The other day I learned something fourteen years after I was taught it.
A student approached me to ask what I thought of an insight he made about the meaning of the color red in a novel. Essentially, he had said that the author was trying to tell us that a character was mad by putting that character into a red shirt. His professor didn’t buy his argument. He insisted he was right. He asked me who I thought was correct.
I asked the student how he knew that red meant anger. He said, “Well, red usually means anger.” So I asked him why valentines are red. He didn’t have an answer.
Then, we spoke about context how it helps aid interpretation. We talked about what kinds of things he would need to find in the novel for his statement to be correct. When I asked him if he felt he was more correct, he still believed he was, but he wanted to see if he could find the things we spoke about to prove it.
I don’t bring this story up to say anything about the way I taught this lesson. In fact, I’ve changed all of the details here except for the general premise. The true insight on my end came not from the situation but from what it helped me understand about a lesson I was once taught.
About midway through this discussion about context, thinking about how I might teach context better next time around, I recalled reading a chapter from Stanley Fish’s book, Is There A Text in this Class? in my freshman composition class fourteen years ago. I recalled the the gist of the chapter, and in trying to help this student recognize the idea that this concept of red means anger was contingent on the context, I suddenly I realized what my professor, Dr Hansen, was trying to get me to understand when he assigned this essay on the first day of class.
Essentially, I was taught a lesson in 1997, and I learned that lesson in 2011.
It’s worthwhile to consider this story in a context of an educational culture where there are constant calls from politicians and voters to do more to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performances. Such a culture shows how most people understand the complexity of what it means to learn something.
Given my history as a student who too often judged my worth and intelligence by how I did on a test, I know students often misunderstand this side of learning. And they are often too focused on what the small points of knowledge that they miss rather than the ways they can use the rest of their knowledge to figure out topics.
But the person who most needs to hear this story are those teachers out there. Because while many believe that teachers are just in it for the summers off, I know a bunch of them who often go home at the end of the day frustrated because they tried fifteen different ways to get a student to understand a topic, yet that student didn’t seem to get it. At that point, those teachers think about how they failed that student on that day. But there’s really no way of knowing that because who knows what that student will do with that experience in the future.
To truly understand Stanley Fish, I needed a teacher to give me a kernel of knowledge, and Dr. Hansen gave me that. But then I also needed time to pass until I encountered the right situation in life where I needed to understand that the complexity of that knowledge. At that point, I needed the ability to reconsider and reexamine the world around me and the skills to use what I’d been given. And because he’s a great teacher who set up a classroom that modeled a way of thinking and encouraged and rewarded me for sincere effort in doing so even when I quite obviously fell short of matching the deep understanding I’m sure he’d like to have see, Dr. Hansen gave me that as well.
So I partly agree with what President Bush said in a 2007 speech talking about No Child Left Behind: “As yesterday’s positive report card shows, childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured.” Indeed, childrens do learn under these conditions. But sometimes we can’t prove that with yesterday’s report cards. Sometimes we have to use the report cards from 14 years later.