Students believe themselves to have accomplished quite the coup whenever they trick their teachers into going off on a tangent. On the one hand, I suppose I am content for them to believe this, much like Tom Sawyer was content to let his friends pay him to whitewash a fence. On the other hand, a good education is about shedding light on ignorance. I informed a couple of classes last week that classical education does not really acknowledge the existence of unrelated tangents.
When the good teacher launches off upon some lengthy story from his own past, he will observe his students smirk at one another. The students are under the impression that math is only about math, that theology is only about theology, that science is only about science (the teacher is partially responsible for this confusion, it should be noted). When the teacher’s voice takes on a certain tone, the storytelling tone, the students know it will be awhile before they return to their text, their problem, their equation. They believe they are getting a break from the task of learning. They believe that they have tricked the teacher into giving them a break. Often enough, the teacher is complicit in the trick. The teacher allows the students to believe they have tricked him. In fact, the break is not from learning, but a break from not-learning. Young people love to learn. If they are bored with the lesson, they are not bored with learning. When they trick the teacher into telling them a story, the teacher has actually tricked them into learning something.
It might be worth telling students that within a classical education, there are no “unrelated tangents.” When two or more people incline their hearts toward one another, the conversation which results will have a will of its own. A great conversation has a mind, a heart, and is no less capable of surprise than the people engaged in it. Is it not heartbreaking when a conversation is becoming lively and free and some dullard insists on “getting back to the subject”? Ours is a simple God, a God without parts, and so anything He has created is ultimately related to everything else He has created. If one wanted to be a little humorless about it, he might insist that “getting back to the subject” is some kind of metaphysical heresy.
After the smirking grins of self-contentment pass, the teacher gets to the heart of the story, and the students’ eyes opens a bit wider, they quit distracting each other, and they listen with open mouthed interest. Thus it behooves a teacher to curate his own life carefully, then. When he sings the song of himself, his students are most open to reproach, instruction, exhortation. For as fascinating as Paul’s epistles are, consider how much you would like a certain chapter of Corinthians to begin, “This one time, I was…” A good teacher should have a story about obedient Christian kids falling apart in college— which is actually about justice. He should have a story about a nasty breakup— which is actually a story about hope. He should have a story about quitting a job— which is actually a story about courage. He should have stories about flunking out in school and outrageous parent teacher conferences he has endured. A good teacher should be able to connect every virtue, every vice, every fruit of the Spirit to something twenty minutes long which begins, “Once, I…”
Students often feel as though learning a subject is compulsory, and they do it because they must. However, when the teacher strays from the subject, their interest is no longer compulsory, but free. The free spirit dilates wide, quits taking concern over grades and other slavish things. The student is at his most aristocratic when his eyes glaze over for a story, and the teacher is at his most powerful, his most persuasive. The truly brilliant teacher will cultivate the ability to begin telling a story in September and not finish until late May.