Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Core Curriculum and Quality Education: A Conversation Stephen ZelnickGo Back to Table of Contents
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Zelnick: Of course not. Teaching is always oriented toward what our students confront in life. I think that our young people, like young people in the past, and probably more so, have difficulty imagining themselves as agents, as actors, as people who will find themselves in situations where they will have to make moral, political, and ethical choices that will mean anything at all. They see themselves instead as victims, as objects of fate, economic forces, history, and information systems that overwhelm them. In short, they see themselves as objects of an eclectic gathering of events that they neither can control nor conceptualize effectively. So part of what goes on in our teaching is to suggest to them some of the circumstances that people do find themselves in in adult life. I work very hard as a classroom teacher in finding the moments of moral choice that can serve as some faint preparation for decisions in their own lives. And when that’s lacking, I try to talk to them about circumstances in my life as a professor, administrator, husband, father, member of the community--as well as events in the lives of friends--to give them some notion of what goes on in an adult’s life. So I work very hard to connect classic texts with the world going on around them.

ellipses: Are the values that they perceive in the classics understandable in the context of “the world going on around them?”

Zelnick: Well, the example of a figure like Socrates goes down extremely well. Our students are alive and awake and alert to a man who in his very deepest gesture raises questions about what is most comfortable and familiar in our lives. This aspect of Socrates--the destroyer of received traditions--they not only do not have a problem with, but they are elated by the tearing down of icons. They’re happy with the iconoclast. Thus. . .there is interest in the figure of a man who stands for truth emphatically and will suffer for the truths he wishes to uphold. This is a sticking point for students. They admire Socrates, but like Crito, they also believe on reflection there is something foolish about going to one’s death for an idea that has no immediate urgency. They’re puzzled by it. They find themselves agreeing with Socrates’ arguments, but in the last instance are baffled by his sacrificial gesture--and they may find it a little crazy, frankly. And I’m not sure that they are wrong. They do better with similar examples of standing for the truth against danger with Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King; figures who stood with their lives, and finally at the cost of their lives, for extraordinary ideals. This strikes them very deeply because there they can see the utility of these ideals for the life experiences of masses of people. And these powerful moral gestures make sense to them in a way that Socrates standing for a philosophical perspective and for legal process does not. Still, Socrates’ sacrifice can be a reference point and a beginning for the discussion of other kinds of moral courage. They’re not ready to commit themselves to any such thing, but it reverberates powerfully in the way they think about seeking some grand moment. So there’s a lot to be said for what’s involved in the rite of passage from adolescence to adult responsibilities and knowledge that resides in the classics, and the moments of individual courage and challenge that the classics often reveal. My students and I had a wonderful chat regarding what historians would be looking at a hundred years hence, looking back and trying to understand the question of the emerging generations and what their challenges were. We decided that the current headlines would not turn out to provide the real framework for understanding the great issues of these generations.

ellipses: Which are?

Zelnick: The young people I know are making an extraordinary transition from parochial worlds to increasingly cosmopolitan worlds with global interconnectedness. They are having to absorb information, images, and perspectives at a dizzying rate. This is often called `the information explosion,’ but it is a good deal more than that because it’s not just about information; it has a great deal to do with moral and ethical discourse, and with dimensions of the imagination. The smaller worlds our youngsters emerged from were bound together by church and family, by local economic networks and the traditions of particular ethnic groups.

In contrast, all of our youngsters - and here I’m not just talking about immigrant youngsters or underprivileged youngsters - are emerging into a world that may no longer sustain the communal perspectives that shaped the world of earlier generations. So when they confront issues of religion, for example, you find young people with a hunger to locate a religious connection with time, nature, their fellow human beings, as well as something deep within themselves. They search for some notion of the ‘right way,’ that is beyond the orthodoxy of traditional religions. They question deeply, and often reject in many ways wholesale what was given to them with their mother’s milk. They are taking bits and pieces of different systems as they are useful to them, and looking to other traditions, and taking bits and pieces of these traditions, and cobbling together something of an outlook on life. It’s very different from a deep faith or a belief system--it’s more ragged than that--and yet about certain issues, they have developed clear, forceful, notions of right and wrong.

ellipses: So that through an exposure to the classics, this process of creating new values becomes richer?

Zelnick: It is richer in their quest, no matter how naive it may seem, to make the world a better place. There’s an ethic, at least in the United States, of spreading to other places some of the economic benefits that come more easily in this society. There’s a code of honesty, generally, that young people hold to pretty strongly, not just with their intimate friends, but with people they meet otherwise. There’s a trust and openness towards other people. I guess this is a part of the American culture that has a religious dimension in some of its manifestations; a belief in the essential goodness of other people. There’s a concern for the fate of the earth that has a background in certain moral traditions and has a new valence in our own time; and there is a new Puritanism and a notion of dignity, particularly in sexual affairs, which has nothing to do with AIDS, I think, but is a rebound from the previous generation’s excesses. There is a readiness to listen to hard reasons, and to follow them, and to search in strange places to get a larger view. There’s an extraordinary readiness to encounter other cultures, to embrace difference, that I think you would look hard and long for through the annals of human history to find anything comparable to. It’s hard to find a nativist note in these youngsters. They’re avid to find out how things go on in the worlds of ethnic and racial difference, and to explore the possibilities, and to make good use of what’s there. Sometimes they don’t know that this is part of their agenda. They just do this because it seems so reasonable and sensible, but I think it’s a powerful element in their ethic. But there is also a great nervousness concerning how much there is to absorb about the larger world. They will work with Asians, with Europeans, with Africans; and it’s overwhelming to imagine a world that once was so far away and different, and not one they had to think about, suddenly becoming part of the near landscape of their lives. There’s some tension about that. There’s some worry on their part about being able to merge with that world. It is a very exciting time in which it’s possible to explore with young people their momentous rite of passage into this very different kind of world. The education we provide does in some limited way respond to that, but in other ways, it lags behind.

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