"Among School Children"

by Daniel Traister

a talk presented at Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania, on March 29, 1996

In a poem first published almost seventy years ago, in 1927, William Butler Yeats describes himself "Among School Children":

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way -- the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

I am not entirely sure that I understand why this poem sprang immediately to mind as I thought about what I might say here this evening. It is, after all, inapposite to this occasion in almost every significant way. This is, to be sure, a school; but it is a university, not the elementary school Yeats describes. If your instructors have ever even thought of teaching you "neatness," they have, I'm sure, tossed up their arms in despair -- if I may judge by what my own children would make of such efforts -- and I imagine that sewing is equally out of bounds here. We're not in a classroom that prepares the very young to become good students; this dinner meeting honors those who have already demonstrated that they are good students. Your teachers are not -- at least not so far as I can tell -- nuns. And even though I probably look as if I am a hundred and sixty years old to many of you, I am not a sixty-year-old anything, let alone a "sixty-year-old public man," smiling or otherwise.

Nonetheless, Yeats's poem did spring immediately to mind when I began this talk. Perhaps it is because I recalled Yeats's sense of the oddity of himself in the situation he describes, an oddity I too feel standing before you. I am here, as I suppose, to talk to good students about the joys of being good students, and then to rhapsodize about the processes of research and study in which I have spent my own life and which my professional career tries to support for other people who also pursue such goals. The subtext in the instructions I was given, if I understood that subtext correctly, seems to be that I should tell you how, if you are very lucky, you too can grow up to become me thirty years from now.

Well, that sounds easy enough, although I suppose, in all fairness, I should confess to having guessed that such a fate may not seem all that immediately attractive to everyone. There is, after all, little reason why anyone should want to become me; one seems to be about all the world needs. Additionally, even as little as fifteen minutes of instruction in such topics as the joys of study and research carries with it the somewhat unpleasant prospect of proving, in actual execution, to be unbearably dull. The oddity I mention feeling comes from the fears associated with these two dangers, as well as from a sense that I am here under slightly false pretences.

Well, some false pretences! Of course, nothing more flatters someone who teaches than to be invited to an occasion such as this one by a former student. Since this invitation came from Marjorie Warmkessel, who is one of my former students, I am flattered . . . and, to that degree at least, don't feel that my pretenses here are false at all.

In other respects, however, I am less confident. For instance, although you all are, I was not, as it happens, a particularly good student myself. It's my wife who has the Phi Beta Kappa key, not me -- and, since we went to the same place, I can't even hint, ever so subtly, that she got her key at an easier place than the really tough school I attended. All I can claim is that, while I may not have been the most competent of suitors who ever pursued the Muse of Scholarship, I did prove to be, if not a sprinter, then a long-distance runner; and, aging legs and all, I am still to be found trotting along as one among the small mob of people who follow that Muse.

When Marjorie asked me here to speak, she said I was supposed to tell you why that happens to be so. What got me interested in what we sometimes still call, occasionally even without irony, "the life of the mind"? What did I do when I was younger that made this pursuit seem attractive? How did others encourage it, and how did I foster the growth of this delicate plant in myself?

I wish I knew how to answer such questions. But the sad truth is that I haven't a clue. Whatever I did that turned me into whatever I have become, it must have seemed, I suppose, like a good idea at the time; but it is extremely difficult for me to envisage alternatives. I cannot, for instance, imagine myself making decisions that would have taken me away from the sort of life that involves books, reading, writing, and constant raids on libraries. Those raids went on for so many years that eventually they left me doing what must, from the outside, seem like the most boring job in the universe that appears to involve neither other people's garbage nor heavy lifting, working in a library. I'm not, by the way, sure that my job doesn't involve other people's garbage; and I know that it does involve heavy lifting -- but these are probably confessions best left for another occasion.

I want, then -- because I don't know the answers to Marjorie's questions -- to move away from myself for a bit and talk instead about people like you, or about people who are at least closer to you in age than I am. I feel well equipped for such a task right now, since a funny thing happened to me on the way from Philadelphia to Millersville.

