Moving toward willingness

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

As classes began this week, everyone had the experience of meeting someone with whom they have never before had a class. These people make up one of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the syllabus week experience, as they break the monotony of cliques, friend groups and isolation that is so common at this university. Putting aside the improbability of having never seen them before, we converse about our reviews of other classes, the amount of reading assigned by our newest professor and the stark realization that no matter our effort, we will all still get Bs.

Sometimes these conversations are spurred on by professors—the SAGES instructor who asks you to “define SAGES in three words,” for example. Or perhaps information just spills out while introducing yourself. “Hi, I’m Andrew and I spent my break reading because I’m writing a capstone this semester.” In some exceedingly rare cases though, these conversations begin between two students.

This week, in one such conversation, I was told by a student, “In one of my SAGES classes, everyone complained about the reading. There wasn’t even a lot of it. People just didn’t want to read. In class, everyone would play along and answer questions after not reading the books. But after the class, everyone complained.” Of course, the class being referred to was a SAGES First Seminar. And I, knowing the professor and course, understand that it might, in some interpretations, be a stark and quick introduction to the increased workload of college. Nevertheless, I question if those students understand what coming to a university means. I have to question their resolve, their goals and their sense of learning.

Now, I cannot begin to say that I have never complained about readings. Regular readers of this column will remember a much talked about piece written earlier this year, that did exactly that. However, the difference is in lamenting the amount of reading as compared to whining about the task of reading. Simply put, one can complain about reading while remaining willing to read. These students, it is apparent, were not even that.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with education. Previously in this space, I have written about the lack of any real education on this campus. I have alleged that a real college education would force us (permit us) to read the greatest books in history. Through this knowledge, we gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in and are better equipped to tackle the challenges ahead. It is no coincidence, for example, that George Santayana’s quote expressing the same has become clichéd. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And to these assertions I still stand. A real university, responsible for creating not workers but thinkers, the leaders of our generation, would insist on an education not only in marketable skills and job preparation, but in knowledge and the ability to vocalize one’s own opinion, based on fact, philosophy and works of our forefathers.

But that goal is apparent utopianism. Will the student unwilling to read “Antigone” be able to grasp the deeper argument in Aristotle’s “Ethics” or Plato’s “Republic?” Will they even be willing to try?

And thus the naysayers begin. They will argue that I am unsympathetic to the strife of the engineer or chemist. They will say that my grandiose idea of a liberal education is inapplicable in the modern world. But they would be patently wrong. In a recent survey by Georgetown University, the unemployment rate for recent humanities majors was 9 percent, almost equal to that of computer science and math at 9.1 percent. Remember that humanities majors specialize in reading old books, while the latter category is supposed to be one of the hottest fields.

That last sentence is only partially sarcastic. When you factor in underemployment, the humanities are in a better situation than biology, economics, anthropology and business majors. The latter have a nearly 10 percent likelihood to be underemployed. And recently, CEOs and upper management from Google, IBM, Verizon and Logitech have spoken about the advantages of a humanities education. They cite that students with a background in books and classical learning can write, read and speak more efficiently, making them better candidates for management positions.

Remarkably, the value of the liberal arts education is apparent. The only people who fail to realize this, are the students themselves. And that is where the college comes in. A report released earlier this year by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences stated, “At a time when economic anxiety is driving the public toward a narrow concept of education focused on short-term payoffs, it is imperative that colleges, universities and their supporters make a clear and convincing case for the value of Liberal Arts Education.”

And beyond this, it’s time students themselves should become willing to explore new frontiers and embrace the readings and knowledge they are presented in the classroom. No longer should the mentality toward education be one of disgust and resentment. Instead, students should value the opportunity to experience everything, and be willing and eager to explore new horizons. Class shouldn’t begin with complaints, but rather with the catchphrase of everyone’s favorite television president, an eager “What’s next?”

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, Vice President of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and former Chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.