catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 13 :: 2012.06.22 — 2012.07.05


Fast food fast track

As high school graduates begin their search for a college to attend, they hear a lot of advice.  In the last twenty years or so, more and more of that advice seems to be pushing them toward thinking of college the same way one thinks of fast food when one is in a hurry.  A fast food restaurant may not offer nutrition or excellent tasting food, or a memorable evening relaxing and talking with friends, or even a new experience.  Instead, a fast food restaurant offers predictability and efficiency.  When you walk into a McDonald’s, for example, you not only know the layout of the place and the menu they offer, but you even know the script: what the worker at the counter will say to you, what you will say back, and so on.  There will be no surprises.  You also know that it will take a minimum of time and effort to order, pay, take your tray, scarf your food and be on your way.

Think about some of the most consistent advice circulating about college: take all the AP classes you can, then you will have to take fewer courses in college, and maybe you’ll even be able to finish early.  Make sure you know what high-paying job you want to get before you go to college; that way, as quickly as possible, you can focus on the courses that will train you for that job.  Consider an online program or an evening program — they tend to be less work and you can take courses from your home so that you won’t have to disrupt your busy life. 

I realize that what is driving many of these suggestions is the increasingly ridiculous high costs of college (largely driven by the increasing insurance costs college have to pay).  As the father of two young daughters, I am looking at college costs and breaking out in a cold sweat just like most of my friends who are my age.  But I think that somewhere along the line, we lost sight of what college is for.  Maybe we need to remember some things about what an ideal college experience can and should be.

College can be a place where a student can think about problems and solutions in the same room with excellent teachers and passionate fellow students.

Teaching is what happens when teachers who care deeply about learning in a particular area get together with a group of students who are interested in that subject and they learn from each other.  I am sure the day will come when this can be accomplished virtually, when you can send your virtual image, complete with facial expressions and body language, to sit down in a room with 20 or 25 other people’s images and be able to talk and laugh and interact and learn from each other in real time.  That will be an excellent thing because it will be close to what happens in a real classroom in colleges all over the country right now.  I look forward to that day.

But the fact is that the online courses offered now usually don’t measure up to that.  Many of them are not even synchronous, which is to say that you are not on-line at the same time as your classmates.  Instead, you watch a recorded version of the professor lecturing (without the ability to raise your hand and ask a question, or to see anyone else raise their hands and ask questions) and interact with your fellow students via a glorified chat room when you have time.  You would almost be better off spending that time reading on your own in a library and occasionally asking a question of those sitting around you.  It would be more interesting and more beneficial (even though your fellow library patrons might ask you to stop with the questions.).

Those courses that are synchronous (in which you log in at a specific time and interact with the professor and your fellow students) are certainly a step in the right direction, but between time delays in the conversation, sound and image limitations, and the fact that you cannot look at everyone at the same time the way you could in an actual room, it is an experience that falls far short of the experience of actually being in the same room.  At its best, online learning is a second choice that can overcome geographic restrictions, but should never be the first option.  What makes college potentially an incredibly valuable experience is the community you can become a part of.  Giving up that community in favor of efficiency is like giving up a dinner filled with wonder and laughter and the joy of being together, in favor of a Big Mac and fries eaten while driving to your next destination.

College should be a place that allows a higher level of intellectual interaction because of both greater maturity in the students and an increased level of dedication to the task. 

This means that it is good to take courses in college.  AP classes can offer a taste of higher education in high school and certainly provide some excellent learning opportunities, often serving as the closest thing most schools have to a gifted education program.  But the assumption behind AP classes is that college classes should be avoided whenever possible (because of the cost). 

Often the unintended result of AP classes is that if a student really loves a couple of subjects that are not traditionally tied in with each other in a program of study (Physics and English, for example), and they AP out of both of them, that may mean that if the student plans to major in Physics, they get to skip the introductory level class (which is a good thing), but then they also skip an introductory English class and never get to experience a college level course in that subject.  Taking courses in more than one specialty area (especially if those areas are very different) allows students to learn to see things through two very different systems of understanding.  This, in turn, gives them more resources for problem-solving, for seeing connections between things, and for being able to understand how particular approaches and systems are put together.  Those skills are incredibly important in our increasingly complex and interconnected world.  Though it’s a very simplistic way of saying it, this is the idea of a liberal arts education, to learn broadly in many different areas so that you can apply what you learn in still other areas.  

