October 11th, 2023
|Hello Selwyn Families!|
We’ve had a great start to this school year, and I am incredibly glad that your family is a part of ours. Typically, on the first of each month throughout the school year I share my thoughts on teaching and learning—what’s happening in the classrooms, across the school, and in the halls. This year, I’m turning to my faculty to share what they are doing and how they’re doing it. We have some incredibly talented, thoughtful, and capable teachers leading our classes, and I want to give them the opportunity to share with you just how they’re making learning at Selwyn an exceptional opportunity for our students.
For this month, I’m turning things over to our Sophomore English instructor (and Director of Development), Chase Eddington. Read some of his thoughts below.
Head of School
This July, I spent two weeks on a fellowship for a teaching institute through the National Endowment for the Humanities. Two dozen teachers from across the country gathered to read about and discuss ways that humanities instructors might more intentionally teach philosophy across the curriculum. Besides being a restorative time to read and learn in a community of exceptional educators, I came away from the institute with a renewed focus on teaching literature as a way to ask and answer questions not just of knowledge, but also of wisdom
When we ask questions of fact, we know a definite answer exists, and we only need find it out. When and by what means was Abraham Lincoln assassinated? What is the atomic structure of iridium? How can we calculate the volume of a cylinder? All of these questions—and questions like them—are essential, in one capacity or another, for the healthy functioning of modern life. They are not, however, the only types of questions worth asking.
Equally essential to the healthy functioning of modern life are questions of value and questions of wisdom. These questions, if we are not going to be dogmatic about their answers, have less clear answers. Or, they at least have multiple potentially good answers that might be at odds with one another. What do we owe the people around us? What is truth, and what is a person’s obligation to tell it? How ought we act in the face of injustice? What type of people should we become? What does a life well-lived look like?
The answers to these questions can’t be looked up in a textbook. They are, however, the precise sort of questions that writers of literature and poetry have posed and attempted to answer for centuries. Whether we’re reading one of Plato’s dialogues or Akutagawa’s modernist short stories, we can see how people across time, language, place, and culture have approached these questions, and how they’ve attempted to resolve them. This year, for Selwyn’s Sophomore English class, I’ve reframed our readings around central questions of wisdom. We read novels, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction from around the world, across time and place, and we try to resolve essential value questions so that we might have a clearer understanding of how we can live meaningful lives. I’ve been upfront with my students: these are the sorts of questions that have been asked for millennia, and humanity hasn’t reached consensus on them yet. Our class won’t be the first to get it right—but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.
The literature classroom serves many functions. It teaches the history of creative thought and expression; the development of style and literary purpose across time; the functions of artistic expression in society and culture. It also teaches how we might directly interrogate material, ask difficult questions of it, and—regardless of how satisfying or unsatisfying a conclusion we might reach—it teaches us the value in asking these sorts of questions at all.
Questions of fact matter: modern culture needs facts to thrive. Yet much of our culture has diminished the value of wisdom questions, and many of us are uncomfortable with the possibility of uncertainty in their answers (or non-answers). If literature teaches us anything, it is that other people have asked and attempted to answer these questions before us, they have wrestled with this uncertainty, and we should find comfort in that common urge to live meaningful, fulfilling lives.
Asking these sorts of questions in the literature classroom, and then reading to see how others have approached an answer—for better or worse—gives students agency to develop their own answers to questions that really matter. Regardless of what students do after graduation, whether they need to know the atomic structure of iridium or not, they cannot avoid answering the question: how should I live? The answer, however hard we look, cannot be found in a textbook. It is worth our students’ time (and each person’s time, I would argue) to reflect on how best they might approach an answer.
-Aaron Chase Eddington