The merits of rigorous coursework

1275249_study_tableNothing demonstrates the spiritual gutting of the purpose of education as thoroughly as the proliferation of online accreditation “courses.”  If we look at a brief history of education, it becomes apparent that we’re living through a remarkable paradigm-shift in the perceived purpose of education, where the end goal is no longer education at all but merely the paperwork claiming to have received one.

Academic circles are replete with commentators who complain about the passive role students are taking in education today.  Ken Robinson’s TED talk from 2006 describes how our current education model kills creativity.  The social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, well known for his Stanford Prison experiment, has done recent research showing a continuing trend of disengagement in school, particularly in boys.  And it’s hard, of course, to imagine the protests and cultural challenges that framed the academic culture of the 60’s and 70’s taking place in today’s generation. Grades take precedence over learning.

This isn’t, of course, something intrinsically “good” or “bad,” but it does have consequences on how our society works.  More importantly, it has a dramatic effect on how classes are run because students’ incentives have changed.  Instead of striving to learn, they’re striving to attain acknowledgement of learning.  Learning, as it turns out, that didn’t happen in the first place.

Lack of economic incentives might not be a problem we as a society can solve at all, since industries are becoming more specialized by the day.  The lack of education, however, is something we can change.  Cultural shifts have happened in the past, and societal values are often as arbitrary as one small group’s preference.  America’s fascination with football, for example, isn’t any more or less “rational” than the rest of the world’s equally rabid obsession with soccer, and it would be a tall order to deny the impact of these arbitrary cultural phenomena.

Why not make this decision with education?

Taking an active part in the educational process doesn’t only make students better citizens by making them more informed about important issues; it makes them fundamentally better professionals in their respective job field by transferring habits of reasoned skepticism, attention to detail and proactive learning to the world of private industry.

There are two major ways students can make this happen: class selection and active dialogue.  Choosing classes that challenge preconceived notions of how the world works opens up students to new perspectives.  From my own experience, Dr. Chace Stiehl’s class on the economic history of the United States and Michael Korolenko’s class on the techniques and technology of propaganda have been exceptional examples of just this variety of class, and I’ve heard (almost) nothing but good things about BC’s sociology department.  The number of students talking about how their minds were blown certainly exceeds the number of students claiming the same thing out of 100-level English and math courses, as important as those are.The second part—taking an active part in the process by asking difficult questions—makes the knowledge more thorough and memorable.   Why do we think evolution is true?  How sure are we that the holocaust really happened?  How would you beat a Flat Earth Society member in a debate?  These are arguably the questions that generate the most genuine understanding of the material.

While the temptation to take easy, straightforward classes and to passively swallow and regurgitate the course curriculum is strong, especially due to parental expectations and college competition, it seems that people are losing more than they gain in this trade-off intrinsically.  However, with colleges and hiring businesses increasingly looking more at portfolios and activities and less at perfect grades, the loss in intellectual rigor and the actual education students are paying for outweighs the ease and security of vanilla classes occupied by vanilla students by leaps and bounds.  Don’t be afraid to grab your learning by the horns and demand your money’s worth.  After all, it is your money.