Thoughts on Education – 3/15/2012 – What is college for?

I can’t help but start today with a response to an article that I discussed in my last education post.  The original article had students talking about what they didn’t like about the lecture format.  This one has professors responding.  I will be honest that the professor responses are quite underwhelming in my opinion.  I don’t know if it is a result of editing that makes the professors less compelling than the students or what.  In fact, the best response that I saw there was in the form of a PowerPoint, but the editing of the video made it impossible to read the PowerPoint fully in the time allotted for it.  However, when paused, the best points are there, and they largely mirror the ones that I would make.  That is, the the failure of lecture is the fault of both the instructor and the student.  Since the fault of the instructor has already been raised, I’ll focus on the student side.  Students are raised in our educational culture to see education as both something they will be guaranteed basic success at with not that much effort and as something that is a nuisance and waste of time.  That combined attitude is hard to combat in a semester course, when the student is one of many sitting out there in a semester class.  As well, when they get to college, most students have not encountered the straight-up lecture format before, and it is simply foreign.  As the PowerPoint points out, the students are encountering a different form of education for the first time, and they are being asked to adapt to it.  However, our current educational structure is so student-focused that the students are not expected to adapt anymore.  They should be catered to completely and not asked to leave their comfort zone.  When the students encounter the lecture format for the first time in college, they have gone through a life of having their own educational styles catered to over and over, and so their reaction to the lecture is what you would expect.  They want what they want, not what we want.  What is interesting about this is that I will repeatedly stand up for the right of myself and fellow instructors to grade differently (usually harder) and assess differently, but I am willing to explore different methods of content delivery because the students aren’t responding.  I wonder why this is.  I have made my own comments here about the lecture format, and I guess that’s it.  I do agree that the lecture format is broken, so I have much more tolerance for trying something new.

Of course, what all of this leads into is the bigger question of what college is for.  A couple of articles have passed through my Evernote on this topic as well recently.  It always helps when the current presidential candidates are talking about it, as that leads to a number of related articles scattered throughout the news sphere.  This one from The Washington Post tries to address this broad issue.  I have been reading Michelle Singletary’s commentary on personal finance for a while, so I would have read this one even without the educational focus.  She sets up the standard two sides of education here, asking, “Is college a time for young adults to just enrich their minds, or should students use that time to concentrate on a major that will prepare them for a career?”  She comes solidly down on the second motivation, pretty much dismissing the idea that college should be a time to take whatever classes you want, get whatever degree you want, and just explore.  Her point is primarily financial, which makes sense as she is a financial correspondent.  She believes that the financial cost of education these days means that students do not have the ability to learn for the sake of learning and need to be focused on what they can get for their education.  She does not completely dismiss the idea of education for education’s sake, but she definitely comes down on the side of a practical education.  I can’t say I disagree, but I certainly did the opposite.  I don’t think I ever got a practical degree, and I feel lucky to have looked for a job and gotten one with my MA in History just before the recent financial collapse.  My wife is just finishing up a BA in Art History, and we are currently trying to figure out what to do with that.  So, I can understand.  It is also at the root of why so many of my students ask me what they have to take history, as they see no practical use for it.

I just have to note this article from The Washington Post as well.  It is from the Class Struggle blog on their site, and it gives a nice historical look at the idea of college.  As Jay Matthews notes, “The outpouring of college student support after World War II fueled the unprecedented surge of the U.S. economy and its education system. This would be a good time to remember that before we start slipping back.”  He notes the challenges facing the idea of college education all around, with Obama pushing more students to enter college, while Santorum is saying we should not.  Matthews points out that we see a similar discrediting of education for all that was also seen just before the big push from the GI Bill.  He warns us to remember that the benefits of education always seem to vastly outweigh the cost.  I am never explicit about this when I teach my students directly.  I do, however, always try to talk about the idea of education to my students and to place the education they are getting into a broader context for them.  I hope that I do that reasonably well, but I know I could do more.  I wonder at what level I need to be doing something like this, talking more about college in the historical sense.  I know that the students generally don’t get much direct discussion of the value of college, so we would probably do well to talk ourselves up.

I’m going to close here, as the next article I want to talk about probably needs its own post.  Just as a preview, this is the article I want to discuss in some detail.  Your homework – read it ahead.  OK, just kidding, but it is quite interesting.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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