Mental Health Purpose of Teaching

Aspiration and Apathy

At our upcoming liberal education journal club meeting, we are going to discuss the recent Chronicle piece “Teaching in an Age of Militant Apathy.” The idea that college students are militantly apathetic is an interesting lens to view our post-pandemic world. I also think it is worthwhile to counterbalance this argument with Agnes Callard’s very interesting thinking on liberal education and aspiration.

Callard suggests that an effective liberal education is one that a student only vaguely knows the value of. When we frame education as a commodity, we act as if we already know the value of an education. But what Callard suggests is that we cannot know the value of a liberal education unless we give ourselves over to the experience of being educated.

My sense is that college students are hesitant to give themselves over to the experience of being educated because the pandemic shook some fundamental trust that it is worth taking risks. More, if students did most of their learning before college through a screen, it may be the case that they have a very limited experience with transformative–and not just transactional–educations.

So, while it may make sense to consider college students militantly apathetic, I also think it is the case that students are hesitant to trust in a process of learning that can feel too much like a leap of faith. Our students may have little experience with transformative education and worry that the risk of trusting something is just too great. For this reason, I think colleges need to be even more intentional about discussing higher education’s purposes while giving students experiences with its transformative power from the first weeks of each class.

Students want to invest in their educations. That is why they show up. But I think we need to understand that it is hard for them to make this investment, especially when the investment in their high school educations–for example–led to canceled proms, canceled graduations, canceled concerts, and canceled sporting events. Years of practice and years of studying yielded little to be excited about. We need to respect this loss and do everything in our power to show students that their college educations are worth their investments.