Doctors smoke. Attorneys go to jail. Clergy lose their faith. But educators who did badly in school aren’t something you read much about. There are obvious reasons for this, beginning with the fact that most jobs in education require a graduate degree of some kind, and a spotty academic record can be a serious impediment to graduate school, assuming a lousy student aspires to it in the first place.

The truth is that I disliked school from an early age, as I’m sure the paper trail (if it could be reconstructed from the beginning) would show. And to keep the candor going, I want to add that I’m not even sure I liked learning, if by learning we mean letting in change. Ironically, I compensated for this by developing a collector’s mentality—an insatiable appetite for the known—which would seem to contraindicate an openness to change. Why explain how half of a quantity of carbon-14 decays after 5,730 years, when the Mayan calendar puts it in historical perspective and might make for more interesting conversation? If someone else had told me that the rate of decay is only an average, as a way of enticing me into the mysteries of probability, chances are I would have shut down.

Always on the search for good, short, straightforward reads for my advanced TOEFL students, I used to rely on Lewis Thomas and sometimes assigned his wonderful essay, “The Scrambler in the Mind,” to see what they would make of it, not telling them that it was the story of my life (the also short “The Wonderful Mistake” generally fared better):

Gödel’s Theorem was once explained to me by a patient, gentle mathematician, and just as I was taking it all in, nodding appreciatively at the beauty of the whole idea, I suddenly felt something like the silent flicking of a mercury wall switch and it all turned to nonsense in my head…It is not like blanking out or losing interest or drifting off, not at all. My mind is, if anything, more alert, grasping avidly at every phrase, but then the switch is thrown and what comes in is transformed into an unfathomable code.

Thomas describes his mind as alert and grasping; I am pretty sure that in Algebra II, I often was drifting off. But the scrambler phenomenon is not restricted to those on the receiving end. I remember as an undergraduate in the early 1990s being invited by the family of my Israeli roommate to a private party in honor of some esteemed physical scientists who had just fled the freshly disintegrated USSR. I approached one of them and with what in retrospect was an unbelievable lack of empathy asked him to explain Chaos Theory. The man looked right and left, stammered briefly—I can still see his horn rims flashing with agitation—and managed to say only. “It is too difficult, it is too difficult.”

No doubt, Chaos Theory is difficult. But years of humiliation at the hands of public school math teachers, whose ability to activate my scrambler was nearly telepathic, were probably a major factor in my gravitation—or flight—toward words as my sense-making medium. Numbers shut me up; with language, I could open up. But I don’t want to come across as if this was all about self-expression. To solve a word problem, or any problem involving quantification, some degree of submission is required, a willingness to resolve a mystery on its own terms. Effective learning demands, if not necessarily a suspension of the self, then something akin to a child’s terrifying discovery of buoyancy, or an adult language learner’s preparedness to speak about the day’s events in the tongue of the host country knowing that she may make a fool of herself. In contrast, bad students have an instinctive aversion to systems.

Where there are systems, there are rules. At its simplest, a system is a congeries of rules; you could even argue that f(x) is a system consisting of a single rule. I should tread carefully here, however, since it could then be argued that a system is the sum of its rules, which may be true but misses the whole spirit of a system, to whose infinite possibilities its rules are subordinated. I confess, that from the day I set foot in my first classroom, I did not tread carefully.

To be clear, I am not saying that being a bad student is necessarily a bad thing. Still, a correlation could probably be found between students who resist the rules of mathematics (to take an extreme but by no means isolated example) and those who resist the idea of rules altogether, in and out of class. I now realize the thing I resented about math was the accumulating mass of rules one had to learn simply to move one step forward. Ultimate mastery of the subject was inconceivable. Surely, education did not ask us to subordinate ourselves to purposes as yet unknown to us. I sensed that learning was a kind of liberation, so any discipline that asked me to do no more (or less) than mirror the figures in a carpet must have seemed a snare and delusion.


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