To my students, I fear I appear to be a slightly bumbling grandfather type. Although the students I taught when I first entered the classroom almost four decades ago are not all that different from those today, the current crop does possess skills about which I am distinctly disadvantaged.
I would not know how to send a text message if my life depended upon it. Only last year did I realize that the same phone not only took pictures but could transmit them. When I ask students to help me with computer problems, they give me pitying glances as they punch a key or two to get me out of my computer conundrum. They all walk around with buds in their ears attached to wires leading to iPods, whereas the only bud that will go into my ear will most likely be attached to a hearing aid.
Still, I am a much better teacher today than I was decades ago because I have never lost my passion for learning. As a consequence, this means my store of accumulated knowledge is richer. Nor have I lost my passion for teaching and learning (two sides of the same coin) nor my desire to touch that place in their minds and hearts for that love of learning which, even though they may not know it explicitly, is the desire for God.
The students who enter Notre Dame today are almost without exception extremely bright, and the level of that brightness tends to escalate each year. The registrar’s office and the public relations people make much of this fact. This kind of intelligence makes for student success but not without their learning a few things that neither their culture nor their previous education prepares them.
First comes the pain of some challenges for which they are not prepared. If you have a freshman seminar with 18 students, all of whom were in the top 10 percent of their class, it becomes inevitable that in that seminar some are not going to be in the top 10 percent at the end of the term. Being class valedictorian in high school does not prepare one to be told that at the next level some of them are only B+ students.
Second, and this is hardly the student’s fault, we live in a world of instant communication, and, as a consequence, it is hard to teach students that when you read a theological text, you can not do so in the student center with the television blasting and an iPod thumping out music while the eye moves restlessly over a text and the inevitable yellow marker highlights this key word or that pregnant sentence. True education demands some modicum of silence, a willingness to slow down and full attention to a text. This is a difficult lesson to learn in a culture that prizes immediacy, sensory stimulation.
Third, my heartfelt conviction is that students should study that for which they have a passion. To borrow a line from my colleague, the esteemed Father John Dunne, CSC, ’51: Follow your heart’s desire. They might object that philosophy or literature or mathematics may not prepare one for gainful employment. To which I respond: you are confusing training with education. We value good training, but, above all, we treasure learning as a good in itself. It is for this that universities are built.
And the students? It is an honor and a privilege to teach them. We feel blessed that families will entrust their young people to us. As teachers we need to never forget that fact.
And for us? I have never doubted for a moment that being a teacher was a rare gift given to me. To be paid to do what I do, which is to follow my passion in the company of the young, makes me feel to be among the elect who have found themselves in a place where they were meant to be. The only word that covers it is gratitude.
Lawrence S. Cunningham is the John A. O’Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame.