Thursday, September 19, 2013

At Play in Pompeii

"And if there be a day when all shall wake,
As dreams the hoping, doubting human heart,
The dim forgetfulness of death will break
For her as one who sleeps with lips apart;
And did God call her suddenly, I know
She'd wake as morning wakened by the thrush,
Feel that red kiss across the centuries glow,
And make all heaven rosier by her blush."
     –from "Out of Pompeii" by William Wilfred Campbell

"O Muse, sing to me!"
     –from Book I of The Odyssey by Homer

For ages we have cornered accomplished men and women and pressed them on their pursuits.  What brought you to politics, Mr. Lincoln?  When did you first pick up the pen, Ernest?  Why did you take to the clouds, Amelia?  How’d you come to live in a jar, Diogenes?
The questions never end and the answers crowd bestseller lists and periodically even win Oscars, proving that, as a society, we seem desperately in search of that spark which provokes greatness.  Yet, the topic of inspiration rarely achieves notice in education.  If so many of the Great Ones can look back on a moment or an individual that urged them forward, why are we not more concerned with providing spurs in college?  The question of education’s end and the point of it all is surely a rabbit hole more convoluted than the current conversation permits, but, even in a small space, we can ponder why the notion of muses now seems as antiquated as the billow-shirted poets who once invoked them.  In Greek mythology the muses are known foremost as the inspiration for great works, but it is not by accident that they were also considered the source of all knowledge.  If the forefathers of western education knew that inspiration and knowledge were intimately and inextricably linked, why have we forgotten it?  

Let’s begin with a story.

As a freshman in college I signed up for an Introduction to the Humanities course.  Not necessarily because I was interested in the topic (although I was) but because it deftly fulfilled a pair of graduation requirements and allowed me to sleep in twice a week.  The instructor was a medievalist, a musician, a thespian, and a bit of a globetrotter.   She was also my first academic crush.  It wasn’t a physical thing; she had a good twenty or thirty years on me and the kind of couture best appreciated in Chaucer’s day.  Rather, I was smitten by her combination of smarts, spirit, character, and experience –what the Anglo-Saxons referred to as mōd.  Each Tuesday and Thursday I sat spellbound for an hour as she held court at the front of the room, and as I watched the sunlight cling to her, I daydreamed of living such a life.

On one day in particular, she was discussing the ruins of Pompeii.  Present, of course, were the traditional background notes, slides, and literary quotes, but in addition, and in quite typical fashion for her, she served up some personal experience as well.  It seems that whilst traveling Italy as a young woman she had visited Pompeii, and, having missed the bus, was forced to spend the night there alone, soul-deep in all that tragedy and history.  As she spun this yarn, her eyes bloomed and her voice grew quiet, pulling us forward in our wooden chairs.  Sotto voce, she told of the long shadows cast by the ruins and the many ghostly figures she could feel pulsing around her.  Then, the hour was suddenly up and the spell broken by the sound of shuffling papers and sliding chairs.
For my adored professor, this likely impromptu tale was but five minutes in a busy day of committee meetings, office hours, grading and much more staid teaching.  Ah, but for me –for me this was a geological event, a great tearing of the earth wherein the previous Jason was swallowed up and a new likeness spit forth.  Imbued with enthusiasm and purpose, I determined that day that I too would visit Pompeii, rub shoulders with the ghosts that haunt that sacred space, and return to tell the tale.

Five years later, lean and hungry from a month of backpacking in Europe, I arrived in Pompeii and realized my dream.  I walked the ancient streets and plumbed the winding ways, breaking the tourist rules and snooping into all the off-limit shadows.  And just as I was really beginning to suck the marrow, I was expelled by a gruff security guard, my hopes of an overnight sojourn shattered, but my larger triumph still intact.  Despite this success, I had not yet travelled full circle.  For that, I would have to wait another eight years.

In 2012 I lucked into teaching an Introduction to the Humanities course, and, not far into the semester we arrived at the subject of Pompeii.  After providing the traditional background notes, slides, and literary quotes, I paused, and, feeling the gravity of the moment, sat down atop an empty desk at the front of the room.  I then, ever so slightly, lowered my voice, and told my adored professor’s story.  And then I told mine.  The earth shook and the circle closed.  My students were delighted.  It was a moment.

Never one to trust to the winds of chance or fail to gild a lily, I then went on to briefly elaborate on the Moral of the whole bit:  I was just like you, a small-town kid sitting at a desk just like that, and though it might sound a tad too much like a song by Journey, if you really want something you can make it happen.  It simply takes inspiration, determination, and time.
Returning now to our initial discussion, as educators, we don’t have much control over the determination of our students, or how they spend their time, but we can, perhaps, if we’re good and just a little bit lucky, provide a spot of inspiration.  And the fact that we can’t quantify, institutionalize, or even necessarily plan for such inspiration doesn’t mean that it’s not worth pursuing.  For, eventually the papers will all be written, the assignments all turned in, and if we are not careful, all that will be left to show for a semester’s worth of work is a grade –a tiny glyph whose entire sum of meaning is increasingly determined by hostile politicians and a disinterested economy.

Thus, if we want our students to walk away with more than debt and a piece of paper, we must inspire them to act beyond the finite dimensions of our assignments and our classrooms.  We must inspire them to read Heaney on their own, far away from campus on a bright Tuesday.  We must inspire them to look at the stars with their children and talk about string theory.  We must inspire them to willfully and deliberately think critically at the polls.  We must inspire in each of them their own Pompeii and then turn them loose on the world.

Tune in next week to find out why there is a monkey at the beginning of this blog.

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