It's from The New York Times Magazine...
September 21, 2008
The Way We Live Now
By MARK EDMUNDSON
There’s a scene in the movie “Almost Famous” that, at least for my money, can tell you as much about good teaching as a term’s worth of courses at any currently flourishing graduate school of education. William Miller, aspiring rock journalist, is talking on the phone to the old pro, Lester Bangs. William is working on a profile of a group called Stillwater (whose music doesn’t run all that deep), and some of the band members have been softening him up — making friends with him. Don’t buy it, Bangs says, adding: “They make you feel cool. And, hey, I met you. You are not cool.” William has to confess as much. “Even when I thought I was,” he says, “I knew I wasn’t.” But then Lester Bangs opens up, too: “We are uncool,” he proclaims. And though uncool people don’t tend to get the girl (or the guy), being uncool can help you develop a little spine. It’s too easy out there for the handsome and the hip — their work almost never lasts. Then Bangs throws out his rock-Bogart clincher: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”
Bangs is filling the role of teacher here, and he’s a pretty good one in large part because he’s willing to be uncool and admit it. Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?
Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. The historian sees the election not through the latest news blast but in the context of presidential politics from George Washington to the present. The biologist sees a natural world that’s not calmly picturesque but a jostling, striving, evolving contest of creatures in quest of reproduction and survival. The literature professor won’t accept the current run of standard clichés but demands bursting metaphors and ironies of an insinuatingly serpentine sort. The philosopher demands an argument as escapeproof as an iron box: what currently passes for logic makes him want to grasp himself by the hair and yank himself out of his seat.
Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar. The philosophy professor steps in the window the first day of class and asks her students to write down the definition of the word “door.” Another sees that it’s hard to figure out how the solar system works by looking at the astronomy book. So he takes his friends outside and designates one the sun, the other the earth and gets them rotating and revolving in the grassy field. (For reasons of his own, he plays the part of the moon.) The high-school teacher, struck by his kids’ conformity, performs an experiment. He sends the hippest guy in the class off on an errand and while he’s gone draws pairs of lines on the board, some equal, some unequal. When the hip kid comes back, the teacher asks the class, who are in on the game, which lines are the same length and which are different and, as they’ve been instructed, they answer the wrong way. They’re surprised at how often the cool kid disobeys the evidence of his own eyes and goes along with the pack. A few hours later, at home, they’re surprised at how good they were at fooling their friend and how much pleasure they took in making him the butt of the experiment.
From the standard vantage point, these gambits can look like pointlessly off-beat things to do. But the good teacher knows that they can crack the shell of convention and help people to look at life freshly. The good teacher is sometimes willing to be a little ridiculous: he wears red or green socks so a kid will always have an excuse to start a conversation with him; she bumbles with her purse to make her more maladroit kids feel at ease.
Good teachers know that now, in what’s called the civilized world, the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, though ignorance will do in a pinch. The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness. It’s the feeling encouraged by TV and movies and the Internet that you’re on top of things and in charge. You’re hip and always know what’s up. Cool — James Dean-style cool — was once the sign of the rebel. But the tables have turned: conformity and cool have merged. The cool character now is the knowing one; even when he’s unconventional, he’s never surprising — and most of all, he’s never surprised. Good teachers, by contrast, are constantly fighting against knowingness by asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities. And they’re constantly dramatizing their own aversion to knowingness in the way they walk and talk and dress — in their willingness to go the Lester Bangs route.
Needless to say, teachers can get a lot out of unorthodox teaching, too. The person who had the idea of turning his friends into a spinning solar system wasn’t a freshly minted master of arts in teaching. It was Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most influential Western philosopher of the 20th century. Wittgenstein taught at Cambridge, where he argued with Bertrand Russell and terrorized undergraduates, but he also spent time as an elementary-school teacher. It was a vocation he took seriously. After the elementary-school teaching run, Wittgenstein went to work on what would become “Philosophical Investigations,” as original a piece of philosophy as the 20th century produced. In it, he was not unwilling to get down to basics. The former grade-school teacher wasn’t afraid to pose elementary questions.
But a lot of teachers want to be “with it.” How do you become a hip teacher? It’s pretty easy, actually. You emulate your students. You do what they do, but with a little bit of adult élan. You like what they like: listen to their tunes, immerse in their technology. In this way, you can get popular fast: but you’re also letting the students become your teachers.
The most common way to become a hip teacher now — there have been other ways; there will be more — is to go wild for computers. Students love computers; you get points for loving them more. I’ve heard tell of a professor — whose energy and ingenuity I have to admire — who provides his students with hand-held wireless gizmos that have a dozen buttons on them. (I understand they look like TV remotes — not a good sign.) Every 10 minutes or so, the professor stops and checks the kids by polling them on the clicker to confirm that they have understood him. Many other teachers have turned their classes into light and laser shows. Three-D glasses are around the corner.
