To Question and To Quest

It seems to me that certainly by the time a person has reached the biblically famous age of three-score-years-and-ten (plus two years beyond that, as I have reached this past week), she (or he) has the right – if she’s been paying attention along the way, reading, writing, thinking, discussing, observing, grappling (in short, doing the requisite homework) – to express her experientially earned point of view.

This is even more than a right: It’s the responsibility of every intelligent, well-meaning elder of every society. Why else, I ask myself, do we live this long if not to help light the path for those born after us?

A dear old friend e-mailed me recently to tell me she enjoys reading my blog posts – all except the politically-themed ones. Why, she implied, must I be so heavy? Isn’t there enough bad news in the world? Why couldn’t I confine my posts to hummingbirds and pussy cats and sun-cooked meals? Why can’t I just be a “pink and fluffy” old lady?

Well, I didn’t get into it with her. I thought, “To each her own.”

But I’m thinking now: I may be retired, but I’m not yet dead. I have a responsibility, as a thinking person and as a communicator, to share my thoughts while I still can. It is my (unpaid) job, my purpose, to question and to quest for as long as I live. This is who I am, and it is my reason for still being.

So, along these lines, here’s another politically-themed post, which will no doubt disappoint my dear old friend:

In my ongoing struggle to understand the mindset of Trump’s most diehard supporters – who vehemently cheer him still, despite his numerous self-inflicted scandals and all of the unsettling political tumult in the news lately – I’m reminded of some of my students when I was an adjunct instructor of English at an open-enrollment community college in northern New Mexico for ten years.

There were always at least one or two in each class; I could depend on it: students who didn’t do their homework reading, couldn’t therefore participate in class discussions based on those readings, sat through class sullenly and slumped with their arms crossed at their chest, and didn’t do at all well on tests.

They would invariably try to argue with me privately after class about their much-lower-than-expected grades, hiding their fears and insecurities behind belligerence:

“How DARE you give me a D! I’m going to lose my financial aid now because of YOU!”

“Grades are not ‘given,’” I’d counter, “they’re earned. I’m sure you would have done a lot better if you’d done the homework reading.”

“But I have two kids and a part-time job! I don’t have TIME for no reading!”

“Then maybe college isn’t for you,” I’d say, to their surprise. “This isn’t high school. High school is behind you. This is higher learning, and it takes work. If you want to be a positive role model for your kids and you hope to one day get a good-paying, full-time job, you’ll have to do the work that’s required to stay in college.

“Look,” I’d go on, if I thought I was getting somewhere, “It’s not my job to tell you what to think, but it is my job to teach you how to learn to think – and you do that by reading. In college – especially in college English classes – reading, writing, and discussing are requirements for learning. This is the purpose of higher learning – to teach critical thinking that will guide you throughout life.”

One memorable student, with prison tats and an ankle bracelet, even tried to bully and intimidate me into giving him a better grade.

“You betta watch out!” he growled at me menacingly.

“Oh, really?” I said, as if impressed. Then I smiled at him.

He didn’t last long.

Today, sadly, I think of Donald Trump as the champion – or patron saint – of students like these. Trump is proof for them and others like them that you can bully your way to the top, you can win through intimidation, and you don’t need to take the time to do your homework reading.

I think of Trump as every college professor’s worst nightmare: the specter of someone who successfully paints liberal arts education as “elitism” and elitism as evil, in his up-is-down and backward-is-forward world. Trump negates every truth we earnest higher-educators ever tried to instill.

College attendance doesn’t automatically make a person better or smarter, to be sure. I know many good, intelligent, and highly educated people who never had the opportunity or wherewithal to go to college but who nonetheless became self-taught through wide-ranging reading, far-ranging travel, and a general sense of intellectual curiosity.

But at the same time, it’s no wonder to me that a large proportion of Trump’s voting demographic is made up of non-college-graduates — people who, alas, never learned the meaning and value of critical thinking.