Monday, November 11, 2013

Lessons learned (#2)

A few months back, New Yorker magazine ran an article about an infamous, and still-controversial,  prep-school English teacher named Robert Berman. In it, the author relates his own experience in Mr. Berman's literature class, describing his first day:

"We waited in silence as he sat at his desk, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes and watching us from behind his dark glasses. Finally, Mr. Berman stood up, took a fresh stick of chalk, climbed onto his chair, and reached above the blackboard to draw a horizontal line on the paint. "This," he said, after a theatrical pause, "is Milton." He let his hand fall a few inches, drew another line, and said, "This is Shakespeare." Another line, lower, on the blackboard: "This is Mahler." And, just below, "Here is Browning." Then he took a long drag on his cigarette, dropped the chalk onto the floor, and, using the heel of his black leather loafer, ground it into the wooden floorboards. "And this, gentlemen," he said, "is you." 

Now let it be said from the start that there's something very wrong -- even slightly criminal -- about the indoctrinatory way in which Berman, the figure of authority on such matters, decrees to his students an established hierarchy between Milton, Shakespeare and Mahler. 

Nevertheless, this anecdote spoke to me as both a teacher and (perpetual) student.

Firstly, his approach is full of paradoxes. It's at once funny (the type of naïve, over-confident, wanna-be writers Mr. Berman was addressing probably needed to be put in their places) and harsh (it willfully tries to break down his students' self-esteem), fair (students of the arts need to know that, like everyone before them, they're starting from zero and have everything to prove) and unfair (it's a blanket indictment of each student's unworthiness). 

It illustrates a kind of a polarity inherent to teaching: the need to counterbalance, on the one hand, encouragement and confidence in a student's abilities and potential with, on the other, keeping his feet on the ground, preparing the way so to speak for that inevitable and devastating moment when he's faced with his own limitations.

Secondly (and more important still), whatever your feelings about Berman's humbling approach, it contains an important implication: To learn, one must have a certain degree of humility. Humility is receptivity, and receptivity is an open-mindedness that the person in front of you can teach you something. If you're convinced that you have nothing to learn, you probably won't. In all probability, Mr. Berman -- like most good teachers -- understood that humility is a prerequisite to learning. 

One thing I've learned is that an attitude of humility becomes more and more pervasive with experience. In fact, no matter how accomplished one is as a musician, there is always reason to be humble -- as the adage goes, The more you learn, the more you learn how little you know

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