Next month Temple University’s Teaching and Learning Center and General Education Program will co-sponsor a book group for faculty on Dr. Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education. In this series of essays, Edmundson wrestles with the problem of teaching in a consumer-driven climate and criticizes universities for becoming “corporate cities.” He upholds an unapologetic view that “real teachers are an endangered species in the academic ecosystem“ and most faculty are in a rush to escape from the classroom into esoteric research.
TLC’s Assistant Director Johanna Inman weighs in on one topic raised by Edmundson: the value of a college education.
- – - – -
Last month President Obama caused a minor uproar in the arts community by stating that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Realizing the negative attention his remarks would likely receive, he followed the statement with, “I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”
These comments are not particularly shocking to anyone following higher education’s reputation in the political or public sphere. In fact, art history could have been replaced with any number of other college majors that now compete for notoriety on lists such as Forbes’ Least Valuable College Majors or Kiplinger’s Worst College Majors for Your Career. The current national discourse on higher education equates the value of college in terms of dollars spent, and the effects are evident. Students enter college with a consumer mentality, viewing education “as a passport to a desired job rather than a learning experience.”
In this context, Dr. Mark Edmundson, University of Virginia professor and author of the book Why Teach?, is right to be concerned. Where is the value in a degree that is bought rather than earned? When we talk about the value of a college education, we should be talking about the value of an experience where students learn to ask hard questions, accommodate diverse perspectives, take intellectual and creative risks, and embrace learning through failure. A college education used to be valued, Edmundson writes, as an experience for “seeking knowledge so as to make the lives of other human beings better” – something he hopes to reestablish.
Furthermore, Edmundson argues that a college teacher’s “job is not to help our students acquire skills, marketable skills, bankables“ but to make ”moments of transformation possible.” I too believe the real value of a college education lies in its potential to be a transformative experience, because it transformed me. Like other teachers, I followed my passions regardless of financial payout and became a teacher because I wanted to make the world a better place.
But, let’s take off the rose-colored glasses for a moment. Many students do not have the luxury of spending tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars on the vague notion that a four-year degree will provide the transformative experience that Edmundson describes. Many need a college education to get a job to then pay off the loans that financed college. It’s unfair to criticize them for it, and unless we appreciate the validity of these motivations, we miss the opportunity to change them.
As teachers, we have little control over changing the cost of higher education, so let’s focus on what we can change: what our students learn when they get here. Let’s commit to creating a learning experience that is valuable — in our eyes and in theirs. A college education has the potential to be a transformational experience, but transformation rarely occurs without student buy-in. In order to reach more students, we must make it completely explicit to them what they are learning in our classrooms, labs, studios, and offices, as well as how it will help them meet personal goals in career and life.
A college education has the potential to transform students through improving their ability to think critically and creatively; to communicate verbally, in writing, and through images; to make and support arguments with evidence and to challenge unsubstantiated claims; to care for and contribute meaningfully to civil and global society; and most importantly, to continue learning long after they receive their degree. This is real transformation, but these are also marketable skills that any smart employer would find attractive. I am optimistic that when educators focus on student learning, we can unpack both what we want for our students and what the students want for themselves. With this learning-centered approach to teaching, we will find common ground for the real value of a college education.
Let’s Exchange EDvice…
How do you help students value the learning process as more than a credential or letter grade?
- – -
This blog will only allow those with a Temple University account to comment directly on the blog. If you do not have a Temple University account, we would still like to hear from you. Please feel free to share with the EDvice community by clicking here!