Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How to Live Wisely

This article in The New York Times has interesting insights about ways to help college students (or people of any age really) learn to live wisely.  Many of them seem like they'd be useful across a wide variety of classes.

The first assignment mentioned reminded me of a writing assignment I used to do early in my teaching days:  "Imagine you are Dean for a Day. What is one actionable change you would implement to enhance the college experience on campus?"

My variation simply asked students to identify a problem (either in their neighborhoods, their jobs, the campus) and offer several solutions.  The concluding paragraph had them choose the best one.  If I wanted to add research elements, I had them interview people in charge or other students or research building codes--the list could go on and on.

Here are some other interesting questions from the article.  They seem worth revisiting periodically:

"If you could become extraordinarily good at one thing versus being pretty good at many things, which approach would you choose?"

"In the Core Values Exercise, students are presented with a sheet of paper with about 25 words on it. The words include “dignity,” “love,” “fame,” “family,” “excellence,” “wealth” and “wisdom.” They are told to circle the five words that best describe their core values. Now, we ask, how might you deal with a situation where your core values come into conflict with one another?"

I love, love, love the last exercise:

"This exercise presents a parable of a happy fisherman living a simple life on a small island. The fellow goes fishing for a few hours every day. He catches a few fish, sells them to his friends, and enjoys spending the rest of the day with his wife and children, and napping. He couldn’t imagine changing a thing in his relaxed and easy life.

A recent M.B.A. visits this island and quickly sees how this fisherman could become rich. He could catch more fish, start up a business, market the fish, open a cannery, maybe even issue an I.P.O. Ultimately he would become truly successful. He could donate some of his fish to hungry children worldwide and might even save lives.
“And then what?” asks the fisherman.
“Then you could spend lots of time with your family,” replies the visitor. “Yet you would have made a difference in the world. You would have used your talents, and fed some poor children, instead of just lying around all day.”
We ask students to apply this parable to their own lives. Is it more important to you to have little, accomplish little, yet be relaxed and happy and spend time with family? Or is it more important to you to work hard, use your talents, perhaps start a business, maybe even make the world a better place along the way?
Typically, this simple parable leads to substantial disagreement. These discussions encourage first-year undergraduates to think about what really matters to them, and what each of us feels we might owe, or not owe, to the broader community — ideas that our students can capitalize on throughout their time at college."

Back to me.  I love these ideas as both discussion starters and potential larger projects.  As I see a variety of teaching assignments, it seems to me that we (by which I mean teachers and other types of guides of younger people) are guilty of not asking them to push themselves hard enough.  We lower our expectations.  No wonder we don't see engagement.

When students went to college, we used to assume that they'd wrestle with these ideas.  We can no longer be sure of that.  We could argue over whether or not they should--perhaps these questions should be the left for parents, for spiritual communities, or perhaps we don't see them as important at all.  Perhaps we think that humans are born with the values we want them to have.

Most of us, however, know that's not the case.  We may not be sure of how to form children, however, even if we think it's crucial.  These kinds of exercises show us a way.

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