Teaching, by the book (and movie)

It was only after finishing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie this fall that I realized it was the third straight work of fiction I'd read in which teachers and teaching figured prominently. (There was a similarly themed documentary film in there too -- see below.) I didn't consciously set out to sample the offerings; maybe headlines around that time like "Why Is American Teaching So Bad?" and "Rotten Apples: It's Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher" drove me to spend some hours with the profession's beleaguered practitioners, or maybe I wanted new insights into my own experiences at the front of a classroom. Never mind that none of the three books is about American teachers, or that none was published in 2014. What all reconfirmed is that there's inherently more (sometimes much more) to the teacher-student relationship than pedagogy, even if those doing the teaching are sometimes not inclined to act only in the interests of their students.
 
That's certainly true of in the case of Muriel Spark's best known work, with which Commonweal readers are probably familiar, and which doesn't necessarily do the teaching vocation any special favors--even if the title character's students learn a thing or two.
 
Those who haven't yet availed themselves of the novella's particular pleasures are encouraged to do so, especially as it can be enjoyed as part of a larger volume of Spark's writing from the Everyman's Library that also includes The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver's Seat, and The Only Problem -- works I look forward to getting to soon.
 
Prior to Spark was Stefan Zweig's Confusion. My curiosity about the author--Austrian by birth, dead by his own hand by 1942--was renewed after reading an interview of filmmaker Wes Anderson, who said he "stole" from Zweig in making The Grand Budapest Hotel. Confusion depicts the intense relationship that develops between a student and his elderly professor, who stuck on what's likley to be the final project of his career is also prone to fits of self-doubt and mysterious, periodic disappearances. Though the professor's secret becomes relatively easy to divine, passages portraying the characters' shared passion for their subjects help the reader understand just why the protagonist grows devoted to the man, whose voice in time almost literally becomes his own, eventually to be passed on through subsequent generations of students. 
 
The third book was Ha Jin's The Crazed, another student-professor story, though the setting--China in 1989, on the eve of Tiananmen Square--is probably the novel's most crucial component. Charged with caring for his ailing mentor, Jin's student protagonist hears in the scholar's demented outbursts and hazy anecdotes condemnation of Communism's distortion of learning, in which education functions as propaganda and teachers are party stooges. This gradual awakening forces the student to make a fateful decision, just as the anti-goverment protests that had been building in the background suddenly explode. Jin, born and educated in China, learned to write in English on coming to the United States after the 1989 crackdown and has gone on to win a National Book Award for his novel Waiting, along with two PEN/Faulkner awards.
 
Finally, Keep On Keepin' On, Al Hicks's documentary about jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and his student, the blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin. The sixty-six-year age difference (not the only thing that separates them) is no match for their shared bond of music, and the passionate, wandering conversations between the two -- often lasting for hours beyond midnight, as befitting makers of jazz -- are some of the best parts of the film. But then there is also the music, and the clips of Terry from decades ago (he played with Ellington and Basie and was the first African American in the Tonight Show orchestra), and the inspiring story of Kauflin himself as he tries to break onto the scene. When Quincy Jones--for whom Terry also played--appears, we find out that he too learned at the feet of Terry, stopping at his apartment on his way to school for a quick lesson or word of wisdom. What emerges from all of this is that it's generosity that often makes for great teachers, and that teaching is indeed a lifelong, two-way endeavor--resistant to quantification by metric, not necessarily ensured by standardization of method. An art, in many ways.
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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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