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Of Ideal Teachers, Part 1
May 23, 2007 - 7:34am

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My acquaintance Chaz and I were imagining an ideal teacher.

Actually, we’d been talking about the future, when I intend to move my family to some fallow farm and live an idyll of slow food, deep thought, and lazy fun. Chaz plans to quit the academic IT business in a huff and live in a pop-up camper back in the woods on our property.

We’ll call him “Hired Hand Charley,” and he’ll help me convert a dilapidated barn into the ultimate clubhouse for my boys, with big ramps built into it that will allow them to slide right out of their beds all the way down to the zoo room, or outside to the motorcycle pit, depending on which switch they throw. Then we’ll dig a vast underground tunnel system, just for fun. When it’s not being used, I’ll rent it to aging war vets and Cu Chi re-enactors, who will pop up like gophers from their holes to greet my wife as she returns from a hard day’s work at the university.

“Mrs. Churm, ma’am,” they’ll say in a mighty chorus and tip their hats in unison.

This talk of good ideas led me to tell Chaz how I invented the laptop computer in 1977. Granted, I never took a programming class, never even went in the locked room that held our high school’s primitive computer, which was the size of several filing cabinets and threw off as much heat as a Volkswagen engine. But I had a vision, back then, of something small—maybe the size of a notebook—that would let me “type” my school papers on a TV-style screen.

Even now, all it would take to make me as rich as Bill Gates would be a little help from my friend Dan (who’s a computer engineer), an investment banker, and a time machine.

The other thing about my little device is that it was to be a new kind of teacher, the one I’d always hoped to have. If I wanted to know, let’s say, the history of the Southern Baptist church, which was in my town, it could tell me. If I asked it to compare that to the history of the Northern Italian Catholic church, also in my town, it would start talking. I might choose to widen the lesson to the roots of Christian theology, and it would know to tell me hero myths from Bulfinch’s Mythology or Frazer’s Golden Bough. It would have pictures, videos, and audio to build context, or even better, a time machine that would take me around.

Let’s say boredom set in after the eighth iteration of the same phenomenon from different cultures. “Machine,” I’d say, “show me that scene in Apocalypse Now where Brando is sick in bed with malaria and wipes sweat off his bald head and wrings it from his fist like he’s squeezing a peach. That’s funny. I like that.”

The box shows me the scene, and I finish the movie.

“Wait a minute, machine,” I say. “Did I unconsciously choose that because it’s also a martyrdom story? I mean, Kurtz is the best and the brightest of his generation, and he winds up being hacked to death like the sacrificial water buffalo in the movie.”

“Duh,” the teaching box says. Then it makes me read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” (“Mistah Kurtz—he dead”), and any number of scholarly books and articles on everything from imperialism to narratology. I’d also be shown several movies, including Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness (a documentary about the filming of Apocalypse, with her husband martyring himself to art—hilarious and good), and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death .

The Internet, what with its “hotlinks” and “wikipedias” and all, is headed in the direction of my ideal teacher, but it’s child’s play compared with the purity of my vision of an effortless, always-reputable, prescient, well-intentioned, personal Socratic teaching-machine-box. Let me go on record now, in fact, and say I invented the Internet too. All I need to beat out Al Gore in this claim is a good publicist, and a time machine.

 

 

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