On Education: An Autobiographical Note

Allen Bramhall


As a writer and artist, I have taken a relentless if rarely straight track. I speak of my education as a writer and artist. Through formal schooling and through my personal study out of school, I have sifted the elements I deem necessary for me as a writer and artist from that which is not of use. My process and methodology derive from the often tenuous balance between creative freedom and intellectual rigor. Intellectual rigor begets the useful knowledge one needs. Freedom is “the indispensable condition for the quest of human completion. (Freire, 1996. p. 47).” My development has depended upon earnest self-reflection, always trying to keep the above elements in mind. Metaphorically, my movement has been from darkness to light.

I doubt that I revealed myself in elementary school as a child of particular talent. I was an average student, or a little better. I know the more interesting the subject, the better I did. Dinosaurs, whaling, archaeology, and mythology, for instance, piqued my interest. When my parents started gently questioning me about what I might study in college, I would say history, though I felt no strong commitment. A vague sense that I would be a writer someday emerged when I was about fourteen, though I did not begin writing till later.

At fifteen, I had my first inspiring teacher. This teacher taught English in my sophomore year. He did so with a compelling looseness and freedom that I had not met before, though my elementary school experience could be categorized as progressive. He was the first teacher that I had who seemed present as a human being, rather than a figurehead of education. I really learned from him.

I appreciate how Mr. McGill made grammar clear for me. I came to understand the workings of grammar in his class. He was a writer himself—he even shared with us a short story he wrote—and regarded grammar as a vital concern rather than a set of rules to memorize. He didn’t confuse us with terminology. I may not, even now, know what subjunctive is, but I believe I can write grammatically clear sentences, which is what I consider the point. Grammar is not something that should be taught by rote, as a list of rules, but as a tool to make one’s writing more comprehensible to others. In just a few weeks, less time than any other teacher I had took, Mr. McGill gave me that tool.

Being no older than twenty five, I presume, Mr. McGill related well to us students. Discussions were lively because students felt their opinions carried as much weight as the teacher’s. The day Martin Luther King was shot, we spent our time sharing that emotion. Robert Kennedy’s murder was even more emotional. I also remember discussions about the Vietnam War and of the draft, matters of keen interest and moral concern. Mr. McGill listened as well as spoke.

For me, perhaps the greatest gift he gave was set in a simple question: what is poetry? Of course, I and my classmates knew exactly what poetry was. It was writing that rhymed, possessed a vocabulary of ornate Shakespearian or Biblical terms, and was utterly boring. That is certainly the impression that I got from the poetry I was taught in school. By asking that question and challenging us to answer it, however, Mr. McGill opened possibilities that I hadn’t known existed. I did not therewith start writing poetry, or anything else, on my own time, but the seeds of curiosity and freedom—I believe the two go together—were sown in my mind.

I began writing poetry when I was sixteen. A friend’s revelation that he wrote poetry made me realize that I could, too. Miles was someone with whom I played basketball and touch football, and otherwise hung around with. He was not part of the exclusive (or at least what I understood as exclusive) literary magazine crowd in our school. He wrote because he wanted to, not as some school elective to list in one‘s yearbook. I didn’t even “get” his writing, but immediately started writing even so. I recognized, finally, that the only permission I needed to write was the one that I gave myself.
        I had read little poetry at that time, possessed little by way of models. As with many young writers of poetry, I found that the typographical freedom in the work of e. e. cummings offered me an energizing sense that anything was possible. Except for in Mr. McGill’s class, I did not get that impression in school. In teaching poetry, especially to the young, too much emphasis is placed on form rather than content, on lofty sentiments rather than pleasure.

Walt Whitman is, along with Emily Dickinson, the earliest experimental American poet. He helped reshape what poetry is. So why is a chestnut like Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” so often offered in school as a great poem? Let’s be honest, the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is Walt Whitman at his most mawkish and derivative. It is not poetry but instead, if I may be so acerbic, what English teachers think is poetry. It is received wisdom, handed along uncritically. Little wonder I had not developed a taste for poetry until Mr. McGill gave me a peek at what poetry could be.

From this time, my education found meaning. Prior to then, I was (thankfully) exposed to many potential interests, but I hadn’t been inspired. I received competency in the three Rs, as well, something that, in my view, children aren’t being given well enough nowadays. When I began writing, I found an intellectual focus that would continue as a constant in my life.

I write this paper autobiographically just to indicate the personal relevance of education. Education is not a static absorption of information, but the seed of a lifelong process. Each of us strives to realize the nature of our own course through life.

Paulo Freire’s opposition of critical dialectic versus the banking concept of education concerns itself directly with personal relevance. His model of the banking concept presents the educator depositing education into the student vessel. Reflection by the student is not expected or even wanted. The student simply receives education from the teacher then proceeds into the world, as if what a student learns, and why he or she learns it, lack significance.

