I originally posted this piece in 2012 to the group blog “Cooperative Catalyst” (a wonderful site where I first met David Loitz, John Spencer, Paul Freedman (of the Salmonberry School) and other amazing educators. Having just read another amazing article by Arthur Chiaravalli on his journey to gradelessness, I was reminded of the notion of teaching and learning as a type of economy. I’m reviving this article here as I’d like to think it might spark some discussion regarding the “economies” of education, especially given all the recent and growing criticisms of the “neoliberal agenda” in the realm of education. (See here, here, and, most importantly in our Trumpian world, here for more on this interesting critique.)
In a monthly meeting at my middle school, we were discussing the issue of grades and homework. I thought this bit from Prof. Einstein might offer some way of illuminating part of the discussion we were having, but it has led me even further down a wondrous rabbit hole, so far it demanded a blog post of me.
I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore. We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grow into good people. Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”
As regards Einstein’s observation, the assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.” Too often students do see study as a duty and only that. It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light: light for ourselves, but also light for the community. Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world.
You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing teaching as a gift. Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?” Which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing. The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
Hyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy. Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation): For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the “paradox of the gift”: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.
“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….” Tell me that’s not teaching. I don’t impart knowledge. No. It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.” Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience. Teaching is a strange gift, though, in that I feel no sense of loss, nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing. I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening the genius, if you will. And it is that sense of genius that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.
Back to Einstein, then: “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….” It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.” When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity. But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”
I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy–that one need not ever accept a gift. Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model where a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift. But oh! How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.