UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – A person on whom nothing is lost

“Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, [one] too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

The previous scenario from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) serves as a metaphor for what the esteemed rhetorician and philosopher deemed the “unending conversation.” It’s the situation all people find themselves in by simply joining history as it is in progress. We’re all late to the party, but we’ve also all arrived just in time. It’s the job of our lives to “listen for a while, catch the tenor of the argument, and put in our oar.” Burke’s parlor metaphor is the spirit around which I frame my classroom each year, and the tradition of the unending conversation is the guiding factor for nearly everything I read, write, and teach. My goal is always to ask my students to think, as well as to think about their own thinking. Not only should they have a deep understanding of what they actually know, but also what they don’t. That will serve them well in becoming what Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers envisioned as integral to a free society – an educated citizenry.

When my students in AP English Language & Composition sit for the national exam each May, they never know what sort of content they will be asked to read, analyze, and write about. One writing prompt might ask them to analyze rhetorical choices made in a speech by Queen Elizabeth, rallying her forces at the battle of Tilbury in 1588. Another might ask them to use their general knowledge to develop a position on the difference between dissent and disagreement, citing examples from history, literature, current events, pop culture, and personal experience. Regardless of the question and their familiarity with it, they need to be able to “step into the parlor” and participate in the conversation. No matter what the game is, they need to be ready to play.

As they become better readers, writers, and thinkers, we try to take the advice of esteemed American author Henry James who encouraged students to be people “on whom nothing is lost.” The goal is obviously not to know everything, which is impossible. Instead, it’s about building a body of knowledge and familiarity with many ideas, concepts, facts, theories, etc. It’s about being an informed, educated person who has some knowledge, along with the ability to synthesize what they know with any situation. It’s about becoming a fully actualized human being, a true adult.

James described his advice this way: “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.” The person on whom nothing is lost is the ultimate goal and the desired result of a classical liberal arts education. It’s why we learn about everything in school, as opposed to simply that which we are interested in, that which we like and find easy, or that which we will need for a job. 

Of course, the advice from Burke and James is not just about how we educate ourselves – it’s also about how we live our lives. That’s why I encourage my students to be interested in everything, especially the unfamiliar. Take time to notice the world. Be aware and mindful of the mundane as well as the exciting. At one time in our lives, we were insatiably curious. We wanted to know everything. We incessantly asked how and why. And if we are living as we should, then we have never lost that desire to know.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com