Risk, Wisdom, and Education

Paul Harvey

Earlier this week I was reading through files for colleagues at my university coming up for their 2-year, 4-year, and tenure reviews. The files here include a complete record of student teaching evaluations, and (contrary to the propaganda generally dispensed about higher education) teaching is taken very seriously as a part of regular faculty reviews.

Reading through these evaluations is always a fascinating exercise in seeing how students think about teaching, and teachers, in various disciplines. Going through the file for one colleague who is very obviously a superior scholar and teacher, I was struck by one set of teaching evaluations which complained, sometimes kindly and sometimes bitterly, about “having” to read material which “is personally offensive to My Lord,” as one student put it. I think this student was referring probably to
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or maybe Howl, both of which were on the syllabus for a particular class. Or maybe something else, I’m not sure. With the kind of mindset of these students, it’s pretty hard to read anything without getting offended somehow -- all those Greek gods having sex, all that love poetry in the Bible and in medieval literature, all those n- words in Huckleberry Finn, all those nasty deaths in All Quiet on the Western Front, and don’t even get me started on William Faulkner or Queequeg in Moby-Dick.

It’s not unusual to hear about these kinds of complaints, yet it always amazes me that these same students would not balk at “having” to read the Old Testament, with its graphic details of rape, pillage, incest, and human sacrifice, not to mention some erotica that makes Howl seem pretty tame by comparison.

In this particular case, I think I only took notice because there were about 6 or 7 student evaluations in a row that demanded there be “alternative” reading assignments, or that students not be “forced” to read material that somehow offended them. These were not offered as suggestions, but with more insistence: when a piece of literature crossed some of their personal religious values, they felt it their right to demand that they not have to encounter it, at a public university. I’m paying your salary, after all (actually about 8% of my salary, but that’s a subject for a different post). It's a strange sense of entitlement, indeed, to demand not to be educated in literature, in a class on literature.

It’s easy enough for me to brush this stuff off. I don’t get a lot of that in my classes; history books tend to be dry enough that I count myself lucky if students read them at all, and "offensive" material is understood to be just bad sinful stuff that people did in the past. Some years ago, though, I had a student complain about the great novel Invisible Man; in fact, she just refused to read it after an early scene in the book which portrays (with great humor and satire) an obviously allegorical dream that involves some incest. The student persuaded herself that she could read no further, never mind that Invisible Man is surely one of the cleanest (and most hilarious) books in all of American literature. Her loss, I thought, and moved on.

I also didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the evaluations for this one colleague earlier this week, whose sterling record spoke for itself. But I did think about it tonight, reading our own blog contributor John Fea’s nice short blog essay What is a Liberal Arts Education? Risk and Wisdom.

John draws from Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America., a kind of ur-text of the Lilly Fellows Program. John’s students at Messiah College evidently share a lot with students everywhere. John writes:

Unfortunately, too many students today are unwilling to engage in the kind of risk-taking that is essential to education. Many of the students I teach at Messiah, and especially their parents, do not understand what education at a liberal arts institution is all about. They think that college is a place where "cherished beliefs" should be not be challenged, but affirmed. They want to have a four year experience in which they are told that everything they have ever believed about life, God, society, etc... is true. If this is what college is about, then what is the point? Students can participate on championship sports teams, make friends, have meaningful social experiences, find a spouse, play in the band, or learn certain specialized and technical skills, but I wonder: will they really be educated? Why not just send students to vocational schools so they can gain the necessary knowledge needed to do this or that job and live a comfortable middle-class life.

At any academic gathering I attend where teaching is discussed, we all have our own “war stories” that reprise some variation of the theme John describes above. John continues to hope that education in its truest sense can happen at liberal arts colleges:

Having said that, I think it is essential that this kind of education--the kind of learning that truly transforms--happen in a safe environment where students can work through this transformative time in their life with caring professors who love them and want to walk alongside of them. This, it seems to me, is the genius of a small, residential, liberal arts college. For the students who come to Messiah College, it is what makes their college experience "Christian."

Those of us at state universities (if you can call an institution which is 8% supported by state tax dollars a "public" institution, and it's only at that high a level thanks to the temporary infusion of stimulus dollars) can sometimes experience a bit of this as well. A few years back, attending a reunion for those fortunate enough to have been Lilly Fellows in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University (1993-95 for me), I gave a short talk for this gathering entitled “On Being a Scholar of Religion in the Historical Guild at the Public University Amidst a Charged Atmosphere of Religion, Politics, and War.” I was referring to Iraq then, in the title; obviously I could be referring to Afghanistan today (some of my students are on their way there, very shortly). I reflected in that talk on the virtues of academic guilds (whatever their faults) in providing some space for the life of the mind in the midst of the prevalent propaganda about higher education.

