I Know What I Know

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I’m all prepped for class tomorrow. I’m actually a little worried, since I’m teaching a particularly difficult essay. It’s about, among other things, the dynamics of small, isolated communities, focusing specifically on the small towns of the Great Plains and Benedictine monasteries in South Dakota. It’s a beautiful essay, and I fear that much of it will be lost upon my students, who will probably have blown through it 20 minutes before class.

Usually when I teach relatively difficult material like this, I approach it structurally at first, taking it apart and attempting to show them how the piece is put together. I mark out the sections, the transitions, and the connections between those sections.

My students generally think that I think too much. They tell me this every semester. I think they don’t think enough.

I realize that my college experience was freakish—staying up all night arguing politics, trying to solve the world’s problems—but I’m often staggered by the degree to which my students don’t do this. I realize, too, that I’m teaching the “average” student. I’m not teaching honors students; I’m not teaching students like I was when I was in college. These are, by and large, the kids who throw the giant parties on Thursday nights. These are the kids who want to argue for the legalization of marijuana, or who want to complain about the cops harassing them when they get drunk and drive around.

I shouldn’t say this. It’s unfair. It really is. I’m occasionally blown away by my students, and, for the most part, they are good kids. They’re going to be fine.

I just wish that the pitch that I give them—that if they don’t learn how to do this dissection of language, they will be a victim of every politician and advertising agent in the world—could just be that this is beautiful and fun and meaningful and good to think about.

But then, I’m not teaching in Newman’s university. Newman, after all, lost that battle. The liberal education no longer exists (well, only in the bastardized form of majors and requirements and specializations); it has been replaced by a service. We provide job training. We teach skills. A side effect, for people like me, is that we occasionally are able to affect someone in a tangible way and make a difference in their intellectual development.

But in the meantime, I’ve taken to calling the diploma a receipt.

I’ll never forget something that my friend Will told me once. He said “You get out of your education what you put into it.” The reason that I’m so down right now is that I worry that my students don’t put much into it.

If you’re a student and you’re reading this, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that all students are like this. I’m not saying that most students are like this. What I’m saying is this:

Since the GI Bill opened the doors of the university to those who would formerly not have gone to college, it has become expected that even D-level high school students should go to college. This, coupled with the failure of the public education system in the late 70s and 80s (due in part of a series of budget cuts), means that there are people attending universities in America who, quite frankly, have no business being there. They don’t want to be there. They don’t need to be there. They don’t know why they’re there. And they resign themselves to being miserable for 4 years, expressing their frustration as a kind of apathy.

It is no longer an honor or a privilege to go to college. You just go.

Couple this with the degree to which Animal House is regarded as a documentary or the success with which MTV has marketed the “mook,” and you wind up with a giant pile of people who are actually angry that people are trying to educate them.

I hope, I really do, that when I walk into the classroom tomorrow, my students will be vigorously arguing about the essay, and I won’t need to do anything.

I hope, I really do.

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Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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