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Dealing with student disconnect

I thought my head would explode...

I thought my head would explode...

Two anecdotes:

1. When I was in high school, I took four years of French.  I started out of interest and a little impetus toward college prep.  I continued because I liked it, somewhat.  Then, my senior year, I took French 4 just to hang out with one of my friends.  At some point, during a particularly frustrating moment, I grumbled to our harried teacher, “Why can’t everybody just learn English?  It would save so much time.”  I thought her head would explode.

2. I teach a course called “New Millennium Studies: The First Year Seminar.”  It’s a general Liberal Arts course designed to get students thinking about the relationship of their art to their thoughts about life, the world, and culture.  Columbia’s motto is Create… Change, so we’re trying to help them think about what that means.  Kinda.  Anyhow, I put a lot of stress on ethics as a primary way to dig into those ideas.  One of the guiding concepts for the way I lead them to explore their ethics is “how do you know that what you believe to be right and wrong is true?”  Anyhow, in their final “Manifesting Vision” essay, one of my students wrote “What difference does it make where a person gets their ethics and morals from?  What is important is that those are the morals or ethics they have, who cares how they established them.[sic]”  I thought my head would explode.

In my response to the portfolio, I wrote (among other things):

The overall message of your manifesting vision essay, on the other hand, seems shockingly incurious. I’m pretty surprised that you could come through the class and think it’s not important to know where your ethics come from. If you don’t know where your ethics come from, how can you ever change your mind? Nearly every moral and ethical advance human culture has made came with a shift in ethics. To use one blaring example: slavery. Many people have felt, in the past, that slavery was ethical. We’ve come to understand that it isn’t, through a variety of forces engaged in tackling that ethical question. If we don’t question our ethics, we can’t grow as people and societies. And we can’t question our ethics if we assume they’re just a given.

What’s really frustrating is that I failed so utterly to get that message across during the semester.  It shakes my confidence in how I teach the class down to my roots.  Of course, the course is a “you get what you put in” kind of course, so perhaps that student just didn’t put much energy into it.  But it’s still stunning and disheartening.

By the by, when I muttered my comment about English in French class, I got a ten minute lecture on the relationship between culture and language, and the idea that cultures embed themselves in languages.  I still remember her saying “every time a language dies, a culture dies.”  I also remember joking to a friend after class that if we’re down to one person who can speak a language, that culture’s already dead.  Ah, youth.

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