Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hedonism—or What’s the Alternative?

John Gardner

For any thinking consumer of world news, let alone the domestic front news, it seems to me that there is very little that we can count on. The once exalted credit rating of the US downgraded. The failure of US foreign policy throughout the Middle East. The Euro based economy about to collapse.  US Republicans pursuing financially disastrous fiscal policies. Hundreds of points up or down each day on the Dow Jones. Instability everywhere.  What is a college student to think about this? Or, is a college student to think about this? For those that do, what are choices?
The future certainly doesn’t look good even for some of the very best educated. The old certainties in vocational choice (e.g. the security of public service sector jobs with their public sector pensions) are no longer certain. So what is a thoughtful college student to do? Just keep plugging along and hope for the best? Work even harder to leverage the odds of eventually rising to the very top? Job prospects look terrible after getting a bachelors? So just keep on going and get a graduate degree? Or, how about an alternative?
How about abandoning obsessive work and worry and just party on the Titanic? How about the pursuit of hedonism? I predict that we are going to see many more students taking this route. Moreover, I certainly wouldn’t blame them. I wonder what I would do if I were just starting, or finishing, undergraduate school.
When I was in college, there was the draft followed by the Vietnam build up.  There was also the Civil Rights movement, the anti-poverty movement, the women’s movement, the students’ rights movement, and young people my age were volunteering for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and the Peace Corps. I eventually volunteered for the Air Force. I never considered the hedonistic route, and I don’t regret that now. But, I certainly wouldn’t question students who do choose hedonism today. Just as I don’t question students who keep the faith, push on, stay on track, and volunteer for all sorts of things now to try to continue the improvement of our country. But, mark my words, literally, this year will see the higher ed press with lots more reportage on hedonistic behaviors on the campus.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Here’s A Goal for You: Make it ‘til your 50th

John N. Gardner

No, I don’t mean 50th as in years old, I mean your 50th high school reunion, which I just participated in. And for the sake of this piece, I could substitute 50th college reunion too, which I look forward to in four more years.
I have a close friend from college who when I told him I was going to my 50th high school reunion and asked him about his, he immediately gave me reasons why he was not going (in contrast to me): only had two people he wanted to see and one was an ex-girlfriend that he didn’t want his wife to know about and he wouldn’t go without his wife, and just in general didn’t want to revisit that high school period of his development. Well, on the reunion I just completed, with my most recent and last wife in attendance with me, I met two women whom I dated at least once—I remember this, reminded them of it, and both feigned total non awareness of the event. This was not very affirming! I guess that was the kind of interaction that my friend wanted to avoid. But, in contrast, I really believe in participating in life marker events. I have done this faithfully as an adult as I pass through my own life and I have always recommended this to my students.
In fact, I view college as being full of “college life marker” events, which my wife likes to call “critical junctures”. There are so many points when we could and should stop our students and ask them to reflect: where are they now; how did they get there; how does this point compare with another that might be comparable; and where do they go next. And especially: what have they learned from these markers that they can apply to future ones they want to achieve?
But this 50th, now let me tell you reader, this is a big one. You won’t get another one of these. And it is a great opportunity for reflection. In previous reunions (I have attended every 10 year high school anniversary, and every five year college graduation anniversary), I have always been interested in comparing maturation levels by gender. For a number of reunions, I felt the women were still more mature than we men. Not this time. We men had finally achieved equality.
And I would compare the ravages of mother time on our bodies. And until this one, I always thought that life had been kinder to the women. Not any more. Now I think we are both equal. My wife pointed out to me two women “who had had some work done”.  But no men. She also pointed out to me two men who had “significantly younger looking wives”. But we didn’t note that about any women.
What I especially liked about this one was that the life jury was just about in. We pretty well know what our lives have amounted to, what mattered, what didn’t. There are relatively few surprises and developments left in store for us, at least not any that we might look forward to.
In my class, there were 181 of us; 178 went to college. 84 attended this reunion. Of the attendees, 16 had been in the military. These graduates were from a very affluent community and we certainly wouldn’t see that many comparable SES students today serving in the military—too bad. I was reminded that it really shaped those of us who were there.
These graduates regaled each other of testimonials about what such and such a faculty member had meant to them. I don’t hear entering college students reflecting in that manner. And I chalk that up to much higher levels of disengagement (intellectually) in today’s students.
This reunion was held in a country club that had been founded in 1893. On the wall in the entrance foyer was prominently displayed the name of every club President since the founding—all men until the first woman appeared in 2008.
I know I wrote about this recently, but I think we educators need to ask ourselves what kind of an educational experience do we want to be providing for our students so that they would want to return every five to ten years for a reunion. When I had my own “students” in the traditional sense of the word (now my “students” are the fully adult and credentialed higher educators that I work with to improve the success of college students) I was regularly conscious that one of my expectations for my own conduct was that I should treat my students in a manner that would want to make them come back to see me at Homecoming. And that meant, to each, I had to very deliberately give what I came to think of and call “the gift of self”.
I am really glad I went to this reunion. It is going to stay with me for a long time.