Confessions of a University Professor

I often find students in my classes who want more than just a course. They’re eager, sharp, apparently more energized than their classmates. For years I’ve tried to get a handle on what makes them different from their peers who, for the most part, are smart but largely without ambition. This is an old mystery and professors tend to wax philosophical about it. Whatever subject we teach we’re prone to saying: “if I reach 20% of my students, I’m doing pretty well.”

Around ten years ago I started calling this the “20% cop out” because I’d overheard too many faculty bemoan the inadequacies of undergraduates as if they were stale muffins or defective lawn ornaments. It’s easy. It’s the pedagogical equivalent of shooting snakes from a truck—a dubious sport but it sure takes your mind off of work.

I’d just turned fifty. I was the stepfather of two kids who were having a hard time with high school. They didn’t have huge issues—they just felt the familiar teenage angst of not fitting in.

It was a Holden Caulfield thing: adults are phony, society is hypocritical, and as Philip Larkin would say, “books are a load of crap.”

Cynicism is to ambition as sea water is to farming. Fair enough. But what lies behind ambition? What’s good and what’s bad about it? How can it be encouraged? Shouldn’t it be better understood by educators and students alike? By my half century mark I’d grown uneasy teaching without understanding what was in the petrie dish.

The word is revealing. It arrived in English by way of Middle French and of course Latin. It originally meant “going around” especially in search of votes or favors—ambulatory covetousness if you will. By the time it entered British and American usage ambition was largely a pejorative term, so much so that Benjamin Franklin wrote in his “Last Will and Testament” that he thanked God for “such a Mind, with moderate Passions, freed early from “Ambition.””

Even hard driving Franklin distrusted the meanness, the pestilence of the “A” word as did most 18th century thinkers. Many educated people in the American colonies owned Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy which said ambition was: “a canker of the soul, an hidden plague … a secret poison, the father of livor, and mother of hypocrisy, the moth of holiness, and cause of madness, crucifying and disquieting all that it takes hold of.”

Burton’s use of “livor” means jealousy. Before the 19th century ambition was thought to be essentially a sin, a condition worthy of inclusion in the Ten Commandments. What happened? How did a putative transgression become a virtue—so much so that it’s uncontested as a figure for respectability?

Back to my college students. I noticed most if not all of my “go getters” were happy to acquire knowledge. The cliche—the oft-stated bromide that ambitious students are formatively centered or have already chosen careers or graduate school, was largely untrue. I didn’t need to collect data to learn this. All I really had to do was hold lots of office hours. Moreover I made it a condition of each course I taught that every student must come to office hours at least twice. One discovers quickly that undergraduates are eager to learn but often flummoxed by what a curriculum or major really means (or doesn’t mean) and even at 20 many still struggle with “ghosted ideas” a la Holden Caulfield. They’re not without avidity. They just have an 18th century view of ambition. It’s possible while you’re still an adolescent to suspect that ambition may not be cool. Faculty who hope to exceed the 20% cop out need to know this.

In his excellent book Ambition, A History, William Casey King traces the development of ambition and follows its transformation from an 18th century sin to a modern academic and business shibboleth. This shift (as you’d likely guess) had to do with land. The colonization of North America required settlers, lots of them, and not just mere travelers but emigrants who believed they’d get their piece of the rock at long last. The unseemly values associated with “wanting” had to be reformed if men and women—whole families—were to risk the high seas in the name of ownership. Where once the King owned all the land now commoners might have a stake. It became a patriotic duty to make a claim. As William Casey King puts it, ambition went from being a “Christian sin to a problematic virtue.” Ambition was effectively harnessed. Each colonist became a knight with virtue painted on his shield. The American Revolution would be the ultimate signature of the new ambition.

Can you instill ambition in people who distrust it? It’s like asking if you can teach creativity. In my view the answer is yes. One may be more or less imaginative but most people enjoy a creative writing workshop even if they won’t become Emily Dickinson. A famous poet once told me “the world isn’t harmed by bad poetry” which takes me back to teaching and purpose. Giving up on the 20% cop out as a faculty member means finding the inherent interests students may have or are in the process of finding. It means talking. It can’t be managed with advising software. It requires lengthy office hours. Just as anyone may write a poem, all students possess nascent  curiosities. Abandoning the 20% cop out at fifty made teaching more compelling for me and yes, more human, even though it meant thinking harder about the sins and constructed virtues of desire. Ambition may not always be cool. It’s OK to say so. But to date I’ve not met a student who has no inquisitiveness. 20% indeed.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a University Professor

  1. This obsession with ambition being the defining purpose of our lives begins in high school, though probably the headwaters are in middle school or earlier, but still yet a trickle there. At least in the university there’s opportunity to step back a little, to choose where your ambition ought to lie. Not really so in high school.

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