Laying foundations

There’s an industrial site just down the street from where I work.  Today was the first day I’ve had a chance to drive by in daylight hours, while they were doing construction work.  Apparently the factory is in the process of adding 20,000 or 40,∞∞∞ square feet to their operations, and this requires leveling and grading a huge amount of dirt.

And digging foundations for a really big road. For really big trucks. Visiting quite often.

Alongside the road is a cutout that I only have a chance to glance at briefly as I drive past.  The sloping, very-late-afternoon sunlight highlights the cut… the width of the cut demonstrates it will be a road, as does its very levelness with the road I’m driving on.  And from the vantage point of the driver’s seat, I can see that this entry driveway will be… what? a foot or a foot and a half deep?

For a driveway?

Then I think about what-all has to go in there.  A bed of gravel, to support the concrete and macadam (asphalt?) on top of it.  And the truck on top of that.  And the truck’s cargo on top of that.  Getting the foundations right is a heavy matter.

I talked to my friend M.E. tonight, and he pointed out that his and his wife’s kids act very differently from most of the kids they know… M.E. thinks it’s a byproduct of his kids being raised by a couple of introverts.  Maybe it is.  There’s very little whooping and hollering, or running around. There’s athleticism, but not a lot of ball-throwing or ball-catching.  A lot of gymnastics, not a lot of dominance games.  He wonders how much of it is genetics, how much is nurturing, how much is training.    He asks me how we teach anything.

I ask him who he learned from.  And he tells me about Cole.

Cole taught M.E. carpentry.  For a good long while, this involved handing Cole the right tool from the toolbox at the right time.  “Hand me the level. No, not this short level. The long one.  Ok, now a plane.  Ok here’s the plane back, gimme a hammer and two of the small brass nails.”

It’s akin to how a surgeon learns, first by watching, and then by doing.  Carpentry is much less high-stakes than surgery, of course, but M.E. said it was critical to his own learning process. He absorbed a lot from watching Cole work through a problem in tight spots.  Later on, he’d ask Cole how to do something in carpentry, and Cole always did two things: a) took his calls, and b) at least got him started.  Cole filled his tool belt when M.E. decided to “go pro” and get into carpentry and building in a big way. “Use these tools, not those.  And you don’t need ’em now, but get these other specialty tools when the time is right.”  Cole didn’t pay for the tools, but he picked them out when the time was right.

Foundations are important. There’s this concept, maybe it’s Sanskrit, maybe it’s Pali, maybe it’s generally Hindu or Buddhist, and it’s been rolling around in my head for more than a half a year.  It’s the concept of darshan.

Darshan is the idea that the writings of a teacher are good, and being in the school of a teacher’s students is better, but BEST OF ALL is to be in the company of the teacher herself. You absorb the work of the teacher through being in her presence and being in her company — not by reading and re-reading her words, but by seeing how how they go about doing the work — what they do, how they do it, and how they explain to still others.

You need deep foundations to benefit from darshan, as I understand it.  You need layers of soil and gravel and concrete and asphalt laid down, carefully, in order for the big heavy truck of the great teacher to come into your life. The thing is — the really hard thing — you don’t know who that teacher is going to be.  For some, it’s that’ fifth grade math teacher who makes all the difference, or the second grade teacher who loves your writing and teaches you to sign the pledge of allegiance.  Or maybe it’s the absolute freak of a teacher who coaches you through Ecce Romani and the intricacies of the US Constitution (and yes, the freak I’m mentioning here is me).  Maybe it’s the carpenter who filled your toolbelt, or the person who got you to stand on a Slam Poetry stage for the first time. (Sou MacM, I’m thinking of you, as I write this just around the corner from your dark blue and green painting of the rabbit-mother).  Tis Jane, the woman who taught me to preach, and Richard who taught me to sing.

Darshan is the foundation for who we become as human beings — the teacher who opens our eyes to possibilities simply because we are in their presence.

The thing is, we don’t get to be that teacher to every one of our students. And our students don’t get the full benefit of darshan from being in our presence and seeing how we do things. For one thing, we don’t expect that our students are going to do the same things we do, as teachers. We get to be paper-readers and -graders; they get to be writers and creators.  We get to be critics and explainers; they get to be receivers and acceptors of traditions passed on.  It’s not the same job at all.

M.E. learned to be a carpenter by watching and handing on tools, by doing the same or similar jobs and getting face-to-face advice, and by calling and getting advice over the phone when the problem seemed insoluble.  I went to my mentors in the teaching community at similar times, seeking advice about how to be a better teacher or a better grader or a better writer of comments.  We need mentors and we need to be mentoring one another.

More than that, we need to be creating and making, and showing our work to students, and demonstrating that when you are in a school, you are joining a community of practice, not just being examined, quizzed, tested, graded, and evaluated (and ultimately sorted and resorted, in some demented version of the Sorting Hat of Hogwarts… as if that hat wasn’t demented enough).  Yet we’ve stripped the idea of schools being a community of practice one layer at a time.

I wonder how we get back to foundations, to mentoring students, and to darshan.


  1. It seems to me that a large segment of the population is rejecting the current Industrial Revolution model of schooling and rethinking education. They are the homeschooling folks. If you look at it, it seems they are building education again from the ground up. First they rejected the state school run model and began homeschooling their own children just like the children of the wealthy were educated back in the middle ages, individual one-on-one, or at least one family, tutors (now parents.) Then some began to participate in educational co-ops. This is where your idea of the darshan model of teaching may, if we are lucky, be recreated. Between the tutoring and mentoring by parents and the educational co-ops, perhaps we have a chance that at least some of our educational system will return to or create a model that includes mentoring/darshan. If I had young children today, I would be looking to design an educational system for them that would include the high-tech internet resources available, human tutoring by myself and/or others, and definitely mentoring/apprenticeship/darshan in at least one subject that the child had expressed or demonstrated deep interest in. If you are looking to participate in that process, I would suggest researching what the homeschoolers in your area are doing. I hope you do this, you seem to be a gifted and dedicated teacher. Our entire society needs you and more of those like you

    • I think part of the return to darshan models may come about as part of a recognition that kids shouldn’t enter a structure in which they’re regularly examined and graded, but they should join a community of practice where they’re gradually attuned to a reliable set of guidelines about what to do when doing a specific set of tasks. The darshan needed to become a carpenter is radically different than that of a plumber or an academic, but there needs to be apprenticeship to determine interest and capability.

      I think we’re a hundred years or more out from having a genuine mentorship/apprenticeship model for education. But it is clear to me that the constant stream of Young Adult books in which kids have adventures and never really have to learn or practice skills may be doing serious harm to our kids.

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