What the Student Brings to the Table

A while ago I wrote about how the teacher is responsible for bored students. I argued that if students aren’t passionately engaged, the teacher must assume that he just hasn’t done his job well.

“But what about the student?” veteran teachers ask, “Surely he has some responsibility for his performance in the classroom.” Of course he does. The student’s role in the teaching process is just as vital as the teacher’s.


If the teacher’s job is to prepare the meal of the lesson, the student must sit down and eat. The teacher makes as delicious and appetizing a meal as possible. If she is a good teacher, she serves lots of hearty fare: red beef and fresh vegetables. Stuff that will stick to the ribs. Her culinary eye will be as concerned about fattening up her charges as about beautiful presented dishes.

Digging In

The student’s job is to eat with gusto. He must roll up his sleeves and dig in. This means, of course, that he will find plenty of food he’s crazy about: savory meat and cheese, crusty bread and warm butter, flaky pastry and cool pudding. But it will also mean a lot of dishes he doesn’t like. There will be odd stuff he’s never even seen, let alone tasted. There will be vegetables that taste like fresh earth, soups with chunks of an undefinable something in them. The classroom will be full of challenging new smells, tastes, and textures–some quite unappetizing.

But his job is to eat them all. He must clean his plate. Even if he isn’t sure about the food, he must trust his teacher. He must believe that not only is the odd food good for him, but that he will grow to love it over time. Though the food may stick in his throat now, he must see that it is lovingly prepared. He must see that it really is beautifully presented. When he sees the love and beauty the teacher has put in front of him, his trust will be strengthened and his desire awakened. He will want to try everything.

Growing Strong

In his short essay “The Parthenon and the Optative,” C.S. Lewis makes a passing comment that applies to our discussion. He recognizes that there are students who sit under excellent teachers and yet remain rotten students. Lewis writes that the teacher has “at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it.”

When the teacher does her job well and prepares a beautiful, delicious meal, she has done her job. She will still coax and prod and demand that the students eat, but she does so because she knows the food is good.

The students must now sit and eat. They are responsible for their actions at the table. If they still wrinkle their noses, they at least know what the beauty and love of knowledge look like. As other students voice their delight over the new dishes, the obstinate students will realize they are missing something. They will realize there is something good on the table, but they can’t see what it is.

If they turn away at this point, they can blame no one but themselves. But if they persevere, if they continue to choke down their steamed squash, eventually they will grow to like what once they hated. They will begin to see the world in different ways. Their eyes and hearts will grow strong, nourished by hundreds of hearty meals prepared by faithful hands.

But first, they must sit and eat.