Value of Higher Education - Thompson
By Angela Thompson on Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Re: Is our students learning? by Margaret Wente (referencing the U.S. book “Academically Adrift”), published in the Globe and Mail on June 16, 2011:
Assertion in Article: "for many students higher education is a total waste of time"
My Response: Education is only a waste of time if that is what the students choose. Students are offered settings (including classrooms, laboratories, service learning, study halls, meal halls, etc.) to ponder various thoughts, scenarios, experiences, etc. - all opportunities with the potential to have a profound impact on how the student thinks and experiences current and future 'life'. Implicit in my response is that 'higher education' involves more than the regurgitation of professors' thoughts or textbook readings, and an opportunity to expands one's thinking and feeling self.
Assertion in Article: "universities are full of 'drifting dreamers'" and "For these students, university is primarily a social experience, not an academic one"
My Response: I am sure there are many students in many universities who do not know what they what to "do" with their life and as a result "drift and dream" through their university years. Still, most mature over that time - IF they choose to embrace the opportunities presented to them (see response above). Further, it should be kept in mind that most universities are NOT about training for a particular occupation (though of course some of that does happen), but rather about learning 'how to' think for oneself; how to appreciate how we have come to know what we know, and how we will continue to learn more about our world and how it works/does not work. That said, learning how to interact effectively in society as social beings is part of the learning process and should be considered an integral part of a university education. A university education is incomplete without the social experiences and the opportunities to learn from them.
Assertion in Article: "the research included only American universities but there is no reason to suspect the situation is any different in Canada"
My Response: Though there are many similarities between Canada and the United States, there are many differences as well. Similarly, there will be differences and commonalities between and among our places of higher education. Perhaps one difference worth noting is that full time professors in Canada are that - full time, year round. We do not have the expectation to top up our salaries from research grants in the 'summer' months. In fact, we cannot be paid from our research grants.
Assertion in Article: "the notion that "higher education is good for all, and that more education will automatically enhance cognitive competence" is an "elaborate fiction"
My Response: Perhaps higher education is not appropriate for everyone; true. And as mentioned in my first response, enhanced competence is possible ONLY if the students become actively engaged in the process. Repeating what you heard/read on an exam does not equate to enhanced competence, but rather an effective short term memory. Opportunities for higher education should be available to all who wish to further develop their mind - intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. And this education should be valued for what it is and what it does - allowing those engaged to become better thinkers with potential, as a result, to 'make a difference' in their worlds.
Assertion in Article: "on many campuses, students and professors have what the authors call a "disengagement compact" - a mutual understanding that "I'll leave you alone if you leave be alone." The reasons aren't hard to find. Because students are considered customers or clients, client satisfaction is tremendously important. Also, most professors would rather not teach. On average, faculty spend only 11 hours a week on preparing and delivering classroom instruction and advising students."
My Response: This statement is an overgeneralization for the approach a few – very few – professors may have towards their teaching. Many professors LOVE to teach and LOVE to do their research (and LOVE to engage in their community service). YES ... there are professors that 'do' all of their jobs. This dichotomization of professors into those who teach and those who research creates a divide that does not (need to) exist.
Further exacerbating this problem - and potentially linked to the 'disengagement compact' spoken of - may be the size of classes in some schools. It is more difficult (though possible - see the class sizes of various 3M National Teaching Fellows for concrete evidence of excellent teaching in large classes) to get students to engage in a large class simply because of the class size. Students can get lost in the numbers - particularly if they choose to - and professors may choose not to engage b/c of the volume of students to 'get to know".
But this does NOT mean that many professors do not want to teach or spend little time on their teaching. I wonder how "time on teaching" was quantified. What about time with students - electronically and in person talking about class materials? What about keeping up with the current and relevant research (including one's own research) to inform the content presented in class? What about the time spent determining the best way to present the materials to be covered? In creating active learning experiences, etc.? In-classroom teaching and lecture preparation are only a small part of teaching!
In addition to the individual responses made to each point made [above], I would ask the individual I was speaking to (high school student, university student, or parent) what they think the role of universities is? Too many people (particularly parents) think that universities should prepare students for a job – a particular job. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a student in my office who says “my parents wonder what I am going to do with my degree.” My response is that you can do whatever you want to with your degree and that you are only limited in your options by how you limit yourself. Most employers – who require a university degree – often are not interested in a particular field, but rather that the student made it through the degree. Implicit in earning a degree is that students learned how to think for themselves, manage themselves to complete the requirements of the degree – including various types of problem solving – and developed communication skills (verbal, nonverbal, and written) so that they are effective to work alone and/or with others. These things are what are (or should be) obtained during a students’ university career.
Angela M. (Angie) Thompson, Human Kinetics, St. Francis Xavier University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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