Sometimes students need a boost, as they can get pulled down into the routine of trying to balance school and life, studying and making ends meet. Sometimes I’m right there with them. I’m keenly aware that they have different motives for being in school. To some, university is just what’s been expected of them since they were children. It’s just the next step. For others it was a more deliberate decision. And of course for nearly all of them, a diploma is seen as a ticket to a better future. However, that doesn’t automatically translate into curiosity or enthusiasm.
On those days when I need to remind myself to look up and remember what it’s all about, I’ll turn to a few key ideas to get me back down to bedrock. What’s the point? It’s got to be more than trying to memorize keywords and jumping through all the right hoops in order to graduate. I think it’s pretty simple: trying to use our very short time here to better understand the world while we have the opportunity. Knowledge for its own sake.
To get that across to one of my classes, I recently shared this passage from Frank McCourt’s autobiography Angela’s Ashes. In this part of the book, McCourt is a young boy in school in gritty, western Ireland in the 1930s. Most of the boys in his class face some level of hardship, with many struggling for necessities, including food and shoes. The teacher tries to inspire them:
“Mr. O’Halloran (the teacher) says, You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it… You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” (p. 208)
Our students are pretty diverse, with many first-generation college students (as was I). Depending on the conditions in which someone grew up, this passage might come across as sappy or inspirational. I prefer the latter.