Lies we tell our students [Rerun Sunday]

It’s the start of another semester, so I thought it would be a good time to share what has become a standard part of my Day One spiel for my undergrads. I’ve taken to giving some version of this, no matter what the course actually is, partially because Day One is a good time for us all to reflect on the bigger questions of what this whole “higher education” thang is all about . . . but also because it helps to set up the more course-specific stuff that always follows this about active learning and the need for my students to participate in what we’ll be doing for the four months that follow. But enough preamble. On with the show.

You have been cheated. Misled. Lied to. By the U. By your high school. By your grade school. By your parents. By a lot of people. You’ve been cheated in many ways, but the ones I want to talk about are these:

  • You’ve been lied to about what your tuition buys you.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your education is supposed to be for.
  • You’ve been lied to about what you should expect from your courses.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your role in getting an education really is.

Big Lie #1. Show of hands, please. How many of you are paying for your own education? [Wait for it.] Sorry, but you’re wrong. This is not your fault. You’ve simply been trapped in one of the Big Lies that universities (among others) tell on a regular basis — and have started telling more and more over the past decade or two. You are, of course, paying good money. But you’re not paying for your education. Universities aren’t actually in the business of selling education — though they certainly want you to think they are — because education can’t actually be bought and sold.

Put simply, education is what happens when you learn something you didn’t know before. Ideally, that still takes place all the time on university campuses . . . but when it happens, it’s got nothing to do with what the university is actually selling. You can, after all, go sit in one of the big lecture halls on the West Bank from 9-5 all day every day for the next four months — most of the time, no one will know that you’re not actually registered for whatever courses you’re witnessing — and you can learn an awful lot simply by paying careful attention to lectures you haven’t paid a dime for. Similarly, you could take a copy of my syllabus (or anyone’s), go find all the readings for free in the library, and learn a great deal without ever writing anyone a check. In fact, you don’t even need a syllabus. The university library stacks are open to the public. Go in. Pick a floor. Start reading. Do that for 8 hours/day, 5 days/week, 50 weeks/year (i.e., as if it were a regular job) and you’ll get yourself a pretty impressive education.

What you get when you spend your tuition dollars, however, is not education. Rather, what you get when you write out that check to the U is the privilege of being evaluated and — if you meet a particular set of standards — of being credentialed. Ideally, you’re being evaluated on things that the university is helping you learn. But you don’t get an automatic refund if you don’t actually learn anything — nor do you get charged extra if you happen to learn more than what’s on the syllabus — because what you’re really paying for is for people like me to assign you a variety of tasks and then judge you on how well you perform those tasks. In the eyes of the university, if you actually get an education along the way, that’s great. Ideal, even, since it helps them keep that Big Lie in place. But the university isn’t selling education any more than health clubs sell fitness. In both cases, your money buys you access to the institution, but that’s it. Whether you actually get fit or educated depends on what you do after your check has cleared and you can’t get that money back.

Big Lie #2. You have been told that your education — particularly your college education — is the ticket to a Good Job. There’s a very tiny shred of truth in this, at least insofar as a college degree will make it more likely (though by no means guaranteed) that you’ll wind up with a job that pays you an annual salary rather than one that pays you an hourly wage. Eventually. Bearing in mind that “eventually” may still mean 10-12 years from now. But there’s much more to a Good Job than good pay. Lots of people, after all, make very good money working jobs they actively hate and that give them ulcers.

More importantly, that college degree hasn’t automatically translated into a Good Job upon graduation for at least 25 years. This sad truth is even sadder because it has nothing to do with questions of actual merit, skill, or brains. Most of you — even the best and the brightest of you — will graduate without a Good Job in hand . . . or even on the horizon. Again, not your fault. There simply aren’t enough Good Jobs for all the new college graduates who enter the job market every year. This was true even before the economy went into the toilet. But it is even more true now.

I still keep in touch with some of the best students I’ve had. People who I know are brilliant, articulate, creative, motivated, etc. People who I’ve written letters of recommendation for. People who will almost certainly succeed at anything they want to . . . if they’re given the chance to do so. As far as I know, none of these students from the past 5-10 years is actually unemployed right now. But most of them are still trying to find jobs that are more than placeholder positions that help pay the bills until they can find the career that they really want for themselves. These people aren’t lacking Good Jobs because they’re uneducated or unqualified or unmotivated. Far from it. They’re lacking Good Jobs because there simply aren’t enough of those out there.

