Last week, as I attempted to get through a page of Beverly Cleary’s “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” with fourth graders, I was confronted with a problem that at first seemed small but was actually unsolvable. As we got to the part about Keith finding the mouse in his trash can, a scene I was riveted by as a child, I turned to the students only to see distant and distracted looks on all of their faces. We kept reading, and a little while later, when I turned around to ask one of the students to stop playing with a paper clip and try to look at his book, he responded with a simple statement that caught me completely off guard: “This book isn’t interesting to me.”
I had no idea what to say or do in response to that. I could try telling him that I thought the book was interesting, but that wouldn’t work: What is interesting to me wouldn’t, of course, necessarily be so to him. This was the one problem that seemed entirely out of my control as a tutor. If the students didn’t understand something, I could help. If they were restless, I could try and better engage them. But if they just weren’t interested in what we were learning, that seemed to me like a lost cause.
In higher education, student interest has not been a relevant issue in the conversation surrounding the success of a course or program. When measuring success, we tend to talk about the quality of the professor and style of teaching, the diversity and cohesion of the curriculum, and the resources that have been allocated to a given course or program. But the assumption that seems to follow from this set of qualifications is that success in all of these areas will necessarily lead to an engaged, hardworking, and successful student. But does it always work this way, with teachers and courses affecting the performance of students, or is there a reverse relationship, that of the effect of the students themselves on the class and on their performance in it?
As I saw with my fourth graders, disinterest in the material being studied puts a teacher at a standstill, and this seems just as true for college-level learning. If a student has decided that he or she is uninterested, then all of the professor’s efforts—no matter how impressive or diverse—can only achieve so much. There is the rare occasion in which the professor can somehow spark the interest of an unengaged student, but for the most part, once a student decides to be uninterested, it is a permanent mindset. An uninterested student will almost never work as hard as an interested one; he or she will not take risks or step out of the box in ways that will contribute to true academic development.
Of course, we are not fourth graders. We are college students. But does our increased maturity mean that we have the ability to fight against the impulse to close the book and say, “I’m not interested”? I’ve been guilty of this in the past. I have always been a “humanities person,” and I have viewed math classes as painful experiences that must be endured. But after hearing my fourth grader tell me that he wasn’t interested in Beverly Cleary, I started to think about what disinterest actually means. Loving math certainly doesn’t come as easily to me as loving literature, but the fact that it might take more effort to make myself feel engaged with a subject does not mean that it is impossible to ever reach the state of being interested. I remember a few days of math class in high school in which I grasped a complex concept and thought, “Wow, that is pretty remarkable.” Of course, these days were rare enough that I can remember each one distinctly—and I was often overcome with boredom a moment after my revelation—but the fact that those moments did exist means that we have the capability to become interested in a wider variety of subjects than we think.
In order to overcome the natural impulse of disinterest, we must start to view interest in a subject less as an easy, natural inclination toward it and more as an understanding that what we’re learning is valuable and important, if for no other reason than because it is another way of grasping the world around us. We are not fourth graders. We college students have the ability to look beyond our momentary feelings of discomfort to realize the relevance of whatever subject we might be studying and to understand that we are learning something that will change our worldviews and contribute to our education in some way, and this understanding should be enough to spark our interest.
The point, however, is not that we can make ourselves interested in what we’re studying. It is that we should choose to do so. We as students have agency in the success of our education. By becoming engaged and actively striving to connect with the material studied, we can actually transform the classroom environment into a more active and productive one. By shutting ourselves down through claiming that we are uninterested, we deny ourselves any possibility of real learning, and this is harmful to our professors, our classmates, and ourselves. The power to turn each of our classrooms into engaging, exciting places for our professors, our classmates, and ourselves lies largely in our hands, in our ability to realize that we do in fact find whatever is being studied interesting. By taking advantage of that power, we can open ourselves up to gaining more from our education than we might have thought possible when we viewed our interests within the narrow, counter-productive confines of being a “humanities person” or a “math person.”
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.