Our students at a public university obviously won’t have a college experience designed to be “Christian,” but I’ll walk alongside any of them who want to take some risks, and ideally gain some wisdom. I laughed when I read the narrow and ridiculous evaluations of my colleague’s class; they liked this colleague as a teacher, but they wouldn’t even risk thinking about the reading material (including some classics of American literature) that was assigned. Today, thanks to John’s post, I laughed less and contemplated more about how to pursue my vocation when cherished beliefs are only to be affirmed and not even questioned, much less challenged or deepened.


John Fea said…
Paul: I hope I did not come across as if this was something that might only happen at a "Christian" college. It can and should happen anywhere. I think Schwehn would agree.

There is, however, a subtext to my piece that targets the kinds of Christian students I teach. I hear over and over again from parents in the evangelical subculture that "Messiah is too liberal." Wow! What they really mean is that their children are not being indoctrinated with a particular form of Christianity or politics in the way that they might be at some other "Christian" colleges.

Thanks for the plug.
Randall said…
A provocative post.

I would add a general war story. Or, a dirigible view of the battlefield.

It would be ideal if students came to survey classes with some real curiosity about the world and about the world of ideas. Too often, at least with some of the students I have taught, there seems to be little interest in anything beyond their immediate existence. Is there a way to "cultivate curiosity"? I've wondered if that could be the slogan for a campaign.
deg said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
deg said…
It's a hard row to hoe, but I think it's a necessary one. I've got "spark curiosity" as the number one goal in my courses, and I try to do that by using my students' narcissism against them. I'm painting with a very, very broad brush, but most students don't respond at all to history if they don't get how it applies to them. This is especially true of non-majors and students who are taking history because the registrar demands it. So, in my survey courses, I emphasize to varying degrees in lectures and supplementary work how history - even history from 500 years ago - is alive and well in their daily lives. To get them to do that on their own, they have to write a reflective essay at the end of the term, showing that they've "researched" themselves and drawn certain conclusions about how history informed where they grew up, how they vote, what they buy, etc. Maybe it's a bit gimmicky, but students have responded favorably to it in evaluations, many claiming that it not only sparked their curiosity but made them rethink other aspects of their received wisdom.

Like you said, ideally students would come in ready to learn, but that's just not going to happen. Heck, when I think back on my own move toward professional history, I did it because I wanted to answer certain questions about myself and my own upbringing. I think that's probably true for most scholars, and it's certainly true for students who generally see the humanities - not just history - as disconnected from their own past and their intended futures.
Interesting assignment idea, Darren. While I try as much as possible to emphasize that "things were different back then" (even if the "back then" is 20 years ago) I agree that it is very important (in survey courses, especially) to make connections with the present. At the very least, doing so can lead to discussions of continuity vs. change.

John, my Lancaster County relatives are likely among those complaining about Messiah. Before that, they complained about EMU; and before that, Goshen.
Paul Harvey said…
John: No, I didn't get that from your post at all; I think we are talking about variants of a common issue faced at many colleges and universities; the Christian liberal arts college has a particular version of it, the generic branch-campus-of-a-state-university another.

As for sparking curiosity, I switch radically back and forth between showing "relevancy" versus just going through the material for its own sake and demanding attention to it, whether they think it's relevant or not. But of course, if they won't read the material at all because it's "offensive" to them, for whatever reason, then it's a moot point. And actually, I think this has less to do with curiosity than with a strange sense of entitlement, but that may require another post to elaborate.

Matt: Thanks. See you on the smack boards.
David Kalivas said…
Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading "Risk, Wisdom, and Education." It rings so true in so many ways with students coming to get an education so they can get good jobs and not wanting to be bothered with the challenges of thinking from differing vantage points, or learning how the past informs the present and shapes the future. The comments about "curiosity" also resonate as I recall my first time teaching when I couldn't understand why students in my history survey course had, for the most part, no basic curiosity about the world around them. This was at a state university where I was a young adjunct and continues for the majority of students in my classes at a public college today. Even students who take my Middle East history survey (an elective)often have difficulty breaking through the way they see the region, which is usually shaped by the simplicities of the airwaves. In any event, thanks for sharing your experiences and for this blog, too.