“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

This is a quote from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, a wonderful novel written in 1908 that is perhaps best known by its movie version, which is also wonderful. The quote is relevant to a hypothesis I’m working on, which is that we are living in a society in which technological innovation quietly encourages us to distance ourselves — to chronicle life — rather then to engage with each other — to practice life.

This hypothesis is important to me because my work, emotion work, requires willingness to engage with life. Yet I suspect that the momentum in the field of education, despite the increasing respect for “soft skills” and Social-Emotional Learning, continues to drive us towards the abstract, the disconnected: towards data, trends, scores, scripts, policy, programs, rules, legalese. Towards a chronicle, a narrative, about education that is quite distant from the lived reality.

Towards the thought, for example, that the quality of a teacher education program can be determined by the standardized test scores of the students their graduates teach.

Let’s step this one back: A group of students do not do well on a standardized test. Consider the many reasons why this might happen. (Hint: anxiety, inability to manage the test format well, cultural disadvantage, resistance to learning, fatigue, stress, lack of commitment, poor teaching)

If the reason or reasons for the students’ poor performance is any of the first seven, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the students’ anxiety and stress, their relationship (yes, that’s the word I would use) to the type of test and to the stakes it represents, their resistance and level of commitment to school or to their teacher? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

If the reason for the test scores is poor teaching, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the teacher’s experience of teaching: their fears, self-doubts, insecurities; their flashpoints and pet peeves; their negative self-beliefs; their relationships (again, that word) with the content they teach, the students they teach, and their colleagues? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

And the same goes for teacher education programs. It’s gotta be difficult to assess the quality of a program in any case, but how do you capture a program’s success in changing people? (especially when the expectation of most prospective teachers is that they will spend less rather than more time earning their credential. There is no teacher education program in the history of the world that ever demanded as much training for teachers as the most basic medical school program does. Why is that?)

How do you change people? Through a policy? A punishment? A ruling?

No. Emphatically no. People change through engagement. Not from policies or punishments or rulings. Not from forced conformity to an idealized, distanced narrative.

Here’s another E.M. Forster quote, this one from Howard’s End:

Only connect!….Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.

Meaning, to me: Connect the abstract and the particular, the policies and the people, the chronicle and the practice. Bring the levels of experience together, let them inform each other, through connection. Just connect! Just engage! And we will all be exalted.

Unfortunately, in a world where desired “connection” is now overwhelmingly electronic, it is becoming much less likely that we will actually engage with each other as people. Instead, it seems we are free to objectify people, demonize people, anonymously act out on people, and legislate at all levels in ways that serve the legislators rather than those in need. Even in those moments when we do engage with people, it seems we are less and less willing to be honest in that engagement for fear of hurting and, importantly, being hurt back.

I am going to make a plug for engagement, for looking into people’s eyes, for reading data with our hearts, for surviving our hurt, for helping people change — whether to improve their teaching or simply to learn something new — by being in healthy relationship with them, by connecting viscerally, not electronically, with them. And I am going to shamelessly plug the value of emotion work in this fundamentally, inescapably human enterprise.

Only connect.