Education on the clock...

I'd never thought about it before reading this article from the New York Times, but education in America serves, as much as anything, as a sort of calendar marking time. I didn't think about it when, as an undergrad, I mentioned to my interim advisor that I didn't have a plan for my electives - at least not a plan that he'd agree involved any forethought. Instead, I told him, I was going to take the courses that sounded interesting. This was clearly a foolish, wasteful idea in his eyes: the sign of a student set to drift along through college and probably not even make it out.

Why did I do it? In high school, I'd been assured by guidance counselors, by well-meaning teachers, even by friends with the same concerns that college was to be different from high school: we'd all get to do what we were interested in, not what the state or school board or our parents told us we needed. No more Calculus if I didn't want it, no more Government and Economics. College was about my desires. And though college wasn't the land of milk, honey and free academic choices I'd been promised it wasn't so far from it either. And so, I spent electives on things like World Literature courses, a First Amendment law course, a Jazz history course, even a feminist theory course (not because I thought I'd meet chicks there, either). When it was time to graduate, my school only allowed you to have one minor. But I'd jumped around enough without ever abandoning my major to have had five.

A lot of the same thought drives my views on education today. I'm happier because I got to explore. I even wound up taking more of those pesky Government and Economics courses than my high school career (largely spent drawing pictures of my Econ teacher in various embarrassing costumes) would have suggested. Along the way, I learned not just about cultural anthropology, not just about media history, or even about the practice of experimental psychology but also about smart decision making, about how differently people I thought I understood viewed the world, and even a bit about where I needed to be in the world. It was, as college is often assumed to be, my first real taste of freedom.

But it also took me five years and a summer session to graduate, and today I've got the student loan debt that reflects that particular desire. Even looking at that debt didn't spur me to this new thought: education is a form of Taylorism (if you're not sure what that means, see the definition offered here). What my first advisor had been trying to tell me was that taking longer than four years in college intentionally was a waste of time. It was unproductive.

What that article made me think about was a sort of cultural norm about when we become adults and what it means to be an adult in this society (look: a term from my cultural anthropology course!). At the end of high school, we assume people become adults: they're ready to make decisions, to serve their country, to pay taxes, etc, etc. But most importantly, they're ready to contribute in the most basic way: by getting a job. And if you're not ready to get a job, then the only excuse is to go to college. Why? So that when you're done, you can get a better job (huh - that course in sociological theory doesn't seem so crazy now...).

These are assumptions, of course (okay, so that logic course did pay some dividends). And perhaps unfortunately, we've normalized them - we've made rules based on those assumptions. And the modern academic system is built around them - it even penalizes "bad" decision making. A college education is assumed to take four years. If it takes more, you can find your access to financial aid diminished, you're guaranteed to have to answer in interviews why it took you so long to get out, and you may even take a hit to your reputation with friends and family ("Oh, you know he just drifted about awhile. I always thought he had more direction...").

But what if, as the New York Times article suggests about high school, a longer time spent in college might offer a different set of benefits than simple productivity?

Just a few days ago, I was in advising a student, and I found myself making the assumption for them that they need to be done in four years. And the student, not surprisingly for someone just entering college after years of having older authorities pass down unexplained proclamations, accepted it. Maybe I should have asked what she wanted to get out of her college career? Was she in it for a job? Or was their something more? And if she answered that she wanted something more than the quickest route to a slightly better job, how would the system have to work differently?

As I prepare for the first week of classes, I think I may have just hit on the first essay for my freshmen. I'll let you know how they answer.


No response to “Education on the clock...”
Post a Comment | Post Comments (Atom)