From my classroom perch on Founder’s Terrace, I have the pleasure to see our lower school cohorts at play. What I have surmised about these operations is that there are definitive rules, rituals, and practices at work with room for a bit of whimsy. As the late Dutch historian Johan Huizinga commented “All play means something,” and what I am witnessing is a repose from the banality of modern existence, an alternative reality going back to the primordial self that we deeply need.
Huizinga, a cultural historian of the Middle Ages, defined play as that which is the opposite of serious. Yet serious and play comprise two sides of the same coin; there cannot be one without the other. Good teaching is a proper mix between the two. Now that we are holding classes in tents throughout the campus, a soft touch and a bit of whimsy are in order to assuage the rigors of a difficult time.
Fortunately, play is in our hard wiring. For years Country Day students performed Gilbert and Sullivan operettas because the playfulness of the language is a richer way of learning vocabulary than just memorizing definitions soon to be forgotten (this teacher for example, habitually looks up the same words countless times). And the unbridled mockery of self-important personages in Gilbert and Sullivan (as in Shakespeare) teaches one a healthy irreverence as well as the art of getting the joke. The notion that academics can only be pursued by a grim determination misses the essential point that a life of the mind can bring joy for its own sake. The great 20th-century historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once told me that history is a worthy pursuit for the simple reason that it is a lot of fun. The conceit that history can be fun hardly lessens the profundity.
Of course, the exigencies of educating during a pandemic pose new challenges for faculty, such as teaching live and on zoom, often at the same time. Maintaining social distancing and mask-wearing with our students tests our patience every day. Nevertheless, our teachers continue to find ways that complement material for expanding the mind, from the analysis of Big Data and global trends in the math/sciences, to an in-depth study of the films Rashomon, The Matrix and Parasite in our senior humanities course, which continues to evolve after 25 years. Traditional is not necessarily exhausted or hackneyed — a chapter of War and Peace tells us more about the Napoleonic wars than any textbook and Camus’s The Plague has never been more relevant. Sometimes the old is posited as new. While technology allows our students to make podcasts, the practice of storytelling goes back thousands of years serving our atavistic need for narrative.
The tendency by technocrats and education gurus to refer to the “craft of teaching” is unfortunate. There is no recipe or formula for defining that sense of play as concomitant to the serious business of educating. Finding that balance is an art that cannot be prescribed, but only intuited. While pedagogical tools and best practices can be useful, teaching at its best is an art. My favorite metaphor for teaching (or any other creative activity) would be the artistry of New Orleans’s most favorite son. Take a moment to listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recorded in New York between 1925 – 1929. Never has there been such a mix of technical virtuosity, flight of the imagination, and understatement with an elegant mix of seriousness and play. Pops continues to astound by his controlled improvisation, a marvelous inspiration for those of us who see teaching as much a mystery as a profession.
Established in 1929, Metairie Park Country Day School is a coed private school for New Orleans area students in early childhood through Grade 12. From the elementary grades through upper school, the care and cultivation of each child comes to life in our exciting academic program, creative arts, and competitive athletic offerings.
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