Ode to Priests, Peaches and Paideia

I did not use a computer for most of my college career.  I arrived at college with a Brother word processor—basically a typewriter with a small screen that allowed for basic editing and revision.  I did not live in the world of technology that most of my students do today.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  You see, most of the professors of my “core” courses were priests. Being a Jesuit institution, we were steeped in the Socratic method of teaching and learning.  It went something like this:

Professor asked a question, paused as if to let the question sit out there in mid-air, waited what seemed to be an endless and uncomfortable amount of time with the hope and belief that the silence would produce thought and the thought would produce insight, and then when someone dared to answer, either confirmed or denied its accuracy and the whole process was repeated again.  Funny, I do not remember any technology in this process.  Here is what I do remember, though. I remember learning to speak Canterbury Tales in Middle English, reading Plato’s Republic, listening to Psalms from the New Testament, writing sonnets, and reciting works of literature over and over until I actually felt their meaning in my body.  One of my clearest memories is hearing Father Siconolfi recite T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a way that made me feel like he actually wrote it.  I can still hear his voice, speaking my favorite part of the poem with an emphasis that made the author’s conundrum clear:

“I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”

None of this required technology.

During my senior year, I completed an Honors Thesis, which focused on how the Greek and Roman concept of “paideia”—or educating the person to their true human form.  This was the idea that education is about character, the good, and ethical development (as opposed to training students for a job). I made the argument that speech education should, first and foremost, re-embrace this concept of educating citizens with character. Since I did not have a computer, my mentor (Dr. Caputo) allowed me to use his computer to type my thesis. I remember thinking how nice it was to have such a big screen.  I remember being excited to go out and become a “real teacher”—to go to graduate school and have the opportunity to change the world one student at a time.  I never thought that the computer on which I typed those words would be a part of who I was as a teacher.  I thought of it as a tool to complete a task.  As a teacher, I would build character– create good, honest citizens of our society.

Fast forward sixteen years—I use four different computers regularly, spend countless hours in front of much larger screens than those I sat in front of back then, and have not walked into a classroom as a teacher without a computer in years.  I am now teaching a course titled “Technology and Pedagogy in the Communication Arts.”  Yesterday I asked my students to create and produce a videotaped commercial defending the traditional university instead of the “networked” university—defending, in essence, the university I lived in during my undergraduate education.  As I reflect on this activity, the echoes of my Jesuit mentors ring loud in my ears.  I think they would ask me:

  • “You had them create a commercial?
  • “Why not just ask them good questions?”
  • “Why not just put them on the spot?”
  • “Why make education fun?  Critical thinking is not always fun…”
  • “How are you making them better people?”

“But Father,” I think, as I wander through this imaginary dialogue.  “It is more complicated now.”  Isn’t it?  We live in a networked university—our primary mission is not to build character.  I teach at a land grant institution, with a specific mission.  This mission does not necessarily place character education on the forefront.  And everyone is using technology—I will be left behind if I do not.

“But Deanna…how are you making them better people?”

I hear you.
I am listening.
I am, as we speak, blogging.

And through the process of blogging I have come to understand and question the risks involved in embracing both technology and tradition.  I come to see this as more complicated that the either/or positions would suggest.  And in writing this blog, I hear T.S. Eliot’s words with new insight and challenge as I reflect on who I am and who I want to be as a teacher:

Do I dare to eat a peach?

Good question.
I think I’ll let it sit out there and endure the silence for a while.

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2 thoughts on “Ode to Priests, Peaches and Paideia

  1. I know I’ll eat the peach. Everytime. And when I make a mess of myself eating the juicy peach, I’ll jump in the shower and turn on the hot water and dry myself with amazing Egyptian cotton towels. In fact, I may invest in some tools and plant a peach tree and then I’d have peaches to share. Then, when my sister comes to visit she might be encouraged to use her amazing creative instincts to make an excellent peach cobbler and we can invite some friends over to watch a movie and eat peach cobbler. Now that would be really nice. Want to come?

    I’m grateful for the opportunities that are born of the collision of education and technology. Eating, growing, making, sharing….even cleaning.

  2. I can’t but wonder where the discussion leads. I know the world you are trying to explore but since as McLuhan suggests “we see the future in a rear-view mirror,” it is difficult to grasp. Share some of the commercials. As for those Jesuit mentors, remember God in all things. I will have to send you an image of Ignatius Loyola sitting at a laptop!