The older I get, the more I realize how solitarily unique my education was. My parents made the decision to home-school me from the time I was nine until the time I was ready to start college. My mother was a former high-school English teacher who had me use the no-nonsense, picture-lacking old-school Warner’s grammar series, Oxford Latin series, and Saxon math series. Everyday I had to read a news article from a different source and write a precis. When it was time for me to go to college, I loved the idea of a liberal arts school, as I associated it with “I don’t have to specialize.” In addition to the two years of required history, politics, and philosophy classes, I double majored in mathematics and music history; I minored in English; for “fun” my senior year I took three languages. Even when preparing for grad school, I wanted to keep my options open. I took the LSATs on a dare and did relatively well. Despite not going to law school, I decided to specialize within my field in the most general of topics. And even though most of my day is spent teaching, and taking classes, and trying to work on a dissertation, I still make the time to read at least 15 books for “fun” a year.
In short, I feel that I have had a very “classic” education that has instilled in me a bizarre, eclectic style of learning. I enjoy reading just about anything. I enjoy taking classes, going to lectures, and sitting in on discussion sessions. I do not feel like I need to be “convinced” to learn anything. I don’t care how “practical” what I’m learning is–learning is addictive.
This mentality is definitely in the minority. In dealing with students and taking more education classes (despite education NOT being my area!), I have realized that students demand to know why what you’re trying to teach is worth learning. What’s scarier is that (at least pre-college) parents demand to know why what you’re trying to teach their children is worth learning. And what’s scariest of all is that some of the TEACHERS don’t even understand why what they’re trying to teach is worth learning. While historically mathematics has been the most attacked of subjects (though we’ll get to the irony of that later), it seems like currently no subject is “safe” from this inquisition–history, literature, foreign languages, and even CURSIVE have been forced to defend their validity and “practicality.”
There are so many issues involved in this battle. First, scholars are caving in to these bizarre questionings and are attempting to justify their fields. This trickles down into curriculum where “connections” are made to all the students in every subject, and “discovery learning” is pushed. The education specialists then take the reins and conduct studies verifying that students only “learn” when subjects relate to their everyday lives; that teachers must make subjects seem “real” to their students in order for the material to have any impact.
The overlying bigger issue though is the “businessification” of schools. This applies to both colleges and pre-college institutions, but for argument’s sake let’s stick to colleges. As noted in a recent Chronicle article, the number of Americans attending college has jumped from 2 percent to 70 percent in the last century. People–for better or for worse–expect to go to college. There is also so much competition between colleges (both from a sheer numbers perspective as well as from scholarship and endowment perspectives) that if students and parents don’t like what they see, they can and will transfer. Students and parents have therefore become the consumer. And once you see your students as consumers, you are forced into advertising your subject.
What happens as a result of all this? Students become un-educated but well-degreed. They choose colleges based on money instead of credentials. The number of degrees rise, lowering the value of any one of them. College becomes more about the “overall experience” (which is marketed as fun, and social, and exciting) than the academics. Learning becomes something that has to be “fun.”
It is so sad, though, that courses should be defended, especially when their value seems so apparent. Latin teaches you roots of words, which automatically increases your vocabulary and reading ability. Couple that with grammar and you start to learn basic sentence structures; you learn the difference between passive and active voices; you learn the difference between formal and informal writing. Those skills come in handy when reading history, politics and philosophy which teach the evolution of ideas; those subjects shed light on what it takes to be influential, what types of notions and promises attract the masses, how culture and politics shape each other. As for the sciences, despite being called on most to defend themselves they seem the most applicable to daily life. Math teaches logic and “problem-solving skills.” It also teaches the more practical skills of how to calculate tip, balance a checkbook, win at poker, figure out what brand is the best deal at the grocery store, and know when you need to sell your stock. What about biology and chemistry–what’s their use? Here’s a question to answer the previous one: why would you NOT want to know as much as possible about your own body, how it works, what could happen to it, how diseases attack it, and what doctors prescribe in an attempt to make you better?
So, what needs to happen? How do we fix this issue of defending our subjects? This is one of the few times where academia needs to get back on its high horse. Maybe if people can’t understand the need for knowledge, they shouldn’t go somewhere to acquire it. Maybe if students don’t think math is important and all they need is the calculator on their cell-phones, then they shouldn’t be business majors who (for some reason) are told to take business calculus or computer science majors who need linear algebra. Maybe if students don’t think reading is “fun” or “interesting” and believe that downloading books onto their iPod is the way to go, then they should not major in communications (where presumably you would need to know how to write something interesting) or education (where you may have to teach someone else how to read and “why”). In short, if people don’t think college is teaching them anything worth while, then they SHOULD NOT ATTEND.
Naturally, the implications of this suggestion are drastic. Many colleges will most assuredly go out of business. Thousands of highly “educated” people will become unemployed. But, you know what? They’ll find jobs elsewhere–they do have advanced degrees, after all. As for the “students” who no longer have a million colleges to choose from…they may actually have to start competing for entry. They may have to prove themselves worthy of being taught instead of forcing the professors to prove their subjects worthy of being learned. While this may seem elitist, something along these lines will have to come into existence–and soon–in order to save people from their own laziness and apathy.