Friday, September 2, 2011

Why and How and the Fear Factor

A student wrote to his freshman comp class on the fourth day of their first semester:  "I think that most of the students just are scared because this class is not like any other English we have ever taken. It always makes people more comfortable to know where they are going and why. For most this is their first semester in college and this class can be great.  We just need to know why and how."

Fair enough.

Because there's a conversation that's been going on for many thousands of years involving the leaders of human communities and you need to learn how to participate in that conversation.  You've learned the basics that we teach our children.  We need you to step up and take our places because all the wisdom and all the problems we inherited are soon to be yours.  And it is exceedingly complicated.  There's no point in pretending it's not.  And there's no one else to pass it on to.  You're up!

You've got the language basics--I know because you passed the State of Texas entrance exam!  But you now need to be introduced into the various conversations so you have some idea what to write about. 
We start with the grounds for the discussion, which this semester turns out to be Ronald Reagan's address to the evangelicals.  Who was he?  Who were they?  How is this conversation relevant today?  What's the history behind it?  What are the psychological motivations in play?  And, most importantly, how do you enter this ancient discussion without feeling like a fool?

On being scared:
That's very normal.  Until you understand what's going on around you, you'll feel like a total stranger, if not a total idiot.  The most dangerous thing you can do, in this class or any other, is to miss any part of the conversation.  Once you lose the fox, so to speak, it's really hard to work your way in.  I'm here to be your guide, but I make every class period count and I set up online discussions so that we can practice writing to the conversation in between.  The ones who will make it will make it happen because they'll stick with it.  The ones who don't will get to come back--one of the uniquely great things about American higher education. 

So stick with it!
You're going to grow old and die, like me and my father and his fathers before him.  While you are here on earth, you can either become part of the tradition of thinking people who shape the world, or not.  Time's gonna pass anyway.  Do what you will, but if you want to succeed in college and in life, show up and do the work.  The rest will follow from what and how you do it.

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