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What do you love?

posted: 2.13.14 by Andrea Lunsford

It’s Olympic season, a time when the world tries to forget conflict and focus on the amazing achievements of athletes from all over the world who come together in spirited competition.  As I watched the opening ceremonies last week, looking at the faces of young people—many of them students—marching into the Olympic stadium in Sochi carrying flags and waving, I wondered about where they went to elementary and secondary school and college, about who their teachers have been, and about what they see as the relationship between their sport and their intellectual and academic lives.  I thought of former student Rachel Kolb, prize-winning equestrian, honors graduate in English, and a tutor in our Hume Writing Center who is now on a Rhodes Scholarship in the UK, and who just happens to be deaf.  I sat on the mock interview committee for the Rhodes and tried hard to think of a question one of the real Rhodes interviewers (most of whom are former scholars and now in all walks of life) might ask.  “What do you see as commonalities,” I finally said, “between writing and riding”?  Rachel paused for a moment and then launched into a discussion of style, showing how stylistic moves in writing have parallels in horseback riding.  It was clear, cogent, and entirely compelling.  “She is going to be a Rhodes scholar,” I thought. And she is.  Her sport is a major part of her life, one she sees as clearly woven into the fabric of her academic self as well.

This week is also Valentine’s Day, so as I have watched the Olympians compete, I have wondered about what they love most in life, at least so far.  Surely the rigors and the rewards of their athletic endeavors must rank up there, as I know they do for Rachel.  But how I’d love to know more.  I’ve been asking students at Stanford this question for a couple of weeks now, and the answers have been remarkably consistent.  Students usually respond first to my query in a joking way, “What I love most is beer and pizza,” or “I love Saturdays with no schoolwork best.”   But soon almost all of them begin to speak about two things: their families (including chosen as well as biological families) and friends; and their learning.  Almost universally, these young people feel connected to others in a visceral way, a way that supports them and informs what they do.  There’s a lot of love in those connections.  Second, students spoke—often indirectly—of loving to learn, to acquire and to make knowledge.  “I love the moment when I understand something for the first time: that is the best,” said one young woman.  “I love learning languages,” said another.  “Learning a new language is like climbing up a huge, huge mountain that you think you will never be able to see over and then getting to the top and seeing a whole new world.  I love that.”

When you are teaching this week, I wonder if you will have time to think some about what your students love, and why. Some of those loves may involve sports (like Rachel), even if not of the Olympic variety.  But I expect other loves will emerge and that they will be about relationships, including relationships with family and friends and with learning.  When I think about what I love most, the first word that springs to my mind is “teaching.”  But then I stop to consider, and I realize that what “teaching” means to me is a web of relationships and of learning.  As Aristotle argued so long ago, learning is one of life’s greatest pleasures—and loves.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


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