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Brain-Cardio: Should University Be Easy?

(UPDATE: I’ve reflected further on student expectations and culture here, in part as a response to comments to this post. If you want to read it, you’ll have to log in.)

Today, I was discussing next week’s work in one of my classes, and the third student in a row commented that the book I’d assigned for reading is not easy.

I said, “I know. It’s difficult. It’s weird. It’s about stuff that happened before you were born, or when you were little babies. It’s about technology, and cops, and weird stuff that feels like it has nothing to do with you, with the world you live in. But it does have something to do with you. The stuff that happened far away, somewhere else, with people you’ve never heard of, that’s history. That’s the building of the pyramids. It’s the basis of the world you live in. The stuff in this book, the stuff that happens in it, it’s real history. And it affected the internet, the laws in your own country — not just in America — and the way we think about the internet, about computers, about freedom, about crime and security and laws. The stuff that is discussed in this book affects your life in tons of ways, if you pay attention and notice it. And it is the basis for the book we’ll be reading after midterms, which I am pretty sure will feel like it’s much more connected to your world, to your life. This is the history that made the world we live in, when it comes to computers. So it’s worth knowing. It might be worth knowing more than some other kinds of history. Because this stuff will be important all through your life, how you relate to these funny little boxes that we spend so much time looking at these days, that people fifty years ago thought we would never ever have in our homes or classrooms.”

(I said that last line pointing at a computer in the classroom.)

And then I asked, “Anyway, I know it’s difficult. But this is university. Do you think university is supposed to be easy?”

Silence, smiles. It’s not like they could say yes, especially after I told them how challenging this class was going to be from day one. And I did, I really did! I told them we would read two books in English. That they would have to talk about them. I’d told them that from day one.

And then I said, “Because it’s not. University should never be easy. You’re supposed to ask questions you’ve never asked before. Struggle to understand things, to think differently, to be surprised and to be really, really tired sometimes.”

I told them about the teacher who made me read a 1,000 -page Dickens novel for a 2 hour discussion and told them there are limits to sanity, and that I wouldn’t overstep those limits. And how, you know, all these years later, I still regret not having finished that book for the class discussion, even if he was insane.

University should not be easy. It should be fun, but the kind of fun one feels when one gets into an exercise routine, that good, tired ache in the muscles — it should feel like that in the brain. Only a few people truly get into the habit of exercising their minds daily, of course — for as James Baldwin remarked in his essay “Stranger in the Village”, “Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious…” — but if university is phys ed for the mind, it should not be a series of square dancing and table tennis tournaments. There should be triatholons, mountains to climb, and regular brain-cardio workouts. That’s what university is for, and it is the brightest of my students who have remarked that it should be so, and that university should not, by any means, become merely or solely a form of job-training or career-preparation. Universities are for shaping the citizens who shall have mental lives. Or thus it should be, and anything else should be denied the name universitas.

(And, I should add for context’s sake, most of the class is very much fit enough, English-wise, for the books we’re reading. It’s a stretch, a few weeks of burning muscles and deep sleep, but it’s not a dozen pulled ligaments or a heart attack-scale struggle for them. Well, not for the top 85% of them.)

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