Why are we here? Who are our students?

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I wasn’t planning to write about honesty when I made these questions the title of my blog post. But then I read what I had written about my reasons for teaching were a number of years ago. This is what I said:

Excursion of the Mind, February 5, 2003: My Goals as an Educator

What is it we do as teachers? What is it we need to do? How wise can we be when interacting with those who come to us, willingly or otherwise, to learn? How can we keep from hurting the desire to learn that exists at the beginning of life in every human being? And how can we help rekindle the flame if it has been extinguished? For why is it that we teach? To facilitate self-aggrandizement of some kind? To demonstrate our prowess while on some kind of ego trip? Or to facilitate, in whatever way possible, happy or happier people? To help them have better lives economically, because they got an education? To help them have happier lives, because their scope has been broadened? To help them have happier lives, because they are more able to be honest with themselves? To empower them?

My primary goal in education is to help people maintain connection to or reconnect with their honesty. So much of the time education, parenting, state, and religion tell a person to believe the perspectives of the school, the home, the government, and the church without ever questioning them. My goal is to facilitate the belief that it is truly okay to question them. In fact, it is only through being completely honest that the true human being will surface — the human beings we are meant to be by our very nature. So often we give over our honesty to those other entities, because we believe they know more than we do. Or we give up, because we need or want the grade, the goodwill of our parents, the job, or the goodwill of who the church says the creator is because we wish to live forever. But honesty with ourselves reconnects us to ourselves and empowers us about ourselves. True honesty is the goal. Babies and very young children are completely honest, until they learn to be different in order to survive or get their needs met. Then most learn to lie and refrain from telling the truth, because it does not feel safe to do so.

Let us make the classroom a safe place, for true learning will come from that honest place. All other learning is simply remembering someone else’s ideas, interpretations, or points of view and spewing them back, in order to get the grade and not make the instructor angry. That kind of learning is poison, for it creates automatons — robots.

This continues to be my goal: to let and/or help people connect with their core selves — so that they will respect their core selves and the core selves of others, if they do not already. To help them take pleasure in exploring this world, this life. To help them be happier. To help them have a good life. And to help them work for the same for others.

I still basically agree with myself.

Honesty is not the only reason I have “been here” as an educator for all these years, but honesty is key to the best learning, I believe. If one can – and will – be completely honest with oneself, one will learn.

If I explore what I mean by honesty further, I realize it is a certain kind of honesty, because there are other kinds of honesty. There are students, for example, who are honest with their instructors, even to the point of shock. These students will tell you they missed your class because they had to study for another, or that they don’t care for the subject you are teaching them, or that they like the subject matter but don’t have any motivation to study. That is not the kind of honesty I’m thinking of; rather, it is honesty with and about the subject matter itself, and being allowed by teachers to express that honest stance and explore it. It is in direct opposition to memorizing the subject matter and the instructor’s attitude/interpretation of it, and without deeper understanding. Furthermore, exploration means exploring different perspectives and attitudes, for the questions most all areas of study address do not have simple answers with no deeper thought involved. They also often do not have one answer or one solution. Even grammar is fraught with controversy! History, too. Economics. Almost every subject.

I was reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and there was a passage that could apply to educators’ attitudes towards students. It wasn’t actually Steinbeck’s words, but rather his rendition of a conversation he had had on the road in Montana with a fellow traveler, a traveling actor, who played small towns and various smaller venues. The actor was talking about his perspectives on small town people, yokels he called them, and how his attitude toward them made all the difference in the world:

You know when show people come into what they call the sticks, they have a contempt for the yokels. It took me a little time, but when I learned that there aren’t any yokels I began to get on fine. I learned respect for my audience. They feel that and they work with me, and not against me. Once you respect them, they can understand anything you can tell them.

One cannot be condescending towards students 1) without their knowing it and 2) and one cannot have a truly open conversation/discussion about any subject’s matter.

If one is allowed to be completely honest with what one is learning and with one’s instructor, teacher, professor — and vice versa, then no longer can the relationship be unequal, with the instructor calling all the shots, but rather it must be as a dialogue between two people who mutually respect each other.

Having an open discussion is what one does with peers, especially peers one trusts and respects. Although students are not peers in the grading process or in their understanding of one’s subject matter, if they are treated as peers in the discussion process, educators will respond to them differently than if they do not respect students or their potential, or if they think of them as inferior learners. As peers educators will be more apt to respond to students’ ideas and take them seriously, seriously enough to respectfully disagree when needed, seriously enough to explain long enough that students will see the instructor’s point of view – even if disagreeing with it, and seriously enough to really listen to students and understand where “they are coming from.” When one disagrees with a peer, one needs to truly understand the other’s point of view before presenting counter-arguments. If on the other hand educators treat students condescendingly, they will not take what the students are saying seriously and will react dismissively.

