Archive for February 20, 2009

According to today’s New York Times, the high expectations of American tertiary students are leading them to haggle over their grades. The students argue that if they show up and¬†complete all the required readings, they deserve an A, and that the act of putting in effort to meet the standards should be viewed positively during grading. Lecturers argue that merely meeting the¬† standards required to pass a course – in other words, showing up and doing the reading – should only earn a C, as this constitutes the bare minimum required to pass. It’s the kind of argument that could easily rant on for pages, but there’s one line which, for me, perfectly sums up why the professors, and not their students, are correct. As James Hogge puts it:

“Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.'”

This, to me,¬†is as perfect a summation as one could find on the ultimate consequence of turning education into a commodity. In a society where a majority of students complete at least some tertiary study, the bar for excellence has been raised. Mechanically showing up and sitting through the allotted lectures or tutes is not the same as comprehending – or, indeed, caring about – their content. Reading something to fulfil course requirements is not commensurate with reading for pleasure. What lecturers are identifying, and what some students are evidently struggling with, is the notion that education should be more than a chore, or a means to an end: that it should be delightful in its own right, encouraged¬†for its own sake. Under this model, the extra engagement required to reach an A grade comes from genuine interest, and, if we’re honest, a certain amount of intelligence, neither of which can be faked. And as the ultimate products of standardised testing, a system under which a love of learning is palpably secondary to meeting benchmarks, students are, unsurprisingly, floundering.

More and more, the question of how to engage students is one I find myself grappling with, despite being neither a parent nor an educator. For me, the most important components of schooling should be instilling a desire to learn while providing the tools, guidance and encouragement for pupils to do so. One of these tools, unnegotiably, is language, without which it is impossible to read, write or effectively communicate ideas. Beyond that, any decision as to which disciplines are most important is arbitrary, and while there’s certainly sense in providing as many people as possible with a base level of knowledge in a broad range of fields, such as maths and geography, it’s no substitution for producing an individual capable of selecting their own interests and researching them independently.

Which is where, for me, the entire basis of modern education comes tumbling down like London Bridge: it¬†graphically fails to achieve this most basic and vital of outcomes. Rather, such eager students tend to flourish in opposition to the very system that should be supporting them, springing up like hardy plants between cobblestones. They learn to love knowledge despite the way it is taught to them, despite having their interests routinely cordoned off by the arbitrary barriers of syllabi. In democratising education and providing it to all, we’ve forgotten why it should be provided to anyone. Teaching all children¬†under equal circumstances and without prejudice is not the same as¬†believing that a single mode of tuition will be of equal benefit to everyone: quite the opposite. Except that, in commodifying education, exactly this assumption has been made.

Here’s an elitist thought: some people are brighter than others. They can learn things faster, more thoroughly and in greater number than the average student. Similarly, some people are slower: it takes them more time to register fewer concepts to a lower degree of proficiency. Education does not eradicate this fact. It’s not simply a matter of native intelligence, either: some students might be slower due to language barriers, behavioural problems, poor teaching or any number of social difficulties. Others might be faster because they enjoy a certain subject, because they appear stronger by comparison to their peers, because of an excellent teacher, or because their parents help at home. This is evident to kindergarden teachers the world over –¬†and yet all students are given the same goals. The habit of standardised testing is not so bad in Australia as America, but one can still draw the same conclusion of education in both countries: that passing grades¬†are held to be more important than retaining knowledge. Obvious though it seems, the argument that those who know will pass holds little water, for three important¬†reasons:

1. Rote-learning a concept to pass a test is not the same as understanding it;

2. Those who rote-learn are, through primary and secondary school, treated identically to those who genuienly seek knowledge; and

3. There is no extra reward provided to students who demonstrably want to learn for learning’s sake.

Psychologically, this sets up an expectation in students that wanting to explore a subject further isn’t worth their while – and, academically, it isn’t. They will receive no tangible reward for reading about Henry VIII in their spare time; neither will displaying extra knowledge allow them to move forward at a faster pace, and while¬†the outcome should be to teach a love of learning for its own sake, the way to encourage this from an early age is through reward. If students who show initiative aren’t treated any differently¬†under the education¬†system, then the majority will, through apathy or disappointment, revert to meeting only¬†the minimum requirements. If they are bright, this is looked upon as coasting, a behaviour which, ironically, is discouraged. Much like the ‘intangible benefits’ so laughingly touted by many corporations in place of actual staff bonuses or health care plans, the architects of the modern educational system seem to assume that an absence of reward will nonetheless encourage students to excel in their own time. As for arbitrary in-school awards, such as often take the form of laminated and calligraphied¬†cardboard, these are nice mementos, but ultimately meaningless, comparable to the much-loathed ‘quality awards’ of the new corporate sphere. They are the lowest possible recognition of achievement, inadequate¬†placeholders for actual change, innovation or devlopment.

Which brings us back to American college students and their sense of entitlement. Consider them anew in light of the above. They have been taught for thirteen years that meeting the requirements of the system is all that matters, and that going above and beyond, while perhaps an idealistic concept, results only in extra work for no gain, and, quite possibly, in social mockery. At the same time, they have been told, repeatedly and with emphasis, that holding a degree is vital to their future success: they must continue to work hard. And the operative word here is work, because this is what education means to them. Not knowledge, not pleasure, not investiagtive thrills, but work, a difficult, laborious and time-consuming means to an unspecified end. They are waiting, like so many of us in the modern world, for the joy to kick in: to reach the end of the academic rainbow and find the job they love. But learning to love our jobs is, in many ways, identical to learning how to love knowledge: a process which is the direct antithesis of modern education.

Many people don’t hit their stride¬†until university. For some, it’s the first opportunity to explore ideas that interest them as a part of learning, and not just in their own time. Others finally break through the limits of school and attack the discipline they’ve been hankering for, be it geology or medicine. But for many – and, I fear, for most – it’s a startling disappointment. Like pigeons raised in a dark coop, they have no idea how to stray beyond the bounds¬†in which they’ve been raised. They never realised it was the point – nobody ever told them. Certainly, the system didn’t. They drop out, feeling betrayed, or go on to feel naggingly unhappy in their jobs, donning their disquiet in the assumption that it indicates adulthood. And as the twin stranglehold of commodified education and standardised testing tightens, more and more people will be squeezed into a mould inimical to learning. Those who might love university will, by the time they reach it, feel exhausted at the thought of jumping through yet more hoops, and have no savour for any educational institution; others will have long since given up. And meanwhile, those few people who excel at the standardised system will rocket through with glowing recommendations, completely ill-equipped to enter any profession which requires not only passion, but imagination.

The weight of such people is already warping the tertiary system. In Australia, the rise of full-fee paying students, both nationally from overseas, has placed enormous pressure on lecturers to pass inadequate learners. This payment for education turns the degree into a product, moving the customer to demand value for money. Invariably, such students view their own role as passive. Education is something the university must do to them, not a thing in which they must participate, or for which they might ultimately be ill-suited. And such mindsets, both in the long and short term, can only be harmful to the intellectual development of society.

Because in a time of such need for genius, and yet where genius is thin on the ground; when innovation is desperately needed at every turn, and where social, economic and environmental pressures are forcing the reinvention of long-held or unquestioned systems, we need every intellectual iconoclast, highschool anarchist and rule-breaking miscreant to remember what they loved about knowledge: that it improves those people and institutions who lovingly and eagerly receive it, and rewards those who strive in its persuit.