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.