Posts Tagged ‘University’

As of Easter, my editor has finished with Solace and Grief. Apparently, she even enjoyed it, which makes me glow with a quiet firefly-warmth. I’ve taken a break from the sequel these past couple of months, so hearing¬†this now¬†is like snuggling¬†happily into a favourite blanket. The exhausting thing about trying to get a first¬†novel published – or rather, one of the many exhausting things – is that if you stop work on it, nothing happens. Editors do not magically gain access to your halfway finished draft, nor do agents ring and ask if they might peruse the most recent chapters. Instead, you are alone in your creative universe. Progress only happens when you make it happen – and¬†when the necessity of eventual publication hangs over your head like the proverbial Pointy Thing of Damocles, there is a guilty need, both pressing and urgent, to always be doing something. Submission is only a temporary fix, elation quickly overriden by a nagging question: now what? Most¬†publishers take months to respond – what happens in the interim? Editing what you’ve already sent off is a good way to keep busy,¬†but waiting for a response still feels like sitting on your hands. In more ways than the obvious, publication¬†comes as¬†a refreshing change. Perversely, it grants the freedom to vacation from your characters sans guilt, to sit back and work on something else (or catch up on your DVDs, whatevs) in the delightful knowledge that somewhere, some wonderful¬†soul¬†is tinkering away on your behalf. The novel is being Worked On, and all is right with the universe.

Solace and Grief, as I may or may not have mentioned, is the first of a trilogy.¬†Book 2 is currently under construction to the tune of about 40,000 words, with the caveat that the last 20,000 are in disarray. Literally. Many scenes have been roughly hacked into a new order, but before I read through and start a-stitching with my elegant surgeon’s keys, there’s¬†a small matter of imperative: a new character whose intentions¬†I must fathom absolutely before putting her – and the middle chapters –¬†back in play. I’ve not addressed the problem for a while, but now that¬†the editor is done, certain mental wheels have started clicking. Soon enough, the story will start to itch at me, and when the internal pressure reaches critical strength, I’ll fling myself back into it with a vengeance.

Assuming all my uni essays are done, that is. Publication changes many things, but – alas! – the intrusion of the real world isn’t one of them. Damned necessity.

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.

During the unillustrious days of the Howard government, one of the many areas selected for funding cuts was tertiary education. Although VSU was still yet to come, lessening the budget had an immediate knock-on effect, with the consequence that, at Sydney Unviersity and others, the most expensive-to-run courses were axed, or at best retained at significantly diminished capacity.

Concurrently, the media and general public were sinking their teeth into the problem of hospital shortages: in particular, the notable dearth of midwives and nurses. While concern over the number of available beds was also an issue, this, at least, has eased a little with time. Given a few years, it’s possible to add new wings to this hospital or that, but it’s not possible to train more nurses and midwives than universities have placement for.

You see where I’m going with this: because the courses most hard-hit by the withdrawal of federal funding were – surprise, surprise! – nursing and midwifery.

That was four years ago. Fast forward to today’s news, in which the Royal Women’s Hospital has been forced to initiate a pull-back plan on its maternity services due to a lack of midwives. The next phase redirects low-risk pregnancies to Sunshine hospital; but Sunshine itself is still 10 midwives short.

So let’s do the math. Bigger hospitals and a rising birthrate = greater demand for nurses and midwives. Until or unless VSU is revoked and federal university funding increases (hint, hint, Mr Rudd), diminished training capacity = fewer nurses and midwives. Result: demand outstrips supply, and given how long it takes to train competent nurses compared to putting up a building or conceiving a child, the sooner we fix things, the better.

Anything else is a recipe for disaster.