How Proust can change YOUR LIFE–Seeing the world differently by reading outside of our field

When I studied to be a teacher in the sixties, MA candidates in teaching at many schools of education were required, both the institution and the state the teacher preparation institution was in, to take at least 3 courses outside their area of study. So whether you were going to teach science, ESOL, history, English, elementary school or math, you had to take courses in the psychology, history and philosophy of education.
Over time, some state boards of education and teacher training colleges became more flexible about the requirements, but a few continued to require at least 3 out of 12 courses for an MA to be in areas outside the candidates’ specialization.
Teachers College, Columbia University was one of those places that continued to require at least 3 courses outside each teacher’s area of study. When I told incoming MA candidates in TESOL at Teachers College, Columbia University that they had to take at least 3 courses not related to TESOL, many were quite upset. They said that they had liberal arts degrees so had taken a wide range of courses and were ready to concentrate on TESOL.
During exit interviews, though, the majority of graduates said that they found the courses not directly related to TESOL very illuminating! They realized how limited each area of study is. And they realized that to see the world differently it is crucial to study something unfamiliar and unrelated to one’ goal.
Just as my passion for interpreting 1 to 3 page transcriptions of exchanges in a range of ways grew out of courses I took in literature where it was normal to interpret lines of a poem or novel from different perspectives, so many graduates from the MA TESOL Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York and Tokyo shared ways that their courses in pottery, dance, music, curriculum, peace studies, to name a few, reshaped and expanded their view of teaching and learning.
I was reminded of the value of reading outside of our field to gain insights in our field, as I was sorting out and rearranging books in our apartment in Tokyo. I came upon a book I bought 10 years ago when I was living in New Zealand, How Proust can change YOUR LIFE by Alain De Botton. (1997, Picador) On the cover, John Updike is quoted as writing “Dazzling” about the book. I decided to re-read it since reading most things only one time is almost the same as not reading them.
Here’s a quote from Proust about reading:

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity. (Page 25)

In Contrasting Conversations, I wrote that a central purpose of observing other teachers is to see our self. Discovering that Proust in a different time and with a different purpose made a similar point I found exciting. Connecting what we think about in our area with what others think in other areas reminds us of connections between disciplines.

In a Chapter titled How to Take Your Time, Alain De Botton describes a conversation between Proust and young British diplomat. In response to “How do the committees work?”, the diplomat says “We generally meet at 10:00 am, there are secretaries behind.” (Page 72 and 73)
Proust told the young diplomat he was going through each day too quickly. He pressed him to give more details of what he did by not going so fast. Proust believed that not going too fast, noticing detail after detail had the chance of making the world much more fascinating, seeing the same event from a wide range of perspectives. Wow! The seeds of two of the themes of my work written about in such a stimulating way, totally unrelated to discussions of teaching. Discovering such hidden likenesses is to me a central goal of learning in all fields.
Though I have never seen Proust listed on any reading lists in courses related to teaching, he wrote extensively about his view of learning. De Botton says “In Proust’ view, we don’t learning anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.” (Page 72) He cites this passage from Proust as one example:

A sprained ankle quickly teaches us about the body’s weight
distribution, hiccups force us to notice and adjust to hitherto unknown
aspects of the respiratory system, being jilted by a lover is a perfect
introduction to the mechanisms of emotional dependency. (Page 72)

Proust provides support for my claim that we need to discuss multiple meanings of words when we talk about teaching in his comments on stock expressions or clichés—what I would call jargon: scaffolding, positive feedback, range of proximal development, to name a few. “. . . if speaking in clichés is problematic, it is because the world itself contains a far broader range of rainfalls, moons, sunshines and emotions than stock expressions either capture or teach us to expect.” (Page 106)

To encourage you to read De Botton’s book, I present the conclusion of one chapter which will make sense only if you read the chapter.

The moral? That life can be a stranger substance than clichéd life,, that goldfinches should occasionally do things differently from their parents, and that there are persuasive reasons for calling a loved one Plouplou, Missou or poor little wolf. (Page 113)

My favorite tidbit from De Botton comes in his opening paragraph, though I am stating it at the end of my recommendation to both read De Botton and other books seemingly unrelated to day-to-day teaching. He says that a key reason we are unhappy is because of “the deadening effects of habit.” (Page 2)
So much of what is done in schools day in and day out is done by habit, by rules, by procedures! How deadening! And that is why many others and I constantly call for constant change in what we do in our classrooms.