The Academically Disengaged

We need more Bill Waltons, the former college and professional basketball legend whose playing days were cut short by numerous injuries and related surgeries.

“My injuries piled up,” Walton explains. “Bad back, broken bones, ankle and foot problems, broken hands and wrists, knee injuries, and broken noses.” By his count, Walton had 38 orthopedic surgeries to mend his various injuries.

Currently, Walton is a wonderfully idiosyncratic basketball analyst whose “glass of life” is constantly overflowing. The list of things he appreciates is exceedingly long. His positivity is contagious. His commentary is 45% basketball and 45% philosophical, interdisciplinary ramblings. The remaining 10% of the time he’s busting his partner’s chops. Their faux exasperation with each other can’t hide their chemistry and mutual affection. It just works.

Midway through yesterday’s UCLA-Oregon game (Bruins off the Duck schneid), Walton said something that instantly clarified my thinking about my teaching this fall. He said, “You can’t learn what you don’t want to know.” Turns out, after a little sleuthing, he was quoting Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who in one of their songs wrote, “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna to know.” Shame on Walton, one of the greatest passing bigs of all time, for not crediting Garcia.

Much is being written about the growing academic achievement gender gap. Here is my Reader’s Digest point of view on it based upon my “on the ground” experience. A third of my students are male. At least half of them are excellent, by which I mean they think deeply about what they read, participate actively in class discussions, and write better and better over the course of the semester as a result of working at it. They’re sensitive, caring, and socially conscious. A privilege to work with.

The other subset doesn’t read, participates sporadically in ways that do not deepen our discussions, and pay little to no attention to their peers. They’re way more interested in their phones than what we’re reading and thinking through.

“Well Ron,” the K-12 teachers are probably saying, “your job is to get them interested.” I don’t want to ever become some of my colleagues whose answer to this dilemma is for the Admissions Office to just admit “better” students. My K-12 friends are right, but so is Walton, I mean Garcia, no matter how much magic my engaged students and I can muster, “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna to know.”

Compared to my female students, a disproportionate number of my male students don’t like to read and lack curiosity about themselves and others. While still a minority of males, this disengaged subset seems most interested in two things. A diploma and a job. Rightly or wrongly convinced of the need for a diploma for improved job prospects, they are resigned to playing the game of school for four years. At a large cost. 

These students would benefit immensely from a gap year or two. Especially if we had a respected National Service program that they could opt into. 

Absent that, some of the apathetic will do just enough to graduate relatively unchanged. And for many others, their apathy will get the best of them, and all they will have to show for their limited effort is years of debt.

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