04 September 2010

Rethinking purpose

It's funny. My initial purpose for starting this blog was primarily because I really dig Dodger blogs and I thought it'd be fun to get in on the action. The fact that I could practice my writing (since I legitimately felt I had become worse at it the past few years) was a bonus. The ability for me to drop some knowledge every once in a while was merely a secondary goal.

Well last week my roommates and I canceled our cable because we don't watch anything enough to warrant paying as much as TimeWarner charges us for such miserable television service. The Dodgers aren't even interesting to follow anymore, as their ineptitude on the field is only matched in pure awfulness by the farce that is the McCourt trial. The season is almost over, Vin Scully is coming back next season, and I'm apathetic.

And school is back in session. That alone is going to take up a lot of my time. This is mostly because, for the first time, I legitimately feel like a university student. This stems from an array of different things I picked up while abroad - philosophies and opinions, ideas and realizations - that caused be the rethink my role as a scholar. I feel like, after 3 years of running in place, I've finally found my purpose. I'm ready to realize it.

I'm taking German II, Theory of Teaching Writing and Reading, Rhetoric of Religion, StreetWrite (student teaching), and American Lit II. I'm passionate about each class and I'm ready to pulverize the status quo and truly be - wait for it, wait for it, wait for it - intellectual.

For isn't that what a liberal arts college is about in the first place? A place for intellects to come together and learn from each other, a place where knowledge is the ultimate goal.

But in America, knowledge has ceased to be the goal of education. Where and when we lost our way, I'm not quite sure. But the aim of so many college students is no longer to be scholars and intellectuals. The aim is to make the grade. The grade. The grade is the goal of education for America's students.

It stems from our system being so test-based. It stems from the fact that schools have become so competitive. It stems from a bachelor's degree being the standard minimum requirement for a successful career.

But never mind the reasons why - we must focus on the unfortunate truth that education is becoming (if it hasn't already reached this sad point) a sham. People from all age groups - from elementary school to college - have been bred in a way where the ultimate goal is to sustain a solid GPA. That's it. If you graduate high school with a 4.0, you're set.

But how many kids graduate high school with a solid GPA and don't know squat? How surprised would you be if I told you it was quite a few?

It's not enough that the standards we hold students to have become laughably low. Remember when getting an A-grade meant you were truly an exceptional student? Remember when "exceptional" meant what it literally means - an exception to the norm? But when you see how many A-grades are given out, it makes it hard to distinguish between those students who were truly exceptional and those who were simply there every day. We're grouping the prodigies together with the posers.

Our colleges are full of a bunch of idiot who have mastered playing the system. Any idiot can cram the night before and get an A on a test. Any jackass can turn in an extra credit assignment. Most classes have review sessions that are less "let's go over basic ideas" and more "here's the test a day early." I remember in German last semester a specific review session for a midterm or final where my classmates were able to get the format of the test, the contents of each section, and even the exact verbs we would need to be conjugating.

Our purpose for taking the class was to learn basic German so we could function better abroad. The idea of testing us was to assess our progress in understanding basic concepts of the language. Yet come the big day, it was our ability to take a test that was truly being tested. Those of us who took good notes on the test format were guaranteed a good grade. Our actual knowledge or progress up to that point really didn't matter.

I've been developing what I call The Template Theory. My research is nowhere near extensive enough yet to publish my thoughts, but here at the outset I feel like I can explain the basic tenants of my ideas.

So much of the things students are comfortable with in our education system come in template form. The syllabus, class structure, grading scale, etc. etc. etc. - it's all a sort of checklist for success. Many students have been bred to think of education (and life, for that matter) as one big fill-in-the-blank. Students like following directions and meeting expectations. They like order and detailed, definitive lesson plans. This is, after all, the easiest way to memorize and regurgitate information. Our students are excellent at this.

But let's take a look at a hypothetical situation and test this dependence on order. A teacher stands up in front of a class and says, "your one assignment this semester will be to write a research paper expanding on a theme you've learned in my course. It'll be due on my desk the last day of class. Any questions?"

What happens? Naturally, the questions erupt like automatic gunfire. This kind of assignment description would not fly at LMU.

Student 1: "How long does it have to be?"
Trying to assess the professor's expectations.
Professor: "However long it needs to be."
Student 2: "But what's the minimum?"
Coming back to the fact that you need to live up to a professor's expectations.

Professor: "If you think you can write a good research paper in 2 pages - more power to you. It's not quantity that counts, it's quality."
Student 1: "Wait, you're saying it can be 2 pages and I can get an A?"
Professor: "It's not likely, but not necessarily impossible."
Student 2: "Wait. So it has to be more than that? We need to know what you want here."
Failure to realize that this isn't something that ought to be explained further.

Student 3: "What are some possible topics? Will you provide a list?"
Trying to get the prof. to feed you a topic

Professor: "Anything you want. No list."
Student 4: "Well how will we know if our topic is okay?"
Playing to expectations again.

Professor: "Your topic will be okay. It's anything you want."
Student 3: "Do we need citations?"
Asking what should be an obvious question.

Professor: "Of course, this is a research paper."
Student 4: How many do we need?
Professor: "However many you need."
It's safe to say this kind of thing wouldn't fly at LMU.

We're excellent at developing problem solvers. The students all asked questions based on answering their own question: "how am I going to succeed here?"

But we're awful at developing people who think outside the box. My qualm with problem solvers is that they're not idea people. They just absorb information and regurgitate it back out. A ton of my papers for classes in the past 3 years have been based entirely on things said by my professors. I got A's on those papers, encouraging the idea that all I had to do to be successful is just regurgitate the information learned. Rarely have I been challenged to think for myself and write a paper based on something I wasn't just force-fed by Dr. Whatshisface.

So, to make a long story short, I've finally realized my purpose is not to be a drone. I'm going to read all my assignments, I'm going to try and set myself apart.

I want to be exceptional and I know that I don't need someone else's template to get there.


  1. Sweet. You know your shit man.

  2. A really powerful argument for mentor based models of learning. You are right, the status quo isn't working. A warm body in a chair does not a great thinker make. Your references to "making the grade" are spot on as well. As usual, you have given me something to think about.

  3. here's a great speech intimately close to my beliefs on the subject. she pulls no punches.


  4. A very courageous speech! She pulls no punches but avoids laying blame. Instead, she seeks to change what lies within those cinder-block walls. I am excited to see what she chooses to do with her insight and intellect. I agree with one of her posters: she would make an awesome teacher.