Director's Cut: What is education for?

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The question admittedly is as old as our profession. Socrates refused to yield the high ground and answered with his life. More recently, A.N. Whitehead speculated about the habits of mind upon which a genuine education might be built. More recently, Martha Nussbaum and Geoffrey Harpham each, in dramatically different ways, have weighed in to assert why education matters, and the forms and emphases it ought to assume. And lest one thinks these questions are confined to books, the University of Notre Dame’s evaluation of its curriculum, and what resulted, puts the story ever-front and center.

My asking of the question admittedly is more personal: The change of seasons and the change of pace in the semester leaves me feeling something akin to vertigo (though the cooler fall temperatures are ones I’ll relish). Other questions follow: Are my students actually learning anything? Do they like me? Does that matter? Will what they’re learning make any difference after they leave Denison? As I face my classes each week, what am I doing?

Colleagues are familiar with the fable that goes something like this: A theology professor is genuinely inspired by a student in her class: He is thoroughly prepared for every session, participates in class discussions with grace and insight; and writes papers that bring tears of joy to his teacher’s eyes. She believes he has absorbed the intellectual richness of theology down to his very bones. The following semester, she reads that her student has been arrested for petty theft. Police reports confirm he had, in fact, been among the ring leaders of a group of thieves who robbed homeowners of their most coveted possessions. What happened?

Invoking the fable isn’t my way of suggesting that students will disappoint us. While some assuredly will, it also is the case that Denison students are an extraordinary group: Bright, curious, generally fair-minded, enthusiastic to learn, they move through our learning spaces open to the breadth of possibilities we put before them, the ways we make matter the foundations of chemistry or the intellectual habits of the historian, the critical passion of the artist or the pillars of sociology.

Rather, the fable seems a helpful reminder: I must resist making education about me or about a particular student or about an isolated moment during a class that didn’t go well. I am reminded daily that education’s genuine power resides most centrally in its relational dimensions. We learn better together. We need each other. The recent effort by Clarkdale Elementary in Cobb County, Georgia, to reclaim a wall through the power art, the shared commitment of every single student, teacher, and staff member to see this wall—and one another—with fresh eyes underscores, for me, that education, whatever else it may be for, is how we connect. And in so doing we reclaim the things that matter most.

As the pace of the semester picks up, we hope you’ll make time to reflect on questions that matter to your teaching and to students’ learning. The Center is committed to providing a safe, inclusive, non-judgmental space where colleagues might gather to listen, learn, and grow more deeply in our shared craft. How can we help you? What do you need? Let us know. Enjoy the change of seasons.

Posted Date 
Friday, October 5, 2018

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