One of the moderately ancient professors in Paragraph City is fond of saying that a good college instructor is like a cat burglar. We sneak into the student’s mind, he says, nudge the furniture a little, discover where the valuables are, and when the student wakes up he recognizes as precious what he took for granted before.
There’s a lot I like in his metaphor, and even more that I like about the process metaphors create. It often seems to me that my richest thinking comes by metaphor, and occasionally the metaphors are interesting enough that they serve instead of thinking. But like any metaphor, disaster is just around the corner if we push the vehicle a little further.
“But the cat burglar comparison suggests that the student loses something,” I tell him. “The pearl of wisdom winds up in the burglar’s sack, not locked away in the student’s mind.”
“All learning is loss,” he says in his guru-on-the-mountain voice. “Around adolescence we know everything, and more importantly, we know we know everything. From that point on, it’s learning what we don’t know that’s important.”
Well, ok. I’m not so sure engineering students develop the skills that result in a bridge over the Niagara River by discovering what they don’t know, but perhaps. My face must reveal my skepticism, though.
“Look,” he says. “What’s the breakthrough moment that all marriages reach and through which all successful marriages must pass?”
Clearly he thinks I don’t know, because he forges ahead: “The husband’s realization that he can never fully understand his wife’s thinking. And maybe the reverse happens with the wife; how would I know? But it’s this discovery of what he cannot know and never will that makes the marriage interesting and lively for 50, 60 years.”
“It’s the same with literature, with psychology, with science. The precious sum of all education is to comprehend what we don’t know, and not knowing it, embrace it.” The Wallace Stevens in me loves this, but there’s a vaguely Aristotelian chatter in the back of my mind.
“And what about knowledge?”
“You look it up, kid. Ever heard of Wikipedia?” And he leaves for class, presumably to enlighten his students on what they do not know.
So ultimately, I give up the cat burglar as my image for the college instructor. Too often my students rooms have almost no furniture to nudge around, anyway. Plus, I stalled on figuring out how their not knowing what’s valuable is changed if what they don’t know is taken away from them…..
On the other hand, though the destination of this metaphor fails, how useful the path it leads us down is. More and more, I appreciate the metaphor as a pathway, especially with a topic like this: the philosophy by which I teach.