learning · parenting · teaching

The Vulnerability of Learning

Around my fifth or sixth birthday, I got a small wooden kids’ piano as a present. It was gleaming red with no more than ten or twelve keys, but I was instantly enchanted. I resolved, with all the might of a preschooler, to learn to play the piano. A friend of my parents’ taught me to play the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Music, and I became convinced that I wanted to dedicate my life to the pursuit of piano playing. My mom, however, had been traumatized by childhood piano lessons with the strict Fräulein Schiller, who used to encourage correct playing through the assiduous administration of ruler slaps to erring fingers. In consequence, my mom had vowed not to inflict music lessons on her innocent children, so she was reluctant to fuel my newfound passion for piano playing.

Fast forward a few decades to the present, and here we are, my daughter and me, going to her music lessons every week. We found our way into the Yamaha music education system through the recommendation of some friends, and their class-type method suits both of our social-butterfly natures. She loves going to music class. She really likes her teacher. She can watch the dvd like a pro. But she masterfully avoids practicing at home until the very last moment, when she has to do her homework, because she does not want to miss out on her workbook receiving the literal stamp of approval, which changes every week to a new child-friendly rendering of a musical instrument, an cute animal, a flower, or some fruit.

My goal is to find the middle ground between my kids’ gaining exposure to the world of music and my mom’s legitimate reluctance to shove music down her own kids’ oesophagi. I want my kids to grasp the richness of music, to offer them the opportunity of not starting from scratch should they ever want to pursue it, short of pushing them into it with all my might. I am not tiger mom, and this is not my battle hymn. However, I do want my kids to understand that the world is available through different types of languages, and that adequate understanding requires engagement and work rather than passive consumption. Achieving that understanding demands work, practice, and openness to rendering yourself vulnerable by admitting some degree of ignorance in order to open up the space for fostering new knowledge.

The affective vulnerability of learning emerges through the gamble of its result: acquiring new knowledge can make you happy, but a better understanding can also make you despair sometimes. When we were driving to the Farmers’ Market one Saturday while listening to CBC Radio 2 broadcasting a piano sonata, I put my pedagogical hat on–you know the one with the teacher and the classroom, right?–and asked my daughter if she noticed how accomplished the pianist was, and did she imagine how much practice had gone into achieving that level? Her reply, skirting my direct and very transparent moralistic lead, was that when the pianist plays F clef, it sounds like “[deep voice] Santa’s going down the chimney,” whereas when it’s G clef “[squeaky voice] Santa’s going back up.” Chuck this one to the woefully under-represented pile of “good-parenting goal achieved.”

There will be time, of course, to despair when learning about our inequitable social structures leads to an understanding of the diminished options for most humans’ and others species’ lives; when seeing how our generalized obsession with women’s bodies colludes with numerous other acts of aggression–physical and mental–that amount to a patriarchal structure whose fundamental modus operandi relies on domination and subjugation; when concluding that wars of both military and ideological kinds are waged by a handful, yet impact us all.

My hope, in both parenting and teaching, is that despair will be transitory, and move us into action, into changing the world to the benefit of the many. I want to resist the facile cliché of pain and gain here, because like most soundbites, it simplifies a complex affective situation, and reduces it to some form of monetary outcome. Vulnerability of the non-teleological kind is more like it.