I’ll be returning to the classroom after eight months away on Monday and I do so with a little trepidation, if not anxiety. I was on campus Friday and saw groups of new students roaming about, excited and curious and, probably, anxious. But mostly to me they looked tall and slim and terribly young. I actually still remember my first day on campus — the first day of classes, that is. It was raining in Seattle and I was headed to an introductory anthropology class. I had scouted out the location the day before, so I knew where I was going, and it felt very important to be going there. I come from a family without much academic achievement and being on a university campus, headed to a class, felt like a success. I wonder if any of those new students flocking the campus yesterday felt that way. Some of them must. And some must be filled with dread, or boredom. When they plunk themselves down in front of me tomorrow and Tuesday, the students facing me will bring all those attitudes and more to the work I will ask them to do.
I wonder how many of them, though, will take their education personally. How many will see what they do in the classroom and with all those expensive books as something integral to their development as persons? (Not in those terms, of course.) How many will have that sense of signifigance I had on that first day of classes in Seattle back in 1970? I was just leaving the church of my parents when I went off to school, turning away from a fundamentalism that had come to seem narrow and cramped and invasive and simply mean; I had begun to find literature, especially poetry, as a scaffolding on which to build a new set of values. That’s what I mean by taking education personally. Is it really true, as I suspect, that most of my students lack this sense of personal commitment to their educations? I fear that for most of my students going to college is about earning a credential that will allow them to live what they imagine is the good life. Ironically, my college mostly prepares students to function effectively in a corporate culture, but does not really prepare them to lead in that culture (though of course a few leaders will emerge from any group). And my incoming freshmen, while they will be trained in skills that will allow them to earn a solid middle-class income, will not become nearly as successful (read: wealthy) as they imagine.
When I was a freshman at the University of Washington in 1970, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Bad scholarship, like bad translation, has the paradoxical ability to reveal, sometimes, deep truths.) Anyway, this was long before “follow your bliss” pop psychology, but I understood that the meaning of those stories was the possibility that one might lead a meaningful life. I remember trying to explain to a girlfriend — I can recall the exact position of my hands held in front of me — that I wanted to be a “hero” in that sense, the sense of leading a life that has a shape and even a purpose. “Oh, no one can live like that anymore,” she said, laughing. Was she right? I don’t know if I’ve succeeded — perhaps we never know — but what about my students? Do they aspire to lives that have a meaningful shape?