Another side track onto a trunkline.

Yesterday, I was watching a YouTube clip of the final five minutes of the eleventh episode, “Knowledge or Certainty,” of Jacob Bronowski’s thirteen part ASCENT OF MAN, ”  In it, he warned of “the assertion of dogma that closes the mind.”  To which, I would add, the closes the heart as well.

It really struck me.   I wish I had had the students in the Holocaust class watch the entire episode, especially those last few minutes.  That little phrase reminded me of another of my “one thing for students to learn” that I wrote on the whiteboard and we discussed during the first days of the term:  “Don’t just answer questions.  Question answers.”

Questioning is the assault weapon against certainty, dogma, and absolutism.  It’s the cure of mindless acceptance.  It’s the gauntlet of challenge.  It’s the fount of curiosity.  It’s the foundry of creation and innovation.  It is the tool of reflection, examination, experimentation, movement, imagination, change, reform, revolution, transformation, growth.

As for me, when I was a classroom professor, during the discussion of these particular words, I’d always say,  “Don’t be afraid to ask me why we do things.  If I can’t tell you why we do something in a way you understand, I’ll throw it out.  Now, you don’t have to agree with me, but you should understand my ‘why’ and that I’m not doing something either on a whim or because everyone else is doing it.  Just see that there’s always a ‘method to my madness’ and a ‘madness to my method.”

And, taking advantage–maybe testing me–ask they did.  As they inevitably peppered me with questions throughout the semester, I learned so much from all those “why do you do this” or “why do we have to do this” that they’d throw at me:  why did they have to write on the whiteboard a one word “how I feel” as soon as they come into the classroom, what did sending me confidential daily journal entries have to do with learning history, why did we briefly discuss “Schmier’s words of the day” every day, why did they have to work in communities, why did the communities have to be stranger, gender and racially mixed, why did we devote so much beginning-of-the-term time to classroom community building “getting to know ya” and “rules of the road” exercises, why didn’t I lecture like other professors, why did I care so much about them, why did they have to watch YouTube film clips, why did they have to write “issue papers” for each project, why did they have to do hands-on projects, why didn’t I give tests like all my colleagues, why didn’t I believe in and give grades, why did I come up with my “Teacher’s Oath,” why did they have to take the course that has “nothing” to do with their major, and on and on and on the questions would run.  And, I would patiently answered everyone of their questions either individually outside class or in the class.

Thinking about their questions and answering them kept me on my toes .  They kept me sharp.  They held my feet to the fire.  They forced me to honestly look at my “why.” They helped me make sure I wasn’t unthinkingly engulfed by some pedagogical rage, by some “sounds good,” or jumping on some technological bandwagon.  Those questions kept me out of the prison of certainty.  Those questions always banished the “ho-hums” of routine and welcomed “wows” of newness.  They kept me constantly in what I call “my four-step program”:  (1) think slowly about doing something, reflect long and hard on whether it was applying the results of the latest findings on learning, being sure that it aligned with my reflected upon and articulated vision and not just something I had picked up at a conference that sounded good, and then carefully figuring how to do it;  (2) implement it; (3) watch closely what was happening as it was happening,  whether it was working or not;  (4) consciously learning from it, that is, whether it was turning out to be a partial or total “oops” or an “aha.”

Their questions so helped me clarify my thinking and define my feelings.  They kept me honest and made sure I didn’t succumb to the easy, quick, comfortable, convenient, and safe; that I didn’t substitute efficiency for effectiveness.  They constantly required me to reflect on the purpose and meaning of things we did and what visions pushed me.  They constantly kept me experimenting, tweaking, adjusting, modifying, and even throwing out.  And, I gained deeper insight into myself and my purpose.


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About Louis Schmier

LOUIS SCHMIER “Every student should have a person who wants to help him or her help himself or herself become the person he or she is capable of becoming, and I’ll be damned if I am ever going to let one human being fall through the cracks in my classes without a fight.” How about a snapshot of myself. But, what shall I tell you about me? Something personal? Something philosophical? Something pedagogical? Something scholarly? Nah, I'll dispense with that resume stuff. Since I believe everything we do starts from who we are inside, what we believe, what we perceive, and what we do is an extension of ourselves, how about if I first say some things about myself. Then, maybe, I can ease into other things. My name is Louis Schmier. The first name rhymes with phooey, the last with beer. I am a 76 year old - in body, but not in mind or spirit - born and bred New Yorker who came south in 1963. I met by angelic bride, Susie, on a reluctant blind date at Chapel Hill. We've been married now going on 51 years. We have two marvelous sons. One is a VP at Samsung in San Francisco. The other is an artist with food and is an executive chef at a restaurant in Nashville, Tn. And, they have given us three grandmunchkins upon whom we dote a bit. I power walk 7 miles every other early morning. That’s my essential meditative “Just to …” time. On the other days, I exercise with weights to keep my upper body in shape. I am an avid gardener. I love to cook on my wok. Loving to work with my hands as well as with my heart and mind, I built a three room master complex addition to the house. And, I am a “fixer-upper” who allows very few repairmen to step across the threshold. Oh, by the way, I received my A.B. from then Adelphi College, my M.A. from St. John's University, and my Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have been teaching at Valdosta State University in Georgia since 1967. Having retired reluctantly in December, 2012, I currently hold the rank of Professor of History, Emeritus. I prefer the title, “Teacher”. Twenty-five years ago, I had what I consider an “epiphany”. It changed my understanding of myself. I stopped professoring and gave up scholarly research and publication to devote all my time and energy to student. My teaching has taken on the character of a mission. It is a journey that has taken me from seeing only myself to a commitment to vision larger than myself and my self-interest. I now believe that being an educator means I am in the “people business”. I now believe that the most essential element in education is caring about people. Education without caring, without a real human connection, is as viable as a person with a brain but without a heart. So, when I am asked what I teach, I answer unhesitatingly, “I teach students”. I am now more concerned with the students’ learning than my teaching, more concerned with the students as human beings than with the subject. I am more concerned with reaching for students than reaching the height of professional reputation. I believe the heart of education is to educate the heart. The purpose of teaching is to instill in all students genuine, loving, lifelong eagerness to learn and foster a life of continual growth and development. It should encourage and assist students in developing the basic values needed for learning and living: self-discipline, self-confidence, self-worth, integrity, honesty, commitment, perseverance, responsibility, pursuit of excellence, emotional courage, creativity, imagination, humility, and compassion for others. In April, 1993, I began to share ME on the internet: my personal and professional rites of passage, my beliefs about the nature and purpose of an education, a commemoration of student learning and achievement, my successful and not so successful experiences, a proclamation of faith in students, and a celebration of teaching. These electronic sharings are called “Random Thoughts”. There are now over 1000 of them floating out there in cyberspace. The first 185, which chronicles the beginnings of my journey, have been published as collections in three volumes, RANDOM THOUGHTS: THE HUMANITY OF TEACHING, RANDOM THOUGHTS, II: TEACHING FROM THE HEART, RANDOM THOUGHTS, III: TEACHING WITH LOVE, and RANDOM THOUGHTS, IV: THE PASSION OF TEACHING. The chronicle of my continued journey is available in an Ebook on Amazon's Kindle in a volume I call FAITH, HOPE, LOVE: THE SPIRIT OF TEACHING. There a few more untitled volumes in the works..

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