Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What to Do on the First Day by Scott Harris

"Why are we here?" I ask my new students. "Why did you come to school today?"

Typically, they are stunned by the question. Their faces seem to be asking, "Where are the rules? The syllabi? Why are you asking us to talk on the first day?"

By now, some student will say, "Because there's a law!" After the laughs quiet down, I ask, "So the law is why you came here today? If there were no law, you wouldn't be here?" (Ninety percent of such clever students don't respond. They realize that they are here for more than the law.) We rapid-fire a list of their reasons: to see their friends, they're bored from the summer, to learn, etc.

Quickly, the better students start connecting education with the quality of their future. While this is hopeful, it is also shallow. They say, "We're here to learn so we can get good grades."

I ask, "Why do you need good grades?"

They respond, "So we can get into a good college?"

"So you got up today to get good grades, so you can get into a good college?"

"And what then, after college?" In a satirical tone, I pretend I am one of them. "I don't know, sir, good grades, good college, good life. No one told me I had to think past that."

I ask, "What is the good life after college?"

One student inevitably suggests making lots of money, but others quickly pick this apart. Eventually one will offer, "To be happy."

"What does it mean to be happy?"

"Are you going to give us any answers," exclaims a frustrated student, "or just keep asking us questions?"

"I ask questions," I say. "I'm still figuring out some of these myself. But it seems to me that while happiness may be subjective, there are certain characteristics of human nature -- love, respect, security, and yes, even a certain amount of money -- that are necessary to be happy."
We start discussing what a liberal art education is and how it contributes not only to good grades and college, but the good life. ("Why take Chemistry?" I ask. You can imagine the line of questioning.)

By now, the bell catches us and there are lots of groans in disappointment. "That went so fast." "This was just getting interesting!" "I want to talk about this more!" 

I tell them, "I guess you'll have to come back tomorrow."

Walking out, I hear them say to each other, "This class is different" and "How come we don't talk about this in our other classes?"

What a shame that students can go until their junior year without really having talked much about why we're here.

Talking about why we're here has made the first day of school my favorite day.

During his 25 year career in education, Scott Harris has taught U.S. & World History, Philosophy, I.B.’s Theory of Knowledge, and coached swimming & water polo. He currently teaches AP Psychology & Macroeconomics at Ronald Regan H.S. in San Antonio, TX.