A student asked me yesterday, “how do you manage to teach something that so many people just hate?”
There weren’t a whole lot of people in the room; she asked me this question, which had obviously been gnawing on her, while most of the class were out taking their breaks. There were enough people around, though, that her question brought the room to a sudden silence, though whether because they thought she’d angered me or because they really wanted to know the answer to the question, I couldn’t tell.
My answer to her is a simple and honest one. I teach this subject – which, admittedly, most of my students would rather not have to take – because I truly believe that I’m teaching essential skills. One of my favorite sayings is “your ignorance is their power.” I’m teaching people how to NOT be manipulated, and how to make themselves understood. I offer the keys to the kingdom; I just wish more of my students understood that.
I would have a hard time justifying teaching literature to these students (though I could certainly make a case for its relevance, even if no one of them would buy it), and I can’t really stand in defense of some of the Gen. Ed.s I took as an undergrad – forestry and statistics among them. I knew then, and my experience has borne out, that I do not need the information offered in those courses in order to do my job or to live my life well and fully. I’m glad I took them, though, because I really do believe in a well-rounded education. I’m glad to have been exposed to the subjects – and the people – that I encountered in those classes, but I’d be lying if I said that they were necessary to my future.
I can say, though, with absolute certainty, that my subject matter MATTERS. No matter what a student chooses to do with his or her life, that student is going to need to know how to communicate well and effectively in order to succeed. I don’t care if you’re going to be a line cook or a fashion designer; an engineer or a postal worker; a soldier or a ditch digger: the culture of the world is such that it is necessary for each and every one of us to be literate and articulate.
Certainly, the argument can be made that not everyone needs polished language skills. My mechanics, for example, can lead secure, fulfilled lives without knowing how to make their subjects and verbs agree or knowing which pronoun to put where. The same can be said of the men who collect my garbage or the people who fuel the jets which take off over my house (and no, I’m not stereotyping. For all I know, my garbage men are quite educated. I know for sure that they’re earning more money than I, so I’m certainly not making assumptions). Their jobs do not require that they speak well or read at an advanced level, but that doesn’t mean that their lives can’t be made richer for having those skills; neither does it mean that they can’t benefit from having a command over their language and an ability to use it to their best advantage.
I tried to explain to my students that every single one of them will have an easier time in their chosen professions for being able to write and speak clearly, eloquently, and powerfully. The ability to comprehend language and to use it to be understood is keys to the kingdom stuff, and I want my kids – all of them – to have it.