I grew up in a house full of people who, I now realise, are fascinating. My family, immediate and extended, are all well-read, well-educated (self- or traditionally-) and never lacking in thoughts or opinions. As a child, this embarrassed me. We lived in a small town where people didn’t read something just because it looked interesting, and they didn’t cook Indian food. At the dinner table, they didn’t have arguments which reached decibels equivalent to those of an airplane engine which then were ended by looking up a term in the dictionary (or, perhaps, several dictionaries, ’cause you never knew when a dictionary had turned against you).
When I get a new student, the first thing I want to know is what interests them. I always start with the basics: what classes, what subjects, what books do they like? Sometimes I get a response, but more often I just get a shrug. When I ask what they would like to go into in university, they frequently don’t know, but they know they’re going to university.
This still floors me. If you ask any member of my family what they like, you’ve just set yourself up for an hour-long soliloquy. While some of us don’t know precisely what job we want, we know our interests; we discuss them passionately.
My students don’t generally have a lot of passion for anything. Or, rather, they do, but it takes a long time to draw it out of them. It’s not a secret, they just aren’t accustomed to discussing their reasons for living. When I finally get something out of them, most of the academic problems are solved, because they now have something to read and write about. A five-paragraph essay on Romeo and Juliet may kill them, but eight paragraphs on automechanics is a breeze. Reading a book on the history of automechanics is fun. Comparing and contrasting brake pads isn’t work.
Once the student learns to be passionate about their education, though, I always need to ruin it. Constantly, there is this frustration lurking in the background: once the student can read and write about a subject they love, they will have to read and write about a subject which bores them. None of my students are from the alternative education system. Each and every one of them has to go to a public or Catholic school, read books which don’t interest them, talk about the books which don’t interest them, and write essays about the books which don’t interest them. There isn’t a time in their schooling when they can read and write about their own passions. There isn’t really a time in their schooling when they can enjoy learning.
It is unfortunate – isn’t it, Mr. Clemens? – that their schooling must interfere with their education, and their passions.