The Perfect Class?

Few professors would probably admit it, but one of the things that propelled them into teaching was some hidden fantasy of the perfect class.  They would be standing in some gorgeous oak-paneled classroom with wooden desks fanned out around them. The lighting would be somber and come from large mullioned windows, through which you would see a beautiful quad and tree limbs scoring an autumnal sky.

In my secret fantasy, I am not so much lecturing as holding the room spell-bound with questions concerning justice, truth, the nature of reality and the meaning and purpose of life. And on the last day of this life-changing seminar, a lone student stands and slowly begins to clap. Then, student-by-student, the entire class rises up to join in a unanimous ovation as I humbly stride from the room with the barest trace of a tear on my sallow cheek.

This fantasy is self-indulgent crap.  

What you get is uncomfortable desks in military cordons, concrete block rooms and half-asleep students texting away in various slack-kneed poses.  Meanwhile, you're up front frantically searching for (and failing to find) questions or analogies that might engage or have relevance to the 19-year old mind. 

Then there was yesterday.

In the senior honors capstone we were discussing Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, his memoir and psychological analysis of the time he spent in various concentration and work camps during the Holocaust.  In discussing how fatalistic the inmates' lives became, Frankl recounts the "Death in Tehran" myth:

A servant one day encountered the figure of Death in his master's garden.  Death asked the servant, "What are you doing here when we're not supposed to meet until later?"  Terrified, the servant ran to his master and begged for permission to flee to Tehran, which the master granted.  Later the master also encountered Death in the garden and he asked him, "Why did you startle my servant earlier?"  Death replies, "I was only surprised to find him here when we were to meet tonight in Tehran."

There was, Frankl writes, simply no way to know if any choice made in the camps meant saving one's life or losing it. Consequently, choices didn't matter and the inmates came to accept that their end was either fated or it wasn't.  After puzzling over the myth for a while, I asked my class if this myth only applied to life in the camps or, in a broader sense, was there a kernel of truth in it that applied to any choice we make in life.  And if so, how could we ever be certain that we had made the right choice in life?

I've been teaching long enough to know when my material is killing or bombing, and this question wasn't bombing.  My students thought about it for a long time and then we commenced on one of the most stimulating and rich conversations I've had in 26 years of teaching.  It was a conversation that touched on all that they had read in the honors program: Hamlet, Oedipus. Lear, Tillich, Ellison...  We ended up ranging into the existential stance taken in Martin Luther King, Jr's, 1964 Nobel Acceptance Speech, in which King doesn't make a statement of faith.  Rather, he makes a statement of what he refuses to believe. He just will not accept that hopelessness is the last word on the human condition.

Wow, just freakin' wow.  We even spent some time tying these ideas back to my students' experience and their sense of whether they were filled with hope or despair about the future of their lives and our society.

I don't have any idea if the students had the same take on this class that I did, but I know they were invested in the discussion.  I'm also not sure why or how this moment came into being, or if I could ever recreate it.  Maybe after 26 years of teaching, I've peaked.  Or maybe this class was just one of those "thousand monkeys typing" things you hear about.  I mean you teach long enough and odds are something like this is bound to happen.

I just don't know.  But instead of lamenting that it may never happen again, I'm just going to be grateful that it did.


Anonymous said…
You totally deserve it!

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