Saturday, December 06, 2008

Oh very young, Part 2

What is a university? The idealist in me wants to say that it's a place of learning where, insulated from the material concerns of the world, one lays one's philosophical grounding and sets one's direction; that it is in university that one asks the question Why. The cynic, on the other hand, whispers that it's a four-year speed bump on the entrance ramp to the freeway known as the rat race; at best you learn the How (and sometimes not even that.)

The reality, as with most other human endeavors, is that you only get as much out of it as you're willing to put in. That's why some of the best universities can still manage to put out some stinkers, and some of the worst can still manage to eke out a few winners. University life offers a lot of leeway to make out of it what you will, bureaucracy and bad teachers notwithstanding.

But what if you enter the university defeated even before you begin?

Story #3. I surveyed my AB English class as to what prompted them to take that particular program. I was hoping to find glimmers of inspiration, that they were attracted by this work of literature, or that. What did I get?

"...because I wasn't any good at Math. Or Science..."

"...I would have taken up _______, but I got scared off by a subject in Taxation..."

"...I would have gone into _______, but there were two semesters of Accounting..."

With these answers, I truly felt sad. It's a sign of my old age but I had to go off into a brief sermon. I reminded them that they shouldn't let this negativity drive their lives. Eventually they'll box themselves into an unhappy corner existence. Goals should be positive -- "I want to be a _________" instead of simply "I'm not good enough to be _______ or _______."

Just how do you manage to squeeze out all the joy and enthusiasm out of these young souls? It's a process as completely unnatural as it is criminal. As children we start out with an innate curiosity; we burst with possibility; so how do you get from that to this? When do doubt and disillusionment creep in?

By the time our students enter college or university, the damage has already been done. It's nothing new, of course; how many generations have passed through university halls in the same haze of dismal aimlessness, frightfully uncertain of life? Is this part of the heritage of smallness that Nick Joaquin decried?

Yet pity the young man and woman of today, with all its inescapable influences. It's in the expectations, it's in the environment, it's in society's hallmarks of success. After graduation, we expect them to be economically productive. Fulfillment is to be found in the latest gadget and the most exotic vacation. Success is glamor, money, and the largest following on a social network. Get it all, and get it as quickly as you can. For goals such as these, a four-year university education is irrelevant and extraneous.

Is this damage reversible? I hope so. Part of the youth's strength comes from resiliency. Eventually these young men and women will find their feet and set their own directions; or at the very least, find their own niche in the world.

It's that hope that colors my own decision to return to teaching. I hope that these students will realize that self-worth isn't tied to economics; that there's fulfillment beyond lifestyle; and that success is something they'll have to define for themselves.

Too idealistic? Well, hope can only live in idealism, never in cynicism.