Freire’s criticism of this banking concept hinges on the implicit oppression inherent in such a system. The banking concept closes its door to questions and criticism. It opens itself to status quo. In unjust societies—and what societies are free of injustice?—the element of change is forsworn by this lack of critical thinking. People can even lose sight of the oppression they themselves suffer as they follow the uncritical path.

Critical dialectic describes an education of use and engagement. “The goal should be toward information that is educational, which leads to critical knowledge, which implies the technical domain as well as political reflections (Freire, 1996, P. 100).” As a writer, I have learned that my work is incomplete without the reader’s involvement. The reader does not merely receive the written word but engages with it. Writer and reader exist in a dialectical relationship. The result is a political act.

I have had to negotiate my way through many influences as a writer, to the point where I am able to articulate in my own voice. The process is one of reading and then of criticizing what I read. The banking concept would seek to implant a Shakespeare, or whatever accepted model, in my brain, without asking me to examine the pertinence. I do not say that Shakespeare is not or could not be relevant to me. I came to understand, however, that it was my job to discover why Shakespeare is important. The reason is not that my teacher said so.

I read a couple of Shakespeare plays in high school, with some interest and much befuddlement, but I didn’t really find excitement in his work until I broached his plays and sonnets after I left school. Lucky me! Though I would love to study Shakespeare’s work in a school setting, or such great novels as Moby Dick, Ulysses, Remembrance Of Things Past, Mrs. Dalloway, I am thankful that I was not spoon fed these works. Furthermore, I am glad that when I did approach them, I had developed some critical insight, and wasn’t bored or otherwise closed to the possible relevance.

Late in my senior year in high school, I applied to Marlboro College. After seeing the catalogue, my friend Miles applied there, too. He got in, I didn’t. My SAT scores, which served to boil down all I accomplished in twelve years of public school into two numbers, were undistinguished. I probably didn’t shine in my interview. A formal essay based on a poem by William Carlos Williams must have shown that I was way out of my water. At least I knew who Williams was, thanks to Miles, who was inquisitive and very well read, even in high school. I was disappointed to be rejected, but not severely so. With hindsight I can say that such a formal education as offered at Marlboro would have been lost on me at that time.

Plan B was a little school in northern New Hampshire called Franconia College. I do not remember the enrollment process. The school was teetering financially, so I surmise that almost anyone with funds for tuition would be welcome. The school was a decidedly funky place, a community of hippie types, artist types, druggie types, along with those who would seem more at home in a traditional school. The entire school community, including students, teachers, administrators, cooks, and janitors, numbered no more than 500 people.

I was, typical of me, slow to socialize. I spent the first week at Franconia writing, or just about. I was required to write twenty poems for my creative writing course, and by the end of the first week, I had written forty. Whatever the quality of my writing has been, I’ve always been productive as a writer.

I entered that creative writing class with all sorts of self doubts. I didn’t really understand what the writing process was about, I didn’t really like poetry, and I assumed everyone in the class was smarter and better read than me. It was surprising to discover that when I heard my classmates spoke, and when I myself spoke, that I was better prepared than I thought. That boosted my confidence. I didn’t astound anyone with my genius but did write some poems that were well-received.

I think it was in my first year at Franconia that I came upon the anthology The New American Poetry, edited by Donald M. Allen. This anthology presented a new stream in American poetry, poets who were shaking up poetry, circa 1960. I found in it the first poet to excite me. This poet was named Charles Olson. I will speak of him further later.

Making use of the school library, and the town library when I was home, I took to reading poetry. I read widely, with curiosity. As I said, I had no poetic models when I started writing poetry, so I hunted around at random to find writers that interested me. My interest in folk music, particularly that of the English Isles, grew at this time, as well. That interest in folk music was a matter of taking something that I liked and going deeper into it. I was discovering an educational process for myself.

In my second year at Franconia, an influential teacher entered my purview. Robert Grenier was hired specifically to teach poetry. The previous creative writing teacher wrote fiction, and was not comfortable teaching poetry, though I found his insights useful.

Robert Grenier was around 30 when he was hired to teach at Franconia. I think he taught at Tufts University previously—my father attended there—and had chosen to live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, because that is where Charles Olson lived. Grenier remains the most important influence on my writing life.

Robert Grenier was intensely curious about words. He listened to words, whether spoken or written, with an intensity I have not seen elsewhere. Though he was a highly experimental writer himself, he could be remarkably perceptive about, and receptive to, the most traditional of poems. His enthusiasm was always sincere and inspiring. Always when I read work that is strange or difficult, I keep Grenier’s voice, his example, in my head. I have not been in touch with him for thirty years but he remains my mentor.

In Grenier’s class I studied such writers as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. All of whom have proved significant in my own writing. The most important aspect of this study was the gain in my critical sense.

