I’ve been a little frustrated by some aspects of my job lately. Over the last couple of days, I’ve had some serious talks with my classes. Here, more or less, is what I have said:
Grades don’t matter. Let’s start there. I know, I know, they do matter in lots of practical ways like not getting grounded and getting into college and being able to play sports and all that. But, in terms of what I am trying to do with you, they do not matter at all. Grades tell me two things I already know. They tell me how hard you try and they tell me how well you understand what we’ve been doing in class. These two things are not unrelated.
But grades aren’t the point. The point is for you to know things and to be able to think. I had a professor in college who told us that his job was not to teach us what to think, but to teach us how to think. This is the philosophy I try to bring to the classroom every day. Nearly all of the people in the world with real power (I mean the capacity to influence how the world works, not people who are famous for being famous) know a lot of stuff. They certainly know the vocab words I have asked you to learn. They just as certainly have decent command of basic grammar and punctuation. On a deeper level, though they may not have read Things Fall Apart, if they were to read it, they would be able to explain what it’s about. They would be able to discuss the themes in a reasonably meaningful manner.
But there’s more to it than that.
You all know I am an enormous nerd. I don’t hide that. Sometimes, for fun, I read books on theoretical physics even though I am an English teacher. A few weeks ago I went to the wedding of a good friend. My friend is a lawyer. He also writes and illustrates children’s books. Another friend (my former college roommate) is a computer programmer. In his free time, he likes to read about ancient Rome and Greece. While some of us were making small talk, the Higgs Boson was brought up. In small talk. The Higgs Boson. This is a theoretical physics thing, but I didn’t bring it up. The point of this is not to illustrate how awesome my friends and I are. the point is to illustrate how great it is to have a rich intellectual life.
You don’t know what you’re missing.
You don’t know because, often, you refuse to challenge yourselves. Challenge is what makes life rewarding. Intellectual stimulation is part of what makes life rewarding. By not pushing yourselves intellectually, you are missing out and setting yourselves up for failure. High school sets up the rest of your life. If you come out of high school not knowing anything – not having any interests – you are not going to go many places in life.
I can, I know, be a grumpy teacher at times, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care. I do care. A lot. I get grumpy because it bothers me that you don’t try. Much of what I teach you is essential if you want to be a functional person. What isn’t absolutely essential is really neat. You’re missing out when you spend every evening screwing-off instead of working your brains. We all need a night off from time to time, but you can’t take every night off. It bothers me that so many of you want to. It bothers me because soon, you’re going to be grown up and you aren’t going to have any dreams and you aren’t going to care about anything. I wish you would wake up and try because what you are doing to yourselves makes me enormously sad.