A New Year for Intellectualism

A New Year for Intellectualism

At the beginning of the school year, I wrote about the opportunity that we had to create the conditions for learning in an otherwise unstable time by limiting the white noise: “In sum, we can strive to provide the intellectual, emotional, and physical quietude that students need to learn, and I am confident that we will rise to this challenge just as our colleagues have risen to meet the others that came before it.” If we worked purposefully, I intimated, we could read, listen, think, speak and write with clarity, avoid othering those with whom we did not agree, model critical thinking, promote the value of socio-emotional learning, and promote civil discourse in the process. Mathematics teaches us that improbability and impossibility are two different conditions, or, as Stephane Mallamé notes in his concrete poem of the same title, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A roll of the dice will never abolish chance). Thus, our colleagues throughout the country worked very hard to increase the probability of a successful return to school for our students.

Though I dare not speak for others, I am confident that this year of teaching and learning has been more difficult than we anticipated. The inconsistent patchwork of public health regulations, shifting quarantines, and prolonged absences of staff and students have made for a disjointed experience for even the most fortunate of colleagues, let alone those who personally have suffered or lost family members. As 2021 came to a close, it seemed a good time to reflect on what we have accomplished by retreating to the woods, practicing mindfulness, and remembering how our time is spent and in what service.

I do not have answers for what comes next, but as a teacher of the humanities, I value questions that loom large without easy or set answers. In fact, as I often tell my students, asking the question is often the most important part of the exercise.

I find I am drawn again to the power of intellectualism to give us agency in trying times.

Marcus Aurelius, in Book II of The Meditations, wrote: “Through not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.” And, while I disagree with a number of other ideas that Aurelius wrote (he was not keen on public schools, for one), I find that parsing out of valuable information is representative of what we must do moving forward. Auditing our own faculties of reasoning and our various sources of motivation is as important as encouraging that self-knowledge in our students.

We will continue to disagree with those around us, but those other voices still need to be heard. Pluralism demands that we show discipline and confidence.

We will continue to face circumstances that make us feel like Sispyhus with his rock. Resilience demands that we approach the rock with deliberateness and perspective.

We will continue to work while standing on shifting foundations of viral surges, remote learning and increased student needs, and general absurdity. Humanism demands that we grant ourselves the freedom to recognize and acknowledge absurdity and carry on for ourselves, our families, our friends, our colleagues, and our students.

2022, without doubt or ambiguity, will be far different from 2021. I look forward to a new year of possibilities, increased collaboration with colleagues, and new opportunities to broaden my horizons, or as Carrie Williams Clifford put it,

“...The boundless infinite let us explore,

To search out undiscovered mystery,...”

Happy New Year to us all.

Joe Hennessey is a high school English teacher in Guilford, Maine and is the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National University Teacher Award Winner for Maine. Additionally, he was selected by his students as the Faculty Speaker in 2015 and 2018 and received the Yearbook Dedication in 2016 and 2018. Prior to moving to Maine, in 2013-2014, he received the Yearbook Dedication and was named the Teacher of the Year at Collegiate Academy of Colorado. Mr. Hennessey is a Graduate with Distinction in Humanities from the University of Colorado at Boulder and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He is a proud member of NNSTOY and can be followed at @MeTOY2019.


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