Education as Poetry & Explanation Versus Understanding

A recent reading prompted me to consider the possibility of thinking about educational organizations as poetry or poetic expressions. The more I thought about the concept, the more encouraging it was for me, offering a new way to think about how we might frame our conversations and understandings of the different models, philosophies, and approaches to education.

In 1956, T.S. Eliot gave a lecture at the University of Minnesota that was later published with the title, “The Frontiers of Criticism” (also published as “On Poetry and Poets”). In this lecture, Eliot offered a critique of literary criticism. Among other things, he pointed out a concern that critics and others sometimes confuse explanation with understanding. You can read “The Wasteland,” analyze it, track the literary references, define the words, analyze the structure and still not “understand” the poem. Sometimes explanation helps people understand a poem. Other times it gets in the way. In addition, Eliot reminded us to consider that there can be multiple understandings for a given poem, even those not intended by the poet.

Eliot wrote this at a time when literary criticism began to draw from the social sciences, including psychological analyses of the poets and authors, delving into sociological influences and factors, and especially drawing from the biographical life, thoughts and experiences of the poets. These, according to Eliot, often represent the pursuit of explanation for a given line, phrase or entire poem; but they often fall short of a more nuanced understanding.

In my graduate study in humanities, I remember being assigned the task of facilitating a class discussion around Eliot’s The Wasteland and I did exactly what Eliot described in his lecture. I sought explanation with less attention to understanding. I was intrigued by the detective work of tracking phrases and terms to other literary works. I was especially drawn into considering if and how Eliot’s personal religious transformation was influencing what he wrote in the poem.  I treated my reading of the poem as if it were a murder mystery that I had to solve.

In an age where more people are talking about the “science of learning”, Eliot’s lecture resonates with me. While there is good and important research informing our knowledge about how people learn, school itself is far from a science, and I suspect that confusion about this fact is part of the tension in contemporary conversations about education systems. People sometimes try to frame conversations about school reform and school quality with terms like efficient, effective, and optimal; and there is certainly value in those conversations. Those are the scientific, political and technological ways of framing our thinking about schools, but maybe there is a poetic way of thinking about school as well. In fact, perhaps we would find it helpful to start thinking about school design as poetry.

Similarly, perhaps we would benefit from a sort of school criticism that isn’t just focused on explaining what is and is not happening, but understanding the different expressions of schooling that give flavor to our modern educational system. As big data finds its way further into education, we will find it easy to dwell on explanations and dissections, but along the way, we could lose sight of the pursuit of understanding.

Eliot certainly didn’t have education systems in mind when he gave this lecture on literary criticism, but his ideas resonate nonetheless. Perhaps the debates and discourses about modern education could benefit from a new metaphor or perspective to guides us through the complexities of the conversations.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation; as well as Founder and CEO of Birdhouse Learning Labs. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.