It was yet another conference paper on first-generation college students, and yet another lament about how “they don’t value learning for learning’s sake”. “They want to know how everything relate to careers”, the presenter said. “They complain about having to take courses like the history of pop music”, she sighed. I’d long ago stopped making snarky tabulations on my notepad every time she emphatically said “they” when talking about these students.
During the Q and A, I sat on my hands for awhile and then asked what the middle-class students said about learning for learning’s sake.
But the study wasn’t about them. So no one had asked. The assumption seemed simply to be that if students from working class backgrounds expressed frustration with courses, curriculum, or the relevance of what they were required to do, it was evidence of a flawed values system.
But someone else on the panel then spoke up. “It’s money that they value”, she said. She cited studies of the value that middle-class kids place on their college education. For them, she said, the intellectual took a backseat to the earning potential that a degree would confer.
The middle class didn’t value learning for learning’s sake, either.
I haven’t seen those studies, but am still somewhat amazed when Ph.D.s who often are in it for the love of learning are surprised that anyone else isn’t.
And when I see studies like this recently released report on the alarming rates of cheating among high school students, I wonder how anyone can still think that students anywhere are driven primarily by a hunger of the mind.
But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Middle class kids know how to intellectualize their complaints, how to feign interest, how to just stay quiet when it’s in their strategic interest to do so. Working class kids may well wonder often and loudly why the hell they’re borrowing hundreds of dollars for a course on the history of pop music.
But learning what we’re teaching purely for the love of learning?
In my dreams.
Because if we really value learning, we have to value the learners, even when what we’re teaching isn’t self-evidently interesting to them, even if they’ve grown up within cynical times, even when they’re from backgrounds very different from our own.
…even if we have to be willing to look past the surface level differences to see the complicated lives withn which all of our students now contextualize their education.