Forever Unfit

I just wrapped up an eight-week accelerated night version of the core capstone, a course in which students are asked to evaluate the significance, value and meaning of their liberal arts education.  Teaching it in our evening/weekend program is always a challenge.  Many of the students in the program are working adults  finishing degrees in career-related fields.  They take two courses, two nights a week, in eight week stretches; then they turn around and do it again the following eight weeks.

Generally, too, they are doing this while working full-time, raising a family and dealing with life in general.   This semester, for example, one was going through a bitter divorce, another had absences because his kid had  run away, one woman gave birth, and another was supporting a boyfriend with legal problems.  Most work all day and then show up to class half exhausted only to listen to me gas on with liberal arts happy talk.

To be fair, some are sincerely energized and interested by our discussions.  They even tell me they are surprised by how engaging they find the course.  Others, however, just go through the motions.  They have accepted the ritualized annoyance of higher education: blathering professors, core requirements and just bloody getting through with it.  They don't complain much; they just yawn, scroll through their text messages in class and wait for it to be over.  Some nights I'm right there with them.  More than once over the past eight weeks I've kvetched to my long-suffering partner how I dread going out again after a full day's work (especially since I did not want to teach this extra section. I had no choice--couldn't find anybody to take it).

There were some pretty hardcore "the  liberal arts core is a waste of my time" folks in the class (one nodded in recognition when I quipped that nurses often call core courses "the B.S. part of the BSN").  More than once, too, I got snorts and eye rolls when I laid out an idea.  But sitting here reading their final papers, I find myself oddly pleased.  Some of these folks were willing to think a bit more deeply about their education, even the hardcore eye rollers.  Here for instance, is a breathtakingly level-headed woman who had said more than once in class that the core was a waste of time: 
Socrates once said, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Before taking this course I could not fathom philosophy. The whole idea of everything being open to interpretation and what I thought were meaningless questions seemed like a waste of time.  It was my flaw to neglect that without questioning the way things are being done now, things will never change.
Okay, it could be that she's just telling me what I want to hear, playing the game, but I don't think so.  And here's another student on the surprise of discovering how much growth and development came from courses outside her major:

I used to think that the purpose of an education was to help start a chosen career, but my reflections in the analysis of our meaningful college classes changed that. I anticipated and enjoyed plenty of accounting classes, but never appreciated the value in my liberal arts education. It was momentous for me to notice a pattern in where my growth was coming from. Not only was this my favorite assignment, it was the most meaningful.  
We ended the night as I always do by discussing a selection from Frederick Douglass' autobiography.  It's the two chapters in which he describes his clandestine efforts to teach himself how to read.  He had overheard his master say that teaching a slave to read would "forever unfit him to be a slave."  After that, Douglass was determined to unlock the source of the white man's power.  That secret, of course, was that slavery was not a fact of nature; it was a monstrous crime perpetrated against him by people who were no better than he was. 

At the end of the capstone, students often ask me for my definition of a well-educated person.  I usually agree with Douglass' master: someone who's been completely ruined for slavery.  I don't know if that's what we ever accomplish in higher education, but I would like to think so.


Anti-Dada said…
A wonderful post, Prof. I am proudly unfit for slavery ... I'm not sure what I'm fit FOR, mind you, but at least it's not slavery. Was reading a bit of Foucault earlier today and came across this paragraph:

As the fostering of life and the growth and care of population becomes a central concern of the state [17th century, particularly France], a new regime of power takes hold [historical transformation]. Foucault calls this regime "bio-power." He explains that bio-power "brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power [the connection with your Douglass anecdote] an agent of the transformation of human life [!!!!]. Modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being into question." Biopower coalesces around two distinct poles at the beginning of the classical age. One pole is the human species. FOr the first time in history, scientific categories (species, population, fertility, and so forth), rather than juridical ones, become the object of systematic, sustained political attention and intervention [the state's use of science to overtly manipulate humanity]. The other pole of bio-power is the human body: the body approached not directly in its biological dimension, but as an object to be manipulated and controlled. A new set of operations/procedures --joinings of knowledge and power that Foucault calls "technologies"--come together around the objectification of the body. They form the "disciplinary technology" that Foucault analyzes in detail in Discipline and Punish.

Hope you're doing well, PQ.
Professor Quest said…
Nice to hear from you, A.D. I have been re-reading Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," a work that is as timely as when it was written 50years ago. In his chapter on education he points out the irony of the United States having a "persistent, intense and sometimes touching faith in the efficacy of popular education" while consistently underfunding it.

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