It’s September, and this means it’s back to studying. Time to hit the books. As a teacher here at UTK, this makes me really excited, although I have a hard time convincing some of my students to feel the same way. And I get it, for the most part. When compared with other college related words and phrases such as “football,” “parties” and “new student union,” “studying” doesn’t exactly make everyone’s ears perk up.
Part of this is due to the way we have been conditioned to think about studying. In our fast-paced and hyper-competitive capitalist world, we are taught that the only legitimate reason for studying, for going to college, is to acquire an economically tangible set of knowledge and skills that we can then turn into economic productivity and prosperity. Studying ends up being simply the cause of a desired economic effect, a calculation that will hopefully pay off down the road.
The tragedy is that this way of thinking about studying is borne out in some really anxious students. For example, many college students are making decisions about what to study solely through an economic lens. As a teacher, I’ve encountered so many students unenthusiastically majoring in a subject because they think (or often because their parents think) it’s their only chance at making some money in life.
The humanities have been hit particularly hard by these kinds of assumptions. What’s the point of studying literature or poetry or philosophy or religion if it’s not going to land you a cushy job after college? Even though the data suggests that students majoring in the humanities have just as good job prospects as any other major, and that the humanities enable students to develop a set of intellectual skills enabling high levels of performance and adaptation within the modern job market, students are flocking to the supposed safety of more economically tangible and “practical” degree tracks that they have been told will give them a more economically secure future. When decisions about education are made based only on economic ends, I believe genuine knowledge of ourselves and the world suffers.
While I do not wish to give the impression that going to college has nothing to do with economic ends, I think there is another way to think about studying and its purpose. As a teacher of American religion and its relation to issues of race and ethnicity, I am always trying to remind my students that what we are doing in the classroom is not simply about acquiring knowledge so that they can fulfill a degree requirement, and then get credentialed, and then get a job, and then make some money. Rather, what we are doing in the classroom is trying to figure some stuff out together.
We are not only trying to think critically about what democracy might look like within our broader American context, but to actually enact spaces of democracy amidst our own forms of racial, ethnic, gendered, sexual and religious plurality. In the classroom we are trying to create an intellectual and even social community that is assembled for the purpose of helping us live our lives as common human beings. Studying, to paraphrase the American philosopher John Dewey, is not preparation for life — studying is life itself.
The classroom is not the only place within the university that study takes place. I suggest that all activities taking place on campus can be thought of as forms of intellectual community, of study. As one of my favorite thinkers, black studies theorist Fred Moten, says, "study is simply what happens when you are with other people. It’s talking and walking around together; working, dancing, suffering."
Studying is hanging out in the dorm together, going to a football game with your friends, having a jam session, sitting on the lawn together in front of McClung Tower or working together at the library — all of these are various modes of study. In all of these activities we listen, take in the data, make hypotheses, experiment. In the stuff of life, in all of the activities that make up our university life, we are constantly figuring stuff out together, often through trial by error, learning what it means to be human with each other and for each other.
Being part of a university community, there are so many connections to be made and so many potential avenues through which being and living in common might be pursued. This is true inside and outside of the classroom. So let’s study together. Let’s get together and cook up some knowledge. Let’s hit the books, the library, the student union, Neyland Stadium, the mountain trail or wherever it is that you find your passion and humanity as you study what it means to be human with others.
David Kline is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and can be reached at email@example.com.
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