Thursday, March 26, 2009

`Nothing Was Too Difficult for Students'

The art teacher pronounced Wassily Kandinsky’s first name so it sounded like an adjective form of wassail: wassail-y? She told the fifth graders Kandinsky “painted what he felt, and he must have felt pretty happy.” She pulled a violin from its case and played discordant variations on “Tennessee Waltz,” a nameless reel and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and instructed the kids to paint “what they felt” as she played. Judging from the primary-colored messes on their desks, most were trying to pass kidney stones. In Watt, Beckett anatomizes laughter like this:

“The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout -- Haw! - so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please -- at that which is unhappy.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dianoetic” as “Of or pertaining to thought; employing thought and reasoning; intellectual.” So, which species of laughter was the most appropriate response to the art teacher’s performance? I can think of good arguments for all three: bitter, hollow, mirthless. Mine was silent but combined elements of each.

The poet-critic Mark Van Doren (author of excellent books on Shakespeare and Dryden) taught literature at Columbia University for almost 40 years. Students – among them John Berryman, Thomas Merton and Whitaker Chambers – remembered him as a brilliant teacher. In his Autobiography, Van Doren addresses the basic assumption behind his approach to instruction:

“From the beginning I assumed experience in freshmen. Perhaps the chief novelty consisted in my assumption that nothing was too difficult for students. Freshmen have had more experience than they are given credit for. They have been born, have parents, had brothers and sisters, been in love, been jealous, been angry, been ambitious, been tired, been hungry, been happy and unhappy, been aware of justice and injustice. Well, the great writers handled just such things, and they did so in basic human language men must use whenever they feel and think. The result, if no teacher prevents its happening, was that freshmen learned about themselves. And so did the teachers, at least if they read and talked like men of the world, simply and humbly, without assumptions of academic superiority.”

Teaching begins in mutual respect. Fifth graders are not Columbia freshmen but they deserve not to be patronized and treated like morons. Nor is learning a species of therapy. How Kandinsky felt – how the kids “feel” -- is irrelevant and ultimately unknowable. I admire the simple daring of Van Doren’s stance: “nothing was too difficult for students.”

1 comment:

Donald said...

Your "bitter, hollow, mirthless" laugh was silent in the classroom. Was this perhaps to do with manners and kindness? Do manners and kindness not apply in your writing? The teacher might have preferred a superior snicker from the back of the room to an exposure on the internet. (That's assuming the teacher's performance really was bad. I can't tell from what you're written if that was actually the case.)