In order to stay current, teachers have let students bring their computers into the classroom. There, behind the screens, they do many things, which may include taking class notes or looking up references the teacher makes. But then, too, they may not. Many teachers are afraid to ban computers from their classrooms. It will make them unpopular, unhip.
Granted, there are a lot of pressures out there to go the conventional, anti-Bangs route. College administrators seem to be almost universally in love with technology and with the professors who work it into their courses. There are always plenty of grants floating around for the teachers who want to jack up their computer content. At prosperous schools, a professor can usually snag a free laptop, provided he will make copious use of it in class. It sometimes seems that the more teaching the machine does, the happier it makes the deans who are in charge and the more rewards they will give to the professor. Is it paranoid to think that the ultimate aim in this game — however unconscious the authorities may be of it — is to transfer as much teaching responsibility to the machines as possible and so push the mere human instructors further and further to the edge? In the long run, the more the computers can do in class, the cheaper it will be. With universities learning more and more from corporations, and becoming more corporate in structure, it’s no surprise that bottom-line logic predominates.
But the Bangsian professor faces opposition from more than streamlining administrators. There are also the students themselves who, at least initially, love the profs who cater to their tastes and threaten to punish the rest when assessment time comes. If the professor is an adjunct, a part-timer or an untenured beginner, going the Bangs route isn’t without its perils. The word on the professorial street is that students want to be flattered: they want high grades, little work, copious access to snacks and the freedom to browse their computers throughout class. If you deliver those things, they’ll pat you genially on the head when assessment time comes, and all will be well. Defy their consumer demands, and you’ll burn. They will rip you in their end-of-term assessments and toast you alive on Ratemyprof.com.
There’s truth in this, alas. But if we repair again to that fount of pedagogical wisdom, L. Bangs (or his on-screen persona), it’s not hard to see a way out. When Bangs instructs Miller, Bangs doesn’t only mock Stillwater and the music industry and Rolling Stone magazine. He also mocks himself. He smiles at his own situation. In my experience, students don’t rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers. They rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers who take themselves too seriously. Students can’t bear being preached at; they can’t bear being addressed as if they were a town meeting.
They also tend to rebel against teachers who jump the tracks. As inspired a grade-school instructor as Ludwig Wittgenstein could be, he was inclined to pull the hair of students who didn’t get their math facts down fast enough. There were moments as a teacher when he seems to have become positively demonic — and then regretted it: at one point he ended up going house to house apologizing to his pupils and their parents for his classroom excesses. Eccentric teachers, for all their gifts, for all their inspiration, can be dangerous.
So do students really need these Bangsian instructors in front of them? Is the anticonventional, the anticonformist what schooling should be all about? Universities, one might say, should help socialize people; they should make them more fit to make their ways in existing society.
As someone writing his first tuition checks to a university, I think I can understand this view. We all want our children to thrive, and kids now also seem to want success — often in the most conventional terms. These desires are to be respected. But a college education is about more than acquiring negotiable skills and knowledge. It’s also about figuring out who you are and what you bring to the world. It’s about understanding that your existing self-conception may leave a lot of things out or may be radically inaccurate. People succeed best when they set themselves to doing what they love, and finding out what you love and beginning to get good at doing it are at the heart of a college education. Good teachers matter because they can surprise you out of your complacency and into new views of yourself and the world. Or — and often this is just as valuable — they can induce you to struggle to affirm intelligently what you’ve previously believed in indolent, unconsidered ways.
Those who are devoted to such teaching, or who want to be, can look not only to Lester for solace, but to a chaired senior colleague of his, someone who achieved yet greater distinction as an on-screen pedagogue. “Whatever it is,” Groucho Marx merrily sang in “Horse Feathers,” “I’m against it.” If it’s TV and cultural studies, I’m against it; if it’s computers and the hype that surrounds the wireless classroom, I’m against it.
You shouldn’t be against these things because everything that commercial culture tosses up is bad — it’s not. A good teacher is often a Groucho Marxist because the job is to provide alternatives to whatever is out there. It’s to provide an alternative to convention and conformity. Convention fits some people — but not all. (Maybe not even most.) In fact, even the most conventionally minded people often relish putting aside their conformity for a while and exposing their hidden sides. And here the genius of Lester Bangs-style pedagogy really shines through. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world,” he says, “is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.” When. Uncoolness can be a state that anyone slides into, a state in which we’re more open, vulnerable and susceptible to being surprised than when we’ve got the cold, deflective armor on. Teachers live for the moments when their students — and they themselves — cast off the breastplates and iron masks and open up. And good teachers are always ready for those moments to occur.
“I’m glad you were home,” William tells Lester Bangs after they’ve had their rock heart-to-heart on the telephone. Bangs assures him: “I’m always home. I’m uncool.”
Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. He last wrote for the magazine about Sigmund Freud and religion.