"The best thing for being sad," said Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."
- T.H. White, from 'The Once and Future King'
What I like about the wizard's advice to young King Arthur is that he never promises that learning will be proof against bad times or troubles, only that the habit of learning is a powerful antidote to despair.
Too often we make false promises to students, lining up any number of goodies that await them at the finish line: entrance to prestigious colleges, high-paying jobs, financial security. In fact, the race only begins at graduation.
The truth is that students who have had a first-rate education know how to learn - and, on occasion, will take pleasure in learning.
I do not equate this pleasure with curricular fun and games. A great deal of information that students must learn requires diligent effort to acquire and determined effort to process. They have to study. The pleasure kicks in when students begin to manipulate this information. Teachers need Merlyn-like skills to know just the right moment to move from acquisition to application.
When that moment occurs, though, there does seem to be magic in the room.
I remember a group of students who had just finished reading Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." It was the year when trials were all the rage in Los Angeles - the Menendez brothers, Heidi Fleiss, O.J. Simpson.
A student had the idea that we should put Victor Frankenstein on trial for the murders his monster committed. The class loved the idea.
Within a few days, roles were assigned, teams of attorneys had been to the library for research, and court was in session. Students had the protocols down pat.
My favorite moment occurred when the defense put Alfred Nobel on the stand. One student asked the eminent scientist if he felt he should be held responsible for the destructive uses dynamite has been put to in the world. He said of course not. "If Dr. Nobel is not culpable for the destruction his creation, dynamite, has wrought, then how can you, the jury, convict Victor Frankenstein for what his creation has done? I rest my case."
These students were caught up in the inspiration of learning. I can't remember anyone asking me for a grade. The quality of the production was recompense enough. They saw their work and knew it was good.
When Merlyn told Arthur to "Learn something!" he was urging the boy to work, not to play. The wizard knew that in the intense state learning stimulates, sadness dissipates.
Maybe learning about Frankenstein's hubris or chaos theory or Monet's colors helps us see our sadness differently. Maybe learning is how we grow. As long as it works, who cares why?
Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society