I had actually planned to write an entirely different blog this afternoon. Had it all sketched out and ready to go based on something I read recently in the Wall Street Journal. But, I received emails from two former students over the last four days and heard a third say something particularly interesting during a recent panel discussion. All three of them made me start thinking about what I truly wanted for my students. So, I decided to defer my original essay for a week or two and let my mind wander in a different direction.
College officials often say that one of the main purposes of a college education is to create well-rounded individuals who can lead meaningful and productive lives. Gosh, who could possibly argue against that goal? We are not training robots. We are teaching flesh and blood people. If we have any human feelings, we absolutely must want our students to live happy and fulfilled lives.
As college teachers, what is our responsibility in helping our students achieve such a goal? Or, is that someone else’s responsibility and not ours?
Where in college do we actually go about this process of helping students become well-rounded individuals ready to be productive members of society? Okay, we can require courses in literature or art but that is just shifting the burden off on someone else. Plus, requiring a course is not necessarily the same as sharing with them a love of Shakespeare or Botticelli. We can require psychology or history or political science but that might only mean they must learn to pass a test on those subjects. That is hardly life changing.
If you have read this blog for long, you know that I have two assignments in my Intermediate Accounting II class that have absolutely nothing to do with accounting. But I truly hope they have an influence on the future quality of life my students will experience.
(1) – I give my students up to five points on the final exam for visiting up to five places in the city of Richmond. I provide an approved list of sites they can visit: the art museum, the history museum, the Edgar Allan Poe museum, a park, the opera, a play, and the like. I have a great number of photos on my office walls of students at the ballet, a nearby James River park, an ancient house brought to Richmond from England, and so on. Does this assignment make them better accountants? I don’t know and I don’t care. I deeply hope it makes them better adults. I like that idea a lot. I truly believe that every college class needs to be about more than just the conveyance of subject matter if our students are going to have happy adult lives.
(2) – Every semester since 1993, I have asked my students to write an essay about the best book they have ever read. I get beautiful, long, thoughtful essays about books that range from 1984 to Harry Potter. From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Catcher in the Rye. You wouldn’t believe that accounting majors could write so eloquently about literature. I then accumulate the list (all the way back to 1993) and give it to the students and challenge them to start reading books from that list. Does the assignment make them better accountants? I don’t know and I don’t care. I do hope it makes them better adults.
Okay, what made me think of this? As I said, I recently received two emails from former students and heard another former student speak at a panel session.
Former Student One: It was not an easy process to adapt to the busy life in New York, but I like it so far. Inspired by the bold success story you wrote in your book, I have pushed myself to participate in different sorts of activities around the city and find my passion and dream outside of work. There are two of my adventures that I am eager to share with you (I have included photos). Two weeks ago, I signed up for a wine and painting event organized by my firm. Despite all my efforts, my painting still looked pretty sketchy. I am still very happy that I did it. This painting is currently proudly exhibited in my bedroom. The second picture was taken during a recent visit to the Guggenheim Museum.
Former Student Two: I heard that you're doing your best books assignment (which I remember from when I was in class but I can't remember what my answer was). I wanted to reach out and see if you'd share the list that you come up with? I'm looking for some books to read while I'm traveling for the holidays. I love that you do such an assignment - I find myself encouraging the staff that I work with to do more than just audit and go on social media/watch TV. I feel like my attitude is a result of you emphasizing that so much in your classes.
Former Student Three: (I am paraphrasing this because it came from a panel discussion to about 50 of our students). I have spent the last 27 years doing a great job of Managing My Career. I have pushed myself very hard to be very successful. I made all the sacrifices I could to be successful. Then last spring, at about 49 years of age, I had a heart attack. Since that day, I have done a much better job of Managing My Life. I wish I had thought about that a bit more when I was a student.
In 46 years, I have never had a former student thank me for teaching them to properly account for deferred income taxes. Never, not once. Last week alone, I had a student thank me for pushing her to get out and experience her environment (including visiting the Guggenheim Museum) and another thank me for pushing the importance of reading good literature.
This all struck me when I heard my other former student talk about Managing His Life rather than Managing His Career.
I cannot tell you how to do it in your class. I think that is up to you and what you feel comfortable doing. I just believe that college education should be about more than just knowing how to get all the rules lined up correctly. Think about some small assignment that you could add to your class that might have a positive effect on the quality of life that you want for your students. Start small and work your way up. Yes, of course, college needs to be about subject matter but it also needs to be about how to live a meaningful, satisfied life. And that is not a responsibility we should outsource to someone teaching a general education requirement. That should be an underlying goal of 100 percent of our classes.