A Future Not Our Own

I wrote a dozen letters of recommendation for seniors this year, more than In years past. Fortunately, most of the students who ask me for a letter are students whom I have gotten to know well, because I taught them in multiple Latin classes over their career. And while I of course mention all their achievements in my letter, I try to keep it future-focused: why am I so confident in this young woman's future success? Yeah, she's done good work in high school, but what about her specifically makes me think she will do well in college and beyond? That can be a tough question to answer, not because of the individual student (there are plenty of nice things to say about all our students), but because sometimes I feel woefully unprepared to recommend them for a future that I can't easily imagine.

My father has spent 35 years at the same company, working his way up the corporate ladder. Lately, he has unfortunately received several reminders that the loyalty he's shown over those three and a half decades isn't reciprocated. And for my students, odds are pretty good that they will not be working at any one company for 35 years. The days of finding a job right out of college and retiring 40 years later with a pension are over, and have been for a long time. (Unless somebody gets a job at a Jesuit high school–those people tend not to leave.)

I think this uncertainty is what makes me so wary of those who push a more utilitarian approach to education, advocating for business or computer programming classes over history and Latin. In my advocating for the humanities, it's not that I'm against studying any of those more "useful" topics, I just don't have nearly the certainty that others seem to about what actually is useful, let alone what will be useful in ten, twenty, thirty years.

Given that none of us can tell the future with any certainty, many have advocated for the importance of teaching skills like problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and clear communication. In my mind, those skills can be taught in a variety of ways, but a humanities education, precisely because it is so broad and all-encompassing, is better-suited for that than the alternatives. I know, I've said all this before, but as I've been thinking about my students' futures, I can't help but reaffirm that.

When I sit down to write these letters of rec, I spend a lot of time trying to imagine each girl's future. Which ones will be doctors? Teachers? Politicians? And then I go back and review the time they spent in my classes. How did I ready them for those (or any other) careers? There are always things I wish I could have done better: more time writing, perhaps, or in-depth analysis. But generally speaking, I feel comfortable that I've done what I can in Latin or World History class to prepare them, and can find stories to illustrate that.

I sometimes joke with them that I will write about the time(s) they farted in class or how annoying they were as freshmen, but fortunately for them, I can generally remember stories about when they have shown passion, grit, creativity, and humor. I feel confident they were at least as well-served practicing those traits in my classes as they would have been in a business class, but I won't really know unless they come back and tell me in twenty years.

There's a prayer that's popular among teachers in Jesuit schools, that contains the line, "We are prophets of a future not our own." As I wrote those twelve letters of recommendation, and then again at graduation as I send our seniors off to college, that line rings particularly true.