Those of you with a literary bent may recognize these as the opening terza of The Divine Comedy. Dante's voice still lives for us, even though the tongue that spoke those words fell silent almost seven centuries ago. I first read these lines in high school, then grew to know them well in college as a medieval literature major. Since then I have returned to them many times, have even worked with my college professor on a multimedia version of the poem. I have wandered about Dante's beloved and hated Florence, walking the streets he knew; I have sat at dusk in the church he attended, watching shadows mount the stucco walls; and this July I shed a few tears for him in Ravenna, at his tomb. But I have never been as close to Dante as now.
For at forty-one years of age, and in what I hope will prove the very, very early years of the middle of my life, I, too, know what it is to be in a dark wood, where the straight way is lost.
By most measures, I have known my share of success. And yet without knowing quite how, or when, or why it began, it seems I am involved in the search for some new order, some new sequence of meaning which will make clear the way of the rest of my life. And, in truth, I am afraid.
I tell you this, not for your sympathy, nor for your prayer, but because I have come to believe that many of us may be feeling discomfited in these times of change and dislocation. And I hope my thoughts on this feeling of loss and my struggle to replace the old way with some new construct may provoke some insights, some reflection, that may result in the formulation of a vision worth working toward. For a journey like this requires a visiona vision rooted in reality so that we can actually achieve it, a vision with a clearly defined path so that we can take action, with mechanisms for support so that we are not alone when we grow discouraged, a vision that gives us hope for making better the world in which we find ourselves.
For the world we once knew has changed. The educational system we work in and profit by is under attack. At risk is not just our jobsmine as an educational publisher, yours as educatorsbut our whole value system. I've spent most of my career as an agent for change within the organizations for which I've worked. Change is desirable, perhaps essential in much of what we know as education. But we need to consider what we are being asked to change into. I've been worried lately ñ worried quite a bit about the voices I hear. Too often these days the loudest voices are those that argue for an educational system measured purely in terms of the bottom line. There's no disputing that schools should prepare us for productive lives, but educational productivity can not be measured solely by market forces.
What I find most chilling about the mercantilist argument is the language being employed. Our children are not units of production, our teachers are not industrial cogs, our schools are not factories. The amplification, the expansion, the deepening of the human mind cannot be measured by the tonnage extracted or the miles paved or in widgets produced per hour. Citizenship is not just about earning a wage, it's about responsible engagement with our social institutions. School is not just about transmitting job skills, it's also about transmitting our humanity to the next generation. The goal of the student should not be merely to connect with an employer, important as that may be. The goal of an education is also to connect the heart and the mind and the body and the spirit with the hard-won lessons of our past, with the insistent exigencies of our present, and with our fledgling dreams for the future. Such an education will help our children develop skills that will serve their employersand themselveswell. More than ever our society needs citizens with the critical skills of self-reflection, self-awareness, a sense of responsibility for one's self ; and the ability to form connections, to form community, with others.
This is a battle for the souls of our childrenfor their future, and ours. Let me emphasize that this is not just a rhetorical battle, for the paucity of imagination and the poverty of language characteristic of the reform debate can have a devastating effect. It was Wallace Stevens who said, What we say about a thing becomes a part of what it is. The language we use defines our thinking; our thinking guides our actions; our actions shape the world. And so, what we say about a thing becomes a part of what it is. The voice we use matters, it matters a great deal. If education speaks only in the language of the marketplace, it will, de facto, define itself in terms of fiscal transactions. It will view its human agents as units of commerce, and will seek as its end result economic gain. And while this sort of framework may describe certain types of education, it will not suffice for the whole.
There is nothing wrong with the language of commerce in itself, of course. I live in the commercial world, and the vocabulary used within it is appropriate for the work done there. But our Western social fabric is so interwoven with the free market perspective that we hardly know how to separate out our economic values from the rest of the human experience.
And that is precisely the task before us. If education is not just another state-run industry, not just one more measure of industrial outputif it should be more than a place where students are mere assemblages of job skills in bags of skinif colleges are not too hopelessly outdated to saveand if teachers are not simply extraneous to the whole process ñ then what should education be? What can it be? Parker Palmer, in his now-classic work, To Know As We Are Known, tells us "To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced." And by a community of truth, he means, "÷a rich and complex network of relationships in which we must both speak and listen, make claims on others, and make ourselves accountable."
This conference is concerned, of course, with the whole notion of community as it pertains to learning. The word "community" is heard a lot these daysusually in the context of something we have lost. In our highly mobile, highly mediated way of life, with a plethora of communication means at our fingertips, we ironically feel ourselves more cut off, more estranged from one another than ever before. Many of the traditional social institutions, from bowling leagues to organized religion, have seen a sharp drop in attendance numbers. Yet, the human urge for connection remains. We are hungry for each other, we are all seeking community, and of all the places to build communityour educational institutions may be the hungriestand may provide the most nourishing soil for growth. How do we go about the process of change? To my mind, the first step is creating a shared vision.
