Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 6/12/2005 4:49 AM
Random Thought: Real Life

"Congratulations! Today is your day. You're off to Great Places! You're off and away." It's that time of the year. It's Commencement time and people--academics, parents, relatives, friends, and students--across the land, at collegiate graduations are acting out in one way or another those opening words from Dr. Seuss' OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO. People are thinking about and talking about students who are about to be on their own as they take their commencing steps out from the structured and controlled world of the classroom into the maze of life. Last week it was a column by David Brooks; this week it was one by Tom Friedman. They were like day and night. The former faulted academia, the latter extolled the unique teacher.

David Brooks was talking about the plight of graduates who have spent their short lives engaged in obeying the commands of taskmastering teachers, getting grades, getting into college, as he put it, "manipulating the world of the classroom," getting out of college, and getting that career going. But, when these student are spit out into the vast, disordered, almost lawless, career world of adulthood so many don't have a clue how to travel through it or what they'll go through as they do. They've gone to school, but they haven't gone to the school of hard-knocks. They've walked the hallowed halls of higher education, but don't know how to walk the high wire and balance life's ups and downs. They haven't been taught how to really address the serious life issues posed in Dr. Suess' humorous verse. Suddenly, young people who were adored BMOCs and admired honor students and acknowledged recipients of this or that recognition, are now reduced to scrambling rodents in the competitive rat race. They don't have the feet-on-the-ground know-how of what to do when they find that "Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you," and "you'll be left in a Lurch. You'll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And chances are, then, that you'll be in a Slump."

"Failure seems but a step away. Loneliness hovers." Brooks wrote about the funk Seuss mentions that so many graduates so quickly find themselves in. "They often feel stunted and restless (I haven't moved up in six months!), so they adopt a conversational mode - ironic, self-deprecatory, postpubescent fatalism - that masks their anxiety about falling behind."

Simplistic? Hyperboly? Maybe. But, something to think about. Brooks is accusing us in the ivied academic world of the Ivory Tower of not really preparing students for the unsheltered "real world" that lies beyond the secluding walls, defensive moat, and protective drawbridge. In other words, Brooks is rightly raising the question whether the sheltered and organized life on campus and especially in the classroom really prepares students for the unstructured and often anarchic life where they can so easily get stuck, in Dr. Seuss' words, on a "prickle-ly perch" or in a "waiting place," and don't have the skills for the difficult task of "un-slumping" themselves. I assume Brooks means that while we may introduce students to the knowledge of a discipline and the skills of a livlihood, we may not be teaching them critical life skills.

Is he right? Do dismiss him out of hand? Again, it's something to think long and hard about, however such reflection may be uncomfortable. Do far too many of us act as if our purpose is limited to and thus concentrate on improving student performance in the classroom, but not in life beyond? Do far too many of us focus on what students need and will do "in here" in marked buildings and classrooms, and ignore what students will need to fend for themselves "out there" on life's unmarked streets? Do far too many of us have students learn by the book and not prepare them for a "textbookless" life where more often than not the book is thrown away or quickly becomes obsolete? Do far too many of us presume and assume that student performance in the present classroom predicts how a student will do in the off-campus future? Do far too many of us not consider the addressing of social skills, communication skills, people skills, and life skills in general to be within their bailiwick? To find the answers, all we academics have to do is read Dr. Seuss' "Oh, The Places You'll Go" and then ask and answer one more little question: What is the ultimate meaning and purpose of what we do?

I posed these questions to an e-colleague. Her answer was quick and short. "Our purpose is to prepare students for the future." True enough. But, I then asked, "The future of what?" and "How far into the future?" Too often when far too many of us talk of the future we talk of "mastery of the subject" in a class or major curriculum, not of life; we so often limit ourselves to the limited future of classroom lessons rather than life lessons; we so often concentrate on preparing students for the next class quiz, the mid-term exam, final exam, and final grade of the class at hand, rather than for life to come. Teaching for performance in a single class during a single term is vastly different from teaching for use of skills when students are no longer students and are not in school, when they have to decide on their own what to do and where to go, when they are their own "mind-maker-upper."

Far too many of us teach students how to hit the fast ball without thinking how hapless they will stand as life throws them curve ball after curve ball. So many of us so often forget that we are teaching for the unpredictable future, preparing students not for a classroom test or midterm and final exams, but for unpredictable real world of "tests" when we're not present to be asked "will this be on the test" or "is this important." That is, it's one thing to write an assigned research paper, cram and memorize to take a test on a set of information and skills. It's another thing to help all students arm themselves with life skills they need as they head into and live in an age in which jobs are likely to be invented and become obsolescent at an increasingly blurring pace. The chances of today's students staying in the same positions working for the same companies for their whole careers are about zilch.

Enter Tom Friedman. In such a swirling age, Tom Friedman reminded his readers, the greatest skill for success, much less survival, in life's great balancing act that anyone can have, again in Dr. Seuss' words, is "just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left." That is, it is not so much information as an agile and sure-footed suppleness, that ability to learn how to learn, and that fearlessness and willingness to learn. Paraphrasing what Friedman rightly said, the best way to be flexible and adaptable is to be fearlessly adventurous, and the best way to be fearlessly adventurous is to learn to have the courage to take risks and risk failure, and the best way to learn to have the courage to take risks and risk failure is to learn how to learn, and the best way to learn how to learn is to love to learn, and the best way to love to learn is to have great teachers who themselves are fearless, imaginative, creative adventurers, explorers, risk-takers, and learners. Those kinds of teachers dance, smile, love, delight, believe, rejoice, understand, listen, see. They help students learn to win the "lonely games" that they play against themselves, get past places that "scare you right out of your pants," get through the "Hakken-Kraks howl," and successfully paddle "many a frightening creek." These teachers themselves are always on the move, love to learn, promote in students' inventiveness and creativity and imagination, help strengthen students with a fearlessness for change, endow students with individuality and independence, give control over to the students, encourage decision-making and risk-taking, with endless support and unconditional encouragement instill a self-esteem and self-confidence in each student, model and demand of students authenticity and integrity and respect, love each student, rejoice in each student's unique potential, and work tirelessly not merely to transmit information and knowledge and skill, but to skillfully instill that love and faith in students for themselves, for others, for learning, and for life.

When you take Brooks and Friedman together, you can't help but know that behind every graduate is a teacher, and what kind of graduate enters life and the places that graduate will go is so largely determined by the kind of teachers under whose influence that graduate came.

Literally, a week doesn't go by that I don't go through the joyous and rollicking pages of OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO to remind me of my purpose and meaning. So you know, coming to think about it, and thinking how Dr. Seuss was quoted at my son's graduation from Stanford's School of Business, every incoming first year student should be read and read throughout his or her collegiate career and throughout his or her life, "OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO." So should each of us.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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