What is “higher education”?

As we all know by now,  Massive Open Online Courses are slated to transform it, once corporations like Coursera decide how to “monetize” them and figure out how to polish the rough assessment edges on peer review as a way of grading stuff that can’t be done via Scantron without having to pay teachers to (for example) read a paper. So in the brave new world, students will watch recorded lectures of famous professors–say from MIT, a MOOC pioneer–then work their own way through the reading, take tests, and earn credit toward a degree at a discount. Profits should soar because the inconvenience of having to hire faculty, or support bricks-and-mortar campuses, will fade. Lest you think this is some far-off sci-fi future, note that Bill Gates’ foundation is funding the effort, and that it’s being marketed as democratization and accessibility, a savvy frame that makes the opposition look like selfish bullies standing in the way of the poor people who will flock to its open door. But at what cost?

If someone changed your life, if someone believed in you before you believed in yourself, if someone inspired you to learn or to think or to hope, that someone was probably a teacher–and most likely a high school or community college English teacher, working in the trenches of real life, learning the names and faces and dreams of a few hundred students every term, and often keeping in touch with students over the course of a lifetime. This is the kind of higher education that no MOOC will ever deliver, let alone be able to assess.

Out of the blue, I got a message on my machine from my high school English teacher, whose name is, improbably, Ideale. I am sixty-five years old, and even though I’ve been in touch with him only a handful of times since we met at Hamilton High School in 1960, he is one of the most important people in my life–possibly the most important, if I consider the developmental aspects of what he taught me about life and about myself. Our conversations, decades apart, always begin with “I don’t know if you’ll remember me…”; of course I remember him, but the amazing thing is that he remembers me. “You were one of my best students,” he always says–and I soak it up like water in a drought, even though I suspect that every student he talks to makes that A list.

“I found some of your writing, and that drawing you sent me,” he says, “and I wondered how you’re doing. People from all over the world have been coming to visit me,” he adds, with that amazed delight that was always his default response to anything that happened to him. I remember he once told us in World Literature class that the course of his life had been altered when he was our age by falling in love with his wife, Sonia. “I would have become a juvenile delinquent without her,” he tells us, “but instead, I became the man she wanted me to be.” Then, in a moment of inspiration that would be stifled in today’s classrooms, he gazes out the window and tells us, “she had breasts like ripe peaches,” his Italian hands helplessly demonstrating what it felt like to reach for them.

They married at seventeen, I think, and when I asked him the over the phone the other day how Sonia is, he said, “Perfect! She’s always been perfect!” and I can hear his mouth shape into a perfect, glorious smile as he says it. Then he tells me, “Robert flew in–from Princeton! He’s friends with Noam Chomsky,” he adds, laughing. “He liked you, you know.”

“I know,” I say, thinking, my God–how does he remember even his students’ romantic interests, and picturing what my retirement years would look like if I had married Robert in high school. “Tell him I regret that I didn’t reciprocate,” I say, laughing too.

“You should come see me,” Ideale says, and I tell him I’m broke. “I’ll pay for your ticket,” he offers, and I know he means it, even if he says it to everyone. “There’s room for you here.”

“I’ll come if I can,” I say, knowing that I won’t, because I couldn’t bear to see him, because my heart begins to suspect why he’s really called me and is breaking because it’s suddenly clear that he cares enough about me–how does he even remember me!–to let me know that he will be moving on soon.

“How are you?” I say, and he tells me what a wonderful life he’s had, how perfect his two children are, how much he loved his forty years of teaching. He tells me how dismayed he still is by religion, and I smile to myself because this man is the most perfect representative of faith, hope and charity I have ever known. He’s obviously still up on current events because he asks me what the hell “legitimate rape” is, and I can picture him shaking his head. He’s been reading a seven hundred page biography of Mark Twain.

I ask him how old he is, and he says, laughing again, “eighty-six.” I photoshop the mental image I have, adding some Einstein white hair to the forty-year-old I knew who drove a motorcycle to school and parked it under the flag pole in some kind of effort at political balance.

“You should come see me,” he says again, “and don’t wait too long.” This is the part I’ve been afraid to hear, but I try to follow his rational lead as I brace for what I know is coming. He laughs as he adds, “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around–there are a lot of tumors.”

“Are you in treatment?” I ask, and he tells me no, there are too many this time. I tell him I will write to him, that I’ve become a teacher myself, that my life feels like maybe it counts for something at last.

“It’s a wonderful life,” he says, like a benediction. There is only joy in his voice–no trace of fear or regret, and I realize that once again, he is showing me the way forward.

How much longer will teachers like Ideale Gambera be around in your life, or your childrens’, once “higher education” is downsized and redefined to exclude human relationships?

(You can click here if you want to read my letter to Ideale)

About Barbara Sullivan

Writer, editor, teacher, introvert, contrarian, union thug
This entry was posted in Aging, Education, Faith, Love, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to What is “higher education”?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Think? No thinking. Just a big throat lump. And maybe some envy. You are so fortunate to have had Ideale in your life–even if you were slow to know that his belief in you was warranted. I’m trying, trying to think of a teacher… Well, there was the high school vice-principal, Mrs. Maull, who told me to think higher ed and set me up to be interviewed by an Eastern girls’ college. There was no money for that, no one in my family had gone to college, and my dad thought educating girls was a waste of money. Working odd jobs to pay tuition, I did go to a state university and there was one teacher, one, on one occasion, who told me something good about myself. I didn’t believe him. He said I had a career ahead of me as a great story-telling writer. 50 years later I wrote a novel. I’m a little slow. Good thing I’m not into regrets. I’d have to wonder what I would have written if I’d believed him. So here’s to Mr. Ideale for hanging in there with you, for believing in you all those years.