Steve Gilbert, president of The TLT Group and I are in the process of developing a workshop in which participants will formulate such visions. Our goal is to help educators link their individual visions of teaching and learning to larger institutional goals. That linkbetween the personal and the corporateis key, for while visions must begin privately, only when widely embraced do they become powerful enough to change things. We need only look at the history of our century to see both good and evil examples of the force a personal vision can exert upon the world.
So what vision can we develop about educationand our roles within itthat's worth working toward? Since humans first put stylus to clay tablet, it seems, we've been writing about what constitutes a proper education. Montaigne, in 16th century France, wrote: " [A student should be taught] ÷ what the difference is between ambition and avarice, servitude and submission, license and liberty; by what sign we may recognize true and solid contentment; how much we should fear death, pain, and shame.
Or as W.E.B. duBois wrote, a little closer to the present, The function of a university education is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.
Now, there's a goalan education which adjusts us to the secret of civilization; which teaches us about true and solid contentment. Education today all too rarely measures up to such high ideals. Too often, however, the mercantile gang, in their zeal, in touting their new, hyper-efficient, technology-laden vision, give little thought to what might be sacrificed if the system they propose replaces the institutions we know today. But as Steve Gilbert reminds us, when contemplating any change, What do we cherish and want not to lose?
One thing I cherish is the sound of the human voice. And one of my fundamental worries is that the voice, the presence, of the teacher is being drowned out amidst all the clamor. The free market gang seems to see the task at hand as a mere problem of transportationa matter of moving content as efficiently and cheaply as possible from Point A (the institution) to Point B (the student). My fear is that the teacher will be simply left out of the equation and will become a vestigal organ in some new educational beast. Education without teachers? It seems like singing without a voice.
But first, a confessional moment:
I am not a teacher, in the ordinary sense, though I aspire to that designation, and hope that my work in the future will be worthy of being called teaching. I am the daughter, grandchild, niece, cousin, and sister of teachers and I've devoted my career to educational technology and publishing. But until recently I had a very limited definition of teaching, and so I have set about to learn what teaching really is.
Reinhold Neibuhr writes: Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.
These words remind me that teaching is a supreme act of optimism. Teaching requires hope in some larger purpose, faith in ourselves and our society, and love for our childrenall of them. Learning requires hope in one's own future, and faith in one's ability to get there, and love, in the form of patience, to sustain the effort.
Even in these times of change and dislocation, of dire need and endless urgency, I am struck again and again by the abiding compassion and dedication of so many of the educators I meet. Our educational foundation rests on the defining element of the human speciesour ability to invest in our young, to make an offering of one's self for others in order to transmit our knowledge, our values, our civilization to those who will come after us.
Those of us in this room, I would hazard, are the products of rather successful educational experiences. We may have been exposed to a few bad teachers, or poor courses, or under-resourced schools, but we made it through with enough enthusiasm for the process to make education our life's work. How did we end up here? For many of us, I think it had to do with some one, some teacher (and I use teacher here in the broadest possible sense) who made a difference in our life. Someone who believed in us, and in our potential, who helped us see what we could bea voice that helped us find our voice. Someone who sustained us in our dark days of doubt, who gave space to and made endure our fragile fleeting dreams, someone who urged us forward even at the cost of letting us go. Goethe said, "Everywhere, we learn only from those we love."
I think it is the desire to give back to others what was given to us that leads us to be here today. It is the memory of that love ñ perhaps blazing, perhaps a quiet flame, or even buried perhaps in the ashes, but still an agent of fire within us, that moves us to stand up every day and try to convey something of our passion to others. Think back a moment to one of your most significant learning moments. (20 seconds pass). I can never forget Larry Danson's lecture on Twelfth Night, or Robert Hollander saying anything at all about Dante, or my art history professor pointing out the exquisite curl of the finger in a Flemish Renaissance Madonna. Or the American literature teaching assistant (the name is gone but her face stays with me) who forebore the atrocious organization of my Billy Budd paper, who saw through the lousy sentence structure to the content therein, and who gently urged me to learn the basics of academic writing.
I may not remember the exact words my teachers spoke, and over time I must confess that some of the content has faded, but at this very moment I can feel their energy, their passion, their heat right here inside me, as vividly I did half a lifetime ago. Parker Palmer, in the foreword to a forthcoming book by Mary Rose O'Reilley, writes: Tips, tricks, techniques are not the heart of educationfire is. I mean finding light in the darkness, staying warm in a cold world, avoiding being burned if you can, and knowing what brings healing if you cannot. That is the knowledge our students really want, and that is the knowledge we owe them.
