The Pronoun "I"

Copyright (c) 2001 by Kenny Felder

Last summer, a friend and I co-taught a course at the University of North Carolina. The name of the course was "Computers and Society," and there were almost no guidelines about what we should teach or how we should teach it. We had free reign with a captive audience of about 20 students.

Every day we assigned a reading on a different computer-related question. Do computers really think, or do they just imitate thought? If you pray and worship over the Internet, does it count? Does the Internet help people connect, or keep them disconnected? Each day, the students handed in a summary of the reading, a reaction to it, and critical questions. And then, there was one question they had to answer each day: How does this article relate to your life?

Now, most of these students were graduating seniors. They knew how to write a summary, a reaction, and so on. But how something relates to their lives? That was new territory for them, and they had no clue what we were after. Most of them gave answers like "I've never tried online worship, so this has nothing to do with my life." No problem, we figured—we'll just explain it to them more carefully. "Online prayer brings up all kinds of questions about the nature of prayer. Is it purely a mental exercise? Does it require physical things like communion wafers? Does it require the physical presence of other people? For that matter, in a religious or non-religious context, what does it mean to commune with other people? Is good conversation enough, or is physical presence required? This article brings up dozens of issues that are very directly relevant to you!" They all nodded. OK, we get it.

But the next day was the same: "I've never tried virtual reality, so this has nothing to do with my life."

Now we were getting pretty frustrated. We talked it over and tried a different tack. "Let's say you watched The Wizard of Oz. And you said, 'OK, this doesn't have to do with my life because I've never been to Kansas and I don't own any ruby slippers.' You missed the whole movie! The whole theme of the movie is that Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion are all off questing for what they already have. What are you off questing for, and do you already have it right at home?" Nod. OK. Nothing.

It took weeks before we started to see what we were looking for. With a lot of sweat and a lot of feedback, things started to turn around. By the end of the course, many of these college students were writing insightful, personal essays. In course evaluations, many of them said they were learning to think and write for the first time.

That was my summer job. In real life, I'm a math and computer science teacher at Raleigh Charter High School. So this year, I started spicing up my classes with exercises very similar to the ones I had used at UNC. The only difference was that, instead of college juniors and seniors, I was now working with 9th-11th graders.

Unlike their older counterparts, the high school students had no problems talking about their own lives. They talked about problems with their parents, their boy and girlfriends, their frustrations with school, their religious beliefs and doubts, their eating disorders and suicide attempts. They instinctively read everything with an eye toward "what does this have to do with my life?" And their writing, although much less polished than I had seen from college students, was clear and honest and often very powerful.

So what happens between high school and the end of college? Somewhere along the line, we are carefully and methodically training students not to relate intellectual ideas to their own lives. I'm not just talking about the occasional "take off three points every time the pronoun I appears in your essay" professor. I'm talking about a systematic approach that says, in every class in every field, "This isn't about you. This class is about Wordsworth, not you. This class is about Freud, not you. Leave your life at the door."

Please don't misunderstand me: I understand the value of being able to look at issues objectively. But if what we call education really has to do with helping people live better lives—if we are doing anything other than vocational training—then we need to go farther than that. We need to train students to take their own life experiences and use them to better understand the world around them. And even more importantly, to use what they learn about Wordsworth and Freud and Einstein and Gandhi to help determine how to live their lives.

And the tragedy is that we are not just failing to teach college students how to do all that. We are systematically wiping out these vital skills that many of them had when they entered college. John Ruskin said that "Education does not mean teaching people to know what they don't know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave." Ruskin died over a century ago, and we still have not gotten his message.


From: Mehakmeet Gill
July 24, 2013

I extend my hearty good wishes to you. It is my first time that I have read any of your articles and found the simplicity and honesty of a school teacher which I am missing in Professors around me.

I strongly agree with you and moreover the conditions are worse in English style Indian education system which uses every weapon to kill the creativity.

But the scenario is changing with the students rising aganst it and to have their share of flight in the boundless skies.

I shall write to you soon.

Thank you for sparing your time.

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