(with apologies to Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, authors of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young)
Many of us (I suspect most of us) were nerds when we were young students, or we at least shaded well into the fringes of nerdiness. We studied, we memorized, we solved quadratic equations in our heads while waiting for buses, or recited as much Shakespeare as we could recall. We got excited by the sheer arcaneness of things. We were on the road to a life in academia long before we even grew aware of the track beneath our feet. And the folks who were most willing to put up with us were probably nerds as well. That is, most of us spent much of our time in those days in the company of people who were busy imagining their Nobel addresses or memorizing the score of Parsifal. These were students who read for fun, who remembered what they read, and who were eager to talk about it.
Why do I summon up this remote and vaguely uncomfortable history? Because I find myself bemused when I hear colleagues talking about what it was like back when they were students. “Well, when I was in college, we….” Or, “When we were students, we were so much more….” You’ve heard these raps, I’m sure. They’re like all stories of a vanished golden age, when life was so much tougher and as a consequence everyone was imbued with so much more virtue. Today’s students, unlike those of generations past, we’re told, don’t do the reading, don’t want to discuss, aren’t interested in the ideas, etc., ad nauseam.
Over the years I’ve developed an almost reflex response when I hear this plaint: “You’re a college professor,” I say. “By definition you were a nerd when you were a student. And you hung out with other nerds who were likely to become college professors. In fact, you have little if any idea what normal students were like back in your own student days. You’re judging a population of contemporary students against a highly skewed sample of students from a largely-imagined past. Students in the old days were, on average, no better nor worse than today’s students.”
“Accept the fact,” I say, “that you’re in no position to evaluate the general caliber of the students in today’s classes based on your own past experiences. And then acknowledge that you haven’t really been sentenced to a life in exile among the barbarians. The reason you excelled as an undergrad, and got good enough grades to get into grad school, is precisely because so many of those around you weren’t really concerned with whether they excelled or not. They simply wanted the basics of an education. You’re only here today because of their beneficence.”
I’m exaggerating, of course, to make a point. But not by a lot. Think about it. And lighten up a little.
(Glenn’s caveat: I’m writing this for new teachers, folks still struggling to find their way in the classroom, not for seasoned professionals, though the old salts among you are welcome to it.)