Hello from my office at home,
It has been a good week; there is so much on my table, but I keep plugging away. One of the interesting things about the current typical college student might be shocking to some, to others perhaps maybe not so much. The traditional 18-23 year old college student actually writes more than any other generation in history. Much of it might not be academic or letter writing, but with the variety of social media options and the fact they their hand-held devices have been a sort of prosthetic appendage, they are writing in some form almost constantly. By extension, and perhaps again to the surprise of many, they are generally more rhetorically astute than we often give them credit for being. They understand issues of audience and manage it well as they move from platform to platform. They also understand the consequences of multiple media more profoundly then perhaps they realize themselves. Certainly the dynamic nature of writing and literacy is beyond what people of my generation might be able to comprehend, but that does not mean students of today cannot or will not try to use it. Yet, on the other side of the traditional literacy dualism, there is a very different story occurring. They also read less than any modern generation, or post-print generation. The juxtaposition of the two elements is ironic, but more importantly, it has far-reaching, and problematic ramifications.
Reading is something a great majority of students do not engage in regularly, and if they do, it is often through social networking and little that pushes them to undertake a critical viewpoint. To engage with any reading critically is something I struggle in getting my students to do in any regular basis. If I had a dollar for each time I have heard “I don’t like to read.” Or “I will only do it if it interests me.” Retirement would be a breeze. Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center, which focuses on Teaching Excellent & Educational Innovation, has specifically addressed the issue of critical reading and its importance for preparing people to be problem-solvers in their life long work (cmu.edu/strategies). The amount of time I spend on stressing critical thinking and analysis is significant. I am often told that I￼ ask things and question in ways they have never imagined. In fact, I have had some Dana classmates say they would never want to take my class because it would be too difficult. I do not believe I am difficult. Thorough, expecting one’s best work, wanting to to reach beyond what they might realize they can do, to all of this I would say, Yes!! The cost of an undergraduate degree and the value when there are 19 millions 18-23 year olds doing it creates a serious dilemma. If you degree is going to serve you well, it is not the piece of paper or the GPA, it is what you can do as an employee that matters. How hard did you work and push yourself to learn? What sort of critical thinking and problem solving skills do you bring to the table? They want to know if you can do the job without being babysat. Can you ponder, analyze, communicate?
I remember when I was first at UW-Stout, leading a discussion on a summer reading book; something that was common in the early 2000s. I asked a new freshman student about a particular theme in the book, and he unapologetically told me he hadn’t read it. When I inquired why? Again, his candor surprised me, but he said, “I am not going to read anything someone tells me I have to,” Some 17 years later, I can say that no one has been quite so stunningly arrogant, but I know that I have had students who probably did not open their text for my class a single time. Perhaps I am still enough of an idealist to believe students will generally do their work, but I am also painfully aware of how little many students engage with their texts or regularly complete their reading assignments. I was a student who read the great majority of my assigned texts, and would underline, highlight, or write comments in the margins. I remember one summer cramming an entire class on Romans (the book from the Bible) into three weeks. It was brutal; there was little grace, ironically. We had three significant texts to manage; we had to translate the entire Book of Romans from English to Greek; we had a major paper to write; and we had both an oral translation final and a written final. Dr. Stanley Olson was the nicest man, and one of the tougher professors I ever had. Yet, somehow I have always been a reader. I think I must give the credit for that to my adopting parents. They were the ones who never limited my access (either by number of visits or quantity of time) to our little neighborhood library. I did have scrapbooks full of certificates for reaching reading goals, especially in the summer. What reading did for me was allow me to escape. It allowed me to imagine and it took me away, at least for the period of time I was engrossed in those pages.
