With the right perspective, education happens everywhere all the time, but in this book Derrick Jensen takes the opportunity to focus on formal education in the school setting, and in particular the intersection of education, teaching, and writing. We as the reader are guided through his rules for writing (primarily, don’t bore the reader) and allowed vicarious participation in standard classroom activities like lengthy philosophical questioning and discussion, expressing and addressing intense emotions, and high-stakes games of capture the flag and hide-and-seek. What Jensen emphasizes in each of these stories/chapters/essays is the connection between education and culture. In a society that values standardized production, schools provide “industrial education” that, rather than contributing substantive value to the individual receiving the education, leads the student away from him or herself at the steep cost of personal hopes and dreams. Jensen rejects this system of education and instead offers his approach, cultivated in years of classroom trial and error, of using education as a tool to guide students to discover who they are, what they love, and how they can use that in the future. All of which turns into a writing exercise, of course.
In “Walking on Water,” Jensen challenges conventional thinking on the method, impact, and purpose of education. Though most of the book recalls his experiences teaching in a university classroom, he also draws on his time teaching writing at a prison to compare and contrast the settings, pupils, and lessons. Despite mixing examples from the classroom with the prison, and connecting each with personal experiences and nuanced musings, the whole book flows smoothly so that by the end, it hardly feels like a learning experience. To be sure, he teaches several lessons in this book, the most basic of which being his rules for writing. Although his statements, questions, and examples are often provocative, they evoke serious consideration and reconsideration of often fundamentally held beliefs. Sometimes this process leads to new conclusions, and sometimes it reinforces those same ideas, now strengthened after having been held up for scrutiny. In his teaching and his writing, Jensen respects the student (and the reader) as a person, encouraging full expression and understanding of varied opinions. Even as the reader, the process is fun and interesting, and leaves a one with a greater sense of certainty in what you know to be true and curiosity as to whether that is really case.
Needless to say, I absolutely love this book. This is partly because I generally enjoy anything that goes against the grain, but more so because the book is so engaging. Jensen very clearly models his teaching style in the way he writes this book, and though I don’t get to participate in all the activities as a reader, I still reap the rewards of critical thought and examination. Even, or especially, when I disagree with his points. He references violence more frequently than I remembered from my first reading, which I don’t appreciate, but I feel good about reading the book having questioned the validity and necessity of such statements. This is a must read.