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Commentary: Teaching In My Dreams

By Tom Dodge, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

I have a recurring dream. I call it the Dream of the Happy Classroom. All the students in my class are eager to learn, their notebooks open, pens poised to write. They bombard me with questions like, What are the possible effects of mental illness on the writings of William Blake and Emily Dickinson? Did William Shakespeare, who had only a grammar-school education, really write Hamlet? Is "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" Coleridge's poetic story of his unhappy marriage?

Such questions are stifled today, critics say, by the great emphasis placed on standardized testing. As if before TAKS, teachers spent all their time teaching the importance of ideas and questioning the status quo. Actually I don't remember ever hearing anything resembling an idea during my own schooldays. I can pinpoint when and where I first became aware of ideas. The mayor of Cleburne when I was a teenager had kids my age and his house was a favorite gathering place. One evening, the mayor came in after seeing a new movie, Written on the Wind. I asked him what it was about.

Instead of giving me the plot summary, he said, "It's about how too much money can ruin children and tear families apart." Again, with all due respect to my teachers, I believe they would have concentrated on the "facts" of the plot.

My college teaching career occurred before the advent of No Child Left Behind, yet most of my students hadn't learned that art is based on ideas and questioning the status quo. And they didn't feel comfortable with questions without definitive and absolute answers. Like today's students, they liked "facts" that they learned in high school, especially those without ideas attached to them. The only time I was assured of getting class discussions was when I mentioned Homer's purported blindness, Hamlet's indecisiveness, or Edgar Allan Poe 's drugs and teenage wife. Students would discuss these familiar trivialities so long as they were not required to assign a relevant point to them.

But I was easily bored by literary trivial pursuit. I believed that students, in order to learn, must see themselves reflected in what they read so they might question their own behavior, their aims, their self-perceived strengths and flaws. They avoided this, though, not just because it's painful but because their teachers were likely to have been too fearful of questions and ideas to bring them up.

This is nothing new. Ideas and questioning the status quo have always been dangerous. Presenting new topics, even, can be dangerous. The fear can be ridiculous. A teacher in Ellis County was once assailed by parents for showing Holocaust pictures. They didn't object because of politics but because the emaciated corpses were nude.

Can we trace this fear to Jesus and Socrates? Weren't both executed by the government for, among other reasons, teaching with ideas and questions? Maybe teachers from then on, knowing how this worked out for these teachers, decided that ending their career with a cheap watch and a plaque wasn't so bad after all.

My hope is that ideas will one day become a part of the curriculum, and the question mark installed as the official symbol of education. But, probably, it will happen only in my dreams.

Tom Dodge is retired from teaching and living in Dreamland.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.