By Courtney Zott, Michigan State University
I was sitting in my least favorite class, half-listening to the drone of my least favorite professor (that semester), surrounded by about 250 other faceless, politically-inclined university students when one of life’s funky little lessons sparked my bored reverie.
We were being
preached to listening to a lecture on game theory—the genius of John Nash, the axiomatic brilliance of the prisoner’s dilemma, the rationale behind quantifying utility—(yawn) when my least favorite professor just quit talking, mid-monologue. I looked up from my daydream to see what was bothering him, tracking his exasperated eyes up the aisle on my left to a snow covered student making his not-so-subtle way toward the front of the room. We’d been in class for almost an hour.
Still, the kid plopped himself down front and center, unperturbed by the professor’s condescending gaze, or better, feigning ignorance.
“Now that you’re comfortable, can we continue?” The professor employed sarcasm notoriously well, despite his long-windedness.
The kid grinned, bred to believe punctuality was a joke.
But it wasn’t. At least that afternoon.
“Did you really think it was appropriate to walk in here and disrupt my lecture? Did you think it would be funny?”
“If you can’t possibly make it to class on time, at least sit in the back for Christ’s sake! We don’t all need to know that you’re here.” Years of pent-up disrespect had finally gotten to him. He carried on for a bit, then sighed:
“You people think you’re entitled to the damn world. I feel like I’m a guest in your classroom. Class is over.”
We sat there hesitant to move, incredulity at being reprimanded by a professor gluing us helplessly to our seats; it was as if we were back in high school or something. But this was our classroom. We, our parents, our student loans, were paying for it.
Slowly, people around me began to pack up their notebooks. It was our classroom, right?
You Probably Want the Professional Opinion
Back in January, America’s higher education system was dealt a disparaging blow. A study by New York University sociology professor Richard Arum and University of Virginia assistant sociology professor Josipa Roksa concluded that a significant percentage of college students were, and still are, graduating in want of the broad thinking skills expected of them.
The study, titled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, was a rare challenge to the substance of the four years plus undergraduates spend studying for their bachelor’s degree. Predictably, it drove the world of academia into a well-articulated fit.
According to Arum and Roksa, 45 percent of students in their study did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication skills upon finishing two years of college. After a full four years, that figure dropped slightly to 36 percent.
“The situation reflects a larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges,” the two wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. “The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right.”
This relationship results in “limited learning,” an unnoticed, or worse, unacknowledged deficiency in important cognitive skills expected of individuals entering today’s work force, Arum and Roksa contend. And the present consequences of this are twofold: a higher education system living off of its past-prestigious reputation and a body of young Americans ill-equipped to go in on their own in the global job market.
In other words, undergraduates are paying into a broken system for a piece of paper about as valuable as a certificate of participation. Or, to answer my anecdotal question: yes, it is our classroom.
The Business of Learning
Such is the result, however, of running an educational institution as if its end product—an education—is in fact at all what we think of when we say “product.”
Yet there has been this shift in understanding, and with it an amorphous movement to define an education as something tangible, as a quantifiable progression of achievements measured by things like GPA and multiple choice pop quizzes, and five-year-old PowerPoints copied down verbatim and checked off as a lesson learned. As evidenced by Arum and Roksa’s study, however, we’ve merely been spared from the competition of creative cognition in favor of a more comfortably bought and sold, bullet list product.
We are being sold an education—a textbook formula for learning when what we really need is something less material, less commercialized, less pomp and more puzzle. Without getting too caught up in the epistemological unknown, what we need is knowledge—the stuff of creating answers, not just memorizing them; the meticulous, mind-boggling savvy of entrepreneurs and engineers; the uncanny ingenuity of the artist and scientist.
Before we’re stuck on the second string tide to nowhere, we’ve got to stop measuring the immeasurable.
A Real Education
I was sitting in my favorite class, this time waiting for my favorite professor to amble his way in, surrounded by about 30 other, not-sure-what-inclined university students when I first received a real education. My favorite professor finally arrived, nonchalantly parked himself on the table in front of us, and asked:
“Who are you? And why?”
We were clueless. We’d had to read some famous poet’s poem the night before. What was this?
“I’ll wait,” he said. T.S. Eliot, that’s who it was.
“Think about it. I’ll see you Thursday,” he said.
We had never learned, after 10 odd years spent in a classroom, that not every answer is a perfect package of terms and figures and Google searches. That all our professor wanted was for one of us, any of us, to say,
“Who are you? And why not?”