Big Beautiful Awful Terrible Wonderful World

The semester ends today. I promised that I would blog each day this fall, and I have. It hasn't always been easy to squeeze something in, and often I've cannibalized older pieces of writing when it seemed pertinent or just to keep my promise. Still, this has proven an interesting exercise. So I will conclude this semester with the little spiel I give at the end of every senior capstone. I wrote it a few years back, memorized it, and have uttered it to hundreds of students over the years.

"Well, you finished another course, notched off another step in your journey toward a college diploma. The question now arises: what did you get out of the last few weeks? It's a fair question, one that every educated person should probably ask at a course's conclusion. As I have told you many times, my job here has not been to prescribe your answers or force you to master by rote reams of content. Rather, my job has been to raise compelling questions for you to consider and to provide you with a mind for your mind to butt against.

So, again, that question: have you gotten anything out of this? Chances are for some of you the answer is no or not much. You may even see this course as the "busywork" someone suggested it might be during the first session.

I'll admit that there has been a certain amount of "busywork." Much of what we have done is slog through books of varying interest, write reflection papers that reach the requisite page length, and sit through discussions with one eye on the clock. On the other hand, perhaps some of you have been stimulated just a little to think about this strange business of educating yourself. More than once people who have taken this course have told me that they had never previously considered what it means to be educated, what it involves, and, more importantly, what responsibilities come with it.

My hope is that this has been the case for you -- that you have from time to time been able to reflect on the meaning of what you have done and how it will affect the rest of your life. Socrates, of course, told us over two thousand years ago that the "unexamined life was not worth living for a human being,"and maybe by examining what it means to be educated you have become (dare I say it?) just a bit more human.

On a less fanciful note, I hope you more fully appreciate the education you have worked so hard and paid for so dearly. When you completed the first portfolio paper, I was surprised by how many of you said that it was the teacher who made the difference in the classroom. If the teacher were interesting, funny, enthusiastic, whatever, you said you were more apt to learn and learn well. This analysis of how good learning takes place has always bothered me.
For one thing, I teach the same classes over and over in the same way, with the same material, even the same jokes. But each course is not the same. Some are more successful than others, which leads me to believe that while the instructor's approach is important, it isn't the crucial factor in a course's success. Good, curious, eager and friendly students make a vital difference.

You may recall that this course is called Knowledge in Social Context, a rarely-used title that seems to contain a redundancy. After all, your education has been the result of tens of thousands of interactions with teachers, fellow students and the minds of thinkers long dead or far away. By definition, then, the knowledge you have gained has never existed without a social context. Human beings just don't learn very well in isolation. Thus the success of any class or seminar is the result of all its participants, not just the instructor. I hope you feel the same.

And lastly, if there's one thing that I know it's that the business of educating yourself and each other is ultimately about so much more than a diploma or a job offer. It's that too, of course, but really so much more. For years now you have been shaping and building the person you wish to be (for better or for worse). Say what you want about higher education, at its best it does offer you a chance to sit down with other people and for a brief but vital time consider the stuff of life at a safe, cool distance. And from these many afternoons and evenings you just may emerge with a keener sense of who you are and why.

So there is much to be said for this deliberate pause before getting on with it. I think it's one of the most valuable things you can do. It is -- to steal a line from Philip Larkin's marvelous poem Church Going -- the discovery of a hunger in oneself to be more serious. And, I hope, to be more seriously oneself. So good luck. I'm glad to have met you, and I feel better knowing that there are at least a few more educated, responsible, caring and thoughtful people in this big, beautiful, awful, terrible, wonderful world."


Mike said…
A nice swan song, Steve! I too hope that my students leave my courses not so much stuffed with knowledge, but as better thinkers. And, like you, I teach the same courses, with the same stuff and the same jokes over and over again. Yet, they are all different. I wonder if you are going to blog again next semester?
Professor Quest said…
I will try to keep blogging. I like the self-imposed discipline of having to write something. Even so, I'm not sure I'll try to write every day like I did last fall.

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