Tony Woodlief | Author

The professor in the home

Every month, money flies from my checking account to the education savings accounts of my children, because I don’t want them to become hobos. This is one way I allay my fear the world will eat them up. It’s a mark of a good parent to worry over where—and whether—his child will go to college, isn’t it?

I need to confess a profoundly un-American heresy: I question what my children will get for the money. I don’t question the value of education (though we make it a panacea for deeper ills of the soul); I doubt the capacity of most educational institutions to impart much beyond what one could obtain with, as the protagonist in Good Will Hunting notes, “a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library.”

I know there are teachers who can help a student get far more out of Dracula, say, than he might acquire on his own. They can cultivate in him a healthy awareness of the various psycho-sexual literary analytical clubs with which the text has been bludgeoned for decades, for example, or even help him challenge dominant beliefs about what Dracula, and monster literature more broadly, means to us culturally. There are teachers like that; I’ve seen them in action, and they are a heartening, humbling species to behold.

The practical reality, however, is that most educational institutions have no interest in rewarding excellent teachers, or even understanding which of their teachers are truly excellent. They are in the business of slinging feed to cattle. As a consequence, their faculties share no intelligible common convictions, no canon, no sense of responsibility to raise humane citizens. The surest way to get sideways with many of them, in fact, is to posit definitions of “canon,” “humane,” or “citizen.” Heck, just try to define “man” and “woman,” and watch what happens.

Many higher education professionals have nothing coherent to say about what we are, and so the notion that whatever we are might be called to something greater and higher than ourselves, that denying our appetites might be essential to this thing called “virtue,” that there is even such a thing as virtue, rather than a patriarchal phallocentric Western capitalist construct designed for purposes of oppression, and that this virtue is worthy of pursuit and discipleship and discomfort—well, talk like that will get you disinvited from the faculty mixer.

I’m saving money for my children’s “higher education,” and the truth is that it seems shot through with holes. It is an interesting collection of answers to the wrong questions. It is not what I hope for my children, which is cultivation of wisdom, virtue, a spirit of open inquiry, and intellectual rigor.

Lately it’s occurred to me, however, that I’ve been thinking about this wrongly. I’m tempted—many of us are tempted—to think of higher education as something that happens out there, conducted by other people, when our children are older. The reality is, however, that the most important part of it is happening right now, with we parents, every day.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met humble, brilliant kids with Ivy League degrees, and I’ve met clever, insufferable fools with Ivy League degrees. I’ve met thoroughgoing dunces passing time as college students, and in the same classroom, thoughtful world-changers. I know autodidacts who make their livings with their hands, who have no need of college degrees, but whose minds are more unfettered and insightful than that of many a philosophy professor. And of course I know plenty of people who make their livings with their hands and who have no interest in thinking at all.

The chief determinant of a young person’s educational success, in other words, is not the credentialing of the professoriate. It’s the discernment and self-discipline he possesses when he reaches them. Good teachers matter, to be sure. We should find them, and reward them, and send our children to them. But our children must have hearts that seek wisdom. Fools tend to draw fools; the wise tend to draw the discerning. My kids will gravitate to the teachers I have prepared them to learn from.

Which puts me in a pretty spot, now that I think about it—striving to incline their hearts toward wisdom, yet feeling every day like a fool not up to the task. It would be so much easier to keep socking away money every month, and trust someone else to figure it out. But that’s not an option, is it?

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