Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover

By Timothy Walch | Go to book overview

The Fascination of
What’s Difficult:
Herbert Hoover and Geology

Hendrik Booraem V

The point of departure for this essay is a phenomenon familiar to almost everyone who has taught high school or college. Indeed, it is a phenomenon so thrilling that, from a teacher’s point of view, it constitutes one of the unique rewards of the job.

It happens like this. A student signs up for a course in your subject. At some point in the course, for no apparent reason, the subject matter suddenly acquires for her an importance far beyond its normal value as another stepping-stone in our educational system. She begins staying after class to ask extra questions or discuss implications of the material. In class, she can hardly stay in her seat from excitement. Her quizzes are excellent. Her papers reflect unusually extensive reading and research, and a sophisticated handling of the questions involved. She stops by during office hours to comment on discoveries she has made.

Sometimes the level of her performance runs far beyond the area of expertise of the teacher, who can only gulp and comment, “That looks very impressive.” In a word, the student has become fully engaged with the material, not only the details but also its overall structure and its relations with other disciplines; she has experienced what I would call, hijacking a phrase from William Butler Yeats, “the fascination of what’s difficult.”14

The delighted teacher, in these cases, always encourages the student to pursue her enthusiasm and think about making it a career. If it is in a high school situation, the teacher will urge the student to major in that discipline in college, be it English literature, chemistry, or French. If the student is in college, she is urged to go on to graduate school—a questionable piece of advice in today’s academic world, but one that is usually given and very often followed.

I would like to examine this experience—not from the teacher’s point of view, however, but from the student’s. Specifically, I would like to explore

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