Van Gessell

VAN GESSELL:


I’m Van Gessell, I’m Dean of the College of Humanities at BYU and, uh, my discipline is Japanese Language and Literature.

I think a well-educated teacher is one who is not so narrowly focused in one single discipline, um, that when you take them out of the classroom they have nothing to say.  They know nothing, uh, they’re interested in nothing else other than their own narrow field.  I think well-educated means that you are excited about a lot of different things.  That you recognize the inter connectedness between, uh, so much of what goes on in the world and so much of what, uh, is the connection between past and present and looking to the future.  And, um, someone who really values, uh, what education is, whether it is within their own, uh, culture and discipline or somewhere else.  Someone who has a curiosity about what is different from themselves and from their own interests.  Someone who is constantly learning, uh, both within their own field and beyond just because learning is such a kick and is so, uh, much a part of how they define themselves and how they see themselves as a resource for their students and for their colleagues, um, and---and so much a part of the energy that they bring to their school, their institution, that they can’t help but be excited when some new idea comes along.   Uh, even---even if it happens to be, um, Astronomy for the literature professor, you know, the---they---they sh---the---the news programs, the magazines, uh, every week, um, should just spark enthusiasm and, uh, inquiry.  Uh, you know, it---it’s a constant process of inquiry and finding out more and wanting to dig deeper and then wanting to share that with others and that’s---that’s what, uh, a vital classroom is, I think, is someone who comes in and can’t wait, uh, to share their latest discovery and sometimes it has to do with the discipline.

You ask me why you should be involved in courses that have no direct connection to what you really want to do as a teacher.  Um, I can relate to the question because I felt very much the same way.  Um, actually when I was in high school, when I was in high school I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life.  I knew precisely what I was going to be making a living at.  I knew exactly what my talents and skills were and I knew exactly how I was going to apply them and nothing was going to divert me and it was a total waste of time for me to have to sit in classes that I could not see directly connected to that goal. Um, it took me a little while to understand, um, first that my crystal ball was quite foggy, uh, and that what I was going to end up doing had absolutely no relationship to what I thought I was going to be doing at that point in my life, or that I thought as I got into college that I was going to be doing.  Uh, I---I hadn’t been able to plan in all of the accidents and, uh, changes and, um, blindsiding that came into my life along the way.  Uh, in other words, I wasn’t prepared for real life.  I was prepared for my agenda for what my life was going to look like, but I wasn’t prepared for the---the shifts and pushes and turns, um, and, uh, side roads that experience, um, would bring to me.  And so, uh, looking back at it now, um, I have, um, a lot of guilt and anger and frustration that I did not take my general education more seriously.  Uh, I think it’s made me a narrower human being.  I feel enormous gaps in what I understand of the world around me, um, and it is an enormous loss from my perspective.  Uh, and so my sense is, as you go in to, uh, the university environment, even though you know you want to teach and even though you know you want to teach in this particular area because that’s your interest and your talent, um, if you don’t know how that field connects to the rest of the world, if you don’t know how to communicate that field to other human beings, if you don’t know, um, why knowledge is so important in other disciplines, even though they’re not your own discipline, um, you’re missing out on a huge chunk of your life and your---you---your reducing your value to your students.  Because they’re all coming from different perspectives, they’re all coming from different backgrounds, they’re all coming with different interests and you’ve got to be able to speak to them, you’ve got to be able to connect to them and then help them see how, uh---where they’re coming from can bring them into your area and help you have a more expansive view of the world.  Because education for me, uh, sorry to give a really gimcrack definition of it, but education for me is being able to see the world from a variety of perspectives.  And if you’ve only chose one perspective you’ve limited your understanding of the world.

Are you a well-educated person when you finish your Bachelor’s Degree? Um, are you a well- educated person when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?  Um, I know very few well-educated people and I know a lot of people and I interact with a lot of very intelligent people.  But a well-educated person is a person who, um, really has to be careful at prioritizing their use of time because there’s still so much that they’ve got to be learning.  Um, at the end of a Bachelor’s Degree program, um, you have, um, you---you---you’ve been to a food tasting, you haven’t had any banquets yet and you haven’t had your fill.  And you should be really, really hungry, uh, and there’s a lot out there to feast on.  And, uh, you know, you ought to not be worried about obesity when it comes to knowledge because I don’t think there is any such thing.  Uh, you---you---you gain so much energy from learning, uh, that it takes off whatever pounds of, uh, stupidity that you’re carrying around with you.  And so for me, um, you have had, uh, a little glimpse of what it is to be educated in one little piece of all that there is to know about---out there, but you haven’t yet, uh, even sensed how much there is still to explore and how much more you’re going to need to be a good teacher, a good administrator, a good colleague, a good friend, a good husband and wife, a good parent, uh, all of those things, uh, are about the accumulation of knowledge and it is the putting together of those pieces of knowledge that ultimately leads to, uh, a kind of narrow wisdom.  Uh, and then that wisdom has to be built on to other areas of knowledge.  Uh---it---it’s like a---a---a Lego set, um, you walk out with your Bachelor’s Degree and you’ve got 12 Legos in your hands, um, you haven’t quite yet built the castle of knowledge.  Uh, you’re gonna need a lot more pieces along the way and they’re going to be different colors and different shapes and you’ve got to figure out how to fit ‘em together.  And as you learn how to fit ‘em together that’s when you can start saying that you’re beginning to be well educated.

