Copyright © 1997, Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Date: Thu, 2 Jan 1997 10:43:37 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Random Thought: The Classroom Should Be A Cathedral
I was cleaning out an attache case in my study just now that I hadn't
used in quite a while. I get into these housekeeping fits only on the
rarest occasion--usually under the duress of a stern ultimatum from my
laser-eyed Susan. Anyway, inside the case I found a crumpled napkin from
a pub in York, England. As, I unballed it out of both curiosity and as a
reminder of the pubūs delightful pints, I discovered scribbled on it a
"long-lost and forgotten" Random Thought that I had jotted down in the
summer of 1995 while at a neat international conference on collegiate
teaching in York, England. I obviously had stuffed into the case as in a
safe place where I knew it wouldn't forget it. It didn't work.
I don't usually send out Random Thoughts on back-to-back days
unless the spirits so strike me. I doing it this time for fear of
forgetting oncce again this Random Thought I would like to share with you.
Anyway, having read it I think it's as timely now as it was then. Here it
We're in the majestic 700 year old York Minister. Susan and I have
been playing tourist all day and my feet ache. It's a nice July late
afternoon, cool by south Georgia standards, warm when you talk with the
people who live here. As I'm writing these words, I'm sitting on a bench
that seems to be placed here for tired tourists. Above me the ceiling of
the nave rises several hundred feet! It's daunting. I can't help looking
upward constantly and feeling both humbled and uplifted. A few feet away
a choir is softly practicing a chant that nevertheless resounds, but
doesn't echo, through the Minister. The murmur of respectful whispers and
the muted shuffling feet of the numerous visitors act as a muffled
backbeat to the resonating voices.
As we entered the Minister, the rays of the fading dayūs sun were
bathing the tips of the gray stone spires in soft amber. Now the light is
dancing on the rich emerald greens, ruby reds, deep blues, saffron
yellows, browns, white and a host of other glorious colors of the medieval
stain glass, carrying a kaleidoscope of color on its rays as it passes
through the panes, and splashing buckets of color on everything it comes
This Minister is a powerful prayer built in stone. It is as eloquent
as Dante's Divine Comedy. I feel it opening my spiritual pores. It
begets faith, an energy, an excitement. It beckons, instructs, waters,
nourishes. It binds the people in community; it brings the people in
contact with their inner spirit.
It's presumptuous to condense into a short paragraph a description of
something that combines beauty and truth, faith and knowledge, art and
mechanics, humility and bravado. The few grammatically unparalleled words
will have to do: Awe. Breathless. Dynamic. Humble. Marvel. Vision.
Magnificent. Devotion. Love. Gentle. Energetic. Beauty. Majesty.
I am impressed how inspiring this cathedral is. It's cornices,
naves, facades, columns, vaults, figures, color, sounds, sights create an
atmosphere that is releasing, uplifting, comforting, calming, embracing,
supporting, and accepting. It's carved poetry, sculptured faith and
knowledge, windowed drama, and chiseled art charms the senses and arouses
the soul and stimulates the intellect. As I feel the need to express
myself and my pencil glides across the wrinkled napkin--it feel almost
sacrilege that the napkin is from a near-by pub--I'm amazed how conducive
the environment it is to creating good feelings, how encouraging it is to
thinking good thoughts, and how it urges the doing of good works.
And, having just attended some sessions and preparing to present a
workshop at an electrifying international conference on collegiate
teaching which I highly recommend--the First Year Experience--my thoughts
of my classes are never far away. So I am thinking of my classrooms where
I teach and students learn, of recent renovations, and of new buildings on
the drawing boards as my institution passes through its years of
puberty--from college to university--with seemingly little reflected and
articulated meaningful vision and guidance.
I wonder what are the new classrooms going to look like. What
beliefs and perceptions and attitudes--who we are, who the students are,
what is the purpose and goals of what we do, how do we get to those goals
and achieve those purposes--that are going to be written unthinkingly with
glass and steel and plastic and concrete? Are they going to be models of
dismal and prosaic professorial industrial production line, cost-saving,
efficient transmission of information? Or, are they going to be inviting
and electrifying centers of effective student learning and meaningful
Maybe your classrooms or those of your children's are like mine. I am
struck how strikingly contrasting the stirring atmosphere of this
cathedral is to the asphyxiating climate of the classroom cells to which I
will soon return. When students enter a classroom their pens and pencils
do not flow less easily as mine does here, their spirits are uplifted less
than they would be here; it's harder for them to think good thoughts than
they would here; it's more difficult for them to feel good than here;
it's tougher for them to be confident; and, therefore, it's rougher for
them to perform well.
Yet, the classroom is supposed to be a place like this-- something of
a cathedral in itself--that stirs, kindles, fires, sparkles, releases,
lifts, encourages, receives, supports, changes. It's supposed to be a
blooming oasis that feeds, waters, and nurtures the mind, spirit and soul
of each student who enters it. It's supposed to be a flourishing center of
human betterment. Yet, if you look at the faces of most of the students
who enter, sit, and leave those rooms, most classrooms are anything but
electrifying. They're more like blown fuses. Few open students'
emotional or intellectual pores. The classroom are essentially sterile
and uninspiring. At times, they're wilting and debasing.
It's presumptuous to condense into a short paragraph a description of
something that is so prosaic. A few grammatically unparalleled
descriptive words come quickly to mind that are almost antonyms to those I
used to characterize my feelings about this cathedral: Sameness. Cells.
Dungeons. Antiseptic.. Discouraging. Bleak. Desert. Bland. Gloomy.
Enclosing. Boring. Separating. Cold. Common. Weighty. Cheerless.
I am, like you, however, subject to the tyranny of the existing
architecture. I sure can't move my classrooms to this noble place any
more than I can bring its colonnades, vaulted ceilings, or stain glass
windows into my classrooms There is little I can physically change other
than move the chairs so students can see each other and get to know each
other, and begin to enter into supportive and encouraging community with
each other. Many of you, with classrooms of tiered fixed benches, don't
even have that luxury. But, now that I think of it, as I struggle to
created a classroom learning community, I do have the opportunity and
power to introduce this cathedral's stirring atmosphere.
The truth is that if our present classrooms are to be an exciting
places, if teaching is essentially a "people activity", it has to be the
result of the "people factor"--the efforts of initially the teacher and
then of both the teacher and enlisted students. We shouldn't allow
ourselves the excuse, "The way the classroom is built won't let me...." We
must create a climate, a presence, an emotional atmosphere, in spite of
and without the help of the physical layout of the land if necessary. We
must bathe the classroom in the uplifting floodlights and positive
choruses of embracing welcome, affirmation, and encouragement that enhance
self-worth and confidence, and brings out good feelings, thoughts, and
deeds. Then, perhaps we can stir students, kindle their light, get them
fired up, get them to sparkle; then we, as an oasis, water their talents,
nourish their ability, feed their self-confidence, tap their potential to
learn and grow. And, iIf we truly succeed, with the assistance of the
students, we will have transformed the classroom into the inspiring
cathedral it should be.