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"What, then, was it all for?"


As a final assignment for my courses, I always ask my students to submit a personal reflection (in English or Spanish) in response to the question: “What did you learn this semester?”

As a quick blog entry, I would like to share (with permission) the words of one of my students from this past semester, as I think he expresses some important thoughts that might inform the focus of our own work at whatever level we find ourselves teaching language and culture.

"I am sincerely grateful for this class and how it was able to help me grow as a person. This was my last semester as an undergraduate . . . and by extension, this was my last Spanish class. With the sun beginning to set on my time pursuing a four-year liberal arts degree, I have done a lot of pondering on the value of my undergraduate education, and of education in general. Over the course of my college career, I spent the better part of 5 years writing papers that will never be read again, memorizing facts that I have long since forgotten, and developing relationships that are seemingly about to expire. What was it all for? Does it matter that I once memorized the reigns and dates of every British monarch, or those of every Roman emperor? In 20 years, will I be able to avert some societal or familial tragedy by recalling the lesson I learned from reading some obscure historical text? Probably not. My current life goals do not include becoming a teacher or a Jeopardy contestant, so it is likely that other concerns will eventually crowd out the details of my academic learning. The reality is, the words of Juan Rulfo, though fresh in my head now, will likely fade over time. The poems of Pablo Neruda, as inescapably applicable as they seem at the moment, will likely take a backseat in my life at some point going forward.

What, then, was it all for? Why was it worth it for me to pull countless all-nighters to produce innumerable pages of text and memorize an endless quantity of historical trivia? I have come to realize that the incalculable value of my educational experience lies in my own progress as a thinker, an achiever, and as a person. A college education should challenge your way of thinking and force you to grapple with ideas that seem to contradict your worldview. It should demand that you stretch the limits of your attention and focus in order to produce the evidence of deep thought. It should promote introspection, and ultimately the unwavering defense of a moral code, now battle tested through intellectual combat. No single piece of information that I acquired during my college career will likely be particularly important to me going forward, but the growth that I underwent will be vital. The beauty, along with the growth, are in the struggle.

[This course] underscores all the valuable aspects of a college education. Though I may not be able to remember, 30 years from now, the specific characteristics of literary movements in Latin America, or the plotline of Pedro Páramo, or even much about my beloved telenovelas, I will be inherently operating on the foundation of growth that this class helped me to establish. I am a better person for having studied the literature of Latin America, along with the history that shaped its progress. I am grateful to have taken this class in my last semester . . . , and I will carry with me the personal growth that I achieved for the rest of my life."

What is the purpose of education from your perspective? Do you ever get frustrated, thinking you aren't making a difference because you can't see the deep-level growth that isn't easily measured? How does that impact the way you teach, assess, and mentor your students? Thanks for sharing your thoughts below! Gracias, DPWISEMAN

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