My memory stinks. It’s incredible how little content I actually remember from my own schooling. As a teacher this both frustrated me and liberated me from the ego-driven worry that my students would receive, savor, and treasure every last pearl that dropped from my mouth. Looking back at my own education I suppose one thing led to another and what I know now is simply the result of a long chain of ideas and inspirations that moved me into each consecutive moment. It seems now that learning (and teaching too) might have more to do with trajectory than content.
Of course content has its place — I want my doctors to know a bit of anatomy before they go at me with the scalpel. Still, the principle remains: in education, the question isn’t simply what does this person need to know but also what do they need to experience — hear, see, touch, taste, feel — in order to move from ignorance into insight, from inability into action. Education isn’t only concerned with what we know but also with who we become. Education is more than mere communication and it shouldn’t just fill us or occupy us. Education must move us.
What do I remember of my early schooling? Not much. I remember emotions and feelings vaguely — fear, excitement, boldness, awkwardness — but do I remember how I came to know that 2 + 2 = 4? Nope. The pedagogy? What color chalk? What principal theorem or rule was applied? Nope. Nope. Nope. Curiously, there is one memory that stays with me, a preschool memory; it’s one of my earliest and most vivid. I remember pouring beans.
I went to a Montessori pre-school where learning was tactile and progressive, linked to the student’s capacity and interest, and one lesson remains: Here’s a pitcher of beans. Here’s another pitcher. Your task? Pour the beans from one pitcher to the next. Repeat until you can do it consistently without spilling the beans (pun incomprehensible at that point). When you can do this you graduate to, wait for it…RICE! And after rice, sand. And after sand, water.
I remember this moment with startling clarity. I can see the room. I can feel the overwhelming weight of the pitcher, the texture of the fiberglass cafeteria trays we used to catch our mistakes. I also remember the nervousness I felt — before having mastered this delicate art — when pouring from a full gallon of milk. Let’s face it, when it’s full to the brim you have to be pretty confident to get that milk headed in the right direction. You have to be pretty strong to hold the whole gallon up without knocking over your glass. And you have to know when enough is enough and how to do the whole thing in reverse. Only the truly great (well…and most sober adults) can pour that first glass of milk from a new gallon jug without incident.
What did this lesson teach? Motor skills? Patience? Concentration? Who knows. Perhaps I learned these things but what intrigues me now is that I learned to do something before I knew what I was doing. Before I knew it (literally!) I was doing something I had been afraid to do and I was doing it like I was born to do it, with consistency and confidence. Before I knew it I had become Brendan Patrick Busse, pourer of beans and other things of varying complexity and substance.
Fortunately, pouring beans wasn’t my final triumph. I went off to college and before I knew it I was volunteering in schools helping other kids learn how to avoid spilling the beans. Before I knew I would be interested in spirituality and social justice I was praying at mass in a prison gym that smelled of sweat, disinfectant, and occasional clouds of pepper spray. Before I knew what was happening to me I was eating tacos on the streets of Tijuana and washing dishes with migrant men from places further south and with stories far beyond my own.
Before I knew it, I made a choice, an important choice, to listen to my heart a bit more than my head. I made a choice to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and I marked that choice with a Jesuitical tattoo (the IHS sunburst you’ll find on all things Jesuit). We’re skipping through my history pretty quickly here (and missing many important people) but the point is simply this: one day I was pouring beans and before I knew it, I was a Jesuit. Before I know it I’ll be pouring wine and water. Before I know it, I’ll be baptizing babies and burying the dead.
How do we come to know what we know? In many moments I knew something in my heart long before I knew it my head. At times we can know in our bodies what we can’t know otherwise. This is not a treatise against the intellect, against the great gift of the rational mind. This is just to say that we’re more than a mind and to know this is to know something very important. To trust this is to live with greater sensitivity. To believe this is to commit to a kind of universe on fire with mystery and revelation. To live in this way is to live in love with complexity and choice, with promise and possibility.
There is much we need to learn. It would be a great shame if one of those things was to stop listening to our bodies, to our hearts, and to the world around us. Learning ought to take full advantage of our humanity and our humanity stretches from our head to our toes and beyond. Aren’t there things we can only know together, things like love or justice? Aren’t there ways of knowing that demand a community, a shared memory, an ecology? Aren’t we both intellect and affect, head and heart, body and soul?
Before we know it we’ll be gone. But then again, before we knew it we had arrived. Before we knew it we were created and loved. There’s a mystery here. It was here before and it’ll be here long after we’ve departed. When it hurts cry. When it tickles laugh. When it thrills gasp. Do these things and before you know it you’ll be someone. Before you know it you’ll have learned to love.
The cover image, from Flickr user Aaron Knox, can be found here.