Professor Junior

Last week my wife and I got to see our daughter for the first time through an ultrasound monitor. Of course, the baby was real to my wife months ago, from those first flutters in her womb, but it’s only been since this recent doctor’s visit that I have really been able to wrap my mind around the idea of a new child. After finally seeing her face, learning her gender and that she is healthy, I’ve found myself trying to imagine the person she’ll someday become.

More specifically, I’ve been wondering if she might share some of my interests, if she’ll love books and language the way I do, and even if she might, like me, choose a career as a professor in the humanities. I know that from time to time most parents dream this way about their children growing up as little versions of themselves, but I suspect my recent reading might be exacerbating some of these fantasies—I don’t remember thinking quite the same way about our firstborn’s academic and professional future.

Reacting in part to the demand for more specialized and practical degree programs, Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be imagines an ideal liberal-arts education concentrated not so much on providing students with technical skills as with the ability to identify “what is worth knowing” and “how to think and choose.” He contends that colleges should place central importance on the development of students’ BS detectors and should foster in them a moral thoughtfulness that resists utilitarian ethics. My favorite of Delbanco’s arguments, though, is that a liberal-arts education should offer students the means to better enjoy life by exposing them to pleasures (experiences, concepts, fields of study) they might not otherwise explore. His case is passionately made and convincing (if at times a little anachronistic), and it’s had me thinking about those students and parents who ask hard questions about the efficacy of a degree like English.

Like most professors in the humanities, when I encounter those questions I tend to point out examples of students who have gone on to careers in any number of fields as well as those who are now educators themselves. Without thinking, I usually accept the assumption that a degree should lead neatly to a salary, but in reality my students’ professional successes have very little to do with why I’ve been imagining an academic life for my as-yet-unborn daughter. It’s not that the question of practicality is misguided or unimportant, but that it so easily eclipses that other question Delbanco asks: How do you make “the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”?

Before I had children of my own I’m not sure I would have thought in the same way about the role of intellectual curiosity and the pleasures of learning. My syllabi spell out the skills a semester in my classroom should impart. And yet, don’t all parents want first and foremost for their children to simply enjoy their time on the planet, to have rich emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives? If I imagine my daughter in academic regalia, it’s not because it’s now the family business or because this career will adequately compensate her financially or socially (it won’t), but because many of the greatest pleasures in my life were introduced to me by professors of art history, political science, and poetry who shared their passions with their students. While graduate school and academic research mean a great deal of specialization, professors who engage with the university at large have unique opportunities to continue their education in the widest sense. Whatever my daughter chooses to do with her life, few things will make me happier than knowing that the inside of her head is an interesting place.

For those of you with children, does it change your notion of your calling to imagine your sons and daughters as students? And whether you’re a parent or not, what role should enjoying life play in how we present our subjects, both in the classroom and outside it?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user MasterOMH.]

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