When I was a sophomore at Wheaton, I took a class on literary and critical theory, aptly named “Approaches to Literature,” with Paula Krebs. Toward the end of the course, after having attempted to master reader response, deconstruction and postcolonial criticism as lenses though which to read a book, Professor Krebs made the comment that learning how to apply these theories was “an arduous pleasure.” This notion—one that has always resonated with me—has now woven itself inextricably into my educational creed.
Since graduating with the Class of 2005 as an English literature major, I have gone on to teach seventh-grade English in an inner-city school; teach at the high school level in independent boarding schools; and lead outdoor education trips for disadvantaged youths. I have learned myriad lessons and gained insights from all of my experiences, and have appreciated all of them for what they were—opportunities for intellectual and personal growth, not as a means to an end.
The rising costs of higher education and the struggles that recent college graduates are facing regarding paying back student loans in such a tough economy have subjected liberal arts schools to an onslaught of cynicism. Some students that I’ve encountered have questioned whether it is worth it to attend a four-year college, and there is a growing expectation of an instantaneous, tangible reward that does not always come; the reward is the way schools like Wheaton cultivate ways of thinking.
As a teacher, I find that the hardest part of planning my lessons is coming up with a singular learning objective. As a student of educational theory, I understand the importance of connecting each lesson to larger curriculum goals, but it always seems so restricting. It almost trains students to relate all of the work done in class to an explicit rationale when there doesn’t always have to be one. I am a fan of a good tangent—”teachable moments.”
During the first week of my creative writing course at a prestigious boarding school, I overheard a student say that she could not wait to be published—her father had a “great connection at Scribner.”
“Well, nothing really. I just can’t wait!”
I went on to tell her about Hemingway’s success through Scribner and rattled off his quote about writing being the hardest thing he had ever done.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of practice,” I told her. “Start thinking about what you’re passionate about—what you know—and start there. That’s what we’re all going to do together in this class.”
I grew up being warned about the inherent danger in not appreciating the journey, but the warning seems even more culturally relevant now. In today’s globalized, hyper-connected and transparent society, there is even more pressure on students to succeed, to earn and to impress.
Granted, no one would be thrilled by the prospect of accruing student debt and then not having a job. But, I often tell my more skeptical students that they are asking the wrong questions. Instead of searching for immediate transference (“Will this be on the test?”), they must learn—the way I was taught at Wheaton—to ask more of themselves in terms of critical thinking (“How can I use this information to add depth and breadth to my experiences?).
Accordingly, the question shouldn’t be, what kind of job will this lead to? Instead, students, parents and the public in general should be asking how they can best interact with reality and be present. Perhaps it is my own nostalgia for spring afternoons spent lying in the Dimple and having to read great books, for letting it be my job to formulate, discuss and examine my ideas and opinions, that lead me back to this realization: Even after life as a student at Wheaton and even after graduate school, even after landing the dream job, it is so important to continue to develop intellectually in everyday life—a prize in and of itself.
Sarah E. Weeks ’05 has a master’s degree in teaching from Pace University in New York City. She currently is teaching 10th and 11th grade English at an international boarding school in Tarrytown, N.Y.