Saturday, March 19, 2005

Vacation/On Adversity

This is my last post for a week. I'm taking a trip with the family to Arizona. I'm deliberately not bringing my laptop. So the next post should be on the 26th.

If you've read the book "A Beautiful Mind," I'm not talking about seeing the movie, you get a sense about the close relation between very deep, serious thinking and mental illness - in John Nash's case that was schizophrenia. There are other characters in the book, also extremely accomplished mathematicians, who had bouts of mental illness. I have a conjecture, this is not based on a lot of research into the area just some observations, that if someone with intellectual talent spends a lot of time alone "in reflection mode" then while this may produce periods of very high creativity and some really excellent work it leaves the person more vulnerable when dealing with pressure and stress and it is more likely the person will go off the deep end.

Perhaps the second or third year I was in graduate school at Northwestern, in the late '70s, there was a movie made called "College Can Be Killing" which contrasted student life at NU to that at Wisco. Northwestern was more pressured. Wisconsin was more relaxed and playful. I don't remember too much detail about the movie but a key point I do recall is that Northwestern offered "singles" in the dorms, even for first year students. That was a perq, but for a kid who might be sliding downhill, it would turn into a big negative.

We know that kids who go to Big Ten schools have done quite well in high school. Many of them "take pride" in getting good grades. A big issue is how much of their sense of self is tied up in this and in competing academically with their peers. As an instructor, I've seen the grade grubbing side, and of course I don't like that. But in that role I don't get to see students who are depressed because they are not coping well with school. Instructors are not the confidants of the students.

There is an indirect indicator, the lack of engagement in classes, that suggests the issue is lurking out there for every student. One can decry lack of relevance in the courses, but I believe at least part of the issue is that students as young adults, who for the first time have primary responsibility for their own actions and well being, don't want to put themselves on the line.

You must fail to learn. Failure is a necessary part. Make mistakes in the course of doing, but don't repeat them. Move forward. That is learning.

So the argument is that the kids insulate themselves. That is a type of coping. It is not the type we want to encourage, but it is there. The party-ing is the lure; it is not really the goal. The goal is not to confront the failures.

We need to cultivate in students a sense of self which in many ways is not tied to their own performance. And we need to encourage students to be sufficiently part of a community that they have a social network to help them through dealing with their own demons, which at some points in their lives they almost certainly will have to do.

Some may argue that is too much of a burden to put onto the purely academic part of student life. The argument is that it should be handled elsewhere, either in the living situation or in church. That might work for some students but I think the argument is wrong in general and we need to be thinking about this differently.

School has been a rewarding place for these kids and it is far from being all about grades. It is a place where these kids do things and in the process express themselves. Later in life when these kids work, they will feel similarly about their jobs - they are places for fulfillment, not just a source of income and a path for career advancement.

The lesson is that the engagement is its own reward and that if engaged and if there is some social aspect the work, that is the way to cope when things get hard.

I want to now go back to the previous post and talk about open service learning. My sense is that if students did that seriously, this lesson about engagement would be learned en passant. I don't believe we need to make this lesson an explicit goal, especially early on when we're trying to work through the right approach to open service learning, but we need to be aware of it and it is something we should go back to repeatedly. Part of being a teacher is seeing the failure in others and getting them to confront it and encourage them to move forward. And part of being a student is learning to take real risks of failure in order to make progress and to deal with it when the progress doesn't seem to be coming.

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