January 1st of each year gives birth to a whole slew of good intentions. Its a great time of year–a time when we decide how we are going to make our lives better. Perhaps we are committed to reading more, learning a foreign language, and, of course, the ever present “shed a few pounds” resolution. We buy books, get language programs and join a gym, but sadly most of us then let our busy lives get in the way of sticking to the promises we make to ourselves.
Now I, too, make these promises every year. Sometimes I even stick with it!! (Somebody is already on Day 7 of Insanity workout…I’m just saying…). But today I want to share something with you that I feel always makes me feel good on the inside. Now I’m not an overly spiritual person, nor do I believe in pushing my beliefs onto anyone–nothing religious or political here. But when I find something that I think can really add to someone’s life, I like to share it with as many people as possible. I have given copies of this to all of my family, many friends and even some of my employees. This is a piece that came to me in college where my amazing ecomomics professor, Dr. Mike Ellerbrock, read this to the class. It is an English professor’s reflection on his fruitful teaching career upon his retirement. Did this have anything to do with supply and demand? Maybe so– on our own personal level for sure. But no matter what, it has stuck with me for the (ahem) few years I have been out of school, and I continue to share it today. I encourage you to share it too. Today we take a rest from baking, and resolve in this new year to also take care of what’s on the inside. Cookies are good for the inside too, by the way.
WHY DON’T STUDENTS SEE ORION?
Edwin L. Peterson
Professor Edwin L. Peterson, one of the best known and most celebrated teachers of creative writing in the country, has retired after forty fruitful and rewarding years of service on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh.
The editors of Pitt, quarterly alumni publication of the University, felt that this event should not go unremarked in the pages of their journal. For here was a man who has created his own best testimonies through both the writers and writing he has turned out.
So, instead of doing the usual thing-a recounting of his many accomplishments and contributions-the editors of Pitt asked Peterson to “roll a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and put down whatever random thoughts came to him, reflecting on almost a half century of helping young men and women express their thoughts.”
The result is a series of notions that contain something of the essence of a great teacher. Since a large segment of our readers includes both teachers and students at the university level, the staff of Review is privileged to share some of Professor Peterson’s “notions.” We suspect that even bench scientists—far removed from the classroom—may well glean something to help them “see Orion.”
Notion No. 1
Often I am shocked to realize that many of my students never see the heavens. They live in cities or in heavily populated suburbs, and the streetlights blind them to the stars. Mention Orion to most students, and they look at you in bewilderment. They have read about the Great Dipper, some of them, but they have never lain on the top of a hill and watched the constellation move about the North Star. Strange world that wants to put a man on the moon but that cannot look at the stars!
Notion No. 2
Even after 40 years I am still puzzled by the advice given to entering freshmen who have good high school records in writing. At almost every university the advice is the same: “According to your grades, Mr. Freshman, you must write very well. You don’t need any more work in composition. We’ll put you in a literature class instead.” But if the student has a good record in physics, the advisor says: “According to your grades, Mr. Freshman, you’re very talented in physics. You should go further in this field. You should probably major in it.” So the advice would go if the student were talented in chemistry or French or mathematics. But in English composition, the advice is, “You’re good at writing, so quit it.” I wonder why. I have been wondering why a long time.
All high school students could write better, even the best. All college English teachers could write better, including this one. Some college English teachers, I must admit, write very poorly indeed. Perhaps they, too, got the wrong advice when they were freshmen. It is even possible that some of them should be taking English 1 and 2 for the first time instead of teaching it.
Gladys Schmitt, one of our great American novelists, took English 1 and 2 and would be the first to say that the courses had value. A few years ago, Peter Beagle took English 1 and 2 and did not complain and yet he was good enough to write almost all of his fine first novels before he finished at Pitt. Why, when students are good at writing, are they told to take no more writing?
Notion No. 3
In measuring the student as a whole, grades seem less important than educators say they are. I am always a little suspicious of the straight A student. I am also a little suspicious of the straight A student in English or fine arts who cannot catch a baseball and who is contemptuous of the boy whohas muscle and courage enough to be on the wrestling team. A Phi Beta Kappa who says, “Who’s he?” when someone mentions Roberto Clemente is not, I suspect, a whole man. Grades do not measure integrity, endurance, manual dexterity, graciousness, truthfulness, or a profound attitude towards man’s duty in a confusing world. Some C students have these human and honorable virtues in greater abundance than the honor student. And some honor students admit that they got that way by frequent glances at a neighboring student’s paper.
There is much to be said for the C student. In many instances he is vastly underrated as a human being. And the B student is often a better bet to give something important to humanity than the A student. At Harvard, F.D.R. was not a Phi Beta Kappa, and Ernest Hemingway never was graduated from college. For that matter, neither was Tennyson nor Rosetti nor Browning nor Swinburne-though college students study their writing. It was Oscar Wilde who was graduated with honors.
