At least in my experience, a lot of teachers waste the opportunity of the classroom. Granted, it’s a very difficult opportunity to take advantage of. You’ve got to make sure most of your students are on the same page, so drilling basics into their head of some sort is a must (this reaches an absurd level when teaching a philosophy class. How exactly does one reduce Spinoza to bullet points?).
Even if the students know the basics, there are traps. It isn’t like they can immediately relate to the material personally. In most cases, they just learned it a week ago. Are they really supposed to have the mastery you’ve acquired over years? And school goes on forever nowadays. A conversation with students where you think you’ve hit the wavelength is many times their knowing how to say one sensible-sounding thing in the midst of you saying 99 things that go over their head. They can read the psychological cues you give. It’s not clear when you’re connecting with them in the classroom.
I still insist most teachers are wasting an opportunity. You can’t open all minds, but you can still open some minds and sustain the ones being battered by pressures all around. Everyone tells young people nowadays to do everything, and the worst part is that they’re actually making good on that advice despite hours upon hours in front of video games and texting. There’s no realization on the part of students of the question “Why is learning important?” because we’ve reduced education to cliches. Work hard, get the grades, get success…. oh wait, the cliches are completely empty. How are we going to complete the list? Tell them they’re going to pay taxes for unsustainable, unrealistic budgets with no hope of being changed? Tell them that their merit will be rewarded in systems marked by nepotism, corruption, waste and false promises? Should we tell them that what we really want is for them to go into massive amounts of debt so they can sustain our fanciful notions of financial options that never lose money?
I’m not saying you should go to your students and hammer them with activism. Far from it. This world sucks, and to a large degree, they’re actually innocent. We need them to take the material seriously for its own sake and find the wisdom we are continually failing to find. The best lecture I attended recently was on Rousseau and concerned his rhetoric in the Social Contract. He seems to push the notion of the “general will” as if it has no complications, but a close look at what he says shows he has reservations about human nature to consent unproblematically to good laws. By “recently,” I mean that lecture was some months ago. I remember it partly because Rousseau’s voice was presented as serious, dealing artfully with difficult problems that marked his day. Not every student can respond to material like that, but that’s why we have institutionalized learning. The chances of getting a response increase considerably when there are a bunch of different classes, different teachers, different subjects they’re taking. It isn’t the worst thing to be ambitious as a teacher. The worst thing is to reduce repeated attempts to monotony.