The Loss of the Student

Mike Calou

Commentary Number Six


The Loss of the Student

Now I know I’m starting to lose it. When I read Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature” I immediately thought of an article I had just read about a malady known as “forgotten baby syndrome” (The Week, Volume 9, Issue 406, 4/3/09). There was a spark of remembering this article when Percy discusses the tourist and the Grand Canyon. I thought Percy was spot on when he said “the present is surrendered to the past and the future” (2). When we go to a spot like the Grand Canyon we may look at pictures and read about the Canyon before we go and when we are there looking out over the Canyon we may take photographs to look at when we get back home. But when we are there, looking at “it” we don’t really see the Grand Canyon. What struck me about Percy’s words was that there may actually be a physiological reason why we don’t see “it.”

The magazine article I mentioned earlier discusses the tragic problem of leaving a child in a car and then forgetting that the child is in the automobile. Every year, at least a dozen children die in overheated cars in the U.S. because parents forgot they were there. I’m not going to elaborate on this other than to make a connection to Walter Percy and “The Loss of the Creature.”

Recently, Dr. Diamond, a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida, while driving to the mall, forgot that his infant granddaughter was asleep in the back of his car. He remembered, he said, only because his wife mentioned the baby. So he understands what could have happened had he been alone with the child. Almost worse, he understands exactly why. “The human brain,” he says,” is a jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species.” I think he is saying that through the process of evolution the human brain still retains traits of earlier developed brain parts. Dr. Diamond goes on to say:

At the top are the most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom of the brain are the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.

Dr. Diamond says that in situations involving routine motor skills humans use the basal ganglia like a sort of auto pilot. For example, when our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning the day at work, the basal ganglia is allowing us to drive the car. Maybe you’ve experienced this; you’ve driven to work without clearly remembering the road you took, the turns you made, or the things you saw. I know I have done this: I have driven to the same place for eleven years.

Dr. Diamond goes on to say, “Ordinarily, this delegation of duty works beautifully, like a symphony. But, sudden or chronic stress can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia. He says that he has seen that pattern in some of the infant death cases he’s been involved with.

How does this connect with the Loss of the Creature? There is a “disconnect” whenever we involve ourselves with an activity that we don’t truly experience. What Percy calls really seeing something is done by “leaving the beaten track” (2):

The tourist leaves the tour, camps in the back country. He arises before dawn and approaches the South Rim through a wild terrain where there are no trails and no railed-in lookout points (2).

Getting off the beaten path works well for tourists, but how about the teacher and his students? How does the student really see “it” and how does the teacher really teach “it?”

I think, as teachers, we can consider ourselves “students” and empathize with the student we are teaching to the extent that we give the student a “claim” (11) in his education. The student with a “claim” in the educational process will be motivated to learn. The same can be said about teachers. A teacher with a “claim” in the educational process will be motivated to teach.

5 comments for “The Loss of the Student

  1. James
    March 31, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    That would be Dr. Jared Diamond? He’s an interesting guy, if you have not read “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” and “Collapse” you should do so forthwith. In those two books he discusses the evolution of societies and cultures in a fascinating way that I have to agree with for the most part. And to think that he started his carreer by studying orintholological evolutional trends in exotic locations. He says in “Guns, Germs and Steel,” that he first got interested in human social evolution when he was studying birds in New Guinea, staying with local tribes in the mountains, and became aquainted with their customs. At least I think it was New Guinea, It was somewhere in the south pacific anyhow. He does something that you might call Macro-ethnology, but it is seriously interesting and relevant to what we are doing.

  2. tbell
    April 1, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    I understand the point you are making in the last paragraph. A student making a claim on something educational may then really see it as opposed to going through the motions. But I still don’t see how Percy justifies his claim that because I have read about the dogfish, use modern instruments instead of my fingernail and use educational jargon to discuss my findings that I did not genuninely see the dogfish. I may still have made a claim and may have seen the dogfish as clearly as the professor who punctures it with his fingernail.

    I understand what he is saying about perception. I just don’t agree.

  3. iderfnam
    April 3, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I liked reading your essay, Mike. It helps me understand Percy a little bit more, however, still not enthused about the article. Thanks for bringing up Dr. Diamond… very interesting stuff there.

  4. James
    April 4, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Yes, I see eactly what you mean, and I think it is true, I left a comment on a different one of these posts, maybe Tina’s, or maybe to a response she left, in which I said that I think that in teaching composition a large part of our jobs is breaking through the complex of expected experience, and forcing students to think outside the box, and confront their experience packages of culture, faith, and social expectation for what they are, just packages. We all have to package our experiences, but the packages should be of our own individual choosing as much as possible without directly harming others, and for that to be possible those idea structures have to be identifiable as imposed structures.

    One of the ways I try to do this is by presenting the student with challenging readings, “The Loss of the Creature” being one of them, another way I do it is by assigning “Outside Adventures,” and by changing the schedule around, and by meeting outside at eight in the morning without warning, and it seems to be working.

    The ones who don’t want to learn dropped out. But I still have two students more than my class size, and I kept them because they are doing good work, and I did not want to turn anyone away who is willing to work as hard as I am asking them to.

    You see it is my belief that composition is as much about thinking around corners, and outside our boxes, as it is about language, so in order to teach them how to write, I have to also teach them how to think, and actually thinking requires diverse experiences.

  5. James
    April 4, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Oh, yeah, and I have kids, and I have forgotten about them–never in a catostrophic way thank whatever gods might me watching–but I think your Diamond is on the right track about why it happens. They become so much a part of the routine, you just don’t think about them sometimes, like the commute.

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