Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Sun 7/22/2007 6:05 AM
Random Thought: What Call I Wish Graduates Would Hear

The thermometer had reached nearly 100 degrees. The mosquitoes and gnats were smarter than I. They were buzzing only in the shade ready to ambush any sane person who got out of the searing sun. But there I was, like some mad dog or Englishman, working on my front flower garden during the near superheated noonday sun. I was on my knees, pulling the choking quack grass that had grown to hay-like proportions during my jaunt in China. The sweat was watering the coreopsis. A car pulled up. The horn gave an abbreviated beep to catch my attention. I looked up. A young woman leaned out the drivers’ window. “Hey, Dr. Schmier, I just saw you. Its been a long while. I want you to know I made it! I graduate this week! It’s taken a while, but now it’s time for a ‘yeah for me,’ don’t you think?”

I smiled and waved. I hadn’t seen her in years. Let’s call her Karen. Honestly, at first I didn’t remember her name, but I remembered her. She had been constant struggle: married at sixteen, single parent, middle twenties, three children, full-time job, little sleep, no relaxation, constant legal fights with her wayward ex, meager financial resources, but lots of critical family support and encouragement. I rose from my knees, walked to the car, and had a congratulatory chat for a while with her. Just before she drove off, she said, “You know, I haven’t seen you in a few years, but I still look at all those ‘Words For The Day’ you had put on the whiteboard each day that we talked about for a few minutes at the start of class. I don’t know why, but for they lasted long after class ended. I think about them a lot. They’ve really got me. You wouldn’t believe how much and how often they’ve helped me all these years. I used them when I got real low and needed a shot to get on a ‘motivation high.’ My all-time favorite taped to my bathroom mirror is, ‘attitude is everything; so pick a good one--and live it.’ Now that I think about it, I was just wondering if you would find the time in the next few days to send me a few simple ‘words for life’ as a graduation present.” She wrote her e-mail address on my damp palm. Then, with a sudden “Well, gotta go and study for my final finals. Let me hear from you. Love ya.,” she pulled away from the curb.

I stood there as her car turned the corner. Not being on campus this summer, I didn’t realize until just then that graduation is upon us once again. I looked at her e-mail address and started wondering about with what besides her diploma is she going out into their future. We say we have prepared the students for this moment of celebration. That may be true, but we also call graduation is a commencement. Have we truly prepared them for what is to commence in the unknown moments to follow?

Our educational system has proclaimed it has a mission. That avowed mission glowingly worded in every campus mission statement is to prepare students for life. "For life," what does that really mean? For me it means the dual mission of training for skills and educating for character. Unfortunately, all too often "for life" has taken on a meaning in the classroom that focuses on just one band of the spectrum. It's as if our educational system has birthed little more than a series of white collar vo-tech schools. It's as if we care more about how much will be on the student's tax returns and in their IRAs and checking accounts than whether the student will be around as a contributing member of society tomorrow, next week or month or year. We lecture to their minds, but so often fail to talk to their hearts. And, I have said over and over and over for the last fifteen years, at the heart of an education is an education of the heart. To "prepare students for life" should include all the colors of the broad spectrum of learning.

"For life," then, must mean more if no other reason than there’s more to life than merely content transmission, passing a test, getting a grade, and acquiring the proverbial "critical thinking skilled" necessary to skillfully deal with the content of discipline. We academics have to treat students less as simple sponges and future diplomas and more as complex and complicated people. We should engage in a conscious and continuous search for the heart of each student, not merely for the mind. We have to be concerned with the social and emotional learning as well as the intellectual and technical. I have found it’s a no brainer. Caring about each student as an invaluable person and loving each student as a sacred human being is far more important than any information we give the students. Students cannot become the gifts to themselves and others if they don’t learn to connect with their hearts.

Each semester, in my syllabi for the nearly two hundred first year students, I explicitly talk with the student about two curricula. The first deals with the content of the material as well as those "critical thinking skills." The other deals with social and emotional skills, with helping students learn to manage themselves, to care about themselves and others, to cooperate with others, to encourage and support others, to persist, to motivate and inspire themselves, to tap their untapped potential, to focus, to resist temptations and pressures, to listen to others, to respect others and other points of view, to cooperate with others, and to get alone with others. Subject courses end, but the course of life goes on far beyond the limits of the term, classroom and campus. We have seen time and time and time again, that becoming a good person, acquiring a caring heart, having the wisdom to know right from wrong, being disciplines to do right even when it's costly, inconvenient, or difficult is far more important than knowing a formula, an equation, a date, or not to split an infinitive. It was Thomas Edison who said while it is the mind that creates, it is the heart and soul that control, guide, and give meaning. All too often we academics only ask “What can the teacher do to affect the future livelihoods of the students?" We should also ask, "Who can the teacher be, not only to her/his students but to her/himself as well. That is, are the students our neighbors?"

A caveat. What I am talking about is not a one-shot, one-time lesson, one-area, one-person deal. You just don’t put your thumb into a one-time academic course and then pull it out saying “what a good educator am I.” None of them is enough to bring about permanent and deep learning. We each have to keep it alive, fresh, iterated and reiterated; we have to make it an expectation; we have to constantly remind and never forget. We have to weave it into our conversations and actions; we have to integrate it intimately into each of our courses. We have to model it each moment. We have to make it an integral element in faculty development and peer mentoring.

So, what call do I wish she, as well as each and every graduate, would hear and heed as they walk across that stage to receive their diplomas? What’s their purpose? Why are they here? What really fulfills them? What really, sincerely, makes them happy? The answer to all these questions is not found in what they do. The answers are in who they are and why they do what they do. What they value, what and whom they love are the true answers and the true determinators of what they do. The fuel that drives them and their ability to steer their ship, however essential they may be, isn’t as important as the rudder that sets their courses.

She wanted a few simple words. I’ll give her what she wants. But, she knows, from her favorite “Words For The Day,” words are easy to come by; they are easy to read, easy to hear, and easy to roll off our tongues; but, there is nothing simple or easy in the spiritual discipline needed to listen to them, heed them, and live them. So, here is my graduation gift to her, my own simple “Words for Life” that taped on my bathroom mirror:

“Micah 6:8--every day.”

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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