When my friends and family ask me to describe The Putney School, my current home and workplace, I sometimes brag that the “school doesn't just have a dairy farm—it is a dairy farm.” What I mean is, we don’t just keep a couple of cows to show off on admissions tours. Milk and English are equally important at Putney. And in order to graduate, students have to shovel dung in the cow barn for at least one full trimester, just like they have to take four years of English.
Going to class in the morning and working with one's hands in the afternoon—that is Putney's educational program, by design. And it is also by design that my full-time job doesn't officially involve any kind of manual labor—that I, recently graduated and barely four years older than some of our seniors, am only expected to teach, mentor, and generally exert an adult presence (which, to be sure, is a lot of work). Still, I feel like a fraud whenever I use my dairy farm line to impress some acquaintance or visitor. The fact is that on most days, I fail to make good on one of Putney’s eight fundamental beliefs: “To believe in manual labor, be glad to do one’s share of it, and proud of the skills learned in the doing.” I know I can't, and shouldn't, try to do everything. I know that I shouldn't romanticize others' livelihoods. But I still feel like a useless, sheltered millennial when, say, Pete—history teacher and farm manager galore—saunters into a faculty meeting in his Carhartts and rubber boots, reeking of manure.
I'm not trying to suggest that being an English teacher is any less important or substantial than being a dairy farmer. It’s not that simple. It’s the fact that I’ve spent my whole life in reputable institutions, surrounded by upper-middle class Caucasians and Asians like myself, that has me worried about the quality of both my teaching and my humanity. I have no trouble talking myself and my students up into an intellectual frenzy. I traffic in abstract ideas all day long. But intellectual company and abstract ideas are all I've ever known. And when the class period ends and our excitement fades, I return to my apartment and go on with my “daily life," the comfort and stability of which protect me from ever having to confront the true significance of what I teach and think and feel. At least my students have to report to the barn or the kitchen after class—where they might just have a chance to contemplate the connections between milk and English.
In the end, I know that this sense of separation between the abstract and the concrete, the intellectual and the experiential, is an illusion. "All ideas are dangerous," writes James Baldwin. "Dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say." But something about modernity makes us forget that ideas are in fact dangerous, even as they compel all of our best and worst behaviors, behind our very backs.
I think teachers and other humanists have an ethical responsibility to remind us of the reality of ideas and to inspire serious thought about how they can be used for better or worse. We have a responsibility “...to lend a hand to the community at large, not to live in an ‘ivory tower,'” as another one of Putney's fundamental beliefs puts its. But this is a hard responsibility to fulfill when I have never really left that ivory tower of academia myself. I suppose the very absence of privilege in a classroom can force me out. The inmates I taught through my university’s prison education program, for example, were some of the most genuine and enthusiastic students I ever met, eager to apply any text—no matter how simple or difficult—to their own, vast life experience. I suppose even within my own privileged context, I’ve realized what it’s like to cling to literature for real consolation. When I was a struggling, disillusioned pre-med student, the essays of George Orwell and E.B. White filled me with comfort and perspective. Writing my own creative nonfiction late into the night gave me the willpower to face another day of lectures and lab shifts.
I can hardly bear to make such a comparison. But therein lies the point: the humanities must always stand for the everyday—must always serve to raise the spirits and better the lives of ordinary people, no matter where they find themselves. Stephen King said it best, I think, when he explains in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, why he ditched his original writing desk—”the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room”—for a simpler, hand-made one; why he shoved that new desk into the corner of his office, instead of putting it smack dab in the middle of the room where the old one had been: “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”