Largeness and Light

I have lived in North Carolina for thirteen years. I know because my daughter is thirteen now and was only three months old when we moved here. A handy mnemonic device.

I teach at a public university in this recently embattled state. Somewhat to my own surprise, I have grown to love teaching. A favorite image employed by my own favorite teacher, the biographer Walter Jackson Bate, was the opening of a window in a closed room. He saw it as a great metaphor for education, for the way that learning can help us escape the small and locked rooms of ourselves. He pointed out this metaphor in the poetry of Keats, which makes sense, as the orphaned Keats would have passed an obscure and unpoetic life were it not for his love of books and the inspiration of a few teachers and models. It is a straightforward formula: we are something and then a good teacher comes along and we are something else.

I have always been fond of these lines of Wallace Stegner’s: “Largeness is a lifelong matter.” This is, it seems to me, the essence of education.

I am thinking of this right now because of a controversy going on at my university. We are a cautious school overall, sometimes cautious to the point of cowardice, few of us trained in the bravery of resistance, and lately we have allowed a professor to abuse a student in a very public way, because we are afraid the professor will sue the school. This teacher has said some cruel and demeaning things about the student, and defended those statements by claiming he has the right to free speech. But the point here isn’t free speech. The point is that he is a teacher. And the point is that teachers open windows and don’t slam them on their students’ fingers. We are here to lift up, not pull down. We are here to offer possibilities, possibilities that can enlarge and free those we offer them to. I have always been fond of these lines of Wallace Stegner’s: “Largeness is a lifelong matter.” This is, it seems to me, the essence of education. You open the window and say, “Look, there is a larger world out there. A world beyond your present life and experience, beyond your preconceptions and prejudice.” This hardly means that everyone is going to step out, or even look through, the open window, or that opening a window means your students will turn into Keatses. But if we each, as teachers, try to the best of our abilities to open windows, then we have done our job.

Of course I am talking about largeness in a time when the opposite reigns. How can we call for largeness, openness, and boldness when wherever we look we see smallness, bitterness, and meanness? We see this in Washington, in a certain glistening tower in New York, in Raleigh up the road, and right here where I teach. Each day when I head in to work, I drive below banners filled with words of elevated propaganda—words like EXCELLENCE and SOARING.  But the words are empty unless we fill them. We can’t say these things and allow their opposite. We can’t be a place where smallness is business as usual. We can’t allow for the tearing down of students. Aren’t we all getting a little tired of being pushed around by bullies? Isn’t it time to push back?

“Honesty is the first step in greatness,” said Samuel Johnson. There are those who think they have a monopoly on honesty, that they are being hushed because they are truth-sayers. But meanness, ignorance, hectoring, and bullying are not the kind of honesty Johnson had in mind. There is a greater honesty that goes beyond the tyranny of smallness, that sees daily ugliness as part of a vastly larger and more expansive whole, and that understands that while we should never flinch from telling the truth, we can also, through empathy and imagination, see many truths. It is an honesty that we can only attain if we look outward, so it makes sense that those who oppose it want to close as many windows as they can and make the world ever smaller. Our job as teachers right now is to not let them. Not let them block out the light and make the world darker. That is my hope during this hopeless time, my belief during this time of doubt. That though we live in the time of the small, there still exists a larger world, full of light, a world that we must never stop pointing toward.