My Canon

Reflections on Formative Influence

by Robbie McClintock

A work in progress. Started Spring 2011 as a series of lectures at Teachers College, Columbia University. The draft material currently on the site comprises files originally drafted for the last course at Teachers College, My Canon: Reflections on Formative Influence, which I gave the spring semester, 2011. I plan to complete, rewrite, and expand these materials.

An Invitation

In September 1961, I waited outside Professor Lawrence Cremin's office, wanting permission to join his colloquium on the history of American educational thought. After a brief eternity, Mrs. Zolot, the secretary for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, a woman at once kindly and curt, instructed me to go speak to the Professor.

Cremin, an attentive, gracious man of 35 or so, listened to me explain,

—I was starting to work on a Ph.D. in Columbia's history department, having graduated from Princeton the previous June,
—Could I participate in his colloquium, which was key to my interest in the history of educational thought?

I am resolved to pose my questions in both a strong personal sense and in a full academic sense—they are questions that have for me deep roots in my experience of life and they are questions of serious, substantial import with respect to the role of academe in the world.

Combining the personal and the academic feels a bit unseemly to me. Normally, or so it has seemed to me, a person circumscribes personal talk to a personal sphere, a world of small talk with strangers, practical activities with people we interact with regularly, and guarded discussion of deep questions with a few confidants, whose reactions one anticipates and trusts. As scholars, we treat big, never-answered questions with appropriate reserve, purveying depersonalized knowledge and opinion—up-to-date, of course, and well informed, but representing, not oneself, but the current state of the field. By overstepping these conventions, one risks sounding grandiose, as if one goes about thinking of oneself as a world-historical actor. Nevertheless, each of us does act and think within the historical world and it does influence us, and we, it, within our spheres of action. Our conventional circumspection, however, can leave that influence unexamined, which weakens our understanding of formative influence as it affects both our lives and the world at large.

A rather WASP upbringing compounded the way academic conventions encouraged reserve in my case, for I've been quite buttoned-down, even when letting it all hang out was my generation's style. Yet, whether buttoned-down or inclined to let it all out, each of us has a life of felt personal awareness with attention constantly moving, concerns churning. Ironically, this awareness is not exactly the awareness that I report to myself or others—"I am aware that . . ."—but rather a more encompassing, immediate, and inchoate awareness that may on occasion precipitate out as formed, explicit awareness, which I can report as such. I think the root awareness from which the formal precipitates is both the activator and the receptor of our constant activity of self-formation. This root awareness is pleonastic, indiscriminate, omnivorous, promiscuous, and over-reaching; it wants it all. Attention to something definite, particularly sustaining attention within an ever churning awareness, requires lots of negation, denial, concentration. We develop character, acquire interests, take on a cast of mind, form skills, and continually become who we are by negating all sorts of possibilities that churn about in our root awareness, by negating them in relatively stable ways. Sustained attention results from systematically negating a myriad of matters that beckon in our peripheral awareness.

Asking questions has an element of risk to it. Putting something in question requires negating the negations to open up settled domains of our churning awareness. Asking questions breaks ruling patterns of attentive activity. Questions are natural to the very young for patterned attention has not yet been established. An infant crawling on a lawn will not hesitate to grab a little orange salamander, crawling there as well, to find out how it tastes, or whether it squiggles in the mouth, or if sucked it exudes a satisfying fluid—questions most adults would find it very hard to entertain. As asking questions is natural to the very young, it is necessary, inevitable in the process of retiring from long-held work, for it entails negating all those negations that come with the job—the routines, the habits, the expectations, the facilities, the discipline, the opportunities, and the resources all bundled up into the work, the this-that-I-do, which is at the same time the all-that-I-do-not-do.

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do not carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it—but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your innermost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.

Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962, pp. 34-5).

He welcomed me in the colloquium, suggesting that I sit in as well on his lecture course, a prerequisite. That was my start here, and I have been here ever since, as a student, and from fall 1967, as a member of the faculty. Now, after this semester, I am retiring from the faculty, which naturally has me thinking back a bit, asking questions—

This course, My Canon, is an opportunity to answer, as best I can. Anyone who wants to join in is welcome.

In My Canon, I will reflect on the history of educational thought. I will also examine my personal engagement with that history. And I will further consider the historical context—in education, in academe, and in the world at large—within which my engagement with the history of educational thought took place.

I suspect that the last of these, the historical context, may be the most valuable of the matters at issue. To refresh my memories, I have been reading some large, comprehensive histories—Postwar by Tony Judt for Europe, and Grand Expectations and Restless Giant by James T. Patterson for the United States. These accentuate the succession of events—history as one thing after another—whereas what stands out for me is the subjective interrelation of historical situations and developments, the way my peculiar experience of one thing colors my experience of another. My Canon will recount how my engagement with important works of educational theory interacted with my experience of a lived historical context over a 50-year period. I hope others may find it informative.

What will come of it, I am not sure. I have offered neither this course before, nor one like it, and I've never taken one like it, either. So I don't know exactly what will happen. Preparing it has taken the better part of a lifetime, and my plan of reflection has an agenda, the skeleton of which is at the right on your screen, with links to Wiki pages and from those to other materials, all of which are extensible by each of us participating in the inquiry. I expect to start our meetings with something of a monologue, which should turn interactive as it proceeds. There will be pointers on a growing number of pages linking to stuff to read, to listen to, and to watch, which each can engage and add to as interests move and as constraints allow.

Students registered for academic credit should study a work of substance to add to Your Canon and post your reflections to the course website about why, in your cultural, historical, and professional context, you include it in Your Canon and how it helps you form your sense of self and your circumstances. And of course, auditors may do so as well.

What's Next

Spring 2011, Robbie McClintock will complete his active service on the Teachers College faculty trying to sum up what he has learned during 50 years as a student and a professor here.

Contentions about The Canon do not interest me. Each person, I believe, has a life-long engagement with an emerging canon, uniquely his own – other persons, cultural works, places and institutions, challenging problems – matters that appear imbued with a charismatic, compelling authority towards which a person reaches out with aspiration and hope. And for me as an academic, my canon has consisted largely of major texts, which over the years I have felt I must engage, struggle with, and try to appropriate into my understanding of my work and of the circumstances impinging upon its pursuit.

In addition to weekly meetings, My canon will have a website which will provide background resources for classes, a discussion board, and diverse contextual materials.