Unexpectedly I worked a final shift in a junior high school on Thursday, tending special-education kids during a commencement ceremony. It lasted only two hours but felt interminable, as every student had to be recognized for every non-criminal act he or she had ever committed. The music was good. We sat on the first row of the bleachers in the gym, next to the school band. During the brass-rich National Anthem, one of my kids started histrionically conducting.
A saxophone duo – alto, tenor – performed a spritely version of Philippe Rougeron’s “Marche Classique,” and a girl soldiered her way through Vivaldi’s “Sonata in E minor” on cello. The same handful of kids was recognized for special achievement in all the academic areas – math, science, history, “language arts,” music – and by doing so seemed to erase the arbitrary distinction between science and the humanities. Often, both gifts are present in the same individual. Three class speakers, all touchingly enthusiastic, told us how the eighth grade had changed their lives.
One of the qualities I most admire in the writing of Michael Oakeshott is his willingness to state obvious truths that have been forgotten or obscured by cultural or political fashions. I’ve been reading The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of his essays on education and its foes. Included is “A Place of Learning,” first published in 1975. I read it a few hours before the commencement ceremony, wishing to underline much of it. Later I wondered what Oakeshott would have made of the morning’s proceedings:
“Each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historical time, lapped round with locality. But school and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances and from the wants he may happen to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed. He finds himself invited to pursue satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for. They are, then, sheltered places where excellences may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble. They are places where a learner is initiated into what there is to be learned.”
With so many teachers and administrators contorting themselves desperately into shapes pleasing to students, to be their friends and win imaginary popularity contests, I felt fortified by a passage from another essay, “Learning and Teaching” (1965):
“To initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available to him much that does not lie upon the surface of the present world. An inheritance will contain much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. And to know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance.”