JULY POST: LEARNING TOGETHER AS WE GO

In the late 1960’s, not much older than my students at Central Michigan University, I was part of the student-driven anti-war movement — the rallies, the marches, even the take-over of certain buildings. Then in class we’d sit in a large circle and talk about what was going on, sometimes connect our thoughts to the thoughts of previous radical times, to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, John Brown and Henry David Thoreau, Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine.

We were learning together as we went. From the past. From each other. Those were intensive discussions, often held outside, weather permitting, and sometimes they were fiery in their different points of view. I was married at the time, or possibly there would have bloomed a couple of those “make love, not war” romances that were happening all around me.

But before I could say Jack Robinson (an expression of those days), the rambunctious, idealistic 60’s and 70’s had hunkered down into the more practical minded 80’s. Good jobs were becoming more scarce. Business and accounting majors were on the rise; literature/history/sociology majors were starting their long decline that has lasted into today.

And throw this in: every fall, my new students stayed the same age, while I was a year older, until bit by bit there it was, the full blown generation gap. I was a father figure, with a 60’s/70’s mindset as foreign to them as the new 80’s/90’s mentality – call it the dawning of the information age — was foreign to me. It was like we’d grown up in different countries.

In what seems like a blink of an eye (a couple more decades), now there’s a double generation gap. I’m a grandfather figure still voicing a 70’s perspective in a United States that is still provoking bully foreign wars no more honorable than was the Vietnam War, but with barely a whisper of protest on college campuses. Meanwhile I struggle to keep my nose above water in the computerized world that my students and younger colleagues float comfortably within.

There’s always some new online function that’s hard for me to understand. Next year I’ll be required to put my syllabi and grades on Blackboard — one more thing to figure out, which I’m convinced will be no improvement over the old-fashioned roll book. How sad is the morning where my one pleasure has been some little piece of technology that has worked right.

From a 70’s world view, the relationship between the teacher and students is the center piece of the education experience. That’s what leaves a mark. In the information age, most students prefer on-line classes when they have a choice. Nonetheless, like a Luddite plowing a field with horses, there am I, still face to face, still teaching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” for example, like it matters more than ever, and snapping at my students if I see them looking at their phones.

“Society never advances,” Emerson says. “It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other… For every new thing that is given something is taken…. The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet…. He has a fine Geneva watch, but fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it the man in the street does not know a star in the sky…. His notebooks impair his memory; the insurance office increases the number of accidents,…”

This is one of Emerson’s foundational points: there is no such thing as societal progress. Update Emerson from watches and almanacs to automobiles, airplanes, computers, computer warfare, Face book, smart bombs, medicine, you name it, it’s pretty easy to see that everything we raise up as societal or technological advances casts a long shadow. The automobile culture has not only weakened our legs, it has poisoned the air, enraged us with traffic jams, broken our hearts with highway carnage. No. The automobile has not been a clear cut advance in the quality of our lives.

Our love affair with the internet, smartphone, everything mentioned on the above list, have similar ugly sides.
As for political progress, forget it. Our precious so-called democracy has turned out to be nothing more than aristocracy wearing a mask. Right now three American individuals have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the population combined. The richest 0.1 percent has more wealth than the “poorest” 90 percent. To be sure, those one-in-a-thousand are power wielding aristocrats, like the Koch brothers, and not to be crossed, any more than earls, dukes, kings could be stood up to in olden days, without nasty consequences. We’re no closer to liberty and justice for all than we ever were.

In the face of all of the brainwashing to the contrary, now and then, but not yet often, my better students are at least willing to engage the possibility that we’re passengers on a runaway train. The population explosion from one billion in Emerson’s day to nearly eight billion today is simply growth gone berserk, not unlike cancer. America electing a rich buffoon, a Twitter freak, as president feels like a punch in the gut. The monstrous school debt that students are accumulating is another bad sign. The opioid/crisis, the school shootings. It’s one bad sign after another.
. . .

It’s just as well, the Blackboard thing. My current roll book is out of pages, and I doubt they sell roll books anymore. Last time I needed one, say, five years ago, I had to look all over hell. I can make this adjustment.

Unless you’re Amish, or something like that, you get dragged into modernity. I was well into my forties before I had a credit card. Paying cash seemed the smart way to live. But one summer I was driving to Mexico, and at the border Mexican customs wouldn’t allow me into the country without my paying a car registration fee via a credit card. So I parked my car in a Lerado storage garage and caught a bus for San Blas. No big deal, except that I had to leave my fishing gear behind.

When I got back home, I applied for a credit card. It’s a common story with many variations. Until two years ago, I didn’t have internet in my home; but the day came that I could no longer do my job (i.e., keep my job) without it. And I still have some things to say. In the classroom. Through the vehicle of a literature text book. Just as I have reasons to drive my car into Mexico now and then.

Even if the challenge to bridge the ever widening gap between my perspectives and young people’s perspectives grows bigger; even if young persons who resist the overreach of technology have become almost extinct; even if smart phones have become like parts of their bodies, a hand, an elbow, with whom else am I going to work? Martians?

Pretend you’re teaching in a reform school, I sometimes tell myself. I’ve had classes with as many as six recovering opioid or heroin addicts. They weren’t great readers, but humbled and scared by the dead-ends they had reached, they were generally interested. And interesting.

It’s the screen addict that I more worry about. Last semester I had one student who spent a lot of time in the hallway lounge areas. I’d walk past him six or seven times a day, and never once when he wasn’t looking into his phone. When he came to the all-school play “The Glass Menagerie” — which I directed and for which attendance was required — he was accompanied by his mother. I said hello to him by name, and his mother looked at me curiously (as I did her), enough to make me think that he had talked to her about me some, maybe told her that I go a little nuts if somebody’s checking his phone during class.

I see a sad future for this young man. He must hunger for a vital, first-hand life as we all do. He must suspect what a deterrent to a smart life his smart phone has become. On some terrified but hidden level, he must know how alone he is. But isn’t he just a more aggravated case of what is happening to his peers? Don’t they kind of know it too: that they’ve gotten hooked on communication devices that end up as instruments of alienation? And don’t they need teachers who know this as well.

Don’t give up yet, a little voice in my head sometimes whispers.

In that same class, after one of my asides about how human activity has aged the planet more in the last two hundred years than in the previous two hundred thousand years, another typically quiet student blurted out that I was making too big a deal about it. I cocked my head with interest as to how he’d back that up.

“We’ll colonize outer space,” he said. “It’s in the works. We’re already preparing to live on Mars.”

“How will we breathe, stay warm?” I asked.

“Space stations.”

“And food? We’ll rocket that in, I suppose?”

Neither of us had anything more to offer to that conversation. How surprised I was later to see that he had written a first-rate final exam. And at the bottom of it he’d left a personal note to the effect that he had enjoyed our class discussions.

3 Comments

  1. Mireya Mudd

    Hi Jim
    Enjoyed your writing. Always profound and tells us a lot about life. I agreed there us a sense of disconnect in theses new generations. That’s why I felt I needed to retire as a teacher. Students don’t want to engage in class anymore and mb mainly is because they prefer to be on line as much as they can.
    Very good article. Keep writing.

    Reply
  2. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

    Hi Debbie, always great to hear from you. It’s amazing how important Emerson has become to me. He’s my bedside reading. (Talk about being old-fashioned. But I remember Jung saying that the truly modern will appear old-fashioned to others…. He said this in one of the essays in “Modern Man in Search of a Soul.)

    Reply
  3. Deborah Thompson

    I’m sure he will miss it, Jim. Keep doing what you’re doing, please. You are getting through to these kids, even though it may seem you’re not. By the way, I love the Emerson quotes. Thank you.
    Debbie Thompson

    Reply

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