Lessons in Learning
By Kathryn Dodgson
Here is a childhood memory, from India, about unintentional lessons. During the years when I was around the ages of 9 to 12, I looked forward to going with my mother on her weekly visits with Senehi, an elderly woman who lived in a tiny, one-room brick house with a tin roof on the Leprosy Clinic road, behind our house. Senehi’s sparse white hair was twisted into a bun, and she wore white cotton saris. She didn’t pinch our cheeks nearly as hard as the other Assamese mothers tended to do—she couldn’t, because her hands were deformed. She had a radio, her lifeline to the outside world, and she had summer squash and other interesting gourd-like things growing on the roof of her doll-sized house, and not much else. She was blind, she carried other marks of nerve damage and injury from leprosy, and she had a beautiful smile. She was, always, serene.
Senehi had a goal: she was memorizing the entire Assamese hymnal, and my mother was “helping” her. When we arrived, we would first take her hands between ours, a tactile namaste, important because touch was important. Then my mother and Senehi would talk, while I lingered close by. My mother would read out loud to Senehi, and the two of them would sing hymns, a cappella—no easy feat, and not because Senehi couldn’t see to read or because my mother was singing in a language not her own, but because my mother takes after her tone-deaf father. But the two of them persisted and enjoyed each other’s company, because my mother was as fond of Senehi as I was.
Here is another lesson. A few years later, I said my farewells to my home in Northeast India and arrived in New England to start college. I wanted to write (and to write seriously) and so I registered for a short-story writing seminar. Because I diligently tried to follow the dictum to write about what you know, I poured my heart into a “story” about leprosy and the value of human touch, a story really about Senehi. It was not a success. When I finished reading my story, the professor grimaced, shuddered, and said, “The very thought of touching a leper gives me the creeps.” That was the first and last creative writing class I took in college.
In “Laboratories of Social Change,” one of Doris Lessing’s 1985 Massey Lectures (published in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), she said: “Looking back, I see what a great influence an individual may have, even an apparently obscure person, living a small quiet life. It is individuals who change societies, give birth to ideas, who, standing out against tides of opinion, change them. . . . Everything that has ever happened to me has taught me to value the individual, the person who cultivates and preserves her or his own ways of thinking, who stands out against group thinking, group pressures. Or who, conforming no more than is necessary to group pressures, quietly preserves individual thinking and development.”
As I read again through the contributions found in this issue of the Bulletin, two things strike me. One is confirmation of the remarkable and unforeseen impact that certain individuals have on our lives. The other is that these individuals, who stay with us, in memory, in our thinking, in our writing, are also our teachers and guides, regardless of whether we thought of them as such at the time or they saw themselves in this light.
In her evocative account of reading (and rereading) the autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux, Stephanie Paulsell shares “a story about growing up, about maturing, about moving from an exclusive focus on oneself and one’s feelings to noticing the effect of one’s choices on others.” Madeleine Avirov digs down through layers of time and memory, weaving together what she has learned from other writers and artists, from her own experiences and the lessons she has received, to “see the way of the work.”
In the lead article, Michael Jackson reflects upon his own and Richard Rorty’s thoughts on the role of philosophy in the world—”whether philosophy has anything to say that might make a real difference to our lives, and. . . whether the insights of thinkers can change the world.” Mark Jordan reminds us that “ethics is attention to how lives are shaped around teaching” and that we need to “pay attention to our own ongoing practices as teachers, learners, or bystanders.” In his discussion of Chinese ideas about leadership and political legitimacy, J. C. Cleary looks to the lessons of Confucianism, which holds that “the legitimate ruler is above all an educator, who teaches by example and transforms others by moral force.”
The involvement of communities in “scenes of instruction” (Jordan’s words) is a thread I see also running through Diane Moore’s update on new guidelines for teaching about religion in the public schools, and in Dan McKanan’s history of the unfolding role of dialogue in the expansion of religious pluralism among socialists, freethinkers, and other communities of the nineteenth century: “A common vision of a better world made it possible for socialists to listen attentively to religious ideas that others might have dismissed as blasphemous or preposterous.” These groups both required and allowed for a level of acceptance and openness that then shaped and fed new understanding: individuals were able to learn from each other.
What we, as students, succeed in learning has as much to do with our own self-understanding and receptiveness as it does with the abilities of our teachers to provide us with what we need in our time. A Sufi lesson says: “All of the Wise have to learn how to pass on the knowledge. But they can do this only if the student will allow himself to learn what it is and how it is that he is to learn. Technique of learning is what the teacher has first of all to teach. Unless you are prepared to study the technique of learning, you are not a student. And if your teacher advises you to learn by words, or deeds, or by baking bread—that is your way.”
Kathryn Dodgson is director of communications at Harvard Divinity School.