Teaching with Great Writers in Mind: Rilke, Palmer, and the Grace of Great Things

“‘ And thou wilt have the grace of the great things.’ For it was just that which Rodin was seeking: the grace of the great things.” –from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Auguste Rodin

As educators and thoughtful human beings, we really should be subject-centered and thereby more relationally-minded in our teaching, living, and pursuit of long-term flourishing. That sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true and helpful. Under the influence of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Parker Palmer explains in The Courage to Teach that subject-centered teaching is the best way to approach teaching and learning. Rilke and Palmer are just a few of the many thoughtful writers who compel me to assert that good subject-centered knowledge rightly guides better relationships.  

In The Courage to Teach, Palmer finds wisdom in Rilke’s celebration of “the grace of great things.” Many years after reading Palmer, I chased down the reference to “the grace of great things” in Rilke’s “Auguste Rodin.” Rilke suggests his own sustained subject-focused view of art, poetry, and the art of living as he considers Rodin’s work. Palmer and Rilke both invite us into subject-centered lifestyles that can enhance our work, relationships, and lives.  

Palmer’s most important distinction is that subject-centered learning is not the same as teacher-centered learning. In subject-centered learning, the teacher and students gather around the great things of the study: great art, great science, great literature, great history, great math, etc. In such subject-centeredness, the classroom becomes a community of truth. It also can become–I might add–a community of goodness and beauty. 

Unfortunately, many educators conceive of subject-centered teaching as teacher-centered. This is a misunderstanding. The top-down, factory-model of such teacher-centered models is far from the healthy community found in true subject-centered teaching. That is not what Palmer advocates: The teacher-centered model tends to reduce learning to information bits and skills to isolated behaviors. (This teacher-centered approach reflects an overly objectivist way of knowing.)  

Alternatively, educators often mistakenly try to ground their work in the assumptions of student-centered learning. As I worked through some of my series of posts on “Who’s Afraid of Epistemology?” I increasingly realized how difficult it is to find common ground with many educators about the importance of subject-centered knowledge in education. Student-centered (basically self-centered) visions of education have crowded out the rich potential of the better vision. We’re confusing schools with shopping malls and online retail services. (This student-centered approach reflects an overly subjective way of knowing.)  

I’m afraid that without subject-centered guidance, student-centered teaching and learning become gasoline on the fire of consumeristic and narcissistic trends that detract from the mature growth, community-mindedness, and long-term flourishing of our students.

Our attraction to student-centeredness also seems to be part of a larger historical and cultural pattern. We seem to have a postmodern eclectic (or neo-Epicurean) approach to individualism and relationships that automatically dismisses the importance and possibility of common knowledge to gather around and grow with. The lack of such a common ground fractures our relationships. The fracturing of any common focus disrupts good efforts at education, and I’m sure it’s a contributing factor to our political discourse’s chaotic nature. 

Personally, I got into learning and got into teaching because of “the grace of great things” that can be found in true subject-centered approaches to learning. Such grace is often instrumental for overcoming discouragement as a teacher and a leaner. The COVID crisis and our political chaos have ramped up my awareness of how much we need better ways to develop community: More subject-centeredness can help. We need ways to get our minds off of ourselves. There are diverse sources of great writers and great things for us to be graced by.

Reading, discussing, and writing about great writers makes me want to keep teaching. So I’ll be refocusing my blog entries on knowing slivers of greatness that I find in great writers, based on my own readings and experiences of striving to develop communities of truth (and goodness and beauty) in my classes. 

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