Wednesday, March 3, 2010

College: What IS Our Children Learning?

I just read an interesting article in Harvard Magazine that discusses the frenetic pace today's undergrads set for themselves.
Students today routinely sprint through jam-packed daily schedules, tackling big servings of academic work plus giant helpings of extracurricular activity in a frenetic tizzy of commitments. They gaze at their Blackberries (nicknamed “Crackberries” for their addictive pull) throughout the day to field the digital traffic: e-mail and text messages, phone calls, Web access, and their calendars. Going or gone are late-night bull sessions with roommates and leisurely two-hour lunches—phone calls and texting punctuate meals, anyway.

“They are unbelievably achieving,” says Judith H. Kidd, formerly associate dean for student life and activities, who retired from Harvard last year. “They are always on. They prefer to be busy all the time, and multitask in ways I could not imagine. Students will sign up for three or four activities and take one of them up to practically NGO level.
I have discussed this sad phenomenon with my students both at Ivy League schools and my current public school. They tell me that their lives are, indeed, a frenzy of assignments, extracurricular activities, commitments, cramming, and all-nighters. I routinely end my classes by saying "Have a nice day and don't work too much" or "Have a nice weekend and don't forget to have fun." These statements are always greeted with exhausted sardonic smiles and a litany of everything they need to accomplish before the end of the day (week, month, etc.)

The problem with this frenzied lifestyle jammed with endless activities and assignments is that it leaves no space for thinking and creativity:
The paradox is that students now live in such a blur of activity that idle moments for such introspection are vanishing. The French film director Jean Renoir once declared, “The foundation of all civilization is loitering,” saluting those unstructured chunks of time that give rise to creative ideas. If Renoir is right, and if Harvard students are among the leaders of the future, then civilization is on the precipice: loitering is fast becoming a lost art.
As a result, our graduates know how to follow instructions and work themselves into an utter exhaustion but they have no idea how to think originally or express their creativity. Recently, students asked me for a a study guide for our next exam. "There is no study guide," I said. "You will have to express your own opinions on the texts we read and the paintings we have discussed." "Is there a study guide on how to do that?" asked one of the students very seriously. Once again, the most pressing question for us, the educators, is whether the goal of education is to produce people who can follow orders even at an enormous cost to themselves or people who know how to think and don't need a study guide to express their own opinions.

Often, I would see a student reading and ask them: "Are you reading this for fun?" They would stare at me with a terrified, deer-in-the-headlights look and say: "Oh no, this is for a class. Who's got the time to read for fun?" When even reading becomes yet another unwelcome but stoically survived chore, the future of education becomes very unpromising.

This overachieving streak in today's undergrads has gotten so bad that I always look hopefully at an occasional student who saunters into class late, forgets to prepare for a test and substitutes the answers with some creative personal statements, and to the question "Did you have fun on weekend?" answers with a loud "I'm still too hungover even to remember."

As teachers, we are to blame for this sad state of things just as much as anybody else. Often, university courses set as their main goal stuffing as much information as possible into the students' heads. In practical terms, this makes very little sense since most of the dates, numbers, and definitions that our students are asked to memorize can be easily found if needed through an Internet search engine. The most popular format for tests and mini-quizzes - a multiple choice test - pointedly leaves no room for creativity. Students are given choices and the only thing they are expected to contribute is a tick next to the "correct" choice. As a result, students feel completely lost when the format of a test is a blank page that has to be filled with their own thoughts.

We have to remember that there is no intellectual achievement without ample leisure time. I know I have said it before, but this needs to be repeated as often as possible. You cannot be creative on a schedule. Ideas don't get generated because there is a deadline. Originality of thought escapes from people who routinely go on 5 hours of sleep. Let's stop teaching our students to parrot what we say and start teaching them to think for themselves.


Val said...

Excellent points... I hope I can pass this "necessity for leisure"-gene on to my son!

Anonymous said...

I love reading your thoughts on academics. I recently started teaching some paralegal courses at a community college and while the setting and the pressures are different, I'm still struggling to find a balance between giving the students all the information that they need (or that the program coordinator thinks that they need) and really engaging them in learning.

- J

NancyP said...

I can't help seeing the effect of economics - education is an expensive commodity, and there is much pressure from parents or self to focus on money-making career preparation. The students themselves are likely working part-time. The late night bull sessions and recreational reading just seem like luxuries unless the student is from the upper classes and can afford (financially and scholastically) to take chances.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, J.! Feel free to share your teaching methods with us.

NancyP: when I was an undergrad (and a recent immigrant), I had to work 3-4 part time jobs at any given time. But reading for fun and going out were still priorities for me. Eventually, it was this reading for fun that helped me get through my doctoral program for fun. So it isn't about financial pressures. I think there are bigger forces at play here.