High school guidance counselors and college academic advisors usually assume that the goal for students is to minimize the number of classes that they take (in keeping with a McDonald’s-type efficiency model).  This unexamined assumption gets reinforced every time a student has an academic counseling session.  In most colleges, though, you pay the same amount in a given semester whether you are taking the minimum amount of credits or the maximum load.  If we believe that college courses are valuable and worthwhile, we should be trying to help students get the maximum number of courses for their money, not the minimum. 

The efficiency model also promotes a very narrow view of vocation.  When students are still in high school (and even before that), adults begin asking them what they want to be when they grow up.  After answering that question a hundred times or so, high school students start to believe their own answer.  In truth, though, most students entering college will change their major multiple times.  In my experience, it is relatively rare that a student ends up graduating with the same vision for his vocation as he had when he entered.  And that is a good thing.  College should be a good and safe place for students to figure out what they love doing and how they can use that to help our desperate world.  We need to stop disparaging students who change their direction when they get to college, or those who need to take a year off in the midst of college to do some thinking about where they are headed.  And we also need to make clear that you can graduate with a degree in one area and get a job in another area and that to do so does not constitute a failure on either the student’s or the college’s part.  College is not an efficient path to a single job.  It is a preparation for far more than that.

College should not be about preparing students jobs, but rather preparing them for full and varied lives.

Every now and then, some politician points out that we should be able to train someone to do any job in the world in under six months.  I couldn’t agree more.  Most jobs, even professional and supervisory jobs, can be learned in a couple of months.  That says more about what jobs have become than it does about school.  College is about more than getting a job, or even a diploma.  Over the course of a student’s life, she could be called upon to help fight a war, raise children, serve on a school board, vote for countless public officials, serve in state or federal government, live in another country, decide the fate of someone accused of a crime, help lead a church or community organization, help disaster victims, discover new territory, change careers several times, protect an environment, play in a band, defend a community, be a grandparent, make decisions about her own or someone else’s medical future, learn about new technologies, sacrifice for others, care for the sick, help the injured, stop a fight and many countless other unimagined things.  That is a lot more to prepare students for than simply a single job.

Fortunately, in college students learn to write and communicate, think critically, think on their feet, get along with others, lead, figure things out, make presentations, laugh, defend a position, love, make music, get along with those they disagree with, see other points of view, find out the answers, discover, hold on to what they care for, think back and look ahead, put things in context, take things apart, get the big picture, be creative, see things they never saw before, understand deeply, reach conclusions, determine cause and effect, argue, speak and learn (among other things).  Learning to do a specific job is a relatively small part of what students will learn in college.  Narrowing their focus and efficiently training them for only that single job leaves students ill-prepared for the life they will be called upon to lead.   

College should be a community that extends beyond the classroom. 

Ask anyone you know what his or her favorite, most memorable, or most influential part of the college experience was.  I do not know the answer, but I do know what they won’t say.  They will not describe in loving detail the hours that they spent working a minimum wage job off campus. 

Extracurricular activities in college can be an opportunity for students to develop leadership skills, learn what it feels like to work with a team of other people focused with all their energy on the same goal, and think about what it feels like to provide direction to an organization. 

On-campus housing, talking with professors outside of class, interacting with other students in the library and the dining hall — all these are part of developing a community of learning; all these are aspects that a fast food efficiency model eliminates, seeming to argue that it is only what happens within a classroom that matters.  It also sends a message that learning is something that can be turned on and shut off.  In fact, learning is being part of a community that continues beyond the bounds of an individual course, and indeed, beyond the bounds of the college experience. 

I acknowledge that with high costs of college, commuting, trying to get a degree in an absolute minimum amount of time and opting for a virtual experience rather than a real one are all economic realities.  But we have to recognize and explain to others (particularly potential students) that online, super efficient, fast track alternatives are not the full college experience.  Rather, they are fast food versions of the same.  College needs to be an affordable yet full, sustaining meal instead.

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