When I got to Dana, and the humanities program something clicked in a new and more complete way as I read my assignments. I was reading the poems, the plays, the literature that formed the basis of how we understood our Western Society, but I was also asked to consider the art, the music, and the philosophy that created the foundational artistic or philosophical corpus of who we were (and still are). I have written about (and still tell of) Dr. John W. Nielsen, fondly known as “The Pope,” on a number of occasions. It was his Intro to Religion course what was my first introduction to him. The text, Religion: What is it?, by William Tremmel influences me to this day. I would eventually take 5 or 6 of his classes; I would travel to Europe with him; and he became one of my two advisors (which can be spelled with an e or an o). In his lectures or his presentations in Parnassus, be it for the Humanities 107, 205, 206 classes or for Sights and Sounds of Christmas, a yearly campus celebration of the season, which served as a gift from the Dana Community to Blair and beyond, he would note from time to time there was a book we used that should be on our bedside table. If I had all my notes, I could probably come up with quite the list. Incidentally, I do have all of my humanities study guides and notes in my office even now, and I still use them. It is clear to me how much what we learned in those humanities classes prepared me for much more than chapter exams and a final.
I have been trying to ponder all of those texts that the Pope noted we should have on our bedside stand. Some we were required to read for the humanities sequence; some we were required to read in the various individual classes we were fortunate enough to take with him; some were books we read in our LARP sections. What I remember is he would usually introduce the book or reading with some important facts about both the author and the significant points about that book. Then we would discuss what the text did to help us understand both our world and ourselves. Often those texts, books on politics, on culture, on philosophy, on religion, on the labor of humans provided a window to gaze through. It provided insight into how the world was the world we were experiencing. It provided an opportunity to learn and realize how things that might have seemed long past still had relevance. The books that made the list were to be read and pondered; they were to move us beyond the allegorical cave that we too often choose to reside in. From books like The Communist Manifesto to Mein Kampf, we were provided insight into how diverse the political theories of our world could be, but also how those authors changed the world because of those beliefs. From Augustine to Bonhoeffer, we were pushed to understand how faith and the world in which we lived might struggle to connect or move from the head to the heart so to speak. From pieces from the Greeks to the French Philosophes of the Enlightenment, we were introduced to things that created a foundation for what America had become and even valued.
What I know from being a humanities major that many students detested the amount of work those three courses required, and I will admit the workload was nothing simple, but it was manageable. It required discipline and it required some critical thought and analysis. Two pre-requisite skills every employer hopes their employees possess. I have noted this at other times, but what I realize about education at this point in my life and having taught at the post-secondary level for 27 or 28 years is quite simple. We have lost our edge because we want to offer recipe cards rather than skills. We want simple answers and what I believe Luther would have referred to as cheap grace. While we have all sorts of gadgets to make our lives more convenient, life is not easier. The complexity of globalism has created a need to understand our world in ways more profound than perhaps anytime in human history. Nationalism will not put our global interdependence back into the proverbial bottle. The use of technology is not going to be hindered by walls, either physical or psychological. We will not return to our sort of post-WWII American dominance that was the world into which I was born. It would be interesting to me to sit down with Dr. Nielsen today and ask what books he might tell me to add to my bedside stand now? Certainly authors like Hannah Arendt, Maya Angelou, perhaps Junot Diaz, Neil Gaiman, and Amy Tan might be on the list.
What is it reading does? Again, beyond allowing the ability to escape, it offers the opportunity for someone to engage with language and think. It can create a space by which someone is offered an opportunity to learn in a profoundly intimate manner. When we engage with the words of another, we are provided a venue in which we can reflect in a safe space and imagine the what ifs that the text offers. I have never been the same person after working in this sort of processing manner. What do I need to know? What should I take with me? These are basic questions. Even when I have re-read something (I think I have re-read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison four times. Each time I learn something new. The words affect me in a different way. That is the wonder of the written word. It is time to return to my bedside table and see both what is there and what needs to be added. I am so grateful for what I learned from so many through those Humanities classes and beyond. My bedside table is more than a group of books, it is my window to both the world and my soul. It allows me to find a different relationship with both my world and my God. With that in mind, I offer this:
Thanks for reading as always.