Kafka’s Ice Breaker

My first day of school today began with an inspiring speech by David Steiner, the Dean of Education at Hunter College in New York City.

He asked the gathered faculty, “What does it mean to be educated?” — the same question he’d posed to his own students, who were studying to be teachers.

Their reaction? Silence.

It was indeed a jarring, uncomfortable question. How many of my former students would I consider — or would consider themselves — educated after taking my class? Despite my undergraduate and graduate degrees, could I claim to be educated?

Steiner addressed his difficult question in the words of Kafka:

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

I loved this way of thinking about teaching, especially teaching English, so much that I had to read more. Kafka writes:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Kafka’s words are gorgeous, and thrilling. His statement reminds me too of T.S. Eliot’s, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” from  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

I can’t wait for this school year to crack my frozen seas, and disturb the universe in doing so. I plan to take as many students down with me as I can…

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3 thoughts on “Kafka’s Ice Breaker

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m constantly impressed by how talented my students are in ways that I’m not or was not in high school! It’s a good thing for me to see someone who is shy in the classroom perform gracefully on stage and/or on the field. It reminds me that I should not define them solely by their classroom personas. At the same time, though, as I mentioned in this post, I believe literature has the power to unleash hidden learners and thinkers.

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