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Everything in life is about knowing and mastering a bit more.

By Nick Lyons

With all that’s going on in the world these days—terrorism, poverty, storms, rage, ambiguity, disease—it’s easy to forget that schools, from kindergarten to post-graduate levels, begin again in September. So I have been thinking, here on a Catskill hillside, in my seventies, of those long rhythmic years, ending each June and starting again a grade higher each fall, as if I was on a perennial step ladder, and how a long time ago I went from being a perfectly rotten student to someone who taught college English with immense passion for three decades and now, far from the academy, belong to an academy of one, a school where studies are more rigorous and searching than ever.

Reasons to loathe school are easy enough to recall: martinets who used the stick of authority, with humiliation and hectoring their happiest weapons; the dullness of muddy headwaters; college courses that sped from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, burning all between them; an outmoded curriculum; a professor of Middle English who read from notes turned yellow, as if reading a telephone directory, who woke us only when he fell asleep at his own podium; too many rules; too few rules; the wrong rules; teachers who shouldn’t be teaching, teaching students who didn’t want to be students.

And then, when I thought it was surely too late for me to learn anything, four teachers changed everything: Keith Botsford, who struck the fire; Theodore Weiss, who brought the breadth of clowns and kings and filled me with the great storm of Shakespeare; William Humphrey, who was precise and self-disciplined and had learned it all himself; and Austin Warren—wise, full of wit, sui generis, who saw in me so much more than the ex-athlete and oaf in his late twenties who was clownishly trying to change horses midstream.

It started with a spark, as it always must, and then with an invitation to worlds so vastly wider than any I had imagined; and then there was the exactness of learning and finally that path that was so much a natural extension of what I was that I marveled it had been hidden in the straw so long. For once that hunger of learning begins to nibble at your brain, it leads not necessarily to the academic world, where learning is at the core, or into a specialty, but to learning of one’s self and destiny, and the inexhaustible chances in a world beyond one’s self. It leads, of course, not merely to more but to thinking more.

I met a friend recently, now 60, once a student of mine fully 40 years ago. And I remembered the exact day, those many years earlier, when I had assigned Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which a young man is transformed in the night into a gigantic insect, and my student had been transformed in the night from a lackadaisical student to someone who sat at the edge of his chair. He did not become a Kafka scholar or a teacher, but some lightning had seared him and he knew he did not want to become that gigantic insect. He looked for answers in the East, found a master, became a trader in fine antiques and a master himself.

In a world quite as opaque and bewildering as ours, I can see no way forward except through learning, and it happens not as a thing bought whole in Macy’s but as a process by which one addresses the world anew each hour, seeking answers in the vast library of books and ideas. School, here and in any country on earth, is not irrelevant. It does not end after the 12th grade or the college degrees. It is not something one does because one ought to or because someone leans on you to do so but because students might best understand as early as possible that everything in their lives is dependent upon knowing and mastering a bit more. In schools, from the earliest days to the last, such learning merely begins. And in learning, perhaps the world in small ways can learn how to begin anew. That’s well to remember as another school season tools up again, a step higher for students, another chance for teachers to fan the spark they carry into flame.

Nick Lyons W’53 was a professor of English at Hunter College for 26 years and a book publisher.

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