Claiming Your Ed


Dear student:

Welcome to college at the University of Idaho!  The next several years you spend at the University of Idaho promise vast opportunity for personal and intellectual exploration and growth.  While the college experience involves academic study, it also involves developing your sense of self, including how you will understand and interact with others, your society and the world at large.  The experience offers new opportunities for social engagement outside the classroom and study time.  Your choices concerning social engagement will shape how you approach your academics, and your academic life will shape, and impinge upon, your social life.  If you devote your energy toward the intellectual pursuit of a liberal arts education, if you “claim” your education and strive to understand the links between intellectual pursuit and personal life, your reality and your self will be transformed in the process of becoming more “free.”

An important key in the exciting process of developing your sense of self at the university involves cultivating your ability to become a critical "actor" as opposed to simply someone who is acted upon.  Whether you are in your academic study or in other social engagement, you can cultivate the ability to be an “actor” through, among other things, questioning behavior and social practice, pursuing learning and information, exploring new perspectives, and thinking critically.  Including this class, your intellectual study can assist the current stage of your path toward becoming an actor.  Adrienne Rich once made the following statement in a speech to a group of college students: "The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves as being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb 'to claim' is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. 'To receive' is to come into possession of; to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon."  Dr. Rich made these remarks in an effort to move students to think critically about their academic and personal lives.  This quote reflects my goal of creating a learning environment in which claiming one's education becomes a real possibility, the connection between academic study and personal life becomes clear, and claiming an education, thus, becomes an avenue toward claiming one’s personal life, toward knowing one’s self, and, ultimately, toward contributing to the betterment of humanity.

However, the effectiveness of this learning environment depends on the degree to which you participate in claiming.  What does "claiming one's education" mean?  Claiming one's education means taking responsibility for your intellectual growth.  Rich argues that this responsibility includes refusing to let others do your naming, learning, thinking, and talking for you.  She argues that it means you must exercise your curiosity and accept the challenges provided to you in educational arenas.  You must identify yourself as a student and a thinker, challenge yourself to raise your expectations about your abilities and your desire to learn, and recognize the potential for your college studies to generate understanding along with the expected credentials and information.  Claiming an education means that you believe you are someone in whom others should invest their time and energy and someone who is capable of interacting with multiple forms of knowledge.  You recognize the privilege of spending a number of years in formal study, and you approach your learning with humility.  When you engage this process of claiming, you act appropriately as a curious, thinking, and focused individual.

In claiming your education, you must develop your ability to think critically.  Thinking critically does not involve merely contesting or criticizing one idea or another.  It involves questioning knowledge and ideas, both those you possess and those presented, by first reflecting and considering how the ideas make sense and the evidence for them.  You must evaluate through employing information and reason, identify weaknesses, and, if necessary, confront ideas from an informed position.  If the ideas are reasonable, if they make sense, then you must consider their implications on a changing reality.  Once this process is completed, and not before, you can understand ideas and knowledge and claim them as your own if you so choose.   Your primary responsibility is to think about the knowledge and ideas you pursue in the classroom.  As such, much of learning takes place outside the class, and it is as much your responsibility to conduct this learning as it is the professor’s responsibility to present you with matter worthy of outside, creative, reasoned, and continued thought. 

In large, bureaucratic settings like a university, it becomes very easy to receive an education.  To receive an education you passively accept information from others, do the least amount of work and exploration possible as required to achieve a desired grade in a course, and remain silent while allowing others to speak for you.  Many of you probably have experienced this in high school.  Certainly, it is possible for you to merely receive an education in many of your courses at the University of Idaho.  However, I encourage each of you to consider what is lost when students simply receive an education.  In receiving an education, students’ intellectual potential remains underdeveloped regardless of how much information they memorize or the GPAs they achieve.  They remain constrained by the ideas and beliefs others, including parents, the media, churches, political parties, friends, teachers, etc., have handed them.  At stake is students’ intellectual freedom.  Freedom involves the ability and the desire to think clearly, to articulate ideas, to form and reform values based on that thinking, to be creative and self-disciplined, and to intentionally act.  Freedom is founded on the ability to be curious, to be patient, to listen, to evaluate claims and contradictions, and to reflect. 

Rich states, "clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing are all necessary for intellectual freedom, and these require hard work."  In practice, claiming your education means you do not seek the easy route through your studies.  It means you read and reread assigned texts in an attempt to understand the claims being made.  It also means you engage the material in the classroom, by asking questions, helping to clarify ideas, and/or quietly but purposefully exercising your thoughts on any given topic or idea.  You move beyond the separation of study and life so that the questions, perspectives, problems, issues, answers, and alternatives raised in the academic setting begin to inform your personal life in general.  They begin to shape your behavior as you think about them at night, talk about them with friends and family, see them in media and popular culture, and apply them in reflection on your behavior and that of others.  For example, when you begin to explore, question, and reframe your attitudes about social issues, your behavior in your everyday life should shift to be more consistent with your new understanding. 

Claiming your education also means practicing your writing through developing outlines and drafts and through careful editing of your papers.  Although writing is intimidating and/or tedious for many young students, it is an essential medium for communicating and for understanding.  It is also a skill that most of you will need to successfully function in your professional life.  It is an art that can only be cultivated through practice.  However, mastering the ability to construct a cogent and compelling essay or a succinct and clear argument induces confidence and pleasure.  Thus, you will be expected to engage in this aspect of learning in this class, and, to appropriately claim your education, you will invest the effort necessary to begin to master this art.  

Importantly, claiming your education means developing a general curiosity about the world.  Rather than accepting "pat" answers or accepting the world as it has been handed to you, a person who claims his or her education develops and pursues a sense of wonder about social life.  That person confronts what they currently know by questioning the known, pursuing answers, entertaining possibilities, exploring without fear of discovery, demonstrating humility, respecting knowledge, and listening.  When you engage in these activities you are becoming “intellectually free.”

While students must assume their share of responsibility for what happens in the classroom, teachers also have a responsibility.  As a teacher, my responsibility is to provide you with opportunities to claim your education.  I must believe in the importance of what I teach, I must take my teaching responsibilities seriously, and I must embrace the challenge to provide conditions for the expanding of minds.  I must recognize my privilege of having a job that entails learning and teaching.  I must expose you to information, to perspectives, to questions, to a range of possible answers, to critique, and to reflection.  I must demonstrate in a compelling manner the relevance of the material to your daily life.  Because I must expect you to be curious, I must fuel that curiosity.  I must demand that you engage the materials ranging from lecture, group activities, discussion, films, and research, and expect you to exercise and cultivate your academic and intellectual abilities.  In short, I must believe that we all have the potential to understand, create and disseminate knowledge, and I must provide students with the environment and support that makes it possible for students to accept the challenge to begin becoming intellectually free.  Not all students will accept this challenge, not all students will claim their education, but, if they don’t, it is my challenge to ensure that at least they had an opportunity.  Students in this class can rest assured that I have accepted this challenge and will do my best to practice it on a daily basis.

You are on the threshold of an exciting adventure!  I wish you the best of luck as you navigate the world here at the University of Idaho and encourage you to claim your education.  Pursue freedom and a just world.


John Mihelich