Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Inequality Sinking In

John Gardner

This posting is written during a period when there have been a spate of press reports shedding light on what many of us academics have known for a long time: the US is a country of profoundly increasing inequality which part of our government seems most willing to maintain, and another part might want to reverse this but doesn’t seem to know how. All these related trends of rising inequality, the shrinking of the middle class, reductions in upward social mobility, the reality being a mockery of the American dream, surely have to be making our students ask some questions. What could some of those questions be?

1.            Why am I in college if I may not get a decent job as a result of my obtaining a college degree?

2.            What is the possibility of my having a higher standard of living than my parents?

3.            How am I ever going to repay all this student loan debt that I am acquiring?

4.            Why would I want to marry someone and take on his/her student loan debt?

5.            How am I ever going to come up with the down payment on a home with all the student loan obligation?

6.            How can I ever afford to have and support a child when I have such an uncertain economic future and so much debt already?

7.            This may mean moving back in with mom and dad. Is that what I am going to college for?

8.            So other than a job and making good money, what could I be learning about in college that might help me live my life in other ways?

9.            Are there things in college worth learning about that might provide more meaning and enjoyment for my life than simply job training?

10.         What is this Occupy Wall Street movement all about? Do those people have a point? What is their point? Do they speak for me?

11.         Who is this country working well for now if not for people like me?

12.         Do any of my elected leaders and especially any of the Republican presidential candidates making so many pronouncements this fall seem to care about the issues that concern me?

13.         What should we college students be concerned about right now any way?

14.         What can we college students to about any of these challenges to our American way of life?

What are the questions your students are asking? How do you engage them on these? How do you connect the content of your discipline to what is on their minds this fall? If you/we aren’t talking to them, then we are joining most of our elected leaders in not talking to them either.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What’s A One Liner Your Students Might Remember and Be Influenced By?

John Gardner

The other day I had just come through a TSA screening line in Indianapolis and a TSA agent came up to me and handed me a bucket full of change that I had neglected to reclaim. The dialogue that ensued went something like this:

John: Well, another honest TSA Agent! Thank you very much.

Agent: Yes, sir. My mother taught me “never take anything that isn’t yours.” She told me that again and again and again.

John: Oh, yes, I understand. My mother’s voice is still alive and well in my head. She speaks to me there every day.

Agent: One day I handed a man $5000 he had left in the bucket in his wallet.

John: You certainly must sleep well at night. What America needs are more citizens like you (unlike the unregulated/deregulated Wall Street financiers who stole from all of us I thought but didn’t say).

Agent: Thank you Sir.

I left the exchange wondering what is it that we could say to our students “again and again” that might really sink in. What could you say that could become your mantra with students? Put it in your syllabus. Put it on your office door.

I wish I had raised the question to myself earlier in my career when I had lots of my own students. I know I had many principles which I tried to teach them, like the importance of voting, and reading a good daily newspaper. But a one liner?  No, I didn’t have one, except with my second son.

He is a great guy, now 36, married, has two children, a good honest, law abiding, tax paying citizen (and a college graduate). But when younger he was always trying to con me in little harmless ways. And my predictable response always was: “Son, you can’t sh*t an old sh**ter.” That’s all I needed to say and he would revise what he had just said that prompted me to say that and instead I would get a straight forward, honest rendering of whatever the facts at hand really were.

For about 13 of my 32.5 years at USC, I had a senior colleague whom I respected greatly, who every time he saw me would say: “John, are you happy in your work today?”  When I saw him coming I knew what he was going to ask me and he knew I knew what he was going to ask me. He and I also both knew what my answer would be. This is what we need more of today, more predictability in our professional and personal lives.

So what are you, my readers, going to make your signature one liner for your students? And/or your colleagues? I think we all need one.

Hmmmmmmm. Now what is mine going to be?