    • I know I’m lucky–not everyone gets this kind of higher ed, for sure. However: sometimes in order to write a novel successfully, we have to live a whole lot more of the story ourselves in order to understand the resolution (or even the real problem)–or in order to become disinhibited enough to not care what anyone else might think. Fifty years isn’t really unreasonable. My personal role model is Helen Hooven Santmyer, who published her best seller at eighty-eight. 🙂

  2. Lucky man, to get a letter like that just when it no doubt means the most to him. And a letter that embodies everything he could have hoped to see in you. Lucky you too, of course, Barbara. But that (almost) goes without saying. Thanks very much for sharing all of this.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I’ve been away from this blogworld for quite a while, so hearing from people I think of as old friends is kind of like being home for the holidays.

  3. theotheri says:

    In my last year as a university teacher, I carried out research in which I asked several hundred adults (ie at least 30 years old) if they’d had a teacher who had changed their lives, and gathered data about the teachers. Some of the stories were incredible. Teachers really can change lives. I was planning on publishing it, but unfortunately the data was lost in the move from New York to Europe. A little part of me keeps saying I should do it again. If only – like this wonderful post you have written – as a way to acknowledge just how much hidden good teachers can do – most of the time, I think, without ever knowing it.

    When I left teaching, one of my students gave me a poster saying “A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops.” I still have it hanging on the wall above my computer.

    Thank you for telling us about Ideale.

    • I think such a book would be incredibly timely, given that teachers are under assault (at least here in the US, where the Governor of Wisconsin calls us “union thugs,” and the corporate world wants to privatize and monetize higher education). Of course, it’s easy for me to say “Do it” when I wouldn’t have to pay the price! Writing a book, as you well know, is like having another child. So good to hear from you, by the way: ditto what I just said to pianomusicman.

  4. Patricia says:

    Beautiful! How blessed you are to have someone like this in your life. He will be with always, even when he no longer is…here.

    • Thanks for reading, Patricia–and yes: “love is as strong as death” (or stronger, depending on which translation you pick). The Song of Solomon is the only book of the Bible I remember Ideale teaching us about in World Lit–how appropriate!

  5. jbw0123 says:

    Oh Barb. This is beautiful.

    It is so, so hard to say goodbye, especially to a staunch ally.

    My 84 year old aunt passed away 2 weeks ago. Struggling with pneumonia, she opted against intubation, choosing the time of her death. The day before, she told my Dad (85) “Don’t come up here and see me. You’re old too.” “Yeah,” he said, “I’m on the off ramp.” “Ha ha!” she said. “See you on the freeway!” May we go with grace. Sounds like Ideale could give me a few tips.

    Massive Open Online Courses are cursed, and a godsend. You’re right. They are not a substitute for on the ground teachers, and we have our work cut out for us, making sure profit-mongers do not shove poor people out of classrooms. At the same time, it is amazing to me that anyone, anywhere, can tap into a series of lectures on almost anything. There is no stopping ideas, and the more ideas get shared, the more we will change and grow as a species. Trying to monetize education is a fad. It will pass.

    Best wishes, and so happy to know you’re out there on the front lines.

    • I think I’m in love with your dad! “On the off ramp” may be my favorite metaphor ever for old age. It captures the decreasing speed, the disengagement, the loss of a certain frenzied kind of belonging–but also the need to find a more individual path, a more suitable pace–maybe even a more interesting destination.

  6. This is incredibly beautiful. What a person. And what a relationship you both have. Thank you for sharing this. I shall be thinking about it all day.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Kate, and taking the time to read. How you manage to keep up with your own life (and prolific blog!) escapes me, let alone keeping up with your reader’s lives and blogs–oh wait! I remember–you’re a teacher! 🙂 There must be something on the teacher gene that codes for the ability to track readers/writers/students like air traffic controllers track planes–and to work at a similarly stressed, frenetic pace for multiple shifts without sleep!

      Seriously, it’s good to hear from you–and I’m sure that there are many, many former students of your own out there who feel toward you just like I feel toward Ideale.

  7. Barbara, I think that we all knew Ideale truely because of you. Your writing about him made me cry, made me smile, made me wish that you would go see him just one more time. I feel so full of love and compassion just thinking about what he meant to you. Thank you for sharing this with us, as always you are a light for our paths, just as Ideale was a light for yours. You are so loved Barbara, and I’m so grateful for your depth and your wisdom that you allowed Ideale’s light to continue through you to reach others. How lucky we all are~ With love and gratitude, a student that was forever changed because of you… Lisa

    • Awww…thanks, Lisa. And as I recall, you did quite a bit of research on the characteristics of light when you were doing photography. I think writers are especially sensitive to that amazing metaphorical light that sometimes shines in the most improbable places–we’re made like a lens to take it all in; our subconscious is like the darkroom where it gets developed.

      Thanks so much for taking time to read, and for your sweet comments.

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