Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Mon 10/10/2005 3:19 AM
Random Thought: Caleb

Well, my "grrrrrrrrr" has generated a lot of discussion that has threatened to send my computer on overload and wear my typing fingers down to the proverbial bone. It has ranged from a "go, Louis" to accusations of being "controlling," "regressive," "patriarchic," "uncaring," and "getting into students' lives." It has ranged from agreeing with limiting student withdraw--except under truly extenuating circumstances--to no more than a week at the beginning of the term without consequence to defending institutional policies of allowing students to withdraw freely, explanations not needed, from classes up to the last day of the term with no more than a meaningless "W." Interesting spectrum of responses.

I admitted to one particular group of academics that the description of my response to students who wanted to drop a course at mid-term was laced with some hyperbole and poetic license to emphasize my attitude and hammer home my point. I am always readily available; for this purpose, I just don't go out of my way to be available way, way beyond office hours as I normally do. And though I am firm in my response to such student requests, I don't express my feelings in fits of anger, but a heavy heart. I still believe in and love that student; I just don't support his or her decision, and I make sure he or she knows it. But, I still won't sign the drop forms as my little sign of protest against what I feel is a regressive policy. And, to explain the reason for the heavy heart, I told these academics the story of the 12 spies going into Canaan.

Do you know who Caleb is? I like Caleb. He's my kind of guy. He's a "wow" guy. His name means "bold, determined." I think he's just may be one of the unsung heroes of Scripture. He is the leader of the tribe of Judah, the largest of the 12 tribes. He's also one of the 12 spies who were sent by Moses to scope out the land of Canaan. When the spies returned from their recon patrol of forty days, they were carrying huge clusters of grapes. Ten of the spies, however, were frightened by what it would take to reap the fruits of the land. They came back with tales of horror. What they saw had terrified them. They talked of giants. The cities were large and heavily fortified. If the Hebrews entered Canaan, the ten spies warned, they'd be defeated. The ten spies had no confidence that the Hebrews would have what it would take to take over Canaan; or, that they wouldn't want to do what it would take. In any event, they revealed how shaky their faith was. "Moses, don't go there. It's too dangerous. We can't do it. Let's drop this idea. Let's withdraw."

But, the other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, stood firm. They saw the same "giants." They saw the same thickly walled cities. They saw the fruit of the land. They saw the potential of the land. They believed in themselves and in their people, and confident knew that the Hebrews could do whatever it would take to take over Canaan. And, they reveal how firm their faith was. "Moses, look at the size of these grapes! Man, we can do it. Bring them on. We'll be protected. Let's go conquer this land," they argued.

But, it was the banks of the Red Sea and the foot of Mt. Sinai all over again. Fear prevailed. Disbelief dominated. The people balked. Their faith waned. God was not a happy camper. The Hebrews did not enter the Promised Land. They wandered once again. The ten fearful spies died off with all in that faltering generation. Their names are not worth remembering But, two of that generation survived. We know who they are: Joshua and Caleb. Of Caleb, God said, "But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it" He and Joshua were the only ones of those who had left Egypt who would enter the promised land.

Now, are we academics to be among the ten spies who allow students to falter, drop courses, and withdraw? Or, are we to be Calebs, telling students to stand firm? I know, for I have seen time and time and time again, there's a Caleb in each student. So many students don't know that; they don't believe that. For a host of reasons, they act like they're one of the Hebrews of that disbelieving generation preferring to believe the tem spies rather than Caleb and Joshua. Like the Hebrews, the students so often let their disbelief, lack of self-confidence, fear, and/or angst prevail. So, they, like the Hebrews, want to drop and withdraw at the drop of a challenging hat. And, so many of us let them. Now, a lot of us academics let the students make that unguided decision in the noble name of "freedom." A lot of academics want to be disengaged and allow students to take the easy path in the sacred name of "progressivism." A lot of academics want to condemn as "regressive" and "patriarchical" and "controlling" and "getting into students' lives" positions that hold the students' feet to the fire of commitment and have them stand firm in the face of challenge. And, too many academics merely want to be the guide on the side or the sage on stage only when it comes to their discipline and the development of intellectual skills.

We all have to remember, by virtue of our positions, like it or not, that we all get into student lives. Our choice is that we can be as one of the ten spies or as a Caleb and Joshua. If we be as one of the spies, through policy, words, and actions--or inactions--we'll be condoning students' lack of faith in themselves, their lack of confidence, and their willingness seek out the mythical risk-free, unchallenging yellow brick road lined with guarantees. Or, as a modern day Caleb may, we can read from Dr Seuss' IF I RAN A ZOO: "If you want to catch beasts you don't see everyday, you have to go out-of-the-way. You have to go places no others can get to. You have to get cold, and you have to get wet, too." I think it was Charles De Gaul who said something to the effect that it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that a person can realize his or her potential. By allowing students to drop courses at the flick of the hand at mid term or farther on into the course with the only justification being fear of getting a lower grade or facing a harder challenge or not being comfortable or not wanting to be inconvenienced, then, we do them no service. As the Hebrews at the border of Canaan demonstrated, the art of dropping a course isn't difficult to master, but it isn't exactly character building, and it sure won't get anyone the fruit and honey.

As for me, I prefer "getting into their lives" as a Caleb rather than as one of the wimpy spies. I'm not going to back off. I'm going to help students open themselves to and embrace challenge, and realize that it is their best friend. I'm going to help students face life instead of hiding or running from it. I'm going to help students help themselves get out of their "so-so zone" and into their own "wow zone," and stay there. I'm going to help them build up their resistance to the temptations to be lazy, to be easily distraction, to take the easy way, to take the risk free path. I'm going to help them acquire a great vision for their lives, enroll in the challenge, and strive to achieve what they and nobody ever expected. I'm going to help them have high expectations for themselves, set their aims high, commit to them, and move forward. I'm going to help them raise their own bar by challenging and confronting their own shallow standards, by committing themselves to excellence and walking away from mediocrity. I'm going to help them set new standards by moving from the ho-hum of the ordinary to the wow of the extraordinary. I'm going to help them acquire a "bounce backability" of that proverbial if at first they don't succeed they should keep on trying, trying, trying, trying again. I am going to help them help themselves acquire and hone their thinking skills, their emotional skills, their spiritual skills, their community skills, communication skills, and their people skills.

I'm going to live my academic life struggling to convince students that they have it within them to do better than they believe they can, to help them find that "different spirit" that dwells sometime hidden and latent within them, and to help them help themselves to draw on its power so that throughout their lives rather than being one of the anonymous spies to themselves, rather than wander about outside the land of milk and honey, they'll say confidently, like Caleb, "I can do this. Bring it on. Let's go. Give me this mountain."

         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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