Saturday, September 8, 2012

Slant Wise

I caught a great talk by Eugene Peterson this week. He's a pastor and spiritual writer who gave a talk at Valparaiso University in honor of Walter Wangerin, Jr. (who was also there); the talk was "What are writers good for?" (I found a pdf of a previous iteration of the talk.) There'll be mention of God below, but really, these are my connections from his talk to math teaching. I've written one other post inspired by Peterson, Jonah the Math Teacher.

Peterson's bottom line for writers is that they can reclaim language from debasing use. For religous writers this is particularly important, because we as a society have turned our spiritual words into godtalk that is easy to ignore and not worth our time.  In other words,

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word...
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

-TS Eliot, Choruses from The Rock
Poems and Plays, 96

Important ideas, I think. And amazingly close to the challenges we face in mathematics teaching.

"So what are writers good for? It is our vocation to maintain and practice this core, basic, revelational, personal nature of language, living speech.    In a world in which language has been uprooted from its originating God soil and put to the use of information or propaganda, it is the vocation of writers to represent and practice language as revelation, to re-orient language into the personal world in which men and women actually live—in their families, and neighborhoods and workplaces," says Peterson.

What are math teachers called to do? To recover the debased math, practiced in schools for years, to bring it into the world in which the students live, to share math as it's truly done, to share learning that will make a difference in our students' life.

So how does a writer do it?  For Peterson, the illustrating example is the middle parable section of the gospel of Luke. A lot of Jesus most powerful teaching. Stories with no explicit mention of God, no direct lesson. A story about fertilizing a tree instead of cutting it down. Told in Samaria to people who are not interested in his religion, and not fond of his people. He might as well have been a math teacher.

Not to double up on poetry, but Peterson also went to Dickinson.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
-Emily Dickinson

(Fantastic art by  David Clemsha. Shows up in my Reader the next morning as a wonderful coincidence.)

How well does that capture the essence of good teaching?  Peterson notes, "A parable keeps the message at a distance, in the shadows, slows down comprehension, blocks automatic prejudicial reactions, dismantles stereotypes. A parable comes up on listener obliquely, on the slant." A writer does this by having the reader come to them, going slow, countering the impatience of the age.

This leaves teachers the challenge of knowing what is best, in a culture that wants what is lesser. When we propose that there is better, they want solutions that are immediate and rushed. How can we convince them that the answer is slow? Real stories, finding the way themselves, experiencing the superb surprise. I think we have to just persist. Write our real lessons. Participate in the community. Share our success stories that will buoy us through a dozen bad days.

"The Truth must dazzle gradually."

It's our vocation to tell it slant.

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