For me, the gospel mandate, uh, to really be well educated and to be a true teacher, um, is encompassed in something that C.S. Lewis wrote in his science fiction novel, “Paralandra.”   Uh, he talked about---one of the characters talks about how narrow, uh, his own view is, uh, because he has only lived on the earth and has only had the earth experience.  And he said, ‘When I was young I saw things only through my own eyes, but God sees all and all different.’  And to me the Gospel perspective is about seeing things from so many different perspectives that you start to get one little tiny glimpse of what it is like to see things from the Lord’s perspective.  Because everything out there that is true knowledge, that is true about a group of people, about individuals, about nations, kindreds, tongues and people, uh, is part of his creation.  And it’s part of his understanding, uh, and his wisdom and we only get little, scattered bits and pieces of that in our experience.  The more pieces that we can get and pull together the more we’re able to, uh, understand other people, um, evaluate where we are in relationship to others, uh, and understand where we stand in relationship with God and realize how narrow our own perspectives are compared to his and how much more we have to grow to be able to see things, uh, from that many dispirit directions.

The educator who is not well prepared is the one who thinks he or she knows all that needs to be known.  Um, if I can give a personal example, uh, when I was in graduate school studying Japanese Literature and---and thinking about the process of translating it into English, uh, I met with one of the great translators, uh, in the field and, uh, had the chance to ask him, ‘what else is there out there to be translated?’  And he said, ‘I think I’ve pretty much done all the things that need to be done or are worth doing.’  Um, and even from, you know, the---the level of an ant, uh, looking up at the giant elephant, uh, it seemed odd to me, uh, to be so narrow in my prescriptions that if my tastes had dictated that it was worth doing that that was correct.  And that if someone else saw something else it was obviously of secondary importance.  I---I think, um, the---the---the---the poor educator is the one who thinks he or she can’t learn from students.  Who thinks that expressing that single view of an idea or a subject, uh, has therefore been a declaration from the heavens and there is nothing more to be said on the subject.  Um, I---I have learned so much about text that I know intimately just by laying them out for my students and hearing their response to them, because their response comes through their experience and through their minds and through their feelings and if I can relate to that and if I can understand how they’re seeing it and why they’re seeing it that way, we have a lot to discuss.  Uh, if they simply have to understand my view and understand that if they can spit back my view they are then educated, um, we’ve wasted a whole lot of time and money in---well, we pretend is the educational process when in fact it’s about, uh, filtering information through every single consciousness, um, so that it comes to mean something and then understanding what that means to others.

That the teacher, I think, has to view himself or herself as a resource, as, um, part of a process of helping others to find out who they are.  How they fit in to our society.  How they fit in to our nation.  How they fit in to our political structures.  Um, we---we aren’t there to tell them, uh, you have to do it this way.  We’re there to help them explore their options, uh, and help them to see that they do have a role to play, no matter what their background, no matter what their present state of learning, of knowledge, of understanding, that we need them.  Um, and---and so the moral dimensions of teaching, to me, say, um---number one, as a teacher you’ve got an enormous weight of responsibility on your shoulders.  Because it you can’t spark, um, that view of an individual, uh, himself or herself, as being important and having a role to play in building a community and in bettering a community, then I think, uh, you really are wasting time in the classroom.   Uh---I---I think that---that---that the well-educated teacher, um, can model, um, what an individual can do through education.  Um, can encourage those who are having struggles and give them the kind of help that they need to see that they can do it, because we’re obviously not going to teach them everything about everything in our little, limited sphere, but we can teach them that they can learn.  And we can teach them that if they will learn, uh, that they will be able to make a contribution.  Um, and so I---I think that looking at the moral dimension the---the re---the stewardship responsibility, uh, is enormous, uh, the---the weight of having to make sure that you’re not omitting someone from the conversation is enormous.  Um, and the---the whole---the whole sense that, um, you are there for a moral purpose, not just for---well, I was going to say not just for an educational purpose, but, they sh---it should be the same thing.  Educational should be moral, moral should be educational, because morality is about learning and learning should be about morality.