Lackluster Discussions and Repetitive Phrases

This past Thursday, Lawrenceville invited author Andrew Forsthoefel to speak to the student body about his memoir, Walking to Listen.

This past Thursday, Lawrenceville invited author Andrew Forsthoefel to speak to the student body about his memoir, Walking to Listen. His speech was one of Lawrenceville’s several attempts to bring our all-school summer reading closer to home. However, despite these apparent efforts, discussions remained lackluster and only continued when prompted. Lack of results combined with the School’s blind attempts to continue discussion has led to widespread discontent among students, which makes it more than necessary to call into question the overall effectiveness of an assigned summer reading.

The most obvious flaw is the fact that a large portion of students did not fully read Walking to Listen or at least didn’t do it with the intent of learning. The most many Lawrentians did was skim the first few pages of the book or scroll through an online summary. No real analysis was made and no real takeaways from Forsthoefel’s thoughts. Subsequent Harkness discussions were seen as time-consuming chores to be completed rather than insightful dialogue. Barely anyone spoke during student-led discussion, and when someone did, rarely was it actually meaningful. In some ways, these disingenuous conversations created more harm than good to what an open-minded Harkness discussion is meant to be, embedding into students’ subconscious that shallow, “fake” comments are just as valued as deep, insightful ones.

The summer reading goes against Lawrenceville’s ideals of independence in learning. There were several reasons why students decided not to read even the bare minimum of the 12 required chapters. For some, it was simply because, well, they didn’t read at all. But even among students that did read books over the summer, Walking to Listen was not one of them. Forstheofel’s memoir was by all means a great read, but we all generally gravitate towards our own interests, and for many, the summer reading was not a topic that interested them. Yet, regardless of personal preferences, we were all required to read the same book. This, ironically, goes against Lawrenceville’s own model of “taking initiative.” The School teaches leadership, taking your own path, and independence. We choose what classes to take and what clubs to join. Independent studies and various “academic opportunities” are created to explore in depth what we are curious about. Lawrenceville goes against all of that when assigning the “must-read” book assigned every summer, making the decisions for a form of learning, instead of vice versa. How can we be trained to take initiative when the School initiates choices for us?

Lawrenceville has long taught that learning is meant to come through experience rather than simply preaching. However, a mandatory assignment of summer reading seems to detract from this notion. Instead of a constructive Harkness discussion of experiencing our thoughts, we are taught what to think—the exact opposite of what Lawrenceville strives towards. The School choosing what we should read and speak about is, again, something that goes against its own teachings. It creates not a group of independent student thought processes, brought together by genuine interest on a topic, but rather silent rooms, nudged along by equally unenthusiastic teachers.

There is no reasonable method of ensuring that all 819 students have read Walking to Listen. Unless Lawrenceville adopts an authoritarian method of investigating whether or not each student has read in detail the book, there is no other option of assuring that students will get the most out of these discussions. And even if our School begins doling out mandatory book quizzes, there is no guarantee of interest or love in the books we are now forced to read. In fact, what the school needs—genuine investment in the book—is taken away by the fact that it is now numbered and graded.

At the end of the day, whether Lawrenceville decides to change “mandatory” to recommended, or continue with these all school reads, it is ultimately the student’s choice. Lawrenceville will never be able to hold everyone accountable, but whether you choose to select a book that piques your interest or not read at all, is completely up to you.

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