A Welcome Reminder Of Why We Do What We Do

Higher education is a twelve month a year, seven-day a week enterprise, but summers feel different. In the summer, students gather and disperse in hard-to-discern patterns. Faculty come and go. Some teach and some are away. The pace shifts for those on campus, compressed for some and leisurely for others. In the summer, administrative, logistical and business meetings add up. All this means that it is easy to forget about our students, outcomes, and the power of educational attainment, about why we are in this line of work.

Lives on the BoundaryA most welcome remedy is to revisit an education classic, Mike Rose‘s 1989 non-fiction Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared. If you have read it before, it is worth picking up again. If it is new to you, consider giving it some time.

Rose today is a successful professor of education at UCLA. His journey to this elevated position was neither direct nor foreordained. As he recounts in Lives on the Boundary, there was little in Rose’s family or support system that propelled him into a career in education. His parents were immigrants from Italy. They had little money or luck. Rose was an erratic student and not particularly ambitious. He went where he was told (he was placed, incorrectly, to a vocational technical program in high school). Rose’s path was greatly shaped by engaged and passionate teachers who challenged him, cared about him, and let him know that what he had to say and write mattered.

As he finished high school, attended Loyola University in Los Angeles – through its developmental education program – Rose consistently challenged himself and questioned his ability to succeed. He took several wrong turns, gave up a graduate fellowship, and searched for a way to find purpose in his intellectual and academic work. Joining the National Teaching Corps, a Great Society initiative that partnered neophyte educators with master teachers in schools filled with disadvantaged students, was a critical turning point. Rose found a calling teaching students to whom learning could make a tremendous difference. From there it was eventually to tutoring at UCLA, and then back to graduate school for an education in education.

Rose’s account is so moving because he marries his journey to those of his students. Students, to Rose, are not subjects, customers, or problems. They are extraordinarily important people, regardless of their commitment or ability or means. He pays attention to them, imagines himself in their shoes, and writes about them with care and deep consideration, almost a kind of love. It is inspiring. One can only imagine how effective he must be in the classroom, at the conference, and in the lives of many, many students.

Never quite certain of his own status and position within the academy, Rose’s focus on students who live on the boundary makes sense – personally and professionally. His book is aptly named. His message was true thirty years ago and even more so today. Good teaching made Rose’s success possible and good teaching will make the success of our current students possible. Good teaching has been essential in all our professional journeys. Rose’s work reminds us – of the power of good teaching, the value of caring, and how important it is to be grateful.

David Potash


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