by John Hannah
I’ve worked in higher education for a long time now. I’ve thought and read and written a lot on the subject, especially about that all-important horizon students cross when they arrive. I’m also a father, have been for a long time now. I can’t say I’ve read or written much about that, but I sure have thought about it a lot. My older son is now eighteen, an adult himself, choosing his own path. This Fall I will be Polonius to his Laertes, dispensing my fatherly advice in some long-winded speech choking back tears as he “most humbly takes his leave”. Young people and the folks who love them — leaving and arriving in this poignant dance of passage in which I find myself strangely caught. I’m not ready to make that speech to my son. Not yet. But I do feel it coming and its approach feeds my thinking about students, and their arrival, the juxtaposition making me a touch maudlin about it all. So, this year I’ve written a letter to arriving students asking them to reflect on their “readiness” for this, the horizon they are crossing.
Readiness: An Open Letter To Students
I extend to you my heartfelt congratulations for beginning your post-secondary adventure. It’s a bold and big step in your life and I wish you all the best, wherever you choose to take it. And, like all big, bold steps, this one will require of you some deep thinking about whether or not you are ready. Now, this is a thorny question: Am I ready? We never really know for sure. There is no On/Off switch of readiness. Readiness is not a state of being but, rather, a process of growth and setback and struggle and triumph. It’s idiosyncratic. You’ll figure out your own way, I’m sure of that. But I do want to leave you with these four more answerable questions that I think will help you to begin.
1. Is there meaningful purpose behind my pursuit of higher education?
Naturally there are obvious, instrumental reasons for being here—the satisfaction of good grades, making social and professional connections, the increased likelihood of a successful career. All of that is important. But it is also important to identify something even more meaningful in your pursuit of education, something that evokes history and civilization, humanity and peace. By pursuing your education, you are participating in that most profound and noble feature of the human experience—learning; learning for the sake of learning, learning to liberate ourselves from the shackles of ignorance, learning to advance the principles of goodness and peace in the world. Yes, this may seem lofty and pretentious, but why not? The pursuit of an education is not a trivial thing. It’s an ancient and beautiful human ritual and now it’s your turn to take part. Remember that and hold your head high.
2. Am I driven, at least minimally, by an impulse to learn, to know, to grow?
Your pursuit of higher education is, no doubt, motivated by various things. But firmly in that mix should be an innate curiosity about the world, a desire to know things, just for the sake of knowing them; an itch for knowledge and ideas and insights. You should have at the heart of your educational experience a desire to know something more about the world when you go to bed than you did when you woke up. You should be driven, not by answers, but by questions.
3. Can I accept that my pursuit of education is going to be a deep and unsettling challenge?
Learning is difficult. It requires, at times, a reckoning with new ways of understanding the world that conflict, sometimes deeply, with our current ways of understanding the world. In some instances, this will mean having to abandon old ways of knowing so that we can accommodate the new. This is a messy, gnarled, uncomfortable process that can be a kind of grieving. This is what learning is, and if you don’t encounter it in this way, you’re not doing it right.
Often, this will be difficult, it will be challenging, unsettling, uncomfortable. It will require effort, and perseverance and resilience. This discomfort you will feel at times is not equivalent to being treated unfairly. It is simply a necessary, inevitable part of the process. Do not waste your energy trying to avoid that discomfort. Does this mean that the institution providing you with this education is beyond reproach, beyond critique? Absolutely not. By all means take a critical approach to your education and towards those traditions and institutions who provide it. This is what moves us forward. But, in that critique, be armed with something more than mere complaint.
4. Can I be resourceful, and advocate for myself?
Your ability to be independent, to find solutions to problems on your own, to persevere through challenges—these are all important dispositions to have. They make you strong. But, the true hallmark of the strong person is the ability to recognize the need for support, the need for help, the need for guidance, and the wherewithal to seek that support. It means knowing where to go for help, how to ask for it, and how to fruitfully accept it. An education is not a solo trip. It involves others in front of you and behind you, those whose help you need and those for whom you can provide it. Accept both responsibilities.
Let those questions sit with you. Think about them. Talk about them. Return to them. I hope they help in some way. Good luck everyone—enjoy the ride.
If you’re reading this, then you probably work with students in one way or another, and have no doubt pondered this matter of “readiness”. How do we get students to respond to the unanswerable question, “Are you ready?” Well, like good educators, we ask further questions and encourage the discussions that follow. So I guess I’m asking you to consider these questions I pose to students, and think about your own—what questions of readiness will you ask?