Ann Grow has spent a considerable amount of time trying to get college students to think past the obvious.
Some days it’s like trying to get a reaction from a stone wall. Politics apparently doesn’t do it, nor does the news.
But sometimes the ideas she throws out will spark a discussion that can range from Miley Cyrus to comic book imagery to song lyrics.
“I try to relate to their experience, but after they’ve said one or two things, their language gives out and they start to gossip,” Grow said. “I’ve been tempted to design a course based on music.”
Grow has had a half-century to study college students in their school habitat as the longtime philosophy and ethics teacher at Mercy College. She is being honored by the school this year for her 50 years of service, which also has included stints as dean for undergraduate students, vice president for enrollment and student services, chairwoman of the philosophy and religion department and chairwoman of the civic and cultural studies division.
“I consider myself to be very, very fortunate,” said the 80-year-old professor, whose doctorate really is in philosophy, looking back on her years as a teacher and forward to more of the same. “I’m fortunate in that I have good health and grateful for the opportunity that the Sisters of Mercy gave me for 20 years of working in that field … and the notion of service to the poor and sick. That really did impact me.”
Grow grew up in Massena, N.Y. She graduated from Catholic high school in 1951 with plans to become a teacher and perhaps a missionary, and joined the Sisters of Mercy, taking the name of Sister Mary Vianney. She attended the order’s junior college – the original Mercy College—for two years before being sent to complete her philosophy degree at Manhattanville and later Fordham University.
The plan was to transform the junior college to a four-year school, with the younger sisters getting their degrees in topics they could teach once the school expanded, Grow said. It was a forward-thinking plan and a philosophy that has characterized the school since then.
Although Grow’s first interest was mathematics, and she taught math and science at St. Simon Stock High School in the Bronx from 1956 to 1963, it was as a philosophy professor that she came to Mercy College’s Dobbs Ferry campus in 1963.
She admitted that if she had done nothing but teach philosophy since then, she would have burned out. Instead, she volunteered for a raft of jobs, mostly behind the scenes at the college, working with students outside of class and helping the college welcome the non-traditional students it has long courted.
“I’ve seen it go from a small Catholic girls’ college to an extended co-ed, master-level college with 10,000-some-odd students,” Grow said. “I’ve seen it grow in terms of pure numbers, but more than that … part of the mission of the college … has been to reach out to a diverse population and I have been given the opportunity to educate those diverse populations.”
Grow, who reclaimed her secular name in 1968 after Vatican II made it possible, and left the religious life in 1970, was at Mercy when it first offered night classes for women who wanted to continue their education; opened its doors to Vietnam veterans retraining for civilian life; and set up classes for adults from Hispanic and other ethnicities wanting to join the American dream.
The biggest changes in education over the half century, she said, was the movement from lecture to group work and from discussion to hands-on. She was used to stand in front of a class and talk about the ancient philosophers, direct the students to the classics and the traditional readings and guide them through the language of philosophy and the ideas.
These days, she is more of a leader than a teacher, helping the students sort out for themselves the ideas behind modern and ancient philosophy. The metamorphosis has its good points, she said, but there remains a portion of her mind that wonders whether abandoning the traditional path to philosophical discussion has left students without the deep understanding and grounding in critical thinking that earlier generations strove for.
And students now versus then?
“I think that in general, they’re much more consumer minded, much less interested in the theoretical foundation for knowledge and decision making, much more for immediate answers,” Grow said.
Students demand answers to questions that don’t have them, she said. She has taught medical and business ethics, debating health care, minimum wage, assisted suicide.
Her students want to know the single right answer, unwilling to believe that in a world of science and math where there is a correct and an incorrect answer, that some questions don’t have a universally recognized bottom line, she said.
And they’re much more wedded to noise and motion, she said, than their parents’ generation.
“Over the years, the most dramatic change is their ability to communicate by text in these smaller sentences and an enormous dependency and need to have people communicating back. There’s very little face to face communication,” she said.
“Technology has changed the way they deal with reality, no question about it,” she said. “I think they have lost the taste for any kind of quiet reflection, anything not defined by a single answer.”