What I Mean When I Say “Innovation”

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and 
measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much 
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman 


When the word innovation enters the scene, Walt Whitman isn’t usually the first name to come to mind.  Innovation is supposed to be in the purview of the Bill Gates, the Mike Zukerbergs, Steve Jobs. Innovation elicits locations like Silicon Valley, materials that are sleek and digital.  It generally does not usher forth the “mystical moist night-air.”

I argue, however, that Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the learn’d astronomer” offers a stellar mantra for innovation.  And it may not be merely for the reasons you might think. Whitman’s poem is generally touted as a critique on traditional education, a big, sweeping, impossible-to-miss, “I love nature and am the most important poet of the American Romantic Movement” kind of gesture.    

But when I read the poem, I see something different.  I think that the narrator has a compelling encounter with nature, not in spite of, but because of that learn’d astronomer. I see the startling combustion of the theoretical lit up by practical, the juxtaposition of impressive academic knowledge and grounded, real world reality.  I think the “perfect silence” of the stars feels much more perfect when stargazing is informed by the science that has sharpened our imagination of the universe. Alternatively, “the charts and diagrams” of astronomy are only enlivened once they are experienced in concert with the night sky.  In the first half of the poem, the narrator is being invited into a discourse community with others, signaled by the reference to the “loud applause.” In the second half, he wanders off, drawn by his individual passion and experience. There, again is that magical combo of both being initiated into the scientific community by gaining access to shared knowledge and the opportunity to follow your individual interest, led by your heart.

I argue that the best education is never an either/or enterprise, but always both, and I think innovative teaching isn’t just about engaging this particular generation of youth.  It’s welcoming the synergy of the powerful one-two punch of logic and emotion. It’s about seeing how the content in the classroom is all tangled up with the swirl of the world. It is about becoming more human together.   That is probably why when I read this poem about the astronomer, it reminded me a lot of St. Andrew’s. In the five years I’ve experienced the school as a parent, I’ve watched my first-second-third child be both emotionally and academically engaged.  In the month or so I’ve been here professionally, I’ve seen both the spirit of the night sky and the lecture hall in vivid display, often in the same lesson. St. Andrew’s can continue to be both traditionally rigorous and pedagogically innovative.  There is room for both. In fact, the two bolster each other.  Innovation and inspiration emerge out of the collision of the academic and the real world.  That spirit is alive and well here.

As a celebration of that spirit, the i2 Team presents this blog as a space for faculty innovators to share highlights of what they have going on in their classrooms.  Every other week, we hope to feature another faculty member that is taking risks, trying new things, and making a difference from the lecture halls to the night sky. We hope to curate the hard work you all do across both campuses to spread the momentum, the spirit that has always been at the heart of the incredible quality of teaching and learning at St. Andrew’s.  We hope that this blog will emphasize the myriad of flavors of innovation and inspiration taking place in classrooms ranging from the effervescent three year olds to our seniors, on the cusp of world-changing themselves. Thank you in advance for sharing your stories with us. We will become better teachers, better humans because of it.  

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