My teachers knew that fire, they burned with that passion the passion that they brought to their chosen work and which they so convincingly conveyed to me that I, too, came to love what they did. What they gave me is immeasurable. They introduced me to the deepest and most abiding passion of my life: the artifacts of human cultureour history, our literature, our artthese scratchings we humans make in our passage, these nicks on the surface of time. My teachers showed me the larger world beyond myself, beyond my tiny frettings in this tiny moment of history I call my life. Thanks to them, my imagination slips out between these narrow bars of space and time, and wanders wide, visiting my best friends, my other teachers: Goethe; restless in Weimar; Ovid, exiled from Augustan Rome; Tolstoy ensconced in his dacha, or Dante as he wandered far from home. My teachers gave me the world; and they honed my faculties to appreciate it. In doing so, they gave me myself. And while it's late in the day and far too little, I want to show my gratitude, my love, for them, by learning to be a teacher, too.
Just a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading the September issue of Harper's in which Earl Shorris writes about the Clemente Center, a school he founded on New York's Lower East Side to teach the humanities to poor adults. Now, as you well know, the realm of the humanities is dangerous territory these days. Allan Bloom and other neo-conservatives have tried to keep the field within the elitist domain they inhabit; while the left has dismissed it as the politically incorrect domain of dead white European males. Shorris, though, argues that the critical ability that a solid grounding in the humanities imparts is the best way of empowering the poor. By learning about philosophy and history and art, the Clemente center students develop a heightened ability to reflect, and judge, and act. This critical capacity enables them to not be overwhelmed, as the poor too often are, by what Shorris calls the surround of force, but instead to become active agents in their own lives.
So, I read his article, and was profoundly moved, as I have sometimes been before when reading about great educators doing great things. So as I always do, I went out and bought his book. But because it was New York, and because I knew the publisher of his book, and mostly because I am in a dark wood and the straight way is lost, I called up Earl Shorris. And the end result of that conversation is that I am, at the age of forty-one, in the midst of my first formal teaching experience. I am helping adults learn to write at the Clemente Center. And so my education continues. The woods just got a little less dark. And I'm still afraid.
If Goethe is right, if we learn from those we love, and if love is the opposite of fear, then one might be tempted to say that real education can occur only when there is no fear. Indeed, learning flourishes where both teachers and learners are given enough space and freedom to risk, to make mistakes, to fail without fear of serious consequence. This is a lesson we cannot master often or deeply enough. Learning and fear are inimical. But I don't know if the converse is trueif teaching can only occur where there is no fear. I doubt it. Teaching, in fact, often seems to me to be a stupendous act of couragethe equivalent of performing a high wire act with no net in the nudelots of danger, lots of exposure, and the results can be either fatal or embarrassing, sometimes both. It would seem to me that the task facing educators is not to be fearless, but instead to heed my father, the football coach, who says, Everyone's afraid; courage is what some of us do with our fear.
As an embryonicand very scaredteacher, I need your help. So let me ask you a few questions. How do we teach? What stories should we tell? How do we connect more deeply with the past, so that we may better understand its lessons? How do we engage more fully with the present so that for our brief run, we make better that which we touch? What do we need to learn in order to face the future with confidence, with faith, and with hope, and with love, so that the generations who succeed us will look back on us with understanding, perhaps even with thanks?
In our vision worth working toward, let this be foremost. That teaching is giving, that learning is an act of love. Let the mercantilists figure out the productivity quotient for that. I'd rather be listening to Madam Butterfly, or looking at a Carpaccio, reading Dante, wandering the water-bound streets of Venice, or talking to you today. These are my passionsat least, the ones I can tell you aboutand I have my teachers, my friends to thank for each one.
You might be wondering, given my line of work as a director of new media, what role technology might play in this vision. For many of us, it may seem like one of the beasts lurking in the dark wood in which Dante and we find ourselves, yet another murky form that threatens us with torment and isolation. To some of us, it may seem the celestial paradise, the answer we've all been waiting for, if only the rest of the world would get the faith. I suppose I take a middle view: using technology today is like climbing the steep and terrible hill of Purgatorythe end result may be worth it, but it can feel like Hell right now.
But technology does have a rolean important onein my vision worth working toward. I want to believe it can be a means to help teachers effect the kinds of education we all need, we all deserve. New media excites me because it enables us to tell moreto hear moreto see more ñ to combine into one form, one work, the oral, gestural, and written traditions that we humans use to tell each other the stories of our lives.