My route took me through London, Antwerp, and Paris, from the latter of which cities I returned less than a week ago, and to none of which, when Marjorie and I first spoke about my coming here this evening, I had expected to be travelling. But my daughter is a junior at her school; and this turns out to be her junior year abroad. She is spending the year just outside Brighton, a resort city on the English Channel closer to London than you are to Philadelphia, and her spring vacation -- which lasts five weeks, you will be jealous to know -- began nearly two weeks ago. I flew to London the last week before her vacation began. We spent that week together watching her not do the paper she had due before spring break. Then, for the first week of her vacation, we went to Antwerp, with a side trip to Bruges, two cities in the north of Belgium; and then to Paris.

The word "we" does not entirely reveal that there were more than the two of us in Antwerp, Bruges, and Paris. My daughter, a sociable young woman, and I were accompanied by two of her friends, one from Knoxville, Tennessee, the other from Omaha, Nebraska. I myself have rarely received such curious, intense, and perhaps even admiring attention from hotel keepers and restaurateurs, at least some of whom must have thought me an escapee from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. God knows what they thought of the three young women: I am a polite, even a somewhat shy person, and thought it wise not to ask.

I did form some ideas about them myself, however, and some of these ideas seem relevant to Marjorie's instructions to me for this evening, even if only in an indirect sort of way. I don't know whether any of these three young women intends to become an academic; I suspect that my own daughter, who grew up with two of us at home, would rather sweep streets with her eyelashes. Apart from my daughter, I don't know whether the others are honors students; I was there as a parent, not as a teacher, and certainly not as an inquisitor. I don't know how these people feel about study, about research, or about -- can I say it once again? -- "the life of the mind." Nonetheless, watching these three young women, one of whom I've known all her life, as they bumbled their various ways through places to which they'd never previously been, I thought I might be learning a little bit about what it is that might make the life of the mind attractive to someone.

In Antwerp, as also in Bruges and Paris, we visited art museums. The ads for Antwerp tell you that the city has "a mild maritime climate"; but what this actually means, in early March, is that you freeze, unless you're indoors. Museums, which tend to have well-heated indoor spaces, are thus very good places to visit when you're traveling in cold climates: they give you the warm and cozy feeling that comes, first, from being in a warm and cozy indoor environment, and, second, from doing something other than vegging out in your hotel room, watching televised re-runs of Bugs Bunny in a language you may not understand (my Flemish is not very good). Every so often, you may even see a painting or a piece of sculpture that isn't too bad.

In Antwerp's Royal Museum, we saw a number of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, a seventeenth-century artist whose home and tomb are both in Antwerp. Rubens is perhaps best known for paintings of women whom he depicts with a degree of statuesqueness that seems, if not exactly interchangeable with, then certainly in the same general league as, that of the nudes whom Renoir was to paint at a later date. But the Rubens whom one sees in Antwerp is somewhat different. In the Cathedral of our Lady, the major paintings are Rubens's altarpiece, the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, flanked by a Raising of the Cross and a Descent from the Cross. In a museum devoted to the history of printing, once the home of one of the great printers of the northern Renaissance, Christopher Plantin, hang numerous Rubens paintings of major figures in the history of scholarship. The Jesuit church now named after St. Charles Borromeo has lost most of its original Rubens paintings but still has good copies made after some of them; these are, of course, also paintings whose subjects are basic to the story of Christianity.

In Antwerp's Royal Museum, it turns out, the general run of Rubens's paintings is similar. There is, for example, a wonderful painting of the Crucifixion, in which Rubens chooses to portray the moment when a Roman soldier pierces Jesus's side with his lance. Other of his paintings also exhibited include a Prodigal Son, a Doubting Thomas, and an Adoration of the Magi. I walked slowly through the rooms in which these paintings hung -- there were more than I have mentioned -- and the three young women were not to be seen. I suppose I was not surprised or bothered; Rubens is not an artist for whom I had ever felt great warmth before this immersion in his work in Antwerp, and there seemed little reason to imagine that my daughter or her friends would feel differently about him than I had.

Late that afternoon, we left Antwerp for Paris. We took an evening train that took us through Brussels, Tournai, Lille, and points south, all at a fairly easy pace, and I, who had been on my feet for more than a week by this point, decided that I didn't need to try to read anything while we travelled. Sitting quietly seemed about as useful as anything else I might do. The four of us seemed all to be fairly tired; and I was therefore surprised when, at some point well past Brussels, my daughter said in passing that she wished her mother had been with us, for she thought this trip to Antwerp would have changed her mind about Rubens.

"'Scuse me?" I wittily responded. Huh? Sorry? Wazzat?

