Making Certain It Goes On (by David Rothman)

NOTE: The following post is from our good colleague, Dr. David Rothman, an accomplished scholar and poet, who continues to produce works of wonder and humor under the inspiration of the Muse.

My title comes from the title of an enigmatic late poem by Richard Hugo (1923-’82), a title also used for his posthumously published Collected Poems (1984). The phrase has always resonated for me because of its implication for education and by extension the running of educational institutions, as that is, after all, what we do: try to make certain that whatever it is we care about goes on, by teaching other people about it. 

Like much of his best work, Hugo’s poem is cunningly wrought in loosened iambs, and disarmingly colloquial. At the same time, Hugo sets up a puzzling scenario about a drunk fisherman, the fisherman’s resentful son who is also a lover who marries, divorces, and returns home bitter, a disappointed young minister, a drought, a mill, a dam, and more. In just a few lines he evokes an entire world, his flawed but beloved small-town interior Pacific Northwest, with its hard times, sorrows, suffering, and beauty. In the end, it is unclear who is speaking in the poem, but the speaker, who is with someone else whom he addresses intimately, ends with a fantasy of somehow keeping a community alive simply by anonymously commemorating “the unknown fisherman”: 

In this dreamy summer air you and I 

dreamily plan a statue commemorating 

the unknown fisherman. The stone will bear 

no inscription and that deliberate anonymity 

will start enough rumors to keep 

the mill operating, big trout nosing the surface, 

the church reforming white frame 

into handsome blue stone, and this community 

going strong another hundred years. 

In this strangely opaque vision, Hugo emphasizes that it is the deliberate anonymity of the stone monument to the unknown fisherman that will help to keep “this community / going strong another hundred years. 

And yet perhaps not so strange. The older one becomes, the more clear it can come to appear what a vocation actually is. Last week I drove my younger son, Noah, well over 2,000 miles, from Colorado to Boston, to begin his freshman year at Emerson College, where he plans to study film. Noah, is bright, ambitious, funny, charming, deeply intuitive, creative, still a bit undisciplined, a bit disorganized…and very much his own man. He had never driven across the country, and as we traversed Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and finally Massachusetts, we rendezvoused with some of my old friends along the way, enjoyed the lush beauty of the Flint Hills in August, marveled at the endlessness of the plains, tried to figure out where that much corn can actually go, camped next to lakes, crossed the Mississippi, saw the southern shore of Lake Erieclimbed little Midwestern ski hills (we are hard-core skiers), and talked about our family, film, books, God, politics and history while cracking stupid jokes, making a mess out of the car that would not have shocked Noah’s mother (she’s used to it), and drinking lots of pretty bad coffee. 

The school is in downtown Boston, and especially in time of plague, the handoff was quick. I pulled up and, in less than a minute, helping hands had all of Noah’s bags and boxes out of the car. I was then motioned by a friendly but firm officer to be on my way. Noah smiled at me one last time, turned away, and I could feel the entire history of our family pivot to something new. 

Every living human being can trace an unbroken genealogy back to the first homo sapiens; otherwise we couldn’t exist. And yet, more than a few generations back, how can most of us even begin to know exactly what was passed on to us, and by which ancestor? Everyone alive had to have had eight great-grandparents, and that only goes back three generations, in my case probably to the 1880s. Consider what this means if we go back, say, ten generations, a tiny fraction of the history of the species. At that point each of us springs from the loins of 1,024 progenitors. Who knows what they thought, what they distantly passed on to us? And other than whatever inheres in our genetic makeup, everything so passed on is something that they themselves had to learn as well. 

We drift in an immense river. As educators, we are people who have chosen to navigate those waters more self-consciously than most, to spend our professional lives giving public, purposeful shape to what we pass on, not only to our descendants, but also to students in the institutions where we work. What I want to suggest is that is not a problem that such work is in the end, in the long, long view, largely anonymous. It is the way of the world, and the way it must be, and none the less meaningful for all that. Indeed, perhaps it is necessary; otherwise the weight of the past might crush us, as it so often threatens to do in any event. No, let it be ultimately anonymous and even uninscribedLet it be like my love for Noah ten generations from now—manifest somehow in his life and the lives after his, even if simply part of the background noise of many lives. All that the acceptance of such a profound communal truth does is to drive home the long sense of vocation in any event, a calling to serve, not to proclaim. 

Hugo’s dreamy plan of anonymous and uninscribed commemoration is what will happen to all of us in the long run in any event—we will be more or less lost in the complexity of the past. Especially as educators, however, what we manage to pass on to others will linger and resonate for the good long after we have vanished. As another school year beginsand we turn to face a new group of students with their dreams, fears, hopes, ambitions and confusions, it might be worth pondering that, if we are lucky, that ultimately and appropriately anonymous work is what will keep our communities going strong another hundred years, and perhaps far longer than that.  

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