"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sophomore Argument Essays

Several weeks ago I gave an assignment to my sophomore classes: Write an essay in which you make a persuasive argument about some issue that you care about. No major public issues allowed—the war, immigration, abortion—lest the arguments descend to warmed over popular clichés. Only something you are personally involved with and know something about.

When the essays came in, I saw a trend:

“The amount of homework at our school should be reduced.”
“The school week should be four days.”
“Teachers should not assign busywork.”
“There should be no homework over vacations.”
“School should start later in the day.”
“There should be no homework on the days before athletic games.”
“Students should be able to take courses in subjects that interest them instead of required courses.”
“Having more electives better prepares students to find their life direction and career choice.”

I have partly to agree with some of these theses: Students have better things to do than busywork—assignments with little or no educational value. If students work hard during the academic year, relaxation on vacations should be part of their reward. Students in upper grades should have some opportunity to take elective courses in addition to required ones. And a later start to the day would be a blessing to all—if only sports teams could be persuaded to give up a comparable amount of afternoon practice time.

But two assumptions common in my sophomores’ essays were troubling: a) students know better than teachers what students should be learning; and b) less work and fewer required courses would make for a better life.

Not too surprisingly, considering the age of the writers, the idea that adults might know better than children what prepares children best for life did not appear in any of the essays. But neither did the idea that excellence requires sacrifice. The notion that, given a limited number of hours in the day, one might have to give up a degree of academic excellence or mastery of skills in order to gain more time for sports, fun, or “just hanging out with friends” did not occur to any of the young authors, though they felt acutely that doing homework and sitting in classes significantly impinges on athletics, recreation, and “just hanging out.”

When I was in graduate school in the seventies, I ran across a similar attitude, but there the relaxationists were members of the faculty. Like other universities, mine had suffered from the student revolutionary fervor of the late sixties, and the graduate English faculty, succumbing to the call for greater relevance, had revised its curriculum such that candidates for the M.A. and Ph.D. had but one required course (how to do research). We were free to elect or bypass any other class so long as we completed the requisite total number of classes. It became possible to earn a Ph.D. in English and American Literature without ever having taken a course in Shakespeare.

In various forums I would challenge the powers: “You are the professors; we are the students. It is your responsibility to tell us what we ought to know in order to earn the degree you are granting us.” But they had been too much battered by students more forceful than I to return to hierarchical and paternalistic ideas of education. “Personally I think you should probably take courses X and Y, but take whichever you like and we’ll see how it goes.”

Now many of my sophomore students seem to think that much of high-school history, English, math, science, foreign language, art, and music can be dispensed with in favor of psychology, computer graphics, and pre-engineering, as the student’s interest may dictate. One student held that if a student is interested in biology, it is unfair and counter-productive to force him or her to study physics too.

This mentality is partly a result of the wrong kind of pressure on students, from parents and peers’ parents, to think about careers and future earning power, and hence to specialize far too soon. It claims justification from the mistaken idea that one’s career is determined by absolutely autonomous free choice and that therefore the earlier a choice is made the better. In reality, I believe, most who end up having successful careers find them in response to being moved—“called” as people used to say—by the unexpected and often the unimaginable. And how better to prepare them for such a calling than with the skills and knowledge taught in the standard required courses?

What was not in evidence in my sophomores’ essays was the awareness that some knowledge and skill in history, English, math, science, foreign language, art, and music will be useful on any career path. Still less evident was the idea that education is something more than job training, that it is the only way to fulfill what Aristotle calls man’s telos or purpose: the proper use of the rational intellect in accordance with virtue.

My dedicated colleagues and I are thus surrounded by lovers of freedom from intellectual and cultural responsibility. Behind us are professors, and before us students, who believe that it is the heirs who should determine whether and how the endowment of centuries should be inherited. If they had their way, none of us might even have heard of Aristotle.

Luckily, however, despite the temper of the times, I and others like me were fortunate to have some professors— the few but honorable bearers of cultural tradition and of the principle of learning for its own, civilization’s, and our sakes—who felt obliged to pass on what they had received and took joy in doing so. They expected us to learn as much of what they knew to be important as possible first, and only then to go off on our own to enhance or criticize that body of knowledge as we wished. They were not hesitant to assert the requirements for excellence in their disciplines; neither did they refrain from judging those who chose not to make sacrifices to achieve it.

Thank God for such professors. They set the bar high. And whether or not we have approached it, we have them to thank for knowing where it is.

So will our students if my responsible colleagues and I have anything to say about it. Sophomore arguments or no sophomore arguments, our students have teachers who, if we cannot pass the culture on to them intact, will at least die trying. And if the students want less homework and more leisure and fewer days of school, they can find someone else to tell them their education will not suffer for it. If they stick with us, even their sophomoric arguments for ease had better be written in unified, developed, coherent, clear, honest, grammatical, and, if it please the muse, inspired essays. Their responses to literature had better be based on careful reading and serious thought and be subject to revision based on increasing knowledge. And their drive to master their salaried futures had better be put on hold while they discover to how rich an inheritance they are already the heirs.

To expect anything less of them is to succumb to sophomoric arguments against the principles laid down by our own best teachers, Aristotle included, whose wisdom is rather harder to refute.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thank You, Firefighters!

Our local firefighters, police forces, and military along with firefighters from all over the nation and the national guard are working under extreme conditions to help protect our communities from devastating wildfires. Our gratitude goes to all of them, and to all those civilian volunteers who are laboring to help save people, animals, and buildings and to care for evacuees. In the face of the common threat, goodness and virtue abound.