At the end of each semester, I provide my students with a closing note about the course. That note seeks to place the course, its content, and its requirements into a larger context. I do so, because I believe it is helpful for students to have one last opportunity to understand why they took the course and perhaps better identify what they gained from the course. Such understanding can perhaps reinforce learning for the long-term.
Below is the note to my fall 2013 students:
With the semester rapidly approaching its conclusion, it is a good time to share some thoughts about the course. All of you have your perceptions, some changeable and some probably not. Some of your perceptions might even be darkened by the shadow of December’s “Grinch” (aka the final exam) that stands between you and your completion of the course.
The true value of this, and any course for that matter, is the lasting knowledge one gains and the analytical framework one builds or reinforces. The mandatory information literacy session at the Library, the course’s cases, and its term paper were all intended to nurture at least a share of knowledge that will remain with you well after you have graduated from Lehman College.
Some—perhaps even many—found the demands of the course quite difficult. The requirements were not intended to create grounds for a crimes against humanity (or at least crimes against students) legal case. They were intended to stretch you toward the still expanding limits of your talents and abilities. Those limits can only be approached under the adversity of challenge.
At the recent Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia, one of the presenters provided a quote from Polish pianist and teacher Theodor Leschetizsky that applies at least as much to this class, as it did to the subject matter of his presentation. Leschetizsky advised, “If you think yourself a poor specimen, you will probably always remain one, or most likely become one, but if you think of yourself as having possibilities of greatness in you, there is a chance for you.”
The knowledge from this course and the others you have taken is a starting point. That knowledge helps form an intellectual foundation on which to build a good future. Of course, that building process never truly ends. Life is a journey of continual learning, as the world is always changing.
In a changing world, if one does not challenge oneself, how can one truly know what one could actually have achieved? If one does not push oneself beyond the familiar, how can one begin to know the opportunities that are available?
Complacency, then, is little more than a road map to mediocrity. It greatly increases one’s prospects of becoming the “poor specimen” Leschetizsky had in mind. It makes one a prisoner of one’s fate, not a shaper of one’s destiny.
As time passes, complacency puts one in the difficult position of having to try to turn one’s life around, and with no strong assurances of success. 20th century Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow once explained, “You can spend the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half.”
The combination of a reliable academic framework, determination to reach beyond the capabilities one believes one possesses, and sheer persistence in the face of temptations to quit can help one avoid the kind of personal tragedy Bellow described. Once one’s opportunities are swept away by the raging torrents of passing time, those possibilities can be lost forever. In that context, Bellow’s observation is not surprising at all. If anything, in the 21st century world that is more dynamic than the one in which Bellow lived, his insight may actually be optimistic.
Each one of you has the ability to progress through your studies, receive your degree, and advance in your careers. The more each of you takes from your courses and the more each of you breaks down the artificial silos in which your knowledge (both from the courses you have taken and the experiences you have accumulated) resides, the more you will increase your prospects of realizing your full potential in all aspects of your life, along with the rewards such realization can bring.
The purpose of this closing note was to give you a larger context in which to place the course. An ability to view things within a larger context will serve you well, even if you remain focused on the narrower and more immediate issue of the approaching final exam and course grade.
Good luck to all.