LETTING IT BREATHE

  • 'An older wine in need of decanting will be delicately pulled from the rack in the cellar, placed in a cradle to minimize movement, and brought to the dining room, where it is presented to the host of the table. Once the host has confirmed it's the correct bottle, the sommelier brings it to the credenza just as a normal bottle of wine would be treated. In a ritual of drama and elegance, the sommelier lights a candle to illuminate the bottle so that the thin layers of wine can be seen as it's poured slowly into a decanter. If properly done, the sediment in the bottle will not spill into the decanter. Guests often marvel at the sommelier's precision and concentration. Once the bottle is emptied into the decanter, it is placed on the credenza, it's label facing the guests. The sommelier samples the decanted wine. If it meets his or her standards, the sommelier approaches the table and pours the host a sample, and service proceeds from there.' ~Edmund O. Lawler in "Lessons in Wine Service from Charlie Trotter"

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Jeffrey W. Zents

I find myself thinking something of the opposite. As a college professor myself I'm always concerned to make sure that my students get what they are paying for. Particularly, since some of my classes are required for the students to get their degrees, I emphatically want to make sure they get their money's worth. (True, what they think their money is worth and what I think it is worth probably are not exactly the same thing.) But the fact remains I think that most students at the University would not be there if there was not the jobs/economic carrot drawing them there. The sad fact is that now days there are many jobs that one is required to go to college in order to get into. These are jobs that it used to be possible to obtain simply by on-the-job training, or technical school. Now however, the kids have to go to college. So to them going to school is a business transaction, and since we have forced them to go to school for these jobs, they have a right to expect to get their money's worth. So I feel like I do need to complete a business transaction, even if I reserve the right to use my slightly more mature/educated judgment in determining what is their money's worth.

I suspect that part of the dissatisfaction felt with the idea of completing a transaction comes from the fact that we all wish our students were in our classes because they want to learn. The reality is, that many of the students who want to learn have been so frustrated by the public school system from the word go, that that urge is long dead in them. It is probably not reasonable to expect us to be able to resurrect that in the college classroom. This is sad, but I think it is true.

It is also a reality that most people need to worry about a job and food on the table. A long time ago in America, and in Britain, there were various outlets for working people to pursue and increase their education and their free time. But with the monopolization of education by the University, and the drawing in of so many occupations to the University by somehow arranging it so that you need a college degree or credits to practice this trade or that, those have gone away. Or at any rate they're not nearly as obvious and available as they used to be. And since we have failed to teach high school graduates how to teach themselves, they would be difficult to use for many people. The solution to returning the University to something of a place where people come because they have a love of learning, is not going to be simple, or easy. For the University to return to that position, trade schools and other places are going to have to flourish, and the high schools and lower schools are going to have to resume doing their job well of teaching kids how to read, write, multiply, divide, and so on.

So until that happens, I expect to have a lot of students in my class that are there only because they have to be there. And because they or their parents, have had to pay money for them to be there, I cheerfully want to give them their money's worth. A transaction I do not object to fulfilling, ever.

aez

This piece makes me think of a story. I was a junior, taking “Baby Physics,” specifically offered in order to fulfill a science requirement for liberal arts majors; it was to be easier than normal physics classes for science majors. The way my teacher “babied” us was to slow the pace: we didn’t cover the amount of material he would have covered in a regular basic physics class semester, but we had to learn a certain amount of basic physics and handle its math. (It was hard for us, and it was fantastic, and several of us convinced the teacher to write a new course prep so we could take a second semester of baby physics from him.) Late in the semester, there came an outburst from a senior in the class (who had likely put off fulfilling this requirement as long as he possibly could): “Why do we have to learn this stuff, anyway?” Now, this student knew PERFECTLY WELL why, as the value of the multidisciplinary core curriculum approach had been stressed to us countless times in multiple venues, but the stunned teacher reiterated what we all already knew, yet again. The value of that class, for that student, was lower than the value of the very same class for me.

If you continue teaching to the students for whom the classes are high-value, you’ll have a chance of cultivating in some that love of learning you would like to see on a consistent basis. At this point in human history, I think it doesn’t matter how few students are possessed by it, as far as your work goes. And keep space-time limitations in mind, too…for all I know, that same impatient senior came to love stretching out for a sheer love of learning later in his life (and I prefer to think of it that way). If he did, he had an excellent basis to work from. It may be years later that students feel the influence of something you made them master, and you may not ever know about it. But as long as you think it’s worth the risk, keep going anyway.

aez

On some of your other burdens in this post, though, I am sure you’d be willing to grant that some of the functions of a school are going to be inevitably business-oriented. It sounds as if, for the sake of your concerns, you are walling those functions off from teaching, the actual performance of the task of education. (Understandable, but it limits the application of your questions.) Even if you do that, the administrative burden on formally organized goods/services providers of all kinds in all sectors has increased, for a multitude of reasons and from a plethora of regulators/funders. If you believe higher education should be exempt from that activity in whole or in part, can you state why? (Your musing on the proper aim of education, I fear, does not answer this.) Sure, businesses are subject to feeding administrative beasts as well, and obviously to at least the same extent--but insisting schools are not businesses will not spare schools from that quicksand.

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