Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The turning of souls: USM prof: Teaching is about spirit, not data

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Making an impassioned plea for humanistic considerations to remain paramount in our societal discussion about education and its continual improvement, University of Southern Maine philosophy professor Jeremiah Conway follows his own advice. He seeds his book, The Alchemy of Teaching (forthcoming in March from Sentient Publications), with stories of classroom encounters between students and ideas that remind us of an important, but oft-neglected, truth about education: It is no good if it merely teaches the young facts and tasks to be accomplished in the workforce. Rather, education must deeply and fully engage both students and teachers in the quest for understanding and connection.
Conway begins and ends with aspects of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus — and the Breugel painting depicting that myth's climactic moment. He inquires thoroughly into what the story might mean (see excerpt in sidebar) Conway gently, calmly, and unrelentingly shreds the data-driven mantras of the modern industrial-style education system.
His heartfelt tales of students young and very old transforming themselves — and their teacher — get to the heart of a distinctly European, even Renaissance tradition of education: that its aim is not to indoctrinate nor to cause memorization, but rather to excite, to enthrall, and, above all, to spark the human potential within each of us.
In constructing his subtle argument — for this is among the least argumentative examples of a persuasive essay — Conway marshals some unexpected forces. Among those making significant, and sympathetic, appearances here are a religious fundamentalist, a smartypants overachiever, a reclusive-silent type, and an elderly woman.
But there is more. A particularly impassioned section takes the interpretation of Nietzsche's nihilism in a direction even philosophy students might be surprised at. While the 19th-century German thinker thought the rise of lamentable decadence was the first step toward its subsequent dissolution, he wrote movingly inThus Spoke Zarathustra of feeling and thinking and sensing and processing deep within the body — "in the blood," as he put it. Conway's professorial but not at all dry explication of this section of the text leads to an account of how a particular class of his engaged with this idea; the deep soulful examinations that discussion entails augur well for Nietzsche's forlorn hopes.
Certainly more a work of thought and exploration than of diagnosis or prescription, The Alchemy of Teaching asks its readers to remember that those ancients who sought to transform base metals into valuable treasure didn't know exactly how it might occur, but retained their sense of wonder and certainty at the potential of the universe to deliver riches beyond measure. We, and all students of any age or era, should be so lucky as to in herit not only the scientific determinism of the alchemists, but also their mystic faith in the ultimate possibility: that all leaden pupils might, with care, attention, and not a little bit of liberty, transform themselves — and, perhaps, their equally lucky teachers — into golden pioneers simultaneously finding and creating new worlds.