One night in the mid-90s, I sat transfixed by a performance of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. As the play came to its end, bright stage lights fading to darkness, houselights coming up, I became aware that no one was leaving the seats, each of us saturated in the story, still. As quiet as an exhale, we were that cherished moment at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
The performance had beckoned me to places uncharted. A vividly staged Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, paled as Bill Peterson and Cherry Jones inhabited complex, wildly met characters with truer, more resonant emotionality than I had experienced in live theater.
Soon thereafter, with eighty students of mine, juniors and seniors, I sat in the same theater again absorbed in the play. Its textured characters, so subtly different than the earlier performance, seemed to take us all to uncharted places. Many students were moved to quiet tears. A tale with little plot resonance had stretched itself into the chambers of their minds and hearts. And I, transfixed differently now, observed my students in an equally quiet awe. What was happening?
Somehow, it seemed, many of us were being stretched well beyond ourselves and into the spaces of other humans, however fictional. Into the narrative details of the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon and Hannah Jelkes, yes, but also into their complex psychology and emotionality. Our innate curiosity to understand beyond ourselves had compelled us into their complex plight, stretching us. And, it was exhilarating.
Years later, I am still exhilarated by the memory of the students’ faces during that performance.
Every student is curious, I believe. Not every student, I experience, reveals it easily. And, damning as it may be, perhaps we in schools have been teaching students not to reveal that curiosity.
Being a student and being a learner are two different things, and, like being tame and being wild, we are capable of both. Good students act with organization, responsibility, attentiveness. Good learners claw with animal curiosity.
And that curiosity can lead to the profound.
Profound moments are those that shape our future experiences. Such Night of the Iguana-like moments alter how we see the world — and our roles in it.
Knowing when a profound moment is occurring, though, may not be easy for the student to perceive.
Learning that is able to move beyond curiosity to profundity has a common ingredient: metacognition, or self-awareness, in the moment. One is aware that something special is happening while it is happening. And that self-awareness, not always natural, especially for adolescents, sometimes needs a light shone on it.
In one way or another, the humanist teacher prompts the student to reflect, “How am I to understand this moment, to value it today and perhaps later my life?”
Surely, all learning and teaching cannot occur at this profound, reflective level. Nor should it. This level of learning would exhaust everyone, making learners unable to live enough in the present moment to even be students. Too much reflecting too often too hard.
But, as the purpose of education goes, if the profound is not the transcendent goal of our schools, what is?
Facts, knowledge, skills, processes? Assignments? Test scores? Papers? Projects?
Something bigger must be.
Something much bigger, hopefully something stretching each human profoundly. Something meta.
If profound learning shapes how we see the world — and our roles in it, how does a school understand its efforts toward developing this transcendence? Does the school even think of itself and its purpose in this way?
Or, tied tight to a tree like an iguana through steamy Mexican nights, is the wild impulse to be curious meant to be tamed by schools?
Are schools to create tamed, responsible, organized, and attentive students who do good assignments, projects, and essays while marching toward good test scores? Is that to be it?
Perhaps nothing is more difficult — and transcendent — for schools than to nurture the balance between the tamed qualities of good students and the animal curiosity of good learners.
One way to tell if a school aims toward the profound, something somehow transcendent, is to examine the role curiosity plays in the school. Does curiosity exist as a necessary cultural and cognitive component of the school?
For the school that seeks harmony between the tamed qualities of responsibility, organization, and attentiveness and the wildness of curiosity, certain atmospheric elements exist:
- Mission. Does the stated mission of the school, and all schools should have one, imply curiosity as a necessity to its success?
- Intellectual Life. Do the following exist: a vast openness to experimentation and failure; a valuing of all insights, especially those born of instinct before evidence; a strong adult expertise softened by an even stronger adult humility, an acknowledgement by those adults that their expertise was forged by so much experimentation and failure?
- Artistic Life. Do the arts thrive within the school? [One casualty in the American march toward test scores has been the naive mindset that if a subject seemingly does not directly contribute to the scores, it must not be valuable, e.g., “A reading course contributes to reading scores, but how could a visual arts course possibly do so?” Exploring and expressing creatively serve exploring and expressing critically, and vice-versa. Limit one or the other, creative or critical thinking, and we limit the child’s opportunity for curiosity in both.]
- Behavioral Control. Does the school offer a discipline system that understands infractions in a human development context rather than a “gotcha” context, a consequences versus punishment context?
“Life is an unanswered question,
but let’s still believe in the dignity and importance of the question”
– Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams