higher education

Giving Up the Ghosts

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Sometimes I think of the ghosts, the spectral traces of students whose lives changed along these same paths and in these very buildings. Thinking of my own college years, I remember walking with roommates and thinking about the future we were forging. We didn’t know what that might be but were sure it was in-the-making right then. This included the relationships we made, the majors we selected, and the careers we could faintly see before us.

A real power of university education is its ability to surprise and upend. People and ideas encountered can challenge old and open new worldviews and opportunities. To take advantage of such possibilities, all parties must accept them. That means seeking discomfort.

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Confirmation bias works pervasively. Students enroll in courses that confirm their values. Capitalists study economics. Social justice advocates find sociology. Dreamers study literature.

A different sort of “confirmation” also plays out when students–and their professors–seek familiarity and comfort in the work itself. They comprehend (and grade) easily quizzes and multiple choices. They know how to listen to (and deliver) lectures, the great conveyor belt of information that speeds forward without ever pausing to wonder if this product is wanted or needed or serves the general good. They know how to compose (and teach) a formulaic five-paragraph essay form as a handy way to package and contain familiar ideas.

My fear and frustration: too few students (or professors) seek surprise or hope to overturn practices they’ve mastered, resulting in a staleness in ideas and a stalling in capabilities. Little reward accrues to anyone in this system, a production line of basic competence. And so we roll on toward a familiar and dull future.

I think too infrequently do students learn how to cultivate their own interests or to trust themselves. Addressing a student of writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote:

You were almost never asked to notice or observe, witness or testify.

You were being taught to manage the evidence gathered from other authorities

Instead of cultivating your own–

To simulate logic

But not to write so clearly that

What you were saying seemed self-evident.

He continued a few pages further in his provocative book, Several Short Sentences about Writing:

Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization.

No matter who you are.

Only you can authorize yourself.

You do that by writing well, by constant discovery.

No one else can authorize you.

No one.

This doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s as gradual as the improvement in your writing.

This shows the way, I think.

But collectively today, for students and professors, risks are to be avoided; ranges of acceptability narrow. To do otherwise is hard. And even harder, doing otherwise invites vulnerability and perhaps failure. Such qualities are to be shunned in the existing system. Vulnerability and failure, however, are stops on the route to learning and meaningful lives. I am dubious that blue book exams and term papers often entice surprise or overturn worldviews or forge new trails. What truths are found there?

Critiquing isn’t the same as proposing alternatives. I’m hopeful enough to believe we might, together, ensure more enriching and empowering learning. I’m not naive enough to believe I have the answers or that we might transform things entirely now. And I’m confident some practices, relics though they may seem, serve certain functions well. A total revolution is not due tomorrow.

But some acknowledgment is in order. Students (and professors) doing many of the same activities they have already, always done seem less likely to learn since they will be traveling down well-worn trails, seeing much the same scenery. Students (and professors) will require encouragement to step off those trails. And they will need to be willing to hear they have failed, haven’t reached their intended goal. But that failure is not an identity. It doesn’t constitute anything final, but simply a moment on a new pathway that can take us someplace else, which seems better than arriving in exactly the same spot after traveling along the same route doing the same thing as so many others.

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The ghosts who share my campus left indentations on marble stairs, their tracks weigh heavily. To get to the second floor, we need to walk in their footsteps. But to get to the future, our traces must go elsewhere. “Give up the ghost” means to die. But for inanimate things, those not able to die, the metaphor might mean surrendering something lifeless. It may be time.