A blast from the past or back to the future?
Some time ago, my past caught up with me and it was both a pleasure and a shock.
In 1968, at the ripe young age of 22, I was a chemistry teacher to a group of Secondary IV students. Teaching was how I paid my university fees.
It turned out to be a very special group, mainly because these young people were interesting, curious, and antsy yet mature for their age. There was also a very special dynamic in the class that year because the students were assigned to groups which meant they shared all the same classes. This helped create cohesion and a wonderful sense of community that we don’t see as much in today’s teaching environment.
They had, among other things, decided that they needed representation and so, proceeded to elect a very competent president and vice-president. They then took the initiative to publish a class newsletter called “D’un bureau à l’autre” which I printed for them on a good old copy machine. I think that only baby boomers remember this machine which always left your fingers blue with ink and smelling of alcohol!
This part of the story is particularly important because what was printed in one of these newsletters with that machine came back to haunt me after all these years.
Recently, one of my students decided to plan a 50th anniversary reunion in September 2018. He was intelligent, resourceful and hyperactive fifty years ago; he hasn’t lost anything with age. Together with a few of his friends, he managed to retrace all their classmates: thirty, young, 65 year-olds!
But there is more. He had kept a copy of ALL their class newsletters, including the very last issue published after a long weekend spent at a camp in Mont-Rolland, an outing which these very resourceful students had organized for themselves and by themselves. At the time, they needed an adult presence, and so, as their home room teacher, I accompanied them. I admit that I don’t really remember much about it, but I do remember that I was more a willing participant than a chaperone. You can imagine the pleasure I had when I re-read that newsletter and rediscovered all that we had done together! But I had forgotten that I had contributed a text, an op-ed of sorts, to that issue, and it’s what I wrote 50 years ago which surprised me the most.
At age 22, I was an inexperienced teacher but I was already feeling a discomfort with teaching as I saw it then practiced. This is what I wrote:
Trying to describe and report on the experience that some of you have been fortunate enough to live would reduce to its simplest expression a complex set of facts, relationships, and friendships. Such a simplification could never account for the richness of this extraordinary weekend. So I prefer to let each one enjoy his or her personal experience. What I can only try to do here is put on paper some of the thoughts which it inspired.
For me, the most unforgettable result of this weekend is the collapse of two images reflecting a very specific type of relationship, that of “the pupil” and that of the “teacher”.
The free, cheerful yet serious relationship that developed during this long weekend contrasts strangely with the distance that characterized our school year. One may ask “Why the change?” Why had the questions that you asked about life, its meaning, and its purpose, not been discussed before? Why did your organizational skills and your varied interests not manifest themselves in the classroom as they were manifest this weekend?
(ED. Today I would nuance this by saying “manifest themselves as much”)
Will you tell me that in class “it’s different”, that it’s about “school subjects”, that there are exams, and that you have to “pass your year”? On this point, I couldn’t contradict you but, on the other hand, I have to ask whether “school subjects” and exams have meaning in and of themselves? What is a “school subject”? Should not all science and philosophy that we study be, above all things, the science and philosophy of life without which they are just sets of meaningless concepts?
I have bitterly felt that we all put our lives on hold while we are in school not because learning, knowing and understanding are of no interest to us but, to the contrary, because this interest, this curiosity is starved by what awaits us at the end of the semester or the year: the exam that must be passed.
The teacher then becomes the purveyor of what is required to pass the exam and not the one who, through his experience and knowledge, satisfies your desire to know and understand the world in which you live. All that remains is the “stereotyped” teacher standing before a mass of students no less anonymous, without singular personalities, whose only purpose is to pass the exams. This may seem exaggerated to one who has not lived what has been for me a genuine relationship between equal and autonomous individuals. But if that person should take the time to think about it, he will certainly be able to see, as I do, that all else is, by force of circumstance, fake and artificial.
-Christiane Dufour at age 22
So, I leave you with this question: is our teaching still driven by exams or have things fundamentally changed since then?
P.S. In contradiction to my statements above, their Latin teacher (yes, in 1968 they were taught Latin) was an exception to this rather dark vision. He did not so much teach them Latin, as discuss with them, through the great classics, important issues of our humanity. They remember it and him still.
Christiane Dufour at age 72