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.
Teachable students tend to excel when they are tested and pushed hard, and our system should appropriately challenge them. They flourish when they are shown what a truly well-informed person must know, what more than the adequate can be accomplished. They will do the extra reading and homework, take on the more demanding essay topic or project if there is someone to set and evaluate their work. They are enriched by compulsory courses and by a rigorous schedule of readings that will refine their tastes and equip them to enjoy what is difficult. In short, these students benefit enormously from the most strenuous intellectual training they can handle.
Without strenuous training, teachable students will still be better than average, but they will not be all that they could be, and the years when they might have developed what E.D. Hirsch calls “cultural literacy” will pass by all too soon, leaving them only partially educated. The canard that “critical thinking,” or worse, “creativity,” is more important than factual knowledge glosses over the reality that one’s thinking is only as good as one’s knowledge. “We all have gaps in our background,” professors have said to me in shameful defense of measures to reduce program requirements or course content in the name of diversity or the postmodern smorgasbord. True enough, but the gaps eventually become so vast that they can never be made up, or only with an effort many times greater than if the books had been read at the appropriate time and under appropriate guidance. The purpose of education is not only to fill gaps, of course, or to fill students with facts. But core ideas and texts must form the foundation of any education worthy of the name.
It seems obvious that our present system is not providing this sort of education: students in both high school and university read less than ever before and earn academic credits for vacuous courses on gender roles, popular culture, witchcraft, and the like. Even serious courses have been lamentably gutted — their reading lists and assignments drastically reduced — to accommodate illiteracy and apathy. Programs emphasizing choice over requirements all but guarantee that most students, even many of the best, will opt for the flimsiest subjects, often at the urging of pragmatic, grade-minded advisors. Our young people are thus not only allowed but even encouraged to squander their time and energy.
I am far from the first to urge that the primary task of our education system must be to find, encourage, and preserve student excellence, and that to this end we must institute rich content and high standards in our schools. But do we have the will to pursue such a goal? The teachable remnant are those who carry forward to the next generation the best of Western civilization, keeping its values, its knowledge, and its ways of thinking alive. But perhaps because so many in the West have forgotten or lost faith in our cultural heritage, we do not feel the injustice of denying it to our children.