Watch this video before you read this blog.
The action takes place in Tibet and is of a "school" for Buddhist monks. Students sit, teachers stand in front of their charge. Everyone is crowded together. No chairs, no walls, uniforms in the shape of saffron robes. The teachers ask the students questions. It is catechism, theology, philosophy: in short, training to be a monk. If the student answers acceptably, the teacher moves onto another question. If not, the teacher slaps his own hand loudly in front of the student, sometimes shaking prayer beads at them. It is a sign that the student has failed to answer adequately, and the teacher prompts them to think harder, answer again, strive for more precision or perhaps even excellence. The process lasts for hours. It must be exhausting, and stimulating!
This is education. Time tested. On-going for centuries. It uses no discernible technology. It has assisted in the preservation of an ancient, world-historical religion. It is part of the fabric of world-historical culture. And it endures notwithstanding electricity, computers, software and network systems. Strong and vibrant, in its homeland, it stands up to one of the great powers of the twenty-first century: the People's Republic of China, even though its leader has been in exile for decades.
This mode of education will not address the needs of millions -- if not billions -- of people around the world who want the substance and opportunities formal education affords. But observing this video -- taken by my wife in Tibet just last month -- reminded me of something essential about education: "it ain't worth a thing if it ain't got that swing." If it is not alive, vibrant, engaging, sometimes very frustrating and difficult, sometimes scary and exhilarating, it is not real education. Filling out a form to get a piece of paper, rote memorization and a spitting back of data might afford a credential, but it does not meet the standard of learning in my view, although I appreciate that sometimes those exercises are part of a process.
Transcendence. That is the singular word I would use to describe the heart of education. While I have many such memories of my undergraduate experience, having been exposed to some great teachers, Russell Peck and Paula Backscheider from English literature jump quickly to mind, I recall most distinctly the day I walked out of a seminar my second year, so completely lost in thought I forgot about immediate plans. I began walking, drawn to the river that bordered the campus. Trekking its not well-graded path, I turned ideas over in my mind, tested them against previous chucks of knowlegde, emotionally as well as intellectually alight with an array of emotions: fear, because I was breaking down previous totems; excitement about the new connections percolating; recognition that I was the engine of thought. I had enough "brass tacks" as my seventh-grade teacher, Sister John Margaret, called what I would now define as "the basics," that, prompted by inspired pedagogy, I could think creatively on my own. It was a psychological as well as intellectual experience. That feeling of transcendence was intoxicating, and I have been addicted to ever since. Grateful to the memory of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese for instigating that particular moment, and to all of my teachers, I relive this experience at the beginning of every new school year as the reason d'être for a career in higher education.
Happy New (Academic) Year! And watch this video for a little reminder of what it means to fledge as you launch yourself into this new year ...