One of the most liberating epiphanies that became clear to me  as a graduate student in the early years of my career was that, if students suceeded, I really shouldn’t take my role in their success too seriously.  If I can claim any role in their success, in fact, that claim more likely owes to the fact that I nudged them in a direction and empowered them to discover rather than that my efforts at direct instruction caused “knowledge” to distill somehow in their brains.  I successfully published an  article in the 1994/95 Louisiana English Journal developing such a thesis, the ideas in the piece based on my reading and understanding of the late Dr. Walker Percy, a Louisiana essayist and novelist whose work captured my fancy in those days.  I lately enjoyed re-reading the article that I hadn’t read in well over a decade, and here’s an excerpt that serves the point.

From “The Loss of the Teacher: Implications of Walker Percy for the Classroom”

Perhaps the best place to begin discussing the implications of Percy’s ideas for the classroom is the consideration of the title given this essay, “The Loss of the Teacher,” a metaphorical turn on the title of Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature.”  Percy makes some of his most direct comments on the shortcomings of the scientific-objective educationist bureaucracy in that 1958 piece, and most notably absent in the ideal learning situations he desribes is the teacher.  Using the example of an imaginary “citizen of Huxley’s Brave New World who stumbles across a volume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown ruins and squats on a potsherd to read it,” Percy goes on to explain that this intellectually-curious explorer has aconsiderably greater opportunity to discover meaning in the sonnet than would a Harvard sophomore reading the same poem in an English poetry course.  Why?

Dr. Walker Percy, a Louisiana writer from my home town of Covington whose ideas shaped my own in grad. school.

Dr. Walker Percy, a Louisiana writer from my home town of Covington whose ideas shaped my own in grad. school.

Because, as Percy explains, the Harvard student […] cannot see the sonnet with the eyes of the discoverer  because of the “educational package” which obscures the poem, which makes it harder to get at.  A principal component of this educational package, along with the glossy anthology, the freshly-painted cinderblock walls of the classroom, and the Curriculum Guide which specifies the presentation of this particular poem at this particular moment in the learner’s development, is the teacher, that purveyor of behavioral objectives who interprets the curriculum guide and assigns the poem as an object to be learned.  Huxley’s unwitting explorer, on the other hand, lays calim to the sonnet with a sense of sovereignty, or ownership, which invests the poem with significant personal meaning, even though that meaning may not be the same as the interpretation provided in the teacher’s canned explication.  Percy emphasizes the lesson of his illustration: “In truth, the biography of scientists and poets is usually the story of the discovery of the indirect approach, the circumvention of the educator’s presentation.”  Accordingly, the teacher who has not paused to consider how unimportant he or she might be in the learning process of students should be properly humbled.