This post originally appeared on the Christian Scholars Review blog, January 8, 2021, and is reproduced by permission.
I ended last year with some reflections on how to end a semester. Here I offer some reflections on how to begin one. They were provoked by a chance encounter with an introductory Spanish grammar text. It begins with these two sentences: “Grammar is one of the most difficult (read: boring!) parts of learning a language. Unfortunately, it’s something that cannot be left on the sidelines or learned as an afterthought.”1
As an opening gambit I think this fails educationally on several counts (quite a feat for two sentences). By associating “difficult” with “boring” it implies that learning needs to be fun to be satisfying, and so begins at the very outset to erode motivation for disciplined study. It projects a remarkably low opinion of the reader; the author apparently thinks I am an apathetic soul who only wants gratification and finds challenge tedious but “unfortunately” must study. This presumed disaffection is projected as normative. You probably find grammar boring, the opening insinuates, but do not worry, everyone else does too, even the teacher. If leading with pessimism were really necessary, other options might include: “Some people find grammar boring, but…,” or “You might not think of grammar as exciting, but…” That would at least leave open the possibility that others might think differently, that the failing might be mine or my instructor’s if boredom ensues, or that the subject matter could after all turn out to be interesting. But no, “grammar is…boring.” The material for study is, I am told, inherently uninteresting. This amounts to an invitation to practice projecting my own prejudices onto everyone else.
I suspect that this kind of move has complex motives. Perhaps there is some compassion for those students who have not thrived amid the preoccupation with grammar that traditionally characterizes formal schooling; if so, that is no small thing. Perhaps the intention was to downplay the topic to reduce initial fears; this, too, would be a worthy motive. But there are more constructive ways of couching either intention. I fear that overtly negative openers like this one are all too often motivated by a desire to construct common cause through a kind of world-weary camaraderie. If I, the teacher, fear that you, the student, place little value on what I teach, the path of least resistance is to fall in with your disaffection in an implicit plea for solidarity. Hey, you think this is tedious, but look, I do too, so we’re together, right?!? I evade having to muster the courage and hope needed to affirm the worth of something that others might denigrate. I protect myself from disappointment, or from the uncomfortable feeling that my students’ disinterest might reflect badly on me as an educator. I do so at the cost of making shared cynicism a basic component in the learning project. To soften the negativity, I couch it as camaraderie. As Marilyn Robinson observes, “I think cynicism is self-protective. It closes on itself. It can’t learn. And that kind of self-protection is encouraged in people so persistently that they don’t realize that they’re doing it.”2
Compare the opening page of another introductory language textbook.3 The Orbis Sensualium Pictus was one of the most successful school textbooks in history. Authored by John Amos Comenius and first published in 1658, it went through at least 248 distinct editions stretching to the mid-twentieth century.4 Here is the greeting to the student on the opening page:
In the image, a teacher and a child stand by a road.5 This is a risky place to be in the mid-1600s, but it does not depict a literal location for class. The teacher wears a pilgrim’s hat (he, too, still has a journey ahead of him), and the road runs from the tangled thicket and dark clouds of unformed nature into the narrow aperture defined by the teacher’s staff and robe, the marks of moral and academic authority. Its destination is the gate to the town, full participation as a well-formed member of the community. The child holds his hat, showing the manners and self-control that are prerequisites for schooling, and is embarking on a path of formation in intellect and virtue that will lead to service in the community. The sun’s rays form a template for the teacher’s gaze, his pointing finger, and the student’s inclined ear, signaling a divine presence that connects teacher and learner while allowing neither to be the ultimate center. As Comenius put it elsewhere, the roles of reason, virtue, and piety in education are “so joined together that at no time can any separation between them be admitted.”6 The accompanying dialogue begins:
M(agister): Come, child, learn to be wise.
P(uer): What is that, to be wise?
M: To understand rightly, act rightly, and speak rightly all that is necessary.
P: Who will teach me this?
M: I, with God.
This is a strikingly different opening gambit. Far from diminishing the learning task in hope of dragging the disaffected on board, it attempts a big-picture introduction to the purposes of learning and the path of human formation. We are one page in, and faith, virtue, understanding, and future service are already in the air. The challenge before us is a good deal bigger than getting through some boring stuff.
My point is not that Comenius’s image is beyond reproach (it is exclusively Caucasian and male for one thing) or that it would make a great intro to your computer science course. My aim in contrasting the opening sentences of these two language textbooks was simply to foreground the rhetoric of beginnings and the roads they imply. The first day in class, the first page of the text, the first words from the professor matter. They set a tone and trajectory. They reveal courage or anxiety, hope or cynicism, commitment to change or acquiescence to a perceived status quo. They imply the teacher’s values and the teacher’s implicit story about who students are.
As we begin, once again, to teach in a new semester at the start of a new calendar year, I think it is worth taking some time to ponder how we begin. What vision of learning is communicated by the opening pages of your textbook? What vision of students’ calling is implied by your opening words in class, the ones that are not quite in focus because you are just clearing your throat and have not turned to the “content” yet? What road into learning is implied by your beginnings, and how might you invite students to walk it with you?
(1) My Daily Spanish (2019). Spanish Grammar for Beginners: The Most Complete Textbook and Workbook for Beginners. Frédéric Bibard, 2019, p. v.
(2) Marilyn Robinson, interview in The Atlantic (2004), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/12/gileads-balm/303644/
(3) J. A. Comenius (1658). Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Nuremberg: Michael Endter.
(4) K. Pilz (1967). Johann Amos Comenius. Die Ausgaben des Orbis Sensualium Pictus: Eine Bibliographie. Nürnberg: Stadtbibliothek.
(5) For the following details and other aspects of the image, see J. Turner (1972). “The Visual Realism of Comenius.” History of Education 1, no. 2 (1972): 113–138; A. Bagley (2010). “An Invitation to Wisdom and Schooling.” University of Minnesota, http://iconics.cehd.umn.edu/OrbisSensualiumPictus/Lecture/default.html; J. Woo (2016). “Revisiting Orbis Sensualium Pictus: An Iconographical Reading in Light of the Pampaedia of J. A. Comenius.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 35, no. 2 (2016): 215–233.
(6) M. W. Keatinge (1907). The Great Didactic of John Amos Comenius. Translated by M. W. Keatinge. London: Adam and Charles Black, IV.2.