Teaching in a Stream of Consciousness
When John Ronsheim talks, he uses his entire body. He leans forward, leans back, stands up and paces from one side of the room to the other. His face is a changing stream of expression. He comes up close to his listener and bends over eyeball to eyeball to make a point, jabbing the air with his finger.
Than he moves away, plops down in his chair, then he's up again, his voice rising and falling. words tumbling out, his mind and his body never still, gesturing, gesturing, his arms in motion, conducting the conversation as It it were a musical score. He jumps from topic to topic, quickly, without warning, leaving threads dangling in the conversational weave. . . .
Even after two hours of conversation, there are still some loose ends and unfinished explanations. One senses that it would be the same after four hours or even ten with John Ronsheim.
"I had a student who said I teach in a stream of consciousness," says Ronsheim. "It's because I see everything related. I've been doing that most of my life. And now it's becoming fashionable. It's called holistic."
The 62-year-old Antioch College Professor of music has little patience for faddishness and the shallow depthlessness of contemporary culture. "Most people are so bored in life, they do nothing but arrange furniture," says Ronsheim. "I'm not not of those people. I'm booked solid, I hope, until after I'm dead."
He describes himself as an "absolutist" and a "purist." But he is also a "humanist," he says, who believes the "most important value in life is the human value." In that value, for Ronsheim, is passion for living and learning, a respect for history and tradition, and a never-ending quest for self knowledge.
In his music classes Ronsheim prods his students to initiate the process of self-discovery. He stresses imagination and exploration, using music to "spark questions." His job as teacher, he says, Is to "open people up. That's the whole meaning of a liberal education."
Contradiction, he tells his students, is "a fact of life." Ronsheim himself is proof. He is an absolutist who believes in relativism, and "anti-liberal" who says "we've got to be liberal," a "structuralist" who believes in "losing yourself," and a man who comes "from everywhere" but believes in the value of Provincialism.
"I believe in opposites," says Ronsheim. "A good teacher somehow gets across to his students that there "a two sides to everything. He gets pupils to recognize the whole."
His mission as a professor seems to coincide with the mission he defines for Antioch as an educational institution. "I'm involved in trying to figure out who I am, why I'm alive," he says. "Antioch's mission is not to prepare people to do a specific thing, but to confront that they exist" It's the inner, not the outer life, that is the "only important thing," says Ronsheim.
If confrontation is one of the tasks of education, then Ronsheim is well-suited for teaching. He is opinionated, brash and dogged in his refusal to accept mediocrity.
"Fast food, fast music, It's all the same," he says, dismissing the characterless products of pop culture with a wave of his hand. "Immediacy is the whole idea. It prevents growth, prevents depth." He prefers quality, substance and clarity. "I can't stand vagueness," he says. "I want exactness. I believe in top quality."
Ronsheim, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, has been teaching music at Antioch since 1967. He has studied in Europe and taught at the University of Iowa.
As a child growing up in Cadiz, Ohio, "all I ever thought about was music," he says. He played instruments, all of them by ear, and formed "a little dance band" when he was 12 years old.
That's when he "fell in love with jazz," music he defines as "art music, reflecting the constantly evolving state of the human psyche. At age 15, he took a Greyhound bus to New York and hung out on 52nd Street for two weeks "drinking Coca Cola and getting autographs" from the jazz musicians who played in clubs along the street. By the time he was 16 years old, he had a collection of 2,800 jazz records.
Despite his early preference for jazz, Ronsheim said he "loves all kinds of music" for its power to open minds and help develop sensibilities. "We don't use our senses with enough consciousness," he says. He encourages his students to be conscious and aware of the message and appeal of the music they hear.
Ronsheim is a composer as well as a teacher, but is uncharacteristically reticent about his musical accomplishments. "My whole creative side is an introverted one," he says. About his academic career, he is more forthcoming.
He was instrumental in establishing a Black music program, "the most intense program ever at Antioch," he says. Lack of funding led to its demise in 1973. In 1979, he proposed a culinary arts program with the idea that Antioch would become a regional center for teaching students how to grow and prepare nutritional and palatable food.
"I wanted to make Yellow Springs the first self-sufficient town in America," he says. Its example, he hoped, "would help change America, make it a better place to live."
Despite faculty support for the idea, says Ronsheim, it was never adopted by Antioch. It was adopted though, by chef Julia Child, who helped found the American Institute of Wine and Food at the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1982. Ronsheim has been called by that organization's founders "the father of this whole movement."
He is disappointed still that his idea was not accepted here. But his passion for promoting it has has not dimmed. Nor has his belief in the principle that drove it and still fuels all of his beliefs.
"I believe in quality," Ronsheim says, and in "making no compromises. You have to give yourself up totally to things, if you're going to do them."