It’s been a couple of years now, since my dad died, and I learned things from him, good and bad, as is done by all people everywhere in all relations- but he would say, in either case, its a “learning experience”, which would turn even the bad into something useful. That’s exactly the kind of platitude that would drive me crazy, but now resonates with me as a mantra in my role as a teacher, parent, spouse, and yet the offspring of someone in this place.
Mom was talking last night with one of my colleagues who just recently completed her PhD, about how she helped dad by typing his many hundreds of pages dissertation. It’s a story like many that I’ve heard many times, which becomes more valuable with each telling, stories like a favorite tune that plays on the last radio station that will play it, that I know I am inexorably getting farther and farther away from.
Today I remembered when one of my father’s professors from Northwestern visited us at my folks’ place. He was into his 90’s, and had been the sole reason my father got his PhD in geology, dad had told me that it was this man’s passion for the subject that gave him his passion for his choice. It was amazing to me that this guy came to visit, so many years later.
I think of this in my own teaching, that beyond the curricula there is the passing of the desire to learn. The modern age of “learning to pass the test” forgets this, in fact betrays this. I think of this quote from Einstein: “It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry.”.
The passion for living isn’t found in the filling of roles, but in the adventure of life, and the excitement of learning. Learning is not the passing of information, the connections that come together create something new, in each person who makes those discoveries. For me, teaching is about this: the free thinking of people who live in a free society. The passing of that flame is the joy of life, that each person holds infinite possibilities of limitless direction, their own direction, not the learning of skills to fill a spot that was left empty by the cog that wore out before them.
I would like to be as my dad was for me, for my own daughters and students, to encourage their questions as adventures to explore. Life has not been done. It is this, it is happening, and I hope to feel its pulse and pass that connection. A new year’s toast, then, to the dead, and then to drink from life in their honor.