As schools begin their fall semesters and students return to classes, the journey of education continues.
Though truly, each day is an education if you keep your eyes peeled and look and listen to what’s going on around you. That is most especially true these days.
It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since we’ve had our college juniors and seniors in person at our satellite campus in Los Angeles due to the safety guidelines of this pandemic. That means it’s been that long since I’ve stood live and in person in a classroom.
Like most teachers, professors or whatever you choose to call us in these divided times (Note: Indoctrinators? Lib-tards? Coddlers?) I was prepared for anything. And yet I was unprepared for anything of what I found.
I imagined students the way they’d seemed all these months on Zoom. Engaged yet tentative; attentive yet distracted; trying to make the best of a truly effed situation, much like me, but not always doing a good job of it.
Of course, we all feel this way from time to time, especially in college, and even without a pandemic.
Yet what I found instead was an overwhelmingly enthusiastic group of fully masked and fully vaccinated young people. They were not only excited to be here but couldn’t wait to get to work.
Their dispositions didn’t change even after they heard myself and my cohorts speak. Nor did it shift even a bit after they went on to take the mandatory COVID test we had arranged for them in the next room.
The masks weren’t a thing, the tests weren’t a thing and from what I could tell the prerequisite of a vaccination requirement for entry into our program was definitely not anything but a plus.
Even us professors droning on was nothing at all.
And who says today’s college students aren’t as smart as they used to be?
As far as I can see they’re way ahead of most of the rest of the country.
By A LOT.
This weekend I binge-watched the new six-episode Netflix half-hour comedy-drama The Chair. Yeah, yeah, I know. I should sue them. And don’t think I didn’t consider it.
It centers on a college professor that is smart, harried, neurotic and snide, played by Sandra Oh, who carries the title of Chair.
Truly, it’s my life portrayed by an actor I might have even personally chosen to play me if Hollywood were truly embracing the concept of colorblind casting.
Of course, as you might have guessed, the details of Ms. Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon, are not exactly me. She’s the newly appointed head of the English department at an unnamed lower-level Ivy League university. She’s a single mother, teaches poetry and literature in cozy wood rooms and has a raft of older white colleagues too often gunning for her and defying her authority.
I, on the other hand, am a long married gay guy who is childless that works at a liberal arts college, teaches TV and film writing and advises students about the entertainment industry in modern offices and classrooms with windows that don’t open.
In addition, mine is an endowed Chair appointment with no power to boss around anyone except my students (Note: Not that it stops me).
Nevertheless, as straight as she is and as screwed up as her romantic life can get, Ji-Yoon and I share a lot. We love knowledge, we enjoy challenging anyone who will listen and we don’t quite know the answers to as many questions as we think. In fact, we often find we know much less.
The Chair gets this exactly right and, given its higher education setting, those characteristics are exactly right. Despite what the outside world might think, the academic world is one that both dispenses and questions knowledge daily in a way that causes teachers to always feel a bit off-balanced inside, despite what they show the world.
It’s also an arena that breeds self-doubt since basically all you’re doing part of everyday is engaging in the give and take of ideas verbally and consistently being challenged by people younger than you. What’s even more crazy-making is that on any given day almost any one of them might be smarter than you.
Certainly, they are more current. Which, if you’re listening, forces you to, well…consider you are not God or whoever you imagine Her to be. Nor are you as young and freethinking as you think.
That last part is undeniable. Daily.
It’s in the latter, its portrait of the typical college student body, where The Chair goes a bit astray. Sure, it rightly has sub-plots of political correctness and ageism in the classroom. But it presents its students en masse through the cynical eyes of more adult writers.
It’s a vacuum of rigid correctness and self-righteousness that older people like to slap on the back of every young-ish person who questions their authority. A media picture of insolent youngins who stomp and holler if everything’s not perfectly tailored to them in the classroom in the way they would like.
It’s not the young people I met this week, none of whom bristled at a mandatory mask or vaccine or COVID test – or even of the many requirements they were being asked to fulfill this semester.
Certainly, these kids are not beyond bristling and not listening to everything we require of them or tell them. But at this point they are also on the whole not exhibiting the obstinate and pointless acting out behavior that many TV series continue to show them representing and that critics of #MeToo, critical race theory and social media saddle onto their backs.
They have much, much bigger issues to fry in the world we are leaving them than getting caught up in all that bogus small stuff, as entertaining as it might be to us oldsters.
And they are already smart enough to know much of what’s truly important even if we choose not to take time out to see them as they really are – imperfect and flawed – as we once were.
But just a bit younger and smarter than we ever were because, well, they have to be.
…. And just in case you want more Chair-on-TV content, check out our first ever mini pod — a slightly shorter podcast episode on one topic only. This week we tackle the season finale of Mike White’s water cooler HBO black comedy (drama? comedy-drama? oh who knows!) The White Lotus. Check it out here: