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Reality, Unreality, and Virtual RealityEdwin J. DelattrePublished online: 24 Mar 2010.
To cite this article: Edwin J. Delattre (2001) Reality, Unreality, and Virtual Reality, Arts Education Policy Review, 102:3,15-19, DOI: 10.1080/10632910109599998
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Reality, Unreality, and Virtual Reality
EDWIN J. DELATTRE
enry David Thoreau made many pronouncements that I find unpersuasive. However, 1 think that he hit the nail on the head when he said we
use the words real and reality to refer only to the elements of life that matter thc most to us, that we take to be the mast Important, and that we believe to be seriwus. I conclude from this fact that the idiom popular during the past half-cantilry or more that has done the most to bash teachers, harm students, undermine schools, and derail the intel- lectual and moral formation of the young i s !,he phrase, the classroom and the real world. This idiom implies that what teaahers do with students; how teachers design curriculum and bring artistry tci; their teaching; what students learn by Gystematic study of the acad- emic and scientific disciplines and the arts; the intellectual powers that stu- dents forgje by reading, listening, inquir- ing, efipeiimenting, translating, writing, and speaking; and the moral ethos of schools are all less real, less conse- quential, less meaningful, less serious, and less rinportant than what happens everywhere else-that is, in the so- called real world. Teach a child this per-
on, that reality excludes for- mal educiition. and you can undermine the childq educational opportunities for an entire \lifetime.
Classrooms, teaching, and learning are as real as anything in the rest of the real world, and their consequences, for both better and worse, have greater and more durable impact than most of what occurs elsewhere in the lives of many children, youths, and adults. Other long-established phrases-as thought- less, foolish, and damaging as the sup- posed divorce between the classroom and reality-likewise express a sneer- ing contempt for formal education: the ivory tower; book learning as opposed to real learning; those who can, do, and those who cant, teach; and experience is the best teacher, as if becoming accomplished at learning systematically were not among the most important kinds of experience. Those who visit such phrases on the young impair their vision of their own possi- bilities and potential and deafen them to crucial lessons in how to make the most of themselves.
Most of the people who tell the young that experience is the best teacher do not know, and therefore cannot explain, that long ago that sentence was the first half of a couplet: the second half is a fool can learn from no other. That is, a fool cannot learn vicariously from the expe- rience of others; cannot learn by imagi- nation and powers of analogical reason- ing; cannot learn from the study of biography. literature, and human histo-
ry. Thus do the lives of fools become tragic: Life is too short to learn very much all by ourselves, bereft of learning from the experience of others. The most fortunate among us become good at learning for ourselves, but that is far dif- ferent from being condemned to learn all by ourselves.
You know as well as I do how stark and grave the condition of life tends to be when a child is deprived of educa- tional opportunity. Every idiom that demeans classrooms, teachers, and the rightful work of students tempts the young to become instruments of their own educational deprivation. That is reality, and every qualified teacher knows it.
These same mistaken expressions about what is real and what i \ not tend also to seduce parents into neglect of their childrens learning at home. If the classroom is not real, then homework assignments are not real either. Whether children do the work at home necessary to benefit fully from classroom instruc- tion is not a matter of real consequence. Whether young people learn of their moral obligation to be prepared, so that they do not needlessly waste the time of their classmates, falls away from reality.
This article is based on a talk given to the National Council on Teacher Retirement, in October 2000.
Vol. 102, No. 3, JanuarylFebruary 2001 I5
At worst, this leads to what Boston Uni- versity President Jon Westling calls the infantilization of adolescence-failure to take the young seriously enough to help them learn anything about reality and their responsibilities in it.
Where learning in the classroom and at home is trivialized by a diminished conception of reality, the young routine- ly lose the opportunity to acquire self- knowledge. They do not learn who and what they really are. Ignorance of our- selves, ignorance of our strengths and weaknesses, ignorance of our potential and limits, ignorance of reasonable expectations of ourselves obscures most of the rest of reality, including seeing things from the place and point of view o f others-the foundation of a sense of justice, and thus of moral life.
Ignorance of ourselves becomes more damaging when compounded by false guidance. Many children and youths are harmed today by adults who confident- ly tell them, You can be and do any- thing you want. Children subjected to such falsehoods later learn the hard way that none of us can be and do everything we may want and that every choice involves sacrifice of other possibilities. Unrealistic lessons lead to later cyni- cism and bitterness.
False Lessons Proper instruction rubs the innocence
of children gently away, helping them to replace innocence with a grasp of reality appropriate to their maturity. False lessons intended to preserve innocence only shatter it when children learn they have not been told the truth by adults whom they trusted. A child needs to learn of potential and limits at a pace that does not prohibit optimism, hope, willingness to try, resiliency in failure, atid preparedness to try again. No teacher of any sense supposes that a child has to learn the whole truth at once, but none teaches lessons that make reality seem to be entirely benign, either.
I count my blessings that, when I was a teenager, my mother and father, who were raised in the Depression, consid- ered nothing more real than the forma- tion of my mind and character at school and at home. Both of them emphasized
our obligations to be trustworthy, as did many of my public schoolteachers. Together, those teachers of my youth set the stage for thirty years of my work as a philosopher on ethics and the public trust. Neither of my parents was preju- diced against classrooms, teachers, or book learning.
