“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails.”
Thus wrote Terence Hanbury White in The Once and Future King, first published in its entirety in 1958 – the year I turned 2. It will be just as true at the end of 2017, when I turn 61.
White’s Welsh wizard, who is living backward in time, adds: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
Learning is also the current pastime of my youngest daughter, who is halfway through her sophomore year at a small liberal arts college perched on the history-rich eastern shore of the Hudson river just after it has flowed south past Cruger Island.
The island, along with much of the nearby mainland, long ago hosted the Wappinger and Mohican tribes – until about 1680, when an Albany merchant “bought” the land and was granted exclusive ownership by Gov. Thomas Dongan, the first royal governor of New York. Dongan is known as a settler of the Albany area, but seems to have preferred Staten Island (where two generations of my ancestors lived).
The river, which flows 315 miles from the Adirondacks to New York Harbor, long ago hosted such imaginative writers as Washington Irving (who wrote about a town only he called Sleepy Hollow, until 1996 when the voters of North Tarrytown voted to change their home’s name to Irving’s invention), and the Hudson River School of painting, whose adherents inexplicably blended in scenes of California’s Sierra Nevadas, the domes of Yosemite, Switzerland, Ecuador, and Greece – along with the breathtaking landscapes that sat right before their faces.
The daughter is busy learning about the far-flung world (an element of her major), as well as about how college functions (something many schools presume their students already know when they arrive). Her freshman year was a lot like high school; this year resembles high school about as well as tennis rackets resemble the American shad that is native to The Hudson – a distant resemblance in shape, and nothing more.
But that’s how learning works; despite the best-intended preparation and good-hearted guidance, there are surprises, and some of them are just plain astonishing, such as the lessons young “Wart” – the adolescent Arthur in T.H. White’s book – encounters when Merlyn fashions him into a fish and drops him into the moat of the castle where they both live. The first book of The Once and Future King takes young Arthur through several such radical physical transformations in his preparation to be King of Britons.
Perhaps my youngest is now experiencing a bit of what Arthur felt in the moat – feeling a bit out of her element. I tell her to keep calm. All is well. All will be well. She is The Once and Future Student, learning how to lead.
All of this might lack broader context, except that I am this weekend finishing up the syllabus for my War Stories class. I routinely reconfigure elements of the class before each new term. This time, I have entirely blown up the structure of my opening section. During the first several weeks – before reaching the war verse of Walt Whitman – the students in my two sections will encounter music representing wars from the American Revolution through Iraq. And the writing they do will be writing they themselves have designed. They will be addressing their own prompts, guided by what they have discovered in the songs and what they believe remains to be discovered – rather than anything I have asked them to decipher.
I am looking for them to consider this opening section a field trip in which they find artifacts and animals and natural formations, and then work in groups and through research to make sense of what they have found.
I am looking for them to establish what is important about what they are discovering.
This is very much what my youngest daughter has been experiencing, and will – at least until May. She is on her own field trip, in what was once part of upstate New York’s most idyllic frontier – a frontier that inspired armies of painters (Cole, Durand, Church, Gifford) and writers (Irving, Whitman, Cooper) to establish what was important about their own discoveries.
Of course, James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans was a story about the kind of brutal transition that overwhelms nations whose cultures and customs are being replaced by those of new nations that draw lines on maps and write laws to be argued, by highly trained specialists who gather in stuffy rooms. It is specialization that drives such transitions, just as young Arthur learned the specialized behaviors of fish and ants and geese in his training to become king.
My advice today to my daughter is that college is a place to embrace this phase of transition, and that learning the specialized behaviors of advanced reader and researcher and writer will bring her a success that might have been described this way in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur:
Hic est discipulus studet – regina quondam, regina futura – “Here studies the student – queen once, and queen to be.”