I’m no Mr. Chips, but …

… since this is my year to teach our freshman class, and I expected to see even more freshmen because I’m  teaching The World’s Living Religions (actually a 2nd year class – weird, I know), I thought there was some sort of speech for the new kids I ought to make.  But I didn’t really do it.  I thought it was going to turn into some kind of horribly saccarine business.  And I have to admit that I was also put off the idea by the obvious lack of passion (about anything) among many of the youngsters I teach.  I have made some of the points I had in mind in various classes, but not the ones that I thought really mattered.

With reference to a George Steiner quotation, provided in the context of wondering about Sarah Palin’s education, UD*** makes what I think is very elegant statement around which I could have constructed my speech:

When you’ve been, at some point in your life, seriously inside higher ed (to coin a phrase), you’re forever unsettled by the possibility you’ve glimpsed of existence pitched very high, dedicated daily to as much lucidity about the world within and without as humanly possible.

I think that especially at this here small mediocre isolated school the students need to have it explained to them that even in an institution like this one they have a special opportunity: on the other side of the experience of university, they will almost all be very different people because of it; they will look at themselves and the world differently, and differently from – and better than, even – many of those without higher education.  Of course, that difference varies tremendously and qualitatively, and where one went to university often matters.  How can I possibly deny that there are serious shortcomings about my University?

But I wanted to tell the freshmen this year that while that is true, they still have something of the opportunity that university affords and that it’s up to the them to make the best of it.  That’s a universal truth.  It’s in no way true that even if you coast through an Ivy League MBA, that will qualify you to be President of the United States.  I believe that I overcame some genuine disadvantages and attained some exceptional success – despite an undergraduate education from a school ranking very low in Maclean’s estimation – because I tried to grow where I was planted.   By class or intelligence or some sort of poor high school effort these freshmen find themselves before me here.  And I wanted to tell them that that’s fine; if they make the most of this, they can achieve things that they really can’t imagine sitting here now.  But in any case, even a little bit of work here can make life unfold for them in some very exceptional ways.  I like my students, if for no other reason than the fact that none of them is here riding a wave of real privilege, even the ‘burban and foreign kids who are attending their Canadian school of last resort.

Itid be a pretty good talk, eh?  Sure, not any sort of Last Lecture kind of thing; I know my limitations.  And maybe I’ll give this talk someday or in someway.   But I don’t know.  I once, somewhat famously, remarked that the students of this University are decidedly “untroubled.”  I just don’t know if I have the abilty to make my kids ‘glimpse of existence pitched very high’ and become unsettled by the experience.***

***The replies to UD’s post remind me that a wide internet audience is never really desirable.  Funny how the majority of respondants to online media, like newspapers and such, are so Tory in their worldviews.  And all that clunky language to criticize one whose prose so often rings like a bell, nevermind the crappiness of the arguments.

***I’ve basically ended this with a quotation, breaking a good rule my Advanced Composition Professor, Tom Chase, taught me.  Tom was the first colonial in my experience who had gone to school in the Old Country, and I thought the Anglophilia was a little affected.  But, he sure taught me a lot (he was also my freshman English Professor – I went to a school and in an era where it was required of all undergrads!).  Tom taught me how to write in two paragraphs which I now look at as some sort of prestidigitation.  Oh yeah, from his English 100, I glipmsed of existence pitched very high, for I learned there that it’s possible for something like a carelessly thrown snowball to change the course of many lives and over generations.  Anyway, I mentioned his affectation because he was for me one of those professors who lived in a world so entirely removed from mine; he was the sometimes organist for what I thought was the finest-looking church in the city.  And he often used musical examples in class which kind of fell on my figuratively deaf ears.  Advanced Comp had lots of rules.  But Tom was by no means dogmatic.  He said, that when he studied piano concertos, he was taught a whole bunch of rules about their composition, but then he’d listen to Mozart and realize that he broke pretty much all of those rules.  He went to his music teacher to say, hey, Mozart broke all these rules, so why should he be obliged to follow them.  His music teacher said, when you become a Mozart, then you can break the rules.

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1 Comment »

  1. oonae said

    Your low-end kids at “school of last resort” are troublingly untroubled. So are my high-end kids at “school of their dreams.” It’s the generation: the untroubled generation.

    You should give the speech, even if you feel like you’re speaking to the wind. Even if you can’t give it without irony, give it anyway.

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