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    Wendell Berry and Compliments in Education

    April 30, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Last night, while popping some popcorn on the stove {hope my chiropractor isn’t reading this–she keeps telling me to ditch the popcorn–ahem}, I picked up my slightly neglected copy of What Are People For? and reread the essay I had completed a month ago, which is to say, Wallace Stegner and the Great Community.

    Wendell Berry, when he was a younger man, was given a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. If you are unfamiliar with Wallace Stegner {and I was, by the way}, I did a little digging and learned that he is called “The Dean of Western Writers” and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 for his novel Angle of Repose.

    It is obvious from the essay that Berry admires Stegner very much, not only for his proficiency in writing, but also for the type of man and teacher he was. He writes:

    Mr. Stegner’s teaching, then, as I have come to see it, was as important for what it did not do as for what it did. One thing he did not do was encourage us too much. If we wrote well, he said so. But he did not abet any suspicions we may have had that we were highly accomplished writers or that we were ever going to be highly accomplished. In this, I think, he respected the past, for he was better acquainted with the art of writing than we were and knew better than we did how much we had to learn. But he was being respectful of us too. He did not want to mislead us or help us to mislead ourselves. He did not say what he had not considered or did not mean. He did not deal in greetings at the beginnings of great careers. {emphasis mine}

    This is, I think, important. I am incredibly tempted to drown my children in praise. I did this a bit with my oldest when he was younger, and I ended up having to crush a bit of his pride later with a dose of reality. It takes a bit of art, I think, to learn to praise a student’s progress without giving him the impression that he has arrived at his destination already, or that he is better at his work than he really is, or that he is superior to his peers in some way.

    My daughter A. has been awakening in so many ways lately, and I am, as we mothers so often are, almost bursting with pride. But I find myself holding my tongue until I have found the right words, until I can moderate the praise with reality and say, “I sure like the way you are trying to imitate that painting” instead of declaring to her something meaningless such as, “That is just so pretty and wonderful and so on and so forth” ad nauseam.

    I see that the need for this moderation of praise doesn’t end, even when you are Wallace Stegner and teaching some of the future great writers of our country.

    Perhaps it is even more important at that point, when Stegner just might be the teacher who has the power to influence the students for greatness or something else, something which misses the mark, because the student doesn’t reach his full potential.

    Berry continues:

    He did not pontificate or indoctrinate or evangelize. We were not expected to become Stegnerians. None of us could have doubted that he wanted us to know and think and write as well as we possibly could. But no specific recipe or best way was recommended. The emphasis was on workmanship. What we were asked to be concerned with was the job of work at hand, what one or another of us had done or attempted to do. Our teacher was a writer, he too was at work on what he had chosen to do; he would help us if he could.

    The portion was reminiscent of what David Hicks was talking about when he portrayed the teacher as a type of fellow sojourner. The teacher teaches by modeling the Ideal Type to his students. His entire life is the convincing proof of what he is teaching.

    One last quote:

    And so what I began by calling reticence–at some risk, for it is not a fashionable virtue now–finally declares itself as courtesy toward both past and future: courtesy toward the art of writing, which needs to be carefully learned and generously passed on; and courtesy toward us, who as young writers needed all the help we could get, but needed also to be left to our own ways.

    This is the balance I have been pondering lately in regard to my oldest. As he grows, I find myself wanting to tread carefully, to both recognize his need for firm, formal teaching, as well as his unique soul and gifting, and his need to learn a few things by tackling them on his own. It seems to me that this will get increasingly difficult with each passing year. It is so easy when children are under five and a sort of parental tyranny is in order–do this, now do this, your day will run mostly according to the way I have planned it. It is appropriate to give the two-year-old the security of ordering his life for him. But letting them fly–and knowing how far and how fast they should be allowed to do so–is tricky business.

    And I know this instinctively, for I have yet to really live any of that. I tremble sometimes, when I think of the task we have before us, don’t you?

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  • Reply Kansas Mom May 7, 2010 at 2:16 am

    Kansas Dad’s dentist is rather anti-popcorn and recommended he give it up. He would, too, since he’s not that big a fan, but I adore it and ask him to make some for me at least three times a week. And then he eats some, too.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts May 6, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    On popcorn: corn in general can harbor fungus and aflatoxins/other fungal toxins. Also, its nature as a starchy carb can contribute to bodily fungal growth. I happened to test positive for a fungal infection, and when she found out I was a popcorn fanatic…she fowned at me! πŸ™

    I am still heartbroken.


    Well, I DID ditch the popcorn while I was healing, but I am pretty sure that the popcorn from Azure is okay (as in not infected), as they are so strict with their products. I tend to not eat other popcorn, though, due to this personal health issue. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that other people should do this when their health is fine.

  • Reply Jennifer May 6, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Can I ask “why” she wants you to ditch the popcorn? Boo hoo! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Mystie May 1, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Ditch popcorn?! Oh, hard-hearted woman! πŸ™‚

    Yes, I tremble.

    This is similar to the advice of Doug & Nancy Wilson on respecting sons and husbands — Admire and say “well done” to concrete accomplishments, not wishy-washy “You’re so smart” and the like. And while their point was that boys crave and respond to respect, we should also respect our daughters, too. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Kansas Mom May 1, 2010 at 12:01 am

    “I tremble sometimes, when I think of the task we have before us, don’t you?”

    Oh, yes!

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