By 1959, when I was seventeen, I had, as have many youths and adults today, mastered the pretense, the appearance, of listening in conversation, when in reality I was busily thinking of what I would say as soon as I had the chance. My dad saw through the mas- querade, but he did not mention it. Instead, he gave me his copy of Jacques Barzuns then new book, The House of Intellect. You may know Barzuns unforgettable books, Teacher in Ameri- ca and Begin Here: The Forgotten Con- ditions of Teaching and Learning or the recent masterpiece on the past five hun- dred years of Western culture that took him over seventy years to write, From Dawn to Decadence.
As a teenager, when I reached chapter 3 of The House of Intellect, Conversa- tion, Manners, and the Home, I had, as my father had surely hoped, the unpleasant experience of recognizing myself. Barzun wrote:
In private life, the counterpart of public debate is conversation. The word sounds old-fashioned and its meaning is blurred . . . . Yet whether we use the word to mean ail forms of verbal exchange or, more nar- rowly, the sociable sifting of opinion, conversation is the testing ground of man- ners. This is so because manners are minor morals which facilitate the rela- tions of men, chiefly through words . . . . The reader will have noticed that I did not speak of sociable conversation as the exchange, but as the sifting of opinion. The exchange view is a nearly correct description of modem practice: A delivers an opinion while B thinks of the one he will inject as soon as he decently can.
Recognizing myself as both ill-man- nered and deceptive in only pretending to listen in conversation made me feel ashamed of myself. My initial resolve to do better led in time to the joys-and the demands-of conversation between colleagues, friends, and intimates who listen to every word and tonal nuance. Learning really to listen forged the
habits of concentration on what my stu- dents say that are indispensable to any teaching worthy of the name. For such reasons, Barzun says in Begiri How, What goes on in the classroom should remain a live show. As Barzun knows. there are no technological substitutes for direct human association and the manners, morals, and intellectual pow- ers that grow from it. The only educa- tional technology that has ever come close is the very good book in which an author painstakingly gives his or her best to a readership of human beings in the present and the future-books writ- ten by authors who think about and care about posterity in the way that the founders of our country did when they spoke in the Preamble to the Constitu- tion of securing the blessings 01 liberty to us and our posterity. And even the book falls short, unless its renders undertake to study it with the serious- ness due its author.
Contrast respectful conversation, writing, and reading with the ill-man- nered presumptions that attend modern technology: unsolicited telephone poll- ing that presumes the right to know our opinions, tastes, and preferences and to intrude on our privacy; unsolicited e- mails that presume the right to a reply; e-mails completely bereft of the eti- quette of correspondence and tilled with grammatical, syntactical, and typo- graphical carelessness that debases dis- course among us and sets a dreadful example for the young.
Visit computer laboratories in ele- mentary and middle schools. All too often, you will find children who are learning neither to type well nor to write with good penmanship. You will see children who are not using the resources of the computer to elevate their capacity for composition, but who are instead playing with fonts. In many schools, you will find that scant budgetary prior- ity is given to enabling teachers to lcarn how best and when to use the varieties of modern instructional technology. You will also find school districts where time is not reserved for librarians to introduce teachers systematically to trustworthy Web sites of potential value to their students. Spending money on
I6 A r b Education Policy Review
hardware and software without commit- ting funds and time to the professional developnient of teachers makes class- rooms wme, not better. Equally sad, if you talk with children who use calcula- tors for arithmetic computation, you will find many who cannot do the com- putationh in their minds or on paper for themselves. They are completely at the mercy 01 technology that performs functions at which they are themselves helpless. Their helplessness, I hasten to add, is nut virtual. It is real.
There are, of course, excellent Web sites that provide photographic repro- ductions r,f great paintings and sculp- tures; andl some of them provide reliable artistic aiualysis. But even these cannot do as miich for students as visits to museums where they learn to read paintings and sculptures at first hand, in their original languages, so to speak. The WOrkh of art in a museum, like the live teacher in a well-taught classroom, are real in ways that Web site reproduc- tions cannot be. Equally important, learning how to behave properly in a classroom. a museum, or a library, and acquiring rhe sense of respect and, at times, of reverence and awe that befits us in such places cannot be accom- plished in virtual reality.
Over twenty years after first reading The H o i w of Ititullect, 1 had the good fortune l o come to know Jacques Barzun. While he visited me in my office at Sr. Johns College in Santa Fe, I told him of his influence on me and of my fathers part in my first reading of The H o u s t of Intellect. With his kind permissioi,, I called my dad and asked whether htl remembered a book he had given me when I was seventeen that had affected nic very considerably. He knew immediately. 1 replied, Dad, say hello to Jacquc* Barzun. Jacques Barzun then thanked my father for his interest in the book and for having given it to me. You c;tn imagine how delighted and touched m y father and 1 were.
I witness every day the plight of stu- dents and ridults who have never really learned t o listen and who have never detected the reality of the impoverish- ment that they suffer as a result: ina...