by Jean Prokott
Part of my classroom décor involves 8 ½ x 11 laminated prints of quotations, in color, that line like a 1990s-inspired wallpaper border. These quotes are about art, or education, or books, or our existential place on Earth, no big deal. I'm not sure the students notice them (perhaps when they zone out they'll take a glance), and, in fact, I forget them, too; they've become omniscient words of brilliance that mean something only when a body needs them to.
Not long ago, I needed a quote about education to jumpstart a journal for my philosophy students. And, like a student I'd jokingly **tsk tsk**, instead of observing my environment, I Googled "quotes about education," which led me to Pygmalion playwright George Bernard Shaw's: "You have learned something. That always feels at first as though you have lost something." It sounded familiar. I glanced up, and there it was in the wallpaper, written in Georgia font with colorful floral flourishes surrounding it. It'd followed me from classroom to classroom since 2009, when Georgia was still an acceptable font choice.
The line comes from Shaw's play Major Barbara, which is perfectly British in that it hits you over the head with themes of morality vs. materialism. Spoiler: in the end, utilitarianism wins.
If I sit with the quote, it takes different forms. To learn something is to lose naivete. Naivete might be synonymous with innocence, or childhood, or even nostalgia, which makes the loss heartbreaking. Shaw is suggesting the antithesis of ignorance is bliss. Instead, he says knowledge is worth loss. And/or he's saying loss is not loss. And/or: anti-intellectualism is bad. And/or: have you seen Pleasantville?
The quote reminds me of an essay I teach in creative writing that students often love, called "The Things I've Lost" by Brian Arundel. The essay explores the literal and the abstract things we lose throughout our lifetimes, how the small and the large can be one in the same. On Brevity, an education piece by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood notes, "[part of Arundel's essay] is largely focused on beliefs he has lost, and isn’t that the sign of wisdom gained through life lessons?" Wisdom comes from loss, because loss makes us grow; the holes that come from loss need to be patched, and quickly, with the sticky substance of knowledge, which is defined in many ways: grief, hope, intellect, power, reflection. What we've lost is just as much our personal identity, our autobiography, as the things we are or the things we've done.
While this allows for lovely existential reflection, there are ties to education as well--how we learn/lose and how our students do the same. When I showed one of Third Eye Education’s founders, Heather Lyke, the quote, she gave me a perfect response: It's not about "best practices"--it's about "better practices." We have to let go of what we knew was best to find the next best--often there is something better.
There was a time in history when teachers of yore were very excited about worksheets, how they would help students become stronger readers. (I like to think of this conversation: "No, no, see--I'll leave blanks and the students have to fill them in.") There are times when worksheets are great--the blanks are a metaphor for loss, I mean--but I think consensus is that worksheets should never do the heavy lifting. We know now students learn better when they are creating and questioning and writing their own worksheets. Research does not reach an endpoint. We do not say okay, we won research! That's a wrap! Everyone go home! We learn, ∞. This is social science and hard science in harmony. Think of how dull the field of education would be if we ever reached a finish line.
Looking further into the quote's diction, I interpret "learned" in a couple of ways. "Learned" could mean enlightenment, or a simple fact, or both. (Another quote I have in my classroom is Afred Lord Tennyson's: "knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." You can memorize the formula, but the wisdom is knowing when to use it.)
And there are the words "at first that feels like you've lost something." But you didn't actually lose, did you.
At the end of our metaphysics unit in philosophy (how do we know what is real, how do we know what is True), I show my students a web comic from The Oatmeal (author Matthew Inman) that explains the psychological response when our Truths are challenged. (As educators, when our best practices are challenged.)
The first line of the comic reads "you are not going to believe what I am going to tell you." In the following panels, Inman offers facts that help readers judge the "barometer" of their reactions. In the first example, he considers what most of us are taught: George Washington had wooden teeth. We begin on common ground. Then, he offers a new fact: George Washington not only had wooden teeth, but in 2005, the National Museum of Dentistry confirmed his dentures also included "horse and donkey teeth." (Inman calls it a "petting zoo of nightmares.") He asks us to consider the amount of "friction" we encounter after learning this. Generally, a reader would think wow that's nasty, but it wouldn't impact what they think of Washington. The final fact Inman offers: Washington's dentures may have been made from the teeth of slaves. This fact causes the most friction, and we must consider why. This knowledge stings: a founding father crossing the Delaware, a hero, did terrible things.
Inman explains our friction by means of science: "the part of the brain that responds to a physical threat also responds to an intellectual one." If something we've stood by in the classroom is challenged, we react in the same way we would to an alligator holding a knife or an administrator sending a vague email to meet him in his office. Our core practices are a house, and a challenge to them knocks the entire house down, implying we no longer have any practices. Thus, our amygdalas tell us to defend it. But wisdom says: build a new house. It's okay. (Inman offers solutions in the form of a pinky toe.)
In the perfect way it's supposed to, The Oatmeal's comic forced a metacognitive gag reflex in me, that I, too, have a house of comfort/knowledge. To build a house is a lot of work, and it's much easier to reject the new information. "At first," I feel as though I've lost my entire framework of pedagogy. I "learn" to rebuild again and again. This also could move beyond self-denial. If someone you value and trust helped you build your house, to let it fall could be taken to mean that person once lied to you, or betrayed you. While this is not the case, it is the response our brain offers. I train myself to understand that no, my second grade teacher Ms. Henderson, who taught me lies about Christopher Columbus, has not betrayed me. It was 1989, and school curriculum had a lot of work to do. ("In nineteen-hundred eighty-nine, some wrong school teachers told us lies…")
There's a lot at stake if you change your mind. You have to admit you were once wrong. At the start of the pandemic, scientists said masks weren't needed, and then they said we definitely needed masks. While some took that to mean scientists knew nothing about Covid because they changed their mind, most of us took it to mean they were doing their jobs, and it was saving our lives. That new knowledge meant Covid was more serious than we thought, which was scary. That stung. It'd be easier to say the scientists were wrong.
In a similar way, society considers a politician, or a political party, as wishy-washy if they change their mind or platform. It is ingrained in us that changing our position is in bad form. Honestly, I'd prefer a leader (a teacher, a boss) who changes their mind when they learn something new rather than a person who clings to old ideas for the sake of "stability." I'd rather be the teacher, anytime, anywhere, who realizes she was doing it wrong. There have been lessons I've loved that I've put in the back of the closet because fresh pedagogy renders them weak. In fact, transitioning back to in-person from distance learning has made me realize there are a lot of things that need to go. All educators (and the whole institution) had epiphanies during that time, ranging from the achievement gap and equity, to building student relationships, to changing a test question, and it would be a shame if we left those lessons behind. I, sadly, learned a lot about how and why students cheat, which breaks my heart, but now I've considered ways to make my assessments more personal. I've learned students don't define "education" the same way I do.
What I arrive at, with Shaw, and subsequently with The Oatmeal, is learning is hard because learning is changing. I don't care for change much--I eat the same thing for lunch every day (a breakfast sandwich, a yogurt, and an apple, if you want to follow the English teacher diet--it offers nothing beyond not having to think about it in the morning); I have a tattoo of the delta sign to remind myself change is the only constant and often get mad at the tattoo for being correct. A tattoo on my other arm is the Wallace Stevens quote: "it was snowing / and it was going to snow," from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird." (It follows the line "it was evening all afternoon.") It is snowing forever, and in the process of the first forever another forever happens. You have learned something, you have lost something. You have shoveled, and there is more snow. The present and the future happen simultaneously. We are our best and we will be our best. This is what it means to be a lifelong learner, and this is what it means to lose.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.