The answer to life, the universe, and everything (but “Why Teach?”) is 42.
The answer to “Why Teach?” was summed up perfectly by my friend and colleague Mark: “I teach for selfish reasons.” So do I, and my reasons aren’t much different from the ones he so articulately explained in his recent blog. Teaching is fulfilling, learning is an addiction (and you can’t have one without the other!), and both give my un-spiritual self a reason to be. I’m going to let Mark speak for me here and direct you over to his blog for further reading.
A related question that I’ve been thinking about lately is “Why literature?” Why read it, why study it, why teach it? Again, there are so many smart people out there who have voiced their opinions on why literature matters and I don’t want to just repeat them because you’re probably familiar. Reading makes you more empathetic—yep. Reading makes you smarter—indeed. Reading is good for humanity in general—if it makes you smarter and more empathetic then this must be true, so yes.
But are any of these reasons going to make you want to pick up Crime and Punishment on your days off? Probably not. Think about how much less appealing reading literature for these reasons is, then, to a teenager. Telling them that reading will make them a better person, more able to cope with the hardships of life, more understanding of people next to and far away from them, more knowledgeable about geography, history, science, philosophy, bunnies, why people hate and why people love—is like telling them they should WANT to eat vegetables because they’ll be healthier and live a longer life. What you’re asking them to do is to commit to a daunting and possibly unpleasant task for an abstract reward that *maybe* they’ll start to notice in a decade or two, assuming they’ve done a bunch of other stuff that also goes in to making a person better, smarter, or healthier. Basically, imposing even your valid reasons on a person as a way to coerce them into doing something they ordinarily wouldn’t do is a pretty ineffective approach. Alternatively, you could go with the “Or Else!” method. Eat your vegetables or you don’t get ice cream! Read Huck Finn or you fail! They would be more likely to do it, but less likely to voluntarily want to do something similar again.
People need to find their own reasons to want to read. I see it as my responsibility as a teacher to provide my students with the opportunities and the tools they need to decide for themselves why literature matters. So far, the best way I know how to do that is to give them options and to encourage creativity. In this way, students can show me Why.
And we’re back to the selfish reasons why I teach: teaching has endlessly creative potential. I can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t draw, I’m sort of good at following a recipe, I can barely crochet a scarf—I would have been a terrible guest in a 19th century drawing room. And even though my difficulties with writing have become almost phobia-like, I’m an excellent close-reader and I use that skill to inspire my teaching. In a way, classrooms are my canvas. Teaching is MY outlet for the creative energy we all have inside of us, that desire that drives a person to do a thing or to make a thing well and to be acknowledged for it.
I posted some of the wonderful work that students created in the section of Great Books I taught last semester, it’s up on the “Scholarly Pursuits” page. Spoiler Alert: we wrote a book!