I hadn't known they were looking. Not at Rubens. I did know they were looking at some paintings. In that same museum, after all, I had, before we left, received a visit from a small delegation to ask my opinion, and perhaps my explanation, of a painting by René Magritte. Magritte is a twentieth-century painter whose works very frequently create extremely realistically-depicted milieux which are simply impossible. In Antwerp, for instance, one of the three Magrittes on exhibition when we were there is a painting that shows part of the floor and one wall of a room with an easel backed against the wall. On the easel is a painting, a landscape, with a cloudy sky. All this is well and good, except that some of the clouds are floating out of the painting, where their size is proportional to the painted landscape, into the room itself, where their size is much too small -- even if we could imagine painted clouds floating out of a painting into a real room. But it isn't a "real room"; Magritte's painting is only a painting of a painted landscape in the painted room in which the landscape is also painted. What is "real"? What does it mean to be "realistic" in such a painting? What point of view does a viewer take towards the illusion that Magritte's painting appears to represent -- and, simultaneously, to subvert? These are, of course, some (if by no means all) of the questions that a painting such as this one asks its viewers to consider; and it is something of this sort that I said to the delegation that came to me when, confronting this painting by Magritte, mysteriously entitled Vengeance, its members knew that they were encountering something the likes of which most of them had never seen before.

But they had not spoken to me about Rubens, and I was surprised by my daughter's comment, for this and for several other reasons. When had they looked at Rubens's paintings in the Royal Museum? Not -- obviously -- while I was with them. Well, that's no crime, of course. I wasn't there to superintend, censor, or in any other way supervise their viewing. I was simply pleased that they were in the museum at all. When had my daughter picked up, however, on her mother's and my distaste for Rubens? Had I earlier mentioned to her that this visit was changing my mind about him (as, indeed, it was)? Had she ever spoken with her mother about Rubens? I didn't recall any such conversation. And, after all, while we may seem like a fairly formidable crowd of folks, I have to confess (whether for good or for ill) that the merits and defects of seventeenth-century northern European painters are not the everyday topic of our dinner conversations at home.

In Paris, we continued to visit museums; it was almost all we did -- other than eat, always an extremely good idea if you happen to find yourself in Paris. We went to the Louvre where a question arose, which the same delegation asked me, about what is so special about Leonardo's Mona Lisa? We spoke about it for a while, standing in front of it, and then turned a corner. Here are four more Leonardos, one member of the delegation said; how come no one is looking at any of them? Behind us, as we looked at these Leonardos, were several paintings by Raphael. We know that name, they said; but no one is looking at these paintings, either -- how come? Here is a portrait by Raphael of someone called Baldassare Castiglione. Don't we know that name from somewhere? Why is no one looking at it?

Apart from the Louvre, we visited the Orsay, the Pompidou, the Picasso, the Orangerie, and the unicorn tapestries at Cluny. At each of these places, I got questions or comments from the delegation that showed me that these three young women were looking at the art works I had wanted to see for myself but which I had feared would bore them. I was wrong. They weren't bored at all. As we went from painting to painting, museum to museum, I didn't ask them questions; they asked questions of me. I didn't insist that they accompany me; I wanted to go to museums, and if they had wanted instead to window shop in clothing or record stores, I'd not have minded. I didn't -- I hope I didn't! -- behave like a professor; this was not "a learning experience," to be followed, back in our hotel, by a short quiz. But there they were anyway. Why?

I can only guess; but I think my guess takes me to the questions that Marjorie wanted me to speak about this evening. I can't be sure. Maybe these three young women were the politest three young women I have ever met, willing to be bored to death for a week while staggering around one damned museum after another with the father of one of them. But I don't think so. I think they found the art exciting, perhaps in ways they had not expected to find it, and -- I would guess -- in ways that their own (sometimes surprising) failures to "understand" the art provoked. What they found, looking at these paintings -- older ones by Rubens, newer ones by Magritte -- was that these works provoked their curiosity.