Charles Olson interested me greatly, even when I could barely understand what he was doing. In his magnum opus, The Maximus Poems, he sees in his own home town of Gloucester a microcosm of the Untied States and of the world. For me, he affirms the legitimacy of the local. The world is not over there, it is right here where I am. Nor is the world what other people tell me it, but instead it is what I see. The world is made by my critical dialogue with all that comes before me. Coming to this understanding has been eye-opening for me.

Paulo Freire writes often of critical dialectic. This is an attitude towards the world that is both self-reflexive and open-minded. One must understand oneself, one’s strengths, one’s weaknesses, one’s necessities. One must also be available to the teachings of others, not just to listen but to hear. In creative work—I would like to think that all useful work is creative—one must establish the vital spirit to listen and to hear. It is a radical confrontation with the world. As Freire writes, “Radicalism, nourished by a critical spirit, is always creative” (Freire, Pedagogy, 1993, p. 37). What I began learning in school is an application of this critical dialectic.

A poem, as I came to understand, is not just a pretty thing, something perhaps to use as column filler in The New Yorker. I learned from Charles Olson, who learned it from his own mentor Ezra Pound, that science, history, philosophy, psychology, and politics are all the within the province of poetry. Olson also spoke and wrote a great deal about the form of poetry. Poetry need not depend on rhyme or regular meter, though one need not castigate such techniques.

In his famous essay ”Projective Verse,” Olson reiterates, in bold capitals, a thought he received from his friend Robert Creeley: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT (C. Olson, Projective verse, 1960).” He adds a corollary: “that right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand (C. Olson, Projective verse, 1960).” Olson’s energy and dedication, like that of Robert Grenier, has remained a continuing inspiration for me. Poetry, I found, is something I could give my life’s interest to.

I suppose that last statement sounds grandiose, but it is in poetry that I have found my engagement with the world. “Paulo Freire reminds us that we have to be open, we have to be involved and engaged to learn (Lira, S & Stokes, W., 1997).” Charles Olson and Robert Grenier influenced me most with their sense of engagement with the process of writing. I only recently came to understand this in an articulate way, but I can look back on my years after school, and the explorations and experiments that I made. I tried to be open, involved, and engaged to learn.

Now, having spoken highly of these mentoring influences, I must speak of a cutting away from these very influences. This is part of the critical dialectic, the process of consideration, that Paulo Freire speaks of so often. It is crucial that one’s mentors and models do not inspire blind allegiance. One’s critical acumen must never diminish.

Walt Whitman’s finest poems are unique in their wild, gushing, poetic power. Such poems as “Song of Myself”, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” show Whitman broken free from the traditions he inherited. “O Captain! My Captain”, on the other hand, sounds like second rate Tennyson. In that poem, Whitman is writing what he thinks he must write.

Ezra Pound is a particularly sharp critic who demands of the reader the daunting task of finding out for him or herself. Do not accept an expert’s word but come to your own conclusion. Pound even wrote a primer, The ABC of Reading, placing the act of reading at the most basic level. To the rhetorical query, must we read Wordsworth? Pound replies, “you can and may read anything you like. But instead of having me or anyone else tell you what is on the page, you should look for yourselves. (Pound, 1960, p. 77.).” To employ a word that Paulo Freire uses frequently, Pound asks the reader to perform a dialectic with the subject, a critical interchange.

After I left school, I studied and wrote on my own. I’ve had writer friends with whom I’ve been able to enjoy dialogues about writing, though over the years I lost track of most of them. I tried different types of writing, including novels, a voluminous journal, and quirky prose pieces. I even almost gave up on writing poetry, as the fire in me for that sort of writing diminished. I never gave up on writing, however.

For a number of years I worked at a wine store. Eventually I was given the opportunity to write the store’s newsletter, which was its main source of advertising. This proved a rewarding experience, for it challenged me to improve my prose writing ability. I consciously studied other newsletters, went back to the grammar books—including my favourite little prose-writing refresher course, The Elements of Style, by Wilfred Strunk and E. B. White—and otherwise did my best to render the best job that I could.

The challenge was to write in a way that entertained, informed, and also sold wine. Furthermore, I did not want to say anything I didn’t believe. To do all that proved a balancing act, but one I was able to accomplish. I believe that gaining the ability to write good prose has helped immensely in my poetry.

Even now, in my second semester at Lesley, I am challenging myself as a writer. Formal papers were not something I had to write previously in college, so I have not felt comfortable writing papers. My writing education, however, which has continued for more than thirty years, has prepared me for the challenge. I have developed the writing tools to write in any genre, or at least I like to think so. I do not say that glibly.

I have learned to trust my adventures, the words that pop into my head, the sometimes odd images and humor. I have also learned to read what I’ve written, to hear the true voice and to hear the false. I don’t have to follow any precepts except the ones that work for me, no matter who speaks the precepts. I’ve learned to apply critical attention to what I see and what I do. In that light, I have seen my work develop and grow.

Works Cited