Not too long ago, while grading homework for a course I was teaching, I saw a “better than usual” performance from one of my students. I noted that, if she would consistently concentrate on what she was doing, she was capable of very good work. The response I got to this was as follows:
I just stumbled across the feedback you gave me…Thank you for that. It’s nice to hear those things once in a while, and especially from a professor of your calibre.
My response to this was as follows:
At the beginning of his poem Paradiso, Dante wrote the following:
The glory of Him who moves all things rays forth
through all the universe, and is reflected
from each thing in proportion to its worth.
Our first task in life is to point the mirror in the right direction.
I’m sure that it’s the rare professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science that would quote Dante in a communication with a student, but doing so brings up some things that need to be said.
Today the concept of “equality” is endlessly paraded before us. In practice, however, equality is a tricky concept. It’s one thing to pass some legislation and give each other the high-five that we’ve moved towards a more just society. It’s another to achieve real equality. To do that would require either that we accept that everyone have the same outcome (which was a goal of Communism) or abolish any kind of reward for performance, and frankly we’re not near either one.
No where is that more evident than in education. In spite of the levelling efforts of the last fifty years, we still don’t have real equality, not only among the students and faculty but among differing institutions. There are many reasons for this but the most important one is that people are not the same; thus, inequality is built into the system from the start.
A teacher is presented with a varied lot each time class assembles. In addition to differing levels of intelligence, there are other things that vary. Students learn differently one from another. Some take too many courses in one semester. Some work full-time jobs and/or have a family. Some do both, which can be a real disaster. Some experience personal tragedy, either going into their studies or during them.
It’s tempting for an academic to focus on their “best” students. Having worked in industry first, I am aware that there is more to life than academic performance, and I’ve seen in class that the “smart” students aren’t always the ones who come up with the best solutions, especially on projects. That tells me that, as one of my own professors observed, testing may not be the best was to gauge performance, but it’s the best we’ve got. We need to understand its limitations, along with those of the whole academic system.
Getting back to Dante, he lived in a world where inequality was accepted as a fact of life. But he also lived in a Christian world where each and every human being had worth to his or her Creator. Each of those creatures should reflect whatever glory their creator put in them; if they did so, they fulfilled their purpose, and found their value in doing so.
Today our obsession with “equality” leads us to try to do all and be all. But our God doesn’t expect that, and neither do I. As a professor, what I want to see from my students is their best, to bring out that which their God and their creator has endowed them with. If I get that, I’ve succeeded and they’ve succeeded.
That is what I meant by my comment: our first task is to direct ourselves in such a way as to reflect the glory of our Creator best, and that first is towards Him. But that leads to another point of the Paradiso: we get to the point where we realise we cannot achieve our true goal without God’s help and presence in our lives. To fully reflect the glory of our Creator and to fulfil his purpose for us requires that step, and for that the provision is his, not ours.