It will cause students to 1) think they do not know anything if they are self-critical or 2) dislike the instructor and therefore possibly the subject matter if they are other-critical. I once had a professor who said, “I don’t know what you think about this poem, and I don’t care.” This statement did not set well with me, for I was interested in the subject matter and did indeed have my own points of view. While other professors are helpful, this one was not, and caused me much consternation. In fact, after “much gnashing of teeth” I finally wrote some words about the ways in which the academy can stifle one’s own creative thinking and set them to music. As I said, not all educators are this way, but some are. Maybe you have met them. Here are some of the words of one of the songs (in free verse):

University

University. University.

Don’t question, don’t doubt,

Don’t be curious

About the wrong things. (spoken:) University.

Don’t follow where you mind leads you. (spoken:) University.

Don’t start from where you are

And interact with what you’re learning.

Don’t process it.

Don’t innovate, don’t create,

Don’t share your learning.

Don’t share yourself. (spoken:) University.

Don’t work with each other.

Don’t cooperate.

 

Don’t be dumb and naïve.

Don’t ask stupid questions,

Because if you do

It means

You don’t belong here.

 

So if you don’t know,

Don’t let me know.

Don’t ask…

Those stupid, naïve, lower-level-thinking, dumb questions.

Again, in order to understand what students may not understand, it is critical to listen to them carefully. Case in point: I had students respond and react to Gregorian Chant. So far removed culturally in space and time, it caused some students to say that it sounded like funeral music. This presented an opportunity to explore the culture-specific nature of music. Without knowing what students thought, it would have been difficult to address the specifics of their understanding of this music.

When there are actual disagreements, the instructor should frame them as they are framed by scholars in the field. In all the liberal arts and sciences there is not one way to interpret ideas or reality. Rarely is there subject matter that is not controversial (even grammar is controversial!), and instructors who teach the way something should be interpreted are generally doing their students a disservice, for in reality there is rarely one way to do or interpret things. Now, in engineering for example, there may be a current best way to secure a bridge’s stability, but that best way may change over time as materials, technology, and science change. Even today the “best way” may depend on the context: the geography and geology of the land, the materials available to build the bridge, the esthetics desired by the residents of the area, etc. Students understanding this will be prepared, because they will understand the broader context of the knowledge they are acquiring.

So why are we here? Every day, every month, every semester, every term I have asked myself that question. We are here as educators to teach, of course, but one cannot think of what one will teach without considering who one’s students are. There is such a wealth of knowledge in every field that at every level of instruction there is too much knowledge, and the expert – the educator – must choose what will be taught. And there is controversy about what should be taught when and to whom. Even in language teaching, my field, there is a lot of controversy about what and how to teach.

So it comes down to the students. The question one must always seek to answer is: what is it of value that they will take away from my course or my curriculum/set of courses that 1) they will remember five, ten, 20 years from now, and 2) that will be of value to them in their understanding of reality and life on this planet, from the mundane to the magnificent?

In order to do this, one cannot leave the individuality of the students or student cohort out of the equation: What is their background, and how do I as an educator plug into it and help them develop their experience in the realm of study I am teaching? How much of my subject matter will they study in school and afterwards? Will they take one course or a full study of it? In what ways will they (be able to) use the knowledge and the understanding gained from study, to better understand the world, to demonstrate their skills in the marketplace, to better understand their fellow human beings, etc.? What will be remembered by them and for what?

These are the questions that one needs to answer before even beginning to put the course together. Of course, there are in the public school guidelines that one cannot get around. But wherever one has any freedom to choose materials and methods, these questions must be answered.

This quote about children, attributed to Kahlil Gibran, rings true to me for students as well. In the second iteration I have taken the word ‘children’ and substituted the word ‘students:’

    And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.” And he said:

      Your children are not your children.

      They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

      They come through you but not from you,

      And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

      You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

      For they have their own thoughts.

      You may house their bodies but not their souls,

      For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

      You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

      For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

      You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

      The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

      Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

      For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

With a little editing, this is how I made it read for educators:

    And a teacher who held a book against his bosom said, “Speak to us of Students.” And he said:

      Your students are not your students.

      They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

      They come to you but not from you,

      And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

      You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

      For they have their own thoughts.

      You may house their bodies but not their souls,

      For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

      You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

      For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

      You are the bows from which your students as living arrows are sent forth.

      The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

      Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

      For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

My goal has always been: teaching and learning in the context of mutual respect, so that students can take with them what is of value to them.

In My Erstwhile Office

In My Erstwhile Office

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