Mind you, this is not necessarily the end of the world. There’s a lot to be said for taking some post-graduation time to breathe, to find yourself, and to figure out what you really want to do with your life — even if that means working a not-so-good job (or two) and living on the cheap for a while. Except, of course, that you’ve been told for most of your lives that the real reason you should go to college is so that you can get a Good Job. So you’ve been fed unrealistic expectations by people who really should know better. ‘Cause the non-connection between “a college degree” and “a Good Job” has been true ever since I graduated from college . . . way back in 1986. Which means that it’s been true for at least as long as most of you have been alive. Probably much longer. I was fed this big lie too, after all. And while I wound up with a Good Job in the end, that process still took about ten years after I finished my B.A.

Connected to Big Lie #2 is Big Lie #3: that the quality of your education is measured by your “grades.” That you should be worried about bringing home a report card filled with As (and maybe a B or two), because a high GPA demonstrates that you’ve gotten a good education . . . and that a high GPA will help secure you a Good Job.

Trouble is, in the long run, no one really cares about your GPA. But especially not future employers. When it’s your job to produce a presentation that will help your employer land the big contract that will keep your company afloat (and keep you employed) for another three years, your 3.8 GPA isn’t going to write a kick-ass presentation for you. It won’t guarantee that you’re able to write a kick-ass presentation. It won’t help you keep your job if you write a weak presentation. You will actually have to be able to write that kick-ass presentation.

Perhaps more to the point, the quality of your education isn’t measured very well by your grades at all. A grade simply demonstrates that you were given a set of tasks and someone evaluated you on how well you did those tasks. But it’s possible (for example) to learn a great deal but perform poorly when tested . . . or to ace a test without retaining anything meaningful about the subject after the test is done. In the former case, you’ve got a good education but a lousy grade. In the latter case, you’ve got a lousy education but a good grade.

Put those pieces of the puzzle together and most of you have been led to believe that the most important thing you should expect out of a course is a grade. As a kid, your parents are proud of you if you get As. They’re disappointed when you get Cs. And, typically, they’re much more likely to go to parent-teacher conferences and ask questions about your test scores (how can we help him get better grades?) than about the content of the curriculum (we think that it would enrich her life as a citizen of the world to learn French; where can we find a tutor for her?). It doesn’t take long before most children learn that they, too, should worry more about their grades than about their education.

Big Lie #4. Most of you — most of us — grew up in educational systems that were designed to produce good grades rather than active, engaged, productive citizens. Your average public school system, for example, gets extra funding when its standardized test scores go up, rather than when its graduates go on to become brilliant scientists or ground-breaking novelists. And so most school systems focus their energies on training students to produce good test scores. Which essentially means that you’re trained — from a very early age — to sit still, shut up, do what people in authority tell you to do, and regurgitate whatever they say on tests and exams and essays. Whether you actually learn something that matters is secondary to whether your school district’s test scores are higher than those in the next county.

And so you’ve also been lied to about the role that you should play in your own education. Which is not the role of the passive spectator who memorizes facts and figures and spews them back. There are contexts where rote memorization is valuable and important . . . but if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re not being educated: you’re being indoctrinated. A real education requires you to be actively involved. It requires you to participate. To ask questions. To engage in dialogue. To be challenged by ideas and opinions and worldviews that are different from your own. It requires you to analyze. To synthesize. To create.

These are the sorts of things you need to do routinely in the “real world.” A large part of what it means to be an adult, after all, is that you’re on your own, you’re independent, you’re taking responsibility for your own well-being — and those are difficult things to do if the major lessons you’ve been given on how to cope with the world are to sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told.

Now I’d be lying if I said that this course, all by itself, can erase all those Big Lies. We’re together in this classroom for a grand total of about 48 hours over the next four months . . . which is not a lot of time compared to the 20 or so years of lies you’ve been fed about how you should simply sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told. But, with any luck, this class can be a start.

You can find a brief explanation of “Rerun Sunday” here.

The post above originally appeared on 18 January 2012.

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