Personal interactions important lessons in college

On Saturday, another class from Ivy Tech Community College will celebrate commencement. As students march across the stage at Columbus North High School to receive their diplomas and shake hands with dignitaries, they will have a few seconds to come up with a boilerplate answer to the question, “What are you going to do now?”

During their time at Ivy Tech, students learn much more than what is on the syllabus or in a textbook. In many classes, professors only do about half of the teaching. Students learn as much from each other as they do from their professors.

This learning does not really show up in any benchmark or spreadsheet because it is difficult to quantify. When you are on campus, however, you can see it happening.

I believe that college, especially large public institutions, are essential in creating a better society. College brings people from dramatically different backgrounds and ideologies together. In my classes, students usually have little in common besides the fact that they all signed up to take my Survey of American History I class on Tuesday mornings at 9 a.m.

Students learn that they actually have a lot in common despite their differences. They quickly find out they all face obstacles. They all have hopes and dreams for the future. Discussing a controversial topic and negotiating a personal setback are usually the catalysts for the biggest discoveries. Those moments change minds. There is often a breakthrough when students are willing to understand the point of view of a colleague. Through this engagement, students learn tolerance and acceptance. They work toward a common goal: success in the classroom. Those are essential professional and life skills.

Throughout their academic careers, students also learn to navigate a diverse group of faculty. Adjuncts as well as full-time professors teach courses. Faculty have vastly different experiences, ideologies and teaching styles. In humanities alone, our faculty members include business people, lawyers, retired veterans, engineers and artists. About the only thing they have in common is their passion for their discipline and commitment to student success.

They certainly do not agree on politics. Some of our faculty members are just starting their academic careers while others have decades of experience. Students benefit from these differences.

Over the years, tribalism and isolation divided us. The democratic institutions used to force people from different backgrounds together. I am not referring to Congress or the Supreme Court, but rather to the things that gathered people together regardless of their socio- economic background, geography, religion or politics. In the past, mom-and-pop coffee shops, jury duty, mandatory military service, cheap seats at baseball games and national parks brought people together from all walks of life.

It seems like now we have fewer opportunities to engage with people and learn that we are not all that different from one another. We have become isolated in our work and in our neighborhoods. We chose to group together with those who think and act just like us. We have also used technology to disconnect from the outside world. Now we can say nasty things to strangers without any consequences.

I know that education of any kind, but college in particular, is an important part of reversing that trend. For it is my hope that when students leave the gym at Columbus North as newly minted college graduates, they keep having the conversations they started in class.

Aaron Miller is one of The Republic’s community columnists and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He has a doctorate in history and is an associate professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus. Send comments to [email protected].