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I’m involved in a project to organize a reading plan for students. It has made me aware, in a new way, of the value of the riches stored in my head from past reading. No machine could correlate a lifetime of reading, experience, attendance at conference talks, and digging for citations through a huge collection of quotations and book notes. It actually takes a person who has ‘been there’ to lead another through the huge territory of even one ‘subject’ to all the best ‘destinations’.
The first requirement for such leadership may be the reading, but the next is surely the humility to realize there is no way to make this itinerary and do justice to that territory. Actually, the humility did come first, in the form of willingness to read, to be influenced, to enter conversation with authors living and dead with a teachable spirit. Let us hope the students have that spirit, as a guided tour is a whirlwind experience. When you wander a new country alone, you miss much that is great, but you do retain the freedom to go at your own speed. A student relinquishes this freedom to her teacher, so I need to be careful not to overwhelm her in my zeal.
But zeal it is! I want to give everything, point out each stop along the way and each signpost that showed me the next direction to take. Alas, I can’t lead by the same route I took, or we’ll be here for thirty years. I must make a reasonable stab at giving students an overview, sharing my reasons for picking and choosing, and then eliminating almost everything I wish I could share with them. It’s an awful dilemma. Without guidance, they will wander (and yes, I do recall Tolkein’s wisdom, that “all who wander are not lost.”) and may be led astray, or into dead ends, wasting their limited time here, or worse. I must accept the mantle of authority and, like the artist making the first stroke on a canvas and thereby excluding many visions for the possible painting, make some difficult decisions.
G.K. Chesterton said, “The essence of all art is the frame.” I know he would understand why I take a deep breath and, hyper-conscious of my inadequacy, begin to frame my students’ journey. Time is a limiting factor, so I begin with the simple reality of the number of ‘pieces’ into which the class must be broken. Intro, concluding wrap-up – that’s two pieces gone. Now for the sectioning…what will be my organizing principle…east-to-west is easy by comparison with this. Chronology is handy for a history course, but this one involves history within other topics, so that cannot be the overarching principle. Finally, I settle on the main section divisions and get to work on the piles of topical material that clearly will not fit the resulting time-per-topic.
I won’t bore you with all the rest. It’s much like writing a book, and you’ve been there, done that. I want to leave you with the thought that artists and teachers, writers and tour guides have much in common. It’s lonely work to prepare a form that others will enter almost effortlessly by comparison. Because teaching is a work of mercy, I think this is work worth doing. Blessings to you tour guides out there who would rather be writing fiction!
This post appeared on the Catholic Writers Guild blog on May 4, 2016.