Studying Innocence

Though I no longer teach, I am still fascinated by the spiritual aspect of the relationship between teacher and student.  By “spiritual”–a word polluted by overuse– I mean only the mysterious aspect of the teacher-student relationship that stands outside the boundaries of science and measurement.  Beyond pedagogy.  Beyond psychology.  What is it that passes between teacher and student, in both directions?  If we look through the widest lens, beyond subject matter, beyond personality, what is it that rides back and forth, invisible, in the air of the classroom?  These questions have a certain moral weight to them.  Those of us who have taught, at whatever level, may have become mired in the routine, or partially blinded by our own workload, our passion for the research or artistry that consumes much of our out-of-classroom lives.  We may have stopped asking such questions, preferring to busy ourselves with more practical concerns.  We may never have asked them at all.

But these questions pulse near the heart of the ancient profession that is teaching, and the ancient occupation that is learning.  What, really, is going on?

Well, many different things are going on.  The student is being exposed to some kind of factual or technical information (the conjugation of Italian verbs in the conditional mode; the intracellular activity in silicon molecules; the various options for applying paint to canvas).  The student is being influenced, in a positive or negative way, by the psyche of the teacher:  his or her insecurities, life experiences, strengths, charm, wit, warmth, arrogance, needs, and so on.  The teacher is being influenced, in return, though often not as powerfully.  And, with each class discussion, each lecture or workshop, every movement of a particle of knowledge from one brain to another, one spirit to another, the student is losing a bit of innocence.

Another loaded word, “innocence”.  We use it, commonly, in the sense of sexual innocence.  Or we use it to denote someone who has not yet been exposed to evil.  But I use it here the way “simplicity” is used in some monastic texts:  the quality of being uncomplicated, straightforward, apparently but not actually naive.  This is often what we mean when we speak of the “innocence” of a young child.  His or her reactions, while not always attractive, are always pure, unselfconscious, direct.  As the child grows and learns, this innocence erodes—all through high school and college, perhaps even all the way to the moment of death.  The teacher, any teacher, inside the classroom and out, is part of this process of erosion, and so bears a certain moral responsibility not included in the job description.

It is fascinating to me that, in a world like this one, innocence is only an endangered, and not yet an extinct species.  There are times when human history seems as though it was designed to eliminate all vestiges of innocence from the collective behavior patterns.  Even the tribulations of an individual life–family trauma, illness, want–ought to be enough to harden every creature.  And yet, to varying degrees, this innocence, this spiritual openness and emotional generosity persists.

When I look back for the touch of it in my own life, I think of a corner store in western Mexico, years ago, where a young boy came up and took my hand.  He was seven or eight, we’d never met or spoken.  I was having one of those days that make travelers want to spend the rest of their life in their own living rooms, studying TV.  I was discouraged by the trip, and the weather, and my mood, and my traveling companion’s mood, and Mexico, and money, and America, and health, and life.  By virtue of some mysterious intuition, the Mexican boy seemed to sense this swirl of sadness in me.  He came into the one-room store a few minutes after me, and immediately walked across the wood floor and took my hand, held it for a few seconds, then let go.

In the Micronesian archipelago, in Siberia, in southern Italy, total strangers have offered me food, a place to stay, assistance of one sort of another.  In 1996, writing about the presidential campaign for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I lost my way on the dirt roads of central Kansas, miles out on the prairie on a Sunday morning without cell phone or map or any sense of where I should be headed.  After driving for half an hour I saw a blue pickup truck parked at the side of the road.  I stopped to ask directions, and the driver, a middle-aged man who was out there checking on the company’s oil wells, called his wife on his walkie-talkie and, on the spot, invited me to their home for a fine meal and warm conversation.

Everyone I know has had experiences like those–as far afield as a village in West Africa, and as close by as a snowy road in the next town over.  We seem to have an instinct for compassion and generosity, and that instinct is the soul of innocence.  But it has sometimes seemed to me that education–especially higher education–washes that instinct out of us.  Those of us who toil in cerebral fields are too well-steeped in human history to behave very often in such an unarmored way.  We pride ourselves on being analytical, critical, skeptical, sophisticated, self-aware.  But isn’t it that sharpened critical focus, the powerful muscle of doubt, that makes spiritual simplicity–and the spontaneous, “foolish” generosity that often accompanies it– almost impossible?

At the same time, as a wise friend pointed out to me when I raised this issue with him, education is what frees us from prejudice and superstition.  Literature encourages us to imagine our way into the interior worlds of another person; it fosters compassion.  Science encourages us to demand proof for popular beliefs.  History forces us out of the cocoon of modern, individual experience.  Anyone who has ever spent any real time among the working, sweating classes understands that the myth of the pure-hearted, decent, gruff-but-kindly ironworker or factory seamstress is often just that–a myth.  In Micronesia, in Mexico, in the polluted coal-mining towns of the Donbass, even on that same 1996 trip through the Bible Belt, I encountered meanness and pettiness alongside the occasional innocent gesture.  So the kind of innocence I am talking about here is not ultimately a function of education or lack of education, sophistication or provincial naiveté.  It is more mysterious than that.  It cannot be bound up that neatly.

But the elusive origin of this–what shall we call it?  this trait–does not absolve a teacher from taking it into consideration when he or she steps into a classroom.  Age is often an important factor in a person’s innocence or lack of it, and most teachers impart their knowledge to students who are ten or twenty or, sometimes, fifty years younger.  It should be impossible, as a middle-aged woman or man, to stand in a classroom of nineteen-year-olds and fail to sense the undercurrent of innocence there.  There were times, in my own literature and writing classes (I taught at Bennington and Amherst Colleges from 1993-2002, and part time at other colleges in the 1980s), when I felt a strange urge to bow, to genuflect, before a young man or woman who had just said something particularly honorable.  There were times when I saw, with perfect clarity, that a student of mine–younger, less sophisticated, less educated, less mature–was full of a simplicity and humility that I had long ago lost.  Often this occurred when I watched one student criticize another’s writing in a manner that was both straightforward and sensitive, critical and rigorous while at the same time without agenda, without ego, without any sense of gaining or losing advantage.  I did not often see exchanges like that in faculty meetings.

But I didn’t bow to my students (except once, at the very end of the term, in a personal ritual).  I wonder if other teachers experience that urge toward admiration, and I wonder how it expresses itself.  I wonder if the sexual urge some professors feel toward their students has a component of envy in it–not just envy for their youth or physical beauty, but for their relative spiritual simplicity.  Could it be that some faculty-student affairs are not only matters of lust or power, but have something to do with a deep spiritual longing on the part of the older man (or woman) as well?  Conversely, could it be that some teachers humiliate their students because they cannot bear their own loss of straightforwardness, genuineness, grace?  Could it be that what some students most admire in their teachers is not intelligence or wit or the ability to entertain, but the balancing of the critical faculties with a certain purity of heart?

Only very rarely did I encounter a nineteen or twenty-year-old writer who had something to teach me about that craft.  But, much more commonly I encountered aspiring young writers, or passionate students of literature, who had something to teach me about being human.  At such moments, standing, as I was, in a position of power, of what I think of as “institutionalized respect”, I found it difficult to do what any good student must do:  open myself to the possibility of my own ignorance.  From time to time, in the midst of doing my job as a teacher—which was to take something I know and convey it to someone who does not know it–in the midst of speaking, for months at a time, about a subject I knew well to people who didn’t know it as well, I found it painfully difficult to pass on other lessons to my students:  evidence that it is possible to be intelligent and straightforward at the same time; critical and genuine, confident and humble.  Some days, in the classroom, I had the painful sense that there was still so much I needed to learn.

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