Monday, August 26, 2019

Eva Brann on teaching

Eva Brann has been teaching the Great Books curriculum at St John’s College since 1957. I have learned much from her Homeric Moments (2002) and thus picked up Open Secrets/Inward Reflections (2004), the first of her two books of aphorisms and observations.

I’ve found less to admire in this book. At 435 pages, Open Secrets/Inward Reflections is exhausting in its repetitiveness and its willingness to go on; a book a third of this one’s length would be more appealing. And Brann’s perspective is often deeply uncongenial to me: she is suspicious of modernity and youthful protest; she thinks that “ethnicity” gives a person a “specimen look” that disappears when one becomes “American”; she condemns shyness as pathology or a sign of excessive self-regard. What?! Reading this book reminds me, too often, of the unpleasant experience of listening to someone given to making pronouncements, cheerfully, endlessly.

But I’m glad that I stuck around for Brann’s thoughts on education. It’s there that I feel I’m in the company of a kindred spirit — meaning not someone I agree with but someone I can admire and learn from. Here are four samples of Brann on education:

I think of myself — as do my colleagues — neither as a professor nor a scholar, nor even as a teacher, but as one of a company of curators of a community of learning.

A community of learning is people together in one place talking to each other about that which has gone out of time and beyond place.

What is good teaching? Not a performance, though one certainly has a strenuous sense of “being on”; not a broadcast, though where there is a classroom of students one can’t help now and then talking to the air between them. The teacher’s problem then is how to talk with students rather than to them and how to address each student rather than all. But that’s the least of it; listening to them is the real art.

There is an almost voluptuous surrender in the narrow specialization of academics. Some professions are so engrossing or demanding that an exchange of breadth for depth is required. But that a teacher should live with a willfully incomplete humanity? For the mastery of what? For preeminence over whom?

Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2004).
See also Michael Oakeshott on education as emancipation from “the immediate contingencies of place and time of birth” and Carl Cederström and Michael Marinetto on micro-megalomaniacs in academia. And I still stand by what I wrote in this post: The gold standard, haircuts, and everyone else.

[Brann’s other book of aphorisms and observations is Doublethink/Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts And Twofold Speech (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2016).]

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