They were curious about many things. One of the three young women had been raised as a Presbyterian. One, the daughter of a Roman Catholic and a Jew, had been raised as a Jew. The third, the daughter of a Baptist and a Jew, had been raised as a nothing. These varied backgrounds vanished before the common fact that all of them knew exactly the same amount about the Bible: which is, in a word, nothing. As it happens, that's not an especially useful fund of knowledge when you're standing in front of a painting that calls itself The Incredulity of Thomas and you've never even heard of the Doubting Thomas. Or when you're standing in a cathedral -- Our Lady in Antwerp, Notre Dame (also "Our Lady") in Paris -- and can't quite tell from the floorplan, and otherwise don't happen to know, that you're standing inside a Cross. Perhaps such ignorance could turn out to be paralyzing; but I was surprised and pleased to see that, for these three young women, it was not paralyzing. They were prodded by it to ask questions: what is the story this painting recalls? How come so much of the art we are looking at is so Christian in its nature? When it is a modern painting, why is it not "Christian"? What does a painting "mean"? Must it always tell (or recall) a story? Why is one artist thought to be better than another? Why do people look at some paintings by an artist and omit looking at others by the same artist? I was pleased by their unparalyzed responses.

And why should I not have been pleased by them? Ignorance should not be paralyzing: it is necessary. Only when we know that we don't know something are we inclined to think it might be worthwhile finding something out; and then, if we are curious enough, and energetic enough, we may actually do so. Curiosity, of course, is not the end of the process: it is the beginning. But it is, I think, the indispensable beginning. An old photographic exhibition, The Family of Man, made that point in a way I have never forgotten, by juxtaposing two photographs of people standing in front of blackboards with equations written all over them, the people looking puzzled. One is a little boy about first grade, looking bemused by a simple problem in single-digit addition. The other person is somewhat more recognizable: an old man with a head of wild white hair, he looks positively dopey as he stares at the complex equations on his blackboard. We know him, when we see the picture, as Albert Einstein. The juxtaposition of the two photographs suggests that the initiatory value of curiosity is not dissimilar for either of the people we are looking at, even if curiosity alone is not the same thing as the work of reading, thinking, testing, and pulling at threads that ultimately makes some people Einsteins. More or less.

What, when all is said and done, is it that we who teach really want of our students, whether they are "formal" students whom we encounter in class or "informal" students whom we travel with and who ask us questions in museums? I can only speak for myself; but I am rarely concerned that my students "get it right." I am, after all, only human, and what I am all too likely to mean when I speak of their "getting it right" is nothing less and nothing more than that they have learned to agree with me. But, even though it's pleasant enough when they do, I don't really want them to agree with me. I want them to ask why I am telling them whatever it is I am telling them, and (like Doubting Thomas?) to be suspicious of it. I want them suspicious because I want them curious enough to ask questions on their own that I am not clever enough to answer -- and that I may not even be clever enough to know how to ask.

Questions, it turns out, excite me. Curiosity excites me. Answers are, usually, tedious, incomplete, somehow unsatisfactory -- although, to be fair, I myself find the process of working towards them fun as well as frustrating. The best answers are the ones that are most obviously incomplete, and which therefore lead to more and better questions: answers that provoke and tease, that arouse more curiosity even as they alleviate some curiosity.

I liked travelling through these various museums with my three young women because they had a bevy of good questions. I've never taught them in a class; two of them I barely knew at all before this vacation trip. Even so, I am willing to bet that, in their school, these three women will, one day, just like you, get to attend a meeting more or less like this one and have to listen to someone more or less like me, a person who comes from a far off place to bring a common word or two that glances lightly off the subject of what it is that makes study and research worth our pursuit. My word is curiosity; and I must repeat that it is a word that refers only to the beginning of the process, not the end. But that beginning is indispensable; and it is the beginning that, as a teacher, I have myself come to value more than almost any other quality I can imagine valuing, in students or myself.

Yeats, of course, has better words, at the end of his poem -- just as he had better words at its beginning. "Labour," he writes at the opening of his final stanza,

Labour is blossoming or dancing

-- that is, a process of growth, of pattern-making, of finding a kind of knowledge that does not "bruise" the body, is not founded in "despair," and does not come from mere study to produce that "blear-eyed wisdom" that comes "out of midnight oil." The process, Yeats writes, is all:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

I like it that Yeats's poem, "Among School Children," ends not with an assertion but with a question; I like questions, as you by now know. I like them because I think questions, much more than answers, are what provoke us to the processes of research and study we gather here to honor.

I also like the allusive and elusive effects of a discussion of such processes that ends -- unassertively, obliquely, and on the rising tone of voice that indicates doubt -- without concluding, leaving you to ask: "What is he saying that Yeats says?" "What did he say?"

Last update: March 1996 (minor revisions, 21 April 2005).

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