Pat Conroy, Tony Judt, and Exemplary Learning

December 30, 2010

Two of my favorite authors—novelist Pat Conroy and historian Tony Judt—have wonderfully autobiographical books out, and both have much to offer trainer-teacher-learners and writers.

Conroy’s My Reading Life interweaves ruminations on authors and books that have deeply influenced him—Gone With the Wind, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Wolfe, and many others—and in the process also draws us into what they offer. Furthermore, he crafts splendid portraits of those around him who have, through books or by serving as the inspiration for characters in his own work, made him the writer that he is.

Nowhere does he more clearly touch those of us involved in workplace learning and performance, however, than in his essay “The Teacher.” Recalling how he first met high school English teacher Gene Norris in 1961, Conroy holds before us the person we all need to be: the one who recognizes the potential in his learners, who remains a lifelong source of encouragement to the student Conroy was and obviously still remains, and who continues to serve as a mentor and a friend as he was struggling with leukemia. Norris, even in his final days, encouraged Conroy the student to “Tell me a story.” All of us should be lucky enough to have that sort of trainer-teacher-learner in our lives and, more importantly, remember to emulate them.

Equally compelling, for entirely different reasons, is Conroy’s “Why I Write.” Whether it is because he touches the basic insecurities all of us—teachers, trainers, learners, and writers—have when he writes “I have been mortally afraid of the judgment of other writers and critics since I first lifted my proud but insecure head above the South Caroline marsh grass all those years ago” (p. 303) or because he leads us through our struggles by confirming that “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear” (p. 304)—a challenge all of us face when we attempt to translate difficult concepts into terms our learners can grasp and absorb—Conroy nearly leaps off the pages of My Writing Life to encourage us to join him on his learning journey.

Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet is equally compelling and poignant in what it offers. Like many of us involved in training-teaching-learning and/or writing, Judt relied on his communication skills to help us learn a bit of what he knew. To read his final essays, composed while he was dying from a degenerative disease—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—is to spend time in the company and the mind of a teacher-learner-writer who remained unwilling to surrender until death claimed him earlier this year.

Limited in mobility and communication tools, Judt turned inward in this terrifically moving book and explored, from a variety of angles, the way we swim in what we’ve learned for comfort in times of great adversity. The opening essays, “The Memory Chalet” and “Night,” lead us through the world of a writer who has to rely on others to move his thoughts and words onto the pages we are reading. He invites us to walk with him through his years at Cambridge, on a kibbutz, and in the various jobs he held while preparing for the life of a teacher-writer-historian.

And as we reach the end of what he has left us, he explores, in “Edge People,” the concept of identity and how it ultimately is shaped by all that we experience: “…within the university, many colleagues look upon me as a reactionary dinosaur. Understandably so: I teach the textual legacy of long-dead Europeans; have little tolerance for ‘self-expression’ as a substitute for clarity; regard effort as a poor substitute for achievement; treat my discipline as dependent in the first instance upon facts, not ‘theory’; and view with skepticism much that passes for historical scholarship today” (p. 205).

If more of us, as trainer-teacher-learners and as writers, can hold ourselves and the learners we assist to those magnificent standards of clarity, discipline, and healthy rather than cynical skepticism, we will remain true to the spirit of the Conroys, Judts, and other inspirational figures we have been lucky enough to encounter. More importantly, we will fulfill our promise as members of a magnificent continuum of creativity. And learning. And life.

Written in memory of Robert Zimmerman, a great friend, mentor, and colleague who succumbed to cancer on December 26, 2010. Thanks, Bob, for teaching me how to “fire on all cylinders.”


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