Friday, May 11, 2007

What's Wrong With College?

At the end of another academic year, I find myself reflecting on the nature of a contemporary American university education. I'm not going to go into this in detail right now, but just briefly:

There is a lot of reason to hypothesize that at least a large minority of students just aren't learning very much...and aren't learning the kinds of things they should be learning.

More and more I come to suspect that we're just cranking large numbers of student through courses in which they merely have to memorize some highly-simplified bullet points off of PowerPoint slides. I've been informed by a variety of sources that it's almost impossible to fail many classes. It's certainly true that many students expect As for C work. I'm afraid we're providing them with a big, 4-year amusement park--Partyland USA, exclamation point tm. We take their parents' money, give them a fun place to be, and let them go four years later with a piece of paper that says they're educated...but no education.

Not all students, of course. But a terrible lot of them. My guess'd be: between 25 and 50%.

This will vary from college to college, and my own institution seems to be an unusually bad offender. So take this all with an extra grain of salt.

Oops--gotta run.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking as a TA at a large state university, this has been my experience as well. The most common attitude I have seen is that it is easiest for everyone -- professors busy with research, TAs busy with their own work, and students looking to make a living -- if everyone gets an acceptable grade. C's for "A students" cause grade whining, while F's can also involve dreaded administrative hassles. Failing too many students results in scrutiny by the department.

Basically, everyone's complicit in maintaining the appearance of an institution of higher learning, because that appearance (not the learning itself) is what keeps the money flowing.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not a simple binary question, but there seems to me to be a definite tension between what I perceive to be what W.S. thinks of as education (critial thinking, understanding of fact, knowledge of rhetoric, etc.) and what universities perceive to be their mission, which is providing credentials and (in best case situations) actual skills that lead to not-too-bad jobs.

I will add that I think that my projection on to W.S. is due to my own feeling that education is about providing a useful set of cognitive abilities, that is thinking tools, as opposed to particular information. That definition is fluid, of course, I don't want to have engineers and physicists who know how to think about engineering and physics, I also, of course, want them to KNOW engineering and physics.

Same goes for Philosphy, English, and the humanities.

In short, education, to me, is about thinking, and connected to that, about citizenry. These two things in no way take away from the business or job-oriented side of education. In contrast, focusing upon skill sets and business potential primarily can and does take away from emphasizing thinking and citizenship.

When I say citizenship, I mean basically a clear understanding of how society works, different ideas abou how society should work, and an underlying ability to at least grapple with how power, tradition, money, interests, security, and needs intersect.

Far too many college grads are rather clueless about these things. This is not to say that they are clueless because they don't agree with me, rather that they are simply incapable of engaging in a conversation regarding society as a real thing with any level of insight or understanding. Based on your interpretation of events, you might be a flaming liberal or a neo-con, but if you can't identify and discuss what it is that brings you to your current views (instead, just tossing off talking points), you are not educated in my mind.

Being able to think, and describe your thinking and justifying your conclusions within the larger social realm "society" is critical. Unfortunately, a large part of univeristy education is about grades, credentials, mastering certain skills, and marketing oneself for a job. Critical thinking is an afterthougth as opposed to the starting point.

Just my two bits. I am on both sides of this, as a philosophy/english double major in college, and a mostly corporate lawyer at this point in my life. In my experience, it is my ability to think and explain my thinking that is the most valuable thing that resulted from my education. It in not the fact that I can rattle off facts, figures, or arcane points of knowledge.

That, and being rather polite to almost everyone and self-assured enough to not treat every social interaction as a battle, but instead just an opportunity to discuss and learn. These are attributes that were also learned and honed in college, but is a somewhat different topic (that is, college is about socialization at least as much as it is about education, however education is definte).

5:27 PM  

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