TITLE: Trusting Students with Hidden Masterpieces AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 23, 2005 1:50 PM DESC: A scene from The English Patient reminds us to trust our apprentices to understand beauty when they see it. ----- BODY: When I first started thinking about applying for the position of department head, a former student asked me how I give up time from my classroom teaching, which is where, from his point of view, the best part of an academic's life happens: the A-ha! moment, when a student suddenly gets it. This particular student likes to teach just for those moments. I like the A-ha! moments, too, and will miss having more opportunities to experience them. (For the next few semesters, I will be teaching one course each term rather than three.) Sometimes, though, other things are more important, and I think this is one of those times. A-ha! moments are wonderful, but there is another kind of moment that I find as gratifying if not more. The movie The English Patient captures one of these moments perfectly; writer Ron Rolheiser describes just how in one of his essays:
In the movie, The English Patient, there's a wonderful scene, stunning in its lesson: A number of people from various countries are thrown together by circumstance in an abandoned villa in post-war Italy. Among them are a young nurse, attending to an English pilot who's been badly burned in an air-crash, and a young Asian man whose job it is to find and defuse land-mines. The young man and the nurse become friends and, one day, he announces he has a special surprise for her. He takes her to an abandoned church within which he has set up a series of ropes and pulleys that will lift her to the ceiling where, hidden in darkness, there are some beautiful mosaics and other wonderful works of art that cannot be seen from the floor. He gives her a torch as a light and pulls her up through a series of ropes so that she swings, almost like an angel with wings, high above the floor and is able to shine her torch on a number of beautiful masterpieces hidden in the dark. The experience is that of sheer exhilaration; she has the sensation of flying and of seeing wonderful beauty all at the same time. When she's finally lowered back to the floor she's flushed with excitement and gratitude and covers the young man's face with kisses, saying over and over again: "Thank you, thank you, thank for showing this to me!" And, from her expression, you know she's saying thank you for two things: "Thank you for showing me something that I could never have come to on my own; and, thank you for trusting me enough to think that I would understand this, that I would get it!"
I'm not in teaching for the kisses (if I were, then I would be judged a horrible failure), but this is the sort of moment that touches me deeply in teaching. Something like this doesn't happen all that often, but it happens as often as the revered A-ha! moment. And I think it is a better reflection of how a student-teacher relationship should be viewed. The best part of teaching lies not in giving the student new knowledge, or even helping the student to understand something complex or difficult -- though that's important. The best part is in helping students go places and see things that they wouldn't have gone and seen otherwise. I think that this is possible more often than we sometimes let ourselves believe. The key lies in the second part of the nurse's thank-you in the movie: We have to trust our students and apprentices to "get it", to appreciate beauty and elegance. We do more damage to learners by not trusting them than by explaining poorly of expecting too much. -----