At one point in Making Sense of Us, I spoke of the inadequacy of language for being able to represent to others, and even to ourselves, the enormous significance of a sudden insight into the nature of our reality. In his lovely short novel Kleinzeit, author Russell Hoban represented such moments as akin to a personal conversation with a wonderfully conceived God, whose wry sense of humour was perfectly adequate to the task of showing Kleinzeit, the eponymous hero, just how lucky he was to experience them.
Since in my own book I did not explore the specifics of the kinds of circumstances in which such insights might occur, I thought it might help now to recall three such incidents from my own experience, and celebrate them more publicly than I have previously been able to.
All three are events that occurred in my encounters with students during the time that I was teaching at the University of British Columbia over twenty years ago. All are marked by the personal honesty and courage of those students, each of whom took the risk of exposing to me their own doubts. When I think of them now, I also think of Alfred North Whitehead's wonderful statement in The Aims of Education that a teacher can do no better than reveal to his listeners what it is like to be "an ignorant person, thinking." Each of these students did that in relation to me, and I shall always be grateful for it.
The first remarkable person, Susanne, was at the time of our connection probably in her early twenties. Like many students first experiencing the challenges of a demanding profession, she was seriously questioning her choice of career, and doubting her own ability to respond to its challenge. Part of that challenge to her arose from her awareness that the very people from whom she was expected to learn were themselves capable of backing off from challenges they were unwilling to confront. She shared these thoughts with me over coffee during one of the breaks in my regular weekly seminar. "But, John, they should know better!" she said. We both knew that she was not simply thinking about her ostensible teachers. I was (and still am!) very proud of the response I was able to give . . . "So they should" I said,"but so should we all. The question is, what are we going to do about it?" (In retrospect, that's not a bad reflection on the current state of humankind, eh?) Susanne was a quick learner, and I didn't have to stress the point further. It is also a matter of great satisfaction to me that Susanne subsequently distinguished herself by her commitment and the subtlety of her understanding, and finally graduated with a superb record, and an end of the year prize for it. I am proud to have known her.
I'm afraid I have totally forgotten the name of the second student, whom I otherwise recall with great clarity. He also, I think, was in his early twenties, and his doubts were similar to Susanne's, although his personal tasks in relation to them were very different. The incident I remember most clearly occurred also in one of my seminars, this one at the very beginning of the academic year, when I was circulating materials about my course and its demands, and preparing students for what they could expect from me, and should expect of themselves. I can't remember the specific remark of mine that triggered my student's response, but I do remember both my sense of wonder at what he was able to say, and my own trepidation that I might not have an adequate response to it. It was, (and is still!) truly a moment to celebrate. "Why" he announced firmly, "should I believe you?" WOW! Again, as in Susanne's case, I was indeed able to conjure up a response that both accepted the importance of the question, and enabled its asker to go beyond its immediate significance to its larger context, and indeed the universality of the issues it raised. The important point, though, is that my student's taking on the risk of asking the question at all took our whole seminar group into an initial phase of work together that might have been achieved only later with great difficulty if the question had not been asked.
The third marvellous moment occurred in a somewhat different context. This was in the late 1970s and early eighties, when I was struggling to put together the ideas that eventually appeared for a wider public, later, with the publication of MSOU. In all of my courses I had the habit of requiring of students a weekly reading that would then be used by all of us conjointly for discussion in that week's seminar. After much heart-searching, I had at last decided to share my own ideas, rather than those of some other more distant authority, for I felt that much of what was considered authoritative in my field was based on assumptions that needed questioning. For my seminar's use I had circulated a very dense short statement that essentially contained the ideas that were subsequently to take a longer presentational form in the book. This was the context in which I was confronted by the reaction of the third of these remarkable people.
My student's name was David. He, too, was in his early twenties. I rather imagine the relevant incident occurred at some point in the middle of the academic year. David and I had already scheduled an individual tutorial session in which we would review our work together and his own individual learning tasks. The tutorial session had scarcely begun when David confronted me in no uncertain terms about my hand-out. "Do you really know what you are asking of us?" he said. Those of you who have read MSOU will probably share an instinctive understanding of David's response to the reading I had required. I was asking of my students, as I would later ask of readers of my book, that they take out and examine the very basic assumptions that all of us unknowingly make about our engagement with one another, and indeed with life itself. I was asking of them an engagement with themselves for which David felt that neither he nor his fellow students were yet sufficiently prepared. In part they were unprepared, of course, because the commonly held basic assumptions of many students at University were then, as unfortunately they remain still for so many, "Regurgitate what the teacher tells you, and you'll be OK." David's confrontation of me reminded me of the importance of the overall context of our encounter with each other, and it took both of us further into collaborative learning than either of us had expected.
Is there a common moral to be derived from all this? Clearly, none of us can be totally responsible for determining whether or when such moments can occur, but it's also pretty clear that it's we who can promote or sabotage the opportunities for them to happen. Our ability honestly to confront ourselves is a major factor, and we certainly have a lot to do with that . . .
It's in facing our own doubts that we enable others to encounter theirs . . .
Thanks for reading this!
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