Most of you know, though some of you may not, that I teach English at Tiny Community College here in my New England hometown. All English courses at TCC – Grammar (a.k.a. Foundational English), Literature, Composition, and Effective Communication (a.k.a. public speaking) – are required courses – General Education Requirements, or Gen. Eds. – that every student, regardless of program, has to pass. This essentially means that, in any given class of, say, twenty students, there are probably twenty of them who would rather not be there.
I’ve been lucky so far in that I’ve had at least one or two students in every class I’ve taught who, if they didn’t necessarily want to be there, at least made very little fuss about it and, once or twice, really got into the flow of the class and participated in meaningful ways. Most of the time, though, I’m playing to a very, very reluctant crowd. I feel fortunate to have students offer answers – most of the time I have to actually call on kids to respond to a question I put out, and I often have to stand in awkward silence while I insist that they actually offer me a substantive answer. The quality of the thinking that gets done in my classes is often staggeringly disappointing, and I am regularly struck with feelings of helplessness as I record failing grades for yet another student who cannot read, write, or think much better when she leaves my class than she did when she arrived.
My Tuesday/Thursday public speaking class offered up a bit of resistance this past week, which has been part of the motivation for my thinking so much about the classes I teach and the objective, intrinsic value that they may or may not have. A vocal minority of students suggested to me on Thursday that the material that I was presenting to them as models for the kinds of speeches we were studying were meaningless to them; that they had no connections with the material, the history, the modern implications, or the overall messages that the speeches strove to deliver (and I should note here that their complaints were not nearly so eloquent. What I actually got was “we don’t get it”).
It has been suggested to me, both by a few students in that class (the one or two who actually choose to engage me in this conversation) and by several of my readers (thanks, you guys!) that this isn’t necessarily news and isn’t particularly noteworthy. There is a deep and persistent characteristic of apathy in the current generation of students – from middle school on up – that precludes them from putting forth an effort toward anything that isn’t seen to have immediate or obvious relevance to their lives right-now-this-very-second.
Whether this is due to over-indulgent parents or the immediacy of technology (24 hour, spoon-fed news, video games, instant messaging, whatever), I cannot say with any kind of authority. What I CAN say, though, is that I see it as an alarming trend, and my magic crystal ball tells me that we’re heading for dire and drastic ruin if we don’t do something about it, and fast. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to talk to each other at all anymore.
Look, I had to take Gen. Eds. in college, too. I was an English major (duh! Really, Mrs. Chili?! We never would have guessed!) and, during the course of my undergraduate studies, was compelled to take several science, math, art and music courses that, at the time, I didn’t really see the need for and, as I write this, can’t recall very much about. I remember joking – in a not-quite-joking way – that the only reason I passed my math requirements was that I was living with an engineer (thanks, Honey!). I chose the dumbest science courses I could get – “Food and People” and “Forestry,” if memory serves. While I enjoyed the art and music classes, I can’t really tell you anything that I LEARNED from them.
This leads me to my point, though; while I may not recall much of the content of the courses, I can say with absolute certainty that they were excellent learning experiences. I received a background – a foundation – in a lot of different things, but it’s not necessarily the material that I hold as important (obviously, because I can’t remember any of it); what’s important is that I got experience in thinking and researching and considering things that fell outside of my area of concentration. I learned how to classify things in the forestry class and how to conduct a scientific study in the nutrition class. Could I do those things well now? No; I couldn’t, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I had the experience of doing those things, and in having that experience, I can connect it with other experiences that I have had – and may have in the future – to make that new learning richer and more meaningful.
I may be rambling at this point, so let me bring myself back: what I’m saying here is that my experiences of taking the math and science classes – of taking all the classes I took that didn’t directly involve the study of English – have made me a better scholar, a better thinker, and a better person. I learned,a little bit more, how to think in those classes, and to think in ways that my English courses didn’t require of me. An example: Bowyer, who is one of my very best friends, is a biology teacher and knows an awful lot about science. I don’t, but the fact that I’ve had the experiences I’ve had – and some of them as a result of being forced into classes as a requirement for my degree – give me at least some base upon which to relate to him when he starts talking technical near me. I don’t feel as though I’m too dumb to talk to him when he starts in on his long and detailed discussions about anatomy or genetics or disease. We have at least a cursory grasp of a common language and experience that make communication, if not equitable, then at least possible.
What I’m saying, in my verbose and roundabout way, is that I think that Gen. Eds. are necessary, if not for the content they deliver, than for the experiences they provide. Would my students have ever come across Albert Speer’s chilling prophesy of the coming capabilities of humans to make war if they hadn’t taken my class? Would they have ever actually heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s masterpiece speech about civil rights and America’s unkept promises if not for this course, or would they just have had some vague notion about something about a dream? Are my students going to remember, in five years, the words of the man who was audacious enough to suggest that we hope for the future? Will they be able to define what a social contract is, or discuss the nuances between imply and infer?
Maybe they would have seen and heard and thought about these things, but I’m going to guess not, simply because they can’t go out of their way to really engage with the material I’m handing them – I’m certain they wouldn’t have sought out these experiences on their own (any more than I would have sought out a statistics class – thanks again, Honey! – or a music course). The fact that they DID encounter these things, though – and the fact that they saw me get excited and intense and curious about these things – leaves me with a glimmer of hope. I truly believe that, at some point in their lives – and, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future – they’ll come across something that sparks a tiny flicker of remembrance, and they’ll be able to draw upon the experiences we shared to inform their new learning, or to encourage them to enter into a dialogue that challenges the edges of their current understanding.
Hey, wait a minute – didn’t I learn something like this in Mrs. Chili’s class?
It’s really the best I can hope for.