Never Stop Learning (or Some Thoughts for my 8th Graders on Our Last Day of Class)

Jonathan Gold
Jun 1, 2018 · 6 min read
Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/vlastula/300183034

I always give a little speech on the last day of class in 8th grade. I like that it feels weirdly formal, which is funny because this class can often be rather informal, I think. It also helps me process the emotions of this day and this moment because, even if you don’t believe me, I really am sad that our year together is over. It always feels like there’s more work we could do, and I truly believe that even as you are all looking forward to summer, there’s a part of you that will miss our time together, especially since what’s next for you — high school — is apparently really important. Truly, I have loved being your teacher this year. I sometimes wish I could scrub away all of the other parts of this job and just be with you all day.

This is a strange course. The freedom we have to invent our own curriculum means that we study a rather unique combination of content and we do it in various non-traditional ways that you wouldn’t find in most schools, let alone middle schools. Few 8th graders study the Rwandan Genocide or Israel and Palestine or Ai Wei Wei or climate change; even fewer, I believe, do it with the intensity, curiosity, and seriousness with which you have done it, which is why I love teaching middle school and have loved teaching you.

Do you know what most people say to me and your other teachers when we tell them we teach middle school? They say we’re crazy! You are supposed to be the worst — not yet adults and certainly not still children, full of adolescent angst and immaturity. Middle: neither here, nor there. You are certainly used to people underestimating you, or at the very least not understanding you. What I see, though, are young people poised right on the edge of adulthood who aren’t yet tainted by disillusionment, stress, and negativity. You get excited, still, about learning new things, even when you try to play it cool. I like how middle school students are all somewhere between dependence and independence, between needing support and autonomy. You are still reliant on your adults.

You can’t drive, but I have seen you fly.

I have long believed that students will behave how they are treated. The challenging content and high expectations of the class are meant to convey my respect for you; I love you enough to want to push you to be better. And I believe you are far more capable than perhaps you know. Hopefully you discovered that in here.

You’ve heard me talk about how much pride I take in being a demanding teacher. It’s why I’m so funny in class; it then gives me license to rip apart your papers! We study hard stuff in order to try to shake you out of your complacency and help you see the world how it really is. We want you to consider other people’s experiences, to think outside of your own perspective, and to realize that there is more to the world than what you know. Developmentally, you’re still in a phase where you’re learning to make sense of your own experience, which makes the project of trying to imagine and understand someone else’s even more daunting — and more important. Some people would argue it’s impossible to ever understand someone else’s experience, that we are all hopelessly trapped inside of our own worldviews and our own biases and our own experiences. I push back on that view, mostly because I’m not sure it’s the right way to frame the challenge.

Instead, I’ll offer that it doesn’t actually matter whether we can fully understand someone else’s experience; what matters is that we try and never stop trying. Indeed, what this “Global Thinking” course seeks to do is to cultivate a habit of mind in which you are perpetually, unflinchingly devoted to trying to understand what someone else sees and experience. In doing so, we find — and hopefully, you have found — that you actually come to understand your own experience more, to question it and reflect upon it. It’s the idea that we should be constantly reflecting, constantly asking ourselves what we don’t know both about others and ourselves. It’s less about acquiring facts than constantly seeking more understanding. It’s learning how to know.

Image from http://www.aaronmead.net/aquinas-on-the-virtues-understanding/ via The Clinton Street Theater

I’m not ever sure what students actually learn in here. But my hope is that you have come to embody the insight of my favorite educational philosopher, John Dewey, who articulated the goal of education as the ability to acquire more education. In other words, education should teach you how to learn — what questions to ask, how to find answers, and how to make connections — but also give you an insatiable desire to keep learning.

So how do we do that? We start, perhaps ironically, by embracing the limits of our own knowledge. Remember when we studied Israel and Palestine? We didn’t rush to solve the conflict or develop a thesis; we asked ourselves what else we needed to know and sought more information. What we found were irreconcilable narratives that helped us understand why the problem is so difficult to resolve. What we focused on was embracing complexity and tolerating uncertainty. We used this same mindset in our student-led discussions. The goal was to connect to others’ ideas, to bolster each other’s thinking, and to keep probing. It was about the process, not the result.

The human brain craves simplicity and clarity, but the world — with its infinite strangeness — offers only ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity. We can’t change the nature of the world — it will always be complex — so we need to train ourselves to be comfortable with that complexity, to lean into what we don’t know and acknowledge our own small place in the universe.

Part of that means an aspiration towards humility. What I mean by that is starting with the assumption that we don’t know very much and that what we do think we know is incomplete and unrefined and helplessly biased, so much so that we are better off constantly seeking more knowledge and information than declaring something fully known. That doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions, or we can’t develop a worldview, but it does mean we need to see our viewpoints as subject to improvement and refinement. Those who disagree with us having something to teach us, and we can’t possibly know everything. Mostly it means developing an insatiable thirst for new knowledge and information.

It may feel odd to get to the end of the year and hear me arguing that we can’t fully know anything. It can be scary to think that there’s always more to know, more detail, more nuance, more subtlety, more perspective, more work to do to scrub bias from our thinking. But I find that to be perhaps the single greatest thing about being human: there’s always more to learn.

What did you actually learn this year? Probably some facts, most of which you’ve probably forgotten or will forget. You hopefully learned some skills, like how to plan for an in-class essay and how to use databases for research. You definitely learned that I am a huge nerd. Truthfully, though, I’m not really sure what you’ve learned in here, and I’m not sure how to ever really know that. I’m certainly not sure I’ve taught it to you in the best ways.

But I do think you’ve come to see the world as more complex, more diverse, and hopefully, more interesting than you might have thought. I hope you’ve developed a sensitivity to voice and perspective, to whose stories get told and whose get left out, and the very real impact of the way in which those narratives get framed. I hope you’ve realized that we all have more to learn and that rather than intimidating you into easy answers and simplistic thinking, that fact — and the skills you’ve learned for acquiring knowledge, interrogating narratives, and reflecting on your own and others’ experiences — has enlivened you to what I believe is our singular purpose here on earth: to never stop learning.

This brings me to the conclusion of this little speech. Thank you for listening and for taking in this message. I mean it all sincerely. Pay careful attention to those whose stories aren’t told, make deep connections and seek understanding, humbly embrace what you don’t know, speak your minds, listen with compassion, and, most importantly, most essentially, never stop learning. Like the world itself, we are, always and forever, works in progress; never stop learning.

Jonathan Gold

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