What Do I Know?

I’ve been thinking this week about a student I taught years ago, whom I’ll call Karen.  She was older than many of the other students, probably 8-10 years older, actually. She had also lived a life that was more dramatic, certainly more colorful than many of her peers.  If we ever had students work in groups, her group would inevitably get off the subject, and she would be telling them stories from her pre-college life, which interested them intensely.  She was also an amazingly good student, and she read all of the time.

She was in a U.S. Literature I class I was teaching one fall, and we were discussing Henry David Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience.”  I love Thoreau, and I love teaching him, as his work seems so applicable to today’s world.  I see students who are obsessed with technology and the latest thing, ideas Thoreau criticized, though he went after newspapers and trains.  With “On Civil Disobedience,” though, I liked to talk about what we believe in so much that we would be willing to go to jail for it.  Note that I use the past tense “liked.”  I still talk about those ideas, but in a different way than I once did.

When I was younger, I was more prone to stir up students, to push them to do some radical action.  I still try to make literature practical, but I also recognize the limits I should place on my influence, largely due to what happened in Karen’s class.  I was holding forth about the heroism of Thoreau for being willing to go to jail for his beliefs.  Essentially, I was telling the students that they should do the same.  Karen, who sat on the front row, raised her hand and said quietly, but directly, “Have you ever been in jail?”  I had not and have not, and I think she knew it.  When I admitted that, she said, quietly, again, “It’s not a good place.”

It’s easy for professors to stand in front of classrooms and encourage students to do things with their lives that they have never done.  And it’s especially easy because students listen more than we would like to believe; after all, if we believe they really listen, we would be more careful with our words.  But we believe that, since we are experts in one narrow field in this world, we are experts in everything.  Literature professors hold forth on politics; political science professors talk about health care; economics professors discuss religion.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying we cannot or should not discuss matters outside of our field, even in the classroom.  However, I am saying we should come to those matters as the amateurs we are, and we should convey that to our students.  I wasn’t exploring the idea of whether or not one should go to jail for certain beliefs; I was telling the students what they should do, even though I had never done it myself.  While I would argue that our jobs do go beyond just teaching material, I also know that admitting what we do and do not know about other subjects would help us teach students to think through matters themselves, not just listen to us pontificate about things we know little or noting about.  We should not use our classrooms as bully pulpits, especially on subjects that have no place there.  But what do I know?

Note: this post was inspired by Susan Behrens’s commentary early last week, which is definitely worth reading.


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