Notion No. 4
Why do college literature teachers so seldom write literature? The good chemistry professor, I am told, tries creatively to add something to chemistry, the physics teacher to physics. Could it be that the science teacher tries harder to be creative than the English teacher? I hope not, but after 40 years I find that strange thoughts tumble around in my mind. That could also be a sign of senility. I’ll drop the subject.
Notion No. 5
Every college in America should have a course called Quietness 1 and Quietness 2. It would meet for one hour on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays. The classroom would be a tiny cubicle, large enough for only one student, and either dimly lighted or completely dark. The student would not be permitted to take books or paper or pencil with him. For the full period he would sit there and do a little thinking. There would be nothing to distract him. He would be alone with himself and the things he had learned and might come to realize the relation of each to the other. It would not be so good a class as the one Issak Walton described when he wrote, “We sit on cowslip banks, hear the birds sing, and possess ourselves in quietness,” but if the student came even close to possessing himself in quietness, the class could be the most important one offered by the university. Come to think of it, Quietness 1 and 2 should be an eight semester course.
Notion No. 6
I should not want a son or daughter of mine to rush through 4 years of college study in 3 years. Part of education, a vital part, involves reflection. A student must have time to think things over. It is easy to read Faulkner’s, “I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.” One can do that in a second. But mere reading is not enough. The serious student wants time to think about Faulkner’s statement, to weigh it, to evaluate it, to turn it over and over again in his mind until, if he accepts the statement as sound, it will become part of his life and character. To do so many take hours of reflection and aloneness. It may take weeks. It may take a whole summer of deep, if intermittent, contemplation. If the student, instead, merely rushes from one class to another and from one school session to another, he is not likely to be affected by Faulkner’s idea. It is easy to read, “I am a part of all that I have met.” It is less easy to absorb the idea and to become part of it. Anyone can understand the superficial meaning of “And never lifted up a single stone,” or “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young,” or “Sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” But to enter into their fullness and richness may take many solitary hours on a hilltop or many lonely walks on empty streets. College years are years for absorbing more than facts. They are the years for growing into wisdom, years when at least a few months every summer are spent not in study as such but in becoming part of all that they have met in college and out of college.
Notion No. 7
Once in a long while I have helped a student. Maybe I have taught him to write a better sentence or to recognize the difference between effect and affect or to look with greater accuracy at the ginkgo trees on the campus or to realize that his mother and father have problems just as he has or to refrain from making generalizations unless he can support them with evidence. Sometimes the student says thank you at the end of the semester or a couple of years later in a letter or a Christmas card. Once in a while he brings his girl to the office to show her off with pride. On rare occasions he visits his teacher long after graduation-as Bill and Helen and Mary do even now. These are big rewards. They help to make life worth living. They help to restore whatever faith the teacher may have lost in people. Teaching is a good job.
Notion No. 8
In my day as a student we “took” teachers, not courses. Today, I think, the student takes courses regardless of the teacher. The student may be right in doing so. Perhaps the content of the course is more important than the teacher’s attitude towards it and towards other things. And yet I wonder. It seems to me that I remember very little information that my courses gave me. Today I should find it difficult to translate a Latin paragraph, a Greek poem or even, I fear, a passage from Beowulf. I could not prove a geometrical theorem, nor could I quote accurately the second law of thermo-dynamics. Yet I remember clearly my extra curricular teacher of Greek, the world weariness of my Old English teacher, the geometry teacher who stared out of the window one morning and said, “Geometry is so right it’s a little like God,” and the chastening fear that entered my mind when my physics teacher explained the philosophical implications of the second law of thermo-dynamics, implications that altered many of my traditional religious concepts. Few teachers would have dared to interpret the fact or theorem as he did, and I am eternally grateful to him for doing so. Most of my courses and their content I have almost forgotten, but the few great personalities I knew as teachers I shall know always. I have a feeling that today students, especially undergraduates, take courses rather than teachers. I hope I am wrong.
Notion No. 9
The information presented in a course has little value unless it is so taught that it stirs up something in the student himself. “Music,” said Walt Whitman, “is that which arises in me when I am reminded by the instruments.” Great education and great teachers furnish many reminders.
Notion No. 10
In an institution as large as the university there are many complainers. There should be. I have done my own share of complaining, as department heads, deans, vice-chancellors, and even chancellors could attest. Usually the university has listened courteously and has done nothing about my profound recommendations. Probably the inaction was sensible. Certainly it inched me a little towards a much needed humility. Just the same, the university has been good to me. It has been friendly and kind. It has given me freedom. It has permitted me to earn a reasonably good living. It has helped me, more important, to lead a satisfying life. I only hope that somewhere along the line I have helped some of its students to find a few of the things that make life worth living, the good things that made Faulkner believe that man will not merely endure but will prevail.
Reprinted from AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE REVIEW, Vol. 5 No. 4, Fourth Quarter 1967. Published quarterly by Cooperative State Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture