One of the mighty idols of pedagogical conventional wisdom to which teachers are consistently compelled to genuflect is the icon of “student engagement.” There are definitions of student engagement that are as benign as they are obscure, but the most stark and accurate translation of the term was arguably delivered by Russell Crowe in the 2001 sword-and-sandals opus “Gladiator,” when he bellowed amid a mound of corpses to a masticating Colliseum crowd, “Are you not entertained?!?!?” For the demand of student engagement has essentially come to mean, “are the kids having fun, yet?” Are they, indeed, entertained? For if the students are not downright enraptured with what transpires during the hour they spend with their teacher, they will not learn.
This millstone of a mandate for entertainment is increasingly exacerbated by the ever-multiplying arsenal of electronics with which children are equipped and addicted at the earliest of ages, forcing, in effect, multiple theaters of instructional conflict, to distract kids from their distractions, to wrestle away that which already engages them, or merely acquiesce to their addiction. Teachers are increasingly pressured to pander to the appetites and impulses of a generation made unruly and undisciplined by a multitude of enabling forces. There is no way that any of this leads to true education.
Students need to know that life is filled with drudgery. They need to know that life is filled with duties, often dull, unpleasant, and tedious, that do not move at the velocity of a video game, but the performance of which are vital for functioning in the real world. We teachers are incessantly informed that we are to prepare the children for the real world with all its terrors and trials. Well, one of the best preparations with which we can provide them is for doing things that they do not wish to do day in and day out. It is called self-discipline.
There is a quote, falsely attributed to the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and frequently inflicted upon teachers at staff meetings, which says, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Not only did Yeats not say it, it does not make sense. And, in the words of the great jurist Judge Judy, “if it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true.”
Lighting fires is exciting business, but life consists much more frequently of the dull, laborious business of filling pails. It consists of chores and duties and demands that necessitate deferral of gratification and completing labor that is less than scintillating. The best thing we can instill in these kids is not a love of learning but the discipline, the iron will to learn, the muscles of perseverance. What happens in a classroom does not have to be exciting to be informative or erase ignorance.
Ultimately then, the true definition of student engagement needs to be students engaging with their own effort to learn.
Jim Cullison teaches history at Lincoln High in San José