As composed by Frank Wood at a weekend seminar convened by The Krasnow Institute for Advanced Studies in Virginia, USA
What the brain may teach the mind, or what
the neuroscientist can say that is
of any help to those who take upon
themselves the one and greatest sacred duty
to convey the heritage of this
or any civil order, heritage that could preserve
the generations of the coming ages
from that darkness and that ignorance
that diseases all our nobler strivings.
Those who make this plea seem well assured
that there must be a secret, clever trick
that will undo uncounted years of error
of our wayward schools, and so restore
to classrooms dignity and peace and, greater
still, the well-earned respite for the teacher
from that daily climb to reach the summit,
only then to lose the stone and start
again from far below in valleys stifled by a
sameness and routine the heavy heat
of which is crushing hope and courage for
the future out of every heaving chest.
The teacher asks the neuroscientist,
the politician asks professor, give us now a
science of the brain to banish every
demon of despair, and summon now
the angels of our better neural nature.
Some answers can be given that are true.
But they are ineffective — formulations
only necessary, not sufficient.
Would you read the word? Then you must hear
the word, and you must hear it not as one but
as a plenitude of pearl shaped sounds,
each a separate event within
the resonating rhythms of the brain.
Teach not the sounds, and how to isolate,
manipulate, sequence, and blend them, then
you fail to give the one great pearl of price
that every brain is thirsting to possess.
Unless the cup you give to slake that thirst
is given on behalf of family,
community, and future life together,
then they who drink it drink themselves to sleep.
Some have been endowed with charismata
that require a greater practice, far more vivid
stimulation, and a repetition more prolonged
for every sound and sight that builds the bridge
from what we hear to what we read. The gift
of psychic pain is often theirs as well,
a gift to cultivate and give each other,
lest it dissipate in hopelessness,
destruction of both self and social bond.
It is truth as well that burdens, borne
upon the shoulders of the poor or those
of richer coloration of their skin
or of every person dispossessed
of his or her fair share of this large land’s
abundance, will be lighter, often fully
vanished, when the teachers take upon
their shoulders such a light and pleasant duty
as to teach the sounds and symbols, then
the fluent recitation, then the large
commodious pleasures of the written words,
the sentences, the paragraphs, the poems —
birds in flight to distant resting places.
And truth is always fallen in the public
square, unless impatient advocates
will join with patient scholars, balancing
a larger vision with a hundred sharply
focused small inspections of the grains of
salt with which the whole of truth is savored.
Not salt only, also light is scattered
from laboratory to library.
But all our children, and our children’s children,
now declare a larger truth, sufficient —
that from our tables of abundance, whether
we are politicians or professors,
they have sought the merest crumbs of language,
literacy and learning, these suffice
to nourish hope and courage, life itself.
Instead, we had no word, no crumb, so gave
them candy, what is called involvement and
the promise of some wholeness, relevance,
or meaning we expect suffices well
to satisfy and gratify them all.
They asked for bread; we said let them have cake.