Opinion » John Rember

Didactically Instructive

And curiously destructive

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Last week, Julie and I were at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. listening to "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life." It was a lecture delivered by Alison Gopnik, of the UC Berkeley psychology department. Dr. Gopnik didn't try to make the lecture live up to its title, which was a good thing. She did show us how scary smart 3-year-olds are.

We watched videos of tiny children figuring out how to make complex toys light up or play music. They solved problems of logic with astonishing speed and efficiency. Their thinking looked like magic. But Gopnik showed, step by step, how these children followed careful scientific method—hypothesis, experiment and conclusion—to understand how the toys operated.

It was delightful to watch, but toward the end of the lecture, Gopnik let it slip that children who were told how to work the toys by a teacher never figured out how the toys worked. Instead of allowing them to investigate, teachers could simply tell them answers, or even add extra meaningless steps to the sequence of necessary actions. The results were reduced curiosity, no understanding of what was going on with the toy, a lusterless following of dictated procedure and, to the extent 3-year-olds can express it, boredom.

I walked out of the lecture hall remembering that education is too often an exercise in closing off possibilities.

During my own career as a professor of creative writing, I've done my best to walk the line between didactic this-is-the-way-it-goes instruction and squishy everybody-gets-a-prize esteem building. Those are the Scylla and Charybdis of the discipline, and every teacher loses students to one or the other of them, no matter how benign his or her intentions. But I've mostly taught college and graduate students. If I extrapolate from Gopnik, the damage has already been done.

One way to look at effective college teaching—and not just in the arts—is that it's repairing the damage done by programmed curricula. That and deliberately keeping the answers away from people who don't want to have to figure them out for themselves.

Much of my time as a teacher has been spent talking to the students lined up outside my office door. Listening to their questions and keeping them questioning has been the most important part of my job.

Happily, most writing students don't come to clear up points of fact. Instead, they want to talk about big decisions in their lives—whether or not to become doctors or lawyers and practice their art on the side, whether or not to marry or have children, if it's worth it to go deeply into debt to finish their education and so on. In most cases, my colleagues have not advised on these matters.

I advise on these matters whether asked to or not, but I don't give easy answers. If you want to write, I say, don't go to med school or law school, don't marry, don't have children and never go into debt to pay for college.

My advice is mostly ignored. But I do get down-the-road emails about spouses, children, life as an ICU physician or a junior law partner, and struggles to pay off loans. "You told me I would be working 70 hours a week," goes one of them. "I didn't believe you. I would love to be working just 70 hours a week. I would love to just get some sleep."

I'm sure that email's author was once a curious, enthusiastic and wide-awake 3-year-old.

In an early essay on art, Carl Jung wrote that artists can't have a normal life because they're grappling with the unconscious and that takes all the energy normal human relationships would require. Later he changed his mind. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections, written at the end of his life, he suggested that being an artist is the only way to consciousness, the only way not to go through life both trapped in and oblivious to fate.

That has been the condition of plenty of my colleagues. Most avoid talking to students about anything but their specialty. One of them told me that when a student wanted to talk about life issues, he would reach for his pistol. But he had given up on curiosity and understanding by that time, not to mention happiness and a sense that he was making a difference in the world.

In his defense, some students are like black holes—they can suck up all the energy you give them and more. I have had plenty of students who fit that description, and yet a decent percentage of those same students have become successful writers and artists. It sounds a little creepy, but they were feeding the beast and my job was to help them feed it. My advice to young writers to stay single and free of a professional career was partly for the sake of the people they might marry, their kids or their colleagues.

But it was also to keep them from the easy answers to philosophical questions, or from thinking that there were any answers that didn't lead to more questions. When you think you've got it all figured out, you've reduced your horizon to a point. Your inner 3-year-old—at least the one who takes a delighted interest in things, who tests them and manipulates them and figures them out—has been replaced by a grim little adult, who is content with shallow questions, inadequate answers and a shrink-to-fit world.