interest in ballet. They are three and five years old, too young to be really serious students of the art, but they’ve been infatuated with it for over a year now, and are old enough to learn steps and positions and all the French names for the moves. Their excitement for it is palpable. They count down the days until their once-a-week practice at the ballet studio, and are locked-in when their teacher speaks to the class. At least once a day they put on their ballet clothes at home and practice their pliés and tendus on the hardwood floor.

Why are they so attentive at practice? Why so enthusiastic? It’s because they’ve been exposed to real ballet. We’ve shown them Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and the Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker on Youtube (the above picture is from Swan Lake) and they have listened to the scores over and over. When they hear the music or see the Sugar Plum Fairy dance across the stage, they are transfixed. They’ve been exposed to something that moves them, something for which they hold nothing but awe and admiration. They’ve been exposed to beauty, through Tchaikovsky’s art.

Desire follows beauty. The repetitive practice necessary to develop as a ballerina (at least to the degree appropriate for a pre-schooler) becomes a joy when it is colored by the desire to participate in something beautiful. I don’t mean to suggest that ballet practice, for them, might never, at points, grow unpleasant. Right now it is not—ballet practice is an unequivocal joy for them—but I can imagine that as they grow, even if they retain a love of the art they might not be as enthusiastic about practicing as the moves get more challenging, the drills more repetitive.

But there’s a difference between something that is temporarily unpleasant and something that is a real burden. As long as my daughters are moved by the art, I won’t worry about them feeling, like my hypothetical baseball player did, that practice is a burden. Repeating moves and positions may grow unpleasant at times, but it will not be burdensome if it is understood to be a working toward gracefulness. As long as their desire is fed, they will want to develop their skills.

For the young boy on the baseball team, the very thing that got him excited about baseball was unquantifiable: seeing the game itself, being moved by beauty. He felt a natural response to it, and I’m sure we can all relate to this in some area of our lives, past or present, where we have felt suddenly charged by the desire to do everything we can to become great at something. This kind of desire is well translated by the Greek eros. It implies a longing, and though it is not limited to the sexual realm its notion encompasses the kind of passion found there. Eros colors everything the boy hears and learns and practices about baseball. It is the one thing necessary for everything else to fall into place. Eros is not taught, because it is already part of him, as it is already part of each of us. It simply needs a reason to emerge.

And what is that reason? What unleashes desire in us? Simply put, beautiful things. Baseball. Ballet. The intricacies of the cell. A great story. A mind-bending jazz solo. A philosopher’s brilliant insight. A persuasively argued point. Great architecture. Once moved by something beautiful, we desire to grow closer to it, through developing our own skills in the field and working toward beauty in ourselves.

That is why beauty seems to me to be the key to education. Not critical thinking, not reading comprehension, not generating innovative, original ideas. All of these follow from desire, which is a response to something beautiful.

For these reasons, exposing students—especially high school students, who are ready to make their education their own—to great works of art must be the beginning of any study of the humanities. A literature class must begin not with a study of iambic pentameter or the difference between a simile and a metaphor but with introducing students to beautiful stories, poetry, and plays. It’s sad to say that this doesn’t always happen. The first thing that comes to students’ mind, when they reflect back on a year of high school English, should be the two or three novels that stood out to them, or perhaps a few lines of a sonnet, or a powerful scene from a play. Unfortunately, from my experience, it’s frequently the definitions of various literary terms, or a few funny-sounding vocabulary words that they can recall from their workbooks.

Perhaps the connection between beauty and learning is most clearly seen in music education. A student of jazz does not learn to play his instrument well by memorizing scales and rhythms and reharmonization techniques. To learn how to play jazz one must first listen to jazz, and good jazz, to giants like Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. If a student is not moved by the beauty of this music, he will never get anywhere as a musician. His skills will never transcend the wooden routines of practice. If he is moved, however, he will desire to be a part of this art himself, and so the skills that he will acquire through practice—the scales and rhythms and reharmonizations—will always be contextualized by the beauty of the art form. And a jazz student will constantly be applying these skills to his own performance. Learning the harmonic minor scale, for instance, is not simply a skill to have but a way to sound beautiful when playing over a set of particular chord changes. As I’ve seen in my involvement with the music program at my own high school, great musicians, and great bands, are not necessarily the ones who practice the most but the ones who listen the most. Listening to great music comes first; practice follows.

Beauty and desire are by nature immeasurable, unable to be chopped up and re-grafted into educational standards. Certain things can, of course. Lexiles. Vocabulary. Grammar skills. Even reading comprehension, to some extent, can be measured and standardized. But, as I sought to explain through the example of my hypothetical baseball league, skills like these lose their meaning when isolated from those beautiful things of which they are parts.

The modern educational model is completely unable to devote time to anything that is not quantifiable. This is not surprising, for our culture has the same deficit. We can see this most recently in the conspicuous absence of literature from the Common Core standards. The assumption is that given the shockingly low reading and writing abilities of the modern student, we need to double-down on their skills. Is a student reading at a third-grade level in eighth grade? Drill her on reading comprehension by giving her informational documents to read and quizzing her on them. Is a student writing in incomplete sentences even though he is a senior in high school? Bombard him with grammar exercises until his head spins. 

So the logic goes. I wish I could say that there's a light at the end of this tunnel of madness, but don't count on it. We have grown so obsessed with data—not just our educational system but our entire culture—that I can't see it getting any better until it gets much, much worse.

Nothing will have a lasting effect on a student—especially high school students, positioned as they are to grow as individuals, as I mentioned earlier—unless that student desires to learn. And this is accomplished not by drilling them on isolated skills but by showing them their inherent unity in an art form. Contra the current model, the real way to combat student apathy and poor test scores is by exposing them to great art.

And so the role of the teacher, firstly, is to show students what is beautiful. For this reason we must keep ourselves close to great literature, film, music, or whatever pertains to our field. How will our students be moved unless they see that we are, also?

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