Mindfulness 1

The comment by Professor William in last week’s posting led me to think about mindfulness for this week’s. It seems to everyone that mindfulness is desirable. Why, then, do we find as little of it as we do? One explanation might lie in contrasting mindfulness with mindlessness and considering whether classroom practices lead to (or require!) the one or the other.  Let me establish the contrast with a number of examples.

To start at the beginning.  Do we tell our students as a lesson opens what they will learn during that lesson? If the answer is yes, we may already be headed in the direction of mindlessness. Curiosity is one of the teacher’s most powerful allies. Why, then, should we undercut it by giving spoilers? The usual answer is that we lower confusion by helping students see where they are going, but this is troublesome.

Consider C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka,” one of the high points on the last century’s high road. (Every now and then that road comes into view, thank God.) Though it thrilled me when I first read it seventeen years ago (in Alexandria, Egypt! It was written there), I have needed those intervening years to feel that I am starting to understand it. Imagine, then, the unthinking nerve, the banal chutzpah, of introducing the class to it by saying, “At the end of this lesson you will understand (cognitive domain) and appreciate (affective domain) ‘Ithaka.’” No, they won’t, but if they see their teacher cry as he reads it aloud to them, or if they enter the past imaginatively—Homer’s, in which Laestrygonians exist, or Cavafy’s, in which they don’t—they might be mindful enough to launch themselves on their own small journeys of understanding. It’s on such cognitive and imaginative journeys that they will find the mindful study of poetry and not by following a miserable bread-crumb trail to canned meaning. It would be better in students not to get the poem than to fake getting it, have the fakery ratified by a test that can’t distinguish between it and true understanding,[1] and then leave school thinking that that thin stuff was “getting poetry.” Fakery is a kind of mindlessness because it is as detached as inattention and because we drop it as soon as the occasion for fakery is over. Real understanding stays with us. It’s better to say simply that we will be reading a remarkable poem and let the students’ surprise be a little day-trip for them.

Having said all that, I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m one of those educationists who think that everything must be a Voyage of Discovery in order to be an object of learning. Unlike understanding, ordinary knowledge—the kind imparted by “didactic instruction” in Paideia’s terminology[2]—will not take us to the Shores of Many Lands. On the other hand, if learning Principle 19 of Strunk and White[3] helps students to parse Cavafy or to write a balanced sentence of their own, they will see such learning the way athletes see drilling the “fundamentals” as essential to their best performance in games and matches. No sporting coach would say, “All right, we’re going to play ball without practice because practice is boring,” and no classroom teacher should say so either. If drilling, conning, and grunt-work are mixed with production and the free play of mind, students will tolerate them (as they had better, says Flannery O’Connor[4]). The sort of mixing of kinds of learning that a coach takes for granted helps the players’ mindfulness at each one of them.

No teacher using Socratic discussion can know where his class will end up because no teacher can explore ahead of time with students the lacunae in their understanding that a particular discussion might reveal or fill in. The surest way to guarantee mindfulness in students is to tailor questions and discussion to their needs, and these cannot be predicted. Even the formidable Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase stops his questioning after Mr. Hart reveals and clarifies his understanding of a case. I should say especially Professor Kingsfield because as a (somewhat scary) Socratic teacher, he should and does know what questions are called for and what ones are not. The tutors at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, who conduct colloquia on excellent books, spend a great deal of time planning their first question to the class, and somewhat less time anticipating its end. Because the discussion is alive, the participants are mindful of it and don’t drift off to the views out the windows.

On a less exalted plane my 10th-graders were once reading “The Outlaws” by Selma Lagerlöf. I had an idea where I wanted our discussion of the story to go, and I had wanted to concentrate on Tord’s guilt as he is pursued by phantoms. But a discussion takes on a life of its own even when the teacher is mindful of his aims. In an unsuspectingly inspired moment of discussing Tord’s guilt I asked, “Should Tord have told on Berg?” I think it was the use of “told on” that helped, but the class exploded with answers. Since the students’ answers needed justification by reasoning or by quotation, I had to tease out each student’s responses. (I use a visual trick as an aid with my younger classes. I make a chart with the students’ names and, as they respond, write key words or check/tick marks. The kids see my pencil poised over the paper until they have given a satisfactory answer, and then they get their mark, but sometimes they have to take responsibility for what they say by answering further questions, sometimes for further marks. If they talk baloney, no mark. Are they mindful? You bet. Sometimes one student will offer an important point, and classmates will sigh or moan because they had hoped to offer one like it. You do not get a mark for saying, “I agree with so-and-so,” unless you offer fresh justification or a new point of view.) Discussion continued for two days on themes developed from that one question. I could never have anticipated it and would have been a fool to say that we had to leave off the discussion because we had to move onto the next “objective.” They were learning how to justify views on tattling—tale bearing—snitching—squealing—responsible denunciation—and they were coming to grips with some of Tord’s complicated motives.

By contrast, my lessons on Principle 19 have a very clear aim, known from the outset, towards which all the exercises tend. I ask students to examine collections of sentences and establish parallel constructions where needed. I ask them to form sentences with parallel constructions, given certain facts or ideas that are to be shown as roughly equivalent. I ask them, if they are an able class, to read Dr. Johnson’s comparative criticism of the poetry of Pope and Dryden[5]and explain how it works. I mark Rule 19 on their papers when they make errors of parallelism after they have learned the principle. Because I include some correct sentences in my collections, they can’t rely on the comparative mindlessness of knowing that they will find an error if only they look, or guess, hard enough. And since the sentences require correction, not choosing among multiple choices given (away), they must really know their stuff. Does it help them in any way to hear me state, before they begin learning it, that “by the end of this lesson you will understand and apply principles of grammatical parallelism to writing”? Please! But unlike a lesson “in” understanding, this lesson has a beginning with a particular end in mind. Fine: let there be mindfulness here too.

The variety of tasks helps mindfulness. So do my questions: the students know that in order to pursue their thoughts I have to be paying attention to them, which flatters their consciousness and raises the stakes of their own attention.

As a last word this week I propose that a teacher with the best will and technique in the world will have little success with students who are determined not to be mindful in a classroom. I mean “are determined” in two senses: that they have made a determination and that their prior circumstances impel them. I hope soon to continue my discussion of mindfulness, including turning my attention to some difficulties that teachers have little or no control over.

[1] Such a test produces the “montillation effect,” and neither ratifies true understanding nor smokes out counterfeit.

[2] For a summary diagram, see page 7 of this PDF

[3] “Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.”

[4] Reading O’Connor’s pungent writing after a steady diet of Edspeak is like eating Sichuan cooking after a week of mush and milktoast. I’d much rather find myself disagreeing with a few of the things she says than reading something generally disagreeable and entirely dreadful.

[5] See the 4th paragraph of this extract from Johnson’s Life of Pope

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