Learning worth crying about

By the time I entered college, it had been over 10 years since I had read a book, and I was quite proud of myself. The last book I could remember reading was a book that had been adapted from a Disney movie about a fieldgoal-kicking donkey named Gus. To get through high school I simply skimmed. I read for key plot lines and characters – just enough to pass the pop quizzes. I might have enjoyed reading if I had tried it, but growing up in the anti-intellectual environment of a small Nebraska town, not-reading was an essential mark of being cool. A magnificent (and quintessentially cool) neuroscience professor finally brought me back to reading by assigning popular books like Jurassic Park. The moment I started reading I felt an excitement and energy like falling in love. My first visit to the library stacks had me quivering with excitement as I gazed upon the multitude of books. I had no idea there were so many. I didn’t cry at the time, but I very nearly did as I knew then that my life was taking a sharp turn. I was becoming a different person. It was an awakening, the first of many along my own learning journey.

For those of you who watched my most recent talk, Learning as soul-making, you know that I have become interested in moments of profound transformation and growth among students that I call “Learning worth crying about.” I came to this interest in the pursuit of a question that most of us professors care about, “How can I teach critical thinking?” And after realizing after some time that it is not so easily taught, I focused on how it might be learned. And after realizing it is not just an “it” to learn but a process to be practiced I focused on creating problems and projects through which it could be practiced. And then after realizing that it was not just a process but a complete change of being I started diving into the literature on student and human development and now sit buried (almost literally) in a pile of books on my desk which I voraciously read day after day trying to understand this most beautiful and complex process of how it is that we become who we are.

As a rough summary of the literature, students typically enter college with the idea that the professor and textbooks have the answers and their job is to learn those answers. They soon become frustrated with professors who pose questions. They think the professors are trying to be clever, or perhaps trying out a teaching technique. They know the professor knows the answer already, and just want to get on with it. Eventually they might realize that these questions are not simply posed, but are indeed real and controversial. But they remain firm in their idea that the answer can be found if only they can find enough information or the right theory. A significant transformation occurs when students realize that some questions are not simply posed or merely controversial, but are truly ambiguous. There is no clear right answer. Most of the big questions they worry most about most (Who am I? What am I going to do? Am I going to make it?) fall into this category, as do their sister questions that shape the arts & sciences (Who are we? What are we going to do? Are we going to make it?). This can be a hard time for students. Many will retreat by fabricating illusions that there actually are clear answers to these questions. Only a few will instead nurture an ability to sit and profit from the ambiguity, “live the questions”, and nurture a life-sustaining sense of wonder and curiosity.


At each breaking point is a sharp-turn, an awakening, and possibly a learning worth crying about. I have been interviewing students for months now and discovered some amazing stories of transformation and growth. Just this morning I stumbled across a student blog by Ephraim Hussain, who wrote about his own “learning worth crying about”:

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I cried once that class, which is the primary inspiration for this blog, came to its inevitable conclusion. I cried for so many reasons. I cried because I was lost before this class. I was lost in the sense that I was a bio major on the misguided path to medical school. Of course, when I was a high school senior, all I though about was “Hey I’m good at science and I want to help people=Bio Major and Medical School and Eventually Doctor.” My passion lay dormant, repressed by an oppressive and dictatorial school environment. I had no perspective or sense of self. High school does not afford you those privileges. It should, but it doesn’t. Instead, it leaves you on an uncertain path to nowhere. I cried because I was angry. I was angry at an educational system that continues to leave millions of kids out to dry. I was angry at an educational system that continues to put standards and test scores above the learning needs of its students. I was angry at an educational system that continues to show a blatant disregard for cognitive science. I cried, because I was immensely grateful for this one professor and this one group of students who helped me see the light in my own life. Finally, I cried because I knew that for me and for every student mired in the American educational system, that this sort of classroom experience remains one of those “few and far between”.

And what exactly happened in that class that sparked the transformation? He quotes Freire’s famous description of the “banking system” of education in which “the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat,” holding them into a learning-as-answers orientation. This class (which was a “Philosophy of Education” class) allowed Ephraim to experience a “problem posing education” in which

There was meaningful dialogue between the teacher and the students. Not only did the students learn from the teacher, but the teacher also learned from the students. There was no single recognizable authority. Rather, teacher and students engaged each other at the same level both literally and figuratively.

But stories like Ephraim’s in which a transformational “learning worth crying about” takes place in a classroom might be rare. The wonderfully insightful Women’s Ways of Knowing by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule which analyzes in-depth intimate interviews with 135 women leads one to realize that many of the most profound learning that transforms us often comes from life events and powerful relationships (good and bad).

(I have much more to write, but have to run, so three quick thoughts and a request before I sign off):
1. Although many of the great transformations of life happen outside the classroom, we have an important role to play in helping our students move toward a capacity to live the questions
2. Our lip service to “critical thinking” is really only lip service if we do not recognize that our goals do not ultimately involve a more complete transformation of the person.
3. Framing what we do in terms of soul-making and transformative learning serves as a strong counter to current discourse which tends to define college as simply job preparation.

Request: please share any “learning worth crying about” that you have experienced yourself, or that you have witnessed, helped along, or otherwise been a part of. I’m fascinated by what makes us who we are, how we change, and how education might play a role in such changes.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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2 Responses

  1. Kate Bowles says:

    Hello, thanks for this lovely post and interesting request. To me, learning worth crying about is really hard to plan (and harder to defend) but I think it involves a willingness to get out of the way, more or less completely.

    So my story involves a group of Chinese students who came unexpectedly into a class that I taught, with no background in the discipline, and poor English. We were studying the social significance of media space. The class agreed to interview each other in small groups about their childhood memories of watching television — what they remembered about the spaces where they first encountered televisions as small children. Who was with them? Why?

    These are easy stories to tell, but what tumbled out with them amazed us all. Stories of loss, hope, social aspiration, grieving. At the end of the course, one of the Chinese students wrote in his evaluation that this was the first course he had taken in which “they are interested in us”. This for me is why teaching without content isn’t about an absence, but the creation of a space, and an access to light.

  2. Looks like the ping did not register here- write mine up, how my critical moment meant ditching a PhD in a field I lost my passion for… and how the lack of a PhD hinders my access to the higher ed teaching profession

    The Day I Cried in a Canyon — http://cogdogblog.com/2014/07/12/the-day-i-cried-in-a-canyon/