A teacher can spot them easily in a crowded classroom, even surrounded as they are by the indifferent and the inept: the teachable students. They are the ones who nod at the salient points in the lecture, their eyes brightening with fellow feeling. Not unlike the “remnant” of evangelical theology — the sincere believers who keep the true faith alive while others turn to false gods — the teachable students still believe in ideas, still seek after truth. Most teachers look for them as for a life preserver, their hearts lifting at the first glimpse.
Though too often neglected by a system emphasizing social rather than mental improvement and in which the dullest members dictate the pace and emphasis for all, teachable students are still, almost miraculously, a presence in our schools and universities, worthy of our attention and highest demands.
They are so diverse that no composite picture can be drawn, but a few of their characteristics may be identified. Most crucially, they are not only gifted with innate intelligence but have escaped the attitude of entitlement — the self-regard tinged with grievance — that characterizes many of their peers. Their orientation towards the world prepares them for learning.
They come from different backgrounds and stations. Some have religious parents who placed emphasis from an early age on mastering sacred texts and practicing spiritual disciplines. Others are from immigrant families, taught by example and edict to work hard and to take advantage of North America’s opportunities for advancement. Some have parents who excelled in a particular field and thus encouraged and aided their child to develop in that direction. Almost always their families cared in some manner for learning and culture over the popular and worldly fare on offer outside the home. Sometimes, though, nothing explains the students’ readiness to learn except something in themselves.
One of the greatest gifts that families can give their children — or that the children can seize for themselves — is the discovery of an outside object, a source of curiosity and wonder that transcends the immediate and superficial preoccupations of the day. Often the interest involves wide and intense reading, whether of mythology, history, science, or biography: accounts of struggle and quest, of exotic worlds real or imagined, of noble deeds present and past. These shape the imagination and focus desire. In addition to strengthening memory, concentration, and verbal comprehension — essential attributes of good learners — such reading also enables a forgetting of the self, an ability to find in ideas a source of satisfaction great enough to prevent the sterile self-absorption described by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism. Forgetting themselves, students find an inexhaustible interest.
To their absorbing passion, teachable students add self-discipline: the ability to persevere, to work hard at unrewarding tasks or unfulfilling subjects, and to find satisfaction in learning even when keen interest is not immediately sparked. They understand that mastery of a skill or body of knowledge requires patient practice, that it is a slow process, and that some or even much of it is boring and wearying. The pleasure of achievement is understood to be something struggled towards, not instantly experienced. Teachable students have learned the thrill of deferred gratification, of (even monotonous) work towards an end. And they are not defeated by failure.
Occasionally, teachable students prefer to work independently of teachers and assignments. Far more often, they are hungry for instruction, hanging on to every word of their best teachers, taking notes with eager fervor.
What is to be done for such students? A few of the very brightest, the ones with IQs off the chart, will thrive in nearly any situation. Driven by their peculiar internal necessities, they will find the sources and opportunities they require. It is the regularly gifted, the ordinarily keen and capable, who can be stymied or aided by their schooling, and it is these who are most harmed by our present system, which is forced by its therapeutic mandate to cater to the mediocre and the strugglers. Few, if any, resources (or even sympathy, in some cases) are left over for those who would most benefit from greater support and rigor.
It is essential, first of all, that good students be rewarded through a fair and uninflated grading system. When nearly everyone receives B and A grades, the best students cannot know when they have hit the mark, cannot know what it means to aim high. A few well-meaning teachers give higher grades to underachievers out of misplaced social conscience, revealing a bias, perhaps an unconscious one, against the intellectually able. But a society that cannot acknowledge merit cannot attain justice.