One summer, back when I was a boy, I started fishing every morning with my friends. We would take our simple rods and reels down to a neighborhood pond and fish for bluegill and sunfish. Mostly we would catch them and let them go. Then, one day we decided that we wanted to eat what we caught, and so we brought to our respective homes a good mess of bluegill. As I recall, my family wasn't too excited about the prospect of the meal that lay before us that evening, but they seemed proud of me. I remember my grandfather showing me how to clean a fish. I thought it was nasty work but I did it and I remember him saying, "Well, now you are a fisherman."
I will never forget that. I did not have the wherewithal to process the full meaning of his remark but I sensed a shift in my identity. When I left the house that morning I was a kid who went fishing. When I returned home and learned how to convert my catch into food, my grandfather, a wise authority figure in my life, had pronounced me a fisherman. In other words, I changed. I felt my chest puff up with a little bit of pride. But it was also a little confusing and scary. What did it mean to become a fisherman? Would I have to get a union card or something? In any case, I saw myself a little differently after that. I wasn't just a kid who fished; I was a fisher man.
The last year has been a tough one in education — the toughest that I have seen in my lifetime. Last March when the pandemic erupted, we all had to figure out how to get through the spring semester. How would we move all of our classes online? How would we administer tests? How would students check out books from the library to write their research papers? How would they finish internships? What even was Zoom?
We managed and then immediately had to begin thinking about summer and, more ominously, the fall semester. It was all planning all the time. What would conditions be like in the September? Would it be safe to return to the classroom? What kind of gear would we need? What cleaning protocols and instructional technology would need to be in place? If forced to remain online, what would that look like? Education is about more than filling heads with facts. There is a social, affective dimension to it. There is a joy in belonging to a community of learners. Eventually the fall semester got underway and we learned that while much of our planning paid off, we still had to improvise. By December, when the semester finally ended, you could see the strain on everyone's faces, even behind masks and from six feet away.
And so things have continued this spring, although of late, it is nice to see some signs of hope.
College has always been and remains a place of becoming. Students don't just come here to learn facts and get credentials. (Well, some do — some are in a hurry, but I would argue that it is wiser to take one's time and savor the process.) A first-rate college education is one where the learning changes the learner — where it adds to the student's capacity to know and to do by, say, 10%, which is a lot when compounded over time. In some cases the changes are fairly obvious: one enters college as "just a student" and graduates as a teacher, an engineer, or a nurse. More fundamentally, all students graduate as bachelors of the arts or sciences. "Bachelor" — that's an interesting word. We generally use it to refer to a popular TV show or, more broadly, an unmarried person. But going way back to Middle English, "bachelor" refers to someone who has earned a degree and thereby holds the status of a knight. To be clear, not the kind of knight who owns a lot of land or hauls off on the Crusades, but someone who nevertheless is recognized by others as a person of accomplishment and character and who thereby commands a measure of respect. In the feudal Middle Ages, that mattered. It offered a chance at upward mobility and a better, richer quality of life. The same remains true today.
Next month, A&M Texarkana will host its first commencement ceremony in a year. I can't wait. Commencement marks the moment when we all recognize that the process of becoming has passed a certain tipping point in the lives of our students and that our newly minted graduates are indeed onto a new stage in their lives. This year, I will also be celebrating the institution of higher education as a whole, which continues to make such transformations possible in the first place, even in the most challenging circumstances.
Dr. Del Doughty is the Dean of the College of Arts, Science and Education at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.