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The Honorable Schoolboy
What if the cure for cancer is trapped in the mind of someone who cannot afford an education?
I recently saw this bumper sticker on my way to a morning lecture at James Madison University’s Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI), a program that offers a wide range of classes for adults. These classes take the form of lectures rather than traditional schoolroom settings with papers and tests at the end of the session. Best of all, there are no questionable standards of learning to fuss about. Our only homework is posed in the form of an invitation to read from any number of recommended books that form the basis for each of the classes.
When we think of why we drag our sleep-deprived bodies out of bed in the dead of winter, brush off the snow from the windshield or pull on our raincoats and boots in a driving cold rain to journey more than a few miles to “continue” our education, the classes better be good. Since my wife Jody and I live some 50 miles one way from the campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia, we have to be selective and try to be as efficient as possible when we leave our mountain redoubt for sustenance, either the edible type or that which feeds the mind.
Over the decade that I’ve been “back in school,” I’ve taken so many classes I’ve lost count. Only a few have failed to live up to my expectations.
Our friend Nancy, who runs the program, once kidded me that I should just rent a pied-à-terre in town to cut down on the driving. My sainted mother Margaret, a teacher who would have been 104 the Friday before this Winter session began, seems at times to be in the car with me on these journeys, since she would have enjoyed being there, too. She became a provisional teacher way back in the late 1920s when she graduated from a “Normal” school in Appalachian southern Ohio. The purpose of these “normal” schools, which were created to train high school graduates to be teachers, was to establish teaching standards or “norms,” which gave the schools their name.
I cherish the picture of her and her students taken in 1939 in front of their one-room schoolhouse where they’re gathered about for a formal photograph. All of the kids appear well scrubbed, with hair combed and clothing neat. Can’t make out whether they were wearing high-top boots, flimsy shoes or were even barefoot, but for sure they had no backpacks, designer jeans, or electronic gadgets tucked into their pockets.
When Margaret died suddenly deep in December, 1995, she passed instantly and without pain, taken “with the kiss of God,” an expression Rabbi Sol Landau, now himself somewhere else, whispered to me in consolation. The number of her former students, now far into adulthood, who braved the fierce winter storm to attend her funeral amazed us all. Although bundled up, they were dressed in “city” clothes, long past the bib overalls, feed sack dresses, and field boots they wore when they attended my mother’s school long ago. All had come to say good-bye to the lady who had instilled a love of learning in them, this lady who had been ushered out with such a tender mercy. One can do worse than leave such a legacy.
I think Margaret would be at the window looking out at the driving snow this morning, worrying if classes will be suspended or whether we will be able to get down the drive and through the drifts. At least the car has a reliable heater which wasn’t always the case when she was teaching. She would often tell of the effort to get the pot-bellied stove up and glowing in the 20-degree temperatures she often faced when she arrived at her little remote school house. She was a bit partial to the boys and was always grateful for the help she got from the older ones who fetched in the wood to get a little fire started.
Sitting in the comfort of a classroom today in the modern facilities of National College where the instructor will soon present a two-hour lecture, we have the best of all worlds. We take for granted the amenities like toilets, drinking fountains, and a “snack” area. There is even colorful fabric wallpaper and various pictures and posters to capture the imagination. My mother had to plaster old newspapers in the chinks of her walls and shove rags around the single-pane windows to keep the cold out. And, lest we forget, there were no indoor toilets or cafeterias in those hill-side schools. You braved the cold of winter and the critters that live in outhouses when necessity called back then. Come lunch time, her students were grateful to be able to eat a cold cheese sandwich during those lean days that stretched into the Great Depression. No food was wasted, either.
Since the LLI curriculum committee is open to suggestions and class proposals, the good people who decide what constitutes a worthy class will often sponsor a so-called non-academic topic. Balancing off a history class on the origins of WWI or a graduate-level five-week discussion of realistic and abstract art, there will be an introduction to bridge or even a beer brewing seminar! As a bonus for us, Jody and I are fortunate this semester to be able to present a class on chasing away the fear of making “fancy” desserts.
So as I sit spellbound at times at how well the gifted instructors, often retired professors at JMU or other nearby universities, present their material and how they encourage a give-and-take with us who are sitting on the other side of the lectern, I feel very much at home. I am surrounded by like-minded men and women who have also made the effort to get out and mix it up with others. In this setting, we have been most fortunate to have developed solid friendships with a number of our fellow students as well as the instructors. I am proud to be a schoolboy again.
Despite the many comforts we enjoy today, at times we seem to be inundated with far too many facts and figures taken out of context and without a key to understanding how the big jigsaw puzzle fits together. I am reminded of the saying that we are all drowning in a sea of information while starved for knowledge and wisdom.
Over the years, though, I continue to find that the LLI program provides a ballast to counter this sense of drift, the opportunity so many of us need to keep asking the right questions, even if there are no correct answers.
On my desk I have the following quote from John Ruskin, the great nineteenth-century British essayist and art critic:
The entire object of true education
is to make people not merely to do the right things, but enjoy them;
not merely industrious, but to love industry;
not merely learned, but to love knowledge,
not merely pure, but to love purity;
not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.