04 May 2012


Louis Menand in The New Yorker considers the oft-asked student question, "Why do we have to read this book?" ~ stated more broadly as "What is the return on investment in a college education?"  In Live and Learn he suggests two possible justifications for all that work, and all that tuition.  

The first explanation (we'll call it the career model) runs like this ~ "Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones .... Society needs to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents.  It wants to get the most out of its human resources .... College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test.  Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over tie and across a range of subjects.  If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious ~ no matter how smart they might be in the IQ sense ~ these negatives will be picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude.  It separates the math types from the poetry types.  At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.  It's important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test."

The second explanation (we'll call it the liberal arts model) can be summarized thus ~ "In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.  They will have no incentive to acquire knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.  College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing."

Menand concludes ~ "If you like the first theory, then it doesn't matter which courses students take, or even what is taught in them, as long as they're rigorous enough for the sorting mechanism to do its work.  All that matters is the grades.  If you prefer the second theory, then you might consider grades a useful instrument of positive or negative reinforcement, but the only thing that matters is what students actually learn.  There is stuff that every adult ought to know, and college is the best delivery system for getting that stuff into people's heads."

When science writer Jennifer Ouellette posted the link to the above article in the news feed at Facebook, it generated an insightful conversation thread discussing students' reluctance to learn.  I'd love to copy-and-paste the thread here, but will not out of respect for the participants' privacy.  So I'll content myself with exerpts from a few of the more astute responses, most of them by educators ~

  • It's not about their investment, it's just whining about having to do the work.
  • The problem is that the whining, combined with other changes in the system in the last decade or two, has contributed to a huge reduction in what students need to learn in order to earn that degree.  At least half of my students were totally and completely wasting their time and money in college.  A lot of them could not even put a sentence together, but managed to get into upper-division coursework by memorizing bullet points and recognizing terms on multiple-choice tests.  99% of them graduate.
  • My sister-in-law is a teacher and before she starts anything she tells them 'This is why I am teaching you this.'  And then explains WHY recognizing irony is important.  They still bitch.
  • I blame it on 12 years of teaching to the test.  By the time I get them in their freshman year of college, they have only learned to regurgitate and that's what they think learning is.  I sometimes despair that the critical thinking window may have already closed by the time I get them.  And if they don't understand the connection between learning and grades, it's because of what they've experienced for the first 12 years of education.
  • I think it's a perfect storm ~ narcissism, teaching to the test, consumer culture.
  • I try to hold my husband up as an example of why [learning for the future is important].  He hated math and earned a BFA at a college of art and design.  But now he designs sets and decor with giant trusses and structures.  He has to do floor plans.  He has to do math.  He has to know that A squared + B squared = C squared.
  • I fully identify with the 'regurgitation vs. critical thinking' remarks above.  When I taught high school, one summer I was asked to evaluate students' math skills.  So I had them take a batter of (you guessed it) standardized tests.  You wouldn't believe how often a student whined, 'Algebra?  But I already TOOK algebra' .... while unable to solve the simplest problems.  They 'took' it, but they didn't learn it.
I do believe that we've dumbed down public education to the point where many young people cannot perform basic math without a calculator, and cannot construct or speak a coherent sentence.  In doing so, we've betrayed an entire generation of children, and our own nation's standing in the world.  We should be raising standards for both students and for teachers.  I'm also persuaded that both the 'career' and the 'liberal arts' models described above may have validity, but between the two models it is the latter which is the most persuasive, and the most important in a rapidly evolving world.  There are few goals more compelling than becoming "an informed citizen, a reflective and culturally literate human being."  Learning to think critically, to question assumptions, is essential whether you are a scientist testing a hypothesis, a musician interpreting a score, or a voter at the polls.  Enlightenment is priceless.

Alexander Pope once wrote, "A little learning is a dangerous thing.  Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.  There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again."  He meant that a small amount of knowledge can mislead people into thinking that they are more expert than they really are.  Which is quite true, but one must start somewhere.  I would paraphrase Pope thus, with a dare ~ "A little learning is a dangerous thing.  Go to school.  Learn a little.  Live dangerously."

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