At the age of eighteen, I did not know that I had an accent. Emerson, in his essay “Circles,” says that “the life of a man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles.” If this is true, the circle of my existence at 18 was extremely small and circumscribed by ideologies that derived from my heritage as a third generation Texan whose father hailed from North Carolina. My childhood on a working farm was in many ways idyllic, though fraught with hardships such as the lack of potable water in the house I grew up in. At age 12, instead of a bar mitzvah, I received a .22 rifle, and between throwing a baseball endlessly against the side of the barn and shooting at any number of creatures and objects, I managed to pass lazy summers playing by myself. I was not immune to the racial, ethnic, and homophobic slurs that I occasionally heard from my parents and grandparents, though even my casually racist parents were shocked by the venom that spewed from the mouths of my relatives in Tennessee and North Carolina. I never doubted that many black welfare recipients drove Cadillacs just as I never questioned that the earth was made in six days or that there were communists actively and invisibly at work all around me.
College seemed at first glance like more of the same. My circle expanded by only a few degrees. By default, I went to the Southern Baptist university in my hometown where my parents met and both of my older sisters attended before they too married. In my parents’ perfect world, I would learn a few things that would enable me to be gainfully employed, meet a nice deferential Baptist girl and settle down to a slightly updated version of their lives, complete with tap water one could drink.
And I did learn. College was where I realized that I was smart and that being smart was fun. I became a sponge, and as a consequence of a Core curriculum not so different from ours here at UP, one that demanded that I take specific courses, many of which I would not have taken otherwise, I found myself learning information that previously I either would have ignored or refused to think about. In a chemistry course for non majors, I learned about properties of U 235 and as a consequence better understood my father’s work on the Manhattan Project during the war and more recently his work in the oil field as a perforator running logs on a well (and if that means nothing to you, ask Utlaut), and in a Geology class I learned to identify the various fossils that we chipped away in a creek bed on my Grandparents’ farm. Despite the objections of some self-righteous preacher boys, in Bible class it became clear that the liquid involved in Jesus’s first miracle was in fact wine and not the grape juice that we drank during the Lords Supper at church. In American History, I learned a slightly more objective version of the settling of Texas than I learned in Texas History class in the 7th grade, and as a consequence, the Comanche Indians whose arrowheads I routinely found on our farm (and which are proudly displayed in my office) became more real. And somewhere in there I committed the unpardonable sin and began to question the legitimacy of the myth of the glorious lost cause of the Confederacy in what my father still refers to as the War of Northern Aggression. I distinctly remember a sociology class where I was exposed to hard data about welfare, and the Cadillac-driving welfare queens vanished into thin air. A year later, as a result of a service-learning project for another sociology class, I found myself for the first time in the home of a black person, a single mother of three who was trying to do right by her son by getting him involved in Big Brothers. I was fortunate to have dedicated faculty members who provided the individualized and personal attention that smaller class-size affords and who, in many cases, were committed to performing the office of the scholar as defined by Emerson in “The American Scholar”: to aid students “by showing them facts amidst appearances.” And for this country boy, whose best friend at age 10 was a duroc pig named Honey West, that process of demystification worked. My physical circle had not expanded significantly by age 22, but my mental one extended far beyond the horizon of the flat Texas plain. It is not an exaggeration to declare that I stand before you today the product of the liberal arts.
But my decision to stay in school and go into academia ill qualifies me to talk about the impact of the liberal arts on most students who take their skills into the workforce. Instead, I turn to two UP alums. Randy Howell graduated from UP in 2005 with a degree in Political Science and a minor in German. His year in Salzburg, a year teaching in Austria, and an MA in International Relations aided him in landing an internship with the State Department in Vienna, and while there he was encouraged to apply for a job opening up in the Department of Energy. He now at age 29 is the officer in the DOE Office of Global Threat Reduction in charge of securing non weapons grade nuclear materials across all of South Asia. He oversees a budget in the tens of millions of dollars and travels extensively throughout the region. When he was asked last fall about how he got the job without a science background, he said the learning curve was steep in the first year or two but that the skills he learned here at UP enabled him to master the dense material. Matt Boule graduated in 2002 with a degree in English. He went to Japan through the JET program, and while there learned Japanese. After two years teaching English, he was offered a job in a start-up apparel company and was quickly in charge of international sales. The company is the Tokyo-based VisVim, and their clientele are rock stars and other super rich individuals who are willing to buy a jacket that costs $20,000 or a pair of shoes that cost $4000. Matt never had a business class, yet he has set up stores in Singapore, Hong Kong, L.A., and Paris, flies over 150,000 miles a year, and has been so successful that international sales now outpace domestic sales in Japan. When asked how they were able to succeed in their fields without specific training in those fields, both Randy and Matt said essentially the same thing: at UP they learned how to think.
But that answer needs parsing, since even Kim Kardashian seemingly can think. What both of these impressive young men specifically mentioned was the ability to read a text and glean information from it and then know how to apply the information that they had obtained. That is the type of thinking that UP promotes, and it is begun in the Core Curriculum, but we can do better. Whenever I mention to someone out in the real world that I’m an English teacher they almost inevitably decry the state of writing among young people and then look to me for confirmation. My response, though, is that most of my students can write well enough to communicate, even if the writing contains errors and is less than compelling. What they are not so good at, I continue, is reading and then explaining what they have read, what they think about the material, why they think it, and how they might be able to apply it.
And while we do a better job in developing those skills than the authors of Adrift in Academe would have you believe, we can do more. We need more classes that emphasize interrogations of texts, not simply reading to pass a quiz or regurgitate information on a test. We need more reading, writing, and speaking assignments that require students to demonstrate the ability to apply the information we expect them to know. We need to do what Gerald Graff calls teaching the conflicts and engage our students in scholarly debates occurring in our disciplines. We need to develop reading and writing assignments that reflect what we do in our own scholarship in order to engage students in real debates and discussions. We need to ensure that classes are reasonably sized in order to promote critical discussions, classes of an appropriate size where students cannot simply take notes on a lecture or hide in the back and where faculty members are not going to shy away from more critical reading and writing assignments due to increased grading demands that come with them.
I want to end by reminding you that many of our students are not so different at age 18 than I was. They too think they have no accent, and they may not have been challenged to think for themselves. I often remark that my favorite part of teaching at UP is aiding my students in learning how smart they are. That is our job—not to tell them what to think, but to help them know what they think and why, and to equip them with the tools to take their native intelligence and apply it to any situation that they will face as the circles of their lives inevitably continue to expand, for as Emerson reminds us, the expansion of circles occurs, without end.