Lining one wall of my home office, from floor to ceiling, is a collection of many of my best friends. No, it’s not photographic mementos from my past, it’s the hundreds of books I have accumulated in a lifetime of reading.
Embracing my inner librarian, I’ve even got them grouped by subject: history and military stuff near the window, then “how-to” books (mostly computer and business), then arts and culture, then religious and spiritual, followed by fiction and humor.
Some of these books I’ve had since I was in elementary school, and have followed me in a dozen moves. A lot may change as we grow and age; sometimes our lives seem to change like the weather, but the stories that shaped who we are seem to always be with us.
Stories. That’s what books are. Tales true or made-up (which can contain a greater truth). There are other ways to tell stories, to be sure. Songs, movies, television, even video games can carry a narrative and even a message. But none seem to have the same impact as reading.
I bring this up because as a nation we are spending a lot of time and conversation about our educational systems, running from pre-school to college. Generally, there seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction with the results and the expense. There is a lot of finger-pointing going on, which means (to me, anyway) that we’re not so much looking for a solution as someone to blame.
In a society in which individual initiative is so highly prized, we seem to be placing the least emphasis on the most crucial element of the educational process: the educationee, or student. The key factor in whether a pupil succeeds or not is the kid him- or herself.
Certainly, we know that kids who go to school hungry, or come from chaotic homes, or who have to work to help support their families are laboring under a greater weight, but there are plenty of examples of students from cushy backgrounds who snooze through history and English on the premise that, “Geez, this stuff cannot possibly be interesting or useful.” They don’t see the story.
If a student doesn’t grow up with a love of learning, he (or she) is going to find the time at school to look as much like a punishment as anything. If a kid doesn’t take pleasure from reading, that portion of their academic time spent in that pursuit will be the same kind of pedantic Hell that I used to experience trying to figure out polynomials.
The greatest teachers in human history have been story-tellers. Jesus, for example, didn’t just point a finger and tell the folks in Galilee to straighten up; He made His points in parables, or stories. Abraham Lincoln loved to illustrate a principle with a tale; Franklin Roosevelt saved England from Nazi conquest with his “Fireside Chats” which rallied American support for the Lend-Lease program.
When I think of the good (and bad) teachers I’ve had over the years, the ones that stand out are those who could (or could not) do what a good book does: spin a tale with a fundamentally entertaining and useful message.
I remember in particular one history teacher who made Russian history interesting by providing interesting asides and accents. I remember a biology teacher who made the study of life as boring as accounting theory.
As many of you know, I am also a college instructor. I don’t know if I am any kind of expert educator, having fallen intothis profession without much formal training. But I do know that when I can phrase my lectures in the form of a story, with living, breathing characters, some humor and a bit of dramatic tension, I see a much greater light of interest in the students’ eyes.
Former students who come back to visit (or I run into at Target) often say “I remember the story you told about …”
Stories don’t just entertain, they provide a context for information. They explain why you should care about something. Most of our textbooks (and frankly, too many teachers) can’t do this. In 30 years of teaching, I only found one textbook that was worthy of being called useful.
It’s not about dumbing down; it’s about smartening up what it takes to awaken in students a desire to learn stuff, and tell stories of their own.
I have shed myself of a lot of belongings over the years, but kept my books and been happy to do it. If I were hiring a teacher or professor or, frankly, even a president, I would be willing to shed a lot of the rest of the complicated vetting process and just say to that person, “Tell me a story.”