This week I’m thinking about education, far more than usual. The reason is simple. Exactly one week from today, I’ll be meeting a new group of community college students who have decided wisely that getting an education is their best move. With them, I’ll be standing on the brink of now and the future. It’s a new beginning for me and a new beginning for them.
As an educator, my role is to provide students with the knowledge base they need in English, especially American Literature, Appalachian Literature, and Creative Writing.
Aside from equipping them with the needed knowledge base, my goal is to turn them on.
“Turn students on to English? No way!”
“When pigs fly,” someone else squealed.
I understand. I have understood since I started teaching. From the first day that I enter a classroom at the start of a brand-new semester, mine is an uphill battle. But that’s perfectly all right. I love challenges. I have every confidence in the world that by the end of the semester my students will see that language and literature can help them discover their own worlds and the worlds around them. I have every confidence in the world that by the end of the semester my students will see that language and literature matter. “He can inspire a rock to write,” wrote one student in my early teaching career at Laurel Ridge Community College.
Nonetheless, I am aware that I may not have one student who is majoring in English. So, while I am passionate about language and literature and while I know that I can turn my students on to those subjects, I feel an equal responsibility to be passionate about education. I want my students to believe that education–their education–matters.
Sometimes getting them to believe that is an even greater challenge than turning them on to English.
I have to meet that challenge, too, right from the start, because I know that the community college graduation rate nationwide is about 62%.
I celebrate the students who make up that percentage. And I celebrate the 30% of community college students nationwide who transfer to four-year colleges and universities.
Yet, while celebrating all those students, I want to do my best to reach out to the others who might not be part of the 62% graduation rate or the 30% transfer rate unless I convince them that an education–their education–matters.
Why an education matters is abundantly clear to those of us who are educated. Career options. Job security. Expanded earnings. Networking. Professional connections. Increased happiness. Friendships. Better health. Even longevity.
I could include statistics to support those claims. I won’t. Candidly, they don’t do much for me.
And, candidly, when I talk about the practical benefits of an education–and I do–eyes glaze over and my students search for imaginary exits, especially when I start bringing in statistics to support my claims.
On the other hand, when I switch my focus to the softer side of why an education matters–the side that allows me to be personal and passionate–vision returns to glazed eyes and students return to the classroom that they just fancifully exited.
Sometimes–actually almost always–I’ll start the soft-side conversation by asking my students how many of them are the first in their family to go to college.
Usually about one third of their hands go up–a response that’s consistent with national data for community college students.
They seem to take notice when I tell them that I am a first-generation college student, too. They really take notice when I share some personal information about me. Son of a West Virginia coal miner and his wife, a Pilgrim Holiness minister. Grew up with three books in my home—the King James Bible, Webster’s Dictionary, and Sears Roebuck Catalog. Made it to the halls of the Library of Congress, which for 25 years became my home, with more than 20 million books. Then to the halls of Laurel Ridge Community College which for the last 23 years has been my home, where I’ve taught more than 7,000 students. Without being boastful, I want them to hear and see firsthand how an education transformed my life. I want to convince them that an education will transform their lives, too.
They get turned on more when I tell them that with an education they can go anywhere because they will be experts in their field. These days, I seem to have more and more students in health sciences, so I make a point of emphasizing that they can go wherever their credentials are recognized. Their eyes light up when I talk about the option of being a traveling nurse or a traveling surgical technologist. Their eyes really light up when I talk about the bonuses and salary increases that go hand in hand with adventuresome, free travel.
I remind them as well that an education empowers them to become their own knowledge navigators. I share with them what Robert Frost once wrote: “We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven’t learned in High School. Once we have learned to read the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us” (“Poetry and School,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1951). Frost, of course, is talking about developing critical reading skills and critical thinking skills, both at the heart of all education.
Or perhaps I help them understand that an education matters because books matter. Emily Dickinson says it best: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away.”
Some days I emphasize that an education matters because it emboldens you to follow your passion. I share with them my own undergraduate struggles as English, Pre-Law, and Pre-Med messed around with my head. One day, after switching majors several times, I allowed my passion to take hold of my heart. From that point forward, English prevailed.
Or what about the notion that an education enables us to be anchored and hopeful amidst the storms of life that are certain to come our way? I’m thinking again about Robert Frost and his poem “One Step Backward Taken.” The speaker in the poem is shaken by a universal crisis, “But with one step backward taken / I saved myself from going. / A world torn loose went by me. / Then the rain stopped and the blowing, / And the sun came out to dry me.”
And how about this one that I like to use when students wonder whether an education is worth the cost, especially as their student loans grow larger and larger. I remind them that an education is one of their best investments. No one can take it away, ever. Perhaps even better is the way that the investment keeps on growing through lifelong learning.
Those are just a few of the “soft” reasons why an education matters to me. They are the ones that are on my mind this week as I anticipate next week’s new beginnings.
There’s one more, though, that’s always on my mind. It’s the University of South Carolina’s motto surrounding the seal on my doctoral class ring. It’s a quote from Ovid, “Emollit Mores Nec Sinit Esse Feros,” which translates to “Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.”