An Interview with Steve Redford, writer, photographer, English Teacher, and contributor to The Font.
The Font: The narrator of your first novel, Along the Same Street, was a Japanese boy who talked much about his experience learning to speak English. Does your new book, When a Sissy Climbs a Mountain in May, also deal, in some way, with English education?
Steve: The simple answer is “no.” I mean, ninety-nine percent of readers would say “no”—I’m pretty sure. But it has a lot to say about education in general, and maybe, thus, in a very indirect way, something to say about English education.
The Font: So what does it have to say about education in general?
Steve: Well, the nameless narrator—he’ll eventually come to call himself Lennie—is right there, teetering on an edge, despair on one side and hope on the other, and he realizes that as long as he sees the world primarily as a place with conflict and winners and losers, he will never find any peace of mind. When he “learns” to see the world as one thing, when he comes to recognize the oneness of things, he discovers a way to peace. So there are these two ways of looking at the world, and the way you decide to view the world will make a huge difference in your life. And which you settle upon, well, obviously, that has a heck of a lot to do with the type of education you’ve been given—or chosen to give yourself.
People create societies, and naturally those societies have needs. Those societies want to educate their people to meet those needs. An education based on such a concept, of course, can be good in many ways, but when education comes to mean: Learn this now, know this now, memorize this now, just swallow what I’ve already digested and prioritized for you, for the sole reason that you’ll win a better place in society if you do, students can come to feel that education is something that gets them something, that they’re in a competition, that education is a competition, not that education is a way of discovering and seeing clearly the principles upon which this world, this universe, turns.
If you really want to make sure that your education is not merely “tricking” you into taking up a certain role in society, with a certain attitude toward society, you need to learn the importance of looking at things with your own eyes, you need to learn that you’ve got that ability, to just look at things and see how things work. In Walden, Thoreau explains to us how he could, just by looking
at an exposed dirt bank beside some railroad tracks, just by seeing the way the layers of sand and clay shifted with the seasons, come to understand, on his own, that in nature there is “nothing unorganic,”—that things are always flowing and changing and that there are discernible principles that guide the flow and change. Flow. A waterfall. We can discern that water falls with our own itsy bitsy brains. And this sort of discerning, whether simple or complex, is really good for our brains—and our souls, too, for that matter.
In my mind, the greatest education always involves original exploration, for it’s true exploration that polishes a person’s natural ability to perceive how things work, how things relate, without having to have everything explained to her. She has an innate ability, if she only develops it, to recognize the organic unity in all things. Basically, she just has to be, as Emerson famously said, the “transparent eyeball,” just has to become a being whose “beingness” depends on her forming her “own original relationship with the universe”—again, Emerson.
The Font: So how do these ideas relate to When a Sissy Climbs a Mountain in May?
Steve: I’ll give you a couple of examples. First of all, a good one. When the narrator first starts hiking in the mountains, he sometimes still senses a feeling of despair creeping up on him, and he tries to keep that feeling at bay by telling himself just to look. To focus on looking. At the leaves on the trees. At the drops of water on the pampas grass. At the cedar roots that crisscross the trail. He even mumbles to himself, “Look, Jane, look,” words he remembers from his very first elementary school reader. It’s only now, though, as a middle-aged man, that he’s fully come to understand the meaning of those words. And as he concentrates on looking at everything, on feeling everything on the mountainside, he comes to think he can feel the way the roots of the trees grip the soil deep down, squeezing the bowels of the earth, so to speak. Simply put, he begins to sense the unity of things, the principles in nature that create that unity—and he feels relief.
And here’s an example of bad education. One of the narrator’s new friends, Wrench, a rough-talking, tough-looking, but gentle-hearted type of guy, tells him of his experiences playing football back in his high school days. Before games, the coaches used to feed them a bunch of malarkey to get them fired up. Like saying that they’d heard that the quarterback of the other team had seduced a cheerleader at their school, had his way with her in the back seat of his car, and laughed and bragged about it all over town. It was a bald-faced lie, but it helped many of the players get ready to go out and try to administer some ass-kicking justice. The coaches also had the players say the Lord’s Prayer—Wrench thinks in order to give them a feeling of being on the good guys’ side—so that any ass-kicking they’d administer would just be doing God’s will. This sort of “education” from the coaches was pretty clearly aimed at getting a certain type of behavior out of their players. It’s not one deeply concerned with identifying and recognizing truth. And that, that’s why the narrator of Sissy learns to love his time spent in nature so much. He knows that nature doesn’t lie.
And here’s my favorite “education” example. Near the end of Sissy, the narrator gets this idea that one day he’d like to lead a group of elementary school students on a hike. He doesn’t want to explain anything about the woods to them. He doesn’t even want to serve as a guide. At most, he says, he’d tell the kids to try to find something they’d never seen before, and then just let them start walking. When he tells Wrench about his idea, Wrench in turn tells him the story of Penelope Peabody. Wrench completely makes up that name, Penelope Peabody, but the story he tells is based on something that really happened outside the novel in real life. If you’re a teacher, you’re likely to have seen, online, real examples of unusual answers students have given to test questions. The story Wrench tells comes almost completely from one of these real-life test questions. A girl, Penelope Peabody, he says, was taking a science test. She looks at a comic strip, three panels. In the first, two tall giraffes are eating leaves from a tree. A third giraffe, a short-necked guy, can only watch. In the second panel, the two tall guys are still eating, but the third lies dead. In the third panel, the tall dudes are still munching away, but the third is nothing but bones. The question the test asks about the comic strip is what scientific principle does it illustrate. It’s a multiple choice question, with one choice being, of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution. Penelope knows the answer the teacher expects, but she likes to think things through for herself. She wants to look carefully at what’s occurred among the three giraffes and consider all possible explanations. Finally, she crosses out the four choices given, and scribbles in, “Giraffes are heartless creatures.” That’s as far as the true story goes, as you find it online, but in my novel, she crosses out that “heartless” sentence, too, and, writes in, as her final answer, “It illustrates that these two giraffes’ behavior was shameful. Hopefully, their children saw their selfishness and avoided it.”
Surely you can see where I’m going with that. Me, I’m a literature teacher, and I’m the sort of teacher who’d like students to look at the elements in a story and then analyze the story for themselves. I want them to be able to build truths from all the things they have before their eyes.
The Font: So in the end, can you tie any of these things you’ve discussed more directly to language education?
Steve: I can try. But whatever I say will be a kind of generalization. No matter what teaching philosophy a teacher works from, at some point a student is probably going to have a lot of grunt work to do, but I’d say that a system which focuses too much on standardized test scores—“Get a good score and you can get into this university, get a good score and you can participate in this management training program”—can make students feel that education equals the advantage it’ll give you, that education is primarily a credential. Me, I’d rather have students experimenting with language: seeing what they, individually, can express with it, what they, individually can discover in texts that they at least have some say in choosing.
It’s interesting to me, especially recently, that university English classes in Japan often divide themselves into classes with “cross-cultural understanding” as an underpinning principle, and TOEIC and TOEIC-like classes, which focus, supposedly on preparing young people for the so-called real business world, a world full of competition—and thus winning and losing—at its heart. That being the case, it’s not surprising to me that students, even the good ones, get confused about what their gaggle of teachers is really up to.
More information about Steve Redford’s latest book can be found here.
An extract from Steve’s novel “Along the Same Street” appeared in the first issue of The Font. You can read it at: http://thefontjournal.com/the-barbarian/
One of his photos also graced the cover of the 2019 Vol. 1 Issue.