I am a teacher because I love being a part of an intellectual community – one that includes a diverse body of colleagues and students who challenge me to explore and rethink literature. I enjoy being a part of a community of storytellers and readers, a community that searches for more than superficial meaning, a community that engages with the questions of the ages: What does this mean? What are the implications? Why should we care?
This last question – Why should we care? – has been on the minds of the American public for decades in regard to the Humanities and the benefits of a liberal arts education. The answer, however, is simple. Like it or not, the world depends upon the interactions of multifarious disciplines in order to produce both good work and meaning. This thesis applies to the STEM and Humanities fields alike. Web designers rely on logic, math, art, and writing skills to make a website. Scientists create narratives to explain why animals, or cells, or viruses behave the way they do. Engineers imagine how a building will be used before they start to build it. Mistakes are made, certainly, but if a professional person has been given the tools of a liberal arts education, then he or she can think in meaningful ways about how to anticipate problems before they happen. Failing that, the liberally educated can find ways to solve problems once they occur. Those who are liberally educated have the knowledge of precedence behind them (History). They can read between the lines and do research to find answers (Literary Analysis). They can see meaningful ways to resolve conflicts for the betterment of our entire society (Philosophy and Political Science). More importantly, liberally educated citizens think about our entire society, rather than being solely focused on themselves.
That said, a liberal arts education is not always perfect and does not change everyone who walks in its path. Not all students are even ready for the challenges presented by the liberal arts when they are in college. However, as David Foster Wallace said in his commencement speech at Kenyon College, the self-awareness one gains from a liberal arts education can be life changing. It’s possible that the light bulb of true self-awareness might not come on for a student until he or she is well beyond college. However, my duty as an educator is to give students the tools to understand that self-awareness matters. I do not believe that I am the only person capable of turning that light bulb on. I do, however, think that I am a valuable member of a discourse community that peddles light bulbs for our trade. I show students the questions that writers have been contemplating since the advent of cuneiform. I ask them the very questions that have been most essential to human beings since we were brought into being. I tell them that I do not know all of the answers, but that I love to struggle with the questions. I challenge them to struggle – always – and never to become complacent and overly confident. Acknowledging that failure is always a possibility means that you know the risks you are taking in life, and it means that the work you do will never be frivolous.
If, indeed, we only live once, I would say that what’s important is not so much to seize the day, but to seize the meaning. The overall meaning. When I teach, I continually re-interrogate my own interpretations and challenge myself to discern what something means. The result is that I do not have a ready answer all the time. Instead, I reject rigid adherence to answers that have become so well-received that they revert to cliché. My task as a teacher is always to think again, and my students will attest to the fact that I challenge them to rethink their interpretations, beliefs, and values, too. Only through real questioning can we reach a state of understanding, which has wide-reaching implications for everything we do as human beings.
I am humble enough to know that I will not convert every student into an individual who seeks meaning in every aspect of his or her life. However, the success I have had is why I’m a teacher. That success gives my life meaning, and meaning is something we just don’t talk enough about in America. We talk about the future, jobs, earning potential, and pragmatic economics, but we don’t talk enough about the soul. We feel, maybe, a little embarrassed to still have a soul when what society tells us we should be focused on is fulfilling the material aspects of the American Dream. I find this obsession with money to be quite opposite to the fulfillment of dreams. To me, “dreams” are fulfilled through the satisfaction of a job well done, regardless of personal gain. There is more of a personal, emotional fulfillment in doing what you do because it helps and engages others, than there is working hard just for money.
I belong in a community of learners, and as the head of the class, I am one of many on a quest to keep learning, knowing that the work worth doing is not teleologically, or financially, driven. Instead, as a teacher – and a learner – my life is about journeying through knowledge. And as Chaucer showed in The Canterbury Tales, a journey is passed best with companions and good stories. My companions are my students and colleagues, and the good stories are our wealth of literary inheritance. I am privileged to take part in such a voyage.