Creating the World Anew: Thoughts on a New Semester

Steve Volk, August 30, 2015

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Grace Lee Boggs. Photo: Robin Holland

Grace Lee Boggs celebrated her 100th birthday on June 27. For those who don’t know her, Grace Lee Boggs is a philosopher, activist, teacher, and an inspiration. Her father, Chin Lee, ran a restaurant in Toishan, China, before emigrating to Providence, RI, where Grace Lee was born. Facing the enormous obstacles of race and poverty, she was nonetheless able to enroll in Barnard College on a scholarship. There she followed some inner voice that pointed her towards philosophy. She went on to complete her doctorate in philosophy at Bryn Mawr.

In the 1940s there were no jobs for a Chinese American woman in the academy, and certainly not in philosophy. So when she moved to Chicago in the early 1940s, it was for a $10 a week job at the University of Chicago’s library; she lived rent-free in the basement of a nearby building. Grace Lee Boggs, an adherent of Hegel, has long argued that one has to suffer the negative in order to make progress, that the greatest lesson we can learn is to “make a way out of no way.” And so for her, the reality of living in a rat-infested building was not without its positive outcomes. Her determination to address her own basement circumstances led her to a group of African American activists who were fighting the same miserable housing conditions. She soon became a tenants’ rights activist, and eventually met and married James (Jimmy) Boggs, a black auto worker and labor activist.

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Grace Lee and James Boggs

They moved to Detroit in 1953, where she still lives, always a philosopher, always an activist, always an educator working with others to “make a way out of no way.” Grace Lee Boggs has been an active participant and valued voice in the movement for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and black power. In 1994, she co-founded Detroit Summer, “a multi-racial, inter-generational collective” that functions as a training ground for activists, attracting young people across the country each year.

I’ve been thinking about Grace Lee Boggs this week as I wrestle myself into the proper frame of mind for starting a new semester, a process which invariably reminds me of the importance of what it is we do as teachers. In the process, I came across a fairly recent interview with Boggs with Krista Tippett’s on the latter’s “On Being” podcast. Boggs spoke about what I would call the “physics” of social change. Referencing the work of Margaret Wheatley , she “pointed out how Newtonian science and scientific rationalism has made us think of life and reality as made up of particles. [But] quantum physics,” she offered in contrast, “gives us the opportunity to look at change in a very different way. Not in terms of mass but in terms of organic connections and emerging changes, of changes that take place at a lower level so that at a mass level [they] have more permanence and more reality.”

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Grace and Jimmy Boggs – 1990s

Boggs’ analogy struck home, positioned as I am (and as we are) at the entry door to the semester. In her strong, deeply intelligent, century-old voice, speaking from the heart of Detroit, a city kicked to the curb by the wealthy and powerful, she argued that it was an unparalleled time to be alive, the best of times. While she lamented that we “no longer recognize that we have within us the capacity to create the world anew,” she affirmed that “there’s something about people beginning to seek solutions by doing things for themselves, by deciding that they are going to create new concepts of economy, new concepts of governance, new concepts of education, and that they have the capacity within themselves to do that.” Grace Lee Boggs, an activist for 75 years, looked back at her early years in the struggle. Recalling lessons learned from Hegel, she reflected on the difference between the possible and the necessary. In the 1960s, she observed, she and other radicals thought they should address only what was necessary. Now she believes that focusing on the possible is “so much richer” because it demands creativity and imagination, and it is imagination that opens up the world that you can bring into being.

Our work, Boggs reminded me, is the work of opening the possible to, for, and with our students. It is, to return to Hegel, helping them understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. “The goal to be reached,” he wrote in The Phenomenology of the Mind, “is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary…”

David Gooblar’s most recent “Pedagogy Unbound” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that “for our students, particularly the first-years who are right now in a near frenzy of anticipation for their college careers to begin – we [teachers] are the university.” Not the administrators, coaches, or buildings. I don’t actually agree; our students will come to define the college and their years here in a myriad of ways, from the intellectual engagement of the classroom to the thrill of performing on Hall Auditorium’s main stage, or in Finney, or on the athletic fields. For many, college will be the quantum mechanics of combining with others to make “organic changes.” But I do agree with him that “we are uniquely invested with the power to shape our students’ college experience” as well as their ideas about what their purpose in life might be. As Henry Giroux has written, pedagogy is an act of intervention, a commitment to the future. It’s always good to remember that through our interventions, we can help our students explore the idea of the possible, appreciate the difficulty, as well as the pleasures, of the journey to wisdom, and encourage in them the creativity and imagination that will carry them to own their education and shape their future.

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I always turn to two sources as particularly useful when thinking about our incoming students. Our own schools are eager to give us data on what states and countries our students hail from, how well they did on their SAT’s, and how many edited their high school newspapers.  The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an “Almanac” each August that gives a broader sense of incoming students (always reported with a one-year delay; this year’s Almanac, for example, reports on “Freshmen at 4-Year Colleges, Fall 2014.” (Counting all undergraduates, some 18.5 million students were enrolled in 2- and 4-year programs in the spring of 2015, about 13 million of whom were in 4-year institutions.)

So, looking just at the first years, what can we say about first-year students?

  • 66.7% are White/Caucasian; 12.8% Asian American/Asian; 11.1% African-American/Black; 16.6% Latino (including Mexican-American/Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other) [All classifications are from the Almanac.]
  • 13.5% of entering students come from families earning less than $25,000 a year and 41.8% from families earning $100,000 or more.
  • Most (47.2%) defined themselves as “middle of the road” politically, with 31.7% selecting “Liberal” or “Far left,” and 21% choosing “Conservative” or “Far right.”
  • In their last year of high school, in an average week, 57% spent 5 hours or less studying; 48% spent less than one hour working for pay; 55.7% spent less than one hour reading for pleasure.
  • 61.3% reported that they tutored another student “frequently” or “occasionally” during the last year, while 43.1% admitted falling asleep in class, and 52.5% failed to complete their homework on time.
  • This is always one of my favorite data points: 71% placed themselves in the “highest 10%” or “above average” in terms of their “academic ability.” Hmmm. On the other hand, only 47.5% put themselves in those two categories when evaluating their math ability and 46.1% in terms of their writing ability.
  • They deem themselves, by very large majorities, “very” or “somewhat” strong as regards empathy, “tolerance of others with different beliefs,” or their ability to work cooperatively with diverse people.
  • What did they see as “very important” reasons for going to college? 86% said it was “to be able to get a better job” and 73% “to be able to make more money,” while 47% said it was to “make me a more cultured person.” Just so we’re not too disheartened, 82% said that it was very important “to learn more about things that interest me” while at college!

My other go-to source is Beloit’s “Mindset” list, a yearly list that points out what traditional-age students entering college that year would not have experienced or known. For current first-year students, most of whom were born in 1997, here are a few tidbits that caught my eye.

Since our incoming students have been on the planet:

  • Google has always been there with them, as has South Park, hybrid cars, and Harry Potter. The Lion King (Julie Taymor ’74) has always been on Broadway; Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have always been members of NATO; and Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule.
  • Our incoming students have never had to lick a postage stamp, could always get Phish Food from Ben and Jerry’s (Jerry Greenfield ’73), watch CNN in Spanish, and tune in to “This American Life” (Alex Bloomberg ’89, producer). And the New York Times was always printed with color photographs!

Have a great semester!

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