In the early 60’s John McCormick would stand in front of my literature class, his long, boney fingers tented in front of him, his head bowed in thought. Then he’d lift his gaze, look around the class and begin that day’s discussion about the nature of man. I’d never before thought of the possibility that we could all have some traits in common. I was fascinated, and that fascination has formed my life.
His classes were tough. The “nature of man” was the basis for analyzing all the literature we read – and we read a great deal. He assigned us books to read on our own according to the score we earned on a vocabulary quiz, and, I think, from what he knew of us personally. He assigned me to read Dreiser – Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy – the lead character of the latter reminded me, most uncomfortably, of my ultra-driven, social climbing father. But always the discussions in McCormick’s classes were filled with intense, philosophical questions. I had to THINK in his presence.
I may never have learned how to do that without him – I can think of no other teacher, even through grad school, who had such an effect on me. I was mad at him half the time because he pushed so hard, but he opened for me the world of abstract thinking. He also set me off on a career that’s lasted a lifetime. I was a college sophomore art student when I recognized an odd thinking practice – every time I learned something new I pictured myself in front of my class, a la McCormick, explaining, in his articulate way, whatever it was I was trying to process. I switched majors and have been teaching ever since.
Not only have I been teaching, but I’ve had embedded in my mind for nearly 40 years the goal of doing for my students what he did for me. I never worried about whether or not my students felt rebellious about my expectations or befuddled about our discussions. I’d been there; I knew that eventually it would all settle out in their minds. I remember standing in my kitchen ten years after leaving high school, and a light switched on in my head, “Oh!” I thought, (picture a face-palm here) “That’s what McCormick meant!”
In a way it was always he who taught my classes -- like I was wearing a WWMD bracelet – what would McCormick do? It was his voice that drove me to the Bible – his merciless questions and the time he assigned me to read Luke, John, Acts and all the Pauline epistles for one book report. It was his standards and his goals that formed my curricula. Instead of his voice, it was mine asking, “What is the nature of man?”
I’ve been awhile getting to my point: very few grown-ups open such profound discussions with our young people.
Probing too deeply into philosophical questions is not encouraged in very many classrooms – what if the discussion veers into God territory? What if the class begins to see that there is truth, that man is not essentially good? We can’t have that. Even back in the 60’s when I sat amazed in McCormick’s lit class he was always getting in trouble. Parents accused him of being Christian, being Communist, of expecting too much. He rocked our boats and not everyone appreciated that.
School literary curricula is now geared to 1) promote multiculturalism, and 2) appeal to the baser instincts of students, i.e. involve elicit sex and drug use, foul language and criminal acts. The truly great classics are no longer presented to our students. Gone by the wayside – even in college – are Dickens and Harper Lee and Shakespeare. If the work is adequately communist it is still taught – Sinclair and Steinbeck come to mind. Common Core is even pre-empting much of that by demanding that students read much more non-fiction. (Keep in mind here that non-fiction doesn’t mean true; it means it isn’t fiction – that’s all. Much of what sits in the non-fiction stacks is not provable one way or the other, but our children aren’t likely to be taught that.)
Even our churches push kids off into youth groups where they spend most of their time playing “trust” games and strumming guitars. We can’t have them asking any embarrassing questions, really thinking about things. What if we don’t know the answers? What if they ask if believing in Christ saved us then how is it we can lose our salvation? What if they want to know what happens to the heathen? What if they ask about sex? (McCormick told us it was, with the right person, as close to heaven as we can get on earth. Shocking. But we knew he was, amazingly, telling us the truth and that was all we wanted.)
And parents? I’m not in most homes, so I don’t really know why philosophical, biblical, moral discussions don’t seem to be happening anymore. I do know that in 3 decades in high school classrooms I witnessed a steep decline in the background knowledge of my students. There was a time when, if a piece of literature contained a biblical reference, half the class would recognize it and could explain it. Time was we could discuss the moral choices of characters in novels and be pretty much in agreement that bad was bad and good was good – not a deep thought but one that became more and more difficult for my students to grasp as years went by.
Parents are too busy making a living, which is getting ever harder to do. They are distracted about their divorce, worried about the mortgage, no longer sure they know which way is up. They, too, went to our vapid public schools. Who knows what has caused it, but I do know that intellectually challenging conversation is not something most students are used to.
I also know that when I gave my students the opportunity for such discussion – regardless of the level of the class – they jumped on it. Human beings are built to ask “Why?” We are constructed with a big hole in our souls that needs to be filled, hopefully with truth, but if not with truth, then with lies. It will be filled. When it isn’t then a driving need for a way to numb the empty feeling. Drugs, alcohol, sex. Teachers shy away from such Big Question discussions; I know that from decades of group planning sessions. Wisdom doesn’t see to be on the agenda, but wisdom is what our children need.
Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We need to do for our children what John McCormick did for me. Let’s start asking the Big Questions and start searching in earnest for the answers so that we have something really useful to teach.