Around the campfires of the past, our long-gone relatives gathered to express through their words and movements the essential truths of their existence. And then one day someone pulled a charred stick from a smoldering campfire and made a mark on the packed earth that was pleasing to her, and so she did it again and again and again. And so art was born. And with this greatto my mind, the greatestmiracle of the human condition came the ability to transmit experience beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the teller. When we read The Tale of Genji, when we see a Benin sculpture, when we hear a Bach cantata, we communicate with those ancestors of ours, and inside us, their voices are heard again. It may be the only form of immortality we will know, and it may be enough.
What most excites me most about technology, though, is its ability to connect us with each other. Technology doesn't create community, we do, but it does facilitate the process. Now we have the means to interact with the artifacts of human cultureif the author so desires it, we can even share in the shaping of the artifact. What's more, we can interact, not just with the artifacts themselves, but with the agents who created them. Having posted my work to the internet, and having heard back from my readers, I find the immediacy of the medium more rewarding than with any other form of authorship I know, except for being here with you in this moment face to face. It's the sense of connection that so satisfying. Connectionthere's that word again. I'm thinking again of those teachers who connected so deeply with me, who connected me so deeply to their passion, and I want everyone to have such connectionssuch good fortune. That's the vision I'm working toward. An education of connection.
Walter Pater, the Victorian critic, has a beautiful phrase for this exchange: To catch light and heat from each other's thoughts." It is this catchingthis connectingthat so illuminates what goes on between a teacher and a student. Technology gives us the means to extend and expand those connections: to bring the heat to more people, to bring people who might otherwise have stayed outside into the light. As E.M. Forster said, Connect, only connect. What better definition of education is there?
The promise is real. It is exciting. But it is difficult to achieve. We may find ourselves, as Dante did, in the dark wood. Our institutions may be under attack; our purpose, our methods under question; we may feel the straight way is lost. But we can not stay put, we must move, as Dante did, through the dark wood. We must climb that steep, steep hill. We will have to summon our strength, for this is an arduous journey. We will need courage, and hope, and faith in ourselves, and in each other, and in some still dim and distant future. We will need a guide, a teacher, to light our way just as Dante found his in Vergil.
We will need a vision to sustain us, just as Dante had his vision of Beatrice, the mortal woman who became his icon for the divine. That vision must provide us with a path so that we can see where we're going. It must provide us with supportin the form of communityto pick us up when we stumble on the way. As Parker Palmer says, "Community is not the collective identity of the crowd that cancels out all selfhood. Nor is it a mystic merger into a single, cosmic self. Instead, it is a network of relationships between individual persons, solitary selves, each with an identity and an integrity. That self is all any of us have to bring to this community."
And so our journey must start right here, our vision must initially be our own, and the process of making community must begin within ourselves. To quote Palmer once more: "÷ the transformation of teaching must begin in the transformed heart of the teacher. Only in the heart searched and transformed by truth will new teaching techniques and strategies for institutional change find sure grounding. Only in such a heart will teachers find the courage to resist the conditions of academic life while we work and wait for institutional transformation." [WHY WOULD WE JUST WAIT FOR INSTITUTIONAL TRANSFORMATION?]
And once transformed, we may find our way, not back to where we came from, for that is lost; not home, for we can't go home again; but to some new place, to somewhere better. And, like Dante, we're going to learn so much on the way.
As for those moments when the woods are dark and the straight way seems lost, my hope for youand meis to somehow find the presence of mind to take joy in being there. Such times of confusion often precede the most surprising discoveries, the most profound transformations, the most miraculous creations. From Dante's sense of loss came a work that has nourished the human species for 700 years, and seems good for a run of at least another millenium. The dark wood is a necessary part of any education. So when we find ourselves there, perhaps we should heed the words of George Bernard Shaw: You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something.
Learning and loss. Sounds strange at first to us, for we usually think of learning as incremental, as a process of addition. But another of Steve Gilbert's questions is: What are you willing to give up? When we learn, we must put aside ways of being that no longer work. As Parker Palmer says, "To learn is to face transformation." True learning exposes us, it makes us vulnerable.
So I ask you: "What are we willing to give up?" But let me ask you again: What do we cherish and not want to lose? As stated, I cherish the human voice, so I'll close today by listening with you to one of my favoritesthat of Kathleen Battle, singing a spiritual I think is appropriate for journeyinga small anthem, I'd suggest, for teachers, for learners, for makers of visions, for builders of communities.
A final thought: As we make this journey, our visionliterally, what we seewill shift its focus. Dante spends most of his time in the Inferno looking down. That's what he needs to do, for the footing is treacherous and the way is dark. Only when he emerges from Hell is he able to look upand what he sees overhead are the stars.
In times of change, we, too, often make our initial steps by looking down, because finding our feet may be all we can do in the dark wood. But with time, with hope and courage, with love and connection, with a vision overhead to guide us, and with a community of learners and teachers to sustain us, we will lift our eyes and find ourselves, as Dante did, ...disposto a salire a le stelleready to rise to the stars.