John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Keep it Simple—but Profound: It’s all about the Journey and Relationships

February 16, 2016huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner
President

John Gardner copyAs higher educators we have in common that we are always mindful of what are, ideally, the impacts of higher education—so that we can intentionally replicate these for our own students.

In my case, one of the many outcomes was learning the Socratic Method, and then practicing it henceforth and for ever more.

This happened the fall semester that President Kennedy was murdered, 1963. I was taking a course in political philosophy and we were reading Plato’s Republic in which his narrator, Socrates, practices his method, whereby he interrogates many others in this search for the truth, his truth. His assumption is that all of us have some notion of the truth. And that to get your own truth, you interact with others and learn their truths which become like half truths that you add up to create your own truth. The most important truths that Socrates is in search of are two that I have carried with me for the rest of my life post college: 1) what is justice? And 2) who should rule?

On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, the class set aside for the professor to interpret for us students Socrates’ answer to “who should rule,” our class was interrupted by the news of the shooting of President Kennedy. The day is indelibly marked in my memory as is Socrates’ answer.

Since then I have been on multiple “journeys” that make up my overall life journey. One of these journeys is the pursuit of a healthy and long life. I learned some of the fundamentals of that in college too, as a varsity athlete (crew) where I discovered the power and synergy of the mind/body connection. That is another story. But by no means did I learn all that I needed to know to be fully successful in this journey—I am and must still be learning.

For the past few years I have been led on my health journey by a wonderful physician that my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I have as a mentor. His name is Thomas Rennard and he practices in Asheville, N.C. We have really lucked out. And our US health care system really is a game of roulette. He knows the odds all too well and treats and refers us accordingly.

In a recent, approximately sixty minute conversation with him he summarized for me his philosophy for his practice of medicine. As I listened to him I couldn’t help but wish he was teaching this to medical students. I found myself thinking that “My doctor is saying better than I exactly how I might describe the essence of my career with students and colleagues.” I also was thinking that he was expressing this much more succinctly and profoundly than I could have.

So what was his message, his Socratic truth? It all comes down quite simply to: journey and relationships. The philosophy underlying his practice of medicine is to join a journey, the life journey of fellow human beings who happen to be his patients. He accompanies them on this journey. He signs on to their journey and is a highly committed fellow traveler. And to do this means he has to have a level of organizational stability, to his practice, community, and local patients. The commitment is fundamentally to others. His is a lifetime commitment.

This means that he starts the journey wherever he finds us when we first see him—in Betsy’s  and my case, in our mid to late 60’s. And he continues the journey for as long as it lasts. He shares and empathizes with us along the way.

I recall that I learned in my study in college of American literature, that one of the most powerful motifs of our literature is this notion of personal growth through journey. Start with Huck Finn and go on from there.

My wife and I are on a raft going down a river with this physician as our guide.

To do this he has to get to know us. He has to understand us, how we live our lives, our life choices. He has to invest in those. To do all this he has to have a relationship with us, his patients. Rather than automatically substitute a battery of sophisticated and expensive tests to determine what is going on with us, he talks to us first very thoroughly, and respectfully. This is not an efficient process time wise. But his is a thorough process. I am sure my readers have some inkling how difficult it is to have such a practice when we realize the pressures of modern medicine to efficiently get patients in and out the door. So there it is: he fulfills his oath by taking many journeys with his patients through the context and lens of the relationships he develops with them, and for them.

Isn’t this exactly what we should be doing with our students, and some of us are doing with our students? I am so glad I stayed at one university for three decades where I could really see my relationships with students through much of their natural life cycle. This helped make some of them more whole, and definitely me more whole.

While I was good at knowing when to refer my students for various kinds of professional interventions from learning study skills, tutoring, counseling, career planning, financial aid, etc, I attempted first to glean enough information from them and to establish a relationship before making such referrals.

Very recently at a national conference I was in conversation with a friend and colleague who one of the most highly esteemed authorities in higher education about data use and institutional research metrics. He/she knew me well and this led to him/her to make this  observation: “When it comes to trying to improve student success, some would say that before you can decide what to do specifically for students, you have to have a philosophy for what you want to do. But I would say instead that you have to start first with the data. What does the data tell us?” Now, of course, my physician wasn’t there to be a party to this conversation. But had he been I suspect he would have said, “No, first you have to have a philosophy” and, of course that was exactly my position as my colleague knew full well. So the alternative argument here is that you have a philosophy as your foundation that stipulates you see yourself as being on a journey with patients/students with whom you have relationships, and out of that structure you will make better assessments and yield better outcomes.

As I look back on my career and ask what gives me my highest levels of satisfaction, gratification and learning, it is the journeys that I took with my students and the relationships that I developed with them to take these journeys. Both these ideals were ends in and of themselves—the journeys and the relationships, not just means.

So I am thankful to my physician for stating more simply and profoundly in just three words what my most important journey has been all about, and what I would want the structure to be for far more of our students: journey and relationships.

And once again I have discovered the power of the Socratic Method—the truths that reside in significant others. Thank you Dr. Rennard.

 

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