It’s easy to pay lip service to education. Show me a politician who doesn’t have an education plank in the old platform and I will show you genuine amazement. Education is a significant slice of the pie chart. That would be the pie of votes, money and power.
Who in their right mind doesn’t want everyone to have a good education?
“Personally speaking, I’m for a nation of mouth-breathers and dumbasses.”
Right. Let me go out on a limb. I think the quality of the systematic instruction we receive as Americans is awful. Most of us are not well educated. I’ll leave you with that thought for now.
My formal education took place in public schools, a private college, and a public university. Education was the family business. My father was a college professor, and my mother was a career public-school educator. My siblings and I racked up degree after degree. I’m pretty sure we all have at least two.
I wasn’t a very good student. Well, I was an excellent student until about seventh grade. I clearly remember my fall from academic grace. I’d figured out that, with a little effort, I could bring home a perfect report card. Then I realized with no scholastic effort whatsoever I could still make Bs and Cs.
My parents had unwittingly helped create a poor candidate for systematic instruction. (Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this: Love you bunches!) I could read and write before I started first grade. I had easy access to five libraries, including the one at Mississippi College, where my father taught.
The college library seemed to me the repository of all human knowledge. One day I encountered Carl Sandburg in the basement stacks. I think I pulled Carl off the shelf because his book was bigger than the other books. It was probably everything Carl Sandburg ever wrote jammed into one volume. It was like holding a heavy suitcase with no handle. I trucked it over to a table and thumped it down.
I read a poem about fog. The fog moved like a cat. Poem over. Pretty cool. And then there was a poem about Chicago. This poem was full of brawling and butchering and swearing and murder. Painted women lured farm boys under gas lamps, and gunmen ran loose in the streets. Lots of construction and demolition. If you didn’t like it in Chicago, they just laughed at you and kicked your ass.
You gotta be kidding me, I thought. Best. Poem. Ever.
It’s theoretically possible I could have met Carl Sandburg in person. He died when I was six years old.
But I think I did meet him that day in the stacks, which I always seemed to have to myself. Just me and 20,000 books and lots of unsupervised time.
To everyone’s consternation, my love of reading did not turn me into a great student.
By junior high, it had turned me into a rebel.
What was I rebelling against?
Whadda you got?
Clinton, MS, was a target-rich environment, as the peacemakers say. But it wasn’t easy to be subversive and get away with it, not when you’re taking on what amounts to the whole world.
I fully intended to get away with it. I was a shrewd, sneaky faculty brat. I didn’t have a motorcycle like Brando, but I had a succession of fairly indestructible Schwinns.
I saw no reason why I shouldn’t read exactly what I wished to read whenever it pleased me. I took books to school so I wouldn’t be bored. Now and then I’d be told to put away whatever I was reading and pay attention, but generally I was left alone.
This changed in high school. I encountered some teachers who knew what I was up to, which was, of course, the bare minimum of participation in whatever happened to be going on at the time in their classrooms.
One of those teachers was Mr. Sullivan. American Literature, eleventh grade. The book was The Red Badge of Courage. I was excited, for once. I knew plenty about the Civil War. I considered the Civil War and World War II personal areas of expertise. But the fiction I’d been reading was mostly science fiction. I wasn’t too picky. Any extraterrestrial, lunar or post-apocalyptic yarn would do.
Crane’s novel was the first piece of fiction I’d ever been taught by a competent instructor. Mr. Sullivan, wherever you are, good job! I don’t remember his exact method. I do remember we covered a chapter every class meeting, and I dreaded the end of the book, because then we’d probably be assigned something boring and the one interesting hour in my school day (except for band, which, thanks to Mr. Cohen, our beloved director, was always a blast) would be shot to hell.
But you know what? Mr. Sullivan followed up The Red Badge of Courage with Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” If Red Badge was a glowing coal of wonder, “Bartleby” was a chunk of diamond, or plutonium, or, you know, a roll of thousand-dollar bills.
Here you go, fella. You’re rich.
Herman Melville was a genius, I decided. I read the story again and again. It was the type of perfection you could not exhaust.
I want to be a writer, I thought.
It didn’t matter to me in the slightest these works were written in the 19th century. They were on the hard drive in my head forever, as real to me as anything I’d ever experienced.
That, I think, is effective teaching. That is education.
I doubt Mr. Sullivan remembers me at all, the spotty, shaggy-haired kid in the Cheap Trick t-shirt, army jacket, ripped jeans, and Chucks. I slouched a lot on back rows, and went into zero-affect mode when I was forced to speak.
Behind the laconic facade (a persona I worked for quite some time; one of my grad school professors regularly referred to me as “Mr. Terse”), things were plenty noisy. I’d always had books, but now I had literature. Art damage, here I come.
Perhaps Mr. Sullivan gave me an A on something I wrote about Crane or Melville. Maybe he even penciled in a line of encouragement: “Excellent work.” I honestly don’t remember. But somehow he let me know that I’d done well, that I’d succeeded, that I’d learned something worth knowing.
Becoming a better reader was the first step on my path as a writer. I soon discovered the path was more of a trail system, with dead ends and scenic detours and rock slides, you name it. But whenever I got stuck, a teacher or professor like Mr. Sullivan always seemed to come along and point the way.
I’m sad to say those kinds of teachers were far outnumbered by those who missed the point of education entirely. Some were just grinding out a paycheck. Some were well-meaning but ineffectual dullards.
The rest should have been parking-lot attendants. I had teachers who hated the job so much you were sure that one day they were going to start stabbing themselves in the neck with scissors, right there in front of the whole class.
I had teachers who fell asleep behind their desks and snored, teachers who did not care if you left class to bop across the street to Majic Mart #2 to buy smokes.
I sat in classes taught by drunks, Bible-thumpers, amateur sadists … I had no respect or pity for these people. They were strange and doomed in all the wrong ways, and I wanted nothing to do with them.
If you want to learn something, there are only a few ways to go about it. You teach yourself, which takes a tremendous amount of discipline and time, or you turn to a teacher.
Some of my best teachers weren’t professionals. No framed diplomas hung on their walls. They never would have survived in the tedious, bland, bureaucracy-infested environments we illogically expect to produce smarter human beings.
But they loved to teach, these non-pros who advanced my education. They burned to teach―
Hold up, it’s the teletype! Bing!
BRUSSELS, May 28 (UPI) ― Since 1889 to 2004, IQ declined 14.1 points among those from Western nations, researchers in Europe say.
And circle gets the square.
I talked to the Old Gunslinger the other day. We shoveled tales of woe back and forth via the miracle of cellular communications.
The Old Gunslinger had the most woe. He finished his tale, which was so horrible I can’t repeat it. Let’s just say it involved the words “crawlspace,” “jury,” and “catheterization.”
There was silence. He waited for my response. I sensed the O.G. might be perilously close to a full-blown psychotic freakout. He needed encouragement.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re quite right. That’s the way things are everywhere now. We run through the jungle into the eye of the zombie. We need machetes with high carbon stainless steel blades. We will crank ‘Masters of War’ to 120 decibels and chop their fucking heads off.”
A whoosh of white noise and then nothing. He was gone, but I was confident I’d be hearing from him soon.
As always, I am in awe of Mr. Hicks and his laser-guided perspicacity. Even if I wasn’t paid to read this, I would have.
Good stuff, John.
Bleak on the horizon. Hollow in the hall. But oh, yes. Holy Trick, Jimmy Carter, and Mr. Sullivan.