Monday, October 19, 2009

The Power of Perspectives

My first month of service learning at Govans Elementary School has seemed to be quite uneventful, especially since I only last week started working directly with the students. Until this past week, I have been photocopying alphabet workbooks and folding papers into reading books, all of which felt like the opposite of what a service learning experience should feel like. I did not really think of my position in front of the copying machine of the teacher’s lounge as important or as the least bit educational, although I did feel that in one aspect I was helping out a teacher with her busy work. However, in light of Voltaire’s Candide, I see some of the educational aspects behind my weekly two hours at Govans, mainly in my interpretations of the conversations of the variety of faculty members. Like the characters of Candide and representative of the many different kinds of people and their world perspectives, the faculty members appear to me to invoke a number of the philosophies touched upon in the book, ranging from Candide and Pangloss’s optimism to Martin’s pessimism. Instead of traveling the world to comprehend what Candide learns by the end of his journeys, I merely stood in front of a machine situated directly in front of the faculty lunch table and listened to the different ways that certain teachers view their job and the Govans students.
Not knowing what to expect when I first set foot in the room, I was shocked to hear some of the teacher’s remarks regarding the students. A group of teachers openly conversed about the lack of intelligence of their seven year old students, directly calling out certain students and their particular classroom disabilities. Although this conversation seemed very unethical, more and more teachers joined in, some even attributing the “stupidity” of the students to their “thug”-like parents. Instead of talking about ways that they could aid in the progression of the students, the teachers just sat around and complained first about the students and then about their own lives, proving the point in Candide that everyone has something to complain about, no matter how trivial. I deduced from their conversation that the teachers are generally unhappy with their own lives and jobs and unfortunately take it out upon their students, furthering their own conclusions that the students are products of poor environments.
Most of the rounds of lunch groups proved very similar to the first, with new teachers entering the lounge and expressing complaints towards certain students that acted out. However, some teachers stood out as somewhat optimists amongst the group of seemingly pessimists. One teacher (the music teacher) actually countered one of the teacher’s complaints with a personal anecdote of how to respond to certain forms of disobedience, a lesson he learned from his own experiences with his children. This funny yet refreshing anecdote actually helped lighten the mood in the lounge, allowing for others to provide their own forms of input as to how the one teacher could reverse the disobedience of some of her students. The one music teacher added more depth to the conversation than any of the others, proving that an open-minded perspective and sense of individualism are way more important that following the crowd or adhering to one philosophical principle over another. While the numbers of gossiping teachers represent the many characters of Candide that fall to the philosophies, beliefs, and therefore attitudes of a distinct social group, the one teacher that dared to stand out could represent simply humanity and the power of the individual.
As for my own perspective of Govans, last week I finally got a chance to work directly with a small group of students and develop my own opinions to compare with those of the faculty members. In the first hour, after working with three students who needed more practice with numbers and counting, I realized that the teachers’ opinions and remarks towards the children were highly unnecessary, that the students tend to treat whoever is working with them with as much respect as is shown to them. Like the character of Cacambo, the students represent an open-minded loyalty to their teachers that may stem from their inexperience but definitely shows something about their youthful ability to work as individuals and view the classroom in many different lights. I was able to see the range of perspectives and their individual characteristics in the way that the kindergarten students approached play time. Unlike the teachers of the lounge, the students embraced their atmosphere and were able to play and work together in a way that suggested that their lack of a philosophy proves beneficial. Although not a kindergarten student, I feel like I can relate to the students and Candide in my attempts to adopt a more open-minded view of different people and places so as not to end up like the book’s characters—in a state of disillusionment at the failure of a certain perspective.
After comparing my experiences to Voltaire’s Candide, I can see why the book would have been banned, especially since it directly targets and mocks certain social groups and historical events and peoples. However, I think Voltaire somewhat keeps it fair in that he mocks every character and every philosophy, proving that no true philosophy really exists and that there is no perfect world (except for the fictional El Dorado); his use of exaggeration and emphasis of the faults of each character proves this theory. The fact that the teachers at Govans represent some of the fictional characters of Candide proves that his created people are at the same time exaggerated and truthful, that despite the emphasis on their individual philosophies they still represent people that Voltaire may have known or analyzed. Almost every one can relate to one or more of the philosophies of the characters described, adding to Voltaire’s argument that these beliefs really do, on lesser scales, exist.
The ending chapter with the idea of “cultivating the garden” proves to be both sad and realistic, for although one would like to think that this end is the solution for those who have given up hope, it is a solution that people in our society embrace all too often. Relating back to Govans, many of the teachers who complained about their jobs did not talk about making any changes in their work style or even changing jobs in general. Instead, they all resorted to continuing on with their unsatisfying choice of work, mimicking the ending of Candide and the hopelessness of the characters. Although Voltaire ends with this image of the garden, I do not think that he necessarily wants people to live their lives like Candide and his friends. I see the ending to be a kind of warning as to what can happen when one lets philosophies and the disillusionment that stems from the faults of these philosophies to take over. In this sense Voltaire ultimately does not tell the reader how to live or what to believe but just proves that the world is full of different perspectives that begin to have a bigger impact over actions than one’s own humanity. Voltaire leaves the ending ambiguous, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to what is the right way of going about things. Such an open-ended result may, in the past, have been deemed controversial, but actually makes for an interesting read for those who, like me, are trying to develop an individual world perspective amongst a sea of different philosophies.

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