Wednesday, May 07, 2014

In Praise of Bright Young Scholars

Last Saturday Andy and I attended a graduation of the UCF College of Sciences. We had been invited by a young man I have come to know, admire and love over the past four years. It was a real honor to be there to honor him and to attend a wonderful after graduation luncheon his parents provided him at the Café Tu Tu Tango.

I knew almost from the very beginning that this kid was not an ordinary student. I met him four years ago in an honors Humanities course he took along with 17 other students. On the first presentation of his group, this young man stepped up and presented his portion of the group’s presentation with a thoughtful lecture on his assigned material. “Damn,” I thought, “This kid could teach this class. I guess I can just go home now.”

Of course, I learned a long time ago that I would encounter students who were smarter than I am and that it was OK. In many ways they are a gift to a real teacher. They keep us on our toes, call us on our bullshit, provoke us to think further about what we already know and sometimes become our colleagues and friends. They are invaluable resources in exposing us to ideas, thinkers, creators and new ways of seeing things we already knew.

But they don’t know everything worth knowing and that is where we teachers come in. With some brilliant young scholars, the teacher has an opportunity to point them in directions they might not know exist, to expose them to ideas and their authors, expressions and their creators, of which they are unaware. True teachers have the responsibility of asking the tough questions: Why would that be true? What other ways of seeing this might exist? What in your own life might prompt you to understand things this way?

Perhaps most importantly, the teacher has the opportunity, when permitted, to offer the wisdom of their life experience and to encourage the scholar in their quest to become fully educated human beings on their own terms. Often that encouragement focuses on believing in themselves, trusting the small still voice and discerning and living into what their lives are actually calling them to become amid the cacophony of parental projections and peer pressures to become what perhaps well-intentioned significant others think they should.

This one had not drunk the kool-aid

It is the rare student that teachers encounter these days who is truly excited about learning. Most of this young man’s classmates have long since drunk the kool-aid of consumerism which constructs college instrumentally as a necessary evil, a mere means to one’s assigned space as an obedient, unquestioning, minimally trained worker drone in the business world. Not this kid. Majoring in both chemistry and the humanities, his B in exactly one class in each of those different disciplines in two different colleges speaks to his dedication to his classes. This was a student who simply could not get enough education.

But grades and honors don’t reflect things that often get lost in higher education these days, things like the joy of learning, the excitement of encountering new ideas, the camaraderie of classmates and friends. It was a rare treasure to watch this young man wend his way through four years of college filled with honors research in chemistry, classes in swing dancing, study abroad in China and creating online sites for humanities public scholarship programs. It was a joy to hear this young man gladly and generously offering sage advice to classmates piled up on the floor in the hall outside my office waiting their turn at academic advising. This was a kid who invested heart and soul into the process of becoming an educated human being and in turn offered the gift of his enthusiasm for that process to others.

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer any student is my own willingness to listen carefully to what they are saying, to seek counsel from them, to bounce off ideas and proposals. Over the many office hours in which this young man sought me out, it was I who more often proved the beneficiary of those encounters, learning from his experience, seeing the role of being a student in 2014 through his lenses, considering his understandings of the world we shared and the larger world around us. I am a better person and a better teacher for that experience. As such, I am in this young scholar’s debt.

Not all homeschooled kids are alike

One of the unexpected things this bright young star has taught me is that home schooled kids are not necessarily all cut from the same bolt of cloth. Studies tell us that the majority of students who are homeschooled are raised within parental protective bubbles to avoid encountering ideas and their proponents that run afoul of the parent’s brittle religious and political constructs. However, some, like this young man, are pulled out of school by concerned parents who recognize the dangers that bright, kind-hearted kids like this one face from bullying in public schools which often provide the very model of the use of coercive power that bullying embodies, a coercive power that dominates every aspect of school life from the administrative suites right down to the locker rooms.  

Home schooling often instills narrowly defined brittle worldviews, egocentric self-understandings marked by unreasonable senses of entitlement and underdeveloped social skills. These perhaps unintended byproducts of homeschooling often provide a major uphill learning curve for such students once they leave their parental cocoons. I have seen more than one homeschooled kid crash and burn in the halls of academia where critical thinking is demanded and few share the tribal understandings that inside the cocoons were seen as common sense.

For this young man, his four years spent under the tutelage of a father with a masters in philosophy produced an insatiable curiosity about the world, a willingness to engage a wide range of human beings at college and a healthy self-confidence that allowed him to take his lumps along the way and bounce right back each time. I think both of his parents deserve a lot of credit here. I am in their debt for the example of their son whose experience has required me to see the variability of home schooling and its results.

Marking the end of a life chapter

As this bright young scholar completes his time at this university, he is headed for much greener (and no doubt, much more demanding) pastures at the University of Florida which has awarded him a free ride and a stipend in their Anthropology doctoral program.  I was delighted that he chose to attend one of my alma maters and I have no doubt he will be well liked and respected at UF. I do not doubt that I will be reading about his accomplishments one day. That I was able to play a small role in that success has been a wonderful privilege.

I also have to admit that I felt an almost parental pride as I watched this young man walk across the stage Saturday, even shouting his praises like one of the thousands of screaming banshees around me. I felt my eyes tearing up as I watched him shake hands with his dean and the university president.

“My baby is leaving,” I thought.

Indeed, in many ways, his departure marks the end of a major phase of my life. In my current assignment I work almost exclusively online. I rarely meet any of those seeking credit on the other end of our tenuous internet connection and thus simply don’t know them in any meaningful way. That reality is both a sorrow to this extraverted feeling type who still upon occasion wants to save the world one student at a time as well as a relief for this very tired and demoralized teacher who once loved his profession but now recognizes that what he offers the university and its consumers is no longer really valued.

I don’t know how soon this current chapter of my life will close the book on my life in academia altogether. But I do know that one of the brightest chapters in that book will have been written by this bright young scholar who has graced my life this past four years. Teachers largely do not seek material rewards for their often undervalued and almost always poorly paid labor. It is the moral reward of knowing, teaching and often loving the students we are privileged to serve that makes our labors worthwhile. And while such payoffs are less and less expectable these days, in the case of my work with this young scholar, I have been richly rewarded, indeed.

I will not embarrass him by naming him here but those who know me and know him will immediately know who I am talking about.  And while I also will not name them, I should hasten to add here that he is hardly the only bright young scholar to grace my life over my 28 years of college teaching. There have been many. You know who you are. And I hope you know how grateful I am for having known you.

Thoreau said, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” It’s good advice. But as you go, my bright young scholar, know that you have changed my life immensely and for the better. And for all that you have been, all you are and all the good you will do in the world hereafter, I am deeply grateful.

G-dspeed, young scholar.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Regional Campus
University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very inspiring analysis of a homeschooled young scholar who was a delight to teach and to learn from.It is nice to know that your long career has rewarded you with at least one real gem of a scholar under your tutelage in an especially trying period of higher education in Florida. I had three such high school teachers and at least one college professor who stand out above all others. It is a rewarding experience for both the young scholar and the educator when this happens. Congratulations.