Sitting on a Log

Back in the tenth century (CE), if you wanted the best education you could get, you went to Cairo.

This was at the height of the Islamic era of science: it was a period not unlike our own of the past century, where advances were being made frequently, knowledge was growing rapidly, and a sceptical demeanour in enquiry allowed for the setting aside of articles of faith long enough to explore a question.

When the student went to Cairo, he would pick teachers, as opposed to subjects.

The quality of his resulting credentials depended on his performance, and who had been his teacher. (The material, on the other hand, was often inter-disciplinary.)

It was referred to as being a log, with a student at one end and a teacher at the other, engaged in an extended conversation, a natural outgrowth of the peripatetic methods of Aristotle back in ancient Athens.

Its last remnants did come to Europe, where, as late as the 1920s, it was still a practice in Germany for one’s supervisor to say, “ach, Sie benötigen ein Jahr mit Husserl” (you need a year with Husserl), and off the student would go, packing up and moving to Freiburg-im-Breisgau, to attend the university there and attend Husserl’s classes, before returning to his home institution to find out what log he was being sent to next.

Mass education, where most of us are expected to “go through the system”, makes this a more difficult approach to follow.

First, this is a form of “star” system: extremely good teachers with excellent reputations for their skill in awakening their students would be in high demand, and command the same kinds of incomes as do top professional athletes and entertainers.

(We already see this in universities for star researchers.)

Even a teacher with 99.5% of the same skill and dedication would make far less than that last 0.5% of the group!

Second, parents are unlikely to just ship their children for a year here and a year there — they might move for a good school (and often do) but they are unlikely to adopt a peripatetic boarding style, at least before the graduate school years.

Yet in many ways it is in the earlier years — in elementary and secondary education — that the experience of the student with a teacher who goes one-on-one with them, two people on the log, and really opens their minds to possibility and putting natural wonder to work that could make all the difference.

How could we do that? How could we fit that kind of mentored experience into the schools we have, not on a star system (you get the mentor you get) but the one-on-one deep experience that transcends a subject and becomes just an on-going joint exploration (and, in the style of a don and his or her student, a critic who hones verbal, written and analytic skills).

A modular approach could help achieve this, by making certain modules of one-on-one part of the available resources.

Perhaps a high school will pioneer this kind of support by trading in some of the “guidance” time that is there — good heavens, by Grade 9 the student has been exposed to no less than five years of “don’t do drugs, don’t have sex without protection”, etc. (surely we could avoid a sixth and mentor them, instead?) — and assigning one less class to one teacher each term in a department to provide the mentors?

Or perhaps an elementary school will see the wisdom in hiring a good French or Art teacher on a full-time basis (when they would normally be part-time), and using them as a mentor in the remaining hours of the day?

We could, of course (quelle horreur! if you are in the Teaching Unions or the School Bureaucracy) use interested outsiders as well. Why not use the older and experienced heads of the community as mentors in schools?

In other words, this dream of a real awakening for students is well within our reach. It only requires the courage to champion it.

I say “the courage” because it requires tilting at the system in two different ways.

First, the usual budget/union contract/not in the Ministry’s rules/etc. fight. But doing anything other than just following along and not caring about the students and the profession of teaching requires that.

The second is coming up hard against parents and society, many of whom don’t want little Jane or little Johnny to be different — and teaching them to really think for themselves and to think across subject boundaries will certainly make them different!

Still, how much latent creativity, problem-solving, reflection on issues and sheer energy would this provide our society?

Arnold Toynbee, in his massive A Study of History, talks about the essential role of the creative minority. This is, in the context of mass society, the “top” 1-2% at most.

Turn that into a top 5-6% – what “intractable” problems might we solve? Imagine the leap forward in how to live, eradication of social ills, creation of new and vibrant employers, etc. might come out of achieving an 8-10% creative minority in a society!

What we do in school sets the tone for how we live for the six to eight decades that follow that first morning in Kindergarten.

Right now, we’re failing. The weakness in society is becoming more and more obvious as a result.

Time to pick up a few logs, and plant a few students on them with a few teachers, while there’s time enough to see if it works.

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