Inspired and Saddened

One of the unexpected perks of my job is that I get to attend a great number of educator conferences around the state. This week, I attended the UACRAO conference in Logan – that would be the Utah Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. At this conference, the plenary session was delivered by Dr. Susan Madsen, whose work I mentioned in a recent blog post. She spoke about the findings from the Utah Women and Education research project, and it was absolutely inspiring. The work she has led tells us how far we really have to go.

One of the findings of the study that surprised the heck out of me was that only 8% of study participants “noted that college could help them develop competencies like critical thinking, problem solving, decision making skills, and tolerance for the differences of others” (January 2011, Research Snapshot No. 1, pg 1).  A MEASLY 8%! I can’t even begin to say how saddening I find this. In contrast, 96.3% felt that having a college degree would be a financial asset. Reflecting on this, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps, in our enthusiasm to promote college to young people, if we have overemphasized some of the benefits of higher education at the expense of others.

In the current economic climate, perhaps it is elitist or passé to extoll the virtues of a liberal arts education, or at least to hold that general education requirements really do serve a purpose beyond just annoying the hell out of students who want to “study something that matters to my major.” Maybe it’s just because I majored in English and I’m defensive of my “degree to nowhere” that I have a deep conviction about the personal and interpersonal value of being able to speak, write, and think deeply, fluently, and flexibly. Maybe it’s because I’m a total nerd about reading classic literature, listening to all kinds of music, conversing with all kinds of people, and generally soaking up the incredible richness the people of this earth have to offer…but then again, maybe not.

My mother is a nurse, and I can’t even tell you how many times we have talked about the importance of good decision making skills in a nursing environment. Or how critical nurses’ clear communication skills are to ensuring that patients receive the proper treatments and medications. Some people seem to have a stronger affinity for traditional logical reasoning than others, but why should we overlook the chance to teach (either for the first time or as reinforcement) logic through formal education? Why shouldn’t we require more communication and writing classes, especially to those whose communication failures could result in life or death situations? And why, why aren’t we showing students that these classes are not only important to their degree, but fundamental to their humanity? Why don’t we consider the reasoning abilities to examine all the arguments about (for example) nuclear disarmament a crucial part of being a person in this particular day and age, or the critical thinking skills to interrogate our media-saturated world an integral part of growing up?

Beyond the straightforward career applications, having a decent grasp of rhetorical logic helps me every day when I’m listening to the news or political speeches – I can usually spot a “strawman” ploy a mile away and it helps me to judge for myself what is a sound argument and what  is a load of crap. Many times the excuse for cutting pieces of formal education seems to be “Oh, a student’s family should teach her/him that at home!” I’m sorry, but that’s a pretty pitiful excuse. I have serious doubts that this type of thing is dinnertime conversation on any kind of widespread level, but I have every confidence that if every person in the country took notice of these logical fallacies that we’d have a more informed citizenry which would probably result in more accountable politicians and dozens of other social benefits.

As graduating class after graduating class leaves college to a dismal job market, often with more student loans than their predecessors, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps we’ve oversold this whole “degree = golden ticket to a better life” idea. And I know what many people will say – that nobody promised them that college was a guarantee to a better paying job, to a higher standard of living. But didn’t we? Haven’t we been telling students from a young age that college is pretty much a surefire way to get ahead in life? Indeed, for a large percentage of graduates, this is true. I am fortunate to count myself in this situation. But every tenth of a percentage point of graduates for whom this is not the case represents many thousands of people, human beings who thought they were doing what they should and still ended up in the situation they were trying to avoid.

It seems to me that the primary motivation for most students to desire an education isn’t for the love of learning or the less tangible benefits of higher education, but for the perceived financial gains that may accompany it. I’m not sure where the disconnect is. Admittedly, I grew up in a family and at a time where I watched perhaps 30 minutes of TV per week as opposed to the often 4+ hours per day that many children now experience. And it’s been called to my attention that my upbringing was relatively unusual even for the times. But I still wonder where along the way so many young adults lost that wonder, that fascination and joy and delight of discovery that is the essence of learning.

What do you think about this – about learning for personal pleasure and joy in addition to the financial benefits? What are we not doing right? What is going well? Help me out here. I want to help the students that I know, but I’m not sure I really know how.


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