Thursday, September 18, 2008

Armadillo Syndrome

If there's one thing I can't accuse my students of, it's dishonesty. They are, to say the least, candid—refreshingly so—in part because I've asked them to be. And because I've assured them that in my classroom their honesty will never be held against them. I meant it. 

But as refreshing as candor can be, it can also be downright disturbing. Like today, when one of my students said what pretty much amounts to this: that she has no real interest in the class, that she's strictly there because it's required, that she thinks it's a waste of her time—especially given that she's already a good writer.

That's candid. And it's scary. And depressing--to me, at least, since it's my job to teach this person something. And basically I've just been told, Fuggedaboudit.

The arms may or may not be crossed, but the mental posture is entirely one of defiance. The expression on the face says, I dare you to teach me anything. What impresses me most about this stance is that it will probably take this student as much or more energy to resist learning anything from me as it might take for her to learn something. 

Or, put another way: it will take as much or more energy to sit there wasting an hour and a quarter of both of our lives as it would take NOT to waste the same amount of time.

I'm reminded of two things: first of an armadillo, which when threatened from without curls up into a stone-like ball. 

Second, I'm reminded of a neighbor who lives in my building. Call him Hank. Until he retired a few years ago, Hank was a fireman. A lovely guy, and very intelligent. But when it comes to art, Hank's favorite line is, "I don't know nothin' about art." Every time we met, he finds some reason to say it, probably because he knows I write and paint.

Whenever he says it to me I say to Hank, "What do you want to know."

"I don't know," says Hank. "But I don't know nothin' about art."

"But I do know something," I say. "If you ask me a question, I'll gladly try and answer it."

Hanks shakes his head. "I just don't know nothin' about art and that's all there is too it."

Mind you, were this a conversation about filing income taxes or about gall stones or car repair, and were I not an artist but an accountant, a doctor, or a mechanic, odds are (I'd bet) that Hank would not be so predisposed against learning something from me. But I am an artist, and therefore an enigma: on this Hank absolutely insists. No amount of persuading on my part can convince him otherwise. Art is something that normal guys like Hank don't understand. And furthermore it cannot be understood by normal guys like Hank. Period. 

Why (I ask myself) do I consider Hank's posture with regard to art a personal threat—one that makes me want to curl up like an armadillo?

Because I well know that people are mistrustful of things that they do not understand, and furthermore that what they find incomprehensible they tend to either hold in awe or in contempt, or to ignore completely. And when it comes to art, many people are contemptuous. Which means they don't trust artists. Which means they don't buy their paintings or read their novels. They don't like artists. Which means they don't like me.

As a person who likes to be liked, yes, I find that threatening. Which is why whenever I see him I offer to demystify Hank.

But Hank won't hear of it. Hank insists on remaining mystified. He crosses his arms. He curls up like an armadillo. He doesn't even dare me to teach him; he defies me. He is as invested in his ignorance as the armadillo is invested in its plated shell. But unlike the armadillo's shell, his ignorance can't protect him from anything but knowledge.

What is true of Hank is, I'm afraid, true of some of my students.

What can I do? How can I convince these students to cast off their armadillo shells, that there's no danger in learning; and that furthermore their time is better spent being curious and open than being incurious and close-minded? That their willingness to learn will make the world a better place to live in not just for them, but for others, too? 

Imagine a world where no one is curious or open to knew knowledge? Now imagine on where everyone is eager and willing to learn. Which world would you rather live in?

If you answered, "A: the one where no one's curious" I hope you're being facetious.

If not I'll make a deal with you: I'll give you a D+, you'll technically pass the class, and you don't ever have to come to class again. 

And I don't have to waste my time NOT teaching you a damned thing.

The irony of course is that if you're reading this blog you're almost certainly NOT the kind of student I'm writing about here.

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