Steve Gilbert, the leader of the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group (TLT Group), and I had an interesting conversation yesterday. We were doing an interactive interview/conversation piece for use with his national listserv and online community.
As we talked about the usefulness of student evaluations of instruction, new course designs at MIT, and broad strategies to increase student engagement, another topic kept popping up. The persistent theme we circled back toward involved the modern push and pull between preparing our students—and ourselves for that matter—for a world of rapid change, career mobility, and shifting priorities versus challenging our students to be part of a community, to develop a sense of authentic purpose and belonging. This conversation got me thinking that this dynamic strongly relates to a defining dialectic of our postmodern age: practical cynicism and individuation versus daring to believe in something and becoming a caring member of a community.
I’ve seen it in almost every world in which I’ve worked over the last ten years: education, association, and corporate. People are torn between looking out for number one and looking out for each other, focusing on their own interests or really showing interest in someone else. It’s as if we are desperately hopeful for real, authentic, inspirational leadership that will make us a substantive part of something larger than ourselves, but cynically resigned when our greatest wishes are dashed away by scandal, betrayal, or incompetence. I touched on this a bit in the Don’t Stop Believing post a few months back.
What is this duality doing to us? Maybe it’s a healthy dose of reality therapy, and this push and pull is an important part of being hardy enough to take the “slings and arrows outrageous fortune.” Probably true. However, there is also a possibility that this duality is becoming so pronounced that whole groups of people are swinging too hard either way. Some are becoming so cynical and individually focused that they’ll withdraw from any position or stand. They sit on the sidelines deriding all players on the field. Others are so fanatically obedient that they dutifully play their part in partisan divides or, worse yet, will blow themselves to bits for a cause.
What is the perfect pathway to the balance of interests and interest? I’m not sure. But we might want to challenge ourselves to be even more thoughtful of our own take on this divide. Even though we are hard pressed to prepare our students for a fast changing world, we may be sowing some hurtful seeds if we don’t also help them learn more about being thoughtful members of a community. In this regard, developing interest may actually be in all of our interests.