Wednesday, January 14, 2015

To each his own

I remember a history class I took as an undergraduate. As I composed an essay in response to a question on the final exam, I felt that I was getting a glimmer of how historians think about the world (as well as developing the ability to put together a decent essay). It was very much like going to the gym and exercising muscles that I hadn't known I had. That exam was the culmination of a semester's work, but it was only one class in one field, which was one small part of my undergraduate education. The whole thing was, for me, tremendously gratifying. The difference between who I was when I graduated from college and who I had been when I started four years earlier is just staggering. Not all of that difference is attributable to my educational experience itself, but I have never doubted for a second that my undergraduate education is worth many times its cost in terms of all of the various resources used. I would have said that when I was a recent graduate, and it has become more obvious to me over time. The undergraduate degree was, for me, not so much an end in itself as a start on a path that I have followed ever since then. I don't want to claim that I am one of the great thinkers of our time, but intellectual growth has been a lifelong process.

I am confident that a liberal arts education is valuable to anyone in virtually any career: a better thinker is a better employee. Furthermore, the benefit extends far beyond one's professional life. Even disregarding the external benefits--to the employer or to society at large--the educated person is better able to have a career that is personally rewarding, to feel engaged socially and politically, and to derive satisfaction from leisure time.

However, many people (including many undergraduates) do not seem to want an undergraduate education for any reason beyond the advantage it conveys in the job market. Many are not amenable to the process and do not seem to value the outcomes that I mention above. I'm not sure what is going on with such students. I have a half-baked hypothesis about it that I might try to flesh out at some point. More pressing, I think, than trying to figure out why this is the case is to accept it. And I mean really accept it: not merely to recognize that this is the situation for some students, but to avoid judging students in this situation.

Which is not at all my instinct, by the way. My instinctive reaction to the unmotivated student is something like this: "You should want this. It's a great thing. Or even if you don't want it, you should make the best of it while you're here. What's wrong with you?" I'm trying to dispense with that attitude.

I suspect that it isn't possible to inspire intellectual curiosity in some students. At any rate, I don't know how to do it. Other than demonstrating the value of thinking in the context of my own field, including the sheer pleasure of it, I don't know anything else I can do to get students to want to learn. I don't chase down students that are not doing well in my course. There are a few reasons for that, one of which is that I don't know what to say to such a student. I make sure they have the information about their performance to date, and I constantly offer my help to any students that want it; but I don't call students into my office to say something like "You're not doing very well in my course. That's bad. Here's why." I imagine that such a conversation is so unlikely to have an impact as to be not worth the trouble.

Perhaps even more difficult would be trying to argue that a student that is performing satisfactorily should be aiming higher--to focus on flexing the intellectual muscles, not on getting the desired grade in the course. Which raises the question of standards: shouldn't it be the case that the student must go through the substantive mental workout in order to get a decent grade? Or to put it the other way, shouldn't a student that is unwilling to learn in a real and lasting way not be able to pass the course?

It is a challenge to design a course that can achieve the desired outcomes for even the most receptive audience. For something like critical thinking, just defining what it is is difficult, and all the more so to teach it to students and to evaluate how well they can do it by the end of the semester. It's never completely clear what the standard ought to be--should it be fixed for all time, or should it be set in such a way as to maximize the amount of learning that takes place given the constraints, including students' abilities and attitudes toward learning?--and it is difficult to maintain any standard when we face so many students that are not receptive to or actively resist our efforts to teach them.

Again, I think it is important not to judge the students that don't want to learn what I have to teach. In a previous post, I made the point that the students that want the degree but not the education should be given some viable alternative. This is coupled with another concern: that the presence of students that do not want the education makes it more difficult to educate the students that do want it, or at least are receptive to it.

I am especially concerned about students on a particular margin: those that are receptive to the best of a liberal arts education but are not willing or able to seek it out aggressively. When I have a chance to talk to incoming undergraduates at my university, I often tell them that they can go anywhere from here--any job, any graduate program--but that they might have to take a lot of initiative to get what they need. For example, if a student would like to pursue graduate study in economics, it is not enough to get through our undergraduate economics program. Since so few of our students want to go in that direction, our major is not designed to cater to that need. If we were to focus on preparation for graduate school, which would entail requiring more math courses of our students and having more rigor in our economics courses, I would guess that we would have very few students wanting to major in economics. A student with his sights set on graduate school can still take lots of math courses and can do an independent study or two, which would better prepare the student for graduate study and would provide more favorable information to graduate schools about the student's abilities and interests. But the student has to seize the opportunity quite actively. I think that many students are not ready to do that, and I think you can hardly blame an eighteen-year-old kid for being in that position. I wasn't ready to do that when I entered college. Looking back, I was quite passive about my education until perhaps halfway through my undergraduate degree. I did what was asked of me and gradually came to appreciate the value of what I was doing (that history class was in my junior year, as I recall).

Some students, I suspect, would benefit from a rigorous liberal arts education but do not demand rigor in their education. Maybe they don’t realize up front how valuable it would be, maybe they’re not quite motivated enough to reach out and grab it. Education is inherently parental: we’re not giving students what they want, but what we think they ought to have. Providing the best education will often not involve meeting students’ immediate demands. But providing that education is hard to do when so many students resist.

This raises yet another issue: how do we tell which students will ultimately benefit from a liberal arts education if the students themselves don't know? This is where upholding high standards comes in again. With courses organized around a higher standard for learning, and with strict grading standards in place, more students will get a strong signal that the traditional undergraduate education might not be for them. Students will have to get on board or do something different. Having something different available (I'm still hoping to get to what that might be soon) would probably create some useful self-selection: it might be hard for high-school graduates to know how amenable they are to traditional higher education, but a non-traditional option might be instinctively appealing to some. For those that go the traditional route, the education can more easily be what it is supposed to be.

It is hard for me to imagine that someone would not want a traditional liberal arts education, but I have to accept that some people don't want it and aren't getting it, even if they obtain an undergraduate degree. It would be better to offer real options. Trying to accommodate everyone in the same way is degrading the educational experience for those that might benefit the most from it and is useless to others.

1 comment:

  1. Catherine RainwaterJanuary 16, 2015 at 7:36 AM

    I share so many of your convictions. I'm bookmarking this and will return to your blog.

    ReplyDelete