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Good Soil

I used to think of teaching as a kind of seed-sowing: you toss the little specks into the ground, lose sight of them, and pray they’ll sprout and flourish and bear fruit. But as I have been preparing my garden for this spring, I have changed my mind. Teaching is a lot more like cultivating dirt.

Dirt is the gardener’s all-important crop. Not just any dirt will grow plants. Every now and then, you might settle in a region that still has naturally rich soil, or you might move a pile of old leaves or firewood and have yourself a ready-made garden plot. But without proper replenishment, even these will eventually be exhausted, as is most of the dirt you’ll ever encounter. It will not nourish growing things; it must first be nourished itself.

So you have yourself some dirt. It probably consists mostly of clay or sand, depending where you live. Clay soil often holds stores of rich nutrients, for it is very retentive. But clay soil can be incredibly difficult to work, and its poor drainage and minimal airflow suffocate plant roots. Sand, on the other hand, is very receptive. Easy to handle, it drains water and circulates air just fine—and usually has next-to-no nutrients.

Aren’t learners often the same way? Some of us come into the classroom retentive but unreceptive: we have stores of background knowledge and skill, but little sense of how to use them, and our pride in merely having them makes us trust our self-sufficiency and resist being taught. Others of us come receptive but unretentive: with a teachable attitude, a willingness to learn, and very little natural aptitude, we smilingly nod our heads as the teacher’s words quickly filter through and out of our memories.

Thus students, and dirt, demand cultivation. Cultivation needs matter, labor, and time—three elements that work together in patterns as beautiful as Baroque polyphony. Take that miracle of gardening called compost. It’s extraordinary: you bring the leftover matter from your kitchen scraps, coffee grinds, paper shredder, tree trimmings, grass clippings. You laboriously arrange it in layers to speed decomposition. Then you leave it, and let time work its alchemy.

When you return in a few months, the scraps and trimmings will have vanished, and in their place you’ll find a mound of chocolatey-rich, sweet-scented crumbles resembling the mixture of butter and crushed Oreos that forms the crust of a decadent chocolate cheesecake.This marvelous material makes the perfect amendment for your soil. With it as the matter, invest a little more time and labor by mixing it into your clay or sand: it will make the former receptive and the latter retentive, and both rich in nutrients.

Matter, labor, and time are the basic elements of teaching, too, and the learning process is very much like making compost. It starts with good matter: fine music, the Great Books, beauty observed in nature. Labor is shared between the teacher, who gathers and presents the matter, and students, who must sort through it, make selections from it, and arrange it in their own minds (the classical/medieval interest in memory palaces makes sense here). Then, as the perceptions and experiences and ideas are layered and allowed to rest over time, they will molder together into new ways of seeing and understanding. These will enrich the students’ minds, increasing retention and reception, to ready them for growing things.

And this is where soil cultivation proves its worth, not only as the central task of gardening, but also as a metaphor for teaching: it emphasizes the fruitfulness of the garden over its productivity. Modern agriculture focuses on crop production over soil cultivation. Exhausted soil is boosted with fertilizers, then sown with thousands of rows of a single plant type, producing high yields but sterilizing the land. In much the same way, results-driven education teaches to the test in order to yield students who rank high on standardization, but whose minds are worked to exhaustion, unable to grow anything of their own.

By contrast, classical teachers say that education shapes students to become more human, to discover and create, to be culture-makers. To do this, students must be prepared, must be given the lost tools of learning—but they must also be given some freedom in how to bring that learning to fruition. Don’t give them a Scantron test, but craft questions that invite them to grapple with the nature of their subjects. Don’t force them to fit all their ideas to the form of a five-paragraph essay, but teach them how to fit form to their ideas through rhetoric. Don’t tell them what every symbol in the Divine Comedy represents, but show them how to journey with Dante and experience the force of his imaginative world.

Like good gardeners, teachers need to make dirt their first business, trusting that the rest will follow. Good soil is hospitable; it cannot remain sterile. It will become home to all sorts of living things—worms and beetles and toads and crawly creatures—and it will grow things by intent or by accident. I’ve spotted tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, kale, avocados, carrots, and celery jubilantly sprouting out of my compost: you cannot stop things from growing in good soil, and a rich leafmold in the mind carries within it the seed of all sorts of revelations.

But you stick to the business of dirt. Give students the joy of planting their gardens in patterns of beauty and fruitfulness that are uniquely theirs, that you could not imagine, and leave space for the great Gardener to work.

For cultivation of students and soil needs another element in addition to matter, labor, and time: reverence. The word “cultivation” comes from the Latin cultus, from which we get cult, culture, and cultivate; its meanings include both tilling and worshipping. From an ancient Roman point of view, of course, successful farming depended not only upon labor, but also upon rendering satisfactory service to whatever gods presided over dirt, plants, farming, harvest. But from a Christian point of view as well, tending the garden is man’s first vocation and original act of worship; we too depend upon the God who makes the rain water the earth, that it may bring forth and sprout.

Education is noble when it is reverently humble. We cannot ultimately force students’ learning any more than we can save their souls, and to pretend so makes education not only pretentious but base. Our great humble hope is that we may prepare the ground, that when the Sower comes, His seed will find good soil, bearing thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.

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