Opinion: Learning to love and loving to learn

I am sitting in a room full of professors at an academic conference unlike any other. Physicists, French literature experts and professors of nursing are sitting side by side. We are here not to present the obscure details of our scholarly research, but to talk about what binds us together across our very different academic fields. We share a commitment to a Big Question that underlies our work: “What does it mean to teach our students as whole people, not simply as receptacles of scholarly information?” This question also calls us to acknowledge the perhaps hard-to-believe fact that we faculty are also “whole people,” not simply heads on sticks.
The leader of this session, David, begins by asking what we want our students to learn in our classes this fall. David knew that our first-order answers would be something like: “using rational-choice models for micro-economic decision-making” or “a general overview of Roman history from the time of Emperor Constantine to the middle of the 11th century.”
After we scribbled down our initial responses, David asked us to pause, breathe and think. “OK,” he continued. “Now what do you really want your students to learn?” This second articulation of the question brought us to a level beyond “content.” Some wrote down goals pertaining to the development of skills: “critical thinking” or “clear articulation of ideas in both oral and written forms of expression.”
Others, and I was one of them, spoke of the importance of a liberal arts education in an ever more specialized, technology-based and consumerist society. How might we communicate the value of the liberal arts to our students when the metaphorical neon lights on their foreheads steadily blink, “But I need to get a job!” These kinds of responses took us into a deeper conversation about teaching and learning. “Good!” David cheerfully remarked (nice teaching move there, David, positively reinforcing our contributions, however shallow they would come seem in retrospect).
“OK. Let’s pause again and breathe. Take some time to let more teaching dreams enter in. What do you really want your students to learn?” We paused. We pondered. Could we go there? Could we listen to what might arise when we shifted our collective attention from our heads to our hearts?” Then David asked the dreaded question, the very question we pose on a regular basis: “Would anyone like to share what you wrote?” Silence. The tables were turned and we didn’t like the reversal. After a time, we got over ourselves.
“I want my students to learn the material, of course,” one courageous volunteer began. “But what I really want them to learn is self-confidence and optimism. I want them to know that I love to teach because I love them.” Then he sighed and added, “I don’t think I could ever say that in a faculty meeting.”
A physics professor piped up next, “I think about love too in every respect — love of learning, and of creativity, not to mention love of the planet they live on. I want them to bring love and compassion into the work they do in the world and in response to the different people they meet.” Interesting. Nothing about physics. Or everything about physics. I wasn’t sure which.
Looking back on this unorthodox conference session, I now find myself wishing that I had counted the number of times the word “love” was uttered in this gathering of hard-hitting, supremely rational and unapologetically nerdy professors. If I had to guess, it was about 70 percent of the time.
Do our students ever imagine that we love them? Not unlike parental love, our love of our students persists (most of the time) regardless of whether they are acting entitled, not paying attention, taking their opportunities for granted or simply driving us crazy. On our best days and in the grand scheme, we love the material and we love our students.
But so often I overhear conversations between students — do they ever bother to look behind them? — wherein they describe their chosen classes as if their professors were personally out to get them (trust me, we aren’t, though we would like you to do most of the reading). For many undergraduates, it seems, the classroom has become a kind of intellectual soccer field, or battleground, where the goal is to “figure out what the professor wants” and score the winning A. The more I talk to college students, younger kids and parents, the more I realize this “game playing” begins soon after formal education starts.
Often before the age of seven, privileged kids are suffering under the competitive Big Squeeze of expected academic and extra-curricular achievement, just as their parents are confronting a similar Big Squeeze at work. Meanwhile, those families with fewer economic and social advantages are often combatting quite different versions of the Big Squeeze (holding down multiple jobs with no benefits) as they scramble to get into the middle-class, where — if they get there — the looming culture of “hurried children” and “helicopter parents” awaits them. Yikes. What happened?
While it never occurred to me in college that our professors might love us, it also never occurred to me that the classroom was essentially an arena of conflict where we were forced to “play the game” to win over our professors or triumph against our peers. It’s not that we never worried about grades, but the atmosphere was different. Loving learning for the sheer joy of the enterprise was still a common phenomenon. My colleagues across the country report that something in higher education has changed radically in the time between when we went to college and when we started teaching at the university level. My not-terribly-scholarly-response to this state of affairs? Yuck.
I’m not naïve. I know well the requirements to get into medical school or law school. But the academic, social and extra-curricular pressures my students place upon themselves did not dominate my undergraduate experience in the same way. If I played rugby and directed a play in the same semester, I didn’t think it was a crime to get a bunch of B’s.
So what has changed? And why? Is it just The Way Things Are Now? And yet underneath this shift, some things haven’t changed. When I ask my students to pause and think about their lives, many tell me that they don’t really want things to be this way. They want to take a class “just for fun” or maybe cut down on their extra-curricular commitments. They want time to think and permission to think the thoughts that matter to them. They don’t really want “to play the game,” but they’ve been trained to think they have to play it.
I’ll never forget this summer’s nothing-like-an-academic conference. I’ll never forget the level of companionship I felt when I heard other scholars talk about love, while simultaneously confessing that they were afraid to use the term in a faculty meeting. It was enlightening and comforting, disturbing and inspiring. It was a truly spacious conversation about what it means to learn, to teach and to navigate the troubled waters of higher education in America. I want more conversations like these.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer, scholar of religion and senior lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at Middlebury College. She tends — and learns a great deal from— a small flock of sheep in Monkton.

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