I believe in my college students. As a professor of freshman composition, each fall semester I see a new batch of hopeful faces and I remember again why I love my work. You see, my students are asked to share opinions few have asked of them before. And although they’re not sure the opinions they express are fully their own, it doesn’t matter, to them or to me—the point is they’ve been asked. Like goslings wobbling after the goose, they follow me into a raucous conversation about the issues of our day, what they think and why, and only then do I show them the framework for their ideas to get them to the dreaded “g” word—grades. You know the score: thesis statement, style guide, one inch margins—the whole bit. They think I make this stuff up to torture them. They don’t realize, though, that what I really want is to know what they think…and think they do! They even seem glad I asked.
I like to provoke their thinking. This term I asked them whether the war in Iraq was the right response to 9/11. You probably think you know what 20-somethings who are fighting in Iraq think about that question. I believe you don’t. I also believe that you won’t know what 20-somethings here at home think unless you stop and ask them. Americans of their generation face a heavy and global burden. I believe they know it too. I believe they’re smarter than we think.
I’ve heard young men who don’t yet shave argue with conviction for the importance of establishing just cause before going to war. Others have written with equal persuasion that fighting for freedom is just cause enough. I’ve read papers by young women who argue that the most important thing we can do about the violence in the Middle East is to understand what it’s like to be Muslim first. Others write with surprising zeal about their own desire to fight for their country. You may believe they’re tuned out and more interested in the latest gadgets and fashions. I believe otherwise.
What they think tells me there is true hope in the world. The energy they bring to the classroom is full of humor and stress, fear and silliness, but, so many times, also wisdom. After nearly twenty years I’m reminded again each fall that they are not the icons of television fame, they’re real American people with real American dreams. I don’t have a single Paris Hilton wannabe. One exception, a young woman who strikes a daunting pose and has the purse to match, is actually a bilingual speaker and writer and has earned the A I’ve given her this term. There are no bad boys, either, just young men badly wanting to be somebody. The fearless ambition of college students inspires me like good rock n’ roll music—it makes me want to dance. I believe in my college students. I believe you should too.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.