Charles Dickens/Walt Whitman

Charles Dickens published Hard Times in London in 1854—that’s over 150 years ago. In the opening paragraphs, Dickens describes with fierce precision the first thing future teachers need to know. This is the fraught world of 19th-century English schooling, remarkably like the one new teachers will face in modern America:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!”…

The speaker, and the schoolmaster…swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

There is good news and bad news to keep in mind regardless of where you are in your teaching journey. The bad news first: You can’t be a wise teacher before you’ve been an innocent and naïve one, smart before foolish, experienced before inexperienced. Learning to teach takes time. You are a work in progress. Keep going.

The good news? You can hold onto your humanistic ideals as a teacher, negotiate the troubled waters of teaching, continue to grow, and learn for your entire life in classrooms. Committing to the task of continuous experimentation, investigation, inquiry, and study is essential. One way to proceed is to engage in an intergenerational dialogue with other teachers, a space for problem posing and problem solving, historical and theoretical considerations, storytelling and critical reflection.

There’s so much more to learn. Too often future teachers have experienced little more than a few courses in educational philosophy and psychology, the history of education, then the methods of teaching, and finally a synthesizing moment when everything is theoretically brought together in student teaching. This approach structures the separation of thought from action, rips one from another, and walls the mind off from the body, weakening both. It’s lazy at best, miseducative always. But worse, it ignores the humanizing mission of teaching.

The humanizing mission focuses on the humanity of students, multi-dimensional creatures with bodies, minds, hearts, spirits, and also hopes, dreams, aspirations, and desires. These are some courses we might have wanted to take in college: Turning Toward the Student as Fellow Creature (Not Dirt Bag of Deficits); Building a Republic of Many Voices Where Each Can Be Heard, Each Seen; Creating Community with and for Students and Families; Finding Critical Allies in Parents and Community; Developing Courage and Confidence; Becoming a Student of Our Students; Lifting the Weight of the World; Resisting Orthodoxy; Teaching Toward Freedom, How To.

There’s a message here, of course, about what is to be valued and hwy, just as the message in the existing standard curriculum tells us what is to be valued and why. I want teachers to resist the mindless and the soulless in teaching in favor of attention to the ethical and intellectual dimension of their efforts. I want teachers to be aware of the stakes, aware as well that there is no simple technique or linear path that will take them to where they need to go, and then allow them to live out settled teaching lives, untroubled and finished. There is no promised land in teaching, just that aching persistent tension between reality and possibility.

I want teachers to future out what they’re teaching for, and what they’re teaching against. I know I want to teach against oppression and subjugation, exploitation, unfairness, and unkindness. I want to teach toward freedom, for enlightenment and awareness, wide-awakeness, protection of the weak, cooperation, generosity, compassion, and love. I want my teaching to mean something worthwhile in the lives of my students and in the larger worlds they will inhabit and create. I want it to mean something in mine.

I want future teachers to commit to a path with a certain direction and rhythm: Love life, embrace your students, breathe in and breathe out, love your neighbors, open up, listen, love yourself, be generous, act and doubt, learn from your students, question everything, talk with everyone you meet, defend the outcast and the despised, challenge and nourish yourself and others, become a student of your students and allow them to become a teacher to their teacher, seek balance. I want future teachers to develop a wild and eclectic and dynamic list they can refer to when the night is dark and they feel themselves to be far from home. Here is Walt Whitman, in one of his many prefaces to Leaves of Grass, offering advice to his fellow poets:

This is what you shall do:

Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number for men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…

That’s a list to laminate and carry along in your backpack, a list to tape to your wall. It’s written to poets, but it stands as advice to free and future teachers, too, a nice start to our own lists. The important thing is this: Don’t let your teaching life make a mockery of your teaching values.

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10 Responses to Charles Dickens/Walt Whitman

  1. Lenny W says:

    Hi Mr. Ayers. I am a student at Lake Park High School, I wanted to thank you for coming in today. I was in the last group of the day, and your session was definatly my favorite out of all 7 speakers I listened to. I am definatly looking forward to either buying “Fugitive Days”or checking it out from the library (Im the one that asked about your book, if you remember)…

  2. P. McCarthy says:

    I am wondering why the left must politicize everything. Art, Teaching, Theatre, Poetry, even Religion: everything must be seen from the lense of the leftist politcal actor who is encouraged to throw off authoritative instruction, moral truth and higher expectations and reduce it all to the subjective cry of oppression, relativism and doubt. No wonder a dirty little secret shared by shrinks everywhere is that left leaning people suffer more from depression and anxiety! They have nothing but their own weak selves to use as a force against the maw of life. At least the Right have their Truth, God, Might and Country – maybe all false idols to the Left, but those idols sure do sustain and progress us forward into the void.

  3. c. atrox says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for reminding me of that wonderful Whitman passage. I am also reminded of another thing Whitman wrote in the 1855 preface:
    “Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.”

    Oh, and allow me to point out the “P. McCarthy” seems to be his own sad wanker.

  4. Tom J says:

    Why does ‘P. McCarthy’ want to “progress us forward into the void”? Bizarre….

  5. Renee says:

    This is wonderful. I hope that I will get a chance to read your books on teaching as well as a number of other educational philosophy books that are out there.

    I wonder,
    do you know anything of the DuPage Children’s Museum and their philosophies? (which, I believe, are much like the philosophies of many other children’s museums and quite akin to your’s)
    I’m curious as to what you think of such places.
    I think they’re amazing, and all educational facilities could benefit from some of their ideas and ways to implement the ideas.

  6. John Janski says:

    hey atrox,

    Yank THIS!!

  7. Adam Kuranishi says:

    I remember discussing this Charles Dickens excerpt in Honors Class. One of the most thought-provoking discussions from that class involved the story of the magistrate. The man who makes the decision to lift his lantern, thus bearing witness to the corruption that was hidden amidst the darkness. I can’t remember what book that story is initially from. Help me out.

  8. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Bill.

    -From a first year CPS teacher

  9. Dan Byers says:

    Bill I bet some of those police and service men you killed would have loved to read those books to thier children. I bet thier children would have loved to learn on the father’s laps. I did some reading,

    “I don’t regret setting bombs I feel we didn’t do enough…… do it all again… I don’t want to discount the possibility’

    By the grace of God America is going to rally and change the terrorism laws and statute of limitations . Petitions are in the works to be presented to laws makers. We sons and daughters of Vietnam Veterans and Vets (Iam Both) will watch you and that nasty whore you call a wife die in prison. If you feel the need to bomb anyone your welcome to try me at 2200 Richmond RD, Lexington KY.

  10. CharlieMansion says:

    “Facts ….” Billy do you teach facts about how many people Che’ butchered? Do you teach the facts about your past? Do you believe that someone without a JD should be a law school professor?

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