Thursday, April 3, 2014

Communicating a Love of Learning

Elizabeth Corey has a wonderful essay in First Things that every teacher and aspiring teacher should read. She describes the crucial importance of an inspiring mentor who's passionate about her discipline. Her essay is ostensibly about how to spark a love for the humanities in the hearts of students, but what she says applies to other disciplines as well. Here's an excerpt:
[I]n theory at least, any field, any book, any course of study, presented in the right way, can provide an entry point for the awakening of a desire for liberal learning.

For me it was a course in northern baroque art that focused on a study of Rubens. Most of us probably think of Rubens as a painter of women whose body shapes are now decidedly out of fashion. Like the rest of the class, I grudgingly began to look at the paintings, certain that I would always be repelled by their lack of accord with what I already knew, quite definitively, to be beautiful.

But as the days went by I underwent a remarkable transformation. The teacher explained the paintings in the context of both Flemish history and Rubens’s personal story. He showed us that the women in the paintings were not just bodies but Rubens’s wives, whom he had loved deeply; the children were his children, with names and histories of their own. He showed us the development over time of Rubens’s style, the debt he owed to the classical tradition, and the ways in which other painters subsequently built on his contribution.

As time went on, I grew to love the art—but more than this, the field of art history itself, and the professor too. It was not for his personality (austere and somewhat distant) or his looks (short and balding). It was for the vision and desire he had given me, perhaps partially without knowing it.

There have been others like this too, as there are for many of us once we’ve awakened to the joys of this kind of study. And there is no one model for it. Sometimes we develop a relationship with a particular person as a mentor, with whom we meet and talk regularly. These relationships may last for years, or a lifetime. In other cases, like any ordinary friendship, they die away after a period of time.

It is not even always the case that the person must take an intense interest in us, or we in them. At times we may simply perceive in a particular classroom a sense of “sacredness” that says to us: Here is what we should be doing.
Note that for Corey, and many others, too, I'd bet, the teacher who made such a difference in her life, who bequeathed to her a love for art and for whom she came to have such affection, wasn't particularly striking in the physical sense. What made the difference was his passion for his subject and his desire to communicate that passion to his students.

If you're hoping to be a teacher some day, or if you are one now, I think you'll find Corey's essay a very worthwhile read.