Friday, September 21, 2012

Exceptions to an Unenviable Rule

An Unflattering Portrait

The recent release of Levine and Dean’s Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait
of Today’s Student (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2012) well illustrates my own
concerns for higher education and places them in sharp focus. It describes the
Gen Y cohort in alarming terms:

            Immature, needy, protected and tethered to their parents; hard working
            but prone to confuse quantity of work completed with the quality of the
            product; consumer oriented and entitled.

To their credit, they are also recognized as having accomplished the
embrace of the highly diverse society that is America today with which their Boomer
parents continue to struggle. And they are roundly recognized as the first digital
natives with enormous technological potential while largely using that know-how
thus far to create highly tribalized social circles which shut out the vast majority of the world
around them and often using their beloved technologies in ways that demonstrate
a lack of decorum and a decided weakness in social skills.

This is certainly consistent with the students I encounter today. It is a rather unflattering
portrait and one which provides no small amount of alarm for those of us who will
be elderly and dependent in a society run by Gen Y adults a mere two decades away.
But in order to avoid the same kind of mindless awfulizing I see from undergrads at
consumerist online sites (, it is important to note there that there
are always exceptions to the pattern I often lay out here.

Almost always, these exceptions have names and faces that their teachers remember
long after the anomalous true student leaves their classroom the final time. As I slogged
through last spring’s brutal end of semester blitz with its last minute search committees
and news of my latest rejection in the highly arbitrary games we are forced to play
for even a prayer of badly needed earned raises, my tired spirit and broken
heart was salved by good news from four different students. I hold up their examples
because they provide a badly needed counterpoint to the largely critical portrait I often
paint here.

Three Who Made It

The first came from a young woman I had worked with a couple of years. She was dealing with
enormous personal life constraints which made her academic performance erratic even as it
was punctuated with bursts of brilliance. She had moved away to Texas at one point to
take care of an aging relative and had only recently moved back to Orlando. As spring term
ended, I got a Facebook note from her announcing her graduation. And later in the summer,
I got word that she had landed a job in New York working in a social justice organization.

You cannot imagine how much joy these announcements brought me. Despite all the
“snares of the enemy,” to quote the Book of Common Prayer, this woman had persevered
and succeeded when everything in her life indicated otherwise. And while I was only a small
part of that journey, it does my heart good to know that it had finally come to fruition, at
least for this round.


The second was a young man who had managed to work through a young adult life
of coming to grips with a wide array of health issues, both mental and physical. As a
freshman, he had commented on one of his papers that he simply didn’t want to do
all the work I had assigned his class to which I responded, as I do from time to time
in similar situations, “Are you sure you are ready to be in college at this point in your
life?” That afternoon he came to my office to tell me that he had thought about my
question and decided that the answer was no. And so he was leaving college to work
as a pipe-fitter. And he said, “You know, no one else had the courage to tell me that.”

A year and a half later, I looked up to see him standing in my doorway. “I’m back,” he
said, noting that he had figured out that he was not called to be a pipe fitter and that
he was now married, working part-time and ready to be back in school. I’d see this
young man about every two weeks or so. He’d bound into my office with a new idea
he was working on, wanting to “run it by” me, full of unbounded enthusiasm and the
sheer joy of learning.

In May, he graduated. He invited me to his graduation party with his extended
family. His parents both thanked me for my work with their son. And I have to say,
I was pretty proud to see this young man make it through.  Watching him laugh and
embrace relatives at his well-deserved festivities brought tears to my eyes.
For just a moment, I felt a bit of what a parent must feel in such situations.


The third student was a young man I helped steer through the writing and
defense of an honors thesis. Apparently, he had gotten excited about doing this
as a student of my Philosophy of Law course the previous year. This young man
came to the university with serious writing deficits. But he was bright, highly capable
of thinking on his feet, and had gotten into his head that he wanted to go to
law school. “Sorry, you didn’t talk me out of it,” he smiled.

The defense of his thesis was brutal. After having revised it about four times
prior to the defense, there were so many problems raised at defense that it was
not at all certain he’d pass. Two complete rewrites later, he finally got the last
signature the last day to file his completed document. In all honesty, my
conscience began to bother me toward the end as I felt that perhaps the
final product was as much my own writing as his. But, the ideas were certainly
his (what are the chances I’d ever write a Libertarian thesis?) and eventually
so was the thesis. As a bonus, he announced he’d been admitted to a
law school in San Diego and given full funding his first year.

What I’ve not told you is that he is the first member of his family to graduate high
school, much less attend college. Moreover, his family did not encourage him in the
least, cutting him off financially when he refused to stay home to work in the
family catering business. He worked his way through school and now is headed
to law school. This is a true success story.


Yes, There is Life After Undergraduate!

The final ray of sunshine came from a former student who graduated several years
ago but has kept in touch with me over the years. My lectures in his Humanities course
on the rise of Christianity had shaken him as a freshman and he had come to my office
disturbed at the implications of what I’d just said in class. This began a pattern of visits
over his remaining time at the university where he eventually worked through two
changes of major and finally graduated with a major in religious studies.

This spring he graduated from Duke’s MA in Religious Studies program. His faculty
chose him to represent the class in presenting a closing statement at the commencement
not unlike a valedictorian’s. He is headed toward a certificate program in Latin and
classics at nearby UNC this fall and ultimately has his sights set on a Ph.D. in
early Christian history. He is a fine young man. And I am proud to call him friend and
now my colleague.


The Inestimable Value of Moral Rewards

Doris Santaro, an associate professor of education at Bowdoin College, recently published an article in the American Journal of Education. Its subtitle is telling: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work. Santaro begins with the recognition that most teachers know going into their career that monetary rewards are not the reason most people choose to be educators. But in a healthy society, there are important moral rewards in education, chief of which is the privilege of shaping the future.  Without moral rewards, teaching becomes a soul-draining sentence to a life of hard labor in a prison of bureaucratic strangleholds, woefully inadequate pay and a nearly complete lack of public respect with no hope of parole.

The accomplishments of these students, outstanding human beings in whose lives I have invested some of my own time and life energies, are a beautiful return on that investment. They are a credit to themselves, their families and to society in general. And it is important to quickly add that these four students are only the latest in a limited but respectable list of students I recall stretching back over the past 30 years of my teaching career. Their life stories embody the inestimably valuable moral rewards that Santoro speaks of. They are exceptions to the rule that Levine and Dean lay out above, singular individuals who make educators like me believe that our time and effort has been worthwhile, and that maybe, just maybe, our efforts have made a difference in the world, if ever so slight. Most importantly, they provide a ray of hope that perhaps there are yet more exceptions to the rule to whom we can devote our professional lives before we retire.

And so I salute these four who got away, success stories from a system of higher education seemingly intent upon devolving into mediocrity.  Thank you for the gifts you have been in my life and for those you are about to offer a world which badly needs what you bring to it, whether it
recognizes it or not.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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