By Ron Bergez
I began teaching when I was in grade eight at Our Lady of Victory School in San Francisco, and the third grade teacher– my sister in-law- used to let me sub for her math class when she had to be absent. I felt pretty clever. Later, after a dozen years teaching in various schools in California (and still feeling pretty clever) I took on a job as a Humanities teacher in a small charter school in Arizona. There I was given an article to read, based on a talk by novelist Flannery O’Connor, entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”[i] It led me to re-examine fundamentally what I do in the classroom. I haven’t been the same teacher since.
O’Connor says, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” A good story doesn’t just have a central idea or theme that the reader extracts, thereby “solving” what the story is about. Life and reality, in fiction and outside of it, are mysterious. Both operate at multiple levels. For me as an English teacher, this means that a book is not a puzzle to be figured out, but is a description of (mysterious) human experience to be contemplated. I must enter into the exploration – not the explanation – of each work, even each character, with my students. My authority is open to challenge: my experience may not be determinative. (There are students who know far more about various subjects than I do: any type of science; the higher realms of math; music; the list goes on…) The paradigm shift has taken getting used to, but it has been liberating.
The implications go beyond the seminars I used to lead on Crime and Punishment or the discussions of Beowulf that I look forward to with Western’s seventh graders. I sense a special significance of O’Connor’s humanizing perspective in teaching history: “[T]he whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” I can describe what people in history have done; can I presume to explain it all? (I don’t even understand myself much of the time.) Even as history is termed a “social science,“ other sciences also defy attempts to package in complete systems what are intricate, multi-layered, and truly wondrous realities, as Gilbert Highet so beautifully highlights here. The cataclysmic events and scientific insights (themselves intellectually cataclysmic) of the past century have shown us that the world and its ways have not become less complex as we probe more deeply into them. And If there is a school in which a sense of wonder is inseparable from the study of science, as it should be, it is Western Academy.
Writing about literature, O’Connor challenges those who believe that there is an art to teaching. Her insight holds truth for a teacher in any subject: “Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the practice of any virtue demands… a very definite leaving behind of the niggardly part of the ego… in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.” So much for feeling clever: it is not about me and what I know; it is about “the thing being seen” and its “demands,” whatever that thing or subject is. I hope to bring that perspective into every encounter with my students at Western, helping them to explore the reality and encounter the mystery for themselves. It has always been the case that my own eyes get opened just as surely. To the extent that I have learned to embrace, little by little, that orientation, I owe Flannery O’Connor the best years of my career thus far. From what I have already experienced of the values and people that make Western Academy what it is, I suspect that the best is yet to come.
[i] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1961) .