Friday, June 12, 2009

`Ideas that Can Be Enjoyed in Solitude'

Exhaustion and a sick headache are no reflection on the quality of my day at school. If anything, I’m likelier to feel lousy at the end of a good shift, as I did on Thursday – seven hours in a special-education room, two hours as bus monitor for the district’s elementary schools (the latter meant sitting by a telephone and looking authoritative). Most of my classroom time was spent with a bright autistic boy who rarely sits still or remains quiet, and who has an unformed, apparently unrecognized musical sense. He hears a melody and lyric once – “Roll On, Columbia,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – and proceeds to sing it straight, over and over, then improvises on the template. In the afternoon, I got him to settle down briefly by trading choruses of the hideous Bobby McFerrin song, for which both of us adopted a West Indian lilt. I was warned he was a biter but it never came to that.

Bad – that is, useless -- days come when I work with less damaged or undamaged kids (in the clinical sense), teenagers in particular. With them I score no victories and try to remember “Primum non nocere”—“First, not to harm” – the doctor’s credo. Diminished needs correspond inversely to their inflated demands. As a group they are sullen, self-centered, petulant and – most of them – marginally literate. Working with them holds no charms, so a kid like the singing autistic is a gift. My thoughts returned to him at lunch while rereading one of my favorite non-biographical studies devoted to a single writer – Shirley Robin Letwin’s The Gentleman in Trollope (1982). Much in debt to Michael Oakeshott, Letwin composed a work radically unlike conventional academic post mortems. She calls it a “philosophical study.” Her discipline was not literature but political theory and history, and in her preface she writes:

“I, myself, have come to think that the morality of a gentleman offers a more complete and coherent understanding of a human condition than any other known to me….If the reader finds that this book has made him acquainted with a new character, or enabled him to understand what before he could only recognize, it will have achieved its purpose.”

Trollope’s novels are of middling interest to me. My preference among English Victorian novelists will always be for George Eliot. But Letwin’s book reads as richly as a philosophical text by Hume or Santayana . Here’s the passage, from the chapter titled “Occupations,” that returned me to thoughts of school:

“Education helps to make a man more aware of the variety of responses open to him, gives him an ear for finer distinctions and for precision in the use of words, a realization of how much he owes to what other people have thought and done in the past, and fills his mind with ideas that can be enjoyed in solitude.”

This comes close to defining my notion of true education, with no mention of vocational training or marketability. What pleases me most, however, is that Letwin’s words apply with equal justice to my autistic charge (and some of his fellow students) and to me. There’s been no interruption in our educations.

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