Learning Is the Teacher

A sociologist reflects on his Harlem roots.

By Julian Euell

We get stuck on our paths when we are unable to reimagine our lives different than they are right now. I was 11 years old when everything changed.

My uncle Raymond took me out of Harlem to Croton-on-Hudson, New York — “upstate” to me. He introduced me to differences that made the difference. I spent that summer discovering art, Filipino and Japanese food, and a whole new American culture.  On television I saw a very elderly Pablo Casals exuberantly conduct the New York Philharmonic. In a documentary I learned storytelling through art from Leonard Baskin. Later, after we returned home, I saw a Pablo Picasso retrospective at the Guggenheim. I discovered that people could have a life’s work, and I vowed to be like that, to compose a life of inquiry through the body, mind, and spirit.

On this trip upstate I also saw what other kids were doing. There, I was in a world more like the ones I saw on television shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. I was so surprised that other kids had bikes and pool tables, and that they seemed to know a lot about things I did not know about. These kids had very different childhoods than my black and Puerto Rican friends and me who were living in public housing projects.

It was my first lesson: doubt what you are told as truth and doubt what you think is your place. The status quo had changed. I saw beyond the gates and the gatekeepers — beyond who I thought I was to who I could become. 

By the time I was 14 I had decided I would learn as much as I could about how people thought and behaved. This desire partially came from living in a neighborhood that had a lot of working poor, people who were underemployed and people who would go for months or years without being able to find work. I saw self-educated scholars who learned to learn without schools or in spite of the caliber of the schools they attended. By the time Malcolm X was walking the neighborhood up the street from me, I had developed more awareness than perhaps a young boy should have.

I was reading a lot and taking photographs of my neighborhood. My dream then was to create pictures like Gordon Parks, an African American photographer who worked for a magazine called Life. And any time I could, I listened to and watched my father practice his music. He played bass for a living in Greenwich Village jazz clubs. I watched him practice persistently. I watched my uncle paint and draw insistently. I watched how their movement of color and sound required both devotion and risk.

To risk, I learned from them, is to develop intentions but not conclude; to submit but not give up; to demand without rigidity. No matter which path I chose, it was all about becoming more daring. I would embrace possibilities. I would risk everything and compose a life that was not what was designed for a black boy/man. I could push the expectations because they were not humane expectations.

In college I was encouraged to make connections between art, intellect, and body. Imagination became more important than memory. Inquiry for the sake of inquiry was the heart of life. When I began to teach I began to learn how integral are teaching and life practice. They nourish one another. They are seamless.

The development of capacity exists in opposition to incapacitation. Every day I realize that life is brilliant. It is always proposing opportunities for artfulness, for rigor, and for surprise. It allows one to savor the sour in the sweetness, the beauty in the ugly, the abstract in the concrete, and the insider in the outsider.

Those early years in Harlem, rather than weakening me, they challenged me. They provoked imagination and practice — in the tempering of my body as a martial artist, in the craft of cooking, in the photography and music I explored, and in the translation of learning into teaching and teaching into learning.

Editor’s note: Julian Euell has been teaching sociology at Ithaca College for more than 37 years. He teaches courses in cultural sociology, environmental sociology, and visual sociology. He considers himself a lifelong learner, hoping to gain wisdom along the way.


1 Comment

Great thoughtful essay about what really constitutes education. Thoughts like this are lost in today's noise machine that purports to discuss the subject. Bulletin board material, for sure. Thank you, Professor Euell