The prompt over at Sunday Scribblings is idea. As long as I have been teaching, I've been attending workshops where we all agree that what we want to give our students is a life long love of learning. I've always thought that the idea was just this much lip service. I mean, really, what is a life long love of learning? Well, a lovely alliterative phrase, of course. But what else is it?
It's one of those ideas that I think about a lot. But I still am not sure that I can define it and I'm not sure that's what I provide my students. It sounds good but what does it mean? What I want to give my students is a life long desire to learn, and the ability to discover the value-added parts of their education. I'm not sure that I know how to define it in precise terms, but I know it when I see it.
In the 10th grade, I had a Biology teacher who talked about 'surface area' and the fact that all creatures are on a biological quest to have more surface area. I've never forgotten that idea and it comes up again and again in the things that I study and teach: the historical drive to conquer other peoples and acquire their land is a quest for surface area. Manifest Destiny in the U.S. was all about surface area. Is there a better way to understand the long-running dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians than as a dispute about surface area? Mr. Jarl was right.
Some of the college classes that I value the most were classes I took at UCLA because the topic sounded interesting, it fulfilled a general education requirement, the time was convenient, and (this last was most important), I could get in to the class. But those courses --- Intro to Moral Philosophy, Intro to Humanities, and Psycho-Biology are at the top of the list --- have enriched my life ever since. Not a week passes that I don't think about an idea I learned in those classes. If I could, I'd take the classes again (even Intro to Humanities which was so hard and where I was thrilled to earn a C+).
I've just finished reading Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking. It's an engaging study of the first year in her life after the death of her husband of 40 years. It's about her efforts to make sense of what's happened and to find a larger meaning from the experience. She seems to be searching for answers to questions that may have not the tidy answers we often seek. I can certainly relate to that struggle. One day in the first year after her husband's death she decides that she should re-read the play Alcestis. She notes that she hadn't read it since she was 16 or 17 years old and yet now, more than 40 years later, she comes back to that play for an answer she feels it will provide. As it turns out, Alcestis does not have the answer Didion was seeking. And yet it does provide an answer, albeit a different one.
This is the idea that I have in mind when I think about a value-added education: A play that you read when you are 17 provides answers when you are in your 60s; a concept that you learned when you were 14 is still richly meaningful when you are 39. I still lack a neat and tidy definition of a value-added education, but I know it when I see it.