Just what sort of company does misery love, anyway?
I’m currently attending the SLS literary seminar here in Vilnius, Lithuania where I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a variety of accomplished writers and editors. Many of them are employed, as I am, in colleges; I’ve been comparing notes with teachers from all around Europe, as well as Canada and other parts of the USA.
I find myself feeling conflicted about something.
I spoke at length with a writer who does not want attention from an article like this one. I’ll call him Luke. He has been employed for more than a decade at a prestigious college in England—not Cambridge or Oxford but still one whose students have talent and means—and he complained of low standards. He said his students can get by in literature studies by reading only sections of books or by looking up arguments constructed by others, often in videos.
After listening to my stories, including some I’ve shared here at True Community, he decided that my community college might have higher standards than his prestigious college. My students often have few options beyond our classes and take nuts-and-bolts courses, but students at his college actively choose to study literature, then blow it all off while still stumbling to credentials. They feel they have pulled a fast one on the institution.
Listening to Luke, I felt relief. Pedestrian kind: I’m not alone in this world.
Later on, I caught myself. Relief? How’s this a relief?
I should have been shocked and disgusted; I could have even rationalized anger. Yet I felt legitimate relief, exactly the kind of selfish delight I’ll sense when my doctor says, “Hemorrhoids are common. Especially for a man who sits as many hours as you do.”
Perhaps I’m poking fun—but not really. Most contemporary educators know the crumbling standards and disinterested, distracted students we face are symptoms of the times. Even so, we want to know we’re not alone and that not all of it is our fault. Judge me if you wish, but I felt immediate comfort after learning that students an ocean away—those who, unlike the majority of my students, grow up with books in their homes and newspapers on the kitchen table—flounder about in college classes they have no interest in. They buy books they won’t read. This news obliterates my sense of isolation.
Other instructors have this week relieved me with the news that my community college is not exotic. While a lecturer who works half as hard as I do (to be fair, only in his teaching load) earns twice as much in Western Europe, his students still bring malaise and indifference to classes. Unlike my tuned out students, his show armchair awareness of the socio-economic forces currently tearing the world apart, yet they’re too comfortable to riot, to form punk rock bands, even to gather in the university square and demand sanctions against Putin or a resolution to the conflict in Gaza.
So I’m not alone. Whew, right?
As an educator, I always wonder what role I play in my students’ disengagement. I spend a lot of time here at the GMP writing about male disengagement, but the “engagement” I observe among women, as I’ve written before, is at my college more a function of their age and life-experience and not their gender. Yes, it’s well documented that boys and men are struggling in (or simply foregoing) college and that women are taking a larger share of the awarded degrees. But if our degrees represent what so many educators fear, is this really anything to get excited about?
How engaged are we as educators? How engaged am I as an instructor? What kind of energy do I bring?
If student evaluations are any indicator—for the record, they’re a hopelessly poor tool—students who succeed feel I bring good energy while those who fail say my energy sucks. Yes, more students would pass if I were “easier” but fewer would learn. More students would feel entertained if I used more multimedia, but what they need is someone to teach them how to sustain concentration, not yet another toy to distract themselves. There’s only so much “fun” you can bring to lessons about APA citation. If we’re constantly worried about making things “fun”, we feed the beast that says fun is the ultimate goal, or event the default reality.
In short, I’m saying—and I’ve written this before—that our education systems aren’t flawed only because they’re poorly designed or executed. They’re also flawed because they’re natural expressions of our culture, and that includes our traits of self-absorption and desire for gratification and quantification, simplified to 120 characters.
The systems are flawed the way we are all flawed. In an age when machines in our trousers can tell us how everyone in every other part of the world is working and feeling, we manage to believe that things are bad only in our immediacy. Standing face-to-face with someone, we learn people this world over are struggling just as we are. We manage to turn that struggle into happy relief, as if the goal were not to find solutions but only company for misery.
When we sense our isolation obliterated, we feel relief. Enough, perhaps, to avoid asking, “What made us feel isolated in the first place?”
Photo of ominous clouds in Vilnius, Lithuania by Gint Aras